Sunday, 13 October 2019

Currency, asthma, and the second book

You know what happens in an asthma attack, right? The problem is that the person keeps breathing in . . . in . . . in . . . and can't manage to breathe out. And of course that's really serious and if it's bad enough they can die of it. You can also die of constipation, which is a similar problem but in your gut. Breathing in and also breathing out, consuming and eliminating — you need both halves of the dynamic, because balance is what wellness is. Yin and Yang. We walk a tightrope through this world.

It is a sort of currency, a flow. Human society also runs on this — yes, "runs" is the right word, a flow. We harvest, we sow; we receive, we give; we gather, we scatter. That's the way of nature, which was created by God, so it's also the way of grace, the way of blessing.

I am very interested in lowliness, humility and simplicity. I find rich veins of spiritual power in the small hidden tracks and the little places under the hedge. The springs in the Valley of Baca that Psalm 84 talks about, the house martin under the eaves, the sparrow in the attic of the house of God. Frugality is an aspect of this, and it belongs to the way I have chosen. If you give away a considerable amount of what comes to you, it stands to reason you don't have a big lot left, so you have to know how to make it stretch and make it last. 

John Wesley wrote about this, in a glorious sentence in either his journal or a sermon (I forget which). he said, "I endeavour to wind my bottom round the year, " which made me stop and say, what?

In Wesley's day, of course, bottom meant something different from how we use it now. It derives in translation from the Latin word, dignitas, also translating as "substance". It meant, what you had, your substance, what you'd got behind you — which is how it came to mean how we use it now. My bottom is what I have behind me. 

Wesley earned a fair bit from his writing, but he gave away a lot and also begged in the street in support of the poor — he was one of the original chuggers, I suppose. He kept things low on purpose, living on a small amount himself for the sake of sharing and generosity. He breathed in, but he also breathed out, he kept his spirit healthy. "Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can," was Wesley's maxim. 

By "save all you can", he meant not "hoard" but "refrain from spending"; and this is where I take issue with him. Because, how can one person earn all they can if another person is saving all they can? It isn't logical. 

This winter I wanted a good hat, a warm tweedy one, with a snug fit so the coastal winds don't blow it away when I'm walking down the street. I also wanted a rain hat with the same snug fit. Happily for me, a woman has just opened a hat shop in Hastings Old Town, so I was able to purchase both. And very expensive they are too, by my standards. But, look, they're both made in the UK, and the firms (Proppa Toppa and Peak & Brim) who make them sell them online for no more than the woman in Hastings has them in her shop. I guess she gets a discount as a retailer making a bulk purchase from the maker, but she's not adding on much of a margin in what she charges her customers — and she has all her overheads in running a shop to cover before she even starts to pay her electricity bill at home and put food on the table in one of the most expensive countries in the world.

If I followed Wesley's maxim, saving all I can, I'd certainly not have bought a hat from that woman. So then what? If nobody buys her hats, the woman goes out of business, the shop closes, the women making the hats go out of business, and we have a whole new set of women living in poverty for Wesley to support by begging on the street for money for the relief of the poor. And who's going to give him the money to relieve the poor if everyone's gone out of business because nobody will buy what they make and sell? Including Wesley himself. How can he relieve the poor if everyone's virtuously following his maxim and decides to save money by not buying his writing?

As a writer myself, I know this dynamic firsthand. My fellow Christians often say to me, "I've read all your books. I got them from the library / borrowed them from a friend. I couldn't get the last one so I had to buy that myself." I don't comment, but can they not see the implication of what they are saying? It dams the flow, stops the currency, quite literally.

About twenty years ago, I wrote a book called The Clear Light of Day, which a lot of people have enjoyed. Lion Hudson first published it in the UK, then David C. Cook bought the UK rights as well as US rights to publish it internationally — and they paid me the best royalty advance I ever had as well as giving me the most amount of free copies to give away of any publisher I ever worked with. Sing "hey" for David C. Cook! 

They wanted a sequel, and asked me to write a piece about it to go in the end of the book, which I did.

From then and right up to the present day I've had people writing to me asking, "Where can I get the sequel? I want to read it."

Here's why you can't: not enough copies of Book 1 sold. Simple as that. Unless Book 1 sells, there will never be a Book 2. Publishing is a numbers game and the books have to balance, and no publisher on earth will place a bet on what they know won't sell.

Christians who only read what they borrow from friends and the library are ensuring beyond all doubt that there is no money in writing Christian books, that the Christian bookshops vanish from the high street (they have) that Christian publishers go out of business (many have), and that Christian writers can't make a living. Many authors of Christian books aren't writers. In fact a goodly proportion of them are seriously bad writers who need a lot of help in creating a publishable text. What they do have is a large public ministry as speakers or ministers, or else they are in some way prominent as public figures who happen to be Christian and have an interesting story to tell. Some publishers won't publish anyone unless they promise to buy 500 copies of their own book; they won't take the risk. The writer has to support the publisher as well as herself. Very, very few people can make a living out of being a Christian writer per se, because of the culture of frugality in the church. If Wesley were alive today, we'd have to beg in the street to support him, if he was trying to do what he did then and live by writing his pamphlets.

So that's why the sequel to my novel never itself saw the clear light of day.

There has to be a flow. Charity and giving are an important part of our discipleship, but so are earning and spending. Earning money is a lot more dignified (that word again: dignitas, "bottom") than being the recipient of handouts, and whatever else charity and welfare benefits do, they certainly ensure you stay poor. Society flourishes on currency, on earning and spending, on goods and services both provided and bought. 

Part of the health of this dynamic lies in choosing to pay for people rather than things. In my lifetime I've seen a steady rise of folk choosing the inanimate over the living. The bread-making machine instead of the baker, the vacuum cleaner instead of the char; cutting out the services provider and the middle man – with the same object in view as Wesley had, to save money.

I like to learn from videos on YouTube about living frugally, because as a Christian writer it's a skill I need to grasp firmly! I find it disappointing that they all seem to rely on others giving to them ("buy my t-shirts, give to my Patreon account"), so they can accumulate wealth without giving to anyone else. That's fiscal constipation. They want to dam the currency to create their own enormous pool. It does create a pool, just as they hoped, but what they don't seem to understand is it also creates a desert. A stream is better than a pool. If you keep the flow going, then everyone benefits, not just yourself.

Life is richer, more joyously textured, when we pay people for what they do well. When the writer is paid for writing and the dressmaker for clothes, the milliner for hats, the baker for bread, when people eat out in restaurants and hire a gardener, then the money goes round and society doesn't expire through spiritual asthma. That's the way of blessing.

11 comments:

greta said...

i can happily tell you that i purchased all the books in the 'hawk & dove' series AND the clear light of day AND in celebration of simplicity. i consider that money well spent. plus two of your books are on my list to purchase as christmas gifts for dear friends. let the currency flow about and enrich lives in many ways!

Pen Wilcock said...

Hurrah! God bless you! Yes — people don't always grasp the connections. x

Christine Bowen said...

I always buy your books (and others) as you never know when you'll urgently need to dip back into it, but have to admit to lending them to my sister, sorry. Thank you for echoing what I feel about having a "char" and gardener to do what I am no longer able to do, I feel much less guilty now.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello Christine — thank you so much for buying my books; I'm so glad you enjoy them.

I didn't mean this post to be a plea to buy my books though! It was just using an example from my own life of the importance of keeping money flowing in society. Charity and welfare benefits are a crucial safety net to help people through difficult times, but for the long term everyone needs to figure out a way to make a living. This is why as citizens we all need to give to charity, pay our taxes, and spend money in the economy as and when we have some available to us.

I lend books too. And I buy second-hand books very cheaply, which does benefit the second-hand bookstore, but not the writer. However, in lending and sharing, we are still promoting the work of writers. Who knows, if your sister likes my stories, she might decide to buy her own copy, and then lend it our to a friend — that's how we discover a writer we didn't know. So I didn't mean to make you feel bad about lending and sharing, just to make a point about the positive knock-on effect of spending money.

I think someone to clean your house and do your garden is great for you and great for them — win-win! It also helps build relationships, which is as valuable as money. It's a really wise choice.

Nearly Martha said...

This is interesting. I remember, many years ago, in my youth group having a speaker who told us that we should always organise our finances so that we bought books every month.He said Christian books first and foremost but books generally. He had nothing against libraries or borrowing but that came after we had bought. If we were in financial difficulty then libraries were also ok then. However,he did say that in a room of young working people, it would often be a case of what we prioritized rather than financial hardship.It stuck with me and I have always tried to budget to do this. (Not always successfully)I wonder if your thoughts were part of his thinking. Funny what you remember.

Pen Wilcock said...

How interesting!
In continuing to think about this, I realise that I have a special category of book purchasing, which is "books that other people don't want to read but should". For example, I have bought copies of David Perlmutter's book "Grain Brain" for several family members because if they read it and practice what it recommends then their lives will be unrecognisably different from if they don't. However, these copies of his book have been received with a considerable degree of reluctance and lack of enthusiasm — and this is why I bought them as presents rather than lending. Because I really, really want them to read that book, even if they keep it closed on the shelf for three and a half years and only then bother to take a look at it. By contrast, another family member came by today who was eager to read it and promised he actually would; I believe him, so I gave him my copy, which he said he'll read and return. I guess if he doesn't I'll just buy myself another.
I am happy to lend a book I think someone will read and enjoy, but if they aren't interested and don't really want it, then I buy it and give it to them rather than lending, if I think it will be life-changing for them when they finally get round to reading it.

Rebecca said...

Ahhhh! The book-buying dilemma. To me, few things are more disappointing than buying a book only to find it mediocre at best. Given my limited resources, I buy a few books only after I find myself needing to mark them up or certain that I will want to read them again.

I've enjoyed reading the comments here. Your responses (as usual( are wise and fair in my opinion.­čśä



Merle said...


Hello Pen I have just met you through 1. the pages of Tony Collins book Taking my god for a walk which has just been given to us and we are busily trying to find out where we can buy multiple copies to give to family at Christmas. This book which reflects so many of the sentiments above, has been of the utmost inspiration to us as we are on our own pilgrimage through acute myeloid leukaemia - please tell Tony. and 2. we are using your wonderful book of home group studies which has helped us all tremendously. This book also has helped us to think about the quiet way and comtemplate so many different aspects of bible teaching. As a result I have just dicovered the Kindred of the Quite Way. Thank you so much

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Rebecca — I agree! And books are expensive now. I am grateful for the Look-Inside function Amazon does, that lets us read a good chunk of the books before making up our minds to buy.
My husband (unlike me) often buys books at full price from our high street bookshop, because he wants it still to be there in years to come. I tend to get mine at Amazon — what I want to read is rarely available on the high street.
This is a very personal thing, isn't it? There are various different aspects to it — how much money we have and how we have budgeted it, our preferences, priorities and other commitments . . . a lot to think about.

Hi Merle — nice to meet you! May you be blessed and upheld in your health journey. May the purposes of God be fulfilled in your lives. I am so glad you've found Tony's book a good companion, and he will be delighted to hear that. I'm pleased my bible study books are proving useful too — they're quite good for helping new group leaders find confidence, so we've been told.
This blog is a good place to meet interesting people — we have some thought-provoking conversations in the comments section here. Also, if you take a moment to browse down the side-pane of the main blog, there are some links out to interesting places, articles and people, including some really great music. My blog is meant to be a meeting place not a marketplace, so though I let people know what I've written and where they can buy it, in general it's an ad-free space with no loathsome pop-ups, just a welcoming and gentle place to land and meet some really nice people. Welcome.

Rachel marsh said...

Not totally relevant but ... Abi was asking me about chapels etc in St Austell. I gave her a brief history of Methodism but before I started I wanted to know what she knew.
"Have you heard of John Wesley?"
She pondered, then triumphantly exclaimed, "No, but I've heard of John Wayne!"
I started at the very beginning ;-)

Pen Wilcock said...

Tony says, "Well, they both rode a horse." You can tell he is an irenic spirit, quick to seek common ground . . .