A Nation of Wanna-Be Authors

On the first weekend in June, about 30,000 people crammed into the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, shouting, grabbing, and frantically promoting books: books about dogs, about diet, about turning 50, understanding sincerity, about lives they'd led and didn't lead. According to a study released this week, 194,000 books were published last year, more than ever before.

Four hundred authors signed books they wrote (What to Do the First Time You Go to Europe, Tab Hunter's memoirs, Barbara Ehrenreich's new version of Nickel and Dimed) at the annual booksellers convention, Book Expo America. The fair began in 1902 with author Mark Twain and 60 book lovers, and famous authors were everywhere this year. Billy Crystal opened the gathering, and Bill Maher's presentation was sold out far in advance. But most of the would-be writers attending the fair are just like the rest of us: part of the 81 percent of Americans, according to the Jenkins Study in Michigan, who want to write a book.

Everyone, it seems, has a book in them. My friend Bruce wants to write about his life as a Black Panther. Vietnam vet Ed wants to write a letter to soldiers returning from Iraq. Joy at the nail parlor intends to write about leaving China, moving to Queens, then learning to be a blackjack dealer. Even my tax man writes mysteries.

A lawyer friend is thinking of going to a weekend in the fall for lawyers with book ideas. The homecare workers in the union where I work want to write about their immigration experiences. My 94-year-old friend Lora wants to write about her first 30 years.

Me too. When I was 6, I first loved someone else's story. It was a Golden Book, called Lucky Mrs. Ticklefeather. I loved it so much my mother bought three copies. I don't even remember the plot, except that a bird was involved. The illustrations weren't much. In fact, I redrew my own. But I remember thinking for the first time, "I love this book."

Books have always been dead-center in my life. Wherever I lived, whatever I did, there were books. About 25 years ago, I started helping strangers with their book ideas, because of an index card on a wall in a laundromat that read, very simply, "I Need Help With My Book. I've Got The Idea." I pulled off the phone number tab, and began being a book doctor. The potential author was too nervous to realize I didn't quite know what I was doing. But I did know, the way some people know how to play the trombone or how to belly dance.

Strangers still find me. When I'm traveling, the person sitting next to me often describes the book they'd write if only they had time. An articulate man in a dark brown suit described the plots of seven novels, all the way from Newark to San Francisco.

It seems now more than ever before, we want to tell our stories: any stories. Why? A friend said it's because having the chance to tell your story is like having your own reality show. And yet, even someone as famous as Billy Crystal wants a book: a book that is his own. Another writer, a baby-boomer, speculated that as we age we're grasping for immortality straws.

Perhaps the more important question, especially for book publishers, is: Do we want to read the stories of others? Are we a nation of would-be authors more than would-be readers?

Book statistics vary wildly about how the industry is doing. In books, unlike many other businesses, customers can return unsold products and get their money back. This fact makes generating a profit a very difficult proposition for publishers, store owners, authors and everyone else. Besides, no one really knows why customers pick up one book and not another, despite study after study. Red covers? Black? Pictures of women? Whales? Advertising is not the reason. Neither are reviews. The elusive word of mouth is what makes people read.

According to a recent report by R.R. Bowker, the force behind Publishers Weekly, the industry bible, publishing is up by 14 percent this year. But what about readers? No one really knows. Do we have fewer readers than ever? Will books become obsolete?

Probably not. As long as so many of us want the chance to tell our stories, in a book.

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