In 1931 S. R. Ranganathan proposed the Five Laws of Library Science. The theory behind the laws was to help define the principles of any library system. Today I would like to look at the first four of these laws and see how we can apply them to you as a writer.
Books Are for Use
I like to ask students if a book has any ministry value if it isn’t read. Of course, it doesn’t. And a book can’t be read unless it is purchased. A library book was purchased. A book given away by an organization or an individual was first purchased. Someone had to make a decision to buy that book. Thus, the ministry of a book begins at the point of sale. Thus the writer has to think of how their words can be compelling enough to begin the transaction at the point of sale. What makes your idea saleable?
Books are usually purchased for information, inspiration, or entertainment. This list covers most instances for the use of a book. If it doesn’t, then it becomes mere decoration on the shelves (see Better Homes and Gardens).
Every Person His or Her Book
All tastes and sizes. Only the Bible is a “one size fits all” book. For example, one person may love romantic suspense. Another may think that genre is frivolous. I once spoke to a reader who was judging a fiction contest. They admitted having little patience for the romance books in the contest but loved the ones that were classified as literary fiction. Recently, I read a review of a highly acclaimed novel that trashed it as overwritten and boring. You might love a book and recommend it to a friend who did not share your enthusiasm.
Some like to collect cookbooks. Some like YA. Some like to collect books on theology. (“Guilty,” Steve said.) Some prefer history, or archaeology, or sewing, or business, or investing, or biographies, or tidying up.
As a writer, it is important to realize you cannot write for everyone. It simply isn’t possible. But that brings us to the next point.
Every Book Its Reader
Your book will have a reader. Even if it is only your mom (!!!). The desire, of course, is to have a vast audience for your words. But it may be your book will only affect a few.
Last year I talked with a lady who had self-published and was depressed because her book had not sold. She thought getting an agent would be the magic it needed. (Nope!) But during the conversation, she did say that her teenage niece became a Christian after reading the book. I sat in stunned silence for a moment. I said, “Let me ask you a question. If you knew, ten years ago, that writing this book and saving the money needed to get it published would result in the eternal salvation of your baby niece, would you have willingly spent the time and the money?” She replied, “Of course, I would have.” I countered, “Ma’am, you already did. Your book wasn’t a failure; it has been an incredible success.”
Every book has a reader: the reader intended for your words. Never forget that.
Save the Time of the Reader
For the librarian, this law speaks to accessibility to information. It should be easy to find and stay organized.
For the writer, I think it has other implications. Ask yourself if you really need to add the 20-page excursus on the research methods you used to define this one point. Or make it even simpler: “Do you need that sentence? Does it move the book forward, or are you just blathering?”
The adage “Write tight” fits this law quite well.
The Fifth Law
For the librarian, the fifth law is “The library is a growing organism.” I suppose we could work a writing metaphor into that.
Your body of work is ever expanding, as it should be. It has been said that “a work of art is never finished, but only abandoned” (attributed to Paul Valéry). And there is truth to that. For a writer it means finishing or abandoning your project and starting a new one. A mistake can be made by pursuing only one writing idea for decades, only to find that its only reader is you.
Grow as a writer. Take classes at a conference. Listen to courses at The Christian Writers Institute. Read this blog. Listen to podcasts. Read a new book on writing each year. There is always room to grow.
Lewis H. Seaton III
Damon J. Gray
That’s an intriguing twist on the Library Laws, Steve. I particularly appreciated the story of the niece who became a Christ-follower after reading her aunt’s book. That was an effective (borderline profound) illustration.
Thank you for sharing.
While growing as a writer, its also a good idea to reread books on writing that you’ve already read. I’ve found I don’t retain everything I read on the first pass. Then when I reread that writing book again (one year, two years later), some clue jumps out at me that I missed the first or second time around.
This book is made for reading,
so this this is what I’ll do:
pick a theme, and in completing
it will be of use to you.
But every book has got to fit
its very own audience;
either in or out, and you can’t sit
on the reader-fence.
Maybe you will find this tale
just the thing you need,
and if you do I promise
it won’t make your free time bleed.
Now this poem is over: now I have to go,
’cause every writer has to live and learn and grow.
Good advice, Steve. Another would be “Submit.” The first agent to whom I submitted took the time to provide feedback that I took to heart. When we get rejections that have any blessed suggestions, we are fools if we do not seriously consider (and usually implement) those suggestions. My aim is to make my queries and proposals so enticing that a recipient will begin to feel more fear of missing out than the usual “does not fit our present needs.”
Morgan Tarpley Smith
There is certainly so much room for growth and challenge for us.
I really loved the part you shared about every book has its reader. What a powerful reminder that this writing journey is so much more than sales and recognition. What an amazing testimony for that author! Thanks for sharing!
Sharon K Connell
Great list and good advice, Steve.
I hope the lady who hadn’t sold a book realizes that she is successful if her niece read the book. And I do hope her book will have future success. Readers have told me they got a blessing from my stories, but to know that her niece got saved after reading hers, what a testimony and joy.
As long as people are reading your books, you are successful, regardless of how much money you make from them. Isn’t that why we wrote them?
The one thing I always say if every book isn’t for everybody. Even if a select few or one person reads it – then you’ve had success.
Morgan Tarpley Smith
That’s a great perspective, Kimberly.
Steve, I enjoy your wisdom. It’s a pleasure to be reminded of these truths. I’m going to distill them so I can keep them fresh in my mind each day. You inspire us.
Thanks for your request to share my version of these truths from the Five Laws.
• Your book is not a decoration.
• Write for one reader.
• Words transform lives.
• Write only enough.
• Let go to grow.
Wow, Steve. You’ve given us so much to think about. Our journalism professor years ago taught us to keep the reader in mind as we wrote newspaper articles. It applies to writers of books as well.
Amen. There is always room to grow. I enjoy writers conferences, writers groups and learning from other writers.
Every book its reader ! Your example, the lady and her niece was a perfect, perfect example. I authored my first book living the thought “if it reaches one person’s heart, causes one person to change & grow, if one person is blessed from having read it, then it doesn’t matter how many copies actually sold because it was a complete success.” I am following that same thought as I presently author my second book. And, I have found in both instances that it has freed me to flow as I write, flow from my heart and very soul. Thank you for validating what I have been living as I write.
Yes, every book has its reader. It’s easy to get sucked into the idea that our book needs to minister to everyone. I guess knowing our audience when we begin to write the book helps us writers know how to have the best chance to reach our desired readers.
Thanks for this reminder, Steve.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Steve, I wrote my Suddenly Single books with the thought that, if it helped one person, it would be worthwhile. l am now getting speaking opportunities that will help me reach a larger audience, Praise the Lord!
I loved your example of the woman and her niece.
I needed this encouragement today, Steve. Thank you. I think the one that spoke loudest to me is “Every book its reader.” Though I know not everyone will read or like my book, I still believe it will touch the heart of at least one.
Thank you again and God bless,
truth in each word, Stever. And great replies!
Bible reader and always amazed at what God opens up when I read the same passage the next go-’round.
even submitting works of fiction, attempting to reach ‘someone’ in a ministry of writing, and being rejected is tough yet what if it reaches someone’s heart enough to share?
what if your critique group of atheists, agonists, and backsliders are asking what does it mean, and how does it apply… or you see their writing change?
Even submitting for critiques is a fantastic global ministry–even if you don’t intend it, God knows exactly who it will touch.