Every Tragedy Isn’t a Sales Opportunity

June 15, 2016

Let me paint a what-if scenario.

Let’s say you’re the parent of one of those fifty people killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Today is your son or daughter’s funeral. You look to the edge of the graveyard to see a carnival being set up. Merchants lay out their usual wares of artwork, rugs, and chotchkes. Several new products display your child’s face: hastily designed T-shirts and mugs decry this senseless death. A billboard announces all sales proceeds will benefit your family.

How do you feel about that? Are you flattered and grateful? Or is it too soon?

It’s only been three days, and this is already happening in the publishing world. Except it’s not as a carnival next to freshly dug graves. I’ve seen several announcements for new anthologies of short stories and poetry where the sales proceeds will benefit an organized charity or the victims directly. This repeats a well-established pattern: something bad happens, and immediately there’s a new charity anthology.

I hope these are just good people who want to help — who want to do something, anything, to relieve the suffering. Most writers are good people. If wanting to help is their sole motive, then more power to them.

My worry, however, is every time a charity anthology pops up in the wake of disaster, writers risk engaging in opportunism and self-glorification. Every tragedy isn’t a sales opportunity. And charity should never call attention to the giver. I’m not alone in saying so.

I realize this isn’t a black-and-white issue. A commemorative product, aside from raising money for the victims, might raise awareness of the tragedy’s causes, or help process the black tar of grief. And I confess to being a hyprocrite about my qualms; once I organized and participated in a book signing benefiting a charity. Was I being totally selfless? No.

So, I have to wonder: wouldn’t it be more effective to pay a direct donation to the charity instead of making that donation contingent on commercial success? Wouldn’t it be better to quietly give support without publicly exhibiting oneself as a good person or advancing a political agenda or career? This isn’t about me, after all. This is about them.

I’m not going to tell writers and publishers not to create these products. I only caution them not to be vultures. If your motives are pure and your timing is right, then sally forth.