Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Business of Writing, pt. 1

I think a lot about the business of writing, the business of publishing, the business of selling books. I don't have a lot of solid conclusions, since I haven't done a whole lot of any of these things, but I do have some basic ideas. Here some of them are:

Art and money can't be separated. If nothing else, you've got to make enough money from your primary source of income quickly enough, and with enough mental and physical energy left, to allow yourself to live and make art.

On the other hand, probably fewer people should make living on income from art their goal in life. While our economy can support a truly incredible number of professional artists, most of us don't create enough value to be worth that sort of investment. If you genuinely find more traditional labor simply unbearable, it's time to join a political movement to help workers live more bearable lives -- which would, as a convenient side effect, probably make it easier to make enough money in little enough time with enough energy left over fort art.

Implied in these first two points is a long-term goal for our economy wherein more people are employed in a mixture of menial labor and knowledge/art production. This would be more fair and more livable for most people. But that's sort of a big picture idea.

Art that enriches people's lives should be seen and enjoyed by as many people as possible. However, definitions of such art vary tremendously, to the point where most people are not interested in most art. This is okay, however -- right now the percentage of the population reached by any one piece of art (apart from film, television, and music) is so small that we can't possibly be reaching nearly as many people as we should be. This means that we can achieve relatively broad appeal (going from .0001% of the population reading a given book to something closer to .01%, or even 1%, which would be pretty massive sales) without significantly compromising our "integrity" as writers. Or, in other words, if you think about it, while your book almost certainly won't have any appeal for, say, 90% of the population, reaching even 10% would make you a million seller several dozen times over. Even if one in a hundred people might like your book, that's still a tremendous audience. The trick lies not in marketing for "mass appeal," but finding and connecting with some share of that 1%.

In other words, the problem is literally never that your book is too smart or too weird for American readers. We have to let go of this idea, which is not only arrogant and silly but innumerate. Even if your book were only interesting to people in the top 1% of the American IQ range, it would still be extremely marketable. The problem is always essentially some combination of your failure to write a good enough book and your failure to connect with an audience.

On the other hand, the appeal of a given book really is generally pretty limited. People will try new things if opinion leaders tell them to, but opinion leaders generally don't tell them to, in part because we've convinced ourselves that no one likes reading, and therefor it is not worth trying. So more people easily could be reading, but ultimately reading is likely to be a marginal activity in the lives of most people: Reading is immensely pleasurable, but so are many other things, and given the sheer amount of time and effort it takes the average person to get through a book you can't probably sell the average person more than two or three books a year. However, you could get quite a lot done by selling the average person two or three books a year.

This has several implications. One is that publishers who water their list down -- and the writers who give them the material with which to do so -- in search of work with mass appeal are generally making a mistake; you're always going to be working a marginal audience when it comes to readers, you might as well find a way to really engage some small percentage of the country. Long tail, etc. etc.

Another is that a writer might, by devoting some of his or her time to a normal career, and part of his or her time to writing, and part of his or her time to sustained efforts to communicate with and engage an audience, n partnership with a publisher who took marketing responsibilities seriously, igenerate enough money to make writing not only a viable use of one's time, but, for the most talented, a moderate source of income, or even a primary household income. By spending less time aiming for blockbusters and more time supporting their entire list, publishers could stop concentrating money in the hands of a few literary superstars and start giving more writers the opportunity to write more and better material that would then light up the lives of more readers.

The system we have now, wherein most books are destined to fail and a few are designed to be read by more or less everyone, doesn't really serve anyone except the Stephanie Myerses and Justin Cronins of the world.

Indie presses and indie-identified writers, meanwhile, probably under-estimate their own ability to connect with readers. Because we know that most people "don't read," we think we can't sell books. What we're constantly forgetting is that most people don't have to read our books. A tiny, tiny minority of the country would still be enough to pay our rent. This is admittedly very difficult to achieve, but this is where we should be setting our sights, and we should be taking that goal seriously. This means no longer fetishizing our own purity, our lack of commercial ambition. It also means finding the courage to market outside our friends and family.

This post has sort of gotten away from me, so I think I'll stop here for now, but more on this later. And I invite your thoughts! How can I make Uncanny Valley huge, both as a magazine and as a press? How can I sell my own books in the tens of thousands? Let's figure this out.

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