WRITING AND SUCCESS IN THE DIGITAL AGE: who are you writing for (and will they want to read you)?
One of my favorite blogs to follow is socialmedia rockstar Chris Brogan’s. So when Chris blogged about a book he loved (and by a YA author I have much respect for), it was like two wires crossing to spark off a deep, personal pleasure in my own little virtual universe.
I found Chris’s post interesting for two reasons.
One, he demonstrates how a reader’s engagement with an author (in this case Scott Westerfeld) no longer ends when the final page is turned. Instead of being forced to wait for Westerfeld’s next release, or run to the nearest bookstore or Amazon or his Kindle to check out Westerfeld’s backlist, Brogan did what is now the natural extension of a reading experience when you find a writer who excites you. He rushed
to see if Scott had a blog. (Obviously, he did). Second, I checked to see if he had a Twitter account (Obviously, he did.) Third, I went to see in both places whether he engaged with people. (He did).
Two, Brogan observes how fans are no longer silent onlookers in the experience of books (or art of any kind). Which leads to this definition of a ‘book’ made by Bob Stein at the 2009 Tools of Change For Publishing conference:
A book is a user-driven media where readers and sometimes authors congregate.
I both agree and disagree with this statement. So I’m beginning to think that the digital age is inventing — or maybe “refining” is the better word — two kinds of books.
The first type provides the rich and essentially solitary experience that reading has always been known for: it’s a deep turning into the self that paradoxically allows you to escape the self. People who read obsessively are looking for this kind of high, and like any jaded and experienced junkie, they demand an increasingly higher grade of their chosen drug in order to get (temporary) satisfaction.
The second type provides a reading experience that isn’t solitary at all: it plugs you into a shared cultural experience, a community. This becomes the reason people seek it out. It attracts a different nature of reader.
The thing is, I know a lot of readers–omnivorous, voracious, constant readers–but at the time I didn’t know anyone who adores books such as The Bridges of Madison County or Who Moved My Cheese?
She asks herself:
Who are these buyers….Why do they buy such crude constructs and propel them to blockbusterdom?
And then, after a disconcerting experience with a poet friend who starts raving about Dan Brown, realizes:
Blockbuster-book buying isn’t about books. It’s about human behaviour and group dynamics. It’s about belonging. The blockbuster consumer hears people talking about the the secret codes underlying national monuments, or vampires vs. werewolves, and they want to join in the conversation. Just as they haven’t spent much time thinking about dress design, they’ve never considered how narrative works. They don’t have the critical tools to see that the book is ugly and badly made. All they know is that they’re joining in and having a blast. They aren’t habitual readers; they have time/inclination for one book a year, so they pick the one that they’ve heard their coworkers and fellow students and clients raving about. A blockbuster novel is like a Halloween costume: it only has to last one night and provide something to talk about in the morning. It’s a way to feel part of the party.
What’s interesting is that at the same time the gap between [niche or ‘long tail’] publishing and “blockbuster” publishing is growing. Whether it’s books, movies, or music, the monster hits are more gigantic than ever before. Here’s an article covering that:
and he referred me to an Economist article
which turns out to be the same article that one of Nicola’s readers brought to her attention.
Which means that I’ll now quote Nicola quoting the Economist:
“Both the hits and the tail are doing well,” says Jeff Bewkes, the head of Time Warner, an American media giant. Audiences are at once fragmenting into niches and consolidating around blockbusters. Of course, media consumption has not risen much over the years, so something must be losing out. That something is the almost but not quite popular content that occupies the middle ground between blockbusters and niches. The stuff that people used to watch or listen to largely because there was little else on is increasingly being ignored.
Perhaps the best explanation of why this might be so was offered in 1963. In “Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour”, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.
The hits are those user-driven places “where readers congregate”, and as the world becomes more tightly connected both offline (the chain bookstores that rule traditional publishing and helped turn the release of the latest Harry Potter or Twilight novel into a cultural ‘event’) and online (one word: socialmedia), those congregations will only grow bigger, faster.
“People want to share the same culture,” explains Roger Faxon, head of EMI Music Publishing. Music is an intensely social medium, most enjoyable when it is discussed and shared with friends. Because choice in music—and, to an extent, other media—is collective as well as individual, it is hardly surprising that people cluster around popular products.
Just as the publishing industry is said to be going the way of the music industry (and will hopefully learn from the latter’s mistakes), books are becoming an increasingly social medium. And as the culture continues to fragment into niches and lists and pockets of different types of people having different types of conversations, the ‘hits’ will serve more and more as a kind of shared touchpoint where users can feel connected to something bigger than their own limited social circles.
It’s not just that we all “want to feel part of the party”: we want that party to be the biggest, the best, the most important one there is.
We want to be tapped into the heart of the freaking universe.
This may be why Hollywood is turning to the written word to source their movies:
The studios have learned that stars are much less reliable generators of profits than films based on known characters and stories. That is why, in August, Disney agreed to pay $4 billion for Marvel Entertainment, a veteran comic-book and media firm that had filed for bankruptcy protection in the mid-1990s.
They have also learned
that bigger is better. Although small films can do astonishingly well (the latest is “Paranormal Activity”, a cheap thriller that has sold more than $100m-worth of cinema tickets in America alone), they do not do so at all dependably. SNL Kagan, a research firm, calculates that between 2004 and 2008 films costing more than $100m to produce consistently returned greater profits to the big studios than cheaper films did. With DVD sales slumping in the recession and outside financing hard to obtain, the leading studios are cutting back their output of films. But the cuts are concentrated at the bottom end. Studios have shut down or neglected their divisions that specialise in distributing low- and middle-budget films. None has sounded a retreat from big-budget blockbusters.
So what does this mean for writers?
Seth Godin talks about “the dip”, the severe drop that exists in graphs between the few who dominate and everybody else.
The power law dictates that the explosion of content on the Internet doesn’t mean that more people will join those at the top; it means the top just gets thinner and higher.
So the number of bestselling, rockstar authors will get smaller, but their commercial success will scale to new heights. This will be thanks in part to the opportunities the Web opens up in transmedia storytelling, and the efforts of corporations to find new ways of developing and delivering their brand to these pre-existing, massive audiences through sponsoring the characters and stories they profess to love.
The rest of us will have to fend for ourselves: find our niche and cultivate our small but loyal readerships.
Which means that we’re writing for the first kind of reader: those who depend on us to consistently provide them with that deep, rich, well-crafted emotional experience. They need us to feed their addiction. We need them to survive.
As Godin points out:
The most common misconception about Long Tail thinking is that if you don’t succeed [at being a hit] don’t worry, because the tail will take care of your product….That’s not true. [The tale] isn’t a consolation prize for mass market losers. Mass market losers are still losers. In order to become a mass market star you make choices…–and if you lose that game, there’s no reason to believe that those choices are going to pay off for a different market.
The long tail doesn’t offer a consolation prize. Instead, the wide selection (in every market, not just digital ones) is a collection of smaller long tails, each with its own dip, each with its own winners (and losers). Pick the biggest market you can successfully dominate, the biggest slice where you can get through the Dip and be seen as the best in that world.
Ultimately the game remains the same: the only way to any kind of ‘success’ is to become the best possible writer it is possible for you to be, which takes just as much sweat and blood and labor as it ever did (and more, in this digital age of blogging and microblogging and socialmedia and so-called “author platforms”). It’s hard to “sell out” to the mainstream if there’s no longer a mainstream to sell out to; writing “for the market” becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. If you hit, great. If you don’t, the rest of us likely won’t want to read you.
If I had any advice to give to an aspiring writer, it would probably be this:
Write whatever the hell you want.
Just make sure you get really, really good at it.