WRITING AND SUCCESS IN THE DIGITAL AGE: who are you writing for (and will they want to read you)?

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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.

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Nicola Griffith, a writer of finely crafted fiction that feeds (and fuels) readers of the first type, makes this distinction when she blogs:

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.

Meanwhile Andrew Mayer commented after a blog post I wrote called Who Will Own Your Audience that

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.

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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.

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Jan 7, 2010
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11 comments · Add Yours

Great post. The music industry tried until near bankruptcy to fight the inevitable change in technology. They wanted control of a technology (digital music) that took music and put it back into the hands of the artists and their handlers (management companies). After they nearly destroyed the entire business of music, they are just now curating content rather than controlling it.

I think the great thing about socialmedia is like above, a writer has more control over their content and if they are able to cultivate and understand their consumer they will rise up. Writers can now speak directly to their audience, and gain both the avid readers as well as the water cooler readers. Being able to take your product into both areas is key, and some writers (old school, already successful) might not get that but continue to sell, like in music the U2’s will always sell in any medium, timeless. However, a new breed of artists from the digital age (writers for publishing) will rise up, rockstars, like Lily Allen and Sean Kingston (without this medium those artist might not have been heard—some people probably wish they hadn’t). The same applies for writers, I think.

A great example of this is the Kardashians. I personally didn’t give a flip about Kim Kardashian (the only of that family that had some sort of celebrity besides Bruce Jenner who was old news but is now new news). They got this reality show that is now one of the biggest reality shows on the air. What makes it successful is not that they are these amazing celebrities, but that the common entertainment fan can get to know them on a level they couldn’t before. Add in the fact that the entire family is having conversations on Twitter and engaging their audience in a completely different medium…it drives you to watch it. Eventually, the vernacular of the Kardashians seeps into your head and into the overall zietgeist of pop culture. Take this, apply it to a writer, and you have a new way to ‘break artists’.

A book that isn’t going anywhere can now be offset by a blog or social conversation by the author that contributes to their success down the line. It’s more in the writer’s hand than before, really, and before long an agent will sign someone off Twitter ;) I mean let’s face it if Lauren Conrad can have a bestseller, anyone can.

I think

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I’m trying to figure out why I find this subject so depressing. I think it has to do with “choice nausea” (a term I just made up). It’s the feeling you have when standing in front of the barbecue sauce section in the supermarket. Not only are you making a hopeless, wild guess, but you’re almost certainly right in your intuitive sense that virtually any choice you finally make will be disappointing, at least in part because this crap is being made by people who don’t love you except for your money. Of course, after that happened to me enough times, I decided to learn to make my own, and I now make the finest in the land, if I do say so. But that’s not the turn I thought my life would take. But it is aligned with a lot of your advice, Justine.

Seth Godin is so very smart. What he says about the long tail is so true. But really, my future and yours is in the long tail, with occasional happy visits to the blockbuster, like Rhodes scholars dropping by a massage parlor for a quick hand job. I intend to set about finding the best filters to limit my choice nausea, which threatens the experience of joy in the long tail. That is at least part of what an author platform and the associated social media is: the start of a filtering device — albeit driven by self-interest and co-opted in all the ways that self-interest can — that can embed itself in the larger filter ecosystem that desperate people like me will turn to. And maybe I need to set myself up as a filter, so content can find its way to me more easily than my looking for a needle in a haystack. What I want is a Pandora for writing: if I say I like James Salter and Jim Harrison, give me Ward Just. It does seem odd to ask James and Jim and Ward to set themselves apart in some way other than their genius, though. Have you looked at Malcolm Gladwell’s blog? He posts twice a year, giving notice of translations into Estonian.

There’s one other alchemy at work. The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire, In Treatment: these masterpieces would not have been possible without the long tail. But they’ll give birth to the blockbusters your children will love. Star Wars was birthed in 1926 by a magazine started by Hugo Gernsback that about four people read. That movement up and down the distribution curve is the life force of creative endeavor. It’s exhilarating to think about, really.

Choice nausea. I think I’m going comfort myself by deleting a few more RSS feeds. That always helps.

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Hey, I’m glad you found my blog interesting. Thanks for the link.

And I couldn’t agree more with this:

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.

Readers recognise joy. Plus, if the writer is having fun, s/he’s more likely to spend more time doing it, and practice makes perfect…

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Hi Justine :)
Thank you for the awesome post.
And wow, what great comments!
:)

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Thanks for the shout out, and for another great synthesis of ideas.

There needs to be a term for succeeding in a niche, like “Micro-Blockbusting”.

Westerfeld is a great example since he turned away from writing traditional SF books (which he was excellent at) and instead created multiple series of YA genre fiction including the “Pretties” series. That has earned him a loyal audience of smart tween Fangirls. (An audience that I think is one of the most interesting because they come at things from a different direction than the traditional geek boys.)

Now he’s diving into Steampunk, and doing it in a way that’s bringing that audience with him.

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A really good story does seem more inclined to find a home, but it’s amazing how nowadays a book is so much more than a book. The definition has definitely expanded.

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“micro-blockbusting” — I love that, it’s such a contradiction in terms it’s kind of beautiful. :)

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I think the digital is going to be so great for short stories, novellas, all those things of somewhat awkward length that traditional publishing didn’t quite know what to do with.

And the ‘book’ is going to get interesting…

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I so totally agree with you agreeing with me. Thanks for dropping by. You write cool fiction, lady.

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You write the most amazing comments. I mean, seriously, I want to write something intelligent and worthy here but I am still marveling over “choice nausea” and “Rhodes scholars heading to a massage parlour for a quick hand job” and Malcolm Gladwell’s Estonian translations and “that movement up and down the distribution curve is the life force of creative endeavor” (so beautifully put).

Author platform as filtering system — yes, agreed, and that makes the idea of “platforms” in general a lot more interesting to me.

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Casnocha’s post today “When personal brands become more important than media brands” speaks to your last point here nicely:

http://ben.casnocha.com/

Part of what he says here is that as creators de-couple from their publishers (facilitated by the collapse, bankruptcy and fragmentation of publishers), author platforms will become the center of gravity for their audiences.

This reminds me that I started subscribing to Storytellers Unplugged because you post there, but quickly found the other contributors to be not worth following. A new t-shirt slogan is born: “It’s the Author, Stupid.”

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