Plus as a special bonus for the first zillion readers: two updates on an earlier essay! Now what would you pay?
So I’m sitting here thinking about writing. I don't want to have to get up because I’ve got a cat on my lap, but it's all right because I’ve got my iPad and cell phone within reach. And that means at my fingertips are the hundred or so iBooks I own, more channels on my tv than I can count, countless tweets, and web pages that sing and dance with kittens and baby pandas, buff guys and hot chicks, sometimes all on the same page, plus four remote controls that talk to a tv/computer, the cable box and I suspect to each other when I’m not around. In other words, there are many more entertainment choices than were available even a few years ago.
So what does this plethora of choices mean to writers, the ink-stained wretches that pump out the trillions of words that fill our modern story-o-sphere? It means your readers have other places to go — lots of other places. Does that mean you should pack it in, say there’s no way to stand out from this immense crowd and take up the flugelhorn? Spoiler alert: the answer is no.
First, let’s assign some numbers to “overchoice,” so we know just how much competition there is; then let’s talk about every writer’s second-favorite topic (the first being their own work): audience, and then let’s make a few specific suggestions. After that we’ll get to the homework assignment, and finally provide a brief update on an essay I contributed in December.
It’s not a jungle out there, it's a New York or Tokyo street at rush hour, — eight million stories in the naked city — with not thousands, but millions of stories, all of them throwing elbows and hip checks, jostling for position. The actual numbers are probably larger, but it is safe to say that Amazon has over six million books for sale. How many movies and tv shows are available on iTunes? Has anybody counted? Can anybody count, or does the number change so rapidly that the question becomes meaningless? And, of course, despite repeated reports of their imminent demise, brick-and-mortar bookstores are still out there with shelves crammed full of books and those stories are literally jostling for position on the shelves.
All right, your potential audience has an inconceivable number of titles clamoring for attention. Overchoice, historically-unprecedented overchoice. Is that depressing? Don't reach for the flugelhorn yet; there are people who want to read your story. You just have to find them. You need an audience. And to do that you need to —
Step One: Find your Audience
Word of mouth sells books. Take every opportunity to get in touch with readers. Increasingly, writers are finding their audience through personal contact. The same tidal wave of transistor-fueled change that has led to six million books on Amazon has also created multiple ways for you to find an audience. The jargon for this process is “building a platform” but for most of us it comes down to grabbing a potential reader and saying, “Hey, read my book!” Not literally, or at least save the grabbing for a fallback position. But you will find readers, and other essays in this blog will offer many ways to do that. Google “Finding an Audience” and you’ll see hundreds of sources. Look for Ken McArthur, “Top Ten Ways to Find your Audience” or Joanna Penn, “5 Tips.” After you find an audience, it's vital to —
Step Two: Treasure Your Audience
Once you find a reader, cultivate them! Learn about them. Respond to all their emails and tweets, try to find what people like about your work. In my case one facet is clearly the setting as character, local color that lets readers think, “Oh, so that’s what big wave surfing is like.” However, I firmly believe moderation is the key. Personally, I do not do a newsletter. I avoid flooding my readers with information, and the metrics on my emails show that it pays — my notices get read, not deleted from the subject line, I believe in part because there aren't very many of them. Yes, the flip side to this is that you need to learn about things like metrics and measuring how well your promotion works, or you need to hire someone who has already learned. You can't treasure your audience if they don't read your emails.
I guess the moral is treasure them but don't drive them nuts. Remember the guy in Peggy Sue Got Married who spent the entire reunion handing out business cards? Don't be him.
And, while it's great that you are reading this essay (Thanks!), don't overthink it.
“Don’t think so much.” Zucco to Kinicki in Grease.
Most of all, don't despair. Remember the line in Her, “I gave myself permission to find joy.” Do that! When you look back at a sentence you struggled with and finally got right, and think, “Hey, that works!” stop and allow yourself the joy.
Remember Don McLean says in “American Pie” that he could make them happy for a while. If you make some people happy for a while, maybe that's enough. For me, it is. Wear success like a loose suit of clothes; define it so it works for you.
To sum up:
Work on finding an audience.
Once you find them, treasure them.
And give yourself permission to find joy in your work.
That’s Success in the Age of Overchoice.
What do you do, once you are armed with this knowledge of the hordes of titles out there, and, unafraid, you are still banging the keys?
Don't just read this blog, research it. Study ways of contacting readers. I don't care for the term “Building a platform” but it's the best one around right now.
Specifically, for a good place to start look at Writers in the Storm, April 19, 2017, Jenny Hansen’s essay called, “The Personalities of Social Media.” Ms. Hansen provides numbers — how many posts you should aim for — and she backs up her assertions with footnotes.
And Now for the Updates
In December we talked about artificial intelligence and a university program that teaches ethical behavior to machines by reading them stories. (Writers in the Storm December 19, 2016, “Believe in Your Work — Its More Important Than You Think.”) We were ahead of the curve.
See the May 2017 issue of Discover magazine for “Caring Computers,” a great article about stories and artificial intelligence. I won’t give away too much but machines learning ethical behavior from stories is becoming mainstream. Think what you do isn't important? Think again.
Also, see the Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2017, for “How a Computer Program Can ‘Learn’ Human Bias” for a darker side to stories and machines: language itself makes subtle assumptions — like the term "doctor” is more likely to be associated with a male name — and those assumptions can be passed on to artificial intelligences. (Hmmm. On that one I’d like to see data on the average copyright date of the stories. The hopeful part of me wants to think that’s changing. And, sure, I liked Pollyanna. So sue me.) And Melissa Healy, the author, says computers don't actually believe anything. (The italics are mine.) Oh, yeah? How do you know? Nevertheless, a really interesting article.
Thanks for reading. Now it's your turn.
How do you connect? How do you cultivate readers? How do you define “success?”
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James R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. The most recent is Sailor Home From Sea. He is finishing the second of a projected trilogy of novellas set at Cal State Long Beach in the 1960s. The next Surf City Mystery is called Remains To Be Seen and will be available in 2017. His work has been selected for the UC Berkeley Special Collection, California Detective Fiction. And when he needs inspiration for a great opening, he looks at a Jayne Ann Krentz.
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