Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 28, 2017

Success in the Era of Overchoice

James Preston

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?”

  *     *     *     *

 Sailor Home from SeaJames 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. 

16 comments on “Success in the Era of Overchoice”

  1. Great post, James, and so true. I know there are many authors who use giveaways, etc, to sign people to their mailing list, but that never made sense to me. My mailing list is people who WANT news about my books - not people who only did it to be entered in a contest, and will drop me, the first time I send a newsletter! (I don't know why, but unsubscribes hurt me more than bleh reviews) I only send a newsletter a quarter, for the same reason. If they want to know what's going on with me, head over to FB. A newsletter full of what I've been doing personally, only my mom would read.

    Just my opinion.

    But, on FB, I PARTY!!! I post memes, beauty pics, and ask hairball questions. We have SO much fun! (sorry for the plug, but here's the link- http://dld.bz/fDYw8). I only mention my writing maybe once every 10 days.

    Does it make a difference? I don't know. And that's the frustrating part, right? How do you know if the ROI is worth it, if you can't assess it?

    All I know is, it's gotta be better than, 'BUY MY BOOK!'

    No one ever told us being a writer was for sissies, right?

    1. Thanks, Laura, Glad you liked it. "Buy my book!" I have been on panels with writers like that and felt sort of like a wallflower because I wasn't doing it, but I have recovered. I think maybe the world has moved on (stole that from Stephen King) and shotgun mass marketing has declined in value as the number of folks doing it has gone up. Quarterly newsletter = good. Monthly = not so good and eats up too much of your writing time. FB is great (Alert! Commercial ahead!) When I posted a notice that Sailor Home From Sea had cracked the top 2,000 on Amazon Mysteries>Private Eyes I got the most amazing response. And I didn't think of it as marketing; I just wanted to brag a little. Thanks again.

        1. Right. Unless your bot writes a new story which it sends to my bot for review (positive, of course) and my bot gives the review to the Amazon bot while you and I watch "Dancing With the Stars" and eat bon bons." Shoot me now.

  2. It is daunting to think of all the other activities that grab for people's attention. But readers read. They are the ones who always say, "The book was so much better than the movie." I know--I'm one of them.

    I have to believe that my book is my "Field of Dreams." If I write it, and write it well, the readers will come. Thanks for reminding me, James!

    1. Ooooh, Fae, right on. "Readers read." I like that and you are absolutely right. They just want to know something about the book and/or the writer. Yes, write the book and they will come. How many? Who knows? And I can't think of a single instance where I said the movie was better than the book. Thanks!

  3. I have a favorite author that I email her with questions and comments about her books, specifically the characters. She always responds. THIS impresses me. I have met her in person. She's a gracious and kind lady.
    I hope to find my audience between Fantasy and Military Romance, maybe even a hybrid of the two genres based on a wild idea that was a joke.

    1. And if you are looking for information on genre, read "Does Genre Dumb It Down," in this blog. Good luck!

    2. Ah, C.K. My audience is between science fiction and military romance. I guess that's what happens when you spend years as a science fiction freak then get introduced to romance by...James' wife!

      1. And you both are working to blur genre distinctions. Excellent! It's only the story that matters.

  4. C. K. that's great. I think it is emblematic of what I was saying in the essay -- she treasures you as a reader and is glad to correspond with you. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Wow, what a great post. I'm just beginning to find my audience and word of mouth is the best. When a reader takes the time to contact me by mail or email or FB, I jump on the chance to make friends and most keep the correspondence going. And these readers have friends. And their friends have friends. Since they are avid readers, it's a good bet their friends are readers. We all know that, but it takes time to develop these friendships. Patience wins out in the end.

    1. Yes, Elaine, absolutely true. I ran out of time and was unable to work in ". . . Their friends have freinds." but that is one of the keys. All this overchoice makes that personal touch all the more important. I'm glad to hear you are finding an audience and wonder what your first steps were? In my case I got an out-of-the-blue invitation to speak to a book club.
      Thanks for the comment and the kind words!

    2. I'm back. I just checked out your web page -- nice job. I got a laugh out of how you prayed and then went to play golf with your husband. Thanks again.

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