Buying Your Name

Book buyers these days are an increasingly fickle lot and, anecdotally at least, an ever-shrinking pool of the population at large.  I don’t have data to support these assertions, and they’re not really mine in the first place.  Myself, I love books as much as ever, and I find myself recently developing new interests in new authors based solely on the awesome premises of their books.

But there is evidence that the book buying public has more narrow criteria driving their reading habits.  There is a reason that Stephen King and Dan Brown and their like consistently sell large numbers of their books.  There is a reason that virtually everyone who picks up books to read has either read the Harry Potter series or the Twilight series or has had to make a conscious decision not to read them.  The reasons for the first example and for the second are subtly different, but linked.

The latter is tied to the impetus of a cultural moment.  This is how legends are made.  I admit that, initially, I was reluctant to pick up the Harry Potter books. They were marketed as children’s novels, and I like my fantasy to take itself seriously.  Something intended for “children”, I figured, could hardly take itself seriously.  But at last I relented, and was glad I did.  For all the “silly” trappings of childhood fantasy – flying broomsticks, magic wands, and ridiculous nonsense magic words – there was a maturity and depth and seriousness to the work.  It treats its target audience with respect, and for that reason it is equally good reading for an adult (and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of young adult fiction).  Why, however, did I finally relent?  By the time I read the first book, the series was becoming a phenomenon.  Virtually everyone I know had read it, and the number of positive reviews from people I trusted left me little choice but to investigate their claims.

I have yet to pick up the Twilight books, and can say that I currently find it unlikely I will.  While it, too, has reached the epic status of a publishing phenomenon, I have a few holdups.  It’s clearly marketed toward females, which I am not, and it is about vampires.  To date I have not developed a deep interest in the vampire romance genre.  Be that as it may, the forces that drove the Twilight books to success are the same as those that drove Harry Potter. 

Both books became part of a cultural moment.  I suspect that neither was initially supported by a significant amount of promotional spending on the part of the publishers.  But something about the books was truly good – and it struck a chord with readers.  When sales started to pick up, in spite of low promotional support, the marketers took notice, and the ad dollars began to flow.  Once that happened, the books broke the ceiling, and the skies were the limit.

That promotional efforts took what would have been modestly successful books without and made these books stratospherically successful is part of the same equation that keeps the well-known authors who have been writing for decades churning out bestseller after bestseller.  These authors can bank on their past success.  Readers, who know they enjoyed the last work but that author, have a reasonable amount of confidence that they’ll enjoy the writer’s next book.   Marketers know that, and so they work to make sure that anyone who may have enjoyed one of that writer’s books before is made fully aware that he or she is releasing a new book.  That effort takes a lot of promotional money, and not much is going to be left for the as-yet-unproven author.

Those of us in that category face an uphill battle.  We want to be a household name.   We want to be part of the cultural moment.  But how do we get there?  How do we convince the powers-that-be that investing in us will pay dividends?

Frankly, if I had the answer to that, I’d be using it as we speak.  But what I can say is this: it’s clearly not easy, and if you’re going to make it, it will take work.  The people who are making these investment decisions are usually not doing so based on a narrow set of tastes and preferences.  They are making business decisions, and they want their investments to succeed.  Convincing them is going to take proving in no uncertain terms that a failure to invest in you would be a financial mistake.

That sets a high hurdle.  To meet that bar, you must have more than determination and motivation to succeed.  You need more than just talent and a finely honed skill.  You can’t be just a good author.  You must be great.  You must be among the best.  You must be so good that, once readers get a hold of your books, there cannot be enough printed to sate their demand for it.  Mere rhetoric will not sway the decision-makers.  There must be action behind your words: the action of a reading public clamoring for your books.

That’s the question that keeps me up at night: I know I’m a good writer.  But am I great?  And even supposing I am great, how would I prove it?  They are questions I have yet to answer.