In this age, we can create so many works. We can publish books physical and electronic. We can make podcasts that fly across the internet. As I’ve heard it put, so many ways, “there’s just so much stuff out there.” This then begs the question, “why create?” From giant conglomerates to people like ourselves, there’s so many people making things to read, watch, and so on. The chance of our works finding purchase in the world seems slim indeed, even if we pour heart and soul into marketing.
The conclusion Steve comes to in this post is "do it anyway" — do it because it's something worth doing for its own sake, not because of what happens afterwards. This is my own conclusion as well — why write unless you want to be in front of a keyboard making words literally every day? But some of what Steve touches on makes the picture more complex than that.
I like how Steve puts it in the opening sentence: "We live in a time of soul-crushing opportunity." Meaning there's so much out there, any one work from us has roughly the flavor of (as someone once put it about publishing poetry) dumping a basket of rose petals into the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo. This is only partly ameliorated by there being so many consumers out there, too: people are shorter on time than ever, and there's far more for them to choose from. The average size of an audience for anything, even a blockbuster, is smaller.
This makes your motives even more important, not less. If you do something that will only reach a few hundred people — but reaches them completely and sincerely — that's better than reaching tens of thousands of people with something they could get most anywhere else anyway.
The first component to this is finding out how to reach those people, which is hard enough. At the end of the day, old-school publishing has one thing going for it: it knows how to get books in front of readers, in big part because that's a costly operation that requires connections. It hasn't yet been completely displaced by word-of-mouth, and I don't know that it ever will be. But I'll save that for some other time.
The second component is the most important one: having something original and entirely yours to bring to the table without reservations. Because while the markets and shelves are more crowded than ever, a lot of that crowding is, I guess you could call it, duplication of effort. People tend to buy something that closely resembles the last thing they liked, and so everything turns into a treadmill of incremental cultural cloning.
The glut of YA dystopias, fantastic and realistic, are a great example of this: after The Hunger Games came along, everyone and their brother's mother's cousin's uncle's daughter's best friend started riffing on the same basic idea. The phenomenon by itself isn't new — it's always been the case that nothing succeeds like someone else's closely duplicated success — but the scale of it, and the verticality of it (the way books can drop into these narrow but deep niches of audience taste), is unprecedented. It's really, really easy to write something in the vein of whatever else out there is big, and it's probably not that hard to find a publisher for it, either. And that's the problem: it moves the emphasis from the work, and the way it connects people to other people sincerely, to the marketing.
My only answer to this is to ask: what do you really want to do? Write stuff or market it? I decided early on that I was probably never going to come up with anything that would be salable as a trendy hit, because I'm not interested in trying to second-guess people, least of all myself. I had what I thought were interesting stories to tell, and I was Just Pretentious Enough (™ & © Henry Rollins) to put it out there on my own and see what happened. I don't have a lot of fans, but the few that I have care, and that's what matters.
I have on my shelf a novel named I Don't Want To Think About It Right Now, by a fellow with the moniker Livingroom Johnston. I found it for one dollar at the Strand in NYC some years back. Evidently the author self-published it and sold it out of his suitcase at gigs. (The spirit of Crad Kilodney looks down and smiles, inasmuch as Crad could ever smile.) It's not a great book — it's too loosely written and aimless to really work — but it's a sincere one, and it feels more like a communication from one person to another than so many of the efficient-and-slick-but-dead-eyed books that get thrown out into the marketplace. It isn't a classic and it won't live forever, but that's not the point. In its own way, it's irreplaceable. It's survived two changes of address already. I will probably keep it until I die.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind