Part of the Indie Author Series
Drinking the Kool-Aid
The myth that anyone can predict what will sell and what won’t may be the greatest single factor that traditional publishing and Hollywood studios have in common. Of course, they’re drinking the same Kool-Aid, a shimmering, banknote-green variety especially favored by the bean-counters and marketers whose influence in the creative world has grown out of all proportion to their usefulness. And—if you’ll forgive a madly muddled metaphor—the sooner writers see that this emperor not only has no clothes but was never really an emperor in the first place, the sooner they’ll throw off their shackles and find true happiness.
Although the publishing trade journals and the mainstream media both regularly feature stories of sleeper hits (but rarely of the many unexpected flops), it seems to me that many writers, indies included, are sipping at the very same Kool-Aid and either aren’t prepared to let go of comforting myths and dogma or don’t fully grasp the implications of all this: you can, and should, write about anything you want.
Think about it: anything you want. Empowering, isn’t it?
I say this because when I look at what some—by no means all, but far too many—of my peers are doing, I see them working tropes that are really just about wrung out; worse, I see them doing it for the wrong reasons. If a writer absolutely loves paranormal YA, or bleak, gritty urban noir, or post-apocalyptic science fiction, or BDSM Romance, and reads it by choice, fine; but to write in a genre that isn’t what you absolutely love just because it is (or, worse, has been) popular is not only sad and cynical but probably damaging to the spirit. And yet legions of indie authors are doing precisely that.
Sure it’s natural to follow trends, to think a good thing is going to go on forever. But, as every investor knows, bubbles burst. Offer the reading public something new and different and their reaction will, all other factors being equal, be one of enthusiasm and delight. Unfortunately, a publisher’s marketing team are likely to scratch their heads at anything that doesn’t fit nicely into a known box or embody a popular trope and not know what to do with it.
Who Saw That Coming?
When Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline’s 2013 novel about the relationship between an elderly widow and a foster teen was released, publisher William Morrow expected sales of perhaps 50,000 copies; to date, it has sold two million.
In Italy, Sette Brevi Lezioni di Fisica (Seven Brief Lessons in Physics), a book on Einstein’s theory of General Relativity written by 58-year-old physicist Carlo Rovelli, recently grabbed the number one sales spot for two straight months, outselling Cinquanta Sfumature di Grigio (Fifty Shades of Grey). It sold 140,000 copies in six months.
In the UK, Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr, a children's book written in the 1950s and re-issued by Puffin Books, topped the children’s bestseller lists at the Waterstones chain, out-selling popular adult titles including the female noir thriller The Girl On The Train, which was itself a surprise hit written by previously unknown author Paula Hawkins. And last Christmas, a cozy detective tale out of print for more than 70 years became a sleeper hit. Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon outsold rival Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. (Gosh, could it be that the reading public is tired of the relentless flood of bleak noir and delighted to see something entirely different?)
Humans are hardwired for pattern recognition. It’s one of the fundamentals of our ability to survive. So it’s perfectly natural for us to try to find formulas and rules that will give us an edge, help us succeed. Unfortunately, we often continue to find them even when they aren’t there.
“To see the role of chance you need to see multiple realizations of the same process. We only get to see one outcome.”
-Matthew Salganik, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University
The problem here, one that bedevils economists in particular, is that people don’t necessarily behave in predictable ways. Worse, we—and especially Westerners—tend to severely discount the role played by chance—dumb luck. It’s much more comforting to think that we can predict and to some extent control outcomes.
In a fascinating and cleverly-designed 2008 study, Princeton professor Matthew Salganik demonstrated the very significant role that chance plays in the success of a work (Salganik used music in his study, but the results apply to all art forms). His methodology involved 12,000 randomly recruited teenagers divided into nine virtual worlds. He then took 48 songs by emerging artists unknown to the volunteers and observed how these fared in popularity in each of his virtual worlds (I encourage you to follow the links below for full details).
The results were startling: different songs became popular in the different worlds, with wild swings in rankings. As Salganik put it, “It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed—though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn't is essentially a matter of chance.”
All this—as well as my personal inclination and ethics—suggests to me that a creative artist should pay no—and I mean zero—attention to what is currently popular, what the market appears to want, and what’s being endlessly repeated in the deafening echo chamber of the internet. Instead, we should be free to abandon all restraint and fear and just follow our interest and passion wherever it takes us. Writing is hard enough as it is without burdening ourselves with dogma and delusional constraints. Write what you love, not what you think will sell, and let the Fates worry about the rest.
After all, that’s why you went indie, isn’t it?
Are you, or have you been in the past, influenced by what seems to be popular or what others think the market wants? (I have been, and it didn’t make for happy writing.) Have you ever held back from writing what you really wanted to write because of external considerations or fears it simply won’t interest anyone?
NPR report on Prof. Matthew Salganik’s study
Leading the Herd Astray: An Experimental Study of Self-fulfilling Prophecies in an Artificial Cultural Market (Salganik’s full paper detailing the study)
Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor, and the founder of Panverse Publishing. His nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real "Mamma Mia!" island), was a UK travel bestseller in 2012 and has recently been published in Poland. His first novel, Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller, was published in 2013. Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short Science Fiction work, was released in June 2014. He is currently working on his second novel, another thriller. Dario has also edited and copyedited over a dozen novels, as well as three critically-acclaimed novella anthologies. He lives with his wife in the Los Angeles Area.