Bland

A self-indulgent rant about marketing

It would be very easy for me to say that publishing is an industry, and that the reason I don't make enough money to even think about telling people I am an author when they ask the ubiquitously depressing get-to-know-you question is because I haven't invested in marketing or my platform, but I won't say that even though I just did.

Truthfully, I have no idea why my book doesn't sell. I could make some guesses: It's my first published work, I have no preexisting platform, I didn't spend any money on a campaign, it's self published, maybe it's just not very good. I could tell myself that I never really set out to sell a bunch of copies, but if I'm honest being a full time author is my dream job, and that is impossible without book sales.

I want to be the exception, the unicorn, but I know the chances of that are worse than scratch-offs. “You have to think about it like a business”, “You've gotta compartmentalize”, “View it like work” — all things I tell myself about marketing. Sometimes it works, but it feels dishonest to me. To market effectively you have to act like your book is the next Lord of the Rings, but I know it's not. I think Dawn Must Follow Night is pretty unique and worth your time, but I wrote it, and I see more and more of its flaws as time passes. I have relinquished the false assumption that sales equals quality, but I don't want to sell my book because I persuade you into it. I want the weight of the words to carry it. If I can only become a better writer by spending time writing, then time spent marketing is a waste.

Yet I know that marketing is not evil. As with most activities it can be carried to harmful extremes, but it is not intrinsically bad or good, but that doesn't change that it feels slimy to me. I have tried to read recently traditionally published novels that are best sellers and the next big deal and am consistently underwhelmed and sometimes revolted. Fifty Shades was not one of the ones I tried to read, but it proved that drivel can sell. Great novels are rare for a reason, but the industry rolls forward and publishes not terrible but not great writing as if it were.

Maybe that's the problem. Great novels have a reputation for changing lives. Book blogs publish “100 must read books”, but the reality is that no book is a “must read.” Do I love reading? Of course. It teaches, convicts, encourages, and engages my mind daily — but with the exception of a collection of documents passed down through thousands of years of history about a carpenter's son from Nazareth, I hesitate to call any book “must read.” They are all written by people, and like people they are imperfect and gloriously opinionated. Perhaps this industry is so streamlined now that we have forgotten that books are not products. They are a vehicle for thoughts and ideas and stories.

Steinbeck writes about the sterilization of language in Travel's with Charley in Search of America:

“Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.”

Is that what is happening? Are we becoming such a product of television that uniform blandness has invaded not only our speech but our books as well? I could not tell you without reading more popular fiction, and I love classics too much to do that.

Perhaps marketing bothers me so much not because it is evil, but because it is bland. It seeks to appeal to the largest audience possible, and because of that it must be appealing to all. We who enjoy strong flavors and acquire a taste for the unique and often strange treasures of thought are put off. In popular fantasy and science fiction especially, success seems to be measured by whether or not you get a screen adaption, but writing as a medium is capable of so much more than a vehicle for plot and character. What is stopping prose from being as much a part of the experience as world building and character? What is stopping a fantasy novel from taking full advantage of the medium? Well, it takes a lot of practice to write like Hemingway, but the industry does not encourage fantasy authors who want to make a decent living to practice writing like that. The most popular ones are lauded for their ability to craft a plot and magic system, but rarely for prose or narrative technique. “Good” prose in the mainstream of the genre is “clear”, “descriptive”, maybe even “poetic” if it has some flavor.

Nobody looks for great masters of the written word in fantasy. They look for story tellers, dreamers, plot weavers. Perhaps I am crazy, and perhaps I should just go and try to write Literature, but I love my imagination too much to do that. If there is any genre where playing with perception and mixing the abstract with the concrete can be utilized to its full potential, it is in one called fantasy.

I am not claiming to be better than popular fantasy authors, but perhaps my goals are different. Once you've read an author like Hemingway or Woolf or Joyce or Steinbeck it is hard not to be disappointed by everything else. My pompous author pipe dream represented by an imaginary review for one of my books is this: “If Hemingway wrote fantasy.”

Clearly, I have a long way to go.