Reading through Monday morning blog posts, my eye was caught by Clare O’Dea’s post about the narcissistic possibilities of blogging. At the end of the post she proposes a test to check your narcissus score. I know I’m not exactly oozing with ‘can-do’ but was still a bit shocked to find how close to the ocean floor I was crawling. Somewhere between the bit the Titanic’s resting on and the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
I don’t think I am falsely modest about my writing—I believe that it’s good. Not exceptional, not brilliant, but good. In fact it would be pretty strange to go to the trouble of publishing books that I considered to be a load of rubbish. If one of the 40 questions had been ‘Do you reckon you are a good writer?’ I could have answered in the affirmative. One brownie point to me. But there were 40 questions about behaviour, not self-esteem, and I score very low on all the—‘If you’ve got it, do you flaunt it?—type questions. Thinking, in a smug sort of way, well at least I know I’m good, doesn’t get you any marks at all.
Transpose all that into marketing and promotional behaviour and you have, in a nutshell, why some of us writers sink without trace and others, who are not afraid to shout their talent from the rooftops, con(vince) readers they know what they’re talking about and sell thousands of copies.
A case in point. The Dark Citadel was in a best YA fantasy competition. It was beaten by a book that the judges, from their comments, seemed to think verged on perfection. Leaving aside how I feel about my own book’s merits, the winner’s was surprisingly bad—derivative, facile, and in places utterly silly. What struck me as typical of the can-do factor at work was how the author lapped up the praise and took it all in her stride, saying that some of the other books in the contest were pretty good so she was pleased though not surprised to have won, because of course her book was awesome and richly deserved to be awarded first place.
This woman has the ‘can-do’ factor in bucketsful. And in one way at least she deserves success, because she has written a book so many people want to read. It’s very similar to books they have already read and enjoyed, and the silliness comes from writing about a city and a country the author has never visited, but most of her readers won’t have either so who’s to know?
I know that many authors hate to be told that they should be pushing their book as a product, targeting a market and hitting their audience where they hang out with the kind of message that appeals to them specifically. We have a tendency to bristle and reply that selling books in not like selling potatoes or washing machines. We like to think that there is something intrinsically ‘worthy’ about a book that sets it on a higher plane than vulgar vegetables or white goods.
I have come round to the belief that the marketers are right. You can sell any old rubbish as long as you can convince people it’s the rubbish they want. Publicists (sorry) are not in the business of telling gospel truths, they are in the business of persuading people to buy product X in preference to product Y. Product X might be utter crap technically, but the publicist’s skill is in convincing the potential buyer to overlook that unfortunate fact and instead look at other advantages. They might be street cred, the colour of the laces, the woman draped across the bonnet, whatever.
Same with books, I’m afraid. The mass market is not made up of discerning literati—they form only a small percentage and they probably wouldn’t ever look at your book anyway if it’s genre fiction—but of people wanting accessible entertainment. That’s the market most of us are hoping to interest. It isn’t important that, unlike books, you can judge all washing machines using the same criteria. People still ignore the evidence and buy crap washing machines. Conversely, many people do judge a book the way they judge a washing machine, ticking off their own set of criteria.
Selling isn’t about hard facts; it’s about wrapping a product up in an attractive package. If you are lucky enough to have a good publisher, you have a head start in the kudos race and can afford to concentrate on your art. The rest of us have to go down the marketing route with our books or doom ourselves to failure.
I’ll stick to getting my thrills from making a modest few ripples in this big pool.