The Sausage Factory

Writing is an art (and a craft). Publishing is a business. In the Comments section of a blog (, I found this unnerving passage:

“I just read Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland and it has inspired me. It’s not just a book about outlining, but about finding out what the market wants and how plots and stories satisfy the needs of readers. Only after explaining that does it go into showing how to build your plot to fulfill your readers’ needs.”

If you’re hoping to build a career as a writer, this may be excellent advice. We could have a discussion about its psychological validity (or its “spiritual” validity, if you like that word — I don’t), but as business advice, it seems very sound.

I’m in an odd situation, however. I’m retired. I don’t need to build a career. Sure, bringing in a few extra bucks by selling novels would be swell, but I have no grand ambitions. I would just like to give folks a chance to read the stories I’m writing. If somebody doesn’t happen to like the story I happened to want to write, that’s perfectly fine with me!

This quote refers to “what the market wants.” The market doesn’t want anything. The market is just a pipeline for transactions between writers and readers. Perhaps this is just an example of a poetic device (I forget the term) that’s described as “the container for the thing contained.” But it may be less benign than that. It may represent a reification of the market as a thing — as a sort of Frankenstein monster that rampages across the landscape, ravenously … oh, never mind. You get the idea.

If I can build a plot that satisfies me, that’s hard enough work, damn it! Trying to craft a plot that will satisfy both my needs and the needs of some abstract set of potential readers — gawd, I don’t even want to think about it. That doesn’t mean that I ignore readers’ needs. I insist on conflict and rising action. I insist on plausibility and the characters’ emotional integrity. But I’m hard to please. If I’m satisfied, the reader is likely to find something there, or at least I hope so. And the idea that I would ever plot a book so as to satisfy the reader even though I personally loathe or am bored by the plot — why on Earth would I bother to do that?

Another comment in the same blog says this:

“ALL authors, no matter how the book is published, need a marketing plan. All publishers expect a ‘platform’. … You know your book better than anybody. You know the message you want to convey with your marketing efforts, so you are in fact in the best position to begin creating your ‘brand’ and marketing your work.”

The bitter truth is, I don’t give a rat’s ass about marketing. Marketing is all advertising, and all advertising is manipulative, and I have no use for manipulation. I don’t feel it’s my calling in life to manipulate anybody’s perceptions or feelings in a way that would (a) satisfy my needs and/or (b) be contrary to their own self-interest. Presenting honest information — I have no problem with that. Looking good, as for instance by hiring a good designer to design a handsome book cover — sure, absolutely. But “the message you want to convey”??? A novel is not about a message, for Pete’s sake. A novel is a story.

When it comes to specifics, I have these unpublished novels. I’m hoping to get them out there where people can read them. The main characters are teenage girls, and of course the girls have boyfriends, so there’s a little snuggling here and there. I did sort of write them, I confess, with the YA market in mind. But are they really YA? Maybe not. One set (a four-volume series) is primarily adventure. The other book (a stand-alone) is a murder mystery. So my “message” would have to be something like, “Uh, well, these are sort of YA books, and if you’re a teenage girl you might like them, but maybe not, and if you’re an adult you might like them too, or not, and how would I know?”

Not a savvy marketing message … but it’s all I’ve got.

And then there’s the question of my “brand.” I know this is how the market works. Readers expect a certain thing when they see the name John Lescroart on the cover, or the name Robert Heinlein or whoever. The author’s name is their brand. But I don’t much want to be pigeonholed. My next novel might not be even remotely YA.

I understand that this might impact my marketing efforts by creating a confusing “brand.” But do I give a fuck? I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Another charming piece of advice that I’m having trouble with has to do with social media marketing. I have never tweeted, nor do I follow tweeters. I understand that one of the things modern, marketing-savvy authors do is, they tweet. They have followers. And authors are admonished by those who are in the know (and I’m sure it’s wise advice!) not to endlessly tweet “buy my book.” Nobody likes being spammed. Instead, authors are advised to tweet in a way that shows the kind of person they are, the kind of life they lead, their daily experiences, their happy moments, blah blah blah, with the idea that this will help readers feel warm and fuzzy about the author and therefore more inclined to buy their next book.

Yes, this makes perfect sense. But why would a YA reader of the female persuasion ever be interested in the daily activities of a 68-year-old retired guy who has no family and plays electronic music for fun? Do you see the problem here?

“Raked the leaves in the front yard. Wrists are sure sore now!”

“Just bought GateStorm for my eurorack modular. It’s awesome!”

“Discovered that one of my cello students is tone-deaf. Trying to get him to sing a scale — GLWT.”

“Drove down to Kaiser to pick up my medication. Kaiser is very efficient — love ’em.”

Uhh, yeah, that may not be a primo type of marketing activity. So I need to think some more about this whole topic. One of the self-publishing websites (and there are some good ones) suggests that we need to define what success means to us personally, so that we can work toward our own vision of success. Don’t waste time trying to attract half a million readers if that’s not part of your idea of success.

I think my idea of success, currently at any rate, is fairly simple: (1) Write a good story. (2) Put a nice cover on the front. (3) Make it available to readers. (4) Find a few ways to let potential readers know about it. (5) Repeat steps 1 through 4.

That’s entirely enough work for a retired guy, I think.

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