Hell With What Sells

Writing is a craft.

Storytelling is an art.

And publishing is a business.

And so it behooves us, as trembling little ink-fingered word-slingers, to know the business before we tangle with the business. You gotta at least go to the rodeo before you try the rodeo, right? Unless you fancy proctological exams via bucking bull. (And maybe you do; I won’t judge.)

You’ve got to know how it works before you try to work it, and this is true in publishing, too — whether you’re splashing around in the traditional publishing pool or taking a long swim down the indie-publishing river. You’ve gotta know the process. How a book moves from one stage to another. How much control you want — and how much you’ll have. It pays to be smart and knowledgable so you don’t go in and whack your head on the lowest hanging beam and knock yourself out and piss your britches before you even get a book into people’s hands.

But here’s where we start to get it twisted.

We start seeing writing and storytelling as the business. As if all we’re doing is creating a product — a three-pronged story-widget with dual-adjustible elbow pads. An item of carefully massaged content designed to fill a need: supply and demand, by golly! People got rats, we give ’em a rat-whacker. People need cheap food and ungainly diarrhea, we give ’em Taco Bell. People need porn and animated cat GIFs, we give ’em the entire Internet.

It makes sense to fulfill the needs of the audience.

And we can and should comfortably assume that the audience wants some mixture of entertainment and enlightenment — translated, it means they want to read stories. The audience has always wanted to absorb stories, always wanted to braid them into their social, intellectual and emotional tapestries. Stories will always have a place to plug into when it comes to the human mind. Because, trust me on this one, stories make the world go around.

But that’s where our assumptions of supply and demand have to end — but sometimes don’t.

Let’s rewind a bit.

As I’m wont to say: “I get emails.”

And not just Target ads, phishing scams, or weird porn advertisements, either. I get actual emails from what I must assume are actual readers of this site and/or my books and they ask me for advice about writing. One of the more common emails asks some version of this question:

“What sells?”

My first initial answer to this is an admittedly snarky, utterly reductive: “Stories sell.”

And despite its Snark Factor of 7 and its utterly simplistic nature, the answer is pretty much as far as I’m willing to take it. Because I surely don’t know what sells. I mean, do you? Fuck, does anybody? Reskinned Downton Abbey fan-fic? BDSM space opera? Murder mysteries solved by imperious hedgehogs? Erotic Guy Fieri autobiographies? (I just threw up a little.) I have no fucking idea. I can take a look at the bestselling books same as you can — and at any given time I might see epic fantasy or a powerful crime novel or some Twilight knock-off or some thriller by some legacy thriller writer who has been secretly dead for 15 years and his books are now written by a machine intelligence built from his 700 other books. And none of those things are emblematic of anything. They’re outliers by the very definition of the term. They’re the narrow end of the wedge, the thinnest sliver of earth on the far side of Bell Curve Mountain.

Publishers think they know what sells. And they’re probably better at it than I am, but just the same, I can’t help but imagining editors and sales executives sitting in a darkened office somewhere in the Flatiron District, sorting through pigeon guts and hastily shaking a Magic 8-Ball and huffing vapors from the cleaning lady’s cleaning bucket trying to mystically discern just what the hell the audience will want to read next — The Next Big Book Trend that will set All Of Publishing Aflame. A series that will keep B&N buoyant! That will keep publishers solvent!

They might think they know.

But they don’t really know.

We don’t have an easy metric. No occult equation, no secret publishing algorithm.

Because stories aren’t products. Stories aren’t neatly-digestible cubes of content.

Your novel isn’t Tab A designed to neatly slide into the eager and obvious Slot B.

Stories are broken mirrors. They’re fractal displays and unkempt jungles. They’re a sunset made beautiful by an unpredictable confluence of clouds and chemicals and the unknown and forever unexplored context of those who will behold just such a sunset.

My response after the snarkgasmic “Stories sell” is inevitably, “Fuck what sells.”

First, because as noted, nobody knows anyway.

Second, because — is that what you want to write? Is that the only reason you’re writing? When you first started making up stories — probably at a young age — did you sit there as an eight-year-old trying to figure out who would buy your Avengers/My Little Pony mashup comic book or did you just tell that story because telling stories is fucking awesome? You did it because that story spoke to you. Because it leapt out of your brain and body like a goddamn xenomorph chestburster — a gory splurch and there’s the tale, running around giddy and bloody.

When you look back on all the stories that moved you through your life — whether we’re talking Infinite Jest or Die Hard or Batman: A Killing Joke or The Handmaid’s Tale — do you think that those were created by their storytellers as products? That they were articulated as carefully-crafted widgets whose only goal was to rake in beaucoup bucks? Were they crass expressions of creative capitalism written by brands instead of people? Or were they the stories that those storytellers wanted to tell? Had to tell? Loved telling?

Listen, I wrote a lot of crap before I managed to get to Blackbirds — and a lot of the crap I wrote was me running hurdles over what I thought would actually get me on bookshelves. I thought, “I’ll write anything at all as long as it gets me published.” And it was me trying to headbutt square pegs into circle holes. I worked myself dizzy leaping hastily through a world of finished and unfinished novels I didn’t actually like. They weren’t me. They weren’t anything I really wanted to read. They were a collective artifice created based on what I imagined were the trends — what I believed publishers wanted to buy and what bookstores could sell. Never mind the fact that by the time you pinpoint a trend it’s already too late (months to write the book, months to edit, months to publish, and by the time those add up to the year or more it’s gonna take to get it out there, the trend has slipped its leash and darted through the closing door).

The bigger question is, who gives a fuck?

I certainly didn’t.

I was totally forcing it.

It’s an almost Fight Clubby realization — Hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat. It’s not a goddamn seminar. Stop trying to control everything and just let go. It’s, And then, something happened. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom. And it’s It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.

This isn’t about not paying attention to publishing. Or about completely averting your gaze from the market. It’s about not appeasing the market above your own interests.

It’s about finding that crucial middle ground in the Venn diagram between the circles of what you want to write and what people want to read.

The goal is to write a book whose infectiousness — whose saleability — exists because you put yourself and your love of the story into it, not in spite of it.

It’s not about asking “What will sell?”

It’s about asking, “What do I want to write? What do I love? What do I want to read?” It’s about creating stories and art that are products of wonder and madness instead of creating products that have no wonder or madness at all.

It’s about listening to your own voice before the voice of the marketplace.

The business part will come.

For now:

Craft your writing.

Art the fuck out of your stories.

And hell with what sells.