John Locke is getting a lot of attention lately.
No, not the philosopher—that’s the history blog down the block. Not the character on ‘Lost’ either. I’m talking about the man who just joined Stieg Larsson, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Charlaine Harris, Lee Child, Suzanne Collins and Michael Connelly as the eighth author (and only independent) to sell a million ebooks at Amazon.
At one point Locke had seven of the top ten Kindle books on the list. All written in the past year.
And now he’s written a book called ‘How I Sold One Million eBooks in 5 Months!’ Guess what it’s about. Go ahead…I’ll wait.
I mean, you have to give the man credit for directness. He could have called it ‘How I Did It’—that’s shorter by a few words but it doesn’t capture the brazen avarice of the real thing.
And the book is the subject of all sorts of talk and comment among writers online, because sure, we’d all like to sell a million books.
Locke’s background, it turns out, is in niche marketing and he says himself that this is what has driven his success. He admits to being a mediocre writer…but then adds that doesn’t matter.
And he’s right…if your ultimate goal is his, the one he’s achieved.
It’s not that he runs his business ruthlessly or efficiently that gets me—that’s the only available way to do business. It’s that he views his own books as a commodity. The stories are contrived to facilitate a marketing and sales strategy.
Find a niche, figure out what that audience wants and give it to them. Locke says flatly “I write solely for the entertainment of that specific audience. I write the types of scenes they like, and avoid the types of scenes I know they don’t like. If I’m not sure about a scene, I sneak it in and get feedback from my readers after the fact, to make sure I’m staying true to the stories and characters they’ve come to enjoy reading.” If they don’t like it, no more of that.
So, thousands of writers around the world are reading those words today like they were the Gospel. And why not? There’s nothing new here, really. It’s the triumph of the focus group. It’s America today and you can’t argue with it, at least from the standpoint of utility. The kind of marketing that gave us Jalapeño Pringles, the new Andrew Cuomo and seventeen shows that are just like American Idol.
The rule in writing for decades has been that 90% of the money is made by the top 6% of writers. However, from the time of Dumas and Dickens to Fitzgerald and Mailer, books were enough of a mainstream entertainment to support the dreamers as well as the commercial monsters. The ebook market might go there again someday soon. But not quite yet.
Other than those fortunate few, the mass of novelists have traditionally survived either by working in academia and writing in their (relatively copious) free time–or by grinding out six detective novels, six sci-fi’s and six historical romances each year, turning them out like a one-employee factory. Characters introduced by page thirty; major plot point around page seventy, climax at one-hundred ten and out by one-sixty. Next.
The academic’s books will surely be harrowing (critics love harrowing) and you can be sure there won’t be any killer robots from outer space or former Soviet mindreader spies battling international conspiracies in the catacombs of Rome.
There will, on the other hand, be lots of strangely charismatic writing teachers with bad marriages, midlife crises and affairs with their students (if you can’t do violence, it’s got to be sex). But they’re professionals because their job status depends on being published, and on the prestige of the book’s reputation.
The genre factory writers, on the other hand, are professionals like all the rest of us—hamsters on the wheel. They’ll be homeless if they don’t produce, keep producing and keep selling. Their livelihood depends on making deadline and doing what Locke talks about, serving the audience’s need for entertainment, for more of the same.
Both approaches share the same weakness: the story is an afterthought. It’s the means to the end, not the end itself. For the academic, professionalism is justifying the teaching job. For the series writer, professionalism is writing the same formula over and over, as long as the books sell. Anything else takes too much time and they truly don’t have time.
So I’m an amateur. And hopefully always will be. I’ve got a dayjob with some major disadvantages – the hours are insane, the prestige level is below the floor, you’re treated by your own company as an inconvenience. But I’ll keep at it till I drop if I have to, if I can’t make a (modest) living writing my own way.
The amateur’s story is magic. At least it has the chance to be. A little ragged, a little messy and aiming for something more than going from Point A to Point B. It’s a process of discovery, a journey instead of simply reaching a destination. It comes from the heart and the stomach and the spleen. There’s something a bit mystical to the process, if not always the result (they’re never as good as you hope they’ll be when you start).
Affecting stories grow out of one person’s deepest yearnings, yearnings and wish-fulfillment or fear deep enough that the storyteller sometimes doesn’t understand the story until years after it’s finished and gone. Those are the stories that touch us, that we carry around inside from childhood or young adulthood, that speak to us when our own real lives call for a little heroism or some forgiveness of our own weakness.
Those kinds of stories force us beyond our boundaries. Nobody in a focus group ever voted in favor of moving out of their comfort zone. But when you make people want to, when you can sweep them up and carry them away, they remember.
I’m no snob. Readers need escapism. The most contrived formulaic pulp serves a purpose and a good one. But anything that confirms this society’s conviction that all is commerce, that the only things that count are the things you can count, is part of the problem, not the solution.
We need more things that sing, that break the barrier and the mold, that show a human being’s heart and mind were at work. Things that aren’t perfectly planned-out commercial enterprises. That show an uneven seam here and there. Things a machine couldn’t (or wouldn’t choose to) do better—or even the same.
That’s a place you don’t get by way of market research or commercial strategy. That’s a place you don’t get following the model of a culture that’s become professional wrestling.
You get there being decidedly unprofessional.
So count me as an amateur. I suspect the world needs more of us. The professionals are running the place into the ground.