Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of people in our lives: those with whom we have close relationships based on family affection, friendship, romantic attachment or care, and those whose relationship to us is commercially based.
When we buy car insurance or a pizza, for example, we converse with people with whom we have probably never met and the substance of our interaction is the transaction in which we hand over money in exchange for a product or a service. We don’t usually feel any kind of connection with the other person and maintain the minimum of affinity or communication needed to get the transaction done as pleasantly as possible. Anything other than money changing hands for a wanted item or service seems out of place. Whereas, when we engage with our family or friends, money is not normally the basis of the relationship - in fact, if money intrudes into that bond, it can feel awkward and unnatural, such as asking your best friend for a loan.
This is why ‘selling’, as it is usually encountered, can feel so alien and false: someone approaches us to try to sell us something, and their only aim is to exchange what they have to offer for our money - but to accomplish that exchange, they often try to pile on the affinity, the affection and closeness which belong instead to the other kind of relationship. Knowing that what they really want is our money, we usually see through the falseness of their position and reject it.
The latest trends in obtaining demographic data from us via social media, search engines and trading giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon are based on this need to sell us things by using information about us which is more personal, intimate and closer to who we are. Advertising and marketing have progressed from placing information about a product in front of us in case we need to purchase it to placing information about us in front of a producer to make it easier to sell products.
The whole process of getting ‘closer’ to us in this way can feel artificial and many of us instinctively react by shunning it as much as we can. We still have a need to purchase some things, but would rather be at the cause point of that transaction, deciding if and when we want to make that purchase, rather than being ‘snuck up on’ by the seller using data and techniques which don’t strictly belong to a simple commercial exchange.
It’s a natural consequence of a social system based on consumption that, in order to maximise consumption, these methods would develop. If the whole huge advertising and marketing industry were to stop trying to persuade people to buy, leaving the purchasing decisions in the hands of people at large, the entire basis of the society would be undermined. How could populations be sustained, it would be asked, if the volume of purchasing were to be left to the whims of the public? Producers would go under; the number of transactions would spiral downwards; mass unemployment would occur. The current social model can only be maintained, it would seem, by finding more and more ways of getting people to buy more and more, and that means, the argument goes, getting closer and closer to each and every individual on the planet so that their smallest needs can be stirred to life and converted into purchases.
Arguably, there are other ways of doing things.
Enough philosophy - what does all this have to do with selling your books?
Well, in effect, as a writer trying to reach a public, it looks as though you are attempting to engage with people who are complete strangers to you and with whom you have almost no further interaction than that they pay you money. At first glance, therefore, the transaction that takes place between you as a writer and the reader falls into this second category of relationships, the purely commercial one.
Only at first glance, though. You’re not selling car insurance or a pizza - your product isn’t an entirely commercial one. Unlike the insurance salesman or the pizza place, or any number of other commercial entities with which Life has us engage out of necessity, the interaction between a work of fiction and a reader is not necessarily a fleeting, material, superficial or shallow one: it can, and even should, be emotional, intellectual, even spiritual. In other words, the nature of the relationship between the writer and the reader is often more like the type of bond which exists in the first kind of relationship: the one we share with people close to us, partners, family or friends.
In fact, as writers, many of us wish that there did not have to be the awkwardness of a financial transaction standing between our work and its receiver - we wish that the reader could just acquire our stories and appreciate them. Yes, we need to survive and may have dreams about making a lot of money from our writing, but those things are not necessarily built into the nature of what we create.
So selling a work of fiction has more of the characteristics of a transaction in which the commercial element is an embarrassment, rather than one in which the ‘bolted-on’ affinity is a falseness, if you see what I mean. Readers don’t despise closeness with authors - they generally love their favourite author’s work and want more of it; the experiences which they gain from reading it are intangible and can be life-changing. The fact that they have to pay for it is an inconvenience.
How does this translate into practicalities? Do we use the modern techniques of social media, search engines and the like to ‘schmooze’ our readers into handing over their money? Or is there another way of looking at this entirely?
Stay tuned to find out exactly how to look at this in a way that moves things forward constructively.
And, if you can't wait, get my book.