I used to be a big fan of the Middle Ages. If I had had a time machine during my childhood, I would probably have tried to visit England in the time of King Richard. Knights, castles, heraldry, chivalry, falconry — I thrived on it all. One of my favourite books was Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, made even more attractive by the fact that it takes place partly in Sheffield, my hometown. (And it had Robin Hood in it!)
It’s a passion I didn’t lose until just a few years ago when I read a book called The Time Traveller’s Guide to the Middle Ages. This took readers back to those times and described in great detail what life was actually like: the levels of hygiene, the medical practices, the brutality of daily life, and so on. It put me off. One toothache would have made one’s life a misery — provided that one survived the host of illnesses or local wars which seemed ubiquitous during those times.
In this series of articles, I have been arguing that our modern world view is just that: a world view, which is not necessarily an absolute truth. I have pointed out that, in accepting many modern ideas and rejecting the ideas of the past as ‘inferior’, we are excluding ourselves from a great deal of wisdom. But what I am not suggesting is that the other viewpoint — the perspective of the past, as seen, for example, in the Middle Ages — is somehow superior in all respects to the modern angle, either. Life was often brutal, short and miserable in those years; modern life has a great deal to recommend it.
The point isn’t that the past was better than the present, or that the answer to marketing our books is to reject modernity and regress to a peasant’s existence on a noble’s grand estate in some way. The point is that modernity gives rise to a background of preconceptions, many of which we have to throw off before we can become enlightened. And the past, with all its flaws and imperfections, also contains fabulous gems (and germs) of wisdom which we can adapt to our needs today.
The first thing we need to try and do is to shake off this whole notion of the innate superiority of the 'marketplace', along with many of its governing principles. The picture of the individual owner of intellectual property going out into an arena full of other possessors of intellectual goods and battling it out for the prize of reader attention and money in some kind of huge, ongoing gladiatorial contest is one we need to dispense with. For a start, it’s massively energy-draining and highly time-consuming; and secondly, it’s an extremely ineffective approach. Principally, though, we shouldn’t hold on to this picture because it is based on falsehoods.
Like it or not, you are not the exclusive owner of any intellectual property. This may be a terrifying notion to you, or it may come as a relief: your ideas are no more original than anyone else’s. The images and emotions that arise in your head do not belong to you; the characters and plots you think you are privately devising are not unique; even the words you use to outline these things are handed down to you from others. Rather than seeing yourself as the owner of a piece of mental real estate, think of yourself as a tenant.
Thinking of yourself as the owner brings nothing but heartache and headache: you strive to be ‘original’ only to find that someone else has ‘already done that’ ten years ago, in a novel you read at school; you work to desperately carve out a special, living, breathing character no one has seen before, only to realise a month later that it is totally derivative, based on a cartoon you saw when you were four. Not only that, but possessing individual property brings with it the burden of protecting it, and — more to our point here — the heavy task of then 'selling' it to others.
Relax. Every idea you ever had came from somewhere else. You made it your own for a while, certainly — but creation? Treat your ‘creations’ as though they are library books — they’ve been borrowed and should be handled with care. Your job as a writer — and this is so revolutionary that I expect letters of complaint — is not original creation but polished transmission: in other words, saying good things, true things, but in fresh ways. Take what is out there, around you in abundance, care for it, and then give it back but with added value -- value that only you can give it.
This is why the best writers are the most observant. They ‘get their ideas’ from conversations, people, events, small happenings, tiny details around them, none of which are ‘original’ in the strict sense of the word — but they pass those things on to us, enhanced, coloured, cleaned, refreshed, strengthened, stimulated, realigned.
We return yet again to the perennial question ‘What does this have to do with marketing my book?’ And we see that, firstly, it isn’t ‘your’ book, but a collection of gathered images, ideas, scenes, which you have reaped like a farmer from fields around you, and secondly that ‘marketing’ those ideas has a new dimension to it entirely that we never really glimpsed before.
You’re not trying to ‘sell’ things; you’re trying to pass them on.