Those of you who have been following this series of articles to do with marketing will have seen something of an attempt to shatter or at least shake a mindset which is so commonplace in today’s culture that it forms the basis of how most of us think and feel, how we process what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and what we should expect from the world around us. Within the framework of our time, the great conflict faced by writers, unknown to almost all, is between the competitive, market-based world of modernity and a completely different approach to the writing of fiction and its reception.
The first presumes that a commercial take on the world is the most accurate and sensible. It tends to assume a closed system of cause and effect, ultimately explainable through science and manageable through technology. ‘If you say A, your prospect will do B.’ Most writers, quite innocently, accept this account of the world. It comes with the unspoken assumption that if your prospect isn’t doing B, then you must not be doing A right. Hence all the advertising proposing to teach you how to do A, where A is ‘push-button, super-powerful marketing which will get you readers’.
There is a wholly different language. It presumes that the world as we see it is an expression of a continuum of realities, all of which have their pros and cons, throughout history. It presumes that underlying all of them is a cohesive set of principles. Unless we have at least some awareness of those principles, we can only reach false conclusions, and, when it comes to getting our work out there and into the hearts and minds of readers, we will fail.
The essential message of fiction — and all fiction carries this message to some degree — is that ‘Here’s another way of looking at things’. The often unseen worlds and viewpoints of the writer can either be shared with a few or with many — or with none at all.
The commercial model of fiction writing has the advantage of sharing a worldview with the contemporary culture around it. As such, it forms part of what most people would perceive as ‘common sense’ and ‘normal.’ Indeed, the larger portion of writers within that model have no idea that any other worldview exists. But the ‘viewpoint sharing’ model was the only view for most of the centuries prior to about five hundred years ago. Even then, it was only displaced through revolution and sponsorship. It continues within the life of writers’ groups, book clubs, libraries and so on right across the world; its abiding presence in the nature of fiction itself guarantees that at least a suspicion of ‘something else at work’ will haunt some modern minds.
An assumption of the commercial worldview is that ideas and images are ‘subjective’ in character: they are conjured up by and therefore ‘owned’ by individuals and the role of the writer is to be a creative genius, bringing into being ‘original ideas’ and then trying to convince others to purchase them.
The more ancient, sharing worldview assumes something quite different. There is no such thing as an ‘original idea’; a work of fiction is not an inert object that can be owned by anyone. This requires a different mode of seeing and understanding. It disturbs the sensibilities of many contemporary writers and readers. Some go so far as to suggest that it is ‘irrational’ (by this they mean that anything which questions the notion of ‘private property’, even intellectual property, is the equivalent of blasphemous). A work of fiction thus ‘belongs’ to the writer, and this must not be questioned. And anything that belongs has a price; and anyone who wants to read it must therefore pay. Hence the 'market model’.
The older model is, in fact, the essence of fiction. It utterly rejects the notion of individual knowledge: it clearly understands that the truth of things is perceived through the heart and that a kind of communion with a reader is required. It is impossible for fiction to work unless to a large degree there is a common ground already in existence between writer and reader. This model demands not ‘originality’, asserted by copyright, but clarity and fresh insight of widely held or even universal ideas, images, symbols. Fiction does not 'earn a reward', but is an inherent part of the human heart and the possibility of perceiving deeper truths.
Modern marketing grows up around the idea that individual writers own what they write, that it is their unique creation and that they therefore must be paid to access it.
What we might call the ‘classical model’ tends to be slower in its communication, for what is being transmitted is the fullness of human life. When you read a story online or in a library or from a friend, what you are doing has little to no relationship with ‘marketing’. Here, transmission of fiction occurs through the community of writing groups, book clubs and so on. Money does not change hands; ownership does not particularly assert itself. The act of reading itself isn’t a commercial transaction — the writer opens doors, you walk through. You’re not expected to give anything back particularly.
The heart of what seems at times like a struggle is for fiction to simply remain faithful to what it is: a sharing of viewpoints, often beautiful, often insightful, often life-changing or transformative.
But if money has very little to do with it, what are we supposed to do if we want to ‘make a living’ from writing?
Money is like the sluggish cousin of admiration. Admiration is quick, deep, usually long-lasting and pure; money tends to be slow, shallow, fickle and tainted. We can write a story and gather a treasure trove of ‘likes’ for it on social media, but release that same story in a commercially available package like an anthology and wait in vain for the money to flow in. That’s because readers are at ease in the universe of sharing (which includes the act of reading itself) but they are much more cautious in the universe of the market: they’ll pour admiration in your direction like water, but water takes a while to erode the more solid material in their wallets and purses.
Why? Because the whole culture, the whole commercial model, has us all on ‘red alert’ when it comes to money. It’s hard to get the stuff and we feel less inclined to part with it once we have some. It's easy to flow admiration; it's hard to pay cash.
Should we then give up on the idea of making any money as writers? Not entirely — but these truths need to alter our perceptions and expectations. Packaging and releasing a book for the public to purchase is a commercial act; writing and editing the thing into shape for the public to read is not.
The dynamic between the two is worth exploring — and that’s what we are doing in this continuing series.