Three problems then:
1. As writers, we deal in intangibles - strange, emotional, illogical fabrications which even we don’t completely understand. It’s hard to quantify such things, so we agree, as a society, to pay a more or less nominal fee for the experience beforehand and we ‘take the plunge’ as readers, buying a book or movie ticket and journeying into the unknown world that has been created for us by someone who will probably forever remain a total stranger, the author/director.
2. Our intangibles have limited appeal - not everyone will like them. Unlike oxygen, needed by almost all living things, stories are more rarefied and subject to fickle tastes. Even the most famous and best-selling works don’t appeal to everyone. Each story has its own ‘magnetic field’ which attracts and moves its own group of readers, like iron filings around a metal magnet. In this case, though, not all magnets are the same, and even some stories written by the same author are not as appealing as others. How to find the public for a particular piece of work is a real difficulty, at least on the surface.
3. Even if we could corral all the particular fans of a particular kind of story together and hold them captive somehow, our task would not be over. That’s because the attention of this group is already held captive by others. Readers are bombarded by other writers. Worse than that, their ‘mental real estate’ is already in the hands of favourite authors.
It looks unsolvable, doesn’t it?
Except that each of these apparent difficulties can be turned to our advantage, if we know what we are doing.
Firstly, the fact that we deal in intangibles is a powerful plus. Intangibles pass through solids; they linger in time and space without requiring external energy; they drive people into taking action in all kinds of circumstances. As Victor Hugo once said, ‘There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.’
Secondly, the notion that our particular public is out there lost in the general vista of billions of people is not as daunting as it might at first seem. Magnets attract metals: put them next to pieces of wood or plastic and nothing happens. If we can generate a powerful enough ‘magnetic field’ around our own work, the ‘iron filings’ who are our distinct readership will be drawn to it, pulled out of the surrounding morass and turned into a sub-group all our own. This isn’t a matter of generating a huge amount of promotion, as many might (and do) think: it’s about knowing where to locate the central power source in your fiction which creates that magnetic attraction.
And thirdly, the apparently dismal fact that, once we isolate our readers, they are still not interested because all their attention is used up on the work of others, can also be made to work for us. John Maynard Keynes said, ‘The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones’, but we don’t need to escape from these other ideas: we can use the power of other authors to create a resonance in a readership which will help us to stand out.
We need to understand what our own stories are all about first. Then we need to match that with what those stories most like our own are all about. And then we need to use that extraordinary, awe-inspiring knowledge to channel our communications through to our target readers like laser beams, given that fiction is composed of particles even more powerful than lasers.