Wednesday, March 6, 2019

On Standing Out

     Anyone involved in that elusive pursuit called marketing will tell you: You’ve got to differentiate the product! If what you’re doing doesn’t differ from what scads of other makers and vendors are doing, you’re unlikely to receive enough attention to repay your efforts. So distinguishing your offering from the rest of what’s in your chosen market space is important to the point of essentiality.

     But differentiating the product carries its own risks. Your chosen distinction might not “sell.” It might even antagonize potential customers, poisoning them against your other offerings. In the world of fiction, considering how long it takes to produce a novel, those are hazards to respect.

     Unless you couldn’t care less about selling or being read, of course.

     From my vast collection of funny images:

     If you want to sell books, “being different” is not a good thing to have at the very top of your priority list. In point of fact, “being different,” without regard for any other consideration, is pretty easy. What you seek is an appealing difference: a difference that will connect you to a readership that appreciates your work. That’s not quite as easy...and yet, when I survey the fields of speculative fiction as they stand today and note the trends and fads that dominate them, it strikes me that it “should” be easier than many writers find it.

     (NB: The word “should” is what Douglas Hofstadter once called “a push into fantasy.” It refers to a condition that might not exist...indeed, that might be impossible. That’s why I tend to put quotes around it. Yet there are persons to whom “should” means “If it’s not that way, it’s not fair!” Avoid these persons; they are vexations to the spirit.)

     One way of “being different” is countertrending: take some current trend in your genre and contradict one or more of its premises. Some writers have already done this with some of the larger fads. Another approach, particularly applicable to science fiction, is to set your tales in contemporary reality rather than the past or future. A third is role inversion: make heroes out of your villains and vice-versa. There are other ways as well; it’s a subject that deserves its own essay. Ponder it on your own time.

     A correspondent took me to task over the following snippet from yesterday’s column:

     The aim of the 20BooksTo50K writers is to keep their readers reading them. The method is write fun stuff; write rapidly; keep the pipeline filled. (I hardly need to say that I would never fit in there.)

     My correspondent’s question was “Why wouldn’t you fit in there? Don’t you want to sell books?” It’s a fair question. Yes, I do want to sell books, but I have priorities higher than volume of sales. For one, I refuse to do what other writers have already done, or are currently doing. For another, I want what I write to have some bearing on contemporary concerns. For a third, I am that most terrifying of all creatures, a perfectionist. I know my own abilities, and I won’t release anything that I feel isn’t the very best I could have done. Those three higher priorities are a limiting factor on my sales volume. While I want to sell books, I won’t do so at a cost to any of them. I’ve made my peace with it.

     I look at the sales volumes of much more dollars-and-cents successful writers with a mild envy. I’d like to have their sales figures. But I can’t see myself doing what they do, which is, in the usual case, following a trend. (In some cases it’s a trend the writer has created, but to remain overlong in a groove one has cut for oneself constitutes trend following with a side of irony.) Neither will I rush my work. I’m not quite the fanatic that Ernest Hemingway was, but I come pretty close. And of course, one who writes with attention to some contemporary issue is unlikely to please everyone.

     Priorities are like that.

     So yes: by all means “differentiate the product.” The 20BooksTo50K writers have chosen to do so by emphasizing productivity, escapism, and fun: qualities seldom found in the works of “traditionally published” F&SF writers of today. If the sales volumes I’ve been told about are any indication, they’re getting what they want. As their readers are apparently pleased by what they write, this is all to the good.

     But know your priorities. Know what matters most to you. If it’s sales, then so be it. But if it’s not, ask yourself “What, if anything, do I value more than big-time sales totals?” Answer as honestly as you’re capable of doing. Only when you’ve done so can you decide on your particular way of standing out, and be happy with what you’ve chosen.

     (Cross-posted at my promotional site.)

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