A question that I’ve been turning over in my head for the past ten years is whether or not it is possible to be a “working class” writer of fiction. Not someone who gets big contracts, magazine covers, or awards, but someone with a small but dedicated fanbase. The “1000 True Fans” model.
I’ll start off by saying yes, it is possible. That’s my hypothesis, anyway.
So how is something like that built?
The first thought might be to enhance your social media presence, although I haven’t seen this work for too many people. Over the past ten years, social media darlings got book deals left and right, and there aren’t many of them still around. They either moved on to work occasionally for Buzzfeed or The Daily Beast, or they do something completely different now. It was an interesting time, hanging around these good-looking people once a year, everyone excited about the new books. There was an energy to it that I’ll miss.
But the most successful writers I know have follower counts between 3,000-5,000. There’s almost no overlap, anymore. You have your Roxane Gays, for sure, but those are rare.
The second thought might be to attempt “one big score,” a kind of “in” with a big publisher that gets you enough recognition to slink back to the indies with a fanbase intact. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few cases that immediately come to mind, this doesn’t seem to happen much either. The reason for this is that books that are released to a wide, general audience are typically read by readers who are only mildly interested. They’re “giving it a shot,” so to speak. Most don’t finish it, or if they do, they forget you the minute they’re done. So I’ve had friends secure the deal, wait a few years for the launch, sell poorly (although much better than I typically sell in the indies), and then disappear for a long, long time. Many such cases.
Alternatively, however, I’ve had a handful of friends make it to the bigs, find a huge audience, and then stay there, because it’s lucrative. This should not be left out as a strategy. Remember, this whole thing is multi-pronged, and while I enjoy developing strategies that make sense practically, it can never hurt to shoot for the moon, as well, so long as that’s not the basket in which you place all your eggs. Shout out Jeremy on his recent success, by the way.
The third strategy, the one that I’m applying (and expect to apply over the next 5-10 years) is what I like to call “The Firelink Shrine” approach. The metaphor doesn’t work 100%, but I’m in a big Dark Souls phase right now, so stick with me.
Firelink Shrine in the original DS is a hub from which you can access different parts of the game. Non-aggressive NPCs dot the landscape. It’s a place to rest and get your bearings before heading off on some quest that will kill you a hundred times.
My goal is to become a hub.
Think of it this way: I don’t typically take a risk on a book I’ve never heard of. Instead, I begin to follow specific writers. I found Gordon White, went down the Rune Soup rabbit hole(s), and when it came time for a membership area, I signed up for $10/month (which I’ve been faithfully doing for the past several years). If Jay Springett posts something, I’m going to read the whole thing. If he had a book drop, I’d read it. I need to shoot Jay some $$, now that I think of it.
These writers are hubs, multi-faceted centers of a spider diagram, the web spreading out and offering smaller and smaller webs still. You know that when they say or post something, it will make you think, and that creates value, which you then reimburse.
That’s the model that really works, especially if you’re trying to amass a small but dedicated audience. It can’t be done through tweets alone, which only have a half-life of 30 minutes. It requires lots of blogging (which has a half-life of two years), lots of podcasting (I am currently, in one form or another, a part of four different podcasts), and lots of actual book writing. It is a multi-faceted approach, in which you become a conduit for interesting things.
The good news is that you don’t have to be particularly smart to do this. Thank god! Instead, you have to have a bit of elasticity to your thinking process, the ability to put on different hats, to be a jack of all ideas and an expert of none.
I’ve only been faithfully blogging for about four months, but I’m already seeing this pay off. The readership has increased, and when I put my Black Gum Cycle books available for pay-what-you-want, I found that people were sending me a lot of money for them. Not a bunch of people, mind you, but a solid third of them were raising the average of each sale to about $15/download. Which is wild, and exactly what we’re looking for.
I put the rest of my books up on Gumroad, by the way.
And then there’s this review of Tomahawk by Ben over at Dead End Follies, in which he praises it to the moon. They are Ben’s favorite books, currently, which is so much better than just casually digging them (although that’s great, too). Readers seem to give these books 1-2 stars or 5 on Goodreads. They’re “love them or hate them” style novels. And it’s paying off, because some people really, really love them.
So anyway, those are my thoughts. In my journey towards becoming a professionally curious person, I’ve realized that it’s more about building relationships and being interesting, and less about being correct/proper/good. How far are you going to get saying the same things over and over on Twitter? You have to be a little anarchic hub. Because if people have spent hours and hours listening to you and reading your blog, it’s not hard to imagine they’d take a chance on a pay-what-you-want book. And then maybe, just maybe, you have a fan for life.
Then that happens a thousand times.