From the moment of conception until you present your work to the market, every decision you make — whether conscious or not, whether active or passive — is a marketing decision. This relationship is inherent in the process, not an affectation. People who study marketing with seriousness are not attempting to impose a theory on the process of production and sales, they are attempting to reveal how each decision at each step in the production process relates to sales.
The biggest problem with marketing theory and practice is in proving the causality of a particular choice or decision. As with stock prices it’s always easier to draw compelling conclusions from results than it is to make profitable predictions. In publishing such past-performance generalizations are useful to the marketing department and critic, but to the creator they have limited utility.
Why? Because at the molecular level every key press is a marketing decision. Every verb you use (or don’t), every comma you use (or don’t), every paragraph you write (or don’t), has a theoretical impact on the market’s acceptance of your work. At the same time it should be obvious that trying to understand and control these causal relationships can lead only to madness. As a practicing writer you must accept that there’s only so far marketing can take you, even if you devote yourself to it completely.
The Appeal of Marketing
Writers defeat themselves in many ways. Giving in to perfectionism and the fear that drives it is one torment. Believing in the muse, and in the muse’s power to block creation is another. Trusting in the faux science of marketing to take the guesswork out of writing and publishing is another road to ruin.
Writing is inherently lonely and fraught with uncertainty. If you’re doing it honestly — meaning you’re relying on the quality of your work rather than your social connections or celebrity to leverage sales — then you should be mortified at your prospects. Appealing to marketing and marketing proponents may assuage your fear, but assuaging fear has nothing to do with altering your fate, let alone guaranteeing a positive result.
I believe it’s useful to take marketing into account as a means of furthering your personal writing goals. But if your interest in marketing is primarily driven by a desire to calm your nerves, I think you should find a means of accomplishing that objective which does not require you to alter your work.
Saving Your Soul
As I said in Part IV, no matter what you do to take the risk out of writing, it’s still a gamble. The odds against you will always be atrocious no matter how compliant you are with market expectations.
Relative to the real-world publishing market, most of the factors that will determine your success are and always will be outside of your control. I believe this harsh reality gives you the freedom to gamble on yourself, reinforcing whatever rationale you had for writing in the first place. It doesn’t free you from your authorial obligations to the intended reader, but it will keep you from turning your creative life over to others in the mistaken belief that doing so will make you more successful.
If the 92nd Street Y is willing to throw Steve Martin under the bus in order to protect themselves from market dissatisfaction, you know going in that you’re always going to be alone no matter who professes solidarity. Whatever it is inside you that drives your desire to write, you must protect that part of you because nobody else will.
Satisfying an Insatiable Need
Marketing isn’t just something you’ll wrestle with personally. It’s something others will aim at you, beat you up with, and use as a means of controlling your work and getting into your wallet. For any given marketing question, somebody somewhere will swear up and down that making the right or wrong choice in that instance will seal your fate as a writer. While that person may also offer to help you make the right decision for a fee, the larger point is that the marketing echo chamber is infinite and always pro-marketing.
The majority of writing advice you’ll find on social networks isn’t about craft, it’s about marketing and sales. Some of it is driven by marketers pitching themselves, but a good share comes from writers trying to reassure themselves that there’s a sensible, rationale way to approach the utter insanity of writing. As a communal exercise in positivism there’s nothing wrong with talking about marketing, but doing so in preference of craft exposes an ugly truth. Most writers believe that writing is easy, while it’s the marketing and selling that’s hard. This is a view reinforced by the self-interested advice of agents, editors and publishers, and it’s flatly wrong.
There is and always has been an ocean of bad writing lapping at the shores of the publishing marketplace. The obvious conclusion from this should be that the easiest way to differentiate yourself in the marketplace is by not writing crap.
The objection many writers have to this obvious conclusion is that it slaves them to a long, lonely apprenticeship, when what they’re looking for in their writing is success by any measure. Marketing’s promise — backed by the very premise of the publishing industry, including its reliance on celebrity (and ghostwriting) as a means of disconnecting writing quality from sales — is that you can sell anything if only you’re smart enough and clever enough. Why waste time perfecting your writing in the hope that it will sell books, when you can spend time perfecting marketing and sales techniques that will allow you to sell contaminated ice to Eskimos?
The answer is that there is no way to escape competition in the marketplace. Focusing on marketing instead of the quality and force of your writing simply means you’ll be competing head to head with all the other writers who are doing the same thing. Some of those writers will already have the inside track with publishers because of preexisting relationships. A good share of the rest are more willing to give their ideas, words and selves over to the cause of marketing than you will ever be, meaning that in order to compete you’ll have to commit to a soulless, no-holds-barred race to the marketing bottom.
Marketing encompasses the entire product life cycle and is premised on understanding customer expectations as thoroughly as possible. To talk about marketing in a useful sense is to talk about understanding a market and how products should be conceived and produced for that market.
Sales is selling. In the current business context the pure sales force is almost extinct because the competition is usually invested in a marketing-based approach to business. (If the competition knows more about the customer then you’re either going to lose sales or learn more about the market yourself in order to compete.)
Writing is a qualitative act. It matters whether you suck or not. As such I believe mastery of craft is the most reliable predictor of critical or commercial success for the great majority of writers. There will always be people who succeed despite a lack of authorial gifts and there will always be good writers who are overlooked in the marketplace. But if you’re determined to play the percentages and protect your own authorial vision, nothing pays off like focusing on being the best writer you can be.
— Mark Barrett