I was considering the problem of infinite regression in cosmology the other day (code for drinking – wink wink) and found myself talking to a friend at a social engagement (barfly at the local cantina) about the burdens of being an acclaimed indie novelist (glorified panhandler and vocational liar).
Soon, the chatter turned to genres and markets (as do many of my inebriated monologues to my fellow celebrants – I don’t get invited to a lot of parties, in case you’re wondering), and I made the declarative statement that I was a niche market novelist, in that I write for the very small subset of thriller readers who want something written at college level. I’m well aware that most of the big selling books are written at what is euphemistically termed as sixth grade level, which is in reality fourth grade level, because American sixth graders score at about a fourth grade level on reading.
What that means to me as a novelist is that I would be far better off writing at just above Hardy Boys level as opposed to whatever the hell it is I do.
But I can’t. I mean, I’ve tried, but I don’t have it in me. I can maybe get down to an eighth or tenth grade level, but my gag reflex triggers when I try to move further downstream.
Which will affect my ability to sell to the broad market. Look at what James Patterson’s books read like – and the man’s the top selling novelist in the world. Or consider EL James’ 50 Shades of Gray – a book written at more like a second grade level with lots of BDSM sex. One out of every six books sold last year was 50 Shades. Or how about Twilight? Massive. I could go on. But you get my point. It’s that if you want broad success, you’re better off writing in as sophomoric manner as possible.
And I’m fine with that. I believe that the book market is rapidly fragmenting, so a niche author like myself can earn a handsome living writing for a relatively small audience.
Let’s say that the world thriller market is 20 million (I have no idea what it is, but play along here). And let’s say that 90% of those thriller readers believe that Patterson reflects the best of the genre (I have no problem with the man, BTW – he’s a masterful marketer, and back when he was actually writing his books, some of them were engaging). To my mind, that excludes 18 million readers from my sales strategy. They aren’t my customers. Never will be. Unless hell freezes over or I get Beyonce pregnant. Which could happen. But I’m not banking on it.
But the good news in my mind is that it leaves about 2 million who are my possible audience.
Now let’s say of those, 1 million would sneer at my simple-minded attempts to entertain with my little stories. If it’s not Daniel Silva, they don’t want to read it. That’s fine. Still got a potential market of a million.
I guess when you look at it like that, being a niche author in this genre isn’t such a bad thing.
Now maybe you would argue that it’s not 20 million, but rather is 10. Whatever. It’s still a buttload of people I can reach. If I write 3 books a year, and only reach 1/4 of my target readership of a million, I would be selling 750 thousand books a year. I’d be fine with that.
Obviously, I’m not there yet.
But I’m okay with the way the numbers lay out. I don’t need a jet (nobody needs a jet) or three Ferraris (ditto – I mean, three seems gratuitous) or a hundred foot boat. I’m far happier writing what I write than trying to write something that I’d really need to force, all in an effort to reach the Dan Brown audience. I mean, look at his books. 25-30% of the reviews are one and two stars. And almost all the reviews at that level are eloquently written by those with masterful command of the language. Meaning people who obviously read at considerably above a sixth grade level, and who hate his books because they view them as puerile pap. They mock him because the plots are unbelievable, the formula hackneyed and the prose sub-custodial.
And you know what? They’re right.
And it doesn’t matter.
Because a whole segment of the reading public loves his novels. The five star reviews wax enthusiastic about “learning something when you read his books.” In other words, most thriller readers don’t care about anything I just described. In fact, it’s quite possible that they don’t even register any of it. And that’s just the way it is.
If you want to make a fortune in TV, produce reality TV shows, not Masterpiece Theater. If you choose to do MT, you aren’t going to have nearly as many viewers, and the ones that do tune in are likely to be really annoying know-it-alls with effete sensibilities who sneer at the idea of commercials and wouldn’t know a Kardashian from a Pepperoni pizza – not that there’s a lot of discernible difference. But I digress. My point is that I’ve chosen to write what I like to read, and everyone can suck it. Okay, no, perhaps that’s not it. Maybe a better way of saying it is that I can no more change how I write after a certain point than I can change my facial features. It’s just part of my author DNA, and is a function of what I grew up reading. To try to pander to some larger crowd would immediately be obviously insincere – not that I’m particularly sincere to begin with, especially after a few cocktails, but that’s neither here nor there.
So I write what I write, and am thankful that readers are responding well to it. I’m sure I’ll have books that some of my core audience dislikes (I’m guessing that my next one, Upon a Pale Horse, polarizes my readers – some will love it, and some will hate it, specifically because the pacing is more Grisham-like than my usual fare, and because the core science behind the novel’s premise is so disturbing that many will just hate the message, and therefore the book, because of the questions it raises). It’s inevitable, unless you want to do nothing but write car chases and gun battles with an occasional plane trip thrown in. Not that I sneer at that – one could argue most of my work falls into that category. Whatever. Back to where if you don’t like it you can bite me.
What this leaves me with as a writer is really no choice. I need to write what I write, and not focus on how to become a mass-market bestseller. Word of mouth is building nicely, and sales have never been better, so I’m fortunate beyond imagination. I get that. I’m of the belief that you’re better off doing something you love, rather than churning out something that you dislike or hate. Which is why you won’t be reading 50 Shades of Yarn for Mr. Mittens anytime soon. The irony is that would be my bestseller, without a doubt. You have kink. You have sex. You have cats. Yarn. It’s got it all.
Some would argue the world is a better place without that epic manifesto. I’d be the first. But mainly because I’m shiftless and lazy, and couldn’t write it properly. So I won’t try.
Unless a publisher wants to hand me a seven figure advance, in which case I’m so all over it. Agents and publishers, take note. The Mr. Mittens trilogy could be yours for a song, really. Unmarked hundreds in a briefcase are fine. Call me. Really. I’m totally serious.