What does this mean for small presses/micro presses/indie presses?
If we are determined to get “innovative” or “experimental” or challenging lit in the hands of readers who are not also writers and not already part of our community/communities, then what is the particular audience we are targeting? Discuss.
17 thoughts on ““The general public is not your audience.””
With respect, if we go around thinking of readers as targets, then even the most rugged experimentalist will begin viewing their artwork as a commodity. Where will that lead? Also, why “targets”? That’s a hostile word. (Used in the article cited, not by you, Tim.)
I’m not determined to get difficult work into the hands of readers because the task of knowing those many minds is Sisyphean. Let’s try and achieve what we can – a novel or essay or sculpture that says what we want to say in the best way possible – and then make our modest efforts at getting that seen, with the knowledge that there’s no guarantee of success or understanding. If those things come, it’s because of what is going on in other minds that are inscrutable to us. Maybe we could keep in mind, too, that no one asked us to do this thing of ours.
Jeff, I agree with you of course, but will respectfully niggle. The artwork already is a commodity, of course, because everything is a commodity these days. That said, you’re absolutely right that thinking about the artwork as a commodity leads to very bad results. It’s especially vital now that art’s logic remain its own, and not be supplanted by capitalism’s.
But I think Tim’s talking about something somewhat different. You’ve already written and published Verbatim, I’ve already written and published Giant Slugs. In the case of those books, the questions now become: Is there a readership for those books? Do we want people to read them? Or do we not care?
Me, I do care, and would love to sell more copies of Giant Slugs. Not because I want to sell them, but because I want to see the book be read by more people. I wrote it to be read, and enjoyed, not to sit on a shelf in a warehouse (which is what most of its copies are right now doing).
Along these lines, I think I get what the person Tim linked to is selling. And, sure, it’s better to have a plan than it is to wish for a pie in the sky. And it’s good to think about readers outside the lit scene readers we already know.
I should be targeting the Gilgamesh market—an untapped source of wealth! Maybe you can interest parliamentarians?
Speaking of which—have you sent a copy to Dave Sim? I have no idea what goes on in that man’s brain—nobody does—but he might appreciate it…
But ya know what? I do want to sell them to sell them. I mean I want people to READ them more than I want to sell them, but I want the money also, I want a larger apartment with a guest room, I want to be able to travel more, I want to work fewer hours, I want more time to make art, I am worn out.
One doesn’t need money to have more time to make art. One needs more time.
The two can be linked but they don’t have to be. Me, I’ve never had much money, but I’ve always had lots of time.
What I find discouraging, though, is the prospect of investing a lot of that time into making something that then won’t be read. On some level I suppose I shouldn’t care, because the work’s the thing, but I do care. I like having readers! I want the work to matter to other people.
I talk a lot about tension and how it fuels art. And I’d argue that, these days, it’s easy to make some impossible thing that will sit on the margins of culture and never get looked at by anyone. I realized long ago I could spend my life doing that. A more interesting challenge, I think, is how I can engage with this very capitalist moment, when art is precisely in danger of becoming nothing more than pandering entertainment, and try making something that will become a big commercial hit, but will also retain its identity as art. Can that be done? I think that it can be done. Can I do it? Well, I’m trying!
Tim, I should send you a copy of my second novel, “The New Boyfriend.” Assuming you’d want to look at it. It’s the outcome of precisely this kind of thinking.
It is true. I need to be better at living within my means.
But in fantasy, I want enough free time and money to travel outside the country at least once a year while also visiting family and friends in Seattle (6x annually), Colorado, Georgia, NY, Los Angeles, the Bay Area and others.
And I want to be able to afford a studio. With a sink and mirror.
Make traveling your art.
There are two ways to make money from art, as far as I can see. One is to make art people really want to buy (or that someone really wants to sell). The other is to be famous. These two ways are of course related.
The problem with the first way is that it compromises your art; you have to make stuff that’s at least partially commercial, or appears commercial. Me, I don’t have a problem with that, because I like making somewhat commercial art. But it took me a while to realize that, and it of course limits what one can do. (But I like those limits.)
For instance, genre is a great way to reach out to a market, but also reserve space for aesthetics.
As for the second one, Tim, you more than anyone are already working on that! And good on you for doing so. I think that branching out into video and music is a great fit for you, as it’s obvious you’re doing so for artistic reasons, while at the same time those are good ways to reach people outside the usual litmag/reading scene.
Adam, hello. Thanks for the comment, which is not a niggle at all. When I finished Verbatim: A Novel in 1995 I didn’t think it would come out at once, but I didn’t anticipate its time would be 2010. It remained art until then (if that’s what it is), and unwanted art at that, as has most of my fiction. Thinking about selling it (or any of my work) therefore doesn’t really seem likely, after that experience, so hardly ever think of it as a commodity as that would make me laugh in a painful way. (O woe is me!)
Having written commercials for radio, I look at the terms “general public” and “targets” from a particular viewpoint. Someone where i once lived said “the general public are a bunch of pelts.” Advertising copy is meant to capitalize on the average level of education shared by audiences of commercial radio in canada (and maybe the u.s.): grade eight. We didn’t write higher than that (or not often), and often wrote lower.
Of course, I want people to read my book (and I did want people to react positively to commercials I wrote), and have even led them, physically, to a bookstore and the counter. (Some people tweet.) I’m not adverse to getting them read. But thinking of them in the way the article talks about requires more than we can realistically do: influence a mass of minds that have no connection with me. Parliamentarians I need to stay away from, for a specific reason I’d rather not get into here. You could join a Gilgamesh group, and I could contact Dave Sim, whoever he is. I know that my book could appeal to certain kinds of readers, those who do what I do in my day job, but at least I know some of them. They’re easier to imagine.
Jeff, have i told you recently, how happy I am that you’re now part of Big Other?
You should check out Dave Sim.
(Maybe through a window?)
And I am going to try your technique of leading people to the book on the shelves, and then to the checkout counter…
Yes, “targets” within the context of this article means something a little bit different than “targets” as used by a lot of marketing professionals and capitalists… this article is directed in part at community organizers, for whom “targets” also means the institutions (and individuals with power and influence to change them) that they are targeting in their campaigns (this may be what you are picking up on as “hostility?”) …although there may be a little of both kinds of “target” in this article, and there is a relationship between the two definitions — one of the complaints about Saul Alinsky-style community organizing is that it functions within the existing system of power rather than seeking broader transformation.
Regarding lit, I think there is a balance to be struck between acknowledging that we ARE in a system that commodifies our work and embracing art as something that resists that system. I feel weary with romanticizing marginality. Because of its multimedia elements, the work I am making is expensive, I am running a structural deficit both financially and psychologically, and I have GOT to find a way to make this more sustainable. And I am tired of not, for instance, clearly communicating information about my performances and publications to people I know may be interested because I am afraid somebody in my writing/art community/communities will see that email and disown me for being crass and commercial. I definitely think about communicating my work with others more in terms of community-building and relationship-building and mutual support than in terms if “targets” and “marketing,” but I am also realizing that I simply do not have the capacity to reciprocate for every person who pays me the great compliment of appreciating my work. And I might catch shit for saying this, but I feel like a decent percentage of the folks who turn their noses up at those of us who want to pimp our shit are folks with stable academic appointments.
I get where you’re coming from, Tim, and I don’t think it’s wrong to think about this. I mean, if someone isn’t interested in selling their work, or doesn’t care whether it reaches people, then that’s fine. But if someone does, then it becomes an interesting challenge: how can you reach more people, sell more copies, etc., without compromising the artistry? I think about this on a daily basis. So do many of the writers and publishers I know.
Part of the solution is, like you say, finding a way to present the work to others that might intrigue them. I’ve written a lot at this site about how in order to interest people in new things, you have to connect it to the interests you already have. (I think this is a general truth about human psychology, and not just some marketing strategy.)
For instance. Giant Slugs is an experimental novel structurally based on the Epic of Gilgamesh. Heavily influenced by Christine Brooke-Rose and Oulipians like Harry Mathews, it uses densely consistent linguistic play to probe affinities between epic verse and epic prose.
… There’s a description unlikely to interest anyone outside a very small segment of the indy lit scene.
Giant Slugs is an absurdly playful novel heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll, in particular Through The Looking Glass; it also finds comparisons between ancient myths and contemporary ones, like Super Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda.
The book stays the same.
Tim, like you (though I don’t pretend to know your circumstances), I get tired psychologically from time to time.
In certain circles or in certain places I make sure not to mention my book; in others I do, or someone else does, and then my confidence in its worth comes out (and that could be misguided or blind), and I can talk about it to get people interested. This seems to work, for me, better in the one-on-one situation, unless I’m on radio, which has been very good for exposure.
We make art, if we’re lucky or blessed or fated or whatever, but even if it’s not quite that, we’re trying to communicate with others, and it’s difficult not to have that communication heard and paid attention to. Adam said: “I want the work to matter to other people.” We can’t assure ourselves that’ll happen, as much as we may want or need it to.
Tim, I’m sure you saw that Dalkey sold thousands of copies of The Third Policeman after a passing reference was made on Lost? And in the past year shipped thousands more of The Making of Americans thanks to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris?
The lesson is obvious: get mentioned in popular movies and TV shows.
Don’t worry, this will happen.
There’s not a new way of looking at it, some new path, that will make this a reality. The style of writing is irrelevant as well.
The only solution is for authors to work and for presses to demand more effort from writers. Writing a book isn’t enough. Especially when, as everyone seems to believe, nobody reads.
But really, the real hindrance is mindset, the goal in every writer’s mind, a carrot dangling. Worry instead: what kind of person am I and really what are my goals and desires?