About ten days ago we took note of the case of Sandi Thom. Sandi is a young Scottish girl who writes songs, and she took to webcasting concerts of them from her basement flat. As is the way of things in the pop music world, kids started to notice, they emailed and texted other kids, and... all like that.
There were those who questioned some of the statistics about Sandi's claimed viewing numbers and downloads. But hey -- why spoil a good story? And why begrudge a kid a few minutes of fame? And besides, it turns out that Sandi's record company has been sending very heavy-handed legal letters to various newspapers, warning that allegations of an 'internet scam' were not only false but will 'most likely have a significant and long-lasting detrimental effect on a promising new British artiste, at a very critical point in her nascent musical career.' In other words, watch your step, boys.
Well, within the last week Sandi's fame has really taken off, as fame will do from time to time. Last Saturday, for instance, Sandi was on the front cover of the Daily Telegraph magazine, and yesterday she was on the cover of the Times 2 section.
The Times article (very long, by the way) is definitely worth reading for what it says about marketing in the digital age. It emerges that Sandi is not quite as young as you might think, has been around for some time, knows a lot of influential people, and the online audience was boosted by Sandi's management sending off 1 million emails.
But enough about the pop business -- you can read all that for yourself if you want to. What, you will be asking, has this to do with books?
Well, as noted here before, there are those (notably Val Landi) who believe that what the internet has done for the Arctic Monkeys and Sandi Thom it can also do for writers. This new model of achieving success in popular music publishing, some observers say, can also become the new model for book publishing. It is 'a new model that allows emerging artists to bypass the dysfunctional roadblocks of a broken industry.' Book publishing, like music, is said to be 'a broken dysfunctional industry, primed for disruption.'
Hmm. Are we really to believe that this kind of viral, internet-drive, overnight fame can be achieved by writers, in the same way that it can demonstrably be achieved by singer/songwriters?
The problem, as I remarked here on 26 May and also 22 May, is that music is well known for making people (mostly teenagers) go Wow! The kids hear something, which may or may not sound attractive to you and me, and they go Wow! This I've got to have, they say. And they download it for a dollar, or whatever, pirate it, spread the word, text it, phone friends, start fan clubs and so forth.
The great big overwhelming problem for writers, a problem to which I have not yet even seen a suggested solution, is that it is hideously difficult to imagine how a writer might create that kind of Wow! effect.
Yes, we've all read books that we love, and we recommend them to friends. But books are not like songs. History shows that hit songs are often written in twenty minutes on the back of an envelope, by people with very limited musical training. Once a song becomes famous, it is subsequently recorded by ten, twenty, a hundred other artists. It last for fifty years or more. It is instant emotion: three chords of a familiar song and you're hooked again. The emotion is repeated. How many hundred times have you heard 'Hotel California' (or whatever turns you on)? Does it ever pall?
Fiction just simply doesn't work that way. Not even the short story. A short story can't hit you with a powerful emotion in ten seconds, as a song can. What is more, once a short story is read, it's read. You don't really want to read it again. Certainly not as many times as you can listen to a much loved record.
So that's the first and most powerful reason why I doubt that the internet is going to transform the fiction market for writers quite as dramatically as some would argue. Yes, writers can relatively easily find routes to publication, and readers, that weren't there even ten years ago. But instant, (almost) overnight success on the Arctic Monkeys/Sandi Thom model? No.
But... if you're keen to try, here's my prescription.
Viral marketing on the internet works best with young people. So if you want to achieve internet-driven fame, aim for the young. Anything above ten years of age and below twenty.
Do you remember -- well, no, you wouldn't, because you're too young, and some of you aren't English. But from 1922 to 1970 a lady called Richmal Crompton published approximately a book a year featuring a small boy called William. These books were collections of short stories: about 350 stories, all told.
You can find a sample here -- a sample which, incidentally, in its account of a visit to a 'Picture Palace', really shows its 1920s origins, though the small boy remains a timeless figure. It is quite a fascinating example of Richmal Crompton's art, in that it reveals that she never remotely wrote down to her audience.
William was a middle-class English boy, aged 11, who had a bunch of friends called the Outlaws. They all lived in a village and enjoyed a very suburban/provincial life indeed. And William was a rather naughty boy, for ever getting into scrapes and difficulties of one sort or another.
These books were highly popular with boys of my generation, and are still read today: Macmillan keeps reissuing them.
Now, what you need to do, if you want to rise to fame via the internet without benefit of agent, Macmillan, or anyone else, is learn how to write stories which are of much interest and excitement as the William books were in the almost fifty-year period during which they first appeared.
Before you start, make sure that you have a good stock in hand, because, if the wheeze works, demand will increase exponentially. And make sure that you know how to keep the series going for several decades and 350 stories if need be.
Of course, if you're really, really smart, you will combine the writing of the stories with finding a person to front the operation. Perhaps someone who is already known and admired by the target audience. A children's TV presenter, perhaps? Work on it. It needs thought. This division of labour, though requiring a division of the loot, will help enormously and be worth every penny. It means that a media-savvy person can handle the chat shows and the newspapers while you get on with churning out the stories. And if you choose the right collaborator, someone who mixes with the target audience on a daily basis, they can be a genuine help in letting you know what the kids are talking about these days.
Begin with one story. (Of course it has to be a story that makes the target audience go Wow!) There's no need to rush. Get it known. Put it about. Release the virus. And then go from there.
That way you have at least some chance, in principle, of making the Arctic Monkeys and Sandi Thom look like amateurs.