Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Does Sandi Thom show writers how to do it?

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.


Chris Gilmour said...

Did Richard and Judy's book club on their show generate a huge amount of success for certain authors. I'm not sure if the internet has big enough celebrities to do similar things. You'll always have to tack the literature onto the side of an existing product.

Or wait patiently for me, I'm currently building up a following a la Sandi Thom by broadcasting as eries of webcast gigs over on YouTube have a look

Susan Hill said...

Absolutely NOT true that you don`t want to re-read short stories.. the great ones are like novels and y0u read them over and again, getting more out of them each time as you grow older and wiser.. I would not like to try and count how often I have read may of the best by Katherine Mansfield, or William Trevor, how many times I have read D.H.Lawrence`s The Rocking Horse Winner, or stories by Helen Simpson or Chekhov or John McGahern.. do not like to contradict you Michael but a great short story is exactly like a great song.. it lives with you for a lifetime.

Lee said...

Susan, I agree completely. There are many authors who would argue that the great short stories are even harder to write than a novel, because there's so much less room for error. Every word has to count. You don't just read a wonderful poem once, do you?

Anonymous said...

You can't milk a fish

Will said...

Well, if the internet does create new literary careers, I suspect that the type of writing it produces will also be substantially different from the conventional literature.

I'd guess that people can happily listen to a three-minute song via the internet, but far fewer will read 10,000 words of prose on there - which limits its ability to launch the next Ali Smith.

The internet is already producing a few hit books ; but it's going to be the shorter-form prose we're used to on the internet. Which may, after all, be more appropriate for our supposedly limited-attention-span society.

David Hadley said...

I have been experimenting with a sort of surreal fictional blog:

for a few months now, and I think it has hit upon a problem with this sort of approach, and that iis the limit to the number of words people are willing to read on the computer screen.

In short,I don't think the traditional short story will work, as it is too long for comfortable screen reading. Perhaps something like 'flash' fiction could work. I think about the length of an average blog post, or on-line newspaper article is about the limit.

Although, it seems that video, cartoons and suchlike are now taking over from the written word as internet speeds and capabilities increase, so maybe the golden age for the written word on the web is already over.

Lee said...

Norbert, I'm afraid I disagree. Length is only one factor, perhaps in some cases an important one, but there are too many magazines, the New Yorker among them, publishing fiction online which is read regularly - perhaps often printed out, but certainly accessed by readers. A real problem is sifting wheat from chaff (now I know what slush pile readers must feel like!), locating your niches of interest. But of course you're right that it's impossible to predict where the technology will take us.

Anonymous said...

All I know is that I can't drive and read but I can drive and sing out of tune to songs I like.

Armand said...


I just stumbled onto the GOB blog. Thanks for the thoughtful post! As a writer myself, I am always hoping to find some way to get away from the feeling that short fiction writing (except in the case of a lucky few) is nothing but a glorious hobby, and if we could find new, simpler (and maybe more transparent) way to approach the business of writing, it would be a boon to many of us.

One new idea that I found especially compelling is One Story, a journal that publishes only one short story at a time. I recently subscribed to it and the journal itself is tiny, maybe the size of a CD booklet. It’s very portable and because it basically flimsy, you don’t feel compelled to worry about it in terms of shelf space or getting finger prints on it etc. Because it’s only one story , you also don’t feel intimidated in the same way that you might if you get a regular literary journal which often contain hundreds of pages of stories, poems, essays etc. (‘Geez- when am I going to have time to read all this?’)

Anyway, before this becomes a long advert for One Story (too late), what I have been toying with is the idea of simply producing individual short stories in a CD booklet format. I think you can do this using some simple tools: a color inkjet printer, glossy printer paper, a paper cutter and one of those extra long staplers that allows you to saddle bind (is that the right term ?) the booklets and then simply giving them away. Alternately, it might be cheaper to use a print house to produce the booklets for me.

The trick, as far as I can tell is- and here’s the difficult part would be to produce them for under $1 each. Also, the design level would to be high, it would have to catch the eye. Further, I would have to have a very clear target audience in mind- people who specifically enjoy the type of writing (who are few and far between)– which means a lot of them would go out by mail. Finally, and here’s the real trick, I’d eventually have to find sponsorship (grants? advertising?) for this series. I guess the general idea would be to move from the reader pays for the book to a sponsor/ commercial advertiser pays which- let’s face it- is how most of the web operates. I don’t think I’ve ever paid for web content for anything.

Anyway, it’s not an entirely formed idea, and it’s not necessarily even a good idea, but it’s been on my mind.

Okay, blah-blah-blah, I’ve gone on far longer than intended.

- thanks for blogging


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

that is so not true

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