Monday, March 20, 2006

The Whole Fame and Fortune Thing (Part 1)

Chris Naron makes the unhappy observation:
You have to be a personality to attract buyers. Being a celebrity helps, but making your face known and loved is a lock. I held a contest once as a youth pastor where the kid who won a month long Bible Study trivia tournament got a $50 gift certificate to Barnes and Nobles. What did the kid who won buy? Some freaking pro wrestler's autobiography.

If the public knows and likes your face, it will buy your book even if it's [expletive deleted].

If it's any consolation, musicians who actually know how to play their instruments frequently make the same observation about pop stars like Brittany Spears, actors who've actually studied their craft uncork the same fine whine about movie stars like Lindsay Lohan, and artists who've spent years learning to paint the human figure say the same about that guy who wraps national parks in pink plastic.

So? Just as it's easier to become richer than it is to become rich, it's easier to become more famous than it is to become famous, and it's entirely possible to be famous simply for being famous. Yes, it's unfair, but what's the alternative? A National Arts Nobbling Council that decides who's allowed to become famous and has the power to ban all public discussion of anyone else? An attractive thought, admittedly, but...

Look, the truth is in the numbers. A huge, phenomenal, shout-it-from-the-rooftops bestselling book sells maybe 3 million copies in the span of a year. A major-studio movie that only sells 3 million tickets on opening weekend is a flop. A TV series that only draws 3 million viewers weekly is cancelled, except on UPN or WB. A major league team that only sells 3 million tickets annually needs a new taxpayer-funded stadium or else they're moving to Atlanta.

The grim truth of the matter is that we live in a largely non-literate culture, and we as writers can only hope to reach a very small percentage of the population. As long as we're talking in terms of raw, unwashed, lowest common denominator numbers, no fiction author will ever be as temporarily famous as the starting forward for the L.A. Lakers.

So there's no point in worrying about it. Think of the people you can reach, not those you can never reach because they haven't touched a book since their sophomore year of high school. (Well, okay, you may think about them once in a while, but only to shudder when you realize that they're still allowed to vote.) Unless you have a foolproof plan for becoming famous in some other way and then using that fame to draw attention to your writing, there is only one way to build an audience for your writing, and ever since I was forced to give up my dream of becoming the first affirmative action hire in the NBA I've been more impressed by the truth of this every day.

The one proven way to become famous as a writer is by writing. Write lots. Write lots more. And put your stuff out there, where other people can read it. And maybe, if you're lucky, and you write the right thing at the right time and it clicks with the right audience --

"But surely," you say, "there must be an easier way?"

To be continued...