Visibility is the Key to Success
I remember a story I read in Asimov’s when I was just starting out that blew me away and had a huge influence on me.
Don’t remember what it was called though. Or who wrote it. Or what it was about.
It was stylistically daring, beautiful, and funny. Eager to read more work by that writer, I looked, but couldn’t find any. I moved three or four times, and the magazine got packed in this box or that, and almost certainly wasn’t in any of the boxes that moved with me across the country. I wish I could remember more about it, because it deserves to be read again.
Around the same time, I read another cool story - this one about an artist working in new media. This was a couple decades before PC’s. The main character made or watched a film starring a number of top actors from various points in Hollywood history and had an original soundtrack by Peter Gabriel (it was a far future story). The author’s name was M.A. Foster. After getting excited about the story, I looked for the name in the bookstore and found a slim DAW novel called The Morphodite. It was a good book, although, perhaps, not as brilliant as Foster’s The Gameplayers of Zan. I haven’t seen much of him since 1985, although I still remember both the author and the books.
A big cyberpunk fan, in the 80s, I found Robert Charles Wilson’s Memory Wire a little soft and subtle for my tastes at the time. I don’t think I read any more of his work until one of my stories appeared alongside his in an anthology called Northern Frights 4. His “The Inner Inner City,” was brilliant, and I went straight from there to his first book, A Hidden Place; from there, tracked down a couple of his early novels, Gypsies and The Divide. And read everything from there to Spin, The Chronoliths, and beyond. That short story reminded me how good he was and he had lots other books on the shelves.
Me on the otherhand? Hit paydirt with a meta-comedy in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1984. My next publications appeared in a mainstream literary magazine, an alternative lit-mag, a couple of small press horror magazines, and finally, a story in Pulphouse One alongside a bunch of my favourite writers.
I may have reached 60 thousand people with my first story. But any mystery fan who was impressed had close to zero chance of finding my work over those first four years. And I estimate the crossover readers between EQMM and Pulphouse at approximately, hmm, one reader. That would be me.
Most who liked “Labor Relations,” would probably have hated “The Onion Test” which was diametrically opposed in both tone and subject matter. I had a bunch of horror sales after that, some to prestigious anthologies, and started to build the tiniest of fan bases. Then I quit writing for ten years.
Yes, it‘s true, I could write a book on how not to build a writing career.
My last new stories appeared in 1998 and 2000. One was a science fiction story and one was gonzo humour about a deejay whose character voices start manifesting through him. The next 13 years of relative silence was only broken by the resale and audio performance of “Fourth Person Singular” on Pseudopod.
In 2013, I reintroduced myself with Psychedelia Gothique, a collection of 17 stories, four of which were outright humour, three or four were post-modern and literary, and most of the rest was psychological horror – with a couple science fiction stories for good measure. Again, not a recommended way to build a fan base. The only reason it sold anywhere near as well as it did was because of a a piece Cory Doctorow ran about it on Boing-Boing.
It got some good reviews, and I continued to publish stories in the small press. A couple got some attention, but again, not in a way that would maximize the potential of cross-over readers. So let’s reflect:
The lost writer from Asimov’s became immediately invisible. So even though I wanted to read more from him, I was unable to follow through. So he faded into memory, and beyond. He’s gone.
Foster impressed me, then vanished. I don’t believe I read every book of every series, because print runs were short and they didn’t sell enough copies to become a fixture in used book stores. Both his trilogies were re-issued as single volumes in 2006, long after his fan-base had likely dispersed. And Foster, having grown fascinated with developing a language for his invented species, The Ler, expended energy on that rather than new stories or novels.
Despite the fact that WIlson is self-effacing and not inclined toward self-promotion, his visibility has always been high. When his excellent books in the late 80s got caught up in publisher and rights machinations and much of his early career production sank almost without a trace, Wilson kept writing, with a new book every year or two, each one better than the last, winning a huge array of major awards and having no less a personage that Stephen King declare Robert Charles Wilson his favourite science fiction writer. Having read most of his books, I can say that over the years, Wilson’s tone and themes have been very consistent. If you like one book, you’ll probably like the others. He always has something new.
Ask any marketer about the value of consumer loyalty. People develop habits in order to keep their lives as simple as possible. If you produce steadily, and remain visible, the task of selling it to readers is 10X easier. Otherwise, you perpetually have to sell yourself to a new audience. It gets harder and harder to get people to step out of their comfort zone. So every new audience you approach will be more resistant to your message than the one before.
If Robert Charles Wilson had given up when Gypsies and The Divide hit roadblocks, he wouldn’t have won the awards he’s won or gotten support of influential pros like Robert J. Sawyer or Stephen King.
Just keep writing.
Keep publishing. Keep marketing yourself as much as you can stand to do while still maintaining your dignity. I know lots of writers with low thresholds for that.
Visibility really is your best marketing tool and you should do what you can to make it happen.
If you’re like me and can’t stand to be constrained by definable genres or marketing categories, then just keep doing whatever it is you are doing. Just do more of it. Work to achieve the highest possible visibility. And then keep producing. Even if you’re striking out in the marketplace, put together your own collection and put it out there. Give your audience something else by you, for them to read. Make it available. Make sure some of it is free.
I have always felt that as long as I keep writing, my enthusiasms and abilities will start to narrow, to focus, allowing me to zoom in on whatever sort of golem of a genre I end up writing. But what’s happened in Avenging Glory is almost the opposite. It contains elements of so many genres that marketers might fear it not fitting in any genre.
Why not take the glass is half full view? If it contains all the genres, it could work in any section of the bookstore...and any and every category online – except maybe kid’s. And YA, although I think it is YA (just rather naughtier than is acceptable in YA). Oh, and it’s also not a sewing book, although there’s sewing in it. It’s not how-to, even though everyone learns to. It’s also technically more fantasy than sf, because the science serves the fantasy elements. And it takes place in a forest, with pookas and ghosts. It’s not space opera, because no one goes into space, although the trees dream about it. And it’s definitely a romance, only instead of a Scotsman, my protagonist falls for a tree...and it’s not a western, even though it does take place in the west...and there are no vampires, at least in the literal sense...and...