Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Data driven inspiration

It's all about the data...

In the beginning was the word and the word was God. It was divine. Most writers, if one could write at all (there's pretty good evidence Jesus of Nazareth was illiterate despite his verbal knowledge of the scriptures. He was a construction worker after all), wrote bibles or holy scripture of one kind or another. These volumes, or scrolls, were considered sacred property.

Almost 1,000 years prior, the Iliad and the Odyssey were written down. These books, although said to be historical accounting's, were still inspired in part, by the Gods.

Jump on over to the Renaissance and you have a grumpy little writer by the name of Dante who writes arguably the first modern novel, The Divine Comedy. It's all about the stages of hell. Again, he is inspired by God (divinity) and read only by the wealthy since they are literate.

Now head on over to the 20th century, when even poor people are able to read, if only on a basic level (my paternal grandparents never finished grade school since they were expected to work, and they were both sharp, telling me they were pretty much self taught). The writers of the day began seeing a huge market for a general public that wanted to not only be enlightened but entertained. During WWII, front line soldiers not only received food rations but they also got dime novels, or pulp thrillers.

In turn, many early 20th century writers who could put out a couple or three thousand words per day on their manual typewriters, and who were somewhat business savvy, recognized the enormous potential in the pulp market, and they made millions of dollars in the process.

But then something happened in the latter half of the 20th century. Gatekeepers were established. Writers were forced to abandon their individualism in exchange for a dependence on an agent and a publishing house. If said agent or publisher didn't believe your book would sell to the general reading public, you were shit out of luck. Or even if you were chosen for publication, if they didn't pay off the bookstore owners for prominent placement of your book, you were doomed to failure.

Enter the dawn of the 21st century and a data driven consumer-centric little company called Amazon. Amazon opens an online bookstore in 1994 and in 2007 introduces the Kindle eReader. They also rattle the very foundations upon which the publishing gatekeepers rest their laurels by instituting Kindle Direct Publishing. IBooks follow, then Google, and Barnes and Nobles (Nook) and more. The era of the independent author is once again upon us. Only this time, it's not God that's inspiring the words, nor is it history, or even other human beings commonly referred to as writing professors. It is instead, data.
In the beginning...

For the first time in the history of literature, writers no longer need to attend writing school to become successful authors. They don't need expensive, snobby conferences or colonies like Breadloaf or Yaddo. They do require talent and proliferation, but they also require a degree of business acumen. Authors don't necessarily look at their books as pieces of art anymore. They look at them as assets that, when published independently, have the ability to earn up to 20-30% return on investment (ROI) annually. And since indie authors own their own rights, the gatekeepers no longer call the shots on whether or not the book remains in circulation.

Authors can now study the Amazon bestseller lists to see which kinds of books are selling the most (the NYT's bestseller list is curated so it's not an accurate accounting). Are they 1st person thrillers? Is the protagonist a female or a male? How long are the most popular books? Do they have an international setting or grounded solidly in the USA? What kinds of covers have the artists created (yes, we now judge books by their covers)? Do the books contain graphics? Are the most successful authors actively engaging in ad marketing programs? How many Amazon and Goodreads reviews do the popular books have? Are the big sellers a series or a stand-alone novel? Is sex still selling? What about sci-fi? Are the books enrolled in Kindle Unlimited or are they wide?

I could go on and on, but the point here is that an author can make a spectacular living now, not by believing in some divine intervention, or by placing all his trust in an agent or publisher, or spending tens of thousands of dollars on a writing program. Rather, today's successful author trusts in himself to do the leg work. To study the data, and the sales numbers which now can be accessed minute to minute everyday, 24/7. He can immediately see which of his own books are selling and which are not and strategically plan for the books he will write in the future. It's all about the data and the data is available anytime, all the time.

No wonder many bestselling authors today don't possess MFAs in Writing. They are instead, computer programmers. 

Like a great punk rock songwriter once sang, This is the modern world!

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