Where to publish your stories?

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On Thursday 25th I was involved in Flash-Fiction cinema with my friends Amy and Chris. The main feature of the night was a series of filmed short stories that had been sent in; and Chris and I each gave a talk about new types of fiction.

I spoke about Creepypasta, Slenderman, and the way truth and fiction merge. Writing the talk was interesting, provoking nightmares and night-terrors for several nights. Chris’s talk was about online hoaxes as storytelling, something he has quite a reputation for.

We learned about the Bicholim Conflict, an entire conflict that was faked on wikipedia, lasting five years before being discovered. Chris also revealed a hoax of his that I hadn’t heard about. Check out the wikitravel article for Shoreham-on-Sea, archived from November 2012. Notice anything strange? This lay unaltered for about 18 months. At one point, the Lovely Brothers excitedly showed Chris this strange thing they’d found.

At the end of his talk, Chris urged the audience, “Leave your stories lying around in unorthodox, unethical locations,” pointing out that his quick hoaxes had gained larger audiences than his self-published collections. Maybe people should embrace this new genre, flinging stories into the world to see which take root.

 

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On Writing

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an author – wait! That’s not right, I’m just quoting a film. But anyway. Since I was a child, I wanted to write a novel. Which is a slightly strange ambition, since I had no clear idea about the book, just that I wanted to be an author.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the last twenty years writing novels. Some have been awful, but there are others that I’m quietly proud of. They’ve been fascinating to construct, both in terms of craft and in learning about a subject. I’ve enjoyed producing these strange works, but I’ve never successfully sent them into the world. A few have received very positive responses, but none led to publication. Some people have returned the book with nothing but a standard rejection, sometimes just a quarter-strip of A4 paper. Which, considering the effort I’d put in to researching agents and writing appropriate cover-letters, seemed downright rude. I like sending out novels far less than I like writing them.

I recently finished another project, Tourist Planet, about the experience of travelling in India. And I got to thinking, what now? And I realised that I don’t want to spend any more time writing novels. Obviously, as I’ve argued in the past (notably on the Literature Network site), writing should not be coupled to the idea of publishing. But, really, when you’re spending that much time on an activity, there should be a little more to show for it than a few hundred kilobytes on a hard drive. No, I don’t want to waste my life writing computer files.

And it’s not as if short stories are much better for me. I don’t even bother to send out most of the short stories I write. As much as I love stories like Richey Edwards vs Godzilla, it’s hard to find an appropriate home for them. And since I’ve pretty much stopped reading literary journals these days submitting to any would be pretty arrogant. (At this point, I should call out Alex and Elle who ran Penumbra, which stands out as the best place I’ve been published. If there were ever to be a fifth issue, I’d dust something off for them. Nothing else tempts me).

I’ve had two major life changes this year. Firstly, since April I’ve been working a full time job with Crunch. I’m having a great time but the cost is that I have much less free time than before. I can’t do everything I’d like to, which means I have to make choices. Writing has taken up a lot of my time and I’m not sure it justifies its place against other activities, or even spending more time thinking about programming – which is, after all, what’s likely to be feeding me for the next 30-years-or-so of working life.

What it comes down to is that I want to stop writing fiction. To make a clean break with it. Which is one reason for declaring it on a weblog – to underline that I’m serious, both to myself and to other people. Another is that I have a few commitments to break and it would be useful to have an explanation I can point to.

Writing has been fascinating. I’ve met some amazing people – without the MA at Sussex I’d not have made some wonderful friends. I’ve enjoyed doing spoken word, and have been very grateful for all the opportunities in Brighton. But writing takes up a lot of my time and there are other things I could be doing. I’ve met people in their sixties who say that whose lives will feel like a failure if they never publish a novel. I don’t want to face that fate. I don’t want to have an imaginary career.

No, I want to focus on other aspects of my life. I realised recently that I can’t sew. My cooking, once hilariously woeful is now competent – and I’d like it to be more than that. And I want to spend more time exercising, to lose the chubby belly I’ve had since childhood. I’ve always been convinced there was a slightly thinner person inside me and, if there is, I’m sure he’d appreciate being found and rescued. 

Upcoming: Not for the Faint-Hearted produce an ebook in an evening

When Ellen and I originally devised Not for the Faint-Hearted, our creative writing event, it was an experiment. We had no idea whether it would work and were delighted when it turned out to be such a success.

The night is based around people producing written responses to photographs, which can be stories, poems, dialogues or anything else. Each round is usually three minutes, after which people take turns to read something from their work (you don't have to read, but it is encouraged!).

For December's event, based on an idea from Tom Hume, we're going to try something a little different: we're going to try compiling the evening's work into an ebook. I have no idea how well this will work. Over a hundred stories are produced and read most evening and I find them very entertaining. It will be interesting to see how well they work in e-ink.

More details on the session, which is on December 3rd, can be found on the sign-up page. I'm a little nervous and very excited about this. The best thing about a good experiment is that, whether it works or not, you learn interesting things. 

How to make an e-book the hard way

Producing an ebook for the Kindle is straightforward. Amazon provide various conversion utilities and they have detailed documentation about the best way to format a word document for automatic conversion. There is little to stop anyone submitting a book and putting it for sale on Amazon.

Amazon's conversion software should suffice for most situations. I use it for sending manuscripts and papers to my kindle. The formatting is sometimes mangled, but it's good enough to read. With care it ought to be possible to layout a word document that looks fine. However, it's interesting to know exactly how things work. 

The only tool you need is Amazon's kindlegen (the Kindle Previewer looks incredibly useful but doesn't work on Linux so I've not used that yet). What follows is not really a tutorial, more a pointer to existing resources.

kindlegen is a command-line tool that takes an EPUB file and converts it into the .mobi format used by the Kindle. Since an EPUB file is a collection of text files, these can be written by hand. Most of the heavy lifting has been done by Craig Mod, whose Ahab project provides a template for producing EPUB files for use on the Kindle.

The main file is content.opf, the Open Packaging Format file, which contains the book's metadata. It's a simple matter to point kindlegen at this file:

kindlegen content.opf -o book.mobi

When running against the Ahab templates, kindlegen issues a warning about a max-length CSS property. This is not actually a problem and details are given in the comments of the CSS file.

Ahab provides a good guide to how the EPUB fits together, and which sections need editing. I added my own content to the HTML directory and updated each of the XML files to point to my own content. Nothing about this was particularly tricky – however, I have yet to produce a cover that works on different versions of the Kindle, so I might need to expand on that in a future post.

The resulting .mobi file can be emailed to a Kindle for review or transferred directly through USB. Content and layout issues aside, it's not too hard to produce an ebook.

The only thing that wasn't immediately obvious to me was why there was both an HTML table of contents and one defined in the NCX file. The NCX file contains a series of navPoints, which appear as the tick marks in the progress bar at the bottom of the Kindle screen. The navPoints are also used to jump to the next section in a book. The HTML file is the table of contents that appears within the book's main text, Obviously the NCX file and HTML table of contents can contain completely different information. From what I've read, the NCX file is not used by newer models like the Kindle touch and Kindle fire.

Page breaks are interesting. EPUB files have an implicit page break after each of the source HTML files linked in the OPF file. Apparently it is possible to add an explicit page break through some CSS trickery, but this is something of a hack. There is no reason not to have a separate HTML file for each piece of content, although this might mean having rather a lot of source files to maintain. EDIT: see below

There a few things I'm still not sure about. One is DRM and the other is how page numbers are added, which I can't get to work. Most of the issues I've encountered are about proofing. There are also some interesting issues with my current project, converting some blog posts into an ebook. These touch on some fairly funadmental issues with ebooks and deserve their own post.

Hand-crafting a .mobi file is fairly small thing, but knowing how an EPUB is built makes it possible to some interesting things. More to follow.

EDIT (15/10/12): For a kindle format (mobipocket) file, the correct way to add a pagebreak is by using the <mbp:pageBreak/>. The mbp namespace does not need to be defined within the XML documentation. I am now going to read the mobipocket documentation properly.

Let’s have a golden age

(This is my favourite of the pieces that I wrote for the Literary Network. The question is asks is one I think is very important: with the numbers of people studying creative writing, why has there not been a boom in small presses? Where are all the novels and short stories and poems that these people have been writing? It's like a mass of cultural dark matter that should be there but isn't.)

There are 1,300 creative writers emerging from British universities every year.  This ought to be the start of a literary golden age.

In a recent email to this site’s bloggers, the editor said he was pleased with the posts so far but concluded: “As a brief aside, if anyone would like to write an unashamedly happy and positive post (ie not the death of publishers / libraries / books etc) please do.” So with this post I will be optimistic, avoiding words like ‘death’ and ‘decline’. I’m going to look at something I touched on in my previous post, the dramatic increase in creative writing courses, but this time I want to focus on the opportunities this provides.

Just after I submitted that previous post an article appeared on the Guardian website by Ian Jack on a similar theme. This piece, The Age of the Gifted Amateur has Returned, made the claim that “Figures are hard to come by, but Britain is probably turning out about 1,300 ‘creative writers’ every year.”

1,300 creative writers. Every year. Think how much raw talent that represents. Thousands upon thousands of people capable of crafting their experiences, hopes and fantasies into decent prose and poetry. So where are they? Where are all the little magazines, spoken word nights, pamphlets and small presses? There are some out there, but not enough to reflect the work of 1,300 additional writers a year. It’s an artistic version of the Fermi paradox: if they’re out there how come we don’t see them?

I suspect most of these writers are working on their first novel. If so, the main outlet for their writing will be workshops, exchanging chapters of masterworks-in-progress with other writers. Which is lovely – but I’ve had all the workshop wine and hummus I’m prepared to take. Workshops are a closed system, focussing on unfinished work, pieces that need tinkering. I’ve often seen writers produce exciting early versions but rarely see the polished gems these pieces are supposed to turn into. Furthermore, with 1,300 additional people every year competing for the shrinking space in bookshops and bookshelves, many of these people will spend years on their novel then have their heart broken when agent after agent sends it back. There must be thousands of pages of great prose not reaching readers, all that hard work and talent wasted.

Think how exciting it would be if the country’s thousands of creative writers narrowed their focus and worked on something other than novels. One of my favourite pieces of recent writing was Swindon Orbital, a friend’s obsessive psycho-geographical exploration of Swindon. There should be essays like this for every town in the country. Maybe the rest of the country isn’t interested in your local legends and characters, but the people who share them are likely to be very interested. Reinterpret your local environment: and if you produce something truly great, word will spread further.

What I want is obscure writing on topics I can’t find in bookshops and magazines. I probably don’t care about your literary novel about marital infidelity, even if it’s offered as a free PDF – I have more than enough of that sort of thing I could read already. What I want are narrowly focussed works: stories tied to tiny geographical areas, books obsessed by subjects I love that most people don’t care about. The world may not be crying out for short stories about typography, plays in disappearing local dialects, or avant-garde poetry about Derbyshire tearooms – but there are some people who’d truly love them.

Too many creative writers do too little with their qualification. Put aside that future Booker-prize winner and set your sights lower. You could be writing broadsides, something that can be read in minutes then kept or discarded. Paste stories onto walls and fences! Make little booklets – here’s how to make 8 page booklets from a A4 sheet. Put on a spoken word night – if even three strangers turn up it still will be more fun than a workshop. Write a great flash piece about school and put it in with a letter to an old friend. Forget about novels – there’s so much more you could do. Put away the hummus and send some writing out into your world.

Why Bother Writing?

(This is the penultimate post from the Literature Network. It was written in 2009 and posted in May 2010 and is one of my favourite pieces from the set. I think it provides a good answer to the question of why people should write in a world where we already have so much text). 

James Burt wonders why, with millions of tons of books already in the world, so many of us want to add to the weight.

(James originally wrote this post some months ago and has now returned from his foreign travels. Apologies from the editor for only just finding a space to run this blog post!)

I’m writing this post while boxing up my library. Everything is going into storage while I take a two month holiday. I’m looking forward to relaxing, travelling, and better weather. I’m also excited about reading some good books, something I haven’t had enough time for lately.

I carry a book everywhere I go but it’s only when lugging whole boxes of them that you become aware of how heavy text is. I’ve slimmed my library down massively and it’s still too heavy. I think back to the rumours that my university library is sinking under the weight of the text inside. The story wasn’t true, but it sounds like it could be.

The huge amount of writing in the world feels oppressive. The UK has the highest per-capita number of new titles, with 206,000 published in 2005, an increase of 28% on the year before. That’s more than a life-time’s reading being pumped out year on year. I’d hate to have to carry those books, let alone have to read them. The Internet contains even more text than the world’s books. Wikipedia takes up the equivalent of 1,000 hard-copy encyclopedia volumes.The blogosphere is much larger. There are millions of people writing things on the web.

When blogs first became popular, many people asked what the point was – who cares about the minutiae of regular peoples’ lives? The same sneering continues today, directed at twitter. Critics claim the chatter about TV shows, meals and and dreary days at work is pointless. Why would anyone add to this noise? Doubters often say the same thing to writers: why bother working on a novel/play/story/poem that the vast majority of people won’t even hear about, let alone not care about.

According to some social scientists language didn’t evolve as a means of exchanging information, but rather as a social tool. Social bonding in primates is based on reciprocal grooming, but this takes a fair amount of time. Talking allows people to have a friendly interaction in less time than it would have taken to eat nits from each other’s hair. This is what scientists refer to as ‘phatic communication’, speech intended “to perform a social task, as opposed to conveying information”

Phatic communication is the type of speech where we ask someone how they are, and they tell us they’re fine, a verbal nod from one person to another. It’s why we point out how good the weather is when we meet someone outdoors. With blogging and twitter, the exchange of information is as important as the content of the messages. I think the same is true of creative writing: it performs a social function.

Guardian blogger David Barnett wrote a post asking Is it time to revive the Christmas tradition of the chapbook? Barnett describes giving family and friends copies of Christmas stories he’d written as gifts. He writes “It’s a hugely egotistical exercise, I admit, but no more so than hoping people you know will shell out hard cash for a properly-published piece of fiction. Chapbooks of this kind are homemade, personal and inexpensive – and have an illustrious literary history.

I love seeing work by friends of mine. There’s something wonderful about a pamphlet or a CD that a friend has put together. As much as the work itself it’s the gift of something they’ve worked on. I think people neglect this phatic aspect of writing. If you’ve finished an amazing story, why not bind a few copies and distribute them? Writing is not simply about the text – or, at least, it shouldn’t be. We should pay more attention to the phatic aspects of creative writing. The presentation of the work is as important as the writing itself.

I’ve now finished packing the books and put them into storage. It’s strange to think of my library boxed and locked away in a room. Books don’t do much good when they’re hidden away.

Where do ideas come from?

(This was originally posted on the Literature Network site back in October 2010. It's quite a light post, but the concept of ideas existing independent of writers keeps turning up in the literary theory I'm currently reading. There is far more to this than I realised a couple of years ago)

What if there was an actual place ideas came from? James Burt has a good look around Idea Space.

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. Their answers are sometimes glib – Harlan Ellison once replied “Poughkeepsie” and Neil Gaiman used to suggest ‘from the Idea-of-the-Month Club,’ or ‘a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis’. My favourite reply is one I’ve heard attributed to Arthur Miller: “If I knew, I would go there more often.” Wouldn’t it be something to visit the place ideas come from?

The writer Alan Moore has talked at length about the world of ideas, referring to it as ‘ideaspace’ and ‘the Immateria’. Moore suggests it is a place where “philosophies are land masses and religions are probably whole countries … The actual ideas represent the equivalent of solid objects in terms of that space. An idea may be a pebble, a rock, a mountain or a whole continent in terms of its stature” Our minds might be the Ideaspace equivalent of a house, personal to us, with a shared world outside. As Moore says elsewhere, “it’s tempting to think that the idea could … have been a solid thing floating in a mutually accessible space you happened to come across, and so did somebody else,”

(This is the sort of things comic book writers come out with all the time. They seem to have more fun than literary writers, experimenting with magic and bumping into their characters in the real world. It’s fine hearing an author talk about craft and inspiration, but isn’t it more exciting to read someone discussing the time “The demon Asmodeus… appeared to me as a web of spiders that kept turning itself out into a dimension we don’t have”? I can spend hours reading interviews with people like Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore.)

Even if you don’t agree with Alan Moore’s ideas, it’s worth thinking about what it would mean if ideas exist independently of writers. For a start, there’s nothing to stop someone you’ve never met having the same idea minutes after you. In such a world it wouldn’t be the raw ideas that had value but what was done with them. Ideas, on their own, are worthless.

Consider calculus: it was publicised independently by both Leibniz and Newton. It’s almost as if the idea was determined to enter our world. In fact, there’s an ongoing philosophical debate in mathematics as to whether mathematics exists in the universe, or is something invented by humans. Ideaspace is a concept mathematicians take quite seriously: would an intelligent alien species use triangles or did humans invent them?

Ideas often work in strange ways. The author Ben Schott was accused of plaigiarism for an article containing similar anecdotes to one written by the wonderful Anne Fadiman (if you’ve not read her book Ex Libris you really should). One possibility is that Schott, intentionally or unintentionally cribbed the earlier essay. But what if the elements that occur in both essays had come to Schott independently of their appearance in Fadiman’s essay? The sneaky nature of ideas would leave him looking like a plaigiarist. (Personally I love both essays and think the world is a better place for having both of them, regardless of the overlaps).

The thing I like best about the concept of ideaspace is that it implies ideas are everywhere. The trick is making them into something. Warren Ellis has publicly talked about his method for finding ideas, and Charlie Stross has provided a worked example. Ideas should be easy to come up with: what’s the worst thing that’s happened to you? What’s the most shameful thing you’ve ever done? The trick is moulding them into something remarkable. And if you’re only going to have one idea in your life, well, you’re probably not going to make much of a writer.

But if you don’t believe in Ideaspace then where do you get your ideas from? And what happens to all the ideas you never use? Who do they belong to?

Twelve Tips for Spoken Word Performers

(Another post that was originally posted on the Literature Network site, this one from July 2010.) 

One of the most exciting developments in creative writing is the growth in prose spoken word nights. There are events across the country, such as Short Fuse in Leicester and Brighton and nights organised by groups like Hello Hubmarine. My personal interest in spoken word was sparked by Jay Clifton and Sam Collins’ night Tight Lip, which inspired a boom in prose nights in Brighton. I’ve since read at a number of events. The first few times were terrifying, but I’ve come to enjoy reading in public.

Some writers don’t want to read aloud and I think they’re missing a great opportunity. Giving readings can build your confidence while honing and proving the work in question. I still get nervous whenever I read, but I now know I can overcome those nerves and give a good performance.

Here are some tips, both from my own experience and collected from other performers:

  1. The audience are on your side. They’ve given up time to watch and they want to enjoy themselves – you only need to help them do this.
  2. It’s easier to read funny pieces than serious ones. You can tell when people are enjoying a funny story because they laugh; an audience spellbound by a serious story is very quiet, which can be unsettling.
  3. Practise! You should read the piece again and again, until you feel bored with it. Make sure you can read it without stumbling and remove anything that sounds clumsy or is difficult to say – if the piece is easy to read aloud, it will also work well in print. If possible, read the story to a friend and get their feedback.
  4. Many nights ask for a bio to use for introductions. I could do an entire post on writing biographies. Keep it short – nobody needs a long list of plaudits and prizes, since they’re about to listen to you anyway. Make sure to mention any books or other appearances you are promoting. Most of the time, if I’m not promoting anything, I’ll try and work a story into the space available for the biography.
  5. Arrive early at the venue and ask to do a sound-check. It’s useful to stand on the stage and get comfortable with the environment where you’ll be performing. Check that you can be heard clearly and make sure you know how to adjust the microphone if you might need to.
  6. Nervousness is good – it’s a normal part of preparing to perform. The only time I’ve not been nervous my reading was less focussed. Welcome your nerves as your body gearing up to do a good job.
  7. Keep any introduction brief – trust the audience to work out what your piece is about. If there’s any risk of being misunderstood then revisit the writing and improve it. It’s not a bad idea to ask if people can hear when you start – it avoids people asking you to speak up during the reading.
  8. When performing, read the piece as slowly as you can bear (within reason!). Remember that the audience haven’t heard your story before and need a little time to digest each bit.
  9. Make frequent eye-contact with your audience – don’t spend the reading looking down at your text. This makes you seem more confident and engaging, as well as being easier to hear. Looking up is much easier if you know the piece well – see above.
  10. Some people find their hands shaking the first time they read. The best way to stop this is to read from something heavy. A thick folder will weigh your hands down, whereas a couple of sheets of A4 makes any movement obvious. You’ll still be nervous, of course, but only you will know.
  11. Don’t worry too much about audience reaction – responses can differ to the same piece. One story I’ve read a lot, A Bad Place to Stick Your Hand, has had reactions varying from faint amusement through to loud laughter.
  12. Make sure to thank the people who have organised the night. Running an event is very hard work and often unappreciated.

These tips are almost certainly not complete. There are some good guides to spoken word performance on the web, such as Tim Clare’s guide to performance poetry. Do you have any hints of your own? And, if you don’t want to read aloud, what is stopping you?

The Six Perils of Writing Workshops

(Another post from the Literature Network. This was originally published in November 2009 and it was these ideas that led me to start Not for the Faint Hearted)

Writing workshops help make writers. But are they always constructive?

Imagine if driving was taught by something like writing workshops. Each session, a group of learners would watch a colleague try a manoeuvre. Afterwards they would take turns to say what they felt went right and what went wrong, with occasional input from an instructor. It would be chaos, and not in a good way. As the New Yorker declared, in a review of Mark McGurl’s history of creative writing programmes and American fiction, The Programme Era, “[workshops are based] on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem

The workshop is one of the most popular ways of learning writing. Members of the group take turns submitting work which their peers respond to. Most academic workshops are facilitated by a tutor, but there are many successful workshops without a senior figure.

Workshops are popular, not just because there are so many writers about, but because there are so few readers willing to respond to unpublished work. In a workshop a writer receives critiques in return for responses to the work of their critics. In an academic context, workshops are cost-effective, proving cheaper supervision than regular one-to-one tuition.

Writers can gain much from workshops. All writers have points in their development where the help of a literate audience is invaluable. But workshops need to be approached with care- they have their problems too:

  1. Is your work suitable for workshopping? Workshops can be conservative. Unless members have very similar aims, they may respond negatively to work that makes them uncomfortable. Furthermore, workshops work best with short stories or episodic novels. Complicated structures or demanding works can suffer from being broken into digestible chunks, producing inappropriate feedback. What would a workshop make of Lolita or Naked Lunch?
  2. Is your workshop sustainable? Workshops are prone to personality clashes. Good, hard-working groups do happen, but also I’ve heard horror stories of plaigiarists, toxic personalities and people who are outright crazy. Some groups work well, but the chemistry is fragile – workshop groups seem to be inherently unstable.
  3. Do you have anything to say? In every workshop I’ve encountered, members are expected to comment on each piece, even when they have nothing to say. It’s hard to express indifference in a workshop and be valued as a useful member.
  4. Do you lack motivation? Some people value workshops for the imposing deadlines. But do you really need other people waiting on your writing to provide a reason to do it? Who are you to drag other people into your neuroses? If you need a dozen people to stir you to writing, you could do better things with your time.
  5. Do workshops tell the truth? Few people enjoy conflict in a social situation, which inclines workshops to encouraging and sensitive responses. It is easier to find limp praise than robust criticism in most groups. Think of every time you’ve not expressed your true feelings on some inept piece of writing, then ask how many times people have held back from giving you the truth. Is your workshop giving you the responses you need?
  6. Are workshopped novels ever finished? My main problem with workshops is that they encourage people to produce works-in-progress. There’s no point asking for critical comment on finished pieces; but does your workshop encourage and support its members in going beyond handing in a few thousand words every few weeks? What are the aims of the group’s members?

I’ve had some great experiences with workshops. I’ve been privileged to work with some very talented people, made great friends and enriched my life. But I could also tell tales to make your tummy go cold with terror.

The main thing most writers gain from workshops is a social space. It’s an opportunity to talk about writing and habits with people who share those interests. But often workshops seem to work best as a book club where people are reading different books – a place to hang out and talk. I wouldn’t suggest anyone stops doing workshops – but work out what it is you want from them and whether they provide the best way of doing this. It might be more effective to spent your money and time on one-to-one tuition if you can find someone good enough.

Or maybe I just haven’t found the right workshop yet. Maybe there’s some secret ingredient I’ve not yet spotted. Are there workshops that have lasted for years without tears and tantrums?

How Many Readers Do You Need

(This is another of the Literature Network posts. It was written a few years back and introduced the idea of 1000 True Fans. That idea still seems as distant as ever – the Internet is a good place to access culture but doesn't offer easy ways to discover it. I still like the JK Rowling joke though)

How many true fans does a writer need? There’s a lot to be said for being famous for 15 people.

Every creative writing course hints: it could be you. They promise access to agents and the chance to break into the world of publishing. After years of perseverance, of writing in coffee shops and cold flats, your novel might be published and become huge. You too could be as big as JK Rowling.

The problem with this is that a lot of people put a lot of effort into making JK Rowling as successful as she is. Booksellers, marketers, merchandisers, film-makers, all labour in support of her books, to say nothing of the readers working their way through them. Even the people who don’t read her books put a lot of effort into saying they have no time to read stories about boy wizards.

Imagine what the world would be like if there were dozens of writers as successful as JK Rowling. The economy would have to be structured around them, and people would spend all their leisure time reading. The world only has room for one JK Rowling, and she’s already doing a good job of it.

There are thousands of people studying creative writing and none of them are going to be as big as JK Rowling. Few of them will even be as big as Ann Quin or BS Johnson. So a more interesting question is the smallest number of readers a writer needs.

Kevin Kelly, editor of wired magazine, gave an interesting economic answer. He suggested that artists could build a successful career with “1000 true fans“, willing to buy anything they produced. So, assuming an average UK wage of around £24,000, Kelly would suggest an artist could make a living from 2000 people paying them £12 a year, after costs.

It’s a provocative idea, but there are problems. Kelly wrote a follow-up article where he admitted there were few real-world examples of such artists, and that the demands of maintaining true fans was too onerous for many. Science-fiction author John Scalzi has also responded, outlining a number of other issues. Finding a 1,000 true fans is more difficult than it sounds – how many artists are you that committed to?

There’s something to be said for people with far less than 1,000 true fans. In 1991, the artist Momus wrote a famous essay, Pop Stars? Nein Danke riffing on Andy Warhol’s famous statement, in which Momus claimed that in the future “everyone will be famous for fifteen people“. Momus looked forward to a world where, instead of stars on the scale of Elvis or Madonna, there were tens of thousands of smaller stars, “a state of fabulous confusion, exploding into fragments“.

In Momus’s world, aided by technology, you could find the artist that’s just right for you, someone that moves you and fourteen other people, while leaving most other people cold. Such artists would have a small but dedicated audience. When journalist and activist Danny O’Brien asked ‘how many people do you need to be famous for?’, he suggested that if “One person in every town in Britain likes your dumb online comic, that’s enough to keep you in beers all year.

The Internet allows microcelebrities. Rather than reading one-size-fits-all star writers, we could pick the writer that’s perfect for us, someone who shares the exact same strange obsessions as we do. Whether this works with novels, which require a huge commitment to read, let alone write, is questionable. But I bet it would work with short stories and poetry. Somewhere in the world there are probably dozens of writers who would move me as much as my favourite novelists. The trick is to find them.

And there’s nothing wrong with being famous for fifteen people. JK Rowling was once less famous that that. Finding those 15 true fans is the first step towards millions of true fans, and is far better than none.