May 27, 2010

How Writing Is (Like) a Product

Today, I’d like to think about how writing is (like) a product.

First, I want to set aside all the usual arguments: Yes, when you try to get published, you are trying to sell your work and therefore it is a product, dang that commodification of art, how much are my hard-won words worth, and so on? I want to bypass these altogether and talk about something slightly different. I want to talk about a story as product from the point of view of the reader.

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the unevenness of a first collection of stories. Experienced writers can more consistently write stories of good ~ if not great ~ quality. If you read an Alice Munro story or a Tobias Wolff story, you know it’s going to be great. If you buy one of their collections, all the stories will at least be very good, even if there’s a couple you don’t quite connect with.

So, from a reader’s perspective, the “product” ~ that which is voraciously consumed ~ is of better quality. Say we compare it to a kitchen knife or a doctor’s services. You want to know, when you buy that knife or go to that doctor, that the knife is going to stay sharp and do the job and that the doctor isn’t just doing an adequate job but his or her very best. You want the people making the knife to already have made the errors to get the tool right. And you don’t want a doctor so inexperienced that they make their mistakes on you. The same with writers ~ you don’t want them to make their mistakes on you.

Consumers usually want what they’re most familiar with unless they are those people who always have to have the new and latest. So, by comparison, readers often want what they know and like from before. This is why genre is so handy ~ you know what you’re getting. But if you’re not a reader of genre, you often go with your favorite authors because they have an established product that you know you’ll probably like.

You also want it to be easily accessed, and unless you’re a new-seeker you like it to be in the form you’re most comfortable with. In my case, for a long time if it wasn’t paper I printed it out before I’d read it, but now I’m comfortable with reading on a screen, though I do not (yet) own an ereader. I’m not opposed to it at all ~ I just thought I’d wait for a bit for the technology to be sorted out (and maybe the price to come down). But I really love the paper book!

Price is a factor too. If you went out to buy a new microwave, you’d balance what you want from that microwave with its price, and if all the microwaves you’re looking at offer the same things, you’ll probably go for the one that’s the lowest price unless you’ve heard something bad about that brand or you have brand loyalty to another. So this translates in book terms to hard back vs. trade paper vs. paperback vs. electronic. Or if you can get it second-hand or in the case of stories for free online. As a reader and a writer, you balance whether you go to an indie store or a chain store or online and then new vs. used. A very complex choice.

Consumer choices have a lot to do with identity. Who do I think I am and how does this product fit in my life? Is it something that will affirm my values or challenge my convictions? Am I the type of person who likes to stay in his or her comfort zone, or am I the type of person who likes to be exposed to new things and have my beliefs challenged? This is what marketing is all about. This last point is often the breakdown, in books, between genre and literary.

So I guess I’m saying what publishers and agents have been saying forever: the market forces (i.e., readers’ habits) often are in direct opposition to the interests of the writer, especially the new unknown writer (established vs. new, quality, price, name recognition, brand loyalty, format, etc.). And if we think about our own literary consumer habits ~ not huge principals that seem to have nothing to do with us ~ we know that our habits as readers/consumers are not this thing disconnected from our writing.

What I’m Reading Today: Finished Thom Jones’s The Pugilist at Rest. Amazing stories.

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