Out on the Long Tail – Advice and Encouragement for New Media Creators

So, you created something original and put it out there for the world. You probably tried selling it to New York or Los Angeles. You probably collected more than your share of rejection notices. Maybe you were once a successful, paid creator, and your prospects have noticeably faded. Or maybe you still are a successful, paid creator, but you don’t like the limitations placed on you by commercial publishing and distribution.

Well, you live in a good time. There are podcasts. There are eBooks. There’s Libsyn, Smashwords, Amazon, Kindle, Nook, B&N.com, Audible ACX, OverDrive…

OMG, who needs an editor or an agent, right? You can publish a short story, a novel, a book, a radio show, a TV show or a movie, all on your own! And, as soon as the public sees your wonderful product, they’re going to beat a path to your door to demand more and more content from you. And those smug acquisition and story editor types who turned down your comic book, your short story, your novel or your screenplay, they’re going to see the error of their ways and sign you to a multi-book or multi-picture deal.

Right?

Look at Joss Whedon and “Dr. Horrible.” Look at Felicia Day and The Guild. Look at those two or three podcast authors who got picked up by one of the Big Six after hitting a million downloads.

You’re gonna make it after all.

Right?

Well… Not so much.

See, here’s the problem. We creative types all hate the poisoned, rotting souls (if they have them) of the marketing types who say, “We can’t sell that work unless we know how to label it.” This line of unreasoning causes poor, beleaguered editors to say things like, “Well, it’s a great book, but I just can’t place it.” We creative types know that if we could just get around those lily-livered nebbishes, we’d find fame and fortune.

Sadly, those lily-livered nebbishes are right. Because they can’t label it, it ain’t gonna sell. Because audiences have been trained to like the familiar and the comfortable. Most audience members need to be told “you’re going to like this.” “This meets standards.” “This is worthy of publication.” Even if 90% of what New York and Los Angeles releases is crap (and St. Theodore Sturgeon assured us that 90% of everything is crap), audience members still look to their precious “gate-keepers” to be told what to read or watch or play.

The reason you didn’t hit it big is that your stuff is just slightly out of line with the mass entertainment labeling strategy. And that’s the same reason it’s not taking the Internet by storm. You’re reaching people, but not by the hundreds of thousands, and certainly not by the millions. Your loyal following does not include enough people to keep a book off the remainder table, to keep a monthly magazine in publication, to put you on the New York Times bestseller list. Hell, you can’t even get your Amazon ranking out of the seven figure range.

In marketing terms, you’re out on the long tail. If you graph sales numbers by product, and place the higher sales to the left, you see a big, narrow spike where a few products are selling in the millions. Then you see that curve has a long, long tail. In other words, just a few of the products are seeing spectacular sales, and most sales are happening out in that long tail, with each product just experiencing a few. But the long tail is where most of the action is.

longtail4This is not what you signed on for. Small press publishing, podcasting, DIY eBooks… these were to be the magic bullet that bypassed the gatekeepers and made you whole as an artist. And they ain’t delivering, are they?

Before either of us answers that question, you answer this one: Who are you doing this for, anyway? When you write, when you draw, when you shoot video, create foley or lay down tracks of music, who is your audience? Who are you trying to reach?

More important, who are you trying to impress?

Your answers, off the cuff, are probably “Myself,” “The biggest audience possible,” “Everyone,” and “Oh. I didn’t realize I was trying to impress anyone.”

Now let’s answer those questions with thought, not off the cuff. Here are my answers. If you’re going to survive as a content creator on the long tail, yours need to align.

Who are you doing this for, anyway? Yourself. Always. You want to be an author, an artist, a filmmaker, a podcaster. No one else wants it for you. Some audience members want you to keep going, yes, but they didn’t want it until you showed them your work. Other artists? Let’s be honest. Other artists aren’t there to support you, and they really wish you’d go away and stop skimming off their sales numbers. You’re doing this for you. It’s your dream. It’s up to you to keep it alive.

When you write, when you draw, when you shoot video, create foley or lay down tracks of music, who is your audience? My off the cuff answer is actually pretty good: “The biggest audience possible.” But it needs qualifying. What is possible? Everyone doesn’t like the same thing, and, while public opinion can be shaped, everyone can’t be trained to like the same thing. Your audience is people who are already receptive to some part of what you’re offering. I write mostly non-fantasy science fiction. I’m not going to reach someone who never reads fiction and doesn’t watch anything but football. I’m going to have a hard time reaching someone who can read science fiction, but needs it to have a lot of suspense and explosions. Of literary SF fans, I’m not even going to reach anything approaching a majority. Modern SF readers don’t have the grounding in classical literature that makes one appreciate the elements of Mark Twain that are in Robert Heinlein’s work, and most of them are so quick to yell “racism!” or “sexism” that they can’t read anything by a white male author, much less a book written before the year 2000. I probably can’t reach many of them. Even of older Heinlein fans, I’m not going to sync well with the ones whose life philosophy was formed by reading Starship Troopers. So that begs the next question…

Who are you trying to reach? I’m trying to reach people who want to hear the story I’m telling. Period. I don’t know how many of them there are. Like a librarian trying to recommend a new book, about all I can do is say, “If you liked John Carter of Mars,” you might try reading Peace Lord of the Red Planet, assuming you’re not offended by sex or Christianity. (Got both complaints!) If you like vampire stories, you might like “Freedom’s Blood,” but it’s a different kind of vampire story. The point is, you’re trying to find an audience that shares an emotional chord with you. You probably can’t quantify or classify them, and you shouldn’t try. But you need to be aware that, if you’ve decided to not write the crappy pablum that fills most mass market paperbacks, you’re not going to sell in the numbers that mass market paperbacks do. They sell because they’re so damned bland and lacking in creativity, not because they’re written by “great authors.”

Last question. Who are you trying to impress? If you’re living on the long tail, the answer better be “no one.” That should be your answer anyway. You’re not living your life to impress people. You’re living it so you can be happy. If telling stories makes you happy, tell them. If your story reaches the right ears, you will impress someone. But not because you tried to be impressive. It’ll be because you shared your story. Period.

I lied. One more question. Should you keep sharing your stories, even though you’re not getting the response you expected? Only you can answer that. My answer is a variation on an old platitude. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” If a story is worth telling, it’s worth telling out loud, so others can hear it. You can tell it on a street corner or you can podcast. You can hand it out as a pamphlet or you can publish an eBook. You can give out DVDs or you can upload it to YouTube. But, if that story is rolling around in your head anyway, why not put it out where people can see it?

The point is not to get rich, and it’s not to get responses in great numbers. It’s to put yourself out there. And, while you do, keep living your life and doing what makes you happy. Maybe that will be telling more stories. Maybe it won’t. Just remember. You’re doing this for you.

And… yeah… you might just make it after all.

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