THE POSITIVE MESSAGE OF NEW AMERICAN ART AND LITERATURE

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Back to Basics

WHY HAVE A PLAN?
The first thing is to question everything you're doing-- to ask yourself why you're doing it.
WHY PUBLISH A BOOK?
Or-- what's your goal with it?
For most writers, publishing a book is an end in itself. They have no unique plan to sell the book. Most publishers today, even the big boys, give little promo support, unless you're wired to the establishment.
THE GOAL
You have to know where you want to go. Visualize a map or a chessboard. How far along the board do you want to travel? All the way to fame and fortune? Or a more modest target?
Whatever it is, this is your Goal.
Now you have to know what objectives to hit to reach the Goal. You need to know if the Goal is attainable, and how. You have to see the road in front of you.
OPTIONS
1.) Go it alone. Odds of success: 0.01%.
2.) Be part of a big, "Super ULA" campaign with all the trimmings. Odds of success: 10%. (Higher IF you can put and keep said campaign together-- the hard part.)
3.) Organize a smaller, tighter, more focused team. Odds of success: 33%.
WHY ORGANIZE?
How tight or loose the structure?
What's the goal?
The ULA's goal at the outset (2000) was insanely ambitious. Like the German army invading Russia. We made it to the gates of Moscow before being destroyed in the snow.
Outsider Writers goal was to be the anti-ULA. They wanted to build a huge membership, and feel good about doing so. They achieved this-- but haven't thought past it.
The nature of how they grew left them with
a.) a low level of commitment from their writers.
b.) lack of focus.
Also, their brand is unfocused. If everybody's an outsider, nobody is.
SELLING
You also have to know what you're selling, and where.
What's the product? A book? Or YOU?
Where are you selling the product? CAN you stand out?
********************
There's no alternative to having a plan. Or cooperating in some way on a plan. Otherwise it's Everybody Doing their Own Thing. It's micro-micro-marketing, which ultimately means everyone selling to five people.

16 comments:

Pat_King said...

The blob method--slow expansion via networking continuously expanding your readership can work--just look at HTML Giant (www.htmlgiant.com). They get something like 11,000 hits per day and at least two of the people who write for/or are associated with them have gotten major publishing contracts. Most of them are excellent writers, actually, just not really my bag.

Anyway, none of us are against publicity. We just don't want to play heels is all.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

I wonder how long they've been at it? (I've been aware of them for awhile, as some of their writers took shots at me awhile back!)
I'm of the mind that the Internet is becoming less and less effective with each passing day, simply because the total traffic, number of sites, # of lit sites, writers, etc etc keeps increasing, which makes it more difficult to get attention and stand out.
Or-- no one will duplicate Drudge, simply because he was first. If he started now he'd be one of thousands.
Marketing books talk about the advantage of being first (Coke, Hertz, et.al.) and how hard it is to overcome this. The effect seems multiplied on the Internet.
Also-- in late '04 the ULA's site made the "cut" of top lit sites in the NY Times Book Review. Could never do this now-- too many sites to choose from reduces odds considerable.
Finally, the idea isn't simply publicity-- but publicity used in a targeted, specific way as part of an overall campaign.
The ULA's publicity was consistent with its branding. I knew going in we'd be perceived as "bad guys."
Right now I'm adjusting my own branding a bit.
(See my other posts re branding over last few months.)

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

p.s. When I first encountered HTML Giant, I thought, "There's a ton of competition on the Internet!"
There are tons of other such groups out there.
The questions I have about them:
1.) How do we not Be them, but go beyond them?
2.) What do you see as their biggest flaws?
I see at least one which will keep them from bigtime breakout. But I could be wrong. (Obviously, they've already been quite successful-- but keep in mind their style of writers are more acceptable to the mainstream than we are.)

Pat_King said...

I don't imagine they've been up for more than a couple of years? I could be wrong about this.

What's funny is, you're right, their style of writing is more likely to be taken up in a mainstream kind of way, even though they're more "experimental" than OW and the ULA. I put experimental in quotes because they're apt to experiment with language while a typical OW fiction writer/essayist will use more plot-driven stories as a way to develop ideas (whether they be logic or emotion-based ideas).

It's odd that one of the few true geniuses out there, Caleb J. Ross, probably has less of a chance than a lot of the HTML Giant guys have with getting his writing into a larger audience simply because he prefers a straightforward narrative structure.

Still, HTLML Giant's case does seem to prove that internet buzz can have an effect on mainstream publishing. I have a couple of their books and although I do prefer more involving narratives, it's hard to deny that Blake Butler and Shane Jones (the two biggest successes from that site) and incredibly talented writers.

Well, I don't know if it's a flaw or not, it could be just me, but I'm often put off by the snarky tone of the thing, the sort of ultra-postmodern character of the site. Also, and maybe this is just a personal preference, but I don't see any sort of "street" writers being able to get through the door there. There's almost maybe an elitism to the thing? That might make them less able to break through the university set into a broader audience.

Pat_King said...

PS--I've caught up with the blog posts I've missed since it went private. I like the basic gist of it. The focus on branding is good. I've had the same basic feelings about OW for a while--well, you've read the blog I put up about the name thing. Anyway, I'll keep checking this blog periodically.

Wred Fright said...

I'd put the success of the ULA Books even lower than self-publishers. I think the problem was that by the time the books came out, the ULA had angered most of the people who might have reviewed the book, and those people sort of have a stranglehold on books reaching the rest of the population (and reaching readers directly was our only chance of success--it's not like ULAers, given our independent stance, could aspire to publishing contracts with big corporations, which is the usual marker of success for up and coming writers). I think the foes of the ULA (which at that point was seemingly almost the entire literati) would have reviewed the books if they had been bad, just so they could trash them. But the books were good, so they couldn't risk trashing them and then looking like a goon when people read them and liked them; so the foes just ignored the books instead. Self-publishers get ignored too, but good books can break out and get some attention. I got the sense in 2007 or so, while promoting the book version of Emus, that, despite all our efforts, businesswise it was just a doomed enterprise. If the books were bad, we would have gotten more attention just so people could mock us and say, "See, we told you the ULA writers were awful--here's the proof!" And, unlike the self-publishers who might catch some attention based on the quality of the work, because of the unusual situation, we got little traction based on the quality of the works. It was all quite odd given the amount of attention the ULA received up until that time. Even with the marketing being a bit out of whack with the book releases, we still should have gotten a bigger splash than we did. I've probably sold more Emus individually than the publisher did and I only sold like 40 or so (and there's still some for sale--it's never too late, folks!). It was really pathetic, given that I know many self-publishers who have done much better, even with fiction. I could be wrong, but I think I would have done better on my own without the ULA. However, I bear no ill will towards the ULA, as everyone in the group, especially Frank Walsh, tried to sell those books; hell, even ex-ULAers at that point like Pat King tried their best to help us out. It's just that the foes of the ULA finally figured out an effective strategy: They pretended we didn't exist. And then we didn't! That being said, I have little regret. It was fun to have the zine collected in book form.

Of course, that's my take on things, but there could be other reasons for the failure of the ULA books, of course. I liked them, but my taste can be out of whack with other folks. Maybe people did think they sucked and just were too polite to tell us. Given the ULA's track record, that would be a weird response though. Usually, people who didn't like the ULA weren't very shy about sharing their feelings! So I'll stick with the paranoid, conspiracy-laden interpretation of events, and just slink back to my corner, muttering, "If only, all those literati hadn't been against me, I coulda been a contender! Bastards! Well, enjoy reading those books by Dave Eggers for your 21st century American Literature. I'll be reading Crazy Carl myself!"

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

IMHO the problem with the ULA books was timing.
1.) We'd never gotten the buzz to the point I wanted it to be.
(And see "Why the Book" here. I believe there are better vehicles-- a book that is not-a-book.
2.) The buzz peaked late 2003. When were the books released? By 2005 I was working two jobs and living in an infamous druggie hotel, just trying to survive. I had no time for much of anything.
Currently I'm getting myself set up in a little better situation.
As I point out in the upcoming "Mistakes of the ULA," our initial buzz gave us a window of opportunity, but you can keep people's interest only for a limited amount of time. 2/3 years was about it-- then momentum slowly dwindled.
3.) Mr. Potter never listened to anything I said re the books. . . .

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

p.s. to that last comment of mine.
-The Pissed-Off People is factored into my current thinking. There's plenty of open territory.
-My hard-charging nature was a factor in the ULA's failure. BUT I saw no way around it, given the difficulties.
-Where I failed: There was a period when editors were hungry for anything they could find about the ULA. We should've been doing readings and protests then every other week. The Detroit show in '02 was a sidetrack. The Chicago event, a good thing in itself, was a sidetrack. We needed instead to multiply the buzz in NYC-- as well as do other things as I'll explain upcoming when I briefly examine the ULA. Not to exculpate myself, or hit anyone else, but to point out the fundamental strengths and flaws of the original ULA strategy.

Pat_King said...

Karl,

I know you're trying to stimulate a conversation about the future, but sometimes just a little examination of the past can help move things forward. So...here I go....

If I could break the ULA down to its core, this is where I think the basic philosophy lay: Populist revolution using literature as its vehicle. A sort of literary situationism. Am I wrong? This seems to be the absolute fundamental, core belief. I believe you actually used the words "Revolution through literature" in a Philly radio broadcast.

OK, so in the very beginning you had mainly perzine and pop fiction writers who wrote largely about working class issues. This provided not just a theoretical basis for the movement, but an aesthetic one too. So the first year or so was when the group had the clearest identity. As the group moved on, people were added that maybe were down with the revolution part (or weren't, having little basic understanding of the concept of "literary revolution"). I'm not even sure if, in retrospect, I was the best choice for a new candidate. I've always been down with the underclass, sure, but I was, quite young when I joined, without a really clear understanding of the idea of revolution through art. It would take many more years, while I studied surrealism in depth and discovered Franklin and Penelope Rosemont's Rebel Worker group in Chicago, what they did with combining art and political agitation before I had a better grasp on what I had gotten into.

The idea of this Pop Literature (which, of course, could mean popular as well as populist, but I prefer to think of it as short for populist) seems to be to be a move to get things back on track, so to speak. The most interesting part, I think, is this emphasis on aesthetics, concentrating on that. Because if there was anything that derailed the ULA, it was the lack of focus in that area. Jack Saunders may be a fine writer, who I enjoy reading every five years or so, but a literary revolutionary in the original ULA sense? Nah. But for years he seemed to be, next to you, the aesthetic "face" of the thing. I think Bill Blackolive hit the sweet spot, actually, by blending literary rebellion with a spiritual side that was lacking in other writers. James Nowland was wonderful and his novel would have been great if only the spelling errors had been cleaned up (I know there was this thing with "raw" writing too, but when a book is riddled with simple spelling mistakes like his was, it takes the reader out of the story, actually ruins it in my opinion, and destroys what would otherwise be a magical experience.) Maybe, too, I was, and probably still am, a little too "literary" (this is why Kostecke never published any of my stuff in the zine), so again, maybe I was actually a bad choice, someone who watered down what was an otherwise an identifiable aesthetic. Eric Broomfield might could have been a pop writer, had he concentrated more on his "craft" instead of treating his writing as third-tier, underneath his music and sideshow performing.

I guess this was all really just a long-winded way of saying that this focus on "Pop" is really a great starting point for your branding exercise.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

p.p.s. Pat King needs to more fully explain to us the workings of "The Blob Method."

BradyDale said...

I skimmed this line of thinking. I think Karl is sort of right about The Internet. There will be new stars, but it gets harder every day.

Anyway... we could all be first in the new formats. Kindle. Cell-phone-books. Whatevs.

Karl wants to go straight to the kids on the street. I dunno... could work, but it's pretty old school.

Karl: Have you read the stuff about "the Long Tail" and the idea of "1000 True Fans"?

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

No, but in a brief conversation with Lee Klein today, he said your stuff is "too pop." Which is a compliment in my book. . . .

Frank Marcopolos said...

1000 true fans:

http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/03/1000_true_fans.php

The Case Against 1000 true fans:

http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/04/the_case_agains.php

I'm of the opinion that going forward, a website will have to have a community-oriented feel to it, so that the members feel connected to the goals of the site's creators -- in this context, feeling connected to the writers and/or the aesthetic of the group/company AND to each other.

Seth Godin talks a lot about this in Tribes.

Also, I think "hits" can be misleading. For example, my server stats are telling me I'm averaging over 4,300 daily hits on my website this month, and that can't be true.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

The mistake lit-groups are making is putting all their focus and effort into their websites/the Internet. Which means, hundreds of litgroups and many thousands of writers fighting over one spot on the literary chessboard.
Can we compete straight up with these people?
I'm not going to expend the energy.
The Internet has its uses, of course, but one has to understand its limitations.
ALL of the ULA's buzz in 2001 was achieved before we had a web presence at all. It was all done off-line. Then we believed, once we had the site going, that the site could be the centerpiece. A big mistake-- analogous to Germany's entire army cornering the Brits at unkirk, and instead of finishing them, leaving the job to their air force, which wasn't up to the task.
On-the-ground is still the best route toward victory-- now more than ever, as the Internet is completely saturated.

Pat_King said...

I think there's a difference between 2001 and 2010 in terms of the Internet. I think the dynamics were definitely different back then...even just a decade ago, not EVERYTHING was on the Internet. But you're right about only using it as part of a larger thing. You've got to have tangible stuff, things people can put their hands on, like a newsletter or a reading series, among other things.

Frank Marcopolos said...

I think you need at least as much off-line stuff as online, with online being more of a tool to facilitate many of the offline things (a la meetup.com, for example.)