I was searching my shelves yesterday when I spotted Geoff Manaugh’s The BLDGBLOG Book, a 2009 extension of his excellent blog, which he’s continued writing up to the present day. Scanning the opening pages, I was struck by Manaugh’s joking-not-joking declaration that the website was “organized around one thing only: the pleasure principle.” Whatever he felt like writing about, that’s what he’d write about:
“In other words, forget academic rigor. Never take the appropriate next step. Talk about Chinese urban design, the European space program, and landscape in the films of Alfred Hitchcock in the span of three sentences—because it’s fun, and the juxtapositions might take you somewhere. Most importantly, follow your lines of interest.”
That’s about as far from “writing to the market” as you could possibly get—and yet it worked. Five years after launching the blog, Manaugh had himself a book. A few years after that, Wired identified him as one of the world’s leading experts on design. A few years after that, his next book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, became a New York Times bestseller, and was optioned for television—and, while we’re at it, some of his feature writing and short stories have been picked up by TV and film studios as well.
When you’re as passionate about a subject as Manaugh is about architecture and design and culture, when you dive deep enough into that subject matter to understand why it calls out to you, you can tell a story about it that others will find compelling as well.
It may be as simple as realizing that, while there aren’t millions of people who share your passion, there are thousands waiting to hear from someone like you, who cares as much as they do and is willing to take the time to get the story right. This might not be enough to enable you to quit your day job and devote yourself to writing, but if you’re working with a smart publisher, one with realistic expectations, it might just be enough to enable you to continue to “follow your lines of interest” and get published.
In the happiest of worlds, though, you won’t just reach those thousands; you’ll have come up with a story that’s so compelling that people hear about it for the first time and say to themselves, “That sounds cool. I want to know more.” Still not millions, most likely, but maybe hundreds of thousands, at which point your publisher will undoubtedly encourage you to “follow your lines of interest.” (You still probably shouldn’t quit your day job just yet, but you might start considering how you want to spend the next decade, and the decade after that.)
I happen to know the editor who acquired A Burglar’s Guide to the City, although I’ve never talked to him about it in any meaningful way. It might well be the case that he always saw it as a potential New York Times bestseller—though it seems more likely he viewed it as a fascinating book that, if its publication were undertaken with a certain amount of ambition, could show up on a lot of people’s radar, strike a chord with them, and ultimately bring in more money that it cost to acquire and produce.
(I should probably ask the editor about that, at some point. But I’m already way behind on getting this NaNoWriMo essay to you...)
Long story short, you can look at the New York Times bestseller list, fiction or nonfiction, and tell yourself, “I have to write me one of those,” and then tie yourself up in knots trying to come up with something that’s almost exactly like everything else other people seem to like but just different enough to not be accused of outright copycatting. Or you can focus on what matters to you, trusting in your ability to tell the story in a way that clearly conveys your passion—and why you think other people should be passionate about it as well.
There’s a line near the end of Lewis Richmond’s Work as a Spiritual Practice I’ve been sitting with for a while: “The marketplace begins in the mind.” Richmond was speaking in a broader economic sense, but I think this has a particular meaning for the book world as well.
Often, people will shoot down a book idea someone shares with them, or even a book idea that they themselves have come up with, by shaking their heads and saying, “There’s no market for that.” Well, I say there may well be a market for those ideas—maybe not a money-hand-over-fist market, but a market that can, with effort, be identified and reached. You may well catch glimpses of that market during the writing process, if your story involves research. If you do, make a note of it, and then get back to the writing, knowing that you can work on sharing that story with the people who are ready to hear it, when it’s ready to be shared.
There’s a concept that comes up a lot in creative writing circles: “Write the story you wish was out there for you to read.” It’s pretty good advice, actually—chances are, you aren’t the only person who’s been waiting for a story like that. But you can be the person who gets to tell it… and transforms the book market ever so slightly in the process.