This past Sunday, I returned from Indianapolis, Indiana, where I spent the weekend at the always-wonderful Magna Cum Murder conference. As often happens at such events, the panels I participated in got me thinking more introspectively about my writing than I ordinarily do. In one such panel, I heard myself refer to a book as “an engineered product,” and I realized that I’d landed on the topic of this week’s TKZ post.
When we buy anything from a car to a cheeseburger, we expect it to meet certain engineering specifications. We expect less luxury from a low-end Kia than we do from a top-of-the-line Mercedes, but irrespective of price and name recognition, we expect our chosen vehicle to get us from here to there without burning up, and in the event of a wreck, we expect the seat belts to work. The perfectly-cooked fast food burger is of no lesser quality than the perfectly-cooked Porterhouse at a 5-star restaurant, but the expectation is different.
When people buy a John Gilstrap book (yes, it’s a little creepy to refer to myself in the third person), I presume they expect a different kind of ride than what they’ll get from, say, a Danielle Steele book. Our stories are engineered differently, from the ground up, with the result that a Venn diagram of our respective fans would likely reveal a tiny shared area. Different readers have different tastes, and my job as a professional storyteller is to deliver what my readers have come to expect.
No, that’s too passive. My job as a writer is to deliver what I have promised fans for over two decades, attracting new readers who could just as easily have chosen a different book and different author. Those who sample my work and like it are willing to try me again and again, so long as I hold up my end of the bargain. I offer a tacit promise that there will be violence without gore-porn, there may be romance, but there will be no graphic sex. My good guys will always be principled, and when the ride is over, justice will reign over my little corner of the fiction universe. That’s the deal. That’s my dining menu.
If I let my fan base down even once, I risk losing them forever. Some will give me a bye if I fall short, but others won’t. I worked my butt off for every set of eyes, and to risk losing even one is unacceptable.
Of course, the flip side of this is the risk of my stories becoming too predictable—too formulaic—which has its own negative consequences. So, while providing a trustworthy reading experience, it’s incumbent on me to mix it up a little. In Scorpion Strike (July, 2018), Jonathan Grave’s team endures their first fatality. It was a hard scene to write, and it’s a scary thing to do. Fingers crossed that I won’t drive readers away.
A lot of cyber ink gets spilled in the blogosphere talking about platform building, social media marketing and the like. It occurred to me this weekend that platform-building and trust are closely related. As authors’ careers grow, I think it’s important for them to think two or three books ahead—not regarding plots, but in terms of what kind of product they want to addict their readers to. I believe marketers would call this thinking about their brand.
The harsh truth is that writing and getting read are two entirely different, though related transactions. Without doubt, every writer is free to write whatever he wants, and publish (or not) by whatever means he desires. But if said writer wants to maximize his ability to build a readership, he needs to teach his readers what to expect, and then dependably deliver on the promises he makes.
I know too many talented writers who finally achieve the dream of publication only to sabotage their own careers through literary ADD. One very talented self-published friend of mine cannot constrain his creative impulses. In quick succession, he’s pushed out a cozy, a thriller, a PI novel and a couple of horror books. I get the need to flex the creative muscle, but there’s a reason why we don’t see Pepsodent pistols or Smith & Wesson toothpaste. Branding matters.
What say you, Killzoners?