empty soup cans and markets that don’t exist

There was a writer I had a few run-ins with who was the personification of everything I thought was doing active harm to my community. He was a smart guy, a great writer, and is the only person I know who never once said anything of value to a group of underpublished writers. He sold the idea that marketing trumped the skills involved in writing.

I met him in the Twilight and the Fifty Shades of Grey years. That was all the evidence he needed to be absolutely sure that no book ever had to be enjoyable to the reader again. That Twilight sold a million-billion copies was proof that books didn’t have to be good.

His audience wanted to be told that their success had nothing to do with the quality of their writing and everything to do with how hard they worked selling the book after it was bound. They didn’t want to hear that as difficult as it is to take the reader on a meaningful journey, it is far easier to do so than marketing a book that was still mainly description, dialogue, and exposition.

The premise of the argument is flawed. Twilight didn’t sell a trillion copies and a movie franchise because it was marketable. People who read those books loved the way they felt when they read those books.

That was all it took.

Their readers loved the books enough to buy them as hardcovers at hardcover-pricing and go to first-run theatres to watch the movies over and over again. How those books made their readers feel had absolutely nothing to do with how the books were marketed.

But Dude-Guy couldn’t imagine so many women buying a book because they enjoyed reading it. To him, the only thing that made sense was that an evil marketing genius had hypnotized them to want to buy a shlocky teenage vampire romance novel in droves.

This is despite the fact that no mass-hypnosis has ever worked over a book series since. If Twilight’s success was “just marketing” it should have been easily repeatable. And yet, that appeal that crossed genre boundaries and age groups hasn’t really happened since 50 Shades milked the same storyline for hypothetically-kinky grownups.

His analogy was comparing a writer’s work to empty soup cans. If he could find a million people who would buy an empty soup can for a dollar, he would have a million dollars.

I asked him how much it would cost to find a million people who would be willing to trade a dollar from their pocket for a thing that has no value to them. He dismissed it as a non-issue but it is the only issue that matters. The cost of finding a million people out of the 1.5 billion English-speaking people on this planet who will buy something of no intrinsic or extrinsic value to them would make what profit could be made on the million dollars negligible.

Stories that do not attempt to engage the reader through their story-building mechanics are empty soup cans. It asks the reader to admire the prose as the work’s only ask. Readers will always value their spending money, but they will value their spare time even more. The only people who buy empty soup cans are those who know the empty soup can merchant personally.

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