When I decided to return to writing thirteen years ago, after a long hiatus, I wondered how the heck anyone was going to notice me. I did not belong to the literary community in my adoptive country; I had not even been educated in this country, had no industry contacts, no MA, MFA or other academic title that seemingly confers literary status. I had no published works that had sold in the millions. I was starting out (again). And like many hundreds of those in my demographic and education level - who believed they had a story (or several) to tell - I realized that there were many in the same boat. In other words, I had competition without customers.
The writing returned easily. I just had to find the time and calm to access the divine conduit that writers are privy to, and once there, the characters, situations and stories began to flow. Before long I had more stories and manuscripts sitting around me than I had ever imagined. It was like the 20 year hiatus I had taken to immigrate (twice), grow a family and build a professional career in another industry had never interfered or dulled my literary senses. The stories had merely been stored in the hard drive of my soul with the pause button on.
But then came the hard part: who the heck cared? I was still a nobody. In the intervening years, we had seen the advent of the multi-channel TV universe, the Internet, the mega-bookstore, the five-second commercial, and politicians were the new movie stars! I was a nano-nobody!
There were two ways to getting noticed: top-down or bottom-up.
Top down is the writer’s dream – i.e. get picked up off the slush pile of a major publisher, get an Oprah endorsement and get into the media machine that tells the world “Thou shalt read this book!” (and the world will meekly comply, for who the heck has time to hunt for good books these days with the myriad of choices out there?). I still pray for top-down, and so does my competition.
Bottom-up is harder but more lasting. And this means building your audience one reader at a time. I began to use the tools that this speeded-up world had given me. I built a web site. I also blog like this and people began to read me. I gave free copies of my books to influential people. I gave free copies to poor but intelligent people who connected with me on an intellectual or emotional level. I contributed a lot of free content. Whenever someone said, “I didn’t know you were a writer,” my response was, “Shall I read you one of my stories?” I solicited feedback from writing groups and provided feedback in turn on stories sent to me. I did not buy fans from social media channels, because I knew that tomorrow someone else could buy them from me; besides I would never get to know them, nor would they get to know me. I realized that the fan base I was going to make in this bottom-up way would always be small, but I would own them – they would not desert me when the media next said “Thou shalt read this other book...” If top-down ever happens to me one day, I hope I will still have the time and energy to continue cultivating bottom-up, for it is more enduring.
I believe that bottom-up is going to be increasingly called upon as the attention spans of people fragment further, as the number of books in print multiplies exponentially, as time becomes an even rarer commodity, and online social networks proliferate. Isn’t there some age-old wisdom out there about how to eat an elephant? If I recall the answer, it was “One piece at a time.”