I know a talented novelist who is frustrated with lack of sales. Our most recent conversation about this made me think about the relationships I have with my favorite authors and bands. I didn’t find these artists at the beginning, when they were just starting out and my attention would have been most valuable to them. I discovered them mid-career after they’d been vetted by others. Then I threw my full support behind them. I’ll use the example of Wilco.
Ten years ago my friend Sara sent me a copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which I still consider to be among the top albums of all time. Over the years my love of Wilco deepened, and I went back and bought everything it and front man Jeff Tweedy had ever done. I have never heard a name for this, so I’ll call it Fanboy Binge Buying. There came a point when I decided to had to own everything Wilco had ever done (and everything it will ever do.)
What a difficult thing this must be for artists who know they are doing great work and are not getting the recognition. Wilco’s early work was excellent, too, but I had never heard of the band yet. So even though I had it within me to love Wilco, I did not support the band until a friend of mine who loves music and knows what I like recommended it. The poor band/author/artist is sitting there going — my stuff is great, so why is no one buying it?
There are many answers to that question for the struggling artist. Your art might have limited appeal. Your marketing might be faulty. You might not be spending enough money or time on promotion. Maybe you’re ahead of your time . Or maybe you’re behind it. Maybe you have talent, but not enough talent – yet.
I want to tell every struggling author and musician that if your great work does not have its day today, that’s OK. No. 1, there is great value in creating it, not for the pocketbook but for the soul. It’s better to be poor and creating than middling and bored if you’re an artist. No. 2, regarding the pocketbook, it could still get swept up in Fanboy Binge Buying — IF they keep improving and creating more stuff.
Two to three to five novels from now, when the author’s audience has reached a critical mass, it will go back and buy or download every word they have written, and the fact that these gems were undiscovered in their time will only heighten the author’s status in the fans’ minds. They will feel like they were among the first to find something special, and they will be right. They will stand as prophets on virtual street corners and hail the coming of this “new” artist with fervor, and they will do this because they want to live in a world where this person makes more of the art they like.
The one thing the artist should not do is get angry at the unknown fan, which is to say, angry at the world, for not having discovered them yet. Success is hard work and trial and failure and timing and quirks of luck. But if the artist can fight through and create a solid body of valuable work, there is always the chance of wide recognition. Just maybe not today.
Joe Donatelli is a journalist in Los Angeles. Follow him @joedonatelli.