“Know thy audience,” could be the first rule (and only one that matters) in any class on the business of publishing. It usually means, “Understand who will be reading your book,” meaning the person who likes to read your kind of book. If it’s a hard science-fiction book, think of all your hard sci-fi-reading friends, create an ideal amalgamation of them all (with or without beards), and now make sure your book reads like those that person usually enjoys. This is great advice, if a little obvious, meant for a writer who has a publisher to take care of the business details. It’s about writing a book, not selling it. For those who self-publish, the maxim has to mean something else: “Understand how your ideal reader shops.”
All smart publishers ask themselves this question periodically, and it seems to be top-of-mind for DC Comics these days as they relaunch their entire line. The internet is abuzz with analysis (some say DC is alienating its core fan base, others think they are hurting brick-and-mortar stores with their digital strategy, others think it’s brilliant, others think Superman’s t-shirt makes him look silly.). None of it (as far as I’ve seen) comes from the perspective of that fundamental question, but the move and the reaction to it has become a great illustration of how important it is to ask, especially for self-publishers, who must ask it of themselves every day.
Thomas Paine reached 100,000 American colonists with his Common Sense, a number that would today mean 20,000,000 in terms of population reach. And it never would have existed without a print shop and movable type. A failed corset-maker like T. Paine certainly wouldn’t have had the means (and probably not the will) to reproduce them all by hand.
Print technology keeps getting better as it evolves, and by better I mean easier for more people to read more things. The tract lived on through ‘zines for a few centuries and now seems to have mostly transmuted into the insta-published blog. Books — that walled City of Troy of publishing — stayed exclusive for a while but digital printing battered through the gate and e-books plum brought down the wall. But wither the magazine? A young politico can post her treatises for the entire world to find (should they choose to look). A novelist can do the same, and largely within the same format he would have 20 years ago. But today’s crusading magazine moguls don’t seem to have anywhere to turn for help overcoming the obstacles.
The Folger Library in Washington, 1938 -- Harris & Ewing Collection (Library of Congress)
The internet is overwhelming; that much is clear. The murky part comes in trying to define exactly how it fits (or should fit) in our lives. This is the subject of a recent wave of books that all take different positions and are all expertly reviewed by Adam Gopnik in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Gopnik divides these prevailing internet philosophies into three schools: the Better-Nevers (“the internet will destroy us all!”), the Ever-Wasers (“eh — this conversation happens with every new technology, everyone calm down”), and the Never-Betters (“the internet will save us all!”). Though all arguments are interesting (as is the article), what struck me most of all was Gopnik’s comparison of the internet to a library, which got me thinking — for the first time, much to my surprise — of how the internet compares to books, and how this might help us find a tree to hold on to in the information flood.