John Locke & Donovan Creed: An Indie Case Study (Part 1)

In Malcolm Gladwells’ book “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell discusses myriad companies whose products tipped the industries they were in, changing them around them in such a way as to not simply be successful but even rewrite a paradigm. During the past several years, several different events have increasingly tipped publishing from being a business based on print and bookstores to transforming into one based on digital readers and online retailers; Amazon’s Kindle, which debuted in 2007, was a first step in a march of tipping points that has progressed inexorably since then.

Amazon’s announcement that independent author John Locke had sold a million Kindle downloads might have been the first real tip of independent publishing from a specific designator used in a specific way toward a more general appellation embraced by myriad creators operating outside of so-called “traditional” systems.

Over the weekend, I read Locke’s “How I Sold a Million Ebooks in Five Months!” The exclamation point is his (he has a propensity toward the punctuation. I don’t think a single page didn’t contain at least one). As I read his recounting of his experiences, I started to wonder how authors might use the knowledge, but I also started to wonder if the fact that Locke exists in the first place might be even more important than his techniques and books.

A caveat: I’ve not read any of Locke’s books. I’ve read some of his writing. I can’t remember which books I tried, but I got the sense in reading them that it didn’t really matter, because he’s not aiming to write great books. The style reminded me of James Patterson–certainly not a bad author to be reminiscent of, and one whose career might have some bearing on the way Locke’s evolves. More on that later, though. Donovan Creed is Locke’s Alex Cross–I’d say Locke’s Heironymous “Harry” Bosch (the protagonist of myriad Michael Connelly novels), but Connelly takes a more literary approach to his writing.

Locke seems more interested in fun and entertainment, and I think his books reflect that. The first chapters of the books I sampled were very short, limited to Creed’s POV, conversational and informal in tone, and purely functional in style.

My note that Locke isn’t aiming to write great books is not meant as disparagement; Locke himself notes it in How I Sold. He’s very clear he’s done a lot of research on his target audience and writes accordingly.

It’s an interesting way to write. It’s not for everyone. It’s made Locke extraordinarily successful. Some might call it “selling out,” but I think “selling out” would be foreign concept to Locke, who seems to be very shrewd and canny.

But if it’s not for everyone–if, for example, you’re not aiming solely to write fun and entertaining stories (not that there’s anything wrong with that)–what can one learn from Locke?

Possibly a lot.

One long section of How I Sold is devoted to Locke’s discussion of whom he believes reads his books. He’s probably correct in his assessment, mind, as Lord knows the simple fact that he’s sold so many books to them seems to corroborate it. Moreso, he writes that he corresponds regularly with readers, and one gets the sense that he’s learned more about and from his readers as he goes.

This is definitely something I think is useful for writers. Know your readers.

At USC, I took a class called “The Business of the Business,” which trained an analytical eye on what we students were working on. I was, for example, completing The Prodigal Hour at the time, and so part of my semester project was creating a breakdown of whom I thought I was writing the novel for and into which market it seemed to fit and to what marketplace items it favorably compared. For example, The Prodigal Hour is sort of like Michael Crichton’s Timeline meets Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife–it has some of the action and adventure and science of the former, but with some of the literary quality and romantic aspects of the latter. Like the former, it has sections devoted to carefully depicted historical travels; like the latter, it considers hope and grief and loss and love.

As part of the market analysis, we considered “ideal readers.” My ideal reader is basically my editrix, but that wasn’t enough for the course–we had to consider things like education and income levels, leisure activities, even cars driven.

Locke, it seems, does much the same thing.

A lot of writers devote considerable time and attention to fully realizing their characters to such a degree as to create detailed biographies for them, and that’s useful for storytelling, certainly, but I think one thing Locke’s book highlights is that knowing the same things about your target audience as you know about your characters is paramount, and as important to connecting books with readers as character knowledge is to telling stories.

What was interesting, to me–a guy with an MBA in marketing–was that when describing his target market, Locke doesn’t use the sort of descriptors common in marketing. He mentioned intelligence to some degree, and that he thought his readers were professionals and doctors and such, but in fact, for the most part, he described them in emotional, rather than logical, terms.

What do I mean?

Most audience breakdowns align with demographics. “This movie is for people between the ages of 19 and 35, who have corporate-sector jobs (or hope to), who have or are pursuing an undergraduate degree.” Those are concrete descriptors.

According to Locke (I’m going off the top of my head here), his readers like underdogs. They’re reading for entertainment, as an escape . . .

Already the difference is hugely apparent, and maybe that’s one of the most important things to consider when you’re trying to connect with readers. It’s not about characters or books or the stories you tell; ultimately, it’s about the way one makes readers feel. Whereas most marketing demands that one break down target markets in terms of objective descriptors–degrees or income or age or even car driven–Locke seems to be looking at his audience more in terms of subjective desires: what do readers want, and why are they reading? What do they hope for from their reading experiences?

Therein may lie the key to Locke’s success, as well as the singular reason it’s not universally applicable.


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