Artisanal rambling, exhibit A

I think it’s time for a small, not particularly original epiphany wrapped in a book rec.

Here are the components:

A couple of months ago, I ran a promotion on my first book, the first time since 2015 that I’d done so. I bought slots on two book newsletters — you probably know the type — that are well-regarded in the indie book space. By no fault of the newsletters, there was no uptick in sales. I started to spiral, doggedly determined to figure out what I was doing wrong.

I researched audiobooks, keywords, categories, covers. Over and over, I ran into the same conclusion: This book doesn’t fit into an easily describable genre. It’s fantasy in the broadest sense, sure. I’ve labeled it slice of life, and it does, I think, fit the definition — but in common usage, slice of life is much more anime-influenced than this is.

Still, I was determined to push through and shove this weird beast into a box, any box, because that is the starting point of finding people who might like it. It’s the starting point of everything. It’s the be-all end-all.

At this point, I listened to a podcast episode that got me to buy a book. Again.

I just finished that book – Filterworld by Kyle Chayka. At times it can be more judgy than I like to be, but I enjoyed it and still recommend it. The overall gist is that algorithmic recommendation waters down the culture or pop culture it delivers — music, books, television shows, anything — boosting only the blandest and most widely palatable examples until everyone who uses them is locked into a passive-yet-overwhelmed uproar of things we didn’t actually choose and may not even really like.

There’s a little bit of hipster reek in that: what is popular is automatically bad. I don’t like that. I try to adhere to “don’t yuck someone else’s yum.” Still, the general message resonated with me. I like to be surprised sometimes by the things I read or watch or listen to. I like looking up a musical artist I’ve only barely heard of to see what they sound like. I like a book recommendation that I haven’t heard a hundred times before, that doesn’t assume that everyone likes the same ten books. I’ll try a couple of episodes of a show that sounds like a weird fit, and if I don’t like it, I’ll just drop it. But to me, the trying is worth a little investment of time.

What I don’t want is a hundred nearly identical copies of something I have already consumed. I know I sound like a hipster, saying that. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with a comfort watch/read/listen. Ask me how many times I’ve watched Princess Jellyfish or listened to my “TMBG Favs” playlist. But I think there’s a lot of value to be had in mixing comfort and ease with surprise and newness. In trying something that you might like, or might not, or (what’s nuance?!?) you might like some aspects of, and not others.

The algorithm doesn’t have any room for that. It’s all more of the same, all the time, until everything is a background/wallpaper mush.

(Someday I might write a ramble about how the mere absence of upsetting content does not make something comforting to me. How the absence of challenging or uncomfortable elements is not the same, to me, as something that is uplifting or life-affirming. But I won’t write that ramble today.)

All of which finally made me realize that I was barking up the wrong tree when it comes to promoting my own work. For the last couple of years I’ve felt frustrated and inferior because the cozy fantasy movement has arisen after me, blown past me, and left me in the dust. I’m happy for those authors and those readers, and enjoy the books (though not exclusively; I like to mix other genres onto my list). But I think I have finally accepted that I don’t fit in there, and that those readers are not looking for what I have to offer. A few? Sure, maybe. Why not. If I can cross over as a reader, a few others probably will.

But I’ve been square-peg-round-holing this whole thing. I’ve been saying that all along, but in a strange, self-deprecating way, while still also trying to convince people to try out my work. “It isn’t what you want! But try it? Maybe?” I think I finally accept it now.

The subheading on this site has been “hand-crafted artisanal rambling” for a while now. It’s also self-deprecating, sure, but it’s true. I haven’t written any of my books based on what would sell. That’s a fine and marketable skill that I admire and do not possess. I write what I write. Someone built a new box a little ways away — closer than any other box so far — but just because it’s nearest doesn’t mean it really fits.

That doesn’t make any works inside or outside the box automatically better for having fit into, or not fit into, the box. I believe it’s value-neutral. It’s just a matter of accuracy in sorting.

It’s hard to let go of the idea. I write for myself, but once something is published, I hope it reaches some people who like it. I’d thought a slightly more proximate box would be a good thing, but being almost what people want isn’t enough. Most people know exactly what they want, and they want exactly that to be delivered to them, without going off the mark: the same story with tiny variations, with no risk of surprise, until the end of time.

There’s no moral superiority in my style of media consumption or theirs. I hope the algorithm delivers them a hundred copies of what they want. And I hope they find joy in it.

In the meantime, I’m not happy with that. And I’m going to keep on being what I am, instead of trying to be what other people want. It’s a cycle I’ve gone through over and over; this is just the current iteration, filtered through writing and new genres and just barely missing my chance. It hurts. But it feels real. And that’s worth holding onto.