Monday, September 24, 2012

Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

by Alexander Slagg

The Buzz of Success

The year: 431 BC. The place: Athens. It was opening night of Euripides’ Medea. The playwright wore a hooded shawl to conceal himself and sat in one of the back rows of the outdoor theatre. A cup of wine in his hand, he looked to the star-filled sky and prayed to the gods for success as his vengeance-filled tragedy began.

At the end of the performance, there was no trickle-to-a-flood applause. The audience reaction appeared to be mixed. But people were talking as they strolled out of the theatre. This brought a smile to Euripides’ bearded face as he gulped down the last of his wine and headed out for a night on the town in Athens to celebrate. People were talking. There was buzz.

Almost 2,500 years later, the business side of artistic success hasn’t changed all that much. Whether its theatre or books, the formula is simple. You have a story. You need an audience. The bigger the audience, the greater the success. Simple, right?

Over time, people have come up with inventive ways to lure in an audience—and to complicate the formula. The marketing profession, devoted to finding audiences for products, services, and everything in between, is a relatively recent (20th century) development toward that end. And in the 21st century, we turn to technology for everything—so, of course, we have sophisticated technological tools to help build an audience.

For example, provides helpful customer reviews of books (and everything else it sells). Helpful, right? If a book has enough recommendations and five-star reviews, you might decide to buy it. But, as David Streitfeld reported back in August in his NY Times article “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy,” all of those five-star reviews may not be worth much.

A guy named Todd Rutherford had figured out a way to dupe the system. He launched a website to provide glowing book reviews to authors for a fee. The reviews were written by himself or a low-wage freelancer and posted to Brilliant! This enterprise was quite successful. Streitfeld reports that Mr. Rutherford was taking in $28,000 a month. I’m surprised no one thought of this sooner.

As anyone that has shopped on the Internet can attest to, reviews of products and services are everywhere. Reviews have become a part of the online purchase equation. They serve as firsthand testaments to something’s value (or lack thereof).

Can this electric toothbrush really be that awesome? Yes! It has 543 five-star reviews. Its nearest competitor only has 210. Reviews are useful because they are posted by average, disinterested folks, who simply want to share their opinion—like Mr. Rutherford. Persuasive, right?

So, it may all be a big fat lie. Where does that leave the young artist seeking literary fame and fortune? Cynical but wiser? reviews and all of the other technosophisticatic marketing gimmicks out there are all trying to do the same thing, mimicking word of mouth, imitating legitimate buzz.

The key to finding an audience today is the same as it was in Euripides’ day. Create art that gets an audience talking. Drop that mind-fuck plot twist bomb on the public and see who survives. If it’s good, people will talk and a wider audience will be drawn to your work. Ka-ching.

Keep the focus on doing what you do best, creating art, rather than stumbling through the hazy world of wannabe marketing gimmicks out there.

Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well is more than a rote column, it’s a literary lounge where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at