the quantity-over-quality controversy

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Last week’s essay stoked a bit of an uproar. This reaction surprised me. For once, I didn’t intend to piss anyone off.

The gist, if you’re new: quantity is the key contributing factor in commercial success for writers. Not quality, i.e. “talent,” whatever that is.

People took offense, in a social media kind of way.

Guys.

First of all, I did not place a value judgment on this. I’m not saying it’s good that “talent” isn’t worth bubkes—may even be counterproductive—when it comes to writing revenue.

Second, what exactly is the alternative to the market rewarding creators for stuff that gets written and read? Cutting a check to the most so-called talented people regardless of what they produce and letting them sit in a cabin somewhere musing while the rest of us read the backs of cereal boxes for entertainment?

We already do that. It’s called a MacArthur “Genius” grant. (I bet if we dug into the data, we’d see that the productivity of grant recipients drops as soon as the checks clear.)

The truth is, there has never been a strong correlation between talent and success when it comes to writing and money. (Not everlasting fame, not literary greatness, money.)

The Internet has only magnified this, as it does everything. More people are reading than ever before; more money is spent on words than ever before. Writers who write more and get their writing out there more reach more readers and make more money than writers who don’t.

Now we’ve got talent over here, an individual’s latent “great writing” capacity. And we’ve got quantity over here, an individual’s actual product actually put out in the world for readers, even if it isn’t very good. This latter bit is the thing which clearly and unambiguously leads to money like it or not.

Money and success are not the same. If you live with three roommates in downtown Arlington, Iowa—hometown of legendary “farmer” Bachelor Chris Soules—you can live like a king on the advertising revenue from one modestly successful blog.

If, on the other hand, you’re raising two kids in Brooklyn, you have to occasionally supplement your writing income with some light assassination work.

(In John Wick 2, we learn that Keanu Reeves’s titular character is forced to go back into murder-for-hire after Ev Williams abandoned Medium’s business model.)

(John Wick is a sociopath; of course he writes on Medium.)

So quantity will lead to money, it absolutely will, but it may not be enough money to be sustainable and, therefore, successful for you, the writer.

Sustainability and success are personal measures. How do you want to live, not just when you’re starting out, but over the course of your writing career? What kind of living can you live with?

Here’s what I’d ask you to ponder if you find this idea—quantity trumping quality re: money—rubbing you the wrong way.

Why do we have such weird hang-ups about writing as a product, even though we produce it and sell it?

Let’s say I told you I was going to create something else: hand-carved wooden bracelets, herbals soaps, top hats, whatever.

Over tea, I worry out loud to you about whether I’m going to sell any. Like, any. “I’m not going to sell any top hats, Desmond. I just know it!”

Here’s how the conversation might go:

You: “Have you made some top hats?”

Me: “Yes.”

“Did you bring the hats to a street fair or Etsy or some other hat-selling venue and make them available for sale?”

“Yes.”

“Did you advertise the hats? Maybe read a book about marketing hats to the savvy hat-buying audience and then apply what you learned?”

“Yes.”

“Have you sold any hats?”

“No.”

“OK, well, keep trying, Clarence. You’ll sell some top hats, even if you don’t become the McDonald’s of Edwardian accessories. Just do all that stuff—making top hats, bringing the hats where top hats might be sold, and learning more about the making and selling of top hats—and you will sell at least some top hats.”

For some reason, when it comes to writing, we can’t have this conversation without offending sensibilities. Or we have it, but the person hasn’t even finished writing anything that someone would want to read, or spent time learning how to market and sell it, or taken any of the completely obvious steps you would take if you ever wanted to sell anything.

Oddest bit of all this is that the people who have taken the fewest of these steps are the ones most convinced of (and crippled by) the idea that talent is key, that genius is the missing ingredient, that greatness is (or at least should be) the determining factor. (In other words, I can’t continue this because it’s not perfect. I can’t show it to anyone because it isn’t as good as this amazing thing over here. Etc.)

Part of this is that people are crazy and illogical when it comes to the craft and profession of writing. No one questions the need for an education in physics to become a rocket scientist, but because all of us write, if only emails and Facebook posts, it seems like we should be able to “become writers” if we want to—theoretically. Plus, one time an English teacher complimented an essay we wrote and we’ve never gotten over it.

Ego, in other words, is involved.

Another part, however, is a holdover from the days of traditional publishing, when privileged elites kept all the gates. In the 20th century, a very small number of wealthy, white men from a very small number of colleges from a very small part of the country dictated what audiences got to read. If you went to the bookstore and you didn’t want to read the book from Publisher A, your option was to buy the books from Publisher B or Publisher C. Period. That era, thankfully, is over.

Today, you can write something and make money with it. Right now. It may not be what you feel like writing, but with a little research and effort, you can figure out what it is people will pay for and then write it and sell it to them, whether as clients or consumers. For money. Maybe even a lot of money. Again, quantity is the key component: not just the quantity of writing but of research and marketing and all those other elements of the profession.

If that doesn’t “appeal” to you, put down the quill and take up rocket science. If, on the other hand, you want to be a successful writer, start making and selling some goddamn top hats and don’t blame me for your problems, Clarence.