writing, Writing and Editing

What We Can Learn from Top 40 Radio

The other day I was reading an article (opinion piece would probably be a better descriptor) about the late Casey Kasim and the effect his American Top 40 radio program had on the music industry. The author argued that the premise of the program, though not really Mr. Kasim’s fault, damaged the industry as a whole by promoting the most middle-of-the-road, commercial of the available music.

The author’s argument is that the average music listener, who by all accounts spend little of their time researching up and coming artists, or reading reviews, is more likely to become fans of the music they are most exposed to the most: the music on the top forty. It becomes a self-fufilling prophecy of sorts; the most popular songs make it on to the top forty where they become more popular.

The problem with this dynamic is that a lesser known artist, without the money and marketing of a major label, may never get the airplay necessary to make it on to the top forty. It makes no difference how good he or she is. It’s all about promotional money.

What’s this got to do with writing? Well, substitute the New York Times Best Seller List for The American Top 40 and we have the same problem. How many people never look beyond those authors who regularly appear on the list when searching for something new to read? The handful of authors the industry has anointed “best sellers” will continue to be best sellers, while many authors who are every bit as good (if not often better) are ignored.

The Amazon best seller lists are a little better, since they are an actual picture of real book sales, but again we face a similar problem. That is: are the books on the best seller lists really the best books being published at any given time, or merely the books whose authors and/or publishers have the biggest or best promotional budget?

It doesn’t matter if you have written the best novel since War and Peace, if no one but your friends and immediate family knows about it. My question is how many really, really good novels are out there somewhere, but I have never heard of them? And I am much more attuned to the publishing/literary world than your average reader. What chance does the average writer really have?

The obvious answer to that question is little to none. If you are an unknown author, the odds say you are going to remain an unknown author. It’s the way the system is designed. The big publishing houses operating out of New York are not interested in publishing the best novels they see; they’re interested in publishing whatever they think will sell the most. They are corporations. Their sole interest is in making money for their shareholders.

I have heard reports that a commercial publisher will not touch you unless you can almost guarantee that you can sell 20,000 copies.

So where does that leave us? What are we, the nobodies of the literary world, to do?

First, we cannot expect to become bestsellers. We can’t expect that this novel we’ve been working so hard on will make us either rich or famous. The odds are wildly against it.

That, however, doesn’t mean we give up. We just write the best we can, create the best written work we can and try to sell it to whomever we can. And, if the work is truly good, and you provide some level of entertainment to a few people—even just our family and friends—isn’t that enough.

We are writers. We write. Having a readership is nice and very affirming, but it isn’t necessary. What is necessary is that we write.

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