Interesting interview with John Hodgman in Wired. Hodgman — probably best known today as the PC in the “I’m a Mac” commercials — is a former literary agent, and he talks about his travails trying to get a book by B-movie actor Bruce Campbell published.
A big part of deciding what books to publish is identifying what pre-existing audiences would buy the book. That’s the appeal of the big celebrity memoir to publishers: Actor X already has a big fan base, so we can expect to sell a good number of copies of his memoir.
At the time, in the late 1990s, Hodgman says book publishers were chasing big audiences — the example he gives is the comedian Brett Butler, who had a big hit show at the time and got a big advance for her memoir. They had a lot more trouble understanding why they should publish a book by Campbell, whose fan base wasn’t nearly as big.
But what Hodgman understood was that audiences are not created equal. Brett Butler had a bigger fan base, but Bruce Campbell had a more passionate one. As Hodgman puts it:
It took us about a year to sell it…I would try to explain to editors and publishers that Bruce Campbell does not just bring what Brett Butler brings to books, which is a sitcom. Bruce Campbell brings an enormous, dedicated community of horror and sci-fi fans who know each other and meet each other in conventions and will line up for hours at a convention to meet Bruce Campbell and have him sign something that they had bought. Maybe Bruce Campbell doesn’t have a million viewers like the wonderful Brett Butler sitcom Grace Under Fire did, which justified her enormous advance and terrible sales, right? He had probably 25,000 avid fans who are going to buy this book no question…But it just goes to show how blinkered people were by the idea of old-media celebrities being somehow more meaningful than somebody who cultivated an audience (and was digital) and got their devotion in return.
Once it finally sold, Campbell’s book sold 75,000 copies in hardcover — a huge hit off a very modest advance. If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor currently has 206 reviews on Amazon, 162 of them five stars. That’s the value of a devoted niche. (Brett Butler’s book has 13 reviews.)
How does this relate to journalism? Newspapers are by definition devoted to the mass audience. In their current form, they can’t exploit the Bruce Campbell niche — they’re ABC sitcom all the way. They’re okay at building a big audience, but horrible at earning devotion.
Ever read a blog that has a terrific community around it, where the comments are always smart, the readers are obviously engaged, and it looks like the best the Internet can be? Compare that the mix of clowns and boors you see haunting the comments sections of most newspaper websites.
For Bruce Campbell, his engagement with his audience translated into book sales. Online, engagement with your audience translates into good comments and active readers.