Thursday, November 9, 2017

Should Artists Create for Financial Success?

Modern technology makes it possible to calculate what you have to do if you want to be financially successful as an artist. But wouldn't following those calculations kill art and turn it into faceless, commercial crap?

Selling well and quality aren't opposites, but it's good that not every artwork is a bestseller.

A book doesn't become a bestseller by coincidence. This is result of Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers' research, summarized in their book The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel. The software they developed for analyzing novels has read about 5000 books, both bestsellers as well as non-bestsellers. It took a closer look at things like topic, sentiment, writing style, characters and so on and noticed some specific patterns that are found in bestsellers.

In other words, writers who incorporate those patterns can increase the chances for their novels to become bestsellers. And I bet the same applies to other art genres as well, even though I don't know about such kind of research outside the world of literature.

In this post I won't discuss what makes a bestselling novel. To learn this, The Bestseller Code itself is a better source anyway. The question that preys on my mind is rather of a more general nature: The Bestseller Code implies that an artist actually can plan financial success instead of just hoping to be noticed. Provided that they're willing to follow the advice of a machine. But wouldn't it kill their art and turn it into faceless, commercial crap?

Financial Success vs. Artistic Value

In an earlier post I wrote about the importance to know and respect one's audience: Creating an artwork your audience doesn't understand doesn't help anybody, and understanding the needs and preferences of your audience doesn't deprive an artwork of artistic value. It makes it more accessible. And, let's face it, you need to speak in an understandable way if you want to be understood.

The text corpus behind The Bestseller Code isn't just some superficial crap for the mass reader. If a novel is a bestseller it doesn't mean it's bad. It doesn't mean it's good either. It only means that a book has been read and appreciated by many people. And this can happen both with great  masterpieces by writers awarded with a Pulitzer Prize (i.e. they're considered good by experts, though this still doesn't say much about quality) as well as with writing that it outright crap but makes people addicted to it nonetheless.

Selling well and quality aren't opposites. According to Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, what makes a bestseller are some rather structural criteria that can be met by both highbrow and lowbrow literature. Having just one main dominating topic and having it in conflict with the second dominating topic doesn't say anything about artistic value. It is just one of the criteria that make a novel more pleasing to the mass audience.

Success by a Formula

It appears possible to consciously create a great artwork that is also appealing to the masses. One only has to follow certain patterns. But what if everyone would stick to that formula? What if everyone would write about dark female protagonists, only because a machine says that it increases the chances for financial success? Wouldn't it be boring?

With time, it certainly would. At least some of the success criteria in The Bestseller Code seem like a trend that may change in a few years. Then the software could calculate another set of trends. Other things, however, like the sentiment rhythm, for example, seem like something that has its core in human nature: A story where everything is always good and a story where everything is always bad are both boring. What people want is a story with ups and downs, an emotional rollercoaster. It has always been this way, and I don't think it will ever change.

So it appears to me that some advices by Archer and Jockers' software can be followed blindly while others are changeable trends. And not everybody likes trends or wants to read about dark female protagonists all the time. Where there are trends there are also niches with an audience that is willing to pay for meeting their specific needs. It isn't bad to follow a successful formula, but it isn't bad to focus on a niche either (as long as you accept that there's less money waiting for you compared to writing a bestseller).

The World Needs Variety

It's good that not every artwork is a bestseller. It's good that not every artwork fits the taste of the mass audience. Because every single one of us has a very subjective taste, and from time to time we all need novels, movies, music ... all kinds of art that speaks to us specifically and not to everybody.

There are bestsellers in this world, and modern technology makes it possible to calculate what you have to do if you want to be financially successful as an artist. But deciding whether to speak to a large audience and earn much money or to speak to a smaller audience and earn less money is up to you. It's also up to you to take the path of the golden mean and to create your art for a specific audience while also following some advice provided by the machine to make your artwork more accessible and entertaining, as long as it doesn't hurt the message you're trying to get across.

I, for example, changed the beginning of my manuscript according to the advice given in The Bestseller Code and, at least for the time being, I'm proud of the result. Since I'm writing my current project in a discovery fashion, I also struggled to understand what my novel is about. The Bestseller Code has helped me to understand the main topics of my novel and how the story needs to be continued. Even though much time will pass until the novel is finished and published, the research of Archer and Jockers has helped me already. I can only wish for other art genres to have such kind of research as well.

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