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You can’t make money being the long tail, but you can make money off the long tail. To understand why I’m outspoken here, read back here.
Recently, I read a bio on a website. It went something like: [Expert Person] shows you how to strengthen your reputation, position yourself as an expert, and sell more widgets of any kind at all!
This bamboozle has been floating around non-fiction circles for like a decade longer than forever. It purports to offer the strange and ill-defined trophy known as creating social authority. Let’s Wikipedia.
Authority is the legitimate or socially approved use of power. It is the legitimate power which one person or a group holds over another. The element of legitimacy is vital to the notion of authority and is the main means by which authority is distinguished from the more general concept of power. Power can be exerted by the use of force or violence. Authority, by contrast, depends on the acceptance by subordinates of the right of those above them to give them orders or directives.
The element of legitimacy is vital to the notion of authority. What legitimizes social authority? What will cause people to agree to you having social power over them?
The technical answer is something called affinity. Once you know that general idea, you can pick out the false implication in snake-oil marketing promises: That you can pay someone money to gain the power to make people give you money.
This sounds suspiciously like a prosperity gospel. No, really, just pay this preacher money, and your investment will be returned to you tenfold. Look how it worked out for him, he’s rich.
Pay this expert money to make you look like an expert. Look how it worked out for her, she’s an expert and people are paying her money.
It’s very close to the truth, which is that you can buy your way into (some) things if you know how to find the doorway. But there’s a problem.
It’s a bait-and-switch.
These people are asking you to pay the wrong person. The paid media you want is not the owned media they have. They are not the doorway.
People like that are not actually pitching you their expertise. They’re pitching to your affinity for taking shortcuts and not slogging along at drudge work, seemingly wasting your creative genius in obscurity.
Unfortunately, that drudge work is exercising your intelligence effectively.
Can you buy affinity? Not the real thing. The social web has proven that market affinity can be reduced to a keyword-sorting algorithm, once it’s expressed in words. The ability to advertise to potential demographic(s) can then be sold.
But affinity is pre-existent, and there’s no special secret. It just means people who care about the same things you care about, or who view the world the same way.
Social authority easily replaces substance, quality and truthiness.
Social authority plus the right connections absolutely can levitate a product, regardless of its inherent quality. That’s how publishing can produce bestselling hermeneutical horseshit like Love and Respect (link is to a sensible review) from a person who may indeed be a psychology and counselling expert… but has chosen to speak outside that field in order pursue an advertorial agenda that provides bias confirmation to his subculture’s pervasive unhealthy relational paradigm (explanation here).
Counterintuitively, this lack of substance flourishes more easily in higher-trust environments like religious groups, political followings, or social media friend circles.*
Where does this intersect with the writing world?
1) Person A has a non-fiction concept they want to write about (let’s be cynical: express their opinion about), but lacks all varieties of expertise. They decide to build a website and try to drum up a following around their opinions and limited individual experiences.
They find they can even hire someone to teach them how to pester radio, website, and tv/video media personalities, even though nobody cares about their idea (no affinity). They acquire the misconception that being the most annoying human on the planet is the same as bootstrapping, and that persistence and hard work are the key. The only key.
Oh, yay! Another menace is born, and we all refer back to the Dunning-Kruger effect yet again.
Person B has a novel they want to write. They hear that the essential way to “hook readers” is by having a related non-fiction topic to create a free informational product, i.e., online content that will gain a following.
But people seeking information may or may not give a rat’s furry butt about a novel. Fiction delivers emotional experience, not analysis. That means experiential topics which trigger emotion are going to have a better crossover with novels, but the novel still won’t be the main product the audience is actually seeking. That’s not the audience’s primary affinity.
Why are people trying to sell this to writers?
Because they can make money off the long tail.
To get started in your own path, you have to stop letting people make you into less of more. Stop letting yourself be treated as one small unit of desperate wannabe among many, many desperate wannabes, and figure out your own reasonable, realistic course.
Just ask any writer who’s had to sort through a bunch of super bad advice.
*See Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty for a concise layman’s summary of socioeconomics and linguistic registers. One of the features of the casual register is that it doesn’t require or involve factual verification. Facebook, for example, is designed to mediate the casual register.
For other social factors in success, see Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success.