Brandon Sanderson Solved the Attention Economy

For those unfamiliar with the lingo, saying a situation is “solved” usually means someone has found the best way to approach it.

By the same token, the Attention Economy is a way of looking at marketing that revolves more around whether you can get your product in front of people’s eyes than convincing them that your product is worth spending money on. The Attention Economy acknowledges that the plethora of things vying for attention in the smart phone driven social media obsessed modern era are the biggest hurdle to selling something, not value for money. In all fairness, this theory may be reaching its end. The prosperous era of the late 1990s to early 2010s gave rise to the Attention Economy and that prosperity was really squandered over the last decade or so. Without that level of prosperity that kind of marketing won’t be as relevant. 

But the Attention Economy was and, for the moment, still is a thing. Brandon Sanderson recently provided a master class in taking full advantage of it. Sanderson has spent years cultivating a highly invested audience. He has a decent social media presence, two weekly podcasts and recently started a YouTube channel where he publishes weekly writing updates. My own use of the platform for similar updates was inspired by this in no small part. A year or so ago he ran a ten year anniversary Kickstarter to crowdfund a highly collectable, leatherbound edition of one of his most popular novels. 

All of these things have built a large number of eyes on Sanderson’s work and a large number of ways for him to communicate with that audience. Put this on top of his already remarkable popularity in the science fiction and fantasy community and Sanderson was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the attention economy. Then, at the beginning of this month, Sanderson took to YouTube to make a confession to his audience. It’s so masterfully executed that I’ll include it for your enjoyment: 

Okay, if you didn’t watch it for whatever reason the basics are like this: Sanderson begins by telling his audience he’s not been entirely honest with them. He found the lockdown and travel restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic disrupted his travel and promotion schedules and left him with a great deal of free time on his hands and he had to cope with it as best he could. 

So he wrote five new novels to share with his family. After some thought, he decided four of them were already in a form he could also share them with his audience so he announced that his company was starting a Kickstarter to fund their publication outside the normal publishing house system. This Kickstarter has already raised some $33,000,000. 

First things first – well done, Brandon Sanderson. A masterful use of existing platform and an incredibly successful outcome for a very skilled and deserving author. 

Second, this is a very interesting case study in the attention economy. For at least a week, no one in a field even remotely related to science fiction could talk about anything else. People I follow who had never commented on Sanderson before were suddenly picking through his campaign looking for insights. Everyone from comic book geeks to hardboiled noir authors were talking about a man who writes 1,000 page epics well outside of their wheelhouse. It was a total social media whiteout. 

It was like trying to discuss something other than Elden Ring in video game circles during the same period. You just couldn’t get a word in sideways. 

Almost as quickly as it came, it faded. It gets mentioned in passing as a great example of how to get stories to your audience in new and inventive ways but the buzz is nowhere nearly as intense. What a wild ride. But this wasn’t something that just came and went – over 100,000 people have bought a year’s worth of stories from an author they love and Brandon Sanderson has shattered crowdfunding records. He did it by using a wide platform and a clever video to draw in an invested audience to the profit of all involved. It’s a method well worth studying. It was a lot of work to set up but, with all the funding now in hand, Sanderson doesn’t have to constantly travel and promote his latest books. Instead he can save travel time and focus on writing even more stories which he can then bring back to his audience in the same way. I really do feel this is an innovation in how to connect with audiences while still producing creative work. 

A long running trickle of information through various routes followed by one large offensive designed to play out over a couple of years has positioned Sanderson well to continue his work far into the future. It’s a good model and one well worth studying for all of us who want to share our creative work. I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come. 

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The Propaganda War – Fiction as Opportunism

As a preface – it’s not my intention to take any specific side on the Ukranian conflict in this essay. I have very strong and distinct opinions on the situation and I don’t think sharing them on the Internet is useful so don’t worry, you won’t be getting them here. However I do like to study current events and try to derive lessons for fiction writers from those events. There is a lot of fiction surrounding the war in Ukraine right now which makes it a rich source of insight for the astute observer. 

The first lesson comes from the fascinating idea that a conflict in Ukraine was either allowed or provoked because propagandists needed a distraction from increasing questions about COVID vaccinations and regulations. I find this fascinating because it illuminates the first misconception nonwriters have about fiction – that the foundation of storytelling is a brilliant idea. It isn’t. Writers have inspiration everywhere. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t have a list of stories to write twice or three times as long as what they’ve actually written. 

If propagandists want to distract from something, they don’t have to invent something to hype up, they just have to look around a bit and find something shiny. By the same token, a writer doesn’t have to find a brilliant ideas to create a good story. Ideas are in abundance all around us. 

Our second lesson from the Ukraine is about perspective, and is inspired by the tale of the Ghost of Kiev. For those unfamiliar with this urban legend, they tell of a Ukrainian pilot so skilled and so dominant that he shot down five or more Russian pilots over the skies of Kiev in the first day of combat. The victories of this legendary pilot were trumpeted by the government of Ukraine and many news outlets. And they were almost certainly just that: legends. 

Some pilots do become aces (fighter pilots with five or more confirmed kills) in a single encounter but they’re quite rare and usually in very chaotic, target rich environments. It’s not impossible for such a thing to happen but the skies over Ukraine haven’t offered good places for it at any point of the war. What’s far more likely is that the Ghost of Kiev was a pilot who shot down one or two Russians and was observed by multiple people, who’s accounts were taken as separate stories rather than multiple accounts of the same event. This is pretty common in wartime situations and rarely ever gets sorted out later. 

The lesson – differing perspectives can turn the same story into different stories. First, keep in mind that your audience is going to read a far different story than what your wrote. That’s just part of the game, kid, don’t let it get to you. Instead, enjoy their perspectives and the stories they read and learn what lessons you can from it. You can’t craft a story people will love if you don’t love how they listen to that story. Second, your perspective on a story is going to be very different from anyone else’s. Don’t worry too much if your idea isn’t original or if you think it’s been done before, originality isn’t as important as skill and craftsmanship, and if it’s really a story told from your perspective it will be different enough to stand on its own. Third, remember that your characters see the world from different perspectives, too. Don’t let their take on the story become homogenized but rather give them all their own ways of looking at things, to the point where they could almost be talking about different stories. That will keep your narrative feeling authentic. 

Finally, remember propaganda is targeted at an audience. Some people will eat up propaganda, some will listen along with it but question some of what they hear and some will reject it outright, regardless of how much of it is true and how much is spin. Generally the two extremes are the smallest parts of the audience reached but it’s those already predisposed to believe it that propaganda really targets. They’re the ones that share it and really buy into it. You should target your audience the same way. 

Tell stories for your very dedicated audience, the people who love what you do and share it, rather than the questioning masses or your harsh critics. Unfair critics will never be won over, they’re predisposition to hate you comes from them and not you. The moderately interested group tends to be won over by the enthusiasm of your diehard fans, you can’t gain their interest by catering to them. If you try, you’re more likely to offer a watered down product that doesn’t get your point across and doesn’t do what they want well enough to hold their interest. Accept their partial buy in and hope they’ll dig deeper with time. 

And there you have it. Three lessons writers can learn from propaganda, with no political grandstanding thrown in. Great stuff! Now go buy beans and rice, the nuclear winter is coming and it’s gonna be a cold one. At least the diaries you write by candlelight will be fun and interesting reading when alien archaeologists find your skeleton hundreds of years from now! 

Fire and Gold – Afterwords

Here we are, at the end of another Roy Harper tale. A little later than I hoped but well within the length that I predicted when I finished my outline. I am pretty satisfied with some aspects of where I am and a little disappointed with others. Late last year I had hoped to segue directly from Fire and Gold into my latest round of essays. Unfortunately I caught the Dreadful Virus in January and it put me way behind schedule on all fronts and particularly on writing projects.

So, I’m falling back on my normal format and taking a week off next week. After that we’ll be diving into the wolly world of writing and looking at whatever catches my fancy. There will be at least five weeks of essays before we dive into the next round of fiction, probably more. In addition to the usual topics, I’ll be talking about some of my own projects in the abstract. Particularly my upcoming novella Burning Bright, which, for the first time, I will not be publishing on this blog. More on that in due course.

I’ll also be discussing fiction I loved and hated in recent memory, what we can learn from the wonderful world of propaganda and taking a wider look at publishing as a whole. Hopefully at least one of those topics will interest you.

In the mean time, a recap of my thoughts on Fire and Gold after actually finishing the project. First and foremost, I feel this story is rougher than the previous Roy Harper tales because I didn’t have test readers for it. Due to some decisions I made last year I did not finish Fire and Gold a month before each chapter went live, unlike the other Harper stories I’ve done. I used that extra time to send the chapters out to two test readers who gave me useful feedback on things like tone, comprehensibility and characters. There wasn’t time for that in this story.

If I do choose to publish the Roy Harper adventures in a more permanent form I’ll have to go out and get that feedback before I publish Fire and Gold. I definitely felt its loss while writing this. I also felt less invested in this story as I wrote it because I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I was in previous installments. Hernando and Danica were nasty people who were set up to get knocked down. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But it definitely proved a barrier to digging into those characters and writing them with the same glee as I do when I write from the perspective of characters like Roy, Lang or others.

All that said, I am satisfied with the way Fire and Gold came out and I think it’s a good look at the kind of thing Roy does day by day, and why he chooses to do it the way he does. Hopefully you enjoyed it as well. See you in two weeks.