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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