How to become a bestselling writer (or bestselling anything else)

Planning your big breakthrough with Poe’s actual, not-ironic, two-step formula for making art that lasts

Today is the 212th anniversary of Poe’s birth. And for the occasion, I thought I’d write an edition of this newsletter for the people who are, perhaps, closer to the starting line than the finish line—the baby writers, baby artists, baby creatives. Edgar Allan Poe had to start somewhere, too. In fact, he was once in the exact same position that you may find yourself in right now.

You want to do something creative—maybe that’s writing a novel, maybe it’s hand-making bold and innovative Christmas ornaments, maybe it’s producing a documentary. Doesn’t matter. It could be anything. In order for your work to enter general circulation, to begin to toddle around on its own and gain its own life in the world, you have to solve (or at least manage for) two classic problems:

  • Finding a market for your work

  • Reaching that market, which is even harder

These are business problems, sure, but they’re also artistic problems, and ones that have been with us for a very, very long time. Before Poe was a marquee name with millions of fans, he was just another struggling would-be-published writer who couldn’t get his emails returned and, as a result, lay awake all night asking the ceiling: “How come everyone I went to college with is making buckets of money and having their second baby when I can’t even get one lousy essay in the NYT?!”

From the time he was about 18 to the time he was 24, 25, Poe was writing poems and essentially doing the modern equivalent of self-publishing because, then as now, there is not much of a commercial market for poetry. Even when he could find a press willing to put out his work, Poe either had to pay for the printing himself, or the press wanted him to guarantee any losses it might incur in bringing out his book.

When, in his mid-20s, Poe finally switched to writing super goth short stories, he did so out of financial necessity. He’d begun to despair of ever finding any market for his poetry, and so he turned his attention to what the market was willing to pay for—tales about posthumous dental extractions. Or old wives coming back from the dead only to murder new wives. Or undead horses emerging from the tapestry to enact terrible revenge. That sort of thing.

This was not his dream, not really. And he was extremely worried and self-conscious about how the people he admired, and high-brow types generally, might find his stories to be crass and dumb. He’d just run out of options. He needed cash and, even more than that, he was tired of toiling in obscurity. He wanted to be noticed. To break out. To find an audience and get some GD recognition at last. (Maybe that sounds familiar?)

So Poe switched genres. Switched topics. Even switched styles, at least to an extent.

From now on, he told one of his editors, he would write pieces about “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.”

That is, horses and murder and posthumous dental extractions. Exaggerated situations stretched to and then past their breaking point.

Maybe such pieces were in bad taste, he acknowledged. But you know what? Screw bad taste. He was going big or going home. “To be appreciated you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity,” Poe said.

Brazen sellout? Yes. Spectacular success over time? Also yes. Today, two-ish centuries later, we can see how Poe’s desperate-yet-calculated switch worked out for him. We’re all still reading those stories, aren’t we?

And it could be the case that, as with Poe, your own biggest opportunity lies in rolling snooty concerns—plus the original, untainted, uncommercial version of your creative dream—up in a carpet and then tossing that carpet off a bridge, pausing only to hear the big SPLASH before you slink away. What might your own brazen sellout look like, friend? What color is your brazen sellout?

Step one: Start with a commercial genre. Then elevate it.

In Poe’s case, he took the gothic short story, a form he’d grown up reading, and he improved upon it so that his stories weren’t just scary predicaments but metaphors as well as comments on the genre, even comments on themselves. It’s a major reason his stuff feels so modern. If a story is functioning on the literal and metaphorical level—a plane of universal human feeling, one that every generation is, in due time, bound to discover for itself—then that story is going to remain open to new, contemporary interpretations.

To call this sort of thing “meta” or “satire” would be a little reductive, and besides, it seems to work best when an artist has a respect for the popular form, rather than scorn for it. You might aim more for Poe’s target, which he said was—both consciously and unconsciously—“half banter, half satire.”

As an example, what if somebody wrote a typical MFA-program-type short story about furtive people having not very important or pressing problems, and made it a diatribe against this kind of story? While we’re on this topic, wouldn’t it be (more) fun if Sally Rooney wrote a novel that’s a winking comment on the Sally Rooney-kind-of novel? Also, what if some horror auteur came out with a wildly popular movie about the fictional news business, the larger fantasy-industrial complex, and how tens of millions of Americans live in a bizarre alternate reality while their punches land in this reality? Could it, would it save us all? Oh God, please. Paging Jordan Peele. Somebody get Zach Snyder out to lunch.

It could be that all these ideas have been done. We’re just spitballing. In any case…

Boiling it down to a formula for your own brazen sellout and bestselling whatever, you might approach it this way:

  1. Take a popular form you like, maybe one that you grew up on

  2. Produce an apparently straightforward but subtly deeper and metaphorical take on that thing

It’s hard to do, but it can work. Most importantly, it can function as a shortcut to those big problems mentioned at the beginning, i.e. finding a market for your work and then reaching that market. If you’re working in a popular genre, then the market is already there. Likewise, suddenly, reaching that market becomes much more straightforward, too.

This kind of thinking isn’t on trend, I realize. It’s not cool to be earnest/desperate, or to be openly ambitious. Plus, “big idea books” are passé, supposedly, while I notice more and more personal essays concluding that there’s no lesson to be learned whatsoever from the experience the writer has just spent 1,200 words telling you about. And it’s true, not everything is a metaphor. Not every experience makes for a “life lesson,” far from it. At the same time, Poe’s example suggests that figuring out who your market is and why they should care can lead to breakthroughs. Even to lasting success.

The funniest thing about the reception to Poe’s work is how high-brow types still tend to think that because his work is both read and beloved by children at the same time it has the depth and power to keep academics busy means that it must be stupid, must be lowbrow. Its massively broad appeal is treated as a mark against it. As though Poe wasn’t pretty much in on the joke all along.

With any luck, this will be true of your creative work, too. In the best-case scenario, snooty types will dismiss it precisely because it’s such a brilliant success.

A good link

Here’s Stephen King on writing the first line of your next thing, and it’s good advice and good analysis no matter what kind of first line you’re writing: a headline for an ad, the very first sentence of your script or your bildungsroman.  

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All best, and happy Poe’s birthday,