For the past few years I’ve been trying to think this way about projects, professional and personal: I need to know how big the market is, and I need to know what success looks like. Now, this doesn’t mean the former has to be huge and the latter has to be blows-the-doors-off; in fact, the opposite usually sets a better stage for satisfaction. Small, well-understood audience; limited, well-defined success scenario. The Powell Doctrine of projects.
So you can see why I loved this estimate from Daniel Menaker in the Barnes & Noble Review (which I didn’t even know existed)—
I have this completely unfounded theory that there are a million very good — engaged, smart, enthusiastic — generalist readers in America. There are five hundred thousand extremely good such readers. There are two hundred and fifty thousand excellent readers. There are a hundred and twenty-five thousand alert, active, demanding, well-educated (sometimes self-well-educated), and thoughtful — that is, literarily superb — readers in America. More than half of those people will happen not to have the time or taste for the book you are publishing. So, if these numbers are anything remotely like plausible, refined taste, no matter how interesting it may be, will limit your success as an acquiring editor.
This is great. Even if it’s off by an order of magnitude (and I don’t think it is), it’s great. It’s like Drake’s Equation for publishing. Here are the odds that there are intelligent life-forms in the universe… who will buy your book.
It’s hugely important. The reason the web works so well—even though, for so many things, the web barely works at all—is because at this point it’s simply so sprawling. Your starting number, N, is huge, so even if you have to whack it down (oh, only 10% of N are even interested in this, and of those N1, 1% will ever find our blog, and of those N2…) you still end up with a huge number.
This is not true of the Kindle-verse. Not true of the App Store—though it’s growing fast. Some markets just don’t have the liquidity to support anything other than the utterly generic, the totally mass-appeal—and it’s not that hard to scratch out some numbers and find out which is which.
An estimate like Menaker’s is also important because it helps you gauge success. What we always hear about are the best-sellers and the blockbusters. They tend to make any numbers that don’t end in -million seem pretty lame. But with Menaker’s numbers as context, suddenly a super-smart book that sells 10,000 copies seems like an improbable success.
So, this is stuff to think about when you’re creating anything. How big is the potential audience—the upper limit? And what fraction of those people do you have to reach to feel like you succeeded?
Via Matthew Battles’ posterous, which is just about my favorite thing on the web these days.