Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 12 May 2013



I think that there are empty ecological niches in the literary landscape crying to be filled and when a book more or less fills a niche it's seized on, even when it's a far from perfect fit – Edmund White

When I think of niches I think of porn. As a kid growing up like most kids it was where I learned much about sex and the female anatomy along with words I couldn’t pronounce because I’d never heard them spoken aloud—honestly it was cun-i-ling-you-is for years. Not so much about males but we are talking Scotland in the sixties and seventies; I’d seen enough willies down the baths or the beach to realise which way my boat floated. My mate used to raid his dad’s Penthouse collection and share it with me. ‘Twas a sizeable collection, too, for none were missed or if their loss was ever noticed their disappearance was certainly never remarked upon.

Some years later the first sex shops started to appear north of the border and, unable to contain my curiosity, I scuttled into one in Kilmarnock and had my eyes well and truly opened. There were magazines and videos that catered for every conceivable quirk and fetish (at least it felt like that): women with big boobs, small boobs, long legs, dainty feet, pert bums, in all sorts of uniforms and outfits made of rubber or leather, big women, young women, wives, lesbians, mature women, hirsute women, hairless women, black and Asian women, tied-up women… It was a far cry from the Penthouses I’d thought were so wonderful only a few years earlier.

And I didn’t get it. You see I never talked to anyone bar my mate about sex and if you imagine a Scotiafied version of Steve and his mates from American Dad, well, that was us; all talk, nothing more. To my mind sexual preference meant you were gay or straight and that was it. Once I started to look around I realised that there wasn’t much even vaguely female that I wasn’t attracted to. The notion of only getting turned on only if my bird wore some sort of weird rubber get-up and had a ping pong ball stuffed in her gob didn’t register. Words like ‘kinky’ or ‘perverted’ were always swimming around in my head, although I didn’t like to judge. But the idea of only getting turned on by one thing—any one of those things I’ve listed above—didn’t gel. I liked just about everything, just not all the time.

And I’m the same with books. I knew a bloke once who read every western the library had to offer and only then did he make a start on the war novels. I have no idea if he read all of them—he wasn’t a youngster when I met him—or what, if anything, he moved onto next but that would have driven me mad. It’s like having chips every day for twenty years. Now I like chips—especially chippie chips—but every day? It would take a while but I would get fed up with them. And then rice for the next twenty and pasta for the twenty after that and couscous until I croaked. No thanks. It’s like the scene from the film version of Shirley Valentine:

Joe: It’s Thursday. We have steak on Thursday. We always have steak on Thursday.
Shirley: We’re having egg and chips for a change. You like egg and chips.
Joe: On a Tuesday. I like egg and chips on a Tuesday. Today is Thursday.
Shirley: Well pretend it’s a Tuesday.
Joe: Where’s me steak?
Shirley: I gi’e it the dog!

My dad was never like that although he could easily have been.

mivviPreferences I do get. If you have a choice between a Pineapple Mivvi and a Strawberry Mivvi you make your choice. I would have preferred the pineapple one but, at a push, I wouldn’t eaten the strawberry rather than have nothing. But I wouldn’t’ve wanted a Pineapple Mivvi every time. That’s what I don’t get. The Mivvis were ice lollies made by Lyons; the original with the strawberry-flavoured coating came out in 1954 and the Pineapple Mivvi in 1973. I was looking down the list of their products and noticed this one from 1972: Angel—For teenage girls, a strawberry and vanilla kreem ice, half of it choc coated. What is there about that that screams: “teenage girl” I ask you? Probably nothing more than the wrapping. I don’t remember it but I bet I wouldn’t’ve bought it because it was for girls and I wouldn’t’ve wanted to be seen with a girls lolly unless a girl was holding said lolly in one hand and holding my hand with the other. Yeah, only in my dreams.

John Locke famously sold one million ebooks in five months. His secret? He wrote for a niche. A niche he’s identified, investigated, and delivered to over and over and over as fast as possible. And all credit to the guy. He worked the system. Did he sell his soul to do it? I don’t think so. I suspect he wrote what interested him and was in the right place at the right time with the right product and the right tools to promote said product.

Find a need and fill it. That’s good business practice. Seriously though does anyone need any more books?

But that’s the thing. After I saw my first pair of boobs I wanted to see another pair. Right away, please. And once I’d seen them and they weren’t that different to the first pair I wanted to see more just to make sure but after I’d seen several dozen—okay, hundred—and realising that there wasn’t that much difference between the first pair I’d seen and the last pair I’d seen I still found myself interested every time an opportunity arose where I could see someone else’s. Nothing ever seemed to satisfy my curiosity. And it wasn’t just boobs. I was the same with every other part of the female anatomy and was for a very long time; in fact only recently did I notice a change. I handed my wife my tablet the other day on which there was a photo of Dita von Teese and said to her, “You know, it’s a sad day when presented with a bosom like that that one notices the belt buckle she’s wearing.”

Books used to excite me like that. I visited one sex shop just assuage my curiosity but I’ve never grown tired of book shops. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a posh shop of some smelly second-hand place I like to be surrounded by books and, had I the funds, I would walk out every time with armfuls of the buggers. But I’ve never had those kinds of funds and so I’ve had to be selective and that’s hard because I don’t really go for a niche. Okay I prefer literary fiction but not all the time. Just look at the books I’ve reviewed over the years.

There are loads of articles online talking about niches, sub-niches and even micro-niches. It gets a bit silly after a while. This is how silly:

shitinwoodsKathleen Meyer found a niche market and wrote a small thin book that took the outdoors backpacking and camping world by storm. Her book, How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art, was released in 1989 and has become a year round best seller. At last count, it had sold over 1,500,000 copies and has been translated into several foreign languages. Kathleen's book is THE book on the subject of defecating in the woods. The lesson to be learned is not to dismiss any subject just because it is an off the wall topic. – John Vonhof, ‘Identifying Your Niche’, André Anthony’s Niche Market Know-How

It is a real book. Just click on the link if you doubt me. It’s 128 pages long and onto its 3rd edition. Whoda thunk there was that much to say about pooing?

But that’s nonfiction and it’s somewhat easier there to drill down to see where a need exists and fill it. It’s like chip shops, book shops and even, I dare day, sex shops. We don’t have a chip shop near where I live although a van comes round most nights and parks down the hill; the nearest one is a twenty minute walk which is about as far as the nearest one was to my parents’ house when I was a kid, only there wasn’t just the one there; there were two and there had been two for years and both were clearly turning a nice profit, but what if a third had opened across the street or a fourth round the corner? I took the bus down into Glasgow a couple of weeks back and passed PC World. Across the road a small, independent retailer had opened up Priceless Computing hoping, obviously, to skim off some of the passing trade; it’s been there for about fourteen years I would reckon. This time, though, I noticed that there were now at least another six small shops all bearing similar-sounding names along a stretch of road of maybe fifty yards. Seriously I know Glasgow can handle a pub on every corner but how many computer shops does Finnieston need?

The same goes for vampire romances and sagas about boy wizards.

What comes first, the niche or the product? Whatever the product is there will be a niche for it so that’s not a problem. There is someone out there for every book even if it’s just your mammy. I bet you that JK Rowling never thought to herself: Hmmm I haven’t read any good books about wizards. That means there’s a desperate need for a book about wizards. She’s more likely to have thought: Hmmm I haven’t read any good books about wizards. I guess no one’s interested in wizards any more but I’ll write one anyway. And it’s not just a time thing. Cowboys and Indians used to be a game that all kids played when they were wee but I don’t see a resurgence in interest in westerns coming soon. There have been efforts but none of them have sparked off any real passion with the public. That said, for some reason DC’s butt-ugly western anti-hero Jonah Hex keeps managing to stay in print even if he isn’t in his own title at the moment.

When I wrote Living with the Truth I never gave a second thought to niches or demographics. As it happens I found one. I’ve never seen a book or a film yet where Truth is a character. And by that I mean the personification of Truth. There’s a character called The Truth in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and one in the comic Enigma but that’s about it. Yay! I’ve found my niche. And there’s no competition. Surely I’ve hit the mother lode here.

Or maybe not.

GwenThe American Girl line of dolls debuted in 1986. The dolls depicted figures of various ethnicities and attributes that were instantly popular with children and collectors. A line of books was released, as well as a clothing line and various accessories, all to excellent sales.

One of the dolls produced was named Gwen Thompson, and her unique attribute was that she was homeless and lived with her mother in a car. It is hard to say who was the intended target audience for this doll, but it wasn’t on store shelves long enough for anyone to find out. Gwen Thompson disappeared from store shelves after just a few months. – 10 Toys that Failed,

Apparently one out of every 45 children – some 1.6 million – in the United States is now homeless, according to a report released in December by the National Centre on Family Homelessness. As far as niche markets go that’s a sizeable demographic if only they could afford the dolls which retailed at $95 when they were first produced in 2009.

And that’s the problem with niches. My niche needs to be literate, book buyers and financially well enough off to be able to waste money on fripperies like paperbacks. The first two are not so hard but with so much free and almost-free stuff out there, who is going to search for a product that’s a perfect fit when there are plenty that will do. The jeans I’m wearing just now cost about £10. They’re not a perfect fit, not quite the shade I’d prefer but they were ten quid and what do you expect for ten quid. These days more and more it seems.

Sex still sells. I expect sex will always sell. I don’t completely avoid sex in my books but if you’re looking for titillation then I suggest you fork out for Fifty Shades of Grey.

My problem is I read ‘niche’ and I hear ‘rut’. Yes, I wrote a sequel to Living with the Truth. I did it because it felt right and not to capitalise on the popularity of the first book because I’d not even tried to do anything with that first book and didn’t for about five years. I look at all that I’ve written over the past forty years and it is really hard to categorise. There will be people who’ll like my first two novels but won’t get the next two; there’s no guarantee that any of them will take to my short stories and my poems are something else entirely. And who knows who’ll like the plays if they ever, ever get staged. Oh, and there’s the children’s book and I’m really not sure where that fifth novel fits in with any of it. I’m not even sure I like it that much and I wrote the ruddy thing.

Can somebody please tell me who the hell should I be pitching to?

I’m finding it a real problem because I don’t think I’m a niche kinda guy. Yes, there will be a few people, a few dozen people, hell, I’m even willing to accept that there might be a few hundred people out there who will like any one thing that I’ve written or will someday write but the only person out there who will like everything that I’ve written—or at least just about everything to take account of my previous comment—is me.

And don’t get me started on brands.


Ken Armstrong said...

The most pertinent comment I heard somewhere was that the best Fiesta magazines were always found in hedgerows. :)

We just write, Jim, Don't we? To hell with the niches.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t remember Fiesta, Ken. If there’s one thing pornography isn’t it’s memorable. I know the name but that’s it. It has a website and appears still to be on the go. Apparently it’s the sister magazine of Knave, another magazine I only remember by name although I’m sure copies of both passed through my hands at some time in the dim and distant past. I have no idea what you mean about the hedgerows. That may well keep me awake tonight.

As far as niches go I don’t think there’s much problem of either of us getting tarred with that brush.

BTW just started watching Mary and Martha, Richard Curtis’s latest film. Set in Africa so a far cry from his other work. We’ll see.

Ken Armstrong said...

He has a new comedy out very soon, with a Time Travel element, I believe. Should be fun.

Not wishing to interfere with your sleep, I think the implication was that randomly found p*rn (particularly out in the wild) is the best kind. :)

owen said...

I don't think niche are created by people. I think people are pushed into niche for easier classification by marketing companies.

"So you like tall girls!" here is a tall girl magazine for all your tall girls needs. So you like music? here is a genre for all you needs. Then you get filtered into a little pot until every other pot becomes so off-putting that you just keep buying the same crap over and over.

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s a very valid perspective, Owen, but someone still made the products that are going to suck us in. They saw a gap in the market and assumed there would be people out there who’d fit that demographic perfectly. The fact is people want to experience the first time again and again so they go looking for products that fit that need as best they can. You hear Beethoven’s Fifth and are blown away so you work their way through all his symphonies and then look around for something similar. Then you start on Brahms. Maybe some Schubert. Then where? The problem with the Romantics is that when you’ve run out you’ve run out. So you start experimenting with maybe Mahler or Tchaikovsky. Hopefully your tastes expand. That’s the way it should be. But imagine listening to nothing but Beethoven for the rest of your life. What a waste. He’s good, he’s very good, but he’s not the be all and end all. I’m actually surprised there haven’t been more Harry Potter-esque films. Those that have tried to tap into the same demographic have been different enough that they’d probably have made a go of it even without Potter. I think there’ve been more books but it’s not an area of the market I pay close attention to.

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