Advice for Writers: Are You a Cable Channel or a Broadcast Network?

I’ve written before how I sometimes classify books and movies in one of two ways: as “broccoli” (it’s good for you) or “dessert” (it’s fun to consume). The very best writing, I think, is both broccoli and dessert.

There’s also a way that I sometimes classify authors of books: as either a “broadcast network” or a “cable channel.”

Does the writer’s work have widespread, “mass” appeal — just like the broadcast networks? Or does it have a quirkier, more challenging sensibility for a “niche” audience, like the cable channels?

Basically, is it 2 Broke Girls or Girls? Two and a Half Men or Mad Men.

Please note: this isn’t really a question of quality. The broadcast networks air plenty of crap, but they also air some of the best stuff on television (like The Good Wife and Modern Family, two of the best shows ever, IMHO).

And let’s face it: the cable channels air lots of crap too.

The point is, an author can be excellent and still have mass appeal. J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and John Grisham are all “broadcast networks,” and they’re (often) damn good at what they do.

Meanwhile, being a “cable channel” doesn’t mean something can’t be popular. Neil Gaiman, Tananarive Due, and Margaret Atwood, all very successful writers, are cable channels: a little weird or challenging, idiosyncratic, more of an acquired taste.

So if you’re a writer, which are you? Are you a mainstream broadcast network or a quirky, niche cable channel? This is important information to know about yourself. But it’s not necessarily as easy to see as you might think.

Like most writers, when I was a novice, I saw myself as a “broadcast network”: I simply assumed that “everyone” would love my work.

Twenty years, and dozens of would-be movie and book projects later, I now know that I am a cable channel into the deepest marrow of my bones.

Broadcast networks try to appeal to every major marketing demographic with their programming. The “four quadrant” demographics are: men under the age of 25, women under the age of 25, men over the age of 25, and women over the age of 25.

If you’re a “broadcast network” author, your books would appeal to most or all of these quadrants. Or if you write YA, your books would appeal to “everyone” in a typical high school: say, sixty percent of the whole school. And probably a lot of college-age students and adults too.

And I don’t just mean “they’d like ‘em if they read ‘em!” The question to be asked is: would your books inspire massive numbers of people to seek them out, to buy them in hardcover?

If not, you’re probably a cable channel.

Sadly, if you’re writing gay fiction, African American fiction, or, say, teen fiction in verse, you’re probably a cable channel whether you like it or not. Most of us wish for a time when this won’t be true, but as a society we’re really not there yet; there are too many people who simply won’t read these sub-genres, no matter what.

For what it’s worth, just being a genre writer doesn’t necessarily make you a cable channel: romance, mystery, and fantasy are three specific genres — but they’re also the most popular genres in publishing today, with widespread, mainstream appeal.

Anyway, what does all this mean for you as a writer? Truthfully, in terms of money, you’re probably better off being a broadcast network. These are (mostly) the books that make the best-seller lists and get optioned for the movies.

By contrast, if you want to win awards, you’re probably better off being a cable channel (better still, a cable channel that writes literary fiction. Ha!).

If you’re a cable channel, that doesn’t mean you’ll never hit the bestseller lists or have your book turned into a movie (I’m proof of that). But frankly, your projects might be a harder sell.

Both types of writers have strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons. And I’m not trying to put writers in boxes, and I would never tell any writer not to reach for the stars and hope for the widest possible audience.

But the mainstream world worships authors who are broadcast networks (by definition, right? Something is mainstream for a reason). And it probably always will.

Which brings me to an important lesson I’ve learned: it’s okay to be a cable channel.

In my opinion, the whole point of being a writer isn’t to win awards or get rich and famous: it’s to write books.

Whether you’re a broadcast network or a cable channel, if you’re lucky enough to be able to support yourself doing what you love, well, that’s not a means to an end — it is the end.

You reach that point, my friend, and you’ve already won the game.

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One Response to “Advice for Writers: Are You a Cable Channel or a Broadcast Network?”

  1. Nico 21 March 2013 at 10:49 pm #

    Interesting theory. Good way to think about it. I'm a cable network.

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