Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Market-Tested Ideas

'Anything that won't sell, I don't want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.'
--Thomas Edison. I don't know whether I agree with this, nor do I have the foggiest notion of what this has to do with writing and storytelling (well, okay, I do have some ideas). Mostly, I just thought it was an interesting observation by an interesting guy (this is his second appearance here, the first being this item from '06). But enough about what I think. Time for you to unload your thoughts about all this, gentle reader. Commence firing...

14 Comments:

At 9:33 PM, Anonymous curious said...

Learned some fascinating facts about his VERY entrepreneurial spirit at Western Reserve Historical Society recently. He was quite the businessman! A well-focussed mission statement, eh?

ENDURING utility, that's for sure! If I had an icon for a lit lightbulb I would insert it here.

 
At 10:55 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I appreciate Edison's viewpoint, but it's also snake oil. He didn't really practice what he preached. He invented plenty of things, out of the sheer pleasure of experimental discovery, that proved to have little or no commercial utility.

He DID, however, have a knack for finding and promoting those inventions that DID have commercial value. So he was a bit of a visionary, too.

Unfortunately, he was also a bit of a thief of other peoples' ideas and patents. What he did to steal thunder from Marconi and Tesla, also inventors, his equals in many ways, was pretty shameful.

 
At 10:58 PM, Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Which is one of things wrong with our society, we pander to the masses and the masses (lacking imagination) just want more of the same and so we have sequel after sequel until even the masses are sick . . . and then we wait a couple of years and have a reboot or a 'reimagining' and it all starts all over again.

 
At 11:05 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

As Art ably notes, Edison's like Emerson in at least one regard: he contains so many seeming self-contraditions because he's such a large figure. But of course that only makes him more interesting. He did abscond with others' ideas, but he was also so much better a promoter than any of his rivals that he just basically occupied his own league in that sphere. And when you marry vision, his kind of persistence and Barnum-like promotional touch, that tends to to the trick.

 
At 9:32 AM, Blogger Kim said...

Interesting thread.

Writing is a sales pitch, for certain. If you aren't writing to be read, you may as well invent something that won't sell.

They who invent with nuts and bolts are no different than we who invent with verbs and nouns.

Isn't it true that there are only 3central themes in all literature? (Man vs. Man, Self or Nature).

Why should inventions be any different? Limited themes, just depends who does a better job of selling it. Edison clearly did a better sales job than his peers.

 
At 10:08 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Nicely said, Kim, and who could disagree with all that? What's missing here from this Edisonian thought, at least for me, is the idea that great inventors, scientists, painters, writers, engineers, whatever, don't necessarily or primarily think of markets, at least not until much later in the process. Instead, they're often creating something the "market" or "audience" didn't know it needed, but which, once created, seems almost essential.

So my point, I suppose, is that the creation process at its best--and Edison certainly embodied this notion as well as anyone in human history--is all about forgetting about the end use for now (or what Bill Zinsser in the writing context would call "the tyranny of the finished product") and instead following a creative process that often yields surprising, delightful and useful products that no one but their inventors could have known would have any utility.

 
At 11:53 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I disagree with it, at least some of the time. Because not all writing IS meant to be read, and not at art IS meant to be shared. I realize that we could be talking about finished pieces here. But then there are the five-finger etudes, the practice pieces, and so forth.

Edison himself once said, and ZI must paraphrase because I can't find the exact quote, that he rather than failing 1000 times before succeeding at inventing the lightbulb, he had succeeded 1000 times at finding wrong solutions. I guess it's an attitude thing.

Edison said numerous times that he regarded himself as a deductive refiner of great ideas, not as a creative. He took great ideas, including some from others, and perfected them. I think that's true. But I don't think he was genuinely creative the way some writers are; it's a different thing.

In a rush this morning, so forgive me if I'm incoherent.

 
At 11:55 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

So in some ways, perhaps you can say he was something of a forerunner to Microsoft, taking ideas from more elegant designers and finding a mass market for them.

 
At 2:47 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I completely agree about "the tyranny of the finished product." I know that freelance writers who make their living from their writing might disagree, but it's important to remember that the vast majority of writers are not ambitious about making their living from it. I don't want to over-emphasize the utility of salesmanship over the creative process—or we're all shores for profit. Period. Which we're not, of course. I would hate for all writers to think they could never make an income from their writing—but I would equally hate for all writers to think that only writing for an income was what it was all about. I think the commentary here, as well as Edison's comment, risks pushing that product-oriented agenda. And as I already said, Edison himself did not walk his talk; he always presented himself as a salesman and an entrepeneur, and as commercially driven in all things. But he wasn't. So believing Edison at face value on this matter is like trusting an unreliable narrator to always be telling the truth. Not a wise maneuver on our parts.

Edison overstates his goals and understates the creative process that even he was engaged with. He prefers to talk about being commercial. But even he had a non-commercial creative process.

But I think the Microsoft analogy is dead on target.

 
At 2:57 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

The dreaded Microsoft. I thought that might be a medium-sized stretch to compare them, but maybe not.

 
At 4:48 PM, Blogger Kass said...

I'm a mother of invention, out of necessity, so much of my 'stuff' never sells, but just makes life easier to live. All the mad contraptions I've put together because I live alone may be worth marketing, but I'd rather produce art. Perhaps a great mind, like Edison's was better off confining his talents to what would sell and be of most use to the masses. I'd have hated for Tom to have wasted his time on perfecting the elaborate back scratcher or zipper-pull-for-single-people.

 
At 4:57 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That zipper-pull for single people made me smile, Kass. Thanks for adding that nice surprise to my late afternoon, and as always, double thanks for adding your thoughts.

 
At 6:50 PM, Blogger June Calender said...

I immediately thought of Van Gogh who managed to sell one painting in a lifetime, not that he wasn't trying and didn't have his brother trying too. Art, of whichever sort, may not be recognized as worthwhile for a very long time. Furthermore its popularity waxes and wanes. Electricity or a phonograph had immediate usefulness. An inventor is a different subspecies than an artist. His thoughts obviously, as above, are resonant with many artists. For my part, I'm glad he did his thing but I feel no affinity.

 
At 6:53 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That makes sense and rings true, Jane. As does most of what you write. Thanks for stopping by, as always.

 

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