Hope everyone in the USA is having an enjoyable Memorial Day, honoring our military that serves to protect our principles of freedom and democracy. The San Francisco Bay area was sunny and cool today, one of those perfect crystalline California days.
So it is with some reluctance that I write this. The subject spoils what has been an otherwise enjoyable day for me and my family. I don’t mean to spoil your day, as well, but I’ve been promising this blog for a while. Here goes.
An article, “Blockbuster,” by Kelefa Sanneh appeared in the December 2, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
This is not exactly breaking news. I’ve got an article in my archives from 1980 (or so) called “The Blockbuster Complex.” The earlier article discusses the case of Judith Krantz, a first-time unknown author, Beverly Hills housewife, and wife of a wealthy movie producer, who wrote a Danielle Steel-style potboiler romance, Scruples. She turned in the manuscript to a big-time literary agent (whom her husband knew), and secured a million-dollar deal. A big-time publisher invested in promoting the book, of course, and it became a bestseller.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read Scruples. But I did read a succeeding Krantz novel, Mistral’s Daughter, based loosely on Pablo Picasso’s life, and I liked it.
The 1980 article bemoaned the advent of cheesy potboiler novels devoid of literary quality, about rich people and their problems, and the giant advances the big publishers were willing, even eager, to pay for them. As a young writer, I had to agree since I had no desire to write (or read) such novels.
In the decade between the 1980s and the 1990s, big publishers were willing to take a chance on young writers like me who wanted to write serious fiction—by that I mean fiction with something to say about life, society, class, gender roles, and racism. That I wrote (and write to this day) science fiction and fantasy worked well with addressing all kinds of societal and philosophical issues. And that’s not to say such fiction isn’t fun, action-packed, and sexy. It most certainly is! (Mine is, anyway.)
And in fairness to readers, some of you want thought-provoking. Some just want to have a good time. I understand.
Mind you, this is all way, way before the Internet as we know it. Before ebooks and (somewhat affordable) print-on-demand and distribution by on-line retailers.
Fast forward to 2001.
What on earth does “the Comet and the Long Tail” mean?
Sanneh’s article starts out describing the pop music business in the late 1970s. The big record producers invested millions in just one recording artist—a “star”—and ignored the “baby acts.” “The pop-music business had a golden principle. There was an enormous amount of money to be made with a hit record, and no money without one.”
Then, in 2001, record album sales, even of “big hits,” sharply declined. “Executives from television, film, and publishing wondered whether this, too, would be their fate.”
“Disappearing” as in going out of business. Jobs, careers, livelihoods lost.
Now the picture gets a little confusing. In the 2000s, small record stores, big chain bookstores, and broadly popular television programs began disappearing.
But the editor of Wired published a book with an optimistic view, The Long Tail, which celebrated the demise of the Blockbuster due to Internet distribution. Browsing an “infinite aisle,” the culture consumer could utilize “smart suggestion software” to follow his or her own tastes, no matter how obscure. Consumers were traveling down “the tail” of miscellany away from “the head of the comet,” which popular Big Media products dominated.
Fast forward to 2013.
The article Blockbuster states: “’The Avengers,’ an NFL game, or a Taylor Swift album still draws a big crowd, showering profits on the corporations that invest in and promote through the Big Media. Popular culture remains Big Business.”
Now says the Wired executive who touted the long tail: “Though the tail is very interesting and we [on the Internet] enable it, the vast majority of revenue remains in the head [of the comet].”
But is the money really still there, comparing big-selling products to those of the past? The article Blockbuster points out that when you consider the domestic box office of Avatar, considered the top-grossing film of all time, with Gone with the Wind, the latter film earned twice as much, adjusted for inflation, at a time when the U.S. population was half as numerous.
And as the author of “The Long Tail” writes: “For too long, we’ve been suffering the tyranny of lowest-common denominator fare, brain-dead summer blockbusters and manufactured pop.”
Yet the chairman of Disney remarks, “Very few entities in this world can afford to spend $200 million on a movie. That is our competitive advantage.”
Both views agree that the “middle has disappeared.” This has never been more true that in publishing. Yet I can think of a number of “mid-list” movies that still got made. In financial terms, “mid-level acts” are by definition mediocre, and mediocrity is what a free market is supposed to drive out.
But who determines what is quality in the culture? If you, the reader, can’t find an author’s book because Amazon’s algorithm directs you elsewhere and Random House’s publicity machine pays for PR journal pieces and reviews in respected venues, does that make the undiscovered book mediocre? Is Fifty Shades of Grey a quality book because corporations invested in it, the author herself invested in it, and readers bought it? I don’t think so.
A final bit of good news (I suppose) from the article, Blockbuster: “Cultural consumption has grown more self-conscious….consumers have grown intensely aware of the ‘commercial weight’ of their purchases. Every consumer has a vote….Many connoisseurs have come to think of themselves as patrons, eager not just to consumer culture but to support it.”
Have we the consumers got the movie and publishing executives wondering whether they will soon be out of a job? A career? A livelihood?
I hope so. The fear needs to be a little more evenly distributed. But I’ve got a movie project at Universal Studios and am looking to get back into traditional publishing along with my independent efforts. We shall see.
So there you have it, my friends. Is the entertainment business and the popular culture truly changing thanks to the Internet and the plentiful opportunities available to independent creatives to produce and promote their books, films, music, and art? Changing how? Changing for whose benefit?
Or is it the case that the more things change, the more they remain the same?
I ask myself these questions every day as a traditionally-published author, now an independent author and publisher. I don’t have any easy answers for you.
Neither do any of the pundits cited in the article above. They don’t know how to advise creatives because no one really knows what you, the public, will do. What will grab your imagination.
But many authors like me are soldiering on, searching for new solutions and strategies. So on a more positive note, next in this Series will be:
State of the Biz: Publishing in 2014 and Beyond Part 5: Market Share Lisa Mason #SFWApro
Previous Blogs in this Series:
State of the Biz: Publishing in 2014 and Beyond, Part 1: Introduction https://lisamasontheauthor.com/2014/03/18/state-of-the-biz-publishing-in-2014-and-beyond-part-1-introduction-lisa-mason-sfwapro/
State of the Biz: Publishing in 2014 and Beyond Part 2: Who’s Reading? https://lisamasontheauthor.com/2014/04/07/state-of-the-biz-publishing-in-2014-and-beyond-part-2-whos-reading-lisa-mason-sfwapro/
State of the Biz: Publishing in 2014 and Beyond Part 3: The Shady Case of Fifty Shades https://lisamasontheauthor.com/2014/04/17/state-of-the-biz-publishing-in-2014-and-beyond-part-3-the-shady-case-of-fifty-shades-lisa-mason-sfwapro/
From the author of Summer Of Love, A Time Travel (a Philip K. Dick Award Finalist and San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, and Sony. Summer of Love, A Time Travel is also on Amazon.com in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, and India.
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