Publishing Goes to the Movies: Part 2

September 9, 2010

I’m not in the this business to make art; I’m in it to make money to buy art.

–Producer Joel Silver

More similarities between publishing and its West-Coast cousin, the movie business:

  • They have a star system that caters to those who generate the most business. Hollywood suffers from “sequelitis.” It needs brand names, either “bankable” actors or the titles of series, billion-dollar “franchises” like science fiction epics that begin with the word Star or include the name Harry Potter. You know when the stars in publishing’s firmament have a new  book, because their names pop up on bestsellers lists. The most visible celestial body? James Patterson, who, with the help of coauthors, had nine books out and made $70 million last year. His publisher has earned the right to change its name to Big Brown.
  • They want big openings. Although the first weekend’s income from a movie rarely determines how much it will ultimately contribute to the bottom line, a big opening weekend is a good portent. Books can also start slowly and become bestsellers, but the explosion of sales when books by stars are published catapults them onto bestseller lists.
  • Publishers and movie studios make editors and producers who generate enough profits intrepreneurs, in-house entrepreneurs. Studios support producers while they develop projects for them to distribute. Publishers give editors their own imprints so they can publish what they want and benefit from the sales, marketing, and production resources of the house that sustains them. 
  • They have a parallel release pattern. Movies in theaters are like the hardcover and ebook publication. DVDs, pay per view, and Netflix, like paperback editions, follow. Finally, they are on cable and network television, and sold in stores that mark down DVDs and sell remainders and used books.
  • They recycle what they produce in as many forms, media and countries as they can, and have a growing international audience.
  • They rely on their backlist for part of their income. Movie people call their backlist the  “library.”
  • They are dependent on chains that are replacing single-screen theaters and independent bookstores which struggle to survive.
  • They create synergy. Publishers test-market books for Hollywood, which buys many books for the screen. Bestsellers sell movie tickets, and when movies succeed, they can make books bestsellers or return them to the list as it did for Eat Snooze Love. A portent: Relativity Media, which will film Nicholas Sparks’s new book, Safe Haven, is promoting the book, online and off, even though they don’t even have a screenplay yet.
  • They have an insatiable craving for fresh ideas, new writers and good writing. Newcomers are more likely to make their way in the system by starting out producing their own work or with independent publishers and producers. But when they’re ready for the big time, the big companies will welcome them with open arms and wallets.

Write to meet the needs of the marketplace and sooner or later, you’ll get where you want to go.

 Upcoming Event

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)


Publishing Goes to the Movies: Part 1

September 7, 2010

Broadway Meets Hollywood Boulevard

There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows a Hollywood producer in his office on the phone saying: “There are two ways we can go here, 2% of the gross or 99% of the net.”

(It’s a Hollywood tradition that movie studios try to avoid having net profits no matter how much money a movie makes.)

[By the 1970s], the only major difference between the book business and the movie business was that in the book business the money was smaller.

–Former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and bestselling author Michael Korda in Another Life: A Memoir of Other People, my candidate for the most enjoyable book ever written about publishing.

If you want to be a successful author, you need to have a positive but realistic perspective about publishing. You also have to be able to read between the lines of what’s happening so you can figure how to take advantage of it to achieve your goals. What goes on in the film business will help you understand publishing.

Hollywood and publishing have a lot in common:

  • They are each dominated by six large companies. Two of the publishers and movie studios are parts of the same multimedia, multinational conglomerates:

             * HarperCollins is owned by the News Corporation, which also owns 20th-Century Fox.

             * Simon & Schuster is owned by Viacom, which also owns Paramount.

             * (Random House Films partners with Focus Features, a division of NBC Universal, on books Random publishes.)

  • They are being transformed by technology, which makes it faster, cheaper, and easier for newcomers to participate. Technology is also moving the culture from words to images, from product to experience, from possessing books and films to downloads. Meanwhile, the number of theatergoers and book sales are declining, so these companies are cutting costs and reducing their output.
  • Publishers and movie makers must produce winners to make the chains happy and meet corporate profit expectations. Hollywood must have hits—“tentpoles;” big publishers must have bestsellers. “Studios want movies that are bigger than ever,” said veteran Warner producer Joel Silver in an excellent piece about the cost-conscious state of Hollywood in the Sunday Business section of the New York Times (9/29).
  • They use marketing to build and sustain momentum, but what they release must generate good word of mouth and mouse to succeed. However, they are at the mercy of subjective, unpredictable responses of critics and consumers and fail most of the time. Less than one percent of what they produce becomes as profitable as they want it to be. Because they’re hit-or-miss businesses, the hits have to compensate for the misses. It’s the “Spaghetti Factor.” You throw a plate of spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it will stick.
  • They spend fortunes on failures and unheralded work by independent publishers and producers strike it rich. In Another Life, Michael Korda quotes one of former S&S president Richard Snyder’s favorite sayings: “Anybody in this business who is right more than fifty percent of the time is a genius.”  If independently produced books and movies break out, the big companies welcome the winners with open arms and wallets.

In the next post, more similarities between companies that would like to monopolize your eyeballs.

Upcoming Event

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)


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