Publishing Goes to the Movies: Part 1

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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