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 / / Keynoters: Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)


Writing for Yourself or the Marketplace?

March 23, 2010

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. –Elmore Leonard

Someone once indelicately said that if you don’t understand the obscurity in Eliot’s poetry, it’s TS. This reminds me of an article in The New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen, author of the bestseller The Corrections. He described two models for novelists that I think can apply to nonfiction writers as well: the status model and the contract model.

The Status Model

The status model is that of literary artist whose mission is to create the most artistic combination of characters, plot and setting that they can devise. How commercial their work is, or how well readers can understand it, is not their primary concern. If Umberto Eco wants to start Focault’s Pendulum with six lines of Hebrew, and you don’t know Hebrew, it’s tough, er, darts. But Eco’s The Name of the Rose does prove that literary writing can be entertaining as well as erudite and enlightening.

If University of California, Berkeley, lecturer Vikram Chandra uses so many Hindi words in his otherwise accessible bestseller, Sacred Games, that many of his sentences are unintelligible, it’s our problem, not his. But Chandra is a gifted storyteller, and it didn’t keep him from getting a million-dollar advance. And it made his use of Hindi Harpercollins’s problem.

Herman Melville may be the ultimate example of a status writer. He wanted to write books that are “said to fail,” and he succeeded. Moby Dick sold less than 500 copies during the forty years that Melville lived after writing it. (But as George Carlin once wondered: “If you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?”)

My bias: I can’t sustain the suspension of disbelief when I read something I don’t understand. It takes me out of being immersed in the story and annoys me that the author has interrupted my enjoyment. But if you were born to be a literary artist, you won’t let my bourgeois failing stop you. Nor should it.

For me, the status model for nonfiction writers is represented by those who feel liberated from the demands of the marketplace. Their mission is presenting their ideas or story however seems best to them, without using successful books like theirs as models. As agents, Elizabeth and I can sometimes tell from the first line of nonfiction submissions, sometimes even the cover letters, that the writers’ only concern is delivering their message, regardless of how well they do it or its salability. But thanks to technology, status nonfiction writers are always assured of getting their books published because print-on-demand and e-book publishers will do it for free.

The Contract Model

The premise of Franzen’s “contract model” is that when you buy a novel, you’re buying entertainment: the author has entered into a contract to entertain you. That becomes the criterion for everything in the book: Does it entertain? Does it, as Elmore Leonard advises, leave out the parts that people skip.

Since readers can’t be entertained by what they don’t understand, being incomprehensible isn’t an option. Most of the literary novelists you see on bestseller lists thrive on making their books understandable as well as entertaining.

For nonfiction, I think the contract is that the book will deliver the benefit that the title promises well enough to justify the time and money you spend on it. Reviews and sampling a book can usually lead you to the right decision about whether to buy it.

Since the fate of most books is uncertain, you’ve got to love writing them to produce your best work. Books you love to read will lead you to the books you were born to write. But no matter what you write, the challenge is to find the right place for your work on the spectrum between art and commerce, between writing for yourself and writing for the marketplace.

Happy trails!

Comments and questions welcome.