Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Biggest Problem in Publishing

I just read a blog thingy over at the Guardian that included this lovely paragraph:

"...the single biggest (but rarely acknowledged) problem in publishing today: most of the biggest firms are dominated by cynics and fools. The people in control care nothing for the quality of the product and will always put short-term gain before long-term growth. They remain frustratingly risk averse when it comes to publishing original or unusual material, or promoting new writers, but they will happily endanger their long-term survival at the merest hint of skirt from a big corporation."

Allow me to elaborate on another man's point for a while, but from a slightly different perspective: the movie business.

At the moment I'm not working on a novel, I'm working on a screenplay. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but the main one is that a producer was willing to take a risk on commissioning me to write something new, based on an original idea of mine.

Here's the thing: I didn't approach her out of the blue and offer her an idea. She liked my books so she approached me to talk about what else I could write.

This has never happened to me in the book business. If any editor ever approached me, having liked my books, and asked what other ideas I had in the pipeline that I might want to write as a novel for them, they would have my next three ideas on their desk at this very moment. Three thoroughly developed ideas, complete with sample chapters and outlines. That's three ideas from a still-fairly-young, best-selling novelist with a track record of tirelessly promoting his books online and at live performances.

But editors don't do that. They don't go out looking for the next new, original, exciting idea. We'll come back to this...

Meanwhile, the message that I get from most people in the movie industry (producers, writers, directors, film journalists etc) is that it's now almost impossible to get a big movie made unless it's already a 'known quantity'. That is, it's a remake of something that made money before, or it's based on an existing character (for example, a comic book superhero), or it's based on real life, well-known events, or (and here's an interesting one) it's an adaptation of a book that has already gathered a bit of a following.

This isn't universally true - you can still make a low budget film from an original screenplay, and even among the big budget blockbusters there have been a couple of original screenplays that have done well over the last few years. But generally speaking they are the exceptions. And you know what? I think that's perfectly understandable. It costs ga-zillions of dollars to make and promote a Summer blockbuster movie. If the film is based on an existing property it's still a massive risk, but it's at least a risk that can be measured.

This is, in theory, great for writers of books. If the big film studios want to base their blockbusters on existing novels that already have a following, then whoopee: authors rejoice.

Yet here comes the tricky part.

Publishing companies (and, for some reason, especially children's publishers) are becoming even more averse to risk than big film studios. In fact, children's book publishers seem to be putting most of their money behind titles that are, guess what: known quantities. OK, so they're also going for 'measurable risk'. Why is that OK for film companies but not book companies? Here's why:

In the book world a 'known quantity' means a title that released under the name (or 'brand') of a well-known, dead author, or a title based on existing 'properties' such as... successful films. Sales of a book are massively influenced by whether there is a movie or TV adaptation. So now publishers are doing it the other way round, to try to minimise risk.

This is why you get 'new' children's books based on properties like James Bond, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sherlock Holmes, The Hardy Boys, Tarzan and so on.

I'm not saying these books aren't good - the new Tarzan book by Andy Briggs is really superb and you should all read it. The quality of the book depends on the writer, and he's one of the best.

But the film studios are looking to the bookworld for new, exciting, original material. All the bookworld can provide are titles based on brands made famous by films (which were, incidentally, originally adaptations of much loved books). Publishing has eaten itself.

At the same time, some of those books based on existing properties made famous by films haven't done as well as the publishers thought they would. Maybe when people are looking for a book to read they're actually looking for something new, original and exciting. Maybe by the time the book comes out based on something that's already been an old book, then a movie, then a remake of that movie, then a film-tie-in book and finally a 'new' book the brand is a little... tired. Who knows.

The books that have done REALLY well over the last decade - and I mean HUGELY REALLY VERY WELL INDEED - were all original book ideas. Off the top of my head: Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Wimpy Kid, Twilight, Alex Rider and so on. They were not based on films. They were all, once, original, untried and untested and they all grew fairly slowly to start with before gathering a bit of momentum based on their own originality and quality.

The big publishers don't do that any more.

If I ran a publishing company, even if I were completely cynical and only interested in money, I would surely make more by creating new brands that film companies can adapt into big movies, instead of leeching off the estates of dead authors and the copyrighted characters owned by film companies.

In fact, I'd go further. Most publishers don't get the film rights to a book from an author, because most authors know that they'll get more (and have more chance of a movie being made) if they keep hold of those film rights and try to interest a film company directly. If a publisher does get the film rights, they simply do the same - try to interest a film company in purchasing those rights and making a film.

So how about this: my publishing company would have a film production division. When I bought the rights to a new book, I would also get the film division involved to make a separate offer for the film rights. If the author doesn't want to sell, fine. But if it's a half decent offer it'll be very attractive - it's an offer made before the book is published, before anybody else has expressed an interest, and from a proper film production company with a chance to get the film made and even more of a vested interest in doing so because the sister-division is publishing the book.

Then the film production division of my publishing company would develop the property as any film production company would - most likely in co-production with somebody else. But it would mean that the publisher of the book would be in a better position to make money from the property if a film does get made: not just from increased sales of the book, but because they were a producing partner and helped to get it made in the first place.

In other words, if publishers only put big money behind books based on existing brands they're not going to make as much money back as if they seek out genuinely new ideas and help to develop them across all media.

If I started an independent publishing company it would be with the principle that I am also an independent but ambitious film & TV production company. In a world where most of the major publishers are owned by parent companies that also own film studios, I don't really understand why this doesn't happen already. If it doesn't happen soon, publishers will quickly become wholly unnecessary entities that only exist to publish film spin-off titles.

So that's why I'm writing a screenplay.


Kat - Housewife Confidential said...

I read something very similar from a children's book illustator:

It seems what has happened in food is happening in literature - the trans fats are being pumped in without concern to how they affect the product or consumer. If publishing continues to drive down new writers and concepts then interest in books will diminish. A shame as nothing inspired me as a child like the books I read and the authors I met through school visits.

(PS - nearly made my comment on FB or twitter thus devaluing the blog comment! And now I am nearly a parent of a school child will be hounding you to visit our school)

Joe said...

Thanks Kat! Interesting link too.

Yes, do drop me a line about a school visit whenever you like. Can't believe you're nearly the parent of a school child!

Steve Feasey said...

I really enjoyed this blog, Joe. And I have to agree with a lot of what you said in it. If anything, the publishing industry need to be more bold now and less risk averse.
Good luck with the script - sounds exciting.

NutmegAngel said...

Probably the most frustrating rejection letter I ever got was 'we like this, but the market's not right for it at the moment'. If it's a good idea, surely someone will be interested...