Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Blockbuster or Bust

The other day I came across an interesting article on the Wall Street Journal Online called Blockbuster or Bust Why struggling publishers will keep placing outrageous bids on new books

It talks about how even in our difficult economic times publishers still make it a practice to put big, big bucks on books they hope will turn out to be blockbusters, and how the entire system actually runs in such a way as to discourage anything else. They also rely on the big sellers to support the other books on their lists. One company cites the fact that 80% of its sales and an even larger share of its profits came from just 20% of its titles in 2006.

As an example the article cited publisher Grand Central, which in 2007 allegedly paid $1.25 million to buy the rights to Vicki Myron's "Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched The World," a nonfiction book about an abandoned kitten found in the returned-book slot of an Iowa public library. Why did they choose this book for all that money? The selling point is that it's like the recent blockbuster, Marley and Me (a recently released movie, which I have yet to see but intend to; not sure Marley has anything on Quigley, actually).

I've always been somewhat annoyed when marketers, agents, editors, and assorted publishing advice givers want me to tell what other books on the market are like mine, because for a long time I didn't know of any. I would say well The Enclave is like Sigmund Brouwer's Double Helix because it's got genetics in it. But Enclave isn't anything like Double Helix. Or, the Legends of the Guardian King series is like Lord of the Rings. But different. (Which is like saying chocolate chip cookies are like brownies, but different, in my opinion). The LOTR tie was the route marketers took, for better or for worse with Legends of the Guardian King. There really wasn't anything else out there. And after reading the article, I understand a little more why they do it.

Here's an excerpt:
"Media companies' hit-focused marketing did not emerge in a vacuum. It reflects how consumers make choices. The truth is that consumers prefer blockbusters. Because they are inherently social, people find value in reading the same books and watching the same movies that others do. This is true even in today's markets where, thanks to the Internet, buyers have easy access to millions and millions of titles. Compounding this tendency is the fact that media products are what economists call "experience goods": that is, shoppers have trouble evaluating them before having consumed or experienced them. Unable to judge a book by its cover, readers look for cues as to its suitability for them, and find it very useful to hear that "Dewey" is "a 'Marley & Me' for cat lovers." In much the same way that potential publishers do, readers value resemblances to past favorites.

I think I must be different than most readers, and maybe my trouble finding books that are like mine to offer marketers as sales tools originates in my relationship with reading. First of all, I'm more likely NOT to read a book that's a blockbuster because so many of them have been disappointments.

Second, when I look at the stories and books I've loved, I don't see a lot of resemblance to each other among them: Watership Down, Lord of the Rings, Horatio Hornblower, The Farseer Trilogy, Watchers, Miles Vorkosigan, Captain Blood, Jurassic Park, Without Remorse, The Scarlet Pimpernel... In fact, I tend not to like books that are like my favorites and try them with trepidation and the expectation that they will not measure up. I adore Forester's Hornblower series, own almost every one of them (I have 9 of the 11 books in the series, plan to eventually buy the other two), and have read many of them multiple times. I couldn't make it through the first chapter of Patrick O'Brien's sea stories, even though they're supposed to be similar. They're not, not to my way of thinking. I didn't even like the movie, and that was with Russell Crowe in it. (Which was admittedly the best part of it... Okay, I like the sea and the ship stuff, but the whole rest of the story was not my cup of tea.)

I loved Watership Down. But Redwall is in the pile with the O'Brien Books. Lord of the Rings has a ton of ripoffs and I'll admit I did like The Sword of Shannara when I read it as a young adult because it was simpler and shorter and easier to read. That opinion has not survived the years, however, and has, in fact, reversed. LOTR has a lot more depth and substance and now Shannara just seems...like a rip off. There are multitudes of Clancy and Koontz clones, too, but I haven't been able to generate interest in any of them.

Well, I always knew I was not in the mainstream. Because there is one main similarity between 60% of the titles I listed above just off the top of my head and that's the science fiction/fantasy/action element. Which right there puts you out of the mainstream.

You can read the full article HERE.