Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Shill Game

I wrote the below blog posting a couple years back. At the time, Fox had just given four million dollars to a writer whose books were hardly tearing it up on bestseller lists to write a vampire novel. What irritated me was that this was not a genre writer, and had no track record in genre. That meant Fox would have to market the hell out of him, creating a bestseller and convincing a genre audience this was a must-have. I haven't read the The Passage. It might be an incredible novel. However, knowing the manner of its creation and marketing, it is somewhat tainted for me.


If you want to find out how many cds sell, if you want to find out how a certain film does in terms of box office receipts, this information is fairly available. Yet why is it that if you want to know how many copies of a certain book title passed through retail, the information becomes a bit more difficult to obtain.

Don't believe me? Go ahead and try and do a search of a particular title to see how many copies were sold. You can ask the publisher, but that's no guarantee that information is going to be forthcoming.

Now you're probably thinking: what about bestsellers lists like the New York Times' survey? You'll notice no number of books sold is detailed there.

If you want information, you have to subscribe to Nielsen. You know, the same people who magically rate your television watching. Nielsen keeps track of retail sales but you have to pay. It will cost about eighty dollars for one title, with discounts available if you want to see more. And even then, the information doesn't take into account some of the smaller presses' distributions.

Why is this important to anyone writing? Because we're basically masochistic people and the more we hear about how difficult it is to succeed in our profession, the happier we are. And also, at some point a writer needs to ask: how many copies of a book sold is a sign of success. It helps to be able to track other writers and titles and do comparisons. It helps too when writing and marketing a title. Shelf lives are short and retailers are picky about what risks they want to take with their floor space. Scratch that. Retailers don't take chances.

Except...

A story is circulating through the literary world about a bidding war that recently went down for a writer's unfinished manuscript about vampires in an apocalyptic setting. A bidding war? Who was the author? Stephen King? Anne Rice? Laurell K. Hamilton?

No.

The author's unfinished manuscript will be published under an unknown non-de-plume. And even if you did know the writer's name, chances are you haven't heard of him before nor read his prior work. The author is Jordon Ainsley (real name Justin Cronin). His prior work? A book you've probably not heard of: "Mary and O Neill", one of those literary pieces few people read which also manages to win the Pen/Hemingway Award. The what? And then there was also "The Summer Guest".

No history of genre writing. No track record with the fans.

And yet Mr. Cronin or Mr. Ainsley if you prefer, gets almost four million dollars for an unfinished manuscript in what will be the first of a vampire trilogy.

HEY!!!! FOX!!!!! If you want unfinished manuscripts and outlines, I got some for you!!! You want vampires? I'll give you vampires. If you want to read more about this go here.

The world of publishing remains a mystery to me. I guess my problem is that I see the world through left wing glasses. Maybe if I clean them and try putting on my "Capitalism Is Neat" basenball cap, it would make a little more sense.

Or not.

8 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

The literary people think anyone can write genre and that a good writer can write it better than the hacks who live in it every day. They are badly mistaken, of course, but they don't seem to learn.

SQT said...

Lol! I succumbed to the marketing machine. I didn't realize Cronin was a non-genre writer and I read a positive review and was intrigued by the book, so I grabbed it. I haven't had a chance to finish it yet-- it's a big one-- but it's pretty good so far. I think it's trying to be "The Stand" to some extent, so we'll see how well it can hold up. The only thing I don't like so far is the tendency to kill off characters just as they get interesting.

But if I had known that Fox was just trying to take advantage of the current trends in vampire fiction, I probably wouldn't have bought this. Darn it.

Kate S said...

Hey - I remember that post! So, I take it the book is out now? (Which means they really didn't put as much push behind advertising as we might have thought...)

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles, I think using literary folk to write genre is going to become more and more attractive to the corporations.

SQT..I think people should read it. I haven't and probably won't, but I'm not going to fault an author for making money.

Kate...the book is THE PASSAGE, and the advertising push has been enormous, along with the payoff thus far.

Barbara Martin said...

I have The Passage as an ARC for a review. The first couple of pages I really liked due to the writing style, and currently am waiting to read it after reviews slated ahead of it.

I try to read a book based on its merits, not on the hype surrounding it.

SQT said...

Stu-- I don't begrudge the author-- heck, he's my hero. I just think I would have waited for the paperback or some more reviews. I'm just so lucky that I don't have to buy too many books anymore that I'm a little quicker to splurge on an intriguing hardback. My only reservations now are that the author might be following a template rather than writing from an original idea. Though, to be fair, when I read "The Strain" by Guillermo Del Toro it felt very derivative. "The Passage" seems like a similar, but better, book.

Gwendolyn said...

Um. I tend to be a more literary writer. I don't write genre. And I don't think "anyone" can write genre. And I certainly don't feel that "a good writer can write it better than the hacks who live it every day." On the contrary. But I wonder if this isn't a kind of legitimizing in the way that it is now"cool" to be a nerd/geek... taking something outsider and making it popular. Now we geeks have to be even geekier to stay in our niche... in other words, how do you think this will impact genre? Or how it is viewed, or what makes it "good/real"? Does this make any sense?

Stewart Sternberg said...

Gwen, you raise some excellent points. I think the first thing we need to do is explore the term 'literary writer'. I don't know what that is, unless we define it as a form of genre, and then we should try and understand the conventions and utterances. As I've said before, all writing, by definition, is genre. Genre folk are 'genre' because they have been shoved into a niche and in their geeky excitement, they've embraced it with the love of a rebel.

If enough "literary" folk are shoved down the throats of the fans, I suspect there will be a circling of the wagons.