Success is its Own Set of Shackles
(the PG Version with nasty words removed, honest!)
OK, I’m going to start by stating the obvious: the basic idea of the creative industries (as opposed to the creative arts, which are an Entirely Different Thing) is to make money. Books, films, computer games…. it doesn’t matter to the huge companies that own the publishing houses and studios these days – they are businesses, and business exist to make money and funnel it to their owners. That core function – the generation of profit – is the same for publishers and production executives (and agents) as it is for boilermakers, oil companies and people who make landmines, some of whom may well even be owned by the same huge conglomerates when you trace the web of holding companies back far enough. So don’t think I’m not aware of the commercial necessities of the market – that awareness is a basic tool of the professional – one we don’t talk about publicly very often because it’s boring, but if you’re trying to sell something an awareness of your market is something of a requirement. Not only that, we pay people to keep us in the loop about it – because that sort of thing is part of what a good agent does, and we ask people who know.
So what is commercial these days? According to a friendly editor I was speaking with the other morning, it’s the Same Old Sugarlumps – everybody in genre still wants to buy paranormal romance, apparently*, and while I could have a go at the precepts, the plots… any number of things I hate about this genre***, the thrust of my point has absolutely nothing to do with pointy-toothed perving and everything to do with the culture that has showered us in it.
Everybody wants to play it safe these days. When Jo Rowling hit big with her boy wizard riff, everybody wanted that (and managed to ignore better stuff that had been out there for years, but hey…) and now that Twilight and True Blood are making bank, that’s where everybody’s sinking their development funds. The money-men behind the corporations behind the publishers haven’t got the nous to understand that a publishing house or studio is as closer in some ways to a venture capital firm than a regular business, and insist that everything has to run in exactly the same way as a company that makes toilet seats.
You and I, gentle reader, know that books, films and computer games are not toilet seats. For a start, the hole in the middle of a DVD is way too small…
But at the core of it all, companies want stuff that will sell, and the thinking is that if one bunch of sparkly suckers is going to sell, then another will, too. And another. And another. And suddenly you’ve got a whole genre full of people who desperately want to Get Nasty with the creatures of the night. Hell, it’s a great ad for becoming one of those creatures of the night “I couldn’t get a date, but then I died and now the chicks are all over my rotting corpse!”
And we see the same problem in movies – sequels, tie-ins, adaptations… where are the original ideas?
Because you know what? All of these trends started because four things happened:
- Somebody had an original idea
- They convinced someone with a chequebook – who was doubtless under instructions to make sure the Bottom Line was protected by bringing in the Same Old Shamalamadingdong – to take a flyer on an interesting and original idea (or at least one that was presented as such).
- People liked the New Idea and got into it.
- A bunch of lazy thinkers decided to cash in on the original idea because if people will buy one thing, maybe they’ll buy another, and another, and…
I know for a fact – because editors have told me so and I have no reason not to believe them – that what they want are the original ideas. They want the books that are different and challenging, the ones that make you jump up and shout “Wow – nobody’s ever made me look at something like that before!” But they can’t buy them because the dry, dull money-men above them look at the balance sheet and expect to see every single book making a profit. The gamble implicit in championing original work and ideas is something they don’t like, because it’s just as (if not more) likely to make a loss as it is a profit. This is a constant pain in the area that directly interfaces with the Uncomfortable Corporate-Issue Chair for your average editor, who got into publishing because they love books and stories and want to help make them better and share them with the world****. Every so often they get to put something new out into the world, and there’s great delight when it happens, but then the marketing budget comes into play – and the average genre imprint’s marketing budget seems to be about £2.73 and a half-eaten packet of tortilla chips per annum, with rules that require most of it to go on books that are already selling first. So even when an editor gets the joy of bringing something new and clever to the readership, it quite frequently gets lost in the noise as the long-awaited twenty-ninth volume of Big Epic Series (in which some actual plot actually happens this time, honest!) comes out.
Now take your average book budget (more than you think, by the time everything’s been factored in) and multiply it by a thousand. There’s your average Hollywood movie budget, and if you thought MegaGloboCorp was a bit cagey about risking tens of thousands on a book that might not clear the red just imagine how they’re going to feel about tens of millions. One big-budget picture going south can kill a studio – you probably don’t remember ISHTAR or HEAVEN’S GATE, so go look them up. Chances are you’ve forgotten CUTTHROAT ISLAND, too – which I loved to pieces but was a big enough flop to kill Carolco. And if you’re lucky you’ll have completely missed SPEED RACER, so stop off and check out the pain there, too. The movie business, however, hasn’t forgotten any of these. They like having big houses, fast cars and expensive hobbies that involve interesting imported products – and the way a studio executive keeps those things is by bringing in a consistent profit and the way they do that is… Ah, you’re ahead of me, aren’t you?
So while it’s easy and appealing to blame the publishers or the studios for the endless waves of derivative doggy-do that clog our lives, for the regiments of emo-leeches, the regurgitated eighties’ TV shows, the dull, unimaginative excrescence that pours into our awareness as from an open sewer, we can’t. The finger of blame points directly at one group: the consumers.
Yep, it’s all my fault. And yours. And that dodgy-looking bloke who collects trollies from the car park at Tesbury’s (especially him – quick, everybody pile on the faceless scapegoat before we have to admit our own part in this!).
Because as long as we keep buying those derivative lumps of used boy-cow fuel, they’ll keep making it. We provide demand, they meet it. It’s simple commerce, and why the big successful companies got to be big and successful. If you want something different, show them there’s a market worthy of their attention. Then – and only then, when it’s worth the company’s effort – we have a chance of getting something new from the megacorps. Until that time comes, darlings, just remember to support the small outfits – the dreamers, the chancers, the guys who’ll sell blood or max out their credit cards or whatever else it takes to get the thing made. Those guys have all the passion you want, all the ideas, all the drive – they just don’t have the funding. But y’know what? Not having the money lets them play fast and loose. Success is its own set of shackles.
And what really stings? By the time MegaGloboCorp is buying it ready to pump out, that Bold New Idea is very likely to have already become yet another incarnation of the Same Old Shinola.
* This is the point where I was going to quote an editor friend who used one of the stinkiest pieces of cheese I’d ever heard to illustrate the kind of thing their bosses were looking for right now. It was the perfect illustration of every awful cliché about Paranormal Romance and I simply had to use it. Imagine my shock when said editor pointed me at the listing for a book that used exactly that very tag-line when I asked permission to use it.**
** And that, kids, is why grown-ups ask permission before we quote people. It’s not just courtesy, it’s a matter of practicality. You think I should have got my pal in trouble, just for the sake of your amusement? You do? Well, tough!
*** With one exception: how exactly do all those simpering girlfolk manage to Get It On with their vampire lust objects?
I had a whole rant here that Andy had to cut – it was lewd, it was crude and “graphic” doesn’t even come close. Because I figured, “What the hey nonny-nonny, right? This is Andy Remic’s site! He’s a big, bad unstoppable melon-farmer, he won’t be afraid to… Hang on, where did the vampire rant go?”
Yep, I wrote something so nasty that Andy gosh-darned Remic didn’t want to repeat it – even though I’m willing to bet he probably came awfully close to accidentally moistening his tighty-whities reading it. Let’s just say that it involved questions of blood pressure and hydraulics, and then went on to offer a few possible solutions. One day, maybe, you might get to read it…
**** Believe me, kids: they sure as Syracuse ain’t in it for the money, and red pen fumes will never get you that high…