I struggled with this prompt because it’s loaded. Let’s back up an additional 10 years (2k/2010) to a time when several hundred years of content delivery paradigm disappeared. *Poof* In the last 10 years (2010/2020) publishers of anything creative have been trying to find solid footing in vapor and are currently grasping at all the old school stayin’ alive methodologies to maintain a dwindling income stream. I decided to break it down into a few obvious and digestible chunks and leave out the peripheral observations. Like good barbecue or the Blues. Bear down on the meat. Ease up on the potato salad.
The two most disturbing things to me in the last five to ten years are franchising and blatant nepotism (which includes Brand Crossovers).
Franchising: Take a look at the NY Times Bestseller List. Aside from the usual box office guarantees (possibly) written by the author listed on the cover, there are at least two box office names in bold print. Across the bottom in a lesser font “with Author You Never Heard Of.” I see this quite often of late. I have one on my bookshelf now I bought for $1 at the library. Another James Patterson with another AYNHO. Is this the ultimate fan fiction payoff? Write a story using famous author X’s character’s, not even bother to redecorate the set? Is this the new wave of Nancy Drew*/Hardy Boys/Mack Bolan? Crank out 70 to 115k that fits the costumes for Patterson, Clancy, and others? Parker’s Jesse Stone and Spenser cheesy re-ups? We don’t care if you can write or not, have an original idea or not, we have a name that sells books, send us your fan fic.
Also, of particular note on the NYT list is the Grisham novel. The plot teaser is an author of murder mysteries gets murdered on a resort island during a hurricane. OMG! How original! Didn’t I see that on Death in Paradise a couple of seasons ago? Grisham (maybe) is now stuffing Christie formula for mailbox money? What next? Every murder procedural on television having a parachute failure episode in the same season? Oh really? That’s been done? Ooops.
Nepotism: Anne Hillerman, Alafair Burke, the Leonard boys. Joe Hill and Owen King (Stephen King), Emma Straub, Nick Harkaway (John LeCarre). Martin Amis, Mark Vonnegut, Christopher Milne, Page Stegner, Carol Higgins Clark. The list goes on and on. This is not sour grapes or to say that none of those people are talented and creative in their own “write,” but I am also reminded of two stories from the music business, where I spent my professional life.
One – Imagine trying to break into the music business in the Mid-Sixties. The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Hendrix, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Sam & Dave, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Yardbirds, Stevie Wonder, the songwriting and studio machines. That list goes on forever, too. Average Jim Bob with an acoustic guitar is looking for some elbow room in all that? Not gonna happen. Unless Paul McCartney’s girlfriend is your sister, he tosses you a few songs he doesn’t need, maybe produces the session and lo, you’re out of the coffee-houses, have four hit records, and become a music industry millionaire lifer named Peter Asher. I wonder did he ever send his sister flowers?
Two – I recall, in my early impressionable youth, hearing a song on the radio by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. When it was over the DJ said, “And that just goes to show that you can get a record deal no matter who your father is…”
So tell me, you’re an Indie author with a bag of short stories. Good short stories. Tom Hanks has a collection, too. How “good” they are is anyone’s guess. I’m betting they’re not bad, but not the new Hemingway. Whose will be on the shelf with fewer than five other choices in Walmart? Because they’re an essential business and bookstores are not? Yours? Mine? Or Tom Hanks. God knows I respect padding your resume with cross-curriculum activities, and Tom is a very talented guy in many respects. But so are myriad others, who will never even get a read or a marketing dollar because The Brand sells the product for the publishers. Free money. Why look for talent or art when here’s some free money? This is the same reasoning behind bands with tie-dyed oxygen tanks selling tickets at Casinos.
Add franchising and nepotism together, along with a dwindling income stream even from the sure-fire box office draws, vanishing brick and mortar bookstores selling stacks of $28 “NY Times Best Sellers” off the $2 and $5 table, and no real plan for going forward, the collapse of the publishing industry (as we’ve known it) is imminent. Anyone who hopes to catch a ride before the ship sinks needs to think long and hard about what to offer them other than your best shot. Because that doesn’t seem to be what they want.
As Faulkner wrote in Mosquitos, 1927 –
“I like the book myself,” Mark Frost said. “My only criticism is that it got published.”
“It’s inevitable; it happens to everyone who will take the risk of writing down a thousand coherent consecutive words.”
“And sooner than that,” the Semitic man added, “if you’ve murdered your husband or won a golf championship.”
“Yes,” Fairchild agreed. “Cold print. Your stuff looks so different in cold print. It lends a kind of impersonal authority even to stupidity.”
“That’s backward,” the other said. “Stupidity lends a kind of impersonal authority even to cold print”
What I’d like to see in the next 10 years? A workable, equitable, modern delivery paradigm. Something like socialized publishing maybe? No. Or a freaking lottery? Anything beats Amazon et al’s stranglehold on Indies and Big Publishing’s apathy and continued scraping the sides of the already baked cake bowl for $.
Don’t look to the music industry for a solution, even though it went down first. They still haven’t figured out how to pay songwriters in the latest century.
*Not to disparage Nancy Drew, who, like her film counterpart in the 30s, Torchy Blane, were original female cultural icons. Girls who kicked ass and took names and showed men how it was done. It has been written in academia of Nancy Drew’s impact that one would have to go back to ancient goddess mythology to find a more heroic female figure. The analogy being a deity got dropped in the middle of things to right the wrongs against everyday folk. That’s Nancy Drew, role model to generations of Twentieth Century girls. Why aren't one of you President yet?