Read Any Good Ones Lately?
Some time ago a Vietnam vet spat tobacco juice in Jane Fonda's face at a book signing for Jane's new biography. What surprised me most about the incident was that it wasn't an author who spat in her face. This isn't a lick -- or even a gob -- on Jane Fonda personally; after all, if you can get a six-figure publishing deal I'd say you were a fool if you didn't take it -- whether you could write or not. It's more a lick (and a gob) on the publishing industry which has essentially abdicated every last vestige of responsibility to anything but its bottom line. The rule today is that if it doesn't generate mega-revenues, drop it like it's hot.
“Things are tough.” That’s the refrain from Publisher’s Row lately. Not that it’s a new lament. We heard it before in 1989, for example, the year of the “Great Die Off” as they called it back then. That was the year that the bean counters and the corporate hatchet men sent by the multinationals who’d bought up most of the prime US commercial publishers took over and decided how things were going to be run from then on. They knew the bottom line as well as they knew the balances in their checking accounts, and the bottom line was, as always, dollars and cents. That was the year that so-called midlist writers were “flushed,” a word few editors acknowledge as industry usage, except among themselves. As this is written Publisher's Weekly chants the same familiar mantra; "Bookstore Sales Plunge," reads the headline of a recent PW cover story.
Sure, you’ll say; money’s always been the bottom line. And you’d be right. Except that publishers have traditionally accepted as an article of faith that taking risks on talent went with the territory, and that good, even great books often didn’t pull in big monetary returns right away. Such was the case with many novels that are today considered among the best in American literature. One such book, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, sold poorly at first. Fortunately, for both Fitzgerald and modern literature, in those days publishers had a different attitude concerning publishing’s bottom line.
Today, Fitzgerald would likely have either had to spend thousands of his own dollars on publicity or face the very likely prospect that the poor sales of his book meant his being blacklisted by publishers and never being able to sell his writing to them again. You see, today publishers maintain computerized databases on authors, including personal information about authors and sales figures that they share with one another. They also subscribe to web-based services like Bookscan, a comprehensive reporting service that instantly delivers facts, figures, names and numbers to editors' computer screens, information that gives them a Zeus-like perspective on the lesser beings who write the books they sell. Authors themselves don’t normally have access to this data, except in the form of royalty statements, which are few and far between compared to the instant access available to editors and management via proprietary computer networks available only to them. Authors are kept in the dark, and professional organizations, such as the holier-than-thou Authors Guild, do little or nothing about it, though they claim otherwise.
By the same token just being a writer doesn’t mean very much these days. Publishers used to talk about an author’s “track record.” Today they use another term, “platform.” This essentially means that you have to prove you’re a doctor before they’ll consider acquiring a book you've written on the medical profession, that you need to show you’re a politician before a book you’ve written on politics will be taken seriously, you have to show you’re a ship’s captain before the book on sailing you want to sell them will be given a serious read.
Platform also means how much of a draw you might be. For example, let's go back to the case of author Jane: Jane Fonda has more platform than Peter Fonda or Henry Fonda because she’s more famous than her brother or father right now, and so publishers -- who sometimes boast of sophisticated computer models they use to make determinations of what to buy and whom to buy it from -- will pay Jane megabucks for her book but won't buy a book, no matter how interesting or how well written, from someone that they suspect has less platform, i.e., less magnetic power to draw in the all-holy mazuma-manna from heaven.
Until roughly 911 the concept of platform pretty much applied only to nonfiction authors, but shortly after that it began to be applied more and more to writers of fiction as well. One of the first sectors, or categories, of commercial fiction to be affected addresses the interests of many readers who have visited my website and downloaded or read this View to a Dave online: I refer to the action-adventure and thriller categories.
Applying the warped strictures of platform to action thrillers and action series, publishers began to systematically exclude professional authors and replace them with untried and in many cases uncredentialed writers who were once in the military but otherwise had never written much or published anything of worth. In many cases these former military personnel were signed for their name value alone, with the actual authoring being done by a legion of ghost writers. Ghosting action thrillers is nothing new to the publishing industry -- many books supposedly written by at least two well-known and highly paid technothriller authors have been ghosted -- but ghosting had never been as systematically used at the mass-market paperback end of publishers’ booklists.
Small wonder then, that editors are now complaining that, “Things are tough” and, “Hell, ten guys [editors] just got fired here last week. I could be next....”
By giving megabuck deals to phonies who can’t write and putting the squeeze on genuine talent, publishers have in effect opted out of the marketplace of ideas, cheapening and degrading the sole product that justifies their collective existence. In their hubris -- and judging by the evidence of what your intrepid pal Dave has personally encountered on strange nights that he will not, as a gentleman of the old school, speak of here -- they have believed that the reading public was so dumbed-down that it plain didn’t care.
Well, troops, they were wrong. Just as the movie industry, which has used similar tactics, has also been wrong. Since 2000 Hollywood has lost billions by pandering to a prepubescent audience that its Strangelovian computer demographic models told corporate honchos was really out there but which only existed in virtual reality. As a result they’ve been casting juveniles in adult roles, and we’ve witnessed movie after movie where the spies, doctors, lawyers, cops, nuns, priests, presidents, librarians, prostitutes, judges, mafia godfathers and other characters figuring in the plots have gotten younger and younger and talked squeakier and squeakier, until it’s reached the point of absurdity.
There is, of course, more to it than just that, including some politically correct producers who’ve shied away from tackling scripts dealing with contemporary subjects in favor of either fantasy trips or historical action yarns set in the distant past that modern audiences can’t really relate to, and which have the net effect of turning the paying customers off and sending them to practically kiss the feet of bootleggers on subway platforms who sell them DVDs at a fraction of the cost of a movie ticket. DVD bootleggers are doing land-office business on the streets of New York City as elsewhere in this fair land from sea to shining sea. Why? Because movie audiences feel cheated and ripped off and they’re kicking back in the only way they know how -- takin' it to the streets.