Friday, March 25, 2011

A Few Thoughts On The Business Of Publishing

He scoffs at the publishing industry.
The more I educate myself on the whole publishing process, the more I think I'm becoming a little disillusioned by it and that makes me sad. When I was a kid, I loved reading books (more so than I do now). I devoured them and could go through five a week easy. Now, I go through about two a month.  I follow buzz because I figure that's where the good books are and the lesson I learned was that a book never lives up to the hype. Now, as a child and a teen I had the utmost respect for authors. I thought, wow...this is the coolest thing ever. I'm enjoying this story so much and what must it be like to have this kind of influence. I quite frankly believed that it might be the coolest thing in the world.

Young Adult Loot Pinata
So then we have books like "I Am Number Four". I never read it, but I saw the movie and it was terribad. I know Michael Bay's movies so I shouldn't have been surprised but you know, the material for the movie comes from the book. Unlike some people, I'm a firm believer that unless the director is an absolute moron, then there's got to be some blame that falls to the author (the originator of the source material). So I looked into this. It's penned by an author called Pittacus Lore and I discovered it was the pseudonym for James Frey. He's the same guy that penned "A Million Little Pieces"...the memoir that Oprah endorsed and later became infuriated when she discovered it was fiction.  A media storm followed and James Frey became a pariah in the publishing world. His agent left him saying essentially that she could never represent a person once the trust had been ruined. So how did James Frey get paid millions of dollars for "I Am Number Four"? Answer: he remains well connected and the publishing business is all about money. They apparently don't care how bad you stink or that Oprah hates your guts. They seemed to have enough faith in James Frey that he had a "formula" for making money that it was like nothing ever happened. So here is what James "Pittacus Lore" Frey did.

He went to Columbia University with a book contract (read about it here) and hired the starving MFA students there (and from other reknowned universities) and created a writing factory. "I Am Number Four" is the result.  Here are some choice words from that article:

"Frey believed that Harry Potter and the Twilight series had awakened a ravenous market of readers and were leaving a substantial gap in their wake. He wanted to be the one to fill it. There had already been wizards, vampires, and werewolves. Aliens, Frey predicted, would be next." 

So yeah...take the Twilight script cross out the vampires, insert aliens, make them hot teenagers that show plenty of skin and bam you have a bestseller?  I would be laughing...only... I guess the answer is yes you can do exactly this.  Like WTF? Seriously?

Here are more details from that article:

"Frey handed him a one-page write-up of the concept, and Hughes developed the rest of the outlined narrative. Frey’s idea was a series called “The Lorien Legacies,” about nine Loric aliens who were chased from their home planet by evil Mogadorians and are living on Earth in the guise of teenagers. Through early 2009, Hughes told me, he delivered three drafts of the first book, I Am Number Four, to Frey, who revised them and polished the final version. Hughes wrote the novel without any compensation and signed a contract, without consulting a lawyer, that specified that he would receive 30 percent of all revenue that came from the project. The book would be published under a pseudonym, and the contract stipulated that Hughes would not be allowed to speak publicly about the project or confirm his attachment to it. There was a $250,000 penalty Frey could invoke if Hughes violated his confidentiality terms."

Well all I gotta say is that people bought it in droves and the book has been sold in 44 countries and translated into 21 languages. When asked about memoirs, Frey responded of the genre that it was "bunk" and "bullshit".  Nice eh?  When asked about truth, James Frey said "It doesn't exist." When asked about Oprah he said, "I should never have fucking apologized." How about self-editing?  He responds, "A trap for young inexperienced writers." I would laugh at him and hold tight to the ideals that I've learned but the industry is rewarding this guy with millions of dollars in his pocket. If you didn't catch that I'm going to spell it out for you:

He's getting paid millions of dollars.

As writers of fiction, is what we do a joke? From where I stand it almost seems like, yes, it is. Readers embraced the first books out of his young adult fiction factory so well that honestly, it looks like a huge "loot pinata" that James Frey is pounding at with a bat, using formulaic plots, crossing out vampires and inserting aliens and whammo...Harper Collins book contract and movie deal produced by Spielberg (and it bears repeating that the movie sucked and that they moved on the movie rights before the book was even published).

Paramount cannot afford to
make this movie apparently.
Meanwhile, the remake of Dune has been canned because the studio needed 100 million to get it off the ground, Max Brooks' excellent zombie apocalypse novel World War Z got scrapped (again for budget) even after star/producer Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster already agreed to make it a PG-13 picture, and Universal dropped Guillermo del Toro's adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness because he wouldn't budge from an R-rating for that $150 million dollar epic.  Why the hell are studios quibbling over these numbers? Films were being made 20 years ago that cost this much. But there's more than enough money to throw at every Young Adult novel that gets pushed out. I'm so confused. Whatever happened to plot? What happened to originality? Is writing now just a formula and as long as you fit into the formula you get paid? Are readers just sheep chewing on grass and if you're somehow smart enough to find the formula then bam, you get a book deal?  

Is this what we are when we read?
So I look to restore some faith in the book market and I discover this. The book is completely blank and it has sold out its first print run, hitting no. 744 on Amazon's list ahead of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Like f*cking really?!? I can understand gag gifts but this is absurd.

Anyway, this post is not directed at any of you fine writers to whom I visit often on your blogs. On the contrary, your honesty and willingness to share your struggles with me is the only thing that keeps the spark of my youth (where I used to think being a writer was awesome) from completely going out. Rather, it's a disillusionment with an industry that I perhaps had on a pedestal. Now, maybe...not so much. I know all of you out there are working extremely hard. I just think that what James Frey has done is a slap in the face to every author trying to make it out there and seems to be endorsed by an industry that really could give a sh*t to be honest. Making money is all that matters and there appears to be a formula (which I don't know) on how to do exactly that. I'm sure Faulkner, Twain, Hemmingway, and Austen to name a few are rolling over in their graves at the question, "Where has all the integrity gone?" The trailer for the H.P. Lovecraft movie is a fake but done so well I included it to give you an idea of what the movie may have been like if it hadn't been canned.


  1. No doubt it's a crazy business Michael. These writing factories are nuts. (Looking at you, James Patterson.)

    Personally, that's why I love eBooks and Amazon. I at least have a shot at finding something unique and unfiltered

    In the end, I'd say don't let all of this stuff distract you. Just write your stories, and handle the business when the time comes.

    Great insights.


  2. I guess if I'd ever looked up that book I would have known "Pittacus Lore" was a pseudonym. I'd heard about Frey's "writing factory" before, though I didn't realize this was the book it produced. Reminds me of something my ex-girlfriend said about these starving artist factories where they hire painters to make cheap prints for people to buy and put on their walls. There was a book too, though I forget which one, where a character made money by repainting famous paintings to sell cheap.

    It seems everything--books, movies, music--is increasingly aimed at the 16 and under crowd anymore. Last weekend I was at my mom's house and watching "Live Free or Die Hard" and I mentioned to my sister that if you watch the DVD you have to watch the Unrated version because the theatrical release was PG-13 and cuts the MF part from his trademark line, "Yippie kay yay, MF-er." My sister didn't get why they'd make it PG-13 instead of R. Well it's because if you make a movie R-rated the kiddies won't get to watch it and the movie makes far less money. That's just the way things are anymore. If it weren't for the kids, all those industries would probably be bankrupt by now.

    Man, I feel so old now...

  3. I totally agree with you here. I started losing fiath in the publishing industry once anyone with a slightly famous name was being given a book deal. I think the e-publishing trend right now is pretty cool though. It lets authors control every aspect of their writing and lets readers find those books on their own. It's like a tiny light at the end of the publishing tunnel.

  4. Jeez - I don't know whether to laugh or cry! :) Fact is there are a lot of bogus people out there and it's the reader that needs to be discerning. My advice would be to not let others callousness affect your love for the craft.

  5. EJ: Great advice. Thanks for coming by.

    Mutt: I hope you read the article I linked. It shows how his extremely candid agent was very vocal about the type of thing that sells. When I read between the lines, what I got from that is "if you aren't in the formula then we aren't interested." No one wants to take a risk on anything new at all.

    M.J.: Thanks for stopping by :)

    Alyson: It's interesting that you'd be talking about authors in control of all of their writing. C.J. Cherryh is one of my favorite authors and on her website she's launched a store to sell her ebooks. On that website she talks about this in quite frank terms and she's completely right. It's interesting that she had to do all the work for her ebooks because no publisher is helping her or her fellow authors (doing it all themselves).

  6. Picattus Lore is not only James Frey. It's him and a MFA student he hired, paid peanuts and promised royalties. I wonder if he regrets what he did now. If he thought he would make a living selling crap lit to teenagers.

    I get comfort thinking about this, when I see how good the movie is doing.

  7. Understandable sentiments and a well-written piece, Michael. I caution against too much cynicism, however. Every creative industry has its "factory" producers churning out by-the-numbers product, and every creative industry has its auteur-types, its people who are motivated by factors besides money.

    The populist stuff, the output that's designed for maximum media penetration and maximum revenue, has its place. In the book world, for example (where, historically, publishers have been gambling on all kinds of properties like bankers on stock market shares for many years, with decidedly mixed results) some of the product that seems tired and cynically marketed and slapped together by hacks but still, somehow, sells bucketloads -- that's the stuff that pays the bills and allows publishers and/or agents to take some chances on a few of the artists out there, the ones that have new, fresh, original voices and ideas.

    As usual, I guess it all depends on your perspective. I mean, let's not forget that despite what I just wrote, fewer and fewer new writers seem to be getting recruited into traditional publisher's folds. Every time I veer towards depression at the state of the industry, however, I remind myself of the excellent writers and books that I have discovered over the last 12 months, all of whom (pretty much) came to prominence through the same industry that I was getting frustrated with. The system's far from perfect, or perhaps even adequate. It's deeply flawed and needs a top-to-bottom overhaul, or, if you prefer, a reimagining, especially in the face of the digital revolution. But good writers and good books are alive and well and being published all the time.

    And what with epublishing and the rise of the self-published entrepreneur, arguably there has never been a better time to be an author with something authentic to say, given the opportunities that have opened up.

    Stay positive.

  8. This post is entirely depressing, but wonderfully done, thank you. There is a lot about publishing that rubs me the wrong way, but it IS a business, and I think those writers who are truly serious about the craft often don't go to a bigger publisher, but to the smaller ones, or they self-publish. Not that the bigger publisher don't put out some good stuff, because they do, but you're right that their main focus is money and unfortunately, formulas and mindless fiction often feed that need. I think it's more of a problem with society than publishers, actually. I think that's where the real problem starts.

  9. Sad to say, but the industry IS all about formula.

    All you have to do is write based on trends, follow the basic rules of writing and you WILL attract publishers to your work. If you want millions, produce a story about mildly functional kids at some sort of school, include either powers, fangs or hot-ness and you're on the New York Times!

    Readers are not as picky as publishers will have you think.

    Amanda Hocking and James Frey prove this.

    Sadly, the industry is making a fortune from these abused archetypes and will continue to pump it for all it's worth. It's like television constantly making shows based on lawyers, doctors or criminal investigators because it's "hot".

    The power rests in the hands of the consumers but they really can't impact the industry when there is nothing "outside the mold" to choose from. Hence arises the two bowls of shit theory: you must eat one, but which will you choose?

    Decisions, decisions...

    I am doing my best to write a story that is void of all generics: vampires, witches, wizards, aliens, schools...

    I am fed up with it all and it's time for a change.

  10. It seems you've left Plato's cave and want to return back to the darkness of ignorance *hug*

    Education and thinking are dangerous. But don't get discouraged. Just remember why you wanted to share your story in the first place.

  11. One more thing: I wanted to commend Neil Vogler on his post about two up from mine.

    That was very insightful and true!

    Thank you.

  12. That was very interesting and hugely depressing. When it comes down to it the bottom line is the kids who bought the books liked what they read and I have to wonder why? Why are so many poorly written books doing so well with kids?

    From the other side (let's call it, oh i don't know, the Dark Side) I can see they see it as a victory for a creative marketing strategy, but it almost seems like they've marginalised good writing, anything that isn't simplistic and melodramatic, as elitist and pretentious.

    What happened to teenagers with standards? I blame that JK Rowling.

  13. What about the book that has no writing in it at all? It's outselling a ton of novels. What does that say about publishing? "Yeah my blank book beat out Davinci Code this week and Rowling's Order of the Phoenix. Pretty cool, huh?"

  14. I think it says a lot about the readers who are buying it and supporting that kind of marketing and product. All I know is that it's not sitting on my shelf, thank heavens.

  15. The more I learn about the world of publishing, the more disillusioned I am. What would possess me to spend money on something that has blank pages inside that isn't a notebook? I gotta tell you, I'm amazed at the success of all the werewolf and vampire and strange creature books. I haven't read any as they're not my thing, however, I'm sooooo discouraged whenever I think about querying my YA novels as my MC's are ordinary kids with extraordinary challenges, but who cares about them if they can shape shift and what-not.

    Today's hot trends don't last and make me think about readers as sheep. I've found that when I do give in and buy something the masses stamp as overwhelmingly good, I'm left wondering if I'm weird because I don't find the stuff as enthralling. Anyway, as writers, we plod along hoping for even a small fraction of the success of writers such as Frey.

  16. Sorry, I meant to say 'who cares about them if they CAN'T shape shift...'

  17. I'm with you on this. The more I delve into the publishing world, the more I'm ready to just hang it up and self-publish. When I heard about how I am Number Four was written, I decided not to buy the book. It sucks for the guy who actually wrote it, because he didn't get 30% of my price, but I just couldn't see supporting a system like this.

  18. Wow, that's depressing.

    It's time to back to my own little world and ignore all the ugliness of those who are only out to make a buck. I like to think that this is its own punishment somehow, someday. (Though, the millions of dollars probably cushions the blow.)

  19. I try to avoid the grim realities by reading books with my kids. Keeps the fun alive. :)

  20. Terribad...Love it. I had to take my kid to see this because she wouldn't leave me alone over it. My 15 year old and her friend love...LOVED it.

    I'm sitting next to them dumbfounded that they talked the Justified guy into doing it in the first place. Wow. bad. But I still dropped cash on the movie, paid for popcorn and soda...because the target audience, my teenager, didn't care about writer's rights or anything other than the head alien dude is really, and I quote "Yummy." 0_o

  21. Thanks for all the comments everyone.

    Raquel, I guess that I wish (in an ideal world) that the industry wouldn't be so dazzled by the bottom line. It's like chocolate cake made them all rich so now all they want is that chocolate cake. Meanwhile we have other chefs offering creme brulee, lemon meringue pie, and gourmet strawberry mousse. Only the industry stares at it and says to you, "uhhhh...this doesn't look like chocolate cake." You try to reply and say, "Just taste it, you'll like it." Then they say, "UHHH THIS F*CKING ISN'T CHOCOLATE CAKE?! Have you been payin attention. Get this out of here and get me that damn chocolate cake!"

  22. I'd heard about Full Fathom Five and read the New Yorker article a few months ago. Totally depressing, and yet, he's playing the industry game.

    It doesn't bother me one whit if an author writes his/her heart out about vampires/aliens/werewolves/ghosts because he/she adores the story and gets lost in the fantasy.

    It kills me when someone does it emotionlessly for the bottom line.

  23. This is a great post, Michael. And fascinating opinions.

  24. I've been pretty disillusioned by the publishing business for a while Michael. I go to bookstores all the time and just see the same ol' names. There have been several authors that I loved- real WRITERS! who couldn't find a place for their novels. I don't know that what I am writing will ever get published if the publishing business remains as it is (and I am skeptical about how much ebooks are going to help new authors- to me they simply mean more books out there with no way to reach their audience while the technology itself shuts out many poor readers) But I write on-- because I have to- because writing gives me purpose and keeps me going when working my day job isn't worth much.

  25. I agree with Neil above that there's an industry in every creative endeavor. Writers sometimes think of themselves as above these lesser mediums and so we're shocked when we have to play the game, too. I know I feel that way. Yet, I play on.

    I don't think you can judge that blank book too harshly. It's a gag, a funny idea that's caught on like any other fad and is making the creator some money. If you worry that this guy's going to be considered an author and not something less than Mr. Rubik, then you're probably going to pulling out your own hair while you try to come up with a million dollar idea instead of writing your own good story.

    Last thing. I find what James Frey is doing most ironic because he used to be a great writer. A Million Little Pieces is a great piece of writing regardless of the truth of it. Oprah kind of screwed him on that.

  26. That's very depressing. But there are some wonderful books coming out by some amazing authors, many of whom are fellow bloggers, so there's plenty of good stuff going on too!

  27. Very good post indeed, but don't be discouraged. You have read five books a week as a youngster, so I am sure you must have read some really good books. I check with my adult kids before I start reading any book. I thought that authours of monthly publications probably used just anything to fill their pages and had one main theme because they had to produce books very fast. I love Beverly Cleary Judy Blume and Roald Dahl also I was surprised to find " A corner of the Universe"by Ann M. Martin(remember baby sitters club books) to be a great book. Good thing I am not prejudised.
    Thanks for your comment. My husband thinks that you are at a spot where he used to be, about good in people. It took him a long time to come to the conclusion that ever one must have some good in him or her.
    Thanks for the award, I tried to find some one to give the award to, one person didn't want it so I am kind of afraid to give it to anyone. May be I will try someone with a sense of humor!

  28. Good post! People like James Frey have found a way to work around the system, and it's frustrating to see people reward him for it. Just remember that other writers value your efforts (and readers will, too). Don't get too disillusioned.