On Amazon's flash sales creating breakout bestsellers:
Consumers are flocking to flash sales, said Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s vice president for Kindle content, because the deals whittle down the vast number of choices for reading and other forms of entertainment. “In a world of abundance and lots of choice, how do we help people cut through?” Mr. Grandinetti said. “People are looking for ways to offer their authors a megaphone, and we’re looking to build more megaphones.”
Good news: Amazon seems to have some intriguing ideas about how to get people to stand out from the pack.
Bad news: It's Amazon, and it's essentially a lottery.
Know thyself, especially why you create in the first place.
Getting paid for doing what you already enjoy will sometimes cause your love for the task to wane because you attribute your motivation as coming from the reward, not your internal feelings.
It's hard not to think about how this applies to, say, an author, self-published or otherwise. I started writing because it was something that felt right, and later on I realized it was something that gave me meaning and purpose in a way almost nothing else did. I would be writing even if not a single person ever read a word I wrote.
That said, a writer without an audience isn't much of a writer, more of a diarist, and so it is perfectly justified to go look for people to read what you do. Hence: publishing, blogs, what you see here in front of you, the whole bit.
What's not healthy is when you lose sight of your actual motives, or when you never had any to begin with and ignore that fact.
Let's not confuse the process of describing something with the process of creating it.
With all my talk recently about the problems of template-driven storytelling, an insight emerged. We have a tendency to confuse the process of describing something with the process of creating it.
Meaning, we seem to have the idea that if we can document in detail what something is, we can therefore reverse-engineer the creation process (and, by extension, the work) and come up with a way to make any number of things that operate the same way and have the same effect on the audience.
The varieties of fallacious reasoning at work here are so diverse that I scarcely know where to begin.
Template-driven storytelling strikes again (and again, and again).
Look no further for perfect example of the problems I have with template-driven storytelling than some recent movie remake news:
... [here are] some details of the Poltergeist remake script, by David Lindsay-Abaire. It doesn’t sound like a straight re-do of the original film. Rather, it features a family headed by a guy named Eric Bowen. He loses his job, after which he and his family “relocate to a new town to start anew. His daughter, Madison, is abducted, making him truly understand what’s important in life: family. In the new version, Eric’s wife, Amy, can communicate with the dead.”
First off, the mere fact that they are remaking Poltergeist -- not to mention Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, nor Seven Samurai -- is insult enough. Well, even there I'm willing to bend a bit: Seven Samurai did get remade as The Magnificent Seven, and if we're going to remake Korean cinema we might as well aim high, right? (See my comments about the Oldboy remake.)
But let me zoom in on the real irk-maker — the bit about how having his daughter kidnapped "[makes] him truly understand what's important in life: family." Is there one single movie in the past thirty years that hasn't pounded this treacly lesson into us a dozen different ways, along with a whole slew of others (follow your dreams, break the rules, listen to your heart, kiss the girl, etc. etc.)?
On love being the highest law.
My friend Tony Schmidt posted about something I don't normally deal with, because it's outside my métier: the concept of following of the Commandments.
... we should be asking ourselves in everything we do this question… Is this an act of love? Makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, if Jesus asked us to love one another, then perhaps we could do little wrong if we ask ourselves whether or not the actions we are about to take are those out of love ...
Tony is an Episcopalian Christian; the closest spiritual path I could say I'm affiliated with is Zen Buddhism. But the way he talks about the issue reminds me that with many matters of spirit, most of the differences are just the way the discussion is framed.
Is formula storytelling "better" just because it's more commercially successful?
Every so often I run down my arguments about why template-driven storytelling fails us all in the long run, because it displaces everything else. I typically get a counter-argument that runs something like this: Isn't the reason those formulaic works displace other, non-formula works is because they're just plain better?
Well, that depends on your definition of "better", doesn't it? If by "better" you mean "more easily marketed", sure. That's a definition of "better" which appeals to a salesman, but less so to someone who wants something truly interesting to read or watch. It's a little like saying the carcinoma cell is "better" than its non-cancerous neighbors because it does such a great job of multiplying.
Amazon helps fanfic goes "legit" -- or is it about fanfic?
Lots of folks have jumped on the announcement that Amazon is setting up a system by which content owners can license what they have to allow officially-sanctioned fanfiction. I don't see this so much as a triumph of fanfic as I see it as Amazon, and maybe the content owners as well, sensing an emergent market ... and perhaps also trying to keep the next Fifty Shades of Gray from getting produced (or at least prevent it from not returning them any money to them in the process).
What's most striking to me is not the fanfic side of it per se but the process being put in place. In essence, this isn't a "fan fiction mill"; it's a streamlining of the pitch process for tie-ins and spin-offs — things the creators usually set up on their own and then hire in people from the outside to write for them. But if they have a veritable army of people willing to do the job, why not let them have at it? (Assuming that doesn't tick off the established professionals who worked hard to write for such a thing, only to be displaced by a bunch of upstarts, etc.)
And what more, it's not the content creators that seem to have been the trigger for this process. Rather, it's the pipeline — Amazon — sensing a market that has yet to be created, and doing what it can to bring it into being. Shrewd work on their part. From here, they could go any number of places — e.g., partnering with musicians to allow tracks to be remixed or sampled (and further monetized by all three parties). Just as long as the original content holders have the last word ....
Why the pipeline that deliver us the culture we have to live with is failing us.
The Pipeline isn’t doing it’s job. There’s a flattening, blanding, ahistorical problem in our culture. We’re not getting sold things of deep value, we’re getting sold something again and again. Our culture is too important to be left in the hands of simple profit-loss calculations.
The pipeline, as Steven and I have come to call it, is everything that gets culture to you. Mainly, it's the mix of distribution mechanisms that are owned and run by some corporate concern — the Wal-Marts, Amazons, Best Buys, theatrical chains and so on. They're the ones who are actually buying what's out there, which is what makes them so important.
What hasn't gone too closely examined, I fear, is the long-term cultural-ecological effects of this system. Every now and then someone comes along and bleats about "mass culture" (pace Dwight Macdonald once again), scores a few points with exactly the wrong sector of society — mostly the folks who would be happier if everyone threw Harry Potter on the bonfire and picked up some good clean Shakespeare instead — and vanishes in a puff of footnotes. As a result, it's difficult to talk about "cultural pollution" without sounding like a fuddy.
But with each post I write about this topic, with each new slice I take off a different side of it, I see more and more that the ecological analogies are not at all out of line. To talk properly of "cultural pollution" requires we go less into what is being produced than how. We don't worry as much about a factory that is carbon-neutral, solar-powered and cradle-to-cradle with its raw materials, but we have good reason to worry about a factory that dumps sludge into a river and churns out products destined to sit in a landfill and leak heavy metals into our water table. If the world crashes into our living room, doesn't it stand to reason that it'll take out a load-bearing beam or two in the process if we're not careful?
Why checklist-driven, beat-structure construction works in the short run but is ruinous in the long run.
Regular readers of these pages know I have issues with the way mass-market entertainment is pounded out according to a series of predictable formulas. With movies, it's the three-act script structure (the "Syd Field" template), which has become so standardized that not only screenwriters but producers take lessons in how to write scripts like everyone else, less they not know what to look for. Other examples abound, but that's one of the most egregious and obvious of the bunch.
Some folks manage to make the templates work with them, not against them. PIXAR are masters of this sort of thing — well, at least they used to be, until Disney's commercial pressures got the better of their storytelling impulses.
For a long time I had trouble explaining why three-act beat-structure storytelling bothered me so much, aside from the obvious indictment that it was storytelling-by-formula, and that when you do anything by a formula you get nothing but variations on the formula. It took a conversation with a friend the other night to put better words to the objection: it's a conflation of an explanatory device with a generative device.
Just having an audience doesn't mean you have something to say to it.
From the comments to Science Fiction Repair Shop: A Defect Of Character Dept. (Genji Press), where I lamented the way SF&F authors seem to be untrained in (or discouraged from) digging into personal experience and thus establishing an intimate rapport with their readers:
Going from the idea that there's a loss of intimacy and connection [between audiences and creators in their works], then is it possible that need is acknowledged - in other media? Authors blogging, connecting on twitter, showing up at conventions? Is that in part a substitute for a lack of intimacy in the media itself?
I suspect this problem has been around since long before the recent explosion of social media, so while those things didn't create this problem, they certainly haven't been of much help alleviating it. The root of the problem seems to be the way we confuse merely having an audience with actually having something to say.
Every author¹ craves an audience, and not always for reasons they themselves fully understand. Some write simply because they have a vision to communicate, one with more appeal to the senses or the emotions than the intellect, and where any intellectual content is most likely discovered after the fact or attributed retroactively by others. Some write because they have a specific agenda to advance, whether aesthetic, political, social, or personal. And sometimes that personal agenda is nothing more than the cultivation of an audience: they want to write so they can be heard.
How economics supplants culture: a failure of marketing, and of imagination.
In an essay named "Economics Not Culture", my friend Steven Savage asserts that economic processes have replaced cultural ones. I agree, and I believe the problem is even worse than the way he describes it.
I admit this is not a new concept, or a particular profound one. But it has taken on a new and virulent form in the last few years. It is the idea that there is no better way to determine the worth of something culturally by how well it performs in the marketplace — and by that token, the only things worth producing are those which get mobbed on by enough people that no unusual efforts (aside from efforts of scale and scope) have to be made to sell it.
The idea of economics as a cultural force (at least as it is most relevant here) can be traced back to — who else? -- Marx. His concern was that capital reduces the individual to an integer in a system that inevitably exploits him. That all had a germ of truth to it, but he missed several other things which severely undermined the predictive power of his work.
Creativity, once again: it's at least as much about observing as it is "making stuff up."
From the comments to Indie Pandering Dept. (Genji Press)
I think we both discount and overemphasize imagination at the same time. On one level it's viewed as "making stuff up." On the other hand there's the emphasis on how supposedly imaginative people make tons of cash.
And if you think making stuff up is the fast road to riches, I have various water-spanning properties in the Five Boroughs for sale.
I don't think most people believe in the get-rick-quick part of this stuff anymore — well, they'd better not, or they're in for some major letdown! — but I do think they are just as often, if not more so, under the sway of a delusion that is no less damaging, the idea that imagination is nothing but "making stuff up."
What self-publishers need most: big data?
... there is one truism that augurs well for publishing: Great marketing is no longer enough – if your product, be that a book, game or other storytelling project, is substandard, you will be found out, and the days of getting by on reputation alone are numbered. Basically, make a great game/book/product, and build your marketing with confidence from that point.
On the other hand, I no longer believe you can expect a great thing to accrue its own marketing on its own. The magic word-of-mouth we all like to assume exists, the kind where the stone you nudged downhill with your toe turns into a landslide, is as much a product of sheer luck and network effects as it is effort.
That said, I suspect there are very good reasons why those things are a product of sheer luck and network effects. In other words, the code can be cracked if we're diligent, but I suspect it requires access to the kind of metrics and stats that most self-published authors are either not in the habit of harvesting or simply don't have access to.
The fact that each self-publishing platform is an island unto itself doesn't help — it's next to impossible to harvest data from them, since they don't publish it. Maybe a sort of coalition of performance data sharing between self-publishers could be created — a way for individuals to tap into the collective data created by so many people working solo, side by side.
Ralph Bakshi is alive, well, and angry in a good way.
Ralph Bakshi is alive, well, working on a new film (which you can fund on Kickstarter), and very, very angry in a good way.
I never went and did a film to make audiences feel good or happy. I could care less what my audiences cared about. What every big director in Hollywood today is really doing, most of them, they’re creating lies. Now what do I mean by lying? It’s that they get together in a room…I was there so I know…they get together in a room and they say, “OK, how do we make audiences happy? How do we make a film that gets them excited?” So they forget the truth. The truth isn’t the issue anymore. It’s all smoke and mirrors. That’s the reality. A lot of them are very, very successful. When I approach my films, I’m asking myself what am I angry about, what do I want to say to people? Who cares what they think. That’s always my approach. And I’m dying for them [the audience] to show up and see it. Don’t get me wrong. I’d like a Ferrari. I would love to buy a Ferrari and drive around America, you know what I’m saying? There’s nothing wrong with money if you make it honestly. I always wanted audiences to come, I wanted them to like my films. Every artist wants you to like their work. But I didn’t bend my work towards what I thought they would want to see.
Sitting on my desk right now are a few books that embody the obverse of this argument, all of them books on screenwriting I picked up from the dollar rack at a bookstore I frequent. Their argument, which I believe I am not caricaturing too badly by phrasing it this way, is that a story not worth selling to a large number of people is not worth selling, period.
A new venue for one-to-one curation: gaming.
"I think as more content becomes available you are going to see individuals who are not devs and maybe not working at hardware companies becoming the 'trusted source' of what is good out there in the mass of games," Baez said, noting he thinks digital platforms will adopt curated feeds in the future. "This will differ than just ratings or being a reviewer; I think it will become more like your favorite radio DJ who you listen to because you like their taste."
Sound familiar? Granted, it's an entirely different venue from the bookstore or record store, but it has the same flavor. We never really had a culture of indie gaming stores — or, rather, they were subsumed into other things like comic shops and whatnot — but if there's a way to make curation happen that serves audiences of all kinds, to get them interested in the genuinely new and inventive rather than simply straitjacket them into buying a minimally-revved version of what was out last year, let's see it.
The number-crunchers have arrived in the screenwriting department. Pray.
For as much as $20,000 per script, Mr. Bruzzese and a team of analysts compare the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success. His company, Worldwide Motion Picture Group, also digs into an extensive database of focus group results for similar films and surveys 1,500 potential moviegoers.
Yes, this is every bit as gruesome as it sounds. It's applying the Nate Silver quant-crunching approach to creativity.
Among the gems unearthed by this crew: movies with bowling scenes in them tend to tank, so don't include them. So much for The Dude, then! And yes, The Big Lebowski did not do well in its original release, but it's been consistently reissued on video multiple times since and has become a cultural touchstone — something which they achieved, I add, with relatively minimal risk given the movie's budget.
Or what about There Will Be Blood, whose final scene took place in — yes — a bowling alley? The absurdity of this approach just stretches on and on.
Why do we let the business of creativity pass into the hands of the most uncreative people around?
Steven Soderbergh has made a few films I admire (Traffic) and others I haven't, but the man has seen enough of the industry from the inside to comment on it quite deftly, as he does in this remarkable lecture:
... the meetings have gotten pretty weird. There are fewer and fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies. There are fewer and fewer executives that know movies. ... You’ve got people who don’t know movies and don’t watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make. That’s one reason studio movies aren’t better than they are, and that’s one reason that cinema, as I’m defining it, is shrinking.
... One thing they take into consideration is the foreign market, obviously. It’s become very big. So that means, you know, things that travel best are going to be action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy, spectacle, some animation thrown in there. Obviously the bigger the budget, the more people this thing is going to have to appeal to, the more homogenized it’s got to be, the more simplified it’s got to be. So things like cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and, god forbid, ambiguity, those become real obstacles to the success of the film here and abroad.
... The sort of executive ecosystem is distorted, because executives don’t get punished for making bombs the way that filmmakers do, and the result is there’s no turnover of new ideas, there’s no new ideas about how to approach the business or how to deal with talent or material.
The little guys in creative fields are being just as lockstep and predictable as the big guys.
Bill Mechanic, former head of Fox (under whose reign X-Men and Fight Club came to be), left that company to become a producer, and found the green grass on the other side of the fence was something of an optical illusion:
... the independent world, which should be aiming to do things better and different from the Studios, doesn’t have that as a mandate at all. If anything, the only thing that independent distributors and financiers look for is the SAME. Maybe costing a little less than the Majors, but they want what the Studios want, or in FIGHT CLUB speak, they want copies of a copy.
I now understand that unconventional choices like X MEN and ICE AGE would barely have a prayer getting made independently. Why? Because at the time, they didn’t look like anything else.
It’s disrespectful if not downright dumb to think audiences can’t tell the difference between the original, which occasionally might even have some fresh faces, and the copy, which almost always is populated with retreads. It’s like thinking you can sell yesterday’s news under a different banner.
My notes about self-publishing often being a cesspool of retreads comes back to mind. Here we have a fantastic system for getting truly independent and truly creative work out to audiences, and the overwhelming majority of what's pushed out to people through that particular pipeline is the worst imaginable string of knock-offs of whatever's currently clogging up the bestseller lists.
Just "being a writer" isn't enough anymore -- and maybe it never was.
When I first started self-publishing, I did so out of the sense that what I was doing was not going to be something that could be easily condensed to fit a target market — what I called the "if you like that then you like this" crowd. I didn't want to deal with the henpecked dithering of marketers and editors who would sit there and mutter to themselves, well, it's not this and it's not that and it's not over there, either, so therefore we can't sell it. Sorry.
Me, I figured if I sat at a table and made my sales pitch directly to the people that mattered — the readers — I could do an end run around all such stupidity. I was half right. You can perform such an end run, and you can get books into the hands of an audience directly. But there are two issues.
Once we've bonded through our mutual fandoms, then what?
I have wondered, on more than one occasion, whether or not the fact that something is widely loved is a function of its quality or simply its availability. By this last I mean more than just the fact that it's on TV every time we turn it on or what have you; it's that people enjoy having something to bond over, and a shared taste can become more than the sum of its parts — more so than something which struggles to find any audience at all because it's not shared so broadly.
The more people know about a given something, the easier it is to bond over it. Dig down and find a group of people who are passionate about something obscure like Gojoe (I seem to be in a fandom of one for this film), and the feeling turns ... well, clandestine. Even if it isn't something that obscure, one still feels like the love for the thing in question is being stoked as a way of protecting it from a world that neither understands nor cares for it. This is why most every fandom of repute has such a wildly protective fanbase: if anyone's going to mess it up, it ought to be them.