Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Harry Potter and the Blockbuster Model

This will be my last Harry Potter post for a while, I promise. Harry Potter season is almost over, and this could well be the last serious Harry Potter season there is -- the movies, alone, don't create the same buzz as the novels (which now that I think about it is a pretty interesting fact in itself) because the books never cover new ground.

But this is what I've learned from Harry Potter in terms of the fantasy publishing industry: the industry has moved towards the blockbuster model of producing novels and marketing them. As I said in yesterday's post, the idea that Harry Potter leapt onto the scene with no advertising, that it was in some fashion a "sleeper", isn't particularly true. Scholastic gave Philosopher's Stone a huge (for the industry) advertising budget and every book since then has seen sharp increases in advertising budgets (not to mention the various cross-promotions, such as movies, toys, etc., each of which has its own advertising that nevertheless boosts sales of the books, just as the book's ads increase sales of the cross-promotional items).

I think that they're understanding the implications of the fact that, even more than just about anything else, readers are intensely loyal to particular writers. They've long known that readers read writers they've read -- if you've bought Author X before, you're far more liable to get another book by Author X even if you didn't particularly like Author X's stuff than pick up a book by Author Y whom you've never read. So, advertising-wise, it makes a lot of sense to have elaborate advertising budgets designed to create "brand loyalty".

So, lately, there have been a fair number of designer fantasy series, not just Harry Potter (and, indeed, compared to some of these, Harry Potter, in terms of literature, is downright stellar in quality). So, Terry Goodkind's The Wizard's First Rule sold at an auction for $275,000 and he got a $300,000 advertising budget. He'd never been published before. All of his books have been bestsellers. George R. R. Martin's books also had a huge advertising budget, and have also all been bestsellers, each and every one. The same is true of Jordan's Wheel of Time books, where a relatively unknown author was given a huge advance and ad budget and has gone on to great commercial success. This is a marked difference from reading fantasy in my own youth, where the books were never bestsellers and never had anything like advertising budgets.

Or, to say it another way, Harry Potter novels are promoted like a movie, to create fan loyalty in the characters and situations, and creating star writers like the movie industry has star actors and directors. A lot of people "trust" Rowling the same way many movie audiences trust, say, James Cameron. And, furthermore, the fantasy industry is following this model. (I think it's happening to fantasy first in genre fiction because of the intense cross-promotional potential in most fantasy series. It'd be pretty damn hard to make a video game out of an Ellroy novel, but it's really easy to make a video game out of virtually any fantasy series because of the emphasis on magic and monsters -- that sort of thing looks really good in video games! Likewise, you can do cross-promotion in big, special effects laden blockbuster movies, brightly colored comics, etc., etc. as opposed to novels where much of the drama occurs in the private thoughts and subtle actions of the characters.)

I don't think this is a terribly good idea, for the same reason I dislike the blockbuster system in Hollywood. It really cuts out a lot of talent in order to score the big hit, because it centralizes all the money in a small number of products, which will have the effect of choking off a lot of other writers who might have otherwise made it enough to keep writing (tho' there are other things happening that counterindicate this, such as the rapid growth of fanfic communities, but since most of those are part of the hype machine . . .) and definitely centralizes marketing and distribution in a way is designed to keep out competition. I don't like it much at all.

But . . . as a writer who's trying to get a novel published, what does a person do? I understand this. Is it better or worse to talk frankly about that understanding? Should I say to prospective agents and publishers, "Look, I think that this would do well in the blockbuster system of novels. It has great cross-promotional potential, video games, comic books, the whole works"? Because, from all the "how-to get published" books I've read, and various discussions, the subject of money is virtually taboo at the initial phases of the negotiation -- but, on the other hand, I really think I understand how this works. My feeling about the industry is that, while they do admit that publishing businesses operate on a profit basis, they also say that talking about money off the bat is a faux pas. So, would it be an even bigger faux pas to talk about one of the other elephants in the room? The actual underlying motivation of the industry? Would it be taken as a sign of cleverness and willingness to "do what it takes to get published" by talking about it so frankly? Or would it seem arrogant and insulting? I honestly don't know.

But, Harry Potter showed me that fantasy novels, especially, but to some extent all publishing models, are increasingly blockbuster modeled, where writers are packaged as brands to create loyalty through extensive advertising in a way similar to big movies and video games.

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