A couple of days ago I saw #Pitchtopublication trending on Twitter. This is another YA- and genre-dominated way to attract fresh aspirants into the editor (paid) / agent / publisher world.
The Twitter-fueled contest sucks up a big needleful of Film/TV logline disease and mainlines it into prose fiction.
This writer said he wanted to use the contest to judge how interesting his ideas are. That shows he has audience awareness, but it’s a pretty insular group and they’re not really into “the classics.” This is the opposite advice from that given by animation great Chuck Jones, by the way.
Most of the “comps” from the aspiring writers that I saw were from recent movies, not books. However, there were a few classic TV/book mashups like “Buffy meets Jekyll & Hyde.” There wasn’t enough in-depth information in any of the pitches to determine if there was any variability in protagonist age, gender or plot.
To whom will the book be sold? Aren’t there readers involved at some point along the way?
I asked this question at the LA Writers Conference and perhaps 30 to 40% of the audience understood what I was saying. Agents at the conference said that writers needed them because they needed help navigating the system of acquiring editor and editorial board. They described how acquiring editors can say “no” but cannot say “yes” on their own, and told accurately how editorial boards make decisions for purchase. I asked, “but what reader input is considered in the process?”
The #Pitchtopublication contest or game and all others like it arent about putting a basic, coherent brief pitch together based on the writer’s work. It’s about creating something that will appeal to the participating agents and editors of that contest. They are asking for comparables from the past five years under the mistaken assumption that basing any type of creative work that’s worth anything on what somebody else wrote recently is superior to basing it on … I don’t know … like LIFE?
In what universe is working like that going to reach anything but a smaller audience of whatever the “comps” had?
It’s built in from the ground up that any work created in a process like that is going to be similar to something that somebody else already did. Better.
So this is where we’re at. Yes, I watched Elon Musk’s battery wall pitch.
The threat: 20% of North American adults regularly buy and read books. This number is flat and may even be slightly shrinking each year. Nearly 100% of people are literate enough to buy and read at least some books. No one (other than us) seems to question that a significant number of people who would otherwise read regularly aren’t reading — because they aren’t being presented with things that interest them in the market channels to which they’d respond.
Books are valuable but movies, TV and advertisers who cannot put product advertisements into them won’t tell you that! Even though film demonstrably has trouble making its own product from scratch, that world is happy to destroy its feeder system.
The evidence that books have changed our world, and continue to change it, is overwhelming. Dickens’ stories of little orphan boys who overcame incredible adversity to “be the hero of their own lives” contributed to the dismantling of extreme classism. They instilled the basic idea that someone could “rise above” given enough hard work and natural gifts. Dickens himself was this person. He was telling his own story, over and over. Before Dickens, the only characters in fiction that left their “station” were those born noble, yet were unaware of it, like Fielding’s Tom Jones. People often look to “issue” books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin as things that encourage change. I think it’s popular stories that make the real change. Dickens’ work is the work I know the most about, but more recent books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22 have had a huge influence. Most of the official lists of this type are made out of the “canon” so they overlook books like Peyton Place, which unveiled the way small town people really lived, including their sex lives — including women’s sex lives.
We are in a worse straitjacket now than anything Ken Kesey wrote about in Cuckoo’s Nest. This straitjacket involves figuring out what someone liked last week, last month, last year, and shoving more of the same down their throat. This is what is considered “marketing.”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — with its signature female horror, Nurse Ratched — it’s doubtful it would be published today. What were its “comps?” There weren’t any. It was about Kesey’s experiences and life.
It isn’t just that “more of the same” is what’s being enforced and promoted, it’s that the people who can work in this type of straitjacket and confined space are the opposite of the Ken Keseys of the world. I’m using the Merry Prankster as the example. These writers who are so happy to be part of #Pitchtopublication, working their butts off to “please” some “agent” who’s chasing dollars for themselves, can certainly get great at that. The examples of that type of writer are legion. The chances they’ll be writing about something real are …
Like the chance that somebody’s going to kick Ragnar Lothbrok’s ass.
We heard young people at Comic-Con talking about going to see Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a white boxer named Billy “The Great” Hope. Today’s young audiences may not remember “The Great White Hope” so they do not “get” that a movie of this nature that was pretty good was already made. Called Rocky. Also The Champ and Requiem for a Heavyweight.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF MAKING ROCKY TODAY? What are Rocky’s loglines and comps? From the past 5 years, of course. Stallone wrote that film: lots of people forget. A struggling actor transposes his fight for success into a boxing metaphor and sets the story in his hometown of Philly . . . yeah . . .
Let’s try remaking Shaft today, shall we? One of our most beloved actors, well-qualified to star in a remake in Richard Roundtree’s role, is Denzel Washington. But Denzel isn’t making movies like that these days. His biggest recent role is a remake of an 80s TV show that was essentially a wish-fulfillment fantasy (what if an all-powerful ex-spy could fix everything and right all wrongs) starring a white British actor.
Right now everything on the bestseller list that isn’t James Patterson Inc. or E.L. James is Gone Girl clones. ___________________ did something (bad/wrong/secret) and ___________________ (outsmarts/tricks/hoodwinks) _____________________. This MadLib story is filled out with age (28–32), hair color (blonde/light brown), eye color (blue/blue-green/hazel), job (magazine writer, fashion editor, designer), husband/boyfriend (Ben Affleck/Jake Gyllenhaal/Jason Momoa (exotic/slated for death)). These are pop books.
Did anyone see the “the book had a blue cover” bookstore joke? It’s not a joke right now: at least 60% of current trade paperbacks have blue clovers with white type. It doesn’t matter what they’re about. If they’re vaguely thrillerish, the type has “Gaussian Blur” applied. If non-fiction, it is a serif font.
So what was on the bestseller list before this misunderstanding of “marketing” took over? Like, 45 years ago?
There was less literacy and less free time then. And more diversity in subject matter and type of book: a lot more.
Love Story: the classic of its type. Great Lion of God is about St. Paul, by historical novelist Taylor Caldwell (PW noted it was written for a “sizeable and predictable market” — one that is no longer being served very well by secular trade publishers). The French Lieutenant’s Woman, of which I have a copy signed to me by the author, is an unconventional, time-spanning narrative covering a clandestine, sexy romance between a Victorian naturalist and a “woman of ill repute.” It might well be published today as it was not Fowles’ first novel (good luck to anybody writing like Fowles today trying to sell a first book) — but it would absolutely not be #3 on the NY
Times Bestseller list. Deliverance by James Dickey is the book origin of “squeal like a pig!” the astonishing backwoods banjo player, and ultrahot Burt Reynolds and his hunting bow. It is in fact an incredibly well-written book by a great poet. In addition to having been made into a popular, award-winning film (as was The French Lieutenant’s Woman).
Calico Palace is an historical novel about a young female protagonist who moves to San Francisco during the Gold Rush (’49). It was thus out of print and, although part of a “back in print” forgotten classics series — isn’t as well-remembered or preserved as Deliverance (“Squeal Like a Pig!” = top 100 books of 20th century). The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart … I now realize I’ve read four of these books. It is the first in Stewart’s Merlin trilogy: i.e. Arthurian legend. The Lord Won’t Mind by Gordon Merrick is one of the first gay romance novels. Losing Battles is Eudora Welty’s fourth novel; it features the tales told at the 90th birthday of Granny Vaughn in northeast Mississippi. Made into a hilarious movie, The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight is columnist Jimmy Breslin’s tale of the Brooklyn mob. Such Good Friends by Lois Gould is the only one of the group that is out of print. Gould was the editor of Ladies Home Journal and wrote semi-autobiographical books that focused on womens’ inner lives. Such Good Friends is about a woman whose husband dies, whereupon she discovers he was a serial cheater — it too was made into a film, but apparently not a very good one.
So, before the “comps” took over publishers looked at basic things like “What is this book about?” They recognized that some authors like Eudora Welty ran on place and voice. They knew that sophisticated writers like John Fowles worked in unique ways. They could “get” that readers would be interested in basic subjects like “Merlin” and “San Francisco Gold Rush” and “St. Paul” or “This Jimmy Breslin is hilarious and a great columnist — his gangster story is a hoot!”
They didn’t have computers in 1970. There was no internet. No Twitter. No hashtags. No agents telling aspiring writers what to do and forcing them to spend hours “comping” their ideas … gee whiz … this really won’t work since these books are 45 years old, not less than 5 years old (and by definition in the “compers’” minds — worthless!) -
It’s Deliverance crossed with Love Story . . . Kenton Pierce, a successful 45 year-old sports agent, falls in love with beautiful 23 year-old Samantha “Sam” Justice. After a whirlwind courtship and fairy-tale wedding, “Sam” convinces Kent to spend their honeymoon in the remote Northern Georgia wilderness where she was raised by her widowed mother. While canoeing down the last wild river in the area, Kent and “Sam” are kidnapped by a group of backwoods hunters. After a night of sheer horror, Kent learns that nothing is as it seems. Not only is the hunter who rapes “Sam” her own father, she’s also dying of a new, ultra-virulent form of AIDS! Kent and Cletus the deadly Bowie-knife wielding daddy-rapist now both have the disease.
We can’t get to Love Story level these days. Erich Segal was a professor of the classics, a Harvard graduate who taught at Oxford and several Ivy League schools. He wrote other bestsellers, all quite varied. I might disagree with the premise of Love Story and think we do not need more stories of its type. But I can’t disagree with the skill with which the slim book was constructed or the clarity of his ideas and vision. Much like the late Colleen McCullough, Segal was an extraordinary man able to apply his insight and gift to popular storytelling.
Did you know that Thorn Birds author Colleen McCullough wasn’t just a chunky lady who wrote bestselling novels from her amazing home on Norfolk Island? She was a Ph.D. in neuroscience who founded Yale’s brain science research lab … before becoming the bestselling author of The Thorn Birds and other classics.
I am not the proponent of “only Ivy grads or instructors should be bestsellers” by any means. But neither of these two authors of very popular fiction would ever pass this #Pitchtopublication process, nor would they — like me — put up with it in the first place.