Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 16th, 2013

Winning the race one hurdle at a time

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Hurdles

This week, Slated, a marketing site for independent filmmakers and investors, has announced an upcoming series of articles on the art of film packaging. I’ll be reading it with interest, both because I find the business of movies inherently fascinating and because I’ve long been struck by its parallels—sometimes limited, but also instructive—to what professional writers do for a living. In particular, it was this quote from Erik Feig, the president of production at Lionsgate, that caught my eye:

Every single movie that we make has to be sold twice. First, on a pre-sale basis, to a bunch of independent foreign distributors who are worried about losing money. And second, to a customer who wants to see something that they haven’t seen before. Trying to find the right place and the right package that can satisfy both of those moments in time, separated by eighteen months of hopefully good execution, is really, really hard.

At first glance, this may not have much to do with writing fiction. But an author, like a studio executive, has to think in terms of such moments in time, and being able to successively navigate their associated pitfalls is one of the hardest skills for any writer to master.

Like a movie, a novel has to jump across a daunting series of hurdles before it ever gets to the point where ordinary people can spend money on it. First, and most subtly, there’s the hurdle in the author’s own mind: is this story, out of all the other possible stories I could tell, the one to which I’d like to devote a year or so of my life? Second, unless you’re hoping to publish it on your own, it needs to interest an agent who is generally concerned both with building a quality client list and with maintaining his relationships with editors—which means only going out with projects that will sustain his reputation for delivering quality material. Third, we have an editor who is thinking simultaneously about a manuscript’s artistic and commercial merits, whether it’s a project to which she wants to devote months or work, and the impact on her own career. Like an agent, it’s best if she only runs with manuscripts that have a good chance of being favorably received by the people she sees every day. And this usually involves more than one editor at different levels of a publishing house, each one of whom has to sign off before a novel gets an offer.

Hurdles

Even after a novel is accepted for publication, there are more challenges to come. At some point, the book has to be sold anew to the sales and marketing departments, which in turn need to pitch it to major chain bookstores and wholesalers. (It’s this process, not some arbitrary decision at the publisher, that determines a book’s print run, and it’s analogous to the dance with independent film distributors that the Lionsgate executive describes above.) Finally, after all this, the book arrives in stores, where it needs to sell itself to the readers themselves, an effort that may boil down to little more than an enticing cover, a few good blurbs, and an interesting plot description, along with store placement and, perhaps most crucially, a clear genre or category—which includes literary fiction, a category with rules and expectations of its own. Given how quickly bookstores turn over their inventories these days, the real window of opportunity is extremely limited, maybe a month or two. And a novel, like a movie, has to mean slightly different things at each stage. In a perfect world, all these steps would be mutually reinforcing. Sometimes they are. But the number of different factors and participant involved is enough to make an author’s head explode.

So what’s a writer to do? Your first impulse might be to keep your head down and focus on your work to the exclusion of all else—which isn’t a bad response. Writers have one big advantage over film producers and screenwriters, because they don’t need to worry about packaging a script with additional talent: you’re all the talent it needs. And it’s important to remember that while the individual hurdles might seem daunting, each one depends on the one that came before it. Readers are unlikely to discover a book that isn’t adequately supported by its publisher, which won’t happen unless you can find an editor who is passionate about this project, which means finding an enthusiastic agent, all the way back to the first essential step of finding a project that you care about enough to bring all the way to completion. At each stage, energy is consumed and subdivided: readers have thousands of books competing for their attention, booksellers are always looking for the next title, agents and editors are shepherding many projects at once, as well as dealing with their own professional challenges. The energy that a writer injects into the project at its earliest stages is the battery that drives the rest of the process. And the more passion you can bring to the novel on your own, the more will be available to be shared later on, at all those moments in time.

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2013 at 9:02 am

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

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Quote of the Day

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Allen Newell

What makes a problem a problem is not that a large amount of search is required for its solution, but that a large amount would be required if a requisite level of intelligence were not applied.

Allen Newell

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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