Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Battlefield Earth

Handbook for morals

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Yesterday, the pop culture site Pajiba broke the strange story behind the novel Handbook for Mortals, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for Young Adult Fiction, despite not being available at most of the big chains or on Amazon. It soon became clear that somebody was gaming the system, calling stores, asking if they were among the retailers who reported sales data to the Times, and then placing bulk orders of the book. (Whoever did this was smart enough to keep all purchases below the threshold that would flag it as a corporate sale, which is usually around thirty copies.) But why bother doing this in the first place? An update on the site sheds some light on the subject:

Pajiba received details from two separate anonymous sources who got in touch, each claiming that author Lani Sarem herself admitted plans in multiple meetings with potential business partners and investors to push the book onto the New York Times bestseller list by fudging the numbers. Both sources also noted that the author and publisher’s primary concerns were to get a film deal, with the movie having been promised funding if it became a bestseller, hence a bulk-buying strategy with a focus on reaching the convention circuit.

In other words, the book, which has since been pulled from the Times list, didn’t have any value in itself, but as an obligatory stepping stone on the way to a movie deal—an important point that I’ll discuss later. For now, I’ll content myself with observing that the plan, if anything, succeeded too well. If the book had debuted a few notches further down, it might have raised eyebrows, but not to the extent that it did by clumsily clawing its way to the top. As Ace Rothstein notes wearily of a con artist in Casino: “If he wasn’t so fuckin’ greedy, he’d have been tougher to spot.”

The coverage on Pajiba is excellent, but it doesn’t mention the most famous precedent for this kind of self-defeating strategy. On April 15, 1990, the San Diego Union published an article by Mike McIntyre headlined “Hubbard Hot-Author Status Called Illusion,” which remains the best piece ever written on the tactics used by the Church of Scientology to get its founder on the bestseller lists. It begins:

In 1981, St. Martin’s Press was offered a sure thing. L. Ron Hubbard, the pulp writer turned religious leader, had written his first science-fiction novel in more than thirty years. If St. Martin’s published it, Hubbard aides promised the firm, subsidiary organizations of Hubbard’s Church of Scientology would buy at least fifteen thousand copies…”Five, six, seven people at a time would come in, with cash in hand, buying [Battlefield Earth],” said Dave Dutton, of Dutton’s Books, a group of four stores in the Los Angeles area. “They’d blindly ask for the book. They would buy two or three copies at a time with fifty-dollar bills. I had the suspicion that there was something not quite right about it.”

Michael Denneny, a senior editor at St. Martin’s, confirmed the arrangement, saying that Author Services—the affiliate of the church devoted to Hubbard’s literary work—promised to purchase between fifteen and twenty thousand copies, but ultimately went even further: “The Author Services people were very rambunctious. They wanted to make it a New York Times best seller. They were obsessed by that.” And in another article from the Los Angeles Times, a former sales manager for the church’s Bridge Publications revealed: “My orders for the week were to find the New York Times’ reporting stores anywhere in the east so they could send people into the stores to buy [Hubbard’s] books.”

If this sounds a lot like Handbook for Mortals, it wouldn’t be the first time that the church’s tactics have been imitated by others. After Hubbard’s death in 1986, the same bulk-buying techniques were applied to all ten volumes of the Mission Earth “dekalogy,” with the added goal of securing a Hugo Award nomination—which turned out to be substantially easier. The writer Charles Platt had become annoyed by a loophole in the nominating process, in which anyone could nominate a book who paid a small fee to become a supporting member of the World Science Fiction Convention. Platt wasn’t a Scientologist, but he wrote to the church suggesting that they exploit this technicality, hoping that it would draw attention to the problem. A few years later, the Church of Scientology apparently took his advice, buying memberships to vote in droves for Black Genesis, the second volume in the series. As the fan Paul Kincaid noted:

At least fifty percent of the nominations for Black Genesis came from people taking out supporting membership with their nominations. A large number of these came from people in Britain whom I’ve never heard of in any sort of fannish context, either before or since the convention. A lot of the nominations from people in Britain came on photocopied ballots with [Scientologist] Robert Springall’s name written on the bottom. It is within the rules to photocopy ballots and circulate them, providing that the person who has done the photocopying puts his or her name on the bottom…I didn’t make any record of this, but my impression was that a large number of people who took out supporting memberships to nominate Hubbard’s book didn’t actually vote in the final ballot.

In the end, Black Genesis came in dead last, behind “No Award,” but the structural weakness in the Hugos remained. Two decades later, the groups known collectively as the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies took advantage of it in similar fashion, encouraging followers to purchase supporting memberships and vote for their recommended slates. And the outcome was much the same.

It’s striking, of course, that methods pioneered by Scientology have been appropriated by other parties, either for personal gain or to make a political point. But it isn’t surprising. What the author of Handbook for Mortals, the Church of Scientology, and the Puppies all have in common is a shared disregard for the act of reading. Their actions can only be justified if bestsellerdom or an award nomination is taken as a means to an end, rather than as a reflection of success among actual readers. Sarem wanted a movie deal, the Puppies wanted to cause trouble, and the Scientologists wanted “to establish an identity for Hubbard other than as the founder of a controversial religious movement…to recruit new members into the Church of Scientology.” And the real irony here is that Hubbard himself wouldn’t have approved. The Union article notes of his novel’s publication history:

Harvey Haber, a former Scientologist who served as Hubbard’s literary aide, was dispatched to New York to sell the manuscript [of Battlefield Earth]. Hubbard demanded that the book be represented by a major literary agency and placed with one of the ten largest publishers. The church and Bridge Publications were to play no role. “He wanted to prove to everyone and all that he still had it,” Haber said. “That he was the best in the world.”

But fifty-eight New York literary agencies thought otherwise, Haber said. “Not one of them would touch it.” In Haber’s opinion, “The book was a piece of shit.” Church officials didn’t dare tell Hubbard his book was unmarketable, said Haber. “You would’ve been handed your head.” Thus, he said, was hatched the plan to offer guaranteed sales in return for publication.

Hubbard never learned that the church was buying his books in bulk, and he might have been furious if he had found out. Instead, he died believing that he had reached the bestseller list on his own merits. Whatever his other flaws, he genuinely wanted to be read. And this might be one of the few cases on record in which his integrity was greater than that of his followers.

A novelist’s view of the campaign

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A few weeks ago, there was a lot of talk about whether polls for the presidential race were slanted toward the Democratic side. Nate Silver has done a better job of demolishing these claims than I ever could, although it’s worth pointing out that, on its face, the allegation never made sense: if the media were really lining up behind Obama, it’s unclear what they’d have to gain by artificially boosting his numbers, which would only encourage complacency and decrease turnout. (That said, if the polls had been running in the other direction, I’m sure we’d see similar accusations of bias from the left, as we did in 2004.) It’s also important to note that while members of the media, as individuals, may skew more liberal than otherwise—for the same reasons that such people tend to be disproportionately drawn to careers in journalism and the arts—their professional and collective decisions arise from a different set of impulses. The men and women who cover the news, like the rest of us, tend to be motivated by a complicated combination of ambition, pragmatism, time constraints, and the professional conservatism that comes from working in an industry that is still trying to figure out its own business model.

This just means that reporters, especially on the political side, essentially tell stories for a living. More than most kinds of reporting, covering a campaign is something like writing a novel: while most journalism focuses on the recent past or, at most, the immediate present, political reporting is inevitably about one particular date in the future. It’s about constructing hypothetical situations, mapping out possible developments, and marshaling evidence that can inherently be interpreted in multiple ways—which is almost a form of highly specialized speculative fiction. But apart from its predictive tendencies, political journalism is also inclined to look for dramatic narratives. A campaign in which one candidate is consistently ahead in crucial polls over the course of many months is the equivalent of a novel in which the stakes never change. As a result, the media is generally predisposed to depict the race as being closer than it actually is. This is why countless news stories over the past few months have referred to the presidential race as “virtually tied,” even when swing states told a different story. A close race means increased voter engagement, more clicks, and a greater appearance of balance. And emphasizing one number over another is a storytelling choice.

Of course, the campaigns are telling stories too, and both sides of this year’s election have their share of novelistic sensibilities. Stuart Stevens, Romney’s campaign manager, has written a novel and television scripts and served as a consultant for The Ides of March, and as I’ve mentioned before, Obama himself once seriously considered becoming a novelist. And where it counts, Obama hasn’t changed: when Michael Lewis writes, in his excellent Vanity Fair profile, of “the president sitting down and trying to persuade himself to think or feel a certain way first,” the temperament he’s describing is fundamentally a novelistic one. I suspect, for instance, that Obama approached Wednesday’s debate as a writer might approach a transitional chapter in a novel. A campaign, like any extended narrative, can’t consist entirely of high points: you need to carefully select the moments when you bring out your maximum firepower. I have a hunch that Obama looked at the situation and concluded, correctly, that Romney was a stronger debater; that the topic of the debate, domestic policy, was his own weakest selling point; and that the media narrative was predisposed to give Romney a victory to maintain the suspense. Not surprisingly, he decided to play it safe, much as a writer might decide to conserve his powder for more important scenes to come.

The trouble is that a campaign, like a novel, tends to be judged by its audience moment to moment, and unlike readers, we can’t move on right away to the next chapter. Viewed objectively, this wasn’t a very interesting debate—Romney’s Big Bird quip was the only memorable line of the night—but for twenty-four hours, it was all anyone wanted to talk about, which is like reviewing a novel based only on a single scene. And for the Romney campaign, clearly, this wasn’t a transitional chapter, but something like the second turning point in a screenplay, in which the setbacks of the previous section are clarified and transcended in advance of the crucial third act. In that respect, Romney did a very good job—although I can’t help but be skeptical of the storytelling instincts of a man whose favorite novel is Battlefield Earth. At every moment, we’re watching two different stories being written in parallel, in real time, and nobody knows what the ending will be. But in politics, as in fiction, it comes down to the long game. As David Mamet says, “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” Or, in this case, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Written by nevalalee

October 5, 2012 at 10:08 am

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