The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Friday, August 11, 2006

Michael Allen Interview: Part 3

Q: Is part of the problem with novels that they are overpriced? That is, when they are compared to, for example, the price of a movie DVD, buyers simply don't feel they're "getting their money's worth" with a book?

A: I don't think novels are overpriced -- not remotely -- provided they deliver what the reader wants. Consider the queues forming at midnight for the latest Harry Potter -- a book which the UK booktrade sold at a discount!

No one in the queue would have minded paying the full whack, but, courtesy of clueless marketing, they didn't have to.

Q: And if price is a factor, what can publishers and writers do to change this? In other words, what can they do to offer book-buyers "more"?

A: It's not a question of 'more', it's a question of better. The whole point of the novel is that it tells a story. The right story, told in the right way for a particular audience (e.g. Harry Potter again) exerts a powerful grip on the mind of the reader. And at the end of the book, the reader is conscious of having undergone a powerful (and ultimately pleasurable) emotional experience.

All that writers and publishers have to do is produce the right kind of books for the various audiences which we know to exist. It's not an impossible task, but it does require intelligence, hard work, and PRACTICE.

No one can do the job straight out of the box. After that, it's all down to circumstance, fate, karma, randomness, chance. See my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.

The problem with many novels at the moment is that they are not written for readers so much as to glorify the author. And, unsurprisingly, not many people want to read a book which says 'Look at me! Aren't I clever!'

Commentary: Allen's comments on the marketing of Harry Potter are worth keeping in mind. And they also have an interesting implication: if the book trade was willing to discount these books -- which already had a guaranteed audience -- does that not sugggest an acceleration of the trend over recent years (or decades) to bank too much on a select number of blockbuster titles? In other words, since the discount is a profit-loss, it is in effect more money into the Potter franchise's marketing budget; apart from this particular "investment" being unnecessary, would it not be too much to ask that some more time, energy and money be put into all books that are published (taking into account the varying resources of each publisher)?

Allen is at his strongest when he comments on the marketing/business side of publishing. I suppose where I part company with him is in his strong emphasis on populist writing. It seems to me that there is already an enormous pool of writers out there perfectly willing to give the audience what it wants, entertainment-wise. And I'm skeptical that the emotional experience of reading a Potter book is the sort of emotional experience writers in general should aim for -- just as the emotional experience of a well-made-but-formulaic studio movie certainly doesn't represent the end-goal of all movie-making.

Ultimately, given the stress the publishing industry is under, there will be an increasing pressure on writers to produce marketable product. This may mean attempts to turn literature itself into a form of genre (that is, formulaic) writing.

Personally, I think the publishing industry, which includes many selfless individuals who need to be given great credit for the work they do to try and keep the ideal of good writing alive, would do well to experiment not so much with dumbing down literature, but publishing new forms of it ... as well as good traditional novels.


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