Note from Kerri: As the second Hunger Games movie heads to the big screen this holiday season, I thought I’d be provocative and repost this. New comments welcome!
Originally published March 19, 2012:
I am as excited as anyone else about seeing the Hunger Games this week. Like millions of other readers, I got completely sucked into the gruesome dystopian-Roman world of Panem, the unusually handled triangle of Katniss-Peeta-Gale, and the various other sub-plots and vividly written details (costumes, gladiators, and violence, oh my!).
So, I am a fan.
But I’m also a writer. A writer of smaller, quieter books than the Hunger Games. And I am very, very wary of the Blockbuster-or-Bust mentality that its success ingrains in the publishing industry and in readers. Let me provide a related example:
Heard of Amanda Knox, the lucky writer who recently scored $4 MILLION for her memoir?
The bet HarperCollins is making, of course, is that this book will be purchased and read by SO MANY people, they will make back the whole $4 million they are paying Amanda, PLUS the millions they are also no doubt spending on publicity. Let’s say they need to make $6 million before they break even and start making the profits that will help them acquire other books.
I hope they swing it. I hope there are enough people who want to read what will surely be Amanda Knox’s highly edited version of the truth that HarperCollins will make all that money back, PLUS millions more.
Because if they don’t? You and I, Writer, we’ll be out of luck at HarperCollins. They won’t be making bets on ANY books that aren’t the next Hunger Games any time soon, because they will be so far in the hole. And if it hadn’t been HarperCollins buying this book, it would have been another house–there was a bidding war, after all, and HC just happened to win it.
This is the Blockbuster-or-Bust mentality in action. Publishing houses pay extremely high advances for books they are betting will make that money back, plus a profit. They win some, and they lose some. But imagine how much more money the publishing houses would make if they never paid anyone $4 million, except maybe the small circle of successful writers who have already made millions for the house? (And if the houses make more money, they’ll have more money to spend on us, Writer.)
Blockbuster-or-Bust is BAD FOR WRITERS. It makes it less and less likely that writers, especially first-time writers, who are NOT obviously writing the next Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games will get published (NOT, btw, like anyone could tell Harry Potter was going to be a success when it was reluctantly purchased by a skeptical publishing house back in the dark ages, but never mind that precious factoid).
Long ago, in a land far, far away, there used to be a magical place in publishing called the “mid-list,” where as-yet unknown writers like, oh, John Updike, Don DeLillo, and S.E. Hinton, used to find editors who thought, “This is a great writer with a future ahead of him/her, and I want to publish this book for a modest amount of money, like planting a seed in a pot, and nourish it, and love it, and show it to everyone I know, and hopefully one day, this writer will become something strong and respectable, like that ficus tree in my office.”
Listen, it was still damn hard to get on that mid-list. But at least it existed and even flourished; it’s now almost extinct. I know there are editors and indie publishing houses who want to bring back the mid-list, who dream of not having to make millions with their books. But publishers are not the whole problem, people. It’s US. Readers.
I’m not asking you to boycott the Hunger Games or even Amanda Knox. But I am asking you to go out of your way to seek out lesser-known writers and invest in them, too. Go to a bricks-and-mortar bookstore and ask the people who work there what they are reading, and buy the book from that bookstore (because if you buy it from Amazon, you’re buying into Blockbuster-or-Bust, but that’s another blog). If you can’t afford the full-price book at the store, check the book out from your local library, because circulation numbers mean something, too. Oh, and librarians can also recommend great books (just ask our very own Jessica Tackett!).
What are your thoughts?