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Gone Hollywood: Dr. Seuss, E.L. James, and publishing’s blockbuster mentality

Dorie Clark, writing on the website of the Harvard Business Review, believes she has discovered the “hottest trend” in publishing today: books by established writers that were written decades ago. As evidence, Clark cites one of the biggest books of the summer, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which was written in the 1950s and has already sold in the neighbourhood of 1.1 million copies in North America. (It set records for one-day sales, though Neilson BookScan suggests a precipitous decline in U.S. sales in the book’s second week.) Numbers aren’t yet available for What Pet Should I Get?, the “new” title from Dr. Seuss, which was released yesterday, but Clark’s bet that it will turn out to be another big hit is probably a safe one.

Clark might also have included upcoming novels by J.D. Salinger, newly discovered after the author’s death and scheduled to be published posthumously beginning this fall.

But it’s not just tentpole titles from marquee authors of the 1950s that appeal to publishers in 2015. There is no more established “brand” than E.L. James, whose new novel, a retelling of Fifty Shades of Grey from the point of view of the male character (“protagonist” sticks in one’s craw a bit; “psychopath” might be closer to the mark), is another big hit this summer.

Indeed, the “blast of nostalgia” that Clark isolates regarding Lee and Seuss is merely an outgrowth of the blockbuster mentality that has been infecting the major multinationals for some time now. Not for nothing is Brad Martin, CEO of Penguin Random House Canada, able to tell Globe and Mail books editor Mark Medley that he is uninterested in publishing anything that will earn less than $100,000 in revenue and few people even bat an eye. Martin did go on to say that he would consider books with smaller revenue potential “if the editor or publisher has a compelling vision” for the title or its author, but gone are the days when Jack McClelland would patiently groom an author like Mordecai Richler through three relatively underperforming titles because he knew intuitively that The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz would at some point make an appearance.

Clark is right to suggest that larger publishers “are increasingly eschewing midlist authors,” though she is probably wrong to worry that big names will flee those same publishers for the wilds of self-publishing. In truth, the opposite is happening. Simon & Schuster snapped up Anna Todd – who began by publishing One Direction fan fiction on Wattpad – in a six-figure deal, and did likewise with Hugh Howey, whose novel Wool originated as a self-published work on Amazon’s Kindle platform. Granted, the S&S deal with Howey was print-only; the author, a passionate advocate for self-publishing, continues to retain all ebook rights.

However, most authors seem to want the perceived prestige accorded to being published by an established house; major publishers, in turn, find themselves understandably attracted by writers who come with a built-in audience already in place (and are willing to take good care of their big-selling A-listers, often at the expense of first-timers or lesser-known quantities). The emphasis continues to be on size, and the ability to “open”: the success of the Harper Lee novel was largely determined by pre-orders and first-day sales, similar to the fixation movie studios have on ensuring large box-office receipts in the first three days of a movie’s release. The Hollywood blockbuster mentality has effectively metastasized to the North American publishing industry. Unfortunately, so has Hollywood’s obsession with celebrities, sequels, and retreads.

As Clark asserts, the losers in all this are the midlist authors – those who write smaller, less flashy books that can’t be depended upon to draw the mass readership of a Harper Lee, Dr. Seuss, or E.L. James. Novelist Russell Smith feels that this is not a huge problem, since these authors will simply migrate from multinational houses to independent publishers (as Smith himself has done, shuffling from HarperCollins Canada to Biblioasis with his latest work, the short-story collection Confidence). “There will not be fewer difficult and challenging books published in the new economy,” Smith writes, “just fewer published by foreign-owned conglomerates.”

Maybe so, at least in the short term. But the smaller houses still need to make money (Smith considers “[l]aments about neoliberalism, globalization, Americanization, and the need for the great revolution that will destroy ‘late capitalism’ itself” to be “lazy and unproductive”), and if they are unable to pierce through the white noise created by major houses with deep pockets plumping the latest marquee title by an author of boy-band fan-fic with a Twitter following in the hundreds of thousands – or newly discovered work from deceased canonical writers like Seuss and Salinger – it will be that much harder for them to continue to publish over the long haul.

When the original Star Wars was released in 1977, the attitude was that blockbusters such as George Lucas’s cowboys-in-outer-space epic would bring in sufficient revenue for studios to fund smaller, riskier, more substantial cinematic fare. We all know how that worked out.