When I was taking classes in the craft of fiction, everyone—from established professional writers to English professors—recommended that a writer never ever say that a character looked like a famous actor. No “he resembled a young Orson Welles” or “she dressed like Claudette Colbert.”
Not only was it lazy writing—the Gurus said—but, more importantly, there was no way for your reader to know exactly what you meant.
You see, kids, back in the days when you walked uphill both ways in the snow to get to your typewriter, when manuscripts were laced with white-out, and copies were made with carbon paper, old movies were hard to find.
I was lucky: I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research has a complete collection of Warner Brothers films from 1931 to 1949, not to mention an archive of theater, film, and television that went through the 1970s.
The university’s film society would schedule old movie nights and charge a reasonable amount for students. So I saw a lot of old films that most people never saw. (There’s a reason that Madison produced some of the best movie writers and critics of my generation; they had access to old films when most students outside of New York and Los Angeles did not.)
But the teachers all had a point. Not only did referencing old movies make it difficult for modern readers to “see” your characters, it also dated the work. Because so much of popular culture back then was available for such a short period of time, and then it was impossible to find without an archive nearby, a good old movie house (with a lot of money), or a lot of late-night television viewing. I often memorized TV Guide, and stayed up until the wee hours to see a censored version of a movie I’d only heard about.
Cabaret made no sense when I saw the movie version on network television, with all references to homosexuality and sex removed. But I struggled through, since that was the only way I thought I might ever see the film.
I did that with a lot of films. A college friend spent his first year in the TV room of our dorm, watching classic Star Trek every afternoon. He’d only heard about the show; he hadn’t been allowed to watch it at home, so he caught the reruns. I first saw Doctor Who on various PBS stations, out of order and often at very strange times of the day, because I couldn’t see them any other way.
The shift began in the 1980s, with video cassettes. But even then, only people with money (and the correct kind of video player) could watch films. The true change really hit as Blockbuster and other video rentals made watching affordable.
Even so, it wasn’t always easy. Some films never made it to video. Most films got made into DVDs, but even now, some aren’t available. (Unless you guys can locate a DVD or streaming version of my favorite Bill Forsyth film, Comfort and Joy. I haven’t been able to.)
By the early 1990s, I realized I could compare my characters to movie stars, if I wanted to, and people would understand. It’s still lazy if that’s all I say—but if I’m in the point of view of say a major movie buff, it might be a great way to characterize my narrator. The option is open to me.
That change is simple to understand. Those of us raised in a world where everything was fleeting truly appreciate the fact that we can now share the things we love with someone else whenever we want to. We’re aware of the difference.
But we haven’t given much thought to the world we’re moving into. The world that so many people who were born from about 1995 to now will inhabit.
Let me give you two different examples of the attitude shift.
The first example comes from a story I read this week, from The Best American Mysteries 2011. The story, “Diamond Alley” by Dennis McFadden, captures the world that I and so many people who were born between 1945 and 1985 grew up in.
The [Pittsburgh] Pirates were with us everywhere that autumn. They filled the air. Every evening when we went out, we didn’t need our transistors—we could hear Bob Prince calling the game all over town, his friendly baritone drifting from radios on porches, in kitchens and living rooms, as pervasive as the scent of burning leaves.
If you walked down the street on any given night in America, looking at the reflection of the televisions in your neighbors’ windows, you had a one in three chance of knowing what they were watching, even if they had the curtains closed. If they had the curtains open, then you could see an actor or two, and realize exactly what they were watching—and what time it was at that moment.
Things were that static. You also knew if you were walking, and, say, Bonanza was on, you would have to hurry home to catch the rest of it. You might not get to see the beginning ever (or so you thought then).
The second example comes from a New Yorker article on Netflix, published in the February 3, 2014 issue. Brian Robbins, who runs Awesomeness TV, a provider of YouTube channels (and programming) and which attract (as far as I can tell) at least thirty-one million teens and tweens. About their attitude toward programming, he says,
The next generation, our audience and even younger, they don’t even know what live TV is. They live in an on-demand world.
An on-demand world.
Think about that for a moment. Those of us raised in that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world had a sense of urgency about everything we loved. If we didn’t schedule ourselves around a TV show, we’d miss it. If we missed the opening weekend to a film, we might not see it. If we weren’t listening to the radio during a baseball game, we might never understand the nuances—we’d have to stick with the reported coverage the next day.
That’s changed. I don’t feel any urgency at all about finding what I love. I just deleted a show to make room on my DVR, secure in the knowledge that I can pick up that series on demand when I’m ready to.
On demand requires quite a mental shift for those of us raised in the old Get-It-Now world. And most of us have made some of that shift. We’re aware that we can buy something when we want it or watch a show whenever we feel like it, but we’re not aware of the other habits and things that are changing.
The biggest generational shift is an unconscious sense of entitlement that people who grew up in an on-demand world have. They want a show or a book or a song when they want it, and they want it to be easily accessible, in a format they can use.
When they can’t get it, they either complain—loudly on social media—or they steal it.
Study after study has shown that piracy goes up when something is restricted or impossible to get. The BBC learned this with Doctor Who in 2012. They made the show available in the States six hours after the show aired in Britain to get rid of online piracy. By 2013’s Christmas episode, the BBC learned that an international simulcast not only boosted ratings but also reduced piracy.
People want what they want when it’s available, but that doesn’t mean they have to watch it then.
Fans will go to great lengths to get what they want when they want it. HBO GO crashed on April 6 when Game of Thrones premiered, not because the system couldn’t handle the demand of the subscribers, but because it couldn’t handle the demand of the subscribers and the thieves.
Password sharing is incredibly common for streaming video sites — a cordcutter will use the login information of a friend, family worker, or, in the case of New York Times reporter Jenna Wortham, a stranger from New Jersey they once met in a Mexican restaurant to access a service, such as Netflix or HBO GO without paying subscription fees.
The solutions HBO provided on April 6th to its subscribers were to watch the rebroadcast an hour or so later or to catch the show through the On Demand offering from their cable provider. Those who used borrowed passwords couldn’t do that.
HBO isn’t concerned about the thieves, by the way. After Buzzfeed asked HBO’s CEO about the piracy, they got this response:
“It’s not that we’re unmindful of it, it just has no impact on the business,” HBO CEO Richard Plepler said. It is, in many ways, a “terrific marketing vehicle for the next generation of viewers,” he said, noting that it could potentially lead to more subscribers in the future.
“We’re in the business of creating addicts,” he said at a BuzzFeed Brews event in New York.
HBO is as smart as the BBC on this one. They know if someone wants something badly enough, they’ll pay for the privilege of getting it when and where they want it.
On demand is good in that way. We writers take advantage of it when we write in series. Our readers want the next book the moment they finish the previous one. E-books allow the reader to get that book at 4 a.m. on a holiday weekend in a town where there won’t be an open bookstore for another 48 hours (and even then, it’s a crapshoot as to whether or not the bookstore has the title).
But on demand has its other side.
Personally, I love it, although it does make me pickier than I used to be. Faced with the choice of programming or reading material, I can judge what I watch by mood. I need something funny tonight, or maybe I’m in the mood for a detective show, but not urban fantasy with a detective (like Grimm). Back in the day, I had to watch whatever was available on Thursday on Thursday, mood be damned.
This generational shift is causing a lot of problems, as generational shifts do. Not because teens and tweens don’t understand what live TV truly means or because all of us are becoming a bit entitled. Nor are the problems the loss of the shared currency—that “water cooler conversation” (and the fact that the term “water cooler” is in the idiom shows how dated the idea is)—or the fact that you can’t go from house to house and hear the same broadcast airing from each porch on a hot Sunday night.
The problems come from the fact that those of us who run things—people in our forties, fifties, and sixties—use metrics that were developed by our parents for their world, that tightly controlled Mad Men world where everyone was expected to be the same, not just in what they wore or bought but in what they listened to or watched or read as well.
The bestseller list?
They only want new books, and then only at the time of release.
Brick and mortar bookstores?
They only have room for the latest releases, and then only the ones that are the most popular with their customers (whoever those folks might be).
Books have come late to this fight. Books have been available on demand for only about four years now, in the U.S. In other countries, there’s been even less time.
And we’re all still fighting over meaningless metrics, to use Mike Briggs’ term, because those metrics only measure things that were important around the water cooler, not things which are important now.
What’s important now?
I think the HBO Go and BBC examples are telling. If you want to measure fan response, you should look at the demand among true fans to be the first, the very first, to see something. Not the casual fan who can plug her ears and scream, “Shuddap! Spoilers!” to everyone around her. (All of us casual fans do that, right? Or is it just me?)
I think the first metric is how many people want a book within a week of its release. That doesn’t make a book an instant bestseller. It simply shows us—the writer—how many fans we’ve managed to capture.
The next metric is how many copies of the book sell over time. That time should probably be measured in year-long increments. How many copies sell in the first year? How many in the second? How many in the fifth?
Because if the book’s sales increase per year, then something is happening for that book. That something is word of mouth.
We never had a way to measure word of mouth before, because books became unavailable within weeks of their release, and went out of print within months. Now, we can see the growth as more and more people tell their friends about a title.
My best standalone example is The Freelancer’s Survival Guide. It’s a constant seller. Its sales have increased each year because of word of mouth. I’m not doing anything to promote it except an occasional mention here, and the image on my sidebar (which I often take down). It’s also the title I’ve had in print the longest that wasn’t published by traditional publishing.
The growth is fascinating.
The publishing industry isn’t even talking about new metrics. That idea hasn’t occurred to traditional publishing, and indie (or self) published writers are constantly seeking validation from the old system—trying to figure out ways to game the bestseller lists or to get a fantastic review from somewhere that has old-world prestige.
Other industries that have dealt with this measuring success problem longer than we have are coming up with half-assed solutions, based on the old ways as well.
The music industry has bifurcated the hits charts so much that it resembles the Amazon fiction bestseller lists. Not only that, your bestselling song might be #1 on the R&B charts, but the sales numbers don’t even put it in the top 100 overall on iTunes. And how is that R&B song doing on Billboard? Who knows?
To make matters worse, the music industry has changed the sales figures. In 1976, a platinum single had to sell one million units to get the designation. In 2003, a platinum single had to sell one million physical units. By 2004, a platinum single had to sell one million units digitally and/or physically. In 2013, the Recording Industry Association of America added streaming music to its platinum count this way: in the US with 100 streams being the equivalent of 1 unit sold.
In other words, RIAA certification for singles no longer represent true sales. At what point does the metric become meaningless?
Movies have twisted themselves into pretzels doing the same thing. At first DVD sales weren’t counted toward a movie’s success. It was only box office. Now they are. For a while, only US box office mattered. Now, worldwide box office (which is often more lucrative on action films) counts more, especially when a studio considers the viability of a remake.
And television, television has no idea how to measure anything any more. Network television needs eyeballs to sell advertising, so it started changing its measurements a few years ago. First it was live, then live plus 24 hours, then live plus 48, then live plus one week. Now, I’m hearing that live plus one month is being talked about.
Not that it matters. Advertising is following the eyeballs—and those eyeballs have moved to tablets and other gadgets. A recent report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau shows that online advertising has increased dramatically. Many news outlets mistakenly reported that online advertising has outpaced TV advertising, but that only shows that some reporters can’t read studies.
However, the report is fascinating because it shows that digital advertising, once considered “silly” or a “waste of money” has come into its own. Because people spend as much time with their devices as they do with their television sets.
The traditional publishing industry is notorious for not studying anything. What works to promote a book? Who knows. Why should they study that?
But at some point, traditional publishers are going to have to develop new ways to figure out which products sell well and which ones don’t. All of their systems—from sales figures (which measure books shipped not books sold) to bestseller lists to critical acclaim—are based on the old models.
It might take another ten years or more before traditional publishing figures out how to measure success for its various titles. What happens in ten years or more? Members of the on-demand generation will start to step into positions of power at traditional publishing companies (and everywhere else). Those future adults will want metrics that mean something to them, not things that belong to a hot autumn night accompanied by the smell of burning leaves and ancient voices on the radio.
However, those of us who are in the trenches now, those of us who publish our own stuff, whether we do so through our own small independent publishing companies or as individuals who do everything, will need to set up a modern metric system, one that reflects on the way things are done in an on-demand world.
I’d be happy to hear ideas on this one, because I’m just dipping a toe into it. I do know this is a long-tail issue. I also know that writers who produce series books have a leg-up in that instant demand thing. (HBO Go, had it existed back then, wouldn’t have crashed the night the first episode of Season One of Game of Thrones premiered. That kind of demand happens after people have fallen in love, not before.)
Writers don’t just succeed with series, though. As I write this, the #1 bestselling book in the Kindle store is the $11.99 ebook of Nora Roberts latest standalone novel, The Collector. She’s a brand, like Game of Thrones is a brand, like series can be a brand.
The key is figuring out how to make yourself one, which was, in part, why I wrote the Discoverability series. It’s a slow process. Nora Roberts started out as a category romance writer. Back when she started—in the water cooler days—her books were considered disposable. They were released every few months. Sounds like now, doesn’t it?
We need to figure out how to measure success in the digital age. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait twenty years until today’s teenagers come up with good system to measure this stuff.
I’d like to figure out something now that reflects the on-demand world. I’d like to step 100% into the 21st century, without using any of the metrics of the past.
The world has changed. We don’t even write the way we used to any more. Conventional writing wisdom from 1980 doesn’t apply to 2014. Why should conventional marketing wisdom from 1980 govern how the publishing world determines success?
I know that my metric for success for this blog. I like the conversations it generates. I like the e-mail contacts, the links you send me, and the comments you guys make.
The most important metric I have, I’m afraid, is financial. I need the blog to fund itself on a weekly basis. I take a lot of writing time to compose a weekly essay, so I need to earn a good writing wage to do so. I always hope that each blog post earns its own way.
So, if you liked the post, learned something, or enjoy the blog on a regular basis, please leave a tip on the way out.
Thanks so much!
“The Business Rusch: Generational Divide” copyright 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch