The Business Rusch: The All-Important Fan Base
Two of the movies I saw, Jack Reacher, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, came from books. Both films had a different approach to the book’s fan base. In one case, it might pay off. In another, it didn’t.
For months, I have made jokes about Tom Cruise’s upcoming portrayal of Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child’s mystery series. In the books, Reacher is 6’5” and solid muscle. If you see this guy walking into a bar and he glares at you, you look away. A plot point of the latest Reacher novel is that when Reacher hitchhikes, most people drive right on by because his physical presence is so intimidating.
Tom Cruise is 5’7” He’s not physically imposing in any way. After I saw the first Reacher trailer, I thought of a line from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) which goes something like this: “I don’t know what it is, but it’s little and it’s pissed off,” yelled a (now-forgotten) character as he runs away from the little, pissed-off thing.
After I saw that trailer, I took to calling Cruise Mini-Reacher, because Cruise had the attitude right, but it didn’t matter how many camera tricks the director pulled, Cruise still didn’t look big and mighty. He looked little and pissed-off.
Little and pissed-off works in this movie. Cruise is a no-nonsense, mean S.O.B. whom no one wants to screw with. Cruise manages everything except the built-like-an-oak-tree thing. The movie follows the book enough that I was actually a bit bored in the middle because I knew whodunit and whydunit, so the mystery didn’t hold me. (This happens to me a lot in films that are remakes or made from books. I have a good memory for plot. This is why I can’t watch Law & Order: UK because it recycles US plots.)
The movie itself has some issues that aren’t relevant here (and we don’t need to critique it in the comments either), but all in all, I enjoyed the 2+ hours I spent in the theater that day.
Then I saw The Hobbit. Nearly three hours, which the theater seats were not meant for, and slavishly faithful to the spirit of the book, if not the book itself. The additions—and the only changes are additions—mostly come from the indices and appendixes and documents that Tolkien himself wrote to help himself with the book.
The Hobbit is my favorite of Tolkien’s novels, but it irritates me in the same way that Lord of The Rings often irritated me. There are long descriptions of feasting and singing, with the rhyming poetry of the songs embedded in the book.
Director Peter Jackson took a lot of heat for cutting most of the songs out of Lord of The Rings. Maybe that’s why he decided to include them here. I found them to be the perfect spots for standing, bathroom breaks, and just plain getting out of the theater for a while.
Both movies came to the screen with an established fan base. The Hobbit’s fan base was bifurcated—it had the movie fan base from the three Lord of The Ring films, and it had the fan base from the book. Sometimes those fan bases overlapped, and sometimes they didn’t.
But the built-in audience—because of the fan base—for The Hobbit was in the tens of millions worldwide, and in some way, that fan base (those fan bases) had to be addressed. It seemed obvious to me as I watched that Jackson, a fan himself, was conscious of the viewers, and decided to cater to expectations on many levels. The songs were there for the readers, and the whole expanded Mordor plotline was there for the movie fans.
I clearly understand that a movie is a different entity than a book. I have a t-shirt that reads, Never Judge A Book By Its Movie. Yep. Books have 100,000 words or so to tell their story. They can meander a bit. They can lavish time on character development that a movie can’t.
But a movie can provide visuals in a way that the book can’t. A movie also rewards the fast-moving plot. A movie made from a book should be a good movie, not a slavish reproduction of the book. If you want the book, read the book. The movie is a separate entity altogether.
Which is one of the reasons I went to the Reacher film. If I subtracted what I already knew about Jack Reacher, if I got rid of my expectation of immovable oak tree and replaced it with little and pissed off, I knew I would enjoy the film. And I did. It wasn’t the best film I saw in 2012, but it certainly wasn’t the worst by any stretch.
So imagine my surprise when I got home, read the reviews of Jack Reacher, and saw comment after comment online talking about the way that Lee Child, Tom Cruise, and Christopher McQuarrie disrespected the fans of the book by miscasting Jack Reacher.
Those fans were mad. No one commented on the attitude (which Cruise got right) or the fact that the movie follows the plot of the book in delightful ways. They were simply angry that their hero had become Mini-Reacher.
I honestly don’t think that would have mattered if it weren’t for life circumstances. The other thing the reviews showed was the way that attitudes toward a piece of art can change instantly.
Half a dozen big-name reviewers saw early screenings of Jack Reacher, and posted their reviews on December 10th. Those reviewers, almost to a person, liked the movie. They didn’t give it a stellar rating, but a respectable B+ or so.
Reviewers who saw the movie after the horrible, awful, unthinkable Newtown massacre hated the film. Hated, hated, hated it. Some even gave the film zero stars or a negative rating. I admit: I had to close my eyes a few times in the movie because of the reverberations of recent events. It was too soon to see some of the images in Jack Reacher. They made me uncomfortable.
I’m not telling you this to bring the long debate about the entertainment industry, violence, and guns to my comments section. I’m telling you this for an entirely different reason.
I don’t think the Tom Cruise/Jack Reacher film franchise will survive. I’ll be surprised if we see another Cruise-as-Reacher film. If we do, it’ll be because of overseas box office, and not U.S. box office. Here in the U.S., the numbers are much lower than expected for this film, and while they’re rebounding a bit as people see the movie and give it good word of mouth, the numbers not at the usual blockbuster level expected for a major Christmas weekend release, particularly one starring Tom Cruise.
The fans could have saved this franchise, if the fans had felt respected. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Jack Reacher series had sold more than 40 million copies (over 17 novels) as of July of 2012. If every fan bought every novel, that’s about 2.5 million fans. That’s a lot of readers, readers who would have seen the film no matter what the events in the news.
Now, here’s the thing: 2.5 million fans is a large number for books, a small number for movies. Blockbuster films are expected to reach tens of millions of viewers. Typically, 2.5 million readers—many of whom won’t see a movie made from a book (any movie)—is considered large enough to notice by Hollywood, but not large enough to matter.
Except when your film opens a distant second at the box office, with $15.6 million in ticket sales. If you figure all tickets are $10, then only 1.56 million people saw the movie, about one million less than the fan base for the books.
As it is, a lot of Reacher readers are deliberately boycotting the movie. I know of a dozen myself, not counting all of those vocal folks on blogs. I’m sure a lot of fans, like me, will understand that the film is a different entity and go to the film just to see if it works, but that’s not enough to help a film through a tough opening weekend.
After Newtown, the Reacher film needed Reacher book fans to bolster the bottom line, and they’re not. They’re actively fighting this film. It has kept the film in the conversation, but some industry watchers believe that it also depressed turnout on the critical opening weekend.
Does the fact that fans are so dissatisfied with the casting, enough that they’re writing petitions and boycotting the movie, mean that they’ll boycott the next Jack Reacher novel? Probably not. On that basic level, we all know that movies are not the same as books. And Child had in-jokes for his fans in the latest Reacher novel, A Wanted Man, always emphasizing Reacher’s size, and at one point comparing his hands to dinner plates. In other words, he tells his readers that he gets it and is keeping the book character the same.
All of this, though, begs the question. At what point should fans influence a work of art? Should the writer/director/artist take fans into consideration, and if so, when?
That is probably the toughest question to answer of all.
Because if you’re lucky enough to have a fan base—and you respect that fan base—then you need to at least acknowledge the base. Jackson did it in The Hobbit, giving both sides of fandom little gifts (and me time to stand up), but he still made the movie he wanted to make.
Last week, I wrote a blog on the moment when art meets commerce, and talked about the way that a writer must protect her own vision. No one asked what to do after the work is done, when the next work is underway.
Should the writer write another book to keep the fans happy? What would keep the fans happy? Sometimes it’s impossible to know. If you look at the interviews Cruise, McQuarrie and Child gave on the Reacher film back when it was called One Shot, you’ll realize they thought they were catering to the fans. They remained faithful to the book (as faithful as a film can be) and they got the Reacher attitude right; they were quite surprised at the backlash over Reacher’s appearance. After all, movie heroes often look different than their fictional counterparts. Usually, it doesn’t matter. (If it mattered all the time, then both Sean Connery and Daniel Craig couldn’t have played James Bond.)
In the case of Reacher, though, appearance mattered to the fans.
So what should a writer do? Make a list of all the things the fans expect from the next book and make sure to incorporate those things? Follow her own vision exactly, fans be damned? Or walk some kind of tightrope between the two?
This is a question not as easily answered as you think. Go too far astray and fans will boycott a writer’s work. Stick too close to the tried-and-true and fans will eventually leave because of boredom.
I think in this instance, it all depends on why a writer writes. If a writer writes strictly for money, then maybe a fan-based information strategy would be okay.
I write to put my own vision on the page. When my husband tells me what fans expect from my Diving series, I ignore him. (He’s a fan.) He tells me where they all think the story will go, and I think to myself, That’s not the direction I plan to take. I don’t alter my plans at all.
But, I’m cognizant of the fact that if these novels don’t have a sense of wonder, if they don’t have a lot of far-future scenes in space, if they lack the structure of the Diving universe that I already established, then I will disappoint the fans. I’ll also disappoint myself.
For years, I wrote tie-in novels in the Star Trek universe. I could only do that because I am a Star Trek fan. I have expectations of each episode; I have expectations of each book. I know how it feels to be disappointed. I also know that, short of blowing up the Federation and making James T. Kirk a scummy drug dealer for the rest of his natural life, the fans will accept a lot in the name of adventure.
In other words, keep the structure you’ve built as a writer, but play inside of that structure. Your fans will be surprised, they’ll be happy, and they’ll come back.
Will you upset a few fans? Of course. If you’re not upsetting a few people, you’re not doing a good job. Your job as an entertainer is to entertain, and if you fail that in any way, then you’ll hear about it.
The neat thing about fans, though, is that they’ll give you a second, third, or fourth chance. All fans have their limits, however. If you continually disappoint them, they will leave.
Communication is part of the key. Before indie publishing, I did a lot of my communicating via byline and branding. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an eclectic writer whose work covers the gamut of genres and emotions, but tends toward mystery and science fiction or fantasy (sometimes in combination). Kristine Grayson is always light read, with little or no violence and more often than not a happy ending. (In the very least, the Grayson stuff will leave you with a smile.) Kris Nelscott is mystery writer veering toward noir. If there are things in life you don’t want to look at, then Kris Nelscott is probably not the writer for you.
Mostly, that byline strategy worked, although there have been a lot of times when I’ve finished something and wondered which byline it belonged to. Would the Nelscott fans be upset when a book doesn’t quite fit into the late 1960s vibe of the Smokey Dalton books? Should an upbeat and strange short story be a Kristine Grayson or a Kristine Kathryn Rusch?
Now that indie publishing has come along, I have even more decisions to make. One of my writing methods is to explore a made-up world in short stories or novellas. Then part of those stories/novellas usually end up in the finished novel.
The last thing I want to do is have a reader buy the same book twice, which is why the Diving novellas haven’t yet seen print in indie form. Because they’re incorporated into the novels, I couldn’t figure out a way to keep the fans from getting angry at me.
Finally, Dean suggested that I be up front in the promo copy. Mention that part of the novella (or all of it) is in one of the novels; let the reader decide if she wants to read the same story in slightly different form.
Well, duh. I hadn’t thought of that because it hadn’t been an option before. No traditional publisher would want to publish a novel and a novella with the same name, and much of the same material, even if both have won awards and acclaim. Now I can put out both, and let the readers decide which they want to read—or if they want to read everything for one reason or another.
One of the problems with coming out of traditional publishing, like I have, is that a lot of publishing myths get stuck in your head. I’m having a hell of a time climbing over one of them: the writer should never publish more than one book per year under the same byline.
Traditional publishers have been relaxing that rule for the past ten years or so, going so far as to publish three books by the same author in three months (in romance) or a book every six (in mystery). But for the first fifteen years of my publishing life, publishing more than one book per year was a no-no. Fans would hate it, traditional publishers said, and I never questioned that—
As I bought every book Nora Roberts wrote, sometimes six per year. Or caught up on an author I hadn’t read before, binging on ten books in the space of five weeks.
It took Allyson Longueira, the publisher of WMG Publishing, to wake me up on this one. She said, “If Jasper Fforde published a book a week, I’d buy them and complain if I couldn’t get to the book that week.” Yeah, okay. If Stephen King published a book a week, I’d do the same thing. And the same with a dozen other writers. As a fan, I get what she said. As a writer, I was terrified of “saturating the market.”
Now, it’s up to me to make sure the fans know what’s new material, or old reprints, what’s been incorporated into a novel and what hasn’t. I’m going to have to police cover copy and make sure that I keep an eye on branding—with an eye to me, the reader.
After all, the reason I picked the Kristine Grayson byline in the first place had nothing to do with marketing and everything to do with reading. The Grayson stories are fantasy first, romance second, but they’re light. They’re designed to be read at the end of a long, horrible day, something to take your mind off terrible events.
More than once, I’ve read something “light” only to be betrayed by it. The example I use when I’m teaching is this: On a particularly difficult trip to the Midwest, I was reading a Nora Roberts romance novel in a Perkin’s Restaurant when—in the very center of the book—Roberts killed a baby. It was a plot point, it was on-screen, and it was ugly. I burst into tears and would have flung the book across the restaurant if I had a little less self-control.
That was the last thing I needed on that trip.
Did it stop me from being a fan of hers? No, not at all. But I became a more cautious fan. And when I needed one of those light, escapist reads, I avoided her books.
I didn’t want my Grayson fans to pick up my Fey series, which is also fantasy, only to discover horrific violence, melting people and flaying skin. I knew, from personal experience, that it would piss fans off. I’d rather let them choose to read both Grayson and Rusch, rather than surprise them with a dead baby scene in the middle of a very sad real life day.
Does that mean I think that Roberts shouldn’t have written that book? Hell, no. In my opinion, it’s one of her most memorable—and in a good way. (And if you ask me in e-mail, I’ll tell you which novel it is to avoid spoilers in the blog.)
Something should have been different in the marketing, some warning, something to let me know this was not a book to read on a difficult trip.
I’m experimenting with my own stuff now, because we are in a different world, and trying to figure out the best way to communicate something new or different or difficult.
We writers need to respect our fans, believe that they’re smart enough to figure out what they like as opposed to what we think they might like. And we have to write what we want to write, and then make sure that reaches the fans somehow.
Then we have to communicate to the fans as best we can in the marketing. Yes, this is an upbeat book. Yes, part of this novel was also marketed as a novella. Yes, this book is a deliberately difficult read.
Some readers will read everything. Others will stick to their favorite genres or their favorite moods. Still others will stick to their favorite characters.
If fans dictated everything, though, then Tolkien would never have written Lord of the Rings. Because The Hobbit is a children’s book, written for his children as bedtime stories. I think that was the biggest shock of the movie for me. Jackson brought in the LoTR violence and warfare into the lighter Hobbit fare. Movie fans (only) won’t be surprised by this, but as a lover of the book, I was a bit startled.
But only for a minute. I loved the LoTR movies too, and easily got back into that world. Movies are different from books, after all. And the movie surprised me—in a good way.
I was anything but bored.
If readers—if fans—get what they expect all the time, the artist loses the respect of their fans. Something must surprise, or change, or in the very least, create discussion.
If a writer remains true to himself, then he will do such things automatically. If the writer tries to replicate what succeeded before, he will dumb down his own work.
The creative side of writing is all about risk. Taking chances, doing the best you can. The business side is also about risk, which is the topic of my Freelancer’s Survival Guide (which you can find free on the blog or in book form). Marketing is also about risk—you have to put the work out there, and let the readers decide what to think of the material.
But marketing is also about communication. If you lie and say that your downbeat novel in which the two protagonists kill themselves at the end is a romance, then romance readers will never, ever, ever read your work again. I know, I know. Your English professor told you that Romeo and Juliet is romantic. But there’s a difference between romantic and romance.
Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, not one of his romances (which is what the lighter fare was called). So in order to market your work properly, you need to label it properly.
You’ll probably need help with this step. We writers never know exactly what we’ve written, no matter how much experience we have in the business. We focus on things in the act of writing the book or the story that might have nothing to do with the experience of reading the story.
So if you’re writing a piece set in a science fiction universe, but focusing on getting the relationship right, you might think you’ve written a romance, ignoring the downer ending. Or you might think that you’ve written a science fiction novel, when in fact the sf stuff is just window dressing that would irritate the sf fan.
If you can’t figure out, ask readers—not writers—for help. Have a romance reader read your novel and ask her if she’d be disappointed if she bought it cold off the bookstore shelf. If she says yes, you have a problem with the label, not with the novel itself.
You also need to read outside your genre. I’ll have a short lecture on that sometime next year as part of the online classes that we’re offering. But suffice to say if you’ve never read romance and you think you know what it is, you’re wrong. Same with mystery. You need to read more, not less.
Dean also offers a class in genre structure. He does it not so that you’ll be thinking about structure as you write, but so that you’ll be able to apply some tests to the finished work to figure out how to market it. Even then, the class is only a beginning. And sometimes—no matter how experienced you are—you’ll need help from other people. All writers do.
And we get surprised.
I’m pretty sure Lee Child is stunned at the backlash that Jack Reacher suffered because of the casting of Cruise. Yeah, Jack Reacher is a big guy, but we all know some big guys who aren’t tough at all. The keys to Reacher the character are his brains and fearlessness. He has nothing to lose. All of that was in the movie. Just at 5’7”—little and pissed off.
Not every fan will like everything you do. Some will. Others will only like parts. Accept that. Follow your own vision. Keep writing, keep publishing.
Remember that the only way to build a fan base is to have a lot of material out there for readers to find. You can’t manufacture a fan base. You create it, one story at a time.
Once you’ve created it, respect it, but don’t let it rule your creativity. When you’re done being creative and put on your business hat, figure out where whatever it is that you just finished fits into your body of work. Make it easy for the fans who like that part of what you do to find your work.
Fans don’t read in chronological order. One of your works will be someone’s gateway book. You don’t get to choose that gateway book. They’ll discover it on the free table at the coffee shop or on the New Releases shelf at the library. A friend will give them her favorite book, and they’ll start with that. Then they’ll search for everything else you’ve done.
Don’t worry about it. Write. Finish what you write, and do your best to get it into the right hands, whatever that means for you.
And most of all—have fun. The more you enjoy what you do, the more your fans will—no matter what part of your writing they like best.
I’ve learned a lot about my work and fan base through this website. Some of you only read the nonfiction blog. Others show up for the free fiction as well. And still others come to find out more about the novels I’ve written.
This blog is the only part of my writing life that has to remain self-sustaining. The fact that a lot of you show up every Thursday means I need to show up as well, but I’m also putting in a lot of time and words, time and words that could be spent on the more lucrative fiction side of my career.
So if you’ve gotten any value from the nonfiction blog at all, now or in the past, please leave a tip on the way out.
I wish you all the best in the New Year.
“The Business Rusch: The All-Important Fan Base” copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.