Business Musings: Cultural Change And The Traditional Writer
It’s been a heck of a year. Or two years. Or three. So much has been happening—not just in my life, but in the world—that it’s almost impossible to keep up. And here, in the United States, the news cycle moves so fast that a short story I wrote and sold as science fiction almost a decade ago about updating news features every thirty minutes or so seems remarkably quaint. Every thirty minutes? Some days, the breaking news stories pile on top of each other in the space of minutes.
We cannot keep up, and a lot gets lost in the noise. The rapidity of change is part of that noise. We’re getting used to this frenetic pace, and forgetting how things were as recently as five years ago.
Yet, because we’re human beings and because we have lives, we sometimes miss the memo. Or the piece of news that puts everything together. Or we forget the initial assumption that makes the change visible.
And…we don’t always change either. Not right away. We get stuck in something we were told by professors or by our best friend or by our parents. We get stuck in dreams and hopes and desires, and we don’t realize that those things might no longer be possible in the world of 2018.
Or we think that the dream we formed in our twenties is still attainable twenty years later. That dream might not be attainable, and that’s not because we’re older and somewhat different. It’s because the world in which that dream was formed is no longer the world of today.
I’m as susceptible to this as the next person. It took me until I reached my fifties to realize what nostalgia actually is. It’s not a rosy-eyed longing for what used to be; it’s a sad and somewhat hopeless wish for a world we thought we understood. If you actually look beneath the surface of that nostalgia, you’ll find that old world was as complex as this one, and what we thought we understood was only the superficial surface of that world.
That superficial surface is getting scraped off. Sometimes visibly and rapidly scraped. The whole appalling Harvey Weinstein mess scraped a lot of lies off the surface of some actress’s careers in Hollywood.
Esquire, a magazine for men, whose subtitle is “Man at His Best,” is trying to deal with all of the #MeToo revelations in a thoughtful and fascinating way. One of the things that editor Jay Felden has been trying to do is wrap his brain around a world he thought was completely different than it is. He’s having those conversations in public, while many men (and women) are only having them with good friends or in private.
He assigned one of his writers, Adam Grant, to interview actress Ashley Judd. The article begins with a paragraph about Judd and her career, and what caught my attention the most wasn’t the accolades she’d won for her acting nor was it the humanitarian work she had done. It wasn’t the fact that she first revealed in 2015 the sexual harassment she suffered in Hollywood at the hands of a major producer, or the non-surprise the producer was Harvey Weinstein, whose name she revealed in 2017.
No. What caught my attention was this:
In the past decade, she has earned a bachelor’s degree in French at the University of Kentucky and a master’s of public administration at Harvard, and she’s working on a doctorate in public policy at UC Berkeley.
I read that, and realized she had given up (more or less) on her acting career. She was going in a completely different direction, because that’s what driven survivors do when they can no longer do what they want.
I read that line more than once, thinking about what I knew. I knew that Weinstein had sabotaged Judd’s career (along with the careers of most of the women he harassed), and he did so aggressively. (This week, Judd filed a civil suit against Weinstein accusing him, essentially, of destroying her career.) As I was searching for the recent story (the one I linked too is from December of 2017), I found this appalling piece published in Newsweek in 2004.
In an article titled “Career Intervention: Ashley Judd,” the writer Sean Smith gave Judd some “advice.” He told her to stop making “Ashley Judd movies,” as if she had control of the roles she was being offered, rather than choosing the best of the worst. A lot of nasty “helpful” anonymous quotes appear in the article including one from “the head of an indie company.”
How much you want to bet that “head of an indie company” was Harvey Weinstein?
From the perspective of 2018, that article is clear proof, like the whisper campaign that Peter Jackson talks about in the other article I linked to, of the sabotage that Ashley Judd’s career went through in Hollywood. From the perspective of 2004, that article seems like a slightly catty look at a career in decline because the artist was making bad choices.
Imagine how painful that article was to Judd, who knew about the whisper campaign behind it. Imagine how helpless she felt as her dreams vanished one by one.
Entertainment Weekly’s Oscar issue this year was filled “great untold stories of Hollywood’s biggest night.” And a lot of those stories sound like Judd’s. Luise Rainer, who won back to back Oscars in 1936 and 1937, eventually left the business because Louis B. Mayer deliberately tanked her career. (It was easier then. He controlled the actors at his studio. No whisper campaign was needed.)
The paragraph about her decision to leave Hollywood could have been about a dozen actresses in the past twenty years who had to deal with Weinstein:
The more Rainer succeeded, the more Mayer seemed to resent that success. She was unwilling to bend to his will, which only made him angrier and more petty. As Mayer vindictively put her in a string of toothless unimportant films, her marriage…crumbled. By 1940 [at age 30], she was divorced and essentially done with Hollywood…
The entire Oscar Issue of EW is filled with stories like Rainer’s. Or things you can see from hindsight or with just a little squint sideways. Like the article on the year that Sidney Poitier did not get nominated for an Oscar—the year that he was the biggest box office draw in the entire country, the year that he made two seminal classic films—In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner—the year those films got nominated, but the man who made them possible did not.
Or the article about the only Asian actor to ever win an Oscar—Miyoshi Umeki…sixty years ago. (And in the end, she was relegated the playing the housekeeper on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, speaking terrible English and weekly being forced into a stereotype.)
These articles wouldn’t have been published in this way—in an entire issue of a major magazine—as recently as 2015. And people are starting to pay attention.
Literally, as I type this, my phone beeped with a notification from The New York Times that reads: Before #MeToo, a jury deadlocked in an assault case. This time, the decision was swift: Guilty. The culture has changed and Bill Cosby is proof.
Maybe. I wouldn’t say that the culture “has changed.” I would say that it’s opening its eyes, and the change is starting. Slowly.
The older attitudes still abound. Black Panther’s release date, set a few years ago, was in February, because the idiot suits in Hollywood did not believe that an all-black superhero film could succeed. This, despite the evidence that also abounded that non-whites saw a lot of movies.
The industry is ignoring a gold mine. Every year for the past half-decade, the average white American has bought a ticket to fewer films than the average black, Hispanic or Asian moviegoer, industry data shows. Though 37 percent of the U.S. population, minorities bought 46 percent of the $1.2 billion in tickets sold in the United States last year.
I’m hopeful that Black Panther will, once and for all, be the death of the all-white Hollywood system. I’m hopeful that when the new generations coming up become the generation in power, they will actually act on the diversity that they’re demanding of the suits right now. (My generation failed miserably at this, and, in fact, went backwards when it came to parity in the non-white world.)
But I also know that the people in power tend to want to continue the dance what brung them the power. They don’t want to open doors or take risks. And, let’s be brutal here, they make hideous, awful, and horrible mistakes.
An article on I09 about comics retail stores caught my attention, in part because of the business stuff, which I will deal with later, but also because of the following analysis about the dismal twelve months between the summer of 2015 and the summer of 2016.
The two major comics publishers, Marvel and DC, did most of the damage, with many new series that did not catch on, relaunches of existing series that often failed to energize sales, and a months’ long delay for one of the top-selling titles, Marvel’s Secret Wars. The notable failures were almost all tied to periodical comics, single issues that are sold mainly to people who shop as a weekly habit. In other words, the leading publishers spent the year pissing off some of their most loyal customers and undermining their retailers. [emphasis mine]
I had a whole list of articles with sentences just like that one, some from publishing, many from Hollywood, a bunch from other entertainment industries as well. It’s not easy to curate taste or, as Chris Rock said in an important essay that he wrote on Hollywood in 2014:
But look, most movies suck. Absolutely suck. They just do. Most TV shows suck. Most books suck. If most things were good, I’d make $15 an hour.
It’s the suits’ job to guess what will make a profit in the entertainment industry. But those profitability decisions shouldn’t be based on skin color or gender or a whisper campaign. Even “positive” things aren’t always positive in the eye of the artist.
I’ll never forget the day my brand-new editor called me to tell me good news about my very first novel. He was relieved, he said, to discover that I was pretty. So many female fantasy writers weren’t, according to him. And because I was pretty, they were going to promote me and my book heavily, so could I send him a stunning photograph to make his job easier?
I didn’t want to. I was heartbroken, to tell the truth. I wanted the money behind my book because the book was good, not because I hit some physical cultural ideal. I actually said that to him (because I’m not the quiet sort.) Oh, I said as politely as I could, I thought you wanted the book because it’s a strong novel.
It is, he replied. The fact that you’re pretty just means we can market it properly.
I didn’t send a cheesecake photo, although I sent an okay photo. I didn’t let a photographer take a cheesecake photo of me for a major photography book on fantasy authors either, even though that had been her orders from her editor. (The exact orders? Kris is pretty, so make sure the photo of her is sexy—even though I was a major editor and award-winning, bestselling writer at the time, jobs that had nothing to do with my looks.)
That was how decisions were made than, and often how they’re still made now. The Deciders, to use a term that I find somewhat laughable, make hideous horrible mistakes based on all of the wrong things—or worse, based on some kind of whisper campaign, something the person who is being whispered about might not even know is going on.
And yet…and yet…
Here’s what I don’t understand.
As more and more of these stories are coming out, not just in the entertainment industry, but in every industry, writers aren’t applying what they’ve learned across to their own careers.
So many writers still want that traditional “validation.” They want someone else to take control of their career. They want someone else to praise their book and make it a bestseller.
They want to put their entire artistic and creative future into a machine that’s designed to chew people up and spit them out—even if those people aren’t on some blacklist.
I see writer after writer after writer who wants to sell their books to traditional publishers or who want to go into Hollywood with a “free” option or who willingly give away the rights to something just for “the opportunity” to play in this shark tank.
Here’s what you have to remember: the people that I’m reading about and mentioning here—the Luise Rainers and Ashley Judds, the Chris Rocks and the Miyoshi Umekis—are the ones who became famous enough to get written up in some national magazine. For each person like that, there are hundreds who never got the chance to succeed.
The film industry hasn’t yet gone through the full-fledged transition that book publishing and comics are going through right now. It’s not easy to make a film without big money backing and get it distributed worldwide. It is possible to write a book and get it distributed worldwide now.
That self-published book just won’t get the attention that a handful of books got thirty and forty years ago. But that 2018 book will stay on the virtual shelves while the older books rarely stayed on any shelf.
There’s a lot of upside to indie. A bit of downside too, which we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks. But the biggest upside to me is that we are not subject to the whims of someone who will only spend money to market a book on a writer because she’s pretty or because she meets the current cultural norm.
(I just got offered a big quick turn-around tie-in novel this past month, for which I would have been paid in the low six-figures. When I said I wasn’t interested and offered to give the person a list of writers who might have the time to write this project, she asked if any of them were female. I said no, none of them were. [I wasn’t looking at gender; I was looking at availability for a rush job.] Well, to be honest, she said, we only picked you because you were the most visible female tie-in author we could find. We don’t want men at all. Again, that flash of disappointment rose in me. I was chosen, not because my work is good, but because I’m female. I understand the corrective urge in the marketplace, but jeez, that comment felt as insulting as having my book marketed because I was considered pretty 25 years ago.)
Writers who choose to take their novels and their nonfiction books into traditional publishing are choosing to give their careers to the “tastemakers” who sometimes make their decisions based on their prejudices, their “understanding” of a marketplace that (in reality) does not exist, and who will do their best to destroy anyone who questions them.
Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. I’ve been through my share of whisper campaigns too, including one that went on for nearly thirty years—from the moment that guy lost a big prestigious job to me until the day he died.
I used to tell writers that you need a tough skin to be in this business. And you still do. Although not a scaly hide that nothing can penetrate. These days, if you’re going indie, you need to be tough enough to handle the ups and downs of owning your own business. You need to be tough enough to weather bad reviews and low sales. You need to be strong enough to keep moving forward in the face of disappointment.
If you’re going traditional, you need to be made of alligator skin. You need a hide so thick that nothing can pierce it, or if something does, you need to have a system to deal with the pain so you can get up and move forward again.
Just because we’re having these conversations in the culture right now doesn’t mean that everything has changed for the better. This kind of change doesn’t happen overnight, no matter how it feels.
Remember, the news cycle is on overdrive right now, and what might seem too big and important to ignore might vanish in the wake of yet another scandal or large catastrophe that we can’t even imagine right now.
I’m hoping this kind of change we’re seeing is not a bubble. But I’ve been through enough bubbles to know that’s a risk.
Is becoming a traditionally published author so important to you that you’re willing to succeed on any terms? Is becoming a traditionally published author so important to you that you’re willing to put your career (and your copyrights) in the hands of people who still haven’t figured out that diversity means more than publishing a few books about discrimination?
And if your answer is yes, then do this: Use your imagination.
Imagine how you would feel if you had been in Ashley Judd’s shoes. Or Luise Rainer. Or anyone of a hundred people whose stories are hitting the news these past few months. Take their life story and imagine yourself in that same position. Could you survive it? Could you have the courage to speak out? Would some of those behaviors crush you?
Because those are the risks you’re taking when you go traditional, in addition to the risks you take with your income and your name and your copyrights. You’re also walking into an industry that self-polices and does so poorly.
If you go in with your eyes open, you might be all right. Or you might be one of the lucky ones who has a good editor, a sterling publisher, and the right book for the current moment.
But imagine if you’re not—and do a solid analysis. Can you and your writing survive emotionally through all the trauma that these other artists have been through? Would you come out the other side and still be able to write, not to mention being able to handle all the ups and downs in the business of indie publishing?
If your answer is yes, then more power to you. Figure out contracts and negotiation and put on your armor before heading into traditional publishing.
If your answer is no, then respect that in yourself, and stay as far away as you can.
Because, as a friend of mine once said, becoming a professional writer is easy (relatively speaking). Remaining one is hard.
Your job is to have a writing career, not to publish a single book. So be careful who you partner with over the years. Make sure that person, that company, the conglomerate is trustworthy. And if you can’t make sure of that, then guard yourself as best you can.
Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Because, in truth, that’s the only way to survive the traditional publishing jungle. Even now. Even as the stories are starting to come out.
Because the change is just beginning. We have a whole lot of reckoning to go through yet. And I’m not sure we, as a culture, are ready for all of it, no matter how much I hope we are.
Just be honest with yourself as you move forward.
And good luck.
I just started digging into all the changes in indie publishing that occurred in the past three months as I moved across country. Some of those changes I had heard of and others hit me like a truck. What? Really? That happened? Okay. I’ll follow up.
So you’ll see a lot more in-depth pieces in the next few weeks as I get my sea legs under me. Or my desert legs as the case may be.
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“Business Musings: Cultural Change and the Traditional Writer,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / EllieStark.