Business Musings: Stale (IP Frontlist Part 3)

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Because of a crush of work and deadlines, I got so laughably behind on my “current” reading that I am only now digging through it. Compounding the problem is that when I moved all of my back issues of “current” paper magazines (yes, I’m the last person on the planet who reads paper magazine; that bother you?), they got horribly, terribly, awfully out of order.

I ended up reading issues written in February (and published in March) in August, in the middle of the surge, when life seemed once again bleak. But there’s an odd hopefulness in the February stuff—the vaccines are here! We’ll escape! Yeah, no. Never mind.

Still, completest that I am, I read those issues and marveled at what a difference six months makes.

I’m glad I did read everything, because I found some stuff I’d missed, some of which I told my Patreon folk because I didn’t have time to write it up for the website and some of which will show up in future blog posts, if I can continue to keep my notes in order.

This one, though, has been niggling at me, and as I wrote the “IP Is The New Frontlist” post, I realized that the problems in this article apply in a way that the author of the article—and even the people discussing the problem—did not intend.

First, the article. It’s the Letter From L.A. in the April issue of Vanity Fair. The article has one cutesy title in the magazine and a different cutesy title on the website. Since you’ll be seeing this nearly 9 months after it was written, let’s go with the cutesy website title: “How Black Widow and James Bond Learned How To Hurry Up And Wait.”

Written before there were release dates for movies you’ve probably seen (either in streaming or in the theater), before Scarlett Johansenn sued Disney, before everyone started to realize that what we know of the world is that we know nothing, this article talks about how movie marketers are dealing with promoting movies that were made pre-pandemic and have no set release date.

In fact, many of the movies mentioned in the article, like Top Gun: Maverick had already started a marketing campaign pre-pandemic, and had to suspend it.

The article describes the impact on the marketers, how they’re trying to keep the material fresh, and how they’re going to approach the ads and marketing campaigns when the movies are actually scheduled. (I’ve seen some of the ads since. They’re…um…underwhelming.)

Then this paragraph caught my attention.

The danger is not just that a film might feel stale to moviegoers, but that the teams tasked with generating the hype will burn out. One project supervisor at a company that develops movie trailers says the downtime has led to endless tinkering, which can deplete creativity: “We were working on [movies] off and on throughout the year, never knowing when they were going to come out. We kept rushing to finish, only to be told that a film was moved back. You don’t know if what you’re making is for real—or is it a drill again?” Just like the assets themselves, enthusiasm can be a finite commodity. “You’re not mailing it in, but it’s not as fresh to you, so it is harder to have the same energy on it that you had a year ago.”

I paused, stopped, and reread.  Then ripped out the article and set it aside.

In a world everything entertainment must be new, new, new, the idea of burning out the audience is important. But I have just written a blog that tells writers to market their older works to readers who’ve never seen it. Marketing to readers as “new to you” won’t burn out the readers. They will see the product as new.

But the marketers…Hmmm…

Over ten years ago now, Dean and I started WMG Publishing to handle our own work and to make sure it never went out of print. We have a great staff (who, by the end of 2021, will have managed to publish more than 150 titles). They know the inventory. They can manipulate it and move it around.

But to some of them, this stuff is old hat. They’ve marketed that series before. They’ve handled this kind of story in the past. Hell, they’ve literally handled that exact story a dozen times.

Enthusiasm wanes. They’re not as fresh as they were. If we’re not careful, their energy will become stale.

Even if they like the project. Even if they love the project.

And let’s not even discuss the projects they…don’t like. (I almost wrote hate, but I like to pretend that the staff working on my books loves all of it.)

The same people promoting the same products to similar markets. The staff does really well promoting the same products to new markets. The newness brings the shine back to the project. But something that’s not quite different enough? Something without an obvious challenge?

That’s a brand-new problem in a brand-new time.

I suppose we could farm out the marketing, but that costs money, as does hiring a new staff person to handle the old projects.

The better way to do it is the way that we are, which is keeping an eye on inventory and doing our best to match the inventory with the moment.

Current events help. Some books were written before this current moment revived interest in those things. Some books show the historical underpinnings for what’s going on now. Other books provide the perfect escape from the moment we’re in.

That will change as moments change, and a good marketer keeps up on all of that—and I’ve blogged about it before.

But I hadn’t realized that there’s a sameness to marketing long-existing projects, and the marketers have to be wary of growing stale.

This problem did exist in publishing before with “classics.” How many covers has A Room of One’s Own had? I have no idea, although I know there’s at least one version with Nicole Kidman and her prosthetic nose on the cover, to cash in on that Virginia Wolfe movie.

A lot of books that had once been relegated to the African-American section of a bookstore (which should be abolished by now; books don’t need to be segregated) got spruced up for the summer of 2020, as the Black Lives Matter protests drove white people to the bookstore at the recommendation of their Black friends.

But such behavior is rare in the traditional publishing industry. And it lacks foresight. Also, most “classic” works of literature don’t get touched by a marketing or sales department, only by the editor who has to deal with them when something new arises.

So we don’t have a lot of good examples of how to behave as we remake something old into something new-to-you. We don’t have it in other entertainment fields either because, as I mentioned in the first post in this series, all of our different forms of art and entertainment is based on the velocity/brand new model.

In fact, if you read the Vanity Fair article, the problem that the marketers were dealing with at that point in the pandemic was how to keep everything that hadn’t been released yet new and fresh—as if it would, like a banana, spoil in storage.

It didn’t. People want to see movies. The way that we’re seeing them is changing. The disruption is similar to the disruption that we’ve seen in music and traditional publishing. The movie industry held it off with draconian contract terms and windowing and hardcore schedules that got blown up big time in the past year-plus.

I don’t know where things will shake out for that industry. But for indie-published writers with a lot of inventory, we need to figure out how to keep our marketing fresh so that the new-to-you readers will want to read our work.

I was glad to read the article (late as I was coming to it—and as much of a time machine as it actually is) because it identified a future problem for all of us who want to keep our IP fresh. We have to figure out how to keep our marketing fresh.

I don’t have a lot of suggestions yet, but I will as we work on this with WMG. If things don’t get blown up yet again by this damn virus, revitalizing our inventory is a 2022 project.

We’ll see. I’m a lot more sanguine about the fact that things are changing underneath us all the time. (Which means I’m angry at it, but I’m a lot more flexible than I used to be.)

I hope we’ll get to it in 2022. We sure have gotten to a lot in 2021, despite the stupid pandemic.

And now we’ll be ready for the staleness problem.

It’s always nice to see these things in advance.


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“Business Musings: Stale (IP Frontlist Part 3),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / hemeroskopion



4 thoughts on “Business Musings: Stale (IP Frontlist Part 3)

  1. I have one book out, another one close to being ready to publish.

    I put significant effort (for me) into marketing it when it came out and the following year, and exhausted my tolerance for that part of the equation – but am now faced with planning some marketing for the second book in a trilogy when the first one still needs a push, and seeing opportunities in having more than one to promote.

    But it also looks like a LOT of hard work, not to which I’m averse, but for which I am having trouble finding the energy. And it is critical, because the third book will probably take me another five years, and it would be nice to have the other two selling – to encourage the writing.

    Still thinking about the thing as a whole.

    Thanks for mentioning the exhaustion. I’m feeling that lately – and I have nowhere near your size problem!

  2. Hmmm… As I started reading, I thought you’d include something about endless revisions. Looks like the same dynamics should creep in.
    Take care.

    1. I didn’t understand your post at first, and then the other comment clarified. Yes, they are constantly revising their marketing plan, and it is like rewriting…but you can’t use the same marketing five years later. You’ll need something new. So it needs to be a new **marketing** product, rather than a revised one from the past. Good spot.

  3. I actually read it as a warning about the marketers as creatives spending too much time revisiting something (ie rewriting!) and so letting the critical part of their brains take over (cue endless Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith blog posts) 🙂

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