Business Musings: Stars
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Me and the Google (as a friend of mine calls it) spent what I almost termed a “dispiriting” hour as I searched for the 21st century’s superstars in a variety of fields. I say “almost termed” because, when I think of it, “dispiriting” is the wrong word.
Adult me, who loves this modern world of indie publishing and going directly to the reader, doesn’t mind the lack of superstars or “big names” as most people call them.
Teenage me, who was trained to figure out the coolest, latest, most “in” superstar (and to judge people based on who they liked and who they didn’t like), feels…well, not dispirited either. But at sea, maybe. Because it’s not as easy as it was fifty years ago to figure out who is guiding the culture.
That whole concept—guiding the culture—comes out of curation. And class-based curation at that. Hardcovers, considered permanent and as a result difficult to afford, were for upper class and/or educated readers. Paperbacks came out of World War 2, and became even more popular thanks to the GI Bill (here in the States) paying for the education of anyone who served.
Paperbacks were considered disposable, though, like the pulp magazines before them. So anything that was in cheap paper was considered cheap fiction, and not worthy of all the things we used to measure “good literature.”
Curation is an important part of the creation of superstars. Yes, the fans have to like what they see, but to get the maximum number of fans to like something or someone, there has to be an information funnel. People need to see that something or someone in very, very, very large numbers.
Even so, those numbers don’t mean a lot when you move across the globe. Global superstars were extremely rare, even back in the day, and were often only in the movies—especially action films that didn’t have a lot of dialogue. Global superstar writers really didn’t exist ever. Each language and/or country had their own stars and often those writers didn’t translate well into a different culture.
Instead, books became blockbusters across the globe, and I’ll get to that in a later post.
One of the many, many reasons that global superstars are rare has nothing to do with language or cultural barriers in the arts. The reason is that there were no curators worldwide. Here in the States, we had a tightly regulated curation system in the mid-20th century, and it was all based on distribution.
There were only so many shelves in bookstores across the nation. Books that went into department stores (remember those?) were the cheap disposable kind (or as we knew them, the mass market paperback). Records had similar issues. There was a large struggle to get radio play, considered free advertising, and then record stores and yes, those department stores, clamored for the music that their customers came in and asked about.
Even then, nothing remained on the shelves long. There just wasn’t space.
Just like there wasn’t space in the movie theaters for more than a handful of films. The movie theaters expanded from showing one film for a month or two (the 1970s) to three or four films at the theater in the mall (the 1980s) to multiplexes (the 1990s), but even that didn’t make distribution easier.
Someone curated who saw what film, just like someone curated who heard what record, just like someone decided who read which books.
Television expanded outward faster, thanks to the arrival of cable, but the networks, which had dominated since the 1950s, held sway until we entered the new century.
Curators told us what to watch. We, the audience, chose among the curated product and accepted or rejected what we found.
Along the way, we found our favorites. Since the curators were nameless and faceless to people outside of the various industries, we couldn’t follow the curator, so we had to find a different way.
We followed the artist, the author, the actor. We couldn’t even follow the television program or the book series because the curators would often discontinue the television program or the book series for reasons that had nothing to do with popularity, and everything to do with contract negotiations or the difficulty of controlling the producers or other behind-the-scenes problems.
Because there was so little actual product out there, we had “watercooler” conversations in which everyone—and I do mean everyone in a particular country/culture—had an opinion about the latest bestseller, the latest movie, the latest album released.
Now, movies can appear and disappear without anyone noticing. It doesn’t matter if we make it to the theater before the movie leaves because the movie will eventually stream. Finding music that we like is as easy as picking a playlist on one of the streaming services, and in many ways, we curate those ourselves based on algorithms of things we have listened to before.
Books are similar. I’ve complained here before about the fact that I have to actively search to find a new release by one of my favorite authors. Many of those authors don’t have newsletters, not that I always open the newsletters that I get, letting them clutter up my inbox.
Distribution has changed, which is something I deal with on this blog a lot. Curation still exists, but it’s essentially worthless. It’s a dying profession in a dying corner of dying parts of the various entertainment industries. (Dean did a great series on this from the writer’s side a few weeks ago. The series is over ten posts long now.)
Adult me loves the change in distribution. I can find any book I want at any time day or night. My TBR pile is ridiculously big, and I don’t mind a bit. I really should keep an equivalent for the movies I want to see and the TV shows I’ve heard of, even though I haven’t done that yet.
Teenage me is watching the kids I am getting to know at UNLV with a mixture of envy and awe. They might have a conversation about Billie Holiday one day and Usher the next. They might know who is doing what in the style of whom and they might never have heard of someone I consider a modern big star.
It’s fascinating, and there’s no stopping it. These kids did not grow up with curation. They learned how to choose their entertainment on their own…or following various influencers, who are the modern version of curators. Only the influencers don’t have the same kind of power.
Sure, a major influencer can point out and even boost an artist’s career, but they can’t silence other artists to benefit the artist they like. The old curators, back in the day, could do just that. Writers, artists, actors could get silently blacklisted—writers for “low sales,” artists for “inappropriate material,” and actors (particularly female ones) for getting “too old.”
The new system is much better for book writers (and other artists who work individually), although it still has problems for those in more organized entertainment. Getting revenue out of the new system is one of the main points in the WGA’s writer’s strike, and will be one of the main demands if SAG-AFTRA goes on strike at the end of the month.
As an entertainment culture, though, we are stutter-stepping our way into this new world. We don’t know how to get the word out about new product—not in good old-fashioned shorthand.
It doesn’t mean much to say “bestseller” these days, because bestseller in what context? Amazon’s bestseller lists include paid and free, and fall into so many categories and subcategories that if your book is in an obscure subgenre, it can be a bestseller with one sale every few weeks.
Not to mention the fact that Amazon isn’t the only game in town anymore. Brandon Sanderson sold over 185,000 books on his Kickstarter last year, and none of those books counted toward any “bestseller” list at all.
For context, it takes anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 sales in a week to hit The New York Times list, which is U.S. only. None of this makes for good marketing anymore.
Every industry is struggling with this. Variety ran an article last month lamenting the fact that the superstars in the movie industry are “geriatric,” citing 80-year-old Harrison Ford’s walk down the red carpet at Cannes as just one example.
The article quotes (maybe over-quotes) a man who is in charge of selling films to distributors. Protagonist Pictures COO George Hamilton claims that the collapse of the DVD market in 2008 has destroyed the star system. He said:
Nearly all of the actors and actresses who are [bankable] now had very successful films when DVD and video was still a huge force. You could see that as a dividing line shift in terms of older or newer generation. With the new generation, there’s more divisions between success because you could have the most-watched show or film on a streamer. But there might be a whole swath of society who might not subscribe, and they’re not part of that.
We used to treat our movie stars like gods. But the marketing of these streaming movies is so limited that it doesn’t really create stars. Actors aren’t burned into the minds like they once were, and they don’t have this larger-than-life image any longer.
Get rid of the word “actor” here, and insert “writer.”
The advertising markets for bestselling books are mostly gone. The big ones disappeared years ago. Newspapers, with very few exceptions (like The New York Times), have completely done away with their book sections. Magazines that covered entertainment used to include books. Now, Vanity Fair puts one paragraph “reviews” in 8 point type to fit six “reviews” on the bottom half of a page.
No one runs book ads in any paper venue that I can find. The last hardcopy place that took a lot of book ads was Mystery Scene and they closed up shop late last year. They couldn’t get anyone to pay for book advertising in paper.
There’s a lot of online places to advertise, from Book Bub to Amazon itself to all kinds of book blogger sites, but many are influencer based. The rest are as spread out as streaming, and they’re curated by algorithm.
When I log onto Amazon, I get a series of ads or suggested titles, which are completely different from the ones that Dean would get or that WMG might get.
Those kinds of ads aren’t that effective anymore. Most people have easy-to-access adblockers on their browsers so that they’re not bombarded with unwanted messages.
I know, I know. Many of you are panicking reading this and you want me to spoon feed you a way to have your books “discovered.” I’ve written dozens of blogs on that topic and even wrote a book describing the principles of discoverability (called, of all things, Discoverability), so I’m not going to answer that here or even put any of that fretting through in the comments.
Because the point of this blog isn’t to help your book get discovered in this new world, nor is it a blog that will tell you how to become a big name.
This post is a little stranger than that.
I’m thinking that pursuing “big name” status or trying to become a “superstar” is so last century. There is no longer a narrow distribution channel for any kind of entertainment—and that’s good news for those of us who want to write what we want to write.
But it also makes marketing tough. There’s a reason that Variety spoke to a person they later identified as a “sales agent” for their lack of new superstars article. That man has no real idea how to market his product—and that’s his only job.
I’m going to set aside the idea of advertising or marketing to new readers or even doing newsletters and other such things.
I’m just going to focus on what will replace Big Name status—the automatic reaction every reader gets when they hear the name John Grisham or Nora Roberts or Stephen King. Ready?
Nothing will replace Big Name status. That’s not a thing anymore because there are no longer narrow trade channels. Besides that, the generations coming up in this era of streaming don’t think about Big Names the way that the rest of us do.
These new generations think about what they like and maybe what their friends like. They have learned how to find their niches. Sometimes, they learn how to move out of those niches.
Those of us raised in the Big Name world have to learn how to pivot to niche marketing…and here’s the rub. We have to learn how to be happy with that.
Changing our attitude is the first step. The next step is going to be more complicated. And because it’s so complicated, I will deal with it in the next post.
I mentioned Discoverability in this particular post. You can get it as a standalone title or you can get it in a bundle on marketing with a book on sales copy and another on author brands. As is the case with all of my nonfiction books, some of the techniques are products of their time, but the strategies remain the same now as they were when the books were published.
I’m fascinated by the changes in entertainment, as you can tell, and I’ll be dealing with many of them throughout the summer. Please do remember that this weekly blog is reader supported.
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“Business Musings: Stars,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Choreograph