Lots of folks have jumped on the announcement that Amazon is setting up a system by which content owners can license what they have to allow officially-sanctioned fanfiction. I don't see this so much as a triumph of fanfic as I see it as Amazon, and maybe the content owners as well, sensing an emergent market ... and perhaps also trying to keep the next Fifty Shades of Gray from getting produced (or at least prevent it from not returning them any money to them in the process).
What's most striking to me is not the fanfic side of it per se but the process being put in place. In essence, this isn't a "fan fiction mill"; it's a streamlining of the pitch process for tie-ins and spin-offs — things the creators usually set up on their own and then hire in people from the outside to write for them. But if they have a veritable army of people willing to do the job, why not let them have at it? (Assuming that doesn't tick off the established professionals who worked hard to write for such a thing, only to be displaced by a bunch of upstarts, etc.)
And what more, it's not the content creators that seem to have been the trigger for this process. Rather, it's the pipeline — Amazon — sensing a market that has yet to be created, and doing what it can to bring it into being. Shrewd work on their part. From here, they could go any number of places — e.g., partnering with musicians to allow tracks to be remixed or sampled (and further monetized by all three parties). Just as long as the original content holders have the last word ....
The Pipeline isn’t doing it’s job. There’s a flattening, blanding, ahistorical problem in our culture. We’re not getting sold things of deep value, we’re getting sold something again and again. Our culture is too important to be left in the hands of simple profit-loss calculations.
The pipeline, as Steven and I have come to call it, is everything that gets culture to you. Mainly, it's the mix of distribution mechanisms that are owned and run by some corporate concern — the Wal-Marts, Amazons, Best Buys, theatrical chains and so on. They're the ones who are actually buying what's out there, which is what makes them so important.
What hasn't gone too closely examined, I fear, is the long-term cultural-ecological effects of this system. Every now and then someone comes along and bleats about "mass culture" (pace Dwight Macdonald once again), scores a few points with exactly the wrong sector of society — mostly the folks who would be happier if everyone threw Harry Potter on the bonfire and picked up some good clean Shakespeare instead — and vanishes in a puff of footnotes. As a result, it's difficult to talk about "cultural pollution" without sounding like a fuddy.
But with each post I write about this topic, with each new slice I take off a different side of it, I see more and more that the ecological analogies are not at all out of line. To talk properly of "cultural pollution" requires we go less into what is being produced than how. We don't worry as much about a factory that is carbon-neutral, solar-powered and cradle-to-cradle with its raw materials, but we have good reason to worry about a factory that dumps sludge into a river and churns out products destined to sit in a landfill and leak heavy metals into our water table. If the world crashes into our living room, doesn't it stand to reason that it'll take out a load-bearing beam or two in the process if we're not careful?Read more
Steve wonders if the more traditional formats for delivering SF (prose, video) are the best ones:
... as I read a solid SF novel and muse over what forms work, it seems apparent to me that the forms of novels with a physical footprint and singular/episodic video (television shows, but maybe online) are the best methods at this time.
By this, he means in comparison to "new media" like webcomics and such. I agree with this idea up to a point, but only so far, for a couple of reasons. (Addendum: Rob Barba has his own reply here, which is well worth reading.)Read more
it is an urgent task of contemporary American fiction, whose characteristic products are books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things — the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons! — but do not know a single human being. Such books, congested and anxious, resemble the millipede mentioned by Meyrink, which, when it realizes it has a thousand legs, is suddenly unable to move an inch.
The first time I read these words, I couldn't help but think of the same problem facing SF. If anything, SF has this issue, only even more acutely. It has hypotheses about terraforming, quantum computing, faster than light travel, et any number of als, but it has the worst time thinking about how a single genuine human being who is not an authorial stand-in would live with such things. The shining exceptions get little recognition in either SF or mainstream circles, since they break unspoken rules for both domains.
Regular readers of these pages know I have issues with the way mass-market entertainment is pounded out according to a series of predictable formulas. With movies, it's the three-act script structure (the "Syd Field" template), which has become so standardized that not only screenwriters but producers take lessons in how to write scripts like everyone else, less they not know what to look for. Other examples abound, but that's one of the most egregious and obvious of the bunch.
Some folks manage to make the templates work with them, not against them. PIXAR are masters of this sort of thing — well, at least they used to be, until Disney's commercial pressures got the better of their storytelling impulses.
For a long time I had trouble explaining why three-act beat-structure storytelling bothered me so much, aside from the obvious indictment that it was storytelling-by-formula, and that when you do anything by a formula you get nothing but variations on the formula. It took a conversation with a friend the other night to put better words to the objection: it's a conflation of an explanatory device with a generative device.Read more
From the comments to Science Fiction Repair Shop: A Defect Of Character Dept. (Genji Press), where I lamented the way SF&F authors seem to be untrained in (or discouraged from) digging into personal experience and thus establishing an intimate rapport with their readers:
Going from the idea that there's a loss of intimacy and connection [between audiences and creators in their works], then is it possible that need is acknowledged - in other media? Authors blogging, connecting on twitter, showing up at conventions? Is that in part a substitute for a lack of intimacy in the media itself?
I suspect this problem has been around since long before the recent explosion of social media, so while those things didn't create this problem, they certainly haven't been of much help alleviating it. The root of the problem seems to be the way we confuse merely having an audience with actually having something to say.
Every author¹ craves an audience, and not always for reasons they themselves fully understand. Some write simply because they have a vision to communicate, one with more appeal to the senses or the emotions than the intellect, and where any intellectual content is most likely discovered after the fact or attributed retroactively by others. Some write because they have a specific agenda to advance, whether aesthetic, political, social, or personal. And sometimes that personal agenda is nothing more than the cultivation of an audience: they want to write so they can be heard.Read more
In an essay named "Economics Not Culture", my friend Steven Savage asserts that economic processes have replaced cultural ones. I agree, and I believe the problem is even worse than the way he describes it.
I admit this is not a new concept, or a particular profound one. But it has taken on a new and virulent form in the last few years. It is the idea that there is no better way to determine the worth of something culturally by how well it performs in the marketplace — and by that token, the only things worth producing are those which get mobbed on by enough people that no unusual efforts (aside from efforts of scale and scope) have to be made to sell it.
The idea of economics as a cultural force (at least as it is most relevant here) can be traced back to — who else? — Marx. His concern was that capital reduces the individual to an integer in a system that inevitably exploits him. That all had a germ of truth to it, but he missed several other things which severely undermined the predictive power of his work.Read more
The other day I was talking to a friend, doing my usual back-of-hand-to-forehead routine about SF&F, and out came this bit: "I feel like the whole way we go about exploring ideas in SF and fantasy these days is so depersonalized. Not [just] in the sense that there are no characters, etc., but in the sense that there is none of us, ourselves."
The first germ of this complaint sprouted back when I read Harlan Ellison's discussion of Charly a/k/a Flowers for Algernon. The book embodied for him a major, ongoing complaint he'd had about SF — the way the genre had consistently failed to deliver characters worthy of being remembered. Here we have a Paul Atreides, there an Ender Wiggin, but for the most part character in SF is relegated to the back seat, if not the glove compartment, in favor of concept and gadget. It took TV and movies to deliver memorable characters for SF, in big part because you have to go big or go home with such things in those media.Read more
From the comments to Indie Pandering Dept. (Genji Press)
I think we both discount and overemphasize imagination at the same time. On one level it's viewed as "making stuff up." On the other hand there's the emphasis on how supposedly imaginative people make tons of cash.
And if you think making stuff up is the fast road to riches, I have various water-spanning properties in the Five Boroughs for sale.
I don't think most people believe in the get-rick-quick part of this stuff anymore — well, they'd better not, or they're in for some major letdown! — but I do think they are just as often, if not more so, under the sway of a delusion that is no less damaging, the idea that imagination is nothing but "making stuff up."Read more
... there is one truism that augurs well for publishing: Great marketing is no longer enough – if your product, be that a book, game or other storytelling project, is substandard, you will be found out, and the days of getting by on reputation alone are numbered. Basically, make a great game/book/product, and build your marketing with confidence from that point.
On the other hand, I no longer believe you can expect a great thing to accrue its own marketing on its own. The magic word-of-mouth we all like to assume exists, the kind where the stone you nudged downhill with your toe turns into a landslide, is as much a product of sheer luck and network effects as it is effort.
That said, I suspect there are very good reasons why those things are a product of sheer luck and network effects. In other words, the code can be cracked if we're diligent, but I suspect it requires access to the kind of metrics and stats that most self-published authors are either not in the habit of harvesting or simply don't have access to.
The fact that each self-publishing platform is an island unto itself doesn't help — it's next to impossible to harvest data from them, since they don't publish it. Maybe a sort of coalition of performance data sharing between self-publishers could be created — a way for individuals to tap into the collective data created by so many people working solo, side by side.