Yeah, the movie Jaws. If you want to know why Hollywood is so formulaic and puts out crappy product, it’s because of Jaws. The blockbuster mentality? Jaws. The idea that books have strict-on-sale dates? Jaws. Why high-concept books like Twilight are more popular with publishers then a story with realistic characters behaving, well, realistically? Jaws.
Wait, what? I hear you say. You blame a movie for the the way the publishing industry works? That’s just weird.
Nope, that’s the Jaws effect.
Jaws is the father of the blockbuster movies, a high-concept thriller that was very deliberately handled to maximize its profits and effect. It was the first film to use the wide-release platform of flooding theater screen across the country all at once, and it’s release date was chosen to coincide with the beginning of summer. It was the movie with the first huge media blitz campaign. It was, essentially, when the first business majors became players in the entertainment industry. And once it proved to be hugely successful, everyone wanted a piece of the action.
Is it a film of lasting artistic merit? We could debate that, but I don’t happen to think it is. Gripping story and compelling characters? Not really. Magnificent display of manipulation of the public, both inside and outside of the theater, into believing they had to see and like this film? Absolutely.
In an earlier time Jaws would have been considered an exploitation film, the kind of shock schlock relegated to second billing at a drive-in theater. It presents a basic fear – shark attacks in this case – and magnifies it into the form of a menacing monster that must be destroyed. In the 1950s it was nuclear attack and communism that found its way into the movies, generally via alien invasions. In 1975 our government was in a shambles following Watergate, the Soviet Union was still very much a Cold War threat, and the alien invasion we feared came in the form of a shark. This was much scarier than that Cold War stalwart, James Bond, whose featured villain in The Man With the Golden Gun was a man with three nipples. Hardly scary at all.
The minute the rest of Hollywood saw the green pile up, everything changed. Movies were scheduled to open on specific days so that marketing departments could maximize the effect of the release. Certain movies were purchased specifically with an eye toward summer in mind. Soon the studios were unable to claim specific weekends for themselves and would begin to go head-to-head on specific dates, and the rush for an opening weekend box office became a sign of winning. Multiplexes were blooming like weeds, and Hollywood rushed to coordinate nation-wide distribution. And in that rush to maximize profits as quickly as possible, distributors would increase the number of screens in an attempt to earn back the film’s costs in as short a time as possible. These days it isn’t unusual for a movie to open on 1500 to 2000 screens; Jaws opened on just over 450 and went to 675 by mid-summer.
Meanwhile, the publishing industry was plodding along the tortoise to Hollywood’s hare. Books were released, reviewers read them and published thoughtful reviews, titles climbed up and down the bestseller list. Or not. As a product the book was never seen as something with an expiration date, and sales could be steady for a much longer period of time. Word of mouth and critical acclaim could build, as it used to for movies before the time of Jaws. It used to be that you could count on a film still being in theaters for a month or two after initial release, but witness how hard it is to find a movie these days two weeks after release. You’re almost better off waiting for the DVD in many cases if you don’t see a new movie by the second weekend it’s out.
Publishing wasn’t Hollywood and they never laid claim to being Hollywood. Many of their products made for some lucrative movie adaptations – like Peter Benchley’s Jaws – but that wasn’t their purpose or motivating spirit. Publishing lived for the word, and the story, and the ability to present the best of those two things combined. Money, yes, money, of course they were in it for the money, but not in the same vulgar fashion.
And then the publishing houses started to become acquisitions. People saw them as fallow money farms waiting for seed money and support. Why, they’re an established form of entertainment and collector of people’s discretionary spending, they could certainly be maximized like any other entertainment industry, right? Like movies? At least the business majors thought so.
The bottom line became king. In order to ramp up marketing, strict on-sale dates became more the norm. Big chain bookstores jumped in to cut deals that would help the corporate owners of publishing houses maximize their returns on new releases by treating them like movies: featured placement in stores, lots of copies available, more co-op advertising. And like movies, six weeks later, those books were off the shelves unless they were bestsellers, in which case they were treated to a special place in the stores. Midlist and backlist, steady income streams for publishing in the past, became little more than filler to bulk out stores so the general public would be lead to believe they had entered a business offering them many choices. Few people browsed the shelves, waylaid instead by displays of newly released books placed in high traffic areas.
To state the obvious, books aren’t movies. They are consumed at different speeds. They offer a wider and more subtle assortment of subjects and styles. Unlike movies where people share their favorite parts, readers share entire books. They form social clubs around the books they’ve read. The gobble up the adventures and savor the literary and it isn’t necessary to interrupt your life to read a book on the day it’s released. You can, of course, but publishers aren’t taking the book away from you if you don’t get around to reading it for a week, or a month, or a year.
That said, there are books (and series) who seem to capture a zeitgeist and ride it like Pecos Bill on a rattlesnake, whipping up frenzied readers who have come to expect their entertainment to serve as the next big thing. Those books, chosen for their mass appeal, become the new Jaws that excite the market and send publishers and editors looking for the next blockbuster title.
E-books may change the landscape a bit, perhaps eliminating the distinctions between front- mid- and backlist, sending publishers back to their founding business models of multiple streams of income rather than constantly relying on exploitable trends to carry the house. Actually, I think the future of the publishing industry may lie in its roots; small houses that specialize in what they published, and plenty of them. Far, far from the Hollywood business model and from the troubles they’re facing right now.
So, yeah, for all that I blame Jaws, the motion picture.