A lot of (British) writers simply do it by instinct… instinctively reducing huge themes into a clear and deceptively simple plot… without ever rationally unpacking the genius of what they’ve done. The unpacking bit is important for agents, publishers and readers, however – as they often lack the instinctive genius of the writer. Yet that means a writer needs to wear two heads (like Worzel Gummidge) if they’re ever going to be commercially successful. I always cite JK Rowling and Terry Pratchett as examples here – they’re okay/good writers, but they would never have succeeded if they hadn’t had acute business minds as well.
When I heard they’d made the horror tv show of the cult comic book Swamp Thing, I set out to watch it as soon as I could. After all, the legendary Alan Moore cut his teeth with Swamp Thing, along with V for Vendetta, and then Watchmen and so on. Then I had that terrible fear: what if DC had ballsed it up? It would be a crime beyond forgiveness. Let’s face it, DC has a very dodgy track record when it comes to comic book conversions e.g. the fun but very silly Green Arrow, the simply awful Batwoman, the earnest but super-hammy Black Lightning, the laughable movies, etc. Let’s not quibble – if they can get Swamp Thing right, then hope is restored.
So I sat down for the opening episode, waiting for it all to go wrong. The visuals are great – so good you can’t see they’re using stage-sets. The town of Marais set on the edge of the creepy gothic swamp is perfectly rendered and brilliantly atmospheric. And the horror-action sequences are suitably redolent of John Carpenter’s genre-defining The Thing (1982). You can absolutely understand why the opening episode cost $20m on its own! The script, characterisation and acting? Well, the script is on point, working through the detective beats that often come with horror… without actually becoming cliched. We are kept guessing but fed tantalising clues – keeping us hooked. The characterisation is organised in a similar manner to the plot – references to individual but interconnected back-stories without any clumsy exposition. And the casting/acting… is sufficiently good.
What is the scenario? Well, Doctor Abby Arcane Holland of the CDC (The Centers of Disease Control) is called back to her hometown to investigate an epidemic that’s broken out. It seems that something in the swamp is making everyone sick. Anything else would be a spoiler, so just go and watch it if you want to know more.
Yippee, I thought to myself. This is excellent. Well done, DC. Finally! Then I thought to check on the number of episodes and series available… only to learn that the DC Universe streaming service had CANCELLED the show ONE WEEK after the episode aired (31 May 2019). WTF?!
I checked the online reviews… the show had been well received by the fanbase and the critics alike. Even more WTF? What are you playing at DC? You’d finally got it right. Don’t do this to me… to us. It made no sense whatsoever.
Thus, I started to read around the industry speculation as to what had gone wrong. There was no clear consensus. One of the early signs of ‘trouble’ emerged before they’d even finished making the first series – the show got cut from its original 13 episodes to just 10. Aha. The production costs had to have been a touch too high… and that first episode cost $20m, remember. Was DC Universe streaming service ever going to get enough commercial subscribers to make the outlay on Swamp Thing back again? Probably not, especially when insiders began to fear that Swamp Thing might turn out to be a dud (just like all those other DC tv shows and movies). So there was a lack of confidence in the show among its own producers. And, between series, producers have to pay millions to store/warehouse expensive stage-sets… so decisions on a second series have to be made very quickly… even before the first series has finished production. The swampy plot thickens. And then the final issue: the DC Universe streaming service was owned by Time Warner… and Time Warner was taken over by AT&T in 2018. When takeovers occur, ‘economies of scale’, product rationalisation and redundancies ALWAYS follow, to recover a lot of the investment required to secure the takeover, and to maximise profits going forward. Apparently, then, Swamp Thing (but more specifically the DC Universe streaming service) was a victim of this new operating context.
Damn it. In summary, Swamp Thing was artistically successful and a proper hit with audiences. The writers and actors had done a good job. But it wasn’t the writers, actors or fans making decisions about the show. It was the money-men. And the decisions made weren’t made based on quality issues: they were made based on quantity (i.e. the numbers and the profitability). And here’s the rub in today’s rabidly impatient capitalist world – high-quality art will never thrive when it’s judged by numbers alone. Look at how they axed the superb and unsurpassed Firefly series by the mighty Joss Whedon. Look at my own inability to get that next book deal from Gollancz (I’ve only sold 20,000 books, which just isn’t enough, I’m told).
What comes next? Cheaper DC shows, of lower quality. Argh! It feels like we’re going backwards. Yup. Maybe it’s two steps forward, one step back? Nope. They didn’t learn from Firefly, did they. It’s a sorry state of affairs.
The fundamental problem of course is that they still haven’t perfected the business model for streaming services. It’s an ugly fight at the mo, with Apple’s new service, BritBox, BBCistream (in development) and the list goes on. It’s not sustainable, and there will be terrible collateral damage along the way. Why did it have to be the anti-establishment work of Alan Moore, though! The irony is sickening. I feel the rage of the Swamp Thing.
Post script. And I’m not alone in my rage. I have now seen the very sizable fan backlash against DC. DC are alienating the fans so much that the fans will now be hugely wary of starting a show till they know FOR SURE that the second series is a go. If fans become wary of even starting shows, then audiences numbers will be even lower… and it’s a vicious circle/spiral downwards. DC are close to BREAKING themselves entirely. Mark these words.
Interviewed by Falmouth University, init: https://falwriting.com/new-blog/2019/1/30/interview-a-j-dalton
Here’s a rum do: I wrote an academic essay on gender identity and sexuality in science fiction and fantasy, and the collection it was published in won the 2018 British Fantasy Award for non-fiction. Woohoo. No prize money, not even a tin trophy for my mantlepiece… but karma points praps.
The collection from Luna Publishing (@LunaPressGlobal) is ‘Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction’.
New figures show that fewer UK writers earn enough to live on, as ACE blames falling sales of literary fiction on the recession and the rise of smartphones.
The image of the impoverished writer scratching out their masterwork in a freezing garret remains as true today as it was a century ago, according to a new report commissioned by Arts Council England (ACE), which revealed that collapsing sales, book prices and advances mean few can support themselves through writing alone.
The report found that print sales of literary fiction are significantly below where they stood in the mid-noughties and that the price of the average literary fiction book has fallen in real terms in the last 15 years.
The growth in ebook sales in genres such as crime and romance has not made up for the shortfall in literary fiction, prompting ACE to outline ways it intends to support affected authors.
“It would have been obviously unnecessary in the early 90s for the Arts Council to consider making an intervention in the literary sector, but a lot has changed since then – the internet, Amazon, the demise of the net book agreement – ongoing changes which have had a massive effect,” said ACE’s literature director Sarah Crown. “It’s a much more unforgiving ecosystem for authors of literary fiction today. We inevitably end up with a situation where the people best positioned to write literary fiction are those for whom making a living isn’t an imperative. That has an effect on the diversity of who is writing – we are losing voices, and we don’t want to be in that position.”
Carried out by digital publisher Canelo, the report analysed sales data from Nielsen BookScan and found that between 2007 and 2011, hardback fiction sales slumped by £10m. Paperback fiction had a more extreme dip, seeing declines almost every year after 2008. In 2011, paperback fiction sales were £162.6m; by 2012, they were £119.8m.
Do you know your ‘high fantasy’ from your ‘epic fantasy’, ‘urban fantasy’, ‘sword and sorcery’, ‘steampunk’, ‘dystopian YA’, ‘dark fantasy’, ‘metaphysical fantasy’ and ‘grimdark fantasy’? Not sure of the definitions, leading authors and socio-history of each? Then you might like to read The Sub-genres of British Fantasy Literature, which I’ve just published with Luna Press Publishing. (It’s based on the PhD thesis I wrote for Huddersfield University, init.)
Soooooo, my new publication (‘The Sub-genres of British Fantasy Literature’) is now available for pre-order. Form an orderly queue – no pushing or fighting. I knew I should have got some ogres and trolls in for crowd control. Then again they tend to eat too many of the customers.
The book is actually the PhD I wrote for Huddersfield University last year. In their wisdom, Luna Press Publishing decided they wanted to publish it.
Pleased to say I’ve just signed a contract with Luna Press for the publication of the ol’ PhD. It’s entitled ‘The history and sub-genres of British fantasy’ and will be out around April 2017 (sort of EasterCon time, so we might launch it there, with suitable fanfare and amounts of wine). If you want to read the official announcement, where there’s more about the PhD’s content: http://www.lunapresspublishing.com/single-post/2016/11/13/A-J-Dalton-Joins-the-Luna-Family
- The return of epic fantasy?
I’ve received a couple of fan emails asking why there isn’t more ‘epic fantasy’ around at the mo. Added to that, several conventions this year have had panel discussions on the epic fantasy sub-genre. What’s going on? The ‘epic’ sub-genre of fantasy literature was the dominant sub-genre in the 80s and 90s. It was overtaken by the urban, dark and grimdark sub-genres a good while ago. Are people yearning again, then, for that time when kings and queens were noble, when a hard-working apprentice could save the world, and when evil could be defeated by good old fashioned morality? Are people ‘sick’ of the depressing, brutal and fatalistic fantasy literature created by current social and historical forces (Brexit, Trump, political scandals, etc)? You bet they are. And who can blame them?
- The lost age of heroes?
Curiously, although dystopian YA movies did well at the cinema for a number of years (Hunger Games, Divergent, etc), the trend seems to be returning to high/superhero (‘Chosen One’) fantasy. Marvel hero stories are swamping both tv and film. At the cinema, we’ve got Avengers, Thor (third film in production), Antman, Dead Pool, Guardians of the Galaxy (second film here soon), Doctor Strange, etc. On tv we’ve got Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil, etc. And let’s not forget the resurgence of the Star Wars franchise – classic high fantasy. What’s happening here? Why are stories from the 70s gaining such traction? Are people really harking back to a nobler time, when humans were ‘better’, when they may have walked with gods? You bet they are. This yearning isn’t new either. It’s a key theme of the Iliad as well. We see how far we have fallen since the ‘golden age’, and we feel grimy and ashamed. We try to envision how things once were, so that we can mimic and recreate that better past.
- Changing fashions and new generations?
Every 7-10 years of so, we have a new erotic series shocking popular culture. We had Emanuel in the 70s, Jilly Cooper in the 80s, Jackie Collins in the 90s, E L James (Fifty Shades) in the 2000s, etc. After each iteration, people get bored with the media saturation and there’s a ‘lull’ in the market. There is a welcome reprieve. Then the younger generation grows up and it all starts again. The same happens with vampire fiction – you don’t need me to list the examples. And the same has happened with zombies. Are we telling the same stories over and over again? To an extent (there is certainly a lot of tired repetition), but there is also updating and some originality going on. What we can say, then, is that there seem to be a limited number of basic stories, but they are always relevant. We are going to see the same old stories repackaged over and over forever more, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
- Takeaway message?
The takeaway message is that audiences still crave hope. They eventually return to enduring stories of hope and triumph. Yes, it’s fresh and interesting to have moments and sub-genres where the dark side wins, or where everything is morally ambiguous, but in the longer term, our positive spirit is shown to win out. Amen.
So, we’ve seen libraries and book shops close across the UK – apparently because people didn’t want hard copies anymore and e-books were cheaper. We’ve seen the undignified bun fight between Amazon and the main publishers – because book prices had been forced so low that publishers could no longer justify taking such a big cut from the pittance that authors were making. And we’ve seen an era of mega-mergers between publishers – as they sought to realise economies of scale and thereby continue to survive.
It was looking apocalyptically bad for publishing. But was the view of things described above the whole picture? Not really. The main problem has been the behaviour of the publishers – they have been victims of themselves in large part. Where other industries have survived changing markets (via innovation and changing themselves), publishing has only made an already bad situation worse. Let’s look at a few behaviours as examples…
- Publishers are more reluctant to ‘take a punt’ on authors these days. They don’t want new authors who have no established fan base. Seems sensible? It’s not. How can a genre evolve and remain relevant unless it’s through new blood? If a publisher publishes the same old names over and over, it will soon begin to see a decline. Look what’s happened to the book sales of scifi and horror. Dead. Why? Because no one would take on Necromancer’s Gambit by the young A J Dalton, a book that he was forced to self-publish, a book which proved to be the UK’s first new wave zombie book and which became the best-selling self-published title in the UK. The book was rejected by publishers as not being ‘squarely within the genre’ – the fact it was fresh and different was seen as a weakness! Bringing us to the next issue…
- Publishers over-read trends and markets. True Blood by Charlaine Harris was rejected by every publisher in the western hemisphere for two years. She was close to giving up. Twilight became successful in 2008 and then there was an insane scramble to secure the rights to True Blood. Publishers then ONLY wanted vampire fiction. They started rejecting anything that didn’t have a vampire, no matter how good the book was (and Empire of the Saviours by one A J Dalton probably got its deal back in 2010 cos it contained blood-drinking saints). What happened? Various rejected authors gave up, meaning that the ‘new blood’ the genre needed was lost, meaning that we ended up with the same situation in example no.1 above. Sure enough, the market was saturated with vampire fiction, people got sick of it and it all died off. Dead.
- Publishers are reluctant to commit to a series anymore. Say the first book in a series sells pretty well, but the second one doesn’t sell so well, are you gonna publish the third book or ‘cut’ the series (anticipating even more of a fall-off in sales)? More and more, publishers are cutting a series before it’s finished. It happened to Paul Kearney’s Sea Beggars Trilogy (which was never a trilogy!). And what about Joss Whedon’s Firely? Seems sensible? Not really. Readers have got so fed up with series being cut, that they now won’t commit to buying a series until all the books are out (or they’ve heard the next series instalment has been commissioned). This reader behaviour makes the situation worse, cos it means that sales of books 1 and 2 in the hypothetical series we started with will be even lower, meaning the publisher will be even more inclined to cut the series. Dead.
- Publishers are insisting on game-changing novels. As in example 3 above, publishers won’t commit to a series. Instead they insist that authors submit a ‘game-changing’ first novel that will all but guarantee immediate and massive sales. The number of brilliant books that get rejected because they aren’t ‘game-changing’ enough is disgraceful – and, remember, it means we lose the ‘new blood’ the genre requires. If you meet a publisher demanding a game-changer, tell them where to get off. I wrote a brilliant scifi called Lifer, but it got rejected in precisely this scenario. (By the way, it’s still available if anyone’s interested.)
- Publishers over-extend series. If a series does emerge as relatively successful, publishers then insist the series-author writes more and more titles in that series – it doesn’t matter how good the book is, it’ll sell anyway. Yes, in the short term it will, but in the longer term it’ll die a death. Look at the Joe Abercrombie Gollancz series (ending with The Red Country). Or the True Blood series, which ended up with 12 or 13 titles. At the same time, the publisher puts all its marketing resource, time and effort behind that one series, ignoring all the other authors, meaning that other stuff starts to fail, no matter how good it is.
- Publishers aren’t even offering book advances anymore! Even established authors (like myself and Tom Lloyd) are being told that no advance on their next book will be paid (that or a derisory amount will be offered). Seems sensible of the publishers? Not really. If the author isn’t paid any money to live on while they write the next book, how can they actually write the book? They’re too busy doing other work, work that pays and therefore buys food. Many authors have given up. Some authors manage to keep writing, but it takes them far longer to write a book. And by the time they deliver the book, things have moved on and the book is no longer the game-changer that is required. The book gets rejected. Dead.
And I could go on. But then I’d be writing a book rather than an article. At the end of the day, publishers have made their own bed and will have to lie in it. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be their death-bed. But maybe it will. With today’s technology, how much do we really need the old monoliths of publishing? What we need are innovative, risk-taking, marketing-savvy and IT-savvy companies. We need companies that respect their authors and invest in their authors in the longer-term. A last example. Elton John says in interview that he wouldn’t succeed as a young musician these days. You see, he didn’t become successful until his third album back in the day. But record companies today don’t offer three-album deals anymore.