Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On the perception of public desire when producing fiction

When writing an author has to guess two related things: what the publisher believes the public wants and what the public might actually want. Sometimes the answer arrived at is simple, with the genre trends and audience appreciation allowing for a singular answer for both. But more often than not the author ends up with two different answers and has to find a way to meet both demands.

The basic issue with this is that no one really knows just what the audience wants. They often believe they do though, and this is how genre trends and story telling trends become fixed. It is a simple enough formula but it ultimately creates disaster. What happens is this. The writers, producers and publishers believe that the audience appreciated what came before so much that they'll collectively like to revisit the story to the same degree once more, possibly more so. They produce a work that runs along the same genre trends and meets all the same big issues or mainstays as the previous well-received work. Small differences are included to avoid copyright infringement and plagiarism claims but the similarity is obvious to everyone. The work is released and many who liked the first work return for the next. And here comes the problem. The new piece, when read by the old audience, is critiqued and disassembled. Those who like few challenges in their fiction appreciate the story. And those who get bored easily by repeating story lines begin to turn away claiming that they've seen or read it before. The audience appreciation drops but sales are mostly maintained as sales are a precursor to critique. This is why the first sequel or reiteration is generally sold or viewed but trashed in critique. This is also why the sales for the third plummet, as by then the lesson is learned by the audience.

Not so the producer, publisher or writer. What they do is immediately search for another hit trend and begin the whole cycle all over again. Either that or they keep producing the works of those 'proven' authors who've managed to create characters of interest of a world that's a bit different and remains exciting enough to engage the audience repeatedly. In the meantime, they dump any failing or failed work immediately. This seems to be the right approach until they begin to over-produce certain series and rush the writers and producers so mediocre work is produced. Also, there's the tendency to believe that any unproven writer or creator isn't worth the time and effort to support as the initial gains aren't going to be large enough. Obviously they aren't going to create tonnes of money, not without adequate support or marketing from those selling the work, but there are plenty of works that could and are bypassed because the creative industries have backed themselves into a financial/genre trends corner. By producing copies upon copies the audience has become jaded and disinterested, meaning they're less likely to buy or view or even support a particular work.

For a while it was possible for the industries to swap ideas, with books being converted to movies or TV shows, and movies and TV shows being converted into books and radio series. But now, few audience members will follow both for an extended period of time. Luckily that means that initial sales heighten as knowledge of a story in various formats spreads. Unluckily, story fatigue felt by the audience is faster to hit, more permanent and often there's a backlash. You've seen this with Twilight, Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey, Star Wars (once a few disappointing characters were introduced and a some bad acting was portrayed as good), Dr Who (the downfall of the first series arc and now the repeated end of humanity/no alien worlds/badly written morals/weeping Doctor is wearing on old Dr Who fans) etc. The series can be good or bad but still it can wear down a reader or viewer until they just can't take any more of the same.

Several books series, sold as major players and producers of vast sums of money, are undergoing the same crisis. The Eve Dallas series is stagnating for the books being pushed out too early, the descriptions being dropped for plain dialogue (quicker to writer) and the relationships slowly ceasing to grow and develop. I'm hoping the series will snap back as the Eve/Roarke relationship is a legend in the making for those following it. The Anita Blake series decayed into pornography only to be pulled back from the brink of being completely disappointing by the re-inclusion of crimes, good old gun fights and a few psychopaths. The Women of the Otherworld series featured women who were younger and younger until they became girls, for the most part, and a new series was also created for teenagers. This seems good as it brings in a new audience but the old one is left hanging, waiting for their own identifiers to return. Innovation can reengage an audience that's getting tired. Shifting focus to a new audience while trying to maintain the old is more difficult than it sounds and could spell disaster. Rushed work at the behest of producers and publishers means the audience has to be satisfied with less than polished or rounded work, something very few audiences will ever put up with for long. The problems of the big sellers are enormous and hard to overcome. And they're mostly born of a misconception of what the audience wants and a growing boredom within the audience itself.

You'd think there was no way anyone could win in such a system, be they writers, producers, publishers or audience members and in some ways you'd be right. Creating is like gambling and this is how the creative industries approach sales, at least for the last century. Publishers and producers take a bet that a work will gain a certain return based on the author's previous reception, the reception of any previous connected works and the reception of any works similar to that being produced. This is factored into the print run or the support given so that the publishers and producers don't lose too much money in their bet. Then the betting is closed and the creative work has to be received. Often times there's a loss, sometimes there's a gain. What the publisher or producer hopes though, is either they don't lose too much or they've chanced upon a winner. Once a winner is secured they're groomed, well supported, given safe demands like repeats or continuations and sent out to perform the miracle again. Some creators do and some don't. The winners list is culled again, more focus on those who gain returns and less on those who didn't. More demands for a rerun and so another similar work is produced.

Then comes the audience bite... Very, very few creators pass this mark and these are the ones who've become legends in their respective industries. They are big names and they're respected. The production of less than par works forgiven for one or two rounds solely because of their previous hit record. Solid fans consume whatever is out there and keep a creator afloat but only the skill of the creator determines whether the fan base stays or fades away, cancellation of a series notwithstanding. Many audience members buy automatically but one failure or repetition too many can mean they ditch the entire previously beloved series altogether. Slasher films went this way, be it the Jason series, the Halloween series, the Nightmare series or the Scream series. You'll find most fans stick to the early works even when re-watching as the later works remain disappointing.

Meanwhile, cancellation of a series too early can lead to the audience getting up in arms, buying DVDs by the droves and creating fan bases world wide that demand either the return of the series or that the industry respect the work as a classic. This rarely happens in book series though, with comparable instances generally including the death of a main character. Does the cancellation of a series finally secure that continued audience engagement the producers and publishers are after? No. It has to be done right and it definitely can't be done often. Only a few series of way too many cancellations have become such cult hits. One is Firefly and another is Futurama, of which there was a realisation of just how popular it was due to continued heightened DVD sales. For books though, it has now become acceptable and even expected that main characters, favourite ones, die due to the Game Of Thrones books and then TV series. As such, when the characters are bumped off and the series ended readers aren't so shocked and don't respond so virulently or damningly.

That gambling system produces a high failure rate in and of itself. The emphasis on winners only means that only one of many is show creative glory and tries to maintain it. But like all rising champions, leaders, movers and shakers, each creator will meet their downfall in the fiction world some way or somehow. It came be that they lose out that one time, they produce too many similar works, they're cancelled early for a producers belief that they aren't gaining fans for the works sake and not bad scheduling or marketing, for not having adequate marketing, for switching audience members, for removing innovation, for stagnating characters, for rushing their work to meet publisher and producer demand, for working for less returns, for failing to see what the ever-changing audience now wants and so on. If you're lucky, your run might last until you die, which can come at any time, you have to admit.  And when the end of a winner comes, like all addicted gamblers the publishers and producers go chasing after another one with returns just as high, slowly forgetting the fact that it takes work and money to create winners and that they need to keep up the innovation to gain new audience members.

Which leaves two problems. As usual. What happens when there isn't enough money to support the gambling habit, let alone the search for innovative new creators? And just when is anyone going to accurately guess what the audience really wants? The answer to the first is what's been happening of late: axed jobs, downsizing, mergers, an increased focus on winners over innovators, increased audience disengagement, biting critiques of the industry itself for the mass printing and production of rubbish (50 Shades) that cashes in on social media, a refusal to market, less focus on editing, an increase in cheaper runs for second tier creators. So on and so forth. Conditions have been terrible enough that authors have been falsifying testimonials and peddling their works so directly they're labelled spammers. Also, movies are being sent straight to DVD, movie theaters are making money only through popcorn and lollies while more and more TV shows are cancelled, thereby increasing audience frustration. Everywhere you look there's only the doom and gloom of the creative industry to be seen and it reminds me of that which art has suffered under for years. 

And the answer to the second question is obvious. Never. Sometimes the guess is close but such instances are rare indeed. Many believe that audience expectations are what need to be met but that's incorrect. Meeting expectations is often disappointing as many expect to be disappointed and expect the same old tripe as that's the culture we've built. Trashing movies that haven't even come out yet is already a favourite pastime of movie watchers as even pre-marketing is now as expected and so cliched. Very cynical eyes are looking over the entertainment industry in search of something truly entertaining and when they fail to find it everything seen is trashed. Critiquing is becoming the thing to do and it is fair more mainstream to disassemble and find wanting any creative work than it is to appreciate the good things about it. No work is perfect but the current system has bred an audience that desires perfect entertainment, knows an incredible amount about stories that have come before and hates to be fed the same old work over and over again. What does any audience want? To feel that thrill gained through the first few forays into fiction once more. Providing it means surprising the audience. Over and over again. Not reiterating the last work that had some uniqueness about it or assuming that producing to the lowest common denominator will produce the greatest rewards (it doesn't and what rewards are gained dwindle fast).

How do we get out of this mess? And by we I mean all creative industries? We all do something interesting. Something different. Something new. And we all support these works properly, with adequate marketing and pre-production/publication work. We all reinvest our efforts for the sake of the creative industries before the funding is lost to support new and/or innovative creators. We make remarkable and interesting works that break from what's out there already. And we find true fans (or potential true fans) who are still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when it comes to fiction and first market to them rather than to the wider audience that's still so cynical. Such ideas might be difficult to follow as the entertainment industries are built on quite old habits but the audience today is fairly screaming for proper attention and dying to be entertained. There's a big enough audience out there for all out entertainment formats to continue forward with the appropriate adjustments, so long as we simply entertain more people than we bore.

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