Friday, April 15, 2016

Book 27: You could almost foresee that the bulk of this would be about my feud with Stephen King

Joyland was the book that gave me a hissy fit about four years ago, when Stephen King announced that he'd written a book for Hard Case Crime, but that he would only publish it in paperback "at first," a move that generated tons of publicity and got King heralded as a guy who was saving writing for writers and reading for readers and so on blah blah blah. Even back four years ago King was saying he'd eventually make it available on e-readers after he'd soaked up enough profits from the lucrative publishers/top authors business model that still prevails today he'd given the readers an 'authentic' experience.

King's decision to publish a book in 'hard copy' only generated a lot of praise and publicity, and also generated a backlash as people began pirating copies of it and giving him 1-star reviews on Amazon without even having read the book. Book piracy has generally been a nonissue for people -- have you even heard before today that people do it? I hadn't-- and not all authors and publishers were concerned about it. That article noted that King's Hard Case Crimes publisher shrugged off pirating, saying you have to rely on the goodwill of readers.  My current all-time favorite author, Nick Harkaway, said technical solutions to stop book piracy were "silly." Harkaway thought pirating actually helped sales, which is an interesting point of view.

King's decision to forego e-book publishing for a while caused what can only be described as the least discriminating readers ever to download copies of a 2006 book also called Joyland, resulting in a windfall for the woman who wrote that other book. Stephen King even mentioned her on Twitter, and she started a blog about how she was spending her Stephen King money. (My book Eclipse came out about the same time as Stephanie Meyers' Eclipse and I got nothing. Pleh.)

Back in 2012 when I ranted about King's decision to only publish in paperback at first, I decided that it was far less about King's desire to let people have the 'authentic' experience of reading a pulpy crime novel the way he felt they should be read, and more about keeping big publishing and big authors together generating big sales for only a relatively few writers. I noted that the medium isn't the message, and that a book should stand on its own as a story regardless of the format it's read in.

But with Joyland, the medium was almost the only message. Not only did many of the stories about the book initially focus on the manner of its publishing, rather than its story or the Hard Case Crime series, but eventually Hard Case published even more 'collectible' editions: it was published in paperback for a year, then a series of limited-edition hardcovers, about 2,250 in all.

This is what I said in 2012, verbatim, about why King was publishing Joyland as a paperback:

What's really going on is some combination of contrived scarcity, added value, and a fight against Amazon and other indie booksellers like Smashwords. 
Contrived scarcity is what Disney and the makers of Westvleteren 12 beer do (although the latter, being monks, deny that's what they're doing.) Disney won't let you buy The Lion King whenever you want; you have to wait until it comes out of the vault. The monks who make "the best beer in the world" carefully limit access to it, although when push comes to shove both open up their doors -- the monks started shipping their beer because they needed money to fix their abbey, which is understandable and they're still doing God's work but they're doing it for a profit. 
 Making your book available only through a small publisher and only in paperbacks guarantees scarcity, which can drive up demand. (Westlveteren sells for over $500 a case on eBay). It guarantees people pre-ordering the book and lines when King goes to the bookstores for signing -- and it guarantees stories about the book for months in advance, free publicity being the best kind, especially if it's authentic free publicity (which is why I'm not naming the book.)

I had no idea, then, that a year later Hard Case would deliberately play into the contrived scarcity of the book.  This, of course, is probably why Hard Case got King to write a book for them in the first place; I'd have never read a Hard Case book if not for it being written by King, but now I'll go read a couple of their other ones, so the  marketing worked.

I'm not against marketing. I'm the guy who suggested putting commercials and ads in books. I'm against marketing presented as authenticity.  It's that kind of fake authenticity that makes every city in America have a cobblestoned minimall somewhere downtown, that makes people still buy vinyl records. The limited-edition copies of Joyland in hardcover are going for up to $250 online. If King's actual desire was to make people feel what it was like for him as a kid reading a pulpy paperback in his bed at night, why issue a $250 limited edition hardcover?

Stephen King's reputation as a writer has somehow managed to survive despite his many flaws. It was a sprawling wreck of a novel with a gross, out-of-place child orgy that gave away any suspense by its unnecessary and overly-complicated switching back and forth of timelines, burying an otherwise decent horror premise under a mess of literary tricks. His writing tends to be repetitious at times and he's often in need of a good editor. He writes, often, like a twelve-year-old; one of his books features a monster the characters call a shit weasel, and the monster is more unnecessarily gross than that name implies.  He's written something like a kajillion novels, but they're an uneven bunch; for every The Stand or The Long Walk there's an Insomnia or Salem's Lot. And for a fun drinking game, try taking a sip every time King mentions a character wearing a 'chambray' shirt. I would like to send him an American Apparel catalog just so he'll have a guy wear something else.

But Stephen King has somehow risen above being Stephen King. His name is synonymous with horror writing in America, and he has also somehow become the de facto writer laureate of our country, despite his many poor writing tendencies.  When King says something is good, people assume it is good. When he says it is bad, people assume it is bad. His reputation and influence seem to bear no actual relationship to his overall level of talent which I would say is on the higher side of average -- he's a B writer with the occasional stretch to A-level. He's like the baseball player that goes on a hot streak every so often but still has a .250 average.

In that sense, King is the perfect messenger for publishing's overall clamor that the medium is what is important: Stephen King the writer has become "Stephen King, Inc." the marketing force, and his decision to write a hard-case crime story made headlines before anyone even knew whether it would be any good. Most of the talk about Joyland has never been about Joyland as a story; it has been about Joyland as a product delivered by Stephen King, Inc., and just as Coke and Pepsi and Lucasfilm retain their credibility despite numerous fails, so does King.

Publishing exists, these days, to keep publishing in business.  That is not really surprising: all businesses exist to keep themselves in business.  What is amusing, if not amazing, is that publishing is attempting to keep itself alive by forcing people to consume its products only in one certain way. Think of another business that has insisted on that. When American carmakers kept insisting on big gas-guzzlers, they were undercut by auto companies that gave people sporty economy cars. Now they make electric vehicles and are pioneering self-driving cars. McDonalds has introduced salads. TV networks license shows to Hulu and the Beatles let Apple put their songs on iTunes.

Eventually, every business must accede to the desires of its public. The music industry continues to fight to keep people from listening to music the way they want to, and is losing money. Publishing keeps pushing Stephen King, Inc. (And "JK Rowling Conglomerated" and "John Grisham LLC") because these are reliable sellers that require little to no effort to market. Remember, not only did Stephen King's Joyland make a huge splash before it was written but people were so eager to buy a King novel that they didn't even bother to make sure they were buying the right Joyland.

I can see why the publishers wouldn't want to lose that. But at this point, it's almost completely not about the stories. I'm a King fan, mostly, and I can name maybe 10 of his books, on a good day. He's published sixty-two books. I doubt most people have read them all; I bet many people have read only 1 or 2, but even those people who don't read King know about him and could probably name 1 or 2 of his books. Stephen King is famous, at this point, for being Stephen King, and the flap over how Joyland was published, and the decision to focus on the manner of its publication, as well as to market the book almost exclusively based on the manner of publication, demonstrates that for many people, and many writers, and many publishers, writing is less than ever about the story.

Which in this case is kind of sad, because in the end, Joyland was actually a pretty good book. It benefitted from having a leaner, streamlined feel. It didn't end up being all bloated with nonsense the way so much of King's stuff is, and should be placed near the top of his books, for the story, rather than for being available in a $250 limited edition.

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