When you read a Richard Matheson novel or story you believe it and you believe it because his characters are real people, reacting as real people would when placed in an extreme situation or confronted by the uncanny. Robert Neville, the protagonist of I Am Legend, is the sole survivor of a worldwide plague, the last living human on a planet of vampires. But Neville is no square-jawed, ass-kicking hero, he is a lonely man, his isolation gradually driving him mad. One day, and he knows this, he will simply open the door, walk out and let the waiting creatures take him, ending his suffering. The Shrinking Man’s Scott Carey loses more than his height as his mysterious affliction gradually reduces him to microscopic proportions. He battles gamely to retain his masculinity, his identity and, finally, in life and death battles with predatory animals and insects, his very existence.
More than any other writer of dark fantasy except, perhaps, Ray Bradbury and his friend and colleague Charles Beaumont, Matheson wrote tales that make your heart ache. As you read the story “Little Girl Lost” you experience that poor father’s panic when he realizes his daughter is calling out to him from a place beyond his reach. “Mute” and “Steel” are incredibly sad, affecting stories, offering only thin glimmers of hope, a fleeting chance of redemption.
He and Beaumont were critical influences on my early writing—I knew them first through their work on “The Twilight Zone”. Only later was I lucky enough to scoop up their short story collections (both thrive in the short format) in affordable (usually used) editions, reading their tales over and over again. About twelve years ago I packaged up some of those collections and sent them to Mr. Matheson for signing (along with a self-addressed stamped envelope). He was good enough to oblige and now those books are the treasures of my collection.
I think Stephen King said something along the lines of Matheson deserving credit for taking horror out of the moors and forests and bringing it into the suburbs. I can’t think of a single good horror writer from the past thirty years who wouldn’t consider him the dean of dark fantasy and cast their eyes downward at the mere mention of his name.
And let’s not forget, he could also turn his hand to other kinds of writing. I’ve read several of his western novels and they stand up well compared to the rest of the field. He had a lifelong interest in matters relating to the power and potential of the human soul. He took his researches into the paranormal seriously and the depth of his knowledge manifests itself in what I think is his finest novel, Hell House. His was an active, seeking mind, restless and sharp and, at least when it came to his work, unsentimental and occasionally pitiless. That’s part of what made him great.
I feel a real sense of loss tonight. Yes, I know he was eighty-seven years old and his time had come. I desperately wish I’d had a chance to meet him, exchange a few words with him. I doubt I would have said anything remarkable or cogent. Of all the Big Boys, I suppose there’s only Harlan Ellison and one or two others left.
There’s a strong sense, a la the demise of Bradbury and Harryhausen, of an era coming to an end.
The King is Dead! The King is Dead!
Long will we mourn his passing.
My wife Sherron has thrown down the gauntlet.
The other night she told me: “Listen, you’ve had your fun insulting editors and publishers, belittling their intelligence, always going after them. Now, how about something constructive? You’ve got ideas on how to improve things and make the system run better so let’s hear them, wise guy.”
Right. Here goes.
First of all, it must be acknowledged that, by any standards, the corporate book publishing model has been a complete failure. Publishers are losing money, cutting staff, consolidating…and book sales have taken a big dip (according to one stat I saw on Mediabistro, down a whopping 13% in November, 2008 from the previous year).
And this notion that there are editors out there with the wisdom and far-sightedness of Solomon, who are somehow able to identify and manufacture the next monster bestseller is a complete fallacy. Moronic, in fact. Has no basis in reality whatsoever. Look at what happened to Andrew Davidson (author of Gargoyle; Random House); guy gets a hefty advance, the book is promoted up the yin-yang…and it barely makes a ripple. Certainly no threat to becoming the next Da Vinci Code, right?
You can’t pie chart a bestseller, you can’t graph which book is going to break through big time–and which ones are going to flounder and sink like the Lusitania. Please recall that the enormous, worldwide success of J.K. Rowling resulted, largely, from strong word of mouth, parents passing along copies and recommendations of The Philosopher’s Stone until a genuine groundswell was created.
You can’t consistently create a bestseller but what you can do is use the new technologies out there so that, as a publisher, all your eggs aren’t crammed into one basket. Changing the metaphor, why settle for the equivalent of a single shot, old style flintlock, when POD offers you the opportunity to wield a state of the art shotgun?
Print-on-demand (POD) gives you that capability. Unlike the old, offset press method of publishing, POD is flexible, far less time-consuming and energy intensive and cheap to boot. You can print as many copies of a particular title as you want, from 1…to ten million.
Instead of throwing big dough at a title/author that is, by no means, a sure thing, why not spread that loot around a little? Rather than sign up five authors at a million plus each, why not give 100 writers a chance, paying them smaller upfront fees but rewarding them with a higher royalty rate. That payment regimen has worked with small and indie presses for years–and, believe me, you’ll be astonished at how little an author will accept in their desperation to get a book in print. It’s depressing, really. Pathetic.
Ah…sorry. Wandered off topic. Where was I?
Okay, now you’ve got 100 different authors with a hundred different books, 95 more opportunities to find the next Steve King than you had under your stupid corporate model. And you don’t give your 100 hopefuls ridiculous print runs, you start modestly. That way you won’t be stuck with massive returns, which then have to be remaindered, warehoused and pulped, more money down the drain.
You can print as few as 500 or 1,000 copies per author and then emulate what the movie companies do when they offer films as limited releases, to gauge audience reactions and get some idea as to a project’s potential appeal.
Thinking along the same lines, publishers could send out review copies to newspapers, magazines and bloggers and, simultaneously, “test market” books in selected stores (or by offering them as downloads through e-Readers like Kindle et all). Let the readers and the book-lovers determine which authors have wider appeal and then do another, larger printing to meet the demand (the author happily cashing in at the higher royalty rate).
Some might opine that under a royalty-based system the publisher would be tempted to cheat, since they’re the ones controlling the books. I would argue that Bookscan and related technologies, as well as computerized inventories and the publishers’ selfish desire for authors to score a hit and sell a gazillion books makes the possibility of fraud quite remote.
What I like about this system is that it allows a wider array of authors to develop a following, while not feeling the pressure of a big money contract hanging over them. The risks are shared between the writer and the publisher…and as far as I can tell the whole thing seems like a win-win scenario.
Corporate publishers have been slow out of the blocks when it comes to new technologies, especially POD. Instead of utilizing POD as I have suggested, some in the industry have chosen a more short-sighted and morally questionable approach. In my view, they’re misusing POD by going after relatively small peanuts, offering print-on-demand services to aspiring and amateur scribblers who have yet to make the grade, encouraging them to sign up and print their own books. Oh, and, let us not forget, that means said scribblers have to sell and distribute their own books. The big boys deigning to offer no other assistance, content to serve as a glorified copy shop for dingbats desperate for a for-real-and-true book to wave in front of their friends (“See? See? Told ya I was a writer!”).
But I have my doubts these tactics will work. Writers, as a rule, tend not be be made of money so you can only milk that teat so long. Besides, iUniverse and Lulu have been around a lot longer and have seized a sizable slice of the market share. But it’s an enticing proposition, turning the old regime on its ear: writers paying publishers, rather than vice versa. Zowie! And if there are enough stupid, starry-eyed authors out there, who knows? Those rotten bastards could stand to rake in a nice stipend.
But those same publishers could make a helluva lot more if they abandoned their home run/big book mentality and settled for hitting singles and doubles for awhile…especially in these precipitous economic times.
I’m not saying my business strategy is completely original or perfect and if you have any thoughts on its weaknesses, how it could be improved, drop a line or two in the “Comments” box below.
Let’s see if we can put our heads together as bibliophiles and devotees of the printed word and save publishing from the worst aspects of itself.
If it means a wider, more diverse cross-section of authors make it into print, having more books out there, more choices for readers, our efforts will be worth it.
Hey, you suits in New York and Toronto! Are you listening?
What do you say?