Monday, October 14, 2013

Hollywood vs. New York: What's the Disconnect?

After reading Donna's excellent review on the motion picture Gravity on Friday, I started pondering some of the paradoxes of the publishing industry vs. the motion picture industry when it comes to audience tastes.

And this led me to a question if there's really a difference in tastes and a difference in audience expectations between the Hollywood motion picture industry and the New York (Big 5 traditional) publishing industry, or if the difference is merely a perception.

What's the New York perception?

The perception by the big publishing houses seems to be that science fiction and romance don't work together. That science fiction romance is doomed to fail because the science fiction readers and the romance readers are two entirely different groups, and therefore the genre has a very limited "niche" audience. (Those few books that do succeed in getting a contract from the Big 5 then seem to face a very difficult marketing quandary--should they be packaged and marketed as SF or Romance?)

How did I formulate these perceptions?

Actually, they came right from the horse's mouth, so to speak. These are the paraphrased words of New York editors I've gleaned from retreats, editor panels, judged contest entries, publisher spotlights, and yes, even rejection letters, for the past three years.

And unfortunately these perceptions--or very possibly misperceptions--are creating their own reality. Because if editors don't buy books because they contain both science fiction and romance, then readers can't read them. And if readers can't read them, then it's true that they'll have a limited audience. The perception creates the reality.

Now let's look at Hollywood.

When a motion picture is made, the audience dynamics are taken into consideration. Generally, couples or families are going to go see films together so when it comes to science fiction, the films are formulated to include elements that will appeal to a wider audience. That element is usually romance.

  • Star Wars was a sweeping Sci-Fi (or Science Fantasy, if you prefer) adventure with an iconic romance--Han and Leia.
  • Avatar was unabashedly a Sci-Fi Romance--and an alien romance at that--and became one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.
  • Oblivion had at it's heart a romance that spanned decades and the fall of civilization, and even overcame a so-called "memory-wipe."
  • Battleship was a SFR between a ne'er-do-well Naval officer and an Admiral's daughter. Yes, there was a lot of action and explosions and alien battles in between, but the story started and ended with the romance.
  • The re-imagined Star Trek franchise has strong elements of romance, most notably between Spock and Uhura.
  • Contact featured a romance between a scientist and a clerical leader who discovered their beliefs were more alike than different via their experiences--the film simply wouldn't have had the same punch without the romance.
  • Serenity, the motion-picture adaption of the cult TV favorite Firefly, played heavily on the Captain Mal/Inara romantic elements.

These are only a few of the SF with R offerings of the past couple of decades, so where does the New York perception arise that science fiction and romance don't work together, when they clearly make for some enormous audiences and huge successes in Hollywood?

Is it because we read books as individuals instead of as couples or families, so the tastes of the individual must be catered to without thought to their significant other or family members?

If so, then how did the perception that individual readers will reject either the science fiction or the romance in SFR originate, especially when it's so popular and so widely accepted, and even sought after, on screen?

Why are New York and Hollywood light years apart in this respect?

What are your thoughts on why New York isn't keen on SFR? Do you believe the reading and viewing audiences are two different groups or that they expect different things in a book than they expect in a motion picture? Do you believe the perception in New York arises from the failure of SFR books in the past to find a substantial audience? Or do you think it's rooted in other factors? We'd love to hear your opinions.

17 comments:

  1. I don't know why SFR isn't as acceptable in NYC as Hollywood. I'd hate to think it was sexist--like sci-fi readers are men and men don't like to read romance. What a myth! Isn't it interesting, though, that so many SFR books are self-published?

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  2. I mentioned this to an editor WAY back when I made same comparison about romantic suspense with humor. She told me that movies were different and that seemed to end the discussion.

    The really great thing about today is that authors can now go around NY to find readers. My SFR is doing very well on its own. It's currently outselling my RS books, which surprised the heck out of me, because RS is the bigger market.

    I think the answer is that it is easier to become visible to SFR readers than it is with RS, because it is such a huge market.

    So, for the indie or small press author, you don't need the deep market penetration to do well. NY has deep pockets, but they also have deep expenses. So they need big numbers to make money.

    When I first started writing it was not possible to make a living as an author - sometimes WITH NY.

    I'm not supporting myself yet, but I am starting to support my business.

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  3. I agree, Diane. So many of us grew up with Star Trek and Star Wars and other SF with R icons. The concept of Science Fiction with romantic elements is something we embrace and it's difficult to understand why it's seen as mutually exclusive. But the general opinion in NY still seems to be that the two can't mix or don't mix well enough to find an audience. Fortunately there are exceptions to that line of thought. :)

    I think we're seeing a lot of self-published SFR because it's a long and difficult path to find a publisher. That's true of any genre, but seems to apply doubly to SFR.

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  4. Great insights, Pauline. And very exciting to hear your SFR is outselling your RS. Woot!

    I wonder what's behind the statement that "movies are different." I'm sure there are marketing studies at play there, but I'd love to hear the theory behind that statement.

    Are they saying people who go to movies don't read? Seems we're talking the same audience, but they're saying consumers who will shell out $15 for a SFR movie ticket won't pay $5.99 to read a SFR book.

    In NY's defense, they do have huge costs to publish a traditional print book so they want to realize a good return on their investment. That's completely understandable and it's just good business.

    The question is, because of the time it takes to accept, edit, package and market a book, have they fallen a few years behind the times on what is trending and not giving SFR books a chance that have the potential to find a substantial audience in the current SFR craze in pop culture?

    As Diane pointed out, NY isn't the only option for SFR authors, but the more SFR books get published by the Big 5, the better the shot at drawing a large enough audience that the genre becomes accepted by traditional publishing (IMHO).

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  5. Well, this was back in late 1990's, but from my view as a READER, I think NY has always been behind. As far as I know it was/is the only business that does NO market research. They never ask readers what they want. They talk to booksellers, but not readers.

    In one way they are VERY like the movies, etc. They see a trend and jump on it, rather than seeing what's behind it. For instance, instead of realizing that Harry Potter went huge because it was new and fresh, they looked at it like: oh, readers want wizard books.

    You look at the tv series that hit big--then the season after there are lookalikes.

    As to your point about SFR not hitting it big w/o NY. Shades of Gray hit it big before NY. They jumped on that trend. Indies have been identifying trends and getting NY to pay attention since digital publishing first popped up on horizon.

    I just don't think NY leads anymore.

    I think what is important is to:

    a) write great books

    b) write more great books

    c) be strategic in how you market (you can do that now that we can see real numbers. For instance, I focused on RS, because my RS audio books were outselling my SFR. Then I got access to my numbers! If I had still been with publisher, I wouldn't have known about SFR selling better in time to switch gears. Now I'm working on new SFR. I will continue to work on RS, but making my SFR a priority.)

    If an author does what they'll need to do anyway, with or without NY, then you will build a following. It just takes time.

    And I believe that if we build it, maybe Hollywood will come. (Let's be honest here, though. Women and about women are bottom of pile in Hollywood. Women in Hollywood are going to have to change that. I had a project that won some awards and such, had a strong female lead. Was told I needed to change focus to male. Because "women don't watch this kind of movie." It is going to take a jackhammer to get into Hollywood. IMHO.)

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  6. I think what is important is to:

    a) write great books

    b) write more great books

    Yes!

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  7. Yeah. I think people who make the decisions are probably still in the good-ol'-boy mode thinking something is "for girls" if it is focused on a romance, and that science fiction is "for boys." If you watch the advertising for the flicks you mentioned, it's war and action and screaming and faraway shots of exotic locations. And then you'll see one flash of a couple (always a man and a woman) kissing or embracing passionately, showing that there might be romance but it's just one of the normal spoils a hero gets in an adventure story.

    They're taught to aim and fire with a particular demographic in mind. They're pretty narrow-minded with regard to what groups actually like what, but it's no secret that they think movies appreciated by men are the ones that make the money, so even if a romantic aspect is front and center in the movie, they'll downplay it for the sake of getting their intended demographic to turn out.

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  8. Hi Julie. Thanks for your comments. Yes, I think you're right about the marketing aspect. But Hollywood at least seems to understand that both male and female audience members are what make their films hits. And in most cases (Battleship being the one probable exception in the examples I listed) I think the romantic elements were as big of a draw as the special effects.

    The general NY mindset still seems to be that women aren't interested in science, science fiction, innovative ideas, adventure or high tech, and that such elements can't be successfully blended with a fully realized romance. From my experience, that just isn't true.

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  9. Yes Laurie, and many people if not most go to movies with their significant others, and many of those are heterosexual couples, so it would be silly to alienate one major gender if you expected to get a huge turnout. But I think in our society women are encouraged to be open-minded to (or at least tolerant of) "guy stuff," and it's acceptable for them to be interested in it, while men going to "women's movies" is much less likely and men are not taught that movies targeted at women are acceptable for them to watch and like. Basically you're going to have a better turnout for your movies if you use the advertising tactics and story elements that attract dude viewers.

    I absolutely think "fully realized romances" can and do (successfully!) take place in adventure/SF settings, but it's usually a matter of spin. Especially since just like ladies DO like tech/adventure/SF, there are lots of dudes who like romance, even if they wouldn't go see a movie that was billed as "a romance."

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  10. Julie said "Especially since just like ladies DO like tech/adventure/SF, there are lots of dudes who like romance, even if they wouldn't go see a movie that was billed as "a romance."

    Great point. And it's true Avatar--for one--is always billed as Science Fiction not Science Fiction Romance. We just know that it is. :)

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  11. If NY publishing is full of all these brilliant people, why didn't they invent paranormal romance?

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  12. I know as PNR was starting to blossom in the smaller presses, NY was still in the mindset it wouldn't sell. But not sure if PNR authors had the added battle of being td Paranormal and Romance are mutually exclusive. Do you know if that was an issue, Heather?

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  13. Sorry td = told. My iPhone keyboard likes to abbreviate words I spell out. :/

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  14. @Laurie Based on what I've learned, yes, there was a perception of the two being mutually exclusive. It's understandable because at the time, vampires were still rooted in the horror genre. How could an undead Nosferatu-like character be a romance hero?

    When readers understood how authors like Christine Feehan were transforming vampire characters and showed how well they fit with some of the romance fantasies, readers became more interested.

    That said, it took many readers persuading other readers to take such a chance. Which is a way of underscoring the point I made above. NY didn't kick start PNR--authors and readers did.

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  15. What is so funny about the whole vampire thing? I remember when Frank Langella played Dracula. Had the biggest crush on that Dracula! I have no way of knowing, but I wonder if that surprised the producers and such? I know it surprised the heck out of me. LOL

    I think this was back in the 80's? And there was George Hamilton's Vampire (he did a comic Zorro thing, too). Trying to remember what it was called, but he was totally a romantic (if comic) Dracula.

    I suspect that both NY and Hollywood trip over good ideas and then go, what just happened? LOL

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