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Anne R. Allen's Blog

...WITH RUTH HARRIS

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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."


Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Have Big Publishers Become a Bunch of Zombies?

I have a confession to make. My high school nickname was “Zombie.”

The moniker was intended as an insult, but I loved it. I dressed in black, dyed my hair a dead ash color and wore ghastly white lipstick. I was goth before goth was cool. My senior year, my family moved to a house next to the town’s graveyard and I’d ask guys to drop me off at the iron gates. When they asked where I really lived, I’d go all spooky. Silly fun.

But right now, I’m totally over zombies and all things undead.

Why?

1)     They stopped being funny. Zombies first hit mainstream American culture with a hilarious 1950s Calypso song about dancing zombies, with the chorus, “Back to back/belly to belly/I don’t give a damn ’cause it doesn’t matter really.” 

George Romero’s 1960s classic Night of the Living Dead was high camp for stoners. People didn’t watch it to identify with the suffering hero. They watched it to revel in its low-budget outrageousness.

The 2004 film Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorite Britflix ever. It has the memorable line, “Just look at the face: it's vacant, with a hint of sadness. Like a drunk who's lost a bet.”

But the other night I tried to watch The Walking Dead. I was equally bored and revolted. Realism ruins all the fun. You see one exploding zombie head, you’ve seen them all. And watching a little kid suffer as he locks his suddenly brain-eating mother out of the house is just icky. If I want high tragedy, I’ll re-read King Lear.

2)     Zombies are not worthy opponents. Once stories start getting realistic, you can’t help noticing zombies are REALLY stupid. And easy to kill. You shoot them in the head. A bunch of stuff splurts out. Next zombie, please.

3)     They’ve been overdone and “trended” to death. Like so many contemporary businesses, publishing companies have taken a fun quirky thing and ruined it by throwing too much of it at us, while limiting our other choices. (Like pastel plastic objects in the 1980s. Anybody old enough to remember when you couldn’t buy a dishpan or a toilet brush that wasn’t powder blue or mauve?)

So now even the best zombie yarns are going to be dated and embarrassing by next year. (Try finding a new mauve scrub bucket these days: I dare you.)

Recently, ZombieLit has been one of the few acceptable genres for debut fiction. Publisher’s Lunch is full of reports of zombieana getting six figures and/or seven-book deals, while mysteries, women’s fiction, and literary novels are a “hard sell”—and big, multi-generational mainstream sagas are deader than a headless corpse.

Publishers “don’t want to take chances in this economy,” and need to “play it safe.”

But what’s so safe about copy-catting, over-saturating and fad-chasing? Or ignoring your main customer demographic? (Most adult book-buyers are women over 45.)

And why does the basic truth that hot trends have a short shelf life come as such a devastating shock to marketing departments year after year? Didn’t they learn anything after killing off funny women’s fiction with the “chick lit” bubble? Or the soon-to-be-defunct vampire craze?

I just checked this week’s NYT lists and it’s entirely zombie-free. What I see is, um, mysteries, women’s fiction, and literary novels—plus a big, multi-generational mainstream saga by a 71-year-old debut author.

Book buyers didn’t get the memo.

Something seems pretty brain-dead here. 

As former agent Nathan Bransford said in an interview on Rachelle Gardner’s blog soon after he changed professions—

“It's mind-numbing how many times I've seen an editor get extremely excited about a book, only to get struck down when they try to get clearance to make an offer. And all the while, they're under tremendous pressure to make a splash and build their career, but how can they if they aren't allowed to take on the books they're most excited about? If ever there were a time to empower young editors and trust their instincts, it's now.”

Is it any wonder a new novelist can’t get a read from an agent? Agents can’t get reads from editors. Editors can’t buy new projects. It’s trickle-down zombification. The industry is eating its own brains.

With all this “playing it safe” going on, I find it annoying that a lot of writing websites are still partying like it’s 1999—telling writers that if you’re getting form rejections it’s always because something’s wrong with your work.

Because the message I’m picking up here is: it’s not you; it’s them. If your work is entertaining, creative, and polished, and your query has been edited to three perfect paragraphs—but you’re still getting silent and/or one-line rejections—maybe it’s because agents and editors are brainlessly ignoring everything but the current fad.

Maybe it’s NOT because your book sux.

Nathan’s not the only insider who’s let us know things are kind of dysfunctional in the book business. Right after the mass-firings/pay freezes in 2008, a number of agents and editors sounded off about nasty, snarky editorial meetings—which seemed more like episodes of Gossip Girl than meetings of the intellectual elite. One can only assume they’ve become even more vicious as the bloodied survivors fight over the festering remains of the industry.

Does this mean we should all give up writing and start working on something more promising, like thinking up new and creative uses for dryer lint?

Nathan doesn’t seem to think so. He says, “as long as there are people reading books there will be publishers to publish them, authors to write them, and agents trying to get the authors the best deal possible.”

But he doesn’t say they will be the same publishers who now command the industry. The result of all this nonsense may be the reign of the Big Six houses will finally come to an end, and a bunch of smaller, more nimble publishers will drive the industry. Publisher’s Weekly reports even some A-listers like Pulitzer winner Alice Walker (The Color Purple) are moving to independent presses.

The road ahead looks rocky and uncertain for people in all aspects of the business, but maybe, in the end, it will lead to a more alive, fresh future for us all.

And zombie stories can be fun again.

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26 Comments:

Blogger Tressa said...

If I see "The Zombie Guide To Dryer Lint" on the New Release shelf the next time I walk into the bookstore I'm going to eat your brain.

Tasty article...I mean good, good article.

January 30, 2011 at 12:23 PM  
Anonymous Judy Salamacha said...

It appears to be time to re-energize your zombie moniker. I challenge you to read Jonathan Maberry's Patient Zero and not enjoy his writing style, quirky characters, and scientific approach towards his tools of distruction, zombies. Then check out his allegorical dystopian YA novel Rot and Ruin. A talented writer can make anything come alive...and Maberry's story live...if not his zombies. And he's the keynote at the Central Coast Writers Conference September 16-17 and since you'll be joining him on the faculty you'll want to meet him, share your nickname, and dialogue with another talented writer. Me like zombie books????...never thought I could/would...but I really do like Maberry. Judy Salamacha, CCWC Director

January 30, 2011 at 12:39 PM  
Anonymous Ruth Harris said...

"Most adult book-buyers are women over 45."

Yes, indeed! So why do the TradPub houses keep ignoring us?

Anne, several writers (we're all female at this point but we're looking for A Few Good Men) have just started a blog addressing this audience. We love you to stop by when you have a moment...

http://boomersandbooks.wordpress.com/

January 30, 2011 at 1:09 PM  
Blogger Donna Hole said...

Yep, wait long enough and a trend will turn to something else.

I think I'm going to be grateful when the Zombie and Vampire craze is over for a while. I sure hope you're right about womens fic and mysteries.

.......dhole

January 30, 2011 at 1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember when Gil walked into and shattered a window, playing Zombie. That cured him.

January 30, 2011 at 1:24 PM  
Blogger Florence said...

Thanks so much Anne.It's true that many of us are sick of having our work overlooked.

Yet, last year for the third year, the highest cat of sales were romance, the second YA and the third mystery. Romance out sold YA by double; and mysteries by triple.

Agents and some publishers are trying to combine genres and use "romantic elements" to get women's fiction on the shelves.

Since Harlequin and all of its imprints is the only publisher through this entire "budget crisis" that has racked up profits, with no year at a loss, it does seem the over 45 females have spoken.

Small noises are coming from distant drums and agents who keep their ears to the ground have heard the news ... change is in the wind once again. I trust it will carry some of us to a better day.

thanks again :)

January 30, 2011 at 1:31 PM  
Blogger Caroline Starr Rose said...

I write non-flashy mid-grade and have always known if I got a read I'd never have big, commercial success. It's the nature of what I write, and that's okay. Thankfully I found an agent excited about my historical novel-in-verse (read: too literary to make it big and challenging to sell). She sold it at auction. To a big six publisher.

There are people out there willing to still take risks on small titles. I say continue to write the books you feel compelled to write. Continue to believe your best work, with lots of tenacity and patience, can find a home (whether that be with a small or big house).

January 30, 2011 at 1:56 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I have yet to see a zombie movie where the weather conditions are terrible. It's minus twenty degrees in Montreal and it's snowing right now. I can't imagine any zombie chasing me down an icy sidewalk. I say it's put zombies through Canadian winter and demystify the threat.

January 30, 2011 at 2:11 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Tressa--Snappy title. I just might do that :-)

Judy--OK, if YOU like a zombie title, I just might have to check it out.

Ruth, I'm going to go check out that website right away!

Donna--Me too. I really don't need any more gory pictures in my head.

Anon (Gretchen)--So Gil was a teenage zombie, too? Maybe that's why we both ended up in the book business.

Florence--Thanks for those statistics. I found the Romance/mystery stats at Sisters in Crime and RWA, but not a comparison with YA. Romance/women's fic rules! (But mysteries have moved up since last year.)

Caroline--Thanks for sharing your great story. Wow. A MG historical novel in verse! Not exactly a big fad. That's just great to hear. And I want to read the book!

Ben--What a great point! I've never heard of a Canadian zombie. If there's a zombie apocalypse, maybe all we have to do is get over the border into Canada, like Margaret Atwood's Handmaid escaping the religious crazies. Oh, maybe that's the same thing?

January 30, 2011 at 2:48 PM  
Blogger Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

No Canadien Zombies? Maybe they're all zombies so they don't know what they are. LOL
I like that line about the big 6 eating out their own brains.

January 30, 2011 at 3:08 PM  
Blogger Carol Riggs said...

I really like this part of your post: "Agents can’t get reads from editors. Editors can’t buy new projects. It’s trickle-down zombification. The industry is eating its own brains." That says it all. Yeah! I've never been "into" zombies. Erg. And vampires don't thrill me that much either. Too bloody, gross and/or violent, I guess.

January 30, 2011 at 3:18 PM  
Blogger Aisha said...

As a writer with an agent getting rebuffed by editors because some of them have said "sorry its not paranormal YA nad that's the only type of YA we're really looking at" this post really makes me feel better. Thank you.

Also, I gave you a bloggy award on my site :)

January 30, 2011 at 5:30 PM  
Blogger Solvang Sherrie said...

I've only read one zombie book and I didn't really get the appeal. My writing doesn't follow any fads so I can only hope that it finds a home somewhere, somehow!

January 30, 2011 at 11:14 PM  
Blogger LR said...

Zombies are grody. Where the heck is the appeal? :)

January 30, 2011 at 11:52 PM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

You know Anne, I've been coming to this same conclusion, although not as succintly as you did.

I just read an agent blog who said EXACTLY what she was looking for in books on her blog. I sent her EXACTLY what she wanted because I wrote it. She rejected it in two days.

I'm starting to FEEL like a zombie these days. With all the conflicting advice out there, it just makes me want to give up. I haven't tried the smaller presses because if they reject me too, well, then I might just have to eat some brains.

Another great post. Thanks.

January 31, 2011 at 4:40 AM  
Blogger BECKY said...

Anne, I'm not a zombie loving person....not in my reading material, my WIP, or any TV or movies. BUT, I did read your entire post and you know what jumped out at me the most?? And I absolutely loved it?? "(Most adult book-buyers are women over 45.)" That's one of the reasons I think my memoir will sell well. Women will like it!

January 31, 2011 at 7:00 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Susan, Carol, Sherrie, LR, Becky--I think we're all feeling the same way--why are zombies so big when the majority of us are completely grossed out? It occurred to me last night that maybe it's because the real money comes when a book is made into a movie--and movies are aimed at 12 year old boys.

Aisha--thanks for sharing that story. It seems these days the real frustration comes AFTER you've landed an agent. And thanks for the award!

Anne--I've had the same thing happen. Everybody was rejecting my work as too quirky, so I was so pleased to find an agent who posted she was looking for exactly what I'd written. Her rejection said, "I'm just seeing too much of this." Arrgghhh.

January 31, 2011 at 9:38 AM  
Blogger J.L. Campbell said...

I think I missed the boat because I never caught the chick lit, vampire, shape shifter or vampire craze. What has surprised me though is how quickly all these fad taper off and it shouldn't because this is exactly how crazes work. It's discouraging though as a writer to search for an agent. What's the point you ask yourself if you'll be banging your head against a brick wall. But we're writers, that's
what we do, eh? Enlightening post. Thanks.

I'm really far behind. Didn't know Nathan Bransford had left agenting. I really need to keep abreast of what's happening :O

January 31, 2011 at 3:54 PM  
Blogger J.L. Campbell said...

Oops! That second vampire was supposed to be zombie craze.

January 31, 2011 at 3:54 PM  
Blogger Kittie Howard said...

Big applause, Anne! As I got into blogging with my stories (no plans to write a novel, just my stories), I read more and more posts about rejection after rejection and how bloggers who handled the English language with dexterity bolstered each other up. I dropped a few comments that I thought the publishing industry needed to re-focus but felt like I was singing to the moon on a lonely beach. What I guess I'm saying is, e-books and indies are going to wag the publisher's tail yet. Agents will become 'consultants' for a flat fee or hourly fee. And so on. (I don't read paranormal stuff.)

Hope you've kicked the Virus from Hell back to hell...doing fine here!

January 31, 2011 at 6:53 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

J.L.--Yes, alas, Nathan has left agenting. But he's still an author, advisor, and uberblogger. Info in my post in the sidebar on "Nathan Bransford's decision."

Kittie--Nathan agrees with you. If you haven't read the post I mention above, check it out. Yup, I think the long tail is going to be wagging that big dumb old dog pretty soon. In fact, maybe it always has. J.K. Rowling was first published by a small press.

February 1, 2011 at 11:49 AM  
Blogger Elspeth Antonelli said...

Trying to figure out where the publishing industry is going or what the new big thing will be is (in my opinion) asking for the Giant Headache Gods to pay you a prolonged visit. I just try and write the book I'd want to read - and hope there are enough other people out there who'd want to read it too.

February 1, 2011 at 12:25 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Elspeth, I think that's good advice in the long run, but it's hard when you've had six books rejected over and over with the same response: "I love this. I wouldn't change a thing. You write beautifully. But womens' fiction/mystery/romantic comedy is a hard sell right now. If you have something with zombies/steampunk/dystopia I'd love to see it." Arrgghh.

February 2, 2011 at 10:20 AM  
Blogger Simon Kewin said...

Great stuff Anne, and a lot of that rings very true. One thing I do know is that someone is going to have to write all the books people will read in the future, whatever the publishing industry ends up looking like.

And, yes, I have to say that small press/indie publishing looks very appealing to me right now.

February 2, 2011 at 11:47 AM  
Blogger SAMUEL PARK said...

Hi Anne!

Thanks for the award--I love how thoughtful you are.

This was another very good post. Now I'm off to write a novel about zombies!

February 2, 2011 at 11:59 PM  
Blogger Elaine AM Smith said...

"Agents can’t get reads from editors. Editors can’t buy new projects. It’s trickle-down zombification. The industry is eating its own brains."
Gotta worry - I jumped over zombies and steampunk, straight to the Sci-fi end of SF I'm hoping I've hit the start of a trend. *Finger's crossed to bleaching point ;)

February 4, 2011 at 9:44 AM  

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