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.


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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