RectorWriter

Adventures in storytelling by Bob Rector

SO YOU THINK THE DECK IS STACKED?

10 Comments

WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?

Recently author Claude Nougat posted an article on her blog entitled, “The Author-Reader Amazon Revolution: Mirage or Reality?” I commented with a few personal observations and Claude thought they warranted a blog of their own. It has gotten very good response and so I thought readers of my RectorWriter Blog might also find them interesting.

Claude, your blog post The Author-Reader Amazon Revolution:Mirage or Reality? is a very informative and sobering article that once again leaves my head spinning about the book market today. But also conjures up some memories along similar lines.

The joys of shooting in the great outdoors. That's me in the plaid shirt.

The joys of shooting in the great outdoors. That’s me in the plaid shirt.

A little less than 40 years ago I jumped through these same kinds of hoops but in a different medium: film. I was part of a small production company that decided to make a low-budget feature film for theatrical distribution. The timing was right because several G-rated low-budget ‘outdoor-adventure’ films had done very well, chief among them was Grizzly Adams. The attraction to this genre for the filmmaker was that Mother Nature provided all the sets and most of the players (wildlife) for free. All you had to do was get the cast and crew to a really spectacular location and tell a reasonably entertaining story about a hero single-handedly fighting man’s abuse of nature. 

I was chosen to write, direct, and edit for the simple reason that I had more experience than anyone else involved, plus I was still riding on my fame from The Now Explosion. The film was titled Nature’s Way but before its release was changed to Don’t Change My World.

We made the film for next to nothing, just like today’s indie authors produce a book. In its initial screenings audiences responded very positively but to go into wide release, we ran into the same obstacles that indie writer’s face. We weren’t MGM or Universal or 20th Century Fox and they owned the game.

No animal was harmed while shooting the film. Not true of the cast and crew. We all had our share of bites and scratches.

No animal was harmed while shooting the film. Not true of the cast and crew. We all had our share of bites and scratches.

The major studios had long-established relationships with movie theaters around the world, as well as marketing and distribution operations that ran like the proverbial Swiss watch. On the other hand, we were, in effect, knocking on the door of each individual theater. They didn’t want to deal with someone who only had one film to peddle and no marketing machinery behind them. We eventually did sign with a small independent distributor who managed to get our film released nationally but playing at only one or two markets at a time, so the money generated trickled in and seldom covered expenses. Plus the theaters, since they were dealing with a small fry, slow paid, and sometimes no paid, us – something they didn’t dare do with the majors. When we protested they simply said, “So sue us.” 

The sad fact of life was that the audiences who saw the film loved it, but getting it in front of an audience was a constant uphill battle that cost more than we could possibly make, especially since much of the time we never saw the money that came into the box office. By the time the theater took its cut (much more severe than Amazon’s take) and the distributor took his cut (always with extra expenses added) and the advertising agencies took their cut, nothing was left (sound familiar?).

Producer George Macrenaris makes friends with our star. Behind him is the shack of the bad guys. These scenes were shot at Grandfather Mtn., NC.

Producer George Macrenaris makes friends with our star. Behind him is the shack of the bad guys. These scenes were shot at Grandfather Mtn., NC.

The film finally generated significant revenue when it went into non-theatrical release, primarily on cable channels like CineMax (HBO). It was also broadcast by the BBC and several other operators in Europe.

The US Navy purchased a hundred or so 16mm prints for showing onboard their ships. A specialty distributor who provided inflight movies for airlines licensed its use. Same for a distributor who supplied films for college campus theaters. And finally the film was released to the newly emerging home video market. The point being, we had to search out and broker all these deals ourselves.

Do these guys look beat up or what? I'm 2nd from the left, front, and next to me is future wife Marsha Roberts. We'd just met a few weeks earlier.

Do these guys look beat up or what? I’m 2nd from the left, front, and next to me is future wife Marsha Roberts. We’d just met a few weeks earlier.

And the same is true for indie publishers/writers. Anybody who has been in business, whether it’s selling books or selling paper clips, knows that it’s never easy and you have to work at it continuously. 

Selling is ALWAYS job one. During the 15 years we toured our play Letters From the Front around the world, selling and marketing was a nonstop daily job – and I mean every single day.

So I guess I come to this issue with a little different and perhaps more cynical (based on experience) but realistic perspective.

Editing. The part I like best. Just me and the film. Similar to writing.

Editing. The part I like best. Just me and the film. Similar to writing.

If there’s money to be made, then big money is going to control the market. Always. Never been any different since the beginning of commerce. Might makes right. 

Will fair play come into play? Don’t count on it. 

The question to indie writers/publishers is: what are you going to do about it? Throw up your hands and say the deck is stacked and I don’t stand a chance so to hell with it? Or, I have right on my side but I can’t win so I might as well not play? Are you going to take Amazon and the other major players to court and sue them for what you believe are unfair practices? Good luck. They each have teams of lawyers just waiting to bury you. 

Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m being dark or negative, please don’t. 

As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat (although why anybody would want to baffles me). Most of my professional life has been spent finding alternate routes around established institutions, with varying degrees of success. My first rule is to never let somebody else define my pathway to success.

Poster for "Don't Change My World"

Poster for “Don’t Change My World”

If I’m going to fail, I want to fail on my own terms. As far as indie publishing is concerned, my wife (a fellow author) and I are still experimenting and searching out alternative paths. It will take time but it always does. I’m confident that we’ll find a way that works for us. We’ve done it many times before.

The threshold we’re shooting for is not just to make money for ourselves, but to make money for somebody else, preferably a large well-funded organization. That’s what we’ve done before. We found a way to make money for major companies with our product, lots of money. Then they started writing checks to us, big checks. I’m not saying this is the only path. We’re all supposed to be creative people — so be creative about this too!

To be exceedingly trite, we don’t look at this as a problem, we look at it as an opportunity. A huge ground-floor opportunity. And we don’t expect anybody or any organization to do the heavy lifting for us. Maybe we’re naive. We’ll see.

Advertisements

Author: rectorwriter

Bob Rector has been a professional storyteller for forty years, but his background is primarily in film, video, and stage work as a writer and director. Bob was one of the pioneers of music videos, first for The Now Explosion and then for Music Connection, which were highly popular nationally syndicated shows that preceded MTV by ten years. He created over 100 films for the top musical artists of the times. Bob wrote and directed an outdoor-adventure feature film, Don't Change My World, and has won countless awards for nature and sports documentaries. His original three-act play, Letters From the Front, entertained America's troops around the world for fifteen years and was the first theatrical production to be performed at the Pentagon. This beloved show, written and directed by Rector, became known as the World's Most Decorated Play. After decades on the road (and in the air!) Bob finally settled down long enough to write his first novel, Unthinkable Consequences.

10 thoughts on “SO YOU THINK THE DECK IS STACKED?

  1. Saw this on Claude’s blog – great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Darlene. Glad you like it.

    Like

  3. I love all the pictures, they weren’t on my blog! And I think this is a very thoughtful and well-written post which is why it was a pleasure to publish it on my blog!

    You may be right about this conundrum facing self-published writers, i.e. that we need an “institution” that is part of the game in order to break through. The trouble is, what institution? Who is going to help solve the problem of book discovery for self-published authors? This is what haunts my nights: who can help when the publishing industry is set up like a fortress that cannot be breached by self-pubbed authors?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, the photos were a trip down memory lane. When I saw there was some interest in what was originally an email exchange between you and I, I started digging and found them. Was my hair really that black and thick once upon a time? Guess so. As far as the conundrum, you’re right. But as I have told crew members countless times when confronted with an apparently insurmountable obstacle: What we got here is a problem. All we gotta do is figure out how to solve it. Somehow we always did. Why? We had to or give up. And giving up was not an option. An “institution” may or may not be the solution. I tend to think not. I’m more in favor of individual initiative. After all, our books were not created by institutions. The answer that finally works may be a combination of solutions working in tandem. A single toy balloon will not lift a brick. But a bunch of balloons will. The question is, which is the one that finally lifts it off the ground.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The way out is pretty obvious: the publishing establishment (I mean not only the Big Five and their satellites, but everything and everyone else in their environment: the mainstream media and literary critics, the literary magazines, the literary prizes and jury involved etc) – that establishment would need to change its mind set and accept indies in their midst, at least the good ones. The stigma attached to self-publishing needs to be removed – because, I kid you not and in spite of what Konrath and David Gaughan and Passive Guy and countless others involved in the Indies world say, there is still a strong stigma working against self-published authors.

      You don’t believe me? Just look at the big literary prizes, like the Orange, ManBooker or Pulitzer. Are they open to self-published authors? No, they are closed! And if the mainstream media like the UK Guardian or the New York Times mentions a self-published author (and they have done so for Amanda Hocking, HH – the author of WOOL – and a number of others ) it’s only to manifest surprise at the number of copies sold – never (or rarely) did they have their attention drawn by the quality of the books. It was all about the amazing sales numbers!

      That’s what drives me up the wall!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Okay, what are you going to do about it?

    Like

    • I’m not sure whether there’s anything I can do about it! We can hope that with time, something will change, but I’m not sure what.

      I’ve always felt that Amazon should try to make its site better, quality-wise. As of now, the Kindle Store is a slush pile, anyone can load up a book, there are no quality barriers, no requirements in terms of novel structure, character development, or even the premise of a book. Nothing, no criteria to meet. So anyone comes, but not everyone is a professional writer, as I’m sure you are painfully aware if you’ve read some of those books…

      The customer reviews are just that, customer reviews. They do not carry any weight the way a literary critic does. Yet, there are things Amazon could do. They already have set up that annual “Breakthrough Novel” competition (on Create Space) and that’s a good idea but it’s not enough. More should be done. Perhaps set up an editorial board to establish some criteria per genre and require these be met? Give out a “merit” medallion or badge if someone meets them? If the cost to set up a system of quality gate-keeping, perhaps aspiring authors should be asked to contribute to the cost? I just don’t know. Any ideas?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. We all know what would happen if an ‘editorial board’ was formed to pass judgement on which books were worthy and which were not. Just look at what some of the greatest artists of the impressionist era were subjected to by French ‘editorial boards’ who prevented their works from being shown. I’m a free market kind of guy. And I definitely believe in free expression regardless of how meritless I think some of those expressions are. Amazon/Kindle does indeed rule the market on self-published books but at least, so far, it is a relatively level playing field. I detest gate-keepers and have done battle with them most of my career with varying degrees of success. As you know, my first venture into ‘the biz’ was making music videos for The Now Explosion TV show. Several of my films were never aired because the powers that be deemed them too controversial in one way or another. By today’s standards they would be considered innocuous. Lets not encourage a multinational multi-billion dollar corporation to pass judgement on the work of artists or wannabe artists.

    Like

    • Bob, you are misunderstanding me. Not pass judgment – I agree with you there. Indeed, I couldn’t agree with you more: a big corporation’s employees or a government’s bureaucrats (even if French!!) cannot judge art.

      No way.

      But that’s not what I had in mind. I was thinking of something closer to the environment that the publishing industry has so carefully built over the years, nurturing a class of literary critics (some are authors in their own right, others are professors of literature in prestigious universities) that then review the books they feel like reviewing (some may feel coerced but I bet most don’t and choose to review what they like – indeed, if you follow the NYT book reviews, you’ll notice that the reviewer always has a personal interest in the theme of the book he is reviewing, either because he’s a researcher or a fiction writer in the same area, with published books of his own).

      What is missing in the Amazon environment is that kind of guru. Sure they can make mistakes too and reject some excellent books. Not everyone can expect to please everybody. But someone with professional knowledge of writing and an ability to distinguish trash from excellence is needed. Customer reviews can’t do that job. Amazon has started to refine its customer review system by introducing its Vine Program (check it out, I blogged about it once, in 2012, see here: http://claudenougat.blogspot.it/2012/08/one-of-amazons-best-marketing-tool) but it really hasn’t used it for self-published authors: it’s a tool it uses to launch books from its own imprints and it’s open for use to publishers – because pre-order buttons are available to publishers and not self-published authors, so it’s in that period prior to the launch that the Vine Program is put to full use. And believe me, self-published authors are left out!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Perhaps I did misunderstand you. The point of my blog is to say that as creators and entrepreneurs we have the right and ability to explore many different ways to market our work. Amazon is what it is. Their primary interest is making kabillions of dollars for their investors and will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. I accept that premise, just as I did when I made my movie all those years ago. Didn’t like it, but I had no illusion that I was going to take down Goliath with my homemade sling shot. I looked for and found alternative paths that worked for me. But if someone can work within the Amazon system and achieve success, more power to them. I’m looking for a coordinated approach that sparks sales through Amazon and other retailers. Wish me luck.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s