Business Musings: Stars

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Me and the Google (as a friend of mine calls it) spent what I almost termed a “dispiriting” hour as I searched for the 21st century’s superstars in a variety of fields. I say “almost termed” because, when I think of it, “dispiriting” is the wrong word.

Adult me, who loves this modern world of indie publishing and going directly to the reader, doesn’t mind the lack of superstars or “big names” as most people call them.

Teenage me, who was trained to figure out the coolest, latest, most “in” superstar (and to judge people based on who they liked and who they didn’t like), feels…well, not dispirited either. But at sea, maybe. Because it’s not as easy as it was fifty years ago to figure out who is guiding the culture.

That whole concept—guiding the culture—comes out of curation. And class-based curation at that. Hardcovers, considered permanent and as a result difficult to afford, were for upper class and/or educated readers. Paperbacks came out of World War 2, and became even more popular thanks to the GI Bill (here in the States) paying for the education of anyone who served.

Paperbacks were considered disposable, though, like the pulp magazines before them. So anything that was in cheap paper was considered cheap fiction, and not worthy of all the things we used to measure “good literature.”

Curation is an important part of the creation of superstars. Yes, the fans have to like what they see, but to get the maximum number of fans to like something or someone, there has to be an information funnel. People need to see that something or someone in very, very, very large numbers.

Even so, those numbers don’t mean a lot when you move across the globe. Global superstars were extremely rare, even back in the day, and were often only in the movies—especially action films that didn’t have a lot of dialogue. Global superstar writers really didn’t exist ever. Each language and/or country had their own stars and often those writers didn’t translate well into a different culture.

Instead, books became blockbusters across the globe, and I’ll get to that in a later post.

One of the many, many reasons that global superstars are rare has nothing to do with language or cultural barriers in the arts. The reason is that there were no curators worldwide. Here in the States, we had a tightly regulated curation system in the mid-20th century, and it was all based on distribution.

There were only so many shelves in bookstores across the nation. Books that went into department stores (remember those?) were the cheap disposable kind (or as we knew them, the mass market paperback). Records had similar issues. There was a large struggle to get radio play, considered free advertising, and then record stores and yes, those department stores, clamored for the music that their customers came in and asked about.

Even then, nothing remained on the shelves long. There just wasn’t space.

Just like there wasn’t space in the movie theaters for more than a handful of films. The movie theaters expanded from showing one film for a month or two (the 1970s) to three or four films at the theater in the mall (the 1980s) to multiplexes (the 1990s), but even that didn’t make distribution easier.

Someone curated who saw what film, just like someone curated who heard what record, just like someone decided who read which books.

Television expanded outward faster, thanks to the arrival of cable, but the networks, which had dominated since the 1950s, held sway until we entered the new century.

Curators told us what to watch. We, the audience, chose among the curated product and accepted or rejected what we found.

Along the way, we found our favorites. Since the curators were nameless and faceless to people outside of the various industries, we couldn’t follow the curator, so we had to find a different way.

We followed the artist, the author, the actor. We couldn’t even follow the television program or the book series because the curators would often discontinue the television program or the book series for reasons that had nothing to do with popularity, and everything to do with contract negotiations or the difficulty of controlling the producers or other behind-the-scenes problems.

Because there was so little actual product out there, we had “watercooler” conversations in which everyone—and I do mean everyone in a particular country/culture—had an opinion about the latest bestseller, the latest movie, the latest album released.

Now, movies can appear and disappear without anyone noticing. It doesn’t matter if we make it to the theater before the movie leaves because the movie will eventually stream. Finding music that we like is as easy as picking a playlist on one of the streaming services, and in many ways, we curate those ourselves based on algorithms of things we have listened to before.

Books are similar. I’ve complained here before about the fact that I have to actively search to find a new release by one of my favorite authors. Many of those authors don’t have newsletters, not that I always open the newsletters that I get, letting them clutter up my inbox.

Distribution has changed, which is something I deal with on this blog a lot. Curation still exists, but it’s essentially worthless. It’s a dying profession in a dying corner of dying parts of the various entertainment industries. 

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

14 thoughts on “Business Musings: Stars”

  1. From the link: “No one runs book ads in any paper venue that I can find.” This is telling, that she is unaware of, for example, the New York Review of Books. This is not random. The self-publishing market corresponds to the old direct-to-paperback market, and the pulp dime novel market before that. These never were about ‘superstar’ writers. A few name authors came out of pulp fiction, but this was by accident. The market was about providing a steady stream of content.

    • And revenue.
      Authors live not by reviews alone.
      In the gatekept era, there was a clear and direct connection between reviews and sales, with distributors being the key. The jobbers at the low end, serving the mass market paperbacks, and the few hundred extant bookstores for the prestige hardcover market. Later, the jobber channel was replaced by the mall chain stores.

      However, the mass market was more than just an outlet for the time’s “tsunami of dreck”. Of which there was a good share, the infamous “three chapter wonders” sent out to preserve the publishers’ shelf space. But that wasn’t the purpose of the channel. Its purpose was to generate the mass revenues that hardcovers couldn’t. Do you really think James Michener, Sidney Sheldon, Michael Crichton, Allen Drury, Irving Wallace, et al made their millions off hardcovers? Or, more recently, Patterson, King, Roberts, Rowling, Collins, E.L. James? What made them “Superstars” was the mass market bandwagons they regularly and consistently launched, year after year, book after book.

      In those days, reviews influenced the chain store buyers, who chose what made it to their shelves, the front door tables, the corner end displays, all of which which limited what was available to the eyeballs of the masses. They funneled the market and enhanced the bandwagon effect beyond the author’s true fans to the casual readers “only looking for content”.

      Don’t be so quick to deprecate the “content” market.
      It *made* the “superstars*.

      Fast forward to the post chain world, the world where ebooks and digital audiobooks are mainstreamed, the world where Borders was pushed into liquidation, where lack of foot traffic turned B&N into a seasonal gift shop chain and eventually into a project for vulture capitalists.

      Where are the bandwagons?
      Where are the new “superstars”, the new big names selling hundreds of millions, posed to take over when the legacy names retire?
      What is the link between the NYT REVIEW OF BOOKS and mass sales of their favored few? They exist but are they *relevant*? And to whom?

      KKR doesn’t see it.
      I don’t see it.
      Do you?

      Libraries do. And they stock their books by the judgment of their old school reviews.
      We can all see where that has lead them.

      Most critically: where are the bandwagons now?
      Sure, there are still the legacy names selling millions–but by their own admission, nowhere as fast as they used to. And every year their new releases peak noticeably lower.
      Where are the heirs of the “superstars” of yore? The acclaimed newcomer of the new era with consistent repeatable multimillion success?

      The OP is merely the latest in a KKR series going back years highlighting the dilution of the trade book market, the market for “professional writers” looking to make a living off their writing, making if not millions, at least enough to live off. She regulatly revisits it and reports on it. Because to *her audience* it matters where they direct their marketting efforts. Whether reviews are effective or even relevant or mailing lists or book signings or…

      In the post chain era, where Amazon moves half of all books and their customers get their reviews not from the NYT but from other customers, sales rankings, or *themselves* via “look inside”, author pages, and digital sample chapters, how relevant is the Paris book review or Kirkus, or any professional book critic that remains? Most papers have dropped their book reviews, after all.

      The mechanisms that created bandwagons are history. Literally.
      And with the bandwagons gone, the days of the big name superstar are numbered. At most we might see a few “shooting stars”, one hit wonders that hit it big enough once to create a consistent fanbase they can live off. Pattersons and Rowlings are unlikely to be seen again, replaced by genre-specifics like Lee Childs™ and Brandon Sanderson. And we’ve all seen Sanderson’s approach to the post cain era, right?

      New times, new market, new tools.

      Oh, and the “content” market looking for non-specific titles to rrad, the true heir of the pulps and jobber books? It’s name is Kindle Unlimited. If you want to know who drove the stake through the heart of the bandwagon model, look no further.

  2. Was KKR born in the age of dinosaurs?
    I’ve NEVER had a water cooler discussion about the latest book/movie/album/whatever. And I’m not exactly young.

    It’s interesting to note that paperbacks have a much longer history than she notes, including significant progress in the 19th century. Penguin started in 1935 with Ariel by Andre Maurois, Pocket Books in the US in 1938 with Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, which is generally considered “good literature”.

    Snarking over, I’m in general agreement with Felix Torres’ comment.

    • I osmosed plenty re: Game of Thrones and MCU from coworkers pre-covid. The watercooler did exist even recently. But books were already falling off it a long while back.

      • At the day job the discussions ran in the lunch room when we brown bagged it.
        Everything was fair game except religion, even sports which is typically taboo. 😉
        Movies, TV, and occasionally books…as long as they were SF.

      • Maybe in-person books are falling off, but if you count YouTube (and potentially Goodreads) they may not be. Newspaper reviews are mostly dead, but I assume everyone has “booktube” on their radar? I add to my to-buy list books based on reviews from YouTube channels, and I’ve been assuming I’m not the only person who does that.

        That said, I still do talk about books in real time with coworkers. I managed to get one coworker addicted to an indie published series (EarthCent series by EM Foner). It’s just a question of whether or not there are enough “readers” around. One thing I miss about newspapers was all the free books and ARCs floating around. Now there was a place to have talks about books! Good times 🙂

        • More of those content producers…
          Until I read this, I had no idea there were book reviews on YouTube. Looks like they go on forever.

          • It’s not just reviews but also analysis with channels devoted solely to Jane Austen or DUNE or STAR TREK.
            Ditto for TV shows.

            They also have dozens of “book writing 101” channels.
            Most cover stuff that is old hat for folks here but good advice to an aspiring teenager.
            A good place to send a beginner, for example, is this:


            Its like a checklist of the basics. Things like 10 biggest lies about writing. (No, you don’t need an MFA.)

            There’s zillions of channels on everything from DIY to gardening to history to news and current events. Some are actually good.
            A bit of critical thinking is required, of course, like everywhere else online.

    • One never asks the age of a lady, but by her own admission KKR edited THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION back when genre anthology magazines were a mainstream business.

      Best guess is she predates the big box chains, though likely not the mall bookstore chains. She has seen it all and done most of it in the trade book business.

      Her views may not be holy gospel but are worth serious consideration.

    • So … I remember my second internship, sometime in 2001. I was working at my desk, and I saw two colleagues at the magazine walk over to a window overlooking the Chicago River. One appeared to be in her 40s or 50s, and I think the other guy might been more like late 30s (to me this meant they were both old). I assumed, given that they looked like Serious Grown Ups, that they were going to discuss something about the issue we were putting out that week.

      But no!

      They were speculating if, given the fact that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was killed in the most recent episode, we were finally going to see her father.

      “He must be a pretty cold guy if he doesn’t even care about his daughter dying,” the woman mused. The guy agreed.

      Which was something I also wondered about at the time, but since I didn’t know the names of these colleagues I didn’t know if it was okay for me to join them, so I didn’t.

      Where do you work that people never discuss TV shows? A guy I worked with wanted me to watch The Witcher so I could talk about it with him (in the first season). I promised I would, but then he unfortunately died out of the blue, so I never did watch it. We always talked about video games, and he was trying to convince me that the last movie in the Sequel Trilogy might be a game-saver in the Star Wars universe, but I doubted this.

      To me it makes sense to consider water cooler talk as a marker of cultural significance for books / movies / games. Another marker to me would be “fan art,” which I would see on Deviant Art for books (usually sci-fi and fantasy). I would also include fan AMVs (anime music videos) and fan music videos. I’m not into country music, but I always liked this fan video for Justified. Water-cooler talk is definitely a thing.

    • I don’t remember discussions of books, movies, or albums, but do remember discussions about Dallas or The Sopranos.

      I reserve my discussions of books, movies, and albums for the independent bookstores which are the last refuge for the community of culture and Birkenstocks.

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