Why Does Garbage Get Published? Profits vs. value

Corporations may not have a legal obligation to maximise shareholder profits. But the belief that they must do everything (within the law) to make money is certainly widespread. Of the ‘Big Five’ publishers, four are public companies. Regardless of their legal obligations, they must keep their shareholders happy. And shareholders are usually made happy through a) increased share price, b) fat dividends or c) a combination of the above.

Smart investors, of course, are those who are in it for the long-term. Who want any increase in share price to be one which reflects an increase in the value of the underlying company. Who want any increase in dividends to reflect an increase in the company’s profits.

‘Surely, increased share prices are good?’ I hear you say. Or, ‘Who wouldn’t want to receive a nice big dividend?’ The answer is responsible investors. Those who care about the company they invest in. Who want it to continue running into the future. Who want its products to remain available. Its employees to remain in jobs. And, of course, to receive sustainable profits from the company themselves.

Chasing a quick buck

An inflated share price often results in a bubble that pops, causing massive losses to shareholders. Dividends that are high even though profits are low (or non-existent) can often be an indicator that the company is trying to appease its investors, rather than reinvesting money back into the company to fix whatever problems it has. Both of these scenarios can spell the beginning of a company’s downfall.

But some short-term ‘investors’ or traders care mostly about making a quick buck. With the online trading, derivatives, and bots doing most of the work for us, investing horizons have shrunk.

And what helps publishing companies make a quick buck, to keep those few humans still involved in the system interested?

Publishing books they know will sell.

As Eckstut and Sterry point out in The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, publishing has morphed from a gentlemen’s business to a sector owned and operated by massive corporations. You now ‘have a much better chance of getting your book published if you are Snooki from Jersey Shore hawking your new diet manifesto than if you’re an unknown (or even established but not famous) writer who’s written a brilliant work of literary fiction.’

You know the type of book they’re talking about. In fact, every New Year, one of my favourite things to do is watch The Big Fat Quiz of the Year. It often features the very eloquent Charles Dance, reading from a book (autobiography, novel, etc.) ostensibly written by some celebrity or reality show star. If you’ve never seen one of his readings, they’re worth checking out.

A Dangerous precedent

In July 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos set out to sue publisher Simon & Schuster, in the hopes of obtaining $10 million compensation for breach of contract. The Big Five publisher had paid the ‘controversialist’ an advance of $255,000 for his autobiography, Dangerous.

Now, most authors find submitting their work a harrowing ordeal. Dealing with rejection is one of the most popular topics on sites for writers.
One thing rejected writers love is reading about other rejected writers. Especially those famous tales of writers rejected dozens of times before going on to great success. Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, received dozens of rejections. James Lee Burke’s novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected over a hundred. When it was finally published (by a university press), it was nominated for a Pulitzer prize.

Publishers don’t know what they’re missing

‘See!’ we all say. ‘The publishers didn’t know what they were missing!’ We hold this up as evidence that they ‘failed’.

And what about the beloved Beatrix Potter? She had so much trouble finding someone willing to take on The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she self-published it. And that was a much bigger deal back in her day, before the likes of Smashwords and Amazon.

Some of my favourite authors – Robert Tressell and John Kennedy Toole for example – received rejection after rejection. They died before they ever saw their masterpieces in print. It is only thanks to their next of kin – Tressell’s daughter and Toole’s mother – that their works were ever published.
Now, of course, publishers cannot take on every work, no matter how brilliant they may be.

Writers vs. ‘writers’

But how do these earnest writers’ experiences compare to provocateur Yiannopoulos’?

Although he spent some time shopping his proposal around, Yiannopoulos described his experience with Simon & Schuster thus:

“I met with top execs … and spent half an hour trying to shock them with lewd jokes and outrageous opinions. I thought they were going to have me escorted from the building — but instead they offered me a wheelbarrow full of money.”

Incidentally, leaked emails show that Yiannopoulos, like many a celebrity ‘writer’ did not write the book himself, but paid a ghostwriter $100,000 to do so.

The fallout – for the other authors

Over 100 Simon & Schuster authors denounced the deal. Bad Feminist author Roxanne Gay even withdrew her planned book from the publisher. The Chicago Review of Books announced on Twitter that they’d no longer review Simon & Schuster books as a result of this deal. Of course, this move punished not only the big publisher, but its other authors. Many of whom objected to the deal in the first place. But it wasn’t until Yiannopoulos’ comments regarding sex between underage boys and older men came to light, that the publishers pulled the book, which prompted Yiannopoulos to sue.

What provides the most insight into the machinations of the publishing industry today, however, is the draft manuscript, complete with editorial comments, filed by Simon & Schuster as part of the case. Reading through, I was frequently more unsettled by the deliberate massaging of the message to make it more palatable than I was by the message itself. While publishers have a responsibility to ensure the works they publish are not filled with hate speech or factual inaccuracies, I believe it’s the author’s responsibility to present their arguments clearly and with supporting evidence. If their arguments cannot be substantiated, the reader should know this.

As it turns out, Yiannopoulos and Simon & Schuster eventually requested the case be dismissed, and Yiannopoulos self-published his book. Despite never having to pay out, the endeavour wasn’t without its price. The ordeal cost the publisher not one, but two authors and their work since.
Much of the controversy surrounding Yiannopoulos’ publishing contract stemmed from the fact that, as Jamil Smith put it, ‘The publisher knew who Yiannopoulos was when they gave him a $255,000 advance.’

Risk vs. reward

So why would a publisher – even one as enormous as Simon & Schuster, which can perhaps better afford to take risks smaller presses cannot – sign an ‘author’ like Yiannopoulos in the first place? (I use the quotation marks here to indicate that I think an author should actually author the books ascribed to them).

My question is not so much one of censorship, but one of priorities. Publishers are not obligated to print everything thrown at them. I just can’t help but think there must have been at least a few good books pitched to them that the publisher passed on. Ones which didn’t contain wild inaccuracies and vitriol.

The Emoji Movie

The case of The Emoji Movie may be instructive here. The film received terrible reviews from critics and audiences alike, receiving a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 7%. On Metacritic, it ranked as the worst animated film on the site. And the only awards it seems to have won are for Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screen Combo and Worst Screenplay.

In all fairness, I haven’t seen The Emoji Movie. Even though I’m a bit of an emoji expert. I could tell from the trailers that I probably wasn’t going to enjoy it. A lot of people seemed to have this reaction, with the trailer attracting 22,000 dislikes on social media within 24 hours of its release. A later advertisement, featuring the smiley in a parody of the Handmaid’s Tale, was also criticised as tasteless.

Most of what I heard and read about the film was fans complaining that Sony Pictures could have put their money behind a new Popeye movie instead. (Some even suggested that the Popeye movie was cancelled in order to make Emoji, but that doesn’t seem to be the case).

Profits vs. sales

The film may have briefly held the record for the worst opening for a film in over 4,000 theatres before it was surpassed by The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature two weeks later. But it beat its own projected opening box office sales. Emoji debuted with $24.5 million in sales, finishing second at the box office behind Dunkirk. Total box office sales for 2018 came to $217.8 million – more than 4 times it cost to produce.

Compare that return on investment to Dark Phoenix. Or The Lone Ranger. Or John Carter. While critics weren’t too hot on any of these films, all them received much higher ratings than the Emoji movie. And audience responses were largely positive. All these films made more sales than The Emoji Movie. But they also cost a heck of a lot more to make. More than they recouped in sales. In terms of profits, The Emoji Movie is the superior film.

Publishers are doing their job – it’s just not what we think their job should be

Regardless of what we might think of The Emoji Movie, I don’t think we can say Sony Pictures made a bad choice. Especially when we consider that, just like big publishers such as Simon & Schuster, Sony is a giant company tasked with making profits. Not promoting the arts. We need to stop looking at publishers and production companies as the gatekeepers of knowledge and artistic value. Instead, we need to see them for what they are: businesses whose fundamental task is to make profits.

When publishers sign on celebrities and pass up works of literary masterpiece, they aren’t failing. They’re doing their job. After all, one critic’s garbage is another publisher’s treasure.

{Interested in more money-related topics? This article on publishing profits is cross-posted on my language and money blog, enrichmentality.com}

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6 thoughts on “Why Does Garbage Get Published? Profits vs. value

  1. I liked your exploration into this topic. I often refer to this ‘garbage’ produced by corporate entertainment as creativity by focus-group. Maybe this is unfair of me. It seems though that they have to appeal to large numbers of people in order to make a profit. So to make a profit, they make big budget movies … which goes into a weird cycle of spending lots of money to make money.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Michelle. ‘Creativity by focus group’ – I love it!
      Movies are a particularly interesting breed, I find. As you point out, they often require big budgets. And I think we’ve gotten used to the quality of production, special effects, etc. of the big budget movies. So, even though there have been huge advances in the technology available at the consumer level, for many amateur filmmakers, certain genres are simply not feasible to compete on. Horror, for instance, would be a much more budget-friendly genre in most cases than, say, most science fiction or superhero movies.
      I’ve used movies as a comparison here (as I think the industries operate in similar ways, even though they shouldn’t). But I’ve often felt writers are almost unique among artists in the sense that the quality of their work depends nearly solely upon their personal development (the education and experiences they’ve had), and hardly at all upon their access to physical resources. You don’t need state-of-the-art recording equipment as a podcaster or filmmaker might, or a high-quality instrument like a musician, or an incredible camera like a photographer. A story or poem can be equally good written on a top-of-the-range PC or on a bar napkin.
      To me, this is another reason why, in the long run, authors might not need publishers as much as publishers need them!

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