January 12, 2014

Like sand through the hourglass...

There's no doubt that publishing has changed radically in recent years and continues to do so.  When you think about it, prior to a few years ago, little had changed in the publishing world in regard to how things were done for years and years. While the industry continues to evolve and no one knows what it will be like even two years from now, so much has changed in the world while publishing stayed the same. With that considered, it was probably time for a shakeup.

Back in the late 1940s, movie studio executives began to worry. Their receipts were down, largely because of a newfangled invention called television. Television had first been introduced at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and its popularity was delayed by the U.S. entry into World War II. But by war's end, the time was right for it to take off. Just a few short years before, these same executives scoffed at the invention. You couldn't get much on it except for boxing matches and variety shows one step removed from vaudeville (which everyone knew had long been dead) featuring hosts like Ed Sullivan and performers like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. But by the decade's end these large boxes with the relatively small screens were making their way into more and more American homes...enough where people were enjoying being able to sit in their living rooms, the men wearing their undershirts and house slippers and the women wearing housedresses and their hair in curlers.  Who wanted to go through the hassle of putting on a jacket or a dress to go to the theater?  You couldn't even get a cold beer there. So studio executives watched as their profits dipped.

The studio heads immediately decided they needed to cut their expenses. The first thing they did was start unloading their actors. Contracts weren't renewed. Big stars like Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart had nothing to worry about, even if their  movie receipts were down as well, and even if they were all starting to look a little craggy (all but Tracy and Bogart would be dead within a dozen years). The aging female stars had it rough, too...no one was going to pair them opposite a 23-year-old hunk the way they paired their older actors with young female counterparts (although Joan Crawford made a series of movies opposite younger leading men during this time). Some big female stars like Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck managed to keep busy, but others, including Bette Davis, were having a hard time finding good roles, and to compete with beautiful, young (a key word) up-and-comers like Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, and the rapidly maturing Elizabeth Taylor. A lot of talented people found themselves without jobs and subsequently without paychecks.

As TV became more popular, movie studios fought back with a vengeance. They made more films in color, developed processes like Cinemascope and VistaVision, even experimented briefly with 3D...anything to get people to put down that beer, get dressed and come to the theaters. They forbade any of their actors to appear on the "idiot box," even to promote their latest movies.

The actors reacted in several ways.  Some big stars, like Burt Lancaster and Humphrey Bogart, whose careers were fairly secure, launched their own production companies, working with the studios for distribution but handling all other aspects themselves, to make sure they'd have projects to star in.  Others, depending on their gender, learned to ride horses or zipped themselves into tight-fitting corsets of the 1870s and started making Westerns, which were enjoying huge popularity at the time. Others stood by as the offers slowed to a trickle but refused to do television because they considered themselves movie stars, and watched their careers slow to a complete stop (Jennifer Jones comes to mind).

Then there were those who accepted offers to work in this new medium. No one had greater success than a B-movie actress who had made a good living in movies, but was now approaching middle age and also wanted to work with her husband, a bandleader who hadn't had much success in films. When Lucille Ball's new show, I Love Lucy, catapulted to #1 in the ratings and spurred many people to buy television sets, a lot of folks in the movie industry sat up and took notice. But Lucille Ball was a working actress, appearing in supporting parts in a few top-tier films and starring in the movies that played on the bottom half of double bills. She wasn't a star. It took an Academy Award-winning actress who'd been in movies since the silent days but at age 40 found herself no longer in demand, taking the plunge and signing up to do a TV show to really shake things up. No one's show was as successful as Lucille Ball's, but Loretta Young's show was popular, and with her being an Oscar winner, it brought a new respectability to the medium.  Soon people like Red Skelton, Eve Arden, Robert Young, Ann Sothern, and George Reeves were all doing weekly television shows.

For some forward thinkers, television became particularly lucrative. Fred MacMurray, one of the aging actors who spent the Fifties uncomfortably saddling up on a horse making Westerns, was approached by a network about playing the lead in a new show. MacMurray had recently made a movie for the Disney studio which turned out to be wildly successful, and Disney wanted him to make more movies for them. He told the network he would do the show, called My Three Sons, if they would have all the scripts written when they started to shoot and he could film all his scenes for the entire season in a month or two, which left him free to make movies the rest of the year. The network said yes, so MacMurray got paid for a full season for two months' work, plus movie paychecks as well. As a result, he became one of the wealthiest actors in Hollywood.

Similarly, the publishing world was forced into change by the development of the eReader. Widespread panic ruled as authors were informed that their publishers would not be renewing their contracts. Some new writers and established writers who'd been languishing in the midlist have met with astounding success (the equivalent of Lucille Ball's ascent from working movie actress to huge TV star 60+ years ago). Like Lancaster, Bogart, and Cagney so many years ago, they formed publiching companies for outlets of putting out both new and old work (not only backlists, but manuscripts their publishers had taken a pass on purchasing). Suddenly there was a run on publisher's legal departments by authors eager to get their rights back so they could start ePubbing their backlist titles. Many made gravy for their chicken (some were making enough gravy to soak their mashed potatoes as well).

Successful new writers were being offered contracts from the same publishers who turned them down previously because those publishers saw their names on the Amazon genre bestseller lists, which have become the new slush pile.

Still other authors found themselves without publishers and doggedly pushed on, submitting all over the place in hopes of getting a contract because they didn't want to indie publish for whatever reason, often disappearing for years down the Jennifer Jones road to obscurity (some still haven't surfaced).

Unfortunately, as word got out of the wide disparity between traditional and indie published author earnings, there was a lot of sniping back and forth, with some traditionally published authors rather smugly declaring how glad they were to have publishers to worry about the details of publishing their books (there is nothing wrong with saying this per se, but we all know it's not what you say, but how you say it that's the difference between being snarky and merely stating an observation), and some indie authors countering with how glad they were to have total creative freedom, as well as to be making more money selling fewer books, and that anyone who went with a traditional publisher was nuts.  At times the situation threatened to get ugly, but then the writers went to neutral corners, and then came the real winners...the hybrids who had footholds in each camp. 

Now, things are changing again.  Many authorities on indie publishing are saying eBooks sales are generally declining (something that my own numbers tell me is true). The writers at the top are likely going to stay there, as are those in the upper echelons.  Those who write specified subgenres with lots of hungry readers will also likely continue to do well.  Midlisters like myself who write in popular genres where there are too many books searching for too few readers will probably see their earnings slip.  No one knows where this is all going to end up. 

As for the war between movies and television, it had a happy ending. As fewer movies were being made and television expanded, television producers found themselves unable to create enough programming to fill the broadcast hours, so they turned to...you guessed it: movie studios.  The studio brass were happy to lease their old films at handsome fees to be shown on network television, and they loosened their grip around the necks of their actors, allowing them to appear on television, making sure they plugged their latest movie (anyone familiar with I Love Lucy will recall that in the Hollywood shows, each guest star mentioned their latest:  William Holden's The Country Girl, John Wayne's Blood Alley, Richard Widmark's A Prize of Gold, etc.  The movie business settled, with the contract system with its huge weekly paychecks to actors a thing of the past.  Things moved along smoothly for quite a while, until a new war started...this time between television, who has largely sunk into the abyss known as reality shows; and the cable networks, who are putting on quality programming and grabbing more awards than networks...

...but such are the days of our lives.