Vision Vs Market-Trends

Posted on 02 October 2009

I have listened to many panels concerning selling your ideas for books, screenplays, and computer games. I have also worked in the publishing, film/tv, and game industries in various capacities. What the gatekeepers often tell creators and what the truth is about selling your stories can often vary widely.

You will be told-

  • observe market trends: what is currently selling?
  • know your market: what gender, age group, financial bracket are your audience?
  • have a marketing plan: how are you going to sell your story?
    (bigger subject than I can cover in this article)

What these points frequently say to me about some editors and producers is-

  • lazy
  • lazy
  • lazy

Your skills are supposed to be in the field of storytelling. You are supposed to be observing other’s stories, developing your own vision, and practising the many details that go into creating a fully realised, thematically consistent, and emotionally engaging tale. That is no small thing. Most authors do not see publication until they are in their 30s or 40s. Anyone who thinks they can pop a book out, because they can read and have an idea, is fooling themselves. It’s like thinking you can win an Olympic marathon because you know how to put one foot in front of another. Good art makes things look effortless, but the amount of training and practise needed to achieve that effortlessness needs to be respected.

Sadly, many editors and producers are trying to turn storytellers into market experts, rather than providing that skill themselves. The old saw is indeed true: the problem with the art of filmmaking is that it’s a business, and the problem with the business of filmmaking is that it’s an art. The same is true of publishing, computer game development, selling paintings through galleries, etc, etc.  In order to make a living out of our art we need to attend to the business side of things. However, if the business side chooses not to respect the art side, then what makes something worthy of people’s hard earned money is sucked out of the process.

Observing Market Trends

You may have already heard this story, but when J.K. Rowling tried selling Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, she was rejected by every major publishing house in Britain. Nothing else quite like it was on the market and publishers were unable to envision it’s success based on what already existed. Rowling had to take her book to a small publisher in order for that book to see the light of day.

At the time the first Harry Potter book came out, I was a judge for a young adult literary award in Australia. Four years later I was still a judge for that award and started seeing a large number of Harry Potter read alikes. I cannot remember the name of a single one of those books. None of them won our award. None of them have been in reprints to my knowledge. For many of the authors this will be the only book they sell due to tepid returns. Certainly, enough money can be made copying successes that it’s a nice easy call, but you can only ride that wave for so long before people will begin to ignore your product. Only J.K. Rowling can be J.K. Rowling.

I have similar stories for the computer game trade. Game development has a turn around of about eighteen months. Some game will hit it big, then everyone will rush out to do games of a similar nature. However, by the time they get the game out the door, the craze for that sort of game has already passed. You can only repeat the glory of that original game success if you have someone creating it who has a genuine passion and personal vision concerning the subject matter and can bring something new and/or insightful to the field.

To find the people who can deliver the big wins editors and producers have to have the wherewithal and courage to develop a sense of what has real depth, skill, and excitement. They have to be leaders rather than followers. They have to train their instincts. They then have to have the will to fully support their human discoveries. This requires a lot more respect for creators than is usually given.

Know Your Market

Frequently knowing your market means knowing into which stereotypical boxes the gatekeepers are stuffing stories such as yours, whether or not this has any real relationship to how the market will respond.  Harry Potter is seen as having universal appeal to boys and girls. Once Pippi Longstockings was also seen in the same way, but would now be marketed as a girl’s book. To Kill a Mockingbird was originally read by adults. Now it is seen as a children’s book because the lead characters are children.

Marketing divides these stories into categories, they then sell the stories to particular marketing segments. When the segment responds to their advertising push, it is seen as confirmation that this is how things should be. Sadly, this encourages sexism, racism, and many other “isms”. Recently, author Justine Larbalestier’s  publisher put a photograph of a girl of European descent on a story about a girl of African descent, ostensibly in order to make the book palatable to a broader (white) audience. This caused enough furor that the publisher apologetically replaced the cover.

I’ve been in the frustrating position of attempting to sell imaginative up-beat stories for Gen-Y adults and being told that adults prefer darker stuff and my material is clearly for children. So how did The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Mighty Boosh, etc get made? Especially when for so long animation was seen as for kids? I find the gatekeepers may not be in touch with the audiences they are purportedly representing or current trends, despite worshipping at the foot of these things.

What to do?

Editors and producers will tell you they are looking for original material. What they are really saying is that they don’t want to be bored, but at the same time they still want what they understand, and if it’s too original, that won’t readily happen. I would suggest when you start off, put their dilemma out of your mind.

Some people are good at following trends. If that is the case for you, go ahead and do it, just don’t expect to make a big name for yourself that way.  Otherwise, spend a lot of time experimenting with your own style. Go ahead and be influenced, but by a diversity of sources until your own blend and your own flavour comes to the fore. Focus on what you love, what gets you passionate, because you will be miles ahead in getting people to respond to your material, than someone who has a passing interest just for money and audience.

Once you have established your vision do an extra layer of preparation. This layer has LITTLE to do with your actual inspiration. It’s about marketing to the marketers. Find a way to pitch your story, so that it sounds like something else that has had recent success. If your story has a balloon in it, pitch is as if it’s the next Pixar’s Up. The only point of comparison may be that balloon, but that might be sufficient if your story is aimed at families.

I have to admit that I like family movies and television shows. I like multi-generational audiences bonding with one another over a funny story. I have found producers feel uncomfortable with aiming things that broadly. So, you may find yourself having to pitch family entertainment as children’s, downplaying the bits that engage the parents. I still have no idea how The Simpsons got its start.

It may well be worth your while to pitch your story to friends and discover if they see your work as slotting into certain market segments, and even if it grates to be pigeonholed, go ahead and use their understanding as the basis of your final pitch. The only problem is that this might result in misguided advertising. Henson’s Labyrinth did not do well in the cinemas because it was marketed to children when it was meant for adolescents. Later it did fine in video sales through word of mouth. But Hollywood couldn’t see how puppets might be of interest past childhood.

The most honest approach is if you can convince the gatekeepers that you know what you are doing, you are an expert in your field and can be trusted to produce material that will appeal to a lucrative market. This is why starting as a standup for people who want to get into comic film and television is so useful. You have proved to the world that you are funny. You are a known quantity that can be trusted. However, even though this field has fewer gatekeepers, you have to be brave enough and passionate enough about standup in its own right to keep at it. Eventually  other opportunities will appear, but you may wisely wish to keep one foot in front of the microphone.

Don’t worry about the gatekeepers. Do what you want to do regardless. Keep the faith, trust your vision, and seek to give the world your best. Something interesting is bound to happen.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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