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“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” “Fantastic Four.” “Vacation.” “Jurassic World.” It’s not summer without a cinemaplex near you bursting with reboots, sequels, prequels and new installments in franchises that should have been allowed to die with dignity in the 1980s.
There’s not much mystery surrounding the continuing font of such films, however. A major action movie with no pre-established following could be a colossal disaster if it flops, a waste of millions of dollars. A similar movie from a beloved franchise, even a worse one, will at least successfully draw the superfans to theaters, if only so they can bemoan the blasphemous mistreatment of their favorite characters. Really, it’s the same reason we eat at Wendy’s or Olive Garden: It might be just OK, but at least it’s an OK we know. A franchise film is low-risk for movie execs gambling massive sums on guessing what the average viewer will shell out to see.
The thing is, this doesn’t just happen in the movie biz.
Dr. Seuss and Harper Lee, neither of whom have actually penned a word for publication in decades, published new books this summer. (You may have heard.) Despite lukewarm reviews, they rapidly set sales records: What Pet Should I Get sold 200,000 copies in a week, faster than any picture book in Random House’s history, and Go Set a Watchman sold 1.1 million copies in a week, faster than any book in HarperCollins’ history.
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Surprising no one, it turns out peddling a low-quality option from an established literary franchise more reliably draws in profits than trying to get readers to pick up a better book by an unknown author. There’s that franchise effect rearing its ugly head again.
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In general, the movie world is optimized for this effect in a way other artistic industries aren’t. Art motivated by profit, owned by corporations and created by committee all too often results in an endlessly regurgitated cycle of unimaginative pap. Blockbuster movie-making requires enormous funds and large teams; the rights to a franchise usually belong to a major studio, not to an idealistic artiste. If a director, star or screenwriter doesn’t want to keep putting out increasingly less worthwhile follow-ups to their original hit, they’re often free to walk, and the studio is often free to simply make those follow-ups with other directors, actors and screenwriters, then rake in the profits.
Book publishers, except in the cases of ghostwritten series like Nancy Drew, have to contend with an often recalcitrant artist, without whom nothing can be accomplished. If the publisher is lucky, they’ll get a Tom Clancy, happy to keep churning out more of the brand of fiction that readers want from them, then willing to slap his name on similar books co-written with no-name authors. Tom Clancy books are still coming out today, years after his death, each with the actual author’s name in much smaller font at the bottom of the cover.
If less fortunate, the publisher might get a J.K. Rowling, so determined to break free of her meal ticket that she swears off writing Harry Potter books once the original series is complete, and even writes books for adults under a pseudonym.
Or, horrors, a J.D. Salinger, who decides he’s had enough writing for the public and secludes himself for the remainder of his days. Once this happens, there’s not much for a publisher to do. A writer controls his or her own artistic destiny. Without the writer’s contribution, or at least blessing, that well of profit runs dry. (Hey, at least there are reissues, right?)
Fortunately for the publishing industry, there are ways around this roadblock. A half-finished manuscript by a deceased icon, polished up and sent out into the world. More specifically, a finished but forgotten novel by a reclusive, and now elderly and infirm, author, uncovered and published to great fanfare. Or, a picture book by a beloved author and illustrator never deemed special during his lifetime, pushed into print upon its rediscovery well after his death.
Unfortunately for the authors’ legacies, and the readership itself, these books typically weren’t published in their time for a reason, whether it was incompleteness or sheer awfulness. We’re left to contend with this smudge on the oeuvre of our literary idol, reckon with what it means for his or her artistic legacy that a book possibly never ready for the world has now been thrust into it.
Regardless, the reading public, like the movie-watching public, can be counted on to grab at new old things — the same stories they’ve cherished their whole lives, but different. The publisher can count on a payday, no matter how disappointing the actual book.
Thanks to Watchman and What Pet, the most noteworthy books of this summer read like they could have appeared in newspaper headlines fifty years ago. But there are only so many lost manuscripts and easily persuadable superstar authors (a la E.L. James) for the industry to hang its hat on. Publishers can’t look to the franchise reboot effect to save themselves the way movie studios do. They’ll have to create blockbusters the old-fashioned way: on a wing and a prayer.
And, if they’re lucky, lots of YA action romance trilogies. Here’s looking at you, Divergent.
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