This is going to be a bit of a deviation from what I normally post, so I hope that you still enjoy it. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have noticed that a lot (and I mean a lot) of successful authors, well… struggle to let go, shall we say. Especially in the last few years, there’s been a wave of authors who had a successful book or series publishing additional books, either as prequels, sequels, or as spin-off series set in the same world. This is a phenomenon that really interested me (though not necessarily in a good way), so I wanted to talk a little about why this is happening, and why I’m concerned by it. Now, I want to be clear, this is not intended to point fingers at any one author, or even to blame or criticise any author for what is happening, as you will hopefully read towards the end of this.
For the purpose of this, I’ve split this phenomenon down into three different categories, though of course, there is overlap. The first is the Author Who Won’t Stop. They expand out of books into various other medias, forming a sort of miniature empire of media. The churning out of ~new content~ is near relentless. No sooner has one release cycle completed than the next starts. I also like to call this the “flogging your dead horse” approach.
The second is the one that has been happening most often recently, from what I’ve seen. The Great Come Back. Several years after a book (/series) is successful, and often a long time after the release of any movie adaptations, the author returns! With a new book! Set in the same world! That… nobody asked for! Generally with these books, I see a massive wave of excitement upon announcement, followed by disappointment after the release.
The final one is the most intentional of the three methods in my eyes, and is somewhat similar to The Author Who Won’t Stop. I distinguish between them because this is more a planned thing, and it also tends to be limited to books (and possibly screen adaptations) and doesn’t really branch out into an Empire of Media. This is the comic-book style Interconnected Worlds, where an author sticks to one fantasy/fictional universe for their books, but explores different characters or themes in different series. All of these approaches are limiting in different ways, and play into a much broader culture of monopolies. Often (though not always), authors that take these approaches see a decline in the reception of their work. Their creativity becomes somewhat constrained as they are forced to exist within pre-existing parameters. However, the potential profit from these enterprises is huge, which is what I wanted to explore further in this piece.
Firstly, anyone using any of these strategies is making use of audience’s attitudes towards media. The first is audience nostalgia. In a world that is so often tending towards chaos, is it any wonder that an audience would be interested in investing in a continuation of a story that they gained comfort from when younger? The audience has certain expectations that the author knows, and can therefore meet. However, the grass is always greener, as they say, and often audiences may find that they can’t quite connect in the same way. But they’ve still bought the book! This nostalgia effect is mostly for the Great Come Back type I described, but also fits in well with The Author Who Won’t Stop.
As well as nostalgia, however, the reader or consumer has been conditioned by media giants to Want More Content, and also to have crossover type stories. The comic book model recently blew into massive success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the reinvigoration of the Star Wars Cinematic Universe also plays into this. These franchises gain massive success by following the same formulae time and time again, so it’s only natural that it should translate back to books.
The last thing I wanted to mention here is a sense of entitlement from audiences. With the rise of the internet and immediate access to, well, pretty much anything (and importantly the rise of fanfiction and an easy way to lobby creatives), audiences feel entitled to more, or to whatever will gratify them. Famously, after the finale of Game of Thrones, viewers who disliked the ending started a petition to have the finale remade. Authors are facing a similar thing, with audiences having easy access to them via social media to express demands for More, because society constantly tells us that More is Available! We can have what we want! While wanting to read more about your favourite characters is not inherently bad, this pressure on authors to produce something that fans will love is where the importance of fan gratification takes precedence over innovative and creative content, and the work suffers as a result.
This pre-established fanbase and desire for more among an audience means, basically, guaranteed financial success for any of these endeavours. Publishers, therefore, will offer higher advances for this kind of book than they might offer if an author were to pitch a new series. With the franchise name slapped on the front, sales are guaranteed, which means that publishers are more likely to allow lower quality work to be published without too much thought for the potential effect on the author’s reputation. After all, a publishing house’s reputation is rarely damaged by putting out a mediocre novel. A publishing house’s reputation is barely damaged by publishing offensive or incendiary material, but that’s a whole different conversation.
For authors who are notoriously not paid much considering the quantity of labour they put into their work, these kinds of financial incentives are hard to refuse. The majority of authors do not earn enough to constitute a living wage, and even if their book is successful enough to earn out and start paying them royalties, royalties are generally a small percentage of the actual cost of the book.
The guaranteed success of a book also links in to the rise of influencers (particularly YouTube stars) receiving book deals. Some high profile influencer books have been revealed to have been ghost-written, and many are also received quite badly, with critiques of the quality of writing. But publishers know that to have that influencers name on the front cover guarantees sales, so they will pay well for the work. But again, readers are often left feeling a bit disappointed. I know I have been by the ‘YouTuber books’ I’ve read in the past.
So, who’s fault is this? The audience, for buying into it? The author, for writing it? No, friends. The fault here lies with the giant publishing corporations who, at the end of the day, want to make money. And this is their way to doing it, with little danger to their reputation. They make money, the author likely loses face, and the audience is disappointed. There’s only one winner here, folks! (Sidenote: this is why I really like to try to support indie publishers where possible, so please let me know of any fab indie houses out there!)
You might be thinking, but why does this matter? Who cares if an author publishes a book that the fans don’t like? Surely we all just move on? And yes, we do. But what I find upsetting about this is how boring it becomes, and how homogenised. Entertainment gets boiled down to just a few corporations, who essentially gain complete control over what audiences have access to in mainstream culture. We see mergers and acquisitions of not just publishing houses, but of film and TV studios all the time, tending more and more towards a monopolisation of industries, where let’s face it, the stories we’re being given are overwhelmingly white, straight, cisgender and ablebodied. Of course, it’s absolutely fine to want, and to enjoy, more stories set in your favourite worlds. But, with the amazing resource that is the internet at our fingertips, it’s equally important to seek out new favourite stories. To be honest, I expect I’m preaching to the choir here, but I cannot stress enough the importance of looking outside what the giant corporations of the world are releasing and finding diverse, multifaceted, and innovative stories to explore, and to love.
If you’ve read this to the end, thank you so much! If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this essay is that every single piece of blame for monopolisation lies with corporations, not with individuals like authors or readers, and that this is only one example of a phenomenon that can be found across any aspect of Western culture you choose: film, TV, clothing, food to name but a few. Sorry, I guess that was two things.
This is the first essay-style piece I’ve posted, so I’d really appreciate any of your thoughts and feedback! Was the title too clickbait-y? Did I go in on authors too hard in the intro? Do you agree with what I’ve said?
Stay safe, and see you next time!