Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Writing by Committee

There's a piece in the Oct. 19 "The New Yorker" that is worth reading. It's about Alloy Entertainment, the folks who gave the world "Gossip Girl," "The A-List," and "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." One of their editors (and they're all young. Think 30's and sometimes under.) says, "Publishers get hung up on what's good for kids. At Alloy, they always think first about what kids want to read." (Perhaps for "kids" we should read "girls." They're Alloy's main readers. Boys tend to like books about cheerleaders on trampolines, and we will go no further with that!)

Here's how Alloy works: development meetings, a fleshing out of a good idea into a short summary, a spec writer comes up with a sample chapter, he/she meets with a couple of editors and they hash out an entire plot.

Sounds like workshop to me. Except what Alloy is interested in is blockbusters! And 18 of their 29 titles were on the Times childrens' best-seller list. They must be doing something right.

Even more interesting is Alloy's willingness to perhaps leave books out of the success-equation. Alloy doesn't care if "an idea ever appears in book form." Someone at Alloy can pitch an idea to TV and sell it inside of a month. Why bother with the book except to show that the concept is already popular with consumers. So it's a book as means-to-an-end rather than an end in itself.
No hardback volume to show Mom and Dad. Instead gather the family in front of the TV, point and say, "I thought of that!"

One of the things I like about Alloy is how fast they work and how well they time their product. If vampires are hot, they'll get vampire books out quickly. When vampires retire to their cozy crypts and time-traveling girls in skinny jeans are popular, they turn out those books. (So if we could get a cute vampire in skinny jeans on a trampoline, then . . . Sorry. I promised not to go there.)

Take a look at this piece in TNY and see what you think.



  1. Hmm, interesting, especially since you contradict what you said in an earlier post: "Everybody knows you can't predict the market." But here Alloy is, predicting the market. Or driving the market. Or painting on the denim and bouncing furiously on the market.

  2. They don't have to predict it. They can produce something so quickly that they can ride whatever wave there is, unlike the rest of us who don't know that beautiful novels-in-poetry about lesser-known Grimm Fairy Tales are going to be raging hot in a couple of years.

  3. Ron, I read this article last fall and was quite blown away by it all. For some reason I mentioned it during our residency workshop, and others had read it, too. What I especially remember is the ending of the article in which the work for hire writers longed for literary freedom, on the way home from the bank.

  4. Alloy: Why predict the future when you can create it?

    On another note: I have to admit I was excited for a brief second because I have a tendency to write about angst-ridden dead girls. Alas, I do not have a committee to help me imagine what will happen to them, and they were beginning to weird me out a bit, so I put them in a drawer.

    Which means by the time (if ever) I finish writing them, the market will have passed me by...

  5. An interesting companion piece to the Alloy article is in this past Sunday NY Times Magazine--it's on James Patterson and his writing machine.

    I confess that after 20 years or so of doing what I do there is something that is greatly appealing about the whole committee writing thing. During residency I heard myself say more than once I could enjoy being a writer bee instead of An Author.

  6. But, Marsha, what if the committee vetoed your porn model? That porn model can't die, or, if she does, you and only you should off her.

  7. Wow! Lots to comment on here. 1) In my experience working on creative teams to develop museum exhibitions, the dynamic of group creativity can lead to amazing results that are larger than any one person could create. 2) However, such groups are limited by the goals/parameters they serve. Alloy has set its parameters to support only huge commercial successes (either in book or other media form). That parameter will limit them to tried-and-true formulas. They won't be able to take an artistic risk that is knock-your-socks-off creative and see what happens. (Doubtful that such a model could have led to Dr. Seuss). 3) With the financial muscle/multimedia approach that they put behind their projects, I'm not convinced that their bestselling status means what Alloy wants us to believe. Sure, they are speaking to teens to some degree. But how much of that is a result of their advertising power to persuade teens that Alloy-style products are what they want? Chicken and egg here. 4) Basically, Alloy has a successful business model. Good for them, as long as people don't misinterpret to be the only possible business model.

  8. I think Alloy does have a few things right, primarily they are focused on what YA readers WANT, not what adults want them to have. Also Gossip Girls leads tweens and teens to become YA readers. True story, a student of mine started with the GGs then went on to read The Story of a Girl (Zarr, National Book Award finalist), The Book Thief (Zusak, ‘nuff said), and then eventually A Clock Work Orange (Burgess). I asked her why she would waste her time on the GG type series stuff, and she shrugged and responded, “Why do we watch reality TV? Same thing, isn’t it?” Indeed.

    Sadly, even the executive vice-president Josh Bank talks about wishing they could do more literary projects, but they really can’t. "We don't have literary aims, by and large," Josh Bank says. "It would be nice to have a couple of literary aims. I would like to do more experimental stuff.” I think those of us following this blog would like to do literary stuff that makes money too! ;) This article has a great history of the series market and commercialization of teen fiction, everyone should definitely read it.

    It is only available on regular online form via subscription, but any library with Proquest, (use your Hamline ID card!) can get you to the article for free. It is eight single spaced pages long, and worth the read. Much food for thought.

    You are looking for:
    THE GOSSIP MILL; The Publishing World
    Rebecca Mead. The New Yorker. New York: Oct 19, 2009. Vol. 85, Iss. 33; pg. 62

    Thanks Ron!

  9. PS: The article also talks about how the model for series YA "bitch-lit" has pretty much run its course, and now they are digging into vampire stuff and historical fiction. They are even trying to produce things with more literary merit. Wouldn't it be nice if Alloy could get behind books with literary promise and promote them the way they do their other titles? Teens have shown they have buying power in the market place. I found the article REALLY exciting, because I feel like we are all on the verge of a giant watershed for YA fiction. Yes, there have been a few big successfull authors now. How many adult authors can you name? I bet tons. Hopefully with the e-books and ipads (yes, ipads are out NOW!), teens may swing back toward reading for enjoyment, because it will be delivered in an interesting format. Rowling, Meyers, and ...???