Final Staff

Editor-in-Chief:
Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
Dave Noonan

Editors

  • Mishell Baker
  • Bluejack
  • Amy Goldschlager
  • Emily Lupton
  • R. K. MacPherson
  • Scott James Magner
  • Robin Shantz

Copy Editors

  • Sarah L. Edwards
  • Yoon Ha Lee
  • Sherry D. Ramsey
  • Rena Saimoto
  • Paula Stiles

Editors-at-Large

  • Marti McKenna
  • Bridget McKenna

Publicity

  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

December, 2009 : Feature:

Nothing New Under the Sun

Dead Air 3

They say that when it comes to stories, there's nothing new under the sun. Every conceivable plot, they say, has already been utilized a thousandfold in the millennia between The Epic of Gilgamesh in the 7th century B.C. and today. I don't know if that's true, but I do know it's not necessarily a bad thing. The key to a good tale isn't just plot but execution: even if the basic elements of a story have been told innumerable times before, it is the author's unique stamp on a story which make it a truly unique creation. It calls to mind the Vulcan concept of "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" (Gene Roddenberry).

But what happens when authors overtly piggyback on the works of others? Does this same concept still apply? Specifically, what are we to make of novels like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

Unless you've spent the past year entombed in a crypt far from the Internet, you've already heard about this comedic monster mashup "co-written" by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, a television writer/producer whose previous publications were nonfiction humor books like How to Survive a Horror Movie, The Big Book of Porn and Pardon My President: Fold-and-Mail Apologies for 8 Years of George W. Bush. Clearly Grahame-Smith is someone who has a handle on writing pop culture humor, so it's no surprise that once Quirk Books editor Jason Rekulak developed the idea for P&P&Z he handpicked Grahame-Smith, already a Quirk author, to write it. From the start, both Grahame-Smith and Quirk maintained the mashup is 85% Austen's original text and 15% new material—in particular, the addition of zombies and ninjas—though some disgruntled critics claim it's closer to a 95%-5% split. Despite whatever one's personal feelings about P&P&Z might be—and I've heard everything from it being the end of the zombie craze to the end of novels as we know them—it received far more raves than pans in the press. Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-, The Onion's AV Club gave it an A, and Library Journal and Booklist both expressed considerable surprise at how much they liked it. Published in April, P&P&Z hit the New York Times bestseller list in the #3 spot, was translated into twenty languages and sold over a million copies worldwide. Not bad for something that is essentially a gag.

But its very nature as a novelty item is also what drove it over the top to become a smash hit. A clever title like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, coupled with the inescapable pre-publication buzz based on the concept alone, appeals to a wide variety of readers: fans of Jane Austen, fans of zombies or horror in general, fans of humor books, and curious readers who wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Curiosity is the strongest common denominator here—it was the nearly universal reaction of "this I have got to see" that put the book on the bestseller lists in the first place. (While I know many who roll their eyes at the very mention of P&P&Z, I happen to belong to the camp that thinks the idea is a clever one—take three parts staid, British comedy of manners, add one part grotesque, body-horror zombie nightmare, sprinkle with a dash of ninjas, and hit blend. To be honest, at this point I find manner-obsessed, Regency-era England a far more interesting setting for a zombie novel than the ubiquitous post-apocalyptic, survivalist milieu one often finds.)

P&P&Z's hook is the tongue-in-cheek originality of its idea—as counterintuitive as that may sound when we're talking about a novel that adds only a smidge of new material to an established and beloved classic. But conceptually it hit a chord, and that was enough to turn it into a phenomenon. A blockbuster novel written by a relatively unknown author and published by a company that's never published fiction before is an anomaly in the publishing world, where originality and risk-taking often take a back seat to attempts at emulating whatever's already a big hit. (I'm sure you remember when bookstores were flooded with Da Vinci Code knockoffs shortly after Dan Brown's novel became an international sensation, but I bet you can't remember what any of them were called, or who wrote them. There's a reason for that.) Like most anomalies in the entertainment industry, P&P&Z wound up getting a lot of attention. The kind of attention that sells books.

Authors riding their way to success on the backs of classic, public domain novels is certainly nothing new, nor does it imply laziness or lack of talent. Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, was published way back in 1966, became Rhys' most successful novel, won literary awards, was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923, and later became both a movie and an opera. Gregory Maguire's Wicked, a retelling of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, was published in 1995, became a huge bestseller and was adapted into a hit Broadway musical. Just this fall, Bram Stoker's great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker published a sequel to Dracula called Dracula: The Un-Dead, which hit #23 on the New York Times bestseller list. While it's true that these examples contain a lot more original material in them than P&P&Z does, that doesn't mean I see any reason to begrudge P&P&Z its success. Rekulak's idea to come up with an attention-grabbing commercial concept for Grahame-Smith to write in the hopes of bestsellerdom may seem cynical, and I can certainly understand why authors struggling in obscurity to write great new novels might grumble angrily and wonder if it's time to trade in the ol' MacBook for a certificate in refrigerator repair, but I think any anger over P&P&Z's success is misdirected. One's anger would be better directed toward what's happening in the publishing industry now that P&P&Z is a big hit.

Just as they did with the Da Vinci Code knockoffs, publishers everywhere are now scrambling to hop on the monster mashup bandwagon. In August, Sourcebooks published Amanda Grange's Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, a supernatural sequel to Pride and Prejudice. Quirk Books itself published Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters in September. October saw Ulysses Press publish Vampire Darcy's Desire by Regina Jeffers, which apparently differentiates itself from Mr. Darcy, Vampyre by being a prequel/retelling of Pride and Prejudice rather than a sequel. In June of next year, Del Rey will publish Little Women and Werewolves by Louisa May Alcott and Porter Grand. And in August, Kensington will publish Wuthering Bites by Sarah Gray, in which Heathcliff is, you guessed it, a vampire. If you're currently shaking your head and muttering, "Enough already," you're not alone. But you're also likely to go unheard by the industry.

Publishing, like all entertainment, is powered by trends. Or at least what it thinks the trends are; there's a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy at work there too, though I suppose that's a topic for another day. The industry is also going through an extremely difficult time right now with the recession cutting deeply into book sales—which unfortunately were already at low levels long before the economy flatlined—and so publishers are more desperate than ever to hitch their wagons to whatever successful idea comes along. Unfortunately, in this case the industry may have mistaken a legitimate novelty item—Pride and Prejudice and Zombiesfor the start of a successful, lucrative trend that will save them from falling any deeper into the red. The question is, will it?

To quote my Magic 8 Ball, outlook not so good.

According to Nielsen BookScan, a well respected if imperfect tool for tracking book sales in the U.S., Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Mr. Darcy, Vampyre are selling quite well, though nowhere near the astronomical numbers P&P&Z had right out of the gate. It might be too soon to tell if this is indicative of the principle of diminishing returns, but the truth is, like a crazy person who keeps doing the same thing and expecting different results each time, the industry has been down this road before. The remainder shelves were littered with the unsold corpses of Da Vinci Code knockoffs in the middle years of this decade. I wouldn't be surprised to see the same happen with monster mashups. In fact, I suspect by the time Little Women and Werewolves and Wuthering Bites hit the shelves next summer this wave will have crashed. At the very least, I have a hard time imagining any of these cash-in attempts grabbing the public imagination the way P&P&Z did, let alone garnering the same rabid amount of Hollywood and graphic novel interest P&P&Z did.

Trends, no matter how widespread, come with built-in expiration dates—witness the short existence of the once mighty Pog—and mixing classic literature with horror tropes can only have a short shelf life before the joke becomes tiresome. Heck, it's only been eight months since P&P&Z was released and due to the seemingly unending parade of knockoff book announcements that came in its wake the mashup concept already feels old to me.

Not that this means publishers will be putting the brakes on the feeding frenzy anytime soon. We can expect this to continue for some time, since when it comes to what's "hot" publishers, like the creepiest person you've ever dated, tend to latch on quickly and take forever to let go. Back at Quirk Books, where it all started, editor Jason Rekulak recently announced a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies called Dawn of the Dreadfuls, to be published in March. He says he's also looking to commission a sequel in order to create a trilogy. Because these two novels will be directly related to P&P&Z, the bellwether that started the trend, they might do well despite monster mashup fatigue, but I suspect the initial success will never be duplicated. Regardless, author Seth Grahame-Smith isn't sticking around to find out. He's not writing the prequel; instead he's working on his own novel for a different, much bigger publisher, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which will be released in hardcover by Grand Central Publishing in March. Grahame-Smith is obviously no dummy. Who wants to be a one-trick pony in a circus of diminishing returns when you can build off your success with something new and see a healthy career come out of it?

So before you decide to ride the trend by writing The Swiss Family Robinson and Yetis, consider this: There may be nothing new under the sun, but even the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies knows that being the first to spin an idea in a new direction is often a lot more successful than being the twentieth.

Now if only publishers would understand that too.


Copyright © 2009, Nicholas Kaufmann. All Rights Reserved.

About Nicholas Kaufmann

Nicholas Kaufmann is an author, reviewer, interviewer and columnist living in Brooklyn, NY. His novella General Slocum's Gold was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, and his most recent book, Chasing the Dragon, will be available in paperback from ChiZine Publications in March. For more regular doses of Kaufmannia, visit his blog at http://nick-kaufmann.livejournal.com or his website at http://www.nicholaskaufmann.com.

COMMENTS!

Dec 11, 05:54 by IROSF
Please comment!
Dec 11, 18:04 by Lois Tilton
You forgot "travesty," so let me add it. Surely you have made it clear that there is no depth so low that the publishing industry will not dig out a sublevel beneath it.
Dec 12, 00:00 by Terry Grignon
Loved your article. I enjoyed P&P&Z very much but agree this is not nor should be a trend. It was an original concept that was fun while it lasted... let's move on.
Dec 12, 02:55 by Janine Stinson
It's so disheartening to watch the publishing industry follow Hollyweird into the repeat-everything-at-least-twice ditch. It feels like ten frames of gutter balls. I see way too many do-over projects in film and TV. But there's still some good stuff being filmed as well as printed, and that's what I'll be hunting in video stores, libraries and bookstores.

I wonder what would happen if an anti-greed Event landed on us...
Dec 14, 15:13 by David Gardner
I agree with you that there is something of a shelf-life on this phenomenon, but it may last longer than any of us would like.

I'm reminded of reality TV, which is very successful because of the fact (at least in theory) that it requires no writers or actors, allowing for significantly lower production costs. When reality TV first began to get popular I predicted that it would be over in five years. Needless to say I was way off and reality TV is still going strong.

In some ways, this trend shares that lower production cost factor. The writer is not creating a novel, but adding a relatively small amount of new material to a pre-existing work, like a college student re-working a paper created in one class for use in another. While I have no information about the financial arrangements between the publisher and the author, this arrangement at least allows for the possibility of lower production costs.

Granted, none of the follow-ons is likely to achieve the success of the first outing, but as long as they're showing a profit it's likely that more of the same will follow.
Dec 14, 16:40 by Nicholas Kaufmann
David, I see your point but the economics of publishing a book are different from those of producing a TV show. With reality TV, there may be no writers or actors to pay and a reduced production staff, but when it comes to publishing the production costs of a novel are pretty static. Regardless of the amount of pre-existing text, the books are printed--and designed and given cover art--from scratch, no differently from novels whose every word is new. I don't know the advance and royalties structure given to the mashup authors, but I suspect they're not all that different from any other novelist's, especially if the publishers are expecting these books to be successful.

But the point you make in your last graf is spot on: As long as they continue to turn a profit, monster mashups are here to stay. But then again, so are addiction memoirs, transformational/spiritual titles, and YA novels about vampires in high school.
Dec 14, 18:25 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Late to the discussion as always...

I will definitely agree that the Regency Era makes for a fascinating setting for a zombie novel. I too enjoyed P&P&Z, and I must state that I find Austen's novels to be the best cure for insomnia I have ever run across.

The publishing industry will milk this type of book for the foreseeable future. Who could have predicted that the Supernatural Romance sub-sub-genre would outlast the handful of original writers (like Hamilton) who established it? It remains the largest selling segment of genre literature today.

I might sound elitest here, but I am finding American produced genre media increasingly lowest common denominator. Luckily, I live in Canada and we get to have european genre media on our shelves and television sets.
Dec 14, 20:33 by David Gardner
David, I see your point but the economics of publishing a book are different from those of producing a TV show. With reality TV, there may be no writers or actors to pay and a reduced production staff, but when it comes to publishing the production costs of a novel are pretty static.


I think I failed to make myself completely clear, Nicholas. Agreed that the costs of producing the physical, printed copy of the novel are very similar across the board. What I'm referring to, though, is a situation in which the author might be willing to work far more cheaply since he/she has to produce a far smaller word count. In other words, instead of writing 400,000 words and getting 10x, this hypothetical writer might be accepting 2x or 3x for writing 50,000 words.

What I don't know, and please, anyone, clue me in if you have even vague figures, is "What percentage of the overall budget to produce a book comes from the advance and royalties paid to the author?" This would likely be the deciding factor. If the amount paid the author is small in relation to the cost of printing and distributing the book then it's like that this won't be a critical factor.

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