Volume 21, Number 3

The Passage: Blockbuster, Franchise and Everything Wrong With The Publishing Industry

Fred Schepartz

It was early on the last morning of our vacation. I was awoken by a loud thwap, the unmistakable sound of a doorstop masquerading as a novel being slammed shut.

“Stupid book!” my wife exclaimed.

I couldn’t help but smile. Georgia had finally finished The Passage, the mega-hyped vampire novel by “literary” writer Justin Cronin. And for Georgia, finishing the book could not have come a moment too soon. Georgia’s a very discriminating reader. She’s been a bookseller and a book buyer at a few different bookstores. She has an English degree from University of Iowa. If a book fails to interest her, she’s more than willing to put it aside and move onto the next.

But despite reaching a point where she wanted to fling the 766-page tome into the Atlantic Ocean, she had to keep reading to the end most likely because she’d already invested so much time in the book. Also, she did shell out for the hardback.

At first, she really liked the book. The story was engaging, and there were characters that she liked and found quite intriguing. Then those characters get killed off. The book jumps decades into the future and then reaches a point where it feels more like a screen treatment than an actual novel. For a fiction lover like Georgia, this is the absolute kiss of death.

I am not ashamed to admit this, but I was quite gratified by Georgia’s reaction to the book because it proved what I suspected when I heard the news about the publication of The Passage, which included a huge advance for the author and a movie deal: The Passage represents everything that is wrong with the publishing industry.

Aside from publishing and editing Mobius, I write fiction. A couple years ago, my first novel, Vampire Cabbie, was published, which means that I am known and identified as a vampire writer.

A Facebook friend posted an article (nytimes.com/2010/06/02/books/02cronin.html) about The Passage on my wall. He figured it would make me feel happy and encouraged to see somebody making a bundle for writing a vampire novel.

It didn’t.

Cronin’s story is about being in the right place at the right time. He’d been working on a vampire novel. At a time when vampires are one majorly hot commodity, Cronin’s agent shopped the book and started a major bidding war between the biggest players in the industry. Ballantine ended up paying Cronin a $3.75 million advance for The Passage, along with two additional books to complete the trilogy. And then, on top of all of that, Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions paid $1.75 million for the film rights. A script is currently in the process of being written.

Cronin’s story disturbs me for several reasons. First, I wasn’t the writer getting the multi-million dollar book deal.

More importantly, this deal is an excellent demonstration of how the publishing industry is misguided in terms of priorities and how it misuses its resources. Yes, vampires are hot right now, so it’s a good time to push a vampire book and in the process create a franchise that can rake in huge bucks over the next few years.

This type of thinking places a low priority on quality and originality. Cronin has his millions. He doesn’t have to produce quality work. He just has to produce. On time! As Georgia pointed out, the latter part of the book felt like a screen treatment. Probably what happened was the better parts of the book had already been written when he made the deal. The latter part of the book was probably just an outline at that time. Under the gun and with little incentive to make it sing, Cronin cranked it out.

A particularly obnoxious aspect of this deal is how the hype machine (including gushing reviews from hack critics) makes a big fuss out of how original The Passage is.

“It’s a macabre pleasure to see what a really talented novelist can do with these old Transylvania tropes,” Ron Charles wrote in a review for the Washington Post.

You see, Cronin’s vampires are not supernatural beings of unknown or fuzzy origin. Cronin’s vampirism is a form of a virus, created through misguided government experiments in an effort to invent a super solider. The vampires are more horrifying than ever because they form these mass, mindless hordes.

Like zombies.

Hmmm, a zombie vampire. Wow. Zombies are like really hot too, so how hot would that be, having a vampire that’s also a zombie? I bet nobody’s ever thought of that.

It’s Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later with fangs. It’s basically I Am Legend. It’s I Am Legend meets Stephen King’s The Stand. This is what happens when mainstream editors try to go genre, and they think they can do it better because they are literary, as opposed to their knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing genre counterparts. Of course, they made the same mistake with The Historian, so why should I be surprised. Call me crazy, but if they wanted to pay millions of dollars for a vampire novel, there’s plenty of really good writers in the genre they could have anointed.

I am amazed how Cronin’s approach is somehow considered fresh and original. Yes, it breaks the mold of the traditional vampire, but people writing vampire fiction have been reinventing the wheel for quite some time now. I recently moderated a panel concerning this very topic where a group of committed vampire writers discussed these new vampire tropes, which included the created-by-science vampire zombie. Sorry, this has been done to death. So the question regarding The Passage, does Cronin do anything new or different with a trope that’s supposed to be new and different?

As I listened to Georgia describe the latter part of the book, I started to realize that it was laughably derivative. In fact, it sounded like a total rip-off of The Stand. I remember repeatedly asking Georgia to let me know if there was an evil compound in Las Vegas.

There was, sort of.

But I’m straying off the point by bashing The Passage. Cronin is not the enemy. His situation is merely a symptom of the actual virus that turns us into mindless, bloodsucking monsters.

The big boys want that big, big novel. Okay, fine. They’re in the business of making money, but the only way they see to do that is by attempting to duplicate previous success. The idea of a good, original book does not compute to these people. And they do not understand that the people who actually go out and spend money on books are looking for that exact thing.

And what about allocation of resources? With the money they paid up front to Cronin, Ballantine could have given $100,000 advances to 37 different authors. That’s a decent year’s wage. That means 37 authors would have a year subsidized where they could write without worrying about having to work. And, of course, that would mean that Ballantine would be publishing 37 different novels that are already complete and polished.

But that won’t happen. And those poor midlist writers who have books published by Ballantine over the next few years will get the shaft in terms of marketing because so much of the marketing resources are going toward making sure The Passage doesn’t flop.

And, let’s not forget that Ballantine will put tons of pressure on bookstores to dedicate lots and lots of space to Cronin’s work. That means less physical space for everyone else.

Let me be clear about one thing. Sure, it’s fun bashing Cronin, but my problem with The Passage would be the same regardless of the book’s quality or lack thereof. My beef is with the industry and how it does business. Yes, I understand that the big publishing houses are in the business of making money. I understand that the cost of the quarter-million print run of The Passage will cost considerably less than 25,000 runs for 10 books or 10,000 runs for 25 books. I get it.

But I also get that because of The Passage, many books will not see the light of day, and these are quality books that deserve an audience. Because of The Passage, good writers who deserve financial support will be left out in the cold.

I also get that such decisions are based on the need to maximize profits. The big houses all exist within huge media conglomerates. Having a little bit left over after expenses is not good enough. The board of directors demands tribute. The beast must be fed, which means it’s the marketing department, not the editors, who often decide what books get published and which books don’t.

A New York editor who I respect greatly has commented about how she often needs to fight for books she believes in. She is a very brave person, but I can’t help but wonder how many editors actually have anywhere near her courage, especially when they know they can be so easily replaced.

In this issue of Mobius, we are introducing a new columnist. Elisabeth Willmott, who will write about sustainability, hopefully for many years to come. In terms of sustainability, I can’t help but think of how it applies to a publishing industry that values maximizing of profits above all else.

The way I see it, sustainability, at least to a certain extent, stands in opposition to capitalism because it states that maximizing profits is not the be-all and end-all. There are other goals that can and should be achieved. Generally, when people think of sustainability, they think of environmental issues. To put it simply, if maximizing profits means treating our planet like a disposable diaper, then we need to reassess our priorities.

I would argue the same is true in the publishing industry. On the one hand, The Passage probably will make a ton of money for Ballantine. But at what price? And how much will the publishing environment be harmed? With enough disrespect, readers will take their business elsewhere. Without financial support, writers won’t have the luxury to produce to the degree that they are capable. Some will give up altogether.

The desire to maximize profits at the expense of all other concerns kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. The result is that the air we breathe is poisoned. Our oceans are slowly dying. And the words that sustain our souls are being destroyed.

We can’t let that happen. Remember, there is great power in the choices we make. We can choose to buy wild Alaskan salmon rather than Chilean seabass. We can buy Fair Trade coffee instead of the corporate stuff. We can buy local, organic produce. And we can make the conscious choice to support publishers who operate in a sustainable model where they put quality above profit.