Life inside the book-to-film complex

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Very interested to read this James Pogue takedown of the explosion in non-fiction which is made to be sold to Hollywood (or whatever we call the Netflix-Apple-Hulu-Amazon-Hollywood machine these days.) While it’s somewhat flawed, possibly unfair to a number of authors, and more than a little self-serving, the essay does do a good job laying out an argument about a very specific kind of journalistic product.

“The book-to-film complex is bolstered by two imperatives that now govern our nonfiction almost without exception: foreground story as an ultimate good, ahead of deep personal insight, literary style, investigative reporting, or almost any other consideration that goes into the shaping of written work; and do not question too closely the aristocracy of tech and capital that looms over us, the same people who subsidize the system that produces America’s writing.”

Most of all I am fascinated by the lack of true success this entire genre, which exploded when the Atavist, Byliner, and Kindle Singles all arrived on the scene. (We launched Matter not long afterwards.)

As Pogue notes: “Of all the stories Epic has placed since its founding in 2013, only one—bought, again, by Apple—has been filmed.”

The fact that while selling options and rights has gone from being a profitable but occasional sideline for a small number of writers and turned into the core business proposition of a larger group, almost all of this money is being spent to create nothing. It’s just speculative cash, defensive investment, or an attempt by studios to mitigate risk that writers and publishers may temporarily benefit from.

I recognize a lot of what he says here. We saw a lot of these issues inside Matter, and saw the results. In the first generations of the publication, we struggled with Amazon precisely because we favored argument or investigation over narrative. We loved a good story, but wanted a deeper insight. (I like to think this was evidenced by the fact that we won a number of investigative journalism awards and reporting prizes.)

Our stories chimed with readers, but they were harder to get past the gatekeepers. Rights inquiries were rare, although we could have put more into chasing them I suppose. (In Matter’s later lifetimes, where I had less involvement, we were staring right down the throat of this relationship.)

I’m not going to pretend that everything we did was worthy journalism of the sort that Pogue seems to dream about. Most of it wasn’t lofty. But I think it’s a good explanation of why I want the stories I work on to—at the very least—live in the world of consequences; to have a point of view.

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