Three New TV Books Reviewed

front-lis-cover-final-16-6-30_7_origI’m a sucker for TV books, even those about shows I didn’t watch or don’t particularly like…because, often, I can learn something new about the development, writing and production of TV series that I didn’t know before despite my own experience in the biz.  Here are some short reviews of three recent releases.

Irwin Allen’s Lost In Space: The Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series Vol. One by Marc Cushman. Jacobs-Brown Publishers. This is a monumental work of TV history…one of the best TV reference books ever written. That’s no surprise, since it’s from the same people who did These Are the Voyages, the three volume, definitive work about the TV series Star Trek and that is also a stunning achievement.  I didn’t think that series of books could be topped or even matched. I was wrong. This nearly 700 page paperback covers the first season of Lost in Space, and as a bonus, the development of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the Irwin Allen series that preceded this one.

I am not a fan of Lost in Space, but that didn’t limit my enjoyment or appreciation of this book one bit (though I have to admit I haven’t finished it). The book is a remarkable achievement that exhaustively covers every detail of the creation, writing and production of the show, relying on interviews, memos, scripts, letter, photos… the amount of material they uncovered and examined is incredible and, at times, overwhelming. And yet, it doesn’t feel like overkill and it’s never dull. The author has an engaging style that rises above similar books.

Each episode is examined in-depth, from idea, through all stages of production, right down to the ratings and critical reaction to the final airing. What makes this book even more special is that, unlike Star Trek, the authors aren’t following a well-trodden path…so much of this is new and fascinating information. Yes, this show has been examined before, in documentaries and articles, but never in such detail and, surprisingly, with such objectivity. The authors aren’t slavishly devoted fans… they don’t hesistate to point out how awful some of the episodes were.

This book is a must-stock for any library and a must-read for anyone interested in the business behind the TV business. You don’t have to be a fan of Lost in Space, or have ever watched a single episode, to benefit from this great book. I can’t wait for the volumes 2 & 3.

bc8420Cop Shows: A Critical History of Police Dramas on Television by Roger Sabin & others. McFarland & Co.  I had high hopes for this book because I’m a huge fan of cop shows. I was expecting to glean some new insights into familiar and obscure shows, and new details about how these shows were made, the impact they had on culture, etc. What I got instead was a very scholarly, very broad series of superficial essays about individual shows that revealed nothing new…besides the authors’ opinions, which I don’t really care about.  I was also dismayed by the sloppy errors, which made me wonder if they actually watched the shows they were writing about…or were simply lazy in their research. For instance, in their chapter on Hawaii Five-O, they make a passing reference to Stephen J Cannell’s unsold reboot pilot, which was shot but never aired. They say that Gary Busey starred as McGarrett. In fact, nobody played McGarrett in the pilot…and Busey was co-lead with Russell Wong. This information is easily found on the Internet and in other reference books. Later, in their short summary on TJ Hooker, they say “CBS picked up the show’s final season, which was a marked by grittier plotlines and a location shift to Chicago. .. the changes proved deeply unpopular with fans.” That is absolutely wrong. The final episode of the ABC season was set in Chicago, and was a pilot for a potential reboot, but when the show moved to CBS, they kept the original concept, setting, and storylines (going so far as to only use car chases from previous episodes instead of shooting new ones!). The only thing that changed was that Adrian Zmed was dropped from the cast. So not only are they factually wrong, but the conclusions they came to about “grittier storylines” and the audience dissatisfaction with them is total fiction. If that is an example of their academic rigor, I grade this thesis a C-.

Seinfeldia: How a Show about Nothing Changed Everything. by Jennifer Keishan Armstrong. Simon and Schuster. I totally get why this book has become an unlikely bestseller. For one thing, it’s about one of the most popular and beloved sitcoms in TV history. But most of all, it’s because the book is so readable…so entertaining…that it almost feels more like a novel about a show than a book about TV history. Even so, there’s lots of meat here for people interested in how the TV business works, how a TV series develops and evolves, and, most of all, how a series is written. What this book is really about is the writing of a TV series and, as a writer myself, I found it irresistible and fascinating. There have been other books written about Seinfeld…but none of them are as good, or as useful, or as educational as this one. You should also grab Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, her terrific book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

My TV Book Addiction, Part II

Temple HoustonI love Bear Manor Media. They publish TV books that no publisher in their right mind ever would. Who else but Bear Manor would publish books about the western Temple Houston and the sitcom Good Morning World, two shows that barely survived for a single season each back in the 1960s? You could probably fit all the potential readers of those two books comfortably in a motor home for a dinner party. I’ve never seen either one of those two shows, but I still bought the books… another illustration of my raging, TV book addiction. Bear Manor Media and, to a lesser degree, McFarland & Co, are my pimps. But enough about me. Let’s talk about the books.

Jeffrey Hunter and Temple Houston: A Story of Network Television by Glenn A. Mosley is a mess of a book (though much better than his book about the TV series The Deputy). As the title suggests, the book isn’t quite sure what it’s about. Is it about Jeffrey Hunter? Is it about Temple Houston? Or is it about network television? Basically, it’s three lengthy magazine articles — one on the very short-lived Temple Houston, one on aborted The Robert Taylor Show, and one on actor Jeffrey Hunter’s disappointing career, stitched together into a thin, and yet very padded, book. But the stories of  Temple Houston, and the never-aired Robert Taylor Show are fascinating and well-worth the time, and the $14.95 purchase price of this book, for any student of the television history.

The apt title for the book might have been A Perfect Storm of Bad Decisions. It’s the story of how Warner Brothers’ decision to replace the president of their TV division with actor/director Jack Webb, and NBC’s decision to cancel the drama The Robert Taylor Show four episodes into production without ever airing an episode, and the network’s decision to rush Warner Brothers & Four Stars’ Temple Houston into production to fill the void, doomed them all.  Mosley sums it up in his introduction.

In making the decision in the manner that it did, NBC effectively sealed the fate of two television franchises. The Robert Taylor Show would never see the light of day and, in the end, Temple Houston hardly stood a chance. NBC, Warner Brothers, and even Four Star would all end up in weaker positions as a result […] Temple Houston has most often been dismissed as simply a failed, one-season western on television. Fair enough– so it was. But the story of Temple Houston is more than that; it is also the story of the intersection points betwen careers, Hollywood Studios, and network television.

And it’s a great untold story, one that neither NBC, nor Warner Brothers nor any other network or studio learned from… and were doomed to repeat many times over. Good Morning World

The first 44 pages of this 121 page book (not counting the bibliography and index) chronicle the story behind the development and production Temple Houston, and its great stuff. I ate it up. Another ten pages later in the book cover the story of the never-aired Robert Taylor Show in more detail…and it’s also great stuff, maybe even more interesting than the Temple Houston story. Everything else in the book — the biography of Jeffrey Hunter, the episode guide to Temple Houston, the pointless rehash of  Temple Houston episodes — is filler that doesn’t really convey much and often repeats material mentioned by the author before. But on the strength of the Temple Houston and Robert Taylor Show stories alone, I recommend this book for your TV reference book library.

Sadly, I can’t say the same for Good Morning World by Tim Colliver, who wrote this very thin, heavily padded book because the short-lived 1967 sitcom about a radio station inspired him to become a DJ. The problem is, the show just wasn’t very good and there wasn’t anything remotely interesting about it on any other level. As both Joby Baker, the long-forgotten star of the show, and the author of the book put it:

[Baker] also thought the scripts could have been better… a lot better.

“The reason I had trouble memorizig the lines is that they were horrible fucking lines.”[…]Throughout the course of the series, Baker thought the scripts were “corny” and the show “not really funny at times.” In all fairness, in looking back on the episodes now that they are on DVD, he was on to something.

Which begs the question, why write a book about a lousy show? Or better yet, why read one? My answer to both questions is: Don’t.

 Note: I bought both of these books. They were not provided to me for review. 

 

My TV Book Addiction

here comes the bridesI have an addiction — I love books about TV, even if they are about shows I don’t like or have never watched. I buy them on the off-chance I will learn something about the business, or about production, or about writing that I didn’t know before. I especially like books about old TV shows, because then I also learn something about television history. I’m telling you all of that so you’ll understand what possessed me to buy Jonathan Ether’s 640 page book devoted to Here Comes the Brides, a boring, utterly forgettable western series that lasted a mere two seasons in the late 1960s that is known, if at all, for a catchy theme song (“Seattle”) and for featuring Bobby Sherman and David Soul in the cast.

I don’t care about the show — the few episodes I’ve seen were lousy — but I really liked Etter’s The Here Comes the Brides Book: A Behind the Scenes History of the 1968-70 ABC TV Series from those crazy folks at Bear Manor Media (they’ve got to be crazy to publish books like this… but I love them for it). So why did I like the book if I could care less about the show? Because it’s packed with fascinating information about other shows. For instance, William Blinn, creator of Here Comes the Brides, spends a lot of time in the book talking about writing the TV series Bonanza and Shane….and that’s great stuffAnd Brides’ star Robert Brown talks about almost starring in Hawaii Five-O, and his work on the unsold pilots The Yellow Bird with Carroll O’Connor and Colossus with William Shatner, among others. So it’s for those golden nuggets that I was willing to slog through seemingly endless, pointless chapters about actress Bridget Hanley (who?) and her marriage to director E.W. Swackhamer, or the tragic details of Mark Lenard’s multiple melanoma that took his life long after the series was over. The book desperately needed a good editor, but I’m glad it didn’t have one, because it’s the stuff that had nothing to do with the show, that should have been cut, that I liked best. But if you are one of the dozen living fans of Here Comes the Brides, you will absolutely love this book. Every episode is examined in-depth and every regular and guest cast member, and almost every crew member, with the possible exception of the caterer,  are interviewed about their lives and careers. gunsmoke chronicles

Here’s the irony of me liking a book so much about a show that I could care less about: I bought David R. Greenland’s The Gunsmoke Chronicles: A New History of Television’s Greatest Western from Bear Manor Media because I love Gunsmoke, and yet I got nothing out of it at all. It’s a pointless book, a bland rehash of material presented better, and in more depth, by other books about the show. Oddly enough, Greenland acknowledges that fact in his preface: “By 2006, three books about the show had reached the marketplace, and even I conceded that the world did not need another.” And yet, he wrote one anyway, and shouldn’t have bothered, because he adds nothing new or particularly interesting about the series. It’s filler masquerading as content. Unlike the Here Comes the Brides book, there’s no gold here about other shows to make it a worthwhile purchase. Skip it.

Time TunnelMartin Grams Jr’s The Time Tunnel: A History of the Television Program, also from Bear Manor, is much like the book on Here Comes the Brides. It’s massive book (nearly 600 pages)  about a TV failure (it lasted a single season) that’s packed with lots of interesting information…about Irwin Allen and his other shows and about the TV landscape in the late 1960s. Everything you could possibly want to know about Time Tunnel is here, from the original pitch to information on all of Allen’s attempts to do another time travel series after it was cancelled, from the number of pages shot on a particular day to the cost of individual props, from the notes from ABC censors on each script to lists of the stock music cues in each episode, from exhaustively detailed synopses of each of broadcast episode to detailed descriptions of the episodes that weren’t shot. There’s almost too much stuff.  It’s as if Grams decided he had to put every single fact that came across his desk into the book just because he had them. The upside is that there’s something for everybody here, whether your interest is in TV production accounting or screenwriting. The downside is that it makes for tedious reading, even if you are really into the show or into TV history.

NOTE: I bought all three of these books. They were not provided to me for review.

Inside the Mind of a Literary Thief

Everybody knows by now that the spy thriller Assassin of Secrets was stitched together by "author" Quentin Rowan from passages stolen, word for word, from other espionage novels. But he went even further than that… he also stole from other authors for the essays, blog posts, and the Q&A interviews that he did to promote his book.

Novelist Jeremy Duns, who blurbed the original novel, has been extraordinarily aggressive now in exposing the ruse and, in the comments section of his excellent blog post dissecting the Assassin of Secrets, Rowan shows up to explain himself, leading to a revealing, back-and-forth interview. It's fascinating stuff. Here's an excerpt of Rowan's mea culpa…

"[…] the minute I got an agent and started showing it to people who suggested changes, I began to distrust the quality of whatever real work I'd done on it. So I started ripping off passages from spy novels in my collection that fit. Somehow public scrutiny has always been the pressure point for me. Once I feel I'm doing the work for someone else's eyes, I begin stealing, because I want to impress.

Once the book was bought, I had to make major changes in quite a hurry, basically re-write the whole thing from scratch, and that's when things really got out of hand for me. I just didn't feel capable of writing the kinds of scenes and situations that were asked of me in the time allotted and rather than saying I couldn't do it, or wasn't capable, I started stealing again. I didn't want to be seen as anything other than a writing machine, I guess. Some call it "people pleasing." Anyway, the more I did it, the deeper into denial I went, until it felt as if I had two brains at war with each other. Half of my time this past year was spent in a strange internal argument: Yes I can, no I can't. They'll figure it out! No they won't! It became like a strange schizophrenic form of gambling, and for some reason – viewing myself as a failed 'literary' writer – I saw this book as my "last shot." So even though what was left of my rational mind understood I would probably be found out, I still thought I had to bet it all on this one horse."

What Does MWA Do?

I always feel guilty when I spend more time posting on someone else's blog than my own…which is what has been happening over the last few days. I have been cheating on you over at Joe Konrath's blog. He wrote a lengthy post castigating the MWA for not welcoming self-published authors as active members…so naturally I responded. A lot. But I think some of what I said, even without the context of the subsequent comment thread that prompted my remarks, is worth repeating here. 

So you can read Joe's post for yourself...then come back and read this. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Okay, good to see you back.

First, let me say, that I am speaking for myself, and not in any way for the MWA.

I know ebook self-publishing is changing everything. I am earning far more self-publishing my out-of-print backlist today than I am from my traditional contracts.

I know that MWA will inevitably have to address that side of the business….but I think MWA’s rules will evolve and that these recent changes, while too incremental for Joe and some others, were a necessary and significant first step. 

There are many good points in Joe's post. But his overall argument that MWA should exist to help authors sell books is too narrow.  MWA does a lot of great things — like supporting book festivals & writers conferences, running speakers groups, funding Writer Beware, taking on predatory publishing practices, etc, to support their members and non-members alike.

He likes to use International Thriller Writers as a yardstick for comparison to MWA.  He says they get it right where MWA doesn't.

I agree that ITW does some great things for its members that MWA doesn’t…and vice-versa.

However,  the last time I checked, ITW had only let in three or four self-published authors as active members. Self-published authors are welcome to join ITW as associate members which, by the way, is also the case with MWA.  

I haven't seen ITW announce that they are now including e-publishers and POD publishers as Approved Publishers…and books exclusively published in e-format or POD as eligible for Active Membership…but MWA has.

The ITW, unlike MWA, is utterly beholden to, and dependent upon, “legacy publishers.” The reason members don't have to pay dues is because the ITW lives off the royalties it earns from its anthologies published by Harlequin, among others. If any organization exists to support the old guard, it's ITW.

While they are a different organization, they are also, in many ways, exactly the same. They also have an approved publishers list, they also rely upon "legacy publishing" as a primary yardstick for professional publication, and they also have a large associate membership etc.

So I'm not seeing how ITW is getting it right where MWA isn't.  

There are some also significant differences between the two organizations worth noting…

  • MWA took a strong, and very public stand against Harlequin that other organizations quickly followed (notably not ITW, perhaps because the anthologies that keep their organization afloat are published by Harlequin). MWA ultimately convinced Harlequin to substantially change a program that struck many as predatory and unethical.
  • MWA delisted and strongly condemned Dorchester for their miss-treatment of their authors…and other organizations quickly followed MWA's lead (notably, ITW has remained silent).
  • MWA has teamed up with SFWA to support Writer Beware to expose countless publishing and literary agency scams that prey on writers (What is ITW doing to educate writers about predatory publishing practice? Zero).

I am a proud ITW member, and they have been very, very smart in how they have positioned themselves and how they are helping published writers get more traction. But MWA is about much more than that. 

MWA's stand against Harlequin, for example, was geared entirely towards preventing unpublished authors from getting taken advantage of…and that's a big part of MWA’s mission…and why they partnered with SFWA to support Writer Beware. 

Not only that, but MWA makes substantial financial contributions to scores of big and small book fairs all across the country (including contributing to NY is Book Country, the LA Times Festival of Books, the Miami Book Fair, etc.) to help keep them afloat because they feel supporting writers, booksellers, and the love of reading is important. 

There are also countless workshops and speakers programs that MWA and its local chapters do in high schools, libraries, book fairs, and at community events nationwide to educate writers about writing, publishing, and the mystery genre.

Those efforts help ALL WRITERS published and unpublished, self-published and traditionally published, and teaches aspiring writers new skills, and encourages a love of reading and books that helps authors no matter whether they are published electronically or in print. 

MWA doesn't just exist to help authors promote and sell their books (though MWA promotes its authors with a strong presense at trade events like BookExpo, Printers Row, and ALA, etc.).

They put an enormous effort into protecting aspiring writers… people who ARE NOT MEMBERS… from getting ripped off by publishing scams and con artists who prey on their hopes, desperation, and naivete.

MWA does that by educating its members  as well as through the very existance of its Approved Publishers list (publishers are thoroughly vetted by the MWA’s membership committee and held to a set of high professional standards…as listed in our Approved Publishers criteria).

MWA also uses its might, which comes from its size and the respect it has earned, to leverage big publishers into halting unethical and predatory practices. That doesn't prop up the status quo…that's something MWA does, at great cost in time and money, because it's mission is more than helping successful writers be more successful. Again…all of this is done by volunteer writers. 

MWA's goals, and responsibilities, and what it does for members and non-members alike, are far broader than simply helping it’s members sell books and promote themselves.

Bottom line:  MWA is far, far more than just the self-publishing issue.

But you could argue, as Joe did in the comments to his post, that  “teaching writing craft is a good thing, but how do my dues benefit me when they are being used to teach some newbie how to add conflict to his first short story?”

That’s a fair question. I can only answer for myself.

I pay my $95 in dues not just for what MWA can do for me… but what it does for others. I get something important out of that. You may not. That's fine. 

You may not take any pride or pleasure knowing that your dues go towards teaching a newbie writer about conflict, story structure or dialog…but I sure as hell do. 

You may not take any pride that your money is going to support efforts to prevent publishers from engaging in predatory and unethical conduct towards writers. I do.

You may not see any personal benefit in your money going towards exposing publishing scams and protecting writers from them. I do.

What MWA does is not always for you. Sending authors to libraries or schools may not help you sell books…but it might inspire one kid in the audience to write…or spark a love of reading….or bring new readers to the mystery genre. 

I think that's a great use of my dues money. I get a personal benefit out of it that isn't calculated in books sold.

Actually, Joe and I agree on more than we disagree, though some who do not know us well would not know that from reading this long-winded post (or his).

I am the chair of the MWA membership committee, so I played a big part in crafting these rules.

I am a published author…but I am also a self-published author.

So I see this issue from both sides. 

I have said it before, and I will say it again…the MWA's eligibility criteria are a work-in-progress that will change as the industry does. 

Accepting novels published exclusively as ebooks or POD as making the author eligible for Active Membership is a big, and important step…one other writers organizations, including ITW, the Authors Guild, Horror Writers, etc. have yet to make. 

I am sure there will be other steps to come.

 

Who Needs a Writing Staff?

THE WALKING DEAD showrunner Frank Darabont stirred up a lot of talk among TV writers today by firing his writing staff and announcing that he would rely on himself and just a couple of freelancers to write the second season's 13 episodes.

This is not a new idea. In fact, many drama series from the 1950s and into the early 70s relied on a headwriter/freelancer model…at most, there was a head-writer and a story editor. Everything else was freelance. Shows like GUNSMOKE, STAR TREK, CANNON, VEGA$, etc. ran on this model. In those days, journeyman writers like Stephen Kandel, Robert Dennis, Mark Rodgers, Frank Telford and Shimon Wincelberg, to name a few, could make a good living writing two or three episodes for five or six different series each season.

Then again, in those days, the "head writer" concentrated mostly on writing while someone else handled most of the actual producing functions that the "showrunner" does today.

And while most series today rely on writing staffs (though the size of those staffs is shrinking), there have been a few shows that have primarily been written by one writer… Linda Bloodworth's DESIGNING WOMEN, Aaron Sorkin's era of THE WEST WING and Joe Straczynski's BABYLON 5, are a few prominent examples.

 TV writer Kay Reindl does a great job putting the Darabont decision into perspective, and discussing what writing staffs bring to a series,  over on her blog today. She says, in part:

It still astonishes me that people do not understand that the writing of the script comes at the END of the writing process. Just because you are not typing "Fade In," that doesn't mean you are not writing. Writing is preparation. Writing is construction. Destruction. Composition. It's editing. Storytelling visually, emotionally, humorously, logically. Critical thinking. Letting go of great ideas in service of the story. Character arcs, planned over an episode and a season and the life of the show. It's inspiration, the testing of that inspiration, the honing and fine-tuning of that inspiration. It's collaboration, for the love of God. It's a group of experienced brains tackling a blank white board and breaking a fucking story in two days.

[…]you will need to collaborate with your fellow writers. You will be facing that empty white board at least 13 times, and as you face each new episode, you will have previous episodes with story and character development to consider. You will have upcoming episodes as well, especially if your show is serialized. You will have budgets to consider in your story breaks. Actors. Production. Crew. Studio and network executives. You will have to become a serial killer of your story children and let your great ideas go. And all of THAT is before you even get to the script.

[…]A good showrunner depends on his (or rarely her) writing staff. These people have the showrunner's back, and he has theirs. [..]I don't know why Darabont decided this (if he has), or why his experience with his staff was apparently so wretched that he doesn't want anyone around anymore. Sometimes, showrunners are just lousy communicators and aren't able to impart what they want to the writing staff. And sometimes it's just not a good fit. But again, it's up to the showrunner to use his experience and if someone doesn't actually HAVE experience, then THIS happens.

By "this," she means firing your writing staff and deciding to go it alone… with an occasional assist from freelancers. My instinct is that she's probably right. It could also be that he hired the wrong writers, that he didn't know how to staff a room. There could be any number of explanations.

He may not understand that it's part of a showrunner's job to take a final pass at each script — and he may be deluding himself into believing its the equivalent of writing every script himself, so why not cut out the extra step. If that's the case, he's in for a rude awakening.

I tend to think that shows with writing staffs are better written than those where the showrunner tries to go it alone (I'm talking about series with more than five or six episodes). The stories are more consistent, there's less repetition and cliche, and there's more energy to the story-telling.

It's all about limited resources. A man can only do so much… and do it well…and deliver a new episode every seven or eight days. There's simply too much for a showrunner to do beyond writing the script. It's a taxing job, and something has to give.

If you're trying to run a show, and write every single word, the scripts are bound to suffer. Come to think of it, everything is bound to suffer.

It will be interesting to see how long Darabont sticks to his plan once production begins and he finds himself falling behind…

It’s All About Buzz

If you read the newspapers, the blogs and the trades, there's no question that MAD MEN is a huge critical and popular hit.

But if you look at the numbers, it's a different story.

On Sunday, MAD MEN, drew 2.2 million viewers and scored a 0.8 rating. THE GLADES, which isn't getting nearly the same amount of buzz or adoration, drew 3.1 million and the same rating. THE GLADES also out-performed HBO's HUNG (2.5 million, 1.4) and ENTOURAGE (2.6 million, 1.5) in eyeballs, if not rating.

So THE GLADES has more viewers than ENTOURAGE, HUNG, and MAD MEN… and yet isn't drawing anywhere near the same amount of media attention or adoration. Which, I suppose, may prove it's not how many viewers are actually watching your show that makes you a hit… it's how many people in the media say that you are one.

 

Widespread Positive Reaction to MWA’s Action

The reaction to MWA’s delisting of Harlequin has been overwhelmingly positive. I wish I could share with you the dozens of emails I’ve received from authors, many of them published by Harlequin, expressing their support for the MWA’s action. But here’s just a small sampling of the positive reaction from authors around the blogosphere… 

Author John Scalzi wrote:

Good on the Mystery Writers of America for keeping Harlequin’s feet to the fire on this.

Author Jackie Kessler offered an excellent analysis of Harlequin CEO Donna Hayes’ letter to the MWA…

DellArte Press is still a Harlequin imprint — one that **Harlequin is steering rejected authors toward**. You are still telling these rejected authors that even though their manuscripts are not good enough for you to pay them, they are good enough for them to pay you.

….and Kessler applauded the MWA’s actions.

bravo to MWA, which is standing behind its authors. The group spells out very clearly exactly why Harlequin’s actions have gotten it delisted — and further kudos for the organization making it extremely clear how Harlequin broke the rules

Author Maya Reynolds was also bothered by the ethical issues raised by Harlequin’s pay-to-publish operation.

It simply is not kosher for Harlequin to reject writers while at the same time referring them to its self-publishing arm. Furthermore, it is inappropriate for Harlequin to imply that their editors will be “monitoring” the self-published releases with an eye to possibly offering a contract with a traditional Harlequin imprint. This is not an arms-length relationship. It offers false hope to writers while benefiting the Harlequin bottom line.

Author Nick Kaufmann writes:

The Mystery Writers of America (MWA) has stepped up as the first to put its money where its mouth is over the Harlequin Horizons/DellArte Press debacle […] It’s interesting to note that MWA’s actions, quite appropriately, offer protection from consequence to Harlequin authors who signed contracts before this nonsense began.[…]It’s a ballsy move, taking the delisting of Harlequin from threat to reality, and I applaud MWA for it.

On Twitter, author Stacie Kane wrote:

I applaud the MWA for this; not because it doesn’t effect me but because it DOES effect ALL OF US

Author Laura Kinsale tweeted:

HQ’s reply to MWA splainin self-servin “shiny innovative new book industry, where YOU pay US” makes me ill. Truly ill.

Prior to the MWA’s decision being announced, literary agent Kristen Nelson says that she voiced her concerns about the pay-to-publish program directly to Harlequin editors:

one editor did try out the spiel about how publishing houses need to shift models in this bad economy but I wasn’t having any of that.
I said vanity publishing was predatory—plain and simple and that needed to be understood. That Harlequin had a reputation that they are now putting in jeopardy and that the writers organizations had every right to speak out strongly as their whole purpose is to protect writers.

Not surprisingly, the strongest criticism of MWA’s action has come from self-published and vanity press authors. For example, Henry Baum writes:

What’s so troubling about this is that the traditional publishing mindset has won the “battle” this week. And there shouldn’t even be a battle. The move by the MWA to drop Harlequin from its roster is particularly infuriating. It’s like they see the creeping influence of self-publishing and want to bat it down.

The MWA, SFWA, RWA, and HWA — all of whom strongly condemned how Harlequin’s pay-to-publish venture is integrated into their traditional publishing business — aren’t threatened by writers who’ve paid to be published.  What these organizations are concerned about is a vanity press industry that preys on the desperation and gullibility of aspiring authors and publishing companies that engage in unethical and predatory publishing practices.

The Writer is God

The Guardian reports that the only way to raise the quality of UK television series is to adopt the showrunner/writing room system prevalent in the U.S. They write, in part:

The only way to produce sophisticated, rich, long-running drama like The Wire or even ER is to use a team of writers who collaborate under a showrunner, a system the US studios has cracked. It's too much for even one great dramatist to write the whole thing, but you can't hire hack writers to work on episodes in isolation. Result: US viewers sit down to an evening of Damages; we get Casualty

The short Guardian piece was in response to a terrific essay by Peter Jukes in Prospect Magazine, where he wrote, in part:

in US television drama “the writer is God.” This is not because of literary cachet—it’s arisen out of aesthetic, technical and commercial need. Drama is incredibly expensive to make and economies of scale kick in when stories are told over 13 or 24 episodes. They cannot be written by one person alone, nor can they be effectively controlled by studio executives, actors or directors, whose talents by definition lie elsewhere. It requires a team of writers willing to develop character and narrative over a long haul, keeping it focused and fresh. It’s not the writer, singular, who is God in US television drama, but the role of the writer, generic, in the process.

 […]Although we are blessed with a tradition of great television dramatists, there’s no way that Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter or Jimmy McGovern could have written a dozen episodes of a show alone. We have recently imported the idea of showrunners for the resurrection of Dr Who and Survivors, but their power is limited, and the principle of collaboration doesn’t penetrate the lower echelons. Script editors and producers take a dim view of you talking to another writer without tight supervision. There is no financial incentive either. Why make someone else’s episode great when it might make yours look less good? Given that the running order can be changed at the last moment by management fiat, those collectively crafted character developments and story arcs will be binned anyway. Just write your own episode and cash that cheque.

I recommend Jukes' article, it's fascinating reading.

Serving the Story, Not You

Here's an excerpt from an excellent blog post from UK TV writer James Moran about abusive fans…a post that preceded Josh Olson's much-discussed, incendiary piece on a similar topic.

I'm a professional writer. That's my job. I write what I write, for whatever the project might be. I have the utmost respect for you, and honestly want you to like my work, but I can't let that affect my story decisions. Everybody wants different things from a story, but this is not a democracy, you do not get to vote. You are free to say what you think of my work, even if you hate it, I honestly don't mind. But the ONLY person I need to please is myself, and the ONLY thing I need to serve is the story. Not you. I will do my work to the very best of my ability, in an attempt to give you the best show, the best movie, the best story, the best entertainment I possibly can. Even if that means that sometimes, I'll do things you won't like. I won't debate it. Either you go along with it, or you don't. None of it is done to hurt you, or to force some agenda down your throat, or anything else. It's all in service of the story.

I urge you to read the whole thing. I can't tell you how many times I've been through the same experience that he suffered through…