How Hollywood Gets the Publishing Industry Wrong | Modern Society of USA

How Hollywood Gets the Publishing Industry Wrong

How Hollywood Gets the Publishing Industry Wrong

When I worked as a book publicist, my boss told me that the blessing and curse of our industry is that “everyone thinks they can do what we do, even though no one has a clue what we do.” This comment was prompted by a marketing meeting during which we were lauded for glowing review coverage that no reasonable person could attribute to our efforts, while simultaneously being asked whether we had “tried the ‘Today’ show.” Because pitching the “Today” show is just the kind of thing that would never occur to a book publicist.

I often revisit my boss’s assessment of our world — not as an author myself but as a person who watches an obscene number of shows and movies. Hollywood’s love affair with book publishing has been long and varied, touching every cinematic genre. And yet it is a love that dare not spell its name correctly. Despite decades of sending emissaries back and forth from coast to coast, swapping mediums, one side looking for money, the other for legitimacy, we remain strangers to our cousins in storytelling.

To be fair, any story set in an industry other than filmmaking is bound to incur infelicities when being handled by people who think filmmaking is the noblest cause. However, because book publishing is a comparatively niche business, the inaccuracies prick the ears. Films about publishing put too fine a point on our role as narrative mulch. In the romantic comedy “The Proposal,” Sandra Bullock plays a big-shot book editor. Early in the film, they (one imagines a producer consensus being reached) have her refer to Don DeLillo as Don “De-lee-lo.” The actor playing the head of the publishing house echoes the pronunciation back to her. De-lee-lo. Light of my airborne toxic event, fire of my nuclear war. “The Proposal” was released in 2009 but was apparently filmed in a bunker with no internet access. If this sounds nitpicky, I might remind you that I was not the one who decided Don DeLillo was famous enough to plop into a major studio script.

More recently, in the charming series “Younger,” Miriam Shor plays Diana Trout, the head of marketing at a boutique publishing house. Diana has an award on her desk from “the London lit fair,” which absolutely no one calls it. As the seasons unfurl, the nonsense piles up: Someone from publicity asks what “PEN” stands for; editors have publicists; publishing houses sell books to other publishing houses; authors take editors with them when they switch publishers; a small company with a “Game of Thrones”-level franchise is somehow in constant danger of bankruptcy; and members of the editorial staff spew impossible commands like “We’re on tight launch for the fall … so I will need marketing and cover artwork by the end of this week.” Have these people met a managing editor? They’d be lucky to walk away with some of their fingers.

Happily, once realism has been pulped like the first print run of a fraudulent memoir, the fun can begin. In “Younger,” as in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a woman who looks as if she couldn’t legally rent a car is given her own publishing company; Joan Didion is allegedly spotted “hoarding gift bags”; there’s concern an author will be “scooped up by those mouth breathers at Little Brown”; and the (actual) host of “Bookworm,” a nationally syndicated radio show, grills an author about her sex life. Meanwhile, the series is not without its flashes of spine-chilling verisimilitude: “Black tie means black tie,” Diana says before an awards ceremony. “No color. This isn’t the Grammys!”

Historically, book publishing works best on film when it functions as a springboard to a different world. “Fatal Attraction” is about a book editor but, well, is it? A children’s book is intentionally printed with pages missing in “Elf.” But, well, Santa. “The Last Days of Disco” is partially set at a publishing house. We easily forgive the film’s suggestion that one needs a best seller to be promoted to associate editor — in fact, the job title is a stopgap, a means of promoting an assistant while taking away her overtime — because “The Last Days of Disco” is not about publishing. It’s a comedy of manners about New York in the early 1980s, not “The Last Days of Carbon Copies.”

Few movies really succeed as both realism and entertainment. One is “The Scoundrel,” starring Noël Coward as a pretentious publisher. It’s filled with jabs like “I refuse to make money improving people’s morals, it’s a vulgar way to swindle the public,” and “This anteroom is fairly quivering with outraged geniuses.” But it was released in 1935. And while plenty of movies and shows since have done well by the actual writing life (“The Ghost Writer,” “Wonder Boys,” “Bored to Death”), “The Scoundrel” is a rare bird. The closest approximation of it I’ve seen is “Wolf” (1994), a campy film in which an editor, played by Jack Nicholson, and a marketing director, played by James Spader, turn into werewolves as Michelle Pfeiffer looks on, blondly. “Wolf” does wonders with the publishing world before it starts howling at the moon. The desks are messy, the offices are quirky, Time Warner is derided as “a multinational media conglomerate,” Nicholson uses his newfound wolf powers to edit without his glasses and a publisher is advised never to “stint on review copies.”

It’s rarely said that Hollywood is coming from a good place, but in the case of book publishing, I believe it is. Its skewed depictions often seem careless or condescending, but they stem from a healthy desire to superimpose tension. No one wants to read about grass growing but what they really don’t want to do is watch grass growing. So what’s a little blackmail between editors?

At least Hollywood’s version of book publishing is consistent in its warped ideas: Every company is publicly owned, and there is zero padding between a junior copy editor and “the board” or “the shareholders.” And everyone’s jobs are completely interchangeable. So long as you have the capacity to leave the office and come back, you can acquire a book, start an imprint, poach an author, triple a budget or sell movie rights (the irony!). You don’t have to tell anyone you’re doing it, either. Make like you’re in “Good Will Hunting”: Scribble the answers on the chalkboard and run.

But by far the strangest and most glaring commonality is the presumption of glamour. This stems from a conflation with magazine publishing along with a belief that an audience will tune out unless glitter is sprayed in their eyes. Story lines are chock-a-block with perks like fashion fittings, “company seats” and name-brand coffee. Central to the ethos of book publishing is the notion that everything cool is being pushed out, nothing cool is coming in. This is what binds us, publishers and writers alike. We try to sneak books into your house and under your pillow. We crumble them over your food when you’re not looking. In return? Bupkis. Only after you’ve worked at a publishing house for so many decades you literally can’t walk do we let you take an Uber home.

So why does Hollywood keep trying if publishing is such a tough code to crack? Perhaps it’s because everyone likes a challenge. More likely, it’s because they know we have a secret. They know there’s something lasting and human and world-changing and completely bonkers that we’re hiding behind our molasses-like culture and confounding royalty statements. At the end of “The Last Days of Disco,” after everyone’s been laid off from their respective industries, Chloë Sevigny’s character is the only one left employed — as an associate editor.

“I don’t envy her though,” says Kate Beckinsale’s character. “Stuck in book publishing.”

Oh, it’s not as bad as it looks. One can’t believe everything one sees on screen.

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