What’s the first question someone invariably asks when you tell them you are reading a great book?
“What’s it about?”
If you say it’s about good vs. evil battling it out in outer space and they aren’t interested in that kind of thing, they will shrug their shoulders and never bother reading. People make up their mind very quickly about whether they are willing to buy a story.
Once I was at work and I told a woman I work with that I had an idea for a story. I said I was writing about a woman who meets her soul mate, but is already married to someone else. Within the next couple of days, different women around the office were asking me about the book and saying they thought it sounded good, yet that one-sentence premise was all they knew about it.
I asked the women what they would do in that situation and each one said she would stay with her husband. I didn’t realize until much later that I was basically planning to write Bridges of Madison County, which makes me think about the difficulty in selling old stories.
Movies like Casablanca or books like the Invisible Man probably aren’t making much money at this moment and it isn’t because they aren’t any good. It’s because they aren’t front and center in our minds.
People don’t read books because they are well written and they don’t watch movies because they are artistically shot. Take the two following cases as proof:
The seven-year old son of a man I know was wearing a Star Wars T-shirt the other day. I asked him if he was a Star Wars fan.
“Not really,” he said. “But I’ll watch it anyway.”
I just finished watching a movie called Passengers, which was made in the past year and frankly wasn’t impressive. I watched it anyway, because the premise intrigued me and I was in a tired mood and needed to relax.
In both cases, the consumer would gladly watch a better movie, but would also be willing to settle for a mediocre one. Now I understand how so many bad books and movies get made. The public doesn’t demand good.
If I told that kid he could watch a great classic movie from 1956 or the latest Marvel superhero movie, he would probably choose the latter. Premise and freshness trumps depth of content when selling a story.