They say that when it comes to stories, there's nothing new under the sun. Every conceivable plot, they say, has already been utilized a thousandfold in the millennia between The Epic of Gilgamesh in the 7th century B.C. and today. I don't know if that's true, but I do know it's not necessarily a bad thing. The key to a good tale isn't just plot but execution: even if the basic elements of a story have been told innumerable times before, it is the author's unique stamp on a story which make it a truly unique creation. It calls to mind the Vulcan concept of "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" (Gene Roddenberry).
But what happens when authors overtly piggyback on the works of others? Does this same concept still apply? Specifically, what are we to make of novels like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?
Unless you've spent the past year entombed in a crypt far from the Internet, you've already heard about this comedic monster mashup "co-written" by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, a television writer/producer whose previous publications were nonfiction humor books like How to Survive a Horror Movie, The Big Book of Porn and Pardon My President: Fold-and-Mail Apologies for 8 Years of George W. Bush. Clearly Grahame-Smith is someone who has a handle on writing pop culture humor, so it's no surprise that once Quirk Books editor Jason Rekulak developed the idea for P&P&Z he handpicked Grahame-Smith, already a Quirk author, to write it. From the start, both Grahame-Smith and Quirk maintained the mashup is 85% Austen's original text and 15% new material—
But its very nature as a novelty item is also what drove it over the top to become a smash hit. A clever title like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, coupled with the inescapable pre-publication buzz based on the concept alone, appeals to a wide variety of readers: fans of Jane Austen, fans of zombies or horror in general, fans of humor books, and curious readers who wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Curiosity is the strongest common denominator here—
P&P&Z's hook is the tongue-in-cheek originality of its idea—
Authors riding their way to success on the backs of classic, public domain novels is certainly nothing new, nor does it imply laziness or lack of talent. Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, was published way back in 1966, became Rhys' most successful novel, won literary awards, was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923, and later became both a movie and an opera. Gregory Maguire's Wicked, a retelling of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, was published in 1995, became a huge bestseller and was adapted into a hit Broadway musical. Just this fall, Bram Stoker's great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker published a sequel to Dracula called Dracula: The Un-Dead, which hit #23 on the New York Times bestseller list. While it's true that these examples contain a lot more original material in them than P&P&Z does, that doesn't mean I see any reason to begrudge P&P&Z its success. Rekulak's idea to come up with an attention-grabbing commercial concept for Grahame-Smith to write in the hopes of bestsellerdom may seem cynical, and I can certainly understand why authors struggling in obscurity to write great new novels might grumble angrily and wonder if it's time to trade in the ol' MacBook for a certificate in refrigerator repair, but I think any anger over P&P&Z's success is misdirected. One's anger would be better directed toward what's happening in the publishing industry now that P&P&Z is a big hit.
Just as they did with the Da Vinci Code knockoffs, publishers everywhere are now scrambling to hop on the monster mashup bandwagon. In August, Sourcebooks published Amanda Grange's Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, a supernatural sequel to Pride and Prejudice. Quirk Books itself published Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters in September. October saw Ulysses Press publish Vampire Darcy's Desire by Regina Jeffers, which apparently differentiates itself from Mr. Darcy, Vampyre by being a prequel/retelling of Pride and Prejudice rather than a sequel. In June of next year, Del Rey will publish Little Women and Werewolves by Louisa May Alcott and Porter Grand. And in August, Kensington will publish Wuthering Bites by Sarah Gray, in which Heathcliff is, you guessed it, a vampire. If you're currently shaking your head and muttering, "Enough already," you're not alone. But you're also likely to go unheard by the industry.
Publishing, like all entertainment, is powered by trends. Or at least what it thinks the trends are; there's a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy at work there too, though I suppose that's a topic for another day. The industry is also going through an extremely difficult time right now with the recession cutting deeply into book sales—
To quote my Magic 8 Ball, outlook not so good.
According to Nielsen BookScan, a well respected if imperfect tool for tracking book sales in the U.S., Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Mr. Darcy, Vampyre are selling quite well, though nowhere near the astronomical numbers P&P&Z had right out of the gate. It might be too soon to tell if this is indicative of the principle of diminishing returns, but the truth is, like a crazy person who keeps doing the same thing and expecting different results each time, the industry has been down this road before. The remainder shelves were littered with the unsold corpses of Da Vinci Code knockoffs in the middle years of this decade. I wouldn't be surprised to see the same happen with monster mashups. In fact, I suspect by the time Little Women and Werewolves and Wuthering Bites hit the shelves next summer this wave will have crashed. At the very least, I have a hard time imagining any of these cash-in attempts grabbing the public imagination the way P&P&Z did, let alone garnering the same rabid amount of Hollywood and graphic novel interest P&P&Z did.
Trends, no matter how widespread, come with built-in expiration dates—
Not that this means publishers will be putting the brakes on the feeding frenzy anytime soon. We can expect this to continue for some time, since when it comes to what's "hot" publishers, like the creepiest person you've ever dated, tend to latch on quickly and take forever to let go. Back at Quirk Books, where it all started, editor Jason Rekulak recently announced a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies called Dawn of the Dreadfuls, to be published in March. He says he's also looking to commission a sequel in order to create a trilogy. Because these two novels will be directly related to P&P&Z, the bellwether that started the trend, they might do well despite monster mashup fatigue, but I suspect the initial success will never be duplicated. Regardless, author Seth Grahame-Smith isn't sticking around to find out. He's not writing the prequel; instead he's working on his own novel for a different, much bigger publisher, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which will be released in hardcover by Grand Central Publishing in March. Grahame-Smith is obviously no dummy. Who wants to be a one-trick pony in a circus of diminishing returns when you can build off your success with something new and see a healthy career come out of it?
So before you decide to ride the trend by writing The Swiss Family Robinson and Yetis, consider this: There may be nothing new under the sun, but even the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies knows that being the first to spin an idea in a new direction is often a lot more successful than being the twentieth.
Now if only publishers would understand that too.