How Books Could Kill Movies

Feb 26, 2024 | Business, Technology

Aren’t sharks fascinating?

Apart from their sexy status as apex predators, it’s hard not to appreciate how freaking old they are. Certain Greenland sharks alive today were born before the founding of the United States.

But that’s only individual sharks. Far more impressive is the age of sharks as a group. They’ve survived multiple mass extinctions, are older than dinosaurs and even trees, and they haven’t changed all that much, even as the epochs whoosh past them.

Alligators and crocodiles are in a similar situation. They also survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, and in the many millennia since that time have hardly changed at all. The phrase “evolve or die” is sometimes spouted as a truism, yet a number of species seem to prosper without evolution—or even benefit from the lack of it.

But, of course, this post is not about evolution. Or sharks. Or any kind of animal.

No, I’m here, as usual, to say something preposterous—something that you will dismiss as impossible right up to the point where I pull a rabbit out of my hat and convince you. That’s one of my duties as a Keeper of Secrets: to make hard truths palatable.

So allow me to say something that will make you doubt me. Please tilt your head forward so you can look down your nose at me.

Are you in position? Good. I officially open your scoffing fit with the following claim:

The most probable outcome, in the war of books versus movies, is that books score a decisive and permanent win.


Yes, and I know less about your personal feelings on this matter than I do about sharks and alligators and crocodiles. But I don’t have to! Because war is a numbers game—always has been. And if you look at the numbers, books are on track to win the war despite significant losses in the early battles.

And while most of those numbers deal with money, I will open this audit by focusing on quantities of time.

Because movies, historically speaking, are an unproven market.

Happy Anniversaries

The early 2000s have been an interesting time for film historians. Every year brings a host of hundred-year anniversaries, as the era of silent films opened at this same point in the previous century.

Books, on the other hand, have been around for millennia. And much like the stalwart sharks and crocodiles, they have lived to see many of the shinier forms of entertainment come and go. The novelty of film allowed for a great deal of experimentation across a number of decades, but whether the medium can weather the span of ages has yet to be proven. And while the popularity of movies currently eclipses the popularity of books, we haven’t seen the extinction-level event with books that one usually sees with outmoded technologies. Books have not met the same fate as the horse and buggy or the film photograph.

Even physical books have not been obsoleted by the existence of ebooks and audiobooks—which, on paper, ought to be their most direct competitors.

Something is giving books their staying power, and for the longest time, I was unable to figure out what that something was. Yes, books offer a more immersive experience than movies, but video games are even more immersive. If the movies required an ally to finish books off for good, video games fit that bill to a T, yet books have seen a modest increase in popularity since electronic games came onto the scene. Something about this picture doesn’t fit together.

And, upon examination, I find that it all comes down to money.

Invisible Prices

A little over a week ago, I was in Provo, Utah at the Life, the Universe, and Everything science fiction symposium. It’s a largely writer-focused conference that focuses on the professional aspects of science fiction—as opposed to conventions that are more about fandom.

On Saturday the seventeenth, I appeared on a panel titled “Books for Reluctant Readers”, which discussed ways to encourage readership among children. The panel covered many aspects of the subject, but one line I found myself saying, in an idle, offhand way, was, “Imagine if they gave the one-hundred-million-dollar marketing budget for a Hollywood movie to a campaign marketing a book!”

And we all laughed, myself included. And we moved on to another subject. And all was well.

But a thought struck me in that moment. I had the presence of mind to keep my focus on the panel, but my subconscious immediately set to work, unraveling this new possibility I had accidentally brought to light.

Because isn’t it strange that a blockbuster movie—one produced by a major movie studio, featuring a-list actors, based on existing intellectual property with a built-in fanbase—still needs one hundred million dollars, at least, in marketing. And needs is not an exaggeration, because without that much marketing, a movie will not sell. A hundred years of market research has borne that out.

A top studio cannot sell a movie without millions of dollars in marketing.

A celebrity actor in every role will not sell a movie unless there are millions of dollars put into marketing.

A long-awaited film adaptation with a built-in, rabid fanbase, cannot make money unless a hundred million dollars has been committed to the movie’s marketing.

And the typical answers that people give for this leave me unsatisfied. Yes, movies are expensive to make, and therefore need to bring in a lot of money to cover production costs, requiring a huge marketing push. That makes sense.

But it doesn’t make all of the sense. Because not all of that marketing money is going toward the intuitive efforts: movie trailers, superbowl ads, YouTube ads, etc. In fact, a lot of it goes to things you wouldn’t suspect, like making the movie characters appear on cereal boxes, bags of chips, or have a dedicated menu item at IHOP. Other money goes to late-night appearances, news articles, and all sorts of spaghetti-against-the-wall efforts.

Because if reminders of the movie are not everywhere—absolutely everywhere—then no one will go to see it, regardless of who made it, regardless of who it stars, regardless of how many fans of the franchise already exist.

And no, that does not make sense if movies are truly the unstoppable juggernaut we assume they are.

From these seeds, a sneaking suspicion came upon me—one that might be enough to turn every presupposition we have about the rise of movies and the fall of books on its head.

The Cost-Sustainability Paradox

Could the cost-sustainability of books exceed the cost-sustainability of movies? And not just exceed, but completely eclipse, dwarfing the staying power of movies until their probability of survival drifts toward zero? It’s absolutely absurd!

Isn’t it?

Because cost incentives are the real driver of all technological change. Cars didn’t replace horses because cars were shinier or newer than horses. Cars replaced horses because, in the long run, they are cheaper than horses while producing more value.

Only those innovations that supply enough economic incentive are the ones that go on to transform the world. The ones which fail to do that putter out and disappear. It’s an economic law.

But movies are the exception, right? Sure, they’re not cheaper to make than books, but the value they provide makes up for that. Okay, so maybe they don’t empirically provide more value than books, but popularity has to count for something, right? It’s not like popular things can ever fall out of favor.

After all, disco is still everywhere.

It’s almost as if movies currently sit in a cost-sustainability paradox that cannot endure forever. Kept alive only by decades of creative accounting and an endless stream of venture capital from a line of bag holders as long as the equator.

And all this occurred to me as I was sitting on that 45-minute panel in the Provo Marriott. Having mentally reached this point in my argument by the time the panel ended, I decided to look into the matter a little further.

Making a Cost Comparison of Books vs. Movies

When trying to prove a point, the second step—after coming up with said point—is to think of all the ways it could be disproven.

And it’s not as if I can’t make counterarguments to the idea that books are more cost-sustainable than movies. After all, books also require a lot of marketing. At times it feels like an obscene amount of marketing. Every author needs to push themselves into the spotlight, as marketing budgets at major publishers continue to shrink (yet those same publishers wonder why they don’t sell as many books as they used to).

The kind of genius you often see in traditional publishing.

Yet I can’t help but notice how you don’t need to put books on cereal boxes or bags of chips in order to sell them. Book marketing, for all its faults, remains more intuitive than movie marketing. So I have to wonder if the percentage of marketing cost to production cost is not better for books than it is for movies.

This is somewhat hard to calculate, as movie studios are notoriously opaque when it comes to both marketing and production costs. I wasn’t kidding about creative accounting—regardless of how I sounded at the time.

But a generally agreed-upon rule which studios are willing to divulge is that marketing budget is typically between 100% and 150% of a movie’s production costs. However, studio insiders have leaked that the number may be closer to 200%.

Regardless, that gives us a starting point. All we have to ask ourselves is whether the marketing costs of books share the same range. If a book requires 150% of its production budget in order to sell, then it has no advantage over a movie.

All that’s left is to determine the production and marketing costs of a book.

The Cost of Book Development

The most nebulous number here is going to be the cost of writing the manuscript—in other words, the author’s contribution.

Because from the author’s point of view, that number is $0. Apart from paying for a good computer and word processor (which he should have possessed already), all he has to do is sit down and type. He’s not paying for that.

But, from an accounting perspective, listing the manuscript cost at $0 would be a fraudulent business practice. The manuscript is a product of the author’s labor, and not paying for labor is a big no-no for a balance sheet. After all, it takes hundreds of hours to churn out a novel-length manuscript. If those hours were to be billed, you might end up with some intense numbers.

For example, many bestselling authors get paid seven-figure advances for their manuscripts—which might be comparable to a movie’s cost of hiring a-list actors. But here it’s hard to separate the cost of the manuscript from the cost of the author’s name and fame.

An easier-to-calculate example comes from the practice of ghostwriting. It’s arguable whether the cash advance given to an author is even part of the production costs, since it is an advance against future royalties. However, ghostwriters literally sell manuscripts as a product. And that price is a reflection of the ghostwriter’s labor, cementing it as a production cost.

And that price is relatively easy to pin down. Because while ghostwriters can charge a broad range of prices for their services, a rule of thumb for hiring a ghostwriter is that the good ones charge around $100,000 for a manuscript.

And, having written manuscripts before, while working a software engineering job that paid $80,000 a year, I can say that $100,000 is a good estimate for the cost of my labor in producing a manuscript.

If we add an additional $10,000 dollars for editing, typesetting, and cover design, and maybe another 10,000 for printing, binding, and distribution, then we have roughly $120,000 dollars, as a conservative estimate, for the production costs of a commercial novel.

So if marketing costs for the book amount to $180,000, then the cost-sustainability of that book is similar to the cost-sustainability of a movie.

All we have to do now is ask ourselves one simple question: how many published books receive $180,000 as a marketing budget?

I’m sure it’s a nice a reasonable number, right?


The Price of Marketing a Book

Perhaps this would be a good time for me to reveal that I am aware of a few outliers in the world of book marketing. I was, after all, mentored by David Farland—the man who convinced Scholastic Books to embark on one of the biggest book marketing campaigns of all time.

When bringing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to America, David Farland convinced Scholastic to buy the window displays of every Barnes and Noble bookstore in the nation for the holiday season, and use those windows to promote the book.

According to him, the price tag for this promotion was fifteen million dollars. I, unfortunately, do not know how much money Scholastic paid to acquire the rights to the book, nor do I have the first clue as to the book’s specific production costs. So I cannot say what the ratio of marketing to production ended up as.

But I can tell you that this situation is so exceptional that it does not happen every decade. I still don’t know whether this record has ever been broken. The only reason Scholastic was willing to put forth that much money to promote a book was because they had tons of leftover Goosebumps profits that, for tax purposes, they needed to spend right away.

(Though it does kind of validate my original idea that if publishers spent the same amount to market books that studios do to market movies, you end up with a worldwide phenomenon.)

In other words, this example is an outlier, and should not be considered typical.

Because the typical amount of money, spent by traditional publishers, on book marketing is $0.

That’s right: zero, zip, zilch. The bottom 90% of book’s on a publisher’s slate get no marketing budget whatsoever. Of course, most of those books don’t sell more than twelve copies, either. So I will not use these as examples of cost-sustainability.

However, much broader range of prices exist for the marketing of those books which the publishers do market. And I can hardly give you a breakdown of every one of these. But I can tell you this: publishers do not spend 150% of a book’s production budget on marketing. Nor do they spend 100%.

Meaning that those books which get one-million-dollar advances do not get one-million-dollars-worth of marketing. They typically get a fraction of the production budget.

And even in the rare cases where the marketing budget matches the production budget, the total amount of money is still much smaller and more sustainable. A-list books don’t get Pepsi partnerships. Nor do they come with a promotional deal at IHOP. They don’t even get televised ads, save for a few severe exceptions. Yet A-list books do become bestsellers, and, by the metrics of the book industry, are successful.

They do this without the backing of studios.

They do this without an ensemble cast of celebrity actors.

They do this without ribbons. They do it without tags. They do it without packages, boxes, or bags.

That a book can be successful—that it can even be a bestseller—without the level of marketing needed to give a movie bestseller status, thus becomes evident.

And that can only mean one thing.

Books Will, at Some Point, Replace Movies

And I can say it with confidence. Due to superior cost-sustainability, movies will eventually be displaced, and the displacer, in all likelihood, is books.

The only thing I don’t know for sure is when. There is no concrete maximum number of years that a fad can last. And with the way Hollywood obscures the price of movie making (and we must ask ourselves why they go to such lengths if cost-sustainability were not an issue), I imagine they have the power to keep up the illusion for some amount of time. Maybe even another century.

But then, Hollywood has been in a rocky place lately. One wonders if the veil is not already coming unraveled. And if artificial intelligence can start producing movies—based on a long-form prompt such as, for example, a book—then we may live to see a world where people buy books off the shelves en masse for the purpose of feeding those books to their personal AI moviemaker software, and then everyone gets their personalized movie production of the book they just bought.

(That’s just one possibility. I don’t know the form that the coming revolution will take. But the cost incentives have lined up to make a worldwide disruption inevitable.)

In any case, it’s nice to know where to look for fissures. And as more people wake up to this idea, the cracks may start showing in places where even I didn’t see them.

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