Thursday, May 11, 2017

What Ever Happened to Gold Eagle Publishing?

Starting with 1969's War Against the Mafia, the Mack Bolan (aka "The Executioner") novels are regularly credited with founding the contemporary action-adventure genre--and today has over 400 novels in print. Most of the Executioner novels, and for that matter most of the better-known paperback series' of the same type (like The Destroyer, or the post-apocalyptic Deathlands) have been published by Gold Eagle press, a division of romance novel giant Harlequin dedicated to action-adventure fiction.

This sort of fiction, naturally, did not get much attention from the more prestigious reviews, still less highbrow critics. Still, it accounted for a major chunk of the market in its heyday, the Los Angeles Times reporting that in 1987 Gold Eagle "shipped nearly 500 million copies of titles in its five leading men's adventure series alone."

Five hundred million copies in five series' in one year!

Even if there are one too many zeroes in the number quoted above, these are world record-type numbers.

However, when NewsCorp bought out Harlequin a few years back, and decided to shut down this particular division, the whole genre and its publishers seem to have become so obscure that despite the high profile of the associated firms, the fate of Gold Eagle does not seem to have been noted by a single major news outlet.

What happened? Precisely because the genre never seems to have got much attention from analysts, and still less than that in more recent years, I haven't had much to work with in trying to figure this out. But I suspect a number of things.

One reason may be that paperback fiction, not just in paramilitary action but any genre, has been subject to something like the pressure filmmaking faced with the advent of TV in this age of ever-widening entertainment options. Over the '50s, movie attendance fell by almost an order of magnitude (from something like 30 times a year in the '30s and '40s to about 4 times a year). Some of what had previously been B-movie territory migrated to television, or up into A-picture territory (like thrillers, which were increasingly big-budget and polished, and made it tougher for the B-grade stuff to get an audience).

Similarly the pulpy paperback novel would seem to have been squeezed by our own ever-widening, ever-more portable entertainment options. On the bus, the train, the plane, you can listen to music, play a video game, watch a TV show or movie, talk on your phone (obnoxious as that is), text, peruse social media. And in fact it seems that the people doing all that far outnumber those who read--while the readers have ever more options themselves, many of them totally free. (The person reading off their screen next to you may be looking at fan fiction.) And now self-published writers are making bigger strides at the pulpy end of the book market than they are anywhere else--rarely selling very many copies individually, but the sheer number of people each selling just a few copies adds up to take a bite out of this little-studied end of the market. Meanwhile, the "A-picture" equivalent of the book market--the major press hardcover release--offers ever more of the same kind of content, "big-budget" and polished. (There's no shortage of thrillers or romance or anything else in that form; and certainly I can't think of any Mack Bolan or equivalent book that gives us quite the over-the-top ride that Matthew Reilly's Michael Bay-like successions of fifty-page sequences serve up.)

Having so many other things to do than read, having so many other things offering comparable pleasures to read, massively shrinks the audience for the old-style paperback heroes.

There is, too, the attachment of many of the highest profile paperback lines to a particular style of writing that has since dated. Today it seems a commonplace that Harlequin is looking old-fashioned next to E.L. James, and suffering for the fact. Where paperback action-adventure is concerned, it might be remembered the genre was strongly bound up with a style of paramilitary fiction that exploded in the '70s and '80s, but has since declined--right along with cinematic derivatives like Dirty Harry and Rambo and the Punisher, whose two 21st century films are comparative black marks on Marvel's record of commercial success. (Instead people expect superpowered superheroes and supervillains.)

However, some of the problems would seem to attach to the action-adventure genre specifically. Romantic movies would still seem to leave a niche for romantic novels, because of how much more scope novels have for getting into characters' heads and exploring their feelings, and the importance of this to their appeal. Video gaming certainly does not seem to have eaten very much into the romance market. (Japan has visual novels and dating simulators, but I'm not sure how big a factor they are relative to publishing, and they've certainly not caught on in the States to anything like the same degree.) But the action-adventure genre is something else, because of its stress on outwardly-directed, highly visual, highly complex action, portrayed with adrenaline-pumping immediacy and forcefulness; and on pacing brisk enough to keep us from noticing how silly the content usually is. Astonishingly close as a Matthew Reilly gets to that, in the end the question remains: why read a shoot 'em up when you can just watch one--or play one? (And again, do it anywhere, anytime now? Reilly has been a bestseller--but it has to be admitted that his success falls far short of that first rank of commercially successful novelists.)

In any event, this is all speculative, and my purpose in writing this post has not just been to share my guesses, but to invite yours. Does it sound like there's anything I've overlooked here? Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments thread below.

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