Thursday, May 11, 2017

What Ever Happened to Gold Eagle Publishing?

The Mack "the Executioner" Bolan novels that began with 1969's War Against the Mafia are regularly credited with founding the contemporary action-adventure genre. Today the series has over 400 novels in print. Most of these novels, and most of the better-known paperback series' of the action-adventure type (like Richard Murphy and Warren Sapir's The Destroyer, or James Axler's 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. All the same, 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 is one too many zeroes in the number quoted above, one would imagine these to be record book-caliber sales.

However, when NewsCorp bought out Harlequin a few years back, and decided to shut down this particular division, the whole genre and its publishers had already become so obscure that, despite the high profile of the associated firms, the fate of Gold Eagle was not noted by a single major news outlet (at least, so far as I have been able to find).

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 and '60s, movie attendance fell by almost an order of magnitude (from something like 30 times a year to 4). 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), putting the squeeze on the B-grade stuff at the lower end of the market.

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, 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 action 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 fact remains that movies generally do this better than books, video games better than movies, so why read a shoot 'em up when you can just watch one--or play one? (And again, do it anywhere, anytime now? Reilly's novels have sold millions of copies--but it has to be admitted that this sales record 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.


NineLizards said...

The fact that nobody ever commented might underline and confirm your point...

It's a miracle people can still read. One of these days the only books read will have a screen and two speakers...

Nader said...

Well said-the more in as, I increasingly suspect, this kind of lighter reading probably made more difference to literacy levels than people generally appreciate. (If it wasn't the most demanding reading people could do, people still did a lot of it voluntarily, practicing the basic skill.)

Unknown said...

Having read books, comics and magazines for most of my 76 years, I too lament the (possible) passing of the readership. Having lived some adventures in these genres, I have taught college for the past 20+ years (full time) and discovered the children of today have been deliberately dealt a severe blow to their education. Those who can make it that far enter college with the worst education in our nations history. They don't read, can't write and common math is just not achievable. They don't use a desktop anymore since telephones are far more convenient and offer quick, simple minded entertainment that is measured in minuteness. Imagination is not suggested, using the brain for something more than to separate the ears is unheard of and their approach to life has been the most narcissistic in history. It is with great sadness that we even have to discuss something this tragic but it is our reality.

Nader said...

Hi. Thanks for writing.
Having taught college myself for a number of years--some of them before the advent and proliferation of the smart phone, most of them after--I definitely know where you're coming from on this (while, admittedly optimistically, preferring to remember those who seemed the exceptions to such a pattern).

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