There is this trend in publishing (both self and traditional) where people look at what the latest, greatest hit is and then immediately rush to try to make something like it that hits on whatever that indefinable thing is that made it huge. Think of Twilight and the 850,000 YA vampire novels that came after–or not even necessarily vampire…there were plenty of others that tried to hit on that Every Girl + mysterious supernatural boy formula with other critters than blood suckers. The vast majority weren’t as successful as the original (if anything has met with the same success, I’m not aware of it–well except 50 Shades, which is kind of a whole other thing, and not what I’m talking about here). And chances are, if you read YA, you’ve seen reviews of works where the book has been called derivative or trying too hard to be Twilight, or some other insult indicating it was a clone or a rip off of the original (even though in some cases, Twilight actually came out after the book in question–but I digress).
This whole idea of looking at the mega best sellers (even the ones we like to denigrate for whatever reason because they offend our artistic sensibilities or whatever) and trying to DEFINE that thing, figure out what the formula or secret is so we can reproduce it and try to capitalize on that appeal is not a bad one. It’s one of the holy grails of publishing. But there is a certain degree of originality that is expected in a work to keep people from getting ticked. Let me digress a little more and give you a different, non publishing example.
Last week when I was standing in the check out line at Walmart doing my grocery shopping, I got behind this woman who had, it appeared, emptied out the ENTIRE baking section’s supply of Pillsbury cake mixes. Me being me, I struck up a conversation, and observed that that was a LOT of cake mix! I asked if she was doing a bake sale.
“No,” she shook her head. “Bakery.”
At which point I was stunned rather speechless. Because we’re talking about a woman who was running a business that is predicated on what the public assumes is from scratch products. There’s a part of me that still wonders which bakery it is so that I can avoid them–but I don’t go to bakeries in the first place (I prefer pie to cake), so it was a moot point. But the whole encounter left me disgusted. This woman, passing off these boxed cake mix cakes as from scratch creations has crossed that line–because you know she doesn’t have a little sign out saying “Pillsbury yellow cake” next to something sitting behind the glass. If word got out that this is what she was doing, I guarantee she’d lose business. Because y’all, bakery cakes are expensive. And people will pay that because a) they don’t or can’t bake themselves and b) they think they’re getting a superior product. But if all she’s doing is baking up boxed cakes just like we can do at home, then that’s breaking an unspoken promise to the buying public. She’s not making it enough her own.
Now there are a zillion things you can do with boxed cake mix that aren’t actually cake. I’ve seen cake mix cookies. I’ve made cake batter ice cream. All these things take boxed cake mix and turn them into something NEW, something that is definitely DIFFERENT than just whipping up the cake straight from the box. And I guess it begs the question of
HOW DIFFERENT DOES SOMETHING HAVE TO BE FROM THE INSPIRATION OR ORIGINAL IN ORDER TO BE CONSIDERED ITS OWN ORIGINAL THING?
Weigh in, y’all. I want to know what you think.