The Future of Smart Pop: We Want Your Help!

By June 10th, 2014 11 Comments

SmartPopLogoWe really enjoy reading reviews of our books, especially the ones by book bloggers (who tend to have a little more space to discuss than, say, the average Amazon reviewer); I love hearing what works and doesn’t work for different readers, especially in our anthologies, where often every review has different favorites (and different least favorites).

Recently I read a great one from Kelley at Oh, the Books on Divergent Thinking (thanks, Kelley!). The whole review was smart and thoughtful, but she made one particular comment that stood out to me and stayed with me long after reading: “this could just as easily have been a series of posts on a blog somewhere.” It’s a terrific point, even if it’s one I’m not sure I fully agree with.

The past couple of years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the basic Smart Pop book model—a collection of a dozen or more authors writing about a particular pop culture property—and its place and value in the current writing-about-pop-culture climate.

When we first started publishing what we think of as Smart Pop titles, way back in 2003 with Taking the Red Pill , what we were doing—pop culture analysis for a lay audience—was still reasonably rare. In the decade-plus since then, smart television, film, and book criticism has exploded; the internet has made the thoughts of smart fans all over the world (not to mention great “professional” critics) easily accessible, not to mention free.

So what does that mean for Smart Pop? What value do our books offer? How do we earn your time and, frankly, your money? And what could we be doing to make our books better?

We have our own ideas, but we’d love to hear your answers. You’re the ones buying and reading the books we produce. What do you like about what we do? What do you think we should be doing differently?

To show our appreciation for taking the time to share your thoughts, if you leave a comment, we’ll enter you to win a free Smart Pop title of your choice (past Smart Pop contributors, your opinions and entries count too!).

Thanks for your help! Can’t wait to hear what you have to tell us.

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11 Comments On "The Future of Smart Pop: We Want Your Help!"

  1. Sahar

    I’m pretty confident that readers agree that the content of the books are amazing.

    The format depends on what the reader is looking for. If you want an in-depth analysis of a series, the book format is the best, because you get to delve and really knead your thoughts, almost painfully so.

    If readers just want a bit of daily reading, a daily blog post would be more than enough. However, I don’t see the profitability of posting the essays on a blog!

    If readers want some weekend reading, your weekly newsletters are just the right thing, and give a glimpse into what the entire book will be like.

    At the end of the day, you guys are about books; I would love to see the books continue coming at a regular rate. The blog is informative, and I would personally also love to see more happening there, but not a repeat of the essays that are already available in the books and on a weekly basis. And confession: I still hope to become a Smart Pop Book contributor one day ;)

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  2. Sahar

    (More specifically, a contributor to an upcoming X-Files book.)
    (Just saying.)

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  3. Kelly G.

    I’ve noticed that, with ongoing series, the books can become outdated rather quickly. Maybe, at least with the electronic copies, add one or two new updated essays every few years?

    I tend to binge-watch shows well after their premiers, and when buying books about a particular series, I usually go for more updated collections.

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  4. Misty Hook

    I agree with Sahar that a blog cannot offer an in-depth analysis of a series. Besides the profitability issue, the fact is that people’s attention wanders too quickly for even a daily blog to cover everything. Moreover, blog posts are supposed to be short, so the average SmartPop essay would not easily fit into such a format.

    Kelly G. also made a really good point about the dated aspect of the material. For example, I wrote my Harry Potter essay before the final book came out. While I think my essay held up pretty well, it still would have benefited from the additional information. I’m not sure how that could be done though. While I like the idea of putting forward more recent essays, I’m not sure how that would work.

    Another thought I had is that some of the books contain essays that seem very random to me and I have to question if they are a big draw. Perhaps the process has changed but when I was writing, we were allowed to write on whatever topic we chose. While that is great for writers, as a fan, I have to admit that it isn’t as wonderful. I’ve found myself looking at some of the books and asking why there wasn’t an essay on a particular character, aspect or pairing. Is there a way to poll the fans likely to read the books to see what kind of material they would like to see covered? Authors could pick and choose their topic but if they have a particular subject that wasn’t mentioned, they could still “sell” it to the editor. That way, fans get what they want with some extra treats thrown into the mix.

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  5. orangerful

    I’ve been a Smart Pop fan since the initial publication of “Seven Seasons of Buffy”. That book kicked off my collection of Joss Whedon academic studies books. Most of my Smart Pop books have been of the Whedon variety, though I also have the Veronica Mars, Hunger Games, Superman, and X-Men collections.

    I know a lot of the most recent titles have just not been topics I am interested in. I think the strongest collections came from books/movies/tv shows that had a very strong established fandom that had been around for years, or at least more than 2 seasons. But then again, I understand the need to strike while the iron is hot so you want to publish the books before the thing goes out of the limelight…but then again, if it’s something that comes and goes so easily, is it worth publishing a book on?

    I do love the Smart Pop books though. They are fantastic collections and much less expensive than some of the books published by university presses.

    Oh, and no more “philosophy of” or “psychology of” books – those are overdone, in my opinion. I prefer the collections that bring together some interesting and creative essays that make me examine the work a bit closer.

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  6. Sidonie

    I love Smart Pop Books.

    I’m not just saying that to suck up, I really really really do love your books. You see, as a 21 years old who would rather spend an evening disserting about the morals of Community than go out clubbing and make out with a perfect stranger, I sometimes felt like a unicorn. And sure, unicorns are great, but they are a lonely species. None of my friends nor extended acquaintances shared my passion for television and YA novels (although not all of them made out with strangers either). They would listen to me babble about this or that and make every effort not to seem bored, until I realized I had to find another way to unleash my nerdy side.
    Then I discovered your books and it was a revelation of a kind. The things that I cared about mattered. I wasn’t crazy. Or maybe I was, but there was a whole world out there sharing my madness. A whole beautiful bunch of unicorns.

    Wow, that was a lot more corny that I intended.

    My point is : what you do is awesome and please, please, please, never stop doing it. The free excerpts every day are perfect for a broke student like myself (especially since shipping to Belgium is ridiculously expensive – and I really enjoy my paper books), since they allow me to taste a bit of the books before buying them. However, I am not blind sided.

    I think anthologies are better when treating a wide variety of subjects. I am not that interested in cookbooks and city guides, and as it was said before, psychology collections are a bit restrictive for my taste. Wide horizons, that’s how I like it. I like being surprised by the content of the book.

    I also think that publishing a book on an on-going tv show or book series (or movie franchise I guess), is frustrating. Two years later, most of the essays are outdated, and the anthology not so anthological. For example, I had a crazy theory about how HIMYM was in fact all about Robin, and a whole lot of data to back it up, but now that the series finale has been broadcasted, it’s really just pointless (although my ego is fiiiine). So yeah, it’s always better to have a complete view of the subject before writing on it ? Or at least before publishing (since once the book is out, updating is complicated and frustrating for those who already bought it).

    (I’m using a lot of brackets, aren’t’ I ?)

    Since I haven’t really brought anything new to the table, I will say that : I enjoy your books better when the essays are organized by sections (like in Coffee at Luke’s, The Psychology of Harry Potter) rather that thrown together in a beautiful chaos (Seven Seasons of Buffy, Serenity Found). Maybe it’s my OCD talking, but I feel it’s also more practical for everybody.

    Also, I’ve only bought four books so far (guess which ones ?), but I noticed that most of the essays seem to share a blind love for the subject of their thesis. It’s not exactly a lack of critical sense, but I feel there is good in exposing the flaws of such popular books and tv shows. Flaws are what make us human, and make pop culture so amazing. Plus, being aware of them help us develop our critical mind and a critical mind is a smart mind and a smart mind is a happy mind and isn’t that was this is all about ? I used to say that television made me smarter. I still believe it’s true, but only of we embrace the good and the bad.

    And that sounded scoldy. I don’t really know what I’m talking about, I don’t own that many of your books and I have the most utter respect for them. So let’s just blame that on the fact that I don’t write English as well as I understand it, and have trouble properly conveying my feelings.

    I’ll finish by saying that your books, contrary to blogs, give us some kind of quality guarantee that has yet to fail me. Plus, as I said, I enjoy having books on my bookshelves, books I can write in, and lend, and take with me on the bus. Sure, nowadays there’s internet everywhere, but still I’m old fashioned that way. I love my books. You laugh now, but if the world world economy crashes, if aliens invade or the zombie apocalypse breaks out, I’ll be the one safe with all of my books. And I won’t ever be bored. You know, for the one week I’ll survive.

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  7. Janice E.

    I like the idea of updating your books. (For example, I am reading Neptune Noir right now, and it was written before the 3rd season of VMars even aired, let alone the movie. A lot of it’s still interesting, but some is dated.) I would concentrate on the series people are coming to now and binge-watching. Please do keep the book form, though — blog posts don’t do what the essay collections do.

    And I know this isn’t a genre series, but might it be worth it to put together a book on “Orange Is the New Black”?

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  8. Monique Robins

    I’ve been a huge fan of Smart Pop since I discovered you several years back. Whatever happens going forward, thanks so much for all the beautiful pop culture litcrit done to date. It’s been inspiring and edifying.

    Like someone else mentioned, I’m less of a fan of the “philosophy of” and “psychology of” essays that have predominated of late. Those are fine angles, but more limited in scope than I would like to see from Smart Pop as a whole.

    I would hate to see the book line be discontinued, but I agree that the material can become dated, and the weekly essays being composed of prev.-published book material gets stale as well. I’d like to see a combination of print-books and fresh essays via the site, perhaps through a subscription vehicle like a monthly e-magazine. If new material was available online first then re-printed in book form, it would give you some more lead time to decide which essays held up as additional canon was released.

    One issue with a paid e-zine, however, is that as much media as I consume, there’s still quite a bit that I don’t. It would require some inventive coding, but I’d love to see an e-zine subscription with content based on user profiles: subscriber clicks the radio buttons of all the shows/sources they want to follow, and the content for their custom-made issue is gathered from the current material from those spheres. I realize that’s a whole new kettle of problematic fish, but as long as we’re brain-storming, it’s a model that’s on my wish list. :)

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  9. Ivey West

    I’ve been a fan of your work since before I knew what “Smart Pop Books” were, and I’ve got a decent (unhealthy?) collection of your books sitting on my shelf.

    I also think there are several really good pieces of advice already in the comments:

    I particularly like the idea of going back and revisiting properties you’ve covered before. I as a reader, I enjoyed both Serenity Lost/Serenity Found, and if a 13-episode television series/one movie property has enough material for two books, surely shows like Buffy (especially with the additional comic book-based seasons) and Veronica Mars could be good properties to revisit.

    I agree that staying away from the psychology angle is a good way to go. I’ve got a couple of these books — from several vendors — and have never found them to be as accessible to the layperson (And while I feel more than comfortable reading and writing about Pop Culture, that doesn’t extend to the psychology thereof).

    Every year at SDCC, when I pick up your sampler, I always wonder how well multi-property anthologies would work. I think it would be a tough needle to thread from a marketing perspective (I’d imagine that the singular popularity of a property factors in a great deal to sales numbers), but “comparison” style books (Sunnydale vs. Mystic Falls, Sherlock & Elementary … that kind of thing) could be interesting.

    Finally, there are a great deal many properties out there left to explore. I’m sure you’ve got many of them still on the drawing boards (or already released and I somehow missed them), but properties like Scandal, Once Upon a Time, Agents of SHIELD/MCU, World War Z (more the book really), Grimm … shows like The Blacklist, Arrow and The 100 are probably a season or two away from having enough of a base to really delve into, but they’ll get there soon rather than later.

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  10. Anastasia

    I’ve been a SmartPop reader for years now, and I”ve loved almost every single one of the books you publish.(I remember I picked up Star Wars on Trial about 7 years ago, and since then I’ve read it 3 times!) I’ve also reviewed a number of your books (if I’m allowed to disclose it here, I write for an internet magazine called Blogcritics, where I’ve written about a number of your books). And I have to say, as someone who’s constantly online, keeping up with the latest shows, watching new episodes, blogging about them and reviewing them, and discussing them online, I still find SmartPop books – essay collections, provided in physical copies – an incredibly valuable addition to the conversation. Here’s why.

    As you mention in your post, there is a lot of conversation going on about TV and popular culture on the internet. That’s the beauty of the internet – it facilitates conversations. The problem, though, is that the internet facilitates so many conversations that sometimes you don’t even know where to start. If I discover a new show and want to talk about it, there’s so many blogs, websites, tweets, posts, and articles I could read about it that I don’t know where to start. So I go to the places I trust: in this case, tor.com, and SmartPop. Because, in that huge ocean of content about popular culture, you guys put together well-thought-out books with a certain amount of quality control. There’s an editor, making sure the essays in the collection are up to standard, that htey’re saying something meaningful, and that they’re not repeating each other. I find this incredibly valuable – and I also find that oftentimes, the kinds of ideas and articles that appear in printed books are much more interesting and thought through than a lot of conversations that happen on blogs and in tweets.

    Perhaps I’m an old-school academic (I am an academic) and I like my academic articles in my academic books. But I also think that it’s incredibly valuable to grab a book of essays I know will likely be good, without having to trawl the internet, be able to get on an airplane (which won’t always have an internet connection), and read a set of essays all on the same topic, and which let me think about the same thing in a variety of different ways at the same time. Don’t get me wrong: the internet is an amazing place. But it’s the kind of place where you can drown, and SmartPop keeps me from drowning.

    With that said, and with my enthusiasm for what you guys are doing having been expressed, I do have a couple of suggestions.

    Firstly, I noticed that you really haven’t released that many books lately, especially on TV shows! There’s a lot of *really* exciting stuff happening on TV right now: the CW, despite its reputation, is airing some great shows. Supernatural is on its 10th season. Networks like Starz and HBO are making some great shows (Game of Thrones, Spartacus) that aren’t exactly ‘mainstream’ but are high quality. There’s a number of different adaptations of Sherlock Holmes (Elementary, Sherlock, etc…) I don’t know how you decide which shows and pieces of pop culture you focus on, but all I can say is that there’s so many great things out there that you could be writing about right now, and I don’t know what you’re waiting for! I know I’d buy your books on all the shows I just mentioned. I especially think that television is becoming a particularly excellent medium these days – more so than film, I think – and there’s so many conversations to be had about it.

    Similarly, a lot of your books were released before a show finished airing or a book series finished (i.e. Supernatural, the Vampire Diaries). now that these shows have a handful more seasons, perhaps you should consider releasing another set of essays on these same shows, taking into account the newer seasons?

    Finally, I don’t know how you guys choose your contributors (though I did notice you have a potential contributors page), but I know that I, for one, would be really enthusiastic to write for you guys. Now that, as you’ve mentioned, so many people are discussing pop culture in various ways – blogging, tweeting, writing articles for newspapers, etc – I think you should definitely go out there looking for contributors who haven’t necessarily worked on a TV show/published a book, but who are active in the pop culture conversation online.

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  11. Taragel

    I agree that your long form essays are more in-depth than blogs usually go and that’s a good thing. Smart Pop does feel and approach these pop cult phenoms from a very fandom-oriented perspective all the time–maybe it’d be worth seeking out extra content (for updates or what have you) from the show’s creators and cast. You usually have, say, one essay in a collection that has links to the source (a writer or an actor weighing in), what if you had more of that? What if you had some sort of roundtable discussion format with creators responding to superfan arguments?

    In this day and age, with these folks so accessible on twitter — it might be worth doing more of that. Not enough to taint the perspective, so it’d have to be carefully chosen/crafted, but to really meld both insider and outsider takes on the thing, not just come at it from a superfan point of view?

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