Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dead or Alive - or Dead on Arrival

Tom Clancy
Usually I write about books that I've liked.  So why am I writing about Dead or Alive, a book I hated?  Because it represents an interesting study in how you can build a business and a brand through writing.

It's ironic to write about brands and authors in the same breath.  But it's appropriate in talking about Tom Clancy whose name is clearly a brand.  I decided to explore this brand after reading his latest novel Dead or Alive (and I use the adjective his loosely).  Clancy may have started as an author but he is now a successful businessman providing a series of consumer products based on an established platform - his popular characters Jack Ryan and John Clark, international backdrops, lots or murder and mayhem and a hefty dollop of military hardware information.

A company can launch an initial successful product and follow it up with multiple variants or offshoots of the original, inducing past consumers to continue purchasing the product line and brand - think software upgrades.  A company can also license their brand for use on products made completely by some other company - think flashlights with Disney characters on them.

Clancy has used those business principles to leverage the success of The Hunt for Red October with a series of derivative novels.  Recycling characters and utilizing the same general style and structure increase productivity and reinforce the brand - think 'core competency' for a company.  Many of his works appear to be co-written with other authors, but he has since acknowledged that he puts his name on books and movie scripts ghost-written by others and on video games where he doesn't participate in the creation.  In other words, he licenses his brand promiscuously. 

This mass market consumer products company called Clancy has been a rousing financial success.   in 1997, his Wikipedia entry claims that he signed a book deal worth $50M for two new books, followed by a second agreement for $25M for a four-year book/multimedia deal.   And over a decade later, there's still a flood of new 'Clancy' novels.  Great business model with high revenue and low overhead.

I remember being totally engrossed in The Hunt for Red October when I read it years ago.  The suspense built to a great climax.  Although the novel was somewhat far-fetched, it was indeed based on a couple of incidents with Russian submarines that were conflated into one story line.  And I loved the movie too. 

The plot of this book was disjointed and less believable than most thrillers.  There are so many subplots going on, there was no sense of inevitability driving to a major climax.  Moreover, the plot is interspersed with rants about how the government is ruining the country through lack of support of intelligence agencies while they spend money and time on such misguided programs as health care.  In Clancy's right-wing opinion, support for intelligence agencies should be unequivocal, untainted by any concern about human rights.  In recruiting for the private clandestine organization where Jack Ryan Jr., John Clark and others work, a major hiring criterion is that you have committed murder of nasty people without feeling remorse.  Clancy doesn't advocate taking prisoners in any situation!

If you're looking for something to while away the time and can stick it to the end (as I did because I have a congenital disability - I can't stop reading a book until I get to the end), you get quantity if not quality from Dead or Alive.  Indeed price/page is about the only redeeming quality of this book.

Well, Ive just read Dead or Alive, Clancy's latest. $/page

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