Measuring Impact

This morning, I read an article which claimed that “Avengers: End Game” has now become the all-time best-selling movie. In fact, here is a quote from the Fox news article:

“Disney also officially surpassed another all-time record with ‘Avengers: Endgame.’ The Marvel film added $1.5 million globally, giving it enough to surpass “Avatar” to become the highest-grossing film of all time.

‘Avatar’ grossed $2.789 billion worldwide, and ‘Avengers: Endgame’ is currently at $2.79 billion. The amount does not account for inflation.

‘“Endgame” finally did it,’ Taff said. ‘It’s a huge achievement.’”

I find it interesting that they didn’t account for inflation of prices in their tally. Yes, it’s a big achievement, but the rate of inflation is about 10% since “Avatar” came out. So, really, Disney still needs about $300 million in sales to equal Avatar’s sales.  

I see this a lot when measuring the sales of books and movies. People like to hype the dollar amount of sales to make their record sound better. It’s like shouting, “I set the Olympic record for the mile!” without mentioning that it was the “Special Olympics.”

So, for example, if you look at an epic movie like “Gone with the Wind,” which came out in 1939, and only made $390 million, it becomes pretty easy to beat its dollar sales. However, if you start thinking in terms of box office seats, we soon realize that they sold a lot more tickets for that movie than they did, say, for “The Lion King” which came out last week and sold more than $500 million globally. So 1939 dollars are not the same as 2019 dollars. That’s the first point I want to make.

The popularity of “Gone with the Wind” though, ought to be considered hand-in-hand with something else: population growth. In 1939, the US had a population of 131 million. Today we are closer to 320 million—an increase of nearly 250 percent. So if we study the number of sales in relation to the whole population, “Gone with the Wind” starts showing us some staggering figures.

If we look at the historic sales of books or movies and correct them for inflation and population growth, it seems to me that we will come up with a number that I call the “impact number.” It lets me know how many people really bought the story as a percentage of the population. This is good information to have, if we are trying to measure the impact of a tale upon the world.

For example, let’s take a book: A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps thirty years ago, when I was researching novels, it came up on one list as the bestselling English-language novel of all time, with estimated sales of 50 million copies. (Please note that I looked up the bestselling books of all time just now, and it wasn’t on the list at all!) I wondered at that. The book had been out since the 1850s, so when I looked up those numbers in 1990, the book had been in print for a loooong time. And the sales numbers seemed artificially high. For decades, just about every child in England had to read the book for English classes. So the question became, “How many of those are ‘volunteer’ readers,” as Orson Scott Card likes to call them? How many are people who bought the book because they really longed to read it?

In the 1990s, we had Harry Potter come along. I played a small part in pushing the book and creating the advertising campaign for it, so I recall that when it hit 50 million sales, I felt like, “Cool, we did it, we set a record!”

But of course, I have to wonder about that. What was the population of English-reading countries in 1860? Well, it was under 100 million, and I never could find out what the sales rate was.

The current list of bestselling fiction books of all time is headed up by Don Quixote, at 400 million copies, while Harry Potter sales are estimated to be at something under 100 million. But then, there are those very popular movies for Harry Potter—which have been seen around the world so much, that for every reader of the book, there are probably 10 fans of the movies. 

I can easily find teens who can talk intelligently about Harry Potter. But I can’t find people who can talk intelligently about Don Quixote. 

So the question remains: if I want to measure how big an impact a fiction story has on society, how do we measure it? Do we need to look at how many copies of the book sold? Or do we look at how many copies of the movie sold, too? Or do we need to go down the food chain further and find out how many viewers watched the films on television?

Then, if a film does happen to be immensely popular, can we measure its subconscious effects on its audience? Does it change the way that they think and feel? Do the most popular stories really change the world more than some of the less-popular stories?

The obvious answer is “No.” A story doesn’t have to be immensely popular in order to affect the lives of those who partake of it.

So as a writer who wants to have a positive effect on the world, I’m still trying to figure out how to recognize when we are doing well.

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One thought on “Measuring Impact

  1. Mark

    Thanks for your insight, David! I would also like to add that there are far more entertainments available now than in 1939, so anything making an impact is still something to note. I would agree with you that any “record” should be based on ticket sales or adjusted for inflation, though.

    Reply

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