I thought I could get through this post by taking the high road and not naming names but alas... I can't so let the dirt fly...
A couple of years ago there was a big brewhaha over Gregory S. Paul attempting to lay claim - in fact legal copyright ownership - over his distinctive stylized skeletal rendering method. I don't know if it ever went fully to court but at least the threat of legal pushing seems to have discouraged artists from utilizing his "Paulian push off" stance in their skeletal mounts. I can't really say that this event resulted in more work for Paul, in fact the exact opposite seems to have occurred.
To say that Paul's work, especially during the 80's and 90's, was extremely prescient and foundational towards where we are at now in dinosaur paleontology is an understatement. After all, feathered dinosaurs are now a thing but they certainly were not in the minds of most pre-eminent dinosaur paleontologists/paleoartists in the 70's, 80's and much of the 90's.
Never the less the underpinnings of Paul's work that underscore contemporary dinosaur thought has not made him a rich man from what I gather.
Which is why I can not completely condemn him for lending his name to the recent children's dinosaur book Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous Notes, Drawings, and Observations From Prehistory Amazon.
At first I was quite excited for the prospects of an illustrated children's book on early Cretaceous dinosaurs by Gregory S. Paul. I love Paul's work and have not seen much new from him in a while and I was curious to see if a children's book would give him some nice freedom and liberty to illustrate some new concepts or ideas?
But nope. I was hoodwinked.
The amazon description and the cover is misleading (directly misleading perhaps?) because both Juan Carlos Alonso and Gregory S. Paul are listed as authors. When I opened the book and skimmed the artwork I was confounded, had Paul drastically changed his style? Nope, upon closer inspection on the inside sleeve I saw Paul is the writer while Alonso is the illustrator. Now Alonso is OKish I guess - some of the theropods, pterosaus, birds and sauropods are pretty good - but his ornithopods and some of the weird stances he uses just look... painful. For Paul to have a dino book without a single one of his illustrations in it? Why?
But maybe the text Paul put in would save this book... nope again. The writing is boring and dry. No exciting vignettes or exploration of ideas, concepts. Same critique I leveled at Switek's & Csotonyi's book. Nothing new to see here folks. Keep in mind that Paul is an excellent writer who wrote this in PDOTW:
"The T. rex is a monster of ten tonnes, her frightful face adorned with hornlets and scales and a red stripe before the eyes. Mottled green and brown camouflage makes her look like a NATO tank lurking in the brush."
Now that paints a picture, even to a six year old. All I can do is conclude that as one reviewer on Amazon put it "Paul was there to take a check". To make the worm turn further for pterosaur lovers there is also skim feeding pterosaurs in the book. Skim feeding.
Which is the same conclusion I drew after reading Switek & Csotonyi's book. Or Jack Horner acting as consultant to Jurassic World. Cash grabs.
Some or even most might take exception to my tone, "money talks bullshit walks" after all and these people have done a lot and continue to do a lot for paleontology so why not skim a bit off the top? Even if it is the kids taking it on the chin with imo lazy, hackneyed, "place holder" type books. Please keep in mind that both Prehistoric Predators and The Early Cretaceous books are actually among the better paleo books for kids out there. They are like the floating turds in a sea of crap...
Certainly I can be charged with speaking from a high horse. It is easy not to sell out when no one is attempting to buy you off. So in addition to calling out these obvious cash grabs let me offer a potential way of thinking about the larger problem of economics in paleo.
The problem I see it is not subpar, cash grab "name-brand recognition" type books but the financial hardship and the economic woes at all levels in paleontology (dinosaurs being loosely synonymous with paleo here). It's the economy stupid. The real point of this post is to look at the conditions that foster these types of work.
The paleoeconomy is losing market share at tremendous levels. And we are losing this market share at exactly the wrong time demographically - when people actually have disposable income to spend on things like dinosaur prints. Or fund massive dig sites. And we have no one to blame but ourselves for not recognizing the problem and putting a plug in the leak.
People are losing their dinosaurs all over the place and the paleo-community is doing little to stifle this leak and if anything is hurting the situation.
Think about the problem as if you are in charge of a corporation. It is patently obvious that children love dinosaurs. From a strategic, marketing standpoint this is exactly what you want. Name brand recognition and a strong - even emotional - attachment from an early age. Dinosaurs (read paleontology) do all the work for us just by simply being so large and daunting to young minds. So what we have in paleontology is a situation that should be the envy of any corporation - strong, emotional attachment by a wide swath of the youth market from the get go. Corporations spend incredible amounts of money and research trying to capture market share at a young age and paleontology has youth attachment built into it. But somehow paleontology does not retain this built in audience...
We lose most of the kids, usually around puberty in most cases I suggest, right before they are on the cusp of joining the work force and having actual disposable income to give to the paleoeconomy. This is tragic and what is doubly disheartening is that we do it to ourselves a bit. Let me elaborate.
Marginalization of the "Fan-Boy"
The long-standing dirty little secret among a great many paleontologists, researchers, enthusiasts, or just life long fans is that there is a little bit of the fan-boy (or girl) in all of us. Something resonated with us at an early age that caused this emotional attachment to the form of a T. rex skull, or the sail on the back of dimetrodon, or the sabre tooth of a smilodon. When we are emotionally attached to something we sometimes don't think logically about it. Which means we don't think scientifically about it. And in the world of the internet where everyone has a voice and at times everyone seems to have a voice that is not very tolerant, empathetic , or nuanced for the most part the term "fan-boy" has become equivalent to what is wrong with paleo-culture.
I see it all the time in forums, discussions, comments sections - the "fan-boy" getting torn to shreds. Keep in the mind the person you are talking to - or berating - online might be all of eight years old and not too different from you when you were starting to pursue this topic with gusto. So take it easy on the fan-boy who - if he/she is not driven from the topic by online attacks - might be a professional paleontologist one day or financier of paleo.
If I can speak from my own experiences - dating myself a bit here - I reacted to shock and horror at the thought of sauropods not wallowing around in swamps because I had grown up with that image, it had emotional resonance for me (yes even during the 80's this idea sauropod in the swamps meme was prevalent). Even as a teenager I was disbelieving in the rather solid argument that fully grown T. rex could not sprint along at 45 mph.
The key is to outlive this "fan-boy" phase until more adult, reasoned, and scientifically minded thinking kicks in. For a thriving paleoeconomy we should explore and address ways to bridge this gap so we don't lose fanboys to stuff like manga or gun collecting. Because once we lose them we lose a potential adult customer that now has actual capital to buy paleo books, finance digs, or fund kickstarter or patreon campaigns.
So be tolerant of "fan-boys" encourage their interest and try and be a mentor or teacher to them. It can be hard, I know.
The Myth of Childhood as the Province of Dino-mania
Dinosaurs are just for kids right? Wrong. If anything dinosaurs have gotten a lot cooler to me as an adult. Never the less I do get a lot of glazed over expressions when I tell adults that I write about paleontology and dinosaurs on my blog. The conversation seems to end. I am not one to push dinosaurs on anybody but it always confounds me that they have no questions about dinosaurs or paleo... they lost their dinosaurs a long, long time ago - so sad.
But what about the Star Wars phenomena? There is certainly some child - like attributes to that series but here you see fully grown men in costumes, waiting over night for premiers, and just generally going ga-ga over the space drama. And they are all keeping the flame alive for a fascination that started since child hood. Dinosaurs inspire at least as much adoration in children as Star Wars but why does Star Wars keep people reaching into their pocket books well into maturity but dinosaurs not so much?
Lessons From... Punk Rock?
Readers of this blog know that I am a bit of a music buff and will try and sneak in musical references and clips of my two favorite genres of music heavy metal and punk. An interesting development has occurred in punk rock of all music in recent years. It is now old people music. Yep, punk rock is now Dad rock. Now that old people with stable incomes and disposable cash are nostalgic for the music of their youth we see punk bands capitalizing, touring, and selling merchandise at levels far above what they did in their prime, formative years when they and their fan base were broke.
Just as in the example above regarding the Star Wars franchise punk rock - a symbol of youthful rebellion if there ever was one - is readily commodified, repackaged and sold back to fans that enjoyed it in their youth but now have the income to really support it financially.
If Star Wars and punk rock can both capitalize on and keep ensnared a once youthful but now largely adult audience why not paleontology? Why does the paleoeconomy keep losing market share precisely when the demographic is coming of age and starting to acquire capital to spend? Why are so many kids ensnared by dinosaurs but lose interest with age while in a minority the interest remains steadfast or even grows?
I don't have the answer to that last question but I do feel we need better bridge building from the youthful, emotional, "fan-boy" mentality to adult, scientifically minded and - most important - disposable income having adult paleo fans.
So in conclusion...
I would love to see a day when I don't have to keep calling out very talented individuals that, imo, lend their names to children's books and other projects on dinosaurs to get a quick pay check. I think we underestimate the level and the interest children can be communicated to scientifically. At the same time there is a growing up phase in paleontological interest and pursuits. And the fan-boy mentality is certainly part of this process. The key is - economically - to retain the fan-boy until they graduate a more nuanced, scientifically minded way of looking at paleo. Which I suggest will often coincide with their entrance into the work field (i.e. more disposable income than teenagers/children). Given that I argue that there is a little bit of a fan-boy in all paleo-fans and especially paleontologists we should be empathetic to this stage and we do ourselves a disservice when we berate or belittle this mentality in online forums/chats/social media etc etc. (which btw I have seen professional paleontologists do all the time) which might actually drive them away from the subject entirely. Instead when dealing with fan-boy behavior stay patient - be a teacher - don't try and embarrass or belittle them online. The fan-boy that the paleontological community retains today will grow up mentally (well maybe not all of them) eventually and, further on down the line, have the financial recompense to pay back the paleo-economy.
If paleontology - especially dinosaurian - was smarter as a business it would aim better to keep and maintain the youthful audience it has built into it from the start through audulthood. Why gifted and talented paleo artists, writers, and researchers have to petition online for cash disbursements from a vanishingly small market when other genres (Star Wars, punk rock) retain their youth market into adulthood is a major stumbling block towards creating a sustainable paleoeconomy. That many or most of the most talented practitioners in paleontology are constantly ensnared or flirting with poverty is a travesty of the highest order.
Postscript, as further evidence that the internet meta-brain is at work David Orr from Love in the Time of Chasmosaurus coincidentally put up a nice list of paleo people you can support on patreon.