Monday, February 15, 2016

Don't Lose Your Dinosaur: Cash Grabs, Fanboys, and Salvaging the Paleoeconomy

My very own "cash grab" Dinosaur Enlightenment is a tour de force of unconventional thinking!! Available now on Amazon in ebook and soft cover. Over 150 visuals including nearly 50 never befoer seen depictions of startling Mesozoic beastiary!! Get on!!
It's no secret that a life dedicated to paleontology - either professionally on some level or as an artist, writer, "paleopersonality" or whatever - is a life flirting with poverty or more often than not wed to her. To the few that can get through the prescribed pathway of multiple years of education towards a "piled higher and deeper" tagline at the end of your name and compete successfully for the  few academic positions or that can make a living off your art and writing kudos to you!! (I can't do it that is why I am a bus driver) But even among the noted luminaries of the field of dinosaur paleontology - artistic or scientific or a blending of both - I often hear of economic hardships.

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.

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Chris DiPiazza said...

What specifically was wrong with the ornithopods and anything else you found wrong with the illustrations? I've never seen the inside of the book.

Duane Nash said...

Iguanodon bernissartensis was a little too gracile imo, the skeleton suggests a pretty darn robust, bruiser of an animal. Noting else too specifically wrong with Alonso's work and, like I said his theropods, birds, pterosaurs, sauropods are actually very well done imo. I just felt gipped that there is no GSP illustrations. ON the cover it says BY Juan Carlos Alonso & Gregory S. Paul. If it said art by Juan Carlos Alonso and text by Gregory S. Paul I would not be complaining. But to me it felt like a clever bait & switch and what can I say it worked cuz I bought the book (through Amazon I should have previewed it better) !!

Zerox Z21 said...

Whilst likely caused by the lack of funding in the first place, I definitely think that there is a real gap in the market. Material available is either super simplistic and inaccurate tosh for children, or sophisticated scientific material for those with a working background. There is absolutely nothing for the teen, young adult or adult person who hasn't done alot of background reading and/or the appropriate advanced educational interests to actually appreciate or care about the higher level stuff that is occasionally available, and even then usually you have to go out of your way to find it online.

It also doesn't help that right now, dinosaurs are seen as a childish market. This means book publishers just throw out whatever cheapness they can get away with, as it will only be bought for/by children and thus the accuracy of the content is irrelevant, and this definitely doesn't help.

It doesn't need to be either. I can't remember the exact age I got it, but my favourite book whilst I was in primary school (so 4-8 years old) was The Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs ( Very comprehensive and reasonably sophisticated, yet I enjoyed this book immensely as a young child and certainly noticed it's superiority to my other books. If at that age I could appreciate much of what this book had to offer (if not all of it), that certainly speaks volumes about some of the painfully poor material I've seen marketed for 10 years plus.

Κηφας said...

As a young professional who hasn't lost the dinosaur bug, I appreciate and agree with this post. A couple practical considerations:

1. To the extent that the paleoeconomy (good word) traffics in interest, or in information, it has to do that in ways that are accessible to the interested amateur / fanboy (like me). Open source journals are good for that. Blogs are great for that. I know there's been some second-guessing about paleontology-by-blog-post lately, but from my consumer perspective, that's exactly my entry into the market. I also would appreciate more books like Bakker's Dinosaur Heresies - discussing and advancing scientific theory, but (again) accessible to the fanboy.

2. To the extent that the paleoeconomy traffics in tangible goods (other than fossils themselves, that is), they need to be things that don't look out of place in an adult household. I wouldn't mind having a matched set of prints hanging someplace, whereas a cartoonish drawing or a poster probably wouldn't work as well, though those things would work fine for somebody in college or younger. Likewise, I know there are some good figurines coming out of Papo and Schleich and others, but other than those it's either kid's toys or $three-figures-plus models.

3. To the extent that the paleoeconomy traffics in participation or experiences, I think there's an accessibility issue there. More specifically, (a) most fossil digs are in the badlands (of necessity), and therefore inconveniently far away from people, and (b) people involved in the dig don't get to take anything home from it. I suppose people could crowdfund digs and get pictures and such, but that feels more to me like charity than consumption.

P.S. It's entirely possible that the gaps/problems I've identified here are actually being solved by things that I'm clueless about. If so, let me know what they are please!

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with your main argument: that "fans" should not be resented, but embraced. It is possible to encourage more critical thinking without explicitly saying "stop being so childish." We need to inculcate the genuine interest so many have in dinosaurs into an enthusiasm for the science of paleontology, an appreciation of the process behind discovering the history of life on Earth. Make paleontology relatable, something that actual people do, and more than just a menagerie of weird critters coated in scientific jargon.

That isn't something that can be done with flashy CGI documentaries, or even books (however well written) that rely on paleoart. For example, Thomas Holtz's "Dinosaurs" is a fantastic encyclopedia, near and dear to my heart, and I love Luis V. Rey's overt coloring and dynamic poses, but as I've grown older, I've come to realize it had far, far, far too few pictures of the honest-to-God fossils. I love paleoart, but what we have left of dinosaurs is mineralized bone, trackways, and skin impressions (plus modern descendants and relatives). I want to see the real thing, dammit! I think that is why, as Fred Spiers noted above, dinosaurs are a considered a childish market (and thus, not a viable career for "respectable" adults) - to most people they aren't "real." They're like Pokemon, in a way. Every kid has their favorite, in some cases you can "collect" them, and each has a unique trait or "special power." The "Dinosaurs A-Z" approach of many children's books certainly doesn't help...

Certainly, museums make an effort at correcting this (especially with the advent of viewable Paleolabs), but they don't always touch on the hard facts and sometimes delve into spectacle (Ben over at Extinct Monsters just recently had a very critical look at the Houston Museum for doing just that).

Scientists and science educators need to take a more active role in explaining how they do what they do, rather than just relaying "we did this thing and we found out about this other thing." Not to imply that many scientists (especially paleontologists!) don't put effort into doing just that, and I'll be the first to say it's hard to strike a balance being as thorough as possible and maintaining a level of levity and accessibility that doesn't alienate your audience. But I think this is something worth serious discussion: how do paleontologists, and scientists in general, make science truly open access? By that, I mean more than just open access journals, but also by making transparency (to the public - it's no secret that in America the public more than a little skeptical about science) and educational outreach a priority.

Let me know if you think I'm way off base here - I really didn't mean for this to get so long.

Alex Ruger

traumador said...

I have a question and a problem with this part of your argument:

"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."

1. do people REALLY have that disposable income these days? (I ask as an expat in Asia, where overall people have had this until this year... so I seriously do not know what it is like in the West these days. It was dire when I left in 2010)

2. The palaeo community isn't the same one that actually fills the consumable palaeoeconomy. So for the books you disliked, the question is did those guys actually get to control the projects, or were they dictated to by publishers "who knew best".

Duane Nash said...

Thanks for comments above all good points!!

@ Craing Dylke

1. Well there are certainly haves & have nots in the West as in any part of the world. My argument is really not that complicated as you are making it. Keep and retain the kids that are enamored with dinosaurs through and into adulthood. Adults certainly have more income than children. Some may spend a little some may spend a lot. But I fail to see why this is not a good avenue to look into.

2. "did those guys actually get to control the projects, or were they dictated to by publishers "who knew best"."

That is exactly the problem!! If writers, artists, researchers had the financial freedom to do and control the work they wanted - we would see less of these ventures. That for, what I can only assume is financial reasons, paleoworkers lend their name to such projects is only a symptom of the bigger issue of people not making a good enough living,

"the paleo community isn't the same one that actually fills the consumable paleoeconomy" How so? Researchers write books, paleoartists sell prints, museums display skeletons. Again I think you are over-thinking what I am saying. It is really quite simple. Retain kids until they become more nuanced, scientifically literate adults. Now they reinvest in the paleoeconomy through buying books, artwork etc etc. I am not talking about going to Jurassic World. I am talking about stoking and keeping lit the flame from childhood into adulthood of interest in the subject. This will result in better money making opportunities for the workers - both professionally employed paleontologists, paleoartists, whatevers - because there is a larger pool of consumers.

L. Walters said...

@ Duane: In my opinion it still seems like the femur is too posteriorly displaced, but it's hard to tell, really. I suppose it's still possible that juvenile Spinosaurs could have ran in that fashion, and you're correct that the Spinosaurs you drew are in a much more horizontal position, and therefore, more anatomically correct. I would also be interested in knowing if the juveniles had different proportions than the adults that would allow them to be bipedal at times. So many mysteries still remain.

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