Nikki Finke is back. Again. Two years after leaving Deadline Hollywood—the industry news site she created in 2006—her newest endeavor, Hollywood Dementia, has gone live. And this time, she’s replacing big scoops with short stories.
Here’s how she described the site earlier this year:
My website will present short stories, novellas and novel excerpts written by Hollywood insiders like myself. After 30 years as a journalist, I’m now going to expose the hard truths and gritty reality of showbiz through creative writing. In fiction, I can be more honest than just sticking to facts.
Last week, I had the chance to speak with Ms. Finke about her new website. We discussed its origins, how she found (and what she pays) her writers, and why Hollywood keeps her “endlessly entertained.” What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
When did your idea for this come about?
Nikki Finke: I never even thought of doing this. [When I began thinking about my next career move,] I thought, maybe, of doing political reporting at Politico. And I received a lot of offers from a lot of media outlets for lots of different jobs. You know, to take over websites. To consult. To do a ton of things. Be a columnist. And I realized after a while that I didn’t want to join an organization, that I really enjoyed being my own boss. So the question was...what could I do?
And I suddenly—it was the end of February—and I had just finished a fantastic book on my Kindle, and I thought, You know? Why isn’t there more fiction about Hollywood? And I started going through Amazon and looking and realized there’s very little. And there’s almost no short stories. Once you get past F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara, there’s virtually none. Michael Tolkin has done short fiction. And I started thinking, what would I want my own website to be? By the end of February, I decided I’m going to do a site of Hollywood fiction. And then the issue was I would never be able to write fast enough to keep people interested in it, so I had to bring in other writers. And would anybody write for me? I know journalists, but, you know.
So I set about, started to spread the word very quietly, and stories started to come in, and I suddenly realized that this could be something. And then it was, OK, how am I going to pay writers? I believe that writers should be paid for their content. I feel like I owe writers so much for any success that I’ve had, and I wanted to pay it forward. And then, when I started looking and heard about Andrew Sullivan employing Tinypass on his site...I talked to the CEO of Tinypass and it looked exactly like what I needed. A paywall where you could pay by credit card, Amazon, PayPal—you could buy individual stories—and it sounded great. And I realized, this is doable! So I started designing the site, and went through a couple of designs...and it started to come together. So that was March and April, and I announced it in mid-May, and there was a ton of publicity—which surprised me. I honestly thought that no one would write about it.
I mean, I didn’t think anyone would be interested! That it would be this kind of small thing, but there was The Guardian, there was Business Insider, and IndieWire- all these people started writing about it. The New York Post did a big story, and then The New York Times did a big story, which really surprised me. I thought it would just be a couple of grafs...but it was kind of amazing. And then I had to postpone the launch. I wanted to get out in July, but there was so much administrative stuff that I didn’t anticipate. Because when I started Deadline Hollywood, it was a different time.
That was 2006, right?
March of 2006. I just started the website! It was part of a website. I owned it, but it was hosted by LA Weekly. I didn’t set up a company, I just started writing. So it grew very organically. This was something different, and I realized I had to set up a whole company—which I’d never done before. It was just a lot of administrative work. Oh my god, the legal cost a fortune. (laughs)
Were you receiving submissions while getting all of the legal issues taken care of?
Yes. Before I knew it, I had 75 stories, and now I have 100 stories. I haven’t agreed to publish all of them, but a lot of them are very usable. And the most fun for me has been working with the writers. Some of the stuff comes in and it’s perfect. I don’t want to change a word. Some of it, I give notes. I’ve been an editor of nonfiction for eons—I know everything there is to know about nonfiction. But I’ve never ever edited fiction, and I didn’t know if I could do it. But for some reason, I can look at a story and say this is what it needs...let’s move these paragraphs and do this...and before you know it, it’s really good! [Most of the writers] have been really grateful for notes. When you’re dealing with screenwriters and television writers, they’re used to getting notes.
About what percentage are people who are more creative writers, as opposed to journalists?
I’ve got journalists, I’ve got authors, I have critics, I have publicists, I have lawyers, I have a location manager. The rest are TV and film writers.
Are they sending you pitches or are they sending you completed stories?
What people do—because I requested this—I said, look, send me a little bio about yourself. Just describe yourself a little bit, so that I can figure out whether you know enough about Hollywood to write intelligently about it. It’s no good if somebody is sitting in North Dakota and has never ever had a dealing with Hollywood. That’s my biggest problem with stories about Hollywood: people think they know Hollywood and they don’t. There’s a difference between what you think and what you know. People who know Hollywood and have dealt with it can write about it so much more interestingly.
I mean, I used to read those Jackie Collins things—those things were hilarious to me. Because there was very little knowledge of the way Hollywood really works; it was fantasyland! The reality of Hollywood is much more brutal and nasty than people anticipate. And I love that about Hollywood! I just love it! It keeps me endlessly entertained.
That’s what I think is most exciting about the site. It’s fiction, but is based on the salacious truth.
It’s Hollywood in its unvarnished honesty. I’m really finding that you can be much more honest in fiction than you can be in journalism. And I’m starting out the site on Monday with eight stories. And I’ll keep switching the order of them so that each one has a chance each day to be number one. And the thing that I am also really proud of—I mean the stories are fantastic—they’re written by men and women, and about film and TV, so it’s a really nice mix-up. Each story is a totally different POV. It really shows the talent that’s out there.
I went around and found storyboard artists and caricature artists to do illustrations, and they’re fantastic. I love the illustrations. They’re meant to draw in the reader. And when you go to the homepage, you get the first four or five paragraphs of the story. And when you hit ‘Continue To Read,’ the paywall comes up.
Do readers pay per story or will it be subscription based?
It’s per story. When I thought about having just a site-wide charge, I thought, how am I gonna pay the writers? Some writers are well-known and some aren’t, and I wanted to give everyone a fair shake. But it’s also not fair if more people are reading the well-known writers and people aren’t reading the unknown writers. I mean, I would have had to have done a very complicated algorithm of how much time is spent on each story, how many readers does it attract, what’s the traffic, do they finish the story...I mean, I can’t even add or subtract!
So the authors will be getting a percentage of their individual profits.
60 cents of every dollar, which is huge. I really wanted this to be good for them. So, the way it works is, if you’re going to read the story that day, you pay a dollar. If you want it for two weeks, let’s say you wanna go home that weekend and read it on your iPad, ok! Two weeks is two bucks. Three bucks buys you forever.
How long do the stories average in length?
They are all over the map. Some of them are 2,500 words. Some of them are 8,000.
Is that information given upfront before buying it?
Yes. There’s the title, the byline, the illustration, and a short summary of the story and the word count. Then there’s who the illustration is by.
Do the illustrators get paid out of that sale or is that separate?
No no, that’s something I’m fronting. I have to pay the illustrators. They are amazing. I am so lucky to have them.
You’re previously run sites that were narrowly focused and industry-specific. Do you see this being appealing to a broader audience or do you still think it’s going to focus on Hollywood?
We absolutely have the audience of Hollywood. I mean, Hollywood loves to read about itself. And these stories will Hollywood readers because they’re very knowledgeably written. I mean, a lot of them you have to have knowledge of Hollywood 101. I used to say that about Deadline Hollywood. But these days, there are so many people interested in Hollywood—it’s the biggest cultural export that America has. I used to have enormous readers in France and England and Italy. And there are people in advertising—so many industries touch Hollywood. You’re in the auto industry? You wanna know what Hollywood is thinking—we mention a ton of cars in our stories. What do the agents drive, what did the actor drive—I think it’ll get a broad audience.
Is there any sort of legal process you have to go through beyond a disclaimer?
No! It’s fiction! These are not real characters. These are not real events. I make the contributors sign an agreement that they haven’t written about real people or real events. And there’s a crawl at the top that says these are not real people or events—you are reading fiction. Look, the best fiction is drawn from life. And if people think it’s real, the writer has done its job, but these are not real people. The things that I’m writing about could happen, or could have happened, but they didn’t happen.
Have you written any stories on the site?
Oh yeah. I’m hoping to have a story a week. I may not be able to keep that, but I’m hoping to have a story a week.
And you’re thinking eight a week, total?
I’m starting with eight stories, then I’ll go to four stories a week. With mine being fifth. And then as more and more stories come in, I can up that, but I think it’s a lot to ask people to read more than five stories a week. I don’t want to overwhelm people. On the homepage, each writer has his photo, short bio, his twitter, and his personal website.
So it’s very writer-centric.
Yes. It’s like a little advertisement for the writer. It’s so nice. I can’t imagine there are writers out there who are gonna see this and not gonna feel like, oh I wanna write for that.
Earlier you mentioned you were reading a book when you got the idea for the site. Do you remember what book it was?
I think I was reading Edith Wharton’s collection of short stories. I had recently seen there was a Kindle version available and I thought, I’ve read her novels, but I’ve never read her short stories. And I bought it and got into it, and she’s just wonderful. She’s just marvelous. Edith Wharton and Henry James. All those people who took a time and a place and a world, and wrote about it. That is something that very few people can do. One thing that surprised me about some of the stories coming in, is that I have real literature. Some of them are well known and some of them are unknown, and it’s really exciting to work with unknown writers and sort of discover them. But I don’t think they’re going to be unknown for long.
So I read that New York Times piece about the new site and—
They didn’t really talk that much about the new site, but that’s fine.
Well there was a line where you mentioned the rules for writing are that you write when you’re angry.
That’s what Peter Kaplan, from the New York Observer, used to say to me.
Well, I was just thinking, you sound like you’re in a very zen place right now!
I am! [Years ago,] I was under tremendous stress all day. It’s hard to run a site like that. There’s so much about Hollywood that drives me crazy. The powerful and powerless is a constant theme in all my stories—whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction—and it’s so prevalent in Hollywood. And the way people use power and money to crush people. And that just doesn’t sit well with me. Almost every story I’ve written so far for the site has been about that.
But you’re right. I’m relaxed right now. I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. I mean, what I love about the site is that at 2 in the morning I can start editing stories. I love that! I love being my own boss. And I’ve taken something that was a thought, and I’ve created something. I don’t know if it’s going to be successful, but I’m going to keep it going for five or ten years. This is very much what I wanted it to be. It’s even more than I imagined it could be. And that’s an incredibly satisfying feeling. I don’t care what anybody thinks of it—all right, I do a little—but I know in my gut it’s great, I know these are great stories, I know this is a really innovative and fun website, and there’s nothing like it! I defy people to read the first four graphs of these stories and not want to dive in head first.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images via Nikki Finke/Jen Rosenstein