The halfway mark for National Novel Writing Month has just passed. If you’re participating, depending on where you are in the process, author Renee Watson — she’s written two picture books Harlem’s Little Blackbird and A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, a middle grade novel called What Momma Left Me, and has a YA novel called This Side of Home coming out on February 3, 2015 — has a few words of encouragement for you. Read her advice.
Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has won the 2014 Dylan Thomas Prize, worth £30,000, beating out a shortlist that included 2013 Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Baileys Prizewinner Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, Kseniya Melnik‘s debut Snow in May, Kei Miller‘s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, Owen Sheers’ Mametz, and Naomi Wood‘s Mrs Hemingway. To Rise was also named to the 2014 Man Booker Shortlist but ultimately bowed to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
For her novel How to Be Both, Ali Smith has won the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize. Judges Geoff Dyer, Tom Gatti, Kirsty Gunn, and Francis Spufford selected the title which had been in contention with Outline by Rachel Cusk, The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves, J by Howard Jacobson The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, and In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahm. The prize comes with a £10,000 award.
Last week, Amazon and Hachette resolved their costly standoff. By many accounts, forthcoming books by Hachette authors are again available for pre-order, and current titles will again be shipped without delay. All is back to normal — normal being publishers and writers remain vulnerable to one distributor / bookseller in control of the industry’s revenue generation.
Less than a month after Simon and Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy expressed happiness about the “economically advantageous” multi-year deal her company reached with the e-tailer responsible for over 30% of book sales, Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch announced an agreement with Amazon too, saying, “It gives Hachette enormous marketing capability…” Thanks to “a source with knowledge” of the Simon and Schuster deal, the New York Times offers some insight into the Amazon-Hachette compromise, saying it gave the publisher “control over most of its pricing but offered incentives to sell at lower prices. Amazon got increased co-op funds, the payments for placement on the retailer’s website.”
In the same piece, Forrester Analyst James L. McQuivey rightly points out, “in the end this all cements Amazon’s ultimate long-term role in this business, which will only put Hachette right back in this situation every time they are up for renegotiation.” To be clear, the problem is not Amazon, in my opinion; it’s the current industry business model that enables one or two booksellers to control revenue generation for the industry, as well as the lack of progressive ideas on the part of publishers and writers. Amazon is only capitalizing on the vacuum.
Authors United President Douglas Preston says their fight is not over. The coalition of over 1,000 bestselling writers specifically formed to organize writers in resistance to Amazon’s negotiation tactics with Hachette is reportedly working with the Authors Guild to draft an appeal to the Justice Department in hopes the government branch will launch an antitrust investigation on Amazon.
Even as they sharpen their swords for this battle, I would love to see these bodies arm writers to take advantage of the technology that has enabled Amazon to shake the century old publishing and bookselling businesses in just under 20 years. For too long, authors have taken a talent (versus business partner) approach, allowing a retinue of go-betweens and third-parties to handle the business of our livelihood.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, especially now that the business is in this malleable evolutionary phase:
Writers need to take more ownership of what happens after the publishing deal is signed. We can’t afford to look at our work as solely “the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle”. The businesses of book publishing and book selling are built on the creators of books, and we can no longer afford to be handled as “the talent”.
We should have first signatory power of our advances. Agents should provide receipts for all postage and handling and other expenses generated to sell our books to receive reimbursement. Publishers should deliver similar transparency enabling writers to be clear about how their royalty checks are calculated. We should be in the meetings sharing thoughts about how our work should be marketed, and to whom. We should also have more understanding and ownership of the retail deals and outlets associated with our work.
At the height of the Hachette-Amazon impasse, Stephen Colbert leveraged his television platform to direct readers to shop at indie bookseller Powells, and, in the process, helped make imprint mate Edan Lepucki’s novel California “one of the most preordered debut titles in Hachette history”. What if authors with similar or greater reach fulfilled book orders directly or via a third party they had individually set deal terms with?
How different would the Amazon-Hachette dispute have been if J.K. Rowling had pulled a Taylor Swift and removed her books from Amazon to sell them herself, via a distributor of her choice, or via her publisher? What if publishers fulfilled orders directly from their warehouses, or scrapped warehousing and opened branded online bookstores as publishing strategist Bruce Harris suggested in an interview with Publishing Perspectives?
I realize there are contractual parameters in place that make some of these prescriptions impossible, naive, or both; and obviously, publishers, agents, and booksellers have expertise that cannot be discounted, but I think these are the questions authors and author advocacy groups need to begin to ask and answer with the industry in such flux. The goal needs to be evolving the current model so writers have more agency over their work and their revenue so when spats and shifts happen, we’re not left only with the option of airing our frustrations via traditional or social media, watching helplessly from the sidelines.
The Etisalat Prize for Literature was founded in 2013 by the Nigerian telecommunications giant Etisalat to spotlight debut African novelists. Last year, NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names edged out Yewande Omotoso’s Bom Boy, Yejide Kilanko’s Daughters Who Walk This Path, Karen Jennings’ Finding Southbek, Ifeanyi Ajeagbo’s Sarah House, Jamila Safari’s The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods, Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter, Claire Robertson’s The Spiral House, and The Whispering Trees by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. Buluwayo, who recently won the Hurston-Wright Foundation’s Legacy Award for critically-praised novel, gifted the fellowship to Omotoso, her runner-up.
This week, the prize administrators shared the 2014 longlist contending for the £15,000 cash prize and a fellowship at University of East Anglia under the mentorship of Professor Giles Foden, author of the Last King of Scotland. Judges Sarah Ladipo Manyika (Chair), Alain Mabanckou, Jamal Mahjoub, and Tsitsi Dangarembga will agree on a whittled list by December 8, 2014, and, ultimately, the winner, who will be announced on February 22, 2015.
The full 2014 longlist is here:
An Imperfect Blessing by Nadia Davids
Whoever Fears the Sea by Justin Fox
The Thunder that Roars by Imran Garda
Penumbra by Songeziwe Mahlangu
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (the 2014 Commonwealth Prize Winner)
Fresh Air and other stories by Reward Nsirim
Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta (this year’s Lambda Award Winner for Lesbian General Fiction)
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (longlisted for the 2014 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award)
Shadows by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
The winning novel will get representation from a Curtis Brown Creative agent, and free placement in one of the agency’s six-month novel-writing courses. Judges Marian Keyes, Caroline Quentin, and Jonny Geller (joint CEO of Curtis Brown) launched the “Be a Bestseller” competition yesterday; the entry deadline is November 14th.
2014 is shaping up to be an incredible year for some debut authors. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, Random House paid $1 million and $2 million, respectively, to acquire Imbolo Mbue’s debut The Longings of Jende Jonga and Emma Cline’s The Girls. Also at Frankfurt, University of Pennsylvania Associate Professor of Psychology Amy Lee Duckworth sold her first book Grit: Passion, Perseverance and the Science of Success to Scribner. Duckworth’s book is said to be based on the TED talk she gave last year entitled “The Key to Success? Grit.” Around the same time in early October, and about 3891 miles away, 2014 graduate of the New School’s MFA program Stephanie Danler scored a two book deal from A.A. Knopf. She pitched an agent she was serving at a French restaurant called Buvette in Manhattan’s West Village, and the rest is history.
Well, the beginning is history–and acts as a great marketing tool PR in advance of the book. What happens when the books actually hit the market could determine if these writers will have longevity.
Emily Gould famously sold her memoir for $200,000 in 2008. When her sales did not meet expectations, she had a difficult time selling her next book. Earlier this year, writer Maureen Callahan reported Gould had sold a new novel called Friendship for $30,000. A 2003 feature in New York Magazine cautions against banking on this “literary lottery” as an indication of the writers who will have staying power.
Writer Alex Williams points to the six- and seven-figure advances debut authors snapped up in the aftermath of Alice Sebold’s New York Times bestseller The Lovely Bones, said to have sold close to three million copies:
- Yale Law professor Stephen Carter — $4 million two-book deal.
- Medical Student Daniel Mason — $1.2 million two-book deal “on the strength of his manuscript for The Piano Turner.”
- Former Wired UK editor Hari Kunzru — nearly $1 million for the U.S. rights to his first novel The Impressionist.
- Former New Mexico reporter Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez — $475,000 for The Dirty Girls Social Club, a book that took her six days to write.
- Then 26-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer — $500,000 for his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated plus $925,000 for the paperback rights.
Williams wrote, “The magnitude of Safran Foer’s advance, combined with his tender age, drew so much attention it served to demonstrate to publishers just how powerful a marketing tool the advance itself could be. The larger the advance, the louder the publisher’s declaration that this is the book the house is gambling on this season. The marketplace has become a literary lottery, not just for the authors but for the publishing houses too. A modest advance, which used to signal the intention to invest in a long-term relationship, now indicates lack of commitment.”
For those authors who can’t get a PR-worthy advance, the marketing can come by landing a literary prize or fellowship, or buying a spot on the bestseller list. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that many authors hire book marketing companies like ResultSource to buy enough copies of their book to make the title a bestseller. “Publishing a book builds credibility, but having a Bestseller initiates incredible growth—exponentially increasing the demand for your thought leadership, skyrocketing your speaking itinerary and value,” ResultSource was quoted as saying in the piece. Publisher John Wiley & Sons admitted to recommending ResultSource to their business book authors.
These tactics are not unlike those employed by recording artists and music industry labels. “Payola” — the illegal practice of record labels paying TV and radio stations to play their artists’ songs — has been going on since the days of Dick Clark and likely before then. In 2001, Salon.com did a piece exposing labels’ use of “indie” brokers to get their artists’ tracks played on the radio. A 2009 piece in The Guardian suggested payola is the basis of internet radio.
Meanwhile, artists are seeking fresher ways to capture the finicky and finite attention spans of our day, whether it’s dropping secret albums like Beyonce did, “gifting” iTunes subscribers like U2 did, or collaborating with unexpected artists, again, like Beyonce did when she sampled author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk. The collaboration boosted Adichie’s book sales, and led to the publication, in text form, of her talk We Should All Be Feminists.
For writers, what’s clear is that their stories can’t be limited to what’s between the covers of their books. Whether we’re talking a book that was made possible by a Kickstarter campaign or some other crowd-funding source like Goldsmiths Prize shortlistee Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, or the story is attached to format i.e. online serial versus traditional print, there needs to be a hook that will inspire the press to cover the book. At the end of the day, it’s about getting share in the attention span of the reader. Once that happens, the marketing yields, finally, mercifully, to the merit of the story.
Longform journalists, rejoice! Jill Abramson is teaming up with CourtTV Founder Steve Brill to launch a start-up that will advance writers close to $100,000 each to research and write novella-length pieces. Subscribers will receive one story each month, while the to-be-named outlet will publish one story per year.
It’s not clear whether the monthly stories will be delivered digitally, and the “one story” published will be served to subscribers in print. According to Poynter.org, the ousted New York Times‘ Executive Editor declined to discuss who was funding the project.
When the details eventually emerge, they will be important, as will the start-up’s ability to sustain its payroll. If the enterprise can work, and isn’t limited to the exclusive network of writers Abramson worked with at the Times, it could destabilize the current normal in which writers, particularly digital journalists, are regularly asked to turn out pieces for free or close to it.
Interestingly, Abramson’s next move mirrors the directional push the New York Times took under her direction. Last January, the Times announced a partnership with Byliner to release expanded versions of the outlet’s previously published articles as well as other pieces that run 10-20,000 words.