In less than a year the online community for book lovers Goodreads has doubled its member base from 10 to 20 million members. Since March 2013 (when Amazon acquired them), it has grown by a whopping four million members to reach their current 2×10 growth.
Two days after the Man Booker Longlist was announced, six of the books have yet to be released. That’s almost half the list of 13 titles! The Bookseller reports publishers are either “considering” or scrambling to push up the release dates for Alison McLeod’s Unexploded, Eve Harris’ The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.
Though publishers could not have known which books would make the cut, the books that were in contention should have been released or at least a small print run should have been ready to go upon announcement. Now, as British bookseller Henry Layte pointed out, “Customers who want to get hold of those books will probably end up pre-ordering them on Amazon.”
The industry really needs to do a better job at synergy and anticipating business opportunities. Though the direct correlation between prizes and sales numbers is questionable, the boost in publicity and name recognition the longlisted titles get presents an easier sell in bookstores at a time when they need it most.
Just two months after Waterstones invited customers to share “the book that made me“, 66 managers have left the company after declining to reapply for their jobs. As the chain goes through a restructure, The Bookseller reports “all 487 branch and assistant manager positions were earmarked for redundancy.” Employee morale has reportedly hit “rock bottom.”
Days after Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was outed as the author going by the name Robert Galbraith, the author explained why she would go to the trouble of publishing under an unknown name considering her own name is good for instant bestseller status. “I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre,” she wrote in the FAQs section of the Robert Galbraith website, “to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback. It was a fantastic experience and I only wish it could have gone on a little longer.” Galbraith’s secret identity was revealed via tweet by the best friend of the wife of a lawyer representing Rowling via the firm Russells.
In 2012, Rowling made a departure from her Harry Potter fare to pen an adult novel The Casual Vacancy which received mixed reviews. By contrast, her Galbraith debut was not only warmly reviewed, but beat sales expectations for a first-time author. “At the point I was ‘outed’,” she explains, “Robert had sold 8500 English language copies across all formats (hardback, eBook, library and audiobook) and received two offers from television production companies.” When she was revealed as the author, sales shot up 41,000%.
As a debut author, it seems the moral of this story is to refrain from despising small beginnings. If a writer of Rowling’s stature — she’s one of the bestselling authors of all time with more than 450 million copies of her Harry Potter series sold — would forgo the guaranteed success (sales success anyway) for the struggle of the early writer, there’s got to be some value in it.
Insisting the pen-name reveal was not a clever marketing scheme, Rowling says, “Being Robert Galbraith has been all about the work, which is my favourite part of being a writer.”
People.com has been hosting live Author chats lately. Recently they featured Judy Blume and today writer Anne Lamott, author of Help, Thanks, Wow and Some Assembly Required is online. I asked her the best writing advice she’d ever received and she credited fellow writer, E.L. Doctorow as the source. “I loved what EL Doctorow said, that writing is like driving at night with the headlights on–you can only see a little ways in front of you but you can make the whole journey that way.” Check out the full live chat session here.
Even though we know spoken words can in fact hurt more than sticks and stones, for some reason words carry even more weight when they’re “in writing.”
To put something down in black and white means there’s proof that can’t be erased. The written word can be debated and (mis)interpreted, but because it’s documented, it’s afforded all the respect of a tangible record that lives longer than the author, taking on other lives in the minds of its readers.
For this reason, writing is an art that requires careful handling of fact, even in fiction. Digital writing, with its ability to be updated/deleted and shared with infinite readers, confuses the notion of writing’s permanence, but even this confusion stems from the authority we hand over to the published word. If it’s been written, we either believe it or work to undermine its truth so no one else will believe.
All this is a preamble to two recent pieces that speak to writers’ responsibility to acquire legitimate authority in our chosen field of writing. In a post on Copyblogger, writer Demian Farnworth insists writers need to be both specialists in our respective fields and insatiably curious about things of interest outside our fields.
He specifically advises: Obsess about one subject once a year. Listen to podcasts. Follow clever people on social media. Watch educational television and documentaries. Immerse yourself in popular and obscure culture.
Writer Ben Yagoda echoes Farnworth in the NY Times‘ “Should We Write What We Know?” challenging writers to become “serial experts”. Instead of taking the write-what-you-know axiom to mean you should write what amounts to fictionalized autobiography, Yagoda says the motto is a call to “investigate the subject till you can write about it with complete confidence and authority.”
But even when you’ve mastered your topic, Yagoda cautions, it doesn’t mean you’ve mastered the craft of writing. Yagoda suggests craft comes down to effective communication–“good writers (like good conversationalists) are always conscious of the person or persons on the receiving end of their words.” He elaborates:
Bad conversationalists and bad writers look out into the distance or at the floor, and don’t notice when their listeners’ faces are puzzled, annoyed or bored. Good writers perceive that and respond. And the best writers anticipate these reactions, and consequently are able to avoid them.
Even more important than holding readers’ attention with savvy raconteur skills, is the ability to enlighten with a nugget of truth or speak to a fundamental human truth. That comes with the diligence of focused discipline, careful observation, and the vulnerability to be wrong on the way to learning how to be right–much like acquiring expertise.
The Man Booker Prize Longlist was announced today and it boasts three debut novelists–NoViolet Bulawayo, Eve Harris, and Donal Ryan–alongside celebrated literati like Jhumpa Lahiri and Colum McCann. The last time a first-time author earned the prize was 2008 when Aravind Adiga won for The White Tiger. The list is also internationally diverse highlighting stories by Malaysian scribe Tash Aw, New Zealander Eleanor Catton, and Canadian Ruth Ozeki among others. This follows a recent trend the NY Times pointed out re: Granta’s decidedly un-British list of literature’s top 20 stars to watch.
The Longlist of 13 novels to make this year’s Man Booker cut was culled from an initial 151 that included work by Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee. Judges Robert MacFarlane, Martha Kearney, Stuart Kelly, Natalie Haynes, and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst will ultimately choose the winner who will receive the £50,000 prize.
And the Longlist is…
CNN contributor Bob Greene has shared an excellent insight on the J.K. Rowling-Robert Galbraith drama. As many of you know, the immensely successful Harry Potter creator wrote a novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Though the book was critically praised, sales languished until Rowling was outed as the real author.
Now, the book is set to make those who bought international rights for a relatively modest sum, very wealthy. For her part, Rowling has expressed deep disappointment in the slip — made via twitter by one Judith Callegari, the best friend of the wife of Chris Gossage, a lawyer representing Rowling via the firm Russells.
Rowling wrote in a statement that was quoted in The Bookseller:
A tiny number of people knew my pseudonym and it has not been pleasant to wonder for days how a woman whom I had never heard of prior to Sunday night could have found out something that many of my oldest friends did not know. To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. I had assumed that I could expect total confidentiality from Russells, a reputable professional firm and I feel very angry that my trust turned out to be misplaced.
But Greene’s focus isn’t on Rowling’s story, as made for TV as it is. Instead, he highlights the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle prospects for many talented, but unknown authors. He writes:
…consider the case of Chuck Ross — the protagonist of the most instructive, the most damning, and the most hilarious true story about publishing there ever has been.
I interviewed him and reported on his story almost 35 years ago. Ross, in the 1970s, was a young would-be author who was trying with no success to get his first novel published. He was receiving nothing but rejection slips.
Greene goes on to describe how Ross, trying to determine whether his unknown status or his talent was the issue, presented the work of National Book Award Winner Jerzy Kosinski as his own. Every agent and publisher Ross queried turned the book down. When Ross later revealed what he had done, the agents and publishers and question reportedly shrugged at the results of his experiment.
Indeed, as a first-time writer, I can attest to the immense difficulty in getting heard. It was only after four years of pitching that I found a literary agent who would take me on. I later discovered that mine was the first book she had sold. Had my agent been an experienced shark, would she have taken a chance on me? I don’t know, but what I do know is she managed to sell the book — Powder Necklace — to Simon and Schuster’s Atria/Washington Square Press imprint just two months after signing with me.
Judging by the pre-leak performance of the Rowling/Galbraith book, I can understand why publishers are reticent to acquire debut authors/writers who don’t have marquee names. However, it’s shortsighted business. Publishers can’t pin the industry on one or two juggernauts. They’ve got to cultivate and promote authors they really believe in, not only via social media, but investing in author book tours and creating opportunities for success by scheduling joint appearances with recognized names.
I would also recommend a boot camp for new authors. In retrospect, there are so many things I did not know about the business that would have served me, and ultimately the publisher, well had I been aware. Little things that seem obvious to me now, for example how important it is to establish relationships with bookstores in different markets.
For the industry to survive and thrive, there needs to be real support for the next generation or there won’t be one. That won’t be Amazon‘s fault.
Evan Hughes has written a provocative piece on Salon.com called “Here’s How Amazon Self-Destructs.” In the post, Hughes suggests that by endangering and putting bookstores out of business, Amazon will “destroy the main way readers learn about new books.” He points to the “showroom effect” of bookstores recently written about in the New York Times as a case in point.
When it comes to book discovery, different sources cite different trends. While a key takeaway from the Digital Book World Conference revealed readers look for new books on Amazon, Goodreads, or a writer’s website to find and buy the book they’re looking for, onetime Amazon employee Jason Merkoski (who helped build the Kindle) notes the limitations of technology when it comes to book recommendations. “They’ll just recommend the most popular books to me, or books that other people also bought, but they know nothing of the soul and sparkle of a great book,” Merkoski told the New York Times‘ “Bits” blog.
But even when discovery is not at issue, Amazon is not a profitable option when it’s the only option. Take comfort food mogul Paula Deen’s yanked book deal for example. Though her then yet-to-be released cook book shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list in the wake of her N-word scandal, her publishers decided to rescind her book deal anyway because brick and mortar retailers refused to carry it.
The New York Times reported an anonymous source “with knowledge of Random House’s decision to cancel the contract” as saying “When Walmart, Target and J. C. Penney all announced they are discontinuing their Paula Deen business, including books, it is awfully tough to stay the course of a publication. It was a business decision.”
So if Hughes is right and shelf space is critical to discover-ability, why wouldn’t Amazon just start opening brick and mortar bookstores? They certainly have the deep pockets to do it. If they did, however, the power would shift in publishers’ favor again, or maybe agents’ as Amazon has already been side-stepping publishers to communicate and colloborate directly with author representatives in the necessary quest to stock their shelves.
As Barnes and Noble fights for its life in the wake of bleeding sales numbers and the departure of their CEO; and independent bookstores like New York’s Revolution Books marshal literary heavyweights like Edwidge Danticat and Walter Mosley to raise funds, we shall soon find out Amazon’s next plan.