Ask The Editor

July 9, 2009

Two disconcerting tidbits of publishing news

These come via Publishers Lunch, which is emailed to subscribers, so I can’t provide a link:

1. Announcing the sale of: “seven zombie books from Permuted Press in a co-publishing deal.”

I was wondering when we’d finally move past the era of a vampire in every novel. This wasn’t exactly the evolution I’d hoped for.

2. “Portland, OR-area bookseller Stephanie Griffin closed her store Twenty-third Avenue Books in January and then became homeless. ‘Startled neighbors discovered this in June’ as ‘Griffin had started panhandling outside her old store,’ Willamette Week writes. Neighbors have set up a relief fund.”

– Anita Bartholomew

May 17, 2009

A gift from Florida’s prison guards to Carl Hiaasen

Filed under: Commentary — editorialconsultant @ 12:56 pm
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Those who enjoy Carl Hiassen’s wacky novels about crazed doings in Florida probably think he’s got a wild imagination. And he does. But, folks who live in Florida also know that he gets plenty of help from the politicians, developers, crooks, liars and civil servants of our state.

The headline this weekend in The Miami Herald just begs to find its way into a Carl Hiaasen novel. And those who don’t read about it today will assume, when they see how he spins it in a year or two, that Mr. Hiaasen has to be making this stuff up because it couldn’t possibly happen. And yet …

A total of 43 children were directly and indirectly shocked by electric stun guns during simultaneous ”Take Your Sons and Daughters to Work Day” events gone wrong at three state prisons, according to new information provided Friday by the Florida Department of Corrections.

Also, a group of kids was exposed to tear gas during a demonstration at another lockup.

… In nearly every case, the guards had permission from parents or grandparents to administer the ”electronic immobilization devices,” McNeil said.

”I can’t imagine what these officers were thinking to administer this device to children, nor can I imagine why any parent would allow them to do so,” McNeil said. “This must not happen again.”

All that said, Mr. Hiaasen has so many screwball Floridian antics to choose among, he might not consider the above worthy when compared, say, to this item:

A parachutist landed on a beer vendor at a coleslaw wrestling match during central Florida’s raucous “Bike Week” celebration.

– Anita Bartholomew

May 13, 2009

Is Amazon becoming a publisher — or simply promoting its self-publishing options?

From its press release, announcing the new venture:

Amazon customers raved over “Legacy,” a self-published novel by 16-year-old Cayla Kluver, with customer review titles such as “loved it, loved it,” “rich lyrical tapestry and story” and “breathtaking in scope and execution!” Despite winning several prizes from literary groups and accolades like this from readers, Kluver’s debut novel achieved only modest sales. Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) today announced a new program, “AmazonEncore,” to help readers discover exceptional books from emerging authors, such as the program’s first book, “Legacy.”

AmazonEncore is a new program whereby Amazon uses information such as customer reviews on Amazon websites to identify exceptional, overlooked books and authors that show potential for greater sales. Amazon then partners with the authors to re-introduce their books to readers through marketing support and distribution into multiple channels and formats, such as the Amazon Books Store, Amazon Kindle Store, Audible.com, and national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers. This summer “Legacy” will be revised by the author and re-issued as an AmazonEncore edition in print on Amazon websites around the world, in physical bookstores, as a digital download from the Kindle Store in less than 60 seconds, and via spoken-word audio download on Audible.com.

There’s no word on what Amazon means when it says it “partners” with authors. Amazon may, indeed be acting like a traditional publisher and offering advances, royalties, etc. But AmazonEncore may, instead, be a re-branding or expansion of Amazon’s current self-publishing tools. It’s not clear yet. But, what if Amazon is merely selecting certain self-published books for more favorable design, distribution and marketing treatment? And what if it’s using this as a marketing tool to promote its self-publishing arm?

That seems more likely to me — and, if so, appears to be a smart marketing move.

I hate to be a cynic but, stay tuned for the details.

– Anita Bartholomew

May 5, 2009

Mystery Writers of America celebrate Poe bicentennial

Edgar Allan Poe would have been 200 in January. The Mystery Writers of America were in New York City at the end of April to hand out Edgar Awards for the worthiest mysteries of the year while (belatedly) celebrating the birth of our first mystery novelist.

April 22, 2009

What Dan Brown can teach us all (don’t laugh) about writing

Dan Brown’s follow-up to his The Da Vinci Code — which was the bestselling hardcover novel of all time —  is set to release in September.

First, let’s get the issue of writing skill out of the way because, if you’ve read The Da Vinci Code, and you’re a writer, you probably believe you can out-write Dan Brown with half your talent tied behind your back.

But, Brown teaches us that there is more to being a successful writer than having a way with words. It’s Brown’s stories that have made him a success, along with his expert use of tension.

The Da Vinci Code appeals to readers who enjoy a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. That’s what Brown delivers. He also lets readers figure out the various mysteries a page or three before his protagonists do, making the reader feel satisfied in his or her deductive skills. And perhaps most important to his success, Brown seems to reveal intriguing secrets hiding in plain sight.

In other words, he has nailed a winning commercial formula. All he left out were interesting characters and appealing prose.

– Anita Bartholomew

February 5, 2009

Stephen King on other bestselling authors

People are sometimes surprised when they ask what I read and I answer, everything. They assume professional writers and editors have such refined tastes that we limit our reading to authors such as Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and the occasional Philip Roth.

While I can’t speak for all of us in the publishing world, most of us probably try to read whatever we can get our hands on, especially those books, well-written or not, that have become bestsellers. We want to know why. How did the author capture such a large audience? What is it that resonated with readers?

In a USA Today interview, Stephen King, the master of horror fiction shares his thoughts about the writing gifts of some other bestselling authors. His verdict on two prolific blockbuster authors:

“You’ve got Dean Koontz, who can write like hell. And then sometimes he’s just awful. It varies. James Patterson is a terrible writer but he’s very very successful.”

But here’s where I really relate to King. After pointing out that Stephenie Meyer, author of the popular Twilight vampire books, isn’t much of a writer, he shares insights on why she’s a success:

“People are attracted by the stories, by the pace and in the case of Stephenie Meyer, it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it’s not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.”

All writers of fiction should do the same kind of analysis, especially when reviewing books that are similar in some way to their own. What is it that sets the book apart and draws readers in? Rarely is it the quality of the writing. More likely, it’s something about the story or the characters or both.

January 22, 2009

From rejection to self-publishing to bestselling novelist

We keep reading (and hearing from agents, publishers and others in the industry) that it’s more difficult than ever to get a book published by a major publishing house. And that’s not surprising, given the economy in general and the publishing market in particular.

Yet, with increasingly regularity, we read stories such as this one, about a novelist who couldn’t get a literary agent, let alone a publisher, decided to self-publish, and now has a hit.

Lisa Genova, 38, was a health-care-industry consultant in Belmont, Mass., who wanted to be a novelist, but she couldn’t get her book published for love or money. She had a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, but she couldn’t get an agent. “I did what you’re supposed to do,” she says. “I queried literary agents. I went to writers’ conferences and tried to network. I e-mailed editors. Nobody wanted it.” So Genova paid $450 to a company called iUniverse and published her book, Still Alice, herself.

That was in 2007. By 2008 people were reading Still Alice. Not a lot of people, but a few, and those few were liking it. Genova wound up getting an agent after all–and an offer from Simon & Schuster of just over half a million dollars. Borders and Target chose it for their book clubs. Barnes & Noble made it a Discover pick. On Jan. 25, Still Alice will make its debut on the New York Times best-seller list at No. 5. “So this is extreme to extreme, right?” Genova says. “This time last year, I was selling the book out of the trunk of my car.”

Does this mean we should all be self-publishing? No, although it’s easier than ever to do so. What it probably means is that, when literary agents and publishers are too cautious to consider any manuscript that doesn’t scream “bestseller” the minute they read it, lots of potential hits will never get published. And, intrepid authors who have faith in their books, who understand marketing and promotion, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to get those books into the hands of readers, might as well try on their own.

The alternative is that nobody reads what you may have spent years writing.

January 15, 2009

Bestselling novelists, worldwide?

It’s not who you may think — or, at least, not who I guessed it would be (J.K. Rowling and/or Stephenie Meyer). Instead, according to the U.K.’s bookseller.com,   in a poll of Top 10 fiction bestseller charts across nine different countries , the two names that appeared most often are Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns) and Ken Follett (World without End).

Hosseini and Follett made bestseller lists in seven of the nine countries.

So maybe, adult fiction can compete with YA after all. (At least, outside the U.S.)

January 12, 2009

Survey: Americans reading more fiction

Finally, a bit of good news on the publishing front: According to a survey conducted for the National Endowment for the Arts, Americans are reading more literature, from novels to short stories. Even better, the increase in reading isn’t just among older generations whose reading habits were formed before there was a web to distract us. Reading increased most significantly, according to the survey, among 18 to 24-year-olds. What’s also interesting is that 15 percent of those surveyed said that they read literature online. Below are a few bullet points from the NEA press release that should come as good news for authors of novels and short stories and also, provide hints about where those new readers may be found:

  • Since 2002, reading has increased at the sharpest rate (+20 percent) among Hispanic Americans, Reading rates have increased among African Americans by 15 percent, and among Whites at an eight percent rate of increase.
  • For the first time in the survey’s history, literary reading has increased among both men and women. Literary reading rates have grown or held steady for adults of all education levels.
  • Fiction (novels and short stories) accounts for the new growth in adult literary readers.
  • A slight majority of American adults now read literature (113 million) or books (119 million) in any format.
  • Reading is an important indicator of positive individual and social behavior patterns. Previous NEA research has shown that literary readers volunteer, attend arts and sports events, do outdoor activities, and exercise at higher rates than non-readers.

January 9, 2009

Why do Young Adult novels dominate bestseller list?

During the years that Harry Potter books were selling millions more than comparable adult fiction, we could have chalked up that success story to the charm of the teen wizard tales.

But what do we make of the current bestseller list? Stephanie Meyer’s novels about teen vampires are, by all accounts, less charming and yet,  her young adult stories of teen bloodsuckers are in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 8th positions on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list of fiction. A Harry Potter title is in 4th place while Brisingr, a dragon tale for young adults, is in 14th place.

That makes six young adult books in the top 15.

What should authors take away from this? It’s difficult to say. If you start writing a young adult novel now to take advantage of this trend, by the time you’re done, there’s a chance that the trend will be done, too. But if you’re already an author of young adult fiction, you might find agents and acquiring editors more receptive to reviewing your work, especially if there is an element of the other-worldly or whimsy in it.

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