How The Times’ Best Seller List Comes Together

There was an article in The New York Times on 2 October 2020, written by the “Best Seller Lists Staff” and I quote from it below:

“Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

“Come holiday or hurricane, one thing you can count on is that The New York Times’ best-seller lists will be published online every Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern. And those lists will be dated for the print Book Review, where they will appear 11 days later. This is just one of the many quirks of the work we — the three-member BSL team, as we call ourselves — do, combining data science, investigative reporting and our own special blend of foxhole humor.

“As much as we wish some myths were true, such as that the lists are determined by an automated data spigot with a secret algorithm or our executive editor’s throwing darts at the wall, the work of putting together the lists requires the full-time efforts of the three of us and the support of an information technology team.

“The sales data that drives what books make the lists, and where they land within them, is sent by stores giant, tiny and in-between all across the country. It reflects the previous week’s Sunday-to-Saturday sales period, which stores begin to report to us over the weekend. We receive numbers on millions of titles each week from tens of thousands of storefronts and online retailers as well as specialty and independent bookstores.

“So there’s a lot of data in need of herding. This is complicated by the fact that a single title in one binding, such as hardcover, can have a dozen or more International Standard Book Numbers or I.S.B.N.s, which are like Social Security numbers for books, depending on the different kinds of stores where it is sold. We must tie them together in our system and track all of them appropriately. Since our work must be kept under wraps until we publish, we use an assortment of code names for books, authors and stores.

“By noon on Mondays, we have received roughly 75 percent of the data and have some idea of what the best bets are going to be for new titles. But, as in sports, it’s not over until the final buzzer, which will come the following afternoon. Monday afternoons fly by because we continue to gather reports, help stores with technical issues and begin the stressful task of writing things we know will eventually be read by a lot of famous authors.

“We write descriptions for the new titles based on the blurbs on the books’ jackets or publishers’ websites. Most weeks, we have a dozen or so new titles across our 11 weekly lists. On busy weeks when we also close our seven monthly lists, we can have over 40 new titles. We have to make sure we have the correct title, author(s), publisher’s imprint and pertinent facts about the book before squeezing everything into a limited space on a tight deadline.

“Yes, this means we are ranking the books and writing their descriptions without having read the works. You might ask how we can choose which books are good if we aren’t first reading all of them. We don’t. Unlike the staff members of the Book Review, from whom we work independently, we aren’t making value judgments. We go off the sales data.

“The window for reporting each week closes at noon on Tuesdays. For the next few hours, we determine the final rankings, based on the sales data and details provided by stores. We want the lists to reflect what individual consumers are buying across the country instead of what is being bought in bulk by individuals or associated groups.

“During the finalization stage, the three of us gather in a room (or, these days, we get on the phone), and one editor reads each list from top to bottom as the other two double-check information. To stay alert, we sing some book titles to the tune of familiar songs. Recent chart toppers include: Tara Westover’s “Educated,” crooned to the rhythm of Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited”; Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race,” delivered in the style of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”; and Sean Hannity’s “Live Free or Die,” belted like Axl Rose wailing “Live and Let Die.”

“Once we complete the descriptions for the new titles, we send them to get copy-edited before they get published in our subscriber newsletter, online and in the print Book Review. On Wednesday evenings, people are either popping Champagne corks or calling for our heads. Whatever the reaction, it’s important to remember that the lists are less of a final judgment by readers on a book or topic and more of an ongoing conversation. Each week tells a different story. The only way to get a true sense of trends in the book world and in our culture is to look at the lists over many weeks, months and even years.”

This sounds like a complicated process, but maybe it’s the fairest way to do it.

Publishing Proverbs

A post by Paula Munier on the Career Authors website two days ago caught my attention.  It begins, “Publishing is rife with conventional wisdom but some of it is actually useful.”

Ms Munier’s website says, “My professional evolution mirrors that of publishing itself.  From my early days as a reporter to my latest incarnation as all-around content queen and bottle washer, I’ve reinvented myself as the publishing industry has changed—and keeps on changing. The only constant: My love of the written word. Over my 20-plus years in the business, I’ve conceived, created, produced, and marketed exceptional content in all formats across all markets for such media giants as WGBH, Fidelity, Disney, Gannett, F+W Media, Quarto, Greenspun Media Group, among others. ”

Paula Munier

Some of the publishing proverbs she mentions are as follows:

“1. The first page sells the book, the last page sells the next book.

I repeated this recently at a Zoom event and like an old dog full of old tricks I was surprised that so many writers there had not heard it. But it’s as true today as it was when I got my first job in book publishing some 25 years ago. The first page must grab the reader, the last page must satisfy the reader.

2. If there’s a gun on the wall in act one, it better fire in act two.

I’m paraphrasing Anton Chekhov here, whose classic advice on foreshadowing has become so beloved a dramatic principle that it’s now known as Chekhov’s Gun.

3. Don’t get it right, get it written.

I used to tell my reporters this when they were running late with their stories back in my newspaper days. I wasn’t the first to say it, but I do say it a lot, not only to those reporters but to authors when I was an acquisitions editor and to clients now that I’m an agent and ultimately to myself whenever I get stuck in my own writing. All you need is a first draft —and then you can fix it.

4. Writing is rewriting.

I repeat, writing is rewriting. Embrace the revision process and the advice of smart editors. Rewriting what separates the wannabes from the pros.

5. When in doubt, delete.

This is every editor’s mantra. So the next time you find yourself struggling to make some aspect of your story work, delete it instead. I learned this lesson again while revising A Hiding Place. . . . My editor suggested I lose one of my favorite clues, and I balked. I’d done all that research! But eventually I caved and the book is far better for it.

6. You can’t start the fire, but you can fuel it.

This is what the sales and PR and marketing people always tell you when you complain to your publisher that they’re not doing enough to promote your book. Which means that if the book doesn’t catch fire when it debuts, they’re not going to spend what they see as bad money after good trying to light up sales.

7. Hook, book, cook.

I heard an editor quote this just recently; apparently my swell fellow agent and author Eric Smith uses this phrase to describe the best way to pitch a project: 1) hook, as in high-concept premise; 2) book, as in what happens in the story; and 3) cook, as in you the author and what about you personally and/or professionally informs your work. A good formula for a pitch.

8. It takes a million words to make a writer.

When I was in my twenties, I joined my first writer’s group. The grande dame of the group was an erudite professor who was a far more experienced and successful writer than the rest of us. She regarded me as the neophyte I was and told me severely, “It takes a million words to make a writer.” She was correct, of course. A million words or 10,000 hours or just a hell of lot of writing and rewriting.

9. You can’t make a living but you can make a killing.

I first heard this attributed to James Michener, but many people have said it. And why not, since this is the unfortunate lot of artists, especially in America. Most artists can’t make a lavish living doing their art, but a lucky few find fame and fortune. Here’s hoping it’s you and me.

10. There’s no crying in publishing.

. . . I say There’s no crying in publishing. And then I quote the inimitable and prolific Jane C, Cleland, Agatha-winning author of nonfiction and fiction, who never complains about the vagaries of the publishing business. Rather, she says that she just tries to write a better book.”

I agree with all of the above, except for number 3.  I find that when I force myself to write at pace, as I did when I started writing, I produce too much cliché and uninteresting text.  This is particularly true when you’re trying to write a literary novel.  For me, it’s better to spend time trying to get it nearly right, an then go back and do some polishing.

Audio Books Continue to Mushroom

There is a press release dated 18 June 2020 from the Audio Publishers Association which tells an interesting story about the growth of audio books.

It says, in part:

“Audiobook sales and consumption continues to grow according to recently released results from the Audio Publishers Association’s annual sales survey conducted by independent research firm InterQ and their annual consumer survey conducted
by Edison Research. Based on information from responding publishers, U.S. audiobook sales in 2019 totaled 1.2 billion dollars, up 16% from the previous year, with a corresponding increase in units.

This continues the EIGHT-year trend of double-digit revenue growth.“Eight straight years of double-digit revenue growth is simply phenomenal,” says Chris Lynch, co-chair of the APA’s Research Committee and President & Publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio. “Even more encouraging are the continued upward trends in consumer listening behavior – both in how many titles they listen to per year and in their finding more time in their
day to listen.”

In addition to the sales increase, Edison Research’s national survey of American audiobook listeners ages 18 and up found that the average number of audiobooks listened to per year increased to 8.1 in 2020, up from 6.8 in 2019. The most popular audiobook genre continues to be Mysteries/Thrillers/Suspense. 57% of frequent audiobook listeners are under the age of 45; this is up from 51% in 2019. And audiobook publishers reported that there were 60,303 new titles produced in 2019, an 18% increase over 2018.

Other notable findings from the surveys include:
• Audiobook consumers place a high priority on quality of narration. Non-fiction and fiction listeners alike prefer a professional voice actor to the author as a narrator.
• For the third year in a row, more than 50% of audiobook listeners say they are making
“new” time to listen to audiobooks and consuming more books.
• A clear market for shorter audiobooks exists, with 43% of audiobook purchasers saying
they would buy an audiobook that is one to three hours long.
• The car remains the #1 overall place for listening, but the home remains the place where
people listen most often.”

From my point of view, I would agree with some of the survey’s findings.  My wife and I took a long car trip recently and we had downloaded some audiobooks.  One of the books was by Toni Morrison, but we couldn’t understand the author who was reading it.  In principle it seems right to have the author reading, but from a listener’s point of view, a professional voice actor is a better choice.  Instead, we listened to Wild Swans by Jung Chang read by Pik-Sem Lim.  Ms Lim must also be Chinese and her accent adds an air of authenticity, but her diction is clear and precise.  When I was doing a lot of travelling by car for business, I always had an audio book (on cassettes from the library).  Some of my favourites were the Flashman and Patrick O’Brian series

 

Books About Race and Anti-Racism: ‘Surging’

An article with the above title, Porter Anderson, appears in the June 16 issue of Publishing Perspectives.  Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair’s 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives.

Porter Anderson

Excerpts from the article are as follows:

“A demonstration of how responsive the US marketplace can be to a national crisis: Have a look at Amazon Charts‘ nonfiction listings.

Normally updated on Wednesdays, these titles are showing No. 1 and 2 in both the charts’ Most Sold and Most Read categories to be, respectively White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon Press, 2018) and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (Penguin Random House, 2019), respectively.

Those two titles went onto the list two and three weeks ago, respectively just after, and one week after, George Floyd’s death for which former police officer Derek Chauvin now is charged with second-degree murder.

And just out a week ago, on June 9, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America (Macmillan/Henry Holt) is the timely new release from Stacey Abrams on voter suppression.

On the list of potential vice-presidential candidates for the Joe Biden ticket, Abrams’ book arrived with eerie timing last week–just as Georgia (where she has run for governor) went into a primary-election meltdown of voting-machine failures and waiting lines between four and eight hours long.

More from the Amazon Charts, Most Sold in nonfiction–and the timing on many of these, most on the list for one or two weeks, indicates the drivers to which publishing’s content is responding:

I think it’s pretty remarkable the extent to which writers and publishers are responding to a national crisis as evidenced by the dominance of these non-fiction works on the Amazon Most Sold List.

 

Male and Female Writers’ Coverage Bias

There is an article by Alison Flood in The Guardian on March 18, 2019 in which she analyses the Emilia Report.

Emilia Bassano (portrait circa 1590 by Nicholas Hilliard)

 

Excerpts from the article are quoted below:

“Emilia Bassano became England’s first published female poet in 1611 and – according to some – could be the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. But Bassano has largely been forgotten by posterity, with her reputation eclipsed by male contemporaries. Four hundred years later, research commissioned by the producers of Emilia, a play about Bassano’s struggle for recognition as an artist, has found that women writers continue to be judged by the “pram in the hallway”, and pigeonholed as domestic rather than taken seriously as authors.

“The Emilia Report compared broadsheet coverage of 10 male and female writers in the same market. It found a “marked bias” towards male writers, who received 56% of review coverage. Looking at comparable authors Neil Gaiman and Joanne Harris, who had both written new works of fantasy – Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and Harris’s A Pocket Full of Crows – researchers found that while Gaiman’s received widespread coverage, Harris’s did not receive any coverage at all. A similar story emerged for commercial fiction authors Matt Haig and Rowan Coleman; his How to Stop Time was mentioned 12 times by newspapers, in a mix of reviews, interviews and news, while her The Summer of Impossible Things got just three mentions.

“References to women writers’ ages were “ubiquitous”, even in reviews, the researchers found, with women twice as likely to have their age referenced as part of their coverage. In the case of Sally Rooney, only five pieces out of 16 failed to mention her age, three of which were reviews.

“Coleman, one of 27 female authors interviewed for the report on her experience of being published, said she had never been reviewed by a broadsheet, despite writing a string of bestselling novels. “For a man writing is a career,” she said. “For a woman, so often her writing is treated like it’s a hobby, it is a nice thing to do on the side. That attitude is deeply embedded in our culture.”

“Harris reported similar experiences: “In general, when you compare the coverage of my work to that of men writing in similar areas, the emphasis in my case has been on the domestic, and in theirs on the academic,” she said. “Women are still viewed as a niche group, dealing solely with women’s issues, whereas men (even in the same area) are thought of as dealing with important, universal themes.”

“Danuta Kean, the report’s author, said that just as it was for Bassano, “women still aren’t provided with an equal platform to men upon which their work can be judged.”

“The Emilia report recommends challenging publishers over gender stereotypes on covers, which “undermine the credibility of fiction by women and their ability to be taken seriously”, and asking literary editors to examine any gender bias in their review coverage.

“Playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, whose play Emilia is transferring to London’s West End, said that the research showed that Bassano’s struggles for recognition “sadly still chime with those of her fellow women writers 400 years later”.

“Bassano managed to publish a book, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, getting around censorship that limited women to writing only religious texts. Yet she is scarcely known outside academic circles.”

What was it the Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement used to say?  “You’ve come a long way, baby.”  (From 1590 to 2020, but there’s a long way still to go.)

Small Publishers Fear Closure

There is an article by Alison Flood in the May 7th issue of The Guardian which is timely.  Te headline is “Majority of Small Publishers Fear Closure in the Wake of Coronavirus.   Alison Flood is the Guardian’s books reporter and the former news editor of the Bookseller.

Alison Flood

The article says, “More than half of the UK’s small publishers fear they could be out of business by the autumn as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to research by the Bookseller, which warns of a “whole tranche of writers that either will not write, or will be unable to see their work published”.

With author events cancelled, titles delayed and bookshop sales severely hit by lockdown, the survey of 672 small publishers reveals almost 60% fear closure by the autumn. The Bookseller said that 57% reported they had no cashflow to support their business, and 85% had seen sales drop by more than half.

According to the Bookseller’s editor Philip Jones, the survey shows that the outbreak threatens many small presses, including some of the UK’s best-known independents.

“These are not big publishers, or even the bigger indies, but the very smallest, many of them Arts Council-funded, publishing into areas often overlooked by other publishers, with a particular emphasis on debut writers, and those from BAME or working-class backgrounds,” said Jones. “There’s a whole tranche of writers that either will not write, or will be unable to see their work published, if these fears come true, and it is incumbent on the publishing sector, arts funders and governments to look at how the situation can be resolved.”

Independents often take risks on authors that mainstream publishers shy away from: Norwich-based indie Galley Beggar Press published Eimear McBride’s award-winning A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing after it was rejected by a string of major presses, while independents dominated the longlist for this year’s International Booker prize.

After winning the London category of the small press of the year award at the 2020 British Book Awards, the founder of Jacaranda Books, Valerie Brandes, had been looking at her “strongest, most ambitious year of publishing”, including a commitment to publish 20 black British writers.

“The pandemic and the resultant crisis has not only decimated our plans for these new authors, but has also impacted our publishing programme in every aspect overall, from future acquisitions to sales and distribution,” said Brandes. “We have had to adapt, as small presses have to, turning to our website to sell directly, making changes to our publishing schedule and connecting more with our community. This is all compounded by the industry-wide uncertainty; we have no idea how far we will fall or for how long.”

Jacaranda has teamed up with Knights Of, another publisher specialising in diverse authors, to launch a crowdfunding campaign, administered by independent writing charity Spread the Word. It is looking to raise £100,000, 80% of which will be split between the two presses, with 20% to go to other diversity-focused independents. The money raised will be “vital to ensuring that our shared work can survive this crisis and come out strong and together at the other end”, said Knights Of publisher Aimée Felone.

England’s literature development agencies warned in a joint statement that small and independent presses are “at the forefront of discovering new writers and opening up reading choices through publishing titles often ignored by mainstream publishers” and “if we want to continue to open up writing as a career choice, particularly for under-represented writers, and to develop new audiences for books, we need a healthy independent sector”.”

 

Top Ten Publishing Industry Trends

Written Word Media has an article dated January 9, 2020 which sets out their top ten trends for 2020.

Excerpts are as follows:

1. Audiobooks will continue to gain popularity, and more indie authors will invest

It seems like almost everyone you meet is talking about audio these days. Whether it’s podcasts or audiobooks, people are consuming more spoken word audio than ever, and the stats back it up.  A 2019 survey from Edison Research revealed that half of all Americans over the age of 12 have listened to an audiobook in the past year. Additionally, audiobook listeners trended younger. Fifty-five percent of listeners were below the age of 45. The survey stats showed an increase from 2018, and the expectation is that audio will continue to grow. “For audiobooks, 2019 was really the year of the library. We saw incredible library sales growth for authors in 2019.   With better access to audiobook creation and distribution, we expect to see more audiobooks in the marketplace in 2020. Marketing audiobooks remains a challenge for authors but effective marketing will become more important as the space gets more crowded.

2. More indie authors will collaborate on marketing

Authors have long seen success with collaborative marketing techniques like email list swaps and group giveaways. In 2020, we expect to see more cooperative marketing as competition grows and indie authors find creative ways to gain an edge.  Michael Anderle of Kurtherian News sees indies aggressively pooling resources in 2020, saying that “many teams will pool resources to get a minimum of one million emails in their email co-op group.”  Of course, authors will need to be strategic to see success here. Oversaturating readers or marketing to the wrong audience can damage an email list. But, as many authors know, getting it right will pay off.

3. We’ll see more published works from author groups

As we learned from our author survey this year, successful authors tend to have large backlists. In 2020, we expect to see more authors collaborate on series and universes to speed up the process of building their backlists.  Bryan Cohen of the Sell More Books Show broke down how he sees this trend. “2020 will bring more author-publishers. It started with romance but sci-fi and fantasy authors are creating giant interconnected universes with a stable of co-writers and ghostwriters. They’re taking the James Patterson model to the nth degree.”

Granted, sharing a backlist will require sharing income in some fashion, but with tools like Abacus from PublishDrive, revenue sharing is getting easier. We expect more authors to join together and make more money faster from this shared model than they could on their own.

4. Organic reach will decline

This publishing trend is a reality across every online industry. As the big players, like Amazon, Google, and Facebook rely more and more on advertising money, they lose incentive to provide a broad reach for free.  This means that blog posts, Facebook posts, and Amazon book listings will see fewer views for free (also known as organic reach). Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in 2018 that organic reach of branded pages would decline, and that has played out as expected over the past two years.  Mark Dawson observed a similar trend on Amazon, “Organic visibility is being reduced on Amazon, with authors – including me – reporting big dips in income when also-boughts disappeared from book detail pages. What replaced them? Carousels of ads.”

5. Running ads will become a requirement

As mentioned in the preceding trend, getting your book in front of readers for free is going to get even more difficult. No one is thrilled about this, but it is the reality of a maturing marketplace.  “Advertising is no longer going to be something that you could do, or even should do – it’s going to become something that you must do, at least if you want to pursue writing as a viable full-time career,” says Mark Dawson. Online advertising is widespread to the point where in many industries, you MUST run ads to compete. As self-publishing grows and organic reach declines, we expect to see the same in publishing.

6. Big five publishers will start using KDP Select

This trend comes to us from the great mind of Michael Anderle. He anticipates that Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster will look to capitalize on Amazon’s reach by using Kindle Unlimited.   According to Anderle, “We will see big five publishers using KDP (Amazon Kindle Unlimited) in 2020 as they seek to acquire income with their enormous backlists.”  Logically, this makes sense, and some major titles (Harry Potter series) are already available within Kindle Unlimited. Getting readers going on a series is a proven way to make some serious cash, and no one has as many series as the big five.

7. Scam services will continue to pop up

Unfortunately, this trend will continue in 2020. With self-publishing continuing to grow, more shady characters will be attracted to the money in the market.  The good news? There are some tremendous people who regularly expose and spread the word about bad actors. We recommend following Victoria Strauss and David Gaughran on Twitter as they both regularly identify and publicize scams aimed at indie authors.

8. The eBook market will grow even more in 2020

There’s been some buzz about younger readers not buying eBooks, but Nate Hoffelder debunked these rumors in a recent post. Hoffelder includes data from Pew and eBooks.com that show that younger readers are buying eBooks and reading eBooks as much, if not more, than older readers.  As more young readers enter the market, it stands to reason that eBook sales will only increase. Because almost all young people use a digital device every day, moving to eBooks will be a much more seamless transition than the one made by older readers who grew up reading print.

9. Email lists will increase in value

With organic reach declining, spending money on ads becoming a requirement, and collaboration increasing in popularity, an author’s email list becomes an incredibly valuable asset.  Your email list is a marketing channel that you actually own. Once you have a reader’s email, you have a direct, inexpensive line to them. Readers who give you their email addresses are also opting in. They WANT you to email them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t sign up.  An author’s email list is also a valuable way to attract partner authors. The bigger your list, the more authors will want to partner with you to get in front of your audience.  Email isn’t without its challenges. Gmail and other inbox providers will continue to work to declutter their user’s inboxes, so getting eyes on your content may get more difficult. It is increasingly important to maintain clean lists and to educate your subscribers to expect your emails.

10. Creative indies will experiment with new ways to make money

In 2020, more indie authors will experiment with other ways to make money and try new models for selling books.   Jane Freidman aptly noted, “I expect more writers to charge for content that’s been free in the past, although not every writer will be successful at it. I’m seeing more people adeptly use Patreon to secure donations and early sales for all types of work, and Substack to solicit donations and subscriptions for newsletter content.”

 

Books and Marijuana

Here are excerpts from an article by Wendy Paris dated 31 March 2020 in the Los Angeles Times.

“Why should it be easier to buy marijuana than a good book at a store in Los Angeles during the coronavirus shutdown?

“Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home edicts let dispensaries stay open but force bookshops to shutter indefinitely.  Chavalier’s in Larchmont will take phone orders. Skylight Books in Los Feliz, Book Soup in West Hollywood and Vroman’s in Pasadena are “closed temporarily” but forwarding online orders to Ingram, a wholesaler that will ship direct to buyers. The Last Bookstore, downtown, is seeing customers by appointment.

“Powell’s Books, one of the nation’s largest independent bookstores, with five Oregon locations, laid off more than 300 staff members, although many were rehired as a surge of online orders came in. This legendary institution is still shipping books from its warehouse, but you can’t go in and browse, even in small numbers, separated by plenty of open space.

“And it could get worse. “These are unprecedented and grievous times,” Emily Powell wrote in her initial letter to employees, calling the path ahead “dark and scary.” When she announced that as of Saturday, she’d been able to rehire 100 staffers, she was grateful to her customers but only marginally more optimistic: “We don’t know what the future holds — none of us does. We’re going to keep the doors of Powells.com open as long as we can….”

“Diesel in Brentwood has opted for an ad hoc form of curbside pickup, leaving books in bags with customers’ names on them on a table just inside the store’s door for a few hours each day. Though they’re still recommending books by phone, Diesel’s employees are uncertain about the future. “We consider ourselves essential, like newspapers, media, magazines. That is our mindset,” said bookseller Lynn Aime.

“Aime is right. Books are essential goods and that ought to mean bookstores are exempt from shutting down during the coronavirus pandemic. As are bread and milk, gas and aspirin, alcohol and marijuana, books should be available, with safety precautions in place, at the usual places we buy them in our neighborhoods.

“States are largely left to make their own decisions about public health shutdowns. Newsom could put California in the vanguard by expressly adding bookstores to the list of essential businesses. Surely with people maintaining six feet of social distance, hand sanitizer everywhere, a strict limit on the number of customers let inside and the by-appointment option — in-person book buying can be made at least as safe as shopping for dry pasta.

“In the meantime, some bookstore owners are trying to pay their staffs even while books aren’t going out at the usual rate and most of their employees are staying home. As Linda McLoughlin Figel of Pages in Manhattan Beach put it, dryly: “It’s a bit tricky.” Bookstores will get some sort of help from the emergency stimulus bill Congress has teed up, but bricks-and-mortar bookshops are already fragile enterprises, so who knows how many will survive the shutdown?

“We readers can help. Until bookshops fully reopen, we can use our discretionary income to order books directly from independent booksellers. We can buy gift cards to help the bottom line too. While it’s true we can also get deliveries from the likes of behemoth Amazon, or download ebooks and audiobooks, those shopping choices are already part of independent bookstores’ economic woes. Besides, there are many customers with lower incomes who don’t have access to iPads or Kindles. With libraries also out of the picture, these readers are left without words.

“Finally, we can also let our city, county and state leaders know how much we need bookshops and their staffs as the shutdown goes on, and once it’s over.

“Books provide spiritual nourishment, education, enlightenment, role models, diversion. As Lori Gottlieb, therapist and author puts it, “One way to feel understood and part of something bigger, less alone, is to immerse ourselves in stories. They help us see ourselves.”

“Journalist and novelist Michael Scott Moore, who was held hostage in Somalia for more than two years, had scraps of newspapers but no books when he was trapped with nowhere to go. As Moore says, “I don’t wish a coronavirus lockdown on anyone without books.”

“The health of a nation’s literature depends on its availability to the people, and “if a nation’s literature declines,” wrote Ezra Pound, “the nation atrophies and decays.” Bookstores are essential because books are essential.”

 

Writing a Good Book Blurb

Boob blurbs are on the front line of battles for book sales.  The Reedsy website defines book blurbs as: “a short description of a book that is written for promotional purposes.  For a paperback book it usually appears on the back cover. Generally, 150-200 words are more than enough for a full blurb.  In the modern publishing landscape, where more books are being purchased online than in bricks and mortar stores, you are more likely to encounter blurbs on the product page of Amazon or any other digital retailer. Sometimes, you will hear them referred to as ‘book descriptions.’”

“The opening of your blurb has to be incredibly precise and dynamic,” says editor Rebecca Heyman. “For a lot of first-time authors, I think there’s an instinct to make sure readers understand everything that happened in the book’s universe before the beginning of the actual story. That’s generally a mistake.”

So if it shouldn’t set the stage for a reader who’s about to dive into your book, what should the blurb do?

Reedsy recommends a four step process as follows:

1. Introduce your main character(s)

“Your blurb has to be about characters. Consciously or not, readers check out the synopsis to see whether they want to spend time with your main characters. They don’t need to know their entire backstory, though — just enough to understand how they figure into the story’s primary conflict…

2. Set the stage for your primary conflict

“The primary conflict is what drives your story.  Without a real-world conflict, you don’t have a story readers can sink their teeth into.

“It‘s tempting to talk about “interior journeys” in your blurb, but that’s something best avoided in most cases. While a character’s compelling internal conflicts might turn out to be an aspect that reader enjoy once they read your novel, they don’t work well in a blurb.  “Your primary conflict has to exist in the physical world of your manuscript,” says Heyman. “That’s not to say that character arcs are not a critical part of what makes a plot dynamic, but they are certainly not going to hook most readers.”

3. Establish the stakes

“Without consequences, a conflict lacks drama. A blurb that says “Jack Ryan has 24 hours to rescue the Russian ambassador,” isn’t as impactful unless we know what’s at stake: “…his failure will result in certain nuclear war.”

“In JoJo Moyes’s Me Before You, a young woman becomes a caregiver for a quadriplegic millionaire and begins to fall for him.  “When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.”  This single sentence not only establishes the external conflict (“Louisa must convince Will to live”), it also lays out the stakes, which are literally life-and-death.

“To show your story’s full potential, the reader must be aware that something hangs in the balance for your characters.

4. Show the reader why this book is for them

“Most readers have an idea of the book they’re looking to read next. A well-tuned blurb won’t try to sell everybody on the book — it will help people who already want a book like yours see that it’s for them.

“It’s important subtly highlight how your book is familiar by including elements that readers are already excited by,” says Sione Aeschliman, an editor who regularly helps authors through events such processes. The key is to imply similarities between comparable books without sounding derivative: ensure you also distinguish what makes your book unique.”

In my experience, it’s best to be quite choosy about the words you select: they should be clear and they should convey the feelings you want the reader to have about the book.  Set it aside and keep improving it.  The first shot is never good enough.

The Popularity of Poetry

There is an article, “Poetry Sales Soar as Political Millennials Search for Clarity”, in the January 21 issue of The Guardian by Donna Ferguson, which I found interesting.   Donna Ferguson is an award winning freelance journalist specialising in finance.  (Perhaps she knows something about literature, as well.)

Donna Ferguson

“A passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018.  Statistics from UK book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan show that sales grew by just over 12% last year, for the second year in a row. In total, 1.3m volumes of poetry were sold in 2018, adding up to £12.3m in sales, a rise of £1.3m on 2017. Two-thirds of buyers were younger than 34 and 41% were aged 13 to 22, with teenage girls and young women identified as the biggest consumers last year.

“Rupi Kaur, a 26-year-old Canadian poet with 3.4 million followers on Instagram, leads the bestsellers list and was responsible for almost £1m of sales. “You tell me to quiet down / cause my opinions make me less beautiful,” she writes in Milk and Honey, the No 1 bestselling collection of 2018, “but I was not made with a fire in my belly / so I could be put out.”  (It’s interesting that at least one poet is able to make a decent living.)

“Andre Breedt, for Nielsen, said that sales were booming because in times of political upheaval and uncertainty, people turn to poems to make sense of the world: “Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.”  He added that the form’s brevity also meant it could be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.

“In the immediate aftermath of the Manchester bombing, Tony Walsh’s reading of his poem, This is the Place, at Manchester town hall was shared thousands of times online and became instantly famous worldwide. Ben Okri’s poem, Grenfell Tower, June 2017, written in the aftermath of the fire, followed a similar trajectory.

“At these moments of national crisis, the words that spread and the words that were heard were not the words of politicians, they were the words of poets,” said Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation, which runs the Forward prizes for poetry and National Poetry Day. “Almost everything a politician says is incredibly forgettable. There is a hunger out there for more nuanced and memorable forms of language.”  People wanted to cut through the verbiage of Brexit to see the bigger picture in 2018, she said: “Language gets stale in politics. Words begin to lose their meaning. Poetry occupies a different space to the humdrum. It is a way of renewing what words actually mean. It offers you a different way of looking at the world.”

“Poetry as a form can capture the immediate responses of people to divisive and controversial current events. It questions who has the authority to put their narrative forward, when it is written by people who don’t otherwise hold this power,” she said. “Writing poetry and sharing it in this context is a radical event, an act of resistance to encourage other people to come round to your perspective.”  Social media and technology have made poetry much easier to access and pass along, magnifying its impact, Shaw said.

Could this mean that millennials want existential emotion in their novels?