Rules for Acquiring Editors

Publishers Weekly ran an article 10 Rules for Book Editors by Jonathan Karp on 20 October 2017.  I’ve rediscovered it and I think it’s worth sharing here partly because of what he says (interesting) and partly because of who he is.

Simon and Schuster’s press release dated 6 March last year says: “Jonathan Karp has been promoted to President and Publisher, Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing, effective immediately.  In this new role, he will have overall responsibility for Simon & Schuster’s New York–based adult trade publishing, which includes Atria Books, Gallery Books, Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Touchstone and their associated sub-imprints and lines, and he will report to President and CEO Carolyn Reidy. Mr. Karp will also continue to serve as Publisher of the Simon & Schuster trade imprint.”

Jonathan Karp

His article is excerpted below:

” I’ve been acquiring books for 25 years, and there are times in the acquisitions process when I don’t even agree with myself! With that caveat, here are some general rules for thinking about trade acquisitions.

1. Love it

This is the most common advice given by acquisitions editors, but it raises questions. Is it possible to love many books at the same time without winding up in a polyamorous predicament? Would it be easier on the editor’s heart to arrange a few marriages of convenience? Some editors fall in love too easily. Others withhold their love with such discipline that it’s an event whenever they want to buy something. The inescapable truth is that each new acquisition marks the beginning of a relationship, one in which you will be reading an author’s work closely and engaging in what is usually an extensive conversation and collaboration. If you don’t begin that relationship with enthusiasm or desire, the project is likely to become a grind or a burden.

2. Wait for Authority

Whether the work is fiction or nonfiction, readers respect authors who deeply understand their subject. It’s apparent when a writer is in command, and this command is the surest justification for asking readers to devote hours of their time to a book. It’s possible for someone who deeply understands a subject to write an authoritative book in less than 12 months, but it’s unlikely. The 2015 and 2014 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Anthony Doerr and Donna Tartt, each took about a decade to write their books. Editors should learn to recognize when a book will be worth the wait, contractual due date or not.

3. If You Cry, Buy!

I once asked publisher Jamie Raab why she had the confidence to spend a vast sum to acquire a first novel. She responded, “I cried at the last page.” Her reaction was purely emotional, and she was right not to overthink it. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks went on to become a phenomenon. Often the books readers most enthusiastically embrace are the ones they experience emotionally, not just intellectually.

4. Make a Promise, Have a Purpose

Some altruistic readers out there might hope to better the world through their book purchases, but many potential consumers are probably asking, “What’s in it for me?” The works most likely to appeal to them are the ones that make them the most direct and appealing promise. In 2015 the nation’s number-one nonfiction bestseller was The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—an inspired promise, because it is within every lazy slob’s reach and does not strain credulity.

5. Resist the Urge to Acquire in Slow Periods

One of my colleagues, when asked by strangers what he does for a living, tells them, “I read bad books so you don’t have to.” But what happens when the book isn’t bad? What if it’s good but not great? The most frequent comment I hear from less experienced acquisitions editors is “I’m on the fence.” If you’re on the fence, get off, don’t buy it, and find something else to read.

6. Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

Chris Matthews always used to end his Sunday-morning TV show with a segment called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” in which his guests had to offer one piece of news. On an elemental level, books serve the same purpose. On some hot topics, such as abortion or gun rights or immigration, readers can’t be told anything because they’ve already made up their minds. Other topics aren’t urgent enough to require attention. An agent once sent me a proposal for a book on procrastination. I decided readers would never get around to buying it.

7. Know the Audience

One reason editors tend to specialize in certain categories is that they become familiar with the tastes of the most active buyers in those categories. An experienced editor of crime fiction may sense that a novel is too wild or too mild for the intended audience. A history editor will know whether a “new” Lincoln biography on submission says anything distinctive enough to spark commentary. Conversely, an editor who really knows her market may spot a niche that hasn’t been filled.

8. Have Your Own Ideas . . .

Great acquisitions editors are always thinking of books they’d like to publish. Ann Godoff suggested to her author Ron Chernow that he write a biography of John D. Rockefeller. At Random House, Kate Medina pursued Tom Brokaw for a long time before he wrote The Greatest Generation. In the early 1980s, Simon & Schuster editor Alice Mayhew was sharing a cab home with a young magazine reporter. She asked him to write a group biography of the men most responsible for America’s international leadership after World War II. The writer was Walter Isaacson, and that conversation marked the beginning of an editorial relationship that has lasted more than 30 years.

9. Don’t Be Cynical

There are certain books for which there is almost always an audience, but they have to withstand scrutiny. Maybe there’s an author capable of convincing me that The Macaroni and Cheese Diet will reduce my waistline while also boosting my productivity, but the evidence would have to be compelling. Don’t assume that a book will sell because the author is famous or well connected. A personality in search of an idea is a waste of time. Be wary of sequels, too. A literary agent once tried to convince me to pay a large advance for an author’s second memoir. When I asked him to name one author whose subsequent memoir had outsold the first book, the agent’s only response was . . . “Proust.”

10. Have Conviction

Great editors push hard for the works they want to publish. At Simon & Schuster, Editor in Chief Marysue Rucci felt such conviction about a novelist named Matthew Thomas that we did not hesitate to make an offer for his first novel, We Are Not Ourselves. She knew the audience (readers of sophisticated fiction who love books with a strong female protagonist). She had a purpose (to give voice to an indelible portrait of the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on a family). And to top it all off, the novel made Marysue cry, so she was certain of its emotional power. Upon its publication, We Are Not Ourselves was an instant bestseller and one of the best-reviewed books of 2014. If you’re a new editor, your fresh perspective is the one advantage you’ll have over the weathered veterans who have been evaluating manuscripts for years. If a new voice speaks to you, persist in your crusade on behalf of that writer. The lack of a successful precedent is often used as a reason for not publishing a book, but it can also be the reason that a book will connect with the public: precisely because no writer has ever done it quite this way, and quite this well, before.”

All of this, for me, makes sense, except that I would entitle number 9 “Be Cynical Sometimes”.

The Sins of Amazon

There is an interesting article in the 23 June 2019 issue of The New York Times written by David Streitfeld, titled “What Happens After Amazon’s Dominance is Complete? Its Bookstore Offers Clues”.  It is too long to quote in its entirety, but I’ve excerpted it below:

“’The Sanford Guide to Antimicrobial Therapy’ is a medical handbook that recommends the right amount of the right drug for treating ailments from bacterial pneumonia to infected wounds. Lives depend on it.

The guide’s publisher, Antimicrobial Therapy, has, for the past two years, been confronted a flood of counterfeits — many of which were poorly printed and hard to read — in Amazon’s vast bookstore.

“This threatens a bunch of patients — and our whole business,” said Scott Kelly, the publisher’s vice president.

Mr. Kelly’s problems arise directly from Amazon’s domination of the book business  But Amazon takes a hands-off approach to what goes on in its bookstore, never checking the authenticity, much less the quality, of what it sells. It does not oversee the sellers who have flocked to its site in any organized way.

That has resulted in a kind of lawlessness. Publishers, writers and groups such as the Authors Guild said counterfeiting of books on Amazon had surged. The company has been reactive rather than proactive in dealing with the issue, they said, often taking action only when a buyer complains. Many times, they added, there is nowhere to appeal and their only recourse is to integrate even more closely with Amazon.

The scope of counterfeiting across Amazon goes far beyond books. E-commerce has taken counterfeit goods from flea markets to the mainstream, and Amazon is by far the e-commerce heavyweight. But books offer a way to see the depths of the issue.

“Being a tech monopoly means you don’t have to care about quality,” said Bill Pollock, a San Francisco publisher who has dealt with fake versions of his firm’s computer books on Amazon.

An Amazon spokeswoman denied that counterfeiting of books was a problem, saying, “This report cites a handful of complaints, but even a handful is too many and we will keep working until it’s zero.” The company said it strictly prohibited counterfeit products and last year denied accounts to more than one million suspected “bad actors.”

What happens after a tech giant dominates an industry is increasingly a question as lawmakers and regulators begin asking when dominance shades into a monopoly. This month, lawmakers in the House said they were scrutinizing the tech giants’ possible anticompetitive behavior. And the Federal Trade Commission is specifically examining Amazon.

Those who write a popular book open themselves up to being “summarized” on Amazon. At least eight books purport to summarize Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s best-selling account of fraud in Silicon Valley. The popular novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” has at least seven summaries. “Discover a beautiful coming-of-age story without all of the unnecessary information included in the actual novel!” says one that has 19 five-star reviews, all of which read as if they were fake.

“I’m furiou,” the author, Andrew Seen Greer, tweeted after people complained last summer that fakes of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Less,” were being sold as the real thing. There was a counterfeit edition of Danielle Trussoni’s acclaimed memoir, “Falling Through the Earth,” on the site that misspelled her name on the cover. Lauren Groff said that there was an ‘illegal paperback’ of Florida, her National Book Award nominee, on Amazon.

Dead writers get hit, too. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” was pirated. So was a volume of classic stories by Jorge Luis Borges. For 18 months Amazon has sold a counterfeit of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” despite warnings in reader reviews that it is a “monstrosity,” dispensing with such standard features as proofreading and paragraph indenting.

This is not really negligence on Amazon’s part. It is the company’s business model.  “It is your responsibility to ensure that your content doesn’t violate laws or copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity or other rights,” it tells prospective publishers and sellers.

At Antimicrobial Therapy, the first warning that something was amiss with the Sanford Guide came with reviews on Amazon. “Several pages smudged and unable to read,” one buyer said in 2017.  “Seems as the book was photocopied,” said a second. “Characters are smeared,” wrote a third.

The company, whose books were sold to Amazon by distributors, did test buys. It got some copies from Amazon and others from its third-party sellers, including UsedText4u, Robinhood Book Foundation and 24×7 Book. Of the 34 books that Mr. Kelly bought, at least 30 were counterfeit. None of the booksellers responded to requests for comment.

Mr. Kelly wrote to the retailer’s founder, Jeff Bezos, saying, “Amazon is knowingly and willfully fulfilling most orders for our title with counterfeits that may contain errors leading to injury or death of their patients.”

Mr. Kelly got a response two weeks later from “Raj,” a member of “the Amazon Seller Performance team.” Raj said that an unnamed third-party seller had been barred from selling the book but that the seller might now appeal directly to AMT, and that if the company wanted to retract the whole thing, here was what to do.  “They were very reluctant to actually engage with us about the problem,” Mr. Kelly said of Amazon.

In February, Amazon included counterfeiting in its financial disclosures as a risk factor for the first time saying it might not be able to prevent its merchants “from selling unlawful, counterfeit, pirated or stolen goods” or “selling goods in an unlawful or unethical manner.”  Yet the company has such a grip on books that counterfeits do not seem to harm it. They might even increase its business.

“A book takes a year or more to write,” said Andrew Hunt of the Pragmatic Bookshelf, a North Carolina publisher of computer books that had at least one of its titles stolen. “But to steal the book and upload it to Amazon takes only a minute.  And when someone buys a counterfeit, the real author may get cheated but Amazon still makes a sale. You could ask, What’s their incentive to do something?”

Bait-and-switch schemes are common in the Amazon bookstore. If someone wants to title a book of self-published poetry “To Kill a Mockingbird” — and someone did — Amazon will sell it next to Harper Lee’s classic novel. Some customers wrote in Amazon reviews that they felt tricked by the author of the verse “Mockingbird,” whose many other titles include “War and Peace” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

In February, Amazon introduced a plan called Project Zero. No longer would brands have to report counterfeits and wait for the retailer to investigate. Project Zero, Amazon said, would give brands “an unprecedented ability to directly control and remove listings.”

Mr Pollock said Project Zero was a further insult. “Why should we be responsible for policing Amazon for fakes? That’s their job.”

The communications impasse between Amazon and Antimicrobial Therapy was complicated by the fact that they did not have a direct relationship. So in December, AMT opened vendor site on Amazon, with the bookseller getting a commission of about 20 percent on each copy sold. Under this arrangement, Amazon tells Antimicrobial Therapy where the customer lives, and the publisher ships the book from Sperryville.

As AMT was getting ready this spring to release the 2019 guide, it proposed an even deeper integration with Amazon.  “To eliminate the possibility of Amazon facilitating the sale of counterfeit books, we would like to offer Amazon the opportunity to serve as a wholesaler of our titles, cutting out the middle man,” Mr. Kelly wrote to the company. It was, in essence, rewarding Amazon by surrendering to its dominance. “We’d rather not be on Amazon,” Mr. Kelly said. “But we felt like we didn’t have a choice.”

* * *

My view is that Amazon does not want to engage with this problem at the scale that is required.  It would be too costly for them.  But, in my opinion, this is a short-sighted view.  The solution that may be coming is a requirement that any book seller, at any level, must warrant that the books it sells are free of any copyright defects.

A Unique Japanese Bookstore

An article appeared in the March 1, 2019 issue of Kyodo News, and it caught my eye because it describes a unique Japanese bookstore, which:

  • charges admission
  • has only one copy of each book
  • buys the books, rather than taking them on consignment.
  • has books which are selected by the staff, rather than being current best sellers
  • arranges the books by relationships rather than by topic

The article was written by Mariko Tamura.  Excerpts from the article are below:

Walk into this new Tokyo bookstore and at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped into an art gallery. With its elegant glass doors, spacious entryway, books displayed like exhibits on tables and captioned information on the walls, Bunkitsu is clearly no ordinary bookstore.

“That’s what we want people to think — that it’s an art gallery where they can encounter books,” said Hikaru Yoshino, the 26-year-old public relations officer.

Bunkitsu opened in December in Tokyo’s fashionable Roppongi district. The bookstore is unusual in that patrons can browse the 90 or so magazines in the reception area for free, but must pay 1,500 yen ($14) to peruse its 30,000 or so titles on the second floor, where there is also a cafe.

Customers are able to relax in the airy upstairs reading areas and get free refills of tea or coffee provided by the cafe. As the cafe also serves lunch, book hounds can spend all day there if they wish without having to go in search of food.

“Bunkitsu is a place for hard-core book lovers and, at the same time, it’s a place that invites people to walk in and discover books they never thought of reading,” Yoshino said.

There were some initial concerns among the bookstore’s concept team that a fee would discourage potential customers. But the price seemed reasonable considering the fact that a coffee in Tokyo usually costs between 400 and 500 yen and that customers would be able to sip from a bottomless cup while reading for two or three hours, said Yoshino.

They also believed that avid bookworms would welcome a space that offered a relaxed atmosphere coupled with the thrill of discovery.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” said Yoshino as he passed by a wall lined with magazines. Flip open a panel displaying a particular magazine and more reading material on a related theme appears.

The shelves are curated by section into broad themes like “Travel” or “History” but the books seem tangentially linked.  Lined up next to a history book on Lenin is a series of comic books set during the Russian Revolution. Books are piled haphazardly on tables: a comic book on top of a philosophy book on top of a novel, but are linked somehow — the color black, movies, food. Here, calculated disorder creates happenchance.

“We recognize that if you have a particular book in mind, it is difficult to find it quickly here. But finding a new book is a once in a lifetime encounter. We want that surprise to bring customers back again and again,” said Yoshino.

Each book and magazine is the only copy in the store. Miss the chance to buy it and you might never get another. It’s a gamble for Bunkitsu as well.

Unlike other bookstores, Bunkitsu buys its books and does not sell them on consignment, meaning it must keep unsold copies. Books remain until they catch a reader’s eye.

While the store thinks about moving the merchandise, at the same time it prefers not to stock its shelves with popular works that would boost sales. Staff choose books according to their own interests and not on what’s trending at the time. The entry fee allows them some cushion to stock an eclectic lineup, says Akira Ito, the 36-year-old store manager.

Bunkitsu’s unique business model has not deterred sales so far, according to Ito and Yoshino, who say that between 30 to 40 percent of their customers purchase a book.

“It’s like buying a gift at a museum shop,” says Ito. “People have paid their entry fee so they feel invested in finding a book.”

Adds Yoshino, “They want to take home with them what they experienced here.”

Customers come in many varieties.

“I came here because my friend recommended this place and I wanted to get some new ideas for my job,” said Keito Kondo, a 28-year-old who does marketing for a beer company.

“I thought I might see books I hadn’t thought of,” he said as he sat in the cafe with a number of titles in front of him on sparking inspiration. “I usually buy books that I want from Amazon, but here I found books that I usually don’t read, such as on architecture and art.”

“I didn’t realize that I was interested in fashion until I came here,” said Masato Torikoshi, an 18-year-old student who enjoys studying at Bunkitsu. He twirls his chair to face stacks of fashion books on Issey Miyake, Marc Jacobs and Valentino.

“I was happy to see a customer stretch himself full length against a cushion and read,” Ito said.  In the back is an elevated platform against a large window where customers can kick off their shoes, lie against one of the colorful cushions and chat, read or drink coffee.

A 45-year-old hairdresser enjoyed the space one Monday afternoon. He said that the price was well worth it as people could stay there the whole day. “You can enjoy the sense that you have your own private room,” he said, coffee in hand.

Bookstores are closing down throughout Japan, says Yoshino, citing online behemoth Amazon and the popularity of e-books as possible reasons. But whether the Bunkitsu approach can stem that trend remains to be seen.

He says he is “not sure” if the bookstore’s business model can be exactly replicated elsewhere. While it works in Roppongi, another approach might be needed in a rural area, he said. “You have to look at what’s distinctive about a location. That could lead to different types of bookstores.”

“We need to try somehow to make bookstores survive,” said Yoshino. “We hope that creating Bunkitsu is one way to respond to this challenge.”

Has Television Killed the Novel?

The Daily Telegraph had an article by Anita Singh, Arts and Entertainment Editor on January 3 in which Neil Cross, creator of the TV police series Luther, claimed that television has killed the novel.  He says that the 20th century was blessed with novels like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita, The Colour Purple and The Handmaiden’s Tale that changed the way we see the world, bu that there are no equivalents in the 21st century.

Neil Cross

Neil Cross was born in Bristol in 1969; he graduated from the university of Leeds with a degree in English and Theology.  His initial career was solely as a novelist, and his first novel, Mr In Between, was published in 1998 and later made into a film.   He has written seven titles for TV, the longest running of which is Luther; two screen plays and nine novels.  He lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

The article says: “Cross, who has written several novels of his own and a well-received memoir, said, ‘I like books, but I can’t think of a novel published since the year 2000 that is as culturally important as The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad.  I just think that the narrative function of television is supplanting the novel.’  He went on: ‘I think the way that television is being watched is replacing the societal and cultural function of the novel.  We consume television like we used to read books.  Instead of a chapter before I turn off my light, it is now one more TV episode before I turn the light off.’

“Cross argued that episodic television is ‘fulfilling a similar function’ to novels of the Victorian era ‘in the way that people talk about and analyse the characters’.  Writers including Charles Dickens and Henry James released their work in instalments, with readers keenly awaiting the next update.

The Sopranos, which began 20 years ago next week, was named by the Writers Guild of America as the best-written television series of all time.  The Wire and Breaking Bad, also US television dramas, were adored by critics and audiences alike.  Meanwhile the sales of literary fiction have been falling since the mid-Nineties.  The biggest sellers published this century have included The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, the later Harry Potter stories, the Fifty Shades of Grey books and The Twilight Saga.”

I think Mr Cross is neglectful when he says, ” I can’t think of a novel published since the year 2000 that is as culturally important as The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad.”  Just have a look at this list complied by the BBC:  http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150119-the-21st-centurys-12-best-novels.

I do agree, however, that “We consume television like we used to read books.”  But, I’m not sure it follows that television is killing the novel.  If we break ‘novel’ down into its genres, it is possible, in my view, that television is having an impact on the sales of thrillers,  But literary novels have their own problems: see: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/01/slow-death-literary-novel-sales-crisis-afflicting-fiction.

 

Re-Releasing a Published Book

There is an article in the December issue of The Florida Writer that i found interesting because some on my older novels could definitely do with a ‘refresh’.  The article was written by Penny Sansevieri, who is CEO and founder of Author Marketing Experts, Inc. and an adjunct professor at New York University.  She is a best-selling author and internationally recognised book marketing and media relations expert.

Penny Sansevieri

She says: “Years ago at a writer’s conference, I met an author who told me about a science fiction book he had published five years prior. “When it comes to book promotion, I wish I knew then what I know now. I think this book could have done considerably better than it did initially.” My advice to him was to re-release his book, updating the cover and modifying parts of the interior. Book lovers are profoundly interested in series, and since his book was 400 pages, I recommended that he split it into four 100-page portions. Turning his book into a four-part series is a fantastic promotional tool and would also provide better exposure on Amazon. The following are just some of the reasons why authors decide to reissue a book, and why it makes sense to your ongoing book promotion efforts.

Your Original Book Promotion Fell Flat
There could be any number of reasons your book marketing didn’t go as planned. Perhaps you picked the wrong type of book promotion or the wrong markets, or maybe you just didn’t have the time to market it. If you believe in your book and want to give it a second chance, then a re-release could revive your title.

Your Book Could Have Been Better
Did your reviews come in less than stellar? Did readers comment on typos? Maybe you targeted the entire book to the wrong market. One author told me that a book that wasn’t intended for the Christian market was pushed there by the publisher and wound up upsetting a lot of readers who voiced their concerns on Amazon.

Current Events, News Items, Seasonal Trends
These days things change pretty quickly. I once spoke to an author who had a book that published five years ago. As luck would have it, her book topic started trending in the news. And while she could have pushed the older title, she thought it could be fun (and better for her book promotion) to reissue it to tie into current events. If there’s a wave of something going on that’s newsworthy, it could make sense to re-release your book to dial into that revived market. The other side of this is that things get outdated. If this is the case, maybe your book could use a refresher, especially if your content is subject to a lot of changes.

Your Brand Has Changed
As our businesses grow, we also evolve and change. Whether we updated our logo, our colors, or our look, perhaps it’s time to refresh our books, too. If your book cover no longer matches the look and feel or message of your business, now’s the time to get them aligned, so everything is consistent and uniform. It can be hard to get a cohesive book promotion message or campaign across if there is inconsistency in the author’s brand.

Your Cover Is/Was Bad
Sometimes we launch a book and think: Well, that cover could have been stronger. Or maybe your book is older, and the cover could use an update. Whatever the reason, a new cover is a great chance to refresh your book—and relaunch it, too.

You Just Got the Rights Back to Your Book
If you published a book years ago with a major house, you might be in a situation where your rights have reverted back to you. In this case, I’d highly encourage you to republish this using the indie publishing model.

What Happens to Your Original Book on Amazon?
If you’ve figured out what, if any, portion of your book needs an update, you may be wondering what happens with your original book on Amazon. Will it stay there? Will it ever go away? And what happens with all of the reviews? Some authors don’t care if the book stays up on Amazon, while others really want it taken down—or want their new book to be published “over” the other title. In other words, the old book goes away, but the reviews stay intact. The answer to that is: it depends. Amazon’s guidelines vary, so I’d suggest giving them a call. However, a rep told me that if the book is updated in excess of 20%, it’ll be considered a new book and will have a new Amazon page. It’s not a consistent rule, because the rep also said if the table of contents hasn’t been altered, or the page count hasn’t changed much, you could have it published over the other, original book. Which means that you essentially retain all of your old reviews. There might be cases where you don’t want to keep these reviews.”

In my case, I would be thinking about my three thrillers, two of which could have better covers. I think I would have to do one re-writing and restructuring, followed by and editorial review, and some further changes before putting it through a final copy edit.  So the costs for me would be:

  • Cover redesign
  • Structural edit
  • Copy edit
  • Printing set up

A fairly considerable expense (~£3k).  Not to mention the considerable time I would have to put into the project.  Probably, it’s not high on my list of priorities!

Creating An Author Persona for Interviews and Live Events

A post with the above title appeared on The Creative Penn blog back in September, and it caught my eye.  The Creative Penn is a business started by Joanna Penn, author, speaker and creative entrepreneur.  Her website says she is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers and non-fiction, and an international professional speaker and entrepreneur voted as one of The Guardian UK’s Top 100 Creative Professionals in 2013.

Joanna Penn with some of her books

“First let go of your belief that writers get to simply clack away at the keyboard, spinning tales and immersing themselves in story.  Most successful authors have social media accounts and go on blog tours, but they also complete interviews, participate in panels, set up book signings, and maybe even deliver keynote speeches.  These are great ways to build an audience, but a far cry for the reality most of us imagined when we dreamed of becoming authors.

“Shannon Baker has published seven books and says she still finds it difficult to network at conferences and meetings ‘Often, I’m hovering around the outskirts of conversation groups, feeling awkward and dull-witted.  Then, I get tongue-tied or flat-out say the wrong thing,’ Shannon says.

“Fortunately, there is a way for an introvert to navigate this situation and maintain her sanity: create an author persona.  Jess Lourey, an author of sixteen books says she received some of the best writing advice early in her career.  She says, ‘It came from Carl Brookins, a gruff, Minnesota mystery author with a background in television.  He said that to survive, I should create an author persona.  I told him I was no actor.  He said it’s not acting: it’s taking that gregarious, unique person we all have somewhere in us, and shoving her on stage,’

“The steps:

  1. When creating your author persona, try to keep your mask as close to your real face as possible, but make the public one more cheerier and more upbeat.
  2. Make a conscious decision about whether your public persona will discuss (online and in person) politics, religion, civil rights. i.e. important polarising issues. Shannon avoids these areas, Jess does not.  You have to decide what your comfort level is, but make the decision consciously and early so your audience knows what to expect.
  3. Choose one quality that you like about the real you, and amp that up in your author persona.  For Jess, it’s humour; for Shannon, it’s being an excellent listener.  Deciding what organic quality of yours you’ll rely on in public situations keeps it authentic while also giving you comfort.
  4. Finally, have a special wardrobe that  you save for author events.  Don’t go out and buy something new and expensive.  Rather, use your regular wardrobe, but make it a little more fun.  Some authors are know for wearing hats, or a scarf, or blue shoes.  The item/wardrobe signals to you that you’re about to perform.”

I think this is good advice, and I’ll welcome the opportunity to putting it into practice.

Yesterday, I received notification that my latest novel, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives, was the winner, Inspirational, in the Beverly Hills Book Awards, 2018.

 

Enter Celebrity Editors

Time magazine, in its 25 June issue, has an article about how celebrities have become editors at the major publishing houses. The article says, “The worlds of fashion and music have long understood the  power of celebrity collaborations, which count on high-profile partners to combine expertise and star power.  Now book publishers are breaking out of their bubble and looking to outsiders – people with name brand cachet and stratospheric social-media followings, and who presumably love books – to curate and helm boutique lists.  ‘Publishers want celebrity stardust, and, let’s face it, most writers don’t have that’, says Claibourne Smith, editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews.”

Sarah Jessica Parker’s new publishing imprint, SJP for Hogarth, released its first novel on 12 June, as the realisation of a longtime fantasy  “I never imagined at this point in my life I’d have the opportunity to turn my lifelong hobby of reading into my work,” she says,

The Time article says, “The proto-celebrity editor might be Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who took on a consulting editorship at Viking Press in 1975.  The former first lady oversaw titles on Russian costumes and fairy tales.  ‘Jackie Kennedy is one of the models Sarah Jessica and I discussed when we started talking about the partnership’, says Molly Stern, senior vice president and publisher of Crown, Hogarth and  Archetype  books, who first approached Parker about taking a shot at publishing.  ‘Jackie was a journalist before she was married to the President, and Sarah Jessica was a lifelong reader before she became an actress’.

“SJP for Hogarth will publish literary fiction – Parker’s favourite genre – with an emphasis on multicultural voices.  ‘I’m focused on stories that cultivate empathy and expose us to people whose homes I’m not likely to be invited into,’ the newly minted editorial director says of her mission,”

Sarah Jessica Parker

“Parker say she gets nervous in her new role.  Taking an approach that’s part book nerd and part method actor, she travels to bookseller conventions, doodles book cover ideas and attends Penguin Random House launch and marketing meetings – where she presents her selections in hopes of winning internal support necessary to any book’s success.  ‘I don’t want to look like a lightweight,’ Parker says.  ‘I don’t want people to think I’m dabbling.  I want them to know I take their work seriously, and I try to learn about the trade – I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the importance of bookshelf placement.’  (If it isn’t visible, she notes, it’s not going to be purchased.)

“Kirby Kim, a literary agent with Janklow & Nesbit Associates, has first-hand experience with the soup-to-nuts nature of Parker’s involvement.  In March, when he submitted a novel to multiple houses ahead of the London Book Fair, Parker took a break from fair events to read the manuscript, and her imprint wasting no time coming in with an offer.  ‘Instead of just networking and schmoozing, she actually zoomed through the submission,’ Kim says.  Ultimately, another publisher won the title.  ‘You lose books – that has been gutting,’ Parker says.  ‘It’s tough, but it’s good for me.  I don’t have a limitless budget.  I have to be thoughtful about how we’re spending our dollars,’

“Nearly every major publisher is now in the celebrity business.  Simon & Schuster has Jeter Publishing, a partnership with baseball legend Derek Jeter that launched in 2013.  Random House offered Lena Dunham, the creator of the HBO television show Girls, and her producing partner, Jenni Konner, their own imprint in 2016.  Henry Holt & Co., known for elevated fiction and news-breaking political titles . . . announced in 2016 that it had bestowed Bravo TV personality Andy Cohen with his own imprint.

“Even so, certain authors might prefer the imprimatur of a literary institution over a celebrity’s.  ‘I could see why celebrity imprints would be ripe for derision – critics might say celebrities are trying to look smart,’ says Katherine Fausset, a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd.

“Parker, meanwhile, is off to the races promoting her first novel.  Two weeks before its release, she posted a picture of herself hailing a cab with SJP for Hogarth’s debut book in her hand.  It got nearly 167,000 likes.”

Judging a Book by its Cover

In the May/June issue of The Independent magazine, there is an article Converting Book Browsers to Book Buyers by Kristin Fields, Associate Editor.

Kristin Fields

The article is quite lengthy, but the part that I found particularly interesting concerned cover design.

Ms Fields says, “There are two deeply held misunderstandings about the nature and role of a book’s “cover” in trade publishing. First, that its main purpose is to be “liked,” when, in fact, its primary role is to motivate browsing. One of the “ugliest,” least liked covers Codex has ever tested was Tina Fey’s Bossypants (featuring Tina Fey with what appear to be massive, hairy, man arms), and yet it had phenomenal browsing impact and became the #2 overall bestselling book on Amazon for its publication year.

“Second, it’s essential to understand book buyers use the cover as the book’s message, relying heavily on it to tell them what the book is, why they should be interested in it, and to judge if it’s worth the effort of browsing—very similar to the role of a strong campaign slogan in politics—conveyed through word and image combined.

“Book publishers consistently make the mistake of undervaluing the cover as simply a piece of decoration, when in fact the data is very clear that it’s the combined impact of title, subtitle, reading line, author name, blurb, and design that together either move, or more often dissuade, a book consumer from browsing. We have to continually remind ourselves that book people are “word people”; they love and respond to words first and foremost. Nearly 15 years of Codex testing has consistently shown that a book’s title, subtitle, or reading line copy are in fact almost always the most important conversion factor in a book’s cover, not the art. While great cover art brings a very important added dimension, amplification, and visual recall to a book, great cover art alone rarely drives the book consumer to act, except in breakthrough examples like Bossypants.

“Here are some examples of past Codex Preview testing case studies to provide additional insight into some key findings on book conversion (buying decision):

“In a rebranding project on the For Dummies series, for example, two message options were tested: Staying Young for Dummies and Healthy Aging for Dummies. Because the Dummies brand audience skewed 55+, the “Healthy Aging” message spoke more powerfully to that audience, best fulfilled the brand’s values, and had the highest conversion.

 

“In another Preview test, when it comes to blurbs, less can be more. While one test version of the cover for The Freedom Broker by K.J. Howe was plastered with over a dozen “blurbs to die for” from some of the biggest names in thriller writing, category fans were skeptical, less hype with a single quote and an emphasis on the title.

 

“Using faces on a book’s cover can also be unpredictable. The biography of Apple co-founder and inventor of the personal computer, Steve Wozniak, is a good example. Codex results confirmed that few book buyers were even familiar with the author’s name, let alone his face. One test treatment featured a photo of a young Wozniak from the 1970s, which motivated far less browsing than a text-based presentation that emphasized the message “The Inventor of the Personal Computer Speaks at Last” highlighted by Apple’s iconic rainbow stripes. Faces can be unpredictable conversion drivers because of they may be unrecognizable, distracting, or unrelateable. It’s best to pre-test before committing if you’re unsure.

“While publishers and designers are deeply involved in a cover’s development over weeks or months at a time, it’s important to remember that a book browser typically relies on just a split second gut reaction to make a browsing decision.”

For the indie author, whose books do not usually appear in bookstores, the issues are slightly different, because decisions are not quite so instantaneous.  But, the indie author should still be trying for a cover which says, “Here’s what I’m about” and “Read me!”

“Publishers Live in Marble Palaces”

That is the title of an interview in The Daily Telegraph of James Daunt, the managing director of Waterstones by Jake Kerridge, journalist and art critic.

James Daunt

Kerridge writes: “When HMV sold the Waterstones book chain to the Russian businessman Alexander Mamut in 2011, the company was hurtling towards the knacker’s yard. But Mamut made an inspired decision when he appointed Daunt as his managing director. The 54-year-old, the founder of the small but much-admired independent chain Daunt Books, has transformed the company, brought it back into the black, and defied predictions that the mighty Amazon was going to stomp bricks-and-mortar bookshops into oblivion.

“Now, though, the much-loved book chain faces another threat to its existence – from a ruthless hedge fund. Elliot Management, owned by the controversial New York billionaire Paul Singer, announced at the end of last month that it was buying the company from Mamut, sparking fears of asset stripping. Anne Stevens, CEO of British engineering firm GKN (in which Elliott has a stake) has complained that Elliott does not “give a crap” about long-term outcomes, and Singer himself was once described as a “financial terrorist” by the president of Argentina for his ruthless pursuit of debts.

Kerridge asks Daunt what he thinks about the prophesies of doom that blossomed at the acquisition by Elliott.  Daunt says: ‘We’re opening more shops than we’re closing. Some people have this notion that we’re always about to close shops – if we close one we must be going to close a hundred – which I simply don’t understand.’

When asked about future plans from Elliott, Daunt says, “I obviously have asked them why they’re buying us and what they expect, and the answer has been: ‘Carry on as you’re doing. We think that you can grow, and if you do grow, we’ll sell you for a profit’.”

“What Daunt has been doing has certainly been successful.  At the beginning of this year, Waterstones announced an 80 per cent jump in its annual profits.  The stores have become nicer places to visit, with more flowers and comfy furniture. He insists that staff make their own decisions about how their branches are run; every shop has a different customer demographic, so all key decisions – what books to stock, pricing structure, layout – have been left to branch managers. At the same time, readers have fallen back in love with physical books, something Daunt believes has to do with the power of the book as a decorative item.

“I ask him if he is bothered by reports of a crisis in “literary” fiction, with sales reportedly plummeting.  , ‘I’ve been nearly 30 years a bookseller,’ Daunt says, ‘and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything different. We sell astonishing numbers of whatever the latest literary bestseller is, and our bestselling book almost every year is a novel, and a literary novel at that. Publishers wring their hands and say woe is us and the end of the world is nigh. Nonetheless, when I started as a bookseller they were all in small buildings with rickety staircases. Now they’re in marble palaces along the Thames. I shouldn’t mock, but they really aren’t doing badly.”

“He is sanguine about the threat to reading posed by competing forms of entertainment, be it Netflix or social media. ‘Any parent, of which I’m one, who watches their children flick between a million things, thinks: are they going to sit down and read? But then I just think back to my childhood, and my parents were convinced that television was going to be the end of reading. I’m not so worried because books do provide astonishingly good entertainment.’

“After talking to him I have a quick look around and end up so beguiled I spend too much money and am late for my next appointment. Millions of people have the same experience in Waterstones’ branches across the country.”

I think it’s a welcome relief to hear that a major bookseller is growing and making money.  A retail, brick and mortar, bookstore can give us an up close and personal experience of books that no internet site can match.  And it’s nice to hear that publishers aren’t suffering as much as they would have us believe!

 

Chick Lit Book Covers

Last week there was an article in The Daily Telegraph with the title ‘Chick lit book covers are putting men off, says author’. The article was written by Hannah Furness, Arts Correspondent for the Telegraph, though her Telegraph web page suggests she is more Royal Correspondent.   In any case, I agree with her article:

“Pink, glittery book covers are putting readers off works by female authors and should be made more gender-neutral, a best-selling novelist has said.  Jojo Moyes, who wrote Me Before You and its sequels, said the public did not want to read novels that were marketed to women with cliched cover designs.

Chick Lit

“Ms Moyes said she had been ‘lucky to get a wider audience’, thanks to covers that appealed to male as well as female readers.  ‘So many women who write about difficult issues are lumped under the chick lit umbrella’ she told the BBC.  ‘It’s so reductive and disappointing – it puts off readers who might otherwise enjoy them.  If it was up to me, we would all discover things in a huge massive jumble  The boundaries are being blurred, with women writing domestic noir and thrillers.  Supermarkets want things that are easily categorised, but people don’t want to read something pink and glittery.’

“Several female authors have insisted their books are marketed differently. In 2014, Jodi Picoult argued that many books considered great works of art by men would be put within ‘pink fluffy’ covers if they had been written by a woman.  In 2015, Joanne Harris highlighted a ‘growing gender division’ in fiction, which saw a ‘sea of pastel pink in the romance section (as if men were neither interested in romance, nor expected to participate in romantic relationships)'”

When I’m in Waitrose, I frequently glance at the books for sale, and I find they usually fit into one of two categories: last years best-sellers by well know authors or recognisably pink and fluffy chick lit.  So, I agree that supermarkets want their products to be easily recognised.   And, I suppose that if I were a slightly bored female shopper, what might appeal to me would probably be a juicy romance or last year’s novel by Dan Brown.  It would have to be an impulse decision; after all, there is a well-stocked Waterstones on the floor above.

I have discovered that there are literary agents who specialise in chick lit  I was looking on the internet for literary agents who might represent me and my latest novel, which I consider literary in the sub genre of inspirational.  So, I tended to exclude any agents who specialise in ‘commercial fiction’, non-fiction, fantasy, science fiction, thrillers and childrens’ books.  Lots of agents show the covers of their clients’ books on their websites.  And another turn-off for me was the predominance of pink and fluffy covers.  Maybe these agents and their clients are brilliant and maybe they could find me a great publisher, but I felt I would be less likely to be wasting my time by focusing on the agents who want to look at inspirational, literary fiction.