Books on Credit

The January 26th issue of the Daily Telegraph has an article by Chris Price which says much about the times the world is in.

“Egyptians have resorted to taking out loans to buy books as inflation surges in the country. Book prices have more than doubled as the value of the Egyptian pound plummeted by about 43% against sterling over the last year.

Authors have even reportedly begun cutting out characters and descriptions as the cost of paper and ink soars, with inflation hitting a five-year high of 21.3% in December, according to statistics agency Capmas.

Mohammed el-Baaly, of Sefsafa Publishing House, told the BBC: “A book has become a luxury item here in Egypt. It’s not a basic commodity like food and people are saving on luxuries.”

Keen readers now reportedly can spread the cost of a book over nine month at 1.5% interest, according to the Egyptian Publishers Association.

Teen fiction author Dina Afifi told the BBC she hoped the scheme would bolster sales. She said, ‘My book’s been downsized, slimmed down to just 60 pages from around 100, because of the rising printing costs.’

Mr Baaly added: ‘The cost of paper and ink has gone up tremendously. The cost of a ton of paper is nearly four times higher than the start of last year.'”

The interest rate of 1.5% quoted in the article must be a monthly rate which would be equivalent to about 20% per year.

The Guardian, in an article dated last October said; “The price of books is likely to go up, say publishers – which are acting to avoid steep rises for readers.

Some presses are exploring printing on cheaper and thinner paper, postponing reprints for older books and publishing fewer titles to reduce costs and avoid increasing recommended retail prices.

But the hike in costs of paper and energy and the effects of Brexit mean price rises are likely in the long term if not in the short and medium term, “if the current high production and distribution costs stabilise at the current levels”, said Juliet Mabey, co-founder of the independent publishing house Oneworld

Valerie Brandes, founder and publisher of Jacaranda Books Arts Music, said it was highly likely that book prices for consumers would have to increase “across all formats” by 10 to 20%.”

So, we’re fortunate not to be buying our books in Egypt!

Have Celebrities Ruined Kids’ Books?

Ben Lawrence has an article in today’s Daily Telegraph which makes the arguments that not only have celebrities seriously reduced the quality of kids’ books, but they have also captured the publishing space to the detriment of competent kids’ writers.

Ben Lawrence, Commissioning Editor of the Telegraph

In the article, he says: “Long ago, when I was young, I had a vivid imagination that needed feeding. While TV shows and computer games went a little way to inspiring me, nothing shaped my thoughts like a good book. This was the 1980s, so I caught the tail end of the second golden age of children’s literature. I happily lost myself in the vivid, sometimes strange worlds of Nina Bawden, Alan Garner, Leon Garfield and Susan Cooper, while supplementing my addiction with the classics: Kenneth Grahame, E Nesbit, C S Lewis and Eve Garnett. Books build a child, and my career in writing and editing would not have evolved without them.

I was lucky: I had bookish parents, both acting as in-house curators, full of ideas of what I should (and shouldn’t) read. Yet if I were small now, I am not sure that I would have the same access to great children’s fiction. You could make the usual noises about social media and attention spans, but there are other worrying factors in regard to the 21st-century child.

First, I benefitted greatly from my local library, which had a staggering selection of books both old and new – and we all know what has happened to Britain’s libraries. There were, I remember, plenty of friendly librarians, armed with incredible knowledge and an infectious love of reading, who could make recommendations to me. In an age when primary-school teachers were less constricted by a national curriculum, we also had the luxury of “reading afternoons”: we could sit and browse the books in both the school library and the shelves which lined our classroom.

There is now also the serious problem of brand recognition. Writers today (whose average salary, in Britain, is down to £7,000 per annum) are unable to gain a foothold in the children’s market because they are being muscled out by celebrity names whose publishers can afford the most prominent slots in bookshops and supermarkets.

It never felt like such a problem in the days of JK Rowling’s reign: she, at least, was a career writer whose works – though not, I’m afraid to say, that well written – displayed a vivid imagination, and who did a great deal to get children interested in reading.

For the harried parent trying to find a book for their child, a familiar name on a bookshelf is always going to be the obvious option. The Duchess of York went first in 1989, with Budgie the Little Helicopter. But in truth, blame Madonna: 14 years later, her wafty Kabbalah nonsense, The English Roses, started a ghastly trend. Fearne Cotton’s Yoga Babies, Katie Price’s Perfect Ponies, Clare Balding’s The Girl Who Thought She Was a Dog – they all feel like cynical cash-ins.

Perhaps the most egregious example, however, is the comedian David Walliams, now the most successful children’s author in Britain. Anecdotally, I’m told by parents who’ve bought his best-selling books that they’re appalling: sub-Roald Dahl (of whom Walliams is a fan), and devoid of heart or writerly flair.

David Walliams

The only thing worse than a child deprived of books is a child immersed in bad ones. Defenders might say that at least a writer such as Walliams gets more children interested in reading, but I see no evidence that he is acting as a gateway drug to better quality gear.

All of this is heartbreaking, because there’s so much to recommend. A quick ring-round to friends and colleagues resulted in my being bombarded with names. You should mention Emma Carroll, they said. Julia Copus is brilliant, said another. MG Leonard, Ross Montgomery, Nadia Shireen, SF Said, Katherine Rundell, Jenny McLachlan… Yet with the exception of Rundell, I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of any of them (even if, not having any children of my own, I have a reasonable excuse).

It was enough proof to me that children’s literature is as strong now as it was 40 years ago when I was young. So: enough is enough. It is time to attempt to end the depressing monopoly of a small selection of not-very-talented writers. A concert pianist never achieves success by being mediocre, so why should a children’s author?

There is, I admit, a slight air of nostra culpa here. Children’s fiction has always been the Cinderella of the book world, and we journalists need to work much harder in highlighting works for children. As the children’s author and scriptwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce argued persuasively on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, newspapers run plenty of restaurant reviews, featuring swanky places that 99.9 per cent of the population are never going to actually visit. Books, on the other hand, are comparatively cheap, and even cheaper if they’re loaned or shared.

So I’m going to make a pledge. From January, we will review a new book by a children’s author once a week. It could be a picture book for younger readers, a novel for pre-teens, or perhaps some Young Adult fiction. It could be a book by an established (professional) author, or a debut by someone brilliant and unknown. What you won’t see, I promise, is anything by a non-writer who is pushing larger talents out of the way in order to extend their personal brand.”

It seems to me that publishers bear some responsibility for this situation. They certainly know what a good quality children’s book is. To favour a celebrity brand-builder, who offers a short-term sugar rush of poor quality sales, over a professional author, who offers long-term sales to happy customers, is making bad business decisions.

Are Publishers Becoming Censors?

There is an article by Anita Singh in Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is quoted as saying that it is unlikely that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses would have been published had Rushdie written it today. Adichie goes on to say that it is unlikely that Rushdie would have decided to write it today.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1977. She grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where her father was a professor and her mother was the first female Registrar. She studied medicine for a year at Nsukka and then left for the US at the age of 19 to continue her education on a different path. She graduated summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in Communication and Political Science. She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Arts degree in African History from Yale University. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), won the Orange Prize. Her 2013 novel Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent work, Notes On Grief, an essay about losing her father, was published in 2021. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015. In 2017, Fortune Magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The article says, “In the first of this year’s BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, Ngozi Adichie spoke about freedom of speech.

She said: “Here is a question I’ve been thinking about: would Rushdie’s novel be published today? Probably not. Would it even be written? Possibly not.

“There are writers like Rushdie who want to write novels about sensitive subjects, but are held back by the spectre of social censure.

“Literature is increasingly viewed through ideological rather than artistic lenses. Nothing demonstrates this better than the recent phenomenon of ‘sensitivity readers’ in the world of publishing, people whose job it is to cleanse unpublished manuscripts of potentially offensive words.”

Ngozi Adichie said that publishers are also wary of committing “secular blasphemy”.

She claimed that the issue went far beyond the publishing world, with young people caught in an “epidemic of self-censorship” because they are too afraid of being cancelled.

The author faced her own backlash in 2017 after stating in an interview: “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is [that] trans women are trans women.”

In her lecture, Ngozi Adichie said: “We now live in broad settled ideological tribes. Our tribes demand from us a devotion to orthodoxy and they abide not reason, but faith.

“Many young people are growing up in this cauldron afraid to ask questions for fear of asking the wrong questions. And so they practise an exquisite kind of self-censorship. Even if they believe something to be true or important, they do not say so because they should not say so.”

Ngozi Adichie said the alternative to this “epidemic” of self-censorship was people stating their beliefs and as a result facing a “terrible” online backlash of “ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs”.

She said: “To anyone who thinks, ‘Well, some people who have said terrible things deserve it,’: no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism.

“It is a virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking. There is something honest about an authoritarianism that recognises itself to be what it is.

“Such a system is easier to challenge because the battle lines are clear. But this new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny. I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity.”

Ngozi Adichie called for a raising of standards on social media, and reforms including the removal of anonymous accounts.

She suggested that “opinion sharers, political and cultural leaders, editors [and] social media influencers” across the political spectrum should form “a coalition of the reasonable” to moderate extreme speech.

I agree with Ngozi Adichie that social media needs drastic reform to stop harmful misinformation, libel and threats. She seems to believe that the ‘tech’ owners of the social media platforms will not regulate properly because of the cost. She is right, but the cavalry is coming in two regiments. One regiment is government regulation and legislation which is starting to be announced and enacted. This will say ‘reform or pay billions’ and if social media platforms want of survive, they must change their business models. The other regiment is the digital advertisers, who, as the defunding of Twitter shows, do not want to be a part of their customers’ misery.

Publishers and authors are different kinds of problems. Publishers have historically had to navigate a fine line between capturing the public interest on the one hand and not causing public outrage on the other. Some authors face a similar set of choices. But neither publisher nor author has an incentive to lie or cover up the truth. On the contrary.

It seems to me that The Satanic Verses is a special case that has nothing to do with current truths or falsehoods. Most Muslims would regard passages in Verses as blasphemous, though is seems doubtful that Rushdie actually intended such severe criticism of Islam. To me, it seems that he intended the dream sequences featuring Mohammad (the Messenger), the polytheistic deities, the devil and the Prophet’s companion as a demonstration of how absolutist systems can go horribly wrong – one of the themes of the book. But the author framed the example with fictional characters and action which are completely contrary to Islam.

In September 2012, Rushdie expressed doubt that The Satanic Verses would be published today because of a climate of “fear and nervousness”. I agree that it wouldn’t be published even today, in 2022, but I wouldn’t attribute the decision to ‘fear and nervousness’. Today, most publishers would look at the manuscript and think, Muslims won’t like it and there will be mass protests. If he wants us to publish it, the dream sequences have to go.

You can call it the ‘sensitivity reader effect’, but really it’s a question about what’s good for the business.

A Banned Author Talks

This week, I’ve decided to post the commentary from a black, gay author whose book has been banned from US school districts. The commentary is on HuffPost, 24 September 2022. I haven’t read the book, so I have no basis for deciding whether it should or should not be banned. But the author, George M Johnson, says he wrote it for 14 to 18 year olds, and it’s about his experience growing up, so, if I were a school librarian, I might discourage a ten-year-old from reading it on the basis that he or she probably wouldn’t have the life experience to deal with the book emotionally. But, I might not refuse a 15 year-old.

George M Johnson

“It was sometime during 2019, before COVID turned the world upside down, that I had the first meeting with my publisher. Her team and I sat in a room around a table and discussed the strategy — the marketing and promotion, mostly — for dropping my first book, which I’d recently finished. I was truly living my dreams. Amid the excited conversation, something in my spirit told me to ask a question: “What happens if you need security at an event?” They all looked puzzled. One of them asked why I’d need that. “I know this book will be banned, ” I replied. “I don’t know when or how widely, but I know that it will be.”

“A report from PEN America this week showed that my book, having survived various criminal complaints, was the second-most banned in the United States, with bans in 29 school districts. States’ continued efforts to ban my work is not easy to wake up to daily. For the past year, there have been constant Google alerts, messages on social media from people calling me a “pedophile or groomer,” and other unsavory attempts to deny my story and the very existence of Black queer people everywhere. I never thought I would be at the center of a political issue moving into an election — nor should I ever have been.

“My book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” is a young adult memoir about my experience growing up Black and queer in America. In my story, I discuss growing up in a Black family who loved and affirmed me; the good, bad and ugly truths about what teens really deal with; and my journey through gender and social identity. My life was and still is full of joy, but also include some painful moments involving nonconsensual sex, as well as my experience with losing my virginity. Unfortunately, my sexual experiences have been deemed “an issue” — pornographic by some. To be clear, this book is for ages 14-18 and it contains truths that many of us have experienced and are healing from.

“Books about our experience are not too “explicit” just because they discuss gender, race and other crucial topics that teen readers need to process as they learn about themselves and the world they live in.

“Our books (the banned ones, if you will) often tell stories that are uncomfortable and important. Book banning is nothing new in the U.S., but it has rarely been seen at this magnitude in recent decades. But we can’t just talk about book banning without discussing the suppression of storytelling. Books written by enslaved people, that described their reality, had to be written under pseudonyms to protect the authors. Some of the greatest literary icons of our time — Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and even Harper Lee — have had their books banned despite their works being part of the landscape and foundation for many generations of writers.

“But that is why writing and other types of storytelling are such revolutionary rights.They change lives, provide community, and serve as a lifeline for those who feel unseen, unheard and alone.

“When I first wrote my memoir, I kept reminding myself that this was not for the 33-year-old version of me. This was for my 10-year-old self who had important things to say and had been silenced for so many years. And as I wrote about my experience, I felt lighter. I felt freer. I felt I had tapped a power I never knew existed.

“And then I watched as reader after reader, from teenagers to people well into their 70s, discussed how this book made them feel — how the stories healed and informed them. I was told that my simple existence (me being out here and sticking to my intentions) was something that they could hold on to on their roughest of days. And that’s the truly revolutionary thing about art. Toni Morrison once said, “If there is a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That’s what I did. And while all the book bans are weaponizing my words, I know that they’re providing armor for those who have gone through anything I did.

“I have more books to write and more stories to dismantle this system. And I’ll be damned if anyone denies my right to write them.”

I say, “Carry on, George!”

Publishing Today

Below are some of Harry Bingham’s thoughts on the state of book publishing today. Harry is the founder of Jericho Writers. It’s a good time to be a writer!

Harry Bingham

Self-publishing

Ten years ago, self-pub wasn’t really a thing. Now it certainly is. These days, there’s no longer any good public data for the scale of the self-pub market, but very roughly you should assume that self-published titles sell as many copies as all Big 5 titles on Amazon combined – in other words, one heck of a lot. Indeed, there are corners of the reading globe (romance and erotica especially) where self-publishing utterly dominates.

What’s more, indie authors make money. Again, public data is no longer available, but when it was, it was clear that at every single income level you care to name, there were more indie authors earning at that level than trad-published ones. More million-dollar indies. More $100K indies. And so on down. I’m certain that that basic picture hasn’t changed.

Multiple imprints

A friend of mine is currently selling a book, via a top British agent at a top British agency. The list of editors who are receiving that book include (of course) all the Big 5. It may surprise you to learn that the book doesn’t go to just one editor per publisher. It goes to as many editors, at as many imprints, as may be right for the book. From memory, the book is therefore going to two editors in different bits of HarperCollins, the same at PRH, and so on.

If an auction arises, those two HarperCollins editors, let’s say, might find themselves bidding against each other. A PRH / S&S merger wouldn’t necessarily reduce the number of editors that an agent pitched to. It would just change the email addresses of one recipient.

The long tail

Good publishing simply does not stop at the big firms.

My friend had as many small- to mid-sized publishers on that submissions list as Big 5 editors. And honestly? I think it’s simply 50/50 whether the book ends with a large house or a small one. The right publisher for that book will be one where the editorial, design and marketing visions align the best … along with a dollop of good chemistry between author and editor. A real passion from a Faber or a Bloomsbury or a Granta would (to my mind) be a better deal than a more lukewarm offer from a larger firm. (Those are British firms, but there are similar firms in the US and elsewhere too.)

The quality in some of these smaller houses is incredible. You often get more daring publishing, greater willingness to take risks, and generally bolder decisions at every level of the firm. You also, as an author, actually feel important to the firm, which is not something that’s easy to feel when you’re in the grip of one of the big machines. I once rejected an offer from a top, top quality British independent and I’ve always wonder if I did the right thing. If I had to guess, I’d say probably not.

Money

Most authors I know don’t ultimately care about money anyway. Yes, they want to be paid properly for their work, and they want that side of things to be handled with proper justice and professionalism, but the real payoff is more intangible. It’s the passion of a publisher, the respect of a community of peers, the book in the bookshop, the reviews and comments. All those things are every bit as likely – perhaps likelier – for authors working with strong indie presses as for those working with the Big 5.

The Big 5 firms are great. The indie publishers are better than they’ve ever been. Self-publishing creates a tremendously inspiring and effective route for countless authors.

Author-led marketing tools are the best they’ve ever been.

Barnes & Noble and Waterstones (respectively the flagship bookchains in the US and UK) are both in better shape than ever.

The independent bookstore sector has lost a lot of poor-quality stores, but the strong ones remain strong.

Books (thanks, especially to low cost ebook pricing) are insanely affordable – and you can read in any format you choose much more easily than before.

The simple fact is that it’s better to be an author today than at any point in the last two decades. Indeed, that’s probably underselling it. I think it’s easy to argue that this is the best ever time to be an author.”

Publishing in a War Zone

There is an article on The Bookseller website if April 8, 2022, written by Kateryna Nosko, a Ukrainian publisher, who describes how colleagues and peers continue to write, publish, sell and salvage their work in the midst of war. At the top of the article is this photograph of an empty Ukrainian stand at an international book fair:

The Ukrainian strand at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

Ms Nosko says: “It is the 42nd day of the war, and we continue living in the traumatic landscape. Sometimes this landscape shakes even more, such as when we and the whole world witnessed the photos of the Russian crimes in Bucha and Irpin, the Kyiv suburbs. After this, words become powerless. What arrives is a state of numbness. 

In this sense, the Ukrainian stand at the international book fairs manifest this desolation. The organisers say the idea of the empty stand in Bologna shows that Ukraine is at war, and the publishers are saving lives: their own and the ones of their loved ones. Indeed, today such a thing as a trip to an international book fair is blocked. Still, there is a feeling that publishers and cultural agents, who continue working or are already abroad, should turn the empty stalls into a platform for loud Ukrainian voices that represent the contemporary Ukrainian cultural and book publishing sectors. 

Because of the impossibility of talking about war when it unfolds in one’s country, images with short captions seem helpful. A week ago, a comic strip was released by Borys Filonenko and Danyl Shtangeev called “How to protect yourself and save others when you are a terrorist leader” The comic has 10 pages and resembles an instruction manual. All images are low-quality and grainy, as if from soviet handbooks. Filonenko wrote the text in an hour and a half after seeing the stage during a concert rally in Moscow’s Luzhniki where Putin spoke on 18th March. The scene resembled a cage and became a key element of the comic. The work took a week in total, but only because there is not enough time for making a comic nowadays. While the authors were working, the missiles fell on Western Ukraine: Lviv, Lutsk, Rivne, Khmelnytskyi. Shtangeev’s mother called him for the first time in two weeks, but the call was only eight seconds long as she was in Rubizhne, right on the frontline. During this time, the Mykolaiv Regional State Administration, where some people were staying, was bombed and destroyed. Our friends – artists from Mariupol – from whom we’d heard almost nothing since the beginning of the war were finally found.

Meanwhile, with help our publishing team has managed to rescue some book stock from Kyiv and Kharkiv. In particular, we rescued copies of art book KYIV by Sergiy Maidukov, by an artist who often creates illustrations for the New Yorker. He likes to draw from life in the city, but now it isn’t easy to manage. On the streets of Kyiv, as soon as you get a camera or a tablet out, the Territorial Defense comes up to you to identify who you are and why you are recording. This is necessary to determine whether you are working as a saboteur or enemy reporter.

Our office, where some of the books by Sergiy Maidukov are stored, is located in the Kyiv historical city centre, in Podil, on the right bank of the river. On a regular day before the war, we would put a key from our office in our pocket, and we would take the number of books needed for delivery and bring them to the post office – a straightforward set of actions. During the war, all of this doesn’t seem as clear anymore. Firstly, only one team member remained in Kyiv – our designer Dima Frolov. However, he didn’t have a key. Apart from a neighbour on the left bank, no one did. This made the task even more difficult since the bridges are blocked, and those that remain open are dangerous to cross. Still, this hadn’t stopped Frolov from going to the left bank, spending three hours in traffic while all the block-posts checked the documents and the car tank several times. The next day he managed to send the books to Western Ukraine. 

When we published KYIV by Sergiy Maidukov last year, Maidukov said that the book was his declaration of love for Kyiv.

Several days ago, the Russians were pushed away from the Kyiv region. So, Kyiv citizens are gradually returning to the capital, even though the government says there is a significant death threat. The people are coming anyway, a remarkable testament to their love for Kyiv.

Summing up this story about the evacuation, I want to say that when the books finally arrived in the west of the country, in theory to a “safer place”, that night, not far from the storage where we put them, the missile struck an oil depot. Neighbours’ windows flew out, but no one was injured. A few kilometres from the explosion, the books were also not damaged. I realised that wherever we looked for quiet places, it was still dangerous everywhere. 

Yet, people keep ordering books online, and there are some open bookstores. We, in turn, began to send the orders where delivery allows. However, in my last column here I wrote that we were not planning to deliver the orders yet. We decided to transfer the proceeds from the book sales to two charitable organisations: the Social Adaptation Complex, where adults with mental disabilities live, and Sirius – the biggest dog shelter in Ukraine. 

For the first time during the war, we managed to print a stock in Ukraine. Brave printing staff in Kyiv have finished printing and stitching our new book Conversations about Architecture with Oleg Drozdov and Bohdan Volynsky, which was interrupted by the war starting in February. Unfortunately, the most powerful printing houses are located in Kharkiv, which is in the East of Ukraine, and they cannot operate since the city is constantly under shellfire. Recently, the world-famous Ukrainian poet and writer Sergiy Zhadan came under fire in Kharkiv, which he announced on Facebook. Yet, this hasn’t stopped him from volunteering and going to the city’s most dangerous areas. He writes about Kharkiv nearly every day. One day, he said that Kharkiv residents were cleaning around their houses, raking glass and bricks, because they were used to the cleanness of the city. In the same way, we in the publishing industry, strive to continue doing what we are used to.”

The Ukrainians are amazing!

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.