The trials of women authors are laid bare this season in several movies (The Wife, Colette), never more amusingly and heart-breakingly than in director Marielle Heller’s honest comedy-drama, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel’s autobiography (trailer).
Melissa McCarthy is perfect as Lee Israel, a middle-ranking author of celebrity biographies in 1970s and 1980s New York, settling down into the ranks of the unpublishable. Lee can’t get her next project going—an unpromising, probably unsaleable biography of Fanny Brice. Her agent (Jane Curtin) won’t take her calls, her prickly personality has alienated any people who might have helped her, she’s behind in her rent and reduced to stealing a winter coat, and her cat is sick. Life is tough and so is she.
By chance, Lee stumbles upon a couple of original letters by Brice and sells them to the kind of antiquarian book dealers who trade in such collectibles. She soon learns bland doesn’t sell. What makes notables’ correspondence valuable is the personal touch, a bit of wit. She’s a writer; she can do this. And does.
Into her insular life arrives a comet of a man. Jack Hock, played with manic relish by Richard E. Grant, is Lee’s polar opposite. Gregarious and most probably homeless, he becomes her companion (the word “friend” would be tricky here), her drinking buddy, then her partner in crime.
The filmmakers initially saw Julianne Moore in the role of Lee, but they were so fortunate in casting McCarthy. Says Monica Castillo on RogerEbert.com, “The range in McCarthy’s performance cannot be overstated. At almost every turn, her character gives the audience plenty of reason not to like her. Yet, with Heller’s sympathetic approach and McCarthy’s acting, the movie humanizes her beyond caricature,” and Israel is presented with tremendous empathy and understanding.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 86%.
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Book publishers, scrambling to find a toehold as the Niagara of new manuscripts cascades over them, have latched onto the concept of “up-lit.” According to Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian, novels that offer “decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers” are increasingly garnering publisher and prize committee attention, and more important, the loyalty of readers.
Perhaps it’s a reaction to the long run of dystopian novels or perhaps a reaction to the daily news, but, as HarperCollins terms them, “books that give us hope,” such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Cecelia Ahern’s The Marble Collector, and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, have shown there’s a strong market for books whose subtext is optimism and empathy. We’re not talking lit-lite here: George Saunders’s Lincoln at the Bardo (2017 Man Booker prize winner) is riddled with human compassion. Though it comes from the dead. Hmm.
Says author Joanna Cannon, “I write about communities, kindness and people coming together because that’s the society I wish for. I write what I’d like to happen.” I would put Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow in that same category. Would that there were more people like Count Alexander Rostov, and, hey, why couldn’t I try to emulate him, and hew to a code of unfailing courtesy (even while retaining a bit of private deviousness in service of a higher good)?
We’re not talking Pollyannas, either. Beckerman quotes Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimageof Harold Fry, in saying that up-lit stories’ characters can confront all the bad things in life—“devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness”—and yet say, “there is still this.” She says, “Kindness isn’t just giving somebody something when you have everything. Kindness is having nothing and then holding out your hand.”
To the extent that people read novels for escape and enlightenment, why not escape to a kinder, better world? Why not be inspired to greater empathy rather than snarkiness? The speculative novel Fever, by South African thriller writer Deon Meyer, takes place after an uncontrollable virus kills ninety-five percent of the world’s population. It could have described a society that devolves into anarchy and rapaciousness (think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand), and, while there are people in the novel who follow that path, the principal characters envision a better, more equal world and work hard to build it. They face logistical, emotional, and moral struggles, but the fact that their better world can be envisioned at all and collectively pursued is, ultimately, affirmative.
Not having read many of these books, I hope you have and that you’ll leave a comment reporting what you think of them.
Preparing for a panel on “short stories” for this weekend’s Deadly Ink conference for mystery/crime writers, I studied the stack of five print publications in which my work has appeared this past year. This was in lieu of doing any actual preparation, you might suspect. I realized each of them had a publication lesson for me—and possibly other authors. So here goes:
Don’t Dismiss Limited Circ Outlets
Five of the last six years I’ve had a story in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction Issue. Yes, it reaches a small audience, but at a max of 2000 words, the time investment in these stories isn’t massive and I keep the rights (more on that later).
The benefits: reminding myself at least someone thinks my work is good enough to invest ink and paper in, the satisfaction of meeting an actual deadline—in creative work you sometimes need an end-point—and, best of all, cultivating a local group of writer friends for support and commiseration. My 2016 story: “What Would Jimmy Stewart Do?”
Prepare for Rejection
Are you thrown into a funk that’s hard to crawl out of when a story’s rejected? Take heart from realizing that all short story outlets today receive far more “publishable” material—stories they like—than they have room for. The literary magazine Glimmer Train, which has given several of my non-mystery stories a thumbs-down, publishes about 60 stories a year. The editors receive 32,000 submissions. Those 60 stories may be fantastic, but they simply cannot be the absolute “best” ones.
I expect rejection. And I plan for it. When a story of mine comes back from outlet x, I read it through, fix anything obvious, and right away send it to outlet y, then z. Last year, I sent a rejected story to a new outlet whose editors want to feature female protagonists. They accepted it gladly, and eventually it won a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. You can read that story—“Breadcrumbs”—here.
Timing, Timing, Timing
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is one of the premier, if not the premier outlet for short mystery fiction. I wanted another story of mine in it. So last spring, I wrote a Christmas-themed story, hoping they’d want it for the annual Holiday issue. I sent it in June, to give them plenty of time to think about it. Planning for rejection, even if they turned it down in their usual six to eight weeks (ask me how I know!), I’d have time to submit it elsewhere. They did not, and it appeared in the January-February 2017 “’Tis the Season” issue.
Meet the Requirements
I know writer who become so wrapped up in writing “their” story that they ignore editors’ guidance on theme, length, and so on. Dissect calls for submissions for clues to what they’re looking for. Don’t expect to be the exception, and don’t make it easy for editors to reject your work! I wanted to submit a story to an anthology about police work. I had such a story in mind. A 6,200-word story. The editors’ limit was 5,000. I liked those 1,200 words, but they went the way of the blue pencil (and the story was probably better for it). It was published in April.
Mine Your Backlist
Novelists have a “backlist” of books published in past years. Short story writers do too. When I see an outlet looking for a theme I’ve written on, I check whether the editor will accept reprints. Last October an online magazine republished one of my U.S. 1 stories that had a Halloween theme; I own those rights, remember? In April, a minor edit to a story published in a lit magazine (rights also mine) tailored it for an anthology. Taking advantage of these opportunities puts your work in front of new people and is a refreshing glass of water in the desert of seeming indifference.
Dawn Ellner, cc license
Getting a short story published entails more than a small amount of luck, but if you’ve written a great story, you can increase the odds it will reach readers by being strategic about when, where, and how you engage with potential publishers.
With more than a million new books a year being published in the United States, readers have to look harder than ever to find the book perfect for them. Book reviews work, if they’ve found a reviewer whose opinions they trust; best-seller lists reveal what other people are buying (or do they?); and online consumer recommendations can help, too. Even in my mystery/thriller niche, the number of new books is overwhelming. I need help!
Blogger Sandra Parshall recently reported on an excellent panel discussion involving three top book reviewers. The reviewers and samples of their reviews in the mystery genre are:
Maureen Corrigan, who reviews for NPR’s Fresh Air and is a contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers; she recently reviewed Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, a crime drama she calls a noir vision of an “American gone rancid”
Dennis Drabelle, crime fiction editor at The Washington Post, who recently reviewed the “mesmerizing” Malcolm Mackay thriller trilogy featuring freelance Glasgow hit man Calum MacLean and
Bethanne Patrick, creator of twitter’s popular #FridayReads hashtag, who reviews for multiple venues. She recently reviewed Mary Kubica’s psychological thriller Pretty Baby for NPR.
Every week, these reviewers wade through hundreds of advance review copies of new books in search of gems, including those in the crime/mystery/thriller genre. They have a few groundrules that make it easier: no self-published books; look at those by well-known authors while keeping an eye out for new talent, such as Vu Tran, mentioned above, or “something unusual”; and look at the books from publishers with a good track record. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the writing that makes a book stand out, they said. (My decision rules for book reviews are described here and here.)
Parshall quoted Corrigan’s distaste for market-driven gimmicks—no “vampires living in Downton Abbey with dogs.” I’m guessing she didn’t review any of the vampire versions of Pride and Prejudice. Zombie ones, either.
Finally, they said best-seller lists are not a reliable guide to finding quality books. Marketing expert Tim Grahl, posting on Hugh Howey’s blog The Wayfinder last year, would agree. Grahl says, “I’ve become incredulous at the complete disaster that is the major best seller lists.” And he feelingly describes how the two biggest-impact lists—those of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—are created. Not how you think they are.
George Orwell was a frequent, but cranky, book reviewer, saying it was like “pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.” Now, new legions of book reviewers are rising up to cope with the massive numbers. They’re the “consumers” whose reviews and recommendations we can read on Amazon and other book-buying sites, the social networks Goodreads and Library Thing, and others. While many consumer comments don’t rise above a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, some are thorough and thoughtful. They’re updating the most popular strategy people use for selecting a particular book, the recommendation of a friend.
In addition, aggregator sites like Crime Fiction Lover, for which I am one of a dozen reviewers, have appeared. Similar specialty shops for reviews of romance, science fiction/fantasy, and other genres exist. And hundreds of websites like this one, that regularly review books of all types.
(photo: US Army Garrison, Red Cloud, creative commons license)
Harvard Business Review recently added its voice to the clamor for changes in the $28 billion U.S. publishing industry. The article, by writer Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist based at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, is headlined “Harper Lee and Dr. Seuss Won’t Save Publishing.”
By relying not only on those obvious one-offs and other “successful retreads,” but also emphasizing authors who have what publishers call a pre-existing platform—which means either past books, a painstakingly built social media presence, speaker popularity, or high visibility in other media (movie stars, television commentators, high-profile journalists)—publishers are missing partnerships with less prominent authors. Such relationships used to be cultivated over the long term, giving publishers a deep bench.
Publishers don’t treat authors the way a venture capitalist or angel investor might, notes Suw Charman-Anderson in Forbes. Some of the authors on that bench were future stars and others solid mid-list performers. The whole timid approach is reminiscent of Hollywood’s love affair with sequels, prequels, and copycat films.
Authors today have a choice; if publishers aren’t willing to invest in them, they can look elsewhere, to smaller presses or self-publishing. In the past, the major publishers could offer authors their expertise in distribution, design, editing, proofreading, and marketing. Distribution has had a tectonic change with the advent of e-books and print-on-demand; increasingly sophisticated design, editing, and proofreading services are available for authors to contract with directly; and only the most highly successful (or happily delusional) author expects the publisher to take sole charge of their book’s marketing any more.
Clark recommends the following strategies to reinvigorate their relationships with authors:
Become full partners with authors, looking to the long term; think of them as the seed-corn necessary to harvest future profits.
Be more transparent with data (in late October I’ll be receiving my royalty statement from a textbook publisher that will provide up-to-the-minute-as-of-last-April sales information); no way can authors help with promotion when they’re working with arcane, six-month-old data. What’s more, as best-selling author Ken Follett says, “(Royalty) statements are carefully designed to prevent the author knowing what is really happening to his book.” (Clark says Penguin Random House has a new author portal that tracks weekly sales. This is a first.)
Build their own brand and audience. With all the industry consolidations that have occurred in recent years, if readers had an impression of a particular publisher, that entity may no longer exist, at least not independently.
Connect authors to one another for “cross-pollination” of marketing and literary ideas.
Double down on quality. Readers of books from all sources, including big publishers, lament the typographical and factual errors and negligent editing they encounter, even in books they’ve paid top-dollar for.
Such strategies could assure publishers’ profitability for years to come, because, as Clark said, “hoping to find another lost manuscript is not a business plan.”
Industry-watcher Michael Shatzkin says changes in publishing are, maybe, inevitable?
Earlier this summer, my heart sank. I was reading about yet another manifestation of the gender divide in agenting, publishing, marketing, and reviewing women-written fiction, which, even if unconscious, leads to and promotes a gender divide in the books readers choose, an issue I wrote about in my post, “Will Men Read my Book?” A vicious circle if ever there was one.
Subject Matter Matters
The essay was Nicola Griffith’s “Books about women don’t win big awards.” She compiled data showing that not only have men won most of the major literary awards over the last 15 years, when women have won them, they’ve mostly won them for books about male characters. Think Hilary Mantel, the only woman to have won two Man Booker prizes, both for books about Thomas Cromwell, or Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winner The Goldfinch and its protagonist Theo Decker. (Rufi Thorpe has written an amusing, but pointed essay on what it’s like to have her first novel published and the tone-deaf reactions she received. Male at pool: “I mean, yours was just a novel about girls.” Author: “Yeah, I know that.” Male at pool: “I just don’t see how anyone could compare it to actual literature.”)
“Everybody kind of knows it’s true, but they don’t want to see it,” Griffith said in the Seattle Review of Books. Later in that essay, she says, “The way we’re brought up is that stories about men are important and stories about women are fluffy and domestic and kind of boring.” This page from a publisher of predominantly women-written mysteries is a revealing display of that preconception in action. It sends a clear marketing message: These are lightweight books. Not that there isn’t a place for such books and the readers who enjoy them. This publisher is just up-front about what they do and, inadvertently I hope, perpetuating a stereotype.
The Evidence Piles Up
In June, I groaned reading Kamila Shamsie’s essay in The Bookseller on another aspect of the gender divide. She, too, turned to statistics, analyzing The Guardian’s end-of-year book recommendations by some 252 cultural figures, mostly writers. The data showed that more men than women get asked to recommend; of those who are asked, more men than women agree to do so; and those men are more likely to recommend yet more men. Says Shamsie:
I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there’s a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that men are better writers and better critics, and that when men recommend books by men that’s fair literary judgement, while when women recommend books by women that’s either a political position or woolly feminine judgement. To these people I have nothing to say, except: go read some Toni Morrison.
I pulled my hair and rolled my eyes as, over the summer, the reaction to this situation became increasingly creative, if quixotic. Shamsie has proposed that in 2018 UK publishers bring out only new titles by women. US writer Amanda Filipacchi tried to “pose like a man” for her book jacket photo when she discovered that in these pictures “The men looked simpler, more straightforward. The women looked dreamy, often gazing off into the distance. Their limbs were sometimes entwined, like vines.”
And white male writers have been urged to acknowledge that “the white male experience has been overexposed, at the expense of other experiences, for centuries.” Or, as American fiction writer John Scalzi has said, in the massive role-playing game of life, “‘Straight White Male’ is the lowest difficulty setting there is.”
Submissions (A Too-Apt Word?)
Right now, I’m in the middle of preparing submission packets for small publishers. It took two days to prepare three packets. I’ve been working on the current packet since Sunday, off and mostly on. Each publisher has different requirements, some puzzling. My novel, three years in the works, has been professionally edited by an award-winning mystery writer, professionally proofread, and the police-related parts reviewed by a former NYPD detective and terrorism expert. It’s in its, oh, eighth? draft.
Then yesterday, I read this the story by Catherine Nichols. Discouraged by the lackluster response (usually a one-line rejection or, commonly, no reply at all) to her agent query letters—you need an agent in order to approach most publishers—she began sending her materials out using a male pseudonym. Over a weekend, she sent six agents the same letter and same book synopsis and sample chapters she’d been sending and received five responses, with three requests for a manuscript. Ultimately, under her own name, 50 queries received two manuscript requests, whereas “George’s” 50 queries generated 17 manuscript requests. George is, she says, “eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.”
The agents’ comments to Catherine (similar to those I have received myself) consistently cited “beautiful writing,” which Nichols points out “is the paint job on top but not the engine of the book,” whereas they said George’s work was “‘clever,’ it’s ‘well-constructed’ and ‘exciting.’” It received lengthy critiques, not the typical form-letter brush-offs.
She points out that the agents she approached were both men and women, “which is not surprising because bias would hardly have a chance to damage people if it weren’t pervasive. It’s not something a few people do to everyone else. It goes through all the ways we think of ourselves and each other.”
AGNIis the well-regarded literary magazine published by Boston University, and its editor is Sven Birkerts. For the June edition of The AGNI Newsletter, Birkets took advantage of the journal’s current hiatus in accepting author submissions to reflect on what its editors hope to find when they read their “towering backlog” of poem, short story, and essay manuscripts.
Understand the initial screen – submissions are first triaged into three categories: those clearly off the mark one way or another (more than 60 percent); those that may have potential (25 percent); and those with “obvious appeal” (less than 12 percent), which are circulated to appropriate readers. He doesn’t say whether those 60 receive an immediate “No, thanks,” or whether they get into a process that takes the two to four months noted in AGNI’s submission guidelines. (AGNI turned down a short story of mine, and it took six weeks.)
Understand the need for fit – The approximately one-third of the submissions in the “maybe” queue are reviewed for both quality and goodness-of-fit—as Birkets puts it, whether they fall within its “aesthetic profile.” Determining the likelihood that a story will be a good fit is ideally an author’s responsibility, in part. It’s why literary journals typically suggest a prospective submitter read a few copies before sending in their work. In other words, self-triage. “It does take some time to scout out likely venues for work,” he admits, “but it also takes time sending and re-sending to ones that turn out to be unlikely.”
Focus on the most important – What AGNI editors look for in a cover letter is a quick statement and a short list of the author’s most notable previous publications, if any. By contrast, the first sentences of the story receive the editors’ careful attention. Birkets describes why beautifully: “As an editor confronting the day’s abundance, I want to find a reason to stop reading as soon as I can. As an editor in love with good writing, I want to find that I cannot stop.”
Don’t fret about a lack of previous publications – This, he says, is not a barrier with AGNI, and, contrariwise, well established writers can be rejected because of the lack of fit noted above Birkets estimates that about half the stories AGNI publishes are by newly discovered writers.
Be committed to the importance of the work – This is the hardest of his points to distill into concrete advice, but may be the most critical. He says he wants to see work that is “an authentic and necessary expression, something that couldn’t not be written.” In other words, the writing must be propelled by the author’s deep conviction of its necessity in a noisy world. “We know when we are in the presence of that and, believe me, we are interested,” he says. I have a friend whose OK novel was published a few years ago. Sometime later, I asked him whether he was writing another. “No,” he said, with astonishing candor, “I found out I don’t have anything to say.”
For my many writing friends who do have something to say, AGNI’s submissions period opens again September 1.
Is there a bit of wishful thinking behind Simon Owens’s article from Mediashift on how self-publishing has been great for freelance designers and editors? I read so much—even real books with covers and an actual publisher—that clearly escaped a firm editorial hand and would have benefited from one. Self-publishing, he says, has created “a rising need for the kind of editors who offered the feedback that could be found at traditional publishing houses.” Recently, I bit the bullet and sent the manuscript of one of my novels to a freelance editor who specializes in mysteries and thrillers—and is an award-winning mystery author in her own right. It was one of the best writing decisions I’ve made. A terrific experience.
Perhaps Owens hopes his words will encourage more editors to enter the author support services field. The numbers are certainly there: An estimated 3,500 new books are published every day in the United States, not including ebooks. This estimate is based on the number of new ISBN numbers, which many ebook authors don’t bother to obtain. The first response to this need was a deluge of unqualified or barely qualified editors and designers, overpriced services of marginal value, and discouragement and frustration among authors. If an editor is not well qualified (including familiarity with genre considerations) or if the author is unwilling to make changes, an expensive and frustrating experience is in store.
If the numbers are there, the dollars may not be. The majority of self-published authors make less than $5,000 a year on their writing. Even established writers (i.e., members of the Authors Guild) are earning 24% less from their writing now versus five years ago, says a new survey.
The acute need for author support services and the highly variable quality of what was out there led to development of invaluable websites like Reedsy and Writer Beware. These sites are true author advocates—pointing out bad actors, scams, and other traps laid for those hopeful souls who say, “I just want to write. I don’t care about all this businessy stuff.”
Owens’s sources say competition among books actually requires “more emphasis on producing a professional product, both in design and editorial standards” and, I’d add, faith that the audience knows the difference, for which evidence is scant. And, of course, if an author isn’t looking to self-publish, a solidly edited product is essential for attracting agents and traditional publishers.
Two reputable-sounding sources for editorial assistance cited by Owens are Reedsy and New York Book Editors, whose freelancers generally are former employees of traditional New York publishing houses. Ideally, says freelance editor Rebecca Heyman, “There should be no gap in quality between independently-published work and traditionally-published work.”
Gulf Coast Books, Fort Myers, Florida (photo: facebook)
A great idea recently came out of Florida—and, no, I am not talking about aspiring Republican presidential candidates. According to a Publisher’s Weekly story by Judith Rosen, the first bookstore dedicated to self-published authors opened in Fort Myers earlier this month. The Gulf Coast Book Store was launched by two self-published authors: Patti Brassard Jefferson, who writes and illustrates children’s books and history author Timothy Jacobs.
The store addresses one of the biggest difficulties facing self-published authors—the near-impossibility of getting their books into stores. In traditional book stores, self-published authors—who conservatively publish some 450,000 books per year—are essentially invisible. Even books published by small presses may have difficulty appearing on store shelves if the publisher doesn’t invest in relationships with book distributors. Distributors’ sales teams are the people who promote a new author’s book to book store buyers. (A useful discussion of the difference between book wholesalers and distributors is here, a distinction many publishing services gloss over.)
At Gulf Coast, which is located in Fort Myers’s Butterfly Estates, self-published authors’ works are not vetted, but writers must be local. They can rent shelf space for three months for $60, plus a $15 set-up fee. In return, they receive 100% of every sale. (Bookstores willing to take a local author’s books typically do so on consignment, and the author may receive only about half of each sale.) Gulf Coast can offer these full returns because it doesn’t need staff. Butterfly Estates—which includes shops, a café, and butterfly conservatory—handles sales and credit-card processing.
In April, the store offered books by 36 local authors, plans to add 16 more in May, and currently has no spaces available. Each writer can display up to 10 books, and the 10 may be all the same title or multiple titles. Authors can display promotional materials—bookmarks, brochures, and the like—and are featured on the store’s website.
Gulf Coast’s space is available for book signings, too. For Jefferson and Jacobs, “the store is about building community and helping other authors,” writes PW contributor Rosen. Though Gulf Coast provides a tiny solution for now, if it caught on elsewhere, indie authors would rejoice.
Murder, She Read, is a research report from Nielsen Book Research (a copy will set you back $1,500), on the book-buying preferences and habits of some 6000 nationally representative U.S. mystery/crime readers. The researchers defined “mystery/crime” as
a genre of fiction typically focused on the investigation of a crime. Mystery fiction is often used as a synonym for detective fiction or crime fiction—in other words, a novel or short story in which a detective (either professional or amateur) investigates and solves a crime mystery.
This is a more restrictive definition than most, but a lot of books fit it. Highlights of the study results:
(photo: raider of gin, creative commons license)
Most “mystery” readers (70%) are female
The biggest age group of mystery readers (28%) comprises people 65 and older, with almost half of mystery readers 55 and older and
Many mystery readers are not actually buying their books; they’re getting them free.
The gender and age concentrations revealed come as no surprise. Month after month, I see lists of the mysteries agents and publishers are signing. Their decisions are creating and reinforcing this important audience, and its dominance is an effect of the choices they make.
I certainly don’t want to suggest there shouldn’t be books geared to the older female demographic, but mysteries that involve clever kitties, cutesy shops, knitting patterns, and recipes not only succeed in appealing to one specific group but also fail to develop new communities of interest.
Authors can—and do—write novels that appeal to both men and women. And many women readers devour books by Michael Connelly, Tana French, Ian Rankin, and Laura Lippman just as much as men do. However, a focus on novels with marketing appeal to only one segment of the population (and a low- or non-paying one at that) may prove counterproductive in the long run. I hope authors and publishers read the Nielsen findings as a call to reach out to tomorrow’s audiences—readers who will be as loyal and enthusiastic as the older woman audience is today.