How a Book Is Made

Readers and writers alike may enjoy this interactive New York Times feature from a few months back, ICYMI, which shows step-by-step how a book is made. Elizabeth Harris and photographer Thomas Prior followed the progress of Marlon James’s book Moon Witch, Spider King, from its beginning as a Word document somewhere in the cloud to a finished hardcover book you can hold in your hand.

The first step (after Marlon finishes his cloud magic) is producing the brilliantly colored jacket, which is run on a six-color press, 8,000 sheets of paper in a batch. Next, the aptly-named press that prints the actual book pages. It weighs 200,000 pounds, and the rolls of specialty paper books require weigh 800 pounds each—no supply chain paper shortages here!

It’s probably a good idea that authors are nowhere near these presses. Watching the flying ribbon of paper is almost scary, as is wondering whether the pages will arrive at the bindery in the right order. (Eeek! The gathering machine! Trimming! Gluing!) It’s amazing how rarely these pieces of the process do mess up. As many books as I’ve read, handled, skimmed, etc., I’ve seen out-of-order pages or bad trimming once in a very blue moon.

The cardboard covers (call one a “case,” and you’ll pass for a printing insider) then go on. The striking jacket wrappers are folded onto the books. Boxes of finished books are wrapped, sealed, labeled, and ready to ship. Fini! This is a lot more than I knew about producing a book when I was 10, and my mom found me pecking on my sturdy Underwood. “Writing is so hard!” I complained. “It’s almost impossible to make the right side of the lines come out even!”

Between Author and Reader: Amazon

A recent New Yorker article by Parul Sehgal that asks “Is Amazon is changing the novel?” sure sounds like a must-read for authors. There’s some history in there and some juicy stuff about the company some writers call “The Great Satan.”

The struggle writers face in meeting the demands of the book marketplace (versus readers) is not a new phenomenon. Sehgal cites an 1891 novel, New Grub Street, as an example of “pitiless portraits of the writing life.” A character in that book asserts that “literature nowadays is a trade,” and how many versions of that have you heard in recent years? The term potboiler was coined to reflect books created without regard to craft, but just to keep the stew pots boiling.

A hundred thirty years ago, the Amazon of book distribution was Mudie’s Select Library. Mudie’s market power–along with publishers’ financial incentives—demanded hefty three-volume works, much as publishers today like series books and for much the same reason. One popular book in a series sells the others.

But nine-hundred pages (roughly) were a lot to fill, then or now, and writing styles and habits developed to support that requirement. Victorian writers larded in subplots, created large casts of characters, and wrote desperate cliffhangers to carry readers (and themselves) through that long slog. Toward the end of the 19th century, new publishing forms began to take hold, notably less expensive books printed on cheap pulp paper, which opened book purchasing to new markets. As night follows day, new forms of reader enticement emerged, including the development of popular genre fiction—crime novels, Westerns, and the like.

Now, Amazon controls almost three-fourths of U.S. online book sales to adults and almost half of all new-book sales. In that river of print are the company’s own book imprints—16 of them. Do authors write a different kind of book when they know readers have power over not only their own book purchases, but can influence others, as well? Not one-on-one, either. Success or failure is right there on screen, thanks to reader-posted stars.

Kindle Direct Publishing takes reader feedback even farther, right to authors’ wallets. KDP writers are paid based on the number of pages read—increasing the financial incentives for producing lots of pages, new books every three months, and littering them with cliffhangers to keep readers hooked.

Whether all this has an impact on book quality, I’ll leave to you. In my opinion, it helps account for the increasing violence in crime novels, and the bizarre and gruesome nature these crimes. The frequency of plots with “girls” (usually not a child) and children as victims is simply used to raise the stakes. Do you see other evidence of Amazon’s effects? on you? on other writers? on readers?

Book Sightings

What makes a good book cover? An important questions because, as we all know, people are going to judge our book by the cover before they even pick it up. The old admonition not to do that is for naught.

While you might think your cover should be “unique” and “uniquely you,” marketing consultants say no to that. They say it should look the same as the cover of the books the reader typically chooses. Comfortably familiar. This must be the reason we see so many thriller covers with silhouettes of women walking alone at night, often into the woods. (Who does that? First of all, you’d ruin your shoes.) Here are the covers I’ve liked best far this year (and one outstanding cover from 2020). Maybe the best advice is, “if it works, it works,” in which case none of the other rules count.

Play the Red Queen – From the moment I saw this cover, I knew I had to read the book. It is part of a growing number of books with a graphic cover rather than a photograph, it looks interesting, it has action, and I liked the mesmerizing pattern. I felt the same way about The Aosawa Murders. Loved both.

Absentees and Infinite – both of these covers work very well with the book title, subtly and graphically reinforcing it, which is helpful on those extremely rare occasions when you can’t quite remember something. And they use the popular cool teal color scheme. Haven’t read either book. Any good?

Blacktop Wasteland – the derelict cars, the relentless daylight, the Black man seen, but not actually in the picture. Symbolically powerful. And the white type works both with the light sky and the darker car bodies. This is the cover of the audio version, so the format’s more square. (Another great book!)

Hotel Cartagena – Orenda Books has given Simone Buchholz’s police thrillers similar black night, neon-infused covers that are jazzy and unmistakable (so much for looking like everything else). A good fit with her lively protagonist.

Educated – This cover is a triumph of metaphor. The book describes a girl’s struggle to use education to pull herself up from the dominance and isolation oof her survivalist Idaho family. Look like a #2 pencil to you? The scatterings of black “graphite shavings” are her, standing on the mountain of obstacles she’s overcome.

The Short of It

On the Writer Unboxed blog last week, publishing guru Porter Anderson speculated about reasons the changeover from the old year to the year always seems to generate news about short-form fiction. Perhaps, he suggests, the end/beginning of a year is a time writers have short fiction on the mind, intending to try out ideas they might spend the rest of the year working up into a larger project—that is, a book. Maybe so.

I went the other direction. To reduce the word-count of a novel, I cut way back on secondary characters’ stories. I liked these guys, but . . . These cutting-room floor episodes became three short stories, all of them now published. While possibly a commendable exercise in prose recycling, there were unanticipated pitfalls. First, they had to be real stories, not “excerpts.” That was relatively easy. Second, once those stories were out there, I had to take them into account when I made further changes to the novel itself. Probably not one reader in a million (should I have that many) would go back, find those stories and object to any discrepancies. Of course, that one would have an active online presence and a snarky temperament.

Anderson cites four international developments bearing on the status of short fiction:
1. A new independent publisher in France (L’Ourse brune) focusing on short stories written in French. Formidable!
2. Later this week, London’s Costa Short Story Awards will reveal the voting public’s favorite among three unpublished short stories.
3. The 16th BBC National Short Story Award program opened for submissions last week; cash prizes to be announced in early October
4. Spain’s Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize consists of cash, an artist’s residency in Umbria or the Writers’ House of Georgia, plus publication opportunities and more.

There’s (fairly recent) U.S. news in the world of short fiction, as well. You’ll remember that the long-running annual Best American Mystery Story anthology has moved from the purview of its founding editor, Otto Penzler, to the guiding hand of author and editor Steph Cha (Your House Will Pay), starting with next fall’s edition. It will have new title, too: The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

Penzler’s Mysterious Press reportedly will launch a competing anthology this fall: The Mysterious Bookshop Presents: The Best Mystery Stories of the Year. The attendant kerfuffle was covered by J. Kingston Pierce in The Rap Sheet.

Finally, the annual Best New England Crime Stories anthology, previously published by Level Best Books, will henceforth be published by Crime Spell Books, with Susan Oleksiw, Ang Pompano, and Leslie Wheeler as editors. Write on!

Photo: Pexel for Pixabay

Book Title = Sales?

Maybe you’ve wrestled a fair bit with choosing a title for your new book. Now comes Jim Milliot in Publisher’s Weekly to tell you it actually matters for your book’s marketing.

Milliot describes an online study conducted last fall by the Codex Group, involving nearly 4000 book buyers and more than 50 new and forthcoming titles. The study examined whether a book’s presentation encouraged prospective readers to browse, as measured by the number of clicks the books’ “read more” buttons received.

As valuable as such information should be to authors, the study has a number of features that limit the interpretation of its results. I’d like to know more about those 4000 readers—gender and age breakdown, genre preferences, are they regular online purchasers?, and so on.

All 10 of the most actively browsed books have women protagonists, several involve children, marital relationships, and female friendships. Were the 50 books tested skewed in this direction, or is it that people who like that type of book are more curious about them? It’s worth noting that, even the best-ranked books received no more than one in four “read more” clicks.

Plowing on, here’s the bad news—or good news if you’re published by Amazon. Eight of the top 10 books receiving clicks were from Amazon Publishing—a data point that would be more impressive if we knew what proportion of the 50 were published by Amazon. Still, five of these highly-rated Amazon titles were among last year’s 11 top-selling ebooks. An attractive cover meant more than taking a deeper look, it meant readers clicked the “buy now” button too.

This suggests Amazon is doing something right, and that may by particularly important for you if you’re a new author, as were some of the authors among the top 10, if you don’t have a pre-existing fan-base, if you’re experimenting with a new genre, or if you write in the genre (women’s fiction) whose readers responded most strongly in this research.

So, how does Amazon do it? For two of the three most popular books in this test, participants said it was the book’s title, not the graphics, that drew them in. Hunh. I’d find this more persuasive if they tested titles alone, on a blank cover, and Milliot’s article doesn’t suggest they did that. It’s hard to separate the effect of a title from the overall—and often more memorable—artwork behind it. Reading the list of titles of the top 10 books makes this finding even more surprising. The most frequently browsed book, for example, was After, pictured (though I can’t be sure this is the version people in the test saw). Without the photograph, the title wouldn’t carry much meaning.

Maybe After succeeded because Amazon tries hard to ensure that title and cover art reinforce each other. (To illustrate, see “Together, they signal readers about the book’s contents and help them know whether they’d like it.

There’s a lot riding on these choices. Everything—art, title, cover copy—is part of your story’s package. Make good choices!

Yesterday’s post provided a few things to think about when choosing the book title that will make an interesting and lasting impression.

Photo (top): Annette G for Pixabay

Will People Pick Up My Book?

We writers are ever in search of a search of a formula that will make our books leap into prospective readers’ hands, rather than languish untouched on the long, slow slide to the remainder bin. If only readers gave it a chance, they’d love it! Right? Would some of the magic leap out when they picked it up?

Watch book store patrons browse the tables a while and the old saying, “you can’t judge a book by its cover” appears definitely wrong. Certain books attract. And they aren’t necessarily books with a lot of publicity or a best-selling author’s name. Something about them draws people in.

Quite a bit has been written about the importance of cover art and how it’s not something amateurs can attempt at home. We’ve all seen the covers of self-pubbed books that look like misguided collage projects or more likely ones that are just . . . not . . . right. While we recognize covers we like from an artistic perspective, does the art lead to further perusal of the book and—ahem—buying it? Publishers assume so. (Here’s Tim Kreider’s amusing take on the author-publisher dynamic in book cover design from the New Yorker.)

Two recent blog posts talk about another important aspect of your book’s exterior—the very first words of yours that readers will see: your book’s title.

In Writer Unboxed, Nancy Johnson riffs entertainingly on this subject. In coming up for a title for her own debut book, she heard the advice to “keep it short.” One-word titles can convey a lot; Michelle Obama’s Becoming is a perfect summation of her best-seller. Ditto Tara Westover’s Educated, which, in addition, vividly illustrates the importance of the interplay of title and art. What at first looks like a pencil-shaving is a lone girl standing on a mountain, the heroine of the piece.  

Short, punchy titles are presumably easy to remember. Tell that to Delia Owens. One of Johnson’s favorite titles is Zora Neale Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Unforgettable. And, much better than a too-short title that doesn’t convey any extra substrate of meaning. Look up some one-word titles (Guardian, Broken, Alien) on Amazon and see how many competitors there are. As a result, what Johnson concludes about title length is, like so many other rules for writers,“it depends.”

As you know, titles of creative works can’t be copyrighted, so it can be hard to come up with something unique. Appropriating The Talented Mr. Ripley would raise eyebrows. If several other books already share your planned title, you want to think about the company you’ll be keeping (and how far down your book may appear in Amazon’s listing of similar titles). Unwary buyers will be annoyed if they intend to order your romantic suspense and get a slasher story instead.

Tomorrow: A study of the link between title and sales.

Book Promotion Trends: 2019

Diana Urban and BookBub has compiled a helpful analysis of book promotion trends based on the panel discussions and presentations at this year’s BookExpo 2019. If you have a book coming out in the next year or so, one or more of these six trends may either help or frustrate you. In either case, be prepared!

1. Publishers start sending out advance reading copies of big debut books at least a year before publication. This is one reason you hear that incessant drumbeat for a few books and others launch with a whisper.

2. Publishers are using display ads on platforms that let them carefully target the relevant audience for these big debuts, and these, too, start six months ahead. Those splashy ads you see in The New Yorker are usually for established authors—that is, your next book. BookBub’s further thoughts on target marketing are here.

3. Publicists are trying to enhance the ARC package with personalized notes to potential reviewers and librarians, fancy packaging, etc. It can’t hurt to suggest some ideas of your own, or if you’re mailing those copies yourself, to do more than stuff them into a jiffy-bag. I mean, we’re creative, right?

4. She provides a helpful list of how to organize a publicity campaign, and when to do what, starting at least six months out. If you need more detailed advice on anything in this list, you may be able to find it in the Tips or Resources sections of Build Book Buzz, an excellent book promotion “how-to” website from my friend Sandra Beckwith.

5. Reinforcing point two was the advice to focus on niche marketing by finding out what your target audience is reading (anything free) and where they go online, so that your choices of media and marketing messages hit their sweet spot.

6. Tips on how to collaborate with indie bookstores covered the importance of building relationships with them early; how to use events not just to promote your book, but with the mindset of connecting with readers; and how to support the bookstore after your event. More tips on working with indie bookstores are here.

Onward!

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive MeThe 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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“Up-Lit” — What Is It and Why Are We Reading It?

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photo: Nasir Khan, creative commons license

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 Pilgrimage of 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.

A Winning Short Story Publishing Strategy

Ellery Queen

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.

four-leaf clover, luck

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.