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Ron Hogan

Who’s Got the Best Book Covers of 2009?

best-2009-bookcovers.jpg‘s Omnivoracious blog has launched a poll asking readers to choose the best book covers of 2009, in categories ranging from fiction and nonfiction to “classics reimagined” (seen above) and “famous faces.” The initial reaction from their readers is somewhat tepid; “is this the best you can do?” asks one reader. “I could pull ten more interesting book covers from 2009 off my personal library shelf and I don’t even read that much.”

We confess that we read so many books in artless galleys that we don’t really have much of a sense of what was out there this year, although we were partial to one cover illustration U.S. readers didn’t get to see, for the debut novel from Sara Stockbridge. And then there were the two books that appropriated Cara Barer artwork. Oh, and that awesome Ricky Mujica painting for the reissue of Peter Blauner‘s Casino Moon… So maybe we do have some favorites after all. How about you?

Turn Off Oprah & Get Yourself on the Internets

Earlier this week, we encouraged book publishers to get over losing Oprah Winfrey‘s book club, if that’s even what ends up happening when Oprah goes off the air in two years. (As several people pointed out to us, it’s entirely possible Winfrey’s cable network will have some programming elements focusing on books.) That message is echoed by Rusty Shelton of the independent public relations firm Phenix & Phenix, who writes that “Oprah’s departure opens the door to talk about a monumental shift in the way books are promoted.”

“Beyond traditional media contact, good publicists are also setting their clients up online so that media opportunities come to them,” Shelton observes, and to him that means creating a strong online presence that will enable the author to pop up whenever a media outlet is looking for somebody who can speak to that author’s area of authoritative passion. He also reminds us of a post his colleague, Tolly Moseley, wrote last spring declaring “micro-persuasion is the new black,” on how social media can help build valuable word of mouth.

The Internet may not be the One True Magic Bullet that will #SavePublishing when Winfrey’s gone—in fact, we know it isn’t—but it strikes us that anything that points the way forward is a much more valuable use of time and energy than providing the business media with ready fodder for the “Oh noes! We iz doomed!” stories it loves to disseminate about book publishing. And, sure, you can do both, but will that really do anybody any good?

You Oughta Know How to Make Kale Salad


Yes, that’s Alanis Morisette digging into a mixing bowl full of kale, as vegetarian cookbook author Anna Thomas looks on. Morissette recently hosted a party for Thomas’s Love Soup (which features 160 vegetarian recipes) at her Brentwood home, where celebrity friends like Alicia Silverstone (who has a meatless cookbook of her own, The Kind Diet) and Amy Smart were served five delicious winter soups, two winter salads, fresh hummus, and various desserts.

And on that note, whatever’s on your table tomorrow, we hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Harlequin’s Lost Horizons: Self-Publishing Imprint Renamed

After the controversy surrounding the launch of Harlequin‘s self-publishing partnership with AuthorSolutions—or, as most people dubbed it, Harlequin’s vanity press—the romance publishing behemoth has gone over the Harlequin Horizons website with a fine tooth comb, eliminated all references to the parent company, and renamed the entire enterprise DellArte Press.

It’s uncanny, really: While the similarly organized Westbow Press displays its affiliation with Thomas Nelson front and center, even sharing a distinctive visual element with the parent company’s logo, if you didn’t know going into the DellArte website that it was linked to Harlequin you’d be hard pressed to discover it. Which sort of takes away one of the key advantages that the venture had in its efforts to convince aspiring romance writers to subsidize their own publication—an association with a recognized and trusted brand that instantly conveyed the impression that Harlequin Horizons was on top of its game. So what happens to DellArte now that it’s just another rookie self-publishing imprint to much of its client base—but still distrusted by the professional writers who criticized its launch and aren’t distracted by the name change?

Bad Attitude Gets Blogger Blackballed from RWA

rwa-plain-logo.jpgLast night, Dear Author co-editor Jane Litte posted the contents of a rather unusual letter from the Romance Writers of America, in which professional relations manager Carol Ritter informed the romance blogger that, after three years as an associate member of RWA, she would not be permitted to renew her membership because “numerous posts on your blog and on the ‘romfail’ thread on Twitter that indicate you do not support RWA or romance authors.”

(Romfail is a hashtag Little created to spotlight her weekly critiques of what she considers to be poorly written ebooks—ironically, the name came about in part because the stories Litte first highlighted were, in her opinion, erotica misleadingly branded as romance; heck, most of them still are… which means suggesting those tweets were not supportive of romance authors is a bit like suggesting that heckling designated hitters proves you don’t like National League baseball.)

Anyway, Litte’s literary criticisms, coupled with her public criticism of RWA over, among other things, its “lack of vision,” appear to have ticked somebody in the organization off enough to deny her continued membership (which she says she actually isn’t even interested in maintaining). “This decision is not one that we would have chosen,” Ritter says in her letter—never mind the fact that it is the decision the group has chosen, and almost certainly a crummy decision, especially for the precedent it sets regarding future criticism of RWA and its stances on issues that affect romance publishing and book publishing as a whole. All we can say is that if RWA plans to deny membership to people on the basis of public criticism of individual romance (or “romance,” as the case may be) novels, it might be a lot easier to get a good hotel room at next year’s national convention…

Oprah May Go, But Publishing Will Carry On

Yesterday’s post suggesting publishers need to get over Oprah Winfrey‘s imminent departure from daytime TV resonated with at least one senior editor from the major houses, who emailed us to say:

Oprah picks were always supposed to be gravy for a publisher’s bottom line. We don’t publish books to cater to her tastes so that she can make our year for us. To suggest that is just the tail wagging the dog. Anyway, plenty of huge word-of-mouth successes—The Help, Twilight, Friday Night Knitting Club, Charlaine Harris, Freakonomics, Stieg Larsson—had absolutely nothing to do with Oprah. Publishing existed before her, and it’ll continue without her—so long as we’re all doing our jobs right.”

We’d Be Better Off If Oprah Quit Last Friday

It wasn’t long after talk show host Oprah Winfrey‘s announcement of her intention to retire in 2011 that publishing insiders began referring to her departure as “a blow” to the industry, one from which it would be difficult if not impossible to recover. “We probably won’t see something else to match its overall potential impact on book sales in the broadcast arena any time soon,” Random House‘s Stuart Applebaum told the Wall Street Journal. “Happily she enjoys reading books and wants to persuade her viewership to enjoy them as much as she does. It’s not a characteristic shared by any other TV personalities with her persuasiveness.”

Now, we fully concede that you could shoot down just about anybody else on television by saying they don’t have “her persuasiveness,” but still, the suggestion that Glenn Beck or Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert aren’t doing their bit to put books into American readers’ hands is… well, it’s just not right. Beyond that, though, maybe it’s not outrageous to question how helpful Winfrey’s book club has really been to publishing, beyond the obvious sales boost it gave to nearly 70 books over the years.

Some of Winfrey’s impact on America’s reading culture is probably impossible to quantify, like Edwige Danticat‘s assertion (in the WSJ article) that “she makes reading seem democratic, within everyone’s reach, and also a lot of fun.” But it would be possible—if you had ready access to Nielsen Bookscan—to get some sense of her broader impact on book sales. After the summer of 2005, for example, how many people moved on to the William Faulkner books Oprah hadn’t recommended? How are the novels Cormac McCarthy wrote before The Road doing? (Granted, No Country for Old Men has had attention-grabbing opportunities of its own.) Or, take it further back: How are Oprah picks of the late 1990s, like Danticat or Chris Bohjalian, faring today—how many readers have stayed with them over the years? (That’d be an admittedly tricky question to answer, because you’d have to balance any attrition against the new readers the author might have gained over the course of his or her career, without that sticker having appeared on one book, simply by virtue of being as good as he or she is.)

What really annoys us, though, is the whiff of defeatism that clings to these public statements about “losing” Winfrey, the same way we got annoyed at “What’ll we do without Harry Potter?” chatter or “OMG, what if Dan Brown never delivers that new novel?” doomsaying. (OK, maybe we’re exaggerating the latter situation a bit.) And that’s why we say it would be better for book publishers if Oprah had simply shut down production after last Friday’s episode, forcing everybody to come up with alternative strategies right now instead of wringing their hands for two years over the impending loss of a hitmaking machine over which they never had any control in the first place.

Now, here we are exaggerating for effect, as we know plenty of marketers and publicists who are working hard every day to forge new connections because they recognize the foolishness of counting on Oprah Winfrey’s blessings. But you wouldn’t know it from the statements in the Journal—and though some of that is attributable to the Journal knowing “publishers are worried about losing Oprah” is a more dramatic story than “publishers have a job to do with or without Oprah,” it’s not like the staff had to make up any of those quotes, either.

Harlequin Dips Toe in Self-Publishing Waters (or Shoots Itself in the Foot)

harlequin-horizons-logo.jpgLast week, Harlequin announced the launch of Harlequin Horizons, a new division billed as “[an] opportunity for women’s fiction writers and romance authors to publish their books and achieve their dreams,” provided they’ve got at least $599 to subsidize that publication. The partnership with self-publishing specialists AuthorSolutions drew instant opposition from several authors guilds, which quickly branded Horizons as a vanity press operation: The Romance Writers of America announced Harlequin wouldn’t be eligible for favored-publisher privileges at next year’s national convention, the Science Fiction Writers of America flat-out declared “NO titles from ANY Harlequin imprint will be counted as qualifying for membership in SFWA,” and the Mystery Writers of America said it might also take that route, but not until after they’ve given Harlequin a month to set things right. SFWA can play hardball because not very many of its members are qualifying on the basis of Harlequin publications in the first place; MWA has a slightly more delicate situation in that a not-insignificant portion of its membership publishes under Harlequin’s MIRA imprint, although not nearly as strong a contingent as would exist in the RWA ranks—if SFWA’s hardball is largely ideological, RWA’s hardball is both ideological and material, and has already had an impact, as Harlequin is already looking to rebrand the enterprise.

(Making Light has all three statements in one handy spot, by the way, and lots of commentary. Which is also in abundance at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.)

Not everybody hates the Horizons concept, however. Publishing industry analyst Kat Meyer argues this is exactly the sort of new business model experimentation publishing needs to survive, and says “it’s sad that Harlequin’s history of author advocacy, smart business decisions, and leadership in the publishing world aren’t enough for authors (or agents) to trust them as they explore and introduce these new models.” Meanwhile, Michael Hyatt—who has a dog in this hunt as his publishing company, Thomas Nelson, has entered into a similar arrangement with AuthorSolutions—has rebuttals to the three most prominent lines of attack; let brand owners worry about maintaining the integrity of their brands, he argues, and let authors make their own decisions about the publishing options that might be right for them.

And this is pretty much the issue in a nutshell: Is Horizons a potentially useful alternative to publishing’s broken business model, as Meyer suggests, or it is, in the words of John Scalzi, “a skeezy, cynical and horribly demeaning thing Harlequin is doing, padding its bottom line by suckering a bunch of folks who don’t know better into thinking that paying for publication is a legitimate path into the publishing world”?

Let’s tease out some context: The pay-to-play model does have a historical lineage, and has not always been regarded so prominently as a means for unscrupulous “publishers” to prey on aspiring authors’ dreams, but as authors have increasingly banded together, declared themselves professionals, and attempted to establish the proposition that money should flow in the direction of the writer as a fundamental principle, respect for the model has diminished. You could argue, however, that it’s a question of how much the developing writer should—or should be expected to—invest in his or her success: Is it enough to deliver a manuscript, or might it be appropriate to invest some of one’s own capital the way an entrepreneur launching a business in any other field might?

So what do you think?

Bainbridge Indie Hosts One Couple, Two Books


Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor Bookstore hosted local authors Sharlene Martin and Anthony Flacco for a dual signing last Sunday afternoon to promote the book they collaborated on—Publish Your Nonfiction Book—and Flacco’s The Road Out of Hell (which tells the real-life story behind events touched upon in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling). The event was followed by a fundraiser for the Kitsap Regional Library Foundation, where the couple were joined by local bestselling authors Susan Wiggs, Gregg Olsen and Suzanne Selfors.

The Tour’s On Hold, But the Trailers Roll On

When Jeff Schettler began writing a memoir about his bloodhound, and the cases they had worked on together as a K9 team, Ronin had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would end his life. Years later, there was such strong faith in the ability of Red Dog Rising to resonate with readers that plans were underway for a national book tour—a major undertaking in any event, but for a book published by a small independent press even moreso. And then Schettler himself was diagnosed with what his publicist, Julie Schoerke, described to us as “very aggressive” cancer—scuttling the entire tour except for one reading in Atlanta at the end of November, as traveling to other cities is simply incompatible with 30 hours of chemotherapy a week.

In the YouTube era, however, Schettler can still talk to readers about his story, and about the Georgia K9 National Training Center, the service dog training center he’s founded which will receive all the proceeds from the sales of Red Dog Rising.