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Archives: October 2005

The Never-Ending War on Chick Lit

Jennifer Weiner’s comments in yesterday’s SF Chronicle profile about critics, especially female critics, who, as reporter Jane Ganahl puts it, “hold that literature should be closer to Woolf than Bushnell in temperament” will come as little surprise to the author’s fans. “You don’t have to love the term chick lit,” she says, “but if you’re smart, you’ll realize the practical implications of that kind of labeling. Female protagonist, urban setting, smart, sarcastic voice. I don’t see why it matters if you’re thrown into this category. Unless you think you’re the next coming of Virginia Woolf, and then I guess it would be a problem for you.” (Note: Weiner has discussed this issue before, including a stint as a guest author at Beatrice last March.)

To Jessa “Bookslut” Crispin, them’s fighting words: “I didn’t realize that I was a bad feminist for pointing out that chick lit treats women like they’re stupid,” Crispin sneers back. Which leads Ed Champion to wonder what she’s on about, since Crispin never cites any actual chick lit to prove her case, and his reaction to Weiner’s latest, Goodnight Nobody, is that he “didn’t really get the sense that the female characters within its pages were stupid.” He adds, “Even when certain ‘chick lit’ novels disagreed with me, I nevertheless applauded these books for placing women’s issues to the forefront and having the courage to place these plots within popular literature.”

Of course, it’s always possible that Crispin meant that the books treat women readers like they’re stupid…but, again, Champion and others would probably find more specific criticisms useful.

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Questioning the Long Tail

An anonymous reader raises a good question in connection to last Friday’s item on the marketplace’s embrace of the long tail:

“Chris Anderson writes: ‘The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are.’ This is the whole of the longtail argument re: publishing; but Amazon makes up less than 10 percent of a major publisher’s sales, while chain stores make up more than 40 percent.

“So even if half of the books sold on Amazon are long tail, they are only 5 percent of a book publisher’s actual sales, suggesting that the long tail isn’t a vast and untapped marketplace, but simply the 5 percent tail. Am I missing something?”

I’m admittedly no statistician, so I can’t offer that detailed an analysis, but here’s what jumped out at me: “Amazon makes up less than 10 percent of a major publisher’s sales, while chain stores make up more than 40 percent.” Let’s be a bit more precise: According to this AP story on Amazon from last August, “[the] best estimate is that online sales account for 7 percent to 10 percent of total U.S. book sales annually.” Not just “a major publisher,” but “total U.S. book sales.” (And since Amazon isn’t the only online bookstore, we could reasonably ask Anderson if his inventory distribution pattern holds true for bn.com or the web division of Powell’s, among other places.) Furthermore, the article says, “while direct-to-consumer sales have been rising in recent years, sales at Barnes & Noble, Inc., and Borders Group, the nation’s two largest book retail chains, have remained relatively stagnant,” so that 40 percent number can be expected to steadily drop.

Now it’s true that a “major” publisher is likely to continue to experience the long tail of the online sales as only a fraction of their total revenues. But for smaller publishers—and the vast majority of U.S. publishers actually put out less than a dozen titles—the tail may well be where they’re able to eke out a reasonably comfortable existence. So it may well be to the particular advantage of indie presses to explore this territory.

Of course, I’m no statistician—so I’d love to hear from people who’ve been following this stuff more closely. Does this analysis make sense to you?

UPDATE: Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash says “the questioner is sort of right, but not entirely.” The full story after the jump!

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Oxford Editor’s International Sideline

Last week, Oxford University Press took Dedi Felman, the executive editor of its academic division, and made her the imprint-wide executive editor. It’s been a busy week for Felman, to be sure, but she was able to dash off a quick note in response to some Galleycat questions. First of all, she says, her acquiring focus will be on current affairs, with an international slant, and on social science books with a trade orientation. And despite the increased workload, she’s going to continue moonlighting as the editor of Words Without Borders, “the online magazine for international literature” currently featuring a broad range of works translated from indigenous American languages. Describing the site as “a passionate folly not so easily relinquished,” Felman concedes, “‘Tis folly to try to do so much, but it’s a necessary endeavor.”

Or, sometimes a ghost is just a ghost

It’s no surprise that James Patterson makes a hell of a lot of money — as this profile in the NYT business section this weekend details, Harvard University’s MBA Program uses Patterson, Inc. as a textbook example of branding. But in the midst of documenting the megabestselling author’s investments (“65 percent of the assets in his portfolio are in bonds, 15 percent in hedge funds, roughly 8 percent in domestic equities and 4 percent in foreign equities”) what may be the best part of the story is buried three-quarters in: Patterson’s justification for using as many minions as he does:

Mr. Patterson said he often worked with co-authors because he believed that he was more proficient at creating the story line than at executing it.

“I found that it is rare that you get a craftsman and an idea person in the same body,” Mr. Patterson said. “With me, I struggle like crazy. I can do the craft at an acceptable level, but the ideas are what I like.” He said the co-authors received a flat fee and, most often, credit on the book cover.

Seems to me that’s as candid as Patterson will get — although it really does smack of self-rationalization, made worse by comments made by a longtime coworker of his:

Mr. Manning, who worked with Mr. Patterson at J. Walter Thompson for more than 20 years, said that there was a parallel between Mr. Patterson’s book career and his work in advertising. “He is the leader of a creative team, which is similar to what he did as a creative director where he came up with what an advertising campaign needed to accomplish,” he said. “Then the team executed it and he evaluated it.”

Of course, what’s left out is exactly how much the “flat fee” folks like Maxine Paetro, Howard Roughan, and all the ones not lucky enough to have their name slapped on the book cover actually get after they do the lion’s share of the work.

Vidal vs. Mailer It Ain’t

For most of America, apart from occasional appearances on Hannity & Colmes, Ted Rall’s moment in the spotlight came in early 2002 with the infamous “Terror Widows” strip and went two years later when he besmirched the memory of Pat Tillman, though he did score bonus points shortly after that for suggesting the recently deceased Ronald Reagan was “turning crispy brown right about now.”

But in comicbookland, Rall has been pissing off his peers at least as far back as 1999, when he called Art Spiegelman a one-hit wonder, sneering, “Fortunately for Art, though, there will always be a place in New York for schmoozers who look out for their pals.” Nor did he win very many friends in 2003 when he said Chris Ware was typical of “trendy art comics types [who] work around their lack of ideas with a lot of dazzling artwork and typography.” The most recent kicker came last week, when Rall complained about the NYT Magazine “Funny Pages” by referring to Ware as “the dead worst graphic novelist in America,” adding that he was “fairly stupid [and] aggressively out of touch with the world.”

Well, the messageboards at The Comics Journal website lit up after that. Alternative comic strip artist Tony Millionaire started things off by calling Rall “a spiteful asshole jealous of anyone who can draw and write better than he can, in other words of everyone.” Scott McCloud, the creator of Understanding Comics, calls the tirade “payback, plain and simple,” for Ware’s defense of Spiegelman six years ago, while Fantagraphics publicity head Eric Reynolds dubs Rall “a bitter, bitter man living in Bizarro World.” Even Kim Thompson, who considers Rall a friend, says “[his] opinions on many of his fellow cartoonists are, frankly, out to lunch. I think they’re sincerely held,” he adds, “although the level of venom with which they’re expressed in some cases seems clearly driven by personal animus.”

One More “Perishing” Thought…

We got a lot of mileage out of last week’s comments on Elizabeth Royte’s NYTBR piece on coping with pub cycles. And we weren’t the only ones: Susan McBride of the Liptstick Chronicles had a rather unsympathetic reaction to the article as well. Both of us eventually heard from Royte; here’s what she wrote to Galleycat late Friday afternoon:

“I’m one of those happy writers with no complaints about her publisher or publicist, and I’m the author of that essay… I wrote it because I was interested in the curious things that happen in an author’s head (not necessarily this author’s head)—and how s/he starts reacting to outside attention—as the book is being promoted. My intent was not to slam publicists, in-house or out. They do their jobs—hard work! But it seems a book’s financial success is largely out of their, or anyone’s, hands.”

If there was a recurring theme to the reactions here last week, though, it may well have been the degree to which financial success isn’t out of the hands of writers who are willing to approach the business side of being a professional writer with the same commitment they give to the creative side. I’m not talking about big stacks of coin you can dive around in like a porpoise, burrow through like a gopher and toss up and let them hit you on the head, but enough to collect decent advances, maybe even start earning some royalties…at the very least, to be a decent enough performer that publishers will happily consider investing in you a second or third time. Now, you can probably do all that and still succumb to “the curious things that happen in an author’s head,” like checking your Amazon rank and speed-dialing your publicist for constant updates, but… I suppose it’s all just a matter of expectation management, really.

Banking on the Real Lion King

Controversy aside, the Walt Disney Company is pinning a lot of hopes on The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to be the launchpad for a Narnia franchise. “A sustainable mega-hit would give a big boost to Disney’s movie unit,” reports Business Week, “which lost an estimated $300 million during the summer.” Meanwhile, Newsweek trumpets its “exclusive look at a rough cut” while posing two key questions concerning the film’s potential: “Will the movie be too religious for a wide audience? Might it not be religious enough for Lewis’s Christian fans?” Their answer? The film’s “only as Christian as you want it to be.” Which, for many fans and scholars, is quite a lot, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, John J. Miller (whose political book reviews I edited at Amazon years ago) tackles another long-running Narnian controversy: Do you read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe first, or The Magician’s Nephew? The answer to this one’s actually fairly straightforward…

Marvel Snares King—and Dickey, and Morrell

So yesterday’s rumors are now official: Stephen King’s next Dark Tower story will be a six-issue comic book series for Marvel Entertainment, beginning next April, with “new stories that delve into the life and times of the young Roland, revealing the trials and conflicts that lead to the burden of destiny he must assume as a man, the last Gunslinger from a world that has moved on.” The story will be collected into a hardcover edition in time for the 2006 holiday season.

All well and good, and no doubt money in the bank, but equally fascinating will be two other Marvel projects with literary pedigrees. Bestselling author Eric Jerome Dickey will script a limited series starring Storm (the Halle Berry character from the X-Men flicks), and David Morrell, best known for creating Rambo in the novel First Blood, is sending Captain American to Afghanistan.

Ewwww, Gross!

Last night’s party at Lotus to celebrate the publication of 740 Park, the Michael Gross-penned history of one of Manhattan’s ritziest apartment buildings, started a little late for my cold-ridden blood (lately, I feel like being in bed by 10 p.m., not starting to mingle), but frankly I doubt I could’ve gotten any better gossip than Rush and Malloy dished this morning about Tuesday night’s Barnes & Noble reading:

“[S]omeone asked if any apartments in the tony co-op might come on the market. Gross said he wished no one ill, but predicted several aged widows, starting with TV Guide heiress Enid Annenberg Haupt, might be forced to give up their pads. Little did he know Haupt had died that night…”

The Long Tail’s Undertow

Exactly a year ago, Wired got people talking about “the long tail,” which Chris Anderson described as “an entirely new model for the media and entertainment industries” that finds assets in “the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.” To wit:

“The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are. In other words, the potential book market may be twice as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity. Venture capitalist and former music industry consultant Kevin Laws puts it this way: ‘The biggest money is in the smallest sales.’”

Anderson’s turning the original article into a book and sharing the process on his blog. But the outside world is catching on as well—note today’s story on TheStreet.com, in which Kevin Kelleher suggests we shouldn’t believe all the hype just yet. Does the impending IPO for Digital Music Group, “essentially a digital music wholesaler to online music stores,” demonstrate the need for “long tail” companies to think their business models out more thoroughly? Publishers and authors should certainly be taking these issues seriously as well—and feel free to share your thoughts with us.

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