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Archives: December 2005

Times Shuts Down Univ. Presses

While everybody’s been yapping about how this year’s NYTBR list of notable nonfiction seems to have an awfully high number of contributions from NYT staffers, letter-writer Bruce Baum points out a more substantial problem (and one, frankly, we all should have caught a lot earlier): Not a single title on the list was published by a university press. “Certainly,” Baum concedes, “many university press books are highly specialized and unlikely to command a wide readership. Still, university presses often publish challenging works that deserve a wide readership, but are not deemed ‘marketable’ by commercial presses.”

Indeed. So I’m trying to think of suitable books from 2005, and based on the books I’ve read, there’s Andrew Scull’s Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine (Yale UP), Maurice Sartre’s The Middle East Under Rome and Dane Kennedy’s The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World (both Harvard UP). Of these, the NYTBR cast its critical eye only upon Madhouse, but Patrick McGrath gave it high enough praise. Perhaps some of you out there have sharper memories—and broader reading lists—and can make your own suggestions.

The ones that got away

I must admit that when I saw Kate Figes’ piece in the Guardian Review, my heart sank just a little bit — because this is an idea I’ve been kicking around for ages but hadn’t gotten around to implementing. So since she’s done it first, I’ll happily piggyback onto the concept and solicit any helpful suggestions from agent and editor folk: which books did you think would sell like gangbusters and didn’t perform to expectations? And which books would you have loved to publish? For those who are still checking in, send us your picks and we’ll post them throughout this holiday week.

In terms of the books mentioned in this particular piece, I can’t say I’m all that surprised that Chris Cleave’s INCENDIARY ended up being more fizzle than success — unfortunate timing aside, the writing style ended up masking the concept and it was awfully tough to warm to the main character (and if it only sold 12,500 copies in the UK, how well could it have possibly done in the US, where it seemed to disappear about 2 seconds after publication?)

The rime of the ancient editor

Authors don’t get edited — it’s the kind of straw man that gets repeated ad nauseum. But even if it’s true, longtime editor Michael Fishwick finds it has some long-ago antecedents:

“BOOKS JUST DON’T GET edited any more, everyone knows that.” We suffering book editors hear these words all the time. The difference was that my dinner companion continued: “Callimachus had it about right: ‘A long book is a bad thing’.” Not only caustic, then, but caustic in Greek. Beat that.

Of course, Fishwick would claim the sentiment is vastly overrated, but he does take the time to explain how it could have happened:

There is one straightforward reason for this, and it came into play in the Eighties, when publishing perestroika was in full swing. To survive in the new corporations, editors needed to acquire big books, to get their name on the revenue generating successes. As Clare Alexander, who has been both editor and agent, says: “Editors are noticed by what they buy, not how they edit.” They had to down pencils and enter the marketplace, becoming entrepreneurs and opportunists and backstabbers and gamblers. They also had to become authors’ champions in a new and more urgent way within their companies, indomitably promoting their books in the teeth of grinding corporate scepticism. They had to bully and cajole to get the best jackets, the best campaigns, the most sales attention. They became ever more aggressively political. Their Achilles’ heel became the books themselves, with authors complaining, often with justification, that they weren’t getting enough attention, and agents claiming, also often with justification, that they had taken over the editor’s role.

Then again, I’ve always believed the following: a good editor knows when to make changes. A great editor knows when to leave well enough alone…

Million dollar babies

The newest It Deal Girl has to be Diane Setterfield, whose debut THE THIRTEENTH TALE netted her a cool 800,000 pounds from Orion (and potentially over $1M in the US, though the auction had yet to close as of this writing.) She’s interviewed in the Yorkshire Post about her surprising windfall, with additional quotes from her soon-to-be editor:

Jane Wood, Orion Books editor-in-chief, said: “I knew from the very first page it was special – she creates a wonderful fictional world. It’s a book for book lovers, but also a real page turner.”

Setterfield, already working on her second novel, said: “Of course I’m very happy with how it all seems to be going yet but nobody has bought a copy yet. All the success so far is lovely, but the real acid test will be September when it gets into the shops.”

Meanwhile, Vikram Chandra — whose third novel got an equally staggering amount in the UK, US and worldwide, speaks to Mumbai Midday about his current work-in-progress:

You received a million dollar advance for the book, but you still say no literary writer can survive on his own (Chandra is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley)?

That’s true. A book takes a long time to finish. You need something else to do. The million dollars help though (laughs). Besides, I like teaching. I have a tendency to just camp out in some little hole with a computer and books and not emerge for a week, and that’s actually bad for me.

It’s probably not a bad idea to keep the day job, big money or no big money…

Holiday Reflections


“What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ‘em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

Ron: One of the reasons I love to reread Dickens every December is that I get to contemplate the question: What’s Christmas time to me, then? And the answer almost always makes me glad. In addition to being the one sure time of the year I know I’ll be reuniting with my extended family, Christmas 2005 is particularly joyous because I have so much to be thankful for over the last twelve months. I’ve become a published author; I’ve chanced upon an opportunity not only to blog professionally but to do so as part of a fantastic collaboration; and this is my first Christmas as a married man. (Of course, Christmas isn’t the only cause for celebration this time of year, and married life has made me a more active participant in other festivities as well!)

This season is also given over to remembering those less fortunate than ourselves, so I’d like to pause for a moment to acknowledge Amazon’s fundraising (especially for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) and to note a page on Workman Publishing’s website offering a wide variety of charitable resources.

Sarah: The holiday season also brings out my own sense of reflection, and this year seemed to require plenty of it. Though there was tumult, there was lots of good — chiefly to do with coming back to the city I adore most and know best. And as Ron says, Galleycat wouldn’t be nearly as fun to do if either of us were by ourselves, so here’s to the spirit of collaboration.

Joyeux Noel Chanukat Sameach, and Happy Holidays!

Take out a book along with your Chinese food

That’s the new initiative that the Great Reading Adventure has come up with in the county of Devon, and while it’s too early to tell if it actually works, it’s a pretty intriguing concept:

A Devon council has come up with a novel way of encouraging people to read by placing copies of Around The World In Eighty Days in Chinese takeaways.

Fifteen hundred copies of Jules Verne’s book will be placed in takeaways and libraries across Plymouth.

Stickers inside the books will ask people to log on to a special website so each book’s journey can be tracked.

So starting in January, if you want your takeaway, it’s a 2-for-1 special…

The headaches of hedge funds

Financial planning puts a great many people into a tizzy, and hedge funds are certainly no exception. But Barton Biggs, a former Morgan Stanley strategist, is here to save the day for the seriously frazzled — and his new book is winning people over:

“The pressure of living so intimately, so intensely with his portfolio (and dying a little on the bad days) has become intolerable,” Mr. Biggs writes in “Hedge Hogging,” (Wiley), which will be published on Jan. 6.

Another trader was stung by losses after moving into a Greenwich estate with $20,000 trees, a two-story screening room and a wine cellar that could hold 5,000 bottles.

“The straws were mounting on the camel’s back even as dark clouds were gathering,” Mr. Biggs writes. With losses approaching 30 percent, the manager had a breakdown and would not get out of bed, so his wife abruptly closed the fund.

But then, the whole investment banking world isn’t one for the weak, which is why it’s also rife for satire someday…

Intelligent Design Gets a Failing Grade

In the months since Sarah and I took over Galleycat, one of our most popular items has been the story of the Flying Spaghetti Monster book deal. Naturally, when “intelligent design” zealots lost their Pennslyvania court case, I wondered what Bobby Henderson, who’s built up an appreciative audience for his “Pastafarian” theory of creation, made of the judge’s decision. I thought Henderson’s interview with Wired News might provide the answer, but no such luck. It does, however, offer his best advice for dealing with the creationist yahoos:

“The science community, itself, is pretty quiet about the issue. Their strategy is to ignore the “debate” so that the ID people don’t get the forum… They need to be out there calling these people retarded all the time. Nonstop. The ID people are winning because the scientists think if they ignore the issue, it will go away. Plus, I’m sure it would be therapeutic to make fun of the ID people.”

Having just watched the creationism episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, I can certainly attest to that last sentiment. Meanwhile, Dilbert creator Scott Adams uses his blog to ponder the issue and decides intelligence is overrated. It’s the sort of philosophizing most of us probably haven’t seen since that kegger sophomore year: “If God exists… He wouldn’t need intelligence to make him happy, and he has no risk to his survival, so what type of intelligence would an omnipotent being possess?”

Atheist Launches Book Project During Holidays

For his new book, a history of atheism called Without Gods, NYU journalism professor Mitchell Stephens is opening up the creative process. “By writing a blog while writing the book,” he says, “I hope to improve my understandings not only of historical matters but of such contemporary issues – by testing my own surmises, by benefiting from the comments of some interested and thoughtful residents of Internet-land.”

It’s not the first time this idea’s been tried: Greg Sandow is currently riffing on the future of classical music on ArtsJournal.com for a future book project, and Wired editor-in-chief has been musing online about the “long tail” theory as he prepares his book on the subject (an expansion of his original magazine article) for publication early next year. But, more importantly, it certainly won’t be the last. What do you editors and agents think about all this? Are authors giving away the goods too soon by working out their books in public? You tell us.

Marketing Anne Rice proves challenging still

When her newest book, CHRIST THE LORD, was published, many in the industry wondered how it would fare because it was — at least on the surface — markedly different from all those vampire books of years past. But as Jeff Trachtenberg reports for the WSJ, challenges are coming from rather different corners:

For Knopf, the challenge has been complicated. Since “Christ the Lord” was published on Nov. 1, several religious retailers have refused to carry it. Some booksellers and media outlets have complained that the book isn’t based on the Scriptures. Others have raised concerns about Ms. Rice’s lack of theological credentials.

But the book is enjoying a good run on best-seller lists, and some of the credit goes to efforts by Knopf that date back almost a year. Knopf’s marketers not only had to prepare readers for Ms. Rice’s about-face, but they also had to wade into the complexities of publishing a book that imagines the early years of Christ’s life.

In addition, they had to find their way in religious publishing, which has its own infrastructure outside the secular book-retailing industry. “We started working on the book in January because the Christian media marketplace and the faith-based outlets were new to us,” says Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Knopf. “It involved detective work on our part.”

It’s detective work that seems to have paid off, as CHRIST THE LORD enters a sixth printing. And for an author whose sales had flattened out, the differential marketing seems to have made a difference:

In contrast with her previous books, which saw sales spike right after publication, sales of “Christ the Lord” started modestly but have been steadily building. “Invariably, people who read it have wanted to discuss it,” says Bob Wietrak, chief merchant at Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation’s biggest book retailer, which has the book in its 824 stores. That, he says, suggests that the book has found an audience and its readership is expanding.

But for that to happen, more religious retailers are going to have to stock the book…

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