Last year we had fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of a sample of the Rooster contenders, so I decided to do it again with this year’s batch. There are all sorts of marketing considerations behind these designs, and it’s interesting to see how designing for these two similar markets can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is welcomed in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Year in Reading series. It was great to see which books got people excited this year. I hope to do it again next year, so keep track of what you read and keep me in mind come December. Here are this year's contributions:Authors:Kirby GannMarcy DermanskyMichelle RichmondBloggers:Language HatPete LitGolden Rule JonesConversational ReadingEmerging WritersReaders:GarthEdanAndrewD. HowardPatrick
The following piece of Polonian advice pretty much encapsulates his whole arcade ethos: “PacMan player, be not proud, nor too macho, and you will prosper on the dotted screen.” I’m no expert, I’ll admit, but I’ll go out on a critical limb here and suggest that this might be the sole instance of the use of the mock-heroic tone in a video game player’s guide.
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With 2007 in the rear view mirror, we now look ahead to a new year of reading, one packed with intriguing titles.Let's kick off with a pair that Garth was already pining for a year ago:Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) won the Prix Goncourt and was a runaway bestseller in France. Not bad for a novel that runs over 900 pages. The Kindly Ones has been generating buzz on this continent for a while now, with Forbes asking "2008's Hottest Book?" back in 2006. The delay, of course, is the translation, which many have suggested is quite an undertaking for this complex volume. Literature-in-translation headquarters, The Literary Saloon, meanwhile, has been following the progress, and recent accounts indicate that the going is slow. Many readers are hoping to get their hands on this one in 2008, but my sources at HarperCollins tell me 2009 is a likelier bet. Of course, you could read it in French.The other book, Roberto Bolano's 2666 (we were 600 years off when we wrote about it last year), also lacks a release date, but its arrival seems somewhat more tangible in that the translator has at least been identified - it's Natasha Wimmer. Late last month she told the Times' book blog that she was just finishing up. She added, "Long stretches of the novel are set on the Mexico-U.S. border and inside a prison. And that's not all. Bolano really gives the translator a workout. I also researched Black Panther history, pseudo-academic jargon (actually, some of that came naturally), World War II German army terminology, Soviet rhetoric, boxing lingo, obscure forms of divination and forensic science vocabulary, among other things. If that makes the novel sound like a hodgepodge, I promise it's not. Even the most obscure detours are thoroughly Bolano-ized - filtered through his weird, ominous, comic worldview." The Spanish speakers among us can already have this one in hand if they want.Already out or coming soon: 2006's surprise Pulitzer winner for March, Geraldine Brooks, has another novel out that draws from both literary and literal history. Last time it was the Civil War and Little Women, with The People of the Book, it's World War II and the Sarajevo Haggadah. If you want to learn more about the famed Haggadah and the real-life events that inspired Brooks' novel, there was a recent New Yorker story on the topic (which is sadly not available online.)Roddy Doyle's new collection of stories, The Deportees, includes one that revisits characters from his iconic novel The Commitments. Of the collection, The Independent writes, "Charm and animation are the qualities that count with Doyle's deportees, as he goes about sticking up for disparaged incomers in a context of Dublin demotic exuberance."Adam Langer decamps Chicago, the stomping ground of his last two novels, for his new book Ellington Boulevard, "an ode to New York" according to the catalog copy. The book, says The Daily News, "tells the story of one apartment before, during and after the boom years in city real estate. 2B is on W. 106th St. and a new landlord is looking to make a killing."February: Lauren Groff's debut, The Monsters of Templeton arrives on the scene with a nice boost from Stephen King, who way back last summer had this to say about the book in Entertainment Weekly: "The sense of sadness I feel at the approaching end of The Monsters of Templeton isn't just because the story's going to be over; when you read a good one - and this is a very good one - those feelings are deepened by the realization that you probably won't tie into anything that much fun again for a long time." That taken together with novel's first line - "The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass." - is enough to pique the interest of many a reader, I'd imagine.In keeping with the theme of debut novels with impressive backers, Ceridwen Dovey, who grew up in South Africa and Australia, scored blurbs from J.M. Coetzee and Colum McCann for Blood Kin, which PW describes as "a parable of a military coup as told by the ex-president's barber, portraitist and chef." It sounds like it may share some territory with Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow. Another novel of a regime and its hangers on.In The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt has crafted an "imagining of an unlikely friendship between the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla and a young chambermaid in the Hotel New Yorker where Tesla lives out his last days," according to the publisher's catalog description. Hunt was one of the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35" in 2006. We can report that, anecdotally at least, the book is generating some interest. When we requested a galley from Houghton Mifflin a few weeks ago, we were told they were all gone.March: Tobias Wolff has a handsome volume of "New and Selected" stories on the way, Our Story Begins. The title story appeared in a 1985 collection, Back in the World, reviewed here by Michiko Kakutani.April: Interesting coincidence: Richard Bausch recently told Washington Post readers about his new novel, "It's called Peace, and is set in Italy, near Mt. Cassino, in the terrible winter of 1944. Based on something my father told me long ago." Over the last couple weeks, I've been reading about the battles that raged around Cassino in the winter of 1944, in Rick Atkinson's excellent history of the liberation of Italy, Day of Battle. I would imagine there's much for Bausch to draw from there.Keith Gessen, of n+1 fame will see his debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, published in April. The LA Times, naming Gessen a "writer to watch," offers back handed half-compliments, calling the book "a novel about, well, other bookish, male, Ivy League-schooled bohos in New York -- their burning literary, academic and journalistic ambition, their pain. It's a powerfully intelligent book that stylistically falls somewhere between a narcissistic wallow and a Tom Perrotta-style satire." That may or may not be too harsh, as Gessen and company seem to inspire snark wherever they tread, but if anything, the discussion surrounding the book may be as fun to read as the book itself.Esteemed host of The Elegant Variation and friend of The Millions, Mark Sarvas will deliver his long awaited debut, Harry, Revised in April. He's been keeping us up to date on his blog.Andrew Sean Greer also has a new book out in April, The Story of a Marriage. It's set in 1950s San Francisco.You may have read Jhumpa Lahiri's "Year's End" in the year end New Yorker fiction issue. It'll be collected with several other stories in Unaccustomed EarthMay: James Meek blew me away in 2006, with his odd and fantastical historical novel, A People's Act of Love, which immersed readers in a world of post World War I Czech soldiers marooned in Siberian Yazyk among a mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. And let's not forget the escaped convict who claims he is being pursued by a cannibal. Meek is back in May with a much more conventional sounding effort, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, about a journalist in the Afghan mountains covering the post-9/11 war and then back, trying to make sense of the "real" world upon his return.Tim Winton is a big name among Australian readers but not so much in the States. However, his rough-edged characters and windswept, lonely landscapes will transport nearly any reader to the remoter parts of Australia with ease. His latest, Breath, coming in May, offers big-wave surfers "on the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia."June: Regular New Yorker readers may recognize the name Uwem Akpan. The Nigerian-born native of Zimbabwe landed a coveted spot in the Debut Fiction Issue in 2005 for his story "An Ex-Mas Feast," and he was back again 2006 with "My Parents' Bedroom." Both stories appear in his forthcoming debut collection, Say You're One of Them, which seems likely to fit in well with the mini-boom of African literature that we've seen over the last few years.Salman Rushdie's forthcoming novel The Enchantress of Florence sounds very ambitious. Here's a description from the Guardian: "Machiavellian intrigues of international high politics are scarcely the preserve of our century alone and in Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence, the original master of unscrupulous strategy takes a starring role. This seductive saga links the Mughal empire with the Renaissance by way of an Indian princess, Lady Black Eyes, who finds herself central to the power struggles of 16th-century Florence. A virtuoso feat of storytelling, Rushdie's novel also reflects on the dangers that come when fantasy and reality grow too intertwined."July: Chris Adrian wowed readers in 2006 with his post-apocalyptic novel The Children's Hospital. That novel's ardent fans will be pleased to get their hands on a new collection of stories called A Better Angel. The collection's title story appeared in the New Yorker in 2006.Western Haruki Murakami fans may have heard that another of his books has been translated. This one is a memoir titled - with a casual reference to another literary giant Raymond Carver - What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. On his blog Ted Mahsun notes, "The book is about his experience running in marathons. He's quite the accomplished runner, having run in the Boston, New York and Tokyo marathons, amongst others. I didn't think it would get translated into English since a lot of Murakami's non-fiction which have been published in Japan gets ignored by his translators." It's Murakami's only other non-fiction to appear in English besides UndergroundAugust: Paul Theroux is ready to tell us about another of his epic train rides in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: 28,000 Miles in Search of the Railway Bazaar. "Thirty years after his classic The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux revisits Eastern Europe, Central Asia, India, China, Japan, and Siberia."Date undetermined: Garth enjoyed Gregoire Bouillier's "refreshingly odd voice" in his quirky memoir The Mystery Guest. Another memoir, Report on Myself, which won the Prix de Flore in France is forthcoming in spring 2008, but a release date has not yet been indicated.Tell us about your most anticipated books in the comments.
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Imagine that one night you have a dream in which you are in an enormous bookstore lined with shelves upon shelves of books, each bound in the same plain white cover displaying only the author’s name, the title of the book, and a brief description of the book and its author. This is an anxiety dream, so it turns out that your livelihood depends on your ability to search this enormous bookstore and figure out which books are good and which aren’t. The thing is, in this bookstore, the vast majority of the books are bad - trite, derivative, poorly written, or simply the sort of book you would never read in a million years. You know there are some really good books in this store, maybe even one or two genuinely great ones, but from the outside they’re indistinguishable from the terrible ones. How do you choose? Do you sit down at the first shelf and read each book all the way through? No way; you’d starve, if you didn’t kill yourself from boredom first. Do you glance at the descriptions of the book and author on the back cover, and then read a page or two of the ones that sound more interesting? That’s better, but we’re talking a huge room here – thousands and thousands of books – and what can you really tell from a couple of paragraphs, anyway? So you begin to look for shortcuts. You decide to only consider the kinds of books you already know you like – mysteries, say, and literary novels with strong female protagonists. Still, there are a lot of mysteries and novels with strong female protagonists in this bookstore. So you look for other shortcuts. If you recognize the name of the author as someone who has already written something else good, you read that one. You might also look for other people in the bookstore so you could ask them what good books they had read lately and start looking for those. You might even take some of them out for lunch – it’s okay, you can expense it – to pick their brains. For several hundred people, most of them living in New York City, this dream is their daily reality. They are called literary agents, and if you are a writer with one or more unpublished books on your hard drive you have probably received a terse note from several dozen of them telling you that your novel is “not a right fit” for their agency at this time. In that moment you tore open that thin self-addressed envelope or read the two-line return email, you probably hated them. Not just that one agent, but all literary agents, as a class. How could they not see the brilliance in your manuscript? How could they possibly guess at the quality of your manuscript based on a one-page letter and a synopsis? And what the hell does “not a right fit” mean, anyway? Is that even grammatical English? This is a perfectly natural and human response. It hurts to be rejected, and it hurts even more when you walk into a real bookstore, one with chirpy sales clerks and splashy book covers, and see truly godawful books by authors represented by some of these very same agents. But as natural as that rage might be, as satisfying as it is to rant to your friends or online about the idiocy of the people in mainstream publishing, this anger is misplaced. There are good literary agents and bad ones - the gap between the two is huge – but literary agents are only middlemen navigating the rough seas between the swarms of unpublished writers and an ever-diminishing readership for literary fiction. If your book isn’t selling, literary agents are not to blame. It may be that your book doesn’t really belong in mainstream commercial publishing, in which case you should consider self-publication or send your book to an indie publisher like Ig, Two Dollar Radio or Small Beer Press. Or it may be that your book would appeal to a mainstream publisher, but you haven’t done the groundwork you need to do to get out of the slush pile and onto a literary agent’s radar. Or perhaps your book just isn’t ready yet. Whatever the case, you would be wise to pay attention to what literary agents are trying to tell you, even if all they’re saying is “no”. I should know because I recently finished a novel and have spent the last six months hearing polite, carefully hedged versions of “no.” This can be an enormously confusing, even maddening process. One agent will say she found my book too commercial, and then a few weeks later another will say she thought the plot “too quiet” and wished it had been more overtly commercial. Well, which is it? Commercial-minded pap, or wannabe Henry James? One of the nice things about being a journalist is that when you want to know how something works, you can call up people who know and they will sit down and explain it for you. So earlier this year, on assignment from Poets & Writers magazine, I spent a day at the offices of Folio Literary Management in Midtown Manhattan to see for myself what literary agents do all day. In the piece, which appears in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers, Folio co-founder Scott Hoffman explains that the agency receives roughly 100,000 unsolicited queries a year, or about 200 a week for each of the nine Folio agents who accept unsolicited queries. Hoffman has taken on four new writers in the last year, only one of whom came in through the slush pile, putting the odds of an author without connections getting Hoffman to take on his or her book at roughly 1 in 11,111. When I sat down with another agent, Michelle Brower, as she read her slush pile, I watched her power through 19 query letters in 14 minutes, rejecting 18 of them and putting one aside for more consideration. Now, it may sound heartless to reject 18 query letters in 14 minutes, and every time Brower hit send on a rejection email, my heart sagged a little at the poor writer seeing yet another rejection from an agent, but you have to see it from the agent’s perspective. Literary agents work on commission – typically, an agent takes 15% of a client’s earnings – and every minute an agent spends working on a manuscript that doesn’t sell is a minute that agent is working for free. This, I think, helps explain the anger and angst so many writers feel toward agents and other publishing professionals. Most writers when they show their work to someone – a professor, a friend, a spouse – they have a reasonable expectation of getting encouragement or at least some useful feedback. But an agent isn’t a friend. An agent isn’t a teacher, either. An agent’s job is to find an author whose novel is ready for publication, or so close to ready that it makes economic sense for the agent to put the time into helping make it ready, and connect that writer to a publisher. That’s it. The better agents attend writing conferences, visit MFA programs, and scour literary magazines for fresh talent, but all the rest of it, getting your work to a publishable level, building a track record that will be attractive to a publishing house, wangling connections that will get you out of the slush pile – that’s your job. If you are sending out query letters blindly to dozens of literary agents, as I did when I finished my first book five years ago, you’re engaging in the same kind of magical thinking that makes people buy lottery tickets. You might get lucky, but the odds of that are, well, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 in 11,111. If you want to improve your odds, you have to do serious research. You have to find agents who represent books similar to yours, and then craft your query letter to them to let them know why they should be taking you on. Many writers now have websites that name their agents, and most literary agencies have sites online that say what kinds of books they are looking for and which authors they represent. There are also databases, such as the one run by Poets & Writers, that list reputable agents and offer links to their websites. But, really, that’s only a small part of what you need to do. Like most human enterprises, publishing is a relationship business. Literary agents – the good ones, anyway – are smart, quick readers, but these are books we’re talking about. It can take three or four days to read a book, and agents spend their working hours negotiating contracts and networking with other publishing people, leaving their reading to nights and weekends. They simply don't have time to read all the books they’d like to read, even the ones from writers who sound like they might be talented. So, agents work with people they know, and friends of people they know. If that sounds like I’m saying, “It’s all about who you know,” that’s because that is exactly what I’m saying. You can rail about how unfair that is, and how it makes publishing into an incestuous little club, and to a degree you would be right: a lot of very dumb books get published because somebody knew somebody. But that’s the way the machine is built, people. It may come a-tumbling down in the near future in the face of e-books and indie publishers, but for now, if you want to get published by a major publisher, you have two choices: you can keep banging your head against a wall and be angry, or you can figure out how to get yourself into the club. To do that, you have to immerse yourself in the literary community. Five years ago, with my first book, I sent roughly 60 query letters to agents and editors at smaller publishing houses. I had an MFA, a few publications in small literary magazines, and not much else. My success rate – that is, the percentage who asked to see all or part of the manuscript – scraped along at about 10%. It was, let me tell you, dispiriting as hell. Then I went to a couple writing conferences, and my success rate began to climb. I met agents in person and told them about my book. I met other writers who referred me to their agents. By the end, my book was getting read by about half of the people I sent it to, a fair number of whom seriously considered taking it on. That experience, painful as it was, taught me more about writing than I ever would have expected. Agents and editors began writing me real letters, not form rejections, but long, thoughtful responses telling me precisely where they had stopped reading with interest and why. Until then, I had always written for other writers – classmates, friends, the dead greats I imagined myself competing with – but that experience taught me to write for a reader, a smart, curious person who just wants to be told a good story. By the time I finished my most recent novel, I had published a few more stories, plus I was now writing for Poets & Writers, as well as The Millions and other book reviews. More importantly, I had built up an inventory of agents interested in seeing my next book and writer friends who felt comfortable referring me to their agents. By my count, I’ve sent queries to 11 agents and editors, nine of whom asked to see the full manuscript. Their responses have varied from a few lines of boilerplate regret to two hours on the phone discussing my characters and story in brutally honest detail. Ultimately, of course, no is no, and I still don’t have an agent. But that’s my fault: I haven’t written a book an agent can sell yet. At this point, I am seriously thinking about revising the book from beginning to end before I send it out again. If that sounds like a sad ending to this tale, then I haven’t made my point. I did the groundwork and got the attention of first-class literary agents who have helped launch bestselling authors and Pulitzer Prize winners. They took me seriously, and I learned two things from their responses: first, that the book I've written is definitely in the ballpark, and second, that it isn’t there yet. I can cry and tear my hair out, but this is the real world. If I want my book published, and I do, I have to make it better. Mainstream publishing is a Rube Goldberg machine of perverse economic incentives, in which large numbers of mostly idiotic self-help guides, diet books, and airport thrillers subsidize an ever-shrinking number of mostly money-losing literary novels and books of poetry. But just because publishing operates on a crazy economic model doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense. There is a market, however tiny, for good books, and there are a small number of smart, hard-working people who live for the thrill of finding a talented author. If you are one of those talented authors, then it is your job to stop whining and figure out how to make it easy for them to find you. Image via CompletelyNovel.com/Flickr
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