Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Sam Lipsyte, Niviaq Korneliussen, Kristen Roupenian, Tessa Hadley, and more—that are publishing this week.
Hark by Sam Lipsyte
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hark: “Lipsyte (The Fun Parts) pillories the mindfulness movement in this acerbic and surprisingly moving novel of a hesitant guru and his self-involved inner circle. Failed comic Hark Morner writes a book and launches an unexpected craze for “mental archery,” a practice combining disconnected ramblings of invented history, opaque aphorisms, and yogalike poses. Among his devoted inner circle are Kate, an aimless and wealthy 20-something who finances the movement; Teal, a convicted embezzler and unlicensed marriage therapist; and Fraz, a middle-aged man disappointed by his career stagnation and tense marriage. Hark rejects their schemes to monetize his teachings and offers only oblique answers to questions, saying that the only point is to focus. Facing pressures from tech magnate Dieter Delgado, who wants to co-opt mental archery, Hark retreats to the Upstate New York home of true believer Meg. When Fraz accidentally injures his young daughter, he pleads for Hark to call for a worldwide focus to help her survive a coma, leading to a wild conclusion an unexpected denouement. This is a searing exploration of desperate hopes, and Lipsyte’s potent blend of spot-on satire, menacing bit players, and deadpan humor will delight readers.”
Bonus: And check out Gerald Howard’s recent essay for The Millions about Lipsyte.
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley
Here’s what PW had to say about Late in the Day: “Hadley’s perceptive, finely wrought novel (after Bad Dreams) traces the impact of the death of one man on three others. When affable art gallery owner Zachary dies suddenly in his 50s, he leaves behind not only his flamboyant and determinedly helpless widow, Lydia, but also the couple closest to them, Alex and Christine. Alex, an acerbic failed poet turned primary school teacher, and Christine, an artist who frequently exhibits her work in Zach’s gallery, have a long, complicated relationship with Zach and Lydia. Christine and Lydia, friends since childhood, met the two slightly older men when the young women were just out of college. Lydia set her sights on the melancholy Alex, who barely noticed her. Instead, he settled into a relationship with the at first reluctant Christine after her brief fling with Zach, who was actually infatuated with Lydia. Over the years, the two couples settled into the passive happiness of married life, but Zach’s death forces Lydia, Alex, and Christine to finally confront the feelings Alex and Lydia have for each other. As the two move forward together, and Christine, to her own surprise, discovers that she relishes time alone, Alex and Christine’s daughter Grace decides to make a death mask of her father, and moves in with Alex and Christine’s daughter Isobel. Hadley is a writer of the first order, and this novel gives her the opportunity to explore, with profound incisiveness and depth, the inevitable changes inherent to long-lasting marriages.”
Bonus: Take a look back at our interview with Hadley from 2015.
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari
Here’s what PW had to say about To Keep the Sun Alive: “A family whose members hold varying loyalties shapes Ghaffari’s evocative debut set during the Iranian Revolution. Akbar, a retired judge, and his wife, Bibi, invite their extended family for leisurely lunches at their orchard in Naishapur. Akbar’s brother Habib is a mullah who’s fond of his own voice and increasingly passionate about the need for religious cleansing. His widower nephew, Shazdehpoor, bristles at Iran’s provincialism and yearns for the charms of Europe. His two sons reject their father’s intent fastidiousness: Jamsheed through opium addiction and Madjid through his heady love affair with Nasreen. As tensions rise, the family focuses more on quotidian challenges: Bibi’s friendship with an elderly midwife, the buried disappointments of marriage, servant Mirza’s propensity for forbidden alcohol, and Bibi’s adopted son Jafar’s extreme fondness for the chickens they raise. When the revolution finally arrives, shocking, sudden violence sweeps up the family with tragic results. Ghaffari delves into her characters with sensitivity for their positions and differences. Readers will savor the emotional depth of one family’s experience of the terrifying effects of religious fundamentalism and political instability. ”
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
Here’s what PW had to say about The Far Field: “Vijay’s remarkable debut novel is an engrossing narrative of individual angst played out against political turmoil in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state in the late 2000s. Unmoored by her mother’s death, 24-year-old Shalini apathetically floats from job to job while receiving financial support from her affluent father. In an effort to find closure, Shalini leaves her native Bangalore to search for Bashir Ahmed, her mother’s only friend, who she hasn’t seen in years. Upon arriving in tumultuous Jammu, Shalini is taken in by a Muslim family in Kishtwar and struggles to understand the fractured nature of her surroundings: the role of the omnipresent Indian Army, the disappearances of local Muslims, and the frequent violence against and perpetrated by both Muslims and Hindus. Her search eventually leads to a Himalayan village, whose generous inhabitants temporarily give her a sense of purpose amidst staggering natural beauty. However, Shalini’s ignorance and inability to be honest with herself and others results in dangerous consequences for everyone she comes in contact with. Interspersed with flashbacks of Shalini’s relationships with her dazzling yet mentally ill mother, the mysterious but kind Bashir Ahmed, and her withdrawn father, Shalini’s misguided attempts at love, fulfillment, and friendship are poignant. Vijay’s stunning debut novel expertly intertwines the personal and political to pick apart the history of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Mothers by Chris Power
Here’s what PW had to say about Mothers: “Full of travelers and troubled relationships, Power’s debut contains enough greatness to recover from sometimes repetitious narratives. ‘Mother 1: Summer 1976,’ the sparkling first story, concerns a 10-year-old Swedish girl, Eva, as she navigates her feelings toward Nisse, a neighbor boy, after she accuses him of defacing their apartment complex. Eva appears in two more stories. In ‘Mother 2: Innsbruck,’ she is a young adult, traveling Europe and contemplating suicide, while in ‘Mother 3: Eva,’ she is married with a daughter yet impaired by depression and wanderlust. ‘Mother 2: Innsbruck’ suffers from a sameness that weakens the collection, as a series of tales revolve around characters hiking rural landscapes. Of these, ‘The Crossing,’ with its newly minted couple testing their relationship on a multiday walk, works best. Other highlights include ‘Johnny Kingdom,’ which follows a Rodney Dangerfield–esque tribute comic on his farewell performances in Florida, and ‘Above the Wedding,’ about an affair between a man and his friend’s future husband. There’s plenty to admire in Power’s writing, and the author mines his characters for unexpected traits and decisions, making for an auspicious debut.”
Bonus: Check out Power’s YIR post from 2018.
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian
Here’s what PW had to say about You Know You Want This: “Roupenian’s solid debut is highlighted by moments of startling insight into the hidden—and often uncomfortable—truths underneath modern relationships. ‘Cat Person,’ which caused a sensation when it was first published in The New Yorker in 2017, is an unrelentingly, almost painfully, honest and perfectly rendered dramatization of the millennial heterosexual relationship and all its attendant anxieties and violences. The other stories, about sex, power, and personhood, range from the highly conceptual—in ‘Scarred,’ a woman magically summons what she thinks is her heart’s desire, before she realizes the sacrifices one must make to truly attain it—to the aggressively realistic—in one of the best stories, ‘The Good Guy,’ readers are immersed into the train wreck thought process of Ted, who is certifiably and pathologically not like other guys, except, of course, that he is actually like so many guys. Another strong entry is ‘Death Wish,’ in which a divorced man living in a motel meets a girl on Tinder; when she shows up at his motel room, she has an unusual and upsetting sexual request for him. Though some stories don’t land and rely too much on explication, there are some stellar moments of pithy clarity: In ‘Scarred,’ upon summoning a way to cheat desire, the protagonist muses, ‘I had everything that could be wanted. I invented new needs just to satisfy.’ This is a promising debut.”
Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen
Here’s what PW had to say about Last Night in Nuuk: “Korneliussen’s captivating debut centers around five young people over the course of a party and its aftermath in Nuuk, Greenland, as they come to terms, in various ways, with their identities. Told in bouncy, colloquial prose (‘My hair is still partying,’ a woman thinks to herself as she looks in the mirror after a night of heavy drinking), the novel honestly explores sexuality and gender identity, and the ways in which they can cause distance and connection with others. Ivik can’t figure out why she panics whenever her girlfriend touches her, while Inuk is unable to cope with his anger at his native country, from which he fled—though he’s actually mad at Arnaq for revealing his scandalous secret. After breaking up with her boyfriend, Fia finds herself drawn to Ivik’s girlfriend, Sara,who herself struggles to remain hopeful when ‘life is shit.’ The deeper issues beneath these stories bring about revelations both touching and heartbreaking. What’s so unexpected and lovely is the narrative’s irrepressible optimism and earnestness. Translated seamlessly into idiomatic English, Korneliussen’s wonderful novel introduces readers to a notable new voice in world literature.”
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
Here’s what PW had to say about The Dreamers: “Walker’s richly imaginative and quietly devastating second novel (after The Age of Miracles) begins in a college dorm in an isolated town in the hills of Southern California, where a freshman thinks she is coming down with the flu. In fact, she has a mysterious disease that causes its victims to fall into a deep, dream-laden sleep from which they cannot be woken, and which sometimes leads to death. The disease spreads slowly at first, then more rapidly, and soon the whole town is under a quarantine. The perspective moves smoothly in and out of the minds of several of the college students and town residents, drawing back to look at the entire situation from a detached but compassionate point of view and then plunging back into the minds of those attempting to deal with the escalating problems. Among the characters are Mei, a lonely college freshman; 12-year-old Sara, who copes with an unhinged survivalist father; Sara’s neighbors, a faculty couple with a newborn baby; and aging biology professor Nathaniel. As the majority of the people of the town fall victim to the disease, neuropsychiatrist Catherine Cohen, separated from her family by the quarantine, tries desperately to find its cause, until arson at a library that’s being used as a makeshift hospital has unintended results on the state of some of the dreamers. The relatively large number of central characters makes it likely that some will succumb to the disease, upping the suspense of the story. Walker jolts the narrative with surprising twists, ensuring it keeps its energy until the end. This is a skillful, complex, and thoroughly satisfying novel about a community in peril.”
Unquiet by Linn Ullmann
Here’s what PW had to say about Unquiet: “Ullmann’s spellbinding novel (after The Cold Song) is a fragmentary portrait of a place and time, and a testament to the legacies of those she mourns. Blending memoir and literary fiction, this book presents revelatory, frank depictions of the author’s relationship to her father, legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, and of his relationship to the author’s mother, Liv Ullmann, an actress and filmmaker often considered to be his greatest inspiration. Based originally on a brief series of taped conversations between Ullmann and her father just before his death, Ullmann confronts the nature of growing old while subtly studying her own childhood and middle age through the lens of her father’s decline. She reminisces on her often idyllic and tumultuous youth, studying stacks of love letters between her parents, and considering the situations that must have brought the life of her family to where it is. Some of Ullmann’s best passages are about her charming, confounding mother: ‘Mamma’s rules for good parenting: 1. Children must drink milk. 2. Children must live near trees.’ Echoing Duras’s The Lover in its blurring of the real and the imagined as well as in its obsessive attention to detail, this is a striking book about the enduring love between parents and children, and the fierce attachments that bind them even after death.”
Talk to Me by John Kenney
Here’s what PW had to say about Talk to Me: “Kenney’s bittersweet, darkly funny latest (after Truth in Advertising) is equal parts family drama and commentary on communication and news consumption in the age of instant gratification. Fifty-nine-year-old New York anchorman Ted Grayson has been the beloved—and ruggedly handsome—face of the national evening news for 20 years. But a vicious epithet (which he immediately regrets) hurled at a young female hairstylist on a particularly bad day (and caught on video) proves to be his undoing. Additionally, Claire, his wife of 30 years, has fallen in love with someone else, and his daughter, Franny, won’t speak to him. When the video leaks, the retribution is swift and brutal: he’s skewered by the press, hounded by protesters, and eventually fired. When Franny, who writes for a sensationalist online rag and is thoroughly unsatisfied with her own life, asks him to do an interview, he accepts, but it has unintended consequences that force Franny to examine her own life and her fractured relationship with her father. Kenney is supremely gifted at creating flawed, vivid characters and capturing the wonder, ennui, and heartbreak of marriage and parenthood, and the seemingly small moments that make life precious. The conclusion, while satisfying, offers no easy solutions, but it does offer a healthy dose of hope. This is a fun, winning novel. ”
Elsey Come Home by Susan Conley
Here’s what PW had to say about Elsey Come Home: “Probing questions about how to balance motherhood, a career, marriage, and a drinking problem resonate throughout Conley’s excellent novel narrated by an American painter looking back on her past few years in China, which were mostly spent teetering on the verge of a breakdown. When Elsey’s Dutch husband, Lukas, suggests she attend a weeklong spiritual retreat, Elsey begrudgingly capitulates to save their crumbling marriage. But the experience isn’t as woo-woo as she expects. Instead, while learning to weather the dreaded ‘Talking Circle’ and enduring the day of silence, she alternates between closing herself off from her emotions and ruminating on her demons, including the death of her younger sister when they were children, and her inability to ‘understand how to be obsessed with [her] children and obsessed with [her] painting at the same time.’ Elsey also befriends Mei, an esteemed painter married to another esteemed painter, whose frankness about feeling trapped in a restrictive country and marriage gives Elsey perspective. Though Elsey continues to falter and obsess over past decisions after returning home, her growing ability to tackle previously insurmountable challenges (her daughter’s appendicitis, a visit to her childhood home, AA meetings, a return to painting) proves she is slowly learning how to ‘be a different kind of mother. A different kind of wife.’ Conley (Paris Was the Place) hits the mark on a story line that feels both high-stakes and fine-tuned. But it’s the raw desperation of Elsey’s inner dialogue that elevates the novel, making for an honest and astute depiction of the human psyche.”
Big Bang by David Bowman
Here’s what PW had to say about Big Bang: “‘Where were you when you first heard President Kennedy had been shot?’ asks Bowman (1957–2012) in the opening of his big, bold, and brilliant posthumous novel, and for the next 600 pages, he investigates what occurred in the years leading up to that monumental event in American history. Through the lives of such iconic figures as Norman Mailer, Elvis, William de Kooning, Marilyn Monroe, Dr. Spock, Ngô Dihn Diem, Aristotle Onassis, the Kennedys themselves, and dozens of others, Bowman conjures an enormous narrative out of the troubled years from 1950 to 1963. Bowman takes the reader to Nevada, where Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow become short-term neighbors while waiting to obtain quickie divorces; to Seattle, where Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Lee have a strange encounter; to Mexico City, where William S. Burroughs shoots his wife in the head during a William Tell stunt gone horribly wrong; to Robert McNamara’s home, where he and some Washington, D.C., friends have a book club; to Vietnam, where a fake coup quickly becomes a real one; and, of course, to Dallas on the day the President was gunned down. Bowman (Let the Dog Drive) relates all of these remarkable tales with a straight-faced, just-the-facts approach, stripping these giants of the 20th century of their mythic status and rendering them as mere humans—caught, like everyone, in the crossfire of unrelenting history. Bowman’s self-described ‘nonfiction novel’ is a stunning and singular achievement.”
The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred-Year-Old Man by Jonas Jonasson:
Here’s what PW had to say about The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred-Year-Old Man: “Jonasson continues the globetrotting adventures of centenarian Allan Karlsson and his sidekick, petty thief Julius Jonasson, in this uproarious sequel to The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. Lounging in Indonesia with the briefcase full of cash they procured in the previous book, Allan and Julius have it made. They sip drinks on the beach, take visits from Harry Belafonte, and play around with smartphones while lazing in the sun. Allan finds himself becoming more interested in world politics as he reads the news, and when the money finally runs out, he concocts another outlandish plan: to travel around the world in a hot air balloon. When the balloon crashes and the pair are rescued by a North Korean ship, their travels take them from North Korea, to America, Sweden, and eventually Tanzania as Allan and Julius try unload a suitcase filled with enriched uranium they find onboard the ship. But, as they meet world leaders—including Kim Jong-un, Angela Merkel, and Donald Trump—they discover their options are quite limited. Jonasson’s clever prose, madcap delights, and satirical political commentary will please fans of the original novel and newcomers alike.”
Still in Love by Michael Downing:
Here’s what PW had to say about Still in Love: “Downing’s witty follow-up to Perfect Agreement satisfyingly transports readers to college as teacher Mark Sternum begins winter term at Hellman College in New England. Mark’s highly acclaimed creative writing class is filled with 12 students, yet hopefuls line the classroom to listen to the writer’s workshop. Mark jointly teaches with the Professor, a distant man whom the students fear as much as they feel at ease with Sternum. This term is challenging for Mark as he tries to fill the void left by Paul, his partner of 30 years who is currently overseas, by staying at Paul’s condo more than in his own house. The students, meanwhile, dissect each other’s work and try to sort out their lives. Mark takes an interest in Anton, a student whom he learns is battling cancer. In addition to focusing on his own writing, Mark stresses over an important departmental report, and even though he’s tenured, he likes to please and allows union meetings to be held in his office. In depicting Mark’s ordinary semester, Downing poignantly illustrates the dynamics of the college classroom as well as its potential for lasting lessons, making for a resonant campus novel.”
“Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.”
Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways?
I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks.
I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either.
Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.
About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look?
The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers.
Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance?
“I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.”
What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals?
I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically.
“Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ”
“Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.”
Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.”
A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it.
“It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.”
A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales.
An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.)
Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist.
Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around.
Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse.
When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away.
“The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says.
Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list.
“Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.”
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit.
At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send.
“Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.”
The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending.
“Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.”
Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists.
“We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.”
Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store.
My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.”
Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.”
What else can authors do to support the paperback launch?
Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme.
And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference.
I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf.
“Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.”
More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet.
“The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”
In The Passage, Justin Cronin introduced us to a nightmarish dystopia. The Twelve is the second installment of a planned trilogy, so if you haven’t read The Passage then you probably don’t want to read this review, but here’s a quick recap just in case: in the world of The Passage, a virus has been discovered in the Amazon that turns human beings into monsters. These are vampires, but vampires far less human-like than any other variants I’ve seen in the genre. Infection turns them into fanged and clawed creatures with skin like armor, virtually immortal, who live on blood and move with inhuman speed.
The American government decides to experiment and see if they can’t somehow weaponize the discovery, but they need test subjects. Who, they consider, are the most disposable members of our society? Who won’t be missed? Death row inmates without families. Twelve men are carefully selected from death rows around the country. They are offered a choice: they can stay in prison and await their inevitable executions, or they can leave with the mysterious men who’ve arrived to visit them. They’re taken to a top-secret facility in Colorado, injected with various strains of the virus, and studied.
Until of course the unthinkable happens and the monsters escape, because what else is going to happen in the early pages of a novel with caged monsters, and a hundred years later the North American continent is a desolate wasteland, monsters hiding in the abandoned cities and the last few humans struggling to survive. The Twelve picks up where The Passage left off, with the various survivors of the first book scattered among the continent’s last few settlements, one of the Twelve dead, and the other eleven and their followers having hunted so successfully that they’re running out of people to eat and are beginning to starve to death.
Once again Cronin has superbly handled the difficult task of writing a character-driven adventure story. But whereas The Passage concerned itself primarily with the dynamic of good people struggling to survive a world infested with bad monsters, The Twelve focuses largely on an aspect of the apocalypse that Cronin touched on only lightly in the first installment: the vampires remain terrifying, but they’re arguably less terrifying than the humans who have decided to collaborate with them in order to survive.
A surprise of The Twelve is that Cronin continues to move the narrative back and forth in time, from the shock of the initial outbreak to the depopulated wasteland that exists a century later. This has the dual effect of allowing him to further fill out a rich and complex back-story and also to rather neatly address one of the major criticisms of the first book, which I saw expressed most frequently along the lines of Seriously? We’re supposed to believe that someone thought it was a good idea to turn death-row inmates into immortal blood-sucking monsters?
Personally, I have no problem accepting the notion that any given group of reasonably intelligent people is perfectly capable of collectively coming up with a very, very dumb idea, but Cronin meets it head-on:
So it was that Deputy Director Horace Guilder (were there any actual directors anymore?) had found himself sitting before the Joint Chiefs… to offer his official assessment of the situation in Colorado. (Sorry, we made vampires; it seemed like a good idea at the time.) A full thirty seconds of dumbfounded silence ensued, everyone waiting to see who would speak next.
A century after his extremely awkward meeting with the Joint Chiefs, Guilder has become a hybrid, a creature who maintains human form and will not age so long as he keeps drinking the blood of a vampire’s familiar. He presides over a nightmare city in Iowa, a corporate dictatorship populated by slaves, human collaborators, and a small army of creatures like himself who dress in suits and drink blood.
There are small moments of humor in amidst the horror — as in most corporations, no department is more dreaded than HR — but Cronin’s vision is dark. No dissent is tolerated in Guilder’s city. Uncooperative citizens are fed to the vampires. Public executions aren’t unheard-of. Rapes and beatings abound.
Cronin takes the precaution of starting his books with a fair-sized cast of major characters, so that the population doesn’t thin out too drastically when the body count inevitably starts to rise, but all writers of apocalyptic fiction have to contend with the tension of wanting to depict their fictional worlds as nearly unsurvivable, without killing off too many of their major characters. As one character remarks, it’s a big continent, but once parted, his characters have a way of reuniting against impossible odds, over spans of years and hundreds of miles. He is at ease in the realm of improbable coincidences.
The prose of The Twelve is somewhat uneven. The impression is of a fine writer working with an enormous amount of plot under a very tight deadline. There are moments when the prose is strictly utilitarian, other times when it slips into sentimentality. A summer day on the prairies is described as “hot-hot-hot.” But there are moments of sheer beauty, as in the last moments before a man, a mechanic who’s secretly a poet, sets himself on fire to avoid being taken up: “This ravishing world,” he thinks, in the last few heartbeats before he flicks the lighter, “this ravishing world…”
These are anxious times we live in, and new apocalypse novels appear with every publishing season. A few years back there was The Road and now the end of the world as we know it recurs again and again, from Cronin’s planned trilogy to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One to Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars to Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles.
Cronin’s books, for all their brutality, have an ethereal quality that most other apocalypse books I’ve read lack. He has created a dark and brutal world, but his monsters are linked by dreams. The Twelve dream of their terrible crimes, and their multitudes of descendants dream the dreams of the Twelve.
Amy, a girl from the first book who remains (barely) human but who carries a modified version of the virus in her blood, has always been able to speak with vampires. She thinks of them as the dreaming ones. The multitudes of lost souls transformed into monsters are intelligent and vicious in the manner of any expert predator, but also they are lost. When she’s near them she hears their constant question in her head, who am I who am I who am I? In The Passage she kneels before a man who’s just been killed by them:
It came to her that the man’s name had been Willem. And the ones who had done it to Willem were sorry, so sorry, and she rose and said to them, It’s all right, go now and do not do this again if you can help it, but she knew they could not. They could not help it because of the Twelve who filled their minds with their terrible dreams of blood and no answer to the question but this:
I am Babcock.
I am Morrison.
I am Chavez.
I am Baffes-Turrell-Winston-Sosa-Echols-Lambright-Martinez-Reinhardt-Carter.
Cronin’s vampires are not individuals in any meaningful sense. They move in pods, they dream the dreams of their masters, and they don’t know who they were before they ceased to be human. The only names that fill their drifting thoughts are the names of the Twelve. The idea of the hive mind isn’t new, but the Borg never dreamed like this. The great mass of vampires are unspeakable, but in a strange way not entirely unsympathetic. Cronin’s skill as a storyteller keeps us immersed in their strange long dream.