At this point, we’re all familiar with Cheryl Strayed’s transformative solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail that she wrote about in Wild. Yet at Condé Nast Traveler, she discusses how a recent family vacation to Laos reawakened her passion for travel. “Here we were on a sacred hill so far off from the place from which we had come, and so abundantly thankful for it. Perhaps the power of that very gratitude is the reason I travel.”
A lot of women feel a connection to Cheryl Strayed, but one reader’s connection was personal. Strayed’s lost half-sister found her when she just happened to check out Wild because she liked travel narratives. “She didn’t know anything about me except when she read the description in my book of my early life, my mother and my father, she knew that father was hers, too. I don’t name my father in the book but she recognized him,” Strayed told NPR.
“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.”
Megan Kaminski’s first book of poetry, Desiring Map, revels in landscapes and ecosystems — both natural and manmade — as well as the disturbances that assault them. Her poems are often characterized as quiet, but they’re wrought with a subtle violence, such as where, according to poet Dan Thomas-Glass, the “jet set’s excesses and the bleak horizontals of the mid-country clash to great effect.” Joshua Clover calls Desiring Map, “a book that approaches us cannily, drenched in form, never word-spent and never without cocktails; a 21st century pleasure with a keen eye on the terrain and something to say.” Since I first encountered Megan’s poetry, I’ve been drawn to the intelligence, the linguistic precision, and the fascination with systems — ecological, financial, neural — that inform her writing. Megan teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas and also curates The Taproom Reading Series in Lawrence, recently named one of the top 10 reading series in the Midwest. Megan and I corresponded via email about Desiring Map, in a conversation that touched on “our very weedy human appetites,” the slippery boundaries of “I,” catastrophe theory, and admiration for “unflinching and unapologetic” female writers.
The Millions: The idea of place is central to so many of your poems in Desiring Map. From the prairie to the coast to the Florida wetlands, your language revels in site-specific spaces. Could you talk more about the role of landscape in your poems, as well as the ways that desire is evoked by environment? And also, having lived in many diverse locations, ranging from exotic (Casablanca) and cosmopolitan (Paris, LA, NYC), to the prairie (Kansas), could you speak to the ways that your physical environment informs, invades, and influences your writing?
Megan Kaminski: Yes, place and especially the “natural world” (and we can talk about how we want to define that) is very important to my creative project, and it’s a tricky thing to write about in certain ways. As a writer, sitting at my desk or at a table typing away on my computer and looking out the window, I am always looking at the landscape — here in the town where I live in Kansas, or in Oregon looking out at the ocean or the gorge, or in Paris looking down on the tree-lined street — and of course its beauty inspires me, but there are problems with writing from that perspective. I’m wary of the tradition of the poet who stands outside of the natural world, observing it with some sort of special authority and then seeing it primarily as a site for personal transformation. I’m not interested in the kind of poetry that Evelyn Reilly describes as the “aesthetic use of nature as mirror for human narcissism.” I think that sort of rendering of landscape — as background or as subservient to human demands and desires — does real violence to the natural world, a world which we surely exist in, rather than outside of. That said, I am very interested in our very weedy human appetites, such as longing and desire.
Along with that exploration of human possibility in nature came questions of subjectivity in the questioning of the lyric “I.” This questioning played out in the form of a slippery subject, an “I” that is fixed momentarily in a time/space, but then becomes quickly dislodged. I’m not willing, or perhaps even able, to abandon the lyric “I” in my poems — at least without taking on a subject voice that has its own equally problematic implications — but I am very interested in challenging and chipping away at the “I”’s authority. It’s this beautiful thing, the way pronouns work — the ease in which a person can slip into and out of the subject position. The “I” in my work that isn’t necessarily the “I” of Megan Kaminski/poet.
TM: Could you talk more about the way that words function as landscape in your poems? There seems like an overlap between word and place for you, linguistic terrain and landscape. One specific passage that comes to mind is, “I put the words on the page / pulled from beneath skin / for what passes as something / simplified and promoted bilaterally / we exist for many reasons / concentrated on small pieces / of production and landscape.”
MK: I think that sense of overlap starts with the sense of landscape becoming language — the movement from the world to the text. But there is also a sense in which language becomes landscape, too. I am very much interested in the dissolution of these boundaries between language and the outside world. And this all also very much relates to neural patternings, which also become landscape in the book (and vice versa). Much of this has to do with the nature of cognition on a very basic level. If all human thought occurs in language, then we are constantly dissolving in and out of language. I experience the prairie — I see it before me, around me; I perceive it with all my senses — and while this is happening my brain is also processing it all. The prairie is taken into my neural pathways and taken into language — it translates and dissolves into my body, my thoughts, my tongue when I speak it. And at the same time, when I write about and talk about the prairie, it spills out of me into the world.
TM: There’s a subtlety and quietness to your writing that’s dually menacing and alluring. Like in the second poem of “Across the Ruins:”
Tracks carve through Florida florid wetlands
wilderness breaks down my estuarial intent
he fell in love with the s-curve of her neck to spine
could explain the reappearance of other things too
do we all dream of swash-buckling adventures
and text anxiety mothers sharpening knives.
I admire how the domestic and wild as well as the textual and physical are in dialogue here and elsewhere throughout your work. What are the crucial tensions that pervade and inform your work?
MK: I am definitely interested in the tensions between wildness and cultivation, both in the natural world and in our own human natures. I just proposed a course for next year entitled “Weedy Appetites and Feral Longings.” (Actually, that’s my own secret title for the course — I was afraid it would be confusing to students, so I officially called it “Literary Wildness and Incivility.”) Anyway, that is a long way of saying that I am continuing to think about what it means to be wild and uncivil, specifically as a rejection of cultivation.
One of the texts that weighs heavily in my imaginative considering is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which presents a kind of feral domesticity. There is, at least at the beginning of the novel, very much a sense of a domesticity that entails keeping a home spiritually and emotionally for one’s family in the face of loss. Even though Sylvie is obviously a horrible housekeeper in the traditional sense of keeping things clean and tidy, there is a sense of care and looking after. Of course, that all kind-of falls apart — but there is that seed of an idea. And maybe this is part of the reason why I keep being interested in and coming back to this tension.
There is something beautiful about providing a home and comfort, something beautiful about the domestic arts. But there is also this sense of having been mastered, of women being responsible and unrecognized for performing all sorts of affective labor, of performing domesticity as a way of submitting. This is all complex and tricky, though, because I do think that mothering (as well as other sorts of care-taking) is important work — that kindness and nurturing has its own value. I’m more interested in gentleness, though, than in gentility.
And, of course, I am also interested in cultivation and wildness in the natural world. Weeds and feral animals cannot come into being without humans. Weeds were just plants before their growth became counter to productive agriculture, and animals have to have been domesticated at some point in order to become feral. So conceptually, weeds and feral animals reclaim the wild. I am also interested very much in the greening, both planned and unplanned, of Detroit and other post-industrial spaces around the world.
TM: In Desiring Maps, your long poem, “Carry Catastrophe” is made all the more delectable because it’s such an unlikely elegy for the financial markets. Could you talk more about its roots in catastrophe theory and the economic crisis?
MK: In some ways it might seem conceptually strange to have a long poem about the economic crisis in a book that is largely concerned with a revision of the pastoral genre and of human possibility within nature. I think these things are all very much connected. The first poems in the book came out of my research and thinking about enclosures, both contemporary and historic. John Clare’s enclosure elegies were a source of inspiration, as were readings about contemporary enclosures and forms of resistance to this privatizing of the commons in Africa and South and Central America. Also playing into this were contemporary works like Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic (which in some ways revisits and revises Virgil’s pastoral mode) and Stephen Collis’s The Commons.
I am very much interested in poetry as a sort of linguistic/creative commons and also as a method to think about the world, so it seemed essential to me to include a consideration of the economic crisis. And, yes, it is in some ways an elegy for the financial markets and perhaps late capitalism as well. As Joshua Clover said in a recent interview, “Late capitalism is terrible and ruins people’s lives but it also produces astonishing, beautiful things.” “Carry Catastrophe” is certainly filled with the beautiful stuff of late capitalism, but it also has a sense of impending collapse. The use of the imperative, which had more of a sense of imploring and seducing earlier in the book, becomes a little tyrannical here.
As for catastrophe theory, I’m sure that a mathematician could explain it better than I can, but I will give it a try. An early version of “Carry Catastrophe” was published as a chapbook by Grey Book Press, and in this version the cover depicts what is called a “cusp catastrophe.” The classic example of a cusp catastrophe, or at least the example that I was offered by a mathematician once, is that of a stressed dog who smoothly transitions from obedient to angry when subjected to moderate stress. However, with higher stress levels, the model changes, and there is a “fold point” where the dog becomes angry and will remain irretrievably angry even if the stress level is reduced (on the old model we would expect him to become obedient again). That’s the basic thought behind it — the sense that once something/someone — people/the economic system — gets pushed far enough, his/her/its behavior is suddenly and permanently changed.
TM: You also write essays, and were just on a panel of women who write creative nonfiction for a literary conference in Seattle. You read your essay “Chatterbox Confessions” (forthcoming on Puerto del Sol), where you out yourself as a reformed chatterbox. You discussed how women are conditioned to be more aware of dominating conversations than men are, and also how the personal essay as a form has been less open to women (or, at least that comparably fewer women essay writers have been acknowledged). You cite Chris Kraus when you speculate, “Perhaps it isn’t that women lack the ability to coolly analyze and reflect on their personal experiences, the issue is instead discomfort on the part of readers and critics when they do so.” Could you speak more about this and strategic ways for women writers to approach this?
MK: Wow — I’m definitely still working through this one myself. In some ways I think that writing is tricky business. In general, it is considered to be completely open to women. There are so many women writing and so many readers picking up their work. On the other hand, though, many major awards and prestigious publications are still very much dominated by men — and, in my opinion at least, this does not reflect talent in the actual literary landscape. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young wrote a terrific piece, “Numbers Trouble,” which does a better job of exploring this subject than I could do here.
When I think about these issues, I keep going back to Deborah Tannen’s assertion that “there is no unmarked woman” — that every decision that a woman makes about how she presents herself is one that marks her, that conveys something about her. And I think this carries over into writing as well. One of my good friends is a very successful novelist. I was with her when she was approached by another (male) writer who was attempting to deride her work: “Aren’t all your books about the same thing?” My friend asked him what he meant by that. He replied without missing a beat — “Well, aren’t they all about women?”
Seriously, how many times have you heard books dealing almost exclusively with men — and there are a lot of them, referred to as “men’s fiction.” But if a woman writes about women — who, by the way, make up half of the world’s population — then that is a choice and the writing often gets ghettoized into categories like “women’s writing” or “chick lit.”
I also think that there are parts of our society (and in academia and in the literary community, too) that are still very conservative. There are some men and women who are still very uncomfortable with strong women and women’s voices that are unflinching and unapologetic. For me, though, these are some of the most vibrant and interesting writers. I’m thinking of some recent books that I have read that really stuck with me — Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, Roxane Gay’s numerous essays (on her blog and other journals), and Lidia Yuknavitch’s gorgeous and brave essay, “Explicit Violence.”
TM: You’re very active within the literary community — you run a reading series, The Taproom Reading Series in Lawrence, Kansas, you teach at the University of Kansas, and you recently finished a month-long stint as guest editor at Adam Robinson’s Every Day Genius. Basically, you have your hands many pots. Would you talk more about poets, presses, and ideas that deserve more attention, and give us some pointers on who should be on our radar?
MK: Sure. I’m going to apologize in advance because I am sure that I am leaving a lot of people out, but here are a few people and presses who are on my mind right now.
I’ve been reading a few Oakland poets recently — and their work has really been sticking with me. I’m in love with Kathryn Pringle’s latest, fault tree (Omnidawn 2012), and also (perhaps, especially) her first book, RIGHT NEW BIOLOGY (Factory School, 2009). I’m working on a poetry manuscript and also some scholarly work about the body and the city/an ecopoetics of the city and so loved thinking about these things as I have been reading RIGHT NEW BIOLOGY. I am also very much enamored by Tiff Dressen’s chapbooks Messages and Because Icarus-children. And Juliana Spahr’s work continues to be some of the most important writing in terms of shaping my sense of possibilities both in terms of poetry and in terms of seeing/living in the world. I’m teaching her book Well Then There Now (Black Sparrow 2011) in my poetry workshop next semester, and I am super enjoying revisiting it in preparation for that class.
I’m also really into Jordan Stempleman’s latest, No, Not Today (Magic Helicopter 2012). Jordan just read at a house reading in Kansas City, and I was reminded of how much I love his work. I don’t know where or when the new work he read that night is coming out in book form, but I am certainly looking forward to it.
Also: Evie Shockley, Erín Moure, Bhanu Kapil, Carmen Giménez Smith, Joshua Clover, Lisa Robertson, Joseph Massey, Dan Thomas-Glass, Hanna Andrews, Ji Yoon Lee, Gina Myers, Chus Pato, Jen Tynes, Danielle Pafunda, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Mike Sikkema, Sampson Starkweather, Shanna Compton, CA Conrad, Bruce Covey, Kate Greenstreet, Michelle Naka Pierce — the list could go on and on.
As far as presses go, I would be remiss not to mention my own much beloved publisher, Coconut Books. I love the new books that they released this fall — from Jenny Boully, Emily Toder, Hanna Andrews, and Christie Ann Reynolds. I’m also a big fan of Dorothy, Bloof Books, Birds LLC, Letter Machine, Ugly Duckling, Omnidawn — really, there are so many wonderful small presses putting out great work.
It was Hans Weyandt at Micawbers Books in St. Paul who pressed the slim blue advance review copy of Susanna Moore’s latest novel into my hands. It was good, he said, although he understood if I didn’t want to add any extra weight to my suitcase, and if I hadn’t heard of her, she was a very good writer. I hadn’t heard of her, but that’s no surprise. I don’t feel that I’m as well-read as I should be. Further, my suspicion is that 10 percent of the novelists get 90 percent of the publicity, and while very good books can and do rise to the top and catch the attention of the reading public, the correlation between talent and exposure is casual at best.
I did an event at Micawber’s that night, returned to my friend’s house and ate pizza, slept for a few hours on her living room floor and then woke up at three a.m., showered and dressed and slipped out with my suitcase to catch the 4:15 train to the airport. The stars were so bright as I was leaving Minneapolis.
By five thirty a.m. I was on a flight to the next city. This was the Midwestern tour: five cities in five days, condensed in such a manner so that I’d only have to take three days off from my day job. The size of my American publisher’s tour budget was somewhat smaller than the size of the tour I wanted — they’d already sent me out to the South and Ohio in the late spring, and they’re sending me to Florida twice — so I put five days worth of flights and cheap hotel rooms on a credit card and hoped the checks I’d been expecting from my French and Canadian publishers would arrive soon. I just wanted to be able to say I’d done everything I could for the book.
Two years ago I missed an event because of a canceled flight, which has left me endlessly paranoid, so I booked all of my flights in the early mornings when cancellations and delays are least likely. Paying for your own tour makes the stakes seem especially high. Each day began with an early-morning flight to a new city and ended with an event at a bookstore, an airport hotel. I slept four or five hours a night, went through airport security on autopilot, revived myself with coffee and dark chocolate-covered espresso beans in early-morning airports, spent sleep-deprived but pleasant days writing in cafes in strange cities, met at least two dozen booksellers, talked about my book every night, was so tired by the end that I had to carefully talk myself through the motions of getting ready for bed in that last airport hotel room in Milwaukee (“Now you’re going to brush your teeth”), could not possibly have continued at that pace for even one more day, and was improbably happy.
I try not to accumulate much when I travel, because I only fly with carry-on luggage, but I respect Hans’s literary taste, and Susanna’s book seemed worth carrying with me. I read it when I got home. He was right. The book’s wonderful.
Susanna Moore’s The Life of Objects is set mostly in Germany, over the course of the Second World War. Has any conflict in history been mined more thoroughly for fiction than the Second World War? Possibly not. I’ve lost track of how many World War II novels I’ve read. It can’t be easy to find a new angle.
Or perhaps, I thought while I was reading The Life of Objects, a new angle isn’t necessarily important. Perhaps all that matters is that the book must be extremely good, and The Life of Objects is exquisite. It’s the simply written story of a girl, Beatrice, who longs to escape the confines of the Irish village where she lives. It’s the kind of backwater where everyone knows everyone else, her sole career opportunity lies in working in her parents’ store, and despite her yearning for knowledge and her love of books, there is no possibility of a higher education. She begins making lace because making lace is a way to make the world disappear, and her work catches the attention of a visiting aristocrat.
She’s plucked out of the village, offered a household position with the aristocrat’s friends in Germany, the Metzenburgs. The year is 1938. When war breaks out they retreat to their country estate. The Metzenburgs, Dorothea and Felix, are possessed of both glamor and exquisite taste. Felix, in particular, is devoted to his objects: the paintings, the sculptures, the jewels. As the political situation worsens, Dorothea suggests that they leave, but Felix will never leave his objects and Dorothea will never leave Felix. Moore writes in a measured and elegant style. The Life of Objects combines elements of fairytale — there’s a place on the grounds that all but qualifies as an enchanted forest — and the kind of realism that brushes up against the edge of horror.
The novel is a subtle and brilliant chronicle of a slow slide out of normalcy into deprivation and surrealism, and of a character’s transformation from a passive and dependent girl to a bold and independent adult. The writing is a miracle of clarity and beauty. It’s the kind of book I read and think, this is why I do this, and this is what I’ve come for. This is why I travel so hard, why I work seven days a week, why I write in the subway, why I usually close myself in my office on weekends instead of seeing my friends. Why all of us work so hard. It’s because it’s possible to write books like this, and because books like this exist in the world.
I know a lot of writers, which means there are days when my social media feeds are clogged with relentless self-promotion. Everyone’s written a book, and everyone wants you to buy it.
This is a delicate point, because we do need to sell our books. Selling books is how we make our living, or at least part of our living. But there are days when I wish we could all just take a deep breath in the midst of all the hustle and remember what matters, because my personal opinion is that what matters the most is the work, not the sales numbers. I think that the fact that most of us will never be very well-known and will never make The New York Times bestseller list doesn’t matter as much as whether or not our books are any good. The marketplace is important but not that important, at least in the sense that I doubt anyone ever lay on their deathbed and thought, I wish my sales numbers had been better.
What matters is good writing, what matters is that there are people who love books enough to press them into your hands in far-off cities. We are here for the books, but I think it’s easy to get distracted by our longing for success and forget this.
Cheryl Strayed has had a remarkable year, a one-in-a-million kind of year, a year with a bestselling memoir that got optioned by Reese Witherspoon and picked for Oprah’s book club. Almost every bookstore I’ve walked into from Kentucky to Toronto has had the memoir, Wild, prominently displayed. I secretly cheer it on every time, because I think it’s a good book and because while I’ve only met Cheryl once, she seems very kind, and character matters a lot to me.
“The most annoying thing to come of this past truly good year,” she wrote recently on Facebook, “is the narrative that I ‘came out of nowhere,’ that I was ‘an unknown writer’ before WILD was published. Actually, I came out of a literary community of readers and writers who knew me quite well. Before WILD, I’d published a novel as well as many essays that were read by a national audience. I bristle at this narrative not so much on my own behalf, but rather on behalf of the many writers I love, admire, respect and read. There is a strong and vibrant literary culture that exists and thrives in this nation and it does not exist in a place called nowhere, whether you know about it or not. It’s the place where the writers work.”
I liked this Facebook status a great deal. I love writing, and love working in solitude for long hours. But it brightens my working days and evenings further sometimes to think of all the other writers in our separate rooms, all of us trying to create something lasting in the place where the writers work.