Replies and more

I worry about doing a straight ‘reply’ to interesting comments, as the whole discussion might get buried. I like WordPress but the reply/discussion process is slightly awkward.

BOB (yes, he uses all-caps) queried, as he is wont to, the second-class status of e-books. He is a regular on brightweavings, so we’ve had this discussion before. My sense is that there is no likelihood of e-books not becoming more and more significant (though the rate of growth slowed this year in North America it is just taking off in Europe). The dilemma for publishers is trying not to cannibalize their own products. It may be that hardcovers are a doomed species (again, in Europe, they mostly are) but it isn’t automatically ‘stupid’ to try to stave that off.

For a time, the publishing world seems to have flirted with the idea of a delayed e-book release, akin to delayed paperbacks, so the hardcover would have at least some time on stage alone, then the hardback would graciously withdraw and paperbacks and e-books would hold sway. My sense (I may be wrong) is that no one thinks that is a good idea any more, or at least a workable idea. Certainly the delay before trade or mass market paperback is continuing, but the e-books do seem to be arriving with the first hardcovers.

There may remain a pricing policy where the e-books cost a little more when paralleling the hardcover, then come down in price when they are beside a paperback edition. And in the background for everyone is the issue of piracy, of course. In some countries it is annihilating the book trade: I am told by agents in Russia that pirate editions of paper-copy books sell for a fraction of the ‘real’ ones, and then there are the electronic ones for free…

Another comment to the last post was generous but may have missed a part of my point about blogs and early reviews. George, I want to be clear: my own sense is that bloggers reviewing early are not offending the publishers. As I said there is a balancing act at work, though no one quite knows how to do it yet.

If publishers don’t want early blog reviews they have an easy solution: don’t send them out early! My sense (remember I was last dancing with Under Heaven three years ago and things may have changed) is that the industry is perfectly fine with blogs reviewing as soon as they get the ARCs, unless they attach a specific request to wait – and they don’t need to, they can just hold back distribution until they are ready to see assessments online.

The line between a smart, widely read blogger and an ‘online magazine’ is really hard to pin down sometimes, and it may be a waste of time trying. I think the industry does try, and that was my point about their probably hoping that, say, the Los Angeles Review of Books would wait until a book is out, but not being concerned if an individual (or even group) blog reviewed as soon as they got it.

I also know (because I am hearing the discussions) that there are different attitudes among marketing and PR people about this. As I said, people are still figuring it out – and that will mean coming to different answers.

I am amused at myself these days. With the book gone from me, I am waiting for all my publishers and agents to get back in their offices (dammit!) so we can address some things. My dear friend and former agent Linda McKnight used to warn her colleagues about this stage … when I finish a book all the queries and to-dos I have for everyone levitate from the desk and demand to be dealt with. I do try to be cute about it, but a wry remark at the end of a list of six things may not always be enough.


The ARC of changes

I treat these Journals, in part, as a chance to share with readers a bit about the nature of the book world. I’ve become aware over the years that even people who are lifelong readers often know little about how books are produced, marketed, sold, how they get to them.

Sometimes in the next two weeks, advance reading copies of River of Stars will begin to go out, some in January, many more in February, on a timetable worked out by my various publishers – and ideally coordinated among them. (Monthly magazines get them earlier, for example, they need more time.)

When I was first published (back when books were written with quill pens and read by flickering candlelight), and even until the turn of the 21st century, pretty much, advance reading copies (or galleys) had a specific pair of functions.

They went out, a month or six weeks before publication, to the main review sites, in order that editors could assign them, and the reviewers would have time to read the the book and write their vivisections or rapturous encomiums, or whatever, to appear – ideally – the week the book went on sale. A classic frustration for publishers has always been a great review appearing in a major paper long after the book has appeared (and sometimes gone from the shelves of bookstores).

Another small batch of galleys would go to ‘major accounts’ – the buyers for important chains or stores, or the store managers, to start generating (ideally!) positive word of mouth about the title. A few might go to other writers or known opinion-shapers, for the possibility of a jacket blurb or press release quote.

There weren’t that many galleys prepared, and they were fairly rudimentary much of the time (they still are, in the UK, usually).

The blogosphere and online world in general has changed the game. Galleys (usually called ARCs now) are made in much greater numbers, often much more handsomely, and they go out earlier, and more widely. The underlying notion is that online world is where word of mouth is generated. A long piece by Laura Miller of Salon unpacked how cleverly this path was pursued for The Hunger Games when it was about to appear.

There are some interesting tensions linked to this. The tradition, the rule, for newspapers and magazines is that a review must not come out before the pubication date of a book. The idea is simple: publishers want someone to be able to go buy a book when they read a review, not wait three weeks – and even forget about it. But online reviewers don’t always observe this rule (there are exceptions) and – frankly – publishers don’t always want them to. Advance buzz has to be, well, advance.

This rankles book page editors. They are dutifully holding back their reviews and discussions till a book is on sale, but meanwhile the whole world (or the part of it with internet access) will have been reading about the title for a month or more.

There is no obvious right or wrong here, though I suppose I’d agree that holding the Washington Post or Toronto Globe & Mail to a pub date review starts to feel unfair if major online reviewers are way ahead. My sense, is that the important online sites tend to wait until close to pub date, while it is independent bloggers who like to get out early with a review.

Maybe it’ll become a measure of a blog’s transition to stature … that it begins to wait until closer to the book’s release. But the irony is, if publishers are excited or optimistic about a book, they may not mind if blog reviews surface early. There’s a complicated tension here.

In other words, as with so much of the book world today, we are in flux, people are still figuring out how to dance to this new music.

Grace in the marketplace

In lines I quote often Yeats wrote:

For how can you compete,
Being honour bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes?

I think about these words often when I consider writers and readers and the marketplace. The need or desire to succeed, feed one’s children, make a name, ‘breakout’ (in a rush, not a rash).

Urgent marketing is not new. The idea of artists ‘dancing as fast as I can’ goes back a long way, whether it is being ingratiating to the monarch or marquis whose patronage could make a career, flattering the senior poet (in Tang China, say) who could do the same thing, or tailoring one’s actual work to the taste or expectations of the day. (You want sad-eyed-clowns, I’ll give you sad-eyed-clowns. With fangs!)

Most of the time I am genuinely not judgmental about peers who work the room (or cyber-room) ferociously, and it would be hypocritical for me to thunder about this: I am writing this, I am now cautiously on Twitter, people have created a website and Facebook page for me. I am not hiding, though there have been times when I have thought it is better for the art if one does

But I will admit that I do make judgements when some lines are crossed. We all have our lines, in everything, really. Trashing a ‘rival’ anonymously (then lying about it), as one very major historian did on Amazon in the UK, crosses. Buying a hundred five-star reviews from a business that sells them – crosses. A bestselling writer instructing, on her webpage, her very large army of readers in the step-by-step process of going to Amazon to register and then post those five-star reviews (to counterbalance too many one-stars) – crosses. Getting fans to rate a book before they read it – crosses. Amazon allows it. Grace does not.

My guess is a lot of people might share this view (though not all). Some of my other ‘lines’ may not elicit majority agreement. I don’t like hustling for award votes, asking people to ‘do me a solid’ and vote for my book in some popular-vote competition, even though that has become a norm, how they are won. I am delighted if readers support a given book of mine, if they inform each other that some vote is happening. I just find the hustle on my own part inconsistent with any sense of a proper way to be in relation to those to read my work. I take them – and the work – too seriously,

This is all evolving, as the culture (especially online) evolves. Authors and readers are more interwoven than ever before. If I give a ‘bravo’ reply on Twitter to some reader’s witty remark that made me smile, that really is something new, something that simply did not and could not happen when I was starting as a reader – or a novelist. I can (and I will) link to an essay or review of one of the books if I find it generous and intelligent. That feels like encouraging thought, highlighting insights I am pleased to see out there. (If someone pans a book I am less likely to link for two reasons: I am not a masochist, and if I disagree with the comment, linking it would have to come with a rejoinder explaining why, and life is short, art is long, time matters. It is easier to link a piece when the tacit implication is ‘I am happy to see this’.)

But the Yeats quote at the top was brought to mind yesterday by reading, in the New York Times, a piece about reviews being ‘disappeared’ on Amazon. (The full article is here, but may be behind their firewall, for non-subscribers, not sure:

The mystery novelist __________, for example, does not see anything wrong with an author indulging in chicanery. “Customer buys book because of fake review = zero harm,”

I say no, I’m afraid.  I agree with this quote, later in the piece:

“A not-insubstantial chunk of their infrastructure is based on their reviews — and all of that depends on having reviews customers can trust,” said __________, a science fiction novelist.

I don’t want to get into a detailed explanation of why I think ‘zero harm’ is just wrong. (This is already a very long post.) If I were to do so, it would involve an analogy with steroid use in sport (the ones playing honestly in a world of limited resources are harmed, among others.)

I am more saddened than anything else that the hustle mentality has so greatly eroded a parallel world of dignity, grace, at least aspiring to classiness. Treating readers (or potential readers) with some measure of respect, not as targets to be bagged – or used. Interaction needs to function with some awareness of this, or maybe I’m just wrong. The article in the NY Times focuses on Amazon and reviews, but that is just a single element in all of this.

If someone can say (and sincerely believe) that chicanery (lying, really) involves zero harm in the book-buying world, that person and I are inhabiting very different mental and moral spaces even if we both want to feed our children.

It is not a new divide. Self-promotion has always been an element of the artist’s life. Different artists, in the past and today, had and have different standards as to what they are comfortable doing in order to sell. All things being otherwise equal, the better promoter is more likely to succeed in commercial terms. One issue is whether those are the only terms. (For some they are.) And another issue is whether our culture allows us to draw (or even see) a divide between aggressiveness which might be tacky, and dishonesty, which is something else.

I spend time urging readers (those reading this!) to shape their own sense of where lines might be drawn. Yeats wrote ‘Were neither shamed in his own/
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes’ … that puts some power, some response, some pursuit of class, in the hands of the ‘neighbours’ too. That’s you.



It should be raining when children are buried.

Winter sunshine is a gift

But this is the wrong time

To be accepting brightness. Let it rain.


We know there may one day be laughter

Even for those now grieving.

We are made that way. It is how we endure.

Though we also know some will not come back

To sunlight for a long time, and some

Will not at all. It is possible for the heart

To break and not be healed.


For these, their life divides now and forever

Into before and after the day

Darkness found a child too much too soon.






ARC in the wild…

A short briefing-people post today, though lots is happening. (That’s not supposed to be the case in the run-up to the holidays. Disconcerting.)

Over on the Bright Weavings Facebook page they have started a giveaway contest for the first ARC that will go out to anyone not specifically part of the trade distribution. (This is courtesy of the good people at Penguin Canada and is open worldwide, not just to Canadians.) There’s a bit of a Casting Couch riff/game associated.

Have a look:

We debated inviting a poem inspired by any of the earlier books (we’ve done that on the core Bright Weavings site) but Facebook is rather more ‘out there’ than the original BW site (which felt like people’s favourite bar or café). And I didn’t want to narrow the entries to those who felt willing to write a sonnet or clerihew about any of the known characters or themes. Maybe for fun another time, back on the main site.

This casting motif plays off the Pinterest page’s ‘Casting Couch’ where you can find (and post) images of the actors you like.

Remember: Danny de Vito is not to be proposed for Ammar. Instant disqualification.




In Praise of the Publicist

A Washington Post writer had a tweet this week wherein he said (paraphrasing here) that praise from a copy editor was the highest praise and from a publicist was the lowest. It started me thinking, because I disagree (I do that sometimes.).

get what he means. Publicists are paid the big bucks (!) to hype and promote, by definition. Copy-editors are often obsessive-compulsive (by deifnition, almost!), detail-focused, and have no liaison to the market.

But that pair of truths gets only part of the way and misses an important point. It is because a publicist (or marketing person) spends his or her whole day thinking of ways to promote/sell/extol every book on the list, to one degree or another, that serious personal praise and support from them matters so much.

Think about it. Every morning you psyche yourself up to promote titles that, in your innermost being, you know are forgettable, interchangeable with others, even boring, not your thing, opposed to your own ethics or views. You still have to get on the phone or computer and do it. Find ways to hype. You can’t only do your job when you love a book.

So the flipside is, when you do love a book, when you think it deserves to be read, reviewed, discussed, awarded, that author is a gift to you, and you become a gift to him or her. The job can become a passion again. Your enthusiasm is real, your commitment when you talk to a reviews editor or magazine editor about a profile will be unfeigned and passionate – and that comes through. I have heard it too many times from the media side of the discussion. They can tell when someone means it. Actually, most of us can. Nothing helps a book or a writer as much as the fire of those discussing it. Nothing.

That applies to the publisher’s sales reps too. They are inundated with titles each seaosn that they have to ‘get out there’ to their bookstore accounts. It applies to those accounts, too, the buyers for independent bookstores or chains, or the managers and sales people at those stores. ‘Handselling’ books is still a real part of the process. A customer walks into a store and a salesperson they know says, ‘The new Kay is in! I love it. You have to read it.’

That’s another gift to a writer. And, if all goes well, to the customer who buys that book. Relationships get started that way.

So, with all respect to the view at the top here, that started me thinking, I’m not down with the idea of placing publicity or marketing at the bottom of the ‘value’ scale when they praise or love one of my books. I am moved and very happy when that happens. If the passion for the novel is real, it actually matters more, in the formal scheme of things, than the endorsement from a copy editor.

This doesn’t take into account whether the copy editor is someone whose taste and judgement matters personally to you (as is the case for me with Catherine Marjoribanks), nor does it factor ‘routine’ remarks of praise from the marketing people, the kind where you might feel they are saying what they have to say. If these elements are in the mix, then we are talking about something completely different: the individual judgement of a trusted person or the supportive mumbling that comes with the territory.

But, no, real enthusiasm for a book from publicity and marketing and sales? Priceless.

ARC of Stars

Springbank, claret cask. Making this a motif, I guess.

I spent five hours in a boardroom today at Penguin Canada, working with Sandra on her two proofreaders’ queries and notes. Coffees, and I brought chocolate chip cookies when we took a break, since this was a heroic session for her, most of her workday. I was dealing with their notes, she was inputting my page by page responses into the master copy, which will now be turned into the printed and bound book for April.

She outdid my choc chips with an elegantly casual mention that one of the two freelance proofreaders had written ‘This is a masterpiece’ on the last page of her copy. She said she’d never seen that before. I said that this was an exemplary demonstration of proper care and feeding of the wild author.

Levity aside, this felt awfully rewarding. It is the first ‘outsider’ response to the book. Only people I know had seen it to that point. I never have any idea who the freelance proofreaders are (though have asked that my thanks be relayed for careful work here). It is obviously and always reassuring to get support from any readers, especially for a new book, and it is even more so to hear such words from professionals in the business.

Even at this stage errors or typos get caught – that’s why three people plus Sandra are prowling through the manuscript. I was proud of myself last week for spotting a directional error that everyone had missed (score for Team Author, late in the fourth quarter). But there was a naming error right in chapter one that got spotted — it was caught by a reader of the Facebook uploads, too! (Thanks are going out there, as well.)

As Sandra and I were pushing through the pages, Nicole came in herself to give me my first copy of an ARC. These will start going out in January to selected media outlets, then more widely to reviewers in February. There may be a few surprises before that. (Chapter 2, by the way, will only be on the Facebook site for a little longer – that share/read really was conceived as a short term bonus for those who like tasters. Chapter 1 will migrate to the main publisher sites and likely stay up until the book is out, that’s becoming fairly standard.)

After we were done, I shuttled down to the marketing department wing. Beth and Charidy each got to rap my knuckles. They were grinning at me but pretending to be kind: I had been pretty edgy about the decision to bump the ‘Share’ level from 150 to 500. It was heading into a Friday, the weekend has next to no publisher activity, it seemed a big number for a second go-around … but they’d been sublimely at-ease and sanguine.

Shows how much I know. Though I don’t think any of them would pass a lie detector test if they tried to say they expected the 500 level to be reached in just over 24 hours. Bottom line, marketing heads get social media rhythms better than the author does. What a stunning surprise! Who could have predicted it?

I will retreat with such grace as I can muster, with my single malt. It is a cold night out there.


Words, words, words

I spoke with Sandra in Production this morning and we set up our scheduled meeting to go over anything the proofreaders queried (as opposed to just correcting, as in a typo). But on the phone she told me that one of them had noted a particular word cropping up a fair bit, and wondered if I’d want to have a look.

The glories of the PDF age. I was able to search for it, note the pages, and this splendid proofer was entirely right. We can fall into vocabulary rhythms and over two years + of writing and revising might not catch ourselves repeating. But someone reading the book steadily and fast and with a necessarily obsessive word by word focus might spot these.

So spent an hour this morning addressing that. And no, before anyone asks, I won’t say what the word was (it was not ‘tangible’!) because you’d all become hyper-aware of it. I’m being good to you. But I’m also really grateful to the proofreader for the alert.

This next hour or so are actually a nervous time for me, irrationally. The book will be picked up any minute and couriered to the publisher across town. It is way too easy for an author to have ‘Homeland’ style nightmares of car accidents, or brazen daylight robberies by rival publishers or desperate readers (just.don’ Sandra has promised to call me as soon as it is in her hands.

Here’s a memory. First novel I ever wrote, never published, was drafted on the south coast of Crete, handwritten. Partway through the winter I woke up one morning with the sudden thought that if my room was ransacked and robbed, or there was a fire or anything, I had zero backup. I couldn’t work that day. Took the bus to the north side of the island to a town called Rethymnon and found a mom and pop shop with a single photocopy machine. I got a lot of change and made two copies, eventually gave one to a friend to keep in his room in my village, and mailed the other home immediately. But on the bus over the mountains north and walking through Rethymnon, that envelope with the manuscript stayed tightly clutched in both hands.

So I have a long tradition of worrying about the fate of the only finished copy of any book.

Alec, one of the coordinators of asked and I can confirm that the launch on April 4 will absolutely be open and free of charge. Sometimes events have a fee, at author festivals, or when a bookstore has to rent a space because they expect more people than the store can hold, but this one won’t.

Oh. There will be good UK news very soon. They are doing a press release. I’ll wait for that. And a new, unexpected foreign rights offer. Still being finalized as to terms, so I’ll tease with that only, for now. But I love new, small markets. It says something really affirming about books and human nature if people in so many different cultures want to read something we write.

Done, really done

I considered posting a photo of the cat with a bottle of scotch, on top of the fully proofread manuscript, but really … there are limits, right? And the cat prefers campari.

But I can report that this morning, shockingly on time, I finished the proofreading. It is due tomorrow. I am way too diligent.

As I have said before, the thing about ‘finishing’ a book is that there are so many legitimate stages to that. But this one really is done since, after I drop it off at Penguin, it will be collated by the Production Editor (the typos I caught merged with those found by the two other proofreaders) and, well, made into a book. Once again, an odd feeling, staring at it now, but also a very good one.

As I also mentioned (avoiding last kicking cat jokes) that I have added to their workload by making some small (honestly!) word trims all through. Why more work for them? Think about it. If I cut three words in a paragraph, and that paragraph ends with two words on a line, my trims shift the page break. Sometimes a page ends with a fleuron/dingbat. That forces Production to do arcane things that only those with the secret handshake fully understand. (It apparently does not involve sharpening machetes in anticipation of the author’s next visit. Apparently.)

In the meantime, the ARCs ought to be ready this week or next, though with limited exceptions they will not go out till the New Year. The exceptions are that monthly magazines need as much lead time as possible, since some are already at work on their April (or even May) issues. But publicity departments tend not to inflict galley mailings on the Christmas season. The ARCs, as may be obvious, precede this proofreading and my (small, Sandra!) last-stage fine-tuning … this is a reason that reviewers are always asked, on the cover of a galley/ARC, not to quote from it without checking against the final text.

Did I mention this? After the really wonderful evening we had for Under Heaven, the worldwide launch of River of Stars has just been locked in: it will again be at the Toronto Reference Library, in their big Atrium space, on the evening of April 4th. It looks like it will be a short reading, as last time, then an on-stage conversation with a Mystery Interlocutor.

Hmm, this may be risky on my part but … if you want to play, throw out names of people you think would be fun on stage with me that night. Yes, you are allowed to suggest Isabelle Adjani, but I think she’s booked.

Author encounters of the cyber sort

I just said over on Twitter that readers (and publishers) can make it hard to be properly irritable. I may need something like a hockey lockout or no Yankee 3rd baseman to regain duly dour mien.

In a nutshell, the Penguin Canada team knew exactly what they were doing – they just didn’t believe we would do it so well, or that readers would be that responsive. I suppose I could claim ‘Author Wins Stunning Victory!’ because it took just ver 25 hours for the 500 Shares to land over on Penguin Canada’s Facebook page and unlock the next instalment of River of Stars.

But it would be churlish of me. This was a blending of supportive, generous readers, and publishers knowing how to alert them online that something was happening. So I can’t claim a win for the amazingly quick unlock (remember the ‘war’: the marketing team knew they’d get interest but wanted it to run through weekend, into Monday or so, and I was teasing about wanting it hard and fast) . It is their savvy, and readers’ interest that caused this to just explode this afternoon. How to stay focused on curmudgeonitude?

Well, really, who is going to play 3rd base, dammit?

We’re all touched and pleased. Penguin Canada decided that the enthusiasm deserved a response, and they have just unlocked all of chapter 2, instead of staging a third unlock/reveal … and I am completely onside with that. I think it is great.

Next step, because without it none of this means anything, is for readers to decide if they like what they see. As I mentioned before, I am completely down with the idea that many will want to wait till spring and read/consume/devour/skim/inhale/flick through the book then. Others like a small taste of what is coming, and there are a lot of people who will have never read me, or not for years, and who might be inclined to see what River is like before they commit. That’s a part of what this is all about.

When Penguin approached me with this, I suggested limiting it just two chapters, because – as I mentioned a few days back – each of the first two introduces one of the main figures, and does so (in parallel, but widely separated) when they are quite young. The two opening chapters make for a tidy introduction to some of what will be at stake while not giving away where the plot will go. And they have a different structure from some of my other beginnings.

As it happens, my ‘reading passage’ is different this time around. I’ll try to remember to write a bit about that here (the whole process of public readings interests me).

But for now, back to proofreading. Due Monday, and I’ll make it. As always, I am still making tiny trims, comma cuts, single word changes. I will owe Sandra Tooze in Production a latte or Sidecar or something, this does mean extra work for her and her team. But I have to do it. I always do.When I deliver Monday that’s it.

really want to say that proofreading is therefore my last kick at the cat, but after the cat-on-chair photo of a while back here, I have terrible feeling someone would decide … well, you know.