Sunday, July 28, 2013

No One Knows What Will Sell

I am putting the final touches on my new novel (now titled The Girl in the Photo) and am thinking about publishing, promotion, publicity--everything I can do to find readers. I self-published Getting Oriented and plan to do the same with the new book, but I follow the online discussions of the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional-publishing.

Recently someone posted the following on a thread I follow: "You've got an amazing, awesome, terrific book. It just needs a little editing and a good cover, and it'll be a hit. So someone says you should self-publish it in hopes of picking up a traditional publisher and getting published. A very common myth, and one many, many debut authors fall for." This provoked a lively and inconclusive debate. As one person wrote, "Today's publishing houses are parasites, not publishing firms. Back in the day,...publishers used to groom and nurture an author. For the past century they have simply latched onto the jugular and sucked the blood out of them to support their friends, family, prostitutes, and drug dealers. The only 'marketing' I've seen them actually do is blowing smoke...."

After more than 200 comments, it was clear that (a) a handful of self-published authors have been picked up by traditional publishers; (b) most of the people who comment on this thread are disgusted with traditional publishers; (c) many people think there is a trick (or a conspiracy) to publishing a best-selling book. I think there is a myth buried in the second sentence of the original post—with a little editing and a good cover your book will be a hit. If it were only that easy.

No one knows what will sell.

Like all generalities, of course, that's overstating the case. There are marquee authors whose books are virtually guaranteed to sell: Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, Norah Roberts, Clive Cussler, Janet Evanovich, etc., etc. I'm talking about the unknown writer who has actually written an amazing, awesome, terrific book. Take the recent case of Robert Galbraith, the author ofThe Cuckoo's Calling.

Galbraith, even with a terrific book and an agent's representation, had trouble finding a publisher. Time magazine found one editor who admitted turning it down. The few reviews of The Cuckoo's Calling were positive. Publishers Weekley called it "stellar"; Booklist called it "absorbing"; Library Journal called it "totally engrossing." But in the two months after it had been published here it had sold only 500 copies.

Then the Times of London revealed that "Robert Galbraith" is J.K. Rowling, the book shot to the top of the New York Times best seller list, and the publisher ordered 200,000 more copies printed. 

All this tends to confirm my belief that your book needs a terrific story, excellent writing, careful editing, clean page design, a great cover...and luck to sell well. I am sure that E.L. James never expected her Fifty Shade of Grey to sell as well as it did when she first published it as a print-on-demand book. (One could, I suppose, use that example to show that a terrific story and excellent writing are not always necessary to be a hit.)

My plan is to write the best book I can, self-publish it with a professionally-designed cover, offer it to reviewers and at a cut rate to early buyers, and trust that readers will tell their friends, "You've got to read this."

Monday, July 22, 2013

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian by Wallace Stegner

Stegner's subtitle to this non-fiction history/biography is "John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West." It was published in 1954, and I picked up a copy at a used book sale after I had rafted through the Grand Canyon three years ago.

Because leading the group that first ran the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869 is how Powell is best known. It was an extraordinary three-month adventure into unknown wilderness, one so punishing that three of the party left just before the last major rapid to try to walk to an Indian or Mormon settlement and were killed by Indians. At the time, Powell was a 34-year-old, one-armed, former Civil War veteran. (He was Major Powell to men under him.)

But while Stegner gives a stirring account of that river exploration, his larger purpose is to put Powell's life into a larger context—that of the settlement of the West. After all, as William Gilpin, an old Western hand had pointed out in 1868, "The semi-arid plains between the 100th meridian and Rockies...were no desert, nor even a semi-desert, but a pastoral Canaan.... On the more westerly plains, though there was little surface timber, a beneficent Nature had so disposed the rooting system of the low growth that settlers were able to dig for firewood and find plenty." Water? Artesian wells would supply plenty, and anyway "rain follows the plow."

Powell—Stegner's hero—spent his life trying to bring some reality to this fantasy. He became second director of the US Geological Survey (1881–1894) and proposed policies for development of the West which were prescient for his accurate evaluation of conditions. He was director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, where he supported linguistic and sociological research and publications.

He might have been prescient, but neither Powell nor any of the scientists he was able to engage were strong enough to resist enthusiastic homesteaders who wanted free land, monopolists who believed in free enterprise, land barons, water companies, Western congressmen and senators, and more. The West has been a patchwork of competing interests with incredible waste, spoilation, and litigation as smallholders fought the monopolists, the states fought the Federal government, and Federal agencies tried to reconcile the irreconcilable.

The problem was, and remains, water. There isn't enough rain to grow crops, so they must be irrigated from water flowing in streams and rivers. But who controls the water? Can a homesteader upstream dam the river and keep the water for himself? Can a state? A country? (There was talk of damming the Rio Grande.) Why not? In the East where there is plenty of rain, who cares? In the West, they care.

Because Stegner is a novelist, he is able to tell Powell's story—the political infighting, the struggle for government appropriations, gossip and misinformation—engagingly and enthusiastically. I can only quote Ivan Doig who said, "This book goes far beyond biography, into the nature and soul of the American West. It is Stegner at his best, assaying an entire era of our history, packing his pages with insights as shrewd as his prose."

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot be Heard by Levy Hideo

This short novel in three parts (only a little over 1l0 pages) comes with high praise. From Nobel Prize winner Oe Kenzaburo: "Have we failed to catch the calm but earnest tone that echoes like music through Levy Hideo's prose? With his unique literary voice, this writer clearly represents a new kind of novelist for Japanese literature...." And from Tawada Yoko, author of The Naked Eye: "Discovering this book is like meeting a fascinating person. Never before and never since have I encountered such a magical book...."

The author, Ian Hideo Levy, writing as Levy Hideo, is the first white American to write a novel in Japanese. He was born in 1950 to a Jewish father and a Polish mother in Berkeley, California. He grew up in the United States, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan where he went to live with his father in the American consulate in Yokohama when he was 17. He went to Princeton, earned a doctorate there, and joined the faculty as an assistant professor of Japanese literature when he was 28. His novel was published in Japan in 1992, it was translated (by Christopher S. Scott) in 2011.

Start with the title, A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard. The Japanese title is Seijoki no kikoenai heya (星条旗の聞こえない部屋). "heya" is "room"; "kikoenai" is "cannot be heard"; and I had to look up "seijoki" which means "the Star Spangled Banner." (I was impressed that Japanese has one word for our national flag.) So the English title is about as literal as you can get.

The story is set in 1967, a time of student protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, and 17-year-old Ben Isaac is living in the Yokohama consulate with his strict father, Chinese step-mother, and 4-year-old half brother. He wants to learn Japanese and begins classes at W University. Ben becomes consumed by the language, the difference between what he's taught in class and what he learns on the street, the difficulties with reading Japanese, and the attitudes of the Japanese toward this blond, white American boy. He is befriended by an slightly older W University student, runs away from home, burns his identity card, and in the novel's third section finds work as a waiter in a Shinjuku restaurant.

As Scott says in his thought-provoking translator's introduction, "...Levy's work is about the struggle or productive tension between writing in Japanese and not being Japanese, or the dilemma of being a writer of Japanese but not a Japanese writer.... " Ben's father makes a familiar point when he tells Ben, "No matter how much you learn to speak their language, in their eyes you'll always be like me: a dumb gaijin who can't speak properly and never wanted to. Even if you go to the plaza in front of the Imperial Palace and scream 'Long live the Emperor!' in perfect Japanese and slit your stomach open, you'll never be one of them."

Perhaps not, and that tension between what Ben rejects—the America of his counsel father and his divorced and troubled mother—and what he wants—immersion in an entirely different language and culture—give the novel its power. As Scott says, " also looks back at postwar America and the sense of loss and disillusionment that the 1960s brought about. It is an elegy to a lost home, a requiem for a missing mother tongue."

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Out of Egypt by André Aciman

This memoir is so well-written I am almost embarrassed to write about it because I cannot write as well about the book as Aciman has written his story. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1951. The family spoke French, and also Italian, Greek, Ladino, and Arabic. His family were Jews of Turkish and Italian origin who settled in Alexandria, Egypt in 1905. As Italian citizens (who had never lived in Italy), they were not expelled after the 1956 war as were the French and British. They were expelled as Jews in 1964.

Aciman's father owned a factory, an uncle was a close friend of King Fouad (useful until the king was overthrown), his grandmother smuggled money out of the country in preparation for the day when the family would have to leave the country. The book is alive with characters, scenes,  incidents. It is both a moving account of childhood (Aciman's mother was deaf) and the portrayal of a lost world. The Alexandria that was an ex-pat playground for the English, French, and upper class foreign families like Aciman's is gone with the sirocco.

Among the elements that make the book so fascinating is something I didn't realize you could do in a memoir (which reflects my limited imagination). Aciman describes lives and incidents he could not possibly have witnessed: His Uncle Villi's experiences before and during WWII and his parents' courtship and marriage all occurred before Aciman was born. Because he is not limited to what he himself personally witnessed and experienced, he is able to put family stories and relationships into a context that would be confusing—and less interesting—without them.

What he does personally experience is fascinating. For his education, his father enrolls him at age nine in the best private school in Alexandria, Victory College (it had been Victoria College until Egypt beat the English and French in the 1956 war). As part of the curriculum, he has to learn Arabic--a subject he ignores completely until the day before he has to recite an Arabic poem in class. His father hires the son of a servant to teach André the poem:

"He blushed again, perhaps because our reversed roles made him feel awkward, but also perhaps because he suddenly realized that he would have to teach a Jew a poem vilifying Jews. He read the poem once to himself. Then, as my Arabic teacher would do in class, he spoke out the first few words, repeated them, and then waited for me to say them back to him. He did not explain the poem; no one ever explained the poems. They were always about poison, Jews, vengeance, and motherland...."

An extraordinary book. I'm glad I read it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Flap Copy and Spoilers

I am putting the final touches on my new novel and thinking about what I should say about it on the flap copy or its equivalent. Flap copy are the words on the inside of a hard-back book's jacket. Publishers craft them carefully to interest book browsers; they are a sales tool, designed to sell the book.

Here, from a book plucked from my shelf, is a good example: "In Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, Constance Hale, the best-selling author of Sin and Syntax, spells out exactly what we need to know about verbs to write with confidence and panache. Combining the wit of Bill Bryson with the practical wisdom of William Zinsser, she synthesizes the pedagogical and the popular, the scholarly and the scandalous, to break down our most misunderstood part of speech...." This says: if you care about verbs, this is a book for you.

Paperback books of course do not generally have jackets, so the flap copy has to go on the cover itself and almost always on the back cover where it serves the same function—buy this terrific book. a A browser cannot pick up an e-book, however, scan the back cover, and absorb the sales message. As a result, we are seeing more and more book in which the first page behind the cover is the equivalent of the flap copy: what the book is about, who wrote it; and why you should be interested.

I usually do not read novel flap copy whether on the jacket or on the back cover or on the first page because too often it is either wrong—almost as if written for another book entirely—or because it tells me too much, or both. I want to be taken by surprise and delighted by the story and characters the author has worked so hard to create. I don't want to know before I start that the cask of Amotillado is a ruse to lure Fortunato to his death by being walled up in the wine cellar.

So there's my problem: how much should I say about the new novel? Too much and it spoils the story's effect. Too little and prospective readers have no idea what the book is about. I'm working on it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Eating Well in Japan

Guests on my tours in Japan often comment on the variety and quality of the food. Americans who are experienced only with Japanese restaurants here are surprised at what you can find. For one thing, although Japan is a relatively small country, there are major differences between, say, Kanazawa, Osaka, and Tokyo cuisine. For another thing, restaurants tend to specialize, so you get sushi and sashimi in a sushi restaurant, katsu in a dozen varieties in a pork restaurant, an enormous variety of beef dishes in a beef restaurant, etc. The Wall Street Journal has a fine article about eating in Osaka, not a city many American tourists would think of as a culinary mecca.

One dish and type of restaurant I've never seen here in the States (although I know they exist; I just looked up several via Google) is okonomiyaki, which is an "as-you-like-it" pancake that contains the customer's favorite vegetables and other ingredients, fried on a hot plate, and served with spice sauces. Friends took us to an okonomiyaki restaurant in Tokyo's Asakusa district where we cooked on the table right in front of us. Friends also took us to what they said was Hiroshima's best okonomiyaki restaurant in Hiroshima where the cooks prepare the pancake (and where we took the picture above). I am in no position to say whether it was Hiroshima's best, but I can say it was wonderful.