Wednesday, March 31, 2010

WHAT MAKES A GOOD NOVEL...AND KINDRED MATTERS

Posted April 1st

Before going to Virgin Gorda on our annual vacation in mid-February, I made a trip to the Sag Harbor dump (officially called a ‘recycling center’) to leave our house-sitter, Georgeann Packard, empty garbage pails. On a ledge were two Robert B. Parker thrillers—his first two Sunny Randall novels—discards from the Peconic Library. Since Chris Knopf’s Sam Acquillo series was frequently compared to Parker’s Spencer series, I wanted to read Parker and see what he was about.

It’s been said that vacations can give one perspective, and this trip was certainly true for me, insofar as getting a handle on what makes a book special. I found Parker spellbinding and could easily see the comparisons: start off with a three dimensional narrator, toss in a colorful cast of other characters, offer up great dialogue, add dollops of humor along with the tension inherent in any great thriller, make sure there are surprise twists, and there you have it. Knopf and Parker could have been brothers separated at birth. So now I’m adding his oeuvre to my reading list (having read more than three fourths of Elmore Leonard’s novels—the other writer critics frequently cited when reviewing Chris’ first four Sam Acquillo books: The Last Refuge, Two Time, Head Wounds, and Hard Stop).

Then I read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that Lon Kirschner, our cover artist, sent along for me to take. A bit of a slog (it could have been trimmed by 25% and been even more effective), long on sadomasochistic scenes—three of them, as gruesome as any James Patterson might concoct—and at the end of the novel there was a fourth one, advertising the next in his posthumous series, The Girl Who Played with Fire. Despite two interesting protagonists, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Bloomkvist, I’m not likely to read the next in the series.

After going through and rejecting a manuscript, I ran out of reading material, yet had another week left on this island paradise. So I searched some other units at Mango Bay, where we were staying, and picked thrillers written by several best-selling writers. There was David Baldacci’s Divine Justice and Ken Follet’s Jackdaws. Baldacci’s hero was as two-dimensional as flattened cardboard, his thoughts and actions straight out of a third rate television film. As for Follett, an interesting plot premise but, again, the characters out of Hollywood casting: a handsome Nazi, a beautiful British resistance fighter dropped behind the enemies lines in occupied France, and her handsome resistance fighter husband. Baldacci I was able to put down after the first dozen pages. I went two dozen pages before returning Follett.

And then I was saved by discovering Carl Hiaasen’s Double Whammy. Again, a good protagonist, excellent side characters and villains, an improbable yet inventive plot, and very funny scenes, while Hiaasen’s environmental concerns came through.

When I was a psychiatric resident at Mt Sinai Hospital many decades ago, someone asked one of the attending psychiatrists what the difference was between psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. He replied, “Psychoanalysis is what I do. Psychotherapy is what you do.” I enjoyed the humor of his remark, and that same pecking order comes up when defining the really good books. It’s tempting to say “Good books are what we publish,” but what is the second punch phrase? Because every publishing house comes out with some good books. It’s just that the conglomerates do so many schlocky books as well. One of the paperback editors we deal with (I think it was Rebecca Hunt at Penguin) said that this second category is what enables them to do some literary fiction. How, then, does one define an exceptional book—a question Judy raised as we sat watching a sunset on the beach. The best I could come up with after reading these novels was this:

If the major character is someone you want to know better—admire, have compassion for, want to spend time with or even someone who simply excites your curiosity in some way—this is the bedrock for a good novel. The same holds true for certain non-fiction too. Surely, there are other criteria that come into play as well (a good plot, a way with words, good dialogue and, when possible, some sense of humor), but without this affinity for/admiration of a character, these additional measuring sticks count for little. While this is entirely subjective, I could not see myself spending time with John or Elizabeth Edwards, Sarah Palin, or Karl Rove. And certainly not with the major protagonists in fiction written by Follett, Baldacci, Patterson, or Larsson no matter how many mainstream media reviews they get.

Thus, when ForeWord magazine announced after we returned stateside the finalists in their 2009 Book of the Year Awards (the finalists representing 360 publishers, selected from 1,400 entries in 60 categories), it was most heartening to discover that seven of them were novels we published. In the literary fiction category there are 15 finalists—five of which are ours: The Year Of Cats And Dogs (by Margaret Hawkins), Houri (Mehrdad Balali), Seducing The Spirits (Louise Young), The Disappearance (Efrem Sigel), and The History Of Now (Daniel Klein). In the mystery category there are 17 finalists and two of ours are among them: Every Boat Turns South (Jay White) and Hard Stop (Chris Knopf). And the one thing that every one of these novels had in common was that not only did Judy and I feel this strong affinity for the characters in these books but, quite obviously, so did the jurists.

Which brings us up to the excitement of launching two books in May where these criteria also hold. First, there is Elysiana, Chris Knopf’s fifth mystery for us. After winning countless praise and awards for his Sam Acquillo/Hamptons thrillers, which have been translated around the world, this is his first stand alone novel that takes place 40 years ago, at a beach resort off the Jersey coast. A pre-publication review in Publishers Weekly noted that “Smart dialogue and sharp social observations distinguish this stand-alone thriller from Knopf.” A starred review in Booklist adds that “A full baker’s dozen major characters swirl and collide as if in Brownian motion, moved by elemental forces. Signs and portents hint that something life changing, if not quite apocalyptic, will affect them all. Elysiana is a departure for Knopf, whose Sam Acquillo mysteries have won reviewers’ raves, but he nails it.”

Then, there is Michael Zitz’s Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story, which will come out on the first of May when brother Warren’s Berkshire Hathaway Convention begins in Omaha, where both Doris and Warren will be signing copies of her biography. How we obtained this book—and the unique way we are marketing it—was the lead article in Publishers Weekly on Thursday, March 25. As for Doris, she is someone Judy and I fell in love with after reading the manuscript, for she is a philanthropic alchemist who has turned personal pain into joy by virtue of her giving away her fortune to individuals who, through no fault of their own, needed help to overcome adversity. Doris is a great example to anyone who cares about the biggest things in life—compassion, caring, and helping.

Nor does this affinity for characters end here. Two exceptional first novels that we’re publishing this year, Georgeann Packard’s Fall Asleep Forgetting, which appears in July (the same Georgeann who house sat for us while we were in Virgin Gorda to work on her second novel), and Liza Campbell’s The Dissemblers, due out in October, are also rich in people we found fascinating. We’ve nominated both for the $10,000 Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize awarded by the Center for Fiction.


Kindred Matters:

Overprinting and Returns vs. Non-returnables:

One of the banes of the publishing business has been the fact that nothing “sold” to bookstores or wholesalers is actually “sold,” since returns are allowable. In no other manufacturing business is this allowed. Clothing, groceries, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, games, pharmaceuticals, appliances, cars, music, electronics—you name it: once a store has purchased your product, they sell it, discount it as it ages, or accept a loss. In book publishing in general overall return rates are close to 50%, which means that there is much wasted work (shipping books back and forth, crediting returns) and money. Among conglomerates, huge returns can mean that even a Best Seller can lose money because of overprinting. Notorious for returns are the chain bookstores. Barnes & Noble is happy to accept thousands of books knowing that there is no liability for over ordering. In a sense, they can “paper the store” with selections, filling up bookshelves as a decorator would paste wallpaper in a home. In an earlier blog posted one year ago (May 12), entitled, WHERE I LEFT OFF, I documented how Barnes & Noble returned 90% of an order they placed with us after they selected one of our novels for their Great New Writers Program—and did this as well with a book published by Jill Schoolman’s Archipelago Press. It was a wake-up call in two ways: making us decide never to try selling our titles to the chains and also planting the seed that one day it would be nice to test the non-returnable market.

With the forthcoming release of Giving it All Away: The Doris Buffett Story, I felt we had the ideal book to try this with. After all, the chains no longer hold sway. Most consumers go straight to Amazon.com for the best deals. Plus, anything kept out of the chains is a help to the independent bookstores that the chains have helped eviscerate. So we’ve set up a non-returnable system, in conjunction with Amazon.com, the wholesaler Baker & Taylor, and independent bookstores who order five copies or more—giving them a 60% non-returnable discount, while offering the chains nothing at all. So far, this experiment is off to a good start with over 5,000 copies already sold and paid for in advance of publication.


An Update on The Donkey Awards:

In my January 1st blog post, ANNOUNCING THE DONKEY AWARDS, I listed a distinguished panel of writers and critics who would choose a winner for the Equus Asinus Award , given for the “Best Abuse of Space for the Least Deserving Book.” Janet Maslin, one of the three daily New York Times reviewers had several reviews on the list of submissions, but has clearly catapulted into the lead based upon her review in the March 26 issue, covering not one, but two crappy thrillers—Harlan Coben’s Caught and Linwood Barclay’s Never Look Away (I assume they are crappy because Maslin had nothing good to say about either of them, yet still gave them ample coverage): Dan Rattiner, humorist, writer, and founder of Dan’s Papers commented “Snide, stupid, condescending. A winner.” A second jurist, Joan Baum (an NPR and newspaper book critic) wrote “I agree. JM gets the Equus Award—schlock and crock.” We still have three more jurists to hear from.

It made me appreciate the usefulness of this award, How does a book critic who takes herself seriously ignore a Chris Knopf and cover such common trash? Is it because these titles come from Dutton and Random House imprints respectively, while Chris is published by a small press? Or did her years of being a film critic just get her in the groove of seeing a very high percentage of bad films which she felt obliged to cover.

In any event, I don’t mean this as a further knock on The New York Times. There are, actually, some very good reviewers working there. Dwight Garner, in my opinion, is atop the three daily critics by far. He seems to choose books that are frequently off the beaten path, writes about them in ways one would want to read them, and doesn’t go off the deep end in savaging anything; he clearly chooses to review books he finds interesting. New novelists published by small presses would likely get a decent hearing from him were he not restricted to doing non-fiction reviews. Marilyn Stasio does an excellent job of covering mysteries she likes no matter who publishes them (she reviewed the first three Chris Knopf mysteries in her Sunday Book Review column). Nor does Amy Virshup, in her short review column, Newly Released, that appears periodically in the weekday Times, waste space on pop-trash either, choosing, instead, books that she also likes, including some from true independent publishers. My regret is that Amy doesn’t do full length reviews.

I look forward to hearing your definition of what makes a good novel, feedback on The Donkey Award, or any other topic expressed in this blog. If you haven’t yet signed up to receive notification for subsequent blogs, I hope you will do so now. And do check out our ever-evolving and changing website, where our Newsletter is also updated monthly.

Marty

7 comments:

  1. The Publishers Weekly article seems to cover all the reasons why we need small presses like you - quick response, fast turnaround, personal care, and I already know you publish great books. Plus, with this challenge to the returns policy you're pushing saving the physical as well as the reading environment.

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  2. Marty,
    Kudos on the Year of Cats and Dogs nomination....it is well-deserved!
    Re: returns. I understand that small publishers can get badly burned by huge returns, but I fear that using your requirement of purchasing 5 books or more is going to leave the smaller indie stores out in the cold. Rarely can I purchase 5 copies of any book unless I know it's going to be a bestseller. Does that mean I want to deprive my customers a full menu of choices? No.
    Your 60% discount sounds good; it allows me to discount books. But by doing that I cut my margin even closer, and I lose a customer who might have otherwise selected a full-price book. Hard decisions!
    Nancy Simpson
    Book Vault
    Oskaloosa, IA

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  3. Nancy:

    I don't see how you can go wrong with five copies. We can't afford to have Amazon on a no-returnable basis..and B&T as well...and still allow returns from the Independents. Ordinarily we offer any bookstore a 40% discount (returnable) taking for 5 or more copies; and 20% on 4 copies or less. That means that each Buffett biography would ordinarily cost you $22.40 for 1-4 copies, and $16.80 for five or more. If you buy five non-returnable it comes to $11.10/copy. The five non-returnable copies would amount to only $55.50. Five returnable copies would cost you (were we to offer that, which we're not) $84.

    If you only sold two non returnables you'd have already covered your costs. And I don't doubt that, with any sort of push from the store or up-front display, you would likely sell them all and reorder.

    This book is going to generate a lot of publicity and we're not making any available to the chain stores.

    Your choice, but I'd certainly like to have you aboard on this effort.


    Marty

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  4. Always interesting to read your blogs. And I agree with you-- about what makes a good novel.

    Maud

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  5. All good stuff, as usual, specially on what makes a good novel, as long as you remember that any rule is only valid so long as it's instantly disposable. I'd add that the best books are layered and can be read on many levels, able to satisfy someone as solemn as an eighteen year old sophomore and someone as frivolous as an eighty year old professor of semiotics.

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  6. Hi, Marty and Judy, good luck on the discount to the Indie booksellers with no returns. Maybe Bridge Works can join you if it works. And on the subject of fiction, check out a guy named David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Also, my latest blog, barbthebookie.blogspot.com Shields will get your dander up. Barbara Phillips

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  7. First of all, thank God - someone else who didn't care for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I had a tiny editor on one shoulder telling me the book needed trimming, and the Swedish Chef on the other shoulder, trying to read it aloud. But I liked Lisbeth very much.

    Second, I read this just before tuning in to the new TV show, Miami Medical, and all I could think of was, "This show needs characters I care about. Otherwise, it's just another day in the ER."

    LOOOOVVVEE Robert B. Parker, and Walter Mosley.

    Gayle Carline (author of FREEZER BURN)

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