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July 9, 2003

How books sell
Posted by Teresa at 05:36 PM *

I was surprised to see that C. E. Petit’s normally reliable Scrivener’s Error has, er, fallen into error:

In yet another display of the ignorance of the marketing dorks in the publishing industry (and all too often those who report on it), Reuters reports that Rival Publishers Pray for Harry Potter “Halo” Effect (via the Washington Post Book World). …[T]he article begins by proclaiming that “Rather than envy U.S. Potter publisher Scholastic Corp’s success, industry insiders are grateful that Rowling’s magic touch has fired up interest in children’s books.” Hogwash. Envy is the single emotional reaction shared by virtually all publishing “industry insiders,” even when they won’t admit it, at home-run balls hit by the opposition.
I don’t know where Mr. Petit used to work, nor whom he worked with; but the Washington Post Book World’s description is accurate for the industry insiders I’ve been hearing from.

Granted, some of them don’t see why it should be the Harry Potter books that are selling like crazy, as opposed to some other author or series closer to the speaker’s heart. And I’m sure some do feel rather envious, wishing the same had happened to some of their own books. But I have yet to hear them say they wish it hadn’t happened to anyone.

What you have to understand is that all books are, in a sense, an advertisement for other books. Consider:

1. A kid who reads anything, and enjoys it, is likely to read something else. If this keeps happening, reading may well become a habit. This is good. It’s where new readers come from.

2. The same principle holds for adults. The likeliest customer for your newly-published title is someone who recently read and enjoyed a comparable book. So what if that previous book was published by your competitors? It’s selling your book to this reader for you now.

3. The Harry Potter books are introducing children to the idea of going into bookstores and buying books. This is important. It’s not just a matter of selling their parents a book or two of their own when the family comes in to buy the latest Harry Potter for their youngsters, though that’s happening too. It used to be that kids would run into books in paperback wire racks in drugstores and grocery stores, and see all those brightly-colored corrugated displays in the doorways of shopping mall chain bookstores. That’s getting less and less common. Standalone superstores are great, but they only sell books to people who go into bookstores. Like reading itself, we want that to become a habit.

4. The Harry Potter books are accelerating the process whereby young readers learn that dauntingly big thick books just have longer stories in them.

5. I’d have to be stark staring bonkers to object to having hundreds of thousands of young readers each year becoming acquainted with Our Beloved Genre.

So there.

I’ll admit, there’s been one feature of the Harry Potter phenomenon I’d just as soon have skipped. Title before last, Scholastic badly underestimated how many copies they were going to need, and had to scramble like crazy to get more made up in order to cover their orders.

The printing and binding plants always have some excess capacity to sell to publishing houses that are running late, or for some other reason have gotten themselves stuck behind the eight ball. Printing operations don’t do this out of kindness. Rush rates start at 200% and go up from there.

But when Scholastic underprinted the Harry Potter before last, the effect was unprecedented. Tor’s head of production sent a memo around saying that for the next six weeks, nothing could be late: Scholastic had sopped up every last bit of excess capacity in the industry. As far as I know, that’s never happened before. Naturally, it happened when I was diving toward the finish line on the worst-jinxed book of my career.

So, having them scarf up all the excess production capacity was something I could have done without. But selling five million hardcovers their first day? No resentment here. It’s not like I had a book coming out that month that would have had parents and children queuing up to buy it at the stroke of midnight.

And one more thing, before I return to Mr. Pettit’s post. I know for certain that Sales & Marketing people have been doing everything they can to work with the whole Harry Potter thing. If that’s the way the tide’s running, you set your nets accordingly.

Very few “industry insiders” are literature people; those who are generally jump from publisher to publisher every few years. This greatly diminishes their influence over the overall attitude and approach of any given publisher.
I can’t match up this model with any industry patterns I’m familiar with. Sales and Marketing has a lower incidence of defrocked English and Medieval Studies majors than Editorial, but in my experience, editors are less likely to move around from house to house. More to the point, almost everyone who works in the industry is a literature-type person. If we weren’t, we’d find work in some other industry that paid better.
Instead, the sales-and-marketing types who actually constitute the vast bulk of “industry insiders”
Oh, yeah? Says who?
—as some of my more perceptive colleagues in the editorial department when I was in-house called them, “S&Ms”
Those wonderful people who spend their every working day selling my books! Gotta love ‘em.
—make two critical errors. First, they believe that the market for books and literature is a zero-sum game.
Forgive me for saying so, but I’ve never known a Sales & Marketing lifer who thought that.
This can readily become a self-fulfilling prophecy when they put out crap in the interest of short-term market share.
First, if marketing were the determining factor in publishing, Chung Kuo would have been a bestseller.

Second, people tend to overestimate the amount of genuine crap that gets published. This is because no writer appeals to every taste, and it’s hard to tell a writer who isn’t to your taste from one who isn’t to anyone’s taste. The real test is whether people buy and read the books.

Third, you might (she said, dubiously) pick up some short-term market share from artfully marketing crap, if you did everything just right; but you’d never hold on to it. And why even try? If you had that kind of marketing ability, you could pick up far more market share by applying your know-how to books that aren’t crap. It costs no more to buy good books than to hype bad ones.

Fourth, “market share” is not really an issue here. Readers don’t notice publishers. They notice books and authors.
Their second error exacerbates the first. As the Reuters article says, “Fantasy series and serials are the rage and there is no shortage of titles.” This is precisely the problem: imitation as the sincerest form of marketing.
Raise your hand if, upon finishing a book you absolutely loved, you’ve said, “Wow, that was great! I’m going to make sure I never read another book like that again!” No? I haven’t either. I wanted another book like the one I’d just finished—only different and original. Reading additional wonderful and wholly original books has only expanded the set of books I wanted another one just like of.
This is not the authors’ fault, particularly given the overwhelming slush piles at the major publishers. It is certainly not Joanne Rowling’s fault! The marketing aspects of imitation extend to putting books in single-category boxes.
For “category”, read “we put them where the readers can find them”. It’s more important that the readers be able to locate a book, and recognize it as being approximately what they had in mind, than that the category label on the spine exactly reflect the author’s artistic vision. If we ignored categories entirely, we might get the occasional breakout bestseller—but a lot more books would sell worse than they do now.
This ignores the characteristic most common to longterm successes, both critically and commercially, in publishing: transcendence of publishing “categories.”
Sure. Authors who sell enough copies of enough books transcend category. They effectively become their own category. But they get there by passing through a general category first.
Although they’re loath to admit it, a searching examination of publishers’ accounts under GAAP standards reveals something that they subconsciously know: the long-term health of a given publisher depends upon the strength of its backlist (books published more than two publishing seasons ago).
I trust we know our own numbers.
That the publishing insiders really have little idea of what they’re doing in categorizing (and hence ghettoizing) books …
Nope. That’s wrong, wrong with numbers, wrong over time, wrong in the general, wrong in the particular, and wrong in repeated tests with allowance for variables. We know as much as we can possibly find out about what we’re doing when we categorize books. Discussions of category theory (and practice) are some of the most knowledgeable and arcane conversations I hear in the office.

That’s an author kind of thing to believe, that categorizing books amounts to ghettoizing them. There’s a small nugget of truth in it. There’s no earthly reason why Francine Prose, Patricia Geary, and Tim Powers shouldn’t sell to the same readers. And we still see mainstream types announcing, with no trace of embarrassment, that such-and-such writer or book is too good to be SF.

But these are relatively mild vexations, and it is an error to imagine that, freed from the shackles of categorization, YOUR OWN BOOK would be read by Even! More! Readers!, all of whom WOULD LOVE IT. (That’s not how authors actually think. In a more accurate representation, the words shown here in boldface caps would coruscate with blinding flashes of rainbow light.)

This is approximately like believing that since cover copy and a cover image tell some readers that this is the book they’re looking for, and therefore necessarily tell other readers that it isn’t the book they’re looking for, publishing a book without any cover images or cover copy at all would guarantee it a near-universal readership.

Someone’s probably tried that. Sooner or later, the industry tries darned near everything. The ones that sell books, we keep doing.
… shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as so few of them actually read widely and deeply in what they’re publishing.
Oh, piffle. If you define “publishing insiders” as “rank Philistines and semi-literates who have with no sense of the genuine value of books”, you’re bound to imagine that terrible things are going on.

Well, terrible things are going on. Just not the ones you’re imagining. And next week we’ll have fixed most of those, and a different set of terrible things will be happening. Also a lot of non-terrible things. And a lot of really good books. Otherwise there’d be no point in doing it.

Comments on How books sell:
#1 ::: Tim Pratt ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 06:41 PM:

Very nicely said, Teresa. The funny, thoughtful insights into the world of publishing are some of the nicest things about reading your blog. My favorite, right after the artful dissection of the mechanics of various publishing scams...

#2 ::: Jaquandor ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 07:30 PM:

I haven't seen this phenomenon with the current Potter book, since the publisher actually seems to have printed enough copies to begin with, but when Goblet of Fire came out, during that first week I saw at least three instances of some kid coming into a bookstore, seeing Goblet sold out, and asking for another book because they didn't want to go home with nothing at all.

And on your third point, that's not really true at least in my neck of the woods, where the big local grocery stores have nice-sized book and magazine sections. Not a great selection, obviously, but I can at least find something intriguing in there usually. In fact, I bought my copy of Order of the Phoenix while grocery shopping, and I saw the book in more than a few carts.

And there's always Wal-Mart and Target, which have similar-sized book sections.

#3 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 07:51 PM:

Ah, this is why I read your blog....because you shine this incredibly huge flashlight behind all those dusty myths I've been harbouring for years about publishing. (Or you confirm my suspicions--take your pick.)

I always wonder why people view reading and liking things on such a micro-finite scale. I know all about opportunity cost, but given enough time, I can read J. K. Rowlings, Elizabeth Peters, Jude Devereaux, Douglas Hofstaedter, Joseph Heller, etc, etc. And I have. Despite the fact that none of them are in remotely the same genre. It's not like J.K.'s success invalidates any other authors.

#4 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 08:02 PM:

"It's not like J.K.'s success invalidates any other authors."

To judge from the commentaries that appear as each Potter book is released, some of the sadder, snootier members of the literary world seem awful threatened by Rowling.

#5 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 08:03 PM:

He lost me when he started talking about “crap” as if it was something that could be objectively measured, and then tried to relate it to market share. Is he saying that anything that succeeds in holding market share over the long term is by definition not crap? Or that one person’s crap can’t be another one’s caviar?

#6 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 08:07 PM:

There does seem to be a Cult of the Perfect Sentence out there that has trouble seeing past Ms. Rowling’s prose to understand why her books could be popular with readers whose literary stomachs aren’t quite so delicate, and assume that those readers are either uncultured or deluded.

#7 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 08:20 PM:

Books with no cover images or text - Weren't French books normally published w/o images? Still, maybe? In plainer-than-old-Penguin white wrappers, because anyone who kept a library would have them custom-bound? How'd they market them? (My dusty preconceptions assume that Rousseau's nephew recommended things to the Brothers Goncourt while they all wore nice bathrobes to the salon of a marquise.)

#8 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 08:44 PM:

Re: blank books -- HarperCollinsVoyager ("We are proud to have no spacebar") in Britain are republishing fantasy and SF classics in identical navy-blue pictureless editions.

I don't know how they're selling. I admired them, but already had all the books they'd reprinted that I wanted, in editions whose covers weren't bad enough for me to want to replace them.

Re: categories. I don't know if I should admit this, but as an experiment, I put one of the copies of _The Prize in the Game_ in Indigo on the mainstream shelves at the beginning of May. It's still there, while one of the two I left on the Fantasy shelves has been sold.

#9 ::: Berni ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 08:55 PM:

Re categorization, I'm with you. One of the things that drives me crazy about the Christian bookstore I sometimes stop at is that they lump all their fiction together. It appears to be about 80% romance novels, so I go nuts looking for the few fantasy and science fiction novels. (The only ones prominantly displayed are the Left Behind books, which I leave behind.)

#10 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 10:59 PM:

Older Penguins* (of which I have a few), for perfectly sound reasons of economics, had either type-only covers or a bit of line art. I believe the design (was it Eric Gill?) has been revived for certain classics, particularly mysteries.

While over in America, there is the story (apocryphal but too good to waste) of a paperback house doing THE SCARLET LETTER that puzzled over how to give it a salable cover and still leave room for the A.

*Not the birds, though few of them went in for foiling and embossing, and those that did were singled out by hungry explorers looking for ways to make the table festive and get away from the "soup and fish and flightless bird" look.

Those that went the cutout and gatefold routes, of course, either didn't make it past the first pond or are in somebody's -Wunderkammer.-

#11 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 11:31 PM:

It's not just in bookstores either. I've been working the last few days on the annual statistics for our library (fiscal year July through June) and the circulation figures for children's fiction is up more than about any other category. Unfortunately the data is on my work computer rather than my home one or I'd cite real numbers, but when I saw the large increase my first thought was "Harry Potter!"

#12 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 11:33 PM:

OK, circulation figures *are*. My bad.

#13 ::: Paul Riddell ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 11:53 PM:

Jaquandor, that phenomenon spots the difference between a real demand for reading and a manufactured hypefest. I remember my ex-wife telling me about the number of people who used to come into her old bookstore to ask about L.Ron Hubbard's "Mission Earth" books, ask for ten copies, and leave without buying any because she didn't have ten to sell. I've seen the same response to fads in movies as well: gimp goes to video store looking for the latest fad film, doesn't find a copy, and leaves without getting anything. Was this just a viewer who had a craving for a particular movie, or was it a plant intended to make it seem as if the video was more popular than it was? And how do you tell the difference?

What fascinates me about the Harry Potter phenomenon is that your observation of people leaving with any book, not just a kid's book, because the newest HP novel wasn't in yet, isn't unique. My niece is a Harry Potter junkie, but she now devours a huge number of books completely unrelated to the genre or fiction in general. (Vengeance is mine: I actually used to get punished for sneaking up to my room to read instead of staying downstairs to watch crap sitcoms with my family, and now my dad has a grandchild who reads almost as much as her uncle. Heh heh heh.) Now if someone in the comics industry or the magazine industry were to bother to learn how to channel that fascination with reading into their businesses, instead of blaming poor sales on video games and "Farscape" reruns...

#14 ::: Josh ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 01:14 AM:

In addition to the other examples people have mentioned of blank-cover books, there's also The Catcher in the Rye. There appears to be a new edition with cover art and copy, but the vast majority of copies I've seen haven't had either.

Of course, it does have a near-univeral readership, or at least that's the way it looks to anyone who went to public school in the U.S.

#15 ::: Christina Schulman ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 01:57 AM:

To complain about "imitation as the sincerest form of marketing" in regard to Harry Potter is either ignorant or disingenuous. They're lovely books, but Rowling goes nowhere that hasn't already been visited by at least a dozen other fantasy writers.

Then again, I can't read the book flaps on Emily Drake's "Magicker" books with a straight face.

#16 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 02:50 AM:

Paul Riddell wrote:

*I remember my ex-wife telling me about the number of people who used to come into her old bookstore to ask about L. Ron Hubbard's "Mission Earth" books, ask for ten copies, and leave without buying any because she didn't have ten to sell.*

That's not necessarily faddism, that's Scientology in action. According to the testimony of many former Scientologists, purchasing L. Ron Hubbard books in bulk was a task assigned to hundreds of people at a time in order to game the bestseller lists. Many of them also claim that they were ordered to see *Battlefield Earth* multiple times on the day it opened in theaters.

Jeez, I haven't thought about the "Dekalogy" in ages. I read all ten of those books when I was in fifth and sixth grade... I was too young to understand that it wasn't dead-serious epic space opera. Nor did I realize that it was written by someone hopped up on goofballs, nor did I spot the point where L. Ron died and the obvious ghostwriter took over, until several years later.

#17 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 03:46 AM:

I'm afraid, T, that I give Petit's words more credence than you do. Especially where you say that you want a book just like the one you just read "only different and original." Most child readers want "just like..." and not "different and original." At least as seen by what they choose. In fact, they will reread the Harry Potter books 15-20 times in a row (as frequently reported in articles.) Hell, I get letters from kids all the time telling me how often they've re-read favorite books of mine.

And maybe it ain't so in adult books, but in children's books these days, the baby editors know lots about their own lists but hardly anything about the history of children's lit, or even the past winners of the Newbery and Caldecott. Do they keep up with anything other than bestsellers? Not that I can tell. I can sit down with them and when we start to talk about authors, illustrators, etc., their eyes get wide. "Is this someone I should know?" You come out of fandom, as do a lot of sf/fantasy editors. It's a small subset.

As to the S&Ms, every editor I have talked to about pub committees (again, this is in children's books) decry the power of the marketing folk on the committee who have even LESS editorial/reading/history knowledge of the industry. They are almost entirely market driven. So the children's books lists become more and more market driven. In fact in some companies--notably Scholastic, Harper, some parts of Penguin, S&S--the newest trend is for nthe pub committee to decide first what books they want and then go shopping for authors.


#18 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 04:49 AM:

"To judge from the commentaries that appear as each Potter book is released, some of the sadder, snootier members of the literary world seem awful threatened by Rowling."

See, for example, Caleb Carr in the letters section of the NY Times, 7/9. What he doesn't mention is that he wrote a pretty terrible pastiche of pulp sf...

"While over in America, there is the story (apocryphal but too good to waste) of a paperback house doing THE SCARLET LETTER that puzzled over how to give it a salable cover and still leave room for the A."

Mike--This is actually spoken by Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch, I believe. Presumably in the original play as well.

#19 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 05:43 AM:

Time, I think, for one of my rushed Classics:

The Scarlet Letter:

Hester Prynne
was a bad girl.
Still, she got an A.


#20 ::: Larry Lurex ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 06:43 AM:

Terry Pratchett says he wants a percentage from the phrase "coruscate with blinding flashes of rainbow light".

Your co-operation is appreciated.

But, joking aside, you make some great points and the wonderful JK has hopefully opened up a whole new generation of readers.

As for Ms Rowling being richer than the Queen - don't believe a word of it. The Q is worth at least $8 billion, possibly more.

#21 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 08:42 AM:

Mike: Mervyn Peake drew the Penguin penguin. I don't know if he did the design as well, but all those penguins, the current logo and the old variants, were Peake. There's something charmingly surreal about this fact, it seems like something out of a secret history.

#22 ::: gabe chouinard ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 09:00 AM:

Jane says:

"As to the S&Ms, every editor I have talked to about pub committees (again, this is in children's books) decry the power of the marketing folk on the committee who have even LESS editorial/reading/history knowledge of the industry. They are almost entirely market driven."

Unfortunately, that's also the way that at least one major chain of booksellers is looking at things. Supposedly for 'the customer', but really for 'the shareholders'. Increasingly (as in, over the past two years, even) they're looking at books as product rather than as books.

And that's the way business goes.

#23 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 09:56 AM:

In general, it may be true that readers look for writers, rather than publishers, when they scan the bookshelves.

But there are occasional exceptions, particularly when a book line has a strong editor behind it. I always picked up Terry Carr's Ace Science Fiction Specials, regardless of author, knowing I'd almost certainly get a good read. (The non-Carr edited Specials were, ummm, lesser.) And I usually picked up the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, edited by Lin Carter.

#24 ::: gabe chouinard ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 10:07 AM:


One note on your 'following a line' thought. The SFF genre is a bit unique in that we have this community of people that are all interested in the same things (sometimes known as Fandom, though personally I don't consider myself a Fan), so we get to know authors and editors and specific lines and such.

The average reader, on the other hand, usually has *no clue* who a particular editor is, nor do they care. Knowing the names of the majority of SFF editors is particular to this genre.

But on the other hand, I sure do miss lines like the Ace Specials....

#25 ::: des ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 10:10 AM:

clew said "Books with no cover images or text - Weren't French books normally published w/o images? Still, maybe?"

French publishing doesn't (usually) have hardback/paperback, it has broche (big)/poche (smaller and cuter than Anglophone paperbacks, and really do fit in a jacket pocket.)

Broches are often un- or lightly decorated: see Kundera's latest, L'Ignorance , at, while poches (which is all I ever buy) can be as gaudy as anything in Anglophonia. They're cheap, too.

#26 ::: Emmet ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 10:45 AM:

You know, given this many people admitting to having read Mission Earth in their youth, I'll confess to reading the enitrety of Chung Kuo - though admittedly when it came to the last two books, more our of fascinated horror than anything else.

Hello, my name's Emmet, and I'm a plot addict. Few other metrics of quality matter so long as it is sufficiently complicated.

#27 ::: Paul Riddell ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 11:21 AM:

Gabe, I heard you on the problem with bookstores worrying more about stockholders than customers. I remember when the Bookstop chain was purchased repeatedly in the 1990s (finally stopping with Barnes & Noble, which promptly shut down or assimilated the stores in the Southwest and elsewhere), and the first sign that the store was in trouble came with the staff. Bookstop used to advertise itself as being a chain store with a sense of humor, meaning that while its staff tended to be a bit wonky, they also knew books. After the first buyout, all of these people were either fired or encouraged to leave because some MBA was afraid that having a personality might scare away the soccer moms that otherwise might decide to buy.

The killer, though, was when Bookstop employees were told that under no circumstances were they to refer to their stock as "books". It was always "units", one former employee told me. Again, some dingbat with a Business Management degree and the IQ of mango ice cream thought that the books would sell better if employees stopped thinking of them as vessels of knowledge and worried solely about how many left the sales floor, regardless of what the customer wanted.

Oh, and Scott? I knew all too well about how the sales of "Mission Earth" were examples of how well Scientology works. When I was working for "Science Fiction Eye", editor Steve Brown offered a little contest: anyone who could read all ten volumes of the "drekology" and write a coherent and comprehensive summary of what they were about would get a free subscription to the "Eye". He had no takers. (A few years later, Lawrence Person used a similar stunt to promote "Nova Express": he claimed that he had Hubbard's brain in a jar, and if we didn't subscribe to "Nova Express", he'd let it loose to inflict "Mission Venus", "Mission Saturn", and "Mission Pluto" on us.)

#28 ::: Rachael ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 01:31 PM:

Interesting Teresa, thanks for the insight.

My daughter is a Harry Potter freak, she has listened to them on tape so often the tapes wore out, and is just now reading them on her own. We have found that they have led her into a strong interest in all other fantasy books (She especially liked the Scottish Map series Jane,) although for reasons I don't understand she can't stand reading the hundreds of fantasy books we own... She must buy her own.

This whole catagorization issue is strange. As a reader I like knowing where to find books. I shop at locally owned genre-specific stores as much as I can, and go to the section I am in the mood for when I find myself in the big stores. Yet it seems like all the young writers are all hot to be cross-genre, or inter-genre, or, for all I know, pan-genre writers. I love to read work that doesn't just rehash the same old tropes one more time, but the notion that being catagorized is bad.... I don't know, I have been struggling with this issue a lot lately. Are catagories a usefull way for readers to find the books they like, or a straight-jacket for creativity? Plot? Character? Genre? What is the most important? As a reader I am inclined to say: who cares... as long as it's a good book?

#29 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 01:54 PM:

Well, consider that the objectives of the writer and the reader aren't exactly the same.

The reader wants to be able to find something that is consistent with what they like and expect. (In the general statistical sense of 'reader'.)

The writer wants to be specifically sought out; any actual success in a financial sense comes from becoming your own genre/brand combination, which more or less requires that you 'transcend genre' in some sense or another.

#30 ::: Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 02:37 PM:

Interesting that you mention Tim Powers, in particular, anent to the categories conundrum. I remember Powers a couple of years back talking about how unhappy he had been with sales for his genre-breakout title -- one that had been marketed on the mainstream fiction shelves rather than the genre shelves -- it seemed that the readers who already knew him were not finding him in the general fiction shelves, and the bookstores were not keeping him stocked deeply or long enough on the general fiction shelves for those readers to be made up for by new ones from the mainstream genre. It was apparently a lot like becoming a new writer all over again. As far as I know, he's been happily back in the ghetto since then.

As for the Rowling phenomenon, anything that gets all of Diana Wynne Jone's backlist out in new, readily findable editions in the U.S. is okay by me.

And, apropos of nothing much else, I was chatting with Geri Sullivan and Tom Whitmore last night and your name came up as a candidate for a Rotsler Award.

#31 ::: Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 02:39 PM:

Bugger. That would be "Jones's".

#32 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 03:03 PM:

The writer wants to be specifically sought out; any actual success in a financial sense comes from becoming your own genre/brand combination, which more or less requires that you 'transcend genre' in some sense or another.

You said it. I'm going to bold this on a card to keep on my wall at work. It must be every author's goal—and nightmare. Especially these days. Even with help from a publisher's marketing
department, the constant questioning and second-guessing about how best to reach out and find new readers.

I remember at Boskone, during a panel on Potter and Rowling's huge success in children's lit, Bruce Coville jumping up from his panel seat and mock-wailing "God, why couldn't it have been meeeee!???"

#33 ::: Jeff Allen ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 04:02 PM:

*My favorite, right after the artful dissection of the mechanics of various publishing scams...*

Or for me, right after the yummy drinks involving bourbon.

Thanks, Teresa, for the post, and everyone else, for the comments. It's been a great combination of a walk-thru of your friendly neighborhood publishing house and lovely walk down memory lane. Oh, the suspense of whether the next Hubbard would be at the library.

I often shop for publishers--or publisher. Vintage Crime is always a good bet, and they've got that neat lizard. Also, having spent some childhood years in England, the Penguin on the spine still has some hold over me.

#34 ::: Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 06:54 PM:

As a reader, I like categorization, and depend on it considerably. It is most helpful - except for when it isn't, and favourite writers are lost.

Like... oh, say, Tanith Lee, who has always been on my 'buy instantly, without needing to browse even a page' list. And yet I think I must have missed quite a bit of her writing because it appeared in bookstore sections I don't spend time in. Okay, so I can live without horror, even if it's Tanith Lee, but...

After stumbling across her extraordinary "Claidi Journals" on a table of 'if you like Harry Potter you'll like this' books, I have, however, vowed to spend more hours scanning the Young Adult section. ...all the while muttering unreasonably under my breath, "Why didn't somebody TELL me!"

Too bad bookstores can't have automatic re-direction the way web pages do. "Looking for something by Tanith Lee? Why, she's right ==> over here."

(And yes, I do know that somebody might have told me if only I'd just bothered to ask. I always mutter unreasonably when I'm annoyed with myself.)

#35 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 06:59 PM:

I have long been of the opinion that what readers are looking for is The Perfect Birthday Present, which is what you get when you are completely surprised by exactly what you've always wanted. (I got one of those once. So I know they exist.)

Failing perfection, readers will take whatever they can find that comes remotely close, even if it's merely More Of The Same.

#36 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 07:49 PM:

I can't be the only one who immediately becomes suspicious when someone asserts that everyone feels X, even if they won't admit it. It's a structurally irrefutable and therefore worthless claim: I might equally reasonably state that C. E. Petit thinks Harry Potter is the best thing to happen to publishing in his lifetime, even if he won't admit it.

#37 ::: gabe chouinard ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 10:33 PM:

Teresa, I hope the S&M folks you've been talking to aren't the same ones that managed to convince someone that they actually needed $600K to promote the damn TENTH book in Jordan's endless Wheel of Time....

#38 ::: Michael Bernstein ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 12:12 AM:

The Wheel of time goes round and round,
Round and round,
Round and round,
Round and round...

Ok, I'll stop now.

#39 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 02:36 AM:


Perhaps I was an a-typical reader in high school, but I chose books from the bookstore and library shelves on the basis of imprint. My favorites were generally Del Rey, with a couple notable exceptions which I won't cite because I like the author personally even if I didn't like the book. Ace was more of a mixed bag, liable to either be very good or the less-than-thrilling latest work by some classic author I'd never heard of. Avon? Good, but not many titles in the field. Ditto Signet. Baen? Generally entertaining but usually nothing to write home about. Warner? Good bet unless it was a supermarket checkstand novel, heavily marketed, with the cut-out windows and gilding. Bantam? Almost as safe a bet as Del Rey. Berkeley and Pocket? About the same bet as Ace. DAW? Like Ace but more so--really good and really bad. Tor wasn't much on my radar then, but I liked books I read later.

So I can say for a fact that crest was one of the items that influenced me to pick books up off the shelf. The back cover blurb and the teaser generally clinched the sale, but crest was as important as cover iconography in finding books that would be to my taste.

As for Diana Wynne Jones, it's good to have her back catalog reprinted due to Harry Potter (which she already did as Witch Week), though her recent "Year of the Griffin" read as if her publisher had specifically requested that she write another "school for wizards" novel to catch Harry Potter spillover.

The success of Harry Potter, to my mind, reads as the success of Scholastic Books putting its immense marketing machine behind one book and playing brass bands and trumpets for several years. Yes, it's a good book. No, it's not that good, but making it trendy has made it cool, and allowed Rowling to commit doorstop with impunity. And having the playground bragging rights now be about who was the first to finish the 800+ page novel? Hot damn. How that must stick in the craw of the "children these days don't have attention spans" crowd.

#40 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 03:54 AM:

> The killer, though, was when Bookstop employees
> were told that under no circumstances were they
> to refer to their stock as "books". It was always
> "units", one former employee told me.

Ouch. That's an ugly story. May I offer a ray of sunshine? At my local Readers' Feast (a moderate sized chain - a couple in each capital city) there's a new books rack with handwritten staff recommendations on it. For some new Philip Dick book the card pointed out that a) the reason the book seemed new was that it had previously been published under a different title and b) it was far from his best work.

The store management being able to tolerate a little honesty instead of going for the hard sell buys them a lot of spiritual credit with me.

#41 ::: Paul Riddell ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 06:34 AM:

Thinking back on that comment about kids unable to buy a Harry Potter book buying any book so they wouldn't leave with nothing at all, it tickled a very old memory. I finally remembered the situation. Back when Rush Limbaugh finally hit television, he spent so much time exhorting his fans to buy copies of _The Way Things Aught To Be_ that bookstores all over the country were suddenly flooded with people who had never been in a bookstore in their lives to buy a copy.

My ex-wife and I actually watched a few of these characters at the first Borders store in Dallas, and I know that the same scenario was playing out all over the country, because Tom Tomorrow's "This Modern World" strip satirized the situation in only the way the truth could:

Norma: Gee, Mel, did you ever think that there were this many books in the whole world?

Mel: Let's just get Rush's book and get the hell out of here.

Living in a city that starts to resemble a Bill Hicks routine more and more every day (yes, I've been asked by waitresses "Whatcha readin' for?", and I was even bitched out by a fellow worker for reading during my lunch break), the expressions and comments from Limbaugh fans as they were exposed to the idea that the world had produced more books than the Bible, _The Way Things Aught To Be_, and _Loopholes in the Laws Banning Brother-Sister Marriages_ were priceless. I really, honestly wish I had a video camera with me at the time, because the shock and horror of being in front of that many books for the first time since high school was more than most of these souls could handle. I'm pretty sure, one way or another, that if they couldn't find Rush's book, they sure as hell weren't looking for the latest Mike Royko or Molly Ivins so they wouldn't leave empty-handed.

#42 ::: Paul Riddell ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 06:44 AM:

Oh, and just one extra: an interesting variant on the whole Harry Potter sales situation from Mark Finn, pointing out that this might be the book that may kill one or more big book chains...

#43 ::: sdn ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 07:01 AM:

thank you, teresa -- great comeback. and jane's comments are really on the money, too, of course.

in many ways children's publishing is becoming more and more like its adult counterpart, which isn't surprising ... but it makes me even more determined to Do Things Right. this is where being an obsessive cross-genre/cross-house reader comes in handy.

(sylvia? i publish those tanith lee books in paperback.)

#44 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 09:36 AM:

Paul, I think Mark Finn may be missing part of what's going on. What I've heard from a bookseller I know (not a chain, an independent bookstore in NH) is, no, you _can't_ sell a children's book for $30. Even the adults buying it for themselves would be outraged, and even with the customers who did buy it at that price, you'd make your profit on that sale and permanently damage the relationship on which independent bookstores, at least, depend.

He's worried about losing business to the chains. The chains are worried about losing business to Amazon. And Amazon doesn't want to kill or even seriously damage the assumptions that cause people to go online to buy books rather than going out to a bookstore where they can hold the book in their hands before buying it, and maybe chance upon a book they'd never have searched for on Amazon.

No one wants to risk antagonizing their customers, especially on an item that's got the best potential in years to bring them _new_ customers.

#45 ::: Neil Belsky ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 10:32 AM:

I'm not sure you can count the Potter books as a sea change in children's reading habits.
Taking them as phenomena (which seems to be the best way to describe them)they will not alter the pattern all that much. If anything they are simply taking advantage of two "types" of books that have been published for years:
The Boarding School Opus (mined in everything from "Tom Brown's School Days the the "Chalet School" books, which , while very few people have heard of them had a very sizable run in the first half of the century) and the Kid's fantasy/wish fulfillment novel.
The publishers may, in fact sell more of well-marketed clones, but thinking its going to last beyond a relatively brief flicker-flash or will alter children's reading habits.
Well, I hope your right, but I'm not optimistic.

#46 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 11:18 AM:

I'm delighted to know that Peake drew the penguin. That's great!

There does seem to be a Cult of the Perfect Sentence out there that has trouble seeing past Ms. Rowling92s prose to understand why her books could be popular with readers whose literary stomachs aren92t quite so delicate, and assume that those readers are either uncultured or deluded.

See also A.S. Byatt's most recent, although Byatt dropped in enough references to genre work (she was hyping Susan Cooper and Ursula LeGuin) that it was fairly clear that she was not arguing that Harry Potter was fantasy and therefore bad but rather that it was bad fantasy.

Interestingly, I agreed with most of her specific points about Harry Potter -- it's derivative of Dahl and Diana Wynne Jones; it's repetitive; it's not nearly as good fantasy as many other books; it's not epic fantasy, despite the trappings -- but didn't really mind, quite possibly because I grew up on a diet of Edward Eager and therefore deeply enjoy repetitive, derivative domestic children's fantasy.

Also, she inserted a pointless jab at cultural criticism, causing my sensitive pomo self to retreat sniffling to the corner.

#47 ::: Deb Wunder ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 12:08 PM:

Hey Teresa!

I'm not a Rowling fan, but you and the folks who commented back gave me a lot of food for thought. And I love the way you articulated your five main points. What I don't understand is why a lot of folks out there seem to think that if you do not like the HP books there must be something wrong with you. Seems to me that I have as much right to dislike them (without being insulted for it) as others have to like them, and that - even while disliking them it does not mean I do not acknowledge and appreciate all the vistas they open for kids (and for many non-reading adults).

However, it seems that -- at least in the portions of fandom/prodom I am in -- you are looked at as if you have two heads if you do not think that these are really great.

Maybe I'm being unneccesarily naive here, but I still maintain that one can acknowledge the usefulness of a book (or series of books) even when you don't like the books in question (and, yes, I read the first three, and have the fourth on my to be read queue).

I am clearly not upset at you or at anyone here, but this seems like an approriate forum to note that dissent from the popular opinion does not necessarily mean one is taking a stance against one's genre. It also seems like a good place for a note to remember tolerance of one's fellow writers and fans, even when you do diagree with them on something.

#48 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 12:24 PM:

BTW, I totally agree with the idea that you don't have to like Rowling, or any author for that matter. Dissenting from common opinion isn't indicative of something wrong with you. (Although if the people who very vocally dislike the books HAVEN'T read the books, I think it would behoove them to do so before making a judgement, or before decrying the opinions of others.)

BTW, the Wynne Jones alleged derivation bugs me on certain levels. I've seen DWJ's books around for ages, but not until recently did I read a few. They were certainly in the same genre as HP, but to say that HP derived from them or their rules seemed a bit stretchy to me, particularly as J.K. said in an interview that she doesn't remember reading them. (DWJ says that they were popular in libraries when JKR was youngish, but I remember passing over the Chrestomanci books and Howl's Moving Castle despite the fact that I loved many other books in the same genre, so I'm willing to believe--limitedly--that JKR might have passed them over too.)

And when I finally read them at the ripe old age of 26, I realised that many of the things I wrote could have been considered to be "derived" from them. I too wrote about boarding schools--which I got from Gordon Korman, not DWJ--and magic, which I got from C.S. Lewis and Tolkein. I also wrote a dragon and princess story very similar to Patricia Wrede's Dealing with Dragons series BEFORE reading the aforementioned series. If I had tried to get it published, I'm sure there would have been cries about how it was derived from Patricia Wrede. The point is that we were working with the same archetypes and in similar fantasy territory--we had the same building blocks, but our building blocks were independent. I've read all the HP books and I've read all the Chrestomanci series by DWJ, plus Dark Lord of Derkholm, plus Howl, plus Howl's sequel, plus a handful of other books, and the similarities to me seem largely derived from having a similar background and a similar set of building blocks. I know what it is to love your work and to think that somebody might have seen your stuff and copied you--I've seen it happen in the art world, and in writing--and I know plagiarism happens, but my analysis of Wynne Jones and Rowlings writing didn't indicate plagiarism or even overt derivation.

#49 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 12:42 PM:

Steve, Byatt also praised Terry Pratchett ("...the great Terry Pratchett, whose wit is metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively secondary world, who has a multifarious genius for strong parody as opposed to derivative manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death with startling originality. Who writes amazing sentences.") Pratchett is one of the people we are supposed to read instead of Rowling, if we are mentally and emotionally adults.

No consideration is given to the possibility that a great many people are reading both Rowling and Pratchett--and a good many other writers, on both Byatt's Good and Bad lists.

Deb, you may be taking overly personally remarks which are directed, not at people who just do not happen to like the Harry Potter books, but rather at people like A.S. Byatt, who right columns like "Harry Potter and the Childish Adult", which you can read, if you haven't yet, at (registration required, and cutting & pasting probably necessary.)

A lot of the criticism of Harry Potter, where it is not grounded in a fundamental unfamiliarity with the concept of fiction, smacks of jealousy and snobbery. It's the same attitude that pours scorn on Tolkien, or on sf and fantasy in general.

These aren't people who, like you, just happen not to care for these particular books, while acknowledging that other people of good taste do. These are people who do say that they don't like these books, and they're _bad books_, and only a lack of emotional maturity and/or literary taste can explain liking them.

#50 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 03:28 PM:

I just read the Mark Finn article that Paul Riddell pointed to. There's at least one glaring error in the math: he assumes that Scholastic has essentially no expenses when it publishes the books. Specifically, he notes that Borders paid Scholastic $11.25 million for a lot of copies of HPV, and then counts that as Scholastic making $11 million. Okay, I don't know what sort of royalties Rowling is getting, but printing and paper don't come free, not even close to it. Yes, Borders has to pay its staff--so does Scholastic.

This doesn't in itself change the math for the bookstore, but it leaves me profoundly skeptical of Finn's numbers.

#51 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 03:33 PM:

In my experience, it takes a certain level of maturity to distinguish between what is actually of quality, and what is to one's personal taste. I learned this early on (in a dramatic exception to the "maturity" rule), by discovering as a teenager that I liked bad beer. Good beer, except Weissbier, is supposed to be hoppy and bitter. I didn't like bitter things back then, but I was aware of the distinction.

Sometimes you can get one of those jawdrop looks from people who haven't learned that yet...and don't know that anyone else has either. A singing group I was in in college was doing some gospel and/or spiritual thing ("Ezekiel Saw The Wheel" IIRC) and I remarked to one of the other guys that I didn't like it. He puffed up and said, in outraged tones, "There's nothing wrong with this music!!"

"I didn't say there was anything wrong with it," I mildly replied. "I just said that I don't like it." He stared at me in confusion for several seconds, after which I had the immense pleasure of watching him "get it." IIRC we were buds after that.

When I was a kid, I liked Asimov stories. He was my favorite up until I was about 17, when my mom dropped a copy of Dhalgren on my bed...but that's another story. I liked Asimov less and less as I liked literary style more and more. They didn't become bad stories; they just became less to my taste.

One last thing: separate from the above, everyone has hir own brand of trash. I like trashy TV skiffy, especially if it has cute guys in it. Someone else might like crappy old Westerns. For me to dis someone for liking crappy old Westerns would wholly justify hir in dissing me for liking trashy (if cute-guy laden) TV skiffy.

Neither of us would be behaving in a reasonable and courteous manner, though. Let us strive for that, and leave other peoples trashotropisms alone.

#52 ::: steve ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 03:42 PM:


No consideration is given to the possibility that a great many people are reading both Rowling and Pratchett--and a good many other writers, on both Byatt's Good and Bad lists.

Sure, sure. Until hindered by a duplicate signature, my fiancee and I have been reading HP5 aloud to one another, while I've simultaneously been reading the excellent My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk and some E. Nesbit. People don't just read one sort of thing.

My point was more that Byatt is not knee-jerk reacting to the fantasy-ness of Potter and saying, "It has warlocks and invisibility cloaks and is therefore no good." That's a common figure against which s.f. fans argue, and the literary ghettoization of the genre remains a significant force to this day, but Byatt is making the different and altoghether more palatable argument that within the bounds of the genre Rowling isn't very good. I agree with her on a several points and disagree with her on a number of others (as well as her conclusion), but I don't think Byatt fits in well with the characterization of the world's anti-Potter forces in your last paragraph (not that I'm sure you meant to lump her in there). Saying that Rowling is no LeGuin or no Tolkien is, I feel, beside the point, but it doesn't seem to indicate any sort of genre snobbishness to be.

Picus: I'm not sure that "derivative" implies "plaigarized"; if I were to write a highly allusive historical mystery about a murder in a Benedictine abbey where a bunch of Spiritual Franciscans happened to be gathering, wouldn't it be derivative even if I had never read any Eco? Thoughts about the relative merits of Diana Wynne Jones, Gordon Korman, and J.K. Rowling have been redacted, as this is long enough as it is.

#53 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 03:43 PM:

... but it doesn't seem to indicate any sort of genre snobbishness to be.

"To me", even.

#54 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 03:45 PM:

I think "derived" is a little bit strong. Certainly, Dahl made the comically over-the-top evil relatives of the orphan a personal hallmark--the Dursleys seem to have been on the same page as Aunts Spiker and Sponge, but then again, they may have been modeling their child-rearing practices on the wicked hillbillies of Pete's Dragon, the innkeepers from Les Miz, and helpful hints from Cinderella's stepmother, with a dose of Darren Steven's disapproval of magic thrown in.

Jones, the same as Dahl, likes playing with tropes that came before. And while Witch Week combined the boarding school story with magic, that was 1982, but in 1971, Otfried Preussler did the same thing in The Satanic Mill (originally published in German as Krabat). Which is closer to the motif's earlier form, the "dark school."

Come to think of it, L. Frank Baum also had the orphan thing going on in his stories. Dorothy was being raised by her Uncle Henry and her Auntie Em, not her late unnamed parents, and while the pair were certainly loving, they were muggles through and through, even when physically brought to Oz and forced to encounter all manner of wacky stuff in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz.

There's also Edith Nesbitt to consider. Plenty of magic there, and a long while before Dahl and Jones.

And Miss Minchin is a heck of a lot scarier than Professor Snape ever could be.

#55 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 04:42 PM:

Steve,I agree with you that Byatt isn't simply trashing fantasy as a genre; indeed, in mentioning Pratchett, I was pointing out that her "good" fantasy authors go beyond just the ones (such as Le Guin) that the litfic world tries to claim as its own.

However, she's not just making the argument that the Potter books are not to her taste, and also not just making the argument that the Potter books are bad books. She's going beyond that to say that they're bad books AND any adult who reads them with enthusiasm is "childish" and emotionally unequipped to deal with real literature.

That she includes Pratchett, Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones and others in the category of "real literature" doesn't alter the fact that she's branding as childish, emotionally immature, and not a judge of literature, any adult who disagrees with her.

This is not fair, open, reasonable discussion that reasonable adults should be expected to listen to without calling her on it.

#56 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 05:24 PM:

Lis, I'm not sure I entirely agree with that. (As I said, I don't entirely agree with Byatt, either.)

Byatt says:
Comfort, I think, is part of the reason. Childhood reading remains potent for most of us. In a recent BBC survey of the top 100 "best reads," more than a quarter were children's books. We like to regress. I know that part of the reason I read Tolkien when I'm ill is that there is an almost total absence of sexuality in his world, which is restful.

I don't view this as at all similar to saying that Harry Potter fans are childing and emotionally immature; instead, I think it's a perfectly valid (though not necessarily correct) stab at why children's books appeal to adult readers. Her comments about HP and the Freudian family romance might be a dig at the emotional maturity of the fans (one which I kindasorta agree with, esp. in its appearance in ostensably adult science fiction literature), but I don't think she's tarring all adult fans with the brush so much as identifying an essential component of much of children's literature. My problem with the structure of the essay is that it's something like:

1. Why do adults like Harry Potter?
2. Adults like children's books of their youth.
3. Here are some objections to HP, which I find rather colorless.
4. HP is mediocre and dumbed down.

The essay doesn't cohere, so you can view it as attacking Harry Potter (with some pointless jabs at cultural criticism), which is my take, or as attacking fans of Harry Potter (with the cultural criticism jabs somewhat less pointless) which seems to be yours. I think it's a bad essay, regardless of whether one agrees with its points.

(And re: genre snobbery, I missed the point of your reference to Pratchett. Gotcha! Many of the comments here -- some of which are obtuse and a few of which are splendid -- seemed directed at that strawman, so I wanted to get that point out of the way.)

#57 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 06:29 PM:

Derive: To obtain or receive from a source.

Steve: If you hadn't read Eco, than your source for your Benedictine monks could not possibly be Eco, even if there were similarities. It would be safer to assume that you and Eco had derived your stories from the same source, rather than from each other. That is my point.

Kinda like the evolution argument, where instead of being descended from a monkey, you are descended from a common ancestor. Your story shares a common ancestor with Eco's but is not directly descended from it.

(PS. I don't think derivation and plagiarism are the same thing. Sorry if that wasn't clarified in my post earlier.)

#58 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 07:13 PM:

I take exception to the following statement:
"Sure. Authors who sell enough copies of enough books transcend category. They effectively become their own category. But they get there by passing through a general category first." if by this you mean that selling enough copies of enough books is the only way to transcend category.

On the side subject of Byatt she made a critical error in ascribing a preference for the poor quality of Rowland's fiction to proof of the poor quality of her audience. People often like trash; to take Xopher's term for it one should be aware of when one likes something because it is to one's taste, when one likes something because it is good, and when one dislikes something that may be good but is not to one's taste, I dislike all of Thomas Mann except for Tonio Kroger, but with at least some of his other work I can see why it is good even if I find it tedious. I should probably stop this post here as it is nearing the point where I am most often compelled to start ranting about there being in fact some absolute literary standards, even if these are difficult to ascertain at times.

#59 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 08:37 PM:

However, it seems that — at least in the portions of fandom/prodom I am in — you are looked at as if you have two heads if you do not think that these are really great.

Funny, Deb — where I’m standing the pressure seems to be in just the opposite direction: you must have two heads if you don’t think the Potter books are a shamelessly derivative, over-hyped and over-marketed insult to all the hard-working SF writers whose much more original and skillfully crafted work has been unjustly overlooked. Given that I do have a fairly high opinion of the books, this leads me to suspect that the truth is in the middle and we’re both filtering it through the fan’s natural persecution complex. :)

(I have a canned lecture on what I think Rowling does well, but I’ll spare you — if you’ve ever been to a live Matt Nathanson show and heard him go into one of his cheerful rants about the beauty of the underlying chord sequence in some cheeseball 80s hair-band tune you never wanted to hear again, you’ve got the idea already....)

Xopher, it’s nice to know someone else out there has a good handle on the difference between “I don’t like it” and “It sucks”. :)

#60 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 10:17 PM:

For what it's worth, some heated dinnertable conversation has convinced me that -- her points about the failings of the series aside -- I was being overly generous to Ms. Byatt's article and that I was certainly mistaken about her lack of snobbishness. I suppose I was arguing for the valid points in Byatt's piece and the reasonably similar article I would have written, rather than what she actually wrote.

#61 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2003, 02:31 AM:

Possibly relevant numbers, from a short bit in today's paper:

Barnes & Noble reported a 10.5% rise in June sales; excluding the Potter book, there was a 4.9% rise in sales that month.

#62 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2003, 03:00 AM:

The notion that Diana Wynne Jones' backlist is in print again because of Harry Potter is false. When I was running my Jane Yolen Books list and had started Magic Carpet paperback reprints for Harcourt I was already deep into dialogue with Diana to get her op backlist back in print and to bring over in hardcover the books that had never made it to the US at all.

We were already in agreement and starting to draw up contracts, when Diana's Greenwillow editor, Susan Hirschman, got wind of this. Now Susan was a brilliant editor (now retired) but she missed out on the shares- and-plays-well-with-others. She immediately made a counter-offer which Diana would have been foolish to turn down. And I told Diana that. (One author to another.)

All this was done well before HP crashed on to the scene and used up all the available oxygen.

Just to put a b it of data in the emotional argument.


#63 ::: Eleanor Rowe ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2003, 08:22 AM:

A.S. Byatt reviwed 'Night Watch' in the Guardian when it came out last year - well, it was more of an overview of the whole of Discworld with a couple of paras about the new book at the end. While she had obviously read (and enjoyed) the books, she made a number of factual errors regarding which incidents happened in which books.

I found this infuriating because it seemed to me that if she had been reviewing a more mainstream author she would probably have checked her references before going to print.

I wrote to the paper pointing this out, but they didn't print it (probably because it was a humourless rant). My opinion if Byatt is either she a) likes to 'slum' in fantasy, or b) is sloppy with her fact checking. Either way, I really don't have to respect her opinion on Harry Potter

#64 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2003, 09:03 AM:

Why is A.S. Byatt pontificating on Harry Potter anyway? _Possession_ has a brilliant first chapter, and then goes downhill fast; the rest of what I've read isn't as well-written as I would have expected given her reputation. (Nor is most of her stuff to my taste.) I fail to see why they're asking Byatt instead of somebody who knows what s/he's talking about.

#65 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2003, 09:39 AM:

Hmmm--I thought "Possession" was an astonishing book and loved it. Also her short fiction, especially "Angels and Insects" is stunning. Different strokes.

When I grow up, I want to be A. S. Byatt.


#66 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2003, 10:05 AM:

May I ask for details in email? I've been known to develop blind spots, so I'd be grateful if you could point out what I've missed.

#67 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2003, 10:22 AM:

Just a small point about the Harry Potter books being "dumbed down". My mother is an elementary school teacher and a long time member of the West Virginia Children's Book Award committee. As such she reads a LOT of children's books, and one of her comments upon finishing the latest Harry Potter was that she was amazed by the language used in a book that is supposed to be aimed towards elementary and middle school kids.

She said she wanted to go through with a highlighter and find all the words that aren't typically used in the kid's books she reads.

Now my mom reads no other Sci Fi/Fantasy books (for kids or adults), but she does read children's books, and she was of the opinion that the recent Harry Potter book was written at a level above most other kid's books that she reads.

#68 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2003, 04:56 PM:

Anne--are you asking me for a Byatt report? I find her story in "Posession" provocative, her sentences gorgeously constructed. "And Angels and Insects" was an extended metaphor that seized me and wouldn't let me go.

More than that--it's been several years since I read the latter, even longer the former. I am not as taken with some of the others and have never been able to get into "Tower of Babel."

She has a book with sort-of fairy tales as well which I like very much. I put her in the same box as Isak Dinesen (whom I idolize) and Angela Carter. All, I'm afraid, acquired tastes


#69 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2003, 05:42 PM:

Jane--yes, and thank you. I do like Angela Carter, so I'll see if I can find the fairy-tale book. I admired Byatt's command of her material in "Possession," but in fact right now all I can remember about it is a general feeling of meh-ness. I know I was more interested in the 19th-century lovers than the modern ones. I think I've read "Angels and Insects," but if it's the one I'm thinking of, I didn't give a flip about how it turned out.

It's always possible that I'm just not grownup enough yet. I'll try it again when I've acquired a little more "walking-around sense," as a friend of my mother's put it.

#70 ::: Tim May ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2003, 06:17 PM:

*You know, given this many people admitting to having read Mission Earth in their youth, I'll confess to reading the enitrety of Chung Kuo - though admittedly when it came to the last two books, more our of fascinated horror than anything else.*

Emmet, I know exactly what you mean. Rarely has such a promising beginning ended in giant space spiders.

#71 ::: gabe chouinard ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2003, 07:31 AM:

Rarely has such a promising beginning ended in giant space spiders.

Hey, it worked for Brian Aldiss....

#72 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2003, 11:01 AM:

Talking of giant space spiders, was there ever a second volume in Colin Wilson’s “Spider World”, or did everyone else react to The Tower’s jacket copy the same way I did?

#73 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2003, 11:31 AM:

That's because the 19th century lovers were more interesting than modern ones. I liked Possession too, tho' I found the poetry (especially the longer poems) not up to level they were claiming to be.


#74 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2003, 04:23 PM:

LNHammer: I didn't mind that the poetry wasn't earthshaking--I looked at it as an ekphrasis of Pre-Raphaelite poetry, rather than as wonderful poetry in its own right. (I don't really like the Pre-Raphaelites much anyway; if I want that kind of thing I'll just go read some Giraut de Bornelh or somebody.) Besides, poetry's hard to write even in the grip of the muse--the quality of the _Possession_ verse is astonishing, considering its purpose in the book.

#75 ::: Eloise (Beltz-Decker) Mason ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2003, 02:49 PM:

"As a reader, I like categorization, and depend on it considerably. It is most helpful - except for when it isn't, and favourite writers are lost."

I had precisely this problem several years ago ... a bit of preface. I'm a voracious reader, but I've also been known to be a bit of a snob, and to make snap judgements. I'm getting better with it, I think, but I was seventeen or eighteen and quite, ah, well, teenaged, when a childhood friend's family's hand-me-down books arrived in our house. Several were immediately categorized as 'romance trash' in my head and ignored on the shelf for years. Finally I had a job which required sitting around and being moderately alert for hours on end, and I was out of Suitable Reading Material. There was a 3-inch-thick book in the stack of Trash and I decided I could put up with ANYTHING rather than not read at all, and hey, at least there were a *lot* of words in it.

The book was Dragonfly in Amber, and I devoured it hungrily. And then went looking for the other books in the series. It took me nearly six months to find them, because I was looking in SF. This is pre-Web, and finally, exasperated and looking for my fix, I asked the shopgirl to look Diana Gabaldon up for me. "Oh," she said, giving me a slightly disdainful glance. "That's in *Romance*." Pardon me for thinking a timetravel alternate history book ought to be SF, or that anything GOOD ought not to be shelved in The Section Of The Store I Do Not Enter. :->

Having now read all of them, if I'd gotten the first one first I'd likely have never read any further; the second one is now the one I recommend my genre friends start with, as it catapults you directly into the plot.

#76 ::: C.E.Petit ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2003, 12:02 AM:

Teresa, I'm happy that from your perspective my ire was misplaced. In all probability, within speculative fiction it is; and perhaps even within fiction in general. Keep in mind, though, that nonfiction is the bulk of the industry, whether measured through number of titles (as a whole or at the major publishers only), number of sales (ditto), or marginal profit (the data I have applies only to the industry as a whole and is not specific enough to separate out the Big Five). My "other side of the desk" experience was in nonfiction, and it was at least as cutthroat and silly as academic politics. Similarly, the bulk of my practice concerns nonfiction authors and works.

In retrospect, I should have clarified where I'm coming from. Within the broad "industry sweep" scope or the narrower "nonfiction" scope, I'll stand by my general remarks, with the I-should-have-I-should-have caveat that there are many exceptions... at least until the litigation starts, after which I have yet to find any.

My view is probably jaundiced by how my information comes to me as a non-in-house counsel: usually, after somebody is pissed off or scared enough to consult a lawyer. After that, it comes from corporate minions carefully coached by their lawyers to reveal nothing beyond their names. (That's a bit sarcastic, but not much of a stretch.)

So, should I have hedged more? You bet. I certainly should have been clearer. This is one area, however, in which I would _love_ to be proven wrong, and I'm pleased that it doesn't match your experience.

#77 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2003, 12:47 PM:

I'm pleased that my experience doesn't match it. I don't know whether you were working with trade nonfiction, or some other kind. What I know firsthand is that trade nonfiction is where all the worst copyeditorial horror stories comes from. By that I mean the horror stories copyeditors tell each other about authors and their manuscripts, not the ones authors tell about copyeditors.

Usually what's happened is that someone's bought a nonfiction book on a hot topic from someone who isn't really a writer. The editor doubtless puts a lot of work into it, or anyway one hopes they do. Even so, what they need to have the freelancer do to the supposedly finished manuscript is more in the nature of a forensic reconstruction than a decent copyedit.

I've also heard stories from the textbook publishing universe that could curl your liver. I'll believe you when you say that nonfiction is worse.

On top of that, you have by definition been dealing with situations that have gone bad, and have had to listen to amateur liars who are attempting to tell professional-grade lies. That's got to leave you coated all over with a six-inch-deep layer of disenchantment.

It's not all that nasty and stupid. Honest.

I'm not sure how I can prove to you that other publishing houses regard the Harry Potter feenom as an opportunity. There've been too many conversations about it since it started happening, and too many sales plans affected by it.

Extremely successful books help sell other books. Stephen King's books sell other horror writers. Tolkien's books sell fantasy. Sea stories are much more saleable since the advent of Patrick O'Brian. Ken Burns helped sell James McPherson and Shelby Foote, and their histories have helped sell hundreds more Civil War history titles. There really is a halo effect.

The question of what works against the halo effect is an interesting one. You know that line about how the good is the enemy of the best? Not true, at least in the book trade. The good and the best reinforce each other. What really is an enemy to them both is lifeless, cloying third- or fourth-generation copy with no juice left in its emotions and no causality left in its plot. All that remains are the tics, tricks, and tired old props and costumes. It makes the whole thing seem distasteful. You have to go away, spend years reading other things, before you can remember what was good about the original work.

More on this later.

#78 ::: Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2003, 01:53 PM:

There've been too many conversations about it since it started happening, and too many sales plans affected by it.

There have been an awful lot of similar conversations among fantasy authors, as well. And no one wants to wish J.K. Rowling ill luck. But at the same time, I wonder if it isn't just wishful thinking... wouldn't it be great if some of those kids would pick up another book? We mustn't forget the loyalty factor of readers - brand loyalty.

Some readers, and I suspect it is a great many of them, won't read any other author of fantasy because they don't want to spoil the beauty of their Harry Potter memories. They'd rather read nothing than something else.

I just know too many people who are like this, myself included. I resisted Tolkien until well into my 20s for this very reason.

#79 ::: Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2003, 01:55 PM:

for this very reason

Not Harry Potter. Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard were the gods I would not forsake.

#80 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2003, 04:06 PM:

Jeff, you were unusual. I don't know how many other readers you've talked to, and your own experience is of course inarguable; but as far as I know, the default response to having a good time with a book is to look for other books just like it. Honest. That's how I got shanghaied into reading Eddison and Lewis as a kid, after I'd run out of Tolkien.

It's also why, at the last family gathering, I was braced by Ace and Ena, my youngest niece and nephew. They'd heard a rumor about their Aunt Teresa, and wanted me to "Say something in Elf." Ace and Ena started out as rabid Harry Potter fans, moved on to other books of that ilk while they were waiting between installments, and wound up reading Tolkien.

(For the record, I told them that I don't actually speak the language, just some bits and pieces; but they had that irresistibly hopeful bright-eyed look, so finally I said "Elen sila lumenn omentielvo," and they were happy.)

#81 ::: C.E. Petit ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2003, 06:58 PM:

Teresa, when I was on your side of the slush pile, I had a dual role as both a developmental/consulting editor in the academic division of a nonfiction publisher and as counsel. I doubt you could curl my liver over textbooks, as about half of my responsibilities were (either editorially or legally) related to textbooks! Don't get me started on the Texas textbook acquisition system and what that does to the entire market for textbooks... What I do now is about 40-50% trade nonfiction, about 20% specialist nonfiction (textbooks and professional), and the remainder a constantly varying mix of fiction and nonbook issues related to fiction (e.g., screenplays).

You're right that my initial information comes from "amateur liars who are attempting to tell professional-grade lies." Too often, the amateur liars are on both sides of the situation, and I walk away after doing more investigation. (I turn down about 60% of the inquiries I get as being inappropriate for representation.) I'm a bit unusual among IP lawyers, though, in that I do quite a bit of snooping around and investigation before finally taking charge of a matter. It's really amazing what one can learn about a publisher by analyzing the footnotes in the SEC filings or its tax returns or its other presentations to governments, and it sure helps to read German these days.

In any event, I cannot agree more with you that the real enemy of "fine literature" is not "almost fine literature," but "really crappy literature that has been acquired solely for marketing purposes without regard to its quality." At least, I think that's what your last paragraph said. I see way too much of this in trade and specialist nonfiction, starting with the expectation that part of the submission package--the first part that most acquisitions decision authorities read--is a market analysis. To me, that's putting the cart before the horse. Instead of "does this book fill a market niche," the first question needs to be "does this book merit publication." I suspect that a lot of the litigation and other problems that I get involved in can be traced back to this error, as it is an error that leads to a lot of communication problems down the path to the bookstore.

#82 ::: C.E. Petit ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2003, 07:07 PM:

One last note, on copyediting: My ex was a freelance copyeditor (she is now an acquisitions editor at a specialty publisher), and she would probably say that Teresa is seriously understating the problem. When I was still in-house, I had to do a sentence-level-up rewrite of one major book I edited and kind of hide it from the author, because the author was a Name in the field. We only later found out that the author's previous books had been partially ghostwritten by a longtime postdoc, and that this was the first book that said author had done all the work on. Believe me, it showed. (I got yelled at for being two weeks late getting the book down to production; I'd like to think that the reviews praising the writing and "inventive presentation" drove some of the sales that ended up exceeding projections by around 120% in the first year.)

#83 ::: Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2003, 11:37 AM:

Jeff, you were unusual.

I try.

It must run in the family, because I used that very "if you liked that then you'll surely like this" argument on my niece after she devoured the first Harry Potter book. Oh, no, but it won't be Harry Potter, she said.

My wife is the same way. She, her sister and her mother all read the same romance novels, but they only read four authors. They don't even waste their time with other authors. And rather than read other romance novels while they wait for their favorite authors' next book, they'll read something else entirely - SF or fantasy, usually.

Getting back to my niece, she grew tired of Harry Potter by the third book. The fourth book is still sitting on her bookshelf. If, and this is a big if, Rowling wears her audience thin by the seventh book, isn't it possible that rather than boost the market, it could create a backlash? God knows the horrible fantasy movies Hollywood put out over the years created an anti-fantasy environment. It took Peter Jackson to change the attitude that fantasy movies can't make money (or can't appeal to a wider audience).

Speaking of, Michael Dare has an interesting Rowling/Lucas comparison on Disinfotainment Today.

#84 ::: Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2003, 11:56 PM:

The more I think about it, the less unusual I think I am. What is a major consideration of anyone trying to sell a product? Brand identity. And with that, establishing brand loyalty. Brand loyalty is the driving force behind maintaining a stable number of sales. Companies strive to establish brand identity. This is what advertising is all about. Well, sort of. There's more to it than that.

And for consumers, brand loyalty is extremely important as well. Take Coke. I think it is safe to say that Coke drinkers drink Coke and very little that is "just like Coke." Big K cola, anyone? Coke drinkers don't try every new drink that comes out. Most drink Coke and nothing but Coke, so help me God. Offer them Pepsi in a restaurant that doesn't sell Coke, and they'll drink tea instead. On the other hand, Diet Dr. Pepper makes a big deal out of tasting "just like" regular Dr. Pepper - that is their entire ad campaign, but who really believes them?

Brand loyalty doesn't drive all sales, but is certainly drives a substantial portion of those sales. Brand loyalty is what makes it so difficult, and sometimes impossible, for new products to break into the market without massive advertising and huge investments. So why should it be any different for books?

I don't know how many other readers you've talked to, and your own experience is of course inarguable; but as far as I know, the default response to having a good time with a book is to look for other books just like it.

This is just a guess, but I imagine that most of the readers you run into are well above the par. You meet readers as part of your job, at conventions and workshops, etc., right? The average Joe who reads three books a year, two by Tom Clancy and one that isn't (and it sucked, but his brother-in-law gave it to him because he said it was just like Clancy), doesn't go to conventions and workshops and doesn't correspond with editors. But it is those people, who I suspect are the majority, the ones who only buy two books a year and both by Clancy and both purchased at Wal-Mart, who drive Clancy's sales through the roof. (Forgive me if I am spelling his name wrong, but I don't own any of his books.) The hardcore political thriller readers probably only account for a relatively small percentage of his sales, probably not much higher than the sales of the best mid-list political thriller writers.

I suspect that most of the readers you talk to are intellectually curious people who are actively looking for something they have never read before. I also suspect that, taken as a whole, intellectually curious people account for a relatively small percentage of book sales in mainstream markets.

So once brand loyalty is established, loyalty to that particular author is a pretty good explanation for why some authors hit the best seller list with every book they write, no matter how horrible, and other authors never break out. I do have some experience with this phenomena, for it is brand loyalty that keeps the Dragonlance line alive. Dragonlance is sustained by a cadre of loyal Dragonlance readers. Some read every book that comes out. But others only read Margaret Weis' books. Let us, for the moment, ignore why. Broad brand loyalty is what allows me to maintain respectable sales figures (I harbor no illusions), but there is a much more specific brand loyalty, namely to Margaret Weis, that allows her books to eclipse all the other Dragonlance authors. That brand loyalty was established with the original six books, followed by the disappointment generated by the secondary stories that were were written by other authors afterward. Those books weren't Margaret Weis (go to a Dragonlance discussion and you will hear these very words), and a great many Dragonlance readers only return to the storyline when Margaret writes a new book for it.

Maybe that isn't the best example. I am aware that the mechanics of shared world publishing is quite different than real world publishing. But at the same time, readers are readers, and on a large scale, they tend to buy and read in the same patterns.

#85 ::: Mark Finn ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2003, 11:38 AM:

Vicki, I just rechecked my figures, and while my math is still correct, I think there's a word missing from my sentence: gross. Scholastic GROSSED 11 million from Barnes & Noble alone. My bad. I'm sorry if my omission caused you to regard the rest of my argument with suspicion. Here's the two amended paragraphs:

Taking what we know of the figures in hand, we know that Borders paid $11,250,000 for those books. Scholastic grossed eleven million off of Border92s alone. What did Borders make back for their time, their trouble, their extra hours, extra help, and extra hassle? 13, 500, 000. Let92s round that up and call it 13.5 million dollars. By subtracting what they paid from what they made, we can see that Borders brought in 2.5 million dollars in sales (again, rounding up and giving everyone the benefit of the doubt).

Now, let92s spread that 2.5 million through Border92s 1,200 retail outlets: Each store brought in an additional 2,083 dollars. Seems like a lot, but folks, let me tell you, it92s nothing. Any medium-sized bookstore can do two grand in two hours on an average Saturday. It92s nothing. Chicken feed. And then, when you spread it around to cover Border92s middle and upper management, infrastructure, and the like, well, that money gets eaten up pretty quickly. And considering that the Book Sales grossed more than The Hulk movie, that92s saying a lot.

#86 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2003, 03:29 PM:

Mark Finn: Now, let’s spread that 2.5 million through Border’s 1,200 retail outlets: Each store brought in an additional 2,083 dollars. Seems like a lot, but folks, let me tell you, it’s nothing. Any medium-sized bookstore can do two grand in two hours on an average Saturday. It’s nothing. Chicken feed.

The $2,083 per store is the gross profit (gross sales less cost of goods sold) from the sale of HP&TOOTP, and you are comparing it to (what you imagine is) the hourly gross sales of a medium-sized bookstore. That's not quite comparing apples and oranges; it's more like comparing apples and apple trees.

I'm not an accountant, but I do know how to read an income statement. Do you?

#87 ::: Mark Finn ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2003, 07:05 PM:

I work at an independent bookstore in Austin, Texas, and so I do understand how things work. That $2,083 dollars was their total gross profit for the weekend. By amending the figures to include gross sales, you're still talking about a nice little spike, but not an economic landfall (which was really the point of the article in the first place). The article, by the way, has been picked up fto be reprinted in a nonfiction collection. It now includes amended language which states these are grosses.

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