Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How Book Blogging Can Make a Book Big, or How it Can Change the World

A few weeks ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon at the Children's Literary Cafe at the New York Public Library's new Children's Room. Pam Coughlan, Elizabeth Burns, Susan Thomsen and Anne Boles Levy (co-founder and director of The Cybils, who is unfortunately no longer blogging) led a fascinating panel on the Kidlitosphere and The Cybils. Moderated by SLJ blogger extraordinaire Elizabeth Bird, the four blogging powerhouses talked about everything from the creation of the Cybils to FTC limitations on advertisements in blogs.

Now, I'm always interested in thinking about how power shifts and influence is asserted, so when we began to discuss how bloggers have changed not only the book review process but the whole of the publishing process, I was intrigued. Fifteen years ago, the ladies said, publishers would have sent Advanced Reader's Copies (ARCs) of an upcoming title to all the known review sources (The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and so on and so forth), just as they do today. But, for the most part, that would have been it; a whole world of active bloggers didn't yet exist.

These days, bloggers have asserted themselves in a big way, and publicity departments take bloggers who review books more than seriously. The big-name review sources are great for reaching wide general audiences and especially for appealing to librarians. Nonetheless, really good bloggers often have their own groups of hundreds if not thousands of dedicated readers, and no publisher wants to miss the opportunity to reach that book-hungry crowd.

So bloggers can find themselves practically swimming in free review copies (major bonus), and publishers can benefit from the sort of word-of-mouth publicity that turns great books into major hits. The catch for publishers? Reviewers get to say whatever they want.

And so they have, to great effect. What I love about the power bloggers now wield in the book industry is that they can do far more than just trash a book; they can question it. And when enough bloggers question, somebody has to answer.

It was bloggers who first started questioning the review copies of Justine Larbalestier's Liar, wondering why the cover featured a white girl when the main character was clearly African-American. When Justine admitted that she was unhappy with the cover but that the house had refused to change it, posting her own powerful objection to the white-washing of titles in what is still, in many ways, an unequal industry, the battle took off.

Publishers and readers alike began to look for how race was addressed in the books they read. Cheryl Klein of Scholastic's Arthur A. Levine Books immediately posted her encouragement to writers dealing with issues of race, and updated her submission guidelines to encourage racially diverse submissions. Justine suggested that readers show the industry just how well covers featuring minority groups can sell by making an effort to buy at least one book featuring a person of color on its cover, and readers delivered. And everyone in the industry was reminded that book publishing no longer happens in some hidden room filled with the smells of ink and rust and paper where editors lurk and marketers plot their dastardly marketing plans (interns, of course, lurk in an even darker and more hidden room).

Justine's plea for readers to buy books featuring characters of color plays off of the power of the consumer, which is a strong force indeed. But the power of bloggers may even exceed it. Publishers are spending more money and more time attempting to appeal to reviewers -- a look at the flashy covers attached to review copies now but never present twenty years ago can show you that -- and they're looking to early reviewers to do more than generate blurbs. Because they see books before they even hit the market, bloggers can provide feedback that incites change in a book before it's ever released.

The best Justine might have hoped for, after her book's release, would have been a paperback reissue with a different cover. But bloggers saw the book before anyone else and made their opinions known; in response, Bloomsbury changed the cover of Liar.

My guess is that the power of bloggers will only grow as social media and e-publishing become more prominent in the industry. As bloggers test the limits of their power, publishers are beginning to realize that they have no choice but to be up-front about their practices. And the more we talk about what's going on behind publishing-house doors, the more the industry has to take our opinions into account.

So you can consider this an invitation, a wake-up call or a mission statement. What's bothering you right now? Is it the dearth of minority characters in fiction? Is it the infuriating absence of female writers on the Publisher's Weekly Top 10 Books of 2009 list? The antifeminist trend of glorified, disempowered female protagonists? Or perhaps the questionable motives of large publishers experimenting with new divisions and sources of income?

Whether you agree or disagree with those conflicts -- in fact, whatever issue gets you fired up, I hope you're being very vocal about it. What's more, I hope you're being vocal in a way that encourages discussion, sharing and, most of all, change. Because you have more power than you may know.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In Which I Get Overly Excited About Graphic-Designy Things

Thanks to the awesome Mitali Perkins, I have a Wordle:

Wordle: Trac Changes

I do not know if this has a use. But it is pretty, and makes me feel an inflated sense of success in blogging. I repeat the right words! Go me!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled "real" content.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What Can a Job Interview Teach You About Writing?

My apologies, gentle readers, for the long silence! The many, many hours I have spent toiling over cover letters and sending job applications finally paid off in what amounted to an epic (read: long, very busy and absolutely exhilerating) week of interviews. That was enough to drag me (not quite kicking and screaming) away from the computer and my brand new baby of a blog.

I had another post planned, but I've got interviews on the brain. So with no further ado I submit, for your approval, what a job interview can teach you about writing:

  1. Practice, practice, practice.
    I spent a lot of time talking to my mirror this week. Really. Yes, I am the resident expert in the subject of my life and times, but that doesn't mean I don't need to practice telling my story in the way that best serves my purpose.

    You should do the same with writing. Write the same story, write different stories, write from different points of view, write your characters' back-stories, write scenes you know you'll never use, write dialogue, write descriptions, write love letters to your characters, write hate mail to your manuscripts, write bad love scenes, write good combat, write until your fingers ache. And then, for Locke's sake, go back and delete or re-write most of it. Concert pianists rehearse every day. Major-league baseball players practice every day. Are you going to let people say those guys are working harder than you?

  2. Hiring decisions are made in the first five minutes of the interview.
    Put your best foot forward right from the get-go. In an interview, this is crucial; it's all about appearance, presentation and engagement. I'm sure that, for an interview, you'd dress professionally, smile and shake hands firmly with your interviewer upon entering her office. And you'd highlight your best traits, using your strongest examples, in response to the first few questions asked.

    Are you doing the same in your writing? If your novel is an action-packed thriller, are you opening with an action scene that demands that your reader turn the page? If your novel is all about beautiful prose, are you opening with your most lyrical writing yet? If your characters are irresistible, are you showing enough of their personalities to make readers fall in love by the end of the first few pages?

    Editors are busy people, and readers are prone to increasingly short attention spans. It's crucial that you start strong and hook them early. Of course, you'll have to maintain that momentum once you build it, but you win half the battle by engaging your readers immediately. For instance, I knew I would let Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games take me anywhere when, by the twentieth page, it had already moved me to proud, fearful tears on the main character's behalf (and I am heartless, gentle readers, and rarely cry).

  3. Tell the truth. Your interviewer knows when you're lying.
    Yes, interviewers have magic powers; if you stretch the truth, you can be sure the real story will always find them. And it's oh-so-tempting to tell your interviewer exactly what you know she wants to hear, but she's much more interested in your honest response to the questions asked.

    So how does that relate to writing? Well, you can write that one story set in a steampunk universe which pits angels against zombies in an epic quest/battle resulting in the angst-ridden teenage vampire confessing his undying passion for the quirky/carefree bisexual heroine with pink hair just before they save the world from the dark overlord... Or, you can stop worrying about what the market is doing right now, and you can write the story you know to be true.

    Yes, vampires are selling right now, and folks have a number of theories about what the Next Big Thing will be. But some of the best books of the year ignored the trends entirely and instead hit readers with deep emotional truths and with powerful, original voices that brought their characters to life. They resonate with readers because they feel true. Books like Marcelo in the Real World and Stitches and more can only come from writers who have spent time examining their thoughts and emotions, their reactions to the world around them, their collected memories and their sense of what is deeply true and universal to mankind: loss, love, heartbreak, heroism, humor. So take the hint from them, writers: know thyself. And know thy world. Which leads us nicely to this next tip:

  4. A good candidate is as much a listener as a talker.
    An interview is as much a chance for you to evaluate the company as it is for them to evaluate you, and the only way to do that is to give your interviewer ample time to tell you about the role. That means talking only half the time, and spending the rest of it paying attention to what the interviewer has to say and asking insightful questions of your own.

    As a writer, you need to approach life the same way: you need to spend as much time listening to the world as you do writing about it. That means both reading voraciously (which of course you already do) and being constantly attuned to the world around you. What does your friend say when she gets good news? Bad news? When she stubs her toe? When she's just woken up in the morning and hasn't had her tea yet? (Yes, tea. Your friend is secretly a Britophile, like me.) How does your mom say those things? How does that woman from next door? And while you're at it, describe how they walk--timidly, like a sparrow hopping a bit closer for a handout, or maybe with a swinging gate and proud shoulders? What might that solitary passerby be thinking when he stops, knocks on the wood of a cafe's table, and then keeps walking?

    Lucky you, you get to do more than just live your life; you get to question everyone and everything you see. The more you do it, the more you'll come to understand the experience of being human, and the closer you'll get to that emotional truth.

  5. It's all about the follow-through!
    Maybe your week, like mine, has been completely insane, and you've had to dash from interviews to work and then home to study and try to get a little sleep before doing it again. Sadly, that doesn't mean you get to slack off on following up with an email and hand-written thank you note. Whether you like it or not, nobody's putting in the effort to keep you at the front of your interviewer's mind but you. Job-searching is a full-time job and, like in an office environment, if you slack off you let somebody else down--in this case, yourself.

    Writing is a full-time job, too, and nobody else is looking for ways to give you more time to write. Life certainly isn't going to hand you a ticket to the mountain/beach/woodland/alternate universe where you can get your creative juices flowing and write to your heart's content. And if you let yourself use the excuse that you don't have time to write, then you will most likely never find the time. So find a way to make it. Personally, I love Johanna Harness's dedication: she wakes up before 5:00 am every morning to write before the day can get in her way.

    However you have to do it, find yourself some time to write and consider it non-negotiable. If you'd just interviewed for the perfect job, you wouldn't risk losing it by ignoring that vital thank you note, would you? You'd make time, somehow. So offer your writing that same importance. (But if you have a job, maybe try to hang on to it, at least until you sell a book that becomes a big hit. Unless you're Justine Larbalestier.)
Speaking of which, it's high time I get back to that full-time job-searching I've been doing. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Quick Hit: Reading Text vs. Reading Images

It's been a pleasure to learn from all the insightful responses to my last post; you're all right that, despite my concerns about the potential for graphic novels to be marginalized if we focus on their differences from traditional books, there are many good reasons to consider what sets them apart. I particularly like the point made by wordweaver06:

I think that graphic novels would actually benefit from being in their own category. It would allow them to be judged not only on the effectiveness of the writing, but also on the effectiveness of the art. And how well the two elements work together to tell the story. If they're simply being thrust into the same category as conventional novels, the recognition of how those elements interact runs the risk of going unnoticed.
Kristy Valenti recently covered a panel on graphic novels held at the Seattle Bookfest on October 24th. Gary Groth, Megan Kelso, Ellen Forney and Leigh Walton took questions on a myriad of topics at the event, but they kick-started the whole shebang with some information that was fascinating and completely relevent:

Forney kicked things off by explaining that she had taught a studio graphic novel class, which was composed of art and design students; however, she recently began teaching a graphic-novel lit class, which focuses on reading and discussing comics with students from different majors. She said it was a different experience: that the students weren't as versed in the language of comics. Groth said that they weren't acculturated to comics, and since they weren't habituated, they didn't have the skill to know how to read them.

...Kelso, who did not grow up reading comics, commented that she used to read the words and forget to read the pictures. She noted that comics are like a foreign language: when one sees words that are familiar, one tends to neglect the rest. Absorbing pictures is a skill, she explicated: and, again like a foreign language, children learn it more easily, and it becomes natural.... [Kelso also said] that research suggested that reading comics taps into more parts of the brain that [sic] simply reading text alone.
Perhaps what's most important, if we are going to wrap graphic novels up into their own separate category, is that we consider the change an opportunity to educate readers. I hope the fans of graphic novels (and it seems there are many!) will make themselves heard over those who might undermine the form. I hope that they keep talking about what makes the marriage of images with words so rich and meaningful. And I hope that, as the popularity of graphic novels spreads, they teach readers to read images as well as words, and in doing so offer us a new way to experience the wonderful, imaginative act of reading.