The Reading Season

Like everything else associated with the holidays, I’m sure you’ll consider this article one that comes too soon. But, for the publishing industry, the looming spectre of the Christmas season has well and truly begun.

 

This post was spurred partly by my receipt of an actual gasp physical book catalogue last week, geared at – you guessed it – Christmas shoppers. With a smidge less than a month until the big day, every business even remotely associated with retail is pulling out all the stops.

 

However, I was curious as to what Christmas meant for the publishing industry. As one that produces physical objects that may easily be used as gifts, it would be clear to anyone that this particular national holiday is important to book sales.

 

And yet, for many, the book is not at the top of any Christmas lists. True, the rectangular package under the tree does have it’s own brand of predictability. The avid readers out there will also be familiar with the mingling of excitement and dread as you unwrap a carefully chosen book to be confronted with your fourth copy of Pride and Prejudice. Book buying can become a minefield at Christmas time, so how does the publishing industry address this?

 

Well, first and foremost, by increasing the number of new and exciting titles for readers to salivate over and parents to be confused by. The significant increase in books being released for publication around the first week in October has become so apparent that it now has its own name – Super Thursday. This is the day on which many of the big potential bestsellers are released, with plenty of time to entice shoppers away from shiny plastic and chocolate-coated nuts.

 

The reason for this is that new books are generally given between 2-3 months to prove themselves, sales-wise. Usually it becomes clear after the first two months whether the publisher has a bestseller on their hands or not. By releasing books on Super Thursday, these books have just the right amount of time to get on the Christmas bandwagon and help the word of mouth spread in the seasonal sales rush.

 

But this is done in order to target a certain type of recipient – the ones who (apparently) most commonly receive books for Christmas. An article published in UK newspaper The Telegraph a day before the publication of this year’s Super Thursday books noted a large skew in one area – children’s books, and a complete absence of one particular genre – chick-lit.

 

This says a lot about the expectations publishers have drawn out about who will be buying books this Christmas. Overwhelmingly, the season is targeted at children. So an increase in the release of books aimed at this age bracket makes sense. Christmas-themed books also represent a growing and popular trend. The Elf on the Shelf book, for one, has combined Christmas, books and toys in such an appealing way that many will choose to sit a small plush elf in their children’s room this Christmas, in an effort to both awaken their holiday spirit, and get some well behaved children in the bargain.

 

The other trend is more interesting. The absence of chick-lit novels, and the presence of those focused on crime and war suggests that – if you’ll forgive me for invoking a stereotype to demonstrate how I think the industry is using it – that book publishers consider men (particularly older men) to be the recipients of books more often than women will be this Christmas. This is certainly not to say that the industry is ignoring women over this time, but it does not appear to be their focus.

 

Interestingly, this surge in publication around Christmastime is also a positive step for the future of the print book. Let’s face it; an eBook has to be one of the more underwhelming presents available. Oh cool! A digital file! – said no one ever. And the rush is predominately towards print.

 

This Christmas, you may choose to buy a book for a loved one, or even yourself. Certainly the outpouring of usually non-existent catalogues and a higher percentage of new, physical books would suggest that this might be a good time to stock up. For the publishing industry, just like others involved with consumption, Christmas is an important time, with products produced especially for those swept up in the spirit of the season.

Gold-Plated Nothings: Celebrity Books in the Literary World

After a dose of political intrigue, international news and the unsolicited opinions of numerous journalists, my surreptitious lurking in the entertainment section revealed an interesting piece of news. Comedian Amy Shumer has landed a book deal, with an advance suspected to be around $8 million dollars. I almost fell off my chair. As a young editor working for a small press, that kind of money around an advance is still awe-inspiring. But as I thought about it more, it increasingly began to disturb me.

Before we go any further though, I want to make it clear that this is not a rant about Amy. I’m a huge fan of her work, and she can make me laugh harder than I thought possible. But her work is as a comedian, in stand-up, television, and film. What she isn’t, is an author.

We can be pedantic all we want about what the term author means. If whether all you have to do to be an author is write something, or if all it takes to be considered one is to be published. But the increasing rise of celebrity ‘authors’ bodes ill for the rest of the literary industry, as they take away from those who wish to write more than just a recap of their lives and their endearing, charming, hilarious or heartbreaking thoughts.

Books published by celebrities usually constitute autobiography, memoir, or collection of thoughts and essays. There’s the occasional cookbook of lifestyle guide, and British celebrity Katie Price, also known as Jordan, has written a novel. For the most part, these books fail to add much to the literary landscape, and rely on our cultural fascination with the lives of celebrities. The quality of the writing varies greatly, the story is often much the same – young aspiring star walks the hard road to achieve their dreams, and examines the struggle with being rich, famous and adored.

By all means, worship a star if you want to. Go see their movies, hang off their television interviews, and buy the products they endorse with that winning smile. But what do their books really add to that? More of the same things you see in their films, their stand-up, their interviews. They may be entertaining reads for those obsessed with their favourite celebrity, but as books, they often fail the test of time, and become one time reads to collect dust on your bookshelves.

And these books are doing a significant amount of dust collecting. In The New York Times bestseller list from this week alone, almost half of the top twenty are written by some celebrity, whether they be from the comedic, film or political persuasion.

With such solid represent in the bestseller lists, we can see why publishers are so keen to embrace these books, and why Amy has been given such a huge advance. No doubt her book will make it a number of times over. But it displays a worrying trend of pursuing financial gain to the detriment of literary quality.

In an increasingly risk-averse market, the booming celebrity book industry produces numerous carbon copy memoirs that make bank for their publishers, and their authors. But this takes the time and energy away from less well known authors, as they work to produce original and painstakingly crafted works, only to have them rejected because they won’t sell the same way the glittering, celebrity endorsed hardbacks will.

When the bestseller lists indicate a particular trend, naturally publishers are going to jump on as quickly as possible, ever thinking about that bottom line. The only solution for those who wish to patron higher quality literature is to of course, stop buying celebrity books. But in a society obsessed with the minute movements of celebrities, I don’t see that happening any time soon. The cost is, and will always be, the smaller authors, those who haven’t yet got the money, the influence or the fame behind them to push a book like a celebrity can.

Traversing the Thorny Thicket

One of the most typical intern jobs around is being assigned to the slush pile, as both I and Brendan have been at different times.

In layman’s terms, the slush pile is the collection of all the new submissions a publisher receives. Part of my job is to sift through the hopeful cover letters and (often) ambitious manuscripts, and divide them into two groups, the ‘Don’t Bother’ and the ‘Worth Consideration’. It’s a job commonly assigned to interns and newbies because it’s intensive, with often little to no reward. However, ploughing through the slush pile is an important step in any intern’s journey for a number of reasons. It allows you to hone your critical thinking skills, as you learn to look for certain signs that a book may have what it takes.

It’s prompted me to think more deeply about why I approve or reject a certain manuscript. Not only do I suggest certain manuscripts for our publisher’s consideration, but for every manuscript I read, I’m required to do up a summary document, where I provide a short synopsis, pick out the elements that are good and/or bad about the manuscript, and justify why I would or would not publish it. It’s quite a lot of power, which has the potential to easily swell this small intern’s head!

Before I even read the manuscript, I’m looking at the cover letter, the biography, the marketing plan, and the way the author sells their work. And so, before we’ve even made it to your manuscript, we’ve made a lot of assumptions about you. One of the most important, and often overlooked is: can you follow our submission instructions? Someone who hasn’t bothered to add in their pitch, or whose cover letter leaves out relevant details automatically needs their manuscript to work harder for them.

The process of turning manuscript into finished product sees an editor and author working very closely. So when we consider your book, we’re also considering what you will be like to work with. These things come out very easily in cover letters, and will definitely make us reconsider you, even if your manuscript is out of this world. The relationship between a publisher and an author is very much a partnership. The work doesn’t stop once we agree to publish. So, ideally, you want to come across as interesting, enthusiastic, and willing to work with us, to be in the best possible position for us to accept your manuscript.

Now on to the fun part: reading the actual text! At Odyssey, we usually ask for the first four chapters, to give us a sense of the work. When I’m reviewing the slush pile, rarely will I read all four of those chapters. From discussions with various editors and slush pile enthusiasts I’ve met through my work, I’ve discovered that everyone has their own rule of thumb. For me, it’s the first twenty pages. What I’m looking for, first and foremost, is a text that can capture me in those first twenty pages. Even better than that, if I end up wanting to read more than the four chapters an author has sent, that’s usually when I send excitable emails to the publisher, demanding that we request a full manuscript, just so I can know what happens!

How does an author capture my attention and keep it? Well, that’s the part that’s hard to quantify, and is different for every book. Readers today are more spoiled for choice than ever. A novel that can make readers connected to their characters, absorbed in the action and excited to see what comes next, just in the first twenty pages, is going to be one that has a much better chance of succeeding in the market. So I can’t highlight what I want. But I can give you some ideas of what I don’t want.

  • Poor Editing – Oh wow! As editors, we know that typos slip through all the time. We do it too! (only sometimes) But a manuscript that’s full of typos just seems lazy. If an author can’t be bothered to edit their manuscript properly before submission, how are we supposed to think they are at all dedicated to making sure their book does as well as possible?
  • Over-Detailed Introductory Material – This is guaranteed to make me stop reading a manuscript very quickly. The best novels catapult you right into the world you have created. Backstory comes later! It trickles out and keeps you hanging on for more. If you load it all in at the beginning, no one will be hanging around for the middle, let alone the end.

As I’m rapidly running out of space, I’ll leave it there. My adventures in the slush pile have made me one of the pickiest readers around. Every manuscript I work with allows me to better understand what it is that makes a novel stand out as publishable amongst the mountain of slush that never will be.

The Cave Where Dreams Are Made: An Intern’s Visit to the Printers

IMG_0487
The Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark Headquarters

by Jenna O’Connell

So, something I’d never thought about until recently was where our books came from. I’ve been interning for Odyssey for almost a year now, and I’d never questioned the appearance of our books. We just got them out of boxes when we needed them. Intuitively, I’m sure I didn’t believe that our publisher just waved her fingers and the books appeared in a puff of smoke, but I certainly hadn’t given printing a moment of consideration. As I learnt recently though, not only is there a lot that goes on between the final edit of a book and pulling out a knife to slice open that first crisp box of books, but it’s something that almost no one thinks about.

On a recent trip to Melbourne, I was lucky enough to have a site visit at the Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark printers in Scoresby. While it doesn’t initially sound like an awesome adventure, let me tell you now, for all you booklovers out there: IT. IS. CANDYLAND! Ingram Spark is a publishing-on-demand platform that offers both print and e-book versions. Publishers like Odyssey, as well as authors who are self-publishing, upload their manuscript, and the relevant details like ISBN, pricing, territory rights etc. The book is then processed, printed at a facility like the one we visited, and distributed out to warehouses, retailers, publishers, whatever you like! But, as with everything in life, there’s a bit more to it than that.

IMG_0476
Piles and piles of printed books waiting for their covers. The process begins…

Our visit started with a meeting with the manager for content acquisition in Australia, Debbie Lee. We had a chat about Odyssey’s relationship with Lightning Source/Ingram Spark, how Odyssey likes the relatively new Ingram Spark platform, and the small publishing industry in general. Here, one of the main themes stressed again and again was quality. That’s something my boss is passionate about – delivering quality books that are worth reading. For both Odyssey and Ingram Spark, quality control is a big issue, and one of the reasons my boss uses Ingram Spark as a printer.

Then we headed out onto the floor. And that’s where the real fun began. Just this site here processes between 40-50,000 books a month. You walk through the door onto a raised lookout over the factory floor. That’s when the excitement hits. Books everywhere! It really is the book-birthing suite, with books in every stage of the printing process. Lightning Source has two black and white digital printing devices on the floor. There’s a digital link that routs the publications from a database in the United States. You submit a book through the Ingram Spark portal; it travels digitally to the US, is processed and re-routed back to this device, which begins the printing process. At this facility, publications are routed three times a day, at 3pm, 5am and 8am. Inside here the book is cooking away, producing all the pages. From there the books are cut, and we start dealing with covers!

The cover-printing machine rolls out the covers in big long strips, which are then cut and assigned to their relevant books. Everything is done via barcodes. At any stage of the process, if barcodes between covers and manuscripts don’t match up, the machine won’t work. So if you’ve ever wondered what that barcode in the back of your book is for, now you know!

From there, the books are put into a binding machine, to finally attach cover and pages. The newly created book is shot out the end. But wait! This doesn’t look like a book! There’s cover hanging off everywhere! That’s because after the book is bound, it still needs to be trimmed. Something I hadn’t realised was that the books don’t shoot out automatically bound perfectly. The cover printer has a standard size paper to print on. This means the book is often quite a bit shorter than the cover at first. Once it’s through the trimming machine though, everything is finished. And boy is it tempting to pick up those books and run away with them!

The mighty book binding machine. Magical!
The mighty book binding machine. Magical!

The visit to Lightning Source/Ingram Spark (or as I’m now referring to it, The Cave Where Dreams Are Made) has been one of the highlights of my internship so far, because it opened my eyes to a whole side of publishing I had never even considered. I started this internship with my eyes firmly focused on learning how to be an editor. But sitting in on this meeting, and touring the site where books are actually, physically, made, I’ve discovered a world of other interesting facets in this industry, and one I’m definitely keen to explore further.