Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Care and feeding of the backlist

I have very little specialized knowledge of the whole process, but it stands to reason that the way novels get into print is much more interesting than how they fall out of print.
There are longer meetings, perhaps catered and with the author present. With luck the author has a cheque that means they’ll eat a bit better for a few months.
Nowadays, books very likely go out of print with an email to the author, if even that much.
In between those points in time, lucky novelists will accumulate a backlist--books that stay in print and continue to sell enough to justify interest in new work.
The care and feeding of backlist is less and less frequent, as publishers are all looking for the Next Big Thing (vampire romances to the right, everything else is on hold) but the news that casting has begun on the big screen adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin means that if the movie does well enough, soon everyone will be talking about “Kevin” and that it likely wouldn’t have come about if not for a respectable, if not moneymaking backlist.
After a few novels that got good reviews, but middling sales, Lionel Shriver’s life took a curious turn. She (yes) submitted a manuscript to her publisher and it was turned down, along with a note reminding her that Shriver had an unpaid photocopying bill from her last book.
The details on Shriver’s remarkable journey with this now blue chip novel are here.
I still remember reading that piece, and running to the bookstore to grab the book and dive in.
We Need to Talk About Kevin affected me like no other novel before or since.
If it’s got flaws, I never saw them. I was too enthralled in the story, it came very close to not seeing the light of day.
As the New York Observer story notes,
“about a year ago, Ms. Shriver gave up on trying to get an agent, feeling they were more conservative than the editors, and went to Dawn Seferian, who had published two of her early paperbacks and was now at Counterpoint, a house dedicated to literary quality.”
The network available to novelists’ in Lionel Shriver’s circumstance is different now than even a few years ago. There are more avenues for promotion, but a more diffuse landscape means it’s harder to break out.
Counterpoint is still noted for quality, and there are other small presses that are able to showcase authors better than their previous publishers.
It’s the smaller presses that incubate writers’ early efforts and if a few become Anne Michaels; most don’t. But by offering more time and attention to their authours, the smaller presses often make better books.
Whether by luck, or necessity most smaller outfits are promotional geniuses as well.

In Canada, it’s Biblioasis, located in Emeryville, Ontario who has demonstrated of late an enviable ability to find and promote novels that deserve attention.
Terry Griggs and Cynthia Flood both came to Biblioasis from other presses, and the results are very encouraging. Terry Griggs’ new novel is an hilarious send up of a writer’s lot, the Canadian book trade and a look at Ontario that is both subservise and familiar.
She has a wonderful ear for dialogue, writes great set pieces and has always been a favourite. She’s been a favourite around here for a long time and we’re delighted to host her Waterloo launch along with Cynthia Flood, whose book The English Stories is a novel told in short stories centred around a young girl whose family moves to England form Ontario in 1951.
Amanda is both attracted and repelled by the new adult realities around her, chiefly in the stifling English boarding school that is largely her new home.
Flood has created in Amanda a memorable heroine and Cynthia Flood is a fine writer, both fluid and precise.
Details of their appearance at Words Worth are here.
By all means, pick up your favourite best sellers when you see them, but for a few that you may not have heard much about, Bronwyn revises this regularly.

In addition a few beauties from years gone by:

Everyone has read the Road by Cormac McCarthy, and there aren’t many who can write like him, but some get awfully close. William Gay’s Provinces of Night is a Southern classic, possessed of prose that is damn near perfect. William Gay writes beautifully, his sentences are primordial, brooding and he has a gift for creeping narrative along that is just so much fun to curl up with.
Tim O’brien won a Pulitzer for Going After Cacciatto, but I’ve always preferred In the Lake of the Woods.
A novel of post-Vietnam America, political ambitions and a toxic secret at the centre of everything. His work has never been more relevant than right now.
Perhaps not backlist by definition, Alayna Munce’s gem of a novel is nonetheless, a few years old and the writer I’m most looking forward to seeing new work from.
When I Was Young and in My Prime is a story of family, love and memory that is exquisitely written, and I’ll never forget hearing her read in town a few years back. Novels of this depth are diffucult to describe in a sentence or two. Please don’t miss it.

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