Archive for April, 2011

Laura Davis Talks About the New World of Publishing

April 23, 2011

 Today, I am going to interview Laura Davis, author of THE COURAGE TO HEAL and BECOMING THE PARENT YOU WANT TO BE. Laura and her colleague, Janet Goldstein, New York City publishing strategist and former editorial executive at Viking Penguin, Broadway Books and HarperCollins, have organized a two-day event called THE NEW WORLD OF PUBLISHING which will be held in Santa Cruz the weekend of May 22nd-23rd. I want to talk to Laura about this seminar and also about the value of writers’ conferences in general. I’m inspired to do this because I just got back from the Las Vegas Writers Conference.  It was really a revelation to me. Here I was in the absolute armpit of low culture and there is this amazing community of writers, passionate about their art and their craft. It really reminded me about how courageous writers really are.

Andy: Laura, let’s start by talking about THE NEW WORLD OF PUBLISHING.  Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Laura: I’m an independent writing teacher. And a lot of my students were getting to the point where they were ready to consider moving from personal writing—just for themselves—toward publishing—writing with an audience in mind. I could help them find their voice and develop craft and a story, but I realized that my knowledge of the rapid changes in the publishing industry was limited and out of date. So I called up Janet, who was the editor on my first six books, and asked her to fly out to California to do a half-day seminar on the changes in publishing. We did that last spring and it was so successful, and participants were so hungry for more, that we decided to do it again—this time offering a much more in-depth, hands-on environment where individual writers could really make progress applying new insights to their books, projects, and publishing steps.

Andy: It seems like writers’ conferences are cropping up all over the place? What do you have to offer that is different?

Laura: Our concept for this event has been to find that “in between place” between a writing retreat that is focused on creating work and a writers’ conference that is focused on panels and “pitching.” The larger conference environment can be incredibly exciting and stimulating, but it can be difficult to apply the insights gained to one’s individual work.  We wanted to design a conference that isn’t just oriented toward the “indie-only” route or that promises that you can write a book in a weekend. It’s our belief that authors who truly understand the writing-to-publishing continuum and the mindset of successful publishing–such as craft, collaboration, audience–can strengthen their work and make it more valuable and open the door to publishing success.

Andy: It is kind of a cliché that you can’t really teach people how to write. You wouldn’t know that from all the workshops and magazines and blogs about writing tips. What do you think you can teach? What is beyond your grasp?

Laura: I can teach people how to carve away everything they’ve been taught about writing so they can discover their true voice and unearth their real material. I help people find the courage they need to write the pieces that are hardest to write—the kind where tears flow out with the ink. I teach my writers to cherish the shitty first draft; without it there would be no heart or soul to their work. I also teach them that dozens of drafts are required to create something polished and worthy of publication. I encourage my writers to begin thinking about communication and audience long before they think they’re ready to publish. That’s why I love writing circles—they create a built in “safe audience” that enables a writer to see the impact her words are having on others. In that confidential, encouraging setting, writers hone their craft and gain the confidence to share their work more widely. I see THE NEW WORLD OF PUBLISHING as a next step, where writers can workshop their ideas in the larger world—and begin to understand the range of publishing options that are open to them.

Andy: It seems to me that it is pretty easy getting your book published now, but not so easy getting anyone to notice it. At least traditional commercial publishing had (and has) a pretty robust filtering system that can separate wheat from chaff. Undoubtedly there is great work in the self-publishing world, but also an ocean of mediocrity. How can we make sure that the cream will rise to the top?

Laura: The cream doesn’t always rise to the top. Plenty of crap makes its way to the bestseller lists. And as you point out, millions of books get published each year that don’t find an audience. As Janet and many others say, it definitely seems like more people want to publish books than read them. Marketing guru Seth Godin says, “No one owes you their time,” and I agree. Writers need to accurately assess the quality and value of their work. Does their work truly merit an audience? And if so, who is the right audience and what’s the right platform for their book?

The dynamic of selection has changed. That’s a given. But writers and readers are still served by strong work that connects, resonates, helps, and inspires, depending on its purpose. What we want to do at our conference is help people make the leap from thinking like a writer to thinking like a author—someone who first of all, has to write a compelling book, and secondly, needs to find and connect with an audience that will care.

Andy: When I speak to authors, I like to tell them that they shouldn’t get discouraged if they can’t get a publishing contract. After all realistically, most writers can’t. But I still believe failure to find a publisher doesn’t diminish the value of writing. I like to quote the great final line from Camus’ MYTH OF SISYPHUS. “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.” It seems like the premise behind THE NEW WORLD OF PUBLISHING is that becoming a published writer is a different kind of writing and offers qualitatively different challenges and opportunities. Tell us some more about this.

Laura: Personal writing—primarily for yourself—has tremendous value. Writing helps us process grief, make life decisions, understand ourselves, and record life stories for ourselves and for our families. Writing is an incredibly evocative, therapeutic, expressive tool. And if that’s as far as someone want to go with her writing—I’m cool with that. But for me personally, and for many of my students, a great wonderful leap happens when you start writing for an audience. It’s no longer just about self-expression; it’s about communication. There’s a two-way dialogue that happens between the author and her readers—and that’s a connection and a commitment that I find absolutely compelling. I’m a better writer because I’ve been published. When I have to make the story work for the reader, the story improves. No doubt about it.

Andy: Laura, let’s talk about you for a minute. You were a writer long before you became a published author. What changed when you became an author?

Laura: I feel an incredible responsibility to my readers. My first book, THE COURAGE TO HEAL, which I wrote with the poet Ellen Bass, was about an intensely personal experience for both me and my readers—having been sexually abused as a child. People didn’t read THE COURAGE TO HEAL for entertainment; they held it as a talisman, they slept with it under their pillow, they read one page or one paragraph at a time and then had to put it away until they could bear to read more. One woman barbequed her first copy because she was so enraged at everything the book was bringing up. When you touch people’s lives at such an intimate level, when you hold their lives and their trust in the palm of your hand, it creates an incredible covenant. Twenty-two years after THE COURAGE TO HEAL was first published, I still feel bound and helped by that covenant.  And that experience is at the heart of what I want to share with my students and the people who come to our conference. Words can change lives—not just yours—but the lives of your readers as well.


Tempest in a Tea Pot

April 19, 2011

By now, everyone in the book business is buzzing  about the affair of  Greg Mortenson’s  THREE CUPS OF TEA  and whether large portions of the book were fabricated or distorted. It’s a sordid affair and not the first time these kinds of scandals  surface in book publishing.

Here are the facts, or at least, the accusations.  On Sunday, April 17 Sixty Minutes aired a program claiming that there were substantial inaccuracies and distortions in Greg Mortenson’s bestseller, THREE CUPS OF TEA,  his story of how he came to his mission to help the poor in Afghanistan and Pakistan and how he founded The Central Asia Institute, the  organization that implements this  mission.

The centerpiece of the story is the accusation by author Jon Krakauer that the story is a “lie.”  Krakauer disputes Mortenson’s story that he stumbled into the village of Korphe where he promised to build a school in return for the kindness  the community showed him.

Additionally 60 Minutes  contested  a story by Mortenson that he was kidnapped and held hostage by the Taliban for 8 days. He even produces pictures of his captors in a subsequent book. Some of these alleged captors now deny the story. Interviewees on 60 Minutes claim that they were actually Mortenson’s protectors.

60 Minutes also examined the tax returns of    The Central Asia Institute.  They found that the Institute spent more money on promoting the book than supporting the  141 schools that they claimed they had financed.  60 Minutes  asserted that some of these schools have never been built. Additionally there were accusations of expensive charter flights and the obligatory footage of Mortenson dodging the camera.

Mortenson , meanwhile, has been explaining all this away and avoiding hostile interviews. His spokesmen said that he had heart surgery last week and would not be available for interviews.  But this did not stop him from doing a series of friendly interviews withOutside Magazine.

 Today we find out that Krakauer,  Mortenson’s chief accuser,  has written a 75 page book on the same subject, THREE CUPS OF DECEIT, just released  by ebook publisher This was not disclosed by 60 Minutes and raises the question of whether Krakauer (or 60 Minutes) rushed the story out to make some money on the scandal. The text in Krakauer’s book substantially tracks the 60 Minute story.

Viking, the publisher of THREE CUPS OF TEA, meanwhile has been making noises about launching an investigation into the veracity of the book.

THREE CUPS OF TEA has sold almost 4,000,000 copies. It is unlikely that they could all be returned with a refund.

A Great Annotated List of Blogs for Query Letters

April 18, 2011

 Check out Marci Seidel’s blog. She has a great annotated list of other blogs by authors, agents, and book industry people giving great advice about query letters.

Book Publishing by the Numbers III Bookstores

April 9, 2011

R. R. Bowker  announced its annual  market share analysis  of outlets for trade book sales. Here is the break down by percentages.

Outlet                          2009                2010

Barnes and Noble       22.5%              23%               12.5%              15.1%

Borders                           14%                 13.1%

Wal-Mart                        7.0%                5.8%   

Warehouse Clubs        3.6%                4.0%

Independents              3.4%                3.5%

Books-a-Million          2.8%                2.7%

Target                             2.0%                1.9%

Supermarkets              2.0%                1.7%

Other                                                      29.2%

There are some interesting and surprising numbers here.  First of all there are quite a few venues that presumably  aren’t broken out. These include but are not limited to: airport stores, libraries, school stores, book fairs, gift stores, other Internet outlets, Christian book stores, book clubs, mail order outlets, special and premium sales and of course self-published titles. That ‘s a lot. I’m sorry they didn’t break these down. It would leave me to question some of these statistics.

Before you ask, I will tell you that these numbers don’t include e-books, which in 2010  became a significant component of  trade book sales.  Some publishers have reported that e-book unit sales in 2010 account for about 10% of their total trade sales.

The most surprising number above is that Barnes and Noble (retail and on-line) continues to be the largest outlet for trade sales in America, far surpassing On the other hand, these figures indicate that most of the growth in retail is coming from Amazon. I would imagine that given Amazon’s dominance in e-book sales, if e-books had been included, Amazon would show a larger percentage of market share. Of course, Amazon has chosen not to break out their e-book sales. They don’t even break out their book sales. It is treated as part of  sales for their media division. Another reason to question the robustness of these statistics.

The other surprising statistic that should be alarming to all book lovers is that the market share of independent stores is only 3.5%. It’s nice to see that  their share is increasing though. If you ask anyone in publishing, they will tell you that independent stores continue to be the heart and soul of bookselling. But sadly, their role has declined to a small niche. Books that might otherwise have been invisible to book buyers found their audience through the passionate advocacy of independent booksellers. I  would ask: who is replacing them?  Who is providing the passion in this business? I think I know the answer to that question.  And I think that answer is pretty sad.

Borders Books declined slightly. This statistic also leads me to question the robustness of this analysis. Borders is the sick man of the book business. They have been pushed into bankruptcy this year and have already closed several hundred stores. There is a big question whether they will ever emerge from bankruptcy. Publishers seem unwilling to extend credit to them. There is a good chance that they won’t show up on next year’s list at all.

For awhile, Wal-mart was the fastest growing segment of the retail book business. There were a lot of people saying that they expected Wal-mart to be selling 25% of all books in the near future. This didn’t come to pass. Wal-mart’s market share declined substantially, more than any other market segment, more even than Borders.

Book Publishing By the Numbers 2: Paperback Bestsellers

April 3, 2011

 Adult paperback books have traditionally been treated as two separate categories. “Mass market paperbacks” are usually rack sized pocket books that you see in the grocery and mass market outlets. They have been declining as a genre for many years now.  Trade paperbacks are larger format books. You see them on the bookshelves and front tables of bookstores. This year there have been declines as well, probably attributable, as all else in publishing, to the growth of e-books.  Here are the bestselling paperbacks for 2010 along with their estimated domestic sales for the year.  I’m combining the two categories together for simplicity sake. Some of the books (Stieg Larsson, for instance) are in both trade and mass. I’ve lumped the sales together.


 Adult paperback  bestsellers


The Girl With the Dragoon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson, 6,114,964

The Girl Who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson, 4,827,738

The Last Song, Nicholas Sparks, 2,784,275

Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert,2,153,835

The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown, 2,367,052

Ford County, John Grisham, 1,050,000

Little Bee, Chris Cleve, 1,045,000

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, Janet Evanovich, 1,045,363

Pirate Latitude, Robert Crichton, 986,990

Breathless, Dean Koontz, 948,000

I, Alex Cross, James Patterson, 927,681

One Night, Debbie, McComber, 901,618

Happy Ever After, Nora Roberts, 900,000

Alex Cross’ Trial, James Patterson, 872,000

Live To Tell, Lisa Gardner, 872,000

A few things you might notice. What I find most surprising is that there is only one non-fiction book on the list, Eat, Pray, Love. Of course, it’s been on the list for years now. The second bestselling non-fiction book is Three Cups of Tea with sales of 450,000. It’s pretty far down the list (into the 50’s). And after that, The Blind Side: The Evolution of the Game  by Michael Lewis, (408,323).

The one thing that is not surprising is the dominance of highly commercial brand name fiction.  The same is true of the hardback bestsellers as well.  If you go further down the list though, you will find books by such well-regarded literary figures as: Harper Lee (yes, To Kill a Mockingbird! #20!), Abraham Verghese, Charles Dickens (thanks, Oprah!), and Kazuo Ishiguro. Literary snoots no doubt will see this list as another example of the decline of literary values in the Internet age. They are probably right, but not because of this list. If you go back twenty years and look at the list, you aren’t likely to find The collected works of Thomas Mann either.