Joshua Henkin: Some Thoughts on Book Groups, Book Sales, Book Review Sections, and the Publishing Industry – Part the Second

September 4th, 2008 · 5 Comments
by Joshua Henkin

[BS: Part two from Joshua Henkin. See yesterday’s post here.]

A digression, but not really: I teach in two MFA programs, Sarah Lawrence and Brooklyn College, and I have some very talented students. Every year, a number of these students enter their story collections in contests, usually sponsored by university presses, the winner of which gets their collection published. The competition is fierce; many of these contests have several hundred entries. You root for your students, of course, but to be truthful, I breathe a sigh of relief every time they lose. You win that contest and your book gets published by a university press and you sell maybe five hundred to a thousand copies. It’s still a book—often a good book—but if you want to sell your next book to a commercial press, that sales number from your first book is going to come back and bite you.

Case in point: When I was getting my MFA, a classmate of mine won the Associated Writers Program contest for his collection of stories, and it got published by the University of Massachusetts Press. The person who was the contest runner-up, and who therefore didn’t have his collection published, was a young writer named Tom Perrotta. Now, if Tom Perrotta had won that contest, would you know who he was today? Possibly not. The writer who did win that contest, though he subsequently published a novel with a trade press, you likely haven’t heard of. Or, if you have, it’s because he’s made a name for himself in the blog world and has gotten a book contract as a result of that. In other words, to the extent that he has succeeded (and he’s a good writer), he has done so despite his having had his story collection published, not because of it.

Back to
Matrimony. With a first novel that had weak sales as her ammunition, my agent, who’s both respected and powerful, had trouble selling Matrimony (In the case of Swimming Across the Hudson, she sold it in less than a week, based on the first fifty pages), and were it not for the fact that someone very high up at the house she eventually sold it to loved the book, it might not have sold at all.

In the end, I’m one of the lucky ones. Matrimony was published by Pantheon, a terrific publishing house, and I had the considerable support of a great editor, publisher, publicist, and sales force. The house spent money on coop and advertising and sent me on a long book tour. The reviews were well-timed and very positive. Within ten days of publication, Janet Maslin reviewed Matrimony very favorably in the daily New York Times. Two weeks after that, Jennifer Egan did the same in the NYTBR. At the end of the year, Matrimony was named a New York Times Notable Book.

All these things had a marked impact on sales (I know: I follow the numbers very carefully), as did the fact that I spent much of the past year and half putting the writing of my next novel on hold so that I could help publicize Matrimony. You don’t go visiting sixty book clubs for the mere fun of it. It takes you away from your family and friends, and from your next novel. And, in my case, book groups weren’t even the half of it. I lived on the Internet, guest blogging, getting my book out to bloggers big and small—all, it’s been clear, to Matrimony’s benefit.

Matrimony, let me be clear, is not a sexy book. It’s about the fifteen-year history of a marriage, and it’s character-driven and quiet. There are no pyrotechnics in the novel. It’s a book that easily could have gone nowhere without a lot of hard work on the part of Pantheon (and now Vintage,) and some additional leg work from me. In the end, Matrimony sold a good deal more than five thousand hardback copies and Vintage has high hopes for the paperback. And yet it didn’t sell astronomically. It did more than respectably, but if my publishers were relying on me to pay the bills, they’d be in trouble. I say all this because, if anything, the relative success of Matrimony is a testament to how tough the book business is. It took everything—a publisher that really got behind the book, great reviews, a really good cover, an author willing to drop everything else to help with promotion—in order to get the book to do even this well.

Which brings me back to my original concern about our feast-or-famine book culture—and, ever so indirectly and in the name of making this conversation at Booksquare an ongoing discussion, to the question of the demise of the LATBR. I have read with interest both what Steve Wasserman and what Kassia have written on the subject. I know much less than either of them do about the book review section. I live on the East Coast, and I never read the LATBR regularly. I wrote one review for Steve Wasserman and one for David Ulin, and both my novels were reviewed in the book review’s pages. I agree with Kassia that there’s good and bad criticism in print just as there’s good and bad criticism on the web. And it may very well be that the LATBR had it coming to them. And newspapers, it is true, are a business in trouble, and a sense of entitlement isn’t going get a book review section to come back.

All that said, I think there’s something that a book review section at a major newspaper offers that may be harder to find on the web. That’s the all-important inadvertent reader. Someone, that is, who would never buy the L.A. Times for the book review section but who nonetheless is stuck with it when the paper arrives. He ends up glancing at it and discovering a book he hadn’t known about. And seeing it next time he’s at the bookstore. And maybe buying a copy. What I’ve been trying to argue in this post is that it’s the inadvertent reader and the inadvertent book buyer who’s crucial, particularly for literary fiction, where the number of potential readers is so small and needs desperately to be expanded. This is why coop is crucial, why independent bookstores are crucial, why book review sections are crucial. They’re all avenues for making us aware of books we otherwise wouldn’t be aware of.

Now, the web can do this too, certainly, and a lot of the literary blogs have done a great deal to call attention to books that otherwise wouldn’t be known. But I think inadvertence occurs much less frequently on the web. Yes, a person who loves literary fiction might learn about a book on The Elegant Variation that she otherwise wouldn’t have known about, and that’s no small thing. But what about the person who doesn’t love literary fiction—or, more to the point, doesn’t realize that she in fact would love literary fiction if only it were placed in front of her? If you’re reading The Elegant Variation, you’re already part of the choir. But the choir is going to have to get a lot bigger if writers of literary fiction are going to make a go of it.

We all need inadvertent readers. In the same way that Michael Chabon developed a strong gay readership when, as a result of Mysteries of Pittsburgh, people mistakenly thought he was gay, I’ve gotten some inadvertent readers based on the title of my novel. Someone sees a novel called Matrimony and they might think they’ll be reading Jodi Picoult. Then they read Matrimony and discover it’s the farthest thing in the world from Jodi Picoult. In certain cases they’re angry—they feel duped—but in other cases—this is what a writer hopes for—they discover that there’s more to life than Jodi Picoult. That is one of the things I’ve been doing in visiting book groups: expanding my reader base and, in the process, trying to educate people who might otherwise be reluctant to leave their comfort zone about the pleasures of literary fiction.

In any case, it’s not an either/or proposition, and in this publishing climate, the loss of every book review section, every independent bookstore, every book blog cuts deep. The publishing world knows how important the New York Times Book Review is, which is why publishers continue to advertise there even when it’s not seen as cost-effective. The fact is, it is cost effective, certainly in the long run, because the loss of the NYTBR would be a huge, almost unfathomable blow.

I believe individual readers should have the same attitude toward writers that the big publishing houses have toward the NYTBR. Protect what you value. Buy books. I can’t tell you the number of times people have said to me, “I loved your book so much I lent it to five friends.” This is flattering, but it doesn’t help me with Bookscan. Every time a used copy of Matrimony gets sold on Amazon, that’s another sale that doesn’t get counted. People who are committed to books need to support writers because if they don’t there won’t be any of us left.

OK, at the risk of having ended on a preachy note, I want to thank Kassia again for having me as a guest blogger, and having allowed me to be so long-winded!

Fine print: Joshua Henkin’s website. Go. Buy Matrimony: paperback or (yay!) Kindle edition. Comment below — it’s free!

Thank you to Joshua Henkin for this great two-part look at book clubs, sales, and the industry.

File Under: Wrapped Up In Books

5 responses so far ↓

  • feener // Sep 4, 2008 at 6:53 am

    many folks in my bookclub use the library as well. that doesn’t bother me, what bothers me is the one VERY wealthy woman who buys used on amazon ? i explained to her how she is shorting the author and she could care less.

  • Ron Hogan // Sep 5, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Well, that’s how she got to be very wealthy, after all: by not caring about shorting the little people.

  • Leslie Carol Roberts // Sep 5, 2008 at 10:18 am

    How timely! Last night, I was on a panel at the California College of the Arts where I teach in the MFA Writing Program. It was me, and my colleagues Matthew Iribarne and Cooley Windsor, discussing the road to publication. Matthew’s book, Astronauts and Other Stories, came out with Simon and Schuster; Cooley’s Visit Me in California, came out with Northwestern; Nebraska published my book, The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica. Our stories varied but we all agreed on one point: how we had to make a “cottage industry” out of self promotion — and how really tough it is to get bookstores to stock your book. I don’t consider myself naive about publishing, but I had no idea I would find myself, after years of tough Antarctic research, talking to rather disinterested book store managers about why I thought people would read my book. It’s actually a surreal slice of the modern author’s life: Book goes from idea in head, to words on page, to revisions on pages, to object. I keep myself cheerful in the dreadful sales mode by recalled Glengarry, Glen Ross: First prize for sales? A Cadillac! Second? Steak knives! Third? You’re fired!
    I am, by the way, talking to book groups. My first group is near my home in San Francisco. I wonder how we go about selling ourselves to book groups further afield? Drive somewhere and walk door to door, like the Fuller Brush folks? Thoughts?

  • Alyce // Sep 5, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    Not being an author myself, I can only imagine how hard it must be to do well. The amount of books that are published sometimes seems overwhelming to me. It must be hard for an author to stand out.

    Also, I had never considered the value of a book review section in the paper for drawing inadvertent readers. It was a good point.

  • Ferida Wolff // Sep 7, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    I am an author and I know the difficulty in getting the word out about books. Even on vacations I am promoting my work. I was recently down east in Maine and went into every library and every bookstore that I could find. They were all very receptive, the librarians particularly, to my books. Had I not poked my nose in, however, they would not have heard of them. A woman in a bookstore who heard me talking asked to look at one of the picture books, Is a Worry Worrying You? When she finished reading it, she said it was terrific and asked why it wasn’t flying off the shelves. I have to get it on the shelves first!