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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Nielson's Numbers

I can't believe I have never blundered over this before, but though it is old news, these are such interesting statistics that they bear repeating yet again.

In 2004, Nielson BookScan tracked the sales of 1.2 million books in the US. And this is what they came up with:

* 950,000 sold less than 99 copies
* Of the rest, 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies
* Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies
* Fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies
* Only ten books sold more than a million

The average book in the US sells about 500 copies.

Oh boy. It's enough to give any publisher nightmares -- and aspiring authors much pause to think.

The theory used to be that the ten books that sold 1,000,000+ subsidized the rest. In view of the huge advances made fashionable late last century, is that the way still? My personal opinion is that the mid-list author -- the fellow who earns out his $25,000 advance and goes on to sell 20-30,000 -- might not be rich, but provides the glue that keeps the fabric of the publishing world intact. And the figures point out that he is a very rare bird indeed.

Nielson BookScan

Owned by Dutch conglomerate VNU, Nielson surged into the book data business in January 2001, following the success of Nielson SoundScan, which tracked point-of-sale figures for music. The same method applies to Nielson BookScan, which relies on sales data from a number of book sellers, which in the US include Barnes & Noble, Borders,, Follett, Costco, and a growing number of independents. However, it does not include figures from outlets such as Wal-Mart, drug stores, and supermarkets, which in certain genres are large. (In New Zealand, the major chain, Whitcoulls, does not provide data.) Because of this, they say they cover 70% of sales. The figure, according to other sources, is more like 65%, and under-reporting is rife. Figures for inspirational books, or books of herbal remedies, for instance, which sell heavily at non-traditional venues such as churches or health food stores, are going to be skewed.

Despite skepticism, however, Nielson BookScan is widely used by both publishers and the media. Publishing is a business, and business is a numbers game, and hard data is something to be treasured. As one commentator (Morris Rosenthal, remarked, "BookScan data gives acquisitions editors a quick and painless (or brainless) way to estimate the market size for a particular title."

However, it is not without its flaws. As small press publisher Jacqueline Church Simonds (BeagleBay Books) observed to me just this morning, "We can get a category over-view that says [for instance], yes, books on Botox are doing well, so let’s do a Botox book. But by the time you hit the streets, the public may be (as the saying goes) so over Botox books that you might as well just set the pallets on fire in your warehouse. A tricksy biz is books…" she wryly went on.

According to an excellent commentary by Jim Milliot and Steven Zeitchik in the Publishers Weekly (12 January 2004,, the benefit to authors is doubtful: "Agents in particular have been ambivalent, saying editors too often wield the figures as a blunt instrument in negotiations." Australian Malcolm Knox is even more bitter. In an article called, "The ExFactor: BookScan and the death of the Australian novelist" (, he claims that the reliance on figures that Nielson BookScan facilitates will spell the end of the great novel. Good editors want to publish good books, but are increasingly overwhelmed by the marketing department, which can now quote devastating figures. He cites several great prizewinning Australian writers who "stand a chance of being read a hundred years from now," but who can't get their books published. "More awards than readers," sniffed a publisher about one. I believe Knox has a point: in 1851, given sales figures for his two previous books, Mardi and White-Jacket, Melville could never have published Moby-Dick (which itself did not do well). And the world would have been a much poorer place. Somewhere there is a writer laboring over a future War and Peace, who doesn't have a chance of getting it published because his last two books didn't break the 10,000-sales figure.

The greatest misuse of the figures, apparently, is in the field of the media. Daniel Gross, in Slate, June 2, 2006, claims that "in the hands of journalists and polemicists, BookScan data has become a blunt instrument ot humiliate, minimize accomplishments, and express joy for the misfortune of other writers." (Book Clubbed: Why writers never reveal how many books their buddies have sold, One of the culprits he names is Edward Wyatt of the New York Times, "a connoisseur of disappointing BookScan figures." Looking at the examples he gives of Wyatt's revelations, it is hard to feel sorry for Martha Stewart because her sales failed to justify her two-million-dollar-advance, but a pang is certainly experienced when Wyatt also reports poor sales for Salman Rushdie, and outright alarm when one learns that he "cited BookScan figures to show that the finalists for the fiction category of the National Book Award were a bunch of poorly selling obscurities."

Could the same happen in New Zealand? Unfortunately, it seems all too possible. See my next post.

Those bestseller lists again

When the latest New Zealand Society of Authors newsletter arrived in my inbox (Friday, 27 June), I was delighted to see that the editor now qualifies the two lists (five fiction bestsellers and ten nonfiction bestsellers) with the caption, "The above list is compiled from locally produced publications only." In addition, books by New Zealand authors that make the local international bestseller lists are named.

I was dismayed, however, to see that none of the four works of fiction shortlisted for the Montana award appeared in the list of fiction bestsellers. Readers may remember me reporting the stoush over the failure to shortlist the usual five books of fiction. (If you don't, then scan older posts, or go to Graham Beattie's bookblog @ A comment made at the time was that being shortlisted was worth sales of one or two thousand. Is that really so? Only Nielson Bookscan could tell us.

The NZSA, I hear, is in conversation with the very affable and helpful Nielson people here about the possibility of giving authors access to sales figures for their own works. I can see that this could have benefits. Most publishers send out statements twice yearly, and many take advantage of a clause in the contract that allows them to add ninety days to that, which means that an author may have very little idea of how his or her book is doing until nine months have elapsed. However, it must be remembered that Nielson is a business, not a charity, and this service would come at a cost. Whether it is worth it is up to the author him- or herself.

Youth and New York Editors

Are American editors getting younger? Heather Vogel Frederick, author of the warmly received pre-teen series The Mother-Daughter Book Club, and mother of teenaged sons, thinks so.
"I had always had this vision of an editorial relationship with an older, wiser, mentor type of editor -- think Maxwell Perkins, Ursula Nordstrom, William Maxwell," she says. And her editor with Simon & Schuster turned out to be a bright young thing! However, Heather likes her so much that she enticed her to come along with her to Vassar College, where she wanted to do a bit of research at the library. "So we get off the train in Poughkeepsie, and the taxi driver takes one look at us and says to me, "Here to get your daughter settled at the college, are you?"
The editor, bless her, was embarrassed. Heather found it hilarious. She forgot to tell me about the cabbie's reaction.
My own editor with Algonquin Books, Antonia Fusco, who was another bright young thing when I first met her about five years ago, has made the inspiring and courageous decision to make a mid-career swerve, and leave to teach at a high-needs Brooklyn school. I will miss her sadly, and greatly admire her sense of vocation . . . but now wonder if she has done it before she hits that rapidly lowering age median for New York editors!

Mister Pip

Another whisper from Spy Mouse is that US librarians are giving an enthusiastic recommendation to Mister Pip by Booker shortlisted author Lloyd Jones.

While Jones, a fellow Wellingtonian, might be missing out on royalties and payment rights from any American version of the Author's Fund (which, in New Zealand, compensates local writers for sales lost through library borrowing), this is great news. Not only should it revive interest in the great Charles Dickens, but it must help the international image of New Zealand writing in general.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Poets laureate

Believe it or not, a man who was poet laureate of the United States, 2001-2003, is inspired by . . . Warner Bros. cartoons.


There he leans
cracking wise,
biting his bright orange carrot
bugging the world
speed demon
and master of disguise
he is everywhere at once
and spectacularly eared
he is armed with dynamite
he is the only one
who really knows what's up

Billy Collins, poet laureate alumnus, meditates poetically on creative impetus in the Wall Street Journal.

His latest collection, Ballistics, will be published in September.

Nelson Wattie sent me a clipping from The Independent (10/6/08) with a story by Emily Dugan and Ben Dowell: FEMALE CONTENDERS RULE OUT 'ARCHAIC' POST OF POET LAUREATE.

Three of the leading contenders for the post of Britain's first female laureate have dropped out of the game. At first glance, it is perhaps because they don't like sherry: the remuneration includes 630 bottles of the Spanish variety. However, it seems that writing "royal poems" is the rub. Andrew Motion, the current laureate, does a good job of this "without making a fool of himself," but others, including New Zealand's own Fleur Adcock (a resident of Britain), reckon it would be more trouble than it's worth. The fee -- in addition to that "butt of sack per annum" -- is just five thousand quid, hardly an incentive to abandon literary integrity. As Ruth Padel says, the kind of poetry she writes simply isn't suited to royal pomp. Fleur Adcock agrees, adding, poetry is a private business, and not meant to be carried out in public.

These women are in illustrious company: the laureatship has previously been turned down by poets of the ilk of Philip Larkin, Thomas Gray, and Sir Walter Scott.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Shack

Talking about debuts and warm fuzzies, the New York Times has the story of how a privately published book about a grieving father meeting God -- in the form of a jolly African-American woman -- became a surprise bestseller. Apparently, it was by word of mouth alone, yet people buy it by the carton! Taken over by Hachette after the word got around, The Shack is now being publicized in places like the NY subway. And perfectly logical, too -- the NY subway in a heatwave is a place where thousands of people desperately want and need a word of spiritual hope.

And note: the story qualifies the number of reported sales witht the admission that they come from Nielson Bookscan, which tracks only "about 70 per cent of sales." So the bestseller lists are not reliable over there, either, it seems. That The Shack is a phenomenon is undeniable, nonetheless.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Gift of Rain and other debuts

Spy Mouse reminds me that one of the warm and fuzzy stories of London publishing is the remarkable success of Tan Twan Eng's debut novel, The Gift of Rain, set in Penang during the Japanese occupation in WW2. Rejected by just about every major publisher, the first thirty pages landed in the slush pile at Jane Gregory's literary agency, to be fished out by a perceptive reader, who fell in love with it. Published in March 2007 by the spanking new press Myrmidon Publishers, it received rave reviews. The first indication the publishers and agent had that it was longlisted for the Booker was a blizzard of e-mails from the editors who had rejected the novel, exclaiming in extravagant London fashion, "Congratulations! You did it, and we grovel."

The Gift of Rain is just out in paperback. Spy Mouse whispers that another find is an Australian writer, Stephen Scourfield, whose debut, The Other Country, has been shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Best First Book award. And look out for Absolution, by Caro Ramsay.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

J. K. Rowling speaks at Harvard

To see/hear the complete version of this amusing and inspirational chat, go to

*The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination*

June 5, 2008

(J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling /Harry Potter/ book series,
delivers her Commencement Address, "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination," at the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association.)

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you.' Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I've experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world's best-educated Harry Potter convention.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can't remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the 'gay wizard' joke, I've still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step towards personal improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called 'real life', I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents' car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and
I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person's idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was
jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a longtime, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I
was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift,for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned. ...

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and
innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity,
it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared. ...

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and
understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's minds, imagine themselves into other people's places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I
do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live
in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that
brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people's lives simply by existing....

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is
what matters.

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The naughtiness of certain words, from

On a casual check of the page for Deadly Shoals, the fourth in the Wiki Coffin mystery series, I was intrigued to note that a review by J. Cameron Smith, a young woman of ACT, Australia, had elicited no less than thirteen comments. What had she said that was so controversial? Nothing, as it turned out -- it was editing by that had caused some hilarity.

The pertinent line in the review reads, Along the way, the reader acquires all manner of important nautical information and factoids [lovely word!], including the role of [...] in Polynesian navigation.

"[...]???" said the reviewer's readers.
"Apparently, the word 'testicles' requires censorship," explained J. Cameron Smith, "and was excised accordingly."
"!!!!" said the readers.
Yes, I have it on the best authority that in the old days of voyaging canoes, those sensitive parts of the male anatomy played an important part in sensing the flow and direction of currents and patterns in waves. So that is the explanation of one mystery. The next is whether "blogger" will excise the word, too.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A small publisher at Book Expo America

If you want to know what it is like for the president of a small press to trudge (yes, trudge) about the displays of BEA, you can't do better than read the candid and amusing blog by Jacqueline Church Simonds, who is director and publisher of Beaglebay Books and Creative Minds Press, and -- to paraphrase Mark Twain -- can write, and be critic, and be a printer's devil, too.

Here 'tis at . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Mysterious Magazines

I am rather late on picking up on this one, but the New York Sun published a very useful article by Otto Penzler discussing the range of mystery mags. out there. Read it at: I really must question the parlous comment about Mystery Scene, though: scolding the editors for having the periodical on sale at Barnes & Noble and so forth, for heaven's sake! Would Mr. Penzler prefer it if mysteries were sold solely in mystery bookstores?

I hasten to add that specialist mystery bookstores do a terrific job of keeping the genre going; the dedication and enthusiasm of the staff at Partners and Crime in Greenwich Village, for instance (see me orating there) is outstanding. However, can it possibly do their sales harm if magazines profiling mysteries and mystery writers are out there in the wider market?

Saturday, June 14, 2008


It's such fun to know famous people, and top of my favorites list is photographer Robert A. Schaefer, Jr., who sent me this great photograph a couple of days ago. While sunning at Red Hook, Brooklyn, he spied Queen Mary 2 departing for unknown seas, and -- as always -- had his camera with him. (Now, that's quite a skill, having one's camera handy at camera-worthy moments, something that lesser mortals like me never quite manage.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine July/August 2008

I received this special double issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine a few days ago, and have been luxuriating in dipping into it since, sampling one story at a time and making the magazine last. Cover story is Tom Wasp and the Tower of London by Amy Myers, an amusing yarn involving a couple of incorrigible chimney sweeps, which gives a whole new view (from the chimney-tops!) of Victorian London -- and a good feel of the time and setting it does provide, too. "Plus . . ." says the jacket blurb, "Brendan DuBois, Joan Druett, Martin Limon, And the winning Black Orchid Novella."

Yes! Another Wiki Coffin story! Murder in the Hold. For those not in the know, the short stories featuring our young half-Maori, half-Yankee detective are set on a small and elderly Nantucket whaleship in the year 1831. In this episode, Wiki finds a clubbed body in the blubber hold, and is immediately accused of the crime -- "I hear that Maori warriors kill with clubs in New Zealand," says the first mate darkly. 'Nuff said ...

For those who are wondering about the Black Orchid Award: When AHMM and the Wolfe pack (see their website in the side bar) launched the competition, the idea was to celebrate the heritage of Erle Stanley Garner's Nero Wolfe, the epitome of the twentieth century detective. They say that John Gregory Betancourt's story stood out. Well, to be frank, this story reminded me more of Erle Stanley Garner's other great creation, Perry Mason -- plus perhaps the quadriplegic detective (whose name I can't remember) described by Jeffrey Deaver -- because the detective is grappling with the crippling after-effects of being run down by a New York cab. (Oh boy, have we all nearly been there.) As such, it is marvellous. A highly recommended read.

More to come ....