November 6, 2019

Who Gave You the Right to Tell That Story? Ten authors on the most divisive question in fiction, and the times they wrote outside their own identities.


A few years ago, a writer named Ashima Saigal from Grand Rapids, Michigan, witnessed an incident on a bus in which a group of black kids were mistreated by the police. She was disturbed, and soon after, she wrote about it. Later, reading over what she’d written, she realized the story wasn’t working. She’d tried to write from one of the kid’s perspectives, but Saigal, who is Indian-American, wasn’t sure that she had the skill or knowledge to write from the point of view of a black child. She decided to sign up for an online creative writing course called “Writing the Other.”

The course was founded by the speculative-fiction writers Nisi Shawl, who is black, and Cynthia Ward, who is white, nearly twenty years ago. They’d met a decade or so earlier, at a fantasy and science-fiction workshop, and were inspired to design their own writing class after a conversation with another classmate, a white friend who’d declared that she’d never write a character who didn’t share her background or identity because she’d be sure to get it wrong. “My immediate thought was, ‘well that’s taking the easy way out!’” recalled Shawl. While imagining the lives of people who are different from you is virtually a prerequisite of most successful fiction writing, the consequences of doing it poorly have grown more serious since the pre-Twitter, pre-woke ’90s, as the conversation about who gets to tell whose stories has moved from the fringes of publishing into the mainstream. J.K. Rowling, Lionel Shriver, and Kathryn Stockett have all caught heat for botching the job. In the young-adult fiction world, a number of books have been pulled in advance of their releases for clichéd and problematic portrayals of minorities. The conversation is often depicted in the media as a binary: On one side are those who argue that only writers from marginalized backgrounds should tell stories about people who share their cultural histories — a course correction for an industry that is overwhelmingly white — while on the other are those who say this wish amounts to censorship.

John Sargent’s Math Just Doesn’t Add Up

The Digital Reader

Today is the 30th of October. In two days Macmillan will enact its new policy embargoing ebook sales to libraries, a policy which is so unpopular that John Sargent has sent out another letter defending the policy.

Today’s letter makes just as little sense as the one Sargent sent out back in July (PDF). Sargent is apparently convinced that library ebooks – but not the print books in a library’s collection – negatively impact retail ebook sales.

I have already previously shown that the idea that only library ebook usage can hurt retail ebook sales doesn’t really make sense given what we know about library patron behavior. To put it simply, when patrons browse libraries, we are looking for availability, not a specific format. Make the ebook more difficult to access, something the publishers have been doing for the past 8 years, and we’ll check out the print book instead.

October 29, 2019

Will Robots Make the Next Big Bestsellers?

Publishers Weekly

In November, around 100 coders and creative writers are expected to take the National Novel Generation Month (NaNoGenMo) challenge, for which they’ll build computer programs, specialized artificial intelligence, and other digital tools capable of generating 50,000-word novels. According to a survey of 352 AI researchers, AI will be writing bestselling novels 20 years from now—and NaNoGenMo offers a very early glimpse of that future.

NaNoGenMo began in 2013, when author and creative programmer Darius Kazemi saw thousands of human writers drafting 50,000-word manuscripts for November’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge and instead invited his Twitter readers to “spend the month writing code that generates a 50k word novel.” Between 100 and 200 people take part each year, a tiny crew compared to the more than 798,000 active NaNoWriMo writers. Nevertheless, according to NaNoGenMo participant Zach Whalen, the coding marathon has generated around 400 completed novels and nearly 45 million words.

“Seeing people in NaNoGenMo use AI and scripting in creative ways has been really illuminating,” said author Janelle Shane, who has participated twice. In November, she will release You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, a nonfiction book from Little, Brown’s Voracious imprint describing her AI writing experiments. For NaNoGenMo 2018, she shared a collection of Dungeons & Dragons character descriptions created by her homemade AI. “AI is going to be used as an increasingly sophisticated tool,” Shane said. “But if you give 10 artists the same tool, they’ll come up with 10 very different things. NaNoGenMo highlights this ingenuity and all the different things we can draw out of the same base model.”

October 21, 2019

The Little-Known ‘Slow Fire’ That’s Destroying All Our Books

Lit Hub

It’s called a “slow fire,” this continuous acidification and subsequent embrittlement of paper that was created with the seeds of its own ruin in its very fibers. In a 1987 documentary on the subject, the deputy Librarian of Congress William Welsh takes an embrittled, acid-burned book and begins tearing pages out by the handful, crumbling them into shards with an ease reminiscent of stepping on a dried-up insect carcass.

The destruction is inevitable. Depending on how a book was made and how it’s been stored, embrittlement can happen in as little as 30 to 100 years. Already, books have been lost, and the methods of preservation are too limited, time-consuming, and expensive to address the scale of the problem. Mass deacidification, where an alkaline neutralizing agent is introduced via a spray or solution applied to paper, once seemed like the golden solution; but while it can be used to prevent slightly acidified paper from deteriorating, it doesn’t reverse the effects of prior damage. The fallback is digitization—a fancy way to say mass-scanning, and the most used method of saving the content of a text, but not the book itself. In an article about the Library of Congress’ digitization efforts, Kyle Chayka reports that it would take literally decades of scanning to preserve the institution’s over 160 million object collection. At our existing technology’s current scanning pace, preserving the prints and photographs division alone would take about 300 years.

Self-Publishing Grew 40 Percent in 2018, New Report Reveals


According to the latest report from ProQuest affiliate Bowker, self-publishing grew at a rate of 40 percent in 2018 – and shows no signs of slowing down.

Bowker’s annual study, “Self-Publishing in the United States, 2013-2018,” highlights self-publishing trends based on the number of ISBNs registered in the Bowker Books In Print® database. A book’s ISBN is a 13-digit product identifier used by libraries, booksellers, publishers and internet retailers for ordering, listing, sales records and inventory.

The combined total of self-published print books and ebooks with registered ISBNs grew from almost 1.2 million in 2017 to more than 1.6 million in 2018. The vast majority of those books came from the top three independent publishing platforms.

“The self-publishing landscape continues to improve, creating more and more opportunities for authors to manage their own path through the process,” said Beat Barblan, Vice President of Publishing and Data Services at Bowker and chairman of the board of the International ISBN Agency. “As more authors take advantage of the abundant tools now available to publish, distribute and market their own books, we expect that self-publishing will continue to grow at a steady pace.”

September 30, 2019

It’s a Fact: Mistakes Are Embarrassing the Publishing Industry

The New York Times

In the past year alone, errors in books by several high-profile authors — including Naomi Wolf, the former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, the historian Jared Diamond, the behavioral scientist and “happiness expert” Paul Dolan and the journalist Michael Wolff — have ignited a debate over whether publishers should take more responsibility for the accuracy of their books.

Some authors are hiring independent fact checkers to review their books. A few nonfiction editors at major publishing companies have started including rigorous professional fact-checking in their suite of editorial services.

While in the fallout of each accuracy scandal everyone asks where the fact checkers are, there isn’t broad agreement on who should be paying for what is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process in the low-margin publishing industry.

“The standard line from publishers is, ‘We rely on our authors,’ and, well, that’s not good enough,” said Gabriel Sherman, a journalist who paid two fact checkers $100,000 from his advance for his 2014 book, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” about Roger E. Ailes and Fox News. “I wish publishers did see the importance of fact-checking as essentially an insurance policy.”

Pen American Report Explores Pernicious Practice of Banning Books in Nation’s Prisons

Pen America

In a new policy paper, the literary and human rights organization PEN America showcases the impact of the nation’s most pernicious book ban: the system of restrictions that exist across U.S. prisons, jails, and other incarceration settings. Some 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated across the country. Against that backdrop, Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban details the types of book bans prisoners face, the arbitrariness with which they are implemented, and the lack of transparency and oversight that leads to bans on titles from Nobel Prize winners and leading historical figures. The publication of this paper comes amid PEN America’s Literature Locked Up initiative for Banned Books Week 2019.

“This year, as the country focuses on unfair and arbitrary book bans nationwide, we wanted to focus on the pernicious ban on books in the nation’s prisons,” said James Tager, author of the report and PEN America’s deputy director of free expression policy and research. “Literature offers a lifeline for incarcerated people in the midst of a dehumanizing system. We should be promoting access to literature in our prisons. Instead, our policies today are arbitrary, irrational, and at times needlessly cruel. We urgently need a course correction that upholds the right to read behind bars.”

September 16, 2019

What is hybrid publishing?
Nathan Bransford

In the last twenty years there has been an explosion of new publishing models that take advantage of new opportunities afforded by the internet and advances in printing on demand. There’s also been a corresponding rise in scams. So what is “hybrid publishing” and how does it fit into all of this?

Hybrid publishing isn’t quite traditional publishing and it isn’t quite self-publishing. Essentially: A hybrid publisher takes on some or all of the functions of a traditional publisher, but the author shares in more of both the initial investment (in the form of fees) as well as the upside (in the form of higher royalties).

It’s tough to generalize about hybrid publishing because there are so many different models with so many differing levels of legitimacy. Many scam artists out there have taken advantage of the hype around hybrid publishing in order to put a glossy spin on exploitive practices.

Why Angry Librarians Are Going to War With Publishers Over E-Books

If I wanted to borrow A Better Man by Louise Penny—the country’s current No. 1 fiction bestseller—from my local library in my preferred format, e-book, I’d be looking at about a 10-week waitlist. And soon, if the book’s publisher, a division of Macmillan, has its way, that already-lengthy wait time could get significantly longer.

In July, Macmillan announced that come November, the company will only allow libraries to purchase a single copy of its new titles for the first eight weeks of their release—and that’s one copy whether it’s the New York Public Library or a small-town operation that’s barely moved on from its card catalog. This has sparked an appropriately quiet revolt. Librarians and their allies quickly denounced the decision when it came down, and now the American Library Association is escalating the protest by enlisting the public to stand with libraries by signing an online petition with a populist call against such restrictive practices. (The association announced the petition Wednesday at Digital Book World, an industry conference in Nashville, Tennessee.) What’s unclear is whether the association can get the public to understand a byzantine-seeming dispute over electronic files and the right to download them.

September 2, 2019

The new literary tastemakers: can they be trusted?
The Bookseller

Last week, Barack Obama released his annual summer reading list, receiving 250,000 Facebook reactions and 26,000 comments. The ex-president is certainly not the first public personality to tout their literary nous; everyone from Emma Watson to Kim Kardashian West has opened their bookshelves to the world. But how are these celebrity tastemakers transforming what we read, and what does it mean for professional literary criticism?

To answer this, we need to understand why these public personalities choose to share what they’re reading. While all profess some form of altruistic mission, epitomised by Oprah Winfrey’s desire to “get the whole country reading again”, there are secondary benefits to having a successful book club.

Trade Sales Rose 3.8% in First Six Months
Publishers Weekly

Sales of trade books rose 3.8% in the first six months of 2019 over the comparable period in 2018, according to figures compiled by the AAP as part of its StatShot program.

AAP includes sales of adult books, children/young adult titles as well as religious presses in its trade group, and the religion segment had the biggest gain in the period with sales up 11.4%. Sales in the children/YA segment rose 7.4% in the first half of 2019 over 2018, while adult book sales increased 1.4%.

August 19, 2019

The Hazards of Writing While Female
The Atlantic

Why has the literary world gone crazy for Sally Rooney? Is it her age—28? Is it her two acclaimed novels, Conversations With Friends and Normal People? Or is it her “sensuous lips”?

According to the Swiss critic Martin Ebel, it is all three. In a recent articlepraising Rooney’s work, he wrote that the hype around her was helped by “promising” photographs where she “looks like a startled deer with sensuous lips.” The phrasing prompted a Twitter hashtag—#dichterdran, meaning “that’s more like it”—that was full of sarcastic suggestions for how male authors could be written about in future reviews.

Ebel’s piece points to a larger problem in the media: an asymmetric value system where men do, and women are. Elif Shafak, the author of 10 novels including 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, told me that she was once interviewed by an American writer in Istanbul. They had a wide-ranging conversation about literature, history, and politics, “and then when his travel book was published, I saw in horror that he had mostly written about what he thought I looked like.” In Shafak’s telling, “a male novelist is primarily a novelist. Nobody talks about his gender. But a woman novelist is primarily a woman.”

July 29, 2019

Can a Book Cure Mental Illness?
The New York Times

In graduate school, I remember my delight at hearing the word bibliotherapy, a term for the psychological benefit patients get from discussing books in a session. I had always found emotional comfort in books; how healing it was to find myself in fictional characters or in a stranger’s memoir, to realize I wasn’t alone in my particular distress or messy situation or fraught emotional makeup. But to know that this was a thing, well, I was practically giddy.

It’s not clear when bibliotherapy first appeared in the psychological literature, but psychologists didn’t invent the concept. Back in the first millennium, the portal to the library of Pharaoh Ramses II bore the inscription “Healing-place of the Soul.” The term itself was coined in 1916 by the minister Samuel Crothers. It seems a no-brainer, though, that therapists, bookish by nature, would adopt it in their practices.

Not only does reading help people to feel less alone, but also patients often find it easier to confront their own difficult experiences or thoughts in the context of a book. “I just got to the part where Olivia says she’s not sure she still loves her husband,” a patient might say of a character in a novel, as a way of working through her own conflicted feelings before she’s ready to face them directly herself.

Against Style Guides — Sort Of

When Lynne Truss wrote, in her best-selling 2003 grammar screed Eats, Shoots & Leaves, of “a world of plummeting punctuation standards,” she was (perhaps unwittingly) joining an ancient tradition. How long, exactly, have shortsighted curmudgeons been bemoaning the poor grammar of the generations that follow theirs? According to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, the answer is, like, forever: “Some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young.”

The notion of being taught language has always been oxymoronic because language is in a constant state of flux, a restless, malleable, impatient entity that, like the idea of now, can never be fixed in place. Take, for instance, the journey of the semicolon as chronicled in the delightful, enlightening new book by Cecelia Watson, Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark. The twisty history of the hybrid divider perfectly embodies the transience of language, the ways it can be shaped by cultural shifts that have nothing to do with correctness or clarity. Invented by the Italian humanist and font pioneer Aldus Manutius in the late-15th century, the semicolon was originally “meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon” (hence its design).

Other punctuation marks — such as the “punctus percontativus, or the rhetorical question mark, which was a mirror-image version of the question mark” — turned out to be passing fads, but the semicolon lasted, owing partly to its usefulness and partly to the trends of the day. For much of the early 1800s, usage of the parenthesis and the colon declined drastically. Two grammar guides of the time declared the parenthesis “nearly obsolete,” while another noted, “The COLON is now so seldom used by good writers that rules for its use are unnecessary.” As those marks waned, the semicolon waxed, flourishing to the point of overuse.

Audiobook Sales Jumped 24% in 2018
Publishers Weekly

Publishers’ sales of audiobooks rose 24.5% in 2018 over 2019, reaching $940 million, according to the recent sales survey sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association. Unlike past surveys, the 2018 report features publishers’ sales receipts, rather than estimated consumer sales.

The report also confirmed the role sales of digital audio have played in the growth in the format. Over 91% of audiobook sales came from the digital format, the APA said.

The survey found that the most popular audiobook genres in the U.S. last year were general fiction, mysteries/thrillers/suspense, and science fiction/fantasy. However, the APA noted, nonfiction audio sales have grown and represented 32.7% of unit sales in 2018, led by general nonfiction, history/biography/memoir, and self-help.

June 18, 2019

Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?

This exercise in perspective-taking is like a training course in understanding others. The Canadian cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley calls fiction “the mind’s flight simulator”. Just as pilots can practise flying without leaving the ground, people who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel. In his research, he has found that as we begin to identify with the characters, we start to consider their goals and desires instead of our own. When they are in danger, our hearts start to race. We might even gasp. But we read with luxury of knowing that none of this is happening to us. We don’t wet ourselves with terror or jump out of windows to escape.

Having said that, some of the neural mechanisms the brain uses to make sense of narratives in stories do share similarities with those used in real-life situations. If we read the word “kick”, for example, areas of the brain related to physically kicking are activated. If we read that a character pulled a light cord, activity increases in the region of the brain associated with grasping.

To follow a plot, we need to know who knows what, how they feel about it and what each character believes others might be thinking. This requires the skill known as “theory of mind”. When people read about a character’s thoughts, areas of the brain associated with theory of mind are activated.

How Kickstarter Is Reshaping The Publishing Industry

That inclusion is the big difference between the traditional publishing industry and Kickstarter’s book projects: The latter has gatekeepers and the former doesn’t. The argument in favor of gatekeepers is that they serve to shift the good from the bad. The argument against them? Thanks to systemic bias and prejudices, they winnow out plenty of good as well as bad.

“Kickstarter allows writers to go directly to readers and let them choose which books get made, which has resulted in books being published that speak to experiences that often aren’t represented in mainstream publishing,” Atwell explains. ”The Destroy anthology series is one example of this: it’s a series of speculative fiction and fantasy anthologies dedicated to showcasing the work and stories of People of Color, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people. Mainstream publishers might have looked at these projects and declared them too niche or imagined that there wasn’t a market for them, but these Kickstarter projects have proved that there definitely is an audience for stories centering people who don’t often get to see themselves represented.”

Business is indeed booming for Kickstarter’s “Publishing” and “Journalism” categories, which together are up 6% in dollars pledged YTD over the same period last year, at $8.9 million over 2018’s $8.4 million. Across Kickstarter’s ten-year lifespan, a total of $178.6 million has been pledged to Publishing and Journalism projects by more than two million individual backers.

How Has the Internet Changed Book Culture?
Publishers Weekly

If there was one major takeaway from the evening, it was that all of the panelists believed that the internet has served to expand literary culture and its reach. Straub described literary activity on the web as “a good cocktail party, where it’s always busy and you’re not the only one there,” and Lee noted that readers who might have had a hard time finding others with similar tastes before the age of social media no longer have that problem. “You can really find your tribe online,” she said, adding that this makes the internet an ideal tool for “having a one to one conversation with the people who love to talk about books” in a way that allows authors, publishers, and others to really “zero in on readers.”

Zimmerman agreed. “Historically, being a book lover off the internet was either very personal,” she said, “or very academic. And what the internet allows us to do in changing the way we interact with books is see what people connect with…[,]how people form identity communities, and how those communities affect what they read and how they read it.”

Any big forum has its downside, of course. For Straub, that’s the needless culture of one-star reviews on sites like GoodReads or Amazon. “Is that the best use of your time?” she asked. “To me, rating things is not the point. The point is finding the books that speak to you and finding the other people who those books speak to—if you want to. Or just enjoying the book.”

May 21, 2019

Literature provides shelter. That’s why we need it
The Guardian

As we lurch into the future, in this blitzkrieg of idiocy, Facebook “likes,” fascist marches, fake-news coups, and what looks like a race toward extinction—what is literature’s place? What counts as literature? Who decides? Obviously, there is no single, edifying answer to these questions. So, if you will forgive me, I’m going to talk about my own experience of being a writer during these times—of grappling with the question of how to be a writer during these times, in particular in a country like India, a country that lives in several centuries simultaneously.

A Different Kind of Literary Festival
Publishers Weekly

Audiences packed venues throughout New York City, from an East Village basement to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, May 6–12 to hear more than 200 writers, artists, and activists speak about the blurring boundary between private and public spaces. Now in its 15th year, PEN World Voices has distinguished itself as an international literary festival with a focus on human rights. Founded by Esther Allen, Michael Roberts, and Salman Rushdie in reaction to 9/11, the festival aims to expand dialogue between the U.S. and the rest of the world—a mission that PEN America said “has never been more relevant.”

PEN recruited Chip Rolley as senior director of literary programs in 2017, and last year he began to direct the festival with an approach that links literature and current events. “My hope is that festivals can provide a bridge between the ideas and issues that we’re confronting in the news or talking about with our friends and loved ones with the literature that we’re reading,” Rolley said. “I try to execute a theme that creates a through line so that the festival itself is a kind of a story. I think I’ve done that both years, and this year in particular.”

For the 2019 festival, the theme was “open secrets,” and many authors from around the world described how they’ve resisted oppression to speak the truth and reach large audiences in the process.