June 18, 2019

Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?
BBC

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
Forbes

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.

May 3, 2019

The State of the Mystery: Part I of a Roundtable Discussion
CrimeReads

Once again, the Edgar Awards are upon us—that august night of crime and mystery when honors are bestowed, traditions celebrated, and champions of the genre feted. This Thursday, authors, editors, and crime and mystery professionals will gather in the banquet hall of the New York City Grand Hyatt Hotel to hear the winners announced, and to toast those who have dedicated their lives to crime and mystery, just as the Mystery Writers of America have done for decades.

Ahead of the ceremony, we caught up with 20+ Edgar nominees, including the nominees for this year’s inaugural Sue Grafton Award. We’ve organized their responses into a roundtable discussion on the state of mystery and crime fiction. Because there were an enormous number of highly entertaining and thoughtful responses from the authors, we split the discussion into two parts. In Part I of the roundtable, writers and editors discuss what exactly is a crime novel, the most pressing issues in the genre today, how to build a career as a crime writer, and the best gateway drugs for mystery.

Consumer Use of Audiobooks Continues to Rise
Publishers Weekly

Half of all Americans over the age of 12 have listened to an audiobook in the past year, according to a new consumer survey and research report from Edison Research and Triton Media, conducted on behalf of the Audio Publishers Association. This is up from 44% of in 2018. The further penetration can be attributed to more users listening in cars. According to the new report, 74% of audiobook consumers listen in their car, up from 69% in 2018, and 19% percent of Americans age 12 and older have access to an in-dash information and entertainment system in their (or their family’s) vehicle, up from 15% last year — of those, 62% who have in-dash systems have listened to an audiobook.

Home listening is second most popular way of listening to audiobooks, with 68% of respondents saying they listen at home, down from 71% in 2018. The survey revealed that 42% of audiobook listeners age 18 and older own a smart speaker (Alexa or Google Home device, for example) and of those, nearly one-third are using them to listen to audiobooks.

April 25, 2019

‘It drives writers mad’: why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi?
The Guardian

Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me, is a fiction about science – specifically, artificial intelligence. It is set in an alternative reality where Alan Turing does not kill himself but invents the internet instead; where JFK is never assassinated and Margaret Thatcher’s premiership ends with the beginning of the Falklands war. The near future of the real world becomes the present of the novel, giving McEwan the space to explore prescient what-ifs: what if a robot could think like a human, or human intelligence could not tell the difference between itself and AI?

Machines Like Me is not, however, science fiction, at least according to its author. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future,” McEwan said in a recent interview, “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas.” There is, as many readers noticed, a whiff of genre snobbery here, with McEwan drawing an impermeable boundary between literary fiction and science fiction, and placing himself firmly on the respectable side of the line.

Pushing Diversity Forward in Publishing
Publishers Weekly

People of Color in Publishing and We Need Diverse Books, two volunteer organizations focused on making the book industry more diverse, held a joint town hall meeting on April 11 in the auditorium of the Penguin Random House building to mark their progress and discuss plans for the future.

The meeting attracted a crowd of nearly 90 industry professionals for a panel featuring WNDB founder/CEO Ellen Oh that was moderated by POCinPub founder Patrice Caldwell. Along with Oh, the panel featured WNDB executive director Nicole Johnson and WNDB program director Carolyn Richmond. They updated town hall attendees on the impact of WNBD’s programs, as well as on the fast growth and development of POCinPub since its founding in 2017.

AAP Reports Publisher Revenue Up 7.2% in February 2019
The Digital Reader

AAP just issued the February StatShot Monthly report which includes data for the first two months of 2019.
Among the highlights:

  • Overall participating publisher revenue was $754.0 million in February 2019, an increase of $50.8 million (+7.2%) compared to 2018.
  • February 2019 saw strong gains for hardback books, with revenue increasing 18.0% from the prior year to $172.9 million, due to across-the-board increases in each of the trade categories.
  • eBook revenues fell 3.5%, to $$166.5 million.
  • Audiobook revenues rose 36.5%, to$90.5 million.
  • In the first two months of 2019, publisher net revenue for trade (consumer) books was $1.06 billion, an increase of 3.2% from January-February in 2018.

April 17, 2019

The Netflix Literary Connection
Publishers Weekly

Netflix has been on a book acquisition spree over the past year, developing screen adaptations of dozens of novels, series, short story collections, and graphic novels. About 50 of these literary properties are being turned into series projects, while the screening service has announced plans to adapt only a handful into features—a list that includes Button Man by John Wagner, I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid, Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani, and The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry.

Many of Netflix’s deals begin with Maria Campbell Literary Associates. In 2017, Netflix exclusively retained that agency for its book-scouting efforts to find English- and foreign-language titles to adapt from around the world, including from the U.S. “I’m on the phone with them every week, talking about what’s going on in New York, what’s new, and about library properties as well,” Thunell said. In addition, Netflix executives now attend such international literary rights events as the London Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Campbell’s agency has also helped the company forge deeper relationships with publishers. For example, Netflix is adapting Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler’s illustrated novel Cursed as a series and coordinating release schedules with Simon & Schuster. “That is the kind of partnership that we’re really craving,” Thunell said. “To get in early with publishers and do something that is really mutually beneficial.”

April 3, 2019

The rise of robot authors: is the writing on the wall for human novelists?
The Guardian

Is there greater cause to worry further down the literary food chain? There have for a while already been “AI bots” that can, we hear, “write” news stories. All these are, though, are giant automated plagiarism machines that mash together bits of news stories written by human beings. As so often, what is promoted as a magical technological advance depends on appropriating the labour of humans, rendered invisible by AI rhetoric. When a human writer commits plagiarism, that is a serious matter. But when humans get together and write a computer program that commits plagiarism, that is progress.

As a news reporter, GPT2 is, to put it generously, rather Trumpian. Fed the first line of a Brexit story – “Brexit has already cost the UK economy at least £80bn since the EU referendum” – it went on a nutty free-associative spree that warned, among other things: “The UK could lose up to 30% of its top 10 universities in future.” (“Up to 30% of the top 10” is a rather roundabout way of saying maybe three.) Brexit, the machine continued, will push “many of our most talented brains out the country on to campuses in the developing world” (eh?), and replacing “lost international talent from overseas” would, according to “research by Oxford University”, cost “nearly $1 trillion”. To which one can only properly respond: Project Fear! To their credit, the machine’s masters at OpenAI admit that it is sometimes prone to what they call “world-modelling failures”, “eg the model sometimes writes about fires happening underwater”.

The makers’ announcement that this program is too dangerous to be released is excellent PR, then, but hardly persuasive. Such code, OpenAI warns, could be used to “generate misleading news articles”, but there is no shortage of made-up news written by actual humans working for troll factories. The point of the term “deepfakes” is that they are fakes that go deeper than prose, which anyone can fake. Much more dangerous than disinformation clumsily written by a computer are the real “deepfakes” in visual media that respectable researchers are eagerly working on right now. When video of any kind can be generated that is indistinguishable from real documentary evidence – so that a public figure, for example, can be made to say words they never said – then we’ll be in a world of trouble. OpenAI agrees that this is a larger problem, even if its proposed remedy is rather vague. To prevent what it calls “malicious actors” from exploiting such technology, it says, we “should seek to create better technical and non-technical countermeasures”. Arguably this is like engineering a bioweapon and its antidote at the same time, rather than choosing not to invent it in the first place.

A Profitable Year for Trade Publishers
Publishers Weekly

Profits rose in 2018 over 2017 at four of the five major trade publishers that report their financial information—and the one company at which earnings were down, Lagardère Publishing, reported an increase in profits at its U.S. subsidiary, Hachette Book Group. Operating margins fell at Lagardère and slipped by a 10th of a percentage point at Penguin Random House but rose at the three other companies. Solid backlist sales and strong sales of digital audio were cited by four of the five publishers as key revenue drivers in the year, though sales of e-books were down.

March 12, 2019

3 Big Trends In 2019 Indie Books, According To Publishing Startup Reedsy’s CEO
Forbes

Publishing startup Reedsy wants to surface the next hit indie book. It’s launching a new service today, Reedsy Discovery, aimed at promoting only independently published books. Users who join it will be able to connect with a similar-minded reading community, previewing chapters and browsing recommendations.

The service will have a huge pool to draw from: A little over one million titles were independently published in the U.S. in 2017, compared to the traditionally published 300,000 titles. Granted, the number of undiscovered winners in that million is likely pretty low. With Discovery, Reedsy is betting a mix of human curation and machine learning algorithms can pick out the biggest gems while supporting a more welcoming community than that of, say, Amazon’s automatic recommendation emails.

I talked to Emmanuel Nataf, CEO and co-founder of Reedsy, to learn more about which types of indie books have the best odds of getting past that book-marketing bottleneck – or at least which ones self-publishers hope can make it.

February 5, 2019

ALA Rebounds in Seattle
Publishers Weekly

More than 9,000 librarians and vendors attended the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, held January 25–29, a welcome rebound for ALA after two straight years of lagging attendance. In all, ALA reported 9,211 total attendees, up significantly over the 8,036 attendees at the 2018 Midwinter Meeting in Denver (the least-attended Midwinter Meeting in 30 years). And with the 2019 ALA Annual Conference set for Washington, D.C.—a location that has traditionally yielded ALA’s best-attended conferences—the 13 % attendance boost in Seattle is a good start to what is setting up to be an important year for the association.

Among the conference highlights was an inspiring opening keynote by Melinda Gates, whose upcoming memoir, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, is due out from Flatiron Books in April. In her 45-minute talk, Gates spoke passionately about the fight for gender equality and challenged librarians to act. “The demand for gender equality is growing louder, and it is coming from all over the world,” she said, while warning that continued progress is not inevitable. “If we want to summon a moment of lift for women and girls, a moment that will lift up all of humanity, we all need to step up, every single one of us in this room.”

January 29, 2019

Corporate Censorship Is a Serious, and Mostly Invisible, Threat to Publishing
Electric Lit

But many times book censorship still succeeds without a whimper. This kind of censorship is largely disregarded and often tacitly tolerated and self-induced among editors: corporate censorship. On the surface, there’s a logic in corporate censorship that may seem at least arguable. When corporate executives at, say, Netflix cancel your favorite shoot-em-up action show or a boy-meets-boy love story, seemingly without cause, there’s a knee-jerk feeling of dissatisfaction that eventually gives way to complacency. Just as corporate executives giveth us the stories we like, so can corporate executives taketh them away. They can do what they want; it’s their property.

But not so fast.

Is it — or should it be — a universal right for corporations to censor their so-called property in all cases, under all circumstances? One case from the 1970s may command some second thoughts on a corporate safe zone cordoned off by copyright laws and cultural misconceptions, one that calls into question the entire endeavor of corporate censorship.

With No ‘Fire,’ Print Units Fell 5% in Mid-January
Publishers Weekly

Unit sales of print books fell 5% in the week ended Jan. 19, 2019, compared to the similar week in 2018, at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. All the major categories had declines in the week, including adult nonfiction, where units dropped 5.1%. Last year at this time, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury was hitting its sales stride and sold nearly 326,000 copies in the week ended Jan. 20, 2018. The #1 seller in the category in the most recent week was, once again, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, which sold more than 82,000 copies and is closing in on four million print copies sold at outlets that report to BookScan. A big bestseller four years ago was Maria Kondo’s The Life-Saving Magic of Tidying Up, and, thanks to Kondo’s new Netflix series, the book was #3 on the most recent adult nonfiction list, with more than 23,000 copies sold. Print units dropped 6.8% in adult fiction in the week ended Jan. 19, 2019, even though the books at top of the bestseller list were selling at about the same rate as those at the top a year ago. In first place in the category in the most recent week was the new book by James Patterson and Candice Fox, Liar Liar, which sold nearly 22,000 copies, while second-place Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens sold close to 20,000 copies. Last year at this time, The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn and City of Endless Night by Douglas Preston were one-two on the fiction list, with both selling just over 20,000 copies. Print units fell 5.2% in juvenile fiction compared to 2018, despite a solid showing by Dav Pilkey’s Brawl of the Wild (Dog Man #6), which sold more than 44,000 copies.

December 19, 2018

Late-Night TV Hosts Give Publicity-Starved Novelists the Star Treatment
The New York Times

In a television landscape where literature has become largely overlooked, late-night hosts like Mr. Meyers and Trevor Noah have made it their mission to put a spotlight on writers — giving them an enormous amount of influence in the publishing world.

The morning shows, which once featured interviews with acclaimed novelists like E. L. Doctorow and William Styron, have largely tilted toward lifestyle and diet books and celebrity memoirs, with occasional appearances by best-selling authors or roundups of summer fiction.