To Market, To Market?

Help me out, everyone. Comments this time will be useful.

I wrestle sometimes with my own nature, and the changing nature of the book world and our culture as a whole. As I have said before, the pressure on writers (especially younger ones, but not only) to do more than ‘just’ write their books is more and more obviously undermining people I know. Add this to expectations of speed in delivery of books, and the home run or strike out mentality of the industry, and it is too easy to see some sad, stressed author behaviour (sad for me, at any rate).

But that ‘sad for me’ is the point of this post. I may just be out of step. I don’t think so, obviously, or I’d be acting differently, but I have friends and colleagues making a case regarding authors and readers and the need to use, to mobilize, one’s reader base. I called this the ‘Release the Fans’ idea in a newspaper op-ed a while back. I just don’t think of readers as there to be mobilized, but that’s the issue.

This all came up again in discussions over the last ten days or so. CBC in Canada ran an book awards competition called the Bookies, across many categories. Voting was online. River of Stars was nominated in one category, with the immensely distinguished Margaret Atwood as the favourite.

I didn’t post anything about it here on the journal while the voting was open, or allow (or request) the Bright Weavings team on Facebook or the main website to alert that the competition was even on. I did a generic tweet about the entire multi-category event, and another at the very end expressing (real) pleasure at being runner-up to Atwood’s Maddadam.

But I didn’t want to campaign. I never want to campaign. And I am now being told by culture-astute and web-savvy friends and professional colleagues that this is because I misunderstand the real nature of what is going on. So I want to open it up for discussion.

The shrewdest one lecturing me, probably (an unfairly sharp cousin), says I am over-focused on these things in terms of the legitimacy of the award. In other words, I don’t want to turn winning or losing into who cajoles most or loudest, or who has the most fame or Twitter/FB followers (this happens for other awards too, of course). I am, she says, too hung up on the ‘legitimacy’ issue.

Her take is that these awards are never going to truly be about the ‘best’. That the Oscars, say, have long had aggressive ‘for your consideration’ campaigning. (All thanks to Harvey Weinstein? I think it pre-dates him but he made it a modus operandi.) These popular vote awards are about empowering readers to be more than merely passive enjoyers of a given writer (or writers), she argues. They let readers participate, fight, lobby, engage, be active. She tells me I am denying my readers the chance to do that by staying quiet when the votes come up.

And there are writers I respect who obviously agree. They treat the Bookies (and others) as a game of sorts – though some think of them as mattering more than they do, I suspect. They rally their online forces, spread the word often … do the ‘empowering’ thing, if that is what it is.

It therefore becomes, some are urging me, about the new age of active consumers of any art. Passive enjoyment is old school. This is an age of real time tweeting of a television show (building community), of Kickstarter campaigns to revive cancelled favourites (why does the network get to decide?), or even, on the very dark side, aggressive online threats to actresses (usually actresses, alas) who are disliked. I’ve written an essay about how this level of consumer activism can’t help but shape the art produced when the work is ongoing and the feedback is continuous and urgent. (I’m not saying this is automatically ‘for the worse’ but I’m noting the process.)

I have argued before, perhaps quixotically, for the value of some distance between writer and work, writer and reader, preserving a space where the reaction to the books (in this case) is not bundled with a reaction or ‘relationship’ with the writer.

Let me digress, but it isn’t really a digression (just looks like one!).

When I was young, first reading and writing and studying poetry, Robert Frost was seen by most of us as safe, bland, boring, the whole crusty New England thing was uncool. It took the outstanding critic Randall Jarrell, with two superb essays on Frost’s brilliance to change my mind (and I’ve tried to be an advocate ever since). But something else happened when I was still young, and it had to do with the man, not the work.

A three volume biography came out on Frost and it pretty much savaged him, left him in the dumpster. Frost was an evil, odious, selfish, vain, unfeeling near-monster. This biography stamped him in the minds of my generation (those who cared). It was long, long afterwards that we learned that this biographer had had a huge, compromising, personal agenda, a reason for vilifying his subject. But when a far better, balanced, biography came out it made very few waves: the image was set too hard, even among those who knew or should have known better. (Joyce Carol Oates wrote a recent story using Evil Frost as a character and I admit I was disappointed. To be fair, she now says, apparently, she was ‘commenting’ on the phenomenon, not endorsing it.)

The good news is, just this month the first volume of Frost’s Letters has appeared and reviews seem to be (finally!) working to correct the entrenched maligning view of the man and poet. I’ve seen several pieces to this effect in the last few days.

My point here (see, it wasn’t a digression) is that focusing on the artist, accurately or otherwise, can lead us to lose or devalue – or overvalue, in other cases – the work. This, as I have said here before, is part of my ambivalence about social media.

It is possible I am just out of synch in this. On the other hand, I have (this post is evidence!) spent years crossing towards the new online world order, sharing tour information, industry norms, and very personal reflections with readers (and non-readers, in theory) here, through Bright Weavings or its Facebook page, and more recently on Twitter. If I’m hiding, I’m not doing it very well.

But I still wonder about the Darwinian analysis of the process today. It is being argued that only those who ‘get’ the new system, who plug in all the way, campaign, lobby, hit book clubs non-stop, pop onto each others’ blogs, make deals or promises to vote for each other,  essentially looking to create a readership (or fanbase, but I prefer to speak of readers, not fans) in order to leverage it … these are the writers who will succeed.


Leaving aside  issues of excellence (another essay, maybe?) I’d argue, that this take on things may leave open what ‘success’ is in the larger scheme of art and life.

If people are driven to exhaustion, are made deeply stressed and anxious, feel fearful if they don’t have a good blog idea for a given day, or a witty tweet lined up (or are afraid their latest tweet will elicit hate), if all this subverts their writing, who has won? Do readers win if a liked writer hurries a weaker book out? Do we care about quality or about connecting? Is there a role for grace or restraint? Are we always served by more intimacy – or (very often) the illusion of it?

I’m not sure. That’s why I’m throwing out these questions. They are real ones, not rhetorical. I’m interested in the answers. And thanks.









Appearing near you…

Readings, interviews, signing appearances are complex and widely varying things for an author – and for those hosting. They are also receding from the book landscape to a degree, as marketing moves online and brick and mortar stores decline. The cost/return ratio for a publisher to fly an author around gets iffy. Many times now, a signing tour is paid for by the author, as he or she flies/drives hither and yon and may even be doing the bookstore liaisons him or herself. A reality of the bookworld today. These author-funded tours are common in genre fiction, especially, because there are still good specialty bookstores around (crossing fingers for all these indies) and there are also conventions to give something of a springboard, with an area tour launched around one.

Signings can also be hugely stressful for author and bookstore. Ego and anxiety kick in hard sometimes. Stars can get prickly if they feel under-appreciated or under-promoted. The store doesn’t want it to be a failure, and the author, obviously, does want people to be there. Also books – books in the store are good. Many of the great horror stories of Old Time Tours involve stock not being there when the author was.

When we launched Under Heaven in Canada, the attendance at the Toronto Reference Library for the reading and onstage interview blew past what both publisher and library had expected. It was wonderful, and a bit crazy. The library started hustling more chairs down the service elevator from wherever they lock up their folding chairs, and Penguin … well, they did truly yeoman service, but with some good luck, too.

Purely by coincidence, the launch coincided with the national sales rep meeting in Toronto and all the reps attended that evening, with a reception at a nearby bar beforehand. (I stayed sober and judicious, they didn’t have to.) When we all got to the actual event and they saw what was happening, the Toronto-area reps scattered to their cars where they all had some stock, others zipped up to the office where there were other books (the warehouse was too far) and the bookstore on duty was furnished with just enough copies to avoid a real awkwardness. It was actually a pretty impressive exercise of publisher adroitness.

By now, as a craggy (too craggy) veteran of the game, I am pretty relaxed about events. I have read in recent years for 15 people and for many hundreds in another city two days later, and have been surprised both ways, though not rattled. So many variables can come into it, not just how well the event is publicized. I have been known to thank the NHL in my opening remarks for not scheduling a playoff game during a reading.

There are variables, too, in how the actual event unfolds. Some venues are very dear to me. I used to love launching books in University of Toronto’s Hart House Library and Reading Room. It was a wonderful room with deep dimpled leather couches, and I had personal memories of cutting law school classes to read The New Yorker or Harpers there. There was a warmth, a feeling in that room as it grew crowded; we all felt connected to each other. Actors will know how much the space matters. When the Canadian launches outgrew that space (fire marshall rules, believe it or not) and we reluctantly moved over for a couple of years to the nearby theatre, it suddenly felt so formal, so distant, by comparison.

I still like doing smaller, more intimate events. Some years ago I was invited out to the Carmel/Monterey area by some readers who arranged a dinner gathering of 12-15 people at a restaurant, then a larger (but not too large) invitation-based reading and signing at an indie bookstore that stayed open after-hours. It was wonderful, classy, memorable. I have some terrific readers.

This Saturday I am doing something similar, also in California as it happens (the database is too small to draw firm conclusions, though!). There is a group of Canadians in the techworld there, in Silicon Valley, they have annual picnics on Canada Day and various  events through the year, and I am one such event this week, though they have opened it to all readers.

The information link is here, by way of Kepler’s Books, a wonderful bookstore in Menlo Park (it really is terrific) which will be selling books that night:

You click through to the registration from there. This is an evening event with wine and food and chat, with a short reading and interview tucked in. It is in a private home, and there is even valet parking. I joked on Twitter (what, joke on Twitter?) that I could not vouch for the valets handling quadrigas.

I am genuinely looking forward to this. The chance to mingle this way, have some time to actually talk, as opposed to a signing lineup where I feel guilty chatting with people too long if others are waiting patiently behind them, is so nice. I expect there will be some football talk, as Sunday is San Francisco vs Seattle, along with ManningBrady Redux.

If anyone brings a quadriga, I expect a ride.


Sweet words

No pun this time in the header. Crossing everyone up.

As longtime surfers of these journals will know, I started way back when with the underlying intention of sharing some aspects of ‘how books get made’. Not the writing (so much) as the author/publisher process whereby a title is edited, produced, promoted, sold.

The stage we’re at right now with River of Stars is preparing the paperbacks, in all major English language markets, which means three different houses, of course. (And three covers in the spring, as I discussed last post.)

Shima Aoki, who handles the paperbacks for Penguin Canada, has hit me on the edge of holiday season (hers, writers never rest, you all know that!) with their drafts for cover copy, an author question and answer (to go online when the book appears), a readers’ guide (ditto), and what is called the Praise Sheet.

The Praise Sheet is not the same as blurbs. Blurbs come before a hardcover is released, when an author or publisher tries to solicit advance comments from ‘influencers’. The quote sheet reflects actual critical response to an already-published book.

This sheet is what gives rise to the review quotes that appear inside a trade or mass market paperback on the initial pages (sometimes called ‘front material’). The quotes that say, in various ways, ‘better than borscht and beets!’ to interest a buyer holding the book in his or her hands. These days, in addition, quotes are also added by the publisher to the book’s online page on Amazon, B&N, Indigo, as well (though fewer of them, usually: online moves faster).

The number of quotes that get used in a book is dictated by the final page count, because that determines how many ‘free’ pages there are at the front to work with (and sometimes backlist titles are promoted at the end of a novel so pages are needed there, too).

The sequencing of quotes will vary by market. Obviously each country will foreground its own reviewers, unless there is one so universally respected (The Washington Post, in this case) that it may go first everywhere. Canada will put a line from the Globe and Mail on the front cover, and lead off with the Washington Post inside – and maybe a line on the back, too.

In the meantime, this morning I just emailed my Chinese publishers, at their request, the quote pages for both Under Heaven and River of Stars as they will be releasing them both in 2014. I have no idea which media sources or comments will be most useful there. You have to trust your publishers.

So with all this in mind, and having been really touched as I read  these over (I don’t normally see clips all assembled in one place) I’ll share some of them. The full sheet is way too long to post all, and I’d actually feel embarrassed. I’ll leave you with a question. Does reviewer praise help steer you to consider a book? If you are reckless enough to dive in below, which of the ones here would make you stop and think: that’s pretty extreme love, I should try this book.


Praise for RIVER OF STARS by Guy Gavriel Kay

 “From whatever angle you approach it, River of Stars is a major accomplishment, the work of a master novelist in full command of his subject. It deserves the largest possible audience.”

The Washington Post

 “River of Stars is the sort of novel one disappears into, emerging shaken, if not outright changed. A novel of destiny, and the role of individuals within the march of history. It is touched with magic and graced with a keen humanity … As sumptuous and sprawling as River of Stars is, it is, foremost, a keen example of the storyteller’s art.”

The Globe and Mail

 “River of Stars: Picture Game of Thrones in China: Guy Gavriel Kay’s exquisite Asian-inspired epic fantasy offers a fresh twist on intrigue and adventure.”


 ”Kay has the uncanny ability to depict the grand sweep of historical events through the eyes of those living through them…What’s even more amazing is how through his careful rendering of character and environments we are drawn into this history…River of Stars is an exceptional piece of work. History has never felt or been more real and reading about it such a pleasure.”

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

 ”There’s a reason that each new fantasy novel by Guy Gavriel Kay is met with so much excitement by a core of devoted readers. These are books in which everything happens–epic battles, forbidden love, violent deaths–yet the threads of story inexorably tangle us in something that goes much deeper. Each book is a journey for the reader, compressed so that the level of intensity remains at the highest setting even in its quietest moments; and what happens on that journey can challenge your perceptions of the world and break your heart . . .With River of Stars, Kay transports readers to a dazzling court and the ravages of war, with language almost impossibly multilayered in its nuance and tone, offering a series of insights that exquisitely build on each other. Even more than in previous books, each sentence seems shaped to further enhance the book’s themes, recalling the craftsmanship of the man-made peony blossom that is a recurring image throughout. Here, too, emotional intensity is amped up more than ever, the shattering catharsis even more complete… one of Kay’s richest creations to date…”

Huffington Post

“It’s a relief to escape into a Guy Gavriel Kay novel and be reminded of the values of honour, valour and sacrifice for one’s country. River of Stars, Kay’s latest epic, is a captivating and beautiful story of an empire on the verge of destruction. Kay’s portrait of court intrigue and the strings the plotting prime ministers pull to orchestrate events is a marvel of craftsmanship…Reading River of Stars is a treat for the language alone. Kay is also a poet, and his writing is as lyrical as his themes of heroism, the power of legend and myth, and the vilification by history of those who deserve better.”

Toronto Star

 ”River of Stars finds its greatest success in that it is both a vast, grand portrait of an entire culture, and also a very specific, personal story…each personality in River of Stars is flawed and full of friction, awful and lovely by turns, like the Emperor who loves his garden so much he cannot see the terrible human cost of keeping it perfect. While the densely woven and ever-shifting web of intrigue is masterfully managed and often brilliantly surprising in all its complexities, and the sumptuous, poetic language are also highlights, it’s the connection to the characters that captures the reader’s attention, digs hooks deep into their heart…”

National Post

 “River of Stars exhibits all of Guy Gavriel Kay’s many strengths as a writer: characterization, plotting, dialogue, poetry, the intricacies of the imperial court, and exciting battle scenes.”

Vancouver Sun

 ”This is stunning stuff from one of fantasy fiction’s finest. From one of fiction’s finest, frankly.”


 “An elegant, imaginative inhabitation of Song-dynasty China of 1,000 years ago by prolific historical novelist Kay … Lucid and lyrical, and skillfully written…”

Kirkus Reviews

 ”It is indeed an accomplishment when a fantasy novel pulls its inspiration from the real world so closely that we may feel that it’s real, that we wonder whether it should be found in an actual history book. Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel River of Stars accomplishes this feat. His book is one of the best fantasy epics of the past few years.”

—Ars Technica

 ”The master of the historical fantasy has found a canvas large enough for his ambitions. Guy Gavriel Kay’s second novel based on the Chinese past is his finest work so far, a vision of tremendous scope, achieved through precise, intimate observation of a brilliant culture in the throes of disintegration and rebirth…a book you don’t want to be over.”

Locus Magazine, review by Cecelia Holland

 “Mirroring the glittering, doomed Song Dynasty of China, it portrays a world of changing traditions, casual cruelty, and strict codes of honor and respect … A powerful and complex tale told with simplicity and elegance…”

Library Journal

“Endlessly graceful, perfectly attuned to time and place and character and mood, never a line out of place; the prose in River of Stars is beautifully crafted at the sentence level: lyrical, but in a muted fashion, beautiful but not clamoring for attention, and often bearing the burden of sorrow… River of Stars is a beautifully crafted, moving novel and one I can’t recommend highly enough.”

—Fantasy Literature

 “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Kay is the greatest fantasist of our generation …It’s hard for me to quantify how much I enjoyed River of Stars, but I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time.”

—Fantasy Book Critic

 “I wrote in my review of Under Heaven that I was actually reluctant to read River of Stars, since it was all but unimaginable that an author could manage to capture such lyrical magic twice in a row, but Kay has done just that.”

—Beauty in Ruins

 “Every two or three years, Guy Gavriel Kay releases a new novel which never fails to amaze me…Spanning decades, River of Stars is a novel about destiny and how individuals and their actions can shape the course of history. Beautifully crafted and complex, populated with well-drawn men and women, it should stand on its own as one of Guy Gavriel Kay’s signature works…I’m aware that it’s still early in the year. But as things stand, River of Stars is now in pole position and will be the speculative fiction title to beat in 2013.”

—Fantasy Hotlist

 ”[River of Stars] may be the finest work of a major novelist – and a pretty thrilling adventure tale to boot…Kay is precise and judicious in his selection of scenes to dramatize, in his skill at finding the key moments that define a character or a culture, and in his carefully restrained yet crucial deployment of fantastic elements…This is no innocent Middle Earth threatened by Mordor, but a highly problematical society in which such honor is hard to locate. It’s one of Kay’s recurring themes, and it’s never been handled with such complexity, scope, and insight as it is in River of Stars.”

Locus Magazine, review by Gary K. Wolfe

“Kay maintains the verbal opulence he is famous for… River of Stars is a worthy follow-up to the gorgeous Under Heaven, while still standing strong on its own…readers will appreciate the meticulous hand by which the world of Kitai is crafted, both in the present moment of the story and from the perspective of history. Guy Gavriel Kay’s lush prose brings Kitai to life and keeps him firmly situated as one of the top fantasy authors of our time.”


 ”Impermanence, and our attempts to defeat it either through great achievements or the building of legend, is the theme that serves as a foundation for Guy Gavriel Kay’s majestic River of Stars…Kay is less a traditional fantasist than a cryptohistorian, and if the genre can be said to have a great one, Kay’s the man… Kay writes battle scenes with much the same sense of poetic grace as his characters’ more personal, introspective moments. There’s a tangible sense of sorrow over humanity’s march of folly. His narrative is always aware of the bitter ironies, as well as the fantastic good luck, that life’s many moments of pure chance present us. Fate can turn on the most minor occurrence. An empire’s fall can begin when a man is heard weeping in a garden.”

—SF Reviews

“This world lives and breathes. River of Stars reads like historical fiction. . . Once you get involved, you can’t stop reading. . . Emperors, assassins, bandits, poets, soldiers, ghosts, spies, barbarian hordes, courtly machinations, battles, intrigue, love, sex, betrayal, destiny, characters to cheer for, despair with, cry over – what more could you want?”

—Revolution SF

 ”The beauty of a Kay novel, to me, is that the stories are so very real…He makes you feel for the characters in such a way that you root for them throughout the novel, and feel those emotions right alongside them…I was immersed in the story until the end, and then felt that subtle form of sadness that only the ending of a terrific book can bring.”


 ”…A gorgeous novel. If you aren’t reading Guy Gavriel Kay yet, you’re missing out on some of the very best writing you can find inside or outside the fantasy genre.”

—Far Beyond Reality

 “It is, for me, wonderful escapist fiction. Except that, it’s not. Or not entirely. In fact, I think Kay might actually be, in his own way, a damn fine historian. The difference between Kay and some other fantasy novels, is two things: his historical sensibility, and his writing style. When I read novels by GGK I am constantly struck by how he is able to make the ideas of academic history come to life in a fictional world.”

—Everyday History

“Who is this Guy Gavriel Kay and how does he hijack my imagination so easily?In my review of Kay’s Under Heaven, the 2010 American Library Association Best Fantasy Novel, I asked, “How is he ever going to top this book?”  The answer, with as much certainty as I can express, is River Of Stars...

—Fantasy Matters

River of Stars is a poetic meditation on duty, compromise, politics and power that has an epic, historical sweep grounded in a host of intensely personal, well-realized stories. Fans of George R.R. Martin’s popular “Song of Ice and Fire” books – or the Game of Thrones TV adaptation – who are looking to scratch that itch in the years between new books will find a lot to like here, as Kay’s book is every bit as in-depth a piece of political fantasy as Martin’s work…joining Kay’s early epic Tigana as well as ambitious later works like The Lions of Al-Rassan and Sailing to Sarantium in putting forth a very strong argument that suggests Kay as, quite possibly, the greatest fantasy writer working today.”

—Luxury Reading

 “River of Stars is a success on just about every level. The story is powerful and engaging, the characters are complex and well realized, and the greater themes of the novel such as heroism and man’s role in society are thoughtfully treated. Kay’s prose is poetic without being overwrought or melodramatic. Overall, River of Stars is joy to read.”

—Booked Solid

“River of Stars is an epic of immense scope, covering the rise and fall of empires over decades, with many genuinely surprising twists and turns. But ultimately, it recognizes the familiarity of any human story, and so frees itself from trying too hard to avoid (or slavishly live up to) the rhythms of history and legends repeating themselves. Kay is more concerned with how you tell a story…the novel resonates because of its consistent recognition that it is inhabited by humans repeating history that has already repeated a thousand times, and its confidence that their story is still worth telling. Many of Kay’s characters are based on historical figures, again bringing to the fore the hall of mirrors that is human narrative, seamlessly connecting across fact and artifice, history and legend…Not only are Shan and Daiyan wonderfully drawn characters, so is everyone else in the story, no matter how significant or insignificant…each one’s worldview is explored with such balanced, unbiased attentiveness that empathy is always within reach of the reader, even when we’re in the heads of bloodthirsty warlords or unrepentant assassins. Every action holds a weight that has the capacity to be surprisingly moving or tragic, because we feel like we know the aspirations and fears behind them. By the end of the novel, Kay’s evident mastery over plot and character is nothing short of astonishing. In six hundred plus pages, not a word of this novel feels gratuitous, and Kay’s lyrical prose retains a sense of contemplative calm even in the midst of brutal, heated battles, sieges, and ambushes.”

—Strange Horizons

“I’ve always maintained, and will likely continue to maintain, that Daniel Day-Lewis is among the greatest actors of all time. While he doesn’t always pick roles that have a wide-ranging mass appeal, he only picks roles that meet his incredibly high standards. His dedication to research and to method acting, completely burying himself in a role in a way that few people can even really understand, is what has led to him being the only person to win three Best Actor academy awards. His rate of appearances in movies is low, only twelve films in twenty-four years, but I’ve yet to see a performance that didn’t utterly blow me away. I include the above to really communicate what I am saying when I compare Guy Gavriel Kay to Daniel Day-Lewis. He is similarly non-prolific, with twelve novels in thirty years, and similarly dedicated to his craft in a way that few people seem to be. Each of his books contains an afterword which talks about the research conducted, works referenced, and experts consulted, and it just flabbergasts me. I’ve read his entire bibliography and not only was I not disappointed, I was hard pressed to find a single thing to complain about. You should read this book if you have an appreciation for expertly crafted, character-driven fantasy of the highest order; if you want to really get to know characters, to get a deep sense of them, and their place in their society and their role therein; if you want to close a book’s back cover, take a deep breath, set it down, and not even consider picking up another book until you’ve had time to just appreciate the raw artistry you’ve just witnessed.”

—The Ranting Dragon

The second of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Chinese novels is as enthralling and thought-provoking take on classic historical events as the first, Under Heaven… It’s a hugely enjoyable read and more than just a romp thought the past… Whether you’re feeling philosophical or not, River of Stars is a whole lot of fun, exciting and substantial.

­­––”That’s Beijing” Magazine



Cover up

Well, the cover is up online, so the title of the post works, right? Right?

At least it is a better pun than one I saw today in the National Post: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolkiens’. Meh. Up with that I will not put!

Here is the new Penguin Canada trade paperback cover, for the edition that will be released in the spring. They did a reveal on their website this morning.

Penguin Canada paperback cover

Penguin Canada paperback cover

I have been very lucky with River of Stars in my English-language covers. (We’ll start seeing some of the foreign language cover roughs soon. Cross fingers with me.) I loved the blue court figure for the Canadian and US hardcovers (and the US will adapt it for their paperback) and I loved the beautiful UK cover as well (they are also staying with a variant of this for their pb).

I think this new effort by the Penguins in Canada is terrific. My publisher/editor, Nicole Winstanley had some  strong ideas about what she wanted to try for, but of course it becomes the task of the (long-suffering?) art director and department to find visual ways to achieve this. I know, because they made a point of telling me (!) that a lot of work and fine tuning went into this look. I saw it in next-to-last version and had only one note, which they agreed with, and smoothly incorporated.

In the final version, the yellow for title and name will be gold, and the black tree will very likely be embossed/raised.This will be strong on the shelves, and online, I think. It feels classy without being forbidding, and the red and gold and black work very well – classically, to my mind.

I imagine people will have favourites among the three that have so far appeared. I don’t think that’s an issue at all because obviously our aesthetic tastes vary. There is probably someone out there who loves the Hungarian cover for Ysabel. (Actually, I don’t think there can be. I take that back.)

Covers for books also have to incorporate awareness on the part of the publishers as to the nature of their specific market, the writer’s readership base (and possible expansion of that) and the dictates of a given format. A hardcover isn’t a trade paperback which isn’t a mass market paperback, among other issues.

A website a while back was going to put the US/CDN and the UK hardcovers up online for a preference vote, I don’t think it has happened yet. I’m as intrigued as anyone by the results of such comparisons, but in the end, they can tell us something about aesthetics, but less about effectiveness. There is a famous story of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood first coming out in the US with quite stylish covers – and bombing. They were pulled, reissued with more downmarket ‘gore’ covers – and took off.

I remain a gore-free cover zone, and am entirely happy to remain so.


Autumn in Bookland

I suppose the title here is another pun of sorts. Autumn, leading up to Christmas, is a major, often a defining season for publishers, booksellers and, obviously, authors. Seasons matter a bit less than they used to, many major titles appear in late winter or spring now (rarely midsummer, as media are on holiday too often, frivolous people that they are), but Christmas still matters a whole lot.

My other meaning, of course, is that the book business feels profoundly under siege these days, marginalized, anxious – autumnal, with fears of winter. Some of the literary fights that go on are a reflection of that. And that anxiety spills over in this season in particular, not just as a metaphor of autumn. Year-end sales are too critical.

This is one reason fall’s awards season looms so large. For literary fiction, often the only thing that will generate attention and sales is winning one of the major awards (Booker, Pulitzer, National Book Award, Giller…). Even a nomination is of only marginal sales benefit, usually. It isn’t unusual to see an added print run of 50,000 hardcovers for a major prize winner that had 3,000 (often less, in the UK) before the prize.

For spring books, the Christmas season can be a challenge. The October/November buzz has to be about new titles, and the nominees in the run-up to the major awards. There is nothing surprising about that. So how does an April book get attention or bookstore re-orders in November?

Well, one way is to appear on important Best of the Year lists. That brings a title back to people’s attention just in time for gift buying. And Christmas is usually the  last shot for a spring hardcover, since the paperback, whether trade paperback size, or mass market, will be coming in the spring. (Hardcovers generally get a year or so before the paperbacks appear; e-book prices often drop at that point, too.)

Which is all to say I am really pleased this weekend by some developments for River of Stars. It landed on a major list in all three of the major English-language markets. put it on their list of best books of the year, then The Globe & Mail in Canada did so in today’s paper, and I was just informed by a colleague in D.C. (she woke early with insomnia!) that it is also on the Washington Post ‘Notable Books of 2013′ list, online today, in the paper tomorrow. Too early for single malt, but I’ll have an extra latte.

I’ll also add something. For those writing seriously, this sort of thing goes way beyond possible book sale boosts. The Globe and the Washington Post are among the most respected book pages in today’s sadly diminished newspaper book coverage. We all write, if we’re ambitious, to have our work noted, recognized, ‘gotten’ in places like that. Strong, thoughtful reviews, such as those that came for River in the spring, are reinforced by year-end endorsements, and that matters internally, too, in the long process of crafting a novel.

In other words, a good morning.


A letter from Armenia

When I wrote Tigana I knew I was taking certain artistic risks. I have often told the story (in part meant for young artists pushing themselves and their fields) that when my very experienced, very enthused agent talked me into letting him send it out at the halfway mark he was shocked to find it unsellable. He’d expected a bidding war, and didn’t even get an offer.

That was a hard moment in my writing career. Kick in the teeth level, as I was still shaping and evolving a very ambitious book. The happy ending (for me) is that after I did suck it up and get back to finishing the novel over the year that followed, editors around the world were suddenly hugely excited. They didn’t have to guess that I could manage to pull this concept off. They had it in front of them and they judged that it worked. The bidding wars did happen, Tigana became my breakout book.

But it became something else, too. It seems to have acted for many people (including, Deborah Meghnagi, the splendid woman who created as a catalyst for some powerful personal feelings and life responses, and as a kind of marker of a trail for some younger writers over the years: fantasy can do and be more than it tends to be allowed.

For me, some of the most intense responses I get when I tour in other countries to read from my work or discuss literature as a whole, come when readers, writers, critics put up a hand in a crowded room or catch me at a signing after to ask, ‘When you wrote Tigana, were you writing about us?

I have experienced this in Croatia, Poland, Quebec. Had variations of the question asked from Korea and Mexico, among many others. The list is long. I’ve been asked about it in China, in the context of Mao’s cultural revolution. Tigana is about the relationship between identity and memory and culture, and what happens when attempts to erase the latter two are put in place. Of course I was writing about all these places, and more, it was an attempt, in part, to use the universalizing of the fantastic to make a point about the real.

And variants of the original comments and queries still come, almost a quarter of a century later. I’ve received permission to quote part of a birthday letter I just received from readers in Armenia, where the genre is just getting untracked, and where the memories of assaults on their identity and culture surely remain as raw as anywhere.

I am deeply touched (I think that is obvious) by their comments on Tigana and Lions, but even more moved by their personal eloquence and this evidence of the relationship between art that touches us, and the ways we can come to see hope in the world. It is a letter that gives me some hope, actually.

So my thanks go out to Frunz Harutyunyan, Eleonora Manandyan and their colleagues for this:

In fact, we all are constantly looking for happiness – in the dark recesses of the events and experiences, but sometimes you may open the book, and hear the boy screaming in the street – with love, with infinite devotion – “Tigana!”, and then become able to look at own homeland and love it again. Or having plunged into sadness of “Lions of Al-Rassan” suddenly realize that something constantly goes away, but with the Grief the memory of happiness remains, and it fills life with colors.
We perceive fantasy as not even a prisoner’s escape but just the ability to see over the roofs of skyscrapers and find the infinite sky, shining of stars and the radiance of sun, and then understand, realize and learn to appreciate the uniqueness of everything, learn to notice and wonder at the miracles around us – the wonders of love, devotion , compassion, and then begin to breathe, create worlds in the “image and likeness”.

Thank you for your support and hope your books bring to this world .


Flotsam and Jetsam

I feel a tad remiss here, but console myself by remembering I did alert that updates would slow as the marketing period for River of Stars wound down and I ramped up the research for the next book.

I used to do these Journals only during the marketing/release periods, then wrapped them up for two years until a new book was about to appear. But the online dynamic has changed so much, it felt (and still feels) good to have this as a venue for random (or sometimes less random) thoughts.

So, variously…

- I’ll have a piece next month in Hazlitt Magazine on ‘Breaking Bad’. Will alert when it appears, had a lot of fun writing it.

Lions is out in Brazil now, and Tigana will appear (in two parts, which is not uncommon in translation editions) in November. I signed Indonesian contracts for Under Heaven and River of Stars this week. New market for me.

- My French publisher, L’Atalante, announced that Under Heaven  will be out in summer of next year. It is already available in French in Quebec, from Alire. (Have I mentioned how much I like my Quebec publishers? Jean and Louise are friends, as much as anything else, by now. They have done every one of my novels, and they are all kept in print.)

- An extraordinary amount of film/tv talk continues to happen, but I cannot (even for formal reasons) discuss anything here yet, and it is always possible that everything will peter out. It is a very, very odd business.

- Cover roughs for paperbacks of River of Stars are being prepared in the States, UK, Canada. They will all have a different look from one another, which has happened before.

- I will read and be interviewed in Toronto this Sunday at 1 PM, at Harbourfront, as part of the International Festival of Authors, then in Halifax on November 13th, at the Keshen Goodman Library, at 7 PM. No other public events I can think of until the new year.

- Amrut Fusion single malt is really, really good.


Just back from the Word on the Street book fair in Saskatoon. It was a terrific visit. The fair, in just its third year, is very much together already. I was interviewed on stage by the generous man and fine author (yes, people can be both) Arthur Slade. Had drinks and dinners with fellow authors, walked the riverside in  glorious end-of-summer sunshine, signed books for lots of readers and chatted with them. What’s not to enjoy?

One reader/volunteer threw me with a question after the on-stage event. ‘Why didn’t you talk more about Ysabel? That’s my favourite.’

People can move you and disconcert you simultaneously. I could have said, ‘Meet me halfway: ask about it!’ (There was a Q&A at the end.) But in fact I was touched and didn’t feel like joking. One of the things I have always liked is how it every one of the books is a favourite of some readers. Ysabel is tricky to talk about, actually. Need to avoid a major spoiler, and it requires some unpacking of my usual process to discuss how it is a mirror-image of many of the books that frame it. Instead of taking readers into a period of history, I brought the past into today, which allowed me to comment on some themes of history. (The different meaning of being ‘young’ through time, for example, or landscape, beauty, and violence.)

Here’s a picture Art had taken late on Sunday afternoon, of himself (on the right), me, and Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi, of course):


News arrived regarding French editions. L’Atalante, my publisher over there, announced that Under Heaven will be published next summer, and Alire, who publish me in Quebec sent a  copy of Quebec’s Book Club’s handsome edition of that book (I’ll upload an image when I get a jpeg). Elisabeth Vonarburg is to translate River of Stars for them, which makes me very happy. She’s a friend, a gifted author, and has done most of my work.

Various discussions in L.A. continue, but I still can’t relay any ‘real’ information. It is a bizarre place, you know. You do know that, don’t you?

Tomorrow I’m off to Italy for a short trip. Partly a fall getaway, but some work involved. I plan to get to Torcello in Venice’s lagoon, to see the mosaics there and lunch at the inn/restaurant where Hemingway hid in 1948 to write Across the River and Into the Trees.

September song

The title isn’t meant to be all that nuanced. I just love the song, and, well, it is the month.

I had coffee with my film agent, Jerry Kalajian, yesterday here in Toronto. He comes in for TIFF, our film festival, this time every year. Each time we sit down I am reminded of how staggeringly different the film world is from the book world. There aren’t really that many Harvey Weinsteins in publishing and the tone and style are rather more controlled. (The knives can be as sharp, mind you.) A salient aspect is that films are so expensive. The risk-factor is enormous, people get cautious and frightened, in direct proportion to that.

One of the amusing aspects of book to film, as Jerry keeps reminding me, is how incredibly hard it is to get Hollywood people to read things. The most common model is for a studio or producer to have a book ‘covered’, which is to say, pay someone to read it and write a précis. That is what gets read. To be covered by someone important is ‘a good thing’. Everyone now thinking double entrendre, just … calm down. It is early in the morning.

I’d share what is playing out except I still can’t and – as so often – it would be a tease, as many, many (many) discussions and explorations end up as no more than discussions and explorations. I will say that Danny deVito is (once more) not part of any process, despite all the endless cries for him to play Ammar, if Lions ever gets done.

Travel is shaping up more firmly for fall. I am in Saskatoon next week for their Word on the Street festival. I’ll be interviewed on the Sunday at 12 by the fine Saskatchewan author Arthur Slade. Another author friend, Derryl Murphy, who also lives there, has promised to give careful thought as to best bars and restaurants. Derryl is reliable in such matters. The other ‘Guy’, the truly excellent Guy Vanderhaeghe, will also be at the Festival, causing too many people to think of the same jokes, no doubt. The good bars may be rendered even more critical.

I’m in Italy later this month, mostly a short holiday, some work, but when you are in Italy the work is a holiday.

I have two events at the International Festival of Authors here at the end of October. IFOA is one of the great author festivals in the world, in fact (just as TIFF is for film). I’ll give fuller details nearer the day. Then, on November 12th I am doing a reading/talk/signing/juggling display (not) in Halifax. More details on that later, too.

Topic shift. Read something very good I want to share. The novelist Jim Crace, shortlisted for the Man Booker this year for Harvest, said in an interview that writing fiction for him involves turning his logs into donkeys.

What did he mean? Seems he was on a desert tour some time ago, woke in the morning and told his guide he’d slept like a log. The guide looked perplexed. Crace gazed around at sand and a distant thornbush and realized there were no logs thereabouts. He explained, the guide said he’d slept like a dead donkey. Crace came up with his point: we need language, metaphors, ways of thinking and seeing, that fit the setting in which we are working. Logs to donkeys. I think it is a terrific way to describe a central aspect of imaginative empathy in fiction.


On Not Giving Advice

I did a tweet yesterday morning that seems to have triggered an enthused response from a lot of people: “My Saturday morning writer’s advice for writers: try not to get hung up on writers’ advice for writers.”

I was being cute with the phrasing but am really serious about the point. It sometimes seems to me that next to Top Ten Lists, the internet breeds writer-advice more furiously than almost anything else. (Well, maybe cat pictures. Or Benedict Cumberbatch photos. Or … fine. We’ll leave it there.)

If you play pick-and-choose with the advice tossed out there is no ultimate harm done. Someone ‘famous’ says something that resonates for you, you have that to work with. Maybe you write that way anyhow? But if that famous person says something that runs utterly counter to your own work method, your creative approach, your life options (“Jog five miles every morning before sitting down to write.”), I find myself worrying about or irritated by what I’m seeing, depending on time of day and what I am drinking (coffee or scotch). “Drink three glasses of Highland Park each time you sit down to write.” (Expensive advice, that would be. Also a tad life-damaging.)

The creative process is deeply and profoundly individual. That applies to the Nobel laureate and the undergraduate poet and the person keeping a journal of his or her dreams and desires.

A writer I know asserted earlier this summer online: never rewrite until you have the whole story finished, then you can go back. I’d never have written a novel if I tried to work that way. A writer declared last week that for success in YA fiction, ‘never kill the dog’. Stop a bit right now and think about how many of the books that reached into us and have never gone away (and perhaps taught us how powerful fiction could be) we’d not have if those authors had followed that advice.

When people ask me about, say, outlining I give an honest answer: I don’t block everything out, I am discovering details as I go. But I add, that’s me. That is reporting something not suggesting a process to other writers. Dorothy Dunnett outlined the shape and arc of the entire six volumes of the Lymond Chronicles before she wrote the first book.

There is so much variation to the writing process, it feels wrong to be prescriptive – from where I sit. If my arm is twisted (hard) to solicit advice I’ll urge writers to travel if their life allows it, because travel does important things to us as people, and that affects us as writers. I try to steer younger writers to read outside their comfort zone, their favourite genres and styles, because we get stretched as people by doing that. But I try hard not to get drawn into technical advice.

‘What worked for them might work for you,’ Robert Frost once wrote in a very different, chilling, context. But equally, it might not. I think we all need to go slow on giving How To lectures … and reacting to them. (But everyone should read Frost’s brilliant ‘Provide, Provide’.)

Parking the soapbox behind the curtain for the night, I can report the NY meetings earlier this month were very good, extremely useful. I did not succeed in getting agent or editor to agree to write the next novel for me, but I wasn’t hugely optimistic when I went, so…

Oh, sharing: Vermeer’s ‘Head of a Young Girl’ (the Pearl Earring painting) is headed to the Frick in Manhattan in October. Just saying. In case that’s closer than The Hague.

In Toronto, we’re in the midst of cover discussions. To stay with the blue figure from the hardcover for the trade paperback next spring, or think about a new look, and if the latter … what? Covers do matter, and different formats can suggest a different look. Or not, if everyone feels the current one works. There is no science to it, this is part of the publisher’s art and, as I’ve said here before, I think, it can also be  different in different markets. I’ve been very well served by my English-language covers for River of Stars, I’m working with extremely good people. Not worried. Will report back when a decision is made.

I’m also hoping to have some breaking news to share soon. That’s a tease, but it is better than another bad pun, right? And if you really want writerly advice as a last note, I’ll suggest everyone go with what Schiller did. He kept rotten apples in his desk drawer. Sniffed when creativity flagged. Clearly the only possible way to get anything written.