Explaining Colleen Hoover and What It All Means

“Colleen Hoover” by Chad Griffith licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

My wife and I were talking at dinner and she mentioned this writer who grew up in a small Texas town, working as a social worker at $9 an hour who is setting the publishing world on fire. I guessed that it might be Colleen Hoover and looked up the article on NPR and discovered I was right. The numbers are astonishing. Her latest, It Starts With Us, sold over 800,000 copies on the day it was released. She has sold more copies of her books this year than the Bible. Six out of ten paperback bestsellers are hers. She’s sold more books than blockbuster authors James Patterson and John Grisham combined.

While pegged as a romance author, she has written psychological thrillers, a ghost story, and books centered on domestic violence, drug abuse, and poverty. Part of her appeal seems to be the ability to evoke strong emotions in her readers, most of whom are younger, ethnically diverse women from 15 to 24. Readers attest to finding her works both riveting and fun, the kind you read in a day or two. What is clear is that Hoover seems to have figured out what this demographic wants. It may not be great literature but Hoover seems to have the capability to write what her audience wants to read.

Perhaps the most interesting part of her success is the role her fans on BookTok have played in talking about their reaction to her work and promoting her books. Her fandom (#CoHo) exploded on social media during the pandemic. A New York Times article compared what is happening to Oprah’s Book Club, where one woman’s choice sold a couple million books. Now, a hundred #CoHo BookTok’ers sell four million of Colleen Hoover’s books.

I’m about as far from the demographic who would read a Hoover book as could be. So I have no clue about the appeal of her books beyond the fact that she is an easy and fun read. My hunch is that what makes it work is the gap between the romantic longings of her audience and the much grittier reality of romance for many, where the sex may (or may not) be hot but the people it comes with may be less than desirable and even at times dangerous. It gives voice to what many women have thought and felt and experienced, which accounts for such heartfelt reactions. At least that is what the plot synopses I’ve read would suggest–that and the longing for something more.

Except one wonders if you can never go too far into that “something more” without losing sales–there is just not the same gripping drama in the deeper growth of love through enduring hardship and learning to die to one’s cussed selfishness over a forty year marriage. I suspect we both want and don’t want that.

Beyond what these books may mean for her considerable audience, one must consider Hoover’s impact on the publishing industry in the last few years. This woman who has helped sustain the book trade during the pandemic has broken the mold by writing in different genres rather than following publisher formulas. She has created models for using social media to sell not only her books but a variety of “swag” to her fans. And she has created The Bookworm Box, which is both a book subscription service and a bookstore, proceeds from both of which are given to those in need. Part of this woman’s success is that she seems to have an incredible work ethic.

I suppose one could find much to criticize in Hoover’s writing. I won’t go there since I’ve not read her. What is evident is she is reaching a diverse group of young women and turning them into readers. One hopes that in reading as in relationships, Hoover’s readers will long for “something more” and branch out to other books, and perhaps richer fare that goes beyond the fun and the evocative. Perhaps Hoover will lead the way with her Bookworm Boxes. Perhaps.

I find myself wondering if someone could ever do something like this with male readers. Lee Child and James Patterson have done pretty well but I can’t see the viral BookTok fan club dynamic happening. It would be wonderful to see more men reading, and more men encouraging men to read. But I suspect the audience will always be smaller.

But back to Colleen Hoover. Her success and what she has done with it is impressive. My interest in different books than the ones she writes will not be a cause for me to criticize her. In fact, she does something I wish would catch on–writing for readers rather than other writers, literary critics, or scholars. Sadly, I believe many good stories and ideas have been lost to a wider audience for just this reason.

Errata and Editors

Errata

Scan courtesy of Steve Holmes

“‘My apologies if there are errors, which the Publishers will endeavour to correct at the earliest opportunity.’ I just read that on the Acknowledgements page of another publisher’s book. And I still resent it.”

I came across this in the Facebook feed of an editor friend today. One of the replies included the scan above. Apparently errata notices have a long history. I love this one–the author suggests the reader correct any errors they find! In most cases, authors will acknowledge others who have contributed to their work, while assuming all responsibility for errors. I can see why my editor friend would resent the statement he found in another publisher’s book. Whether self-published or published by a publisher, the author is finally and always responsible for their work. After all, it is their work!

That said, we all need editors and proof-readers. For this blog I do not employ someone to do this because it is a labor of love, not profit. And those of you who are careful readers probably notice this! I do read aloud posts to my wife, and often find myself correcting mistakes I made that I had overlooked in proofing a post. Reading aloud is one way to catch errors as you really have to go word for word and listen to how something sounds. I have sometimes written posts for others, and always find editors improve both the clarity of ideas and style. And this is just with blogs of 500 to 1000 words!

In researching this post, I was reminded of the differences between editors and proof-readers. There are even different kinds of editors who are involved at different points in the process of bringing a manuscript to its final published form.

Substantive editors look at the overall structure of a work and make sure it is coherent and flows logically. They are not focused so much on formal rules of grammar and syntax as the intended use of the work and how the content, organization, style and design all contribute to this.

Copy editors do just that. They edit copy, working these days from an electronic document. Their job is not to change the content of the work or its organization but to work with the author’s writing to polish grammar and syntax for elegance and clarity while keeping the author’s voice. They spot omitted and misspelled words and help conform a work to the publisher’s style sheet, including making sure usage is consistent throughout. And they catch all those little punctuation mistakes with commas and semicolons and more. Copy editors may also be involved in noting possible legal concerns in a work, making sure needed permissions are secured (including for all epigraphs), and fact or reference checking, although this is often random and not thorough. Authors, especially scholarly ones retain the responsibility for the accuracy of facts and all references.

Proofreading is the final stage in the process. The proof is a manuscript formatted as it will be published. Proofreading duplicates some of the work of copy-editing looking at spelling, grammar, punctuation, and particularly the consistency and formatting of the layout. They may catch things missed in copy-editing but also errors made in formatting the manuscript for publication including “widows and orphans”, loose lines with gaps between works, and more. Proofreaders typically work with a .pdf version of a print book or the .mobi or .epub version of an electronic book and keep a master file list of all changes to be made. A formatter or designer makes the final changes.

If you are self-publishing, then either you do all this, contract this out to one or more people, or publish a shoddy work that fails to represent you at your best.  And, as one friend who spent many years editing says, “Everyone needs an editor.” With cost-cutting in many publishing houses, this may increasingly be outsourced and sometimes authors need to arrange for some of this work themselves. Still, most publishers still retain people who at least copy-edit and proof-read at various points in the process. Many maintain high standards. No matter what, authors retain the responsibility for their work–it is just bad manners and style to pass this off onto anyone including one’s publisher.

Even after all this, errors happen. Think about it. A 99.999 percent accuracy rate in a 100,000 word work would still mean at least one misspelling. Add in issues of grammar, syntax, punctuation, formatting, errors of fact, citations, and you might have five errors in a work and still achieve that level of accuracy. I suspect most works don’t reach quite that level, and most of us don’t notice most of what was wrong. The biggest thing I see is where a wrong word is used but properly spelled and probably due to relying too heavily on spelling and perhaps grammar checks done via software.

If a work is truly shoddily edited, reviewers should note it. If people are warned off from buying such works it will help improve quality. Some readers love to contact publishers when they find errors. Most publishers probably appreciate it. For me, unless it’s an issue of factual significance and I’m sure the author is wrong, I just may take the advice in the front of the book pictured above and “correct such Trivials with [my] pen.”

Do We Need Diversity in Reviewers?

diversity-in-business-backgrounds-wallpapersThere has been a growing movement calling for the reading of diverse books. One question is whether these books will get much attention if there is not a greater diversity of reviewers. This has long been a preserve of white males in the major review publications (a quick survey of the recent reviews in the NY Times Book Review had about two-thirds of the reviews written by men and a small number by those with recognizably non-Western names).

This was an issue discussed by a panel this week at Book Expo America and covered in a Publisher’s Weekly article. On one hand, major publications are cutting back on book sections. On the other hand, there is the wide open world of blogging and Amazon reviews. But the major publications still serve as gatekeepers. One option is to assign some reviews to outside reviewers who are women or ethnic minorities. Such reviewers may see a work with different eyes.

As a white male reviewer, I get this and would heartily agree with this sentiment. In the area I most review, Christian non-fiction with an academic bent, I am struck by how many of the reviews (and blurbs for books) are by white men. How interesting it would be if more of the books by white authors were reviewed by persons of color, and persons outside the writer’s theological perspective.

I wonder about this in other areas as well. What if male-oriented action fiction was reviewed by women or majority world reviewers? What if heterosexually oriented romantic fiction was reviewed by men or by LGBTQ reviewers? Suppose some military history were to be reviewed by scholars of pacifism?

Of course it is always helpful to have those conversant with the literature they are reviewing writing reviews.  But it does occur to me that mixing up review assignments might help give a more diverse perspective on a book, and perhaps expose a book to new audiences of readers.

It also strikes me that it does publishing a service when review publishers diversify their reviewers. The panel obseved:  “the masters of the universe are not book reviewers, but publishers.” Yet I would contend that non-white, non-male reviewers are also aware of different authors than the white males. Those who review in the self-published world might especially have an important role in calling attention to writers who might be overlooked by the mainstream publishers. Review publications as well as publishers might also note book bloggers with significant followings from ethnic minority backgrounds, and those who have received recognition like WordPress’s “Freshly Pressed.”

It does seem that a crucial issue is how intentional publishers will be in seeking to broaden the diversity of their published authors. This never just happens but is the result of intentional action. Publishers have to believe that publishing a greater diversity of authors makes good business sense. The book blogging world can be a source of identifying new authors with growing followings. One thing publishers are beginning to figure out through vehicles like Netgalley and their own blogger programs is that bloggers and their social networks have a great value in book promotion. If these efforts can be used to recruit a greater diversity of reviewers, then it also stands to reason that this could be a powerful resource for diversifying a publisher’s author portfolio.

I say we need diversity in reviewers.

What Do You Get When You Combine Publisher and Platform?

Last month, I blogged about the increasing importance of platform to one’s chances of getting published. What I didn’t consider was what you get when the lines blur between platform and publishing, as arguably is the case with something like The Huffington Post (a kind of Mecca for bloggers). What you get, according to Jonathan Sulia, cited in a post by Matthew Ingram, are “platishers”–a publisher of content which also serves as a platform for individual writers.

Ingram mentions many others who have gone this route including Forbes, Medium, and LinkIn. On each of these, they solicit and pay for some content while allowing anyone to post.  The big issue, it appears is not that some get paid for this, which is great (and the others get a portal to attract an audience at no cost). It is rather the lack of transparency distinguishing between paid and unsolicited content contributors. There is also an issue that some platforms, like Facebook may remove content without the provider even knowing it or knowing why.

All this suggests to me that we are in a new kind of “wild west” of publishing. The enterprising writer has a variety of new ways to establish platform, and even be published without working with a traditional publisher. And the reader has a variety of new ways to discover fresh voices, if they are willing to sift through the mediocre or outright bad.

Is Amazon Good for Books?

That probably seems like a no-brainer if you are a reader. Of course Amazon is good for books! I can find practically any book in print in the universe on Amazon.  Why wouldn’t Amazon be good for books?

Then consider all the authors who are self-publishing or whose work is being picked up by Amazon Singles or other Amazon publishing ventures. Isn’t this good for aspiring writers who get overlooked by the Big Five publishers?

George Packer, in his current New Yorker article “Cheap Words” isn’t so sure. It is a long article that traces Amazon’s history from its initial beginning as an online bookseller to the present day. Several things I gleaned from the article:

1. Fewer people are reading and bookselling must market as efficiently as possible to those of us who tend to read lots of books.

2. Amazon’s pricing and the percentage it takes on each sale is squeezing publisher profits more than ever even while publishers are becoming ever more dependent upon Amazon as their primary outlet for sales.

3. Amazon’s e-publishing (Kindle versions of works from other publishers, self-published e-books, and Amazon e-published materials) is tending to foster the notion of books as things of little and ephemeral value–“widgets”.

Some publishers are trying to respond with their own efforts to “direct online market” both print and digital content. But generally, they’ve been way behind the curve on this and Amazon is still a major source of sales these publishers can’t ignore.

Packer concludes with observing that the major publishers, as well as smaller houses have been a form of “gate keeper” for quality content. He acknowledges that this is admittedly elitist. The question arises however of what will happen to quality should Amazon be the only significant gate keeper left?

A few thoughts of my own. I wonder if there may be some form of self-correcting mechanism that will come into play here.  Will Amazon be forced to work out better pricing structures with publishers so they don’t “kill the goose”? Will publishers be forced to become more competitive in looking for promising talent? And will publishers develop more direct alliances with their customers? It may be that smaller houses might be especially nimble in developing ways to reach their target markets without being so reliant on Amazon.

What strikes me is that there may be room for creative entrepreneurship in the publishing industry. Frankly, those of us who love good writing better hope so–and be willing to reward the innovators with our trade.

 

Bookmarks

Today I received a gift that any booklover would delight in. Sara, a woman in my church who is quite accomplished in woodburning mentioned that she wanted to give us some bookmarks. This Sunday she brought them and I thought they were so nice, I thought I’d share them with you by way of a post on bookmarks.

Sara's Bookmarks

Sara’s Bookmarks

One of the nice things about e-readers is that they keep your place for you, and even allow you to electronically “bookmark” places you want to go back to. I’m glad for this since it would have been far more tedious to electronically flip through pages from the beginning to get back to the place I last read–especially when I fall asleep reading my Kindle and it turns itself off!

But I still read lots of old fashion print books, and usually have multiple books going at one time. Some way of keeping track of where I’ve left off reading is crucial–my memory is not always that good. Folding over the corner, or dog-earing is one way to do this. But it is tough on the pages, makes the book look messy, and isn’t great if you give or re-sell the book. I think dog ears belong on dogs!

You can just leave the book open face down at your page. Hard on the spine and those you live with might not like you leaving books lying around and will close the book and put it away. Place lost. And it especially doesn’t work well if you carry your books around.

Some other gift bookmarks

Some other gift bookmarks

Sometimes I’ve used the flaps of dust jackets on books that have them. That works well at the beginning and end of the book, not so well in the middle and takes the nice clean crease out of the dust jacket.

So most of the time I’m left with the humble or not so humble bookmark. Sometimes we’ve received some very nice ones (and if you can’t think of a book your bibliophile friend doesn’t have, then a bookmark is a good alternative gift).

From the Wikipedia article “Bookmark” it seems we’ve had bookmarks nearly as long as we’ve had printed books. Early printed books were rare and bookmarks, either a ribbon bound into the book or a parchment strip on the edge of the folio. Better made books often still come with a ribbon bound into them for marking your place, which I always like because the ribbon doesn’t fall out–although I once had a ribbon ripped out of a Bible by a friend’s child. The first detached bookmarks seem to have been made in the 1850s and with this came a new market in collectibles.

A bookmark sampler

A bookmark sampler

As you can see, bookmarks can be made out of a number of materials from wood, to leather, to cloth to metal to plastic. Most of the ones I use are made of cardboard. Bookstores are a great source of these but lots of other people from publishers to organizations to holiday cards use bookmarks to publicize themselves or give one a memento of the occasion. If I use these, I usually end up either losing them or eventually throwing them away because the ends tend to get curled up and bookmark itself worn out from repeated use. Usually I stretch a bookmark over ten or more books though.

What are your bookmark stories? Do you have bookmarks that are special to you? How do you like to mark your place in books? And what bookstore, in your experience gives away the best bookmarks?

Waterfall Press: Amazon’s Venture into Religious Publishing

Just saw this story in Publisher’s Weekly daily email:  Amazon Publishing Launches Christian Imprint.  According to the story, they will publish both fiction and non-fiction under the “Waterfall Press” imprint. It sounds like some of their publishing will be in collaboration with Christianity Today.  This, and the selection of Tammy Faxel, who has been associated with Tyndale House and Oasis Audio, to give editorial oversight suggest an evangelical editorial bent for this imprint.

Waterfall Press

A thought and a couple questions:

The thought: creating this imprint marks a recognition by the behemoth of Amazon that evangelical publishing is a significant market segment. Joining forces with Christianity Today gives them instant “street cred” in a broad segment of the evangelical community.

One question: what will this mean for other evangelical publishers, particular those not backed by larger corporate resources (as is the case for example of Zondervan with Harper)?

The other question: given Amazon’s financial heft, what will be the long-term editorial shape and theological bent of this imprint?

What do others think about Amazon’s movement into this new venture in the world of Christian publishing?

Publishing Trends: Platform and Publishing

We talked yesterday about the role of editors in acquiring good writing and identifying writers with talent. Actually, according to a recent blog on Platform and Publishing by Scot McKnight, at least in the Christian publishing world, it is increasingly not the quality of your writing and your ideas, but how many people “follow” you on Twitter, Facebook, your blog and the like, as well as how many people go to your church if you are a pastor.

I should mention that this blog is not an effort to enhance my “platform”. If it was, I’ve got a long, long way to go. However it is interesting that one source from which I’ve received some free e-galleys of new books encourages you to create a profile with much the same criteria–your blog, numbers of friends on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. I actually get this. You don’t want to give stuff away unless it will actually be reviewed and the reviews will be seen by a reasonable number of people with similar interests to the reviewer.

The problem with this platform thing in self-publishing is that the people who self-promote well are probably not the same people who produce the great works. In fact, I wonder if they might be more or less mutually exclusive categories. It would seem to me that many great writers are those who really give themselves to their craft, and building platform is a distraction of time and energy from what they are truly great at. Consequently, a book proposal from such a writer without platform may never get looked at.

The reality behind this is that book promotion is no longer the work of publishers by and large but by authors and those who will post reviews for them on Amazon. By the way, I don’t review on Amazon for this reason. I guess I would prefer to remain “independent”, write for my friends and those who are interested, and not do Amazon’s or the publisher’s work.

At the same time, the web and social media do provide a way that good authors can find readers. It appears that part of the trick is not so much building your own platform but rather identifying online bloggers and reviewers who have a platform of followers for the genre in which you write. This Huff Post article on The Shifting Landscape of Book Reviews chronicles the world of getting your book reviewed if you are an Indie writer. Now it seems, the challenge may be getting publishers to shift from looking at author “platforms” to looking at the reviewer response to their books. Of course, that presupposes that most new authors will publish independently and hope to get recognized.

That, I suspect is still a fairly perilous enterprise, but then I guess it always has been…

Publishing Trends: The Demise of Editing

I’ve been struck of late with the lack of good editing in some of the newer books I’ve read. Marjorie Braman’s post on What Ever Happened to Book Editors opened my eyes to what I think is a disturbing trend–that editors in publishing houses are having to increasingly “double-down” as acquisition agents and publicists, and editing is something done on the side.

256px-Maxwell_Perkins_NYWTS

Braman highlights the work of Maxwell Perkins, who was the editor for Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I discovered that he was also responsible for the publication of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, one of my all time favorite works. What struck me as I read about Perkins (at least in Wikipedia), was that a critical part of his work with Scribners was acquisition. But it also seems that he played a huge editorial role with his authors, particular Thomas Wolfe, cutting 90,000 words out of Look Homeward, Angel.

It seems that part of Perkins genius was identifying skilled writing and nursing it along. This recognizes a critical truth–editors cannot make a mediocre work great. They can take good to great writers and make them better and part of the skill of a good editor must be the ability to recognize great writing “in the raw.”

One wonders where this will happen in the changing publishing world, particularly with the rise of self- and independent publishing. Publishers in the past served as a clearing house whose survival depended on editors who could identify writers. Braman argues that this might better happen these days with freelance editors working with the publishers. I wonder.

Jim Hoover

Jim Hoover

I learned recently of the retirement of Jim Hoover as an editor at InterVarsity Press, the publishing house associated with the organization I work for.  Once again, I learned that Jim was responsible for the acquisition of works by authors like Eugene Peterson (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction) and editing works by Richard Lovelace, James Sire, Ben Witherington III, and more. His last project was editing the Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity. His work was recently featured in a blog by fellow editor, Andy LePeau. While the books he edited served a far more limited audience than those edited by Perkins, they are marked as works of clarity and excellent, readable scholarship. Those whose books he worked on would describe him as both “careful” and “gracious”.

If the place of editors like Hoover and Perkins is marginalized in the publishing industry, I wonder whether the quality of books we will see in this century will measure up to the last (By the way, I don’t see this happening at InterVarsity Press!). And this is at a time when reading habits are changing and the public is turning to other forms of media.

What concerns me is the issue of quality. In an upcoming post, I will explore the issue of “platform” and how this is a substitute for quality (and no doubt, one of the things that de-values good editing).

I’d love to hear what my friends who write or publish think of all this. My vantage point is simply that of the humble, but necessary, reader.

TMI?

TMI usually refers to the phenomenon of someone sharing far more of the intimate details of one’s love life (or child’s potty training!) than the listener wants to hear. A book I’m currently reading makes me wish there was a way I could say to a writer, “TMI!” or “give me the condensed version”. Maybe there will be a way to do that some day with digital books.

The book I’m reading explores fifty years of British history concerning their relationship with the rest of Europe through the eras of successive prime ministers. On the one hand, I can see the value of a detailed record of all the negotiations and political intrigue of various leaders, particularly because this is based upon first-person interviews. On the other hand, the author spends 500+ pages ringing the changes on a very simple theme–the approach-avoidance conflict Great Britain has with the rest of Europe.

So, the question is, how much is too much? I personally find myself getting lost at times in the parade of background political figures that troop through the pages and all their intrigues and interactions. For me, a survey of a couple hundred pages would have been sufficient–I’m not sure I will walk away any more enlightened for all the extra material. Yet I am sure there are others who study such things in greater depth (although the book is not an ‘academic’ work) who would probably find all this fascinating.

So these leaves me wondering how authors, editors, and publishers decide this question with a given book. How do you say to an author that something needs paring down? And how do you make those judgments? Is it purely financial factors of cost and projected sales? I’ve not worked in the publishing world but would love to hear from those who know more of this how such things get decided.