Guest Post: Zetta Elliott on Race & Reviews

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight was one of my favourite YA novels of 2009. I still can’t believe no mainstream publisher picked it up and I am hoping the book’s re-realease by Amazon will get this wonderful book into many more hands. Zetta’s blog is also a must read. (And not just because it’s named for the great Octavia Butler’s last published novel.)

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Zetta Elliott is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator. She is the author of the award-winning picture book, Bird (Lee & Low); her self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was re-released by AmazonEncore in February 2010.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Race and Reviews

I had insomnia last night and so for hours I lay awake wondering if I should stop writing reviews for my blog. I am an author, so I’m under no real obligation to review other people’s work. Generally I only write about books that I love, and have thus far refused occasional requests from authors who hope I’ll feature them on my blog. Trouble is, even though I was trained to “lead with what I like,” I do often mention the limitations I found in a book. And apparently, for some, this breaks an unspoken rule in the kidlit blogging community: never critique another author’s book. I have some friends who won’t write a review at all unless they can honestly admit they loved the book. Others insist that books by fellow authors must be praised (whether they deserve it or not) in order to preserve professional solidarity (and sales). And then, of course, there is the expectation that when the time comes, your book will be reviewed with equal enthusiasm, so “do unto others”—or else!

I’m new to this particular community and I only follow about a dozen blogs, so maybe I’ve got this wrong. But when I look at some reviews in the kidlit blogosphere I sometimes find a curious lack of rigor. To critique a book doesn’t mean you rip it to shreds. You start with its strengths and then move on to its flaws or areas that could use improvement. And, of course, as a reviewer you are only giving your opinion. So why not be honest about how you feel? Well, because there is a serious power imbalance in the children’s publishing industry, and publicly pointing out weaknesses in a book is, for some of us, like openly criticizing the President.

Right now I’m reading The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill, and I’m struck by the similarities between the arena of politics and the arena of publishing. Both have unspoken codes of conduct, and there can be serious consequences when you go against the grain or dare to suggest a new paradigm. Both arenas also require people of color to navigate a sea of shifting alliances. Now, I am in no way comparing myself to President Obama (and he’s not the only black politician featured in Ifill’s book), but I think it’s interesting to consider the strengths and limitations of “groupthink” in the 21st century. Do black people owe this particular president their unconditional devotion? Do critiques of the President’s policies strengthen his administration, or bolster the opposition (which has done nothing to distance itself from far-right racists)? Ifill points out that candidate Obama walked a fine line when it came to the issue of race; he couldn’t win the confidence of white voters (and the election itself) by presenting himself as a black man—instead he needed to be viewed as a man who happened to be black. Candidate Obama had to assure white voters that he was neither angry nor bitter about the nation’s history of racial oppression, and no mention was ever made of the unearned advantages that come with being white. Fortunately, I’m not running for political office. And I assure you that at times I am angry and bitter, and I must insist that we talk about white privilege.

The practice of never criticizing another author’s book has particular ramifications for people of color. Since we are already marginalized as authors and seriously underrepresented on editorial boards, a negative review can be devastating—especially if that review comes from another person of color. This is due, in part, to complicated notions of authenticity. Many people (of all races) believe that being black automatically makes you an expert on all things relating to black history, culture, politics, etc. When a black author writes a book that features black characters, there is often an assumption that the story is “authentic” due to the author’s inherent, intuitive understanding of her subject. The same is not true when a white author chooses to write about people of color. Then the assumption is that the author completed exhaustive research in order to “capture the essence” of her black characters. There is one such book out right now that has been getting rave reviews from white bloggers, yet two of my black blogger friends think it’s one of the worst books they’ve ever read. A third black blogger quite enjoyed it. So who’s right? Or, more importantly, whose opinion carries the most weight?

I must confess that lately, the only white-authored books I read are those about people of color. I sometimes feel obligated to read these books in order to ascertain whether or not black people are being misrepresented by white authors who mean well, but don’t really have a clue. I generally expect white authors to get it wrong, but sometimes they do surprise me (Liar would be one example; Octavian Nothing Vol. 1 is another) so it’s important to keep an open mind. Mostly I just wish white authors would leave people of color alone. I appreciate their desire to be inclusive, but statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center show that there are more books about African Americans than by African Americans. This brings to mind a documentary I saw on PBS not too long ago about the white anthropologist Melville Herskovits. His contribution to the understanding of black culture and identity formation was significant and lasting, but this white Jewish man became “the” expert on black people at the expense of qualified black scholars who lacked the same privilege and access to resources. That said, I can imagine how desolate my childhood might have been without the picture books of Ezra Jack Keats. Yet it’s hard to fully appreciate the efforts of well-intending white authors when I know that authors from my own community are being shut out of the industry altogether. And, ultimately, being able to write about anyone from anywhere is a privilege reserved primarily for whites.

So what’s a black author to do? After a decade of rejection, I chose to self-publish some of my books. My young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, is being re-released this month by AmazonEncore. As an immigrant and a mixed-race woman, I often confront challenges to my own authenticity. How could I possibly know what it’s like to be a dark-skinned teenage girl growing up in a low-income area of Brooklyn? When I was pitching my novel to editors and agents, I stressed my years of experience teaching black children throughout NYC; I mentioned that I had a PhD in American Studies and that my research was on representations of racial violence in African American literature. Does that make me an expert on all things black? No. Does it bother me that editors who are outside my community and ignorant of my cultural history get the final say on whether or not my work deserves to be published and/or reviewed? YES. Developing competence in a culture not your own takes time, patience, and humility. I suspect that most white editors have little to no training in Asian, Native American, Latino, or African American literature. They are unlikely, therefore, to situate a manuscript within those particular storytelling traditions. And without a sense of various cultural standards, they wrongly assume their particular standard for what constitutes a good story is “universal.” The same might be said of some professional reviewers and award committee members—a point made brilliantly by Percival Everett in his satirical novel, Erasure.

Of course, you don’t need a PhD to review a book on your blog. And I certainly don’t want to vindicate those timid bloggers who only review white-authored books because they feel they’re not “qualified” to review books by people of color. It’s ok to step outside your comfort zone, and there are lots of great bloggers who can show you how it’s done—Jill over at Rhapsody in Books regularly provides historical and political context for the books she reviews. You can also check in with bloggers of color to see how their reception of a book might differ from yours. That doesn’t mean you can’t trust your own opinion—it means you can strengthen your own position by recognizing and engaging with other points of view.

I’m sorry to say I don’t really have a conclusion for this post. I want to be able to write openly and honestly about the books that I read, though this may not be advisable. I certainly don’t mean to sabotage other authors, and books I found to be flawed have gone on to win major awards so it’s not like my single opinion counts for much. I like to think I can accept fair critiques of my own work, and I feel that thoughtful, constructive critiques can enhance our ability to read, write, and review books. What I want most is excellence and equity in children’s literature, but I feel the current system and codes of conduct aren’t leading us in that direction. And I don’t believe that not talking about the problem will lead to a breakthrough . . .

Guest Post: Ask Editor Alvina

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today we have an editor, Alvina Ling, who’s more than happy to take your questions about her job of editing. Remember, that she’s writing specifically about what it’s like to work in publishing in the USA. The job of editing is different in different countries. I’m hoping to be able to bring you a post by some Australian editors to give you a sense of some of those differences. Enjoy today’s wonderfully informative post.

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Alvina Ling is a Senior Editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers where she has worked for over ten years. She has also been a bookseller for Barnes and Noble, and interned at the Horn Book and in the children’s room of the New York Public Library. She edits children’s books for all ages, from picture books to young adult novels, with some nonfiction mixed in. Some of the books she has edited include Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin; Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young; The Curious Garden by Peter Brown; Eggs by Jerry Spinelli, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, Geektastic by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci, and the upcoming Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (April). She can be found at her blogs bluerosegirls and bloomabilities as well as her twitter feed.

My job as a children’s book editor

Hi all! I’m honored to be a guest blogger here. Justine has asked me to give you folks an idea of what the job of a children’s book editor entails. Warning: this is not going to be a short post. But I do hope it will be an informative one.

I’d say the job of a children’s book editor consists mainly of:

Emailing, project management, acquisition of book projects, meetings, preparing for meetings, cheerleading, reading, selling, networking, juggling, negotiating, more emailing. Oh yeah—and editing.

Basically, the role of an editor in terms of the publishing process is that of a project manager, with books being the “project.” Publishers generally publish their books according to lists. Little, Brown has two lists a year: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. I generally handle five to eight titles per list, or ten to sixteen per year. As the editor, I’m involved every step of the way. I also think of the editor as being a juggler—we have to keep multiple projects moving at the same time. And if you imagine juggling objects that change each time they reach your hands, that’s kind of what the publishing process is like. For example, we review a first draft of a manuscript, and then a second, and then a third, and eventually a final draft. Then it goes to copyediting where it changes again. Then it goes to Design and Production and it changes again. I review each stage of the project until we end up with the final book, working closely with copyediting, design, and production. My duties also include things such as writing catalog and jacket copy, presenting my books at Sales meetings, coordinating with marketing and publicity, and in general just being the go-to person for my titles.

Right now, I’m working on editing the novels on my Spring/Summer 2011 list, while at the same time reviewing 1st-pass pages (this is when the book is designed and typeset so it looks like the finished book will look like) of novels on my Fall/Winter 2010 list. I’m also reviewing color proof of my Fall/Winter 2010 picture books, and manuscripts and sketches for my Spring/Summer 2011 picture books. And while I’m doing all of this, I’m reading submissions and looking to acquire books for future lists.

If you’re curious about what my typical workday is like, check out this blog post.

Okay, are you back? I hope that didn’t make you too tired.

I’d like to talk a little bit more about the two jobs of an editor that everyone knows about, the two roles that are perhaps the most “glamorous.” The first is the acquiring of books, and the second is the actual editing of books.

How I acquire a book:

Little, Brown is a closed house, which means that we only accept agented submissions. However, I’ll also sometimes approach authors directly—for example, if I’m a fan of an adult author I may write to him or her and ask if they’ve ever wanted to write a children’s book. I may write to journalists who have written an article I’ve liked. I might also pitch ideas to established authors that I want to work with (an example of this is the project I recently acquired from Barry Lyga, I HUNT KILLERS. Read more about this book here.) I’ll also go to writers’ conferences and invite the conference-goers to submit to me. But mainly I’m continually getting to know agents and making sure they know my taste in books so they’ll send the appropriate submissions to me.

So, let’s say I read something I love and want to acquire—I’ll need to bring it to our editorial meeting to get additional editorial reads. If it gets positive reads, then it also needs to be supported by our editorial director (for novels) or editor-in-chief (for picture books) before it goes to our acquisitions meeting. This is the meeting run by our publisher and attended by all the directors—Sales, Marketing, Publicity, School and Library Marketing, and so on. Sure, sometimes I pine for the old days when editors can decide on their own if they want to acquire a book (and this certainly is still the case at some publishing houses, although it’s rare), but I do think there are advantages to this so-called “Publishing by Committee.”

There are a lot of materials that have to be prepared for this meeting a week in advance, including a profit and loss report (P&L—basically shows us if we’d make money if we publish the book), our cover letter with a summary of the project and my pitch, selling handles, competitive titles, etc. It can take my assistant and me anywhere from two hours to days to prepare the materials for this meeting. I also spend about an hour the day of the meeting preparing for how I’m going to present the project, writing down my “speech” and key points. I try to anticipate what the objections might be to a project and be prepared to counter them.

At the acquisitions stage, I always have two hats on: my editorial hat, and my sales hat. Because projects are never completely ready for publication at acquisitions stage, I have to make sure that the committee understands my vision for the project. I’ll oftentimes include some basic editorial notes with the proposal so they can see the types of things I hope to work with the author on before publication. In terms of my sales hat, I try to come up with a sales pitch, like someone would pitch a TV show or movie. A couple of real pitches I’ve made for books are “Juno meets Stargirl” (SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick, pubbing in May) and “Donnie Darko meets Charlie Kaufman meets the Matrix.” (FADE TO BLUE by Sean Beaudoin) I also pitched WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON by Grace Lin (which just won the Newbery Honor—yay!) as the Chinese Wizard of Oz.

I also have to think about things like, “where would this be shelved in the store?” and “who is the audience?” I try to think of as many selling handles as possible, such as “perfect for holiday promotions” or “author’s blog gets 1,000 hits a day.” Sometimes they’re silly, like, “Ninjas are the new Pirates!” and sometimes serious, like “tackles the important topic of verbal abuse, an issue that is not widely known about or understood.”

How I edit:

Once a project is under contract, the first step is to actually edit the book and work on it with the author. The legendary editor Richard Jackson, who edited Judy Blume, Paula Fox, and Virginia Hamilton, said this of editors: “Editors aren’t nobodies. They are of use; they should be goads, good listeners, and allies—though invisible in the published work.”

Basically, I believe that the role of the editor is to act as the reader–a very careful and discerning reader. Over my ten years as an editor, I’ve developed my own editing process, which is basically a five-step process. I’ve already written about this on one of my other blogs, so if you’re interested in reading more about my process, read this.

One thing that complicates this process is that at the same time I’m editing one novel over and over, I’m also editing all of the other books on that same list. And because I may have up to eight books on one list, it’s a real juggling act (gee, I wish I actually knew how to juggle!). Edit, send letter, get in revision, edit, send letter, get in revision of other novel, edit, send editorial notes for third novel, get in revision of second novel, edit picture book text, review sketches for picture book, read, edit, send letter, review revised sketches, lather, rinse, repeat, review final art for picture book, review third revision of second novel, etc. etc. Final manuscripts are due to copyediting about a year before the pub date, so in April for Spring/Summer books, and October for Fall/Winter books. As you can imagine, the two months or so leading up to those months are especially hectic.

This editorial process repeats until the manuscript is “done.” Generally, the first editorial letters are more general, and as we go I get more nitpicky about the little things, and the last edit is just “clean-up” of all of the little things that are left. I’ve never taken less than two rounds, and on average it takes three or four, oftentimes more. And I put “done” in quotations because sometimes it feels like it’s never really done to the author–they want to keep tweaking and revising.

I love the editing process—I love diving into a meaty novel with an author, I love how we work together to make the novel stronger. However, I would say considering the scope of my job, the actual editing part is probably only 10% of my job. The reading submissions part is also just about 10% of the job. I remember thinking that as an editor I’d just be reading all day. Nope!

This is getting long, so I’ll wrap things up. As I said earlier, the editor is the project manager. Or if you compare it to the movie business, my job would be closest to the director/producer. I’m also sometimes the casting agent, as on occasion I have to choose illustrators to match with a picture book text. As an editor, I have to wear many different hats—a marketing hat, sales hat, designer hat, business hat, and more.

There are things I dislike about my job: I hate negotiating contracts. I hate not having enough time to do everything I have to do in a timely manner. And most of all, I hate having to decline manuscripts and stomp on people’s hopes and dreams. If you’re interested in becoming a children’s book editor as a career, be prepared to do all of this. Be prepared for the job to take over your life—I’m constantly struggling with my work/life balance. Be prepared to work nights and weekends, and for not that much pay. But also be prepared to love your job, to be fulfilled. I love working with books. I love working with others who love books. I love making people’s dreams come true. I love helping to create books—love holding the finished book in my hands for the first time. I love working with authors and illustrator and agents. I love being the cheerleader for my authors and books. I love knowing that children and teens out there are reading books that I’ve edited. I’m awed by the responsibility, and hopeful that the books I edit are affecting readers positively.

Children’s book publishing is my life, and it’s a good thing that I love it!

I’m happy to answer questions. My apologies if my answers are delayed . . . I have a busy workday, after all!

Thanks for this opportunity, Justine. Thank you all for welcoming me!

Guest Post: Ask Agent Jennifer

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today we have Jennifer Laughran, with whom I have spent many hours IMing about Very Important Matters. She’s pobably the best handseller of books in the land both as a bookseller and an agent. Truly she is phenomenal. Pay close attention to what she says. (Except about what the next big parnormal thing is. Clearly it will be werequokkas!)

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Jennifer Laughran is a literary agent for children and YA books at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Her clients include the legendary Daniel Pinkwater, the 2009 Morris Award winner LK Madigan, and #1 New York Times bestseller Calef Brown. She’s also been a bookseller basically forever and can play “You Are My Sunshine” on the musical saw. If you want to follow her on Twitter, you can: @literaticat

Jennifer says:

Justine asked me to stop by and answer some questions about Literary Agents. Because I am one. And because she knows I am a sucker for procrastination transparency. Ahem. Anyway, this will be a sort of FAQ, and I will be happy to tackle additional questions in comments.

I can only speak for myself, of course, so please remember that these are my opinions only — don’t take them as gospel, do salt to taste. And if I am using jargon or being mysterious, feel free to ask me to clarify. Also remember that I’m an agent for children’s books and YA specifically, and may not be able to speak to other segments of the industry.


A literary agent is an authors advocate. We act on the authors behalf to present and sell their book, negotiate their contract, get their money, and sometimes be a bully for them. Some of the things that come up on a day-to-day basis:

Read/Critique/Edit client manuscripts

Write pitch letters and/or create compelling proposal packages

Keep up relationships with editors (We have a database about about 350+ editors that we do business with that needs fresh info to stay relevant, so we have lots of meetings in person or by phone/email/etc to keep abreast of publisher needs/interests)

Pitch projects to editors

Follow up with editors (sometimes again…and again…and again)

Negotiate favorable advance, royalties, subrights etc for clients

Read contracts and re-negotiate finer details. (We have hundreds of contracts on record and we’ve worked with every big or mid-sized publisher, so we can compare older contracts, see what the best deals are we’ve ever gotten – as well as what the publisher won’t budge on – and use those terms as precedent when we are negotiating.)

Act as fiduciary — we hound the publisher (sometimes again…and again…and again) for the checks. When the check comes, it comes to us, then we pay you less our commission. Tax forms come from us.

Act as intermediary between author and editor if there is any unpleasantness — terrible cover for example, or author is running late on a due date, or whatever. (This is important – author/editor relationship should be all about the lovely books. The upsetting business stuff is for the agent to deal with. Basically we want them to see you as a wonderful artist, not a whiner or a jerk.)

Help shape your career — help you figure out what’s working and what isn’t, what might be a good next project, if you have multiple projects, what good timing would be for them, etc.

Talk to you about whatever you need advice about. Publicity woes, sales figures questions, revision crisis, general neurosis, etc etc. I don’t talk to all my authors every day, of course, but I do talk to at least a different 2 or 3 of them every day, either by email, phone or IM. (Some are deep in revision or doing other stuff and won’t emerge for months — some need attention now. I don’t necessarily chase after them, but I do respond immediately when they ask for me.)

Read and translate royalty statements, and follow up on discrepancies.

Get rights reversions on older works, or help client to do so.

Sell foreign/film/subrights with the help of co-agents. Follow up on those sales/checks etc.

Deal with permissions (ie, some acting company wants to use your story as the basis of a children’s production, or some testing company wants to use a paragraph of your story in an SAT test, or something – each of those people has to pay you or get the payment waived depending on the circumstances).

Read slush and fulls – discover new talent! This happens AFTER work.


Agents can come from any sort of background. Agents at my agency have been editors, business-women, professors of literature, literary scouts and more. Personally, I started out and worked for over a decade as a bookseller, buyer and events coordinator for several wonderful independent bookstores in the USA. Because of that background, I have lots of great author and publisher relationships, and know quite a bit about the publishing world. Plus I’ve read about a million books, which definitely doesn’t hurt.

But really, I am a literary agent because I love working with my favorite authors and getting evangelical about my favorite books, and I am very good at selling things. (And modest!)


Most publishers – particularly large and mid-sized publishers – are closed to unsolicited submissions, and only work with agents.

Of course, there are loopholes to this. if you are a tough cookie and you don’t mind doing a lot of footwork, submitting on your own, getting tough with editors and negotiating contracts on your own behalf, you can certainly get published without an agent. It definitely still happens. But I think that most authors like having an advocate in their corner, and prefer to be able to focus on the writing rather than the often-daunting and time-consuming submission and business side.


So you want an agent. First of all—is your book finished? Not just “I have enough pages to basically make a book . . . sorta”, but seriously finished, polished, like you could see it on the shelves of a store? OK. Now you figure out what sort of a book you’ve got. This can be general—like, is it a kids book, a science fiction book, a horror book, or what?

Now ask some of your author friends about their agents, and look in the acknowledgments of books you think are similar to yours in tone, and see who is listed after Thank You. Start a list. Then, go on Agent Query or QueryTracker or similar site. Look up agents by type of book they rep. Add more to your list. THEN, take your list and go to the agents actual website and make sure that the info you have is still accurate. THEN, if you’ve established that they are a real agent that is still taking submisisons and has books that are your “type”, follow the submisison guidelines on the agents website. Presto.


I think that if people spent the time it takes to ask dumb questions like this actually WRITING, they’d be a lot better off. JUST WRITE AN AWESOME BOOK. Awesome never goes out of style.

Last Night’s Event

The event at Books of Wonder with Libba Bray, Kristin Cashore, Suzanne Collins, me and Scott last night was astonishing. Several people said they thought there were around 200 people there. I could not possibly guess from where I was sitting, but it did indeed appear to be many.

Here’s my bad fuzzy photo of the many:

It was pretty overwhelming to be on the bill with such popular writers, especially Suzanne Collins. For those who don’t know, her two most recent novels, Hunger Games and Catching Fire are currently, and have been for some time, numbers one and two on The New York Times bestsellers list, selling bajillions of copies a week. The Books of Wonder appearance was organised around Suzanne because it was her only signing for Catching Fire. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that Peter Glassman (the owner of BoW) thought to ask me to take part. Here’s Suzanne in action (with Libba Bray listening carefully):

I’d never met Suzanne before. She’s lovely, smart and gently funny. She, me and Libba had a fun conversation about the joys (meeting wonderful teens, booksellers, librarians) and travails (food poisoning) of touring. She’s also extraordinarily generous, giving up a big chunk of her presentation to talk in detail about how much she’d loved Liar, Fire,1 Leviathan and Going Bovine. Thank you, Suzanne.

I’d never met Kristin either and she also turned out to be lovely. I don’t know what it is about the YA world but almost all the authors I’ve met have been fabulous.2 It’s such a wonderful community to be part of.

It was only overwhelming at first then it quickly became relaxing. For most of my tour, I’ve done solo events with all the attention on me, but last night I could sit back and watch how other YA authors answer questions about how they come up with names, where they get their ideas, and which characters they like best.

Suzanne and Kristin were both so thoughtful and smart, providing little glimpses into how they work. They both have detailed maps of the imaginary worlds they’ve created. It sounds like Kristin’s world encompasses gazillions of countries and large swathes of time. Very Tolkienesque. Libba Bray remains one of the funniest people on the planet and I don’t just say that because she’s a dear friend of mine. As does Scott.3 Last night’s event made me want to stick to doing events with other people. Not just because it’s more fun for me, but also because it felt like the audience gets more out of it too.

What do you think?

One event I’m dying to do is me and Libba talking about unreliable narrators. For those of you who haven’t read Going Bovine you really should. We wrote Liar and Going Bovine at the same time and commented on each other’s early drafts. I can’t tell you how deeply eerie it was to discover we were both writing unreliable narrators and how many resemblances there were between our books even while they were also extremely different. Going Bovine is hysterically funny; Liar not so much. I think our two books work amazingly well side by side. Turns out I am not the only one to notice this.

Maybe some time next year we’ll be able to talk about our books, their unreliability, and how hard they were to write side by side. Fingers crossed!

  1. As Kristin said, “Look! Our books rhyme!” []
  2. Another contributing factor to why I never want to write for the grown ups: I’d have to hang out with the cranky adult literature authors. Ewww. []
  3. Yes, I know he’s my husband but he truly is hilarious. []

Adults Reading YA

Today Louisville’s Courier-Journal has a most excellent article about adults reading YA by Erin Keane. I don’t just say that because I was interviewed for it, but because the article is smart and non-sensationalist, and includes some actual facts:

Young adult fiction’s appeal has grown way beyond the school library. What was once considered entertainment for kids has become big business for adults, who are increasingly turning to the children’s section for their own reading pleasure, according to publishing experts.

Nielsen’s BookScan predicted U.S. book sales will remain flat this year, but amid this industry slump, sales of young-adult titles are expected to continue to rise. It’s not only teenagers who are browsing the shelves

There’s no hint of panic about this anywhere in the article. In fact, you get the impression that adults reading the amazingly wonderful YA books out there is a good thing.

Pinch me now.

Goodbye Portland, Hello Austin!

I now say a fond farewell to the peoples of the Pacific North West. Goodbye Seattle and Portland! What gorgeous cities you are. My timing was perfect: all the leaves were gold, red, maroon, pink, orange and brown. Spectacularly gorgeous. Also mostly the weather was crisp and clear. Only two raining days. Well done, Pacific North West.

My favourite part was getting to meet so many of the people who comment on this blog such as Pixelfish, Saints and Spinners, AndrewN, and the people I met last night whose names I’ve forgotten because my brain is fried. So sorry! And meeting Lizzy-wa and Captain Cockatiel again after two years.

The most amazing thing happened last night at the Clackamas Town Ctr Mall Barnes & Noble. One girl in the audience, Michelle, was asking me lots and lots of questions. She’d read the first 20 pages of Liar and was really into it. She stayed behind to ask more questions. It emerged that she could not afford a copy of her own. I suggested borrowing it from the library and others there were able to name good ones nearby, which is when Adrienne, another lovely person who came to the event, stepped in and bought Michelle a copy.

Can you believe it? Michelle was stunned. So was I, frankly. I declare Adrienne the World’s Best Book Fairy. Thank you, Adrienne!

Shortly I head to the airport to get on the plane to Austin where tomorrow I will be part of the very first Austin Teen Book Festival:

Saturday, 24 October, 10:00 am -5:00 pm
Austin Teen Book Festival
Westlake High School
4100 Westbank Drive
Austin, TX

I’m dead honoured to have been asked to be part of it. Go check out the stellar lineup. Why, yes, that is Libba Bray, the world’s funniest human being doing the keynote address. I can’t wait.


P.S. The rumour that I do impersonations of my husband during my events is completely not true.

Seattle, Portland, Austin

Today I fly to Seattle, which could not possibly be as cold and wet as it is here in New York City. Surely not?

Here are my public events in Seattle:

Monday, 19 October, 4:00 pm
Mukilteo Public Library
4675 Harbour Pointe Blvd.
Mukilteo, WA

Monday, 19 October, 7:00 pm
UWash Bookstore
4326 University Way N.E.
Seattle, WA

Tuesday, 20 October, 7:00 pm
Third Place Books
17171 Bothell Way NE
Lake Forest Park, WA

Wednesday, 21 October, 7:00 pm
Barnes & Noble
19401 Alderwood Mall Parkway

Lynnwood, WA

That’s right, you Seattleites get four opportunities to listen to me blather on about Liar and answer any and all of your questions. I suspect Seattle is where I will finally tell the truth of what happens at the end of Liar. I know I’ve said I’d do it before but every single time someone in the audience begged me not to spoil the book for them.

Then I’m off to Portland where you can find me here:

Thursday, 22 October, 4:00 pm
A Children’s Place
4807 NE Fremont St

Portland, Oregon

or here:

Thursday, 22 October, 7:00 pm
Barnes & Noble
12000 SE 82nd Avenue

Portland, OR 97266

And then next Saturday if you happen to be in or around Austin you get to see not just me but also folks like Libba Bray, Varian Johnson and Margo Rabb:

Saturday, 24 October, 10:00 am -5:00 pm
Austin Teen Book Festival
Westlake High School
4100 Westbank Drive
Austin, TX

It will be an action-packed, amazing day. I cannot wait. I’m also thinking of starting a blood feud with another YA author. Maureen Johnson tells me they are lots of fun. Problem is that all the authors at the Teen Book Festival are so lovely. It’s very hard to feud with nice.

Hope to see/meet at least some of you!

Guestblog on Teenreads

Today I blogged over here. Those of you who’ve been wondering about the process of writing Liar might find it interesting.

Today I prepare for my appearance in Larchmont tonight and the many appearances I’m doing next week in Seattle and Portland. Then I’ll be at the Teen Lit Festival in Austin next Saturday. That’s quite a temperature range. Packing’s going to be fun!

For those of you who only read the posts and not the comments, you really need to check out the comments on the White Writer Advantages thread and the Hating Female Characters one. People are being astonishingly smart.

Memphis Rocks

Yesterday was lovely. First up there was the flight from NYC. Well, okay, that was not lovely. Flying in the US rarely is. Ridiculously long security lines, having my luggage searched yet again and all my carefully packed to prevent wrinkling event clothes trashed, etc. However, I sat next to a book cover designer and we had a long goss about the industry and the flight arrived on time. So, really, it went better than usual.

Fist event of the tour was an interview with the fabulous Justine magazine. Yes, there’s a magazine named after me.1 We talked books, writing, and Elvis. Hey, I’m in Memphis, you know. It is the land of Elvis.

Next was the event at Davis-Kidd Booksellers.2 It was a small crowd but they were full of good questions and incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about YA. I had a blast rattling off my various theories about Flowers in the Attic, Wuthering Heights, Elvis’s mother’s middle name, Australia’s gravitational pull and why all YA writers know each. Yes, me and Stephenie Meyer and Philip Pullman and Cassandra Clare are all best friends!

After the event we went to Rendezvous BBQ, which many people say is the best barbeque joint in Memphis, some say in all of the United States. I am not really in a good position to judge because I have not had a lot of bbq in my life but it was definitely the best bbq this Australian girl has ever had. I would live there if I could. Oh, and those of you who follow Maureen Johnson’s twitter feed she was totally lying about only eating a bit of bbq sauce on a spoon. Rendezvous has a veggie plate: meatless beans and rice, coleslaw, cheese and pickles. It looked really good. And MJ ate her fill.

And now we’re heading off to Graceland where we have VIP tour tickets waiting for us courtesy of Jana of Justine Magazine. Am I excited? Put it this way: only MJ is keeping me from hyperventilating.


  1. They thought about calling it Larbalestier but were worried people wouldn’t be able to spell it. []
  2. Once were Joseph-Beth. []

Too Many Books About NYC?

Ever since I first became a part of the YA world, I’ve been noticing complaints that way too many YA books published in the US of A are set in New York City. Why can’t other cities get a look in? they ask. Off the top of my head I can easily name many, many US YA books that are not set in NYC. But I think most people would concede that there are more YA books set in NYC than any other city or place in the USA.

There are lots of reasons. There’s the famous New York City bubble. People who live in NYC find it hard to believe there is anything of interest outside her five boroughs. (And most of them are unconvinced there’s anything cool anywhere expect the borough they happen to live in.) I don’t share that opinion, but hey, I’m from Sydney that’s where all the cool stuff actually is.

I have never heard anyone bitch that all Oz YA is set in Sydney. That’s beacause a) it isn’t and b) the publishing industry is mostly in Melbourne. But neither is most OZ YA set in Melbourne. Actually, an astonishing number of Oz YA novels are set in country towns. This is especially astonishing given that Australia is the most highly urbanised country in the world.

I think the preponderance of NYC YA makes sense given the huge population of the city and that it’s the centre of publishing and thus has a long long history of writers living here. Er, like me.1 I’m one of those writers who needs to have been to the places I write about. My five novels are set in Sydney, NYC, San Miguel de Allende, Bangkok, Dallas as well as a city, New Avalon, I invented and thus know really well.2

Are any of you annoyed by all the USian YA set in NYC? Do you not read it cause you’re so sick of it? Or is it more that when you’re picking a new book you’ll pass if it’s yet another one set in NYC?

If you’re not from the US, are you annoyed by the setting of any of the YA in your country? Is too much French YA set in Paris? Too many Bangkok YA novels in Thailand?

  1. For half the year. []
  2. For me the hardest to write were Dallas and Bangkok cause I’ve only been a couple of times and don’t know either city especially very well. Fortunately it was just a few short scene set in either city. If I were to write whole novel set in either I suspect I’d have to live there while writing. []

A Wish After Midnight

First I must make a confession: I was very nervous about reading Zetta Elliott‘s A Wish After Midnight despite all the good reviews it’s had. I was nervous because it’s self-published and I’ve had some bad experiences with self-published books. Midnight does show a few (minor) signs of not coming from an established publisher such as the margins and line spacing too tight. However, within a couple of pages I stopped being bothered by them, and a few pages after that I stopped seeing them at all because I was lost in the story.

I feel like A Wish After Midnight was designed with me in mind. Because it does so many things I love as well as working as an homage to one of my favourite writers, Octavia Butler. It’s a time travel story set in New York City between now(ish) and the Civil War. Both time periods are vividly realised. You can smell and taste and feel the very different NYC (mostly Brooklyn) landscapes between then and now. I adore historical novels that are clearly well-researched and yet all that research is not obvious. It permeates every scene, every sentence of the book, but it never feels like the author was showing off. Story came first. I love social realism that is also genre. Wish covers multiple genres seamlessly.

Then there’s the protagonist. I absolutely adored Gemma Colon. She’s smart, strong, resourceful, but also very young. She’s an outsider at school and doesn’t get on with her two oldest siblings. Her mother is fighting hard to keep the family afloat but that involves working around the clock. Funny how economic stability and emotional stability sometimes work out to be incompatible. If you’re a single parent working two jobs you don’t get to spend enough time with your children. Gemma is in a lot of pain but she channels it all into working as hard as she can at school and at home. She maintains a huge capacity for joy and hope. Can you tell I adored her?

A Wish After Midnight is influenced by one of my favourite books of all time, Octavia Butler’s Kindred. You could almost say that it’s a YA reworking of Butler’s brilliant book. Butler has had an enormous influence on my writing. So when I say that Wish evokes Kindred without ever being overwhelmed by it, that’s a huge compliment. In fact, I was left wanting to re-read Kindred and Wish back to back.

My biggest question about Wish is why it had to be self-published. This is great story telling, it’s totally commercial—i.e. I could not put it down—it’s also an ethically compelling book about race, class and gender. It’s not like other books in the marketplace. I don’t understand why a big house has not picked it up.

As you can tell my streak of reading extremely good books continues. I’d love to hear what you all thought of A Wish After Midnight espeically those of you have also read Kindred.

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

Lately, I have heard several published white writers express their trepidation about the idea of writing non-white characters. Some of them have mentioned that they feel they’ll get in trouble if they continue to write only white characters, but that they also feel they’ll get into trouble if they write characters who aren’t white cause they’ll bugger it up.

Damned if you do, they say, damned if you don’t.

To which I can only say, and I mean this nicely, “Please!”

What exactly are you risking? Who exactly is damning you? Which of your previously published novels have attracted no criticisms and no damnation? Cause that’s amazing. You wrote a book no one critcised? Awesome. Please teach me that trick!

Every single book I’ve published has displeased someone. I’ve been accused of promoting teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, and underage drinking. Every single one of my books has caused at least a few people to tell me that I stuffed various things up: my descriptions of Sydney, of NYC, of mathematics (absolutely true), my Oz characters don’t speak like proper Aussies, and my USians don’t talk like proper Yanquis. My teenagers sound too young or too old and are too smart or too stupid. I did my best, but some think that was not good enough.

That’s the risk you take when you write a book.

If you do not have the knowledge, resources, research, or writing skills to write people who are different from you, then don’t. People may well criticise you for that. They’ll also criticise you for having some of your characters speak their notion of ungrammatical English1. And for not having enough vampires. Whatever.2 Write what you’re good at. Lots and lots of writers pretty much only write about themselves and their friends. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a famous example. There are many many others. That’s fine. Own it. And do it as well as you can.

If you, as a white writer, decide to write people of a different hue to yourself then you should do your damnedest to get it right. But know that no matter how well researched your book, no matter how well vetted by multiple knowledgeable readers it is, there will always be people who think you buggered it up and misrepresented them. All you can do is write the best, most thoroughly researched book you possibly can. After all, don’t you do that with every book you write? You don’t write your historicals with Wikipedia as your only source, do you? Right then.

What should you do when you are criticised?

Listen. Learn. Even if you think they’re insane and completely wrong.

Figure out how to avoid the same egregious mistakes in your next book. But remember that your next book will also be criticised. That’s how it goes.

Do not have a hissy fit and say you’ll never write about anyone who isn’t white again. Do not insult those criticising you.

Say you, as a white American, write a novel with many Thai-American characters and a Thai-American reader criticises you for getting something wrong yet another Thai-American reader praises you for getting the exact same thing right. Who do you believe?

What do you do when two white readers disagree about stuff in your books? Do you assume that all white people are the same? Perhaps it’s time to stop assuming that all Thai-Americans are the same and have the same opinions and experiences. Thailand’s a big country with a wide range of ethnicities, religions, cuisines and everything else. The experiences of the Thai diaspora in the USA is going to be just as varied. Some Thai Americans will think you got it right, some will think you got it wrong. That’s how it goes.

Keep in mind that Thai-Americans writing about Thai-Americans are also criticised and told they get it wrong. No one is immune from criticism. No one is immune from getting it wrong for at least some of their readers. We all do it.

Writing is hard. No matter what you write about. You will be damned no matter what you do. But that has nothing to do with you being white, that has to do with you having the arrogance to be a writer, and publish what you write for other people to read. Your readers get to judge you. That’s just how it goes. Your job is to be a grown up about what you do and how people respond to you. That’s really hard too. Trust me, I know.

Thus endeth the rant.

  1. Trust me, I get that one all the time []
  2. I am SO over vampires. Except for the good ones. []

Liar Tour

I now have almost all the dates and times for the US Liar tour. For the first time ever I’ll be doing some tour stops in the South and the Northwest. In fact, my only repeat visits are to Austin, Philadelphia and, of course, NYC.1

But first I must apologise. Profusely. Despite what I said earlier, I will not be visiting Phoenix. I’m very disappointed. Phoenix was one of the first cities mentioned for this tour and the Bloomsbury publicists did every thing they could to make it happen. But alas. If it was down to me I’d spend a week in Phoenix visiting every school and library that has ever asked me to appear. Sadly I do not get to choose where I go. So I won’t get to meet the locals who faithfully follow this blog and have done so for years. Or the lovely librarians. I won’t get to talk about the Phoenix Mercury with youse all in person. Or eat at all the wonderful restaurants people have been recommending. I am deeply bummed.

I should never have mentioned any possible tour stops until they were absolutely confirmed. That’s my lesson learned. I’m so sorry to get hopes up with my dumb mistake.

On the bright side, there’s a tour addition: I’ll be going to Chicago, which is another city where I’ve never done an appearance before and another city with really good food.2

Okay, enough of my rabbiting on, here is my 2009 tour schedule:

US Liar Tour

Thursday, 8 October, 7:00 pm:
Joseph Beth Bookstore
387 Perkins Ext

Memphis, TN

Saturday, 10 October, 2:00-3:00 pm
Southern Festival of Books
Talk in Room 16
Legislative Plaza
Nashville, TN
Followed by signing
3-4 pm
War Memorial Plaza
Between 6th & 7th Avenues.
Nashville, TN

Friday, 16 October, 7:00 pm:
Voracious Reader
1997 Palmer Ave

Larchmont, NY

Monday, 19 October, 4:00 pm
Mukilteo Public Library
4675 Harbour Pointe Blvd.
Mukilteo, WA

Monday, 19 October, 7:00 pm
UWash Bookstore
4326 University Way N.E.
Seattle, Washington

Tuesday, 20 October, 7:00 pm
Third Place Books
17171 Bothell Way NE
Lake Forest Park, WA

Wednesday, 21 October, 7:00 pm
Barnes & Noble
19401 Alderwood Mall Parkway

Lynnwood, WA

Thursday, 22 October, 4:00 pm
A Children’s Place
4807 NE Fremont St

Portland, OR

Thursday, 22 October, 7:00 pm
Barnes & Noble
12000 SE 82nd Avenue

Portland, OR 97266

Saturday, 24 October, 10:00 am -5:00 pm
Austin Teen Book Festival
Westlake High School
4100 Westbank Drive
Austin, TX

Thursday, 29 October, TBD
Children’s Book World
17 Haverford Station Rd
Haverford, PA

Thursday, 29 October, 7:00 pm
Blue Marble
551 Carpenter Ln

Philadelphia, PA

Wednesday, 4 November, TBD
Anderson’s Bookshop
123 W Jefferson Ave
Naperville, IL

Thursday, 5 November, 7:00 pm
B&N Skokie
55 Old Orchard Center

Skokie, IL

Tuesday, 10 November, 5:00-7:00 pm
Books of Wonder
18 W. 18th St.

New York, NY

Yes, there will be school appearances as well but as those events are not public I cannot announce them here. I’m really excited about this tour and hope I get to meet some of you.



  1. I mean, I live here half the year, I’ll always do appearances in NYC. []
  2. Yes, I think with my stomach. []

Flygirl (update)

I have never ever wanted to learn to fly, yet Sheri L. Smith‘s Flygirl almost had me calling up flight schools.1 Ida Mae Jones lives to fly. So much so that she passes as a white woman in order to become a WASP during World War II. The book is about race, class, gender, about friendship, obsession (for flying), love, and family.

Cut for mild spoilerage: Continue reading

  1. I suspect you need to know how to drive a car before you move on to planes. Not that I actually want to learn to fly or drive a car for that matter. Nasty smelly things. []

Events, I does them

In addition to my Melbourne Writers Festival events—first one is tomorrow with Scott and Isobelle Carmody *squee*—soon I’ll be off on my second US tour. Pretty, exciting, eh?

I just added a few events to the appearances page. So far I have events confirmed (or close to) for Phoenix, Nashville, Memphis, Austin, Seattle, Portland and New York City. I’m especially excited about those first three cities as I’ve never been to any of them before.

Also: Memphis = Gracelands = Justine hyperventilating. For those of who don’t know, yes, I am a daggy Elvis fan. Goes back to when I was very little.

There will be at least one or two more cities on my tour. I’ll let you know which ones as soon as I know. Here’s hoping it’s your city.

Just so you know, I don’t pick where I go. The wonderful publicists at Bloomsbury make those decisions and it largely depends on which book shops, libraries and schools want me to come to talk to them. It could be that I’m not going to your town because no one there asked my publisher to send me. So get mad at your local book shops, schools and libraries, not at me!1

What will I be doing on tour? Talking about Liar, how I came to write it, my thoughts on lying, and the many other things that shaped the book. I’m also happy to talk about my earlier books, especially How To Ditch Your Fairy which comes out in its brand new shiny paperback edition at the same time as Liar debuts in hardcover. In fact, I’ll talk about whatever you want me to talk about. Last year, at one school event all they did was ask me about food. Oh, and to tell them vomit stories. I live to answer your questions.

Here’s hoping I’ll get to meet some more of you over the next few days and months. It’s my favourite part of touring.

  1. Kidding! Book shops, schools and libraries never do anything wrong. []

The Audio Book of Liar

My last week in NYC I was invited to visit the studio where the audio book of Liar was being recorded. Even though I had a gazillion million things to do I made sure to get there. I’m so glad I did. It was an amazing experience.

I’d never had my prose read out loud by a talented actor like Channie Waites before. It was a revelation. I know it’s a cliche but she really did make my book come alive. Bits that I hadn’t realised were funny, she rendered funny. (In a good way!) It was strange and wonderful and gave me chills. And as you can see I’m really struggling to articulate how incredible it felt to listen to Micah brought to life.

Channie Waites in the booth behind the glass and Lisa Cahn reflected in the glass

Channie Waites in the booth and Jeffrey Kawalek doing his sound engineering thing

Let me instead talk about the nitty gritty. There were three people in the studio: Channie Waites in the recording booth, then the engineer, Jeffrey Kawalek, who’d call a halt to proceedings anytime he heard a P or T pop or the rustle of Channie’s clothing (those mics are crazy sensitive) who fiddled with knobs and dials and, lastly, Lisa Cahn, the producer, who would stop the recording to ask Channie to read it with more or less emphasis and so on. It was unbelievably hard to keep my mouth shut and not interrupt with my own suggestions, but I managed, and after a few minutes was able to relax and just enjoy hearing someone else’s interpretation of my book and my characters.

Channie Waites in the recording booth

Both Channie and Lisa had really interesting theories and questions about the book. I wrote Liar to be read in at least two different ways, but the responses I’m getting are showing me that there are way more than just two interpretations. I love hearing them all. Especially Channie’s and Lisa’s because they’d both read it very closely indeed. The finished recording is eight hours long but it takes at least double that to do the recording. That’s a long time to spend reading one book. I can’t wait to hear the whole thing.

The Liar recording was produced by Brilliance Audio and the How To Ditch Your Fairy one was produced by Bolinda Audio. Each will be available from the other company because of their cunning co-production. Liar will go on sale in each country at the same time as the print edition.

Ain’t That a Shame (updated)

In the last few weeks as people have started reading the US ARC of Liar they have also started asking why there is such a mismatch between how Micah describes herself and the cover image. Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short. As you can see that description does not match the US cover.

Many people have been asking me how I feel about the US cover, why I allowed such a cover to appear on a book of mine, and why I haven’t been speaking out about it.

Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all.

As it happens I was consulted by Bloomsbury and let them know that I wanted a cover like the Australian cover, which I think is very true to the book.1 I was lucky that my Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin, agreed with my vision and that the wonderful Bruno Herfst came up with such a perfect cover image.

I never wanted a girl’s face on the cover. Micah’s identity is unstable. She spends the book telling different version of herself. I wanted readers to be free to imagine her as they wanted. I have always imagined her looking quite a bit like Alana Beard,2 which is why I was a bit offended by the reviewer, who in an otherwise lovely review, described Micah as ugly. She’s not!3

The US Liar cover went through many different versions. An early one, which I loved, had the word Liar written in human hair. Sales & Marketing did not think it would sell. Bloomsbury has had a lot of success with photos of girls on their covers and that’s what they wanted. Although not all of the early girl face covers were white, none showed girls who looked remotely like Micah.

I strongly objected to all of them. I lost.

I haven’t been speaking out publicly because to be the first person to do so would have been unprofessional. I have privately been campaigning for a different cover for the paperback. The response to the cover by those who haven’t read Liar has been overwhelmingly positive and I would have looked churlish if I started bagging it at every opportunity. I hoped that once people read Liar they would be as upset as I am with the cover. It would not have helped get the paperback changed if I was seen to be orchestrating that response. But now that this controversy has arisen I am much more optimistic about getting the cover changed. I am also starting to rethink what I want that cover to look like. I did want Bloomsbury to use the Australian cover, but I’m increasingly thinking that it’s important to have someone who looks like Micah on the front.

I want to make it clear that while I disagree with Bloomsbury about this cover I am otherwise very happy to be with them. They’ve given me space to write the books I want to write. My first book for them was a comic fairy book that crossed over into middle grade (How To Ditch Your Fairy). I followed that up with Liar, a dark psychological thriller that crosses over into adult. There are publishers who would freak. No one at Bloomsbury batted an eye. I have artistic freedom there, which is extraordinarily important to me. They are solidly behind my work and have promoted it at every level in ways I have never been promoted before.

Covers change how people read books

Liar is a book about a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar who is determined to stop lying but finds it much harder than she supposed. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.

No one in Australia has written to ask me if Micah is really black.

No one in Australia has said that they will not be buying Liar because “my teens would find the cover insulting.”

Both responses are heart breaking.

This cover did not happen in isolation.

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them.4 Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”

Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true. Certainly the music industry has found that to be the case. Walk into a music store, online or offline, and compare the number of black faces you see on the covers there as opposed to what you see in most book stores. Doesn’t seem to affect white people buying music. The music industry stopped insisting on white washing decades ago. Talented artists like Fats Domino no longer needs Pat Boone to cover genius songs like “Ain’t That a Shame” in order to break into the white hit parade. (And ain’t that song title ironic?)

There is, in fact, a large audience for “black books” but they weren’t discovered until African American authors started self-publishing and selling their books on the subway and on the street and directly into schools. And, yet, the publishing industry still doesn’t seem to get it. Perhaps the whole “black books don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I hope that the debate that’s arisen because of this cover will widen to encompass the whole industry. I hope it gets every publishing house thinking about how incredibly important representation is and that they are in a position to break down these assumptions. Publishing companies can make change. I really hope that the outrage the US cover of Liar has generated will go a long way to bringing an end to white washing covers. Maybe even to publishing and promoting more writers of color.

But never forget that publishers are in the business of making money. Consumers need to do what they can. When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you? If you were upset by the US cover of Liar go buy one right now. I’d like to recommend Coe Booth’s Kendra which is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Waiting on my to be read pile is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, which has been strongly recommended to me by many people.

Clearly we do not live in a post-racist society. But I’d like to think that the publishing world is better than those many anecdotes I’ve been hearing. But for that to happen, all of us—writers, editors, designers, sales reps, booksellers, reviewers, readers, and parents of readers—will have to do better.

Update: Because some recent commenters haven’t heard that Bloomsbury have changed the cover here is a link to the new cover.

  1. I didn’t see the Australian cover until after the US cover was finalised. []
  2. Yes, another protag of mine who looks like a WNBA player. What can I say? I’m a fan. []
  3. If you’re interested, I imagine another character in the book, Sarah, as looking like a younger Rutina Wesley, who’s not a WNBA player. []
  4. And most of those were written by white people. []

Sonia Sotomayor Hearings

Before this past week I had never watched a congressional hearing. In the ten years I’ve been living back and forth between Sydney and NYC I never found time to spend a few hours watching this variety of Washington theatre. I’m glad I did. In the course of several hours of listening to senators question Sonia Sotomayor to find out if she’s qualified to be a Supreme Court justice I learned a bit more about the political process in the US and that Sotomayor is one of the calmest, most patient, smart and rational people on the planet. She was amazing.

But it turns out these hearings weren’t really about her.

The hearings were about a handful of white male senators grandstanding to the people they think are their constituents. And what were they grandstanding about? Frank Rich nails it:

The hearings were pure “Alice in Wonderland.” Reality was turned upside down. Southern senators who relate every question to race, ethnicity and gender just assumed that their unreconstructed obsessions are America’s and that the country would find them riveting. Instead the country yawned. The Sotomayor questioners also assumed a Hispanic woman, simply for being a Hispanic woman, could be portrayed as The Other and patronized like a greenhorn unfamiliar with How We Do Things Around Here. The senators seemed to have no idea they were describing themselves when they tried to caricature Sotomayor as an overemotional, biased ideologue.

If I put men like those in any of my novels I would be accused of stereotyping. Very few people would believe in characters who don’t listen to anything that’s said to them, who insist that anyone who isn’t exactly like them—white, male, old—is biased. That, in fact, being white, male and old renders them, not only neutral, but the only real people in the world.

All their attacks on Sotomayor, because they weren’t questions, were just an oft repeated refrain on how dare Sotomayor think that being a Latina qualified her for anything. (Um, hello, she doesn’t think that, she thinks her long and distinguished record qualifies her.) Pat Buchanan put it even more nakedly on Rachel Maddow’s show this week when he declared that white men made America.

To which you can only stare and gape. Buchanan does not know much about his own country’s history. He does not seem to know that the early white settlers would have starved without the help of the indigenous peoples. He does not know that slavery was the economic making of the country, that the White House was built by slaves, and the railroads were built by indentured Chinese labour and that without the contributions of people who weren’t white or male this country would not be what it is.

Why, does Buchanan feel the need to say something so preposterous in his analysis of Sotomayor’s qualifications for the Supreme Court? Because he and those senators see the inclusion of anyone who isn’t like them as an attack on them. When a Latina makes it onto the Supreme Court that is an attack on their white male power. Their “we” doesn’t even include all white men, just the ones who think like them, of which, mercifully, there are fewer and fewer.

I’ll give a white man, Stephen Colbert, the last word:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word – Neutral Man’s Burden
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Jeff Goldblum

RIP Charles N. Brown

Charles N. Brown was the publisher of Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field. He was well known throughout the SFF world for this love and support for the field and his enormous generosity.

I first met him at the 1993 World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis1 when I was researching my PhD thesis. He was extremely enthusiastic about my research and gave me many leads and suggestions including inviting me to make use of his insanely extensive library in Oakland. His help was invaluable. He knew everyone and pretty much everything about SFF in the USA. We remained friends even after my defection to YA. My case is not unique. Over the years he has helped many young researchers and writers and editors and fans of the genre.

My thoughts go out to everyone at Locus and everyone who cared about Charles.

We’ll all miss him.

  1. I think. It was some time that year. []

Agent Websites are Irrelevant (updated)

I keep seeing new writers in search of an agent get hung up on the fact that many agents don’t have much of an online presence.

Newsflash: an agent’s website is irrelevant to how good an agent they are. Some of the top agents in the business barely have an online presence at all.

Think about it for just a second: what is an agent’s website for exactly? It’s not for editors, i.e. the people agents sell to. Good agents already have relationships with editors at all the big houses and many of the little ones too. Editors don’t need to look up agents’ websites. The people who most frequently visit an agent’s site are writers looking for representation. And the good agents do not need to advertise for clients. Thus they do not need a good website.

My agent, Jill Grinberg, doesn’t blog and has a website that’s been under construction since 2006. Yet somehow she manages to be an extraordinarily good agent. I am very very happy and grateful to be with her. Trust me, Jill does not lack for clients.

Time and time again I see newbies comment about how if an agent doesn’t have an uptodate website they must be a crap agent who’s clearly still using messenger pigeons to communicate. So not true. The vast majority of my communication with Jill is done via email. I send her all my manuscripts as attachments. She is entirely in the 21st century. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t communicate with their agent in the same way.

When I see newbies saying they’re not going to submit to Jill because of her luddite ways I have to laugh. The only person they’re punishing is themselves.

I think what many many new writers searching for an agent don’t get is that new clients are not the majority of agents’ priority. Newbies are so focussed on the searching part that they sometimes don’t think about how what they want from agents will change when they actually get one.

When you have an agent you don’t care about their website or how clear their submission guidelines are or whether they take electronic submissions. You care about how fast they get back to you about your problems and how good the deals they make for you are. The stuff that was hugely important when you were looking for an agent disappears from view. You don’t think about it again.

The top priority of an agent is looking after their existing clients. When a new writer finds the perfect agent they’re going to be very grateful for that. They won’t be giving much thought to the state of their agent’s website.

Update: I am not saying agents should not have websites. Or that agents with websites are bad agents. Merely that the fact of having or not having a website is irrelevant to how good an agent they are.

I am also saying that what seems important when you’re looking for an agent won’t be once you have one.

Sunday Afternoon

Sunday afternoons are meant to be lazy. It’s like a law. Which you’re not allowed to ignore even if you have a tonne of work to do.

So Scott and me went to visit Lauren McLaughlin and meet her and Woofy’s new baby, Adelina. She’s a darling. We were there for more than three hours and she didn’t cry once. Astonishing!

Here’s Addie after being fed:

Isn’t she a darling? (Who is that strange man in the background?)

In other news the stalker contest continues. Many excellent entries. If you want to enter do so over there not here.

And now I must get back to work. Sadly . . .


Last week I mentioned how much I loved Coe Booth‘s Kendra. I have much to say about this book but let me start with the notion of realism. I am on the record as saying that I am not a fan. Yet Kendra is indisputably realist. It is set in the real world. There are no zombies, vampires, space ships or magic. So how can I say I don’t like realism when I love Kendra?

Last night I was called on my anti-realism stance. It turns out that when I say I don’t like realism I’m talking about a very specific kind of book. I don’t like most John Updike or Philip Roth. I disliked Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland. When I say I don’t like realism what I mean is that I don’t like unplotted books with protags who are naval-gazing bores. I need plot! I need texture! I need to care one way or another about the main characters! Something other than complete indifference.

I had strong reactions to all the characters in Kendra. Very strong. I wanted to kill Kendra’s mother. And sometimes her grandmother and father. But never Kendra. I worried about Kendra. At the end of the book I had a big ole cry for Kendra. Several weeks after finishing the book I’m still hoping Kendra’s doing okay and that things work out better with her mother. Colour me, cautiously optimistic.

Kendra’s set in the Bronx and Harlem in New York City. It’s the story of a girl who was raised by her grandmother because her mother, Renee, had her at the age of 14. Rather than give her life over to looking after Kendra she concentrates on getting educated and out of the projects. At the beginning of the book Renee graduates from her PhD program at Princeton. Kendra thinks this means Renee’s coming home. It doesn’t. Kendra’s desparate need for her mother’s love and approval and Renee’s ignoring of her is almost painful to read about. She does everything she can to keep her daughter at arms length. Her priority is her career, not her daughter. Did I mention that I wanted to kill her? In the meantime Kendra’s left with her overprotective grandmother who does not trust her at all. (Thus making me want to strangle her.) And occasionally her hapless father.

I will not tell more of the plot and characters. I want you to discover them yourselves.

What’s remarkable about Kendra other than its effortlessly clean and elegant prose is that you wind up understanding everyone in it no matter how much you want to strangle them. It’s also an astonishingly honest novel, rendering Kendra’s actions understandable even when she’s making mistakes. There’s a lot most of us will do to be loved. And that’s what this novel is about.

Highly highly recommended.

Water without Ice

One of the hardest things for me in the US of A is getting a glass of water (or any other not hot beverage) without ice. The default, even in the very depths of winter, is a glass that’s at least half ice, half water.

They even put ice in orange juice! In bubbly water! It’s INSANE!

I do not get it. Why so much ice? Why do USians want to have their teeth painfully assaulted with sub-arctic temperature liquids?

Is that truly what they want?

I will never understand it.

A Fabulous Letter

In my research for my 1930s NYC novel, letters are far and away the most evocative and useful primary source. This letter, obviously, is not from my period but since reading it a couple of days ago I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

On the 7th of August, 1865 in Dayton, Ohio, former slave Jourdan Anderson declines his former master’s invitation to come and work for him again:

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

It gets better and better after that. Read the rest of the letter here. (Found via Twitter, though sadly I can no longer remember whose.)

They’re Just Girl Books. Who Cares?

Sometimes I think the best course of action for me is to simply not read anything in the New York Times about books by women. I just wind up cranky.

Today’s piece by Janet Maslin on this summer’s books by women was astonishing. On the one hand there’s this:

The “Commencement” characters are savvy about, among other things, feminism and publishing. “When a woman writes a book that has anything to do with feelings or relationships, it’s either called chick lit or women’s fiction, right?” one of them asks. “But look at Updike, or Irving. Imagine if they’d been women. Just imagine. Someone would have slapped a pink cover onto ‘Rabbit at Rest,’ and poof, there goes the … Pulitzer.”

They’re right of course. But this is the season when prettily designed books flood the market and compete for female readers.

Too true. Women’s books are routinely lumped together even when they’re vastly different. They’re not deemed to be proper literature just because they’re written by women. And apparently this is especially true in summer which is a time “when literary and lightweight books aimed at women become hard to tell apart.”

So Maslin agrees that women’s writing is frequently compartmentalised and dismmissed. And yet she proceeds to do exactly that for for the rest of the article by lumping together eleven vastly different books and finding tenuous connections between them. All of it under the heading The Girls of Summer. Bless you, sub editor for spelling it out: it’s an article about the frivolous time of year and the frivolous gender. All is clear.

Where is the NYT piece on the boys of summer? That lumps together vastly different books by men. Oh, silly me, that would never happen because boys write real books and girls write summer fluff which is pretty much identical despite the different subject matter:

Amid such confusion, here’s a crib sheet for this season’s crop of novels and memoirs. It does mix seriously ambitious books (“Shanghai Girls”) with amiably schlocky ones (“Queen Takes King”) and includes one off-the-charts oddity (“My Judy Garland Life”). It’s even got a nascent Julia Roberts movie. But the common denominator is beach appeal, female variety. Each of these books takes a supportive, girlfriendly approach to weathering crises, be they global (World War II) or domestic (dead husband on the kitchen floor), great or small.

Let me repeat the key bit: “the common denominator is beach appeal, female variety.”

What now?

I’m confused. Is Maslin saying that no matter what subject these women write about their books are automatically light disposable beach reads because women wrote them? Or is she saying they’re automatically beach reads because of the way the publisher has decided to package the book:

Their covers use standard imagery: sand, flowers, cake, feet, houses, pastel colors, the occasional Adirondack chair. Their titles (“Summer House,” “Dune Road,” “The Wedding Girl,” “Trouble”) skew generic. And they tend to be blurbed exclusively by women.

If only the publishers had given them serious covers with non-generic titles and got a bloke to blurb them then Maslin would have been able to review their books separately and not as “women’s fiction”. Damned publishers confusing poor critics’ brains.

I think my head just exploded.

Library Stories

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of libraries. Why, I am currently learning to lindyhop—two lessons a week—in order to raise money for the New York Public Library System which is facing $57 million in budget cuts.1

This story of an Uzbekistan immigrant to the US who is now in charge of the Queens Library at Broadway made me teary:

My daughter didn’t know English well; I didn’t know English. I was trying to teach her myself. The library was my life at the time. We took out childrens books to hear that language. We learned 30 words a day. We memorized them, put them on the wall. The next day, another 30 words. After half a year she didn’t need English as a second language anymore. I learned with her. She just graduated from Vassar, Phi Beta Kappa. The library was everything for us. We were in the library every day, me and my husband.

My own library stories are not nearly so dramatic. I remember as a kid the excitement of being taken to the library by my parents and getting to pick out lots of picture books to take home. Much later as a uni student, the library at the University of Sydney, ugly, haunted2 monster that it is, was where I practically lived, studying, finding endless reams of articles, chapters, books and other material for my countless assignments, essays, and, later on, PhD thesis. The excellence of the Sydney Uni Library’s Rare Books departments made my doctoral research possible. Without them my first book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, would not have happened. My gratitude to all of them, especially Pauline Dickinson, remains huge.

So, yes, librarians and libraries, I love them.

What about youse lot? Do any of you have some library stories to tell? I’d love to hear them.

  1. Lindyhop progress report to be posted soon. []
  2. Don’t go above the fifith floor! []

Book Expo (BEA)

I spent the last two days at BEA. A few people have written me going, “What now? What is this BEA thing?”

BEA is the biggest publishing trade show in the US of A. It’s basically a giant hall full of publishers showing off their Fall (Autumn) books and trying to get booksellers and librarians to order lots and sell them in vast quantities to their customers. BEA allows booksellers to meet publishers and authors all in the one place and find out as much as they can about upcoming books all in the one place.

The first time I went to BEA I was completely overwhelmed. I hadn’t realised how many publishers there were in the US. Each had giant piles of ARCs to give away as well as fancy lanyards and bags and whistles and bubble gum and all sorts of other promotional stuff. This year there were way less of everything. Fewer publishers on the floor, fewer ARCs, fewer knick-knacks, fewer people. Not once did I feel claustrophobic. Many of the publishers had no piles of ARCs at all and were only giving them away at signings. I must admit it felt weird to see all the booths that were just shiny wall displays and no books. They looked naked.

There was much talk of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) and how it was affecting publishing. Many predict a future of fewer publishers and fewer books, which sounds grim, but a surprising number of people thought that was a good thing. They argue that there’s been a glut of books for too long. Way too many publishers put out books that they don’t support, that disappear without a trace, make no money for anyone, and wind up being pulped. Surely, fewer books properly supported is a much better business model. The counter argument is that many publishers will opt to publish only what they consider to be commercial, which is a huge shame because many of the biggest selling books have been totally unexpected hits that were not deemed commercial.

This was my third BEA but the first time I’ve been there officially with a badge that has my name on it. W00t! I even had a signing down in the official autographing area1 I was worried that there would be no one in my line. There is no sadder sight than an author surrounded by free copies of their books that no one wants.

In case you think I’m being silly worrying about no one wanting ARCs of Liar: trust me, it happens. There are HEAPS of books being given away at BEA—all at the same time—you have to pick and choose what books you want. A tiny line can and does happen to authors much better known than I am. A few years ago a friend was witness to a very well-known author having with an empty line for free paperback copies of their excellent prize-winning and best-selling book. These weird things happen. One day an author has a line around the block, next day there’s no one. Depends on timing and location and how well the signing was publicised and etc.

So my fears of no one wanting my book were entirely rational. Though fortunately on this occasion not realised. A healthy number of people showed up for Liar. Many of them I didn’t even know! Quite a few had read my other books.2 They all promised not to spoil Liar. Bless them all.

So a huge phew on this occasion: signing a success!

In my corner of the publishing world, Young Adult, the hottest galley to get hold of by far was Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, which is the sequel to Hunger Games. I hear her signing was nuts. Scott’s Leviathan was also in big demand. His line was so long that when his hour was up they had to shift him to the overflow area where he kept signing for another half hour. I think Leviathan is Scott’s best book so far. Can’t wait to hear what other people think.

How was you BEA?

  1. Many call it the cattle corral—on account of how it massively resembles cattle pens. []
  2. Yes, I am still amazed by people who’ve read my books. Nope, don’t know when I’ll get over that. []

My BEA Schedule

For those what will be attending Book Expo America, where publishing in the US of A is showcased, and there are dancing ladybugs and bears, as well as many free Advanced Readers Copies (ARCs) of upcoming books, here’s where I will be:

Friday, 8:00AM
Me and Scott will be at the YA breakfast. (I’ll be the wide awake one.)

Friday, 6:00PM
Me and Scott will be at the ABC Not-a-Dinner and Silent Auction. This time we better not be gazumped by some last minute annoying bidding person. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

Saturday, 3:00PM
I’ll be signing free ARCs of Liar in the Autograph Area Signing Table No. 9.

Saturday later
Various cocktail parties. I’ll be the one wearing feathers and gold lame and not drinking any alcohol because YA authors don’t drink. They don’t fuss or cuss or smoke or drink or lie or cheat or step on people’s feet or dance the hoochie-koo either. Just in case you were wondering.

What do you mean those are some of the lyrics from the song “Saved”? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

*cough* *cough*

Here’s Elvis singing “Saved”. It starts at around 5:30.

This version is from the 1968 comeback special1 which, everyone remembers on account of Elvis in sexy black leather,2 but my favourite bits are the campy big production numbers such as the gospel medley. (Apologies for the less than optimal quality. *shakes fist at youtube*)

Forgot to say that YA authors don’t dance the boogie all night long either. How could I forget that one? They’re heinous those all-night boogie dancers.

  1. Best comeback special of all time. []
  2. And he does look mighty fine. []

That’s Just How Things are . . .

I just read a locked post about a meeting with executives in a particularly appalling industry in which completely appalling racist and sexist statements were said over and over while the non-executives explained that these statements were appalling and the executives could not comprehend that there was anything appalling about what they were saying. “It’s just the ways things are,” they said.

Which is true as far as it goes. There is an appalling amount of racism and sexism in the world. That’s no excuse for perpetuating it.

Then I read this article in The New York Times about segregated proms in Georgia:1

Students of both races say that interracial friendships are common at Montgomery County High School. Black and white students also date one another, though often out of sight of judgmental parents. “Most of the students do want to have a prom together,” says Terra Fountain, a white 18-year-old who graduated from Montgomery County High School last year and is now living with her black boyfriend. “But it’s the white parents who say no . . . They’re like, if you’re going with the black people, I’m not going to pay for it.”

. . .

[T]hey questioned their white friends’ professed helplessness in the face of their parents’ prejudice (“You’re 18 years old! You’re old enough to smoke, drive, do whatever else you want to. Why aren’t you able to step up and say, ‘I want to have my senior prom with the people I’m graduating with?’ ”).

The black prom is open to whoever wants to attend. The white one is not. So much for post-racist USA, eh?

The white students haven’t worked hard to change things because that means bucking their parents, which is a lot of bother. Who’d buy them their fancy prom clothes? Plus, segregated proms are just the way things are in their part of Georgia. Why rock the boat?

I get laziness. I’m typing this in my pjs. There are times in my life when I could have spoken up and didn’t, when I didn’t fight hard enough. Being white and coasting on your privilege is easy. Taking risks is hard.

But you know what’s harder?

Living with racism every day of your life.

I’ll wager that, like me, most of those white students aren’t forced to deal with racism on a daily basis. They can slide on by without thinking about it for days, weeks, in some cases, years.

There are so many reasons to rock the segregation boat. In this case, those white students would wind up with a prom that’s more fun, with way more of their friends, and more importantly, they’d be part of something they would be proud of for the rest of their lives.

  1. I noticed something about that article. Two white students were quoted with their full names. Two black students are mentioned by full name, one by her first name, and two of them is quoted, but there’s a series of quotes at the end of the article that are attributed to unnamed black students. I was wondering if that was because the students declined to be named. But there are photos of them here. Was it because the reporter failed to jot down their names? A decision of one of the editors of the piece? Whatever the reason it struck me as an odd note in an otherwise excellent article. []

My Week as a Primary School Kid

On Tuesday we went to the Extreme Mammals exhibition. It was good. There were very big mammals and very small ones. I liked the ones with the really big eyes best. Weird. It was a good day except for when we walked through Central Park afterwards and my juice box exploded.

On Thursday we went to the school days pre-season New York Liberty game. That’s basketball in case you don’t know. It was good too. There were six thousand of us primary school and middle school and high school kids and some grown ups and we yelled A LOT. My favourite part was everyone dancing to Beyonce and when the cheerleaders fell down from being balanced in the air and when the Liberty won. We yelled EVEN MORE then. It was so loud my ears exploded.

Then we went to our dance lesson. The teacher was nice. She says I stick my elbows out and take too big steps but my knee bends and hand holds are good. There were lots of mirrors and we were sposed to look at ourselves in them. I was too embarrassed. We had to say slow-slow-quick-quick a lot. Scott had to learn to spin me. The music was bouncy. It was hot. We sweated. Afterwards my foot hurt exploded.

The End

Today is L-H day

I have booked five lindy hop lessons with one of the studios Frankie Manning once taught at. Today at 4pm I have my first lesson.

I am afraid. Very afraid.

If you don’t hear from me by tomorrow, you’ll know what happened. Remember me fondly!

And now I am off to hear many eleven year olds screaming super loudly. The first pre-season New York Liberty game. It will be chaos. I love chaos!

Five Thousand Dollars Raised for NYPL: Yes, I’ll Be Learning to Lindy Hop

So, you lot won, I’ll be learning to lindy hop. Margaret Miller and Lauren McLaughlin have volunteered to go with me for at least part of the process. As has my husband. I’m sure it won’t be the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.

Thanks a bunch, evil minions of John Scalzi, Maureen Johnson and John Green—John Green, being the evil-John-Green-minion-in-chief. But most of all thanks to my husband who stepped in at the last minute to make sure the $5,000 total was met. (All thanks sarcastic in case you were wondering.)

The New York Public Library really does thank you all. Truly, I’m so thrilled that we’ve raised five thousand dollars to help them out. If you’d like you can start making those pledges real now. Or you can wait until I start delivering proof that I’m learning the lindy hop.

I will blog the whole process from my first lesson on. I’ll be doing this properly. There will be more than one lesson. Final proof will take the form of three YA author witnesses approved by John Green. They will watch me dancing the Lindy Hop and testify to their witness on their blogs. There will be no video.

All this talk of the lindy hop is especially fitting as one of the originators of the dance, Frankie Manning, died on the 27th of April. He was not only a pioneer and tireless evangelical for the dance but a true New York City boy through and through. He’s a huge loss, not just to the world of dancing, but to the city. Footage of him dancing was a big influence on my deciding to include lindy hopping in my 1930s NYC novel. It’s very fitting that I’ll be learning this dance in the city where it originated for a book set during the early days of the dance.

Here’s hoping lindy hopping doesn’t render my plantar fasciitis permanent! Or give me any additional injuries. But if it does I’ll know who to blame: MY OWN HUSBAND!

Actual 1930s footage

A few of you were a bit scathing about my attempting to recast Kiss Me Kate as relevant to my 1930s NYC research. There can be no nay sayers to the following snippets of research.

First up the genius Duke Ellington & his Cotton Club Band with “Old Man Blues” from 1930:

Duke Ellington is far and away my favourite USian composer. Just for his & Billy Strayhorn’s “Far East Suite” alone. Oh, how I love “Isfahan”. Yes, I know they didn’t write that until the 1960s, but there was so much wonderful music before then. Including one of my favourite songs of all time: “(In My) Solitude” from 1934.

Next up a particularly nutty Busby Berkley number from Footlight Parade (1933):

Go, cats, go! The kid that shows up around the minute marks is SO disturbing. And I don’t want to be rude but Ruby Keeler? Not the world’s most impressive hoofer. She was no Eleanor Powell. Her singing wasn’t up to much either.

Footlight Parade’s one of my favourites of Busby Berkley’s insane extravaganzas. For some reason every single one of them features a woman putting on and taking of stockings very slowly. And many weirdo dance numbers. What is not to love? Added bonus: Footlight Parade has my favourite poster boy for ADD, Jimmy Cagney.

I’ve talked about Fredi Washington previously. If you haven’t seen Imitation of Life (1934) you really should and skip this next bit cause you wouldn’t want spoilers, would you? Reveals a lot about class, race and gender at the time. Plus I have a crush on Fredi Washington.

Here’s a pivotal scene with Fredi and Louise Beaver:

Lastly, more insanity. American fashion designers predict future fashions:

Oooh! Swish! Want. Pretty much every outfit. And the hair styles. Why aren’t we dressing like that? I sure would like to see Scott decked out in that last number. Bless!

Are you all starting to understand why I’m writing this book? Is just an excuse to swim about in an ocean of 1930s fabulosity. Music, movies, clothes, books. Everything really.

What to Do on May Day

I think the most important thing you can do today other than, you know, getting the workers’ revolution going is to buy a copy of Maureen Johnson’s Suite Scarlett. It’s Maureen Johnson’s funniest book to date and is now appearing in the eminently affordable paperback edition.

Highlights include:

  • A most appealing heroine: I hug Scarlett to my chest!
  • Romance!
  • Romance gone wrong!
  • Romance gone right!
  • Romance gone in between!
  • New York City as you’ve never seen it before!
  • The shabby gentility of a crumbling hotel!
  • A crazy Broadway lady!
  • A unicycle-riding, prat-falling, seriously hot older brother, Spencer!1
  • Many!
  • Other!
  • Wonderful!
  • Things!

I urge you all to go forth and buy it! If you’re broke and cannot afford it right now I urge you to encourage your library to buy a copy. Or bully your richer friends into buying one so you can borrow theirs. This tends to only work for books. I tried to get a richer friend of mine to buy a Vivienne Westwood ballgown in my size. She did not and now she isn’t my friend anymore. I’m not sure what went wrong . . .

Other things you could do on May Day:

  • If you’re sick you could lie in bed and shiver or sit on the couch coughing up a lung.
  • If you’re well why not prank call your enemies from a different enemy’s mobile phone?
  • You could also spread panic by sending this link to all your guillible friends: ZOMBIE STRAIN OF SWINE FLU REPORTED BY BBC SO MUST BE TRUE! That’s not really a BBC site, by the way. You can tell by looking at the URL. Just sayin’ . . . (via Carrie Ryan.)
  • Or if you’re in New York City you could go back to bed because it’s cold and grey and miserable. But that would be deaftist!
  • The best plan of all is to wear red and dance in the streets. Well, unless there’s sniper fire. Or a zombie apocalypse . . .

Happy May Day, Everyone! Have a good one!

  1. I know he’s fictional and much younger than me but I can’t help it I really heart Spencer. []

Because it makes me happy

I was actually looking for “Brush Off Up Your Shakespeare” cause it’s brilliant plus it’s clearly inspired by Damon Runyon who published many of his best stories in the 1930s and is thus within the period of my next novel, which makes it vaguely research-ish. Not to mention Runyon’s stories are almost all set in NYC. A highly imaginary NYC, I grant you, but still.

(Er, for those who don’t know my next novel is set in NYC in the 1930s. I’m only reading and watching and listening to 1930s stuff until the novel is written. I’m being extremely strict about it except for sometimes my interpretation of “1930s” gets a teeny tiny bit elastic.)

Sadly, I could not find a version of that genius song that I liked well enough to share with you. I know for some of you this might have been the first time you’d heard “Brush Off Up Your Shakespeare” and that experience must be PERFECT! (Especially for the Corialanus line.) So instead I’ve opted for “Always True To You In My Fashion”.

It’s also from Kiss Me Kate and thus also written by the fabulous Cole Porter (who wrote many of his best songs in the 1930s) and I love it muchly. It’s relevant to my research on account of I do believe there might have been women who were occasionally unfaithful in the 1930s and, um, it was written in 1948, which is not that far off the early 1930s.

Oh, never mind just enjoy:

Aren’t Ann Miller and Tommy Rall darling?

And just to push this slightly closer to the 1930s: have some lindy hopping featuring Frankie Manning. Yes, this footage is from 1941 but the lindy hop was invented in the 1930s 1920s, okay?

I have a couple of dancing fool friends, Lauren and Margaret, who say that I really need to learn the lindy hop in order to write my book properly. But don’t you all think that’s a little bit extreme? I would have to have a mighty big incentive to go that far!

Twenty20 League in NYC?!

If this happens I will be an extremely happy bunny rabbit:

Australians Jason Gillespie and Damien Martyn head a group of rebel cricketers recruited for the American Premier League, the latest international Twenty20 tournament that is gathering momentum in New York City.

Because as you all know the one thing wrong with New York City is the absence of international level cricket. Well, that and the absence of rainbow lorikeets and flying foxes and good Thai food. Oh, and the crappy winters. And that there’s no southerly in the summer to blow the excessive heat away and . . . .

Oh, never mind.

Books not earning out (updated)

Ever since I first started learning about publishing I’ve been hearing that the majority of the books published by legitimate publishing house don’t earn out. But I’ve never seen any concrete evidence to back this claim up. Since I started learning about children’s & young adult publishing I’ve been hearing that the majority of their books do earn out. I’ve heard the same about the romance genre.

As far as I know no publisher releases what percentage of their books earn out. All we have to go on is anecdotal evidence.

I’m starting to wonder whether this oft quoted stat—sometimes it’s 7 out of 10 don’t earn out; other times it’s 9 out of 10—is solely about adult publishing. Because the same people who’ve told me (at several diff imprints and publishing houses) that the majority of their kids books earn out, look at the adult half of their businesses and roll their eyes. “I don’t know how that’s sustainable,” they’ll say.

Does this mean that it’s the majority of adult trade publishing that fails to earn out and not the majority of all books?

I would love to hear from people in the publishing industry. Do the majority of the books you publish earn out? If they don’t are the majority of them profitable for you even though they aren’t for the authors? And what about agents? What percentage of the books you sell earn out?

I totally encourage anonymity.

Update: For those asking what “earn out” means: Typically when a publisher buys a book they pay the author what’s called an “advance.” Say, the author is paid $1,000. They will not get any further money from the publisher until the earnings of the book are greater than $1,000. For each book the author gets a percentage of the book’s sale price usually somewhere between 6-15% (depending on what format and some other factors). So at 10% of a $20 cover price the author has to sell 500 copies to earn $1000. For every book sold after those first 500 you’re earning $2 a book. Hope that makes sense.

The USian cover of Liar (Updated)

Remember way back on Wednesday when I previewed the Oz cover of my next novel, Liar? Well, now it’s time to have a squizz at what my publisher in the US of A came up with. This cover was so well received by sales and marketing at Bloomsbury that for the first time in my career a cover for one of my books became the image used for the front of the catalogue. Front of the catalogue! One of my books! Pretty cool, huh?

Apparently all the big booksellers went crazy for it. My agent says it was a huge hit in Bologna. And at TLA many librarians and teenagers told me they adore this cover. In fact one girl said she thinks the US cover of Liar is the best cover she’s ever seen! Wasn’t that sweet of her?

So here it is, the USian cover of Liar:

It was designed by Danielle Delaney the genius responsible for the paperback cover of How To Ditch Your Fairy. Have I mentioned that’s my fave cover I’ve ever had?

Here’s hoping this cover helps Liar fly off the shelves in North America!

What do youse lot think?

Update: I’m shutting off the comments here because I have written a longer post about the US cover of Liar and the outrage about it. If you have something to say about the cover please say so over there.

Researching NYC in the early 1930s

The book I’m working on is set in New York City in the 1930s. It’s the biggest, most ambitious book I’ve ever undertaken because I’m trying to write a snapshot of the city in the early thirties. Not just rich white people but everyone: American-born, immigrant, black, white, Chinese, gay, straight, servants, bosses, employed, unemployed.

It’s an impossible goal. No one book can capture everything. Or even come close but I like having crazy, unattainable writing goals.

And as you can imagine the research is immense.

So far one of the hardest parts has been finding letters and diaries by people, black or white, who weren’t reasonably well-off. There are letters for earlier periods but by the 1930s people weren’t writing as much.

The reasons are varied. Those who had jobs worked such insane hours for such low pay that there was little time. Those who had access to a phone—and there’d usually be one per boarding house, for example—would call home once a month or so instead of writing because that would work out cheaper than using paper and pen and buying a stamp. But many didn’t have jobs. They could hardly afford food, let alone paper.

Though there is collection of letters that were written to Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

    Selma, Alabama
    Sept, 1935

    Dear Mr. President,
    Please, please, dont let our checks be stop they say that they have close up. We can’t even get by now, what shall we do.
    Please when they open Work for the Women let us have a fire. our legs are acking now where they work us all the cold Winter And we did not have a fire. Please send us some more good meat. for we Cant get any it is so high. School is open We haven’t got any clotheing for our children and our self. Some got dresses and some did not. What shall we do. it is getting cold And we havent got no Coal + no wood we just can get a little food. Please see about us and when you send Any cover to Any thing We hope all Will get Some, Some get and the other dont, some get a raise And some get a cut. We thank you for All your are doing. Thank you.
    The Colored

    Burlington, Iowa
    Nov. 4-36
    President + Mrs. Roosevelt
    Congratulating you first on your success in staying in the “White House” for which I am well pleased.
    I want to write just briefly about my work in the campaign.
    First let me say most everyone takes for granted “Coloured”1 voters are Republican. We owe that party a debt.
    I worked day and night proving to the U.S.A. voters that phrase is not true. I think this election will convince all, because the Negro of today are more educated. Of course when there are more in one locality it is easier for them to prove their ability to fill worth while positions.
    I wasn’t working in this campaign to fill an office. I was working for the betterment of this community in which I live, and the men I worked so hard for I feel are real men that will back me up and show a few of my race folks here a little consideration.
    I struggle here trying to educate my boy (19 yrs.) and girl (17yrs.) and trying to keep this locailty a haven for them so to speak.
    I worked without pay so as to prove to the people here I wasn’t working for a personal cause.
    I’m not on relief. My husband is a Railroad chef, I worked at odd jobs since where I live my vocation isn’t patronized very much. Would like to obtain Ia. licinse but do not feel I can afford spending that much right now right on the verge of winter.
    Hope that sometime during your future talks over the radio you will mention what the value of the coloured votes has been to you if you think they are worth it.
    Trust that this letter will reach your hands.
    Happiness and Success to Both of You.
    Mrs. I. H.

Both letters are from Down & Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man edited by Robert S. McElvaine. It’s a treasure trove. As you no doubt noticed, neither letter is from New York City. So far, I’ve not found equivalent letters from black New Yorkers. But I’m still looking. Any tips from you, my faithful readers, would be most welcome.

I have however found a wonderful book by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, Or Does It Explode? Black Harlem in the Great Depression which very succinctly spells out just how disproportionately black Americans were affected by the Great Depression. They were already being paid less than white workers, but pretty soon they were lucky to be paid at all, as they were usually the first to be laid off or as the saying went “first fired, last hired.” In 1931 the black male unemployment rate in Manhattan was 25.4%. For white men it was 19.4. Black women had an unemployment rate of 28.5%; white women 11.2%. (And Manhattan had one of the lower unemployment rates—in Chicago in the same year: black men 60.2%, white men 32.4%, black women 75.0%, white women 17.4%.) A large part of the reason there were so many unemployed black women was that white women could no longer afford help at home. Also there were far more white women who stayed at home and did not seek work at all.

As I work on this book I keep getting Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” stuck in my head:2

    Them that’s got shall have
    them that’s not shall lose

It’s a beautiful song but so very sad.

  1. The “u” in “coloured” is original to the letter. Not this Australian introducing an error. []
  2. Technically I shouldn’t be listening to it. Was written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog in 1939 and not recorded till 1941. []

HTDYF & Liar Audio rights sold (Updated)

I am extremely happy to let youse all know that I just said yes to a joint offer from Bolinda in Australia and Brilliance Audio in the USA to produce audio versions of How To Ditch Your Fairy and Liar.

This makes me especially happy as it guarantees an Australian actor will read How To Ditch Your Fairy. Yay! It will sound the way it’s supposed to and not like Dick Van Dyke doing a cockney accent in Mary Poppins.1

Will let you know as soon as I hear when the release dates will be.

Update: It will be simultaneous with US publication on 29 September 2009.

  1. Yes, I might possibly be referring to the audio version of the Magic or Madness trilogy. I might even be implying that it’s unspeakably bad. Maybe. []

The Wonder of Cassandra Clare

The third and final book in Cassie‘s trilogy, City of Glass, came out recently and it’s been selling like you would not believe. She’s at no. 12 on the USA Today list, which means hers is the twelfth fastest sellling book in the entire country. Not just for YA, not just for fiction, but for ALL books. Isn’t that incredible?

Her trilogy, The Mortal Instruments, is no. 4 on the New York Times series list. Also a very hard nut to crack because they count the cumulative sales (in the previous week) of all titles in a series. There are only three books in Cassie’s series but some of the other series have four or seven or more books. So cheating!

Go, Cassie!!!!!!

City of Glass is my favourite in the trilogy but I cannot tell you why without spoiling it and, trust me, you doesn’t want that. Go forth and read. Though make sure you read the first two cause otherwise the third one won’t make sense.

If you want to congratulate Cassie on her phenomenal success and you live in New York City then today you can. She’ll be appearing at

Books of Wonder,
18 West 18th Street
New York, NY


Beth Fantaskey, Lisa McMann & Elizabeth Scott

In other news New York City remains cold and Houston continues warm. I am not sure why I came back here. Especially as the Mexican food is so much better in Houston. If I could I would move into Hugo’s and live there.

Yay Iowa

So now Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa1 have legalised same-sex marriage. Hurrah for all three states!

Which state will be next? I hear that Vermont’s governor is all set to veto the pro-love bill there. Which is weird, I honestly though Vermont would be one of the first states to give the green light to same sex marriage. Because I live there half the year, I’m hoping New York will be next, but the forces arrayed against love in my US home state are pretty strong.

Any of you got any bets on which state will be next?

I wonder too how long it will take before same-sex marriage is legal throughout the United States. I’m starting to think that it will happen in my life time. Wouldn’t that be fabulous?

  1. At least I can spell “Iowa” without having to look it up! []

For those asking

Yes, the title of my next novel what is coming out in October is Liar. Simple but effective. Libba Bray came up with it after my title was rejected. For those of you who don’t know all my titles are rejected. I have a title curse. Libba Bray has a title fairy. She also named How To Ditch Your Fairy. Bless you, Libba!

Yes, I do still mourn (a little) for the title I gave it, Why Do I Lie?, after the Luscious Jackson song which partly inspired the novel. But nobody liked it. I can stand up to one or two nay sayers but not to everyone in the entire universe.

Yes, I will be sharing the cover shortly. There are two. One for my Australian publisher (Allen & Unwin) and one for my USian (Bloomsbury).

Yes, it will be out in October in both Australia & the USA. This is my first simultaneous publication. W00t!

Yes, it is a hardcover in the USA and C format paperback in Australia. That’s the large trade paperback format. It is the Australian equivalent of a hardcover. I have never had a book in C format before and am very excited.

Yes, there are about 400 pages.

Yes, no one actually asked that last question. But surely page count is crucial? Especially as this is my longest novel in print.

Yes, it is my first realist novel. Sort of a psychological thriller. It is much darker than any of my previous books. Bloomsbury are billing it as 14 +, which means it probably won’t find its way into middle school libraries in the USA. Allen & Unwin are hoping to attract the cross-over adult market. I’m very interested to see how that goes.

Yes, there are ARCs (Advance Research Copies) in existence in the USA and shortly in Australia. No, I am not the person to ask for one. I have none. You need to contact publicity or marketing at Allen & Unwin or Bloomsbury (childrens DOT publicity AT bloomsburyusa DOT com) depending on what country you are in.

Yes, I am very excited about Liar‘s progress over the next few months. Will anyone who enjoyed HTDYF also like Liar? Will my fans be mad at me for writing a non-fantasy? What will be the general response?

Yes, my fingers are crossed.

On the other hand, I’m more proud of this book than of any of my other books. It’s the first one entirely set in the USA with no Australian characters, which frankly was really hard. I know I did the best I’m capable of and anything beyond that is just icing on the cake.1

  1. No, I did not use any cliches like “icing on the cake” in the actual book. I promise! []

Hardcover versus Paperback Redux

Recently I observed that back home in Australia, the vast majority of books are published in paperback. Hardcovers are exceedingly rare. But here in the US of A there’s a huge emphasis on hardcovers.

When I first asked about it I was told that paperback originals don’t get reviewed. Thus the hardcover is more prestigious because it generates more attention. Many good reviews can lead to awards, and best book of the year listings, and lots of sales. A paperback original goes into the world unheralded and unreviewed and thus disappears into oblivion.

I’m not convinced this is as true as it once was or that prestige is as important as people think it is. I believe that fewer and fewer buyers of books are paying attention to what old media reviewers say. Partly this is because the book review section has been disappearing from newspapers all over the USA, just as newspapers have been disappearing.1 And partly because there is such a long lag time for reviews of YA in old media. Whereas there are blogs, whose reviews I respect and trust, reviewing YA before the books are even out.

How To Ditch Your Fairy is my best selling book. It had very few reviews in old media venues. It’s won no awards, nor been shortlisted for any, and has made precious few best book of the year lists. Magic or Madness won awards, was shortlisted for others, had starred reviews, and was very widely reviewed in old media places and made lots of best book of the year lists. HTDYF has already outsold MorM in hardcover even though it’s been out for five months and MorM‘s been out for four years.2 I suspect (hope!) that HTDYF will do better in paperback.3

What HTDYF has had more than any of my other books is a smart publicity and marketing campaign4 that has generated plenty of word of mouth. I’m convinced that the word of mouth has especially been pushed along by all the blog coverage5 While HTDYF didn’t get much old media coverage, it was extremely widely reviewed in new media places. There are so many online reviews I’ve lost track of them all.6

The majority of bloggers don’t care whether a book debuts in hardcover or paperback. They are not going to refuse to review a paperback original because it’s not prestigious enough. They don’t think they’ll be sullied by its mere presence. They just care whether they like it or not. I suspect this partly because that’s how I feel— after all I’m a blogger who sometimes reviews YA—but mostly because I’ve seen it in action.

Debuting in paperback can be an enormous start to a series or a career. Off the top of my head I can think of two series that got a massive kick in the pants because they were paperback debuts: Scott’s Uglies series and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books.7 At US$10 or less the first books in these highly addictive series were cheap, attractively packaged, and there was a less-than-a-year wait for the next book in the series, which was also a cheap paperback. Readers got hooked—at which point the evil publisher switched to hardcover.

Which leads me to the second reason publishers like hardcovers: the profit margin is higher. In order for a paperback to be profitable it has to sell vastly more copies than a hardcover book. How much more? An average royalty for hardcover is 10%, and for paperback 6%. So pbs are a smaller percentage of a smaller amount of money, which means on average you have to sell three times as many to earn out. Let me show you the maths: Say you have a $10 pb, that’s 60c per copy. If the advance was $20,000 you’d have sell more than 33,333 copies to earn out. If your hc retails for $17, you’d only have to sell 11,764 hardcovers.

That’s a huge difference and a big incentive for both publisher and author to want hardcover. In fact, I think this is the only solid argument for going with a hardcover.

However, you’ll only earn out faster if the hardcover sells. When a hc costs close to twice what a pb costs people are less likely to buy them—especially in the middle of a recession.8 Book sales are down across the board in the USA. I predict that if sales keep going the way they are9—hardcovers down; paperbacks down a bit, steady or, in some cases, climbing—we’re going to see a lot more paperback originals.

Overall, that’s probably a good thing, especially for debut authors. And also for series where the books are already written—that way the books can come out cheaply and in quick succession. This has long been a successful formula for romance and mysteries. I won’t be surprised if the USA winds up like Australia and the UK with very few hardcovers at all.10

Here’s one reason it can be a good thing: Guess what frequently happens to books that don’t sell in hardcover? They aren’t published in paperback. They don’t get their second shot. This has happened to many wonderful books, which despite awards and glowing reviews didn’t sell, and thus the publisher decides that a paperback version is not viable. Holly Black’s first book Tithe didn’t sell well in hardcover, but sold spectacularly in paperback. What if her publisher hadn’t taken the risk?

On the other hand, if a book is a paperback original that’s typically the only chance it gets. If it doesn’t do well then that’s it. At least with hardcover a book has a pretty good shot at a second life as a paperback. And often it will go from hc to trade pb to mass market pb. Three chances to go out there and sell.11

As you can see it’s a complicated set of decisions a publisher has to make when they’re figuring out whether to go hardcover or paperback. You have to sell way more copies for pbs to make a profit. But expensive hcs can kill a book. Keep in mind that the majority of books do not earn out.

I’d love to hear what youse lot think. I’m especially interested to hear from those making this decision and from those of you who’ve had different experiences in one format over the other.

  1. And, no, I don’t think that’s a good thing. []
  2. Remember though surpassing Magic or Madness‘s sales is a very low bar. []
  3. Especially with it’s fabulous new cover. Hint: look at the top of the left-hand side bar. Or go here for a bigger view. []
  4. Thank you, Bloomsbury! []
  5. Bloomsbury was excellent at spreading the ARCs of HTDYF far and wide. []
  6. Which, let me tell you, is a marvellous feeling. []
  7. Being a paperback series had a lot to do with the success of Gossip Girls, A List, etc. []
  8. Or depression or whatever you want to call what the world is experiencing right now. []
  9. I know this link leads to an article on sf book sales but all its links go to reports of sales across the board. It was the most recent round up I could find. []
  10. Judging from the foreign language editions of mine and Scott’s books I’d say most countries in the world are predominantly paperback. []
  11. Though usually the third life in mass market pb is because it sold well in trade. []

Earth Hour

I hope all you Americans (and I mean that in the broadest sense: from Canada all the way down to Chile) are geared up for Earth Hour tonight, ready to turn off all the lights at 8:30PM and see some stars. Though it’s rainy and overcast in NYC (or it was when I wrote this earlier today now it’s lovely) so I don’t fancy our chances but there must be non-rainy parts of the Americas.

I am excited about Earth Hour and hoping more people get behind it this year. There’s something magical about a city in darkness.1 There was some awful aspects to the blackout back in 2003 but NYC at night was not one of them.

  1. You know unless it’s because the aliens are invading and about to kill us all. []

Thank you

A while back one of you wonderful commenters recommended the books of Thorne Smith as fun examples of 1930s NYC fiction. I have been reading much Thorne Smith of late and his books are strange and wonderful and full of much usefulness for my research. He wrote Topper which was turned into a marvellous movie of the same name with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett.

Another reader recommended Been Rich All My Life a documentary about the Apollo Theater dancers of the 1930s, which was truly wonderful and made me cry, and also gave me many leads. Because I am at the very beginning of my Harlem research I am embarrassed to confess that I had not heard of Small’s Paradise, a black-owned big nightclub in Harlem, which was also the only integrated nightclub and is now a school. I think Smalls will be making an appearance in the 1930s novel.

Now of course I can’t find either of the comments where those recommendations were made so I can’t find who to thank. All I can hope is that the two of you read this post and put up your hand. In the meantime: THANK YOU!

While I’m at it thanks to all the lovely folks who’ve been sending me links to 1930s sites and other tips and suggestions for the research for what is fast becoming the biggest book I have ever written. So much cool stuff to include! You’re all wonderful!

Please keep the suggestions coming. I’m especially interested in documentaries about the period. Liz Bray, one of the fabulous Alien Onions, told me about the 1930s in colour series that I managed to just miss in Australia and is no longer available on BBC’s iPlayer. But I will get my hands on it. I will!

Sometimes I have to pinch myself on account of the insane amount of fun I’m having with the research and writing this book. Tis almost too fabulous.

Thanks, all!

I love you, Emily Post

I am now the proud owner of a 1931 edition of Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage by Emily Post. Up till now I’d been making use of the Project Gutenberg edition. And while I adore digitised books—they certainly make research much much easier—you still can’t go past an actual held-in-your-hands book from the period you’re writing about.

I have been flipping through it all day, checking out the illustrations, enjoying the jacket copy and ads for other books. (None of that matter is included in the Project Gutenberg edition). It feels like a direct link back to the people of that era. I can imagine them holding it just the way I’m holding it. And I’m pretty certain some of them are mocking it just the way I’m mocking it.

Here is something you may have been blissfully unaware of:

The Dining-room

It is scarcely necessary to point out that the bigger and more ambitious the house, the more perfect its appointments must be. If your house has a great Georgian dining-room, the table should be set with Georgian or an earlier period English silver. Furthermore, in a “great” dining-room, all the silver should be real! “Real” meaning nothing so trifling as “sterling,” but genuine and important “period” pieces made by Eighteenth Century silversmiths, such as de Lamerie or Crespell or Buck or Robertson, or perhaps one of their predecessors. Or if, like Mrs. Oldname, you live in an old Colonial house, you are perhaps also lucky enough to have inherited some genuine American pieces made by Daniel Rogers or Paul Revere! Or if you are an ardent admirer of Early Italian architecture and have built yourself a Fifteenth Century stone-floored and frescoed or tapestry-hung dining room, you must set your long refectory table with a “runner” of old hand-linen and altar embroidery, or perhaps Thirteenth Century damask and great cisterns or ewers and beakers in high-relief silver and gold; or in Callazzioli or majolica, with great bowls of fruit and church candlesticks of gilt, and even follow as far as is practicable the crude table implements of that time.

Oh noes! I have been doing EVERYTHING wrong! Does it excuse me that we don’t actually have a dining room? Just a tiny table in our not very big kitchen? I worry that Emily is mad at me.

I can’t help but wonder what percentage of New Yorkers in 1931 found that advice even remotely useful, let alone the rest of the country. But that’s the thing, of course, Post’s Etiquette is as much aspirational as any thing else. Currently I aspire to having a dining room . . . I’ll work up to the English silver.

I think I hate Mad Men

We’ve worked our way through the first season of Mad Men and I didn’t enjoy it. I can see that it’s well written and acted. The costumes and sets are remarkable. It has a very shiny kind of verisimilitude. I can see why it wins awards. But it leaves me cold.

Actually, worse than that—it make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I watch with pursed lips and my arms crossed tight.

I don’t feel like they’re exploring the sexism and racism of the period I feel that they’re skirting a line towards reproducing it. Why are there no black characters? The black cleaner or lift operator could easily have been major characters. Instead they’re rarely seen and less often heard. There are many more female characters but they don’t lift above the level of a cipher. I don’t know who they are or what they’re thinking and none of them gets anywhere near as much screen time as Donald Draper.

Everything revolves around Draper, whom I’m clearly meant to empathise with. I don’t. I don’t like him at all. Or his bosses. And don’t get me started on his work colleagues. I have no sense of who his wife or girlfriend or children are so it’s hard to like or dislike them.

The only reason I’m watching is that I’ve heard such great things about it. We just finished the first season. Maybe it gets better in the second. I doubt it and I’m wondering why I’ve spent time watching a show that so carefully recreates a truly appalling milieu and time without the kind of overt critique that would make it tolerable. Also the theme music makes me want to kill myself.

It is possible to create television that engages with the racism and sexism of a place and time without making viewers feel complicit. The Wire does it brilliantly. I haven’t figured out what went wrong with Mad Men but watching it makes me want to take a shower. Not in a good way.

Am I alone in this response to the show? Cause so far I have heard only praise.

One thing I like about it? The women’s clothes. But I don’t have to watch the show to see them.

Thinking time

Jenny Davidson links to a lovely article by David Hajdu where he talks about Riverside Park on the west side of Manhattan beside the Hudson river.1 I especially linked this bit where he writes about the thinking that goes into a book. I spend a vast part of my writing time figuring things out in my head, what if-ing, and just randomly musing. It all goes into the books. I adore reading people write about that elusive part of writing:

Since college, I have lived mostly on the Upper West Side, and I’ve done a great deal of work in Riverside Park. By work, I mean not just the labor of making sentences; I mean the different sort of effort involved in reading or listening to music that I want to write about. I had the author photos for my first two books (“Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn” and “Positively 4th Street”) taken in Riverside Park, because the books were essentially made there. The park is where I did the musing that can be the most important part of writing.

Working in Riverside Park, one is reminded from time to time of the porous line between musing and daydreaming. My bench of choice faces the river, and I sometimes find the steady, endless rolling of the water lulling me to dreaminess. I like to think of this state as one conducive to epiphany, although it more often leads, in my case, to naps.

All so true. I can’t tell you how many times that wavering state where you’re not asleep but you’re not entirely in the here and now leads to insights and connections and ways to make the book I’m writing so much better.

It’s also very true that the same state can slide straight into sleep. As risks go that’s not a bad one. I quite like sleeping, me.

  1. For the New Yorkers, who are scornful of that description, may I remind you that many of my readers have never been to NYC and have no idea where or what the Upper West Side is. []