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May 15, 2005

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» LitBlog Coop Controversy from A Writer's Life
Publisher's Marketplace reports that the Litblog Co-op (which includes our friends Sarah Weinman and Mark Sarvas) is generating controversy with their first [Read More]

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jai

I thought The Liblog Co-op's idea was to promote less known fiction. Kate Aktinson is a big name to me. Or am I confused??

Clair Lamb

Yeah... I'm a little disappointed. I read this months ago, and even then felt like I was late to the party. Brilliant book, though, and I've recommended it on my own blog.

Aldo

I loved this book. I have to ask why this book and not something more recent or soon to be released?

Ed

How dare these people pick a book by someone who beat out Salman Rushdie for the Whitbread! Why, it's almost as if the LBC is championing writers who are excellent at their craft! Personally, I was hoping for something that was written in blood by some hobo on borrowed foolscap.

Don't get me wrong. I loved the book. But why didn't the LBC pick something that was published yesterday instead of a book that hit the stacks six months ago? Surely, there are books out there more deserving of attention to be published tomorrow.

Never mind that a quick run to my local indie bookstore shows that there are no Atkinson titles in stock. Or that the book itself is good. Or that no matter WHAT book the LBC picked, there would have been complaints of one variety or another. After all, being a contrarian gets you the cocktail party invites and the hot chicks and has the definitive advantage of avoiding a real argumentative position.

Before the "lesser known" snark gets out of the hand, I'd like the naysayers here to ask twenty strangers if they've heard of Kate Atkinson and return back here with the results. The book did indeed receive some review coverage, but consider this:

Despite being named one of the best books of 2004 by Salon, the book wasn't "big" enough to garner a full-length review earlier in the year.

Kate Atkinson has NEVER been reviewed by the New York Review of Books.

The LBC members who didn't care for the book will be allowed to weigh in, which is more than you can say about the unilateralism seen through Oprah and the Today Book Club.

Sam

I think Atkinson is pretty well known among writers, not so among readers. Particularly in the US.

Re Aldo's comment, I can tell you that LBCers (I'm one) think about how we defined our mission -- "drawing attention to the best of contemporary fiction, authors and presses that are struggling to be noticed" -- and wonder about questions like, can a book that hasn't been released yet be "struggling to be noticed"? And how unnoticed is unnoticed? And by whom? We want to focus on new books, but what's the best timeframe for "new"? Within the last month? Within the last six months? Within the last year? I suspect our criteria will evolve as we find out how they work in practice.

That said, I can't think of a better book to open with than Atkinson's.

Ron

Aldo does raise an important issue--particularly if the LBC wants to help books get noticed, eventually we're going to have to do a more timely job of correlating our selections with publication schedules and bookstore availability windows. The fact that Ed can't find any copies in his local indie, a condition I expect many potential readers will face, is a wrench in our ambitions to provoke increased sales of these books (or else it's an unintentional sop to Amazon). As time goes by, we'll probably get access to more galleys, and become better aware of paperback arrival dates so that we stand a stronger chance of breathing new life into certain titles.

Sam

Good point, Ron. For most books, there are two promotional cycles: hardcover release, and paperback release. If we focus on hardcover release, we pretty much limit ourselves to underappreciated authors rather than underappreciated books (since I still maintain that a book can't been underappreciated if it hasn't come out yet). If we sync up with the paperback release, we risk more reactions like Clair's ("I read this months ago").

Of course we don't *need* to sync up with a promotional cycle, except that's when the books are most likely to be on the shelves, and also when the publisher might make an extra push for the author. Both of which translate into a bigger impact from our efforts.

Clair Lamb

Trying to sync up with paperback release is a great idea, and after reading The Old Hag's discussion of why she recommended CASE HISTORIES, I feel petty and ungenerous. Selfishly, I'd just been hoping for a recommendation of something I hadn't already read.

jai

Yes but there are far lesser known names than Aktinson. She won the Whitbread in 1995!! There are hundreds of good unknown people that deserve attention, not people who have won major awards. Ok she's not a household name like Rushdie but then few writers are. I am disappointed. When the mission was to promote unknowns then somehow to me this doesn't get out of the starting gate. indeed this novel was shortlisted for last years Whitbread - in itself publicity aplenty.

Tod Goldberg

You have to look at the selection of Case Histories from a somewhat less enlightened view than perhaps we all have here -- how many people sitting in front of your local Starbucks have actually heard of the Whitebread Award? Many of us have because we are either writers or somehow uniquely invested in literature. But to Joe Public, the Whitebread likely sounds like an award given to the best Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwhich. For instance, I just leaned over and asked my wife, who lives with me and therefore is privvy to all my obsessions, if she'd ever heard of the Whitebread. Her answer? No. She knows well of the LBC, though, so the selection is fresh and interesting for her.

The issue of being able to find the book is a tough one -- but then that's frequently how these things occur in the cycle of publishing. When the NY Times releases its list of notable books, most have been off the shelves for months and are due to be released in paper come the following calendar year, leaving online sellers to those who want the book right away. I imagine subsequent choices will be made closer to the release date of a book, if only because publishers will begin innundating the LBC with ARCs.

David J. Montgomery

The announcement on the LBC site notes:

"People are undoubtedly going to question the nomination of a book that was reviewed in major publications and also received a fair amount of ad coverage."

I'm all for anything that calls attention to books. If this one did receive major review attention and a "fair amount" of ads, though, I doubt a blog is going to do much for it. Sounds like it's not going to find an audience regardless.

jai

But Tod, it matters not a jot whether the local Starbucks client has heard of the Whitbread - for a start I doubt that person is unlikely to read many litblogs! but importantly this writer has had plenty of publicity because of the Whitbread BUT other deserving writers have NOT. so equally they will be unknown to your local Starbucks client. I just thought the idea was the spread the wealth round more than picking a writer who has had plenty of publicity. major publicity,

jai

But Tod, it matters not a jot whether the local Starbucks client has heard of the Whitbread - for a start I doubt that person is unlikely to read many litblogs! but importantly this writer has had plenty of publicity because of the Whitbread BUT other deserving writers have NOT. so equally they will be unknown to your local Starbucks client. I just thought the idea was the spread the wealth round more than picking a writer who has had plenty of publicity. major publicity,

Sam

I don't know why Atkinson's rewards and recognition in the UK are relevant to an effort to raise awareness of her work in the US.

booksquare

I did a very unscientific test with this title (after it had been chosen). I had it sitting out on my coffee table when my bookclub, a well-read, Internet-savvy, up-on-new-books sort of group, met this past week. Not one of them had heard of the title. Since they are (likely) the target audience envisioned by the publisher, then the book was overlooked. I don't think NYT ads or nominations for obscure (outside of a fairly insular world) awards equal major publicity -- I'm not being deliberately contrary. The NYT has a limited audience.

Sam's thoughts on what constitutes overlooked are interesting. I'm actually glad this book was brought to my attention because I'd somehow missed it in the first go-round (of course, my hometown paper is the LA Times, so it may have been reviewed on one of the weekends I was apathetic to the point of not bothering with the review section).

vikk

". . . it just seems, I dunno, like a book I can talk "about without actually reading.)"

Wow, that is probably the worst comment I've ever read about any book. The implications are disastrous for the writer and the story. Until now the thing I have hated most is hearing someone say something I wrote was, well, "nice." I hate "nice." I want you to love it or hate it but don't, please, tell me it's a "nice" piece of writing, a "nice" story, it's, well, just "nice."

Of course, I have a feeling that most literary novels and plenty of major award winners fall into the cocktail-party-word-of-mouth-without-having-been-read category. So that may be a good quality if I want the book to sell....

Aldo

I guess someone should pitch The Starbuck web channel and post selected readings there. God knows they already promote music.

Aldo

Booksquare,
Since we live in the same town, LAT Book Review did review CASE HISTORIES earlier this year.

Tod Goldberg

I tend to agree with Sam in this regard -- that what is relevant exposure in the UK doesn't always translate to the US (take Robbie Williams for example...or Marillion...or Ultravox...). Look, we're splitting hairs a bit here because that's what we do, but in the interest of what seems to be a fine book that was likely under-read in the US whilst James Patterson's latest book was read as if mandated by the church or US Government (insert own joke here), any small bit of promotion is a fine thing.

jai

I'm not refuting that books do get overlooked. all that you sau about Case Histories applies to zillions of books that haven't won a major prize in ANY country. and the reason this writer's UK awards and recognition is relevant here is because the internet is not limited by national boundaries thus people from everywhere, including the UK will be reading it. I am sure a book that hasn't had much recognition in any country could easily have be found.

Any book-raising profile will be good obviously so more power to the co-op. however I have merely stated that I am disappointed that a writer who hasn't won any major prizes anywhere wasn't first picked.

David J. Montgomery

I thought Robbie Williams bombed in the U.S. because he sucked. Hopefully this book doesn't.

the happy booker

Of course this book doesn't suck, David. But the cool thing about the LBC is that we are publishing a "minority opinion" by members who were less enthusiastic about this selection. Then each monday we will reveal a title of the other four books by the lbc members who nominated them. Tune in, it's going to be fun time with some very lively book discussions --Wendi

Ed

jai: Have you ever heard of John P. Marquand? He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. He made the covers of both Time and Newsweek a few years later. His books sold like hotcakes. We're talking in the hundreds of thousands. Yet today, all but a handful of his books are in print. And that's only a matter of sixty years.

To offer a more recent example, I'm wondering if your bookstore stocks copies of Walter Abish's much-heralded "How German Is It?" -- the first book to win the PEN/Faulkner award. I know of no bookstore in San Francisco that does. And we're talking a collection of indie bookstoress that, overall, have fantastic selection.

The point I'm trying to make here is that awards mean very little to sales or a title's longevity. In fact, there are so many prizes to keep track of that it's difficult for even the most eagle-eyed book watcher to keep track.

And you folks are forgetting about one pivotal way that books get attention: word of mouth. People are always looking for titles to read. Chances are that someone who is heavy into literature might be paying attention to the Read This! selections, give the book a chance, and recommend it for a book club selection or pass it onto someone else. (Certainly among the LBC members who've read this, the love for this book has spread like wildfire.)

And, Tod, it's WHITBREAD, not Whitebread. :)

Tod Goldberg

Ed makes an excellent point here -- not only about my well-known spelling issues (one need only look at my name for proof of that) -- and I'm reminded of John Hersey who, for a time, was one of the biggest names in literary fiction (he won the Pulitzer for one of his first novels, if memory serves) and who is barely remembered today. (Or even Marty beating On the Waterfront for Best Picture.) I don't begrudge the selection of Case Histories at all, no matter how many reviews it received or Atkinson's acclaim in the UK, especially since a friend today confirmed to me that I had told her I'd read and loved the book.
Seriously, though, I can tell you first hand that reviews don't always equal sales, be they for me or for books by friends that have received lavish reviews and tepid sales, and so while I relish the chance to say that "there's so much drama in the LBC," I'm happier to report that they've probably selected a book that likely deserves a wider audience than it has received. It's not incumbent on the LBC to pick small press books, only good books, and so I have no beef witht he pick.

jai

Ed, first up - I live in Cornwall - we don't have bookstores! All that you say is perfectly true. However, that still does not detract for me from the fact that the Whitbread is a major prize and this writer has won it, and this book was shortlisted for the award as well last year. I had assumed that the Co-op's aim was to discover and promote gems that had not been brought to anyone's attention. That was I assumed its aim. Not to promote a book that had already found acclaim if not sales. To do something the mainstream literary establishment had overlooked. Obviously an erroneous impression. Fine. Still doesn't stop me being disappointed though.

Bill Peschel

This selection points out a major flaw in the LBC. If a majority vote is needed to select a book, then the book has to have been read by a majority of the LBC. Given the number of books published in any genre over the past few months, this severely limits the number of acceptable candidates.

Therefore, the individual lists will be far more interesting, and the place to find those unusual books that have slipped under the radar.

the happy booker

Bill, there are 5 nominators a quarter who put forth one book--fiction only, so far--and then we ALL read the 5 books and vote. So while yes, the majority does rule, we're all working with the same titles and the playing field is pretty level. Also, those who had reservations about the title are welcome to write a "minority opinion" which is posted one week after the winner has been selected. Then there's lots more talk and posting and literary hubub. Stay tuned! Wendi

tao lin

look, people. RELATIVE to other literary writers out there, Kate Atkinson is KNOWN, is in the top 5% probably in terms of KNOWN-NESS... RELATIVE to other literary writers. who cares how many people in Starbucks whatever. the point is that Kate Atkinson is in the top 5% as far as literary writers go... EVERYTHING IS RELATIVE... i feel like almost all of you people who are making comments are the same people who talked all the time in middle and high school that i wanted to punch in the face. sorry, but that's how i really feel. pick a book in the bottom 5%... not a book that you can find in every bookstore. so many books you can't even find in a bookstore. PEOPLE, relativity... APPLY IT.

jai

hey Tao lin - I'm on your side. Not all of us are making the same comments!

Adam

My own quick survey finds that 95% of Starbucks clients haven't heard of Michael Chabon. Just so's you know.

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