Reviews as Conversations

5 stars for me!

Last week, the most charming interview about my book was published. Nina and Caroline, editors at Publishing Trendsetter, chatted about what they thought. The conversation is what authors dream of—real-time comments by people who ‘get’ the purpose of the book. Like this!

But not just the ego-building comments made me happy; Nina and Caroline also pinpointed aspects of the book they thought could be better—and these are also what I thought myself, of the book, when I finished it:

One reason these sections are sketchier: transparency about these issues involves divulging information our authors might not want broadcast: titles that don’t seem to move the needle with readers, or that fall short of our projections. Some of the information I do include in the book already probably make some of the Belt fam cringe to see made public; it’s a balancing act.

Book coverage has been shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. Authors have fewer opportunities to hear critical response. Much of the coverage that remains are *previews*—”10 books coming out this fall you should read!” The copy is more often simply cut-and-paste from the publisher’s own publicity, not written by someone who has read the book. They give you a rush, but they don’t nourish. Reader reviews on Goodreads and Amazon are often written by people who are not the intended audience for a book, and they are fascinating to read, but most authors imagine a particular reader behind their screens when writing, and are most curious how that audience will react.

The conventional review format is not the only way authors can hear from knowledgable readers. Nina and Caroline’s conversation, a discussion transcribed, is proof of that. So is Ron Charles’ wonderful weekly newsletter (which also included a discussion of my book). And conventional reviews have all sorts of generic hurdles: the standard format has become calcified, and experienced readers of book reviews can smell the expected moves in advance as easily as college writing professors can with 5 paragraph essays. (I used to write a lot of book reviews, and I adored so doing: I found the formal constraints enabling. I spent more time thinking about verb choice, turns of phrases, anything to sparkle the deadening “500 words, plot summary, add a quote or two, thumbs up or down” expectations of editors. I miss book reviewing, and want to do it again—but suspect my new role as publisher would make me unattractive to editors. And anyway: there are hardly any book review editors left.)

Poor Martha, our current publicist (as well as editor, and beating-heart-of-Belt-at-large), who has to send those hundreds of emails to “people who write about books” over and over again seeking coverage for our titles. It’s the toughest job in publishing, publicity. You can control almost nothing, and more often than not, success comes sideways, through some circuitous route, instead of in response to those very emails. I don’t think Nina and Caroline heard about my book from Martha.

Every 9 months or so I go “we really need to amp up our publicity!” and then I seek out advice from others with more experience with book publicity than we have for ideas. They ask what we do. I tell them. They shrug, and say “that’s pretty much what everyone does.”

But it is sad when authors don’t get to see smart responses to their books published. The venue is not important—a small blog, the NYTBR. Nor is the ‘pro/con’ question as big of a deal as you might think. What matters is an engaged mind who gets it. The right mind, at work, responding knowledgeably and honestly. Writing requires an audience, even it that audience is distant, or in the future. It’s nice when the audience talks back. Until we all can be hanging out chatting in the Agora again, we need to keep reinventing ways for critics to have conversations about books and allowing authors to overhear.

Speaking of my book (smiley face), I know exactly how many of you are signed up for this newsletter and exactly how many copies of my book I’ve sold. It seems some of you still need to buy it! Silly you. Here, I’ll give you some help: hop on over to the Belt store, use BELT15 at checkout, and you can take 15% off the already on-sale price. After all I am really appreciative—Nina gives it 5 stars!

Notes from a Small Press is a weekly newsletter by the founder and owner of Belt PublishingBecome a subscriber if you want to read all posts. Get yourself a copy of  So You Want to Publish a Book?, the book based on the newsletter!

Running out of paper since 1638

plus the Q4 run around

I’ve been thinking about colonial book publishing. Weird, I know. But sometimes you need a world away to look away from this world.

I’ve been reading Joseph Adelman’s fantastic Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789. From him I learned there were almost no books published in America in the colonial era, because paper was just too damned expensive. Books were imported from England; printers here focused on almanacs, pamphlets, custom orders, and, of course, newspapers. The “publisher” was more often than not the printer; the editor was also the printer. Printers decided what was news, and what was worth publishing.

According to John Tebbel, the first American publisher in the sense we have of it today, was Matthew Carey, who quickly realized the need for a (wait for it) distribution system, so he created one. He also became proficient with preorder campaigns: “Whenever possible, he tried to guarantee himself against losses by…soliciting advance subscriptions before he printed.” (Between the Covers, 16). (**oh hey any scholars reading this: I look forward to my second round of reading to find out what you guys have said about Tebbel’s research during the past 30 years. Do not worry! Send me links!)

I’ve only begun this sojourn into reading about colonial book publishing, which also involves stories about guys in England hauling printing presses on boats across the Atlantic (and then dying on the way, leaving their wives to become the owners of the business—and thus the earliest of printers—and then marry someone who would become president of Harvard and take it over. True story!).

Reading this history, you can never forget the industrial basis of books: the heavy metal machines, the hundreds of physical letters, the resource-hungry paper. Today, the book industry is running around screaming “there isn’t enough paper!” “there aren’t enough printers!” Indie bookstores are doing a campaign, “October is the new December,” to get people to place holiday orders early, because everyone is worried about running out of stock.

Paper is hungry now. End of the American experiment/Start of the American experiment: not so different!

Over at Belt Publishing, things are looking strangely like April (2020, not 1690). Amazon has slooooooowed down placing orders, as they are still out of room in their warehouses, we are told, and the returns for October (presumably as bookstores make room for holiday sales aka Obama’s book) have wiped away our sales for the month thus far (sad face). Of course, there were hidden advantages to this pattern for us in April, as there will be for us again now. But it less fun to check how things are going over on the distributor dashboard.

But the fourth quarter is never fun for me. It’s just a big vat of free floating anxiety, manic half-measures — “let’s gin up lots of holiday sales, guys!!!” —and compulsive checking of metrics. Oh wait—I just read my own archives, and it turns out that a year ago today, my newsletter, titled Q4, was about how much I dread this period and how I always do the same, often ill-fated (sometimes smashingly successful) things. Hahahahahahaha. What can you say: experience, makes things easier.

Nevertheless this week was also suffused with good news, and not just of the schadenfreude variety, from this incredibly charming discussion of my book, to CBS Sunday Morning featuring a Belt author, to a Belt author being named 5 over 50. And as I continue my annoyingly slow recovery from my August house fire, the staff of Belt—Martha, Meredith, Dan, David, and Bill—continue to take up all the slack and steer our ship, carrying only a figurative printing press, forward.

Notes from a Small Press is a weekly newsletter by the founder and owner of Belt PublishingBecome a subscriber. Get yourself a copy of  So You Want to Publish a Book?, the book based on the newsletter!

Acquisitive Minds

plus, ducks

There’s been a lot of publishing news lately, stuck in the gaps between all the news news. Changes at the top of the Big Five, Obama’s memoir sucking all the air (and paper) out of the industry, a salacious story about Skyhorse, a profile of a very bottom-line focused Big Five CEO. I am not linking to these — I want to ensure none of you get the impression this newsletter will help you keep up with publishing news!—but I have been happy to see more coverage of the goings on inside houses, and also relieved that just about none of the bad newsy bits impact Belt directly. My notes are from a *small* press; these notices are from Big Ones.

Here in Cleveland, we have been focused on finalized covers for our spring ‘21 titles (so pretty!), completing a slew of Parafine Press projects, writing royalty statements and counting our dimes in advance of issuing those October 1 royalty checks, publicizing our titles (Aaron Sorkin has a film about the Chicago 7 coming out in a few weeks, which has led to an uptick of interest in our August memoir by one of those 7), and acquiring new titles.

Acquisition is my bailiwick, and I have been receiving more proposals than usual lately (a curious twist of our press’s growth over the past few years is that we still do not receive that many proposals. Many of our titles still start with me reaching out to writers). I am heartened to be receiving more cold pitches, though I would like more agents to put us on their radars (hint hint if you are out there). The single most flattering way authors find me is when a publisher or editor from another press send them our way. What high praise! This has happened several times lately, and I am gleeful about the one yes I gave to all the proposals I’ve received lately, from a writer who came to me by way of a publisher (and press) I’ve long admired.

If I were to do a demographic analysis of the cold pitches I receive, I would find about 60% of them come from white men over the age of 60. Good for you guys! Love the energy and discipline. Another 35% come from white men under the age of 60.

No ageism here: we published two debut books by writers over 70 in 2020 (and one received The Smartest and Most Deserved Review last week). No sexism either! And no surprise: I’ve been receiving pitches for articles and books for long enough to know that women are far less likely to land in my inbox; I gotta go seek them out. Still, acquisition remains a wheel in our press that needs more grease. If I were smart, I’d spend a week reading Stuff Online, identifying some smart women whose sensibility I think are consonant with Belt, and writing them emails.

But I won’t lie: much of my time these days still involves recovery from my house fire last month and the bonus related disaster, throwing my back out. These drugged, dazed days help me cope with the News-News, much of which none of us could do much about if we were whole and healthy, anyway. And I spent a surprising amount of time searching YouTube for videos of cantors singing Alveinu Malkeinu over the weekend. This one has the best 2020 pathos. Now, I’m sitting on my new balcony overlooking Lake Erie watching ducks paddle about. Deep history and everyday moments: these provide succor. They endure.

Get the book version of this newsletter! yet? Grab it now; it’s on sale. So are many of our new releases (and backlist) titles. Swing on over to our store. Want to read all installments of Notes from a Small Press? Become a subscriber.

Publishing House Fire

When Matter Doesn't Matter

I was so good, for so long. I wrote this newsletter weekly for about 20 months. Even, mind you, through The Early Days of COVID, a time I imagine will become an academic speciality once Departments of 2020 Studies start offering courses (other courses? “An Ethnography of The Convention/Sports Strike/Hurricane Week;” “Nero/Weimar/Late Trump Historiography”).

Then, once my book was published on July 28, I gave myself a little metaphysical break. That was quickly followed by (you never expect it) my house burning down on August 11. (See my twitter feed if you want to see the gruesome photos. TL;DR all beings were fine, the property loss is total. Good thing I’m more interested in the immaterial than material!)

At this point, 2 + weeks later, I’m starting to flashback to those first moments when I realized what had happened, and working out in my mind the strange ways shock works—what you think about, what you strangely do not think about, how time goes slowly, how adrenaline mitigates loss with action.

The story of the fire is the story of the support I have been shown, and, pace this newsletter, the support I have been shown as a publisher. The kindnesses that were showered upon me by people who know me only through Belt, or this newsletter. The shockingly large collection Martha Bayne gathered when Belt authors and editors asked her if there was anything they could do to help me (I’m so moved by this it’s hard to even acknowledge it); the Venmo notifications I received from people I’ve never met but who know my work; the cards, and emails, and texts, and DMs. In this of all weeks I can only think people, they are so wonderful and generous and kind!

Belt, I’ll have you know, didn’t even receive any water damage; not a bit of soot landed on the press. Everything has proceeded as “normal” (air quotes here for COVID-era '“normal”) It’s hard for me to emphasize how much this business is a collective, run by a group, and very very very much not top-down. As I continue to slowly emerge from the remains, the press is only picking up the pace.

To wit: five—FIVE!—titles have been sent and received from the printers, preorders mailed to new homes, and official pub dates coming September 1 and 15. We have Jen Howard’s Clutter: An Untidy History, the phenomenal Black in the Middle, the newest installments in our city anthology series, and more arriving and departing from Belt HQ (Bill is very busy! Plus he also brought a shovel to my burnt house and helped me recover a few items!).

Meanwhile, I’m still without a decent computer (I have a bone to pick with Apple Care re: their refusal to replace my charred MacBook Pro), so if I owe you an email please continue to bear with me, and I’m still moving from Airbnbs to airport suite hotels in a futile search for temp housing that doesn’t depress me (compounded by the fact that hotels aren’t doing any housekeeping, so the easiest way to get a clean room is to just move to a new hotel, but bolstered by the warmth that having this temp housing underwritten by Belt authors, how insanely wonderful is that), and, now that the shock has worn off, starting to mourn random objects now gone.

But I do not miss my books. I never miss individual copies of physical books. The material form of gatherings of paper with symbols printed on them—even though creating that form, and making it beautiful and correct is much of the work I do every day—is not, really, what (wait for it) matters. It’s the thoughts that count.

Thank you to the many many (who could even imagine!) many who have been there for me over the past two weeks, with help material and im. When and if I can properly find the words, I’ll send them.

A word from our sponsor: Haven’t read my book yet? Grab it now; it’s on sale! So are all our new releases (and backlist) titles. Swing on over to our store; every new order will give me and the Belt staff a much-needed dopamine burst!

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