Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Setting, Butt-Kicking, and Character Development, Oh My! My Best Book Discoveries of 2011

With the holidays quickly approaching, this past week I’ve found myself spending a lot of time reflecting on the past year—and with it, the past year’s books. While as a book marketer I’m already looking at books that are a year or more from publication (we just launched the Winter 2013 list—yeesh!), as a reader I find myself looking back as often as I look forward. If you asked me what my favorite reads this year were, you’d find my list reflects that; it’s pretty evenly split between books I loved from 2011, books I discovered my love for in 2011 (though they came out years ago), and books I was lucky to read in advance and can’t wait to buy in hardcover come 2012.

Books I Read Early—and Can’t Wait Until 2012 to Read Again

---> Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood
Though I enjoy many books each year, it’s a rare book that I truly love. So when my roommate Victoria thrust this book into my hands, I think she and I both saw it as a chance to test whether our tastes aligned and we could trust each other to recommend books. The answer is yes. In Born Wicked, Jessica has built a compelling, convincing world that feels at once familiar and completely foreign, both reserved and darkly dangerous. The climax delivered such a skillful series of blows, twists, and reveals that I found myself breathless and begging for more when I hit the last page.

---> Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen
I picked Scarlet up for the butt-kicking female protagonist—and there’s plenty of that—but I stayed for the love story. This book breathes new life into the Robin Hood story with characters that ring utterly true both as heroes and as conflicted, broken teenagers. The fast action and the book's many surprises kept me breathlessly turning pages. What’s more, amidst this wave of paranormal and contemporary romances, it was refreshing to read a love story that didn’t dominate the plot but nonetheless felt essential to it, and very, very right.

---> Butter by Erin Lange
Butter is the story of an overweight teenager who, friendless, teased, and out of hope, threatens to eat himself to death live on the internet on New Year’s Eve. When his announcement skyrockets through the rumor mill, he’s suddenly noticed—even liked—by his classmates, and he finds himself wondering if he can really go through with the plan—and if he has a choice in the matter. This book had me at its oh-so-heartbreaking premise, and it absolutely delivered. Erin doesn’t shy away from showing teenagers at their most brutal, but she nonetheless tells a story that is ultimately about redemption.

---> Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas
More butt-kicking! Celaena Sardothien is plucked from certain death in the slave mines of Endovier and whisked away to a glass castle to compete for the title of King’s assassin. All that stands between Celaena and the promise of freedom is a deadly competition, a chamber far below the castle that's full of dark secrets, and a host of traitors who make it impossible for Celaena to trust anyone—even the two men closest to her. A jaw-dropping cross between The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones, this book refused to let me put it down until I’d raced to the end. (Also, that art is fan art! So cool!)

Favorites of 2011

---> Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
I never fail to be spellbound by Laini’s lyrical writing and her oh-so-literary approach to storytelling. She took a commercial concept—an angel falls in love with a demon, and it does not go well—and surprised me with her execution. On a structural level, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is like almost no other YA I’ve read. And yet, even when the story’s pace was leisurely, I was completely and utterly captivated.

---> The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab
The Near Witch is Victoria’s first novel, a lovely tale of intrigue, magic, and a dash of love. Again, it was Victoria’s literary style that pulled me into this one, and I can’t stop talking about her characters—including her setting, a moor that becomes a character in its own right under Victoria’s skillful hand.

---> Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
From a neurologist’s lens, Cordelia debunks the myths we’ve all heard about the genetic roots of gender, and builds a compelling argument for viewing gender as a social construct. I learned an immense amount from this impeccably-researched book.

---> Season of Secrets by Sally Nicholls
In this literary middle-grade novel, a young girl grieving her mother’s death meets a mysterious man who can make flowers bloom and create roots, seed, and flower out of nothing. But if he can breathe life into a plant even in the dead of winter, can he bring back Molly’s mother? Season of Secrets is one of those rare gems that broke my heart entirely, and then stitched it back up again in the course of 250 pages.

And I Just Had to Mention…

---> Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore
Kristin’s characters! Oh, heavens, her characters. Katsa, Po, Fire, and Briggan are among the most complex characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and the emotional truths at the heart of both of these epic-fantasy-meets-love-stories are so well-observed and maturely handled that I have a hard time believing Graceling was a debut. Had the battles, chases, fights, and escapes of these novels not even existed, I’d still be singing their praises as finely wrought character studies. But married with plot, those characters make Kristin’s books some of the best I’ve ever read. I can't wait for Bitterblue!

How about you? What were your favorite reads of 2011? What are you waiting on in 2012?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

YA Cover (and Cultural) Trends: Turning the Discussion Over to You!

Writer and Publisher Friends, do you know you are the BEST at commenting? I hope the ongoing discussion of the sad, sorry state of women in our cultural consciousness isn’t driving anyone else to drink. (Are you feeling down? Do you need a hug? Here, here is an adorable malamute puppy for your sanity-restoring pleasure—but my flatmates and I call first puppy-hugging dibs.)

The discussions on my last two posts have been so well-informed and genuinely insightful that today I want to turn the spotlight over to you. The following are some of the comments and responses that made me stop and reconsider my position, that followed me away from my computer and onto the train or into the office or to my feminist lunch hour with Regina (hopefully a new tradition?), or that added something to the conversation that I couldn’t have added on my own.

Seanan McGuire wrote an interesting post on her own blog that, in part, provides a response to the common “But the cover reflects something that happens in the book” argument:
I've read several of these books. Putting a wilted waif in a beautiful bower on the cover is the equivalent of putting a wilted waif in a beautiful bower on the cover of Sparrow Hill Road. Yeah, Rose is long dead when the series starts, but why is that the image we need to focus on? Why is that the moment that sells the book?
I feel Seanan put her finger on the exact reason that I’m complaining about dead girls on book covers, and not about girls dying in books (though who knows, tomorrow is another day). The books I posted are far more varied in their themes and subject matter than their covers reflect, and the common visual ground chosen to represent and sell these books tells me something about the culture that created them—about the images we find worthy of our attention and gaze. What do you think? Are the cover images really the right moments of the book to be illustrated?

In both the comments on my original post and in her own forum post here, Ami Angelwings brought up another heartbreaking conclusion that can be drawn from the interest of girls in images that suggest their own deaths:
A dead girl's corpse is perfect. It's not going to get old, or get fat, or eat too much, or sleep with too many people, or the wrong people, or cheat, or be gossipy, or sinful, or talk back, or the million other things society demonizes about women and our passions, desires and appetites. We're just beautiful and nothing more, just like a woman should be. To be the perfect woman, you have to be dead.
She shares her experience as someone who has recovered from anorexia, but who used to struggle not only to reach a certain beauty ideal, but who rarely forgot that, once reached, that sense of perfection would only have to be maintained. Certainly that exact experience isn’t universal to all girls, but do you think it’s something that teenage girls in particular might be able to relate to?

Along a similar line of thought, an anonymous commenter chalked these covers up to our cultural fear of aging:
Could it be that the dead girl on the cover of the books appeal to teens because it represents a state of physical arrest? These dead girls in pretty dresses aren't growing, they aren't changing. The image is of a perfect, pale and pretty girl, one who doesn't have to worry about armpit hair, cramps, zits, college, jobs, PMS or becoming her mother. Being dead is great not because they hate their teenage girlish bodies --it's because our culture is youth obsessed. Being dead is great because it means you get to stay young. That's why vampire books are romances, and zombie books tend to be horror stories. Because getting old and rotting is something to fear.
Put in those terms, I can certainly see how this source of fascination could be more universal to girls, and particularly relevant to girls during their teen years. What are your thoughts? Does this change how you feel about the trend, or convince you that the fascination with death is more a part of growing up than a product of our culture? Or does it seem like even more of a product of our culture when you look at the trend this way?

Interestingly, the vast majority of the authors whose book covers appeared in my post said that they had never thought of their cover model as dead. Building on that, Aimee Carter tweeted, “I see life (or the fight for it, which fascinates me) in most of those covers,” and Holly Black weighed in with the opinion that the internal tension created by the questions these covers ask—either “is the girl dead?” or “will she survive?”—holds the viewer’s attention and makes the covers successful. What do you think? Do the girls on those book covers look dead? Does it matter, if the initial impression the viewer gets is one of death, or at least passivity?

CuddleBug looks at what would seem to be the antithesis of the dead girl cover—the butt-kicking heroine cover—and finds a surprisingly similar trend of passivity. She calls it "waif-fu": the cover image that suggests an active heroine but, through skimpy clothing and a supermodel pose clearly designed to show off more than her biceps (in fact, what biceps? That might make her look less slender!). Looking at the slew of covers CuddleBug features, it's hard to convince oneself that the audience they cater to is free of male gaze. And though I prefer a living, albeit sexualized, girl to a dead one, it's hard to see these as better role models for teens. As CuddleBug says:
Our options for female role models would appear to be either beautiful and passive young women posing around doing nothing in a pretty dress, or a beautiful ass-kicker who looks like she should be a supermodel. Who also, may I add, is not doing anything.

In this case, I don't think what causes young women to be attracted to these images is as much internalized misogyny as internalized ideals of beauty. Of course, one could argue that it's six of one and a half dozen of the other, but an excellent commenter on my last post did point out that there's a difference between misogyny and antifeminism. In any case, though, it does allow me to talk not just about these images, but also about a character trope that crops up frequently, especially in speculative fiction: the BAMF. Most sci-fi especially seems to feature at least one character that writers or directors can point to and say "Don't look at me, I put a strong woman in my work!" These characters are powerful, yes, and pretty evidently in possession of lady-parts, which is clear from their skimpy dress. But these characters are powerful solely in a way that's considered masculine. And while there are many women in the real world who kick butt and take names like its their job, the existence of those character types as the only strong female in a particular story world implies that there is no other way to be a strong woman—which simply isn't true. What do you think? And, is this a trend that extends to YA, or do you think it exists mostly in the world of adult books right now?

For Zoƫ Marriott, the fairy tale trope implied by a number of these images carries with it an even darker implication than what we explored in last week's post. To explain, she goes back to the origins of the Snow White and Sleeping Beauty stories, which existed long before the Brothers Grimm prettied them up:
What really happens is that a travelling prince, in the course of his adventures, comes across an apparently sleeping young woman who is unable to defend herself, and rapes her. Then he goes on his merry way. About nine months later, the girl gives birth to a child, and this experience (not surprisingly) finally wakes her from her slumber. And then (the part which always makes me feel the most squinky) the girl is so grateful for having finally escaped the curse that she goes after the travelling prince, thanks him very much for his random sexual assault, and ends up getting married to him.

This represents a fairly strong and very dark male fantasy - that of the unresisting victim. A girl who can't fight or struggle because she is incapacitated. A girl who, although unable to offer any kind of consent to sexual activity, of course actually wants it. A girl who will even thank you for it later on.
And that's an even more powerful and heartbreaking concept than what I originally tackled in my post about dead girls on covers and internalized misogyny. If these covers both imply and idealize not just death, but also rape... what does that say about our culture?

Glitter and Gore looks at horror, a genre in which you might expect to see a lot of dead girl covers, and finds traces of the dead-girl trend in re-releases of some of her favorites. What’s more, she sees an overwhelming trend towards passivity in the girls pictured:
What confuses me most is that, judging by the few of these books I have read, the heroines inside their pages are NOT submissive. They're tough, resourceful, and intelligent. Sometimes selfish or a little naive, but for the most part, they aren't at all like the images in these covers would make them out to be. But the covers are what entice people to read books, or should be. They are taking strong young women and turning them into prettified zombies.
Rae Carson tweeted something similar: “I wonder if it's a subset of a larger trend of passive female protags on covers? So many look simply vacant & beautiful.” Is that the more applicable trend here? Certainly that does open it up to include even more images we typically see in the media. It even ties in with the fairy tale tropes we talked about last week.

And finally, in response to my discussion of the fairy tale trope in last week’s post, Katherine Langrish came to the defense of fairy tales:
I'd just like to add that the fairytales most often cited in these comments - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, with their obviously passive heroines, are not necessarily at all typical of fairytales in general, many of which have extremely vigorous and adventurous heroines: Molly Whuppie, the Master-Maid, Lady Mary and the heroine of 'Fitcher's Bird', both of whom see off the Bluebeard figures in their respective tales, and the intrepid heroine of 'East of the Sun, West of the Moon' who rescues the Prince. The fact that our best known fairytales are those with passive heroines is not a reflection upon fairytale as a genre, but upon anthology choices and rewritings made - often - in the early 20th century and perpetuated ever since.
I’m so glad she brought this up, first because I’d be insane to totally write off fairy tales as a genre, and as an absolutely vital part of the history of storytelling, and secondly because it brings up a ridiculously important point that I’ve only be tangentially addressing in my posts. That point is that the stories we choose to share, versus those we choose to silence or at least omit from our discussions, go a long way in reflecting or shaping the culture that we get to live in. The choice of which stories to anthologize—made again and again favoring stories with passive female protagonists—tells us a lot about the subconscious agenda of those making the choices. The choice to anthologize or retell the story of Snow White rather than the story of Molly Whuppie (much like the choice to illustrate the deal-girl scene of a book rather than any other) both reflects and shapes the culture to which it is told. And it’s a culture in which the stories of adventurous heroines aren’t told that allows passivity in women to be idealized in the first place.

Share your thoughts!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

YA Cover Trends and the Fairy Tale Archetype

There were so many fascinating comments on my post about the dead-girl trend in YA book cover design that I hardly know where to begin addressing them. But as I ambled over to the coffee shop where I write these posts, something about the sight of winter branches and the feel of warm air that lies of springtime turned my thoughts to fairy tales, and from fairy tales back to this discussion.

In the comments on my cover trends post, Suelder called my attention to her own fascinating reading of these images:
I think you may be missing a possible archetypal answer… In fairy tales, the heroine often undergoes death (Snow White) sleep (sleeping beauty) or some other transformation (Swan Lake). In order for the heroine to leave her childhood behind, there often needs to be a symbolic death. It can be innocuous, such as Rapunzel cutting off her hair, or something more literal (Snow White again).

That’s an excellent point, but, regardless, I don’t believe that that interpretation negates my point about the internalized misogyny that these cover images suggest. If anything, I’d argue that an archetypal reading only adds complexity to the problem.

The fairy tale death archetype, in and of itself, is steeped in some troubling implications. Another commenter, Penni Russon, said it wonderfully:
I was interested in the comment above about death as a transitional state in the fairytale narrative. I still think there is a troubling trend there - Snow White and Sleeping Beauty 'die' and are reborn through being loved as beauty objects - they awake to marriage. Even Rapunzel's 'death' in removing her hair is a transition towards marriage. If anything in fairytale narrative when a woman dies it is the autonomous self who dies, the rebirth is marriage and a dissolving of self into (an arguably more powerful) other, not a reinstatement of that self. I guess I am someone who doesn't think that being a princess is particularly empowering.
In truth, the “transformation” undergone by Snow White and Sleeping Beauty can as easily be viewed as a transfer of ownership from the domination of a wicked stepmother to the (albeit more benign, but still ruling) leadership of a prince and husband. That message is no more empowering for young women than the call to action to leave a beautiful corpse. And the obsessive “Disney-Princessing” of American culture is all the proof we need that the fairy tale archetype is idealized and internalized by many a young girl.

What’s more, I don’t actually think the myths implied by the fairy-tale-death archetype are all that different from those implied by the concept of the beautiful dead girl.

Another super-smart commenter on Kristin Nelson’s post in response to mine over at Pub Rants, Lucy V Morgan noted that fairy tales actually provide some of our earliest and most culturally ingrained examples of the beautiful or poetical deaths we see in art and on book covers:
If anything, both within the text and on the covers, many of these girls entered a Sleeping Beauty/Snow White-style near-death (ie they don't actually die in the book). SB and SW are probably some of the earliest examples of this beautiful "death" Rachel Stark talks about--Snow White was even put on "exhibition" in a glass case. Both girls were woken by their Princes.

So we meet these YA cover girls in the near-death before their Princes arrive (which is usually the case for the story), the implication being that the girl is not truly alive until she meets her "Prince". She is just on exhibition...

In fairy tales like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the Prince is usually moved to kiss the heroine by the beauty of her corpse—or rather, by the desirable qualities he projects onto her lifeless form. Sound familiar? If you recall Marina DelVecchio’s description of the dead women depicted in media as “merely a body, a vacant, empty, vessel intended to contain the needs of others—preferably men—and her body, which is the most desired aspect of her existence, perfect, lithe, smooth and hair-free, is open for interpretation and domination,” it might. Like the poetically dead girls of the book covers I called out, the fairy-tale heroine is the perfect blank canvas for a prince’s desire.

And just as the few men and boys who do appear dying on book covers tend to be depicted in an active, heroic pose, the men who undergo this death-as-rebirth archetype in literature tend to be much more active participants in their own transformations. To use the example that Suelder cited, Gandalf falls to his death in order to defeat the Balrog in the Mines of Moria, but he returns to a future that is drastically different from the futures of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. He returns as an independent agent, devoid of any of his prior doubts, possessed with a purpose, and not only powerful but also in complete control of his abilities. This, I’d argue, is an appropriate metaphor for the transformation from child to adult—so why is it that so few of the women who experience the fairy-tale-death archetype do so in this way?

The concept of death as a means of growth and rebirth is a powerful one in Western culture, and it seems particularly appropriate in literature for young adults, who are constantly shedding one version of themselves in favor of another, more experienced and mature self. Indeed, I agree with the many commenters who argued that death has an important place in YA. As writers, as readers, and as viewers, we shouldn’t shy away from images and stories of death. But, even as we recognize the transformative power of death—its nature as a doorway, as my roommate Victoria Schwab elegantly describes it—it’s important to examine how the nature of that transformation reflects and shapes our expectations surrounding gender.

Thanks again for all the great comments and the incredible discussion. More thoughts soon! In the meantime, tell me what you think of fairy tales. Is there a way to make the fairy-tale-death archetype a good thing? And on another note, how do you view death in stories? In YA in particular?

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book: Author Publicity

So, once your book's lifecycle is pretty much finished and it's hit bookstore shelves, your work is done, right? Wrong!

Whether you like it or not (and I'll be honest, there are some serious pros and cons), a book's success is almost always an uphill battle. Though you've already heard about the great publicity work that's done before a book is published and the marketing that starts pre-publication and continues for (in most cases) up to a year after, the author's expected to pull a lot of the weight in terms of networking, social media marketing, and hosting and attending events. Learn all about it with Publishing Trendsetter and Adam Gidwitz here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book: Distribution

There's one last stage in the lifecycle of the book: distribution. Distributors work to stay on top of trends and developments in the industry, and provide support for sales teams while also reaching out to consumer markets. Wondering what that means? Jenn McMurray of Greenleaf Book Group explains in Publishing Trendsetter's latest post here.

That's it, pals! Stay tuned for more content, including responses to the overwhelmingly awesome comments on this post on cover trends, next week!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book: The Book Buyer

How does a book make it from your publisher to bookstore shelves? Who decides between the new bestseller and a stellar debut author? Are reps still relevant to the industry in the digital age? And what are these nasty returns you hear so much about?

Every bookstore has a buyer, and his or her role is vital to the industry and ridiculously fascinating. Learn all about it with Jenn Northington and Stephanie Anderson of WORD in Publishing Trendsetter's post here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book: Sales

Sales might not be your favorite part of the lifecycle of the book (especially if you, like me, like to indulge your artistic side), but it may well be the most important; without sales, the industry couldn't exist! In the latest Lifecycle post from Publishing Trendsetter, Tamarra Henry from Macmillan explains how the sales department functions, the tools salespeople use, and how a sales pitch actually goes down. You can read it here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book: Publicity

Publicists are the face of books, authors, and publishing companies, and they are constantly working to project the best possible image of all three. They brainstorm pitches, put their creativity into press releases and media kits, and perfect the art of follow-up. For those as creative as they are business-savvy, publicity is the perfect outlet.

Learn all about it from Jihan Antoine of Hachette's Grand Central Publishing with Publishing Trendsetter here.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book: Marketing

The publishing industry might not come with the multi-million-dollar budgets of the film and electronics industries, but that's no reason that authors shouldn't all feel like celebrities.

Nina Lassam of Wattpad explains how marketers work with authors to build their audience, and why their role is so important in Publishing Trendsetter's latest Lifecycle of a Book post here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book: Design

Love your cover? Hate it? Blame it on the designer. Well... sort of.

To learn all about the cover designer's role in a book's lifecycle, and about just how many people and factors affect a book's final look, check out Publishing Trendsetter's interview with Regina Roff of (my very own!) Bloomsbury & Walker Books for Young Readers here.

And folks, I work with Regina just about every day and can vouch for her awesomeness. So, just saying, you might want to check out her video.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book: Production

As vital as they are to the overall publishing process, production employees are often the unsung heroes of the industry. Give credit where credit's due; learn about how production fits into the overall lifecycle of a book with Ashley Horna of W.W. Norton and Publishing Trendsetter by clicking here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book: Editorial

Ah, editorial. It's arguably the most coveted, glamorous role in the publishing industry, and it's the one that you, as an author, will likely have the most frequent contact with once your book has been contracted by a publishing company. You know about all the dotting of i's and the crossing of t's, but in reality editors spend very little time on that part of the process. In fact, most editors I know say they spend only about 20% of their working time on the actual editing of manuscripts.

To learn what else keeps them busy and involved in the publishing process, click here to meet Latoya Smith of Grand Central Publishing in the latest Lifecycle of a Book post from Publishing Trendsetter.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book: The Literary Agent

The agent, like the writer, is in the lucky position of getting to see the whole publishing process from start to finish. Joy Azmitia is a junior agent at Russell & Volkening Literary Agency; learn all about the agent's role in the Lifecycle of a Book from her in this video from Publishing Trendsetter!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book: The Writer

The first (and in some ways most important) player in a book's lifecycle is that of its creator: the writer. This one may be closest to home for my Writer Friends here, but you can still learn a lot from someone who's been through the submission process and gotten an agent!

Meet Adam Gidwitz, Writer, on Publishing Trendsetter by clicking here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Lifecycle of a Book

Okay, so you've written your book—now what? The system that carries a book from your hard drive to a bookstore's shelf is so complex and multifaceted that, even if you're a regular scholar of the publishing blog world, there's a good chance you still don't know every intricacy of the process. Fortunately, the many awesome bloggers of Publishing Trendsetter have teamed up to give you a comprehensive look at the process from start to finish.

Trendsetter has gone behind the scenes to talk to tons of young industry professionals about what they do and how it contributes to a book's success. Over the next few weeks, they'll explore one department a day, and I'll link their posts here so you can share the wealth.

Puzzled by publicity? Dumbfounded by distribution? Or just wondering how it all fits together? Then look no further for answers than the grid below—and our daily posts!

(click and then choose "Show Original" to enlarge)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Risky Business: Forces of Nature, Acts of God, and Other Reasons a Book Can Flop

The weekend’s unwelcome snowstorm (seriously, nature, how am I supposed to traipse about dressed as a steampunk masquerader if you insist upon sleeting everywhere?!) reminded me of a rule that’s universal, not just to publishing, but to any industry: the “sometimes sh*t happens” rule.

Like the folks in any business, the editors, agents, and marketers of the publishing world are extremely cautious. From a book’s acquisition to its editorial process to its cover design to its marketing campaign, few decisions are made without the input and approval of multiple departments.

Before a book is acquired, its potential sales are mapped out by its editors and then scrutinized by an acquisitions team. The house considers whether the manuscript is on a salable topic, whether the writing style suits the audience that the publishing house typically serves, how much editing and marketing will be required to make the book a success, and what the author’s and agent’s monetary expectations will be—not just for an advance, but also for an investment in terms of advertising and co-op dollars, travel costs for author book tours or conference attendance, and miscellaneous costs like unique photo shoots for the book cover or a redesign of the author’s website. Countless profit-and-loss statements are generated to prove that the project’s returns will be worth the investment. The manuscript is compared to projects being acquired by other houses to determine whether it’s likely to be what readers are looking for in two years (when it’s released as a book)—will it fit with a trend that seems to be gaining momentum? Will it be unique enough to stand out from the other books being released at the same time? Does it fulfill a need or an interest that readers in two years are likely to have?

That’s not to say that publishing houses never take risks, bring on a project out of love even though it might not make a good deal of money, or take on a project that requires a large up-front investment. I’ve seen all of those things happen when an acquisitions team gets really excited about a project.

But, though it’s important in all cases, in those cases it’s especially vital that the book’s production and marketing are carefully planned for success. The editor might see more of a chance of success for the book if it could be read by middle schoolers than by high schoolers, and might work with the author to simplify his or her writing to suit that market. The marketing team will help guide the editorial and production departments to release the book at the right time for relevant holiday promotions, back-to-school reading or summer reading lists, or to be released before a potential competitor hits shelves. Publicists carefully strategize about when and where to schedule tour stops and media campaigns, and marketers carefully plan to release buzz-builders like book trailers, chapter excerpts, games and more at the right time to build excitement just before the book’s release. Few elements of a book’s creation are simply left to fate.

But (without getting too philosophical on you), aren’t we all subject to forces outside of our control? Sometimes, despite all that good planning, sh*t just happens.

Sometimes a topic that looks like it will become trendy never quite gets off the ground. Sometimes a competitive title’s release date switches and there’s nothing your publisher can do to rush your book to come out first. Sometimes a major retailer decides not to stock a book, or to shelve it in a section that doesn’t really fit its content or intended audience. Sometimes a launch party is totally overshadowed by a citywide event that the publisher didn’t get wind of in time to reschedule, and no one comes. Sometimes a newspaper article gets pushed back or canceled to make room for breaking news. Sometimes an expensive online ad runs at a time when a major internet provider is suffering outages, and a far-smaller-than-intended audience actually sees it. And sometimes everything goes right with the book’s acquisition, editing, and marketing and publicity, but for whatever reason the book just doesn’t work.

Risk is a fact of life in this industry, and as frustrating as snow in October can be, there’s little to be done about it but hit the drawing board again and come up with a plan to counter potential losses. A first-rate publishing professional possesses not only an uncanny knack for predicting trends and outcomes and spotting the factors that usually lead to success, but also the flexibility to completely overhaul plans that don’t seem to be working as expected.

What does that mean for writers? To some extent it means that there’s no guarantee of success, which may be disheartening to hear. But because it’s understood that sh*t happens, it also means that you might get a second chance at success if your first, second, or even thirtieth book is a flop. Publishers and agents understand that some forces are outside your control, and with solid planning and the ability to learn from their mistakes, they might be able to engineer a past failure to become tomorrow’s bestseller.

How about you—has the unexpected ever gotten in the way of your career plans? How do you plan for success despite the risks? What do you do when your plans go awry?

Monday, October 31, 2011

How Dark Are YA Covers, Really?

One last post on cover trends before we move on to other topics: I just have to share the very brilliant Kate Hart's analysis of the darkness of YA covers in 2010. Kate looked at 400 covers of Young Adult novels released in 2010 to see if claims that teen books were all dark were founded:

What she found was very interesting, and incredibly important. Because there's at least one very significant way in which YA covers are not dark, and that's when it comes to race:

I've talked about issues of race in and on the covers of YA fiction at great length before, so I'll let Kate's post speak for itself. I highly encourage you to check out the entire post here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cover Trends in YA Fiction: Why the Obsession with an Elegant Death?

In honor of Halloween (sort of), and of our recent cover conversation, I want to talk this week about a ghastly, gruesome, and growing trend in YA book covers. What trend is that, you might ask?

This is where I say something I didn't ever expect to say in one of these blog posts: trigger warning.

Because the trend is dead girls.
Dead girls in water, dead girls in bathtubs, dead girls in forests, dead girls in pretty dresses. Girls who might be dead, or might just look dead. Dead girls in so many pretty dresses.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love a lot of these covers. Several of the covers pictured above are among the most eye-catching designs I’ve seen in the last year. But it seems like we just can’t get enough of these images, and it’s not just contemporary readers. More than 150 years ago, Edgar Allan Poe argued for the elegance of dead women:
“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death — was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious — “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”
Poe felt that every story should end with the death of a beautiful woman (you may have noticed he was pretty good at following his own rule). And he wasn't even the first; the paintings of many Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite artists reflect the same fascination as those teen book covers:

Even so many years later, the worlds of advertising, pop culture, and fashion have embraced this ideal, churning out image after image of lovely dead ladies:

However long its history, this isn’t a trend that I particularly enjoy—and especially not when it's embraced by women and girls as this trend seems to be. It’s been well-documented* that the media depicts violence against women and glamorizes abuse, rape, murder, and suicide as positive so long as the victim can be sexualized in death. Beyond just desensitizing viewers or making truly horrific acts seem banal through overexposure, images that glamorize violence against women help to dehumanize women and girls. It’s a double-whammy; not only are the women in the photos objectified because, as lifeless characters, they become bodies rather than people, but they are also reduced to their sexualized parts. As Marina DelVecchio explains in just one of many articles about the subject, the dead girl in media “is merely a body, a vacant, empty, vessel intended to contain the needs of others—preferably men—and her body, which is the most desired aspect of her existence, perfect, lithe, smooth and hair-free, is open for interpretation and domination.” Seeing women dehumanized again and again makes it easier for those who are violent against women to justify their actions—and, indeed, to carry out violence against them.

As we learned from my last post, the fact that the above book covers have been successful—the fact that the first impression they offer drives potential readers to explore more, impacting overall sales in a positive way—says something fundamental about the tastes of their target audience. So I can’t help wondering about the larger implications of these images, especially as part of a larger media culture that glorifies a great variety of disturbing images of women.

For months I’ve mentally classified these images among those that I find disturbing and frustrating in the fashion and media industries. But, now that I sit down to write this post, I’m not sure if that’s really what’s going on in the above book covers. Most of the images aren’t blatantly violent or overtly sexual. It might be more appropriate to call them glamorized—they seem less the product of overt “male gaze”**, and more the product of teenage girls’ morbidity. Rather than presenting the idea that violated and dominated women are sexy, these images present the idea that it is beautiful and dramatic and—as Poe would have argued—poetic to be dead.

Now, there’s something about that idea that resonates strongly with teenage girls. Anyone who has worked with teenage girls will know that many have an astonishing taste for that which is melodramatic, desolate, and downright morbid. Parents, maybe you don’t want to hear this, but an extraordinary number of teenage girls are fascinated by the thought of their own deaths. Even if they don’t (and I hope they don’t) actually take part in self-destructive or suicidal acts, most of them think about it at least once. Many think about it a lot. At fifteen my friends and I reveled in images of fallen angels, girls in coffins, and beautiful women dying in the arms of their lovers. We wrote stories about girls like us dying, falling prey to madness, or being found by a boyfriend or a best friend already too close to death to be saved. We adored moments in film and TV like Eponine’s dying lament, “A Little Fall of Rain,” in Les Miserables: a tragic scene in which Marius (who has rejected Eponine’s love—oh, she is such a perfect teen girl character!) holds Eponine in his arms and sings to her as she dies from a bullet wound.

The glamorized images of death that teen girls seem so attracted to could, then, be a reflection of the sadness and morbidity that seems inherent at that age. Perhaps their appeal is in the fact that they validate and make beautiful the very dark thoughts that girls have, and which they have few opportunities to express. Maybe they provide a sense of catharsis, allowing teens to explore the dark things they imagine doing without actually having to participate in self-destructive acts.

But teenage boys suffer just as much from depression and thoughts of self-harm as teenage girls do, and yet I’m hard-pressed to find a YA book cover in which a boy is depicted as beautifully dead or dying. The closest I can come is Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush. But it should be noted that the target audience for Hush, Hush is also female, and a comparison of the model’s powerful physique and active pose to the above girls’ placid, passive death poses suggests that these girls are internalizing very distinct and separate messages about ideal maleness and femaleness in death.

So, after a whole lot of thought, it comes down to this: I believe that this book cover trend—and the larger obsession of teenage girls with the concept of beautiful death—is at least in part the product of internalized misogyny. Girls, I’d argue, are taught from their infancy that their bodies are the most important thing they have to offer. But, at the same time, they are taught by a misogynistic media that their bodies are objects that have little worth, and that even allow or invite violence. And I believe that girls internalize that dehumanization very strongly—not using it to justify or excuse violence against women, but rather experiencing it as a call to action. A beautiful death becomes an understandable—and, for all intents and purposes, an encouraged—goal. It isn’t any wonder that teenage girls romanticize their own deaths. We practically ask them to.

I really want to say about this trend what I did about the normalization of self-destructive behavior in YA novels and the glorification of abusive relationships in Twilight. But, in all honesty, I’m having a hard time convincing myself that this is a thought pattern girls will wholly outgrow. To do so would require the adult world to reinforce the opposite idea: that women’s deaths are not beautiful, that women’s bodies are not objects, and that women are more than just the sum of their parts. And, as you can see above, the world of media for adults doesn’t contradict what we see in book covers for girls; it expands upon it and makes it a hundred times worse.

What’s more, it’s important that we see that the girls who internalize these ideals are living people, not just the passive victims we see depicted on those covers. As they learn to view the female body as both a sexual ideal and an invitation to violence, they begin taking an active role in helping it spread by reflecting it in their lifestyles, their values, and their art. That’s one of the reasons I cringe listening to “Love the Way you Lie” by Eminem and Rihanna; it’s not just Eminem’s graphic description of domestic abuse, but also Rihanna’s wholehearted compliance in and even propagandizing attitude towards abuse that makes the song tragic:
Just gonna stand there and watch me burn.
Well, that's alright because I like the way it hurts.

I don’t fault YA publishers or the covers above for this trend. As I said, I see those covers and the demand from which they stem as the product of, not the force behind, internalized misogyny. But, looking at them as a reflection of teenage girls’ psyches, I’m saddened by what I see and left feeling helpless in the face of forces that seem unstoppable. In the apt and succinct words of my good friend Jenny, “I know that we have to trust teenage girls to cope and persevere and come out of this fight kicking, but honestly I'd rather make all this shit go away.” This time around, I pretty much agree.

*See also this post on the fashion industry, and this one on fashion and advertising, and this one on music videos. And that's just from a quick search.
**For an explanation of the male gaze, try this article.

If you find this subject as depressing as I do, and are starting to feel like one of the teenage girls these covers are intended for, here's a video of an adorable kitten. You're welcome.

Edit: Just found this mini-rant on a similar subject by Allison at Reading Everywhere. Check it out! Even more disturbing images!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Go Ahead and Judge a Book by its Cover. Publishers Do.

If you’re reading this, then I owe you a huge thank you for sticking around through my long, long hiatus. Thank you! It’s been a long couple of months as I split my life between Baltimore and New York, finally uprooting it altogether. Since I last popped in, I’ve settled into both my role as Assistant Marketing Manager at Bloomsbury and Walker Books for Young Readers and my new (hard-won, as any of you who have searched for an apartment in New York will know) home in Brooklyn. Some semblance of sanity is finally returning to my life, and I’m so excited to be back in action, and ready to share some insights picked up in my new role with you.

Making the switch from Editorial to Marketing has shed a whole new, fascinating light on the bookmaking process, and marketing meetings offer so many gems of wisdom for you writing and publishing folks that I hardly know where to start. But today I want to talk about the incredibly important work of a department that’s not my own—but which my department relies on even more than you might expect: Design.

Since you follow reading trends and keep up on publishing industry blogs, you no doubt know already that the statement “You can’t judge a book by its cover” isn’t absolute truth. You probably know that the time and effort put into a book’s cover is usually a reflection of how much its publisher believes in it, and that in many cases a really great cover actually does reflect really great content. And if you’ve been reading industry blogs (including this one) for a few years, you know that a cover can—rightly or wrongly—decide where a book gets shelved in a bookstore and whether a certain type of reader picks it up.

The truth is that cover art has always been a priority for readers. Scott Westerfeld pointed this out at an event celebrating his (gorgeously illustrated) Leviathan trilogy a few years ago; projecting the image of an early-twentieth century cover of War of the Worlds on the ceiling with his phone (that’s Scott for you), he pointed out that its illustrator had been even more important to the publisher than its author—the illustrator’s name was plastered over the top of the cover in huge, bold letters, and H.G. Wells was scrawled along the side only as an afterthought (I wish I could find the image to show you all, but I can't!).

That may seem like it’s no way to treat a writer who’s become one of sci-fi’s defining voices, but there’s no doubt that the book’s publisher created that cover with a mind to what would give the book the best possible chance of selling, and in this case that was the well-recognized name of a celebrated illustrator. But there have since been countless redesigns of the book, each reflecting the changing priorities of its target audience.

That’s not at all uncommon in the book world, and whether it’s repackaging a classic for a commercial audience, reprinting a book with the movie poster for its cover, changing an original cover to appeal to audiences in another country, or repackaging a book to sell to a different age group, publishers are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating book covers as tools for reaching untapped audiences.

What I didn’t realize until beginning this new position was just how much the onus for recognizing the success or failure of a book’s cover falls not on the design team, but rather on marketing and sales. The marketing department lives at the crossroads of the industry’s artistic side (your lovely manuscript, your editor’s vision for it, and the designer’s interpretation of the story) and its business end (the positioning of your book in relation to others, its ability to compete in a crowded marketplace, and the sales numbers the company needs to keep thriving). Through our sales team, we receive constant feedback from buyers at local, chain, and online bookstores about what readers are looking for.

Buyers are intensely aware of what readers are drawn to and what they skip right over, and they have the sales numbers to back up their opinions. Their knowledge is very market-specific; they know, for instance, what fourteen- to eighteen-year-old readers of dystopian fiction with a paranormal bent will prefer, and they might even suggest slight modifications that will attract some paranormal romance fans too, without alienating the book's primary market. They know what covers flop in certain geographic regions or with certain age groups, where and when to design a cover to appeal to its audience’s parents rather than the audience itself, and from their communication with multiple publishers seasons before a book’s launch, they know what new cover trends are cropping up and can predict which will take off.

All of that knowledge, gleaned from direct interaction with readers and buyers of books, trickles down from retail buyers and store managers to a publisher’s sales team, and through them to its marketing team. We communicate that back to design, and they listen, because getting a book into the hands of as many readers as possible requires the full support and confidence of everyone who has a hand in selling it. Book buyers make decisions on how many books to stock and how much prominence to give them on shelves based, in part, on their prediction of a cover’s success, and that push makes an immense difference. So every publisher does its best to make a buyer drool over as many of their covers as possible.

I’m very happy to be part of a small house in which every single book gets the very best cover treatment we can give it. Knowing just how far a cover goes towards making a book a success, my coworkers often redesign covers numerous times before printing a book, seeking feedback from the marketing and sales teams on each new look. And even after a book is printed and released, the marketing and sales teams carefully monitor feedback on the book's cover from its target audience, often suggesting creative ways to attract even more readers in reprints or new editions. We—or any other publisher—might create a new cover for a paperback edition when we don’t see the sales numbers we’d like, or when we think we might be able to interest a new audience in the book and thus reach readers we might not otherwise have found. Sometimes we release a new cover because readers are asking for it and we like to make them happy! In the instance of this special edition of Shannon Hale’s Forest Born which is coming out soon, the special edition cover appeals to older readers who remember the Books of Bayern from years ago, whereas the newer series covers appeal to a younger audience discovering the books for the first time.

It’s fascinating stuff, this cover design business, and I hope to be able to talk about it even more in the coming months. But enough of my chatter. What appeals to you in book covers? Do you think that marketing and sales should have so much say when it comes to a book's design, or should that be left to the creatives? What are your hopes—and fears—for the cover of your own book when it’s published?

Friday, September 9, 2011

On My New Job at (...wait for it...) Bloomsbury Kids!

I can't believe how quickly August flew by, cats and kittens! I'm so sorry for disappearing on you—and for the fact that I can't come back quite yet.

But I did want to pop in and let you know what's going on, now that it feels real enough that I can actually say it and not be afraid I'll wake up.

Between the last week of July and now, I've...

...Moved out of my house in Baltimore, and...

...Become a permanent resident of New York City, and...

...Started a new job as...

The Assistant Marketing Manager

at Bloomsbury & Walker Books for Young Readers!

I can't even begin to tell you how happy I am to be a part of Bloomsbury USA's vibrant, close-knit, and utterly brilliant team of editors, publicists, designers, and marketers. I absolutely adore the company's books and am loving every minute I get to spend talking to fans, bloggers, librarians, and booksellers. What's more, I'm diving right in with trade and digital campaigns, and making full use of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook (links to our pages below; I can't wait to connect with you there!). It's too soon to talk about everything I'll be doing, but I can say that Bloomsbury and I are a very happy fit. We share the philosophy that good marketing is about strong connections, and that all books deserve a unique touch and a totally customized marketing program. I am very excited, not just about Bloomsbury's books, but also about the company's future. And I'm proud to help shape that future.

Follow us on Twitter

Or on our Facebook pages:
Bloomsbury Teens
Bloomsbury Kids
Perfect Chemistry, by Simone Elkeles (The #8 NYT Bestselling Series!)
Need, by Carrie Jones
The Drake Chronicles
Alyxandra Harvey
Shannon Hale

By the way, that image up there is from the cover of Jessica Day George's Tuesdays at the Castle, one of our Fall titles!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Literary Translation: Publishing the World (for a Living!)

While she interned in the rights department of a French publishing
company, Samantha made plenty of time to travel. They say a book
can take you to a whole new world, but this is one step beyond it!

Unlike a lot of young publishing professionals, Samantha Steele knew she wanted to work in publishing early in her college career. In fact, she even knew what she wanted to do within the industry, and as a student at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study she designed a specialized major around her passion: literary translation. During a full year abroad in Paris (she’s bilingual), Samantha interned in the rights department of a French publisher, learning as much as she could about the passage of rights from one publisher—and one country—to another. Then, as my fellow intern at Scholastic, she focused on the editorial side of the bargain, reading countless queries in French and making recommendations for titles to acquire and translate. Now, as an Assistant Literary Agent at the French Publishers’ Agency, she combines both of those skill sets in one amazing job.

If you’re a fan of world travel, you read widely across cultures (or you’d like to start reading more widely), and you’re still looking for the right publishing role for you, you might just want to consider following in her footsteps!

Samantha raves about her job. “It’s exciting to sell a book in translation. It’s empowering to bring something from another country to America, to extend the lines of cultural communication a little farther. [At the French Publishers’ Agency,] we live and work in this kind of in-between space. We are not of France and we are not of America. We exist as a branch between the two and as such see things that no one else does. We are aware of two worlds at once, and that is both very cool and very weird.”

Like most publishing employees, Samantha’s hard-pressed to define a “typical day.” On any given morning, you might find her reading submissions from French publishers; writing pitches to American editors; meeting with agents, editors, scouts, and translators; corresponding with French foreign rights agents; helping editors apply for grants to fund translations; drafting contracts; processing royalty statements; attending editorial meetings; creating catalogs of the agency’s current titles; or all of the above. She also supports the office staff by working with interns, fixing the copier, running errands, and all those other typical early-career duties.

Since such a huge part of the job involves working directly with the text—or, sometimes even harder—singing its praises to editors who haven’t been able to read all of it, I asked Samantha how she feels about the books she works with. “Oh, the biggest perk is the books!” Samantha tells me. “Translated books usually stand out from the current publishing scene. That is the fun and the interest in publishing them: to add spice and diversity and a little flavor of the unknown.”

Are you sold yet? Want to learn more about how to get a job in literary translation, about the field's challenges, or about how the future is shaping up for the field? Take in the rest of my article over at Publishing Trendsetter!

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Near Witch Author Victoria Schwab on Self-Marketing, the Editorial Process, and Her First Novels

I first met author Victoria Schwab in 2009, when she had just gotten a book deal with Disney*Hyperion for The Near Witch. She and I were the same age, and setting off on parallel paths (she as an author traveling towards her novel's debut, and I as an intern finding my way to a career in publishing) at just about the same time. So as I've been learning all about the publishing industry, so has Victoriabut in a much different way. Now, one week before her debut novel's release, she's been kind enough to share her perspective on the industry here. For some great insights on how to market your debut novel, what makes a great agent or editor, and how that first book deal will change your writing habits, read on! You might even get to learn a bit more about The Near Witch and Victoria's work in progress, The Archived.

Rachel: What were your writing habits like in college, when you wrote your first novel?

Victoria: Oh, man. Well, I started my very first book as a junior, and had no earthly idea what I was doing. It landed me an agent the summer before senior year, and it went on sub, but didn't sell. I started writing The Near Witch as a second semester senior while also writing an interdisciplinary thesis in a studio major (roughly 12 hours in studio a day) so my method became one of not sleeping. Or at least, not sleeping much. I blocked out 9:00-11:00 pm each night, and forced myself to go to Kayak's, this awesome coffee shop half a mile from my apartment, and a block from campus (I could reach it easily from either place). Most nights I returned to studio around 11:00 pm (when the coffee shop closed). But The Near Witch was written entirely in Kayak's. Small, steady bites over the course of the semester. I finished the draft a week before my thesis presentation. I probably looked like a zombie.

R: How did your writing and revision habits change when you started working with your agent (Holly Root)? How about when you started working with your editor (Abby Ranger)?

V: My habits changed when I graduated, in that I suddenly had TIME to write. Most days I don't actually believe they changed for the better. But having an agent (Holly is actually my second) helped in that it gave my non-paying, full-time hobby both a dose of validity and a dose of accountability.

My habits changed A LOT when I got an editor. And not just ANY editor. I landed Abby the summer after I graduated, and she is terrifying. And brilliant. She taught me the meaning of discipline, but also of patience. I was never patient with anything before I started working with her. I'd been taught to power through, to finish and to do it as expediently as possible. But Abby taught me the value of walking away. Of thinking, and processing, and mulling. And editing. Oh so much editing.

R: You are constantly praising your editor and agent for their superhuman abilities to keep you sane. What shape do each of their epic sanity-bestowing powers take?

V: Haha, they really do. Holly has a full set of "ledge furniture" and we pull it out (metaphorically, though I have an idea of what it looks like) whenever I get a little close to the edge. She is brilliant, business savvy, hungry, and if she doesn't know the answer to any of my myriad questions, she'll find it in a blink. I could do one of those trust-fall exercises with her. I wouldn't blink. She's already caught me several times. And she lets me send her cute animal pictures on bad days.

And Abby. Abby has this brain. I don't pretend to know how it works, except that it functions in a very different way than mine, while still being compatible. We are a Venn diagram of skills and techniques, I think, and if she's not soothing me with her sense of logic, she's brainstorming, or helping me untangle, or just sharing in the adventure with me (and tolerating my many "hey look at this!" emails).

R: That sounds great; I should probably invest in some "ledge furniture," myself! And I bet anyone who's looking to become an editor or agent would love to be just like Abby and Holly. It sounds like they've supported you a lot through your revisions.

Let's talk about those. The Near Witch itself has changed a lot since you first wrote it. Can you share one change you made, big or small, and why?

V: You know, it's changed so much that I don't actually know if I can pick a single element. The way I think of it is that The Near Witch was a skeleton, just the bones (I was really very new at writing books) and over the course of editing, I learned how to make muscle and flesh and features and then put them on the skeleton in such a way that when it moved, they didn't fall off. They functioned. It wasn't bulk or plot or anything for that thing's sake. Everything strengthened the story.

R: That makes perfect sense, and I'll be curious to see if your experience with your next work is the same in that there isn't one "light bulb moment," so to speak, but rather a constant fleshing out.

From what I remember, throughout all of those changes and revisions, you were in constant conversation with fans online. You're a fabulous self-marketer, and you've clearly put a lot of time into connecting to your fan-base and spreading the word about The Near Witch.
Is there one thing you've done to market yourself that you found particularly effective?

V: I sold in 2009, and was then told that, because the book wouldn't hit shelves until 2011, I couldn't really talk about my book. At all. For more than a year. It was imperative that I stayed on people's radars without generating premature buzz for The Near Witch. So, I had to start by promoting myself. And that's hard, but positively invaluable. By the time I could promote The Near Witch, I had a foundation. I had an audience, and not only that, but one predisposed to like me because they liked me. And that's not to say I haven't gotten less than stellar reviews from members of that crowd, but the people who love it, and have been with me since the beginning, are so wonderfully supportive and vocal.

R: What advice would you give to authorsor even publishersabout marketing books?

V: Start early, and be willing to engage. I didn't sit on a stool and talk TO the internet. It wasn't one-way. I made friends (and none of this was for the sole purpose of marketing. If anything, it was to keep me sane, to have people while I waited, and they really are the reason I made it through), and as my following grew, I continued to engage. I'll never be a "collector," one of those authors only concerned with the number of eyes on her at any point. I built, and continue to build, a community. I don't rely on my book to do all the work. So many people overlook the human component, some willingly, and some simply naive, but I've found that being accessible and engaging as a person, rather than hiding behind my work, has been so, so good, for both my sanity, and my marketing.

R: Sounds like you really knew what you were doing, even as a debut author! But what surprised you most about the publishing process?

V: IT'S SOOOOO SLOW. Until it's not. And then it is again.

R: What's the toughest criticism you've gotten as an author?

V: Oh, probably that I value the poetry more than the plot. Which stings, because it's not intentional. This book has been an immense journey for me as an author, and it's my debut, and as far as I've come, I am still growing. I came INTO this with a strong ear for language, and have been learning how to use it. So it's less about my preference for poetry (though I really, really love words) and more that I'm learning. But in my defense, The Near Witch is written the WAY it is very, very intentionally.

R: I totally agree that The Near Witch's style is intentional—and very effective. The language is so beautiful that the book's voice becomes a character in itself. And I think you've grown tremendously as a writer in the time that your audience has been following you, which makes me all the more excited to read your next novel. So how about the other side of that question: what's the best compliment you've gotten?

V: I think to date there have been 5 or 6 Neil Gaiman comparisons. Every single time it happens, a puppy cuddles a baby somewhere, or something. And every time, I have to sit on the floor for a little while. Oh, and maybe the "classic" thing. I've been startled (pleasantly so) by the number of people who think The Near Witch will last.

R: Pick one from each of the following categories:
  • R: Favorite sister from The Near Witch: Magda or Dreska
    V: Dreska, because she's a little sharper. Literally.
  • R: Authors you could have as a mentor: Laini Taylor or Neil Gaiman
    V: Laini Taylor, because I'd probably be so intimidated by Gaiman that I wouldn't be able to focus and learn.
  • R: The only gift you can ever give your fans: narwhals or baked goods
    V: Narwhals, because they are proof there is magic in the world. Also, then I can eat the cookies.
  • R: Favorite book to work on so far: The Near Witch or The Archived
    V: I can't answer that. I've spent the last two and a half years looking at The Near Witch, so part of me never wants to see it again, and it hasn't even been released yet. And I've spent two years WAITING to make eyes at The Archived. So it feels like a stacked deck.
R: Finally, can you tell us something interesting about your latest project, The Archived?

V: My agent and I are constantly searching for the right "mash-up" to describe The Archived, because it's still a good ways out, and we don't want to give too much away. The current one is Buffy + The Shining + If I Stay. And I am literally shaking with excitement (and from within edits, no less, so that says something).

R: It does—though, of course, on my end the edits (well, the whole publishing process, really) are the most fun part! I can't wait to see what you, Abby, and Holly have up your sleeves this time around. Thanks so much for answering some questions here, and for having me along for the ride from book deal to publication with The Near Witch!

The Near Witch is the story of Lexi, who has always been closer to her father, who taught her to creep after the red deer and to touch it without its startling, and to Magda and Dreska, who speak to the wind and the earth and seem older than time, than to her fellow villagers. And now that her father is dead, her younger sister barely remembers what their family was, and her mother has taken to kneading and baking bread endlessly to work out her sorrows, Lexi longs for nothing more than to be close to the moor the way Magda and Dreska are close to it—or closer, the way the first stranger to come to town in ages seems to be.

Then, when the town’s children start disappearing in the whispering dark of the night, drawn out of their rooms by a wind that can speak their names, Lexi needs that closeness. She needs the moor to surrender signs of the children so she can track them; needs Cole, the stranger, with his burden of memory and his strange powers; and needs, most of all, to know the truth about the Near Witch. It might be the only way to save what's left of what she loves.

I couldn't put it down, and couldn't stop thinking about it once I did. You can pre-order a copy at your local bookshop here, so you can read it for yourself!