Friday, August 21, 2015

Weighing In on the NEW New York Times Bestseller Lists

It probably isn’t news to anyone reading this that the NYT Children’s Bestseller Lists are changing again, but in case it IS news, you can read the original announcement here, and then come back once you’re done.
Now that we’re all caught up: what does this mean?
Honestly, I don’t know if it means anything. That is, it doesn’t mean anything to ME, except that maybe one day my book will have a better chance of making it onto the list than it did under the old system, which means my future publishers and I have marginally better odds of being able to put New York Times Bestseller across the top of the cover. (We’re talking TINY margins of improvement. Like, really, not much. Like, out of the 5,700-and-some-odd books published and the many thousands of books continuing to be sold every week, only ten will make it onto that list, so SMALL SMALL ODDS.)
But I honestly don’t know if it means anything beyond that.
Some people are excited about the changes because having a list for (usually new) hardcover titles and a separate list for (usually backlisted) paperbacks means more discoverability for newer titles... But we’re talking about a list of ten titles. The range for discoverability is still pretty small. As discoverability tools go, the NYT Bestselling Children's Books List has always been, and always will be, an inadequate tool. Additionally, I don’t see very much time passing before publishing catches on to the fact that re-issuing backlisted titles  with strong sales as “special edition hardcovers” can get that same title listed on TWO NYT lists, which just puts us back where we are now with one or two names dominating both lists instead of just the one list.
And if we’re talking about the NYT list as merely a status report - as a reporting of facts, specifically the facts about which books are currently selling the most copies in any given week - then what this does is give us an idea of which new books are doing really well in their first few weeks after release. Which is nice to know, I guess, if you want to write to trends, which we all know is a bad idea.* It’s also nice to know which books have staying power. If publishers are marketing the bejeezus out of their new hardcover titles and someone’s paperbacks from five years ago are still outselling them, that says something about the quality of those old books, and maybe also about the public temperature in terms of the willingness of the general public to explore new and untested waters vs clinging to the familiar and comfortable. And there is something to be learned from that. (This is something we lose with the new switch - the ability to compare sales of new books with sales of older titles.)
The NYT List is also good for marketing purposes, in a “let’s examine this after the fact” kind of way. If there are more than ten awesome books coming out that week,** but only ten make it onto the list, it can be helpful to look at those ten and then look at what their authors and publishers and PR people did to market those books that the authors and publishers and PR people maybe didn’t do for the awesome books out there that DIDN’T make it onto the list. There are ALL KINDS of factors in what makes a book a blowout success, from cover design to advertising to book tours to blurbs to ALL THE OTHER THINGS. There is the factor of the author’s authorial history - did their debut win a big award? Did an earlier title come out this weekend as a film adaptation? Is this the third in an already best-selling series? 
This stuff makes a difference. It sucks a little that it makes a difference, because a) none of it has anything to do with the actual words inside the actual book, and b) apart from author-initiated marketing, pretty much all of it is outside the author’s control. But nevertheless, for better or worse, it makes a difference. Having a book on the NYT Bestseller List is an incredible achievement, and all the books on that list deserve to be there - but so do some books that never get there, and that’s just math. There are ten slots each week. There are a lot more than ten books coming out each week. You can’t control that.
And that’s the thing. There is only one thing that you, the author, can control. One. You can write an awesome book. You can write a book that is so awesome, people will press it into the hands of everyone they know. You can write a book that is so awesome, people will write fan fiction about it, because they can’t let go of those characters. You can write a book that is so awesome, people will wait in line overnight to be the first to read the next one.
So forget about the New York Times Bestseller List. Just write your book. Make it amazingly good. Pick the right words, and put them in the right order, and make it irresistible. If your book is irresistible, you won’t have to worry about the NYT Bestseller List, because people will buy your irresistible book.
And that’s what it’s about.

*NEWSFLASH: In case you’re new to the writing-for-publication scene and you haven’t come across this information yet, writing to trends is a very bad idea. By the time you recognize a trend, it’s too late for your book to ride that wave, because by the time you draft it and revise it and revise it and the publisher gets a cover designed and all the rest, the trend will be over. Just write the book that you need to write, and write it now.
**There are ALWAYS more than ten awesome books coming out in any given week. There isn't enough money in the world to buy all the awesome books every week. Unless you're Donald Trump, in which case you're too busy spending money on Other things. Which is a shame, if you ask me, but nobody is asking me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

#LA15SCBWI Conference Round-Up, Part I: The Nitty Gritty

I came home from the #LA15SCBWI Summer Conference last Tuesday morning, and I slept basically all day, all night, and for part of the next day. I was essentially a walking bag of skin and bone and muscle with a jumble of sluggish goo for brains for a few days. That’s what “processing” looks like, I guess.
The conference was amazing. It was inspiring and exhausting and wonderful. There is nothing like being surrounded by people who write, and having a solid chunk of five days to think and talk about nothing other than the craft of story. It crystallized my understanding that what I need right now is to create for myself the space to write - both a physical space, and mental space from my everyday responsibilities, where I can focus on nothing but story.
There were too many key moments to share them all, but here are a few highlights:
Mem Fox read her books to us, and it was awesome. You are NEVER too old to be read to. On writing, she said, “It is the emotion generated from an original felt event that drives a book to be born. The readers will feel a certain emotion because the author felt it first.”
Also from Mem Fox: cadence and rhythm are vital. She said this in reference to picture books, but really, I think they’re equally important in novels. Cadence and rhythm are what make the story’s voice distinct; they’re what make a book beautiful.
Speaking of voice: VOICE. Voice, voice, voice, voice, voice. Voice is more important than basically everything, because it’s the hardest thing for an editor to fix. (Although a strong voice with no story to tell is still going to get a “no” from most editors.)
Dan Santat had a wonderful thing to say for those of us still struggling to find our “voice”, which is this: “Be aware of your tastes and interests. This will become your voice.” I had never thought of it this way, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Because who are we, apart from our tastes and interests? Those are the means through which other people come to know us.
Meg Wolitzer gave an excellent keynote that held more one-liners and tweetable quotes than I’ve ever heard contained in one keynote. Among them was this thought that I think holds within it the reason that so many publishers say that they want a book that sits at the intersection between literary and commercial fiction: “The thing you love about a book isn’t plot; it’s character.” And if you think about it, it’s true. A book with a rollicking plot is a fun read, but the books that grab you and hold onto you and worm their way into your soul are the ones with great characters.
Varian Johnson talked at length about the importance of placing a higher priority on our work, on dedicating time to the pursuit of the creative life. It was a good reminder for me, that the people who get things done are the people who prioritize getting these things done.
Molly Idle reminded us that creativity can only happen in a safe space.
Dan Yaccarino reminded us that “Good work is never perfect.”
Stephen Fraser reminded us to let joy spill out into our work, because, as he put it, “Joy is the soil in which books are grown.”
Kwame Alexander - KWAME ALEXANDER, who is one of the great orators of our time and who you all need to go hear speak - reminded us that “A loss is inevitable, like rain in spring. True champions learn to dance in the storm.”
And everywhere, everywhere, I heard two themes:
One, that diversity is vital, and that representing all characters as complicated and deep and imperfect human beings who don’t easily slot into stereotypes is essential to writing not only diverse books, but all books.
And Two, that teamwork is key: not only between an author and an editor, but between an agent and an editor and an author and an agent. Communication among everyone, from the outset of the project, is an important part of what determines whether a book will sink or swim. Someone once told me that an author has to have the guts to stick up for what they think their book should be, even when the editor disagrees. But I think it’s actually more important to find an editor who won’t disagree to begin with, who truly shares your vision for the book, and then to trust that person when they say that your book isn’t achieving that vision yet and this subplot or character point might be the reason for that.
There was so much more than this. SO MUCH MORE. The conference was amazing, and I kinda-sorta-almost want to only go to this conference every year for the rest of forever. (Except I love my SCBWI CanadaEast friends, and they run good conferences too, and going to NYC to see my agent and go to a conference at the same time is probably a good idea, so I’m probably NOT going to only go to the LA conference every year forever...)
Of course, I was able to see many friends at this conference. Like my brilliant and amazing critique-partner-for-life, Lindsey Carmichael.
Lindsey at the Awards Banquet on Sunday.
Even geniuses have to eat.

But I’m going to have to save the “friends” portion for another post. I have a novel to write.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


I woke up yesterday morning to a Google alert about a company that claimed to be offering a PDF of my book, BITE INTO BLOODSUCKERS.
You know, the book that isn’t out yet? The book that no-one except my publisher, my co-author, the printer, and myself should have a PDF of?
There’s nothing like a little e-piracy to jump-start your week, you know? UGH.
So, I forwarded the email to my publisher, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, so that they can look into it and send whatever legal letters they need to send. If you ever find yourself in this situation, ALWAYS LET YOUR PUBLISHER KNOW. Also let your AGENT know, if you have an agent. They can tell you if you need to do anything and what that “anything” should be, and also, it’s just good for everyone involved to know about all the things going on with your book.
ANYWAY. My publisher is looking into it.
They said that my author copies are on their way to me! And THEY SENT PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE!
Photo by Winston Stilwell @winstonstilwell

My book is real! And it is book-shaped!

So, my week is pretty much made. How is your week going?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Paper Towns Challenge

I’m in LA!
I’m here for the #LA15SCBWI Summer Conference, and I couldn’t be more excited to be here! There are SO MANY sessions... I’m focusing on craft, and WOW. Meg Wolitzer... Varian Johnson... Jordan Brown... Julie Strauss-Gabel...
I got here Thursday night, and since I’m here for a kidlit and YA writer’s conference,  I thought the best way to spend the evening would be by watching an adaptation of a YA novel with my someone who really knows her YA.
So my critique partner, Lindsey Carmichael, and I went to see Paper Towns together.
I have to say straight out that I loved the book, and I thought the movie was an excellent adaptation of the book. Also, seeing the movie with all its elements laid out on screen - the sidekick (who happens to be black), the binge drinking, the misogyny, the Confederate Flag on a t-shirt, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that people are arguing about (did John Green dismantle the trope, or perpetuate it?) - made me realize two things.*
One: One book cannot address All The Things, nor should it.
and Two: I don’t think it’s possible to dismantle a trope as deeply ingrained as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
I want to discuss Point Two at greater length with you guys, but first, you have to see the movie.
So that’s your challenge.
Some time in the next two weeks, go and see the delightful hilarity that is Paper Towns. (Seriously, it’s a GREAT adaptation.) Let me know in the comments to this post that you’ve seen it. And then we’ll talk about the mystique of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

*Okay, more than two things. But I’m writing this at 1:40 in the morning and two things are all I can think of right now. And two things are enough for one blog post, anyway.