Shelf Awareness for Friday, September 15, 2023


William Morrow & Company: The Midnight Feast by Lucy Foley

Shadow Mountain: The Witch in the Woods: Volume 1 (Grimmworld) by Michaelbrent Collings

Hell's Hundred: Blood Like Mine by Stuart Neville

Delacorte Press: Last One to Die by Cynthia Murphy

Margaret Ferguson Books: Not a Smiley Guy by Polly Horvath, Illustrated by Boris Kulikov

Indiana University Press: The Grim Reader: A Pharmacist's Guide to Putting Your Characters in Peril by Miffie Seideman

St. Martin's Press: Lenny Marks Gets Away with Murder by Kerryn Mayne

Quotation of the Day

'Book Bannings: A Clear Danger to Our Members and Their Communities'

"The precipitous increase in book bans over the past two years represents a clear danger to the prosperity, safety, and growth of our members and their communities. Over the past year, we've seen a proliferation of bills in state legislatures that would censor books and limit access to lawful materials in schools and libraries, attempting to codify censorship into law in direct violation of the First Amendment. These bans clearly threaten free expression, equal representation in society, and free enterprise....

"Government book bans have no place in American society. The First Amendment exists to protect us from state censorship. It was written for instances such as the [recent book banning] laws in Texas or Arkansas, where lawmakers think they can dictate what citizens can and cannot read. A majority of judges appointed by Democrats and Republicans have ruled against book bans. A strong majority of parents oppose book bans--over 70% according to the American Library Association. The Constitution and the will of the majority are clearly on our side."

--Allison K. Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, in written testimony for the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on book bannings on September 12

Harper: Our Kind of Game by Johanna Copeland


News

Bookstore Sales Slip 1.3% in July; Still Up 6.4% for the Year

In July, bookstore sales dropped 1.3%, to $587 million, compared to July 2022, according to preliminary Census Bureau estimates, the third monthly loss for bookstore sales this year. By comparison to pre-pandemic times, bookstore sales in July were up 1% from July 2019. For the first seven months of the year, bookstore sales are up 6.4%, to $4.5 billion, compared to the first seven months of 2022.

Total retail sales in July rose 2%, to $699 billion, compared to July 2022. For the year to date, total retail sales climbed 3%, to $4,742 billion, compared to the first seven months of 2022.

Note: under Census Bureau definitions, the bookstore category consists of "establishments primarily engaged in retailing new books." The Bureau also added this unusual caution concerning the effect of Covid-19: "The Census Bureau continues to monitor response and data quality and has determined that estimates in this release meet publication standards."


Chronicle Books: Life Wants You Dead: A Calm, Rational, and Totally Legit Guide to Scaring Yourself Safe by Evan Waite, Illustrated by Paula Searing


Stillwater Books Opens at New West Warwick, R.I., Location

Stillwater Books opened recently in its new location, at New London Square Plaza, 1745 Main Street, West Warwick, R.I. Co-owners Steven and Dawn Porter had closed their Pawtucket store on July 1 and "immediately began the process of relocating their independent bookstore and publishing headquarters to New London Square," the Kent County Daily Times reported. A grand opening celebration will be announced soon.

The Porters launched their bookstore at its original location in 2018, a few years after starting their publishing house, but Stillwater "has its genesis in the couple's early years, bonding over a shared love of books and publishing," the County Times wrote, noting that they "met in the mid-1980s while attending the University of Rhode Island. She was the editor of the university's yearbook; he, the editor of its literary magazine. The two soon began to collaborate on the publications, helping each other out with things like layout and design.... Now married and living in Gloucester, the two have been producing books and magazines together ever since."

"We're excited to be here and we're excited about the response we're getting," Dawn Porter said.

"We just love books," Steven Porter added. 

Their decision to relocate Stillwater Books was prompted by the changing atmosphere of its original location. The Daily Times noted that when "a major bus hub that had been located just outside its doors moved, Stillwater lost most of its foot traffic. Nearby shops began to shutter."

"We had to decide, do we shut it down and liquidate," he said, "or do we move to a new location?"

Prior to settling in Pawtucket, the Porters had considered the Pawtuxet Valley as a possible location for their business, in part because the area had so few independent bookstores. "We had looked at a couple of different locations in Coventry, but it just didn't pan out," said Steven Porter, who grew up nearby. "They just weren't right."

This time, however, they found the approximately 3,200-square-foot New London Square Plaza unit. "The space was absolutely perfect," said Dawn Porter. "Bigger store, better layout, bigger office for us, bigger office for the designers." The unit also boasts a large warehouse for storing rare and antiquarian books.

Since opening "the response has been overwhelming," Steven Porter noted, "and so, so positive."


GLOW: Tundra Books: We Are Definitely Human by X. Fang


Blush Bookstore, Wichita, Kan., Moving to Permanent Space

Blush Bookstore, a romance-focused bookstore that opened in Wichita, Kan., earlier this year, is moving to a permanent location, the Wichita Eagle reported.

Store owner Jaclyn Wooten, who opened Blush in March inside of a retail incubator space called the Garage at Cleveland Corner, is taking the store from a 300-square-foot space to one spanning about 1,000 square feet that previously housed a cafe. It will be located inside of Revolutsia, a retail development with outdoor common areas, restaurants, and shops.

Wooten told the Eagle that the response to the bookstore has been "pretty overwhelming in the best way possible." Since day one there has been an "amazing amount" of community support, and the store has also attracted plenty of customers from out of town. The dining and drinking options at Revolutsia, Wooten added, will hopefully make it even more of a destination location.

She plans to host a grand opening in the new space on September 30, and she looks forward to having significantly more room for the holiday shopping season.


Harper: Sandwich by Catherine Newman


Plot Twist Books, South Charleston, W.Va., Launches Bookshop Bungalow

Plot Twist Books in South Charleston, W.Va., is now offering guests the chance to rent a private studio apartment attached to the bookstore. 

Called the Bookshop Bungalow, it is available through AirBnb at a rate of $115 per night (with a minimum two-night stay) and has a queen-size bed, a coffee maker, mini fridge, writing desk, and more. As part of the stay, guests can get a behind-the-scenes view of running an independent bookstore, while also having their favorite books put on display as temporary staff picks, and receiving perks like employee discounts and purchase credits.

Browning noted that guests won't actually be working in the shop, and are free to be as engaged with it as they like, but he hopes the Bookshop Bungalow will attract people who are interested in one day owning a bookstore of their own and would like to see how one operates. He was inspired by other bookstores that have similar offerings, especially the Open Book, the nonprofit bookstore in Wigtown, Scotland, where guests manage the store during their visit.

"Making the trip to Scotland is on my bucket list, and when we couldn't find anything exactly like it here in the U.S., we thought we would put our own spin on such an experience," Browning said.

Plot Twist Books opened in downtown South Charleston in March. It sells new and used titles, along with a variety of bookish gifts.


Obituary Note: Neal Sofman

Neal Sofman
(photo: Valerie Duarte)

Sad news from the Bay Area: Neal Sofman, co-owner of Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco, Calif., and former head of A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, died September 6 at age 75, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. After being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, he moved into an assisted living facility last year.

Sofman opened Bookshop West in 2006 with his wife, Anna Bullard. Speaking with Shelf Awareness six weeks after opening, Sofman said opening the new store was "like going back 25 years" to the beginnings of A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. "People coming into the store for the first time often say the same things," Sofman continued. "They say, 'Welcome to the neighborhood.' They thank you for doing this, saying that the neighborhood really needed a good bookstore. Then the final thing they say is, 'Are you crazy?' I'm not used to being thanked for opening a store."

Sofman began his bookselling career working at the old Upstart Crow bookstore. In 1975, with two partners, he opened the first A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, in Cupertino. In 1978, they opened a branch in Larkspur. In 1982, they opened what became flagship store, in Opera Plaza, in San Francisco. (That location is now the site of a Books Inc. store.)

Until the last of the three stores closed in 2006, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books was one of the best-regarded bookstores in the country. As recounted by the Chronicle, Sofman "became so respected in the industry that he was at the TED Conference when it started out in Monterey. Suddenly he had Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Bono browsing his shelves. He had a radio show about books and at various times served on the board of the Northern California Booksellers Association and the American Booksellers Association."

Wendy Sheanin, v-p, independent retail sales at Simon & Schuster, who worked for six years as the events scheduler at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, told the Chronicle, "Neal was like an old master. When you think of the generation of people, nationwide, who have these great independent bookstores, Neal was right there with them."

She added that A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books hosted many major authors, including, during her time there, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Alan Alda, Jane Fonda, Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell, and Tipper and Al Gore. For years, the store handled sales for City Arts & Lectures and Word for Word.

John Markoff, former technology writer at the New York Times, told the Chronicle, "What Neal was doing at his bookstores was an example of Google before Google, a place where you could find things out serendipitously. He was the equivalent of a librarian who could tell you what you should and shouldn't read and what you should and shouldn't know about books." Markoff added: "Neal was in many senses a classic entrepreneur."

We at Shelf Awareness remember Neal as a very nice person who was also a great bookseller. Our deepest condolences go to Anna.


Notes

Image of the Day: Prine on Prine at the Strand

Author Holly Gleason was joined by singer/songwriter and author Steve Earle at the Strand Book Store in New York City for a conversation about her book Prine on Prine: Interviews and Encounters (Chicago Review Press), about legendary musician John Prine, who died of Covid in 2020. Pictured: Earle, Strand owner Nancy Bass Wyden, and Gleason.


60 Years and Counting: Knopf Celebrates Kathy Hourigan

(photo: Michael Lionstar)

On Wednesday, September 13, Knopf held a toast in its offices in Manhattan to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its v-p and managing editor, Kathy Hourigan. As far as anyone who was present could recall--including colleagues who have been with the company for 40 or 50 years or more--Hourigan is the employee with the longest tenure at all of Penguin Random House. If she looks familiar, it could be because you spotted her in Turn Every Page, the documentary about Robert Gottlieb, the former editor-in-chief of Knopf, and Robert Caro, the acclaimed biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson.

Pictured celebrating with Hourigan (center) are her colleagues Anne Achenbaum (left) and Vimi Santokhi (right).


Bookstore Video: The Art of POP Display Assembly

Assembling a POP display can be a challenge. Stories Like Me, Pittsburgh, Pa., shared "a cute little video of us trying to figure out how to put this all together. We are SO excited to have SIGNED COPIES of Elizabeth Kim's latest novel, Her Radiant Curse, in stock!"


Personnel Changes at Hachette; S&S; Sourcebooks

In Hachette Book Group's sales department:

Nancy Kriz has been promoted to senior manager of account marketing.

Alexis Kuzma has been promoted to senior retail strategy manager, author brands.

---

Sean Buckley is joining Simon & Schuster's independent sales team as telesales account manager.

---

Tianna Kelly has joined Sourcebooks as marketing assistant for Bloom Books and Sourcebooks Casablanca.



Media and Movies

Media Heat: Erich Schwartzel on Fresh Air

Today:
Fresh Air: Erich Schwartzel, author of Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy (Penguin Press, $28, 9781984878991).


TV: Lessons in Chemistry

Apple TV+ has released a trailer for Lessons in Chemistry, the eight-episode limited series based on the 2022 novel by author, science editor, and copywriter Bonnie Garmus. Starring and executive produced by Oscar-winner Brie Larson (Captain Marvel, Room), the series will make its debut October 13 on Apple TV+ with the first two episodes. New episodes will follow weekly through November 24. The cast also includes Lewis Pullman, Aja Naomi King, Stephanie Koenig, Kevin Sussman, Patrick Walker, and Thomas Mann. 

Lessons in Chemistry is produced for Apple TV+ by Apple Studios. Lee Eisenberg (WeCrashed, Little America) serves as showrunner. Susannah Grant (Unbelievable, Erin Brockovich) executive produces alongside Larson, with Michael Costigan and Jason Bateman executive producing for Aggregate Films. Sarah Adina Smith will direct and executive produce the first two episodes. Exec producers also include Natalie Sandy through Piece of Work Entertainment alongside Eisenberg, and Louise Shore.


Books & Authors

More National Book Award Longlists: Poetry, Nonfiction

This week the National Book Foundation is releasing longlists for the 2023 National Book Awards. Finalists will be announced October 3, and winners named November 15 at the National Book Awards Ceremony. This year's longlisted titles in the Poetry and Nonfiction (the NBA Fiction longlist will be announced later today) are:

Poetry
How to Communicate by John Lee Clark (W.W. Norton)
The Diaspora Sonnets by Oliver de la Paz (W.W. Norton)
Vexations by Annelyse Gelman (University of Chicago Press)
Promises of Gold by José Olivarez (Henry Holt)
from unincorporated territory [åmot] by Craig Santos Perez (Omnidawn Publishing)
West: A Translation by Paisley Rekdal (Copper Canyon Press)
Tripas by Brandon Som (Georgia Review Books/U. of Georgia Press)
Trace Evidence by Charif Shanahan (Tin House)
suddenly we by Evie Shockley (Wesleyan University Press)
From From by Monica Youn (Graywolf Press)

Nonfiction
The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History by Ned Blackhawk (Yale University Press)
King: A Life by Jonathan Eig (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, A History, A Memorial by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press)
When Crack Was King: A People's History of a Misunderstood Era by Donovan X. Ramsey (One World)
Liliana's Invincible Summer: A Sister's Search for Justice by Cristina Rivera Garza (Hogarth)
The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer (Harper)
Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I: A Palestinian Memoir by Raja Shehadeh (Other Press)
Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World by John Vaillant (Knopf)
I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction by Kidada E. Williams (Bloomsbury)


Awards: Dayton Literary Peace Prize Finalists, Cisneros Honored

Finalists in the categories of fiction and nonfiction have been selected for the 2023 Dayton Literary Peace Prizes, sponsored by the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation and honoring authors whose work advances peace. Winners, who each receive $10,000, will be announced October 10. The finalists:

Fiction:
Anthem by Noah Hawley
The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara
Didn't Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta by James Hannaham
The Light Pirate by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Horse by Geraldine Brooks
Mecca by Susan Straight

Nonfiction:
American Midnight by Adam Hochschild
Asian American Histories of the United States by Catherine Ceniza Choy
His Name is George Floyd by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa
Ma and Me by Putsata Reang
The Treeline by Ben Rawlence
Zarifa by Zarifa Ghafari with Hannah Lucinda Smith

In addition, the Foundation is giving Sandra Cisneros the Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award in honor of her "groundbreaking contributions to peace."

Nicholas A. Raines, executive director of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation, called Cisneros "the embodiment of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundations' values of peace and understanding, and her empathetic, perceptive voice is needed now more than ever."

Poet, essayist, short story writer, and author of the classic coming-of-age novel The House on Mango Street, Cisneros has been honored with NEA fellowships in poetry and fiction, a MacArthur Fellowship, the PEN America Literary Award, the National Medal of Arts, the Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, among others. Cisneros is also the founder of two nonprofits, the Macondo Foundation and the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation, which are dedicated to supporting aspiring and emerging writers.

In comments about the award, Cisneros said, "I witnessed a war's effects personally with the forty-year friendship of my hermana-amiga from Sarajevo. And what I learned was this: the casualties of a war are not simply those killed in warfare. Civilians and unborn generations ever after suffer with the shrapnel of that conflict embedded in their psyche like hidden landmines. I just returned from Sarajevo, and I know this is true."


Reading with… James Reich

James Reich is a novelist, ecopsychologist, and critic. He is a contributing writer for Spin magazine, and his psychoanalytic nonfiction book, Wilhelm Reich Versus the Flying Saucers, will be published by Punctum Books in 2024. Born in England, Reich has lived in New Mexico since 2009. His sixth novel is The Moth for the Star (7.13 Books, September 12, 2023), which mixes an ecological crisis with occult conspiracies, time travel, and Jungian psychoanalysis.

Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:

Psychological, existential horror, set in Depression-era New York, Cairo, and Venice, concerning a killer who cannot recall his victim; a Satanic Gatsby.

On your nightstand now:

I've been reading The Selected Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini, edited and translated by Stephen Sartarelli. I'm quite taken with the poems from The Nightingale of the Catholic Church, with lines like "the light rots the sky." Last night, I finished Oded Galor's The Journey of Humanity during an appropriately dramatic thunderstorm. Among others I've enjoyed lately: James Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work and Jason McBride's Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker, which I loved. I'm interested in writers who plough a lonely furrow.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I don't remember the book exactly, but there was an Eastern European folk tale--some variation on "The Glass Mountain" or "The Princess on the Glass Hill"--that made an impression on me. Also, A.A. Milne, and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows--that kind of thing. In those days, one didn't have a "YA period" but made a literary leap of faith from children's books to adult literature. With pocket money, I bought a Penguin edition of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge but was bored by it. I bought it because my mother liked Jude the Obscure, which is far better. But she also had a hardcover H.G. Wells collection that I thought was great, and so I started reading science fiction and Dylan Thomas, which have been the source of all my problems.

Your top five authors:

Oh, that's almost impossible! Among authors whose prose and ambition I admire, I would always include Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, D.H. Lawrence, and J.G. Ballard, who demands inclusion for his singular style. I also admire Henry Miller and Kathy Acker. As for technique, I can't say that Acker's collages and appropriations make her a better prose writer than Miller, but this is really splitting the baby. Terrible!

Book you've faked reading:

It's been a while, but as an undergraduate I couldn't bring myself to read Willa Cather's O Pioneers! It screamed tedium. I'm sure I must have lied about reading it to get by. I also faked reading Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, which I did start but really hated, because I found it smug. I might have finished it at some point of academic necessity, but I have almost no memory of it. It had a hideous cover. I remember that.  

Book you're an evangelist for:

Heather Clark's Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath impressed me enormously, and I'm looking forward to her book on Anne Sexton.

Book you've bought for the cover:

That was definitely the case with Frank Herbert's Dune. The movie tie-in edition came out in 1984. It didn't show the cast--just the desert and two blue moons. I knew nothing about it. The David Lynch film wasn't released until mid-December, but the cover alluding to the film appeared in the summer, if I remember. Certainly, it was before the film's release. So I think I was 12 or 13 years old when I read it, and it was baroque, strange, and magnificent. I was also reading Michael Moorcock's Elric books around that time, and so Dune's weirdness, queer narcotic qualities, and intrigues sat well with me.

Book you hid from your parents:

I don't think I ever "hid" a book, but I do remember explaining many times to different people that the cover of H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, with its creature on top of a pile of bloody severed heads, did not reflect the oh-so-sophisticated content of the book. That was, again, when I was 13. Today, I would guess the book that raises eyebrows with guests would be Wilhelm Reich's The Function of the Orgasm, but again, one has to explain.

Book that changed your life:

One was Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, which I read in the early '90s, not long after it was published. That combination of Freud with J.G. Frazer's The Golden Bough as a critical style, and her intensity and intelligence were the measure of my aspirations. My approach to literature has been psychoanalytic and mythopoeic, particularly since reading Camille Paglia. It'd be nice to thank her in person one day.

Favorite line from a book:

One among them would be: "As soon as he is with other men, Jesus is an aristocrat, a master." The line is from D.H. Lawrence's Apocalypse. It's a great existential truth. Only when he was alone could Jesus be merely a man. Strangely, that mirrors how I read Kerouac. I like his prose best when he is solitary and melancholy. When he is in the company of his heroes, he annihilates himself too much with worship. I've always found him a numinous, inspiring writer when he is alone with his thoughts.

Five books you'll never part with:

(All of the above and not least) an edition of Hamlet; Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky; and the collected poems of both Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Among others, Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. I'd like to recapture those first impressions.

Your hopes and fears for The Moth for the Star:

I hope that people are moved by it. The first readers that I know of have read it as the tragic romance I intended and have not anticipated its ending. So I have some anxiety about the end getting out and readers not being able to have that experience of the novel. I'm sorry if I sound a bit like Alfred Hitchcock and "don't talk about this film!" That's another thing: I'd love to have someone interested in the film rights. I think it's cinematic. We'll see!


Book Review

Review: How to Build a Boat

How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney (Biblioasis, $17.95 paperback, 304p., 9781771965859, November 7, 2023)

Elaine Feeney's second novel, How to Build a Boat, is a study in contrasts. Simultaneously quiet and riotous and equal parts light and darkness, the Booker Prize longlisted novel focuses on Jamie, starting his first year at an all-boys secondary school in West Ireland. Jamie displays many traits of neurodiversity, such as hyperfixation, pattern recognition, and sensory dysregulation, but Feeney (As You Were) applies no diagnostic label; instead, she has Jamie speak for himself, and his voice--the driving force behind this novel--is spot on. Jamie loves maths, the lectures of Field Medal-winner Maryam Mirzakhani, and the color red. He speaks plainly about his mother Noelle's death at his birth, though the fact of it doesn't change his desire to build a perpetual motion machine, one that relies on no energy inputs, one that might connect him to Noelle. Jamie "knew something was missing, a vacuum to where a mother should fit, and he had a fixed determination to fill it."

On the other side of the narrative are Tess Mahon and Tadhg Foley, both teachers at the school Jamie is set to attend. Tess and her husband, Paul, are facing the final round of in vitro fertilization, and Tess has just learned her Additional Needs students have all been transferred out of Christ's College. Tadhg is the new woodwork teacher, just arrived from the islands, and the source of the project that gives this book its title. Tess and Tadhg offer Jamie extra support, seeing him for the brilliant but needful young person that he is. Read one way, this is a story about a team of loving adults surrounding a student in need; read another way, however, How to Build a Boat takes on greater dimension, and readers will share in the glow that comes when Jamie and his boat project become the source of an unexpected and undeniably beautiful community.

Along the way, Feeney layers in cutting commentary on gender politics, and the dangers that can lurk in conservative single-sex schools. Employing Jamie's unvarnished but occasionally oblivious perspective, Feeney balances direct critique with more subtle implications or questions raised. Feeney has crafted a novel--from setting to voice--that manages to feel completely fresh yet still timeless, full of human frailties and failings, yet covered with goodwill. --Sara Beth West, freelance reviewer and librarian

Shelf Talker: Elaine Feeney's second novel is a brilliant coming-of-age story, focusing on neurodiverse Jamie and the teachers who support him as he navigates his first year at a religious school in West Ireland.


Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: The Captivating, Unputdownable, Highly Recommended Book Blurb

The cover flap is a humble and arduous literary form.... For a publisher, it is often the only opportunity to spell out what spurred him to choose a particular book. For the reader, it is a text to be read with caution, for fear of it being a piece of surreptitious hype. And yet the cover flap is part of the book, of its physiognomy, like the color and picture on the front cover, like the typeface in which it is printed. And a literary civilization can be recognized by the way its books are presented.

--from The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso, translated by Richard Dixon

 

Book blurbs have been in the news recently, and not in a good way. I don't love blurbs, but I understand their necessary place in the book trade. When I was a bookseller, I used them sometimes to convince readers to buy a  book. As a reader, I've occasionally (if rarely) let a blurb tip me over the line into buying a book. I've even written a few blurbs. 

That doesn't mean I always trust them. I don't think of myself as a conspiracy theorist, but (the inevitable "but" of conspiracy theorists) I've been in the business long enough to recognize the six (or fewer) degrees of separation between authors and some of their blurbers. 

"The practice of 'blurbing' has a fairly ignoble reputation, seeming to many like an endless merry-go-round of hype, mutual back-slapping and back-scratching; the worst kind of literary cronyism," longtime copywriter Louise Willder wrote in her book Blurb Your Enthusiasm

A recent dustup about extracting positive blurbs from negative reviews dragged another familiar, if always unsettling, aspect of blurbing from the shadows into the light again. 

In mid-August, media reports appeared regarding some blurbs used on the U.K. edition of Jordan Peterson's Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, which had "drawn criticism for splicing negative quotes from reviewers to suggest positive endorsements for the book," the Bookseller reported. Several journalists from major newspapers, including Sunday Times literary editor Johanna Thomas-Corr, had spoken out about the situation while other commentators believed the wider industry practice needed to be examined.

Thomas-Corr, who discovered that parts of her review of Peterson's book for the New Statesman were misused on the book's cover, wrote in the Sunday Times: "You can imagine my surprise, then, when I learnt via social media of a controversy... whereby damning reviews had somehow become lavish praise.... Of course, most people in publishing are aware of the industry's log-rolling practices, but many feel a line has been irreversibly crossed... I suspect the industry will have to review its practices."

While acknowledging in Blurb Your Enthusiasm that, as a copywriter, she was capable of "filleting reviews" for jacket copy, Willder also noted there was a line she wouldn't cross: "Breaking up and reordering the words from a review is common practice, but pretending a bad review is good is beyond the pale."

A BBC News report on the Peterson incident echoed the hope that this could lead to a wider debate on the subject of blurbs: "Although it is normal for publishers to use techniques to increase sales, the complaints could raise questions in the publishing industry about selective quoting." 

A couple of weeks after the initial furor, the Bookseller followed up with a piece reporting that the Society of Authors had denounced the industry's "morally questionable" use of "puff" on book jackets. 

"Quoting lines out of context isn't clever marketing, readers deserve to know what they are buying and reviewers deserve the confidence that their comments will be honestly represented," said Nicola Solomon, CEO of the SoA. "Everyone understands that there will be some 'puff' but this goes far beyond that and there should be no place for it in an industry built on the exchange of creativity, knowledge and ideas.... Readers and authors deserve honest, fair marketing from publishers. We can't get that by undermining and misrepresenting one writer to boost the sales of another."

In the wake of the controversy, a spokesperson for Bonnier Books UK (which isn't Jordan Peterson's publisher) told the Bookseller it is planning a best practice guide for future use: "Our teams apply common sense and respect in terms of the use of these blurbs. We appreciate the time and level of engagement that goes into every write-up, and any shortened quotes should always reflect the tone and intention of the original review."

In The Art of the Publisher ("Highly recommended!!!"--me), Roberto Calasso observed of the cover flap copy for his press, Adelphi Edizioni:

From the very beginning, they obeyed one single rule: that we ourselves could take them at face value; and one single desire: that our readers, contrary to custom, could do the same. In that cramped rhetorical space, less fascinating than that of a sonnet but equally exacting, there was room for just a few effectual words, like when you introduce one friend to another and you must overcome the slight embarrassment that always exists in every introduction, above all between friends, as much as respecting the rules of good manners that prevent you from emphasizing the defects of the friend being introduced. But there was, in all this, also an element of constraint: it is well known that the art of sound praise is no less difficult than that of scathing criticism.

Sounds like the perfect epigraph for a book blurb best practice guide.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor


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