Even Book Size is Relative (& Relevant)

I had an email from a concerned reader through my Goodreads page. Polly is a bookseller with a valid worry:

Hello there, so sorry to bother you, but I just had to voice my concerns over the recent transition of “Into the Wilderness” from a mass market paperback into trade paperback format.

I’ve been a small bookstore owner for 22 years and have sold a lot of your books, because frankly, I love them (it’s easy to sell something you love!). I keep the full set available at all times on my shelves and recommend them often. So when I attempted to reorder “Into the Wilderness” a few weeks ago from Ingram, I was informed it is now only available in a $16.00 trade paperback. I doubt very seriously it will keep a place on my shelves, especially now that the first book does not match the other books in the series in size, and it is a considerable increase in price for the first book – the one that gets the reader hooked on the series. I expect this is a publisher decision, but I’m so disappointed to see this wonderful series disappear from my shelves.

Polly’s impressions and experiences are to be taken very seriously, as she is at the heart of the business, but (and you knew this was coming) I have no control over the format of the novels.

The increased cost is the biggest issue, of course. I haven’t seen any figures from the industry, so I can’t speak to trends more generally and I don’t know where ITW fits into the larger scheme of things. I do know that sixteen bucks is a chunk of money to pay for a novel. The long-term result is going to be some combination of 1) fewer sales of new books and 2) increased sales of used books.  The other complicating factor has to do with ebooks. The whole Wilderness series sells really well on Kindle, but I’m not sure how that’s relevant to the changed format for ITW.

And again, there’s nothing I can do about any of it.

I will say that I really like the cover art for the trade paper edition of ITW, far better than I liked the original. I would hope it would draw in potential readers. Is it possible that a person would decide to buy ITW in trade paper and then give up on the series because of the change in format — that is, the difference in size and how that looks on the shelf? Anything is possible, I guess. Can I do anything about it? Not a thing, of course. People are by definition idiosyncratic, and make decisions based on all kinds of things that can’t be anticipated or controlled.  Given the current state of flux in the industry, very little can be predicted. The only thing I can do is strive to write a really good story. And that’s what I’m doing.

heartburn, and the digestion of feedback

Question: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.

You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding:

Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed;

Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this.

Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start revising? You show it to a wider range of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*  You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing:

You have a good eye for detail.

I liked the way you built tension around the police interview.

There’s a certain raymond carver feel to this, were you reading him while you wrote?

On the way out the door a woman who writes obituaries for the paper says: I really liked the scene with the dog.

So you put the story away for a month, and then you take it out and read it again. You remember the rule of thumb: if one person makes a specific criticism, take note but don’t do any editing. If two people dislike the same scene, make another note. Three people have exactly the same problem with your story? Get out your pencil.

You come to the conclusion that the bit about the dog is good. In fact, it’s the only thing that works at all. So you delete everything but the scene about the dog, and start from there.

This cycle could repeat itself a hundred, a thousand times. At some point you have to trust your own instincts and send the story out to magazines and journals. That process may go on for years, too, and mostly you’ll get photocopied no thanks letters, but every once in a while you’ll get something encouraging and insightful. For example: The story about your uncle’s dog was funny and moving, and I liked it very much. But it’s not right for us here at Mechanics Today.

So you got a little stamp happy, sending the manuscript out. It was worth it for this note. And you’ve learned something: only submit to places that like the kind of story you’ve written.

I once went to a reading by Charlie Baxter at the Shaman Drug bookstore in Ann Arbor. I haven’t been in touch with Charlie for a long time, but at that juncture we were acquaintances, I guess you’d say. So I went up to talk to him before the reading and he was standing there with a copy of his just-published short stories in his hand, and he was making changes. In ink. I was shocked. Um, I said… um, now? Right now?

And he said: it’s always right now.

So people reading along silently as he read aloud were stymied now and then. I saw one of them check the edition and printing information, but of course nobody would interrupt a reading to ask if he really meant small? because on the printed page it said asked. Nobody put this question to him, because it was his story. His story, his call. However. The only writer I know of who actually revised a lot of stories and then published them again is Louise Erdrich. It was an odd move, and much discussed at the time.

So how do you know if you’ve gone over the top, or if the story is any good, or if the scene works? You want to know when you are done. Here’s the answer. Some clever writer (does anyone know who?) put it in plain words:

It’s all a draft until you die.