Who are we writing for?

who-are-we-writing-for-Silk’s Post #158 — The 5Writers are rolling again. Fingers flying over the keyboards. Chunks of time swiped from Normal Life to commune in solitary confinement with the muse. Free moments in between Other Important Things given over to imagining snips of dialogue or the delicate placement of plot points or the exact shade of a protagonist’s eyes.

Our own eyes scan public places for characters and their stories: travelers fidgeting tensely with their passports in the airport; mid-summer sidewalk cafe patrons sitting alone together with their iPhones; boaters walking the docks with burnt noses and three leashed dogs. Maybe we’ll see someone to add colour, or maybe we’ll find the inspiration for a whole new subplot.

Our families and friends may notice our blank stares from time to time, moments when we’re checked out of reality and are looking inward to a story twist no one else can see. Yet.

The miracle is that even one of us escaped from our writing desert, where we’ve been mostly trudging through a lengthy dry spell punctuated by the occasional sip of creativity at rare oases. Attempted re-starts at a sustained and serious writing life over the past year or so have been mostly mirages.

I can’t overemphasize how difficult this kind of drought is to overcome, even for professional, previously published writers. Which we are not.

So the fact that we have managed to re-boot our 5Writers critique schedule and our individual writing efforts as a group is pretty miraculous. Some will achieve momentum more quickly than others, that’s natural. Just as some may hit another hurdle to overcome, while others may find a clear path ahead.

But the statistics tell us that many, many more writers start a book than finish a book, and we’re determined to buck that trend. (I’d love to quote some stats here, but since I’m writing this offline while floating on a boat in a small bay in the San Juan Islands with sketchy cell service and zero wifi precludes it. However, I’ve gawked at the numbers before, and I know there is a shocking, planet-sized gulf between the large number of writers who give up and the smaller number of writers who follow through to “the end”. And an equally gigantic gap between the number of finished books and the number of books that actually get published.)

One of the key differences between giving up and following through may be the answer to the perennial question a writer must eventually answer: who are you writing for?

I just read a stinging observation in a favourite novel, in which a jaded inspector describes people at a demonstration in Moscow as “… a middle-aged intellectual crowd. Publishers who abandoned their writers, writers who wrote for the drawer … romantics who lamented a rendezvous with history that never took place.”

I think I can say with confidence that none of the 5Writers are writing for the drawer, at least not on purpose.

Rather, at the opposite end of the wide spectrum of possible goals for writers, our critique group actually began under a different banner: The Future Bestsellers Group. A moonshot goal.

Given our trials, our achievements, our learning, our disappointments, our experience, our growth, and now our resurrection, I think the 5Writers have a better handle on who we are really writing for – and for each of us, individually, that falls somewhere between the drawer and the bestseller lists.

Here, I speak for myself. I’ve come to embrace the idea that I write, first, for myself, and second for the kind of people I like to talk to.

I write for people who are interesting and interested, who have ideas and like to discuss them, who have empathetic hearts and curious minds. I write for people who love a puzzle, a mystery, a challenge, who seek truth whether or not they expect to find it in any absolute, unchanging form. People with open minds. Smart people. People who know they don’t have all the answers, and that no one else does either. People who care about others. People who cherish their values. People who feel deeply. People with a sense of humour. People who love words. People who love story. People I could stay up all night conversing with, perhaps over a few bottles of wine. And, of course, the most important item on their resumes: people who love to read.

When I’m feeling high and hopeful about my writing (and, thus about my chances of getting published), I think of this group of people as a crowd big enough to support a bestseller. When I’m in a trough of writing angst, sure that no one outside my 5Writers group will ever read my manuscript, I try to think of something else I’d rather do with my creativity, my mind, my words, and I remember that I write because it’s what I love to do most. I write for the experience, not the drawer.

But here’s some good news!

Ever since the whole Brexit tantrum, when the the Brits collectively decided to pull up the drawbridge and pretend globalization has not already occurred, I’ve been thinking about the global marketplace for writers.

This is especially interesting from the perspective of the sentimental vestige of Rule Brittania called The Commonwealth (where I now live, in Canada), and also that other former British colony where I was born (the US). The irony of Brexit is that it’s a reminder of the global power England once wielded.

The legacy of English dominance in the colonial era is still incredibly significant — in fact, it’s such a big a part of our global landscape that I think people don’t even notice it anymore, like the fact that the sky is blue.

That legacy is the English language.

Happily for us, it’s the language we write in — which is the most widely spoken language in the world by far. Wikipedia tells me there are 2,400 million English speakers in the world today. The next closest language is Mandarin Chinese at 1,090 million. Now, even though English has under 400 million native speakers, compared to about 950 million for Mandarin, it has become dominant as the world’s second language of choice. This virtually assures its continued spread in today’s era of globalization – which will continue, Brexit notwithstanding.

In fact, the new prime mover of world order – namely business/commerce – which has enthusiastically adapted to globalism even as political, cultural and religious institutions have resisted it, has adoped English as its own Esperanto.

I therefore dare to declare that English-speaking writers are in one of the most advantageous positions in the world today to practice our profession in a growing, rather than shrinking, marketplace.

Yes, worthy books get translated and can succeed (sometimes spectacularly) in places where people don’t normally read the language they were originally written in. But doesn’t it make sense that the more English speakers (and readers) there are in the world, the better the market odds get for writers of books in English?

There — doesn’t that make you feel good? And hopeful? And enthusiastic about pounding out some wordage today?

This writer’s world

Paula’s Post #113

If you’re a blogger, you’ll know WordPress has a “Quick Draft” function for when you really, really need to get a blog post up in a hurry. Particularly useful if you can’t connect to WiFi and you’re trying to pound it out with only the benefit of cellular data!

That’s me!

Sunday, I was in Santa Barbara at the USTA Southern California Sectional Championships where, yes, a miracle happened: my 6.0 Ladies Doubles Team (that’s two 3.0 players playing together- the lowliest low of competitive senior tennis) WON their division and are now headed for Nationals in 31 days time in Surprise, AZ.

No location could be more more appropriate. Why, no one could be more ‘surprised’ than me and my fellow teammates. Woo-hoo.

On a more sombre note. I wish I could have been in two places at once. Could have been like a character in a novel and could have been able to ‘time-shift’ myself so I could be in Vancouver, seconds after we won the Championship. Because I couldn’t get a fight out of California early enough to attend an important event back here in Canada. And I regret that. My 5writer colleagues rallied and did their best to step up and fill in the void, as did my husband. But it still didn’t feel right not to be here.

Instead, Monday I was back in La Quinta, doing laundry and making hotel reservations for Nationals. I then caught a flight from Palm Springs to Vancouver. It arrived late and didn’t make it past the airport. Just a quick stop for Chinese takeout in the airport food court and a night at my favourite airport hotel.

Today, Tuesday, still towing my rolling suitcase, I scooted downtown for a full day course at the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board, where I learned all the intricacies of Foreclosures and Court Ordered Sales. At least all the ones I didn’t already know: I’m old enough to remember the early 80’s, when interest rates were an astonishing 22% and the market was tanking. That’s just when I started my legal career. I spent my fair share of time in Chambers, making applications for foreclosure orders. A sad time. Still, it was good I sort of had a handle on the basics, because this tennis player’s thoughts are definitely still on cloud 9.

Funny coincidence though: in my course today, I sat next to a colleague who is a famous Canadian doubles star and actually reached ‘Finals’ at Wimbledon.

Poor guy!

At every break I pestered him for tips for my team on how we can stay ‘tournament tough’ all the way through to Nationals. But that’s the great benefit of being an extrovert: you rarely stop (at the time) to consider how ridiculous you look (or sound).

Ninety minutes later and I’m now at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal, heading for my home on the Sunshine Coast. A gorgeous sunny evening with the hint of fall in the air.

Not so I’d notice, mind you. Because it this is Tuesday … that means “Paula-must-get-blog-post-done”.

Now!

My husband has been petsitting for 10 days straight, amusing the poodles, while I lollygag in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara. Oh yeah, he just loves the life of ‘husband-of-tennis player’ almost as much as ‘husband-of-writer’.

I cannot, tonight, disappear into my writer’s world of plot and character. At least not until he falls asleep, and that won’t be early, he’s on another Netflix binge.

So, I only have 25 minutes until my ferry arrives. More than enough time to share the ‘reading and writing’ highlights of my week (which frankly, given our intense tennis schedule, is going to be pretty short and sweet).

1. I think 5writer Silk has almost convinced me to abandon my ‘geo-shift’ idea for my Hawaii novel. I’d planned to move the whole story to post-war Vancouver. She more or less threatened to ‘steal the book’ if I didn’t leave the characters in Honolulu where they belong. All I can say is woe-is-you Silk, when I start texting and emailing you at 3 am, panicked (or despondent) because I can’t figure the pidgin dialect or the uniform of the house boys at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Or 1930’s surfing vernacular. Just you wait!

2. Though I have no page output to report, I’m still feeling pretty good. Returning the novel to the original Hawaii setting will let me retain more of my original (stalled) rough draft I resurrected from 3 years ago. So I’m going to pretend I’m ‘ahead’ of schedule in this 5 month challenge (and the operative word is ‘pretend’).

3. A very exciting 5writer update: we’ve gained another 5writer challenger! Yes, Susan Laufer, whom Helga and I met at the Hawaii Writers’ Conference several years ago, has been following our blog for quite some time. When the second challenge arose, she lurked for a bit more, then realized it was just the kick-in-the-pants catalyst she needed to get back to her own writing!

Bravo!

Susan says:

“I finally decided to quit being a “wanna be” and “just do it”. I predict a lot of late nights, with a glass of wine in front of the half finished fireplace, scribbling in my note pads. Nice dream. We’ll see if I can make it a reality. If the half finished fireplace didn’t give it away, we (that would be me, myself, and my over stressed husband) are in the middle of a remodel on our house which we spend what spare time we have as do it yourself handy folk. The rest of the time I work in the exciting world of high technology, go figure. They say write what you know. I don’t know a thing about murder but there’s a lot of reading material to draw from. I do know a few things about remodeling, dealing with the good and the bad of contractors, and living in a close knit neighborhood where everybody seems to know what everyone else is doing. Sounds like a perfect set up for a mystery, don’t you think?”

We’re thrilled to have Susan join in the fun as: 7/7/5

7 Writers/7 Novels/5 Months – but especially exciting for me to re-connect with Susan. Want to know what else is great? When we first met, Susan was actually living in Honolulu’s Chinatown – the modern day version of the setting of my Hawaii noir novel in progress. So now Silk can breathe a bit easier, as I’ll be texting and emailing Susan in the middle of the night too!

So, a big 5writer welcome to Sue!

There’s safety in numbers, so if you’ve been lurking in the background, wringing your hands, it is not to late to jump in!

4. I may not have gotten much writing done, but winding down from some pretty action-packed tennis days was the perfect opportunity to finish the mystery novel I’m reading. As writers, I’m the first to say we must continually study our craft, and the genre within, to see how the ‘masters’ do it! Right now, I’m on a little ‘kick’ of reading NY Times bestselling mystery novelists’ first published breakthrough novels.

This month, it’s Margaret Maron’s The Bootlegger’s Daughter featuring small town lawyer (now Judge) Deborah Knott. A very good read, in some ways reminiscent of the polished style and developed characterizations of Canada’s own Louise Penny. Just finished it last night and trying to figure out who to read next, so any suggestions are gratefully appreciated.

So, ferry’s here. time to board.

Back now.

The BC Ferry system may not have the world’s most reliable WiFi, but at least it has the pretense of maintaining ‘business stations’ with desks where you can plug in and charge, something and I desperately need, at 5:55 pm, to finish my 5/5/5 blog post for the week.

But you know what they say about ‘the best laid plans…’. Turns out the 100 or so excited six year olds on their school field trip, who had filled the waiting room with a cacophony of joyous chatter (making it near impossible to work, much less think), have just followed me onto the ferry and camped right across of me. I fear my hopes for more inspiration is doomed, drowned out by the crazy chatter of these happy children.

But what if one of them disappeared… mid voyage.  What if they counted twice when they got on… and twice when they were ready to get off. A frantic search, the adult chaperones are sure the missing child must be in a washroom… or they miscounted… or met up with someone they knew and… and… It’s a huge ship. Three levels of vehicles, two for passengers, restaurants and play areas and a gift shop… but where could she (or he) have gone? A mystery, to be sure.

And what if the child is still missing after they dock? What if the parents are frantic? What if the police are called in? What if they investigate and discover one of the adults wasn’t a parent at all? A complete stranger, posing as the parent of a child in the school. What if…?

Okay, that’s enough for now. Just another example of why, for some writers, it is so very hard to get one story told. One novel done. There’s always another pretty story, lurking just around the corner. A lovely pretty story. A story that isn’t yet mottled and marred by a muddled middle or a thin characters.

Sigh. If you’re a writer, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

How was your week?

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On the ferry… heading home, to ‘This Writer’s World’.

PS – the Captain just announced there is a pod of whales off to port, maybe if you look close, you just might see one.

Midsummer trivia – part 2

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Silk’s Post #136 — Are you still at the beach? Hanging around the patio? Lounging by the pool? Good! Me too.

Last week I dished up a few, slightly off-the-wall, trivia bits about writers and the writing life for your entertainment. We are a strange lot, writers. Why not revel in it?

Here’s another short blast of midsummer writers trivia you should be able to easily scan over the span of a nice, frosty mint julep or an iced tea – and still have time to slather on some more sun screen.

Without further ado, here are this week’s offbeat trivia bits to add a little spice to your otherwise idyllic summer leisure time. Don’t want you getting too comfortable and complacent swinging in that hammock.

William S. Burroughs – Murdering my wife turned me into a writer!
No, it’s not a headline from the National Enquirer. One of the most bizarre and scandalous bits of author trivia of all time has to be the story of the tortured (but celebrated) “beat generation” author of Naked Lunch and Junky. Of course, it wasn’t trivial to Burroughs, and certainly not to his common law wife, Joan. In 1951, the troubled couple, then living in Mexico under the influence of a variety of addictive substances, ended a fateful evening with friends at the Bounty Bar in Mexico City with an impromptu staging of what Burroughs called their “William Tell act.” Joan balanced a highball glass on her head and William tried to shoot it with his handgun. He shot low. You get the picture. Rest in peace, Joan. Eventually fleeing back home to the US (he was convicted in absentia but received only a two-year suspended sentence), Burroughs wrote in the preface to his novel Queer, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death and to the realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing … I have no choice except to write my way out.” Don’t try this at home, kids! (Sources: Defining Moments in Books, Cassell, 2007; Wikipedia).

Harlan Ellison – How much is that writer in the window?
Speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison has had over 1,700 short stories and other works published, for which he has won multiple Hugos, Nebulas and Edgars. In his colourful and sometimes obstreperous career, he has acknowledged himself to be “possibly the most contentious person on Earth”. One of his more unusual projects, beginning in the 1970’s, was to write “public compositions” in bookstore windows to demonstrate that writing is “a job … like being a plumber or an electrician” rather than some mystical art performed by “magicians on a mountaintop somewhere.” But these were not readings. He would simply sit in a store window and churn out publishable stories, often based on prompts from others, while onlookers gaped and sought autographs. It was writing as performance art, all in the service of bringing the process of creating literature into daily public life and dispelling the notion of a writer as a distant introvert. (Sources: mental_floss; Wikipedia).

A dozen writers who wanted to become politicians
With thankful acknowledgement for my source, The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace (Bantam, 1977).

Yes, it’s usually the other way around. When you see a politician on a talk show today (and we’re seeing more than anyone deserves to right now), it’s a sure bet that they’re either running for office, or hawking a book – often both at once. But many successful writers have tried their hand at running for office, whether due to their strong convictions or their outsized egos, and this particular lot all failed – which may have been a blessing for both the citizenry at large, and their readers who were looking forward to the next book.

1. John Greenleaf Whittier — this Quaker poet made an unsuccessful bid for a US congressional seat in 1842 after having served in the Massachusetts legislature. He went on to become a leader in the anti-slavery movement.

2. Victor Hugo — this flamboyant French poet, novelist, dramatist, and advocate of republicanism – author of Les Misérables among many classic romance titles – confidently declared himself a candidate for the presidency of the French Republic in 1848, to no avail. He later won a seat in the National Assembly after returning from exile after his political bete noire, Napoleon III, fell from power.

3. Henry George — in 1886, this economist and author of Progress and Poverty ran for the office of New York City mayor on a radical labour ticket. Among other things, he advocated the abolition of private land ownership, finishing second in a close three-man race – behind Democrat Abram Hewitt, but ahead of Republican Theodore Roosevelt.

4. Jack London — the San Francisco born sailor, adventurer and author of The Call of the Wild served a brief jail term for vagrancy in his youth, and emerged a passionate Socialist at age 18. He campaigned unsuccessfully to become mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket in 1901 and 1905 while still in his 20s, attracting more publicity than votes.

5. H.G. Wells — an active member of the Socialist Fabian Society, Wells ran as a Labour candidate for the British Parliament in 1921 and 1922. While fans were more than ready for his writing, including enduring science fiction classics such as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, voters were clearly not ready for his political perspectives, including a belief in the inevitability of a World State.

6. Upton Sinclair — another Socialist candidate (rather a common thread among writers), the author of The Jungle, among other classics, ran for Congress, governor of California, and US Senate. Switching to the Democratic party, he then tried unsuccessfully for the governership again in 1934 during the Depression. A lifelong social activist, he is credited with the line: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

7. Gore Vidal — as a Democratic nominee for Congress in upstate New York in 1960, he polled ahead of the successful presidential candidate John Kennedy in his district, but still lost to the Republican. Thereafter, his political influence was delivered through his role as an essayist and commentator, and in his political and historical novels, such as The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckinridge, Burr and Lincoln.

8. James Michener — somehow, in between writing popular tomes like Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, Chesapeake and Centennial, this prolific author found time to run for Congress in Bucks County, PA in 1962 on the Democratic ticket.  Although he lost the election, he never lost his interest in politics

9. William F. Buckley — journalist, political commentator and founder of The National Review in 1955, he was America’s leading conservative intellectual for decades, and a keen rival of Gore Vidal. Running for Mayor of New York City in 1965, he lost to the Democratic candidate, former Yale classmate John Lindsay. Calling on his own experience with the CIA, he later wrote 10 well-regarded spy novels.

10. Norman Mailer — this giant of 20th-century American literature, who was known for his creative non-fiction (The Executioner’s Song, The Naked and the Dead, Armies of the Night) and for co-founding The Village Voice, became yet another writer who sought the Democratic nomination for Mayor of New York City (1969). Using a characteristically brash slogan, “No More Bullshit,” he predictably didn’t make the cut.

11. Jimmy Breslin — running mate of Norman Mailer in 1969 (cited as “the most literary ticket in history”), this novelist-columnist (Pulitzer Prize for Commentary) campaigned for Council president for the City of New York – and lost. However this gave him time to do lots more of the investigative journalism he was famous for.

12. Hunter S. Thompson — the king of “gonzo journalism” and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson described himself as “a foul-mouthed outlaw journalist”. His titles included Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His run for sheriff of Pitkin County, CO (which includes toney Aspen) in 1970 on the Freak Power ticket started as a political stunt, then turned serious when he got unexpected support. But he still lost. Probably just as well.

That ends my summer trivia diversion. Hope you enjoyed it. Now let’s get back to work.

Happy summer!

Midsummer trivia – part 1

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Silk’s Post #135 — Midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere is a time for idylls. Reading on the beach under a floppy hat. Lounging in the cockpit of a boat. Setting off on an outdoor adventure. Floating in a pool. Playing lawn games. Catching a late sunset. Paddling a kayak. Puttering in the garden. Dining al fresco. Beachcombing. Sipping fancy drinks you wouldn’t touch in a more somber season. Watching fireworks. Strolling in a park. Swinging in a hammock.

The call of midsummer tempts even the most serious writer to abandon creation in favour of recreation. Surely, these complement each other.

But if you’re not holed up indoors pounding the keyboard while the sun shines and the rest of the world plays, you can, at least, recreate like a writer. Idle midsummer moments are perfect for giving your imagination a workout. Today’s daydreams are tomorrow’s killer plots. People-watching with a writer’s eye can spawn unforgettable characters. Whiling away a summer afternoon with a good book is never time wasted.

In the spirit of such genteel pursuits, here’s a very short collection of (slightly dark) trivia about writers and the writing life to add a bit of grit, amusement or amazement to your leisure time. If nothing else, you can impress your literary-minded friends with your arcane knowledge.

How the New York Times Changed the book publishing industry!
Imagine a world without the New York Times Bestseller List. The publishing industry was very different in 1942, the year this list was born with little hoopla. It is now considered to have signalled a revolution in the industry that once was viewed as “a gentleman’s profession”, transforming publishing into a multimillion dollar marketplace in which books are often treated (and valued) more as commodities than works of art. Not counting the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (whose dominance of the charts literally spawned a new, separate NYT children’s bestseller list in 2000), the title of top fiction author on the list – both in terms of number of weeks (790) and titles (65) – goes to Danielle Steel (both records are as of 2009, the latest list I found). Of course, the whole concept of “bestsellers” and how they’re calculated is perennially controversial (see my post on What you never knew about bestsellers). However, what’s undeniable is that every author and agent alive lusts for a position on the New York Times Bestseller List. End of story. (Sources: Defining Moments in Books, Cassell, 2007; NYT Best Seller List).

The 1820s – bad news comes in threes for English romantic poetry
Our baby boom generation witnessed our own eerie (if predictable) series of deaths of our cultural icons in the 1960s. Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, all left their musical mark in their brief periods of stardom and were dead before they turned 30. For English romantic poetry lovers of the 1820s, the bad news also came as a triptych. First to go was John Keats in 1821, the victim of tuberculosis at the age of 26. A physician who had treated his own dying brother for the disease, he knew what was coming when his symptoms arose, and spent his final three years writing furiously. In 1822, it was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s turn to cast off his mortal coil, ironically last seen “reclining on the deck of his boat, Don Juan, reading a copy of Keats’s latest poems” just before he drowned off the Italian coast in a freak storm. The controversial Lord Byron lived to see 36, but was apparently plagued by deformities, health issues and a monstrous sexual appetite before he succumbed to complications from malaria in 1824. (Source: Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody, Harper & Row, 1989).

A dozen authors who wrote bestsellers while in prison
Source: Inspired by The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace (Bantam, 1977 – still one of my favourite books to get lost in).

1. Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) — began writing his epic poem Henriade while doing an 11-month hitch in the Bastille, Paris, for writing poems against the regent in 1717.

2. John Bunyan — wrote most of Pilgram’s Progress (published in 1678 and rated in a 1950 survey as the most boring classic ever written) while imprisoned in Bedford County Jail for 11 years after holding Puritan services that offended the Church of England.

3. Miguel de Cervantes — while jailed in 1597 in Seville, Spain for “deficits as a naval quartermaster”, he began writing Don Quixote.

4. John Cleland — worked his way out of debtors’ prison at Newgate, London through the  unique means of producing a pornographic novel which a publisher had offered him 20 guineas to write; thus was created Fanny Hill, or the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in 1750.

5. Daniel Defoe — while serving an indefinite sentence for seditious libel in Newgate Prison, London (which seems to have seen it share of naughty writers), he wrote Hymn to the Pillory in 1703 (Robinson Crusoe didn’t come along until 1719).

6. Adolf Hitler — while “writer” is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Hitler, it was his work Mein Kampf that inspired the Nazi movement and brought him to power; the book was begun in 1923 while he was serving a prison sentence in the fortress of Landsberg for organizing the failed Beer Hall Putsch, and obviously he was in a very bad mood.

7. Richard Lovelace — jailed in 1642 for his royalist activities, this Cavalier adventurer penned the poem “To Althea from Prison” during his 7-week stint in the Gatehouse at Westminster, which contained these famous words: “Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage;/Minds innocent and quiet take/That for an hermitage.”

8. Jawaharlal Nehru — served a total of 10 years in a British jail between 1921 and 1945 for his continuing leadership of India’s fight for independence, during which time he wrote Glimpses of World History. By 1947, he was prime minister of the new nation for which he had written a Declaration of Independence in 1929.

9. Marco Polo — whose famous Travels of Marco Polo memoir was dictated to a fellow inmate while he served time as a prisoner of war (between Venice and Genoa) after his capture in 1298.

10. O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) — convicted in 1898 of embezzlement of funds from a bank in Austin, TX while working as a teller, some of his best loved short stories were written in his cell while in federal prison in Columbus, OH. Perhaps appropriately, he’s considered the master of the surprise ending, engineering his own reversal of fortune when he went on to become a prolific and successful short story writer in New York, where he penned 381 works.

11. Sir Walter Raleigh — served 13 years in the Tower of London beginning in 1603 for treason after the death of his patron, Queen Elizabeth I. Always claiming his innocence of the crime, some might consider his sentence poetic justice for popularizing the new craze, tobacco, which he brought to England from the New World. In any case, he wrote his History of the World while in the tower.

12. Oscar Wilde — imprisoned in Reading Jail for homosexuality in 1895, he wrote De Profundis and Apologia during his two years of incarceration and hard labour, emerging a broken man who died a pauper three years after his release, at the age of 46.

Ah, too bad to end this on such a tragic note. Poor Oscar. He certainly would have had a better time of it today, virtually anywhere in the civilized world.

If you liked this, I have more trivia ready to go next week. And after that, we all get back to work, writing our butts off.

Happy summer!

What you never knew about bestsellers

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Silk’s Post #126 — Okay, okay … this post really should be titled “What I never knew about bestsellers.” Maybe you’re even more of a book trivia geek than I am, and all this is old hat to you, but look at it this way: I got you to read this far on the slightly dubious claim of my title’s hook.

That should be your first clue that the hallowed term “bestseller” is a bit of a trickster.

Poking around the net for blog fodder today, I had one of those “I wonder” moments that often turn into deep wormholes of hypnotic surfing. What exactly is a bestseller? Surely there are some sort of defined metrics, like gold or platinum records in the heyday of the music business.

After all, there are a lot of books on the shelf that are labelled “bestseller” right there on the cover. They must have qualified for that claim somehow, right? Sold a certain number of copies … or flew off the shelves at some measurable rate of speed … or sold more copies than some defined group of other books.

I mean, you can’t just call your book a bestseller without something to back up your claim. Can you? The truth-in-advertising squad would drag you off to the hoosegow. The book police would revoke your license to write, and possibly speak harshly to your publisher. You’d be outed online as the heinous fraud that you are, and Amazon would drop your title like a bag full of snakes.

Yes, I know. I’m a hopeless dreamer when it comes to thinking words actually mean something.

The whole topic of “bestsellers” is filled with fascinating mystique, myths and interesting surprises. In fact the term itself, according to our old friend Wikipedia, is quite modern:

“‘Bestseller’ is a relatively recent term, first recorded in print in 1889 in the Kansas City newspaper The Kansas Times & Star, but the phenomenon of immediate popularity goes back to the early days of mass production of printed books. For earlier books, when the maximum number of copies that would be printed was relatively small, a count of editions is the best way to assess sales.”

But in the days when copyright laws barely existed, publishing was something of a free-for-all, apparently, and piracy was rampant. (As late as the mid-1800’s, America was still essentially an open domain in which even popular authors like Mark Twain couldn’t rely on royalties as a source of income). In such an open marketplace, it’s doubtful that anyone effectively kept track of who printed, sold or bought how many of what books.

Today, of course, things are different. We live in a world of bean counters and computers. Surely somebody must know the sales numbers behind modern bestsellers.

Yes, well. It seems to be a matter of perspective. And lists.

Many, many lists.

Fiction lists, non-fiction lists, genre lists, lists of children’s books, hardcover lists, paperback lists, trade paperback lists, indie lists, consolidated lists, Amazon lists, Publishers Weekly lists, and the granddaddy of lists, The New York Times bestseller list.

Many of these lists use their own particular, even proprietary, methods of ranking bestsellers based on a variety of sources. Some use both wholesale and retail sales. Some use sales only from certain kinds of outlets, such as independent bookstores. Amazon has created its own closed universe, which ranks books hourly based solely on sales on their own website. The New York Times method for bestseller rankings is apparently as closely guarded a secret as the Coca Cola formula.

So, yes. Everything these days is tracked and measured, but it seems ranking bestsellers is often as much an art as a science. And of course, there’s also the promotion factor. Show me a ranking list of anything and I’ll show you 100 interested parties whose job it is to get their “property” further up the list – whether it be an athlete, a political candidate, a car, a liveable city, a recording, or a bestselling book. Did I say 100 promoters? I meant 1,000.

But in all this swirl of rankings, there must be some magic quantity of books you have to sell to be called a “bestseller” – some numerical threshold. A million? A hundred thousand? Surely not fewer than that. After all, not one of the seven Harry Potter books sold less than 50 million copies. Even Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time sold 10 million copies. And that’s a science book, for crying out loud!

Still, my inner skeptic is suspicious about the sheer number of books that claim bestseller status. Either the sales threshold is lower than might be expected, or there’s an astronomical number of books being consumed these days. Or perhaps the “bestseller” designation on many books is, well, a bit of a stretch to be taken with a grain of salt.

A little digging yielded scant, but surprising results. Here in Canada the numbers are famously depressing, or elating, depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person. Reportedly, if you sell a total of 5,000 copies of your book you can call it a bestseller!

In the US, the stakes are higher, and typically factor in both number of books sold and the speed at which they’re moving. By some accounts, you need to sell 9,000 copies of your book in the first week of its release to hit the New York Times bestseller list. However, the blogosphere is full of discussions about such sales thresholds, with some claiming that it’s possible to achieve the Nirvana of NYT bestsellerdom with sales of just 5,000 books per week. This set bestselling author and blogger Tess Gerritsen to wondering whether anyone in America is reading books these days. “When a mere 5,000 book buyers determine the top sellers in a country of 300 million people, the industry is in trouble,” she wrote.

Bestselling author and entrepreneur Danielle LaPorte, whose blog reaches 200,000 readers, decodes The NYT list with an insider’s eye. Her introduction is as revealing as it is entertaining:

“Powerful. Elusive. Mysterious. Coveted. Nonsensical. Magical. Antiquated. Leading edge. This sums up most opinions of The New York Times bestseller list. It’s an ever-evolving system of measurement and reward that publishers and authors toil to understand and optimize. Writing an amazing book is a very small part of achieving a ‘bestseller’.”

On Amazon, the bestseller numbers are, if such a thing is possible, even more obscure. This monster outlet – acknowledged to be the largest bookseller in America – is now thought be responsible for about 30% of all print book sales, with some estimating that an average of about 300 copies sold per day will get you on Amazon’s top five list.

Award-winning author Kailin Gow, who has learned the art of tracking her own bestsellers on the lists, tried to explain it all in a piece for Fast Company, titled “What Being a ‘Bestselling Author’ Really Means.”

I confess that everything I read merely confirmed what I already deeply suspected: the entire business of “bestseller” rankings is opaque to mere mortals. And maybe deliberately so.

Because there’s dark side to all this.

If you can scratch up the investment money to do it, you can buy your way onto a bestseller list. Seriously. It doesn’t come cheap, because the basic strategy is simply to buy up a sh*tload of your own books. Fast. Enough to spike the sales per day or sales per week figure into bestseller territory. There are even book promotion consultants who’ll engineer it for you, for a fee. Sound far-fetched, even creepy? It’s happening, baby.

But let me end on a high note: a list of the bestselling books of all time – books that have sold at least 50 million copies. FIFTY MILLION! This list is full of surprises too. But be forewarned: such a list is pretty hard to verify, and it no doubt comes with some major skews. For instance, published lists I found never included books of a religious nature, whose distribution is difficult to track (the Bible is usually thought to be the best selling book of all time, with estimates of over 5 billion copies).

I wonder if any of these authors went out and bought a few million copies of their own books just to become known as mega-bestsellers?

  • A Tale of Two CitiesCharles Dickens (1859) – 200 million (estimated)
  • Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-1955) – 150 million
  • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943) – 140 million
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1997) – 107 million
  • And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie (1939) – 100 million
  • Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin (1754-1791) – 100 million
  • The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937) – 100 million
  • She: A History of Adventure, H. Rider Haggard (1857) – 100 million
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (1950) – 85 million
  • The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (2003) – 80 million
  • Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill (1937) – 70 million
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (2005) – 65 million
  • The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951) – 65 million
  • The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho (1988) – 65 million
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (1998) – 60 million
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (1998) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling (2003) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (2007) – 50 million
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Garbriel Garcia Marquez (1967) – 50 million
  • Lolita, Vladimir Navokov (1955) – 50 million
  • Heidi, Johanna Spyri (1880) – 50 million
  • The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Dr. Benjamin Spock (1946) – 50 million
  • Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908) – 50 million
  • Black Beauty, Anna Sewell (1877) – 50 million
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco (1980) – 50 million
  • The Eagle Has Landed, Jack Higgins (1975) – 50 million
  • Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972) – 50 million
  • The Hite Report, Shere Hite (1976) – 50 million
  • Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White (1952) – 50 million
  • The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy (1955) – 50 million
  • The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller (1992) – 50 million
  • Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace (1880) – 50 million
  • The Mark of Zorro, Johnston McCulley (1924) – 50 million