Q:I read The Orphan Master's Son based on your tweet about it and just wanted to say thank you! It was easily the best book I read this year, possibly ever! Got any more recommendation? :P
If you liked The Orphan Master’s Son, some other books I recommend:
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Each of these novels (like Orphan Master’s Son) takes us to a place most of us don’t know well and makes it rich and vibrant and complicated and human.
So, I have a strong preference for reblogging over original posts on Tumblr, even when I’m announcing something. Reblogging seems like the spirit of Tumblr: I have a website where I can just make a straight-ahead put-in-on-the-internet announcement if that’s what I want to do, and then I can link to it from Twitter and so on. Or go door-to-door saying “have you visited mountain hyphen goats dot com today, neighbor?” as my son, even at his tender age, has repeatedly asked me to not do.
So what we have here is one of the images that came up when I searched on “Wolf In White Van” without quotes around it just now. I don’t know what movie it’s from and I’m 100% ok with not knowing, honestly I prefer to believe it’s a hi-res cell phone video of something that actually happened, but there it was, anyway, early in the search, wicked as hell, heading not for the camera which you can’t eat anyway but for the boom operator, brave soul, still holding down the station as the wolf advances, drool dripping from its maw.
The reason why I searched on “Wolf In White Van” is I’m doing a book tour in the fall.
9/15 – New York, NY
Le Poisson Rouge
158 Bleecker Street
New York, NY 10012
With John Hodgman
9/18 – Durham, NC
Motorco, presented by The Regulator
Motorco Music Hall
723 Rigsbee Avenue
Durham, NC 27701
9/22 – Raleigh, NC
Quail Ridge Books
3522 Wade Avenue
Raleigh, NC 27607
9/24 – Nashville, TN
3900 Hillsboro Pike
Nashville, TN 37215
9/25 – Oxford, MS
Thacker Mountain Radio
Off Square Books
129 Courthouse Square
Oxford, MS 38655
9/29 – San Francisco, CA
Green Apple Books
With Robin Sloan
Make Out Room
9/30 – Los Angeles, CA
1818 N Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027
10/1 – Portland, OR
1005 W. Burnside Street
Portland OR 97209
With Matt Fraction
10/2 – Denver, CO
The Tattered Cover
2526 E. Colfax Avenue
Denver, CO 80206
10/5 – Dallas, TX
The Wild Detectives
314 W 8th Street
Dallas, TX 75208
Presented by WordSpace and Deep Vellum
10/6 – Austin, TX
603 North Lamar
Austin, TX 78703
With Joe Gross
10/7 – Chicago, IL
Lincoln Hall, presented by Unabridged Books
2424 N Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60614
With Mairead Case
10/8 – Brookline, MA
Coolidge Theater, presented by Brookline Booksmith
290 Harvard Street
Brookline, MA 02446
Complete information, or complete with respect to the subject at hand, anyway, with links to the events and so forth, is over at mountain hyphen goats dot com right now, so, you know, advance your wolf over there for the details.
I will see you soon!
So so so so so so so so excited for more people to read this haunting, brilliant, fascinating novel.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart my favourite book I’ve read this year.
I keep thinking about it. And I finished it over 2 months ago!
I thought it was a good excuse to have a play around and design a few book covers for it.
Lovely alternate covers by fayemoorhouse.
Beautiful! Love this book.
Last week on vacation I read Daniel Jose Older’s book of noir ghost stories, Salsa Nocturna. It imagines a world of a tough detective who must navigate the complex bureaucracy of the dead while living in between worlds. It’s funny and wise and keeps you turning pages and the prose is truly fresh. It’s so rare to read something that doesn’t sound like anything you’ve read before, and so invigorating.
ALSO: If you like ghosts and mysteries, I’m a huge fan of Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London books.
Writing this was hard. I was very lucky to be edited by Chad Harbach, who spent many months (6? I forget. Possibly more) working on it with me. My writing group — Bennett, Anya and Lukas — also read several drafts and helped a lot. I would like to dedicate its appearance on the internet to the memory of Raffles, who cost me a lot of money but was worth every penny. I still miss you, buddy.
There was a time in my life when I really, more or less, wanted to be Emily Gould; I was still unsure of what I wanted to do, but I was starting to suspect that writing was going to figure into it, and I would read her work and feel this absolutely seething mix of awe and envy. The seething part has passed, fortunately, but man, this is good.
Me too. What an essay. Can’t wait for Emily’s novel.
For today’s video, I thought I’d share with you 18 books I love that you probably haven’t read. Each of these books has stuck with me over the years. I hope you’ll include in comments a book you loved that hasn’t found as broad an audience as you think it deserves. I’m going to read 18 of those and review them in a future vlogbrothers video.
You know, I think some people fear that if they like the wrong kind of book, it will reflect poorly on them. It can go with genre, too. Somebody will say, “I won’t read science fiction, or I won’t read young adult novels”—all of those genres can become prisons. I always find it funny when the serious literary world will make a little crack in its wall and allow in one pet genre writer and crown them and say, “Well Elmore Leonard is actually a real writer.” Or “Stephen King is actually a really good writer.” Generally speaking, you know you’re being patronized when somebody uses the word “actually.”
- Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, Margo Rabb interviewing
And great interview altogether. (From back in October, but I just saw it today.)
It was like the second when you come home late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you lean and pick it up, but don’t open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel there’s an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddled up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what’s in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know, too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn’t want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing. The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn’t got and which if he had it, would save him. There’s the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know.
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
You love John Green. Of course you do. Now go love these:
Ask The Passengers by A.S. King for love against the odds
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell for all-consuming romance
The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson for love in the face of grief
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz for philosophising about life
Well, that’s is a cool tumblr. (By the way I have read all four of these books and liked them all very much.)
You will know much too much about me and some things about the book by the end of this blog entry.
They’re here! Now it feels real. :)
The best day is the day the finished copies arrive at your house.
(I have read this book, and it is really wonderful. If you like Dessen books, you’ll love it. If you don’t like Dessen books, it’s because you haven’t read them, and now YOU CAN SOLVE THAT PROBLEM.)
For those of you interested in publishing: some thoughts on the causality of big book success
John Green has a fascinating post in which he discusses the success of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and opens the topic up for conversation. This post has made me think about many things, among them the way we talk, in general, about the causality of a Book Becoming Really Big.
In general, when we use the word “because,” we could mean lots of things. Any sentence starting “This book is successful because…” could mean that what comes after the “because” is a contributing factor, a really important contributing factor, the deciding factor, or the only factor. This is an imprecision of our language, that you can use “because” and it can mean any of these things.
For example, I don’t think that when people say “that book is so successful because he’s a guy,” they are actually proposing causal models that look like this:
Or even like this:
I think the model most people are talking about is one in which each of those arrows has a probability coefficient of some kind over it (meaning that being male exerts some force over the likelihood of receiving, say, major press and specific types of in-house attention, which in turn has a weighted effect on the outcome). But even once you add in the probabilities, it’s still not much of a model of success, because it’s not even close to a comprehensive model of success.
But that’s okay! I do not think it’s meant to be a comprehensive model of success.
Most people probably do not believe that being male is both necessary and sufficient for having a book be really, really successful. I think many people are, however, interested in author gender as a contributing factor (a point I will return to later).
John seems to propose a model that looks a bit more like this:
(Note: John did not call his own book awesomesauce. I did, because I think it is).
(Also note: John’s model would really have a lot more squares and arrows, with a feedback loop for word-of-mouth, and some role for the initial support of readers, and so on, so it is actually way more complicated than this, but this was the last chart I made, and I was kind of charted out by that point, so use your imaginations and read John’s post to get a better idea of the nuances!).
This, on the surface, seems to be a pretty reasonable model for book success in general and also seems to have a great deal of application here. I think Penguin did some BRILLIANT things with TFIOS before publication, around publication, afterwards! And I think the evidence that the book resonates with readers and turns them into evangelists is very strong.
Anecdotally, I have experienced this first hand.
The Fault in Our Stars was my favorite book last year. I loved it. I immediately bought extra copies to give as gifts. I loaned my copy out (AND NEVER GOT IT BACK AND HAD TO ORDER ANOTHER ONE). I taught it this year in my YA class and got to watch my students’ reactions (direct quote: “I want to make everyone I know read this book. And maybe some people I don’t know, too.”)
I have, in fact, had conversations with people before where I have argued—strongly—that TFIOS (the text itself, independent of any factors outside of the book) can teach us a lot about what goes into inspiring word-of-mouth and what it takes to write a big book. I have occasionally countered the opposing view of “it’s just because of vlog brothers,” to which I have made pretty much the same argument that John makes in his post, regarding nerdfighteria accounting for the first months of sales, but not the degree to which the sales have been sustained thereafter.
I think there’s something missing (or at least, underestimated) in thinking of the causality of success as a bunch of factors with +’s in between them—and that is the interplay and relationship between the various factors themselves, at the various stages. I think it’s far more likely that success follows a cascade model, where prior circumstances feed into later circumstances, gathering speed like a waterfall!
(Note: John never said this doesn’t happen! But I wanted to stress how much I think it does happen).
So what does a causal model of book success really look like? Answer: probably way more complicated even than this chart (which is already kind of complicated, because it is the first one I made).
This shares a lot in common with what John says in his post—for instance, the huge importance of word of mouth (people loving the book and recommending it) to spread past the initial audience, as well as an acknowledgment of the key role played by that initial audience.
But there are a few aspects of all of this that I wanted to talk about more specifically, and they center on the fact that all of these factors are not connected with the word “and.” They build on each other, they influence and feed back to each other. And that means that altering any one factor—especially early in the cascade—has the potential to have a very, very large ripple effect.
It’s obvious, from looking at this chart, that if you take away the magic quality of the book itself that makes people want to hand it to others, the book is not on the Times list much past the first month.
But what I think is underestimated in John’s post is the effect that changing the stuff in the box at the top could have on the book’s long-term sales, too. Pre-orders aren’t just book sales. They can affect the way the book is viewed by accounts, the kind of placement it receives, the numbers it is stocked in, pre-publication buzz and press, visibility, and all of these things that (as John acknowledges) get the machine started!
But what you get from a cascade model, that you don’t from an “and” model, is that knocking out something at the beginning of the cascade doesn’t just give it a bit less gas in the engine. It can exert a substantial effect on everything that comes afterwards, potentially in a cascading/escalating way.
Meaning that it seems very reasonable to me to also suggest that if TFIOS had had first week and pre-order sales of, say 3,000 copies, and vlog brothers had never existed, the book quite possibly (maybe even probably) would not be on the Times list a year and a half later either. The people who read it would still love it, but with a lower starting visibility, the press and coverage, the long-term store space, the effectiveness of recommendations (because finding the book is so easy, it’s right there at the front of the store!) would all be affected… and who knows what that would do to ultimate sales levels, though it would surely do something.
In other words, I completely agree with John that without the incredible magical something of the book itself, TFIOS probably wouldn’t have sales much different from John’s other books.
But I also think there’s reason to suspect that without nerdfighteria, TFIOS might well have sales that more closely resemble—for instance—Code Name Verity’s. Very strong, continual seller that has a ton of longevity because people LOVE IT SO HARD AND MAKE OTHER PEOPLE READ IT, a super successful book by any measure… but not TFIOS-level sales.
The statements “that book is so successful because he’s an internet celebrity” and “that book is so successful because readers love it and want to share it with others” are not mutually exclusive. They refer to different points in the cascade. The former is perhaps more nebulous, given that the portion of the model it affects is a lot less cut and dry, but I definitely do not think you can use the truth of one to negate the other.
“That book is so successful… because of a variety of factors that come into play at different points in time and have interesting and complicated relationships with each other!” is a pretty general statement, with not a whole lot of meaning. Which means that if you are talking about the success of TFIOS, you are likely to focus on one aspect or another. So which aspect should you focus on?
Well, in my opinion, that depends on why you’re talking about it.
Are you interested in what a variety of books with supernova sales have in common, and maybe developing theories about what factors influence how likely a person is to rec a book and how passionately they do so?
Then it makes sense to look at the book itself. Concentrate on the bottom half of the chart, and there are so many interesting discussions to have there! (I have theories. Many theories. And TFIOS is one of those books that has greatly contributed to my understanding, both as a psychologist who studies fiction and as a writer).
Are you interested in how to effectively translate social media audience into book audience?
I think the signing of the first print run here was genius (for some pretty rich and interesting psychological reasons involving parasocial relationships, essentialism, and contagion, over and above the coolness of just having a signed book).
Or are you discussing TFIOS as part of a larger discussion on author gender and its relationship to marketing, push, publicity, and critical reception?
Because my general impression is that when people are discussing TFIOS and author gender, they’re not usually trying to diagnose the intricacies of TFIOS’s success. They’re discussing TFIOS as part of a larger discussion or series of discussions that stretches far beyond one book.
You’ll notice that gender is not currently part of the giant complicated diagram above. That’s because integrating it is REALLY COMPLICATED.
What’s the relationship (if any) between being male and being able to develop the kind of online following John has? What’s the relationship between being male and the likelihood of a publicist pitching your book for major media outlets? What’s the relationship between being male and those outlets saying yes? What’s the relationship between reception in the adult literary world and being male? What’s the relationship between being male and the way that people react to you promoting your book and the effectiveness of said promotion? What’s the relationship between being male and critical acclaim in general? What’s the relationship between being male and getting a certain cover? What’s the relationship between being male and the likelihood of being seen as a “big book” instead of a “big girl book”? What’s the relationship between author gender and potential for breaking out in various genres? Heck, what’s the relationship between being male and the effectiveness of a book-signing campaign?
Those are open questions. But based on the evidence of gender bias in adult literary reviews, as well as a variety of other factors involving the publishing climate and our culture in general… I think there’s reason to believe that being male at least sometimes matters at least some.
Does TFIOS become TFIOS if John was a woman? What about if John was both a woman and his early books had not featured male protagonists? If you gender flip An Abundance of Katherines and it becomes An Abundance of Kevins, about a geeky girl who is heart-broken because she keeps breaking up with guys named Kevin, even if everything else is the same… does it get the same critical reception?
I think these are questions worth asking—and I don’t think that the questions themselves have to be set up against the other reasons for John’s success in some grudge match fight to the death. You can believe—as I tend to—that TFIOS owes the fact that it has been able to sustain initial buzz and sales to the incredible quality of the book and the hard work and dedication of the fine folks at Penguin and simultaneously believe that a woman writing the same story might have had a different publishing experience.
I also do not think that having this discussion has to denigrate, in any way, what John and this book have achieved. I have had many, many privileges and advantages in life. Without some of those advantages, would I have still ended up getting my Ph.D.? Quite possibly not. Maybe even probably not. Does that mean that I didn’t work hard for my Ph.D., or that I don’t deserve it, or that it doesn’t mean anything? Of course not.
Similarly, to the extent that being male (and as John points out, white and cisgendered and so on) conveys privilege in our society—and perhaps some specific privileges within our industry—that’s something worth discussing, but it doesn’t somehow nullify John’s achievement. I get why it might feel, from an author’s perspective, like people were saying it DOES. TFIOS is so big now that it’s going to come up a VERY LARGE number of these discussions. It is going to be named and discussed specifically in a way that I think would make me feel bad and frustrated, in turn, if I were in John’s shoes.
But here’s the thing: when you consider that the kind of success John currently has—not just with TFIOS, but with his backlist now, too—it’s the kind that has the potential to start trends and help other books break out. TFIOS could be that kind of market game changer, the way Hunger Games was, the Twilight was. I’ve already seen people starting to use the term “Green-lit” to refer to books in John’s subgenre. But what is that subgenre? What is the trend going to be? And is it a trend that will benefit male authors of contemporary and contemporary stories that focus on boys more than their female equivalents?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But in general, I think talking about these things is thought-provoking and important, and I think that a lot of discussions about the success of TFIOS aren’t just about the success of TFIOS.
One final thought, and then I will end this obscenely long blog post, and that thought is this: there are ALWAYS going to be factors external to a book that affect its success. Maybe TFIOS isn’t the TFIOS phenomenon without nerdfighteria to kick it off. But Twilight probably also isn’t the Twilight phenomenon if it had a negligible marketing campaign when it came out, and would Hunger Games have been Hunger Games if it wasn’t published by Scholastic and strategically positioned in book fairs and clubs?
Change things near the top of the cascade, and the ripple through could be huge.
However, even given this, I think there is a tendency, when a book reaches a certain level of success, to fixate on the external factors (unless you or a close friend wrote the book, in which case the psychology operates in the opposite direction, as seen below).
There’s a finding in psychology called the Fundamental Attribution Error, which basically has to do with a way that we systematically vary in the way in how we judge our own successes and failures versus the successes and failures of others. When other people succeed, we tend to attribute their success to external factors, but when we succeed, we attribute it to internal factors. You get the reverse pattern for failure.
Basically, there’s this really pervasive and unconscious bias to say, “When I succeed, it’s because I’m smart and I work hard and I deserve it, but when other people succeed, they got lucky. And when I don’t succeed, it’s because of all of the factors outside of my control, but when other people fail, it’s because they just weren’t really that good to begin with.”
When you apply this to authors and publishing, you can substitute “my book” for “I” and “[name-of-book-not-by-me]” for “other people.” When you succeed, it’s mostly because of THE BOOK. But when you’re looking at the success of books in the market, particularly big books, it’s because they GOT LUCKY. It’s the marketing plan, or the timing, or the author’s platform, or…
You get the picture.
This is just the way the brain works! We do it ALL THE TIME, without any idea we’re doing it, and it’s not because we objectively think we are awesomesauce; it just happens. And I think it’s a bias that is helpful to be aware of, no matter which side of the equation you are on.
Sorry for the length of this entry. I had a lot of thoughts and hope that some of them may have been worth my posting them and your reading them. Some of them are undoubtedly wrong or inaccurate or illogical—but there they are!
I think it’s important to point out that John built his internet presence. Obscene amounts of time, effort, creativity, positivity… it’s not like he was just randomly blessed by the Internet Fairy. If Joss Whedon were to suddenly write a YA book, I bet a lot of people would be all over it. (I certainly would). Is that because he’s a “celebrity author”? Not really—it’s because he’s made things we enjoy, and those things seem relevant to any YA book he might write. So to the extent that nerdfighteria plays a role in John’s success, I think it’s important not to treat that like something external to John or completely disconnected from his literary works.
This is long, but I’m reblogging it as text because it’s important reading for people interested in the business of book publishing. It’s one of the best essays I’ve ever seen on the topic of why books become successful, although my Fundamental Attribution Error might be causing me to feel that way.
But speaking of FAE, I hope it was clear in the original post that I do not think the book has succeeded primarily because of the book. I think the book has succeeded primarily for reasons outside the book. There are many YA novelists—E. Lockhart, Sara Zarr, Melina Marchetta, Rainbow Rowell, and M. T. Anderson among many others—who write better books than mine that demand to be shared. I started writing the post to think about how to increase the overall size of the market (both by growing the number of people who read books and the number of books they read) by thinking about what, if anything, I’d learned from the TFiOS experience. Of course, most of it isn’t replicable; there’s only one nerdfighteria. But I still think maybe a little of it is.
To me, it boils down to this: Find a book’s ideal readers, whether there are 10 or 10,000. Press the book into their hands. Empower them to share it. Hope that they do.