Getting ready for the paperback

Even as reviews are still dribbling out — such as this one from South Africa — my publisher is preparing to launch Hannibal and Me in paperback.

I got an email with the two cover-jacket designs above that they’re choosing between. All that takes me back a year or so, when I first saw the hardcover jacket.

Your aesthetic opinions are welcome, as ever.

The evolution of my author photo

As part of readying my book for its launch on January 5th, my publisher asked me for an author photo for the inside flap of the jacket’s backside.

The resulting email exchange (which has been edifying and hilarious but must remain private, at least until publication) made me reflect on some larger issues:

  • identity,
  • image,
  • authenticity,
  • message,
  • style etc.

In meditating on these, it helps that the stakes are low — very, very low.

Suffice it to say that my publisher made us go three rounds (“us” = my wife, who took the photos, and me).

I will show you all three, but in no particular order. And I won’t say (yet) which one the publisher chose. (Yes, it’s the publisher, not I, who did the choosing.)

And then, at the bottom of this post, you get to vote. And if you’re so inclined, you can comment more fully below.


Now vote:

Hannibal and Me: Title and Date

So I have them: the full title and the publication date.

(In fact, one of you has beaten me to it and found the nascent Amazon entry before I even knew it existed.)


Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success And Failure

Date: January 5th, 2012.

Yes, yes, I know that date seems rather late. What can I do? My publisher tells me that it was strategically chosen as the perfect time for this sort of book. So there.

Regarding the title: It’s quite ironic that my very first post on The Hannibal Blog, all the way back in summer of 2008 (my god, have I been at it this long?!), explained why Hannibal and Me is not the title. And now, it’s … the title after all.

Anyway, I’ll show you the jacket design soon. But feel free to weigh in on the title, from the gut.

I have them: title, subtitle & cover

It’s official. Riverhead today sent me the jacket, ie cover, of my book. This is a big moment for a first-time author.

Alas, my editor pleaded with me not to share it with you yet. A big sales conference is about to happen and a catalogue is being made up, and apparently this sort of thing must be sprung upon certain people as a surprise.

But I will blast it out right here as soon as I get the green light.

In the meantime, you might be asking me whether I am happy with the result. I’m almost surprised to say Yes, even on the first go.

I admit that when I first opened the PDF file, I had whiplash. It was not at all what I had expected.

But then my focus groups went to work: wife, parents, agent, agent’s office colleagues….

And I had to agree with them. The cover — think of it as an aesthetic package of words and visuals — is:

  • simple (a prerequisite in my worldview),
  • bold (some people will love it, others will hate it, which is a good thing),
  • playful and tongue-in-cheek (which is important, because it’s an intellectual book, which might turn some readers off).

As my editor said when we discussed it (I made him expound on every single visual element), it comines “vibrant and subtle,” and is Riverhead’s way of saying “big idea.”

As I said to him in return: I was in charge of providing subtlety and nuance and texture between the covers; so I always knew I couldn’t be the one to deliver the direct, right-hook punch on the cover.


PS: Does anybody have any views on which WordPress themes are particularly elegant for book authors?

The making of corny subtitles

The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator may not be uproariously funny, but after clicking through a few iterations I had to concede that it is at least moderately amusing.

The Generator is, of course, a spoof. You start with the cover of Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and then click on Generate New Bestseller. With each new cover, you realize how tritely manipulative the formula is.

Did I say “formula”? Oops. But yes, that’s essentially what it seems to be: the marketing department‘s (as opposed to the author’s) idea of a catchy title and subtitle. As the Generator puts it in one iteration (pictured above):

Subtitles: How Secondary Titles Inflate a Sense of Importance

Now, as it happens, I have been meditating on this subject in recent weeks because I am, right now, in the process of finalizing a title and subtitle for my own forthcoming book.

We seem to have decided on a title (which I will announce as soon as it is official), but we’re still bouncing subtitles back and forth.

Who is “we”?  Well, we includes me, of course, and my agent, and my editor at Riverhead, and the marketing and publicity departments at Penguin (which owns Riverhead), and possibly lots of other people. Lots of folks in lots of meetings, in other words. Meetings that I don’t get to sit in.

The result is quite interesting. Each “faction”, if I may call it that, seems to have a very different sense of linguistic aesthetics. Or possibly a different sense of strategic objective.

For the record, I am not slagging off the marketing folks — they’re bringing a vital perspective to this, and their suggestions have been good. But authors and marketers do appear to perceive the effects of word combinations in different ways.

So one might speculate, while browsing a book store, which side prevailed in which Title/Subtitle decision on display. There are fantastic titles and subtitles out there. And there are the others.


Click on the links below* for my other posts on:

The natural-length revolution in books

Short text, tablet edition

I”ve long been predicting that the main effect of the digital revolution on writing and reading has to do with word count. Put differently, it has to do with the length of texts.

Yesterday, I saw my vision starting to become reality.

But first let me explain why word count/length are so important to literary culture, and why length is at present often distorted.

As music went….

In this post, I’ve ruminated on the imperative of writing to the optimal word count — that is, writing neither too long nor too short.

To use the imperfect analogy of music: Beethoven shouldn’t have been forced to shorten his Fifth to the length of the Rolling Stones’s Brown Sugar, nor the Stones to lengthen Brown Sugar to equal the duration of the Fifth. Each work of art has to be true to itself, which means that each has its own optimal length.

For many years, that presented a packaging problem in music. It made no sense for an orchestra and an audience to gather for only a few minutes. And it made little sense to manufacture and sell vinyl discs that contained only a few minutes of music. So the emphasis was on longer forms of music, or on collections of short pieces — albums, not singles.

But as soon as music migrated from analog to digital media, that packaging distortion disappeared. So now music has been “liberated”. Each artist can compose at optimal length. (Where the medium is still analog, as in a live performance, there is still a preference for greater length.)

… so will text

Text has been far behind the curve. Yes, the digital media have already resuscitated ancient short-form traditions such as haikus, sonnets and aphorisms, in the form of Tweets and blogs. But the dominant medium for the written word is still the printed book. And analog books present the ultimate packaging problem.

Hence the pernicious and pervasive bias toward unnecessary length.

An adult book, especially non-fiction, that is as thin as a baby book looks stupid. No self-respecting publisher, and no author, would touch it. Hence publishers demand that authors pad their ideas to reach a minimum word count. A 30,000-word idea has to be packaged as an 80,000-word book.


  • delays the process of writing and publishing and
  • means that most readers only read a small part of most (non-fiction) books.

Bookshelves everywhere are groaning under the weight of unread words. What a waste.

Enter the Kindle Single

Digital books (on Kindles, iPads, iPhones etc.) will change all that. Suddenly, a “book” (shall we still call it that?) no longer looks stupid if it is short. As many Kindle readers have pointed out, one has no sense of length on a Kindle anyway.

And thus Amazon, shrewdly, has launched Kindle Singles, in direct allusion to the music analogy above. As music was liberated from length distortions, so text will be.

This really sank in yesterday when I got an email from Chris Anderson, the “curator” (a title I find a tad pompous) of TED. (That’s an upmarket conference that would like to be a social network. I’ve attended, hence I’m on the email list.) In it, Anderson announced that “TED Books” are now being sold as Kindle Singles. I just bought my first one.

TED Books, he writes, are

to Books as TED Talks are to lectures. They’re short, pithy, riveting. They’re designed to express a single big idea in a way that can be absorbed in a single sitting. A typical 18-minute TED Talk might be around 2000 words. A typical traditional book is at least 60,000 words. TED Books nicely fill the gap in between. They come in at 10,000-20,000 words. So they can be read and absorbed in an hour or two.

So there you have it: the length distortion has disappeared. More interesting is how Anderson talked about that distortion:

Many people are hungry to learn, but have limited time to read full-length books. TED Books offer an exciting new alternative. And it also will allow many brilliant thinkers who don’t have a spare year to author a full-length book (and another year to wait while that book gets published) to nonetheless get their ideas out in the world….

I highlighted that phrase because, as you may remember, I took about one year to write my book, and have been waiting almost two years now for the publication process to kick off in earnest. (It has indeed kicked off: publication is slated for the fall, and my publisher is suddenly very busy.)

My point is that this process, which all publishers today share, makes no sense to a logical alien visiting earth, or to anybody under thirty. This is why the publishing industry will (not might, but will) be disrupted.

As TED’s Anderson puts it,

the world of serious reading is undergoing a revolution. Suddenly it’s possible to carry around a whole library in your coat-pocket. Suddenly, books don’t have to be 200 or 300 pages long so that they feel substantial in printed form. Any length is possible. And that was the breakthrough for us. We’ve seen from TED Talks the power of giving speakers a time constraint. It’s been an amazing instance of “less is more”…

Godin: Sayonara, publishers

Seth Godin, a bestselling author and marketing guru, has apparently forsaken books.

Not the writing of them, mind you. Rather, the publishing of them — at least through the old-fashioned channels, meaning publishing houses (such as Portfolio in his case or Riverhead in mine).

In this interview, Godin says:

I’ve decided not to publish any more books in the traditional way. 12 for 12 and I’m done. I like the people, but I can’t abide the long wait, the filters, the big push at launch, the nudging to get people to go to a store they don’t usually visit to buy something they don’t usually buy, to get them to pay for an idea in a form that’s hard to spread … I really don’t think the process is worth the effort that it now takes to make it work. I can reach 10 or 50 times as many people electronically. No, it’s not ‘better’, but it’s different. So while I’m not sure what format my writing will take, I’m not planning on it being the 1907 version of hardcover publishing any longer.

On his own blog, he elaborates, somewhat more diplomatically.

I finally figured out that my customer wasn’t the reader or the book buyer, it was the publisher… Traditional book publishers use techniques perfected a hundred years ago to help authors reach unknown readers, using a stable technology (books) and an antique and expensive distribution system.

Those of you who’ve been following my own progress in (first) writing a book and (now) waiting for Riverhead to publish it will understand why Seth struck a chord with me.

“I can’t abide the long wait,” he says. I would say the same, except I have no choice, because I’m waiting for my first book to be published, whereas Seth is thinking of his 13th.

So I wait, and wait, and wait…

What mysterious processes are unfolding that require me to wait? As I’ve said before, I’ve never had a satisfactory explanation from anybody in the formal ‘book industry’.

In the analytical part of my mind, I know that Seth is right. Book publishers as we know them will die, will become extinct.

Books per se will never disappear, because, as Seth himself once told me for an article in The Economist, certain books (very few, actually) will always be around as “souvenirs for the way we felt” at the time of reading.

But book publishers as they exist today are very near their expiry date. My children will read about them as they read about the history of dodos or the telegraph.

At this point, I just hope the industry dies after its printing presses squeeze out a whole lot of copies of the book I have written.

Bookmark and Share

Done but still untitled

By the way, it turns out that the fourth draft of my manuscript, which I sent off to my editor at Riverhead in May, was indeed the last and final draft.

In other words, the manuscript (ie, book) is officially finished. It is written. Done.

I chatted with my editor the other day, and he loved it. Thinks it’s a winner. All that.

In particular, you may recall that the only major and noteworthy change in the final draft was a new final chapter. A chapter of “lessons”. My editor likes that chapter exactly as is, without any iteration.

So we now have an interesting timeline:

  • I got my book deal with Riverhead in December 2007, a bit over 2½ years ago.
  • About one year later, I delivered the first draft. So that was 1½ years ago.
  • Just over 2 years after the deal, I sent my final draft.

So I guess it took two years to write the book. But for much of the time between drafts, I was really just waiting for my editor to get back to me. So it actually only took about 1½ years of work. And always part time, (after the kids went to bed, on weekends etc.). No big deal. Consider that, if you’re thinking about writing a book.

That said…

The surprise, therefore, is not how long it took me (not long) or how hard it was (not hard) but how incredibly, mind-numbingly slow the publishing industry is.

The next step, I have been told, is now for the publishers of Riverhead (ie, the boss) to set a publication date. You might think, as I once thought, that they simply start printing and there we are. Oh no. Various mysterious processes now begin, and they take half a year or so.

Furthermore, the scheduling of a book release is apparently both science and art, so tactics come into it. You may not want to release in the fall, when celebrity authors come out; you may want to release just after Christmas when reviewers and connoisseurs apparently look for new talent; and so forth.

So now I am, as I have been, waiting. Just waiting.

Oh, and we haven’t chosen a title yet. They think it’s incredibly important, but are in no hurry. You’ll be the first to know.

Bookmark and Share

Success vs popularity: genius or slut?

James Patterson

Using the example of James Patterson, an apparently über-successful author of whom I had never heard, Mark Hurst recently made me think once again about my definition of success.

To paraphrase and amplify Mark’s point, would you rather …

  • create something truly yucky — something that you’re secretly ashamed of because you have good taste and know better — which nonetheless becomes a blockbuster?
  • or something that you are proud of, something you consider sublime, even if relatively few people agree or even notice?

As Mark says, this dilemma could appear in any walk of life:

You could be creating websites or software, or writing books, or designing products, or teaching classes, or producing events, or seeing patients. Whatever the case, what would you rather result from that experience: to be popular, or to create something that you yourself would be happy to receive?

If you answer “I’d like to do both” you’re cheating. The conundrum presents itself to all creative types sooner or later precisely because they must, at least sometimes, choose between the two options.

How to sell 14 million books

Which brings us to Patterson, who sold 14 million (!) books last year, as this profile claims. He published 9 books last year, and will publish 9 more this year. In fact, he is a book machine, an assembly line, a conveyor belt.

Literally: He uses “co-authors” to do the actual writing and “manages” the process rather as the boss of, well, an assembly line does.

Patterson is no boor. He himself reads both light and heavy fare, including Joyce. But when it comes to his own books he takes the approach of an advertising man. In fact, he start as an ad man, at J. Walter Thompson. He personally wrote and produced the TV ads for his early books.

He takes a marketing approach to everything from the story and characters to the jacket design, which tends to be

shiny, with big type and bold, colorful lettering — and titles drawn from nursery rhymes (“Kiss the Girls,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “The Big Bad Wolf”), with their foreboding sense of innocence interrupted. “Jim was sensitive to the fact that books carry a kind of elitist persona, and he wanted his books to be enticing to people who might not have done so well in school and were inclined to look at books as a headache …  He wanted his jackets to say, ‘Buy me, read me, have fun — this isn’t “Moby Dick.” ’ ”

Take that, Melville.

Patterson also does scientific market research:

Instead of simply going to the biggest book-buying markets, he focused his early tours and advertising efforts on cities where his books were selling best: like a politician aspiring to higher office, he was shoring up his base. From there, he began reaching out to a wider audience, often through unconventional means. When sales figures showed that he and John Grisham were running nearly neck and neck on the East Coast but that Grisham had a big lead out West, Patterson set his second thriller series, “The Women’s Murder Club,” about a group of women who solve murder mysteries, in San Francisco.

In other words, he does not conceive a story and wait for an audience; he finds an audience and tailors a story for it.

In this way, he practically took over Little, Brown, once a respected literary publishing house, where he now has a dedicated staff that answers only to him. A former boss of Little, Brown

says she was continually surprised by the success of Patterson’s books. To her, they lacked the nuance and originality of other blockbuster genre writers …

Then again, she is the former boss.

Patterson’s style, you ask? The profile describes it as

light on atmospherics and heavy on action, conveyed by simple, colloquial sentences. “I don’t believe in showing off,” Patterson says of his writing. “Showing off can get in the way of a good story.” Patterson’s chapters are very short, which creates a lot of half-blank pages; his books are, in a very literal sense, page-turners. He avoids description, back story and scene setting whenever possible, preferring to hurl readers into the action and establish his characters with a minimum of telegraphic details.

Does Patterson mind that he is not considered, you know, literary?

“Thousands of people don’t like what I do,” Patterson told me, shrugging off his detractors. “Fortunately, millions do.” For all of his commercial success, though, Patterson seemed bothered by the fact that he has not been given his due — that unlike King or even Grisham, who have managed to transcend their genres, he continues to be dismissed as an airport author or, worse, a marketing genius who has cynically maneuvered his way to best-sellerdom by writing remedial novels that pander to the public’s basest instincts. “Caricature assassination,” Patterson called it.

How, then does he, explain his success? He makes his books

accessible and engaging. “A brand is just a connection between something and a bunch of people,” Patterson told me. “Crest toothpaste: I always used it, it tastes O.K., so I don’t have any particular reason to switch. Here the connection is that James Patterson writes books that bubble along with heroes I can get interested in. That’s it.”

Now, as a bonus for those of you who are not only reading a blog but writing your own:

“I have a saying,” Patterson told me. “If you want to write for yourself, get a diary. If you want to write for a few friends, get a blog. But if you want to write for a lot of people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs? A lot of people in this country go through their days numb. They need to be entertained. They need to feel something.”

And isn’t that interesting? I once wrote that the first rule of good writing is not to care about your readers, but that it needs to be tempered with the second rule of good writing, which is to have empathy.

Patterson, it might seem, proves instead that empathy is all.

Oh, wait. That gets back to the dilemma. Are we talking about good writing or popular writing, and do we care?

Bookmark and Share

Book writers’ advice: book writing sucks

It’s amazing how many book authors are volunteering advice and/or satire about how bad it was for them, or is likely to be for you, to write a book.

Ellis Weiner in the New Yorker lampoons the “marketing department” at publishing houses which are so notorious among writers for not existing per se.

Mark Hurst claims to divulge “secrets of book publishing I wish I had known,” sounding just a tad bitter imho. Publishers hate/don’t get originality, and so forth.

Seth Godin, in a slightly older post, gives “advice to authors” which amounts to “lower your expectations” and somehow ends, in a non sequitur, with: “You should write one.”

Well, I am writing one. Once it’s published, will I post, right here, some advice and/or satire about how bad it was to write a book?

Bookmark and Share