29 May 2014

BEA14: What Editors' Buzz Tells Us About the Industry as a Whole

The Editors' Buzz panel at BEA is one of the most highly attended and hotly anticipated panels every year. The conference selects several forthcoming books they think are going to be hits or breakouts, and the editors responsible for those books present them to the crowd. (There are also free galleys, causing a near-stampede at the end of every panel. Surely we can fix this! But I digress.) Even though the titles are made available well ahead of the event, there's something about hearing these pitches in person. It's a very positive, upbeat event with a side of the cliches you think of when you think of book reviewing. There's always an "astonishing" debut, a family saga, a ground-breaking nonfiction book, and so on.

What struck me most about the seven chosen authors this year, though, is how many of them were presented as mid-career authors experiencing a breakout or longtime scribes finally achieving hard-won fame. I don't want to say "comeback narrative," because that would be incorrect; some had sold fairly well and been highlighted for praise before, but still hadn't yet reached the spotlight in the way they were presented at BEA. Author Eula Biss of this fall's IMMUNITY: AN INOCULATION, compared floridly to Joan Didion (calm down now), has been a working writer for several years; Emily St. John Mandel is described as breaking out with her novel STATION ELEVEN, but it's her fourth book, and I would consider her breakout to be her previous one, the Indie Next darling THE LOLA QUARTET. Jeff Hobbs is a fiction writer joining the other side of the table with the nonfiction reported book THE SHORT AND TRAGIC LIFE OF ROBERT PEACE. None of these authors' backgrounds were hidden; instead they became part of the pitch, reasons to root for them. And they overshadowed the debut novels presented (Jessie Burton's THE MINIATURIST, Matthew Thomas' WE AE NOT OURSELVES and M.O. Walsh's MY SUNSHINE AWAY). Here's what I think this says about publishing now:

1. In these tough economic times for the book industry as a whole, sometimes a known name beats an unknown name -- despite past performance. Mandel, Biss, Hobbs and Laird Hunt (whose novel NEVERHOME was presented on the panel) already have some entry, publicity speaking, into the market. If their publishers struggled in the past to market them, they are improving upon those mistakes. This isn't a case where the reclusive author is found and uplifted. These authors already have platforms, websites, some activation in place. And more importantly for them --

2. Despite the ominous stories, it is easier for authors to continue in the industry and make up for what were seen as damaging sales records with later books. If you want we can call this the MIDDLESTEINS Phenomenon, for author Jami Attenberg's bestseller as she started over with a new publisher and was able to get a second chance, you could say, to make her name. (If you've read MIDDLESTEINS and haven't read her backlist yet, you have some delights ahead of you.) This is heartening for what should be obvious reasons. And it makes publishing feel great about itself for spotting the talent early (even if it didn't know how to handle them then).

1 comment:

Marjorie said...

This sounds like good news to me. I've so often heard that it's hard to bounce back from lousy sales of a first book. If slow sellers can lead to a "breakout" title, that seems to indicate good things for authors working to build a career.

Eula Biss is very admired within the nonfiction MFA world. Obviously nobody else is Joan Didion, but Biss' voice is both lovely and authoritative, and she has big things to say. A couple summers ago, someone I met at a writing workshop was telling me about her neighborhood in Chicago, and then she stopped and said "oh, but you write creative nonfiction, you already know this. It's the neighborhood Eula Biss writes about living in."