We can feel a little bit cut off on our island, a bit parochial and caught up in our own local dramas, so for a bit of international perspective on the literature scene, ArtsHub UK reached out to US-based author, critic and host of the chart-topping and Signal award-winning podcast Missing Pages, Bethanne Patrick, for her perspective on some current and possibly future literary trends.
Can you explain why some books are almost “too big to fail”?
Sometimes I think in-house belief and support will carry a book through to the finish line! When I hear from someone in PR or marketing that everyone at an imprint is wild about a certain book, I pay attention, not because that means more money and power behind the book (although it often does!), but because it means the book probably appeals to many different kinds of readers. To me, that is what makes a book “too big to fail” – a wide readership. One book that springs to mind immediately is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Or Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
Will big marketing budgets be the reason books succeed in a crowded marketplace?
This will change, and it may get ugly – or at least confusing. Because now we are seeing readers drive the bus, at least for some types of books. Avid readers, especially of genre fiction, are following the authors they love, no matter where or how those authors publish.
For frontlist books acquired for big advances that publishers must make work, it may not change, but for books that are smaller and need to be defined by the author, it will.
Commercial fiction is tough. It’s a crowded market and, if the marketing isn’t there, it may die on the vine. Commercial fiction authors really need to define their audience and that means figuring out what the audience watches, listens to and buys. It’s asking where and how they find out about shows, movies and products.
Any examples of unexpected runaway hits?
Our first episode of Missing Pages’ second season is about mega-bestselling author Colleen Hoover, who began self-publishing her novels quietly. And, when readers went crazy for them, Hoover found herself snapped up by a Big Five publisher. Now there are Colleen Hoover sales displays in bookstores everywhere, and she writes all sorts of fiction: romance, espionage, thrillers… you name it.
Another great example, although a bit older, and perhaps a bit different (he published through Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP), is Hugh Howey, who self-published Wool in 2011. Now his books have been adapted into a hit TV series – Silo. He has another series, Beacon 23, in production for TV, as well.
More recently, romance author Vi Keeland has parlayed her self-publishing efforts into a 2024 release from Simon & Schuster’s Emily Bestler Books. She has a big, big, big Facebook group called ‘Vi’s Violets’. Many of these authors who are willing to give self-publishing, as well as hybrid publishing (that’s more about the business model than anything else), their best effort have huge fan groups on different social media platforms.
Australia has had its fair share of literary scams; what are some that you know of in your circle?
I do know that Australia has a number of lit scams – quite a few Missing Pages listeners from Down Under have reached out to me over the past year or so to tell me about them and also to ask if we’ll ever cover some of those!
Any society that creates and sells works of literature is going to have literary scams and scandals. Pure human nature! I mean, look at the Nobel Prize for Literature and its ups and downs, not to mention the number of kerfuffles we’ve had in the US in the recent past over people stealing ideas from each other (for example, Bad Art Friend, the Cat Person situation). Writers do not exist in a purer state than anyone else.
I do fear that technology has and will continue to make it easier for people to behave badly in the literary world. Personally, I believe that things like computer programs and social media applications are tools, and tools can be used for good and bad. That means it’s more important than ever to make young people aware of ethical considerations in writing and publishing. As it happens, I’m teaching a course on the Ethics of Creative Writing for American University here in Washington DC. It’s fascinating to see what my students already understand, as well as what they still need to learn, in this arena.
What are some of the changes in publishing you have seen?
When I started my career, as a freelance writer, I quickly saw that glossy magazines were going the way of the dodo bird. Colleagues, who had been making $3 and $4 per word easily, saw their markets drying up. By the time I was firmly established in the book publishing realm, freelance writers were sometimes making just 10 cents per word, or $20 for a long reported article.
Twenty-five years later, it’s a mixed bag. Some publications pay peanuts, some pay decently. My point, in focusing on freelance writing rather than book publishing, is to provide a little window into the hurly-burly that now exists. Book publishing salaries remain cruelly low. As we saw during the Department of Justice versus Penguin Random House trial in 2022, sometimes even the top executives in publishing struggle to explain industry practices (and Missing Pages has an episode on that this season, too!)
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For too many years, book publishers failed to understand that the internet is here to stay, and that it has a huge role in the industry. “We’ll never sell ads online! We’ll never find an audience for electronic books! We’ll never…” Never say never, I say. Book publishing needs to speed up and adapt to things like AI, which is going to change prose writing. It is going to change things. Does that mean all of the change will be bad? Not at all. Right now, AI is a tool. If we don’t consider it from every angle quickly, it may not remain so.
Another topic we cover this season is book banning and, while I don’t want banning to be a thing, I want to say thank goodness it’s tougher than ever to keep readers of all ages away from the books they want to access! Libraries, bookstores and other institutions are online, offering access to books for all readers.
Can you speak about the apparent trend of more celebrities taking on ghostwriters to tell their stories?
I do think this qualifies as a trend, one that is becoming more prevalent and more transparent (for example, Prince Harry recognising his ghostwriter, J R Moehringer’s work on Spare.) At a certain point in our cultural history, readers may have wanted to believe that celebrities wrote every word themselves, but I think we’re past that, especially because we all understand that things like stories (including reality TV series!) have to be carefully crafted, and many of them are much better for the presence of a ghostwriter.
A ghostwriter is someone who, named on the cover or not, attempts to write in the celebrity subject’s voice and tone, and with that celebrity’s purpose in mind. That’s distinct from a collaborator, someone who works with another – often famous – writer on a story. For example, James Patterson frequently works with other writers, most recently Mike Lupica, on novels. They work together, speaking and writing online to complete their manuscripts.
Then there’s the kind of ghostwriting/collaboration that involves a famous author’s work after that author is dead. In Season Two of Missing Pages, we speak with Jeff Rovin, who writes Tom Clancy books now, with the approval of Clancy’s estate. Recently Sandra Newman published Julia, a retelling of 1984 with the approval of George Orwell’s son Richard Blair, who is his literary executor. And Sophie Hannah writes authorised versions of Agatha Christie mysteries. And so on.
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As the literary world adapts to new technologies and shifts in reading habits, I believe that arrangements involving ghostwriting, collaboration and retellings of great stories will increase.
Are there any Australian books that are making any traction in the US?
I can think of several dozen Australian authors I’ve read and loved – but I am a special case, not only because I read a lot of global literature, but because I had a set of grandparents who lived in Perth through my early adulthood, and I was interested in reading about Australia. So I grew up reading everyone from Clive James to Keri Hulme to Peter Carey, and always knew that Australian literature/Antipodean literature was vital and had a lot to say.
Before I mention some hugely popular names, let me say I still read a great deal of Australian literary fiction. Tim Winton’s Eyrie knocked the breath out of me. I recently interviewed the amazing Helen Garner for The LA Times; although she’s known as an essayist and diarist, I agree with many of my peers that her 1994 novel The Children’s Bach is one of the most perfect short versions of the form that exists.
A few years back I interviewed Liane Moriarty before a live audience on the release of Nine Perfect Strangers. I also reviewed Apples Never Fall for The Washington Post. My two daughters read all of her novels and so do many of my friends! I think Moriarty – whose sales and popularity are in no doubt, considering the adaptations of her books that have appeared, including Big Little Lies – really taps into modern women’s angst and daily lives.
Kate Grenville, Meg Mason and Jane Harper write books readers here can’t get enough of, particularly Harper. All of my mystery-loving pals devour her books. Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss was a 2022 must-read! Another author everyone seems to love is Graeme Simsion, whose The Rosie Project and its follow-on books speak to neurodivergent people, a big issue here.
There’s the wonderful Markus Zusak. Kate Morton! Ah, Tara June Winch, a recent fave. I can’t forget to mention Shirley Hazzard, whose reissued novels have gotten a lot of attention, too. I should probably stop, but I’m always happy to talk more about Australian/Antipodean book, and to learn more about great non-fiction from your part of the world, too – I was fortunate enough to study under and meet Jill Ker Conway, author of the superb memoir The Road from Coorain when I was an undergraduate at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.