Everything I Know I Learned from Publishers Weekly

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Recently I settled in for a close read of Publishers Weekly, the trade journal of the publishing industry. I intend to do that every week but generally only manage to fulfill the goal once per month or so. As one would expect from any magazine, some issues are brimming with content I find meaningful, other weeks…meh.

My recent binge reading yielded a number of insights,and it occurred to me to share them with you. So let’s thumb through the magazine.

This particular week (May 15) I received the usual issue plus a separate issue. A special preview issue for BookExpo–the general market book convention–which took place May 31-June 4 was included. Most of what I learned came from the preview edition.

Lesson #1: I don’t know as much as I think I do.

Lesson #1 became apparent to me when I reached page 3. A full-page ad from Hachette announced the release of Gretchen Carlson’s Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back.

My response? To wonder who Gretchen Carlson was.

Oh, wait. The ad’s headline blared the answer at me: “One of TIME’S 100 Most Influential People in the World.”

Maybe I need to be better informed, I mumbled aloud as I made a note to myself to read more widely and avidly.

Lesson #2: Huge book conventions can be relevant.

A few years ago, the common wisdom held that massive book conventions were a throwback to a different era. In that era, the publishing industry needed to convene to generate momentum for new books and to give retailers an opportunity to place orders. But in the 21st century, those transactions could take place using electronics.

Yet each year for the last four years or so, BookExpo adds new twists to help to insure it stays relevant. For 2017, planners decided to carefully segment the activities of each day so attendees could focus on that day’s purpose. One day concentrated on bringing publishing professionals together to learn from each other and to gain insights on new ways to reach readers. The days the exhibit floor was open enabled attendees to discover new releases without leaving the floor for workshops or panels.

Lesson #3: When a new venture works, don’t be afraid to expand it.

One of the most successful changes to BookExpo over the past four year is BookCon, a segment of the convention devoted solely to bringing authors and readers together. This event occurs on the tail of BookExpo, once again clearly segmenting it from other activities.

The doors to the convention center open to avid readers who meet authors–many times in small, ticketed groups, hear them speak, and buy the authors’ books to obtain autographs. Each year BookCon is like a feeding frenzy of fans.

The event planners know from past years that the majority of those who attend are millennial women, and the publishers bring in authors known to appeal to this demographic. But this year the idea was to expand from that base to include fun events for families with young children,including time with the author of Captain Underpants. The projections are that a record number of fans will turn out–20,000 of them, as a matter of fact.

Lesson #4: Don’t forget that being playful and imaginative pay dividends.

On page 8 of PW, the Wild Rumpus bookstore in Minneapolis is featured. I’ve visited Wild Rumpus, a crazy, playful spot for any booklover. Three cats and a chicken amble about (or lounge on books). A variety of birds and even a tarantula dwell inside enclosures. The basement is a haunted house. It seems every inch of the place is filled with books that lure you to pick them up. The co-founder of Wild Rumpus introduced the animals and other playful notes into the store from the beginning. “If I was going to work that hard [as everyone told her she would have to to succeed], I wanted some animals around.”

Lesson #5: I don’t know as much as I think I do.

On page 36, I read more details about BookCon. To appeal to those millennial women who make up the majority of attendees, many YouTube stars made appearances. Then I read this: “A big part of the spectacle is a deep bench of talent from YouTube and its lesser-known subset, BookTube, a community of rabid booklovers who record themselves fervently effusing about books, that has soared in popularity over the past few years.”

Wait. BookTube? I know nothing.

Lesson #6: Don’t forget what it takes for a project to succeed.

On page 86, I read an article by the author of a book I already knew was releasing. I see it as having the potential to succeed like Hidden Figures did recently. Entitled The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, this nonfiction book explores the lives of women who worked in WWI-era factories painting watch dials with luminous radium to make them glow.

Many years ago, probably 15, a writer submitted a proposal to me for a book about these women. But the proposal lacked depth. If I remember correctly, the writer’s intention was to tell what happened to her mother, who was one of dial painters. Even though I had never heard of these women at the time, I sensed immediately that this was a big and fascinating story. But the writer didn’t explain the process the women used to paint the dials, nor the specifics of the medical aftermath for them.

Here’s a part of what the author of The Radium Girls explained, which the proposal writer failed to: “Women working in these factories were told to ‘lip-point’ their brushes–dipping them into the radium solution, then putting the brushes in their mouths to create a fine tip–as they painted the dials, causing them to actually ingest the dangerous chemical.” Yeah, that’s the kind of detail the proposal lacked. As a result, I didn’t represent that project, and it took this long before someone else snatched up the idea.

Having a great concept isn’t enough; the writer needs to deliver the goods.

What did you learn from this quick trip through the Publishers Weekly issue?

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27 Responses

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  1. “A feeding frenzy of fans.” Janet, I can’t decide whether I want to run towards that, or away. Oh, the things I miss here in my rural corner of the world.
    * What did I learn from your list? That I too don’t know as much as I think I do (but thanks to your list, Janet, I know more now than I did yesterday).

  2. That radium book? Oh my.
    We used to live near a nuclear research facility. The safety protocols were through the roof, but for good reason. Let’s not even discuss security.
    I shudder to think of how many women died miserable deaths resulting from radium exposure and ingestion.
    BookTube? Never heard of until now! Or Gretchen Carlson.
    I wonder though, how many people at PW spend most of their time funneling information into the weekly edition? How much knowledge can one person retain if that person spends a dedicated amount of time each week sifting through all that information? It’d be like spinning plates, but each week you get more poles and more plates.
    Lesson #5 jumps out at me. But it’s not that you ‘know nothing’, it’s just that you didn’t know what you didn’t know.
    Hence, for me? Really intense research, humility, and a willingness to look stupid for the sake of my work have sort of taken me a lot farther than mumbling “I didn’t know” when beta readers brought flaws to my attention.
    I’d rather find out all that I don’t know before my work goes to print and hits the shelves, than after, when it’s languishing on the 99 cent pile because the facts are wrong. I bet a few others would too.

  3. Very interesting lessons learned, Janet. Thank you for this.
    * To me, what stands out through all six points is the need and demand by readers (and, in the case of Book Expo, industry professionals) that they be recognized as individuals, and their relevance given meet honour.
    * Ms. Corbett and the Radium Girls are both examples of oppression by gender, in the one case harassment by a superior, and in the other by being made an expendable workforce.
    * Book Expo and BookCon both give power to the individual; in the first instance by allowing physical browsing with guidance by programmed algorithms in virtual space, and the latter by allowing readers to show authors that they are real people with bodies and heartbeats, whose lives are genuinely affected. The cultural influencer is removed from the pedestal, to stand amidst the thundering herd. Quite terrifying, really.
    * The playfulness of WIld Rumpus and the populism of BookTube both speak to a need to be heard. Wild Rumpus is a reminder of a time before the sameness of bix box stores and fast food that tastes the same in Peoria and Peking; in its individuality it frees our own. And BookTube is lovely, a chance to shout down the learned critics and say, “Yes, it uses adverbs and passive voice and an omniscient narrator, but we love it anyway, and now we can let the world now, and not just our neighbours.
    * I love the way this has developed; we have gone from participants in a market society to guided consumers whose choices are shaped by authoritarian algorithms and prejudicial protocols…and now the lab rats have come out of the maze with teeth bared. Viva la Revolucion!

  4. Carol Ashby says:

    Fascinating. Do you know any CBA authors who have harnessed BookTube yet?
    * Wild Rumpus sounds intriguing, but anyone with cat allergy would have to avoid it like the plague. In my own local circle of friends, I know of 3 who could never shop there. Also, I’ve never seen a chicken that was housebroken. My blue-fronted Amazon used to fly back to her cage before depositing a β€œpresent,” but I didn’t train her. Either her first owner did, or It was just something she chose to do. I used to breed parakeets and cockatiels,but I never figured out how to housebreak them.

  5. Oh, I anticipate the days I’d be part of a book event, whatever side of the book spectrum I land in.
    What did I learn? I can always know more and share more. Because, mainly, the bliss of learning is in the willingness to share.

  6. What did I learn? Well, actually it was a confirmation of something I read about a year ago, understood and believed, but am only recently beginning to fully grasp – that I must put almost as much effort into crafting my proposal as I did into crafting my manuscript. The “tip pointing” oversight illustrates that so well, as did a beautifully written, comprehensive “No” I received from a Books & Such agent just a few weeks ago. I was loaded with good information about ways I could improve the proposal for future submissions.
    I am guessing that the Radium Girls release that is coming was written by a different author than the one whose proposal you reviewed 15 years ago ??

    • Janet Grant says:

      Damon, the author of Radium Girls is not the same one who sent me a proposal.
      I’m glad one of our agents was able to give you constructive pointers on your proposal. Proposals take far more work than most writers think it would.

  7. Well, I know who Gretchen Carlson is. If the news is on in our house, I can assure you it is tuned into Fox News. Though to my knowledge she isn’t with Fox anymore, and I don’t know all the details of her story to have an opinion, I’ve always admired her. She’s beautiful and smart. I figured she’d tell her story.
    *And Janet, when you see someone with a good concept but perhaps the writing doesn’t totally deliver the goods … do you ever choose to work with that person to bring them to the delivery point? Because the concept is so unique? I am reminded of your testimony with The Waiting. I imagine the choosing to be a tightrope balance of the heart and business. If you have faith in the writer, see potential.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, I do periodically work with a writer to get the writing to the level it needs to be for a publisher to offer a contract. But those cases are rare, and I have to see loads of potential in the message because the amount of time I must invest in those ventures is mammoth.

  8. Janet, what a great article. So many thoughts slipped through my mind as I read your post. Beginning with BookTube. Wow. I know video has really come into its own as a popular influence in culture. So, the fact that there is a place called BookTube doesn’t surprise me. It seems like it would be wise for us as writers to watch and see how that all works. πŸ™‚
    *Another thought that resonated is how intentional BookCon has been about staying relevant. Just that thought makes me wonder what we should be doing in the CBA to reach readers. I have no specific answers for this, it’s just a thought that’s come up on my radar. But, reading about they have aimed to capture the millennial women makes me realize the importance of knowing my target audience, as well as develop effective ways to draw them. If that makes sense.
    *Thanks for sharing this!

  9. OK, a bookstore with a pet chicken and a haunted house! I’m sold! My sons would love this. I think of how friendly our pet chickens are (the buff orphington breed is called the golden retriever of the chicken world) how they rush to the fence to greet us when the car rolls up, how they flap up into our windowsill to say hi and get pets every day. A chicken would be great in a bookstore, what a fabulous idea. She might need to wear a chicken diaper though, and yes we own one of those too, although they are very difficult to actually get onto the chicken!

  10. Oh, and I need to look up booktube. A friend of mine made a fun book trailer for each of my romcoms so that readers could go to my website and know in 3 minutes whether or not they would like the book. But this looks fascinating. Thanks for letting us know about it!

  11. Thanks for the post, Janet. Booktube is something I’ll definitely have to check out. First I’ve heard of it too.

    The fact that BookCon is attracting millennial women is surprising to me. I guess I need to do some updated research. Although, I think the demographic of CBA readers vs. secular readers will be different.

    Thanks for taking the time to share this run down.

  12. Mary Kay Moody says:

    Interesting stuff, Janet. I do know about Gretchen Carlson and her story, and importance of being imaginative. But BookCon and BookTube ~ zip. I too learned I need to read more. My prim aunts and granny would blush at Captain Underpants. πŸ™‚

  13. Jerusha Agen says:

    Thanks for this trip through Publishers Weekly, Janet! I learned many things. I’m actually very encouraged by your two moments of learning you didn’t know as much as you thought you did. I didn’t know those things either and am often chagrined by how many things I don’t know. It’s encouraging to discover that someone as well-informed as yourself still doesn’t know everything! I’m certain that you’re already doing all that’s reasonably possible to be well-informed, so my takeaway from this is that there will always be things we don’t know, no matter how hard we try to be informed, and that’s okay. πŸ™‚ (Though I really should probably start reading Publishers Weekly, too!)

  14. Carol Ashby says:

    One sign of wisdom is recognizing what you don’t know that you ought to know and working on learning it.

  15. Jenny Leo says:

    I’ve worked in and around book publishing since the 90s, and I’m continually dismayed at how much I don’t know. So glad to know I’m not the only one. New applications and opportunities (“apps and opps,” I call them) come about so quickly that it’s like drinking from the proverbial firehose to keep up.