Trying to predict how a literary book will sell is an inexact science, to say the least. You can throw chicken bones, add up the letters in an author's name and divide this by the number of Chins in the Chinese phonebook and multiply by that number of Liz Taylor's ex-husbands, or you can, like most publishers--guess. Publishers, to justify an advance, are obliged to write up a P&L (profit and loss) statement and in it they must say how many books will sell, and based on this number the house then forms a budget for selling the book. If you say twenty thousand "units" will be moved and it sells ten, you have published a dog and you are an idiot. If you say five thousand and it sells ten, you have an unexpected hit and you are a genius. In the case of an established writer, the setting of the P&L number is based on past performances and raw, real numbers. If the book is by a first-time author, the P&L numbers are based on pure faith.
Then begins the publicity and pre-publication hype, including the dispensing of cheap swag to reviewers and industry "big mouths." While the film industry has "chum" like designer sunglasses and personalized Ipods tossed out to garner attention, we get stuck with dorky tote bags, coffee mugs, bedazzled tee-shirts (not kidding), and thongs (really, with the title of the book across the front). None of this works.
What works is hand-selling, and it begins with ground-troops, and in this case--editorial assistants. Like all creative, underpaid types, editorial assistants are drawn to each other for comfort and warmth. In the midst of all the drinking and canoodling, galleys are passed between friends, and everyone wants to know what is the one book that you are excited about, not the one celebrity bio that will pay the company overhead, but what is the book that reminds you why you work in publishing and justifies all of that time staring into the eye of the Xerox machine?
In that spirit, I'd like to offer up a semi-regular list, a "Buzz Watch" of literary books eagerly anticipated by the publishing hive's worker-bees. (Thank you, Laura Miller, for the suggestion.)
So what are the drones rubbing their legs together about in early 2006? What are they forcing me to add to my "must read" list?
Two short story collections, Deborah Eisenberg's Twilight of the Superhero (out in February, from FSG) and Charlie D'Ambrosio The Dead Fish Museum (out in April from Knopf), are at the top of nearly every list. Both are by "writer's writers" who are masters of the short form. And seemingly everyone in publishing wants to get their mitts on Philip Roth's new novel, with the excellent Rothian title Everyman (due out from Harcourt in May). Elizabeth Strout's follow-up to her debut Amy and Isabelle has a lot of folks eager to read Abide With Me (due out in March from Random House), and from all advance word it is a dark gem. Similarly Heather McGowan, a whirling dervish of a prose stylist, follows her debut Schooling with Duchess of Nothing (March, from Bloomsbury). Caitlin Flanagan has been stirring things up for years with her intelligent, inflammatory essays on domesticity, and her book To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife (out April, from Little, Brown) will surely hit a zeitgeist nerve. Brit David Mitchell's novel Black Swan Green, has people (me included) wondering how he can possibly top the tour de force that was his last novel, The Cloud Atlas, which had a rabid and enthusiastic following (due out April from Random House). Donald Antrim's memoir, The Afterlife (out May, from FSG), pieces of which have already appeared in the New Yorker, is sure to be a compelling, dark ride by the dark and talented novelist.
I haven't heard too much buzzing about striking debuts--yet. A couple of story collections have some hearts aflutter, including Scott Snyder's Voodoo Heart (out May, from Dial) and Gary Amdahl's Visigoths (also out in May, from Milkweed Editions). Gautam Malkani's first novel Londonstani (yes, in May, from Penguin) is making waves in England, where he has been called a "Muslim Irvine Welsh", and he has the potential to break out here a la Zadie Smith.
As the spring publishing season nears, I'm sure the noise about out-of-left-field-brilliant debuts will begin in earnest. I'll do my best to dutifully report back with any news of the second, I mean first, coming.