There is a void in the American museum world. We collect in central points the artifacts of civilization and honor politicians and soldiers, athletes and artists, inventors and entrepreneurs, but we neglect our writers. In a country established as an idea explicated in written documents and embellished by generations of poets, novelists, and critics, the case for commemorating the written word is self-evident. After all, what is written describes a people and what is celebrated defines their values. — Jim Leach, former Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities
It’s surprising when you realize that in this innovative nation of creative talent, we have never had a museum dedicated to American writers and their work. Until now.
On May 16, 2017, Chicago will celebrate the debut of the American Writers Museum, whose mission is “to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives.”
According to its website The American Writers Museum will:
• Educate the public about American writers – past and present
• Engage visitors to the Museum in exploring the many exciting worlds created by the spoken and written word
• Enrich and deepen appreciation for good writing in all its forms
• Inspire visitors to discover, or rediscover, a love of reading and writing
Through innovative and dynamic state-of-the-art exhibitions, as well as compelling programming, the American Writers Museum will educate, enrich, provoke, and inspire the public.
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose When Good Words Go Bad from July 20, 2014 because people are loudly debating the difference between what people are saying and what they really mean. The English language has always been fluid. We know what that is doing to political and public discourse today. Rules are different for authors. Here’s what they need to keep in mind with their writing.
William Shakespeare is considered by most literary historians and critics to be the best writer ever in the English language. The fact that his work has endured for four centuries supports the point. Yet Shakespeare is shunned by many readers once they graduate from school. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales? Beowulf (author unknown)? Fuggedaboutit! Some of the greatest literature of the English language seems written in a foreign language, with the same effect on readers that garlic breath has on lovers.
Readers don’t like to be stopped midsentence by a word so archaic that a trip to the dictionary becomes necessary. Even trickier is when a word is recognized but misinterpreted and one is left to question the author’s objective. You’ll find an example in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the troubled prince tells Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery!” Most readers interpret “nunnery” as a convent. In Elizabethan parlance, however, “nunnery” could also mean brothel. Shakespeare seems to leave it to the reader to decide Hamlet’s intention.
In today’s vernacular, we find words taking on opposite meanings from their original definitions. One example is “sick”, used to mean “awesome” (“bad” was the stand-in for “awesome” in the ‘80s, but “bad” is now back to being … bad). “The bomb” can be a disaster or a triumph. “Catfish” is something you would rather eat than have one eat you. Hurling “you bitch” is quite different from yelling “you’re my bitch”, although you probably don’t want to be at the receiving end of either phrase, unless you really are a female canine.
You can find more words that have taken on the opposite meaning of their original definition at Mental Floss.
Just as old words change over time, new words are invented every year that may send you to your cyber-dictionary if you haven’t kept up with cultural trends. Have you considered buying a “turducken” with a “bitcoin” lately? Using Twitter to Tweet no longer makes you a twit; now you are a “tweep”. Somehow, “fracking” sounds like an appropriate word for what we are doing to our planet to extract its petroleum resources.
English is an ever-evolving language. That’s its beauty and its challenge, both for authors and for readers. Like interior decorating or clothing fashion, what trends today in language may be outdated or obsolete by next year. Using trendy words to set a period piece is smart. Using trendy words in a timeless piece could end up smarting.
There’s no such thing as bad words; only bad writers (oh, what did she mean by that?).
An Associated Press headline earlier this month caught my eye. It said, “Demand booming on college campuses for creative writing.” Reporter Michael Melia noted that while courses in the humanities have steadily lost students to science and technology, creative writing courses have seen a major jump at colleges across our country.
According to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, an industry group based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, only three schools offered bachelor’s degrees in creative writing in 1975; today, you can earn this degree at any one of 733 colleges. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of creative writing bachelor’s programs has grown steadily, but spiked from 161 to 592.
Why? Melia’s article offered a few possible explanations. They include a growing need among students for self-expression, both psychological and also cultural. David Galef, director of the creative writing program at Montclair State University in New Jersey, said “They’re interested in doing something they feel is creative.” Yale’s creative writing director, Richard Deming, credited social media which contributing to the interest, saying, “This act of expressing one’s voice in a public way — some people feel that they want to add craft, they want to hone those skills and take it to a place of more intensity.”
Of course, some students enrolled in creative writing courses want to become professional writers – in advertising, public relations or some other career that requires excellent writing skills. Other students view writing as a means for introspection and personal enrichment.
What concerns some professors is that the increase in creative writing programs is diluting what is offered while creating stiffer competition for those who want serious literature-based writing classes in order to further a career in the literary world. Melia stated, “In some English departments, the boom has created tension between creative writing and those who emphasize instruction of literature.”
English Professor Leslie Brisman, who has taught at Yale for nearly five decades, said “All over the country students are more interested in writing about themselves than they are in reading other people. We are in favor of creativity. We are not in favor of ignorance.” Unlike most colleges, Yale’s writing program requires that all courses include reading in contemporary work of the chosen genre. Despite this unusual requirement, the number of course offerings in creative writing has roughly doubled over the last five years at Yale to meet student demand.
Writing and reading are two sides of the same coin. Interest in one is usually echoed by appreciation of the other. Anything that leads people to expand awareness and understanding through literature is a very good thing. Regardless of what motivates students to enroll in creative writing classes and programs, it is encouraging to see an enthusiastic interest in learning to communicate more effectively… because, as becomes more evident daily, words do matter.
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose Taxing Times and Footnotes from April 12, 2015 because it’s nearly tax time and the ranks of self-published authors continues to swell. Here’s what you need to know.
Shakespeare had it wrong. Instead of “Beware the Ides of March,” it should be “Beware the Ides of April.” April showers may bring May flowers but April 15th brings tax time; that dreaded date when fear grips our emotions as Uncle Sam grips our wallets.
If you’re a self-published author, or are considering becoming one, you may be wondering what impact your literary endeavors may have on your income tax liability. Or maybe you haven’t even considered the impact. An oversight could cost you, whether you make money or not with your book.
I am not a tax advisor nor do I pretend to be. Tax laws leave me loopy. But there are some basic tax facts every author should be aware of. The first is that even disappointing sales of self-published writing can mean money in your pocket, instead of Uncle Sam’s, come tax time. That’s because the IRS has shifted its view of what constitutes a business versus just a hobby.
The IRS used to consider income-producing activity as a hobby unless it showed a net profit in three of the five most recent reporting years. Now, it wants you to succeed so it can tax your income later. The U.S. tax code permits entrepreneurs to offset the losses of one business from another income as a way to encourage new business.
As a self-published author, you may pay considerable money to editors, designers, printers, publicists and other services to publish and promote your book. Let’s say you spend $6,000 for those services and earn $2,500 in sales. In addition to offsetting your book income tax by $2,500 worth of your expenses, you could also reduce your other income tax by deducting the remaining $3,500 of expenses against your other job income.
The key is to demonstrate a serious intent to operate the new business at a profit; otherwise, it is a hobby. Steps to establish your business intent include setting up a website, printing business cards and promotional materials as well as marketing yourself and your book through social media. Consider establishing a business name and attending conferences. Learn the basic tax rules and follow them, keep your business records separate from your personal records, and don’t hesitate to hire experts for help; these are also legitimate tax deductions.
Depending on where you file your taxes and how you plan to sell your books, other steps you may decide to take include getting a local business license and applying for a resale certificate. You don’t necessarily need to incorporate but you will want to consult a tax accountant to see if you should establish a sole proprietorship business and obtain a Federal Employer Identification Number.
You don’t have to rush into any of these steps and may choose not to unless you see that your book finances reach $5,000 or more. But knowledge is power and could mean more money in your pocket to continue pursuing your literary dreams.
Your best resource to learn about the tax implications of your self-published book is a tax accountant but other resources include:
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose A Feast of Fests from April 20, 2014 – and updated it — because we’re entering a new season of literary celebrations that every booklover should know about.
When the mind is hungry, few things satisfy as well as a good book. Fortunately, there are feasts around the country throughout the year to fulfill every taste. From small block parties to massive convention exhibits, in every size and genre, there is a book event waiting for you. With the long winter finally departing, the number of book fests, fairs, exhibits, conventions and all variety of literary celebrations is growing. This is good for writers, readers and the publishing industry.
In the age of Amazon and other online booksellers, you might feel inclined to lounge in your … whatever you lounge in … and simply connect through the internet to someplace in cyberspace for a book you’ve preselected in your mind. It’s fast. It’s convenient. It’s also impersonal, colorless, bland. When is the last time, ordering online, you discovered a book or spoke with its author, experienced the “bookness” of books with all your senses (yes, a book can even inspire a taste on the tongue), felt exhilarated as if you were a guest at a banquet? Book fests can offer all these rewards and more.
Book fests may simply be large book sales, but most combine presentations, workshops, readings, book signings, exhibits and social gatherings, along with sales.
Here’s a great concept every booklover can participate in: READ AMERICA READ. Read America Read was founded to get America reading again. Free books are left in bus stations, trains, cafes and other locations for anyone to take home. It’s a mini book fest, one book at a time, that has been going strong every month since October, 2015. It happens the last Saturday of every month. The next one will be Saturday, April 29th. Many writers, editors, publishers, and the general public who loves books have been doing this… you can, too!
What do authors Ludwig Bemelmans (Madeleine), Robert McCloskey (Make Way for Ducklings), Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) and Chris Van Allsburg (Polar Express) have in common? They are all recipients of the Caldecott Award for their illustrations in the aforementioned adored children’s books. The annual Caldecott Award is well known. But do you know the man who inspired the award and whose birthday is March 22nd?
Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) grew up with a passion for drawing. A keen observer of his surroundings, the self-taught Caldecott was often seen sketching animals, people, buildings and landscapes. At the age of 15, his sketch of a disastrous fire at the Queen Railway in Chester appeared in the Illustrated London News together with his account of the blaze.
Despite his son’s obvious gift, Caldecott’s businessman father dissuaded his young son from pursuing his passion, urging him to go into banking. During his seven years as a bank clerk, Caldecott took nighttime art classes at the Manchester School of Art. After his bank job took him to London, Caldecott enrolled in the Slade School.
As his drawings began to be accepted by various publications and he felt he could support himself through his art, Caldecott grew confident enough to quit his banking job at the age of 26. He became a prolific illustrator of novels and accounts of foreign travel. He was tapped to illustrate books of Washington Irving’s and other authors. His sense of humor was evident in cartoons, sketches of politicians and other famous people, and drawings of the fashionable hunting society that appeared in such notable magazines as Punch and London Society. His sculptures and paintings were exhibited in the Royal Academy and galleries. Among well-known admirers of his work were Gaugin and Van Gogh.
In 1877, Caldecott was asked to illustrate two children’s books for Christmas. They were so successful, the partnership continued with two books issued every Christmas until Caldecott’s death. Increasingly, Caldecott illustrations began to populate more children’s books, written by himself or others. By 1884, sales of Caldecott’s Nursery Rhymes had reached 876,000 copies (of twelve books) and he was internationally famous. He became one of the three most influential children’s illustrators in the nineteenth century, along with Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane.
A childhood illness took its toll on Randolph Caldecott. After a difficult voyage to the United States in February 1886, he became sick and died in Florida at the age of 40. He and his wife are buried in St. Augustine.
Fifty-one years after his death, the American Library Association honored Randolph Caldecott for his contributions by naming a prestigious award for “the most distinguished picture book for children” published in the United States, beginning with 1937 publications, and giving that award to the book’s illustrator, for the first time in 1938. All Caldecott Medal winners are listed at the ALA website.
I don’t think audiobooks would work for me. Other than music, I don’t think I’m a great listener for an extended period of time, unless words are set to music. I’m a visual person. A voracious reader. Because I spend so much time working on my computer, e-books hold little appeal to me. I’m just an old-fashioned girl who loves the look, feel and (sometimes) smell of print on paper, the choice of book cover design and even the typeface. How do you read?
Start with statistics:
• 72% of American adults have read a book in the past year – in whole or in part, in any format. That’s a 20% decline from 1978.
• Young adults (ages 18 to 29) were the most likely (80%) to have read a book within the past year while adults ages 50-64 were the least likely (68%).
• Women averaged 14 books a year compared to nine books for men.
• In the decade since Kindle, Nook and iPad introduced e-book formats, readership took off like a rocket, reaching 22.5% of book sales in 2012 before settling to a steady near-20% in 2015.
• Audiobooks, which have been around since the 1930s, took off with the ability to download through websites and subscription services. By 2015, audiobooks represented an impressive 38.9% of adult books sales.
• One-third of audiobook listeners fell into the 25-to-34 age bracket, with mysteries/thrillers/suspense being the most popular genre, followed closely by history/biography/memoirs and popular fiction.
• The narrator of an audiobook has a significant impact on sales; some narrators have developed followings that drive sales.
• Print books still dominate, with 77% of all sales.
Why do reading habits matter? If you’re a booklover, learning what others like could coax you to try new formats to increase or improve your reading experiences. For authors – especially self-publishing ones — it’s crucial to understand what formats your target audience gravitates toward to maximize your investment.
Earlier this month, fed up with the increasing hypocritical nonsense streaming out of the political world, I coined a word to describe the purveyors of such commentary: hypocridiots. If you’ve seen my social media posts, you’ve likely seen this term.
Have you ever coined a new word? Hypocridiot is a melding of two existing words. Other ways new words are born are by changing use (from a noun to a verb, from a name to an adjective, etc.), by borrowing from existing words (often found in technical terms) or by approximating in sound the way we imagine something to be (similar to onomatopoeia). My mother often used the term “fershnoricated” (my spelling, since I can’t find this word anywhere) to describe something ridiculously mixed up; it sounds Yiddish but doesn’t appear in the glossary so I assume she or someone else created it. I’ve kept it alive because it works so well.
My recent blog post, “Walking Around the Writer’s Block”, included some of the never-before-seen words in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (a 67-year old book back on the bestseller list) that have particular relevance today. They include: Newspeak — Ambiguous euphemistic language used chiefly in political propaganda. Doublethink — The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them, especially as a result of political indoctrination. Thought Police — (Thinkpol in Newspeak) are those who suppress all dissenting opinion. Prolefeed – “The rubbishy entertainment and spurious news handed out by the Party to the masses.” This word is part of the language Newspeak Big Brother — Used to refer to any ruler or government that invades the privacy of its citizens.
You’d be surprised how many of today’s commonly used words first appeared in literature, out of the imagination of authors. The undisputed king of coinage is William Shakespeare, with more than 2200 new words introduced. They include:
dishearten (Henry the V)
eyeball (The Tempest)
manager (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
obscene (Love’s Labor Lost)
uncomfortable (Romeo & Juliet)
Other authors who have added common words to our lexicon include:
Homer – mentor (The Odyssey)
Sir Walter Scott – freelance (Ivanhoe)
Mark Twain – lunkhead (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
Dr. Seuss – nerd (If I Ran the Zoo)
If you’ve never coined a word, isn’t it about time that you do?
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose Why Writers Write from September 22, 2013 because I have once again felt compelled to return to my own attempt to complete a book. This post helps explain the compulsion.
I recently chatted with two writer friends about why we write. This is a question I’ve pondered frequently since becoming aware of The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, recently published in English by Random House. What makes this best-selling book especially intriguing is that the author (only 13 years old at the time of first publication in Japan in 2007) is autistic and his autism built steeps walls over which it seemed impossible to express his thoughts or feelings.
The translator of the book into English is bestselling novelist (Cloud Atlas) David Mitchell, whose son also has autism. Mitchell has noted that the physical and mental challenges Naoki faced in writing a book is a powerful testament to the human need for connection. In a Slate Book Review, Mitchell compared the writing challenge Naoki has to “the act of carrying water in cupped palms across a bustling Times Square or Piccadilly Circus would be to you or me.”
In a Publisher Weekly article, Mitchell said, “Naoki does have autism, and pretty severe autism at that. And yet, he both experiences and analyzes emotions, even if he can’t express these in direct speech, and has to type about them. If we ‘neurotypicals’ don’t think this is possible, I believe it shows the paucity of our imaginations and understanding.”
Naoki Higashida still writes. He keeps a nearly daily blog and has become a respected autism advocate. He continues to face – and overcome – formidable obstacles to writing.
Which brings me back to the question: why do writers write? It is probably for the same reason dancers dance, singers sing, visual artists paint, draw or sculpt, and musicians play instruments. It begins with the need to express our humanness. We say we are compelled to do it; we give birth to a brainchild (or brainchildren), much as one must give birth to physical children once they have formed within us. And though we would likely do it even if no one paid attention, we are most gratified when people do notice, especially if they respond positively.
From the art of prehistoric cave dwellers to Twitter fans today, we need to leave an imprint that claims our moment in time. That says, I was here and I had value.
Ask a writer why he or she writes and you’ll invite any number of answers. I think it comes down to survival. We write in order to connect something within ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. We write to feel a sense of belonging to something beyond ourselves. To belong means to not be alone. To not be alone improves our chance to survive. Finally, to write means to “survive” beyond our mortality; to continue speaking. To hope there will be at least one person listening.
The Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Short Story Contest is accepting submissions. Established more than three decades ago, the award honors the iconic Chicago author best known for The Man With the Goden Arm and Chicago, City on the Make. The award carries a $3,500 prize for the winner and other amounts for the four finalists and five runners-up. Deadline is 11:59 p.m. (CST) January 31st. There is no submission fee. Visit the Chicago Tribune for submissions and rules details.
Writers Resist, founded after the November election by poet and diversity in the arts promoter Erin Belieu, has organized a nationwide series of writers’ readings on the theme “Re-inaugurate Democracy”. The event is scheduled for January 15th to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and to promote “compassion, equality, free speech and the fundamental ideals of democracy”, according to organizers. More than 50 events are planned in the U.S. and other countries, including New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, London, Zurich, Hong Kong and Singapore. Details can be found in a November 30, 2016 AWP posting.
Unit sales of print books rose 3.3% in 2016 over the previous year, making it the third-straight year of print growth according to a report in a January 6, 2017 post by Publishers Weekly.
Did you miss my blog post last week? With holidays fast approaching, probably not, which was the excuse I gave myself for skipping a week after nearly four years. Like most writers, I wake up every day with a desire to write something but sometimes the “thing” doesn’t become clear enough to commit to paper or post. It’s rare for me but it happens. It did last week.
Because I live to write, rather than write to live, I had the benefit of taking off a week. It gave me time to consider what motivates other writers. Perhaps because we’re in tumultuous political times, I was drawn to George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Why I Write.
Orwell, (born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903), the author of cult classics Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, was largely a political writer whose books are as topical today as when they were written seven decades ago. “Orwellian” became an adjective connoting an attitude and policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth and manipulation of the past. Several words and phrases from Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949) that have entered modern parlance include: Newspeak — Ambiguous euphemistic language used chiefly in political propaganda. Doublethink — The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them, especially as a result of political indoctrination. Thought Police — (Thinkpol in Newspeak) are those who suppress all dissenting opinion. Prolefeed – “The rubbishy entertainment and spurious news handed out by the Party to the masses.” This word is part of the language Newspeak Big Brother — Used to refer to any ruler or government that invades the privacy of its citizens.
Drawing on his own life experiences in Why I Write, Orwell lays out four main motives of writing, which he believes are always present but in different proportions that vary from time to time.
The four motives, according to Orwell, are: (1) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money. (2) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations. (3) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity. (4) Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
Orwell got it right, at least for me. If you’re a writer, too, I suspect you see yourself in this mirror.
In addition to Thanksgiving, November also marks the end of another BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ season. I wish to express my gratitude to all the booklovers who came to our events and signed up for future program notices. I am so impressed with the lineup of literary talent we featured this season (international and national bestsellers, award winners and debut authors): Susanna Calkins, Rory Flynn, Tim Johnston, Mitch Bornstein, Jessica Chiarella, Nic Joseph, Patricia Skalka and Anne Heffron. Special thanks to those who worked with me to make Season 2 of BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ possible: The Book Bin, TASTE Food & Wine, Sunset Foods and our Bonus Buy sponsors. Thank you, one and all!
BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ is finishing its 2016 season with exciting programs! November is National Adoption Awareness Month and we are honored to welcome award-winning screenwriter Anne Heffron with her recently released memoir, You Don’t Look Adopted.
Our Sunday, November 13th, BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ will be a fundraiser to benefit Gift of Adoption – a 2016 recipient of the Congressional Angel in Adoptions Award — at Sunset Foods in Northbrook, IL, from 4-6 p.m. In addition to a wine tasting and book signing, the fundraiser will offer refreshments, raffles and much more. Our traditional BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ on Monday, November 14th will feature a wine tasting and book signing from 6-8 p.m. at TASTE Food and Wine in Chicago.
Adoption has existed as long as people have. The first story about adoption is in the Bible: the story of Moses, who was adopted into an Egyptian Pharaoh’s family. And didn’t that story have a lot of drama? Every family has its own passions and tumult but adoption is truly born of drama … which makes it ripe for story telling – real or fiction.
Whether written for adults or young readers, such classic stories as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), Johanna Spyri’s Heidi (1881) and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911) typically portrayed children who became orphaned and fell into terrible circumstances before they were adopted (usually informally) by some kind-hearted relative or stranger.
Contemporary fiction about adoption reflects changing attitudes and practices. Picture books for very young readers like Anne Braff Brodzinsky’s The Mulberry Bird (1986), Janell Cannon’s Stella Luna (1993) and Jamie Lee Curtis’s On the Night You Were Born (1993) literally “paint” stories openly celebrating adoption, even when the “family” is portrayed as animals. The losses that launch adoption journeys are downplayed or omitted.
Today’s adult novels involving adoption propel their stories by delving into the histories and mindsets of the people touched by this life-changing event. Adoptees aren’t necessarily orphaned and characters display a full range of humanity, the good, the bad and the ugly. Loss is faced head on or flows as an undercurrent through the plot. Where the classics tended to be escapist, the moderns tend to be very relatable. They include John Irving’s The Cider House Rules (1985) and Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Theory of Relativity (2001).
In the past three decades, non-fiction books about adoption have proliferated. Betty Jean Lofton’s Lost and Found (1979) gained a wide audience as the adoptee and psychotherapist advocated change while considering all sides of the adoption triangle: adoptee, birth mother, adoptive parents. Noted sociologist (my cousin) H. David Kirk attained the nickname “the father of adoption sociology” after his groundbreaking book, Shared Fate (1984) brought decades of scientific study about attitudes and outcomes of adoption to the general public. It became a template for many adoption social workers to begin understanding the need for truth in adoption. In the bestselling Adoption Nation (2000), adoptive parent Adam Pertman combined journalistic research and personal anecdotes in an overview of the trends and cultural ramifications of changes sweeping adoption practice. Both disturbing and hopeful, the book’s views come through loud and clear: families should be “out” about their adoptive status, children should be told that they were adopted as early as possible and all members of the adoption “triad” (birth mother, child and parents) should try to stay in close communication.
The person most affected by adoption is the person with no voice: the adoptee. That silence has been shattered by several powerful memoirs by adoptees. These potent accounts can be as hopeful as Marcus Samuelson’s Yes, Chef: A Memoir (2012) or as painful as Ashley Rhodes-Carter’s Three Little Words (2007).
One of the most accessible, well-balanced memoirs of adoption is the recently released You Don’t Look Adopted by award-winning screenwriter Anne Heffron. Five years after her mother died (before finishing the book that would end up favorably reviewed by The New Yorker and The New York Times), three years after getting divorced (for the second time), a year after getting fired (for throwing a pen and crying) and seven months after her daughter left for college (as a D1 athlete), Anne finally had to do what she’d been avoiding her whole life: tell her story. She packed up all her possessions, gave up her life in California, and headed to the place of her birth, New York City, to embark on Write or Die and find out who she really was. What happened in the end was nothing she ever could have predicted.
Book●ed is delighted to celebrate National Adoption Awareness Month by welcoming Anne Heffron with her recently released memoir, You Don’t Look Adopted, to a BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ fundraiser at Sunset Foods in Northbrook, Illinois. Proceeds from the event will benefit Gift of Adoption – a 2016 recipient of the Congressional Angel in Adoptions Award. The fundraiser will offer books, wine and delectable bites, raffles and much more. A traditional free BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ wine tasting and book signing will wrap up the season on Monday, November 14th from 6-8 p.m. at TASTE Food & Wine in Chicago. Books will be available at both events from our favorite book store, the Book Bin.
A special shout-out to The Book Bin, a Northbrook (Illinois) super store (not to be confused with an impersonal superstore) that has handled book sales during the second season of BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ . I’m not the only fan of this venerable independent bookstore, celebrating its 45th year. NPR recently interviewed owner Allison Mengarelli and now The New York Times mentioned the store during an interview with Fredrik Backman, author of the international best seller, A Man Called Ove. Anyone living, working or visiting Chicago’s North Shore will not be disappointed visiting The Book Bin.
November conjures up a lot of rituals from raking leaves to casting votes in elections to celebrating Thanksgiving. A more recent ritual that is really catching on is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo.
National Novel Writing Month began as an event in 1999, and in 2005, became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. NaNoWriMo’s programs now include National Novel Writing Month in November, Camp NaNoWriMo, the Young Writers Program, Come Write In, and The “Now What?” Months.
On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. NaNoWriMo provides the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.
NaNoWriMo is accessed online. You complete a profile so like-minded writers can connect with you but you don’t write your novel on the site. While the process of writing is a primarily a solitary undertaking, NaNoWriMo sets you up with a regional volunteer “Municipal Liaison” and provides a “Regional Lounge” with online forums. As encouragement, personal achievement badges and writing badges are awarded as you complete specific milestones. Pep talks from published authors, NaNo Prep advice, and other resources are offered to motivate you.
You win NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words of your novel between November 1 and November 30. There’s no limit on how many people can win! Just be sure that you’ve defined a novel on their site and validated your novel’s word count at the end of the month. Every year, several generous sponsors offer participant and winner goodies.
All programs for National Novel Writing Month are free. However, they run on (tax-deductible) donations and ask ably-financed participants to contribute towards hosting and administrative costs.
Over 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published. They include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.
Maybe the next great novel to come out of NaNoWriMo will be yours!
BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ is rounding out its 2016 season with exciting programs!
Our October events celebrate the allure of mystery series, featuring new mystery novels from popular authors: See Also Deception by author Larry D. Sweazy and Death in Cold Water by Patricia Skalka. Get clued in on some wonderful wine as you converse with these authors and get your personally autographed copies of their books.
November is National Adoption Awareness Month and we are honored to welcome award-winning screenwriter Anne Heffron with her recently released memoir, You Don’t Look Adopted. In addition to our traditional BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ at TASTE Food and Wine on November 14th, we are excited to host a BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ fundraiser to benefit Gift of Adoption – a 2016 recipient of the Congressional Angel in Adoptions Award – on November 13th at Sunset Foods. In addition to a wine tasting and book signing, the fundraiser will offer refreshments, raffles and much more.
Seems like mystery novels have been around forever but in the history of literature this genre is a relative newcomer. Before the mid-1800s, books were read primarily by the upper classes for education rather than entertainment. In the mid-1800s, rising literacy rates, technological advances in publishing that made books more accessible, and more leisure time contributed greatly to the popularity of novels in general and mysteries in particular.
Edgar Allen Poe, who died at the age of 40 on October 7, 1849, is considered the father of mysteries as we know them today. Poe created mystery’s first fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). Dupin proved so popular, that his exploits continued in subsequent Poe mysteries. Poe refocused mysteries from merely situational to the study of the criminal’s mind.
Mystery novels weren’t solely the domain of male authors. In 1878, Anna Katherine Greene’s The Leavenworth Case made her the first woman to write a detective novel. Elements of detection introduced in this novel influenced writers of the “English country house murder” school in the 1920s.
You can’t think “detective” without conjuring up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who was introduced to readers in A Study in Scarlet (1887) and became the iconic fictional detective of intelligence and scientific knowledge through a series of books.
With increasing prosperity in England and America, and the evolution to a popular format for mystery novels, the 1920s launched the “Gold Age” of mystery fiction. The queen of the genre was Agatha Christie whose 50-year career yielded more than 80 novels, translated into 103 languages. Making the detective’s character as important as the who-done-it, she created two of the most enduring sleuths in mystery fiction: the Belgiun detective Hercule Poirot and the mystery-solving spinster Jane Marple.
On the heels of the Golden Age featuring English authors, American authors with their sensibilities, characters and locales gained popularity. Mystery novels reached their zenith here in the 1930s and 40s. The most notable characters included Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Earl Derr Bigger’s Charlie Chan and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. Then there is Ellery Queen, a pseudonym for the collaboration of American cousins Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay whose detective also went by that name. In all, the two authors wrote 33 Ellery Queen novels spanning over 40 years.
Other types of mystery series that made their mark between the 20s and 40s included Ed McBain’s police procedurals and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (maligned by critics for its emphasis on sex and violence but popular with readers). Even young readers got hooked on mysteries, following their own sleuths in the popular Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series.
Mystery series featuring sleuths are as popular as ever. Examples include Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Robert B. Parker‘s Boston-based P.I. Spenser, and P.D. James‘British policeman Adam Dagliesh.
Guests at this month’s BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ will meet popular mystery authors and learn about the latest books in their series. Patricia Skalka, author of the hot-off-the-press Death in Cold Water (a Dave Cubiak mystery), and Larry D. Sweazy, author of the recently released See Also Deception (a Marjorie Trumaine mystery), will share in the conversation-friendly free wine tasting at TASTE Food & Wine in Chicago on Monday, October 24th from 6-8 p.m. Patricia will also hold court from 6-8 p.m. at the October 25th BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ at Sunset Foods in Northbrook, IL. Books and wines, along with Bonus Buy packages will be available for sale at both events.
Mark your calendar for November 13th and 14th when BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ will celebrate National Adoption Awareness Month with two very special events. More details to come! You can stay on top of the latest news by checking the Book●ed website and clicking on BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ or LIKE the Book●ed Facebook page.
One of the most important parts of a non-fiction book is the part readers rarely if ever think about: the Index. It’s just there. But who compiles it? That’s the job of the indexer.
Yes, there are professional indexers, bless ‘em all. I was surprised to learn that most indexers (that’s what they’re called) work freelance and the work can be quite profitable. There’s actually an American Society for Indexing, a non-profit organization that advocates, educates, and provides a central resource for indexing.
In the United States, authors are traditionally responsible for the index of their non-fiction book but most authors don’t actually do it. A few publishers have in-house indexers but most indexing is hired out to freelancers by authors, publishers or book packagers.
While computer software can assist the indexer, indexing requires understanding and organizing the ideas and information in a book’s text to a degree that computers still cannot handle. According to the ASI, “Skills needed to learn indexing include excellent language skills, high clerical aptitude, accuracy, and attention to detail.” (Also)… self-discipline, curiosity, tolerance of isolation and love of books are necessary to keep going.
Although they are typically found in non-fiction books, indexes and indexers populate fiction. Examples are Orson Scott Card’s The Originist and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Author Barbara Pym includes indexers in many of her works, including No Fond Return of Love while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes made use of a personal index in several of his cases.
In award-winning author Larry D. Sweazy’s Marjorie Trumaine mystery series, the main character is an indexer. See Also Deception, the newest book in the series, will be one of the featured books when Sweazy is the guest, along with popular mystery writer Patricis Skalka and her hot-off-the-press Death in Cold Water, at the October 24th BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ at TASTE Food and Wine in Chicago. Skalka will also appear at the October 25th BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ at Sunset Foods in Northbrook, IL. You’ll be clued in to great mysteries, fabulous wines and much more at these two free conversation-friendly wine tasting book signing events. As always, books, wine and Bonus Buy packages will be available.
Mark your calendar for November 13th and 14th when BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ will celebrate National Adoption Awareness Month with two very special events. More details to come! You can stay on top of the latest news by checking the Book●ed website and clicking on BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ or LIKE the Book●ed Facebook page.
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose 451 Degrees–Parts 1 & 2 from March 2013 because the American Library Association just completed another Banned Books Week with the goal of raising awareness of the censorship that threatens our freedom to read.
During a heated election year that has exposed an ugly, dangerous polarization in the U.S., at a time when words really do matter, it is critical to see how – and why — some forces seek to control what we read.
American classics that have been banned or challenged around the country include The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. For more about books in the U.S. that have been challenged as well as information about classic novels that have been challenged and/or banned, please seeFrequently Challenged Books.
Banned Books Week began in 1982 as a response to what the ALA said was a drastic increase of challenges to, and removal of, books in libraries, schools and bookstores.The first Banned Book list, in 2001, was topped by JK Rowling’s Harry Potter for “satanism, religious viewpoint, anti-family and violence.” From 2000 to 2009, the top five categories that caused a book to be challenged or banned included: sexually explicit material, offensive language, being considered unsuited for the age group, violence or homosexuality.
“We’re seeing more and more challenges to diverse content, such books about people of color or the LGBT community,” said Deborah Caldwell Stone, deputy director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. “It reflects concerns of changes in our society.” The list of the10 most challenged books of 2015is based on the frequency a book has been challenged or removed from libraries or schools in the US.
451 Degrees – Part 1
Noted author Judy Blume once said, “Fear is often disguised as moral outrage.” I pondered this concept – one I happen to agree with – as I read about a student-run book club at Chicago’s Lane Tech College Prep High School. The club is called 451 Degrees, the temperature at which book paper burns in Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 futuristic book about a repressive America that confiscates books and burns them. The Lane Tech book club was created by 16-year-old student Levi Todd with the express purpose of reading banned and controversial books.
Earlier this month, Chicago Public Schools issued a directive that removed all copies of the highly acclaimed, award-winning autobiographical graphic novel* Persepolis from seventh-grade classrooms because of “powerful images of torture.” Author Marjane Satrapi defended her book about her childhood during the 1979 Iranian revolution, noting, “These are not photos of torture. It’s a drawing and it’s one frame… Seventh graders have brains and they see all kinds of things on cinema and the internet.”
As a parent, I am sensitive to the challenges of protecting children from unnecessarily disturbing or inappropriate words, images and values (whatever we deem them to be). The key word is unnecessarily; the concept is very subjective. In reality, we cannot protect our children from disturbing or inappropriate words, images or values. In today’s world, they are all around us, seeping into our everyday lives. If we close our eyes to this reality, we fail our children and our society. Ignorance is not bliss.
We can do better by our children and our society by being vigilant about controversial books – not by jumping the banned book bandwagon, but by reading those books and discussing the aspects that have raised the controversy. We could all learn much about our world and the people in it and the events that shape our lives – and our future.
451 Degrees – Part 2
Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, presents a repressive society of the future where books are illegal and firemen burn any house that contains them. Bradbury titled his most famous book after “the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns.” The cultural landscape Bradbury created is reminiscent of Nazi Germany and other societies throughout history, from ancient eras to contemporary times, in which censorship of thoughts resulted in mass book destruction.
Lest you think America’s celebrated Constitutionally-protected right to “free speech” has shielded this country from similar attempts at suppression, be aware that in the past dozen years alone, Harry Potter books were burned in several American states, “non-approved” Bibles, books and music were burned in North Carolina, and copies of the Qu’ran were burned in various states.
It doesn’t take burning to threaten books and the treasures they possess. Every year, attempts to ban books abound throughout our country. Thought-provoking expression and concepts are often banished from classrooms, libraries and public discourse simply because someone has taken offense at a word, a phrase or an illustration; isolated fragments are pulled out of context and attacked, often by people who haven’t bothered to read the full text or consider different viewpoints. This is true of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a perennial title on “Most Challenged Books” lists since its publication in 1960, and of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, recently banned in Chicago Public Schools.
Fahrenheit 451 is prescient and worth a read (or re-read) six decades after its first publication. Bradbury envisioned many technical and cultural developments that are common today. The book’s uncanny foresight magnifies the strength of its message: When we ban books, we repress thought; we reduce the ability to think; we diminish what it is to be human. If we do not defend the freedom of books to exist and be read, we could find ourselves fulfilling Bradbury’s dystopian nightmare.
We do not need to endorse books with viewpoints, language or imagery that are at odds with our own — but we should not fear them. Every book eventually stands on its literary merits. Poorly written books, those with gratuitous attempts to shock or titillate, will fall from their own weakness. Every book should be given a chance: to start a dialogue, to teach, to enlighten and to enhance humanity.
Since July 2015, booklovers have had a new, fun place to meet authors and buy books – at BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ http://www.bookedwebcast.com/booked_books-n-bottles.html. Now in its second season, the monthly events are held at two venues, one in Chicago and one in suburban Northbrook, IL. Each venue offers a different convivial atmosphere for lovers of books and wines. Guests enjoy conversing with authors while enjoying quality wine tastings. The quality wines are as diverse and delicious as the books and both are available for sale. In season two, we also added the Bonus Buy concept: mementos, merchant discounts and professional photos with the author, among other goodies. For season three, to begin in the spring of 2017, we expect to add a third venue. Three venues, three different settings. Something for every taste. Stay tuned!
This month’s singular BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ will be a national book launch celebration on September 25th at Sunset Foods in Northbrook, IL. Boy, 9, Missing is the debut novel from Chicago author Nic Joseph, to be released by Sourcebooks Landmark on September 20th. In the tradition of Defending Jacob or Drowning Ruth, this suspenseful thriller explores the ramifications of revenge, justice, and the aftermath of a terrible night in the lives of two families. As we enjoy our free wine tasting, we’ll be discussing where inspiration comes from and how this book elevates its theme. As always, audience participation will be encouraged! Books will be available on site from the Book Bin, wine and the ever popular Bonus Buy packages (mementos, merchant discounts, professional photos with the author and more) will also be available for purchase.
October 1st is the deadline for submissions to the Missouri Review’s competition for the 26th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize. Prizes of $5,000 each for Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry. Winners receive publication, invitation to a reception and reading in their honor and a cash prize.
The Unbound Book Festival is looking for hosts to hold fundraising parties for next year’s event. The free Missouri festival aims to bring nationally and internationally recognized authors to Columbia, Missouri to talk about their books, their work, and their lives in interactive activities. Beyond the one-day event, organizers hope to raise funds and awareness to improve literacy standards throughout the State of Missouri.
BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ will celebrate the national book launch of Boy, 9, Missing from 4-6 p.m. on Sunday, September 25th at Sunset Foods in downtown Northbrook, IL. The debut novel from Chicago author Nic Joseph, published by Sourcebooks Landmark, has been compared to classic thrillers Defending Jacob or Drowning Ruth. The event, hosted by Book●ed, includes a free wine tasting, conversation with the author, book signings and more. Books will be available on site from the Book Bin, wine and the ever popular Bonus Buy packages (mementos, merchant discounts, professional photos with the author and more) will also be available for purchase.
The 13th Annual Best Book Awards entry deadline is September 30th. The i310 Media Group, organizer of the competition, says it is “specifically designed to not only garner media coverage and book sales for the winners and finalists but to promote awarded books to the publishing and entertainment industries.” Open to all books with an ISBN and published in 2016 (galley copies welcome). 2015 and 2014 titles are also eligible.
“Book Readings That Sell Your Book” is a workshop offered by Off Campus Writers Workshop on Thursday, October 13th from 9:30 a.m. to noon at Winnetka Community House in Winnetka, IL. Part of publishing a book today is performing readings and doing signings at bookstores, libraries… and, if you’re really lucky, BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™. Actress, comedienne, and novelist Jennifer Rupp will shares practical tips for giving author readings that entertain, intrigue and help sell books. Jennifer invites attendees to bring three pages of something you’ve written for practice in a safe, supportive environment.
NORTHBROOK WRITES: Character Development with Eric Charles May, part of a series of free workshops for writers, will be offered by the Northbrook Public Library on Saturday, October 29th from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. May, who was a BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ featured author in 2015, is an author, associate professor in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago, and former reporter for The Washington Post. His workshop will address how to develop rich and engaging characters.
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I choseKeep Your Day Job from October 2014 because every author I’ve met (a few whom I selected for BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™) faces the challenge of putting his or her book in the hands of readers … and profiting from the effort. This post explains budget factors for every writer to consider. Also, check myQuotable post for thoughts about publishing from notable authors.
Who doesn’t have the great American novel waiting to be written? Or maybe it’s a collection of poetry begging to spill on to pages of a book? Nearly everyone I talk to confesses at some point to harboring the dream of being a published author. Writing groups are gaining in popularity, with members ranging from the pure dreamers to ambitious authors who have prepared a manuscript and are searching for the path to publication. Are you one of these writers?
The dream of having your book published is accompanied by the expectation that it will be purchased to be read; that fortune will accompany fame, or at least cover your publishing costs. This hope exists whether your book is published traditionally or self-published.
With traditional publishers, production, distribution and related professional costs are born by the publishing company but authors have become more responsible for their own promotional efforts; and the book’s “life” is under the control of the publisher. Self-published authors bear total responsibility and costs but maintain total control of every step.
Whether you go the traditional route or self-publish, keep your day job. Until your book sells in the several thousands of copies, the only riches you will receive will be the knowledge that some people are reading your work. How can this be when hardcover books sell for $25 and up, a paperbacks sell for $15 and up, and eBooks run $7 and up? Where does the money go?
Welcome to “trickle down income” in the publishing world. If your book is published traditionally, you will periodically be paid a royalty for books sold after the publisher deducts all its costs plus its profit. If you self-publish, you pay yourself … after you pay anyone you employ to get your book into the hands of readers: editor, proofreader, technical formatter, cover designer, printer, (possibly) a warehouse, distributor, marketer, (maybe) a web designer, administrator.
Production is not necessarily the most expensive factor. Authors can expect a wholesale discount of 40 percent to be taken off the retail price by major book stores and big box stores. Libraries typically take a 20 percent discount. Distributors take 15 percent on top of those discounts. Sellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble act as both distributor and seller, taking 55 percent off your retail price. If you use an agent, expect 10-15 percent off the wholesale price to be collected for services.
Ongoing promotion is a book’s life insurance. Regardless of how a book is published, authors are expected to oversee this job. Maintaining websites, arranging book signings, giving talks and doing interviews are some of the recommended promotional activities.
Some expenses occur once while others will be recurring. Every responsibility you handle yourself rather than hire out is more money in your pocket … if you know what you’re doing and you don’t mind spending your time on it … time you could use to write your next book.
Scared? Don’t be. Knowledge is power. Empower yourself by learning all the aspects of taking your brainchild from start to a successful finish. But, at least for now, don’t quit your day job.
Regardless of the genre, it has been said that no story is wholly original. Each one has been told before in some form or fashion. Researchers at MIT recently demonstrated the truth behind the theory that one of only six core plots form the building blocks of complex narratives. You can read the MIT explanation at the MIT Technology Review.
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. Recently, I was aghast to see a room designed with a bookcase full of books placed backwards, spines hidden, to match the room’s white/beige color theme. As the Rev. Sidney Smith (1771-1845) said, “No furniture is so charming as books.” Clearly the designer of the white/beige room isn’t a booklover. But you are. Here’s what I wrote about the most important part of a book’s cover on July 27, 2014.
In a recent gathering of writers, the discussion turned to book cover design and, more specifically, book spine design. Even more specifically, how often book sales are lost because authors and publishers overlook this crucial part of a book.
As important as a book’s cover is, it’s usually the book’s spine that first greets us on the shelves of stores and libraries. It’s one thing if we’re looking for a particular title or author, another if we’re browsing. Truth is we’re browsing even when we’re looking for a particular title or author. This is why book spine design deserves at least as much attention from authors and publishers as they give to cover design.
Since shelved books usually stand vertically, the ideal direction for type on the spine is horizontal to make words appear as we normally view them. But this is problematic if the book is not fat or the words are long. Most books cannot support this design. Instead, letters are usually turned at right angles to the viewer’s eye, running along the vertical spine. Because this is not the normal way we view writing, it has to be even clearer than it would otherwise have to be.
In North America, the normal direction of words on book spines is from top to bottom; in Europe, it’s usually bottom to top. This is because in North America, books are stacked face up, while in Europe, they’re stacked face down, with no front covers visible at all. The result is that readers browsing the shelves in a European bookstore tilt their necks to the left, while those in North America tilt theirs to the right.
With spine design, simple sells. This may be one reason modern books titles are often only one or two words; a design choice as much as a literary one. Capital letters, having no ascenders or descenders, present more cleanly than lower case letters. Bold fonts work better than delicate ones. Colors need to contrast but not compete. The spine must attract attention, convey information and please the eye; a huge job for a relatively small plot of real estate on a book.
Next time you’re browsing bookshelves – in a store, a library or your own home – see which books attract your attention. Then consider the designs of the spines. You’ll notice trends that succeed but also be surprised when a rule-breaking design works.
Like people’s spines, book spines should be accorded the care and respect they deserve because their job is critical to everything that resides within the body.
The Chicago Writers Conference, a non-profit organization, is accepting registration for its three-day conference, September 23rd-25th. Conference Chicago at University Center includes workshops, panels and guest speakers.