Posts tagged It Books
Posts tagged It Books
We all love bestsellers, but sometimes the data gets in the way of the piece at its center, the book.
I finally read Beautiful Ruins in trade paperback, and I was blown away. I could barely put it down, and then I insisted that everyone else read it, too. I read passages aloud from it. I didn’t want the story to end. Forget the fact that Jess Walter ends Beautiful Ruins perfectly—all those characters and plotlines, all those balls in the air, brought so beautifully and spectacularly to a close in Chapter 21, also titled “Beautiful Ruins.”
But I had to keep going, so I read Walter’s excellent and hilarious essay in the P.S. section “In the Time of Galley Slaves.” And learned, to my astonishment, that it took him 15 years to write Beautiful Ruins. Many times he thought he would abandon it altogether, even though he was never quite able to. As he wrote, “During fourteen of those fifteen years the novel existed in my mind as my favorite failure, a hot mess of half-finished sentences and half-formed characters and incomplete stories that I somehow loved beyond all reason since I was pretty certain that, as a book, it would never amount to anything.” He also described it as “a multigenerational, multi-genre, multi-point-of-view book about 1960s Italy, present-day Hollywood, World War II, and the Donner Party.”
So how does that (Donner Party, hot mess, fifteen years, Hollywood) become this (almost half a million copies sold; #1 here, #3 there, sixteen weeks and counting)? I asked around, wanting to know who at HarperCollins worked on this book. What do different people do behind the scenes? We see names listed in an author’s acknowledgments page, but what really goes on? I discovered that the in-house story behind Beautiful Ruins is quite a story itself.
Cal Morgan, Jess’s editor, had this to say when I asked him how it came about that Jess got this book ready for submission:
Jess and I had been working together since around 2000, and each new novel he brought us was more ambitious than the last: a pair of genre-tweaking police procedurals, a hilarious mob story, then the blackly comic post-9/11 novel The Zero. It wasn’t until we were working on The Financial Lives of the Poets, a few years ago, that he started sharing what became Beautiful Ruins. I’ve come to learn that’s how Jess works: While he usually has one core project on his desktop, others are always nearby, awaiting their time in the sun.
I was curious about the editorial challenges of pulling all these different strands and timelines together into a coherent narrative. About Jess’s work, Cal said:
Jess’s most obvious achievement in Beautiful Ruins is its structure, which chronicles dozens of characters over more than fifty years (plus one heady leap back to the 1800s), shifting seamlessly among them. But he performs so many other magic tricks: the book is full of fragments from other works, including one chapter from a WWII novel, one from a Hollywood memoir, dialogue from a stage play, even a movie pitch! And then that whirling crescendo of an ending, where he revisits each character with a sudden, breathtaking clarity. When Michael Morrison finished the book, he asked one question: How did he do that?
But what does an editor do? The risks of this story ending up as a complete muddle seem great, given all these different elements, storylines, themes, characters, and time sequences. I asked Cal if he had a role in telling Jess to get rid of some pieces—or convincing him to save others, which Jess maybe thought had to go. “Ha!” Cal responded. “Jess is a genius, so I never needed to. He’d solved all those problems before I got the manuscript.”
There’s no question the jacket played a big part of Beautiful Ruins’s success. Take a look at it to fully appreciate the effect: the coastal Italian town, clutching the rocks as described in the opening chapters, with no beach or harbor in sight, the competing aquamarine blues of the sky and sea, the Technicolor buildings and hillsides, the apparent absence of people or cars, and the typeface: so Hollywood of the early 60s, evoking such classic films as Vertigo and La Dolce Vita. Designer Jarrod Taylor talked about how the concept was there from the beginning—a vacation postcard from this era, to show a town much like Porto Vergogna—but hard work went into getting it just right. The image is a stock photograph from 2009, but zoomed out so it’s hard to see the cars and twenty-odd people who happen to be in the shot. Working in Photoshop and InDesign Jarrod enhanced and greatly exaggerated the colors and added distressing so that the front cover would look like an old postcard found in a drawer somewhere, saved from a long-ago vacation.
The typeface was another challenge. Any script of the word “Beautiful” runs the risk of appearing too feminine (and of course the name “Jess Walter” could be a woman’s name). “I showed Cal a lot of different display type treatments before we landed on this one, an altered version of Sonora,” he told me, “and the lettering had to be tweaked and positioned just right to create the final art for the front jacket layout. You wouldn’t just type it out.” The end result hit the mark—so effectively that no one considered changing the cover concept when it came time for the trade paperback (as sometimes happens, to give a hardcover a new marketing approach in trade paperback).
Design and Production
As a production editor, I was particularly interested in what took place to bring this manuscript to first pass. Our copyeditors know to respect the author’s voice—and in Beautiful Ruins there are several distinctive voices to consider—while also respecting the rules laid out by The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) and Merriam Webster (11th edition). I was intrigued to learn that Jess wrote the entire “Rejected First Chapter of Michael Deane’s Memoir” (Chapter 15) without a single comma. Forget that this style breaks a lot of rules—the point is that a comma suggests a pause, and Michael Deane is a character who never paused over anything in his life.
The interior design of Beautiful Ruins is appealing and clever, a collaboration between Cal, designer Michael Correy, and production editor Shannon Ceci. The challenge was to incorporate all the different narrative forms using different typefaces and layout treatments. So you get basic Courier for the first chapter of Alvis Bender’s unfinished manuscript (Chapter 4), the urgent, all-italic treatment of Shane’s desperate Donner Party pitch (Chapter 7), the typescript of Michael Deane’s rejected first chapter of his memoir, and the formatted script from the play The Front Man in Chapter 18. The effect is a witty verisimilitude, but one that doesn’t call too much attention to itself.
Marketing and Publicity
So the in-house contributors knew they had something really good here, but did anyone predict that Beautiful Ruins would be the break-out bestseller that it has become over the past year? It seems to me, given the novel’s ambitious scope and originality, its success is a blow-out surprise. As Cal told me,
Yes, it was a complete surprise—if it’s possible for a long-held dream to be a surprise. We Jess Walter fans were always hoping that people would discover him—and they were, slowly but surely, especially after Citizen Vince and The Zero got some award recognition and Financial Lives became a national bestseller. But Beautiful Ruins was different: with its lush settings, the interrupted love story at its center, and the great characters of Pasquale and Dee, it was a big, golden-hearted novel that was destined to draw people in.
I checked in with Jane Beirn to talk about the publicity for the hardcover, and what factors she attributed to its taking off the way it did. It had only been out a few weeks before it appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for 13 weeks. She cited Janet Maslin’s review in the Times daily paper, quickly followed by a great notice in People and then NPR’s Fresh Air (the source of what has to be one of the best plugs of the year: “A literary miracle”). These reviews got the attention of other reviewers at key news outlets, and soon there was a critical mass of interest and buzz. “That was how Beautiful Ruins became part of the conversation,” she explained to me. “As it gained more of these wonderful reviews, and of course word-of-mouth recommendations, interest and sales just grew and grew.” Everyone who works in publishing loves it when a long-anticipated blockbuster hits the ground running the moment it’s available for pre-orders on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but what’s even more exciting is when a literary outlier like Beautiful Ruins turns out to be absolutely irresistible to the reading public.
It helped that Jess Walter himself was so charming, and so cooperative with the campaign, gamely making himself available for readings and interviews, and writing essays (such as “Galley Slaves”) to promote the book. Jane cited his background in newspapers as key to his skill at generating great copy so readily and quickly. “We ask a lot of our authors,” she told me. “So much additional writing—blogs, Q&As, ‘about the book’ essays—as well as readings and book signings, and at the same time we want them to deliver their next book as soon as possible.”
Another phenomenal success: sales of the audiobook for Beautiful Ruins are 45 to 50 percent of hardcover sales, which almost never happens. I spoke to Sean McManus and Karen Dziekonsky at Harper Audio about why this was such a hit. A key factor in producing an audiobook, I found out, is the actor who performs it. Because a novel needs a performance, not simply a narrator reading from the book, but someone who can in some sense act out the different characters with their subtle intonations, accents, the ways their personalities are expressed in dialogue or point of view.
Edoardo Ballerini, a character actor who has appeared on The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, was hired to perform Beautiful Ruins and turned out to be the perfect choice: not only because he spoke Italian but because he did a wonderful job rendering the female characters, notably Dee Moray and Claire Silver, as well as all the other people in the story. If you get a chance, listen to how he says “Fontana della Barcaccia” in Chapter 8, “The Grand Hotel.” Then compare the voices of Michael Deane and Pasquale in this same scene. So subtly, but so accurately does he convey the personalities and states of mind of the two men, as well as their very different intentions and desires in that moment. In an email, Jess said this about Edoardo: “I couldn’t be happier with that choice. I do think it’s Pasquale’s book, finally, even if he’s more stoic than some of the other characters…and I think for Alvis Bender’s ‘novel,’ Shane’s Donner Party pitch and Michael Deane’s ‘autobiography’…a male voice will make sense. And I think Edoardo’s voice is wonderful, and am so pleased he speaks Italian.”
Jess loved Edoardo’s performance and, in the course of working together on the audiobook and promoting it, the two became good friends. They hit it off so well, in fact, that they performed together one night last spring at the Half King, a bar and nightclub in New York. Edoardo read scenes from the book, and Jess answered questions from the audience. The event was timed to promote release of the paperback (more about that in a minute), but it also added to the audiobook’s success.
And what a success. Salon gave Beautiful Ruins its Audiobook of the Year award, and so did Audible.com. Edoardo Ballerini won an Earphones Award from AudioFile Magazine for his performance. No surprise, then, that Beautiful Ruins was one of Harper Audio’s bestselling titles of 2012.
It’s hard to talk about the paperback without going on and on about sales figures and bestseller lists. We know, we know! But again, why? How? Mary Sasso, who handled the marketing of the trade paperback, explained. First, the timing. After the hardcover had done so well in 2012, Harper Perennial published, in February 2012, Jess’s collection of short stories, We Live in Water. This book garnered more attention for the author and really laid the groundwork for the paperback release of Beautiful Ruins—such that it hit the bestseller week at #7 the week it was published, spent five weeks at #1, and is still on the list today.
Goodreads played a big part, Mary told me, in building interest among its subscribers. The hardcover already had a great track record with word-of-mouth buzz, which is what Goodreads is built on. So readers were ready to go out and buy the paperback, whether for their reading groups or because a friend told them to. The site even produced this half-hour video session of Jess answering questions from readers, which was a hit. Hudsons, which has many stores and newsstands in airports and train and bus terminals, has been a big player in paperback sales as well. The chain’s employees are full of enthusiasm for this title, devising creative ways to hand-sell it to travelers just passing through, using the cover and the overall presentation as the perfect book anyone would want to take with them on a vacation.
Beyond the Beyond
It seems no one can get enough of this book—just last week, the comic strip “Luann” had a wonderful clash-of-generations riff on Beautiful Ruins—the romance of reading it aloud, slowly, versus just waiting for the movie to come out and “getting it done.” (http://www.gocomics.com/luann/2013/07/21)
To be honest, even though Jess is writing the screenplay, I’m nervous about the movie. This is Hollywood, after all. Who’s really going to be in charge? Jess? Anyone from HarperCollins? I wish. If I see it (and I will—I have to), I’ll be careful to manage my expectations. (Please no one remind me of Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady …). What a story, and congratulations to Jess Walter, and all the people at Harper, who just did what they do here every day. Books like Beautiful Ruins—a big risk maybe, but also a literary miracle—remind us, all over again, what book publishing is really about.
Lelia Mander is a Senior Production Editor at HarperCollins Publishers (William Morrow and It Books).
Amy Poehler is making like her wordsmith bestie Tina Fey and writing a memoir-esque tome for HarperCollins’s pop culture imprint, It Books. (via Amy Poehler Is Writing Your New Favorite Book — Vulture)
In ‘Unknown Pleasures,’ Peter Hook riffs on Joy Division’s fateful tale…
1. Summer hours
I’m going to miss those relaxed Friday afternoons now that Labor Day has passed: the leisurely lunches, the movie matinees, the early start to the weekend. On the other hand, problems have a way of surfacing on a Friday in the summer—enormous changes at the last minute from an author, or the printer has a question that only the designer (who’s on vacation or just left for the day) can answer. Will the book still make its release date? Stay tuned…
2. Reading on the job
When I first get a manuscript, I need to prepare it for the copyeditor. So I have to read through it. Then I read through it again before sending it back to the editor. Then I check it before it goes to production, and again when it’s in first, second, and third pass. Finally I read it one more time when I review the epub. Good thing I love to read. The book could be something hot and outrageous, like The Average American Marriage by Chad Kultgen; or something timely and urgent, like Ralph Nader’s The Seventeen Solutions; or something deeply thought-provoking, like Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe. It’s never boring.
3. Other people in book publishing
Everyone says the people who work on books are terrific: editors, publishers, designers, production managers, publicists—they’re smart, interesting, tuned in, witty, maybe a little obsessive, and odd at times, but always fun to be around—even when the pressure is on. (Just don’t kill me if I missed that typo; remember, no one’s perfect, and we’re all in this together!)
4. The information
If I didn’t work here, I’d know nothing about the upcoming film Life of Pi. But because I was the production editor on The Making of Life of Pi: A Film, a Journey by Jean-Christophe Castelli, I know that Suraj Sharma, the actor who plays Pi in the film, had never acted before and didn’t even know how to swim. I get to find out what it’s like to be an actress on a soap opera—for a period spanning three decades (Not Young, Still Restless, by Jeanne Cooper)! I get a backstage look at life on the road with Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart (Kicking and Dreaming). Once, the drummer from another band that was touring with Heart actually thought he could ask the Wilson sisters to babysit his child while he went off for the rest of the night to “see this guy about something.” Okay, I’ll be honest—the books I read on my own time aren’t always in this same category, but I’m glad to know what I know, thanks to working here.
5. The journey of the written word
It starts in a private place, as an idea, a proposal, a concept. Then it appears in a manuscript or Word file, where it works to tell a story, describe a time in history, argue a political point, expose a crime, bring about total destruction…from there, it gets line-edited and copyedited so it can do an even better job. After that, it is designed and typeset so that it’s pleasing to read on the page. It gets proofread so it won’t embarrass the author or editor, and then it’s published. Hardcover, paperback, epub, enhanced epub: finally, it’s ready for the world. I see titles I’ve worked on for sale at Barnes & Noble, on the Amazon home page, advertised in the New York Times, and I’m so proud of them. They made it! And the journey ends, as it began, in a private place—in the mind and heart of the reader. What a long, strange trip—and I was there to see it happen.
by Lelia Mander, Senior Production Editor, It Books, Harper Design, and Harper Perennial