Thursday, October 30, 2008


Every couple of months we publish a new volume of Select Editions, and I go through the process of updating our blog to include the new selections. I just did it for our new October volume, and realized as I did so that this was Volume 300. 300! That’s a lot of books.

There is something magical about round numbers with lots of zeroes at the end of them. They speak to importance, to meaningful anniversaries, to moments worth remembering. In the case of 300 volumes going back to 1950, they speak to longevity. You could say that we’ve published a lot of books over the years, but I’d rather say that we’ve put out a lot of entertainment, and I’m happy to point out that a lot of people have enjoyed this entertainment, allowing us to stay in the business of providing it. And I do see it as entertainment. Books can do a lot of things. They can move us and inform us and in some cases even change our lives, but they are also one of the best forms of entertainment. Reading a story gets it into your mind in a way different from any other. It is a captivation that is total. It had better be good if you’re allowing it so much control over your brain! It had better be entertaining.

You’ll decide for yourself whether the latest stories in Volume 300 rise to the test. I’ll just say that from the perspective of longevity, they’re an interesting mix. We’ve published Mary Higgins Clark since the beginning of her spectacular career right up to the latest. We’ve just begun using books by Patrick Taylor and Peter Pezzelli, and while their books in Volume 300 are repeat performances, these two are still new to the literary scene. (An Irishman and an Italian. Sounds like my own family.) Finally, we have our first title from the popular writer Marie Bostwick, and we get a chance to introduce her to the Select Editions audience. So we have a mix of names familiar and not so familiar, but mostly I think we have entertainment: a baffling mystery, a warm country doctor tale, a crusty old professor, a woman making a new life. Great stories to settle down with, to let take over your brain.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman died a couple of days ago at the age of 83. This is the obituary printed in the New York Times.

Select Editions first used a Hillerman book in 1990, Coyote Waits. We went on to publish his work in editions in Australia and the Netherlands and Poland and Russia and Finland—just about everywhere we have an edition. Every couple of years we would just feel that something was missing from our series, and then the new Hillerman would appear, and that would be exactly what we’d been looking for! There is something about Hillerman’s Navajo characters, Leaphorn and Chee, and the tribal culture he described that appealed both because of his honesty and uniqueness in dealing with these Indian themes, and because of their ultimate transcendent humanity. No wonder he was a Grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America as well as a Special Friend of the Dineh (the Navajo people), a distinction about which he was most proud.

The man will be missed. But his books will go on for a long, long time. It was an honor to have been able to bring some of them to our readers.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

In search of character

I’m struck by the sympathy for character that marks the best popular fiction. I can’t imagine a better case of apples and oranges than the writings of Michael Connelly and Nicholas Sparks, but they share one thing in common that I think may be the key to their unique and individual successes: a belief in the people that they are writing about. The reader cannot avoid being drawn in by the authors’ inherent sincerity. Plenty of people write procedurals and legal thrillers, and plenty of people write family stories, but these two succeed again and again so much better than almost anyone else. Sure, they’re good story-tellers, but they’re telling us good stories about people who feel real. That’s the key. And that reality begins with the authors themselves.

In Connelly’s case, he has not one but two series characters he’s working with. One is Harry Bosch, LAPD, and the other is lawyer Mickey Haller. They come together in Connelly’s latest, The Brass Verdict. What demonstrates Connelly’s skill so well is that even readers who have never read one of his books before will be able to understand the depths of these characters, and why their relationship is so meaningful. Bosch is the kind of cop who takes no nonsense from anyone, and who has no problem standing up to his own bosses. Haller is a lawyer who does whatever it takes to win for a client, and sometimes whatever it takes isn’t so perfect, and neither are his clients. It is a joy to see these two characters working toward what seems to be the same goal.

As for Sparks, his career began with his fictionalizing some of the events in the life of his own family. But recently he has discovered a special affinity for armed forces veterans. We saw this in Dear John, with John Tyree, a troubled kid who finds his direction when he joins the service, and now we see it again in Sparks’s latest, The Lucky One, with ex-Marine Logan Thiboult. There is a sense of competency in these men, a sense of mission and a sense of longing, that simply strikes the reader as going deep into the reality of actual people. They don’t feel like made-up characters. They feel like your brothers and sons and friends, the ones who are serving their country because they believe it’s the right thing to do, and you respect them for this just as you respect those people we know in real life in that same situation.

Of course, these two authors are storytellers: in addition to creating empathetic characters (going beyond the lead characters mentioned here), they are writing stories that engage us. We want to see what happens to these people. But it is not the sheer plotting that makes the difference. In the long run, story is simply a vehicle. It’s the people that count. And these people, in two different sorts of novels by two different sorts of writers, are unforgettable. We believe in these characters because their creators believe in these characters. They’re radically different writers working radically different sides of the street, but they share that one important thing in common. And that’s what good writing is all about.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Some very high royalty checks

Last week Forbes published a list of the world’s best paid authors.

No surprise: J. K. Rowling was at the top of the list. The creator of Harry Potter earned over $300 million in twelve months; this former struggling single mother is so rich and famous that her name wasn’t even questioned by my spell-checker when I typed it here! That’s impressive. Of course, Forbes includes income from both books and films, and Rowling is a rare case of a roaring success in one medium also being a roaring success in the other medium. Given the boost in the arm this author has given to kids’ reading, she deserves to be rewarded. If people are reading real books to their grandchildren fifty years from now, J. K. Rowling will be one of the big reasons for it. (And Rowling has also become a noted philanthropist supporting numerous causes beyond what she’s given simply by providing kids with books they love to read.)

In second place, Select Editions favorite James Patterson grossed a mere $50 million, which is quite a drop from number one, but to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it. Patterson and his stable of co-authors have to write a new book every couple of months to stay in the money, though: fortunately Patterson is something of a one-man publishing house, with mysteries, non-fiction, love stories, young adult stories—you name it. And he’s another strong proponent of young people picking up books, and once again my hat is off to an author who is making a difference in the world.

Rounding off the top three is Stephen King, earning $45 million for a combination of his books, graphic novels, TV and movies and even a column in Entertainment Weekly. The reigning master of horror for the last thirty years is nothing if not multifaceted. One of King’s major philanthropic projects has been the creation of the Haven Foundation, a support group for freelance artists and writers in the publishing industry.

The list in Forbes goes on, and as always with such a list, it’s interesting to see who’s there and who isn’t. And it’s also nice to know that these people are giving back. We might not be in some of the trouble we’re in economically these days if there were more people like these in charge of things.

Jim Menick

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Endearing values

When I wrote up the AfterWords for Donna VanLiere's The Christmas Promise I did a short take listing a bunch of other Christmas titles beyond the obvious. That is, everyone knows all about Ebenezer Scrooge, but I was wondering what else might be out there. Mostly in that piece I highlighted some classic or surprising writers, but what I discovered was that sometime in the last few years the publishing of Christmas titles has become something of a major industry. It used to be that publishers might throw together a Christmas themed selection of, say, mystery stories, where instead of the butler having done it, Santa Claus is always the murderer, but that was about it, aside from children's books. Nowadays, there is a whole new genre of Christmas redemption tales for grown-ups, where the meaning of the season manages to get through not necessarily to modern day Scrooges but to average people who just need a little help of one sort or another to get their acts together. And this new genre is obviously popular, or publishers wouldn't be pushing it. And I find that curious.

Let me explain. I spend a lot (as in a lot) of time reading the latest books, and from my perspective, the latest books are the literal opposite of this sort of story. Novels today are more violent, more sexy, more weird, more everything that a Christmas story isn't. And then once a year, everything is supposed to change, and we're supposed to put down our guns and get all warm and fuzzy all of a sudden? I don't think so. Don't get me wrong. I love the charm and the values of these traditional stories. What I want to see is a little more charm and a little more of these values the rest of the year. I'm the first one around here to get misty-eyed over a sentimental tale—I like to see good things happening to nice people—and it hardly ever happens. Most of the time I have to be satisfied with, at best, the bad guys getting theirs in the end.

So, what I'm pushing for is a little Christmas spirit the rest of the year. Call me a Pollyanna, but sometimes I just want something a little light on my plate. Maybe the success of these Christmas books will point the way. Maybe publishers will see that there is room for family values year round, as well as serial killers. I hope so. Because I want to read them, and I'm going to want to pass them along to readers of Select Editions. Sounds like a winning combination to me.