Reading the Pandemic

Cover of Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay

The most prescient novel I read over the last year was Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song. Written a few years back, as writing and publishing schedules go, it was released last summer when #PandemicLife was 100% a thing, even for many people who don’t believe in EUAs or booster shots. I’d heard about the book, of course, as I always keep an ear out for Paul’s books, but it didn’t really click that it was a pandemic book.

Reader, I read one review and promptly slid that title (apologies, Paul) to the bottom of my virtual TBR pile. That happens sometimes when subject matter doesn’t work for me, and I hope that it will work down the road. In any case, I couldn’t bring myself to read a current-day book about a pandemic.

This May I finally picked up Survivor Song, and I give it two dangerously infected thumbs up. It brings together in one book many lasting or new themes in horror: rationalized monsters, pregnancy fears, high-style influence, and more. The interest in language tied to disturbed behavior that showed up in The Cabin at the End of the World and elsewhere in his work appears here, too. If you haven’t seen it, watch Pontypool shortly after reading Survivor Song for a different take on the role of language tied to mob behavior & are-they-or-aren’t-they zombies.

The most challenging part of reading the book was, in fact, reality. Like so much speculative fiction, the plot springs from trends that were clearly visible or discernible to anyone with the will to research. And yet, it was frankly disturbing to read about quarantine, mobs, street violence, troops, and crazed militiamen in the wake (?) of COVID-19 and the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. There will always be plagues and political violence, but reading this account of a fictional plague, nutters going on about the U.N., and street battles between would-be saviors and the forces of law and order felt like re-experiencing our recent struggles in an only slightly alternate timeline.

If you haven’t read Survivor Song [Amazon | B&N | Bookshop.org | Waterstones | Goodreads], check it out. Then check out the rest of Paul’s work.

P.S. I didn’t read much else pandemic-related in the last year that I’d recommend… except for one book. It wasn’t precisely about zombies, nor did it rise to the level of this book, but enjoyable and not unrelated is Thomas E. Sniegoski’s Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory. It’s throwback pulp and overall probably of greatest interest to readers of Mike Mignola’s comics series for which it’s a tie-in, or those of us who like the occasional throwback pulp. It does offer a picture of the use of infectious, lowered-mental-capacity goons for criminal ends. If that doesn’t evoke the politics of our seditious, social-media-infected times…

Noir at the Bar Richmond! 6/19/20

flier for virtual reading

 

Are you surviving quarantine? Are you over sourdough and jigsaw puzzles? Climbing the walls? Then tune in Saturday night, June 20, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, for a virtual reading: Noir at the Bar Richmond. Come for the escape from shelter-in-place orders, stay for the noir, crime, and horror readings!Who’s reading?

S. A. Cosby
Meriah Crawford
J. T. Glover
Ward Howarth
Hugh Lessig
Marietta Miles
Shawn Reilly Simmons
Phillip Thompson
LynDee Walker
D. Alexander Ward

Come check it out at https://www.crowdcast.io/e/richmond-virtual-noir-at-the-bar/register

Story Selected for Best New Horror #28

My “En Plein Air,” a short story that first appeared in Nightscript 2, will appear in Best New Horror #28. I’m gratified that Stephen Jones liked the story enough to include it in his anthology, and I look forward to it finding new readers. My thanks to C.M. Muller for first publishing it in his fine and darksome anthology, and to the readers who’ve been pleased to encounter it, both in print and when I read it last year at ICFA.

This is probably my favorite story I’ve written about Richmond, with scenes set on Cherokee Road, at the VMFA, etc. While I won’t say too much more about that, I will say that this forthcoming appearance is a validation, not least that the approach I took to the story was fruitful, from the background work to the way I went about the writing. It has resulted in the first instance of any work of mine making it to an annual anthologies, let alone one of such long standing as the Best New Horror series. I couldn’t be happier.

Libraried and Under-Libraried Authors

There exist many, many ways to spread the word about books and authors you love. The world is full of things that demand our time, and authors generally are grateful for the time you spend doing these things. And, at the end of the day, what’s more important: that Goodreads review, or posting a photo of your current reading on Facebook? Hard to say, but one time-tested way for authors to find audiences is for their books to enter library collections.

Have you recommended a favorite book to your local library, if they don’t own it? Libraries buy books based on many factors, from past circulation success to reviews to awards (and different libraries care about different review venues, awards, etc.).  Recommendations are also a big factor. I’m an academic librarian, and we make purchasing decisions based on a slightly different formula than public libraries, but whatever the library, a patron request must be considered, even if the book-buying librarian in question chooses not to purchase the title (because they don’t believe it fulfills community needs, doesn’t fit within library guidelines, etc.).

Are the authors listed below doing well or poorly? Depends on your perspective, though my experience as an author to date is that, while I celebrate successes, I’m always looking to the next frontier. My short story collection is sitting with a publisher right now, and I’m waiting not all that patiently for a response, but so it goes. When the day comes that my books are out there on the shelves, I’m sure I’ll be irritated that they aren’t selling more.

Now, to some examples. I used WorldCat, a sort of super-catalog of library catalogs, to find these numbers. Devils lurk in the details, as you might guess. WorldCat has flaws, and it’s never fully in sync with every library’s holdings because of how libraries add and subtract books. Still, the numbers below are in the ballpark for holdings in North America, with some content from further afield. (It’s also worth saying that the below don’t really include YA; that would be another post.)

Author A, a renowned writer of weird fiction whose career has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years, including awards, Hollywood’s attention, book tour action, etc., is an example of an author whose star has risen… and is still rising. The phrase “transcending genre” has a long and not wholly savory lineage, but it’s unmistakably the case that this author has entered new arenas, even while holding to the same literary values and contacts as they always have. Their very recently released  novel is already held or on order at over 300 libraries. The first volume of their recent trilogy is held in various formats and translations by over 2000 libraries.

Author B, a mostly-indie writer and notable online personality is doing well, library-wise; their novel from last year is in over 300 libraries.  I’d say that’s a fine showing. It’s about 10% the holdings of Stephen King’s most widely held books, but still: doing well. Their early-2000s novel is also doing well over a decade on for what could fairly be described as a niche novel, held by over 100 libraries.

Author C, who writes and publishes in SFF, horror, and related areas, worked hard to break in with a 2015 novel. They have some connections and have been active for years, and even so, the book just didn’t get quite the attention it could have… but it still made its way into over 250 libraries. Their 2016 novel is doing a-OK, having found its way into over 550.

Author D, a horror writer who’s justly recognized as a significant stylist and has published a number of books, is not held as widely as some of the above examples. Their much-praised 2016 novel is held by about 100 libraries. Their award-winning late-00s collection is held by over 200.

Author E, who writes contemporary and genre fiction, often with a magical realist stripe, is the first author I’m mentioning here who gets some attention as an author, giving readings and speaking to classes, getting nominated for awards, and all the good reputation-building things… and just doesn’t have that much library shelf space. Their 2013 novel is held by about 25 libraries. Their late-00s short story collection has had some staying power, with over 40 copies in libraries. Still, this author could definitely stand to be read more widely.

Author F, who writes horror and related work, gets a ton of praise in many circles but is not getting much love from libraries. They publish relatively slowly and don’t have the long track record of some authors. Their early-10s first collection is held by under 20 libraries, and their recent second collection is held by about 20.

Author G, a writer of horror and weird fiction who likewise gets a lot of praise in many circles, also doesn’t get all that much love from libraries. Their recent short story collection is held by just over 30 libraries. Their relatively recent award-winning anthology is held by less than 15 libraries. That maybe isn’t surprising, given its niche topic, but 15 libraries? That’s unfortunate (and undeservedly low, in my opinion).

A few observations that will surprise almost none of you:

  • Coverage in review venues like Booklist, Library Journal, etc. helps sales.
  • Coverage in major newspapers and literary review venues helps more.
  • Authors high on the list have extensive networks derived from a combination of teaching, non-fiction writing, journalism, and/or working in publishing.
  • Authors high on the list have written multiple novels that, to one extent or another, look like the market. Each have their own stamp, and they don’t write poppy fiction, but they are writing books that fall into recognizable, living types of books (call them genres, modes, or whatever you wish).
  • Authors high on the list work not just hard but consistently at getting the word out about their books. Not on release day, and not in the first six weeks: until they have a new book to promote.
  • Major presses do better at getting books out into libraries than most small presses. You may love Disco Lemur Press, but do they actually sell books?
  • Gatekeepers and important voices in a field can highlight a given author, but that may not translate to library sales.
  • Short story collections generally don’t sell as well to libraries as novels.
  • Self-published books are not a significant part of any of these authors’ library presences. Many, many libraries don’t buy self-pubbed books, and that’s unlikely to change until such time as the literary economy changes.
  • The above list skews male toward the top, but I make no claims about any bias here, as I used a convenience sample that is representative of nothing other than authors who came to mind. Naturally, though, projects like the VIDA Count and the recent report by the Fireside Fiction Company tell compelling stories that are relevant here.

How can you help authors you like get into libraries? Look for the option to “Recommend a Purchase” or “Suggest a Title” on your library’s website. If you can’t find it or don’t want to do it that way, ask at the checkout, information, or reference desk at your library. They’ll be happy to tell you how to recommend the book.

All of the above goes double for that author whose books you love, but who is with a small press or series of small presses. Short of huge demand, most of them won’t make it into libraries, and who uses libraries most? It’s more complicated than you think, but here are some stats. They may surprise you.