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March 18, 2012

On books, "buzz" and magic

“You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. That’s because it doesn’t happen the way it does in books. It makes those chains of coincidence. That’s what it is. It’s like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was just because someone on an aeroplane had dropped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand. There was a real person and a real aeroplane and a real rose, but that doesn’t mean the reason you have the rose in your hand isn’t because you did the magic.” —Among Others, Jo Walton

It’s like magic, the way good news of a book spreads. I’m currently reading Jo Walton’s Among Others because at our last book club meeting, Deanna couldn’t stop talking about it, and then Trish tweeted, “Dying to get on the streetcar so I can get back to reading Jo Walton’s Among Others“, and this is the kind of buzz I listen to. It’s real and you can’t buy it, but I trust it because it’s the sound of real people talking about a book that’s made a connection.

But it’s not magic, of course. It’s a chain of coincidence that begins with a writer creating a work that is really good, or sometimes a work that is not very good but happens to be exactly what readers are hungry for. And then the work drifts out into the world, and of course it helps to know a lot of people well-placed to help the drifting, to have a great cover design, be published by a press that newspaper editors pay attention to, to be photogenic and/or notorious (or fictional), to have a lot of time to twitter, and a knack for connecting with your audience. But then I’m thinking of a book like Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin where almost none of that happened, and the book caught on fire. What happened with that book was the most amazing chain of coincidence, a force onto itself, and no one ever could have made that happen.

In less magical terms, I despair when I listen to men on the radio talking about an invasion of Iran or moving the economy forward as though anyone actually has any understanding of or control over how matters of war or economics transpire– these things take on unforeseen trajectories and are carried by their own momentum. You can’t plot these matters the way you plot a book, and nor can you plot a book’s reception either. I recently read a comment by an author stating that he appreciated the way that social media gives him control over what happens to his books once they’re published, but that control is an illusion. The magic is going to happen or it isn’t, and it’s unfair expectation on an author to make him think he can steer it either way, or that he’d feel responsible when magic fails to occur (except perhaps for having written a book that wasn’t extraordinary or even good. I come across a lot of terrible books in my travels. It is my opinion that more writers should be feeling such a burden these days).

Sometimes the magic should happen and it doesn’t. For example, it blows my mind (and in a bad way) that there are books on this that anybody hasn’t read yet. It’s unjust. Or that Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist didn’t win a major literary award last autumn (though magic did happen there. People loved that book). It kills me when the books I love don’t take, but it’s the way it goes, and it’s in nobody’s hands. But then I go declaring Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories as one of the best books of the year, the CBC concurs, and the book is getting rave reviews everywhere. This is what buzz is: a chain of coincidence that originates with a book that is awesome. (And now here, it’s your turn: buy it.)

Which is not to say that writers are powerless or that book marketers would be best sitting idle. Book marketing is a tool, and so is social media, and both are always going to aid the process. I recently purchased Emma Staub’s story collection Other People We Married because on one strange morning, she had turned up in every hyperlink I’d clicked on and somehow that managed not to be annoying. Now Straub is well-connected, which does help– I followed her on twitter after a recommendation by Maud Newton, who is a good person to know, I’d say. But mostly importantly, in none of the links I clicked on was Straub telling me how fantastic she or her book was. In one, she was using her experience as a bookseller to advise writers on “How to Be an Indie Booksellers Dream”. In another, she was included in Elissa Schappell’s “Books With Second” Lives feature. And then there was this. Such a chain of coincidence, I found, that obviously the universe was telling me to buy this book. And so I did.

So the writer is not powerless. But here it is, in two of these links, the magic had already happened– the book had connected with readers and they were telling me about it. In the other, Straub was putting her name and face out there, but doing so by participating in a wider community of readers and writers, giving them something other than a sales pitch.

Writers: stop tweeting the same links to your reviews over and over again (unless, perhaps, you’ve just been reviewed in the New York Times), stop spamming your followers, you don’t need to respond to every blogger’s review (and especially not if it’s a bad one), give your potential audience a reason to be interested in you besides the fact that you’ve written a book you want them to read. Social media is a conversation, and nobody likes anyone in a conversation who only talks about themselves.

But at a certain point, the writer has to take a step back and just let it happen. Magic can’t be orchestrated.

Speaking of magic, we high-fived over our pancakes this morning as The 49th Shelf received a shout-out on CBC’s The Sunday Edition in a discussion about the state of Canadian publishing. It was glorious.

2 thoughts on “On books, "buzz" and magic”

  1. Carrie says:

    I heard that shout-out live, while baking bread on Sunday morning. I was like — hey, 49th Shelf!!! Way to go, Kerry!

    And you’re right about magic and momentum. Things can be done. But only so much. And then it’s time to let go and let the book have a life of its own, whatever its fate. I’m still so pleased that Hair Hat received a second life, six years after it was published, due to your discovery of it in the 2010 Canada Reads Independently — nothing I could have predicted, or made happen.

  2. deanna says:

    What a wonderful post, and so utterly right in terms of the magic that we find when we, as readers (not as bloggers, as writers, as people who work in publishing) can use these tools to talk to one another. It’s the wonder of the interweb, on every level, that truly, it might be the “information highway,” but it’s really just a place for me to talk about books. And The Walking Dead.

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