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jobsheadThere is an excerpt of a Steve Jobs interview that has recently been making the rounds on Twitter. In it Jobs explains his frustration with the “disease” of thinking that 90% of success lies in “great ideas.”

The excerpt spoke to my experience in writing Where the Air Is Sweet. The germ of the book was a great idea: A real life story about ethnic cleansing that hadn’t been told countless times in books or movies or  magazine features.

And I’ve had aspiring writers to say to me on more than one occasion, “You’re so lucky you had a great story to tell. I wish I had that.” Apart from the ludicrous idea that having experienced displacement, trauma, poverty etc. etc. at a young age constitutes luck, this is patently ridiculous. There are lots of great stories out there. Shakespeare borrowed plots. They weren’t a big deal. His execution, on the other hand, was a very big deal. In other words, craftsmanship — art — demands  skill, effort and discipline.

I knew somewhere in my consciousness that I wanted to tell this story for about 20 years. I knew it had value and meaning for me, and I knew from the perspective of a reader of novels and as a journalist that it had story value. But it wasn’t until I began writing it, actually writing it, mapping it out, deciding what to include, how to express it, perspective and tense and themes, and engaging my brain and letting the story pull in the directions it wanted to pull that it became something. And this process of it “becoming something” — of creating — was magic. Characters went in directions I had not planned. Words flowed with a music I didn’t know I could express. Editors came into my life who helped shape a stronger book. I found energy and time to write when I had been convinced, 100% convinced, I  possessed very little of either.

In the words of Steve Jobs, the late master of ideas and their execution:


For years I’ve been an avid book buyer. Now with a novel on the market, I’m suddenly on the other side (though I continue to be an avid book buyer). So, if I was intrigued by the world of publishing, books and sales before, now I’m almost obsessed.

It’s a complex and rapidly evolving world. Luckily there are some well-informed people out there keeping tabs on what’s going on.

5 Valuable Charts That Show How  Publishing Is Changing, a blog post published on JaneFriedman.com, offers some fascinating information about how people buy books. I’ll attach my favourite chart here (if you click on the image you can see it on Jane’s site where it is easier to read):

Retailer share of booksBig

Here’s Jane’s takeaway from this graph:

“By the end of 2012, nearly half of US book sales (print + ebook) were happening online (eCommerce), which is primarily driven by Amazon. Notice how the large chain bookstore retail share drops from 31.5% to 18.7%, driven in part by the bankruptcy of Borders. While many people focus on the percentage of ebook sales (currently averaging about 30%), I’d argue it’s more important to keep tabs on where the majority of sales are happening, regardless of format. This directly affects the value proposition of traditional publishers (at least for now) and how books get discovered and/or purchased—increasingly online through tech giants such as Amazon, Google, Apple, etc.”

This bar graph  more or less describes my spending habits when it comes to books. Living in Toronto, I loved Book City. Then my favourite location shut down and I began to buy primarily at Indigo/Chapters (there was one right inside the building I lived in for about 8 years; I lived in the Manulife Centre building). It was convenient. Now, no longer living in Toronto, I usually buy from Amazon. Amazon is even more convenient. They are frightening in their ability to pinpoint the books I want (I’m an impulse book shopper) and as well I often want somewhat obscure titles. (Amazon gets them to me quickly.) But I am not unaware of how they squeeze publishers and therefore authors. And yet my publisher wants to see strong sales on Amazon. It can all be very confusing.

amazonIs Amazon good or evil? Or is it merely a product of capitalism and changing technology? And what is its impact on books (and authors)? A fantastic New Yorker article by George Packer examines these complex questions and is a must-read for anyone at all curious about the world of book publishing.

As my on-sale date approaches I’m starting to think about reviews. I’m not obsessing about them or even really worrying about them. I’m just slowly accepting that other people’s opinions of my book will be “out there” for me to see.

I’m online far too often to be one of those writers who doesn’t read reviews of their works (or who reads only positive reviews).

branwell bronte

“Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë,” by their brother Branwell, who painted himself out of the picture.

I used to write book reviews for the National Post and the Literary Review of Canada. More often than not I liked the books I reviewed and did not hold back in my praise. But when I didn’t like the book or found it to be deeply flawed, I was withering. Part of this is my personality. I am highly critical. But part of it is that I was young and armed with a master’s degree in English literature and I wanted to distinguish myself as a Very Good Reviewer: discerning, clever, sharp. I want to tell you I was always fair. But it is difficult to determine what is fair. If it’s challenging to judge a book, it’s equally challenging to judge a book reviewer. My opinion was subject to the vagaries of my mood, the kinds of things I was interested at that particular time, the weather. Okay, not the weather.

A review is simply one person’s opinion — and that person’s opinion in any given moment. That’s all. Obviously the more widely read, the more informed, the more intelligent and more articulate the reviewer, the better. But what may appeal to one person may simply not appeal to another, no matter its merit. Even the most successful books (commercially and critically speaking) have been rejected by many publishers before finally landing a deal. Here’s a list of the more famous ones.

There has been much bemoaning about the poor state of the book review culture. And this is a real problem. Newspapers, shrinking as a result of diminishing sales, are devoting less and less space to book coverage and in particular to reviews, particularly fiction reviews.

But I am encouraged by online reviews. I usually check reviews on Goodreads of books I am considering and books I’ve read, and I am continually amazed: There are a good number of Very Good Reviewers out there. There are some flip people as well and some who are downright nasty. (Thankfully, the “voting up” feature pushes the most thoughtful reviews up top.)

Ultimately, however, as a writer and lover of fiction it is wonderful to know there are many, many people who love books enough to join an online book reading community. (At last count, 25 million, according to Goodreads.)

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