Wednesday, February 23, 2011

An Open Letter to Book Review Editors

Dear Book Review Editor:

As an author myself, and now as a publisher, I'm a big fan of book blogs that review books and allow authors to interact with readers.

However, authors and publishers alike know that print reviews are crucial, as well. If you work for one of the big print reviewers--at Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, national magazines or city newspapers --you already know you have a great deal of influence on what books will sell well.

In fact, a small print publisher I know, who--like all small presses--struggles to get attention for his quality offerings, told me he can count on a several-thousand-copies sales jump if one of his books manages to snag a review in one of your publications. Several thousand is often a small press's full print run for an offering.

Through tradition and quality reviewing, your publications have built reputations that readers rely on.

Time marches on, though, and now you have to confront the reality of e-books. While many book blogs have embraced digital books and review them on an equal footing with print books, many of you print reviewers are still wrestling with your e-book review policy. A quick email survey of print pubication reviewers revealed to me that most of you aren't reviewing e-books yet and many of you haven't thought about how you'll handle them if you do decide to review them.

The questions you probably face are:

  • Should we only review e-book editions of print books we previously failed to review?
  • Should we only review e-books by print-published authors, especially well-known authors?
  • Should we only review e-books offered by the e-book arms of the big print publishing companies?
  • Should we review e-books by independent, unknown authors and from e-publishers not affiliated with big print publishing houses?

I would suggest that if you answer yes to the first three questions, thus restricting your e-book reviews to well-knowns, your reviews will have limited value. Readers of e-books don't need guidance on authors they already know or have heard of, so much as they need counsel on and exposure to digital authors they don't know or haven't heard of.

Because e-publishing allows authors to go directly to reading consumers -- bypassing print publishing and bookstore "gatekeepers" -- readers confront a vast array of offerings, many of them only available digitally. Some of these books are definitely worthy of attention.

And yes, some of them are not good at all--poorly written, marginally edited, and maybe even incorrectly formatted for digital platforms.

Right now, readers of e-books rely on book blogs, recommendations from friends, email groups devoted to e-book news, and the sampling feature of e-book publishing (where readers can download free samples of books before purchasing) in order to make purchase decisions.

Your reviewers could be providing a tremendous service to these readers by joining the growing conversation.

But here's a change you'll face as you approach this new field. Currently, your reviewers can afford to be reactive. They can sit and wait for publishers to send them ARCs and press releases months before a publishing date. They choose--or you direct them to choose-- from these offerings, delivered to their very cubicle, and decide what to review, with a fairly long lead time to read the book and write the review.

However, many, many e-book authors won't know how to reach you or won't be able to grab your attention (even small publishers such as ours might find this a challenge, as well!).

And, because e-publishing is faster than print publishing, with only a few months between signing of a contract and "publication," long lead times between receipt of an e-ARC and the release of the actual e-book disappear.

Therefore, your e-book reviewers will have to be more proactive if they're going to identify worthy offerings for their readers.

And they're either going to have to be faster or rethink the "rules" about posting reviews immediately before publication of a book.

In the e-book world, after all, books won't vanish from shelves before you have a chance to review them. In other words, if an e-book comes out in March, and you don't write your review until April or May or even later, the review still matters.

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest you expand your book review coverage to include e-books when many of you are facing shrinking column inches for book reviews at all. But the e-book market is rapidly expanding. You've read the stories yourself, I'm sure. A larger and larger percentage of publishers' revenues are coming from e-book sales.

You ignore that growing market at your peril. Start the conversation now about how you'll handle e-book reviews, keeping in mind that this is a whole new world. The e-book market is different--it's faster, it's more varied, it contains fewer guideposts, and it requires nimble and proactive review policies.

Thanks for listening.

Libby Sternberg
Istoria Books
eBooks You Want to Read at Prices You Want to Pay

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


by Hannah Sternberg

I've recently been in the habit of reading poetry on the Metro. My commute is about twenty minutes of training bracketed by ten-minute walks. The first walk jogs my brain awake; the second walk I usually spend running into things while furiously scanning my BlackBerry to discover what I'm already missing at work; and the Metro ride in between is a brief moment of every day when I cannot walk, and am cut off from all cell signals--I have no choice but to read. Not that I would choose anything else for that moment.

At work, I'm immured in policy papers and current affairs books. At home in the evening, I play a desperate game of catch-up among piles of history books ("I always wanted to know more about that..."). But the Metro ride, I've turned into a moment of reflection, a brief pause on information-gathering just as it's a brief pause on walking and telecommunication. It started with the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters; I determined to read it through, as I'd promised I'd lend it to a friend when I was done. Now Walt Whitman soothes my longing for lilacs. Maybe this spring will bring the antidote to my frequent complaint, "I wish I'd read more Keats..."

It also made me realize that ePublishing is a unique opportunity to bring out new works in shorter formats, whether they're poems, short stories or novellas. The little guys often get short shrift in the publishing world. Poetry has been consigned to the university presses and back corners of bookstores, and short stories are often anthologized generically, with successful single-author collections only issuing from previously well-known writers of full-length novels. Novellas are rare; I secretly suspect publishers think people will feel ripped off if they pay trade paperback prices for a tiny book.

Short works are among my major inspirations as a writer. The poetry of E E Cummings floated me through the first draft of my first novel. More recently, the short stories of John Cheever and the novellas of J. D. Salinger electrify my imagination and my intellect. There's nothing small about the content of these small works. But would they have been published today, outside of the most academically pretentious presses, those that see the value of a work in its uniqueness of form, rather than its beauty, power or insight? Would today's publishers have turned them away on the basis of length alone? There's no way of knowing, but when's the last time you saw a new novella on the table at the front of the bookstore?

At Istoria, I hope to seek out new examples of the beauty, storytelling and insight possible in short forms, especially the novella, the prose poem and the story collection. If you're querying a work of this kind, be sure to follow our submission guidelines, but feel free to put "Attn Hannah" in the subject line if you think it's a work I'd be particularly interested in. I look forward to exploring your short fiction offerings!

Articles, Links

by Libby Sternberg

Just some links today to interesting articles and posts about ePublishing --

  • I'm over at Thoughts in Progress talking about Istoria Books today. Stop on by and leave a comment!
  • Bookmark this site for "Great Books Under $5" (and check out the terrific review of Lost to the World, an Istoria offering).
  • Here's another site devoted to books for your Kindle under five dollars -- Daily Cheap Reads.
  • Speaking of eBook pricing, here's an article about the "optimum price" for eBooks, over at Book Bee.
  • And finally, here's the link to our website, where you can get some of these great reads for low prices. Sign up for our mailing list--subscribers will be first to get special discounts from us, some of which won't be offered to the general public!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Truth Within the Lie

by Libby Sternberg

Earlier this week, I mentioned Stephen King's acceptance speech when the National Book Foundation presented him with the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters award in 2003. He talked a lot about genre fiction vs. literary fiction in that speech, passionately arguing for taking popular, or "commercial," fiction seriously.

Here are some more ruminations about his talk. In particular, about his desire to be an "honest writer."

King said:

"Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: 'What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth.' And that's always been the bottom line for me. The story and the people in it may be make believe but I need to ask myself over and over if I've told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation....

"To ignore the truth inside the lie is to sin against the craft, in general, and one's own work in particular. "
The truth within the lie--that sums up what good fiction should be. Fiction is a writer's exploration of what truth is--how real people react, what those reactions say about them and about humanity, how they deal with boredom, fun, giddy happiness or Job-like grief.

And transcendent writing--the kind of writing that transports the reader to a deeper understanding of the world and themselves--is at the heart of that "truth within the lie."

Last week, Hannah talked about the importance of including fiction along with nonfiction in one's reading diet. Nonfiction purports to lay out the truth through reporting facts. Fiction lays out the truth through canny observation and character analysis.

I myself love nonfiction. Oddly enough, I often reach for nonfiction, rather than fiction, when I'm tired. Maybe because fiction actually challenges me more--to think and to feel. When I remember all the books I've read, novels stand out as those that have influenced me the most. Novels prod me to see myself and others in different ways.

What novels have influenced you and how?


A reminder: today is the last day to redeem coupon codes for a free copy of the mystery Death Is the Cool Night at Sign up here or at our website to get one!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Literary vs. Genre

In 2003, the National Book Foundation presented Stephen King its Medal for "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters." This scandalized some in the publishing world. King, after all, is--egads!--a genre writer.

But in his acceptance speech, King made a blunt and passionate plea to those in the literary world who turn their noses up at genre fiction and at popular culture in particular:

"Tokenism is not allowed. You can't sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, 'Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we'll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists.' It's not good enough. Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they've never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.

"What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture? Never in life, as Capt. Lucky Jack Aubrey would say. And if your only point of reference for Jack Aubrey is the Australian actor, Russell Crowe, shame on you..."

I don't think King is arguing that all writing is equal or that all writers are equally good. His point, with which I agree, is that transcendent writing and excellent storytelling can be found in many different kinds of books.

If you limit yourself to reading only so-called literary fiction, you're no better than someone who refuses to read anything but pulp mysteries or romance or...whatever. You can't claim to be better than those readers, in other words.

I've been thinking about King's speech lately (you can read it in its entirety here) for several reasons as we launch Istoria Books.

Soon, I'll be sharing news of a terrific upmarket/literary novel Istoria will release in a few short months. This book is written by a genre writer, a man who's had several mysteries published--as novels and short stories in mystery magazines. But this book represents a departure for him, a beautiful story set in Saigon in 1965 that explores lost love and callow youth.

The author doesn't have an MFA, never went to the big writing workshops, didn't participate in any of the publishing events that might have helped others in the book world to see him as a man of letters, and not just a man of genre fiction. But he's written a bittersweet, moving book that deserves an audience. Epublishing will, we hope, help him find it, and will help him find those bridges between literary fiction and popular fiction that King talked about so fervently in his speech eight years ago.

Special note: Don't forget to sign up for our mailing list. If you do so by Friday, you'll get a coupon code for a free copy of the mystery Death Is the Cool Night from

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Still Time for Free Books

As part of its launch phase, Istoria Books is offering free e-books to people who sign up on our mailing list.

If you use the sign-up form on this blog or on our website, you'll automatically get a coupon for 100 percent off the mystery novella Death Is the Cool Night.

If you email Istoria directly, you can tell us which book you'd like:
  • Death Is the Cool Night, a mystery novella set in 1941, on the eve of the U.S.'s entry into WWII
  • Lost to the World, a mystery set in 1954 on the eve of the first polio vaccine trials
  • Kit Austen's Journey, an inspirational romance set in 1851 on the Oregon Trail. are your three ways to sign up:
  • Use the sign-up form on this blog, up there on the left!
  • Use the sign-up form on our -- again, in the upper left.
  • Send an email to with "mailing list - free (and title of the book you'd like)" in the subject line.
Hurry -- these freebies won't be free much longer! And soon, we'll be featuring new authors' works, some with discounts and limited-time free offers. You'll hear about them first if you're on the mailing list.