1. I met Ms. Jones (met being a unfairly personal word, as it was really just as a cog on the autograph line) at the 2011 Winter Institute, that gathering where booksellers come together for a few days of education. There was a lot of buzz on her third published novel, Silver Sparrow, which eventually was named a #1 Indie Next Pick. As you can see by the runners up, it beat out State of Wonder. This is not a judgment against the latter book; I have noticed that the #1 pick generally goes to developing authors. It's really more important to a lesser known book, and I think that is generally the focus of publisher efforts--getting on the list (or certainly getting to #1) could get a buy on a title that was previously skipped. It's hard to believe that any general indie passed on Ann Patchett.
2. Just as the book came out, our old friend Eric came in to browse and told me that Jones was an old friend of his. I wound up chatting with the publicist, and she thought we might get onto the paperback tour. One of the interesting things that I have noticed is that when publicists say this, it is not usually lip service. As long as the budget isn't cut, or the publicist leaves, we often do make it on to said tour. For example, the publicist for Diana Abu-Jaber (that event is this coming Tuesday, May 22) and I had a similar conversation and here she comes!
3. I placed our first ad in the Milwaukee Courier for this event. The Courier is one of the African American focused papers in town. I wouldn't have done it on its own, but with our Will Allen and Sapphire events, it made the ad more reasonable in cost. We'll see if it works!
4. Jones was published by Algonquin Books, but her first two novels, Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling, were published by Warner Books. As Jones notes, though she lives in the Northeast (she teaches at Rutgers), her literary heart is in Atlanta. Her first novel was inspired by the Atlanta child murders of 1979. Both novels have just been reissued by Grand Central, which is the new name of her publisher, after they were sold by Time Warner to Hachette. I don't know where they are on this, but here's some information about raising money to make a film of her first novel.
5. Here's something different we are doing with Jones. She's going to speak to several classes at Riverside High School. Riverside's advanced placement program regularly visits the store for fiction events (yes, you get extra credit), and I was talking to our teacher contact Abbie about how nice it would be to have an author visit, just like we bring the kids' authors to elementary and middle schools. Somehow we were able to jump through all the hoops to make this work. It's a private event but there is still a good reason to tell you this, as you are also a teacher who can make a great school event happen. If so, contact me.
6. I'll bet you want to know a bit more about Silver Sparrow! It's also set in Atlanta (literary heart and all that) in the 1980s, and it's about a bigamist and his two families. The story is told by the respective teenage daughters. The opening narrator is his secret daughter Dana, and then the perspective switches to his public child Chaurisse. Needless to say, the story must eventually explode, because father James can't seem to prevent Dana and her mom Gwendolynn from spying on Chaurisse and her mom Laverne. The story is warm in its details, and heartfelt in its storytelling. Jones is a great writer, and if you don't believe me, you can ask Jayne Ann Phillips who notes, "Jones is a master, and Silver Girl is a revelation, alive with meaning, heartbreak, and hope." Amusingly enough, my source for the quote has the title of the novel wrong; I believe that is a transcription error!
7. A little inside scoop about the jacket change from hardcover to paperback. As you can see, the hardcover jacket featured feathers on an a plain type field, with almost a metallic look. The paperback jacket features a girl, most likely Dana, in a party dress. It's clearly too formal a look for everyday wear in the 1980s. As seems to be the trend, her head isn't shown, which I think is an attempt to universalize the model. But one thing that's interesting about all this is that there were no racial signifiers on the cloth jacket but there are on the paperback, and the paperback jacket was relatively late to be released to websites, so I suspect there was some disagreement about this. And I totally understand this quandary. Does African American imagery (unfairly mind you, unfairly!) self-select a smaller audience for the book? One of the things I love about Algonquin's literary publishing program is that they publish a substantial number of African American women as literary writers instead of forcing them into genre, or worse, not publishing them at all.
This conundrum of whether you try for the universal audience or a core is not limited to African American writers. I may have mentioned earlier this year that that between the advance reading copy and the finished copy of Kevin Fox's Until the Next Time, the Celtic symbols were removed fromt he jacket. But back to Silver Sparrow--Algonquin went with the African American girl, and I think it's a cover that still conveys "accessible literary." For more on the subject of outreach vs. core audience for African American novels, you might want to read Carleen Brice's blog, where she has promoted "National buy a book by a Black author and give it to somebody not Black month."
8. I'm not going to talk about it now, but we might want to one day address the cut-off female heads that run rampant in publishing. The debate actually raged in 2008. Here's a piece of the argument in the Los Angeles Times. I think the argument is that our brains process faces differently than the rest of our parts, and without the face, we can identify with the cover model more. But what is definitive is that this is something you never see with jackets targeted to men.
9. I must mention our opening act, Ann Stewart McBee. UWM grad student (or perhaps by now new grad) Todd has been pairing several of our authors each season with local writers who've published, but not in book form. McBee is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing with a specialty in fiction at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, where she also teaches introductory literature as a graduate assistant. She is editor-in-chief at UWM's literary journal, Cream City Review, and has published both fiction and poetry in Ellipsis, Untamed Ink, At Length and other journals.
10. And finally, a reminder of the specifics. Tayari Jones will appear at Boswell for Silver Sparrow on Wednesday, May 23, 7 pm. If you're reading this remotely and you live in Minnesota or North Carolina, you're in luck. Jones will be at Minneapolis's Magers and Quinn on May 24, Ashville's Malaprops on May 29, and Raleigh's Quail Ridge on May 30. And here's the rest of her posted schedule. But for locals, hope to see you at Boswell this Wednesday.
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