Monday, January 17, 2011

How Much is that Memoir in the Window (The One with the Waggley Tale)?

Over the past couple of months, while researching literary agents to query, I’ve come across a bunch of agencies that represent a current subgenre of memoirs that I thought had long gone out of fashion.

These memoirs had such titles as:

You Had Me at Woof
Oogy: The Dog Only a Family Could Love and
What a Difference a Dog Makes

And I thought, really? Dog memoirs are hot again?

Apparently so, because these books all had one thing in common: the word SOLD. They’d all been recently published by major houses.

And when I read a TIME article last week about dog memoirs, I knew it was official: dog memoirs are again in vogue.

But there’s something different about the current crop of doggie tails—er, tales. Back in 2005, John Grogan’s memoir Marley & Me hit the shelves, and the book was wildly successful because it was a sweet, simple story about a young family dealing with a rascally, untrainable Labrador retriever. Now, a brief six years later, dog memoirs are popular again—but this time, the stories are less about bad behavior and cute tricks, and more of an exploration of the deeply personal human/canine connection.

The latest memoirs, for example, detail how canines have: helped people cope with infertility; taught them to slow down and enjoy life; and helped them through long and painful recoveries from cancer. Not exactly the type of stuff Mr. Grogan was dealing with when he brought Marley home from the pound.

But it goes to show—with these memoirs as evidence--that our relationships with our dogs has changed over the years, from one of pet/master, to one of student/teacher.

Our dogs are no longer simply our best friend. Now we want them to be our guidance counselor and confidant and shrink, too. (And perhaps even our soul mate.)

Which is okay, I guess, as long as you realize that for all the cool abilities canines possess, it hasn’t yet been proven that dogs know that they need to be more than just our Frisbee buddy—or even that they understand what us humans are thinking, for that matter. So while dogs have this awesome ability to comfort us in time of need and love their fallible owners unconditionally, it’s not because they understand us or want to lead us down the path of self-discovery; it’s because they’re cute, and because they’re hardwired do what we tell them to do (for the most part), and because, well, they’re always there. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Memoirists think not—and neither, apparently, does the publishing industry, which will be pushing out more dog memoirs in 2011. And I can understand why. I had a dog growing up. Best damn dog anyone could ever have. He listened to all our secrets and waited patiently to be taken out for walks and never complained when one of us accidentally stepped on his tail. He was the center of our family and I think I cried for weeks when he died, peacefully, from old age. I won’t be writing a memoir about Pong, but if I did, I’d fill it with the type of uplifting stories dog memoirs are made of. Like the time I fell and skinned my knee and Pong saw it happen, and he stayed with me and licked my wound until helped arrived.

But here are two memoirs that were written: Bad Dog: A Love Story, and Finding Harmony: The Dog That Taught a Young Woman to Live Again. Get ready--they’re coming soon to a bookstore near you.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Does Digital Equal Death for the Print Publishing Industry?

Since I’m a writer, I thought it’d only be appropriate to start the New Year off writing about something that’s near and dear to my heart—books. Specifically, the explosive growth of the e-book industry. A lot of people are freaking out about it, and rightly so. A lot of people have a vested interested in the continuing growth of traditional, print-based publishing, myself included. But personally, I don’t think anyone ought to worry—yet.

Yes, the publishing industry has undergone nothing less than a complete transformation in the past year, so it’s easy to see why a lot of industry people are worried. Borders continues to see big financial losses and in December announced it would be closing 16 stores. Barnes and Noble will also be closing stores. (This must be an especially tough pill for BN to swallow, considering they’ve dominated retail bookselling for 40 year and revolutionized hardcover bestsellers.) E-books are cheaper to produce, so large retailers have no choice but to discount book prices or slash overhead if they wish to compete. Major publishers and retailers have been forced to lay off employees left and right. Overall, physical books saw a -1% change in sales in 2009 and a -5% change in sales in 2010. Scary stuff, right?

But hold on.

Let’s keep in mind that e-books are still in their infancy. They only comprise 9% of total book sales. That means a whopping 91% of books sold are traditional, paper-based books. Books that people are still driving to retail stores—or hopping online--to get! That means there’s a healthy pipeline of people who are printing, warehousing, shipping and selling all those books. That amounts to a lot of gainfully employed folks supplying books to fans of the written word in paper form. People who still—in the face of fancy, shiny technology—prefer to hold a book in their hand. People like me. When you put it that way, it doesn’t seem so bad.

Many people might think I’m burying my head in the sand. They’ll claim I’m old-fashioned and biased because I’m a writer first, reader second. (Okay—I’ll admit those two claims. There’s no experience for me like walking into a room full of books, and writers still make more money by selling paper books.) But I recognize that the bookstore model is in trouble as the digital revolution continues to sweep the media world.

Digital books are only 9% of sales now, but by the end of 2012, a conservative estimate puts total sales at 20-25%. And those percentages will only increase. Eventually, maybe bookstores will see the same end as music and video stores, which started closing in large numbers as consumers started downloading digital music and movies. But that transformation happened rather quickly; the e-book revolution took off slowly. Major publishers didn’t put much stock in a fad that wasn’t making a lot of money, and no one took e-books very seriously. Until Kindle came around, that is. proved that e-readers were here to stay, and retailers and electronics makers struggled to catch-up, introducing the Nook (Barnes & Noble) and the Sony Reader and the Kobo (Borders), among others. There’s no doubt that e-readers are here to stay; technology always goes forward, it never goes backward, and people generally don’t completely abandon products they’ve become used to having around.

The questions remain: how quickly will the digital book industry continue to grow? And can e-books truly take the place of paper books?

To this purist, the answer to the second question will always be “no.”