Live and in person!

Plus, book recommendations from British politicians

Welcome to the 107th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:

Some good news out of the UK last week. The Bookseller reported that most live author events will be at full capacity again starting late July. The usual rules about mask-wearing and social distancing may apply, and some venues will insist on Covid-19 passports, but at least live events are back on track.

Before I became a publisher, I was skeptical of public appearances by authors, which run the gamut of book launch parties, book signings, speeches, panel discussions, and live interviews. They seemed a lot of trouble for not a lot of sales.

I’ve done quite a few book signings, for as few as fifteen people, and as many as several hundred. They can be nerve-wracking affairs, as you sit for hours in a bookstore or at the back of a conference hall wondering if (and why) anyone will ask you to write your name on the title page of your book.

More confident writers, according to The Independent, believe that signing books “is a sacramental act, a talismanic ritual in which the bond between writer and reader, expressed in a few words of warm mutual stoking, is sealed by the seminal squiggle of ink.” I’m not of that ilk.

Book launch parties tend to be more fun. I’ve had a couple of those at Ben McNally’s late lamented bookstore in Toronto. I got seriously competitive on the second one, my Hoover book, inviting a lot of people. About 150 came and most bought books. I asked Ben, who has hosted thousands of launches, if that was his record sale. He said it was close, but Vincent Lam sold more than 200. I consoled myself with the fact that Lam’s paperback novel cost less than my fat hardcover, so I may have been among McNally’s top revenue-generating launches. Still, given the amount of work that went into it, and the fact that an author gets only 10% from each book sold, it was hardly a windfall for me, or my publisher, who had to pay for the wine. I’m pretty sure Ben made out fine, which made me happy.

When we started Sutherland House, we did a number of book launches, selling anywhere from 40 to 350 books. All of our authors did other live events of one variety or another, and some were quite diligent about chasing down speaking opportunities, attending festivals, and so on. We organized and attended these events more to support our authors and market their books than because we expected to make money (or break even). It wasn’t until the end of our first year when I was reviewing our finances that I noticed that over a quarter of our revenue came from direct sales—a combination of launches, live events, and bulk sales (often for conferences or professional meetings or book club or speaking club appearances).

I was impressed. Speaking to other small publishers, I learned that my experience was not uncommon: the live-and-in-person stuff matters. I determined to double down on that line of business, and a week or two later the pandemic hit. Direct revenue evaporated and our fancy sound system and plastic stemware and several cases of wine have been collecting dust in a corner of our seldom visited office ever since.

We’ve been doing virtual book launches and virtual events in the interim, but they are not the same. Not as much fun for the author, and not as effective at marketing or selling books. And while I’m not the most social of humans, I genuinely miss the interactions with readers and audiences.

Alex Fane, a UK events organizer who works with many of the larger London publishers, reports that he is seeing “unprecedented demand for live events this summer and into the autumn as restrictions ease…. The feedback we have had is mostly about how excited audience members are to be in the room with talent again.”

Fane is a promoter, but I’m not sure he’s wrong.

The US publishing world, too, is cautiously opening itself to live events once more. The Strand bookstore in Manhattan is running mostly virtual events through the summer but Tyler Cameron, described as “the Bachelorette breakout heartthrob,” will be signing copies of his new book You Deserve Better: What Life Has Taught Me About Love, Relationships, And Becoming Your Best Self in their main store on July 27.

The Strand’s announcement for the book signing is accompanied by a long statement of pandemic policy requiring attendees to buy a copy of the book in advance, fill out a contact tracing sheet, and provide proof of vaccination in the form of an original vaccination card or an Excelsior Pass. Patrons need to have been vaccinated at least fourteen days prior to the event. Bringing a time-stamped photo of yourself getting vaccinated is not considered proof of vaccination. There will be in-store covid guidelines during the event. (Unvaccinated children under the age of sixteen and accompanied by a vaccinated adult are cool, so long as they’re wearing masks).

As you might guess from all that, there is a lot of risk associated with live events. Fane of the UK complains that he is unable to buy Covid-19 insurance as he ramps up his business: “Without some sort of official protection scheme in place, we continue to run events knowing that, at any minute, the government could change tack, an author or member of staff could test positive, or a large section of the audience would be unable to attend. At present, there is no scheme that will underwrite any losses occurring from this, so we remain at risk, even as social distancing restrictions lift.”

Those are salient points, especially with the new pandemic numbers coming out of both the UK and the US. Cases are up in both countries, as are hospitalizations.

The UK has lifted almost all of its Covid restrictions and is counting on a reasonably high vaccination rate (two-thirds of adults are fully vaccinated) to keep things under control. We wish them well.

The US, too, is relatively open although not even half of adults are vaccinated, and the unvaccinated half is getting savaged by the virus right now. Death and hospitalization rates are climbing out of their fourteen-month lows in June.

Canada is sitting with almost 80% of people over the age of 12 with at least one shot, and half of those fully vaccinated, and we’re being more cautious about opening up. I don’t think we’ll be seeing much in the way of live literary events in Canada this autumn. I’d settle for just keeping the damn bookstores open. With luck, a full return will be possible in 2022.

Speaking of the UK…

Marie Le Conte, a French-Moroccan journalist who lives in London and posts on Instagram under the nom de guerre “youngvulgarian,” has a new book. Behold her at her book launch (a live event, not a mask in sight), top of this page. The book is called Honourable Misfits: A brief history of Britain’s weirdest, unluckiest and most outrageous MPs, and it is delightful. To wit:

Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868–1937)

MP for Aylesbury, 1899–1910

Lionel Walter Rothschild did not want to become an MP; he wanted to run a zoo. Sadly, he did not have a choice, because he was from the sort of family where becoming an MP was simply expected. He duly sat on the backbenches for just over a decade, then, happily, was able to dedicate himself to his real passion—and dedicate himself he did.

It is hard to even know where to start describing Rothschild’s impact on zoology. For a start, there was the scientific journal his museum started in 1894, which published more than 1,700 scientific books and papers and described more than 5,000 new species of animals over the course of 45 years. 

Then there was his collection—the largest ever for a private individual—which, at one point, counted 200,000 birds’ eggs, 300,000 bird skins, 2,000 mounted mammals, 30,000 beetles, 2,000 mounted birds, 144 giant tortoises, and two million butterflies and moths. There were also the 153 insects, 58 birds, 17 mammals, three spiders, three fish, two reptiles, a worm, and a millipede named after him, as well as the Rothschild giraffe.

Oh, and the time he decided to prove that you could tame zebras by riding a carriage drawn by several of them to Buckingham Palace.

And speaking of UK MPs…

The Publishers Association asked members of parliament to recommend books their colleagues should read over summer recess. It’s an interesting list, well-balanced between fiction and non-fiction, classics and current offerings (one despairs to think what Canadian MPs would have come up with).

MP Rachel MacLean, parliamentary under-secretary of state, department of transport, recommends the exceptionally witty French Exit by erstwhile Canadian Patrick deWitt, distinguishing herself as an MPs who cares that her colleagues enjoy their summers, unlike the Right Honourable Sir Lindsay Hoyle, MP, speaker of the House of Commons, who assigned homework in the form of Steve Richard’s The Prime Ministers.

Everyone’s favorite toff, Jacob Rees-Mogg (above), aka “honourable member for the 1850s,” Eton, Oxford, a man who married his childhood friend Helena Anne Beatrix Wentworth Fitzwilliam de Chair in a latin mass, a man who is “praised as a conviction politician whose anachronistic upper-class mannerisms and consciously traditionalist attitudes [what’s wrong with offshore tax havens?] are often seen as entertaining,” and a man who once uttered the word "floccinaucinihilipilification" on the floor of the Commons, was all in for The Code of the Woosters.

Boris Johnson went with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, seeming not to realize what fun Waugh would have had with him had their paths crossed. (If you want more of this line of thinking, there’s this.)

The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, went with Jessica Mitford’s memoirs Hons and Rebels, which suggests he deserves his portfolio.

You can find the whole list here, and you’ll probably find something to read, too.

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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