Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft occupies a strange place in the American literary canon. Published mostly in pulp magazines during his own lifetime, the author died in 1937, leaving behind enough stories to fill three or four volumes, enough letters to fill twenty-five, and a small but devoted circle of admirers who took upon themselves the task of keeping his memory alive. Now, over seventy years later, both The American Library and Penguin Books publish his work with other classics, and Lovecraft outsells most of the titles they print alongside him. His ideas have spawned hordes of imitators and dozens of innovators who have built on his work. Among those who pay attention to such things, he’s one of America’s great horror writers, second maybe only to Poe himself.
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I am a fan of e-readers, and e-ink. I’ve had a Kindle for just over a year, and I’ve read about 75 books on it (including several public domain titles). That said, I’m not entirely averse to the idea of Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color—at least, not yet. After all, an e-reader with a color screen, cheaper and less
functional than the iPad has uses, not the least of which are well-rendered textbooks and kids’ books. Yet Barnes & Noble’s latest gadget is still under threat from said iPad and Amazon’s Kindle—a threat that would be largely diminished if it would spend less time spinning, and more time reading.
Successfully marketing e-readers is different to successfully marketing a book. In book marketing, readers are presented with information about an author, a plot, and the type of readers who’ll enjoy said book, tying into reading preferences. And it works: chances are, if you’re a fan of the Percy Jackson series, you’ll be a fan of the Gods in Manhattan one; if you like the Stephanie Plum books, you might like Women’s Murder Club , a fact both Amazon and Barnes & Noble make use of in their e-newsletters (though, surprisingly, not at the end of an e-book). Marketing an e-reader, though, is about marketing the way we read, about marketing an experience. And that’s where Barnes & Noble could win.
Books, like children, are never what we expect. When a book enters the world, the story becomes what we make it, one part author, one part reader. But sometimes a reader can so completely mischaracterize a book that it becomes something else, something so far removed from its roots that it is not only unrecognizable to its author/creator, but also to its other readers.
Laurie Halse Anderson, an award winning childrens and young adult author, knows what it’s like to have a book mischaracterized. Earlier this month, her debut novel, Speak, was named in a baffling opinion piece by Wesley Scroggins, “Filthy books demeaning to Republic education,” in a Missouri newspaper, The Springfield News-Leader. Also early in September, the Stockton, Missouri school board banned Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, saying the book “had too much profanity to be of value.” Scroggins also submitted a 29-page document to the Republic Missouri school board, demanding among other things changes to the history and science curricula.
Picking an actor to play the film version of a much loved literary figure is hard work. Finding the perfect match isn’t solely about matching a book, but matching the zeitgeist a wildly popular book creates. Generally speaking, though, to clearly buck the physical description of a character is to enter dangerous waters, particularly in light of last year’s whitewashing scandal.
Although it may sound like little more than a cheap paint job, whitewashing is a real—and insidious—problem in the publishing world. Driven by the perception that covers with black, Hispanic, or Asian (read: non-white) faces don’t sell books, several publishers, most notably Bloomsbury USA, have released covers with white models representing non-white protagonists. Worse, the majority of the whitewashed covers are on young adult books, targeting a demographic already sensitive to issues of identity and belonging.
This Saturday, 25 September, marks the beginning of Banned Books Week, “an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.” Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately, since it allows us to shine to spotlight on the ridiculousness of book banning in action—Banned Books Week is off to a banning start (pun fully intended).
Wesley Scroggins, an associate professor of management at Missouri State University and speaker at a Missouri Christian seminar, is seeking to ban Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a novel about a girl dealing with the aftermath of a rape. Stockton, Missouri, recently banned Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian earlier this month.