Booksellers often fall in love with a terrific new book, only to find that the hardcover version is a tough sell. We console ourselves by saying that the book will really “take off” in paperback, and very often that’s true. Certain books, through a combination of serendipity and quality, sell enormously well in hardcover for years without being released in paperback. (Think of Gone Girl, The Goldfinch, Unbroken . . .) But most paperback releases are scheduled for 9 to 12 months after hardcover publication, depending on sales. Some of those paperbacks do sell much, much better than their hardcover versions, especially those that appeal to book clubs.
Author Nichole Bernier interviewed publishers, editors, authors, and literary agents for an article in The Millions about relaunching books in paperback, learning that “A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.” Melanie Benjamin, whose paperbacks have been very popular with book club audiences, observed that “‘ . . . almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book.'” M.J. Rose, of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, said, “‘I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got.'”
The Headmaster’s Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene — one of my 10 Favorite Books of 2014 — was just released in paperback. The publisher must think that ivy-covered brick buildings appeal to book clubs, because only one minor change appears on the cover: Richard Russo’s blurb has been replaced with a quote from a People magazine review. Too bad, because what Russo says is spot-on: “I read the second half of The Headmaster’s Wife with my mouth open, my jaw having dropped at the end of the first half. Thomas Christopher Greene knows how to hook a reader and land him.”
The Headmaster’s Wife opens when Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of a New England boarding school, is found wandering naked in Central Park. As he begins to tell his story to the police, it becomes clear to the reader that Arthur is an unreliable narrator. Just how unreliable he is only becomes obvious about halfway through the book. At this point Arthur’s wife lends her perspective to the story, and the reader must determine whose version of the truth to believe.
The novel is a page-turner, with very surprising plot twists, but it’s much more than that. It’s a beautifully written exploration of marriage, friendship, grief, and mental illness. What do we owe to those we love? What actions are unforgivable? What is the breaking point from which a person can’t recover? Greene said the questions he asked himself when writing the book were, “What happens if you don’t hold it together? What happens if life just completely falls apart?” I think book clubs would run out of time before they ran out of discussion material from The Headmaster’s Wife. (For my original review, which ran in March 2014, click here.)
Thomas Christopher Greene was kind enough to answer some questions for me. In addition to writing fiction (The Headmaster’s Wife is his fourth novel) Greene is the president of Vermont College of Fine Arts.
I’m a bookseller and the first thing I think when I finish a book that I love (such as The Headmaster’s Wife!) is: “How can I sell this book?” If you were me, what would you say about your book to a potential customer?It’s not a book that fits into a “genre” and it has a key plot point that can’t be revealed. Also — keep in mind that many, many customers, when asking for a recommendation, make sure to add that they don’t want to read anything “depressing”.
I think it’s a book that works on many levels. It’s a story about the big things—love, death and marriage. It’s also a book that people have a hard time putting down. So I would tell them leave their expectations behind and don’t start it if they have something important to do the following morning.
It’s a sad fact that most readers of literary fiction are women. Why do you think that is? I’ve always felt men are missing out on many books they would really love for many reasons — a big one being that they were introduced to literary fiction at the wrong age with the wrong books.
Perhaps this is just more proof that women are a more highly evolved species. Kidding. I have heard that as much as 80 percent of fiction is bought by women. I honestly don’t understand it. I read a lot of fiction. And I know plenty of men who do. Perhaps it has to do with childhood roles and expectations, but I have never explored that.
Most creative writing classes and programs seem to focus on short story writing. This seems odd to me, because first, there’s almost no market for short stories anymore, and second, writing a novel is an entirely different endeavor. What’s the role of the short story in today’s literary world?
A short story is easier to teach and assess, for one. I also think that short stories can be, though not exclusively, novels in miniature. I wrote only short stories as a graduate student, and wish I had more time now to write them. It’s a more pristine and less forgiving art form than the novel. But I do think in learning to write it’s a great place to start. It teaches you about structure and economy. That said, I think short stories are feeling a renaissance right now. It’s true the market remains limited but there are fabulous writers working almost exclusively in this form.
I was a prolific reader and read everything. I liked mysteries. I read all of Agatha Christie, for instance, by the time I was probably in fourth grade. A book that stands out for me is My Side of the Mountain, about a boy who runs away and lives in a tree in the Catskills.
Are there some contemporary writers you think are under-appreciated? I’m always amazed by how some books, through serendipity, take off, and others — just as good or better — seem to fly under the radar.
I don’t know about under-appreciated, but I have loved books by Anne Enright. Amazing writer. While he’s not contemporary in the sense that he is deceased, the late Andre Dubus is under appreciated by all except serious students of fiction. He is who I read when I am stuck to remind myself why I wanted to do this in the first place. His son, Andre III, is a wonderful writer in his own right and has seen more of the mainstream success his father didn’t have. His memoir Townie is one of my recent favorites.
What was the last truly wonderful book you read — one that you wanted to tell other people to read?
It’s not new but I just read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. Very smart and lovely novel. Wish I had written it.
Your “day job” is running the Vermont College of Fine Arts, which focuses on graduate education for aspiring writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and composers. How realistic is it for your graduates to make a living in the fine arts? What do you think is the state of the fine arts in our country right now?
I don’t think people should pursue fine arts degrees with employment in mind. I think, in fact, one of the great failings of the conversation around education right now, especially on the undergraduate level, is an over-emphasis on career development. The reason to go to graduate school is to become a better version of yourself, the artist you hope to be. That said, many of our graduates have become successful and renowned practitioners. Many become university professors. I think fine arts are thriving in this country, despite a contrary narrative. And part of this is because of many of the challenges of our times. When things are hard, artists are able to help make sense of the world and define the culture.
What’s your opinion of self-publishing and its place in the literary world?
I have mixed feelings about it. I have friends who choose to self-publish. I do think publishing, when done well, is a team sport though. I certainly don’t want to have to worry about designing covers or choosing fonts or distribution or copyediting. There is also a crucial curation role that publishers play.
If we could have a glimpse of your personal library, what would it look like? How is it organized?
You can have a glimpse of it. While my whole house is a library on some level, the majority of the books are in the dining room by design, since two of my favorite things are books and good convivial meals. I love to cook. My wife is a closet librarian and our books are alphabetized and sorted by genre. I buy new books and only at independent stores. My wife buys used books. We have a lot of fiction. And lots of cookbooks.
What’s the biggest misconception (if there is one) that aspiring writers have? That if they can only master the craft side of fiction, the mechanics, they will find success. That is important, but always exists to serve the larger purpose of story. The only reason to write books is to tell stories to people who aren’t in the same room as you.
The publisher is offering a free paperback copy of The Headmaster’s Wife to one Books on the Table reader — U.S. entries only, please. To enter, please leave a comment or send an email (email@example.com) mentioning your favorite childhood book.