Writer’s novel twist on the book club: authors will take part – for a fee

Idea grew out of literary soirees hosted by Jean Hanff Korelitz and Paul Muldoon

Jean Hanff Korelitz and Paul Muldoon. Photograph: Hiroke Masuike/New York Times

Jean Hanff Korelitz and Paul Muldoon. Photograph: Hiroke Masuike/New York Times

Thu, Jan 30, 2014, 11:49

The living room in the plush apartment on New York’s Central Park West was filled with all the trappings of a traditional book club. A dozen people, mostly women, perched on sofas and armchairs with paperbacks on their laps. A silver carafe of coffee and a tray of black-and-white cookies were set out within arm’s reach. Chatter about weather and children filled the air before the host cleared her throat and announced that it was time to start the discussion.

There was just one oddity: the presence of the book’s author, Alexandra Styron. The price for her appearance: $750 ($550). In a new venture that takes the down-to-earth tradition of a book club and adds the distinctly New York ingredients of celebrity, money and literary zeal, authors have begun signing up to appear in person at book club meetings, where they spend an hour or two discussing their works with eager readers in exchange for a fee.

Book the Writer, which was recently started by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a novelist who is married to the poet Paul Muldoon, has attracted authors including Kurt Andersen, A.M. Homes, Zoe Heller, Michael Cunningham and Amy Sohn. For club members, it offers a rare opportunity to question authors in person about the writing process, their intentions as storytellers and perhaps a stray plotline that needs explanation. For authors, it is a way to talk directly to their readers, hoping to build word-of-mouth for their books and earning a little money on the side for an evening’s work. (Of the $750 fee, $400 goes to the author and $350 goes to Book the Writer.) The service also benefits publishers who view discoverability as perhaps their biggest challenge, as bookstores disappear and book tours and readings decline precipitously.

Styron, the first author to take part in Book the Writer, said that in the past she had appeared at book clubs for no charge, sometimes driving herself out to New Jersey on a weeknight, battling traffic and missing dinner with her family. “You’re operating at a loss, and that’s OK once in a while,” said Styron, the author of a 2011 memoir about growing up with her father, the novelist William Styron. “But it becomes like a mitzvah to do it.” If Book the Writer can succeed anywhere, it would be New York. The city, home of the publishing industry, has a glut of both local notable writers and devoted readers, many of them with unusually deep pockets. At the meeting Styron attended, club members quizzed her about why she wrote the book, what techniques she used to dredge up antique memories and how she dealt with the fallout from her family after the memoir was published. (“I was afraid that my mother would never speak to me again,” she confessed.)

Korelitz, whose novel Admission was adapted into a movie with Tina Fey, said that the service grew out of her previous life in Princeton, New Jersey, where she and her husband frequently hosted authors at their home. (The authors came free.)

When they moved to Manhattan, Korelitz decided to create a formal version of her old book club, this time luring authors with compensation for their appearances. “There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”

Publishers have made their own attempts to cultivate book clubs as part of an attempt to reach out to readers directly to market and promote books. At Little, Brown and Co, marketing executives often make authors available to appear at book clubs via Skype – at no charge. In the hopes of generating early buzz, the publisher has also sent complimentary copies of galleys to about 75 book clubs throughout the country, months before the books – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, for instance – were released to the public.

“They’re the core reading audience,” said Miriam Parker, the online marketing director for Little, Brown. “They’re the people who are interested in finding out about something new. They have a book every month, and they talk about them. They’re the influencers in their communities.”

It remains to be seen whether Book the Writer will take off. Korelitz said that she has arranged dates for Susan Choi, the author of My Education, a novel, and Luke Barr, whose book Provence, 1970 was released last year. The service is available only to book groups that meet in Manhattan and Brooklyn, she said.

Bill Clegg, a literary agent and author of two memoirs, is on Korelitz’s roster of available writers. He said that her venture, if successful, could spur imitators. “Between books, writing can be a lonely business, so a quick lap through a room of interested readers who’ve read your book closely and prepared to discuss could only be buoying,” he said. “Focused discussion of a book in a particular community spreads the word and provokes sales after reviews and publicity die down.” – (New York Times service)

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