Potpourri, June 18th (2014 edition)

JES, circa 19955 maybe?[Latest in the apparently annual June 18 tradition, of (as I said last year) commenting about whatever the heck I want to…]

Ongoing genre confusion: As a rule, readers of fiction tend to latch onto a favorite sort of fiction, to the exclusion of others. They may or may not read “literary” fiction, or that large, unclassifiable body of titles called “mainstream” — but they often return to mysteries, say, or romance, or fantasy, or science fiction, especially for “escape” purposes. They also do not in general read one or more of the other categories.

Which can be a problem, for certain writers anyhow:

Agents, publishers and retailers need to know how to optimize their pitches for a book. Readers who prefer a certain kind of SF, for instance, might be put off by a book cover featuring a man and woman dressed in gauzy lavender; a horror or Western fan, visiting Amazon or the bookstore or library for the umpteenth time, will tend to return to the same genre-based sections, over and over.

So you’ve got to know how to classify your fiction (which comes down to: you’ve got to know your audience, whether they’re book professionals or not).

For the past six or eight months, I’ve been enjoying writing something SF-ish — one long story and one (yet incomplete) novel, as of today. It’s real science fiction: adventures in space, technology, and time. But it also falls squarely into the mystery genre. Furthermore, and maybe worse, it falls into a particular mystery sub-genre. If you know the old Thin Man films, from the 1930s and ’40s, you’ll have the right idea: a charming, sophisticated, and (I hope) funny husband-and-wife team solve crimes which may involve blackmail, murder, and so on… but not crimes of the grisly action-packed thriller sort.

Oh, no: I didn’t even come close to inventing the mystery/SF blended genre, as even a fairly simple Google search will tell you. But modern readers — and the people charged with getting books to them — tend to have edgier tastes. “Nick and Nora Charles in space” does not seem a tagline likely to draw many readers.

…Sigh. It’s hard enough to write without worrying about all this. It’s one of the dilemmas which drive people to self-publishing: I’ll write whatever I want, they say, and I won’t waste time trying to win over professional go-betweens like editors and booksellers. Readers like good books, regardless of genre!

But I don’t really believe genre doesn’t matter, do I? Do I?

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RAMH@6: Discoveries (A Playlist, and a Rumination)

[Image: 19th-century drawing by A. Roeseler for “the German Punch,” Fliegende Blätter.
Posted on Flickr by user “digitalsextant.” For the whole three-panel thing, click the image.]

I wondered what I’d write about for Running After My Hat‘s sixth anniversary — because, damn it, I was determined to write about something rather than let it pass completely unremarked.

Before I get into the gist of my answer to that question, I thought I’d offer you up a playlist of a variety of music from posts here. Each link in the below table takes you to the post where it was featured; the links open in a new window or tab, and the corresponding posts almost always include (or link to) lyrics, if appropriate. (If you just want to see the post title and date, hover your mouse over the link without clicking on it.) The songs follow no particular sequence, except that (in my estimation) they sound pretty good in this order.

A little audio-player thingumabob appears below the track listing. Feel free to ignore this, or use it as a soundtrack for what follows.

# Artist Song Time
1 Nicola Benedetti Concerto for violin and strings in D/”Grosso Mogul” I. Allegro  5:28
2 The Staple Singers Slippery People (Club Mix)  6:38
3 Lenka The Show  3:56
4 Ariana Grande Tattooed Heart  3:15
5 B.B. King One Shoe Blues  3:15
6 Shook Twins Rose  2:58
7 Old Crow Medicine Show Down Home Girl  3:47
8 Rising Appalachia Swoon  2:30
9 The Black Keys Lonely Boy  3:13
10 Dominant Legs Make Time for the Boy  5:12
11 Santana (w/Rob Thomas) Smooth  2:33
12 Caitlin Rose Pink Champagne  4:06
13 Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell Spanish Dancer  3:45
14 Big Bad Voodoo Daddy Mr. Pinstripe Suit  3:39
15 The Rankins Movin’ On  3:27
16 Carrie Rodriguez Lake Harriet  3:12
17 Lucky Soul Upon Hilly Fields  3:55
18 Red Molly Wayfaring Stranger  5:42
19 Tom Waits Hold On  5:34

…and here’s the playlist-player doo-dad itself. (Total length of all songs together: ~78 minutes. So, yeah: settle in.)

(Note: The playlist goes automatically from start to finish, once you click the little Play button. To fast-forward to the next number, once a song is playing you’ll find a little fast-forward button to the right of its progress meter — and a fast-rewind to the left, for that matter.)

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An E-Publishing Experiment (2): Short Holiday Reading for Under a Buck

How It Was: Christmas (cover)Moving right along…

So I’ve had a short story for sale for a week so far, as described in this post. (The book itself can be found on Amazon.com; that’s the Amazon US link, although it’s also available at the company’s UK, Australia, Brazil, Germany, India, [etc.] sites.) At 99 cents apiece (less Amazon’s cut), I’ve sold about a dozen copies of that story to date (one was “refunded,” for reasons unknown — probably a double download).

As I mentioned at the time, I haven’t really done anything to promote it, other than to announce its availability on Facebook and Twitter. I did a follow-up on Facebook, a day or two later, and — for what it’s worth — sold more copies via the follow-up than from the original announcement. I made a point of not urging anyone to spread the word, buy copies for friends and family, and so on; I just announced the story’s availability, to see what happened next.

From this small chunk of data, so far at least, I (not very earth-shakingly) conclude:

  • People who see the announcement are more likely to respond to it. Thus, the timing of the announcement is critical: almost no one can read every single posting in his or her Facebook and/or Twitter feeds. Follow-up can greatly announcements improve the odds of likely purchasers even knowing about the sale in the first place.
  • Since Facebook and Twitter (and RAMH itself, for that matter) are self-selected population samples — only people who “know” me in one way or another — presumably all of those dozen sales so far came not via word-of-mouth, but in direct response to the announcement.

I don’t know how to encourage word-of-mouth sales without constantly nudging the people who’ve bought it so far — remember, people I “know” — and risking wearing out my welcome, so to speak. Especially now, at this time of year, people (even generous friends) simply don’t want, let alone need, to be badgered repeatedly to buy something.

So, let’s move on to phase 2, applying some of these lessons (and leaving some of the mysteries unresolved for now).

You can find my next 99-cent offering here, at Amazon’s US site: “How It Was: Christmas.” If you’ve been reading RAMH for a while, you’ve seen this (both the overall series, and this specific volume) referenced before. One of my very first posts here described the series’ genesis, and what to expect from the individual booklets.

Of all four books, this one is most likely to “sell,” I think — especially at this time of year. I’ve done a couple of things to open it up a little further:

  • I’ve enrolled the title in Amazon’s “Kindle Select”KDP Select” program. This will provide me some promotional opportunities downstream. Chief among these: I will be able to RAISE the sale price, with the intention of immediately offering it for sale at a deep discount back to the 99-cents level.
  • The book will also be available for free “library” lending to Amazon Prime customers. I won’t get a direct royalty from these so-called borrowings, but I will get a small bit from some kind of Amazon’s global library promotions.
  • I’ll do more than one follow-up announcement on Facebook, and also make a point of following up a couple of times on Twitter. (As ever, I don’t want to wear out my welcome. If anyone sees me approaching that limit, I hope you’ll let me know!)
  • A bigger risk, maybe: I’m offering the book free of all digital-rights-management constraints. This means that someone who BUYS a copy can simply turn around and give the book file to anyone else. Of everything I’ve written, maybe, this Christmas booklet is “most likely to succeed,” at some point (perhaps years in the future). To the extent that more and more people read (and of course like) it, future sales of both other How It Was books and everything else I might e-publish might get a boost.

Again, let’s just see how things play out. And I’ll report back on this phase, too, at some point.

Thanks as always for reading anything at all which I’ve written… and of course, thanks extra if you’ve paid for it, and/or encouraged someone else to do so. ;)


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An E-Publishing Experiment: Short Fiction for Under a Buck

AtmospheresI am not even close to the first person to wonder: is it possible — let alone worthwhile — to sell short short stories piecemeal, directly to readers, without going through the intermediary of a magazine or publisher?

Answering the first part of that question comes (relatively) easily, as it happens. Pursuing the answer to the second, however, can be messier. More… fraught.

So, the experiment:

I’ve uploaded a short story to Amazon, where it will sell as an e-“book” for 99¢ (US) and the equivalent price in other currencies. If I could have, I’d have priced it even lower; for now, though, that represents the lowest price which Amazon even allows for an e-book. Still, I have no plans to lower the price later. Let’s just see how it goes.

What do you need to know about the story?

  • The cover appears at the top right of this post; the title, obviously, is “Atmospheres.”
  • Genre? Fiction, of course. Maybe literary fiction (although that does carry an unseemly whiff of self-congratulation, doesn’t it?). Some might consider it to be a fantasy. A, well… let’s say a light contemporary fantasy. Don’t expect any pixies or elves, however, nor dragons, trolls, wizards, and the rest of that lot.
  • Excerpt: here’s how it begins…

Nathan DeKuyper had often dreamed of flying — not in some engined or lighter-than-air contraption, but personally, on his own. Springing-into-the-air flying. Aerodynamically-stretched-out-extremities flying, like Superman, requiring no wings of his own nor flapping of arms. Propelled in three dimensions by mere intent, by wanting to be there instead of here. Gliding, climbing, barrel rolling, power diving, treetop skimming, with the wind threatening to strip his glasses from his head, his eyes tearing, his hearing aid clattering dangerously, his clothes snapping and ballooning about him. No one would see him, or if they saw him they’d look away, rub their eyes, look up again… but he’d be gone by then, already dismissed as an illusion, all but forgotten.

Of course he had dreamed of flying. Hadn’t everyone? But — well, of course — he’d never actually flown.

Until the day he did.

  • How short is it? (Regular readers of my prose here and elsewhere may especially need reassurance on this score.) Only about 7,000 words: easily consumed at a sitting, I think (hope).
  • As an e-book sold through Amazon, it’s in Kindle-readable format. However — this is important — you do not need a Kindle to read it. Once you purchase it, you should be able to read it with Amazon’s Kindle software, available both as a regular Web browser plug-in and as a smartphone/tablet app.
  • Oh, duh: where to get it. Of course. You can get it here.

As I said, let’s just see how it goes. I’ll mention the whole thing on Facebook and Twitter, maybe even more than once, but have no “promotional” plans beyond that — word-of-mouth will carry it, or it won’t. And yes, I’ll report back on the whole thing. Sometime, haha.

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Skimming Tangentially Against the Agented Universe, and the Scriptwriting One

Nelson Literary Agency: Agent Reads the Slush Pile

[Don’t read too much into this RAMH post’s title.]

Last night, I and 40+ others participated in an interesting webinar called Agent Reads the Slush Pile. It lasted from 8pm Eastern time until close to 10:30. Each of about forty authors submitted the first two pages of a manuscript, including as “identifying” information only the title and genre — i.e., no names. Each of these mini-manuscripts was assigned a random number, which determined the order in which they’d be read. And then the agent… well, the agent read them. Commenting as she went. The idea was to reproduce, aloud, what it was like for an agent to just dive into a batch of unsolicited manuscripts. (And to answer the unspoken question: no, she hadn’t seen any of the submissions in advance.)

How it worked, more precisely: an agent at the agency read the mini-MSS aloud, one at a time, while the lead agent moderated her progress through the reading with little instructions like, “Okay, stop right there for a second…” and “Okay, pick up at the next paragraph.” At each point of interruption or discontinuity she’d point out something like a pattern of word choices or details which were helping (or, more often, hurting) the story at this point. (Considering that it’s the first two pages of a novel, one definitely wants not to include anything like impediments.)

We also had plenty of opportunities to ask questions, which didn’t need to be restricted to the reading/critiques.

I won’t get into details of the critiques. But I will say that it all drove home to me the importance of three precepts, as if you don’t already know these things:

  • Choose your genre well and carefully.
  • Choose the details you include — also both well and carefully.
  • Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

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Ten Little Persons of Another Persuasion

[Image: poster for 1945’s And Then There Were None, starring Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, et al…. including someone named Queenie Leonard — who (one suspects) may have been among the first to go.]

Over at Soho Press, Senior Editor (and crime-fiction specialist) Juliet Grames has been hosting a series of blog posts she’s dubbed the “Crime Read-Along” series. Each month, she leads a discussion of a different classic crime story — private-detective story, police procedural, “cozy,” or what-have-you — selected from stories that she doesn’t know as well as ones she does. Each discussion begins with an introductory post on some more general topic related to the title under discussion, followed shortly by a post about the book itself. You can see all the books covered so far, with links to both parts, on the series’ Calendar page. On the shelf already: Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (Part 1: “Why is early crime fiction so French?”); Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” (Part 1: “What does Sherlock Holmes mean to you?”); Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue (Part 1: the “Grande Dames” of the Golden Age of British detective fiction, including Tey); and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (Part 1: “the origins of American noir“).

Under consideration in July: one of Agatha Christie’s biggest-selling, most popular books, And Then There Were None.

What’s that you say? You don’t recognize the title? Hardly your fault: it’s just one of several versions. On publication in England in 1939, it went by Catch a Nigger by the Toe; roughly concurrently with its release there, the Saturday Evening Post serialized it as Ten Little Indians… and within a few months had been re-published in England under the And Then There Were None moniker. (Wikipedia tells the story. My first exposure to it was the 1965 film version, which used the Indians version.)

Just why it might have gone through all these re-christenings doesn’t surprise, of course. It doesn’t require knee-jerk political correctness to recognize that some words just whup us upside the head with an almost visceral shock value. In fact, although there may be some appeal to “getting people talking” (No such thing as bad publicity, goes the press agent mantra), any author — or editor, or publisher — really needs to think hard before committing such a title to print. Do you seriously believe you’ll attract more readers via controversy than you’ll turn off via distaste?

Which (as Grames mentions in her Part 1 post for July) raises the question of what Agatha Christie (and her various representatives) might have been thinking in the late 1930s.

To my mind, arguing that, well, the 1930s were a different time… and well, England didn’t have the United States’ history of slavery… — those are just excuses. The times weren’t that different. And it wasn’t as though the publisher — and Christie — never intended it for the US audience.

Part of me wants to say, like, who the hell cares? What a writer or any other artist chooses to call his or her work is his or her own business, and any “controversy” comes about only because someone else, after the fact, stirred it up.

And part of me knows well how powerfully — and literally — words set the tone for a culture. It’s one thing for Mark Twain to put the word nigger in the mouth of a poorly educated boy of the 19th-century American south; critics and do-gooders who tamper with such choices, however well-meaning, really haven’t thought very hard about the matter. But the responsibility for the effect of a work’s words does not lie entirely with the audience, either.

Especially in a title. I mean, sheesh. It’s like slapping a reader in the face and saying, Yeah, I know, and I don’t care, and this is MY book goddammit.

Heck of a thing, if you ask me.

Addendum: The plot of Christie’s book pretty much develops in the same manner as the nursery rhyme. So at first I thought, well, what was she to do? It was the perfect accompaniment, and if that’s the way the nursery rhyme goes then it’s not up to her to re-write it…

…except, well, no: the original rhyme was the ten-little-Indians version. (Wikipedia cites the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes on this point.) While it’s true that nigger soon replaced Indian (or Injun), I’m not convinced by claims that Christie might have been just following a given. She had a choice.

Addendum 2: In a comment at Juliet Grames’s post, I mentioned a 1970s-something public-service announcement I remembered, which made use of the ten-little-Indians meme to warn young people away from drug abuse. Unsurprisingly, someone’s resurrected it on YouTube:

(My favorite part about this clip: the contrast with the second or so of the show it interrupted, The New Price Is Right, starring a madly grinning Bob Barker.)

As you can see in the comments on the video’s own page, even “Ten Little Indians” makes some people cringe. I don’t know what the dividing line is, but clearly different audiences have different thresholds. (Which doesn’t make an author’s job any easier.)

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Running a Book through the Marketing Wringer

[Image: found it here, at the “family tree” site of a gentleman in a
much better position than myself to identify everyone involved.]

I haven’t talked much of Seems to Fit here since announcing a few months ago, rather deliriously, that I imagined it to be “done.” Whatever else this meant, of course, it meant that the book was about to set forth on an awkward journey, drifting — mostly becalmed — between two ports: the author’s desk and an unknown reader’s hands. If you’re at all familiar with the process, you probably know some of the intermediate destinations I may be stopping at along the way. I promise to report on the trip once the guy up in the crow’s nest glimpses the mainland coast (and convinces the skipper he’s not imagining things).

In the meantime, I’ve had a couple of developments I thought I’d share. These aren’t “marketing” developments, strictly speaking, but they should help me when the moment arises.

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I Have Found It (or Maybe I Haven’t)

[For more about the video, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

Discovering the selfless nature doesn’t have a monumental “Eureka!” quality. It is more like being continually perplexed, the way we feel when we’re looking for the car keys we’re so sure are in our pocket, or when the supermarket’s being renovated and what we need has moved to a different aisle each time we go shopping. That experience of being somewhat dumbfounded is the beginning of wisdom. We’re beginning to see through our ignorance — the everyday vigil we sustain to confirm that we exist in some permanent way. We look at our mind and see that it is a fluid situation, and we look at the world and see that it is a fluid situation. Our expectation of permanence is confounded.

(Sakyong Mipham [source])


The Poet with His Face in His Hands

You want to cry aloud for your
mistakes. But to tell the truth the world
doesn’t need anymore of that sound.

So if you’re going to do it and can’t
stop yourself, if your pretty mouth can’t
hold it in, at least go by yourself across

the forty fields and the forty dark inclines
of rocks and water to the place where
the falls are flinging out their white sheets

like crazy, and there is a cave behind all that
jubilation and water fun and you can
stand there, under it, and roar all you

want and nothing will be disturbed; you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched

by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Midweek Music Break: Ciara Sidine, “Take Me Down”

[Image: “Ciara and Conor [Brady], acoustic set, Shadow Road Shining launch at Sugar Club, Dublin,
13 May 2011″ (from her FB page)]

The [mostly imaginary] scene: Dublin, Ireland, in the offices of a large publishing firm, sometime in the still young twenty-first century. An experienced, highly respected editor sits looking dreamily out a window of her office. Only in her 30s, she’s done the successful-professional thing and she’s also the mother of small children. She has no desire to give up those things. And yet… and yet…

From the streets below, voices whisper to her. A few moments pass. Then she realizes: they’re not speaking but singing softly, some from half a world away and some just a few blocks distant, many of them muted by the passing of decades and others still very young…

From Ciara Sidine’s Facebook page, on her influences:

I am inspired by the beautiful vocals and at times ground-breaking recordings of Emmylou Harris, by the raw vocal energy and gut-wrenching lyrics of Lucinda Williams, by the braveness and vulnerability of Beth Gibbons and the rare and ethereal sound of Portishead. The voice of Elvis Costello never ceases to make me want to lie down and surrender to its beautiful calling.

Listening to the voice of Dolores Keane always made me feel that something true and unalterable was unfolding. From Mary Black came something equally true, pure in tone and melody; from Sinead O’Connor something otherworldly, at once raw, honest, violent and soothing. From Bob Geldof, ass-kicking, rocking music that put its money where its mouth was. I’m inspired by the folk revival from the fifties on, by blues and country. Hearing Hank Williams’s voice is like a fresh awakening every time. Van Morrison speaks directly to the soul, finds his groove there and works his spell. Let the healing begin.

Johnny Cash, well I can barely even go there. His voice brings me to a different place, and it is his later American recordings that I most often revisit and find myself at home in, almost akin to being a child in those warm sing-song evenings where the night was infinite possibility and song was a democracy all of its own. Johnny’s voice reminds me of rolling thunder — rumbling, spine-tingling, exciting. How close is the lightning to where you’re standing?

Joni still reveals something fresh and lasting in every new recording, and I don’t think there’s anyone to whom I owe more in terms of inspiration. When I listen to the immediacy and singularity of records she made well over forty years ago, every strum, every chord, every harmony still goes straight to the heart.

Every generation thinks it has reinvented the world, but we only have to listen to the music of the fifties and sixties to know that our hold over any such notion is at best tenuous. What unfolds from the rock ‘n’ roll revolution has all manner of inventiveness. But rock ‘n’ roll paved the way. And its way too was paved, by roots, gospel, jazz, blues, country. It just comes around again, anew. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings make the best case for this of any contemporary performers I can think of and they, too, inspire me.

That’s quite a bit of ambition wrapped up there, hmm? But she did more than dream. She did it. Her debut album, Shadow Road Shining, came out last year to great acclaim, and you can find echoes of all those voices — and all their poetry — in every song.

Here’s “Take Me Down”:

[Below, click Play button to begin Take Me Down. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 4:30 long.

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I don’t know if she’s still editing, or plans to return to it (if indeed she has left). But the verbal dexterity is all there on open display, not just in her songs’ lyrics but in such of her prose as I’ve succeeded in digging up. Here’s an excerpt from her Web site:

At the moment, I feel that to be Irish is to have just emerged from your teenage-hood, having wrecked your parents’ gaff in a massive drug-fuelled party. Great fun, no one’s arguing, but they’re due back any minute, and you’ve woken up to an almighty hangover and an unbright future. The beautiful chick/dude from last night is nowhere to be found. Tomorrow you’re about to discover that you failed the leaving. There’s a queue stretching around the corner for a Mac-job. It’s time to sink or swim.

There’s always choice, always possibility. Maybe I’ll write a song about that.

An almighty hangover and an unbright future… You failed the leaving. It takes a real writer’s confidence with the English language — and in her choices — to fashion such cadences.

Update (2012-02-15, 2:00pm): See Froog’s comment, below, for a bit of a balloon-puncturing about one of those presumptively imaginative phrases.

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Writerly Distractions and Neuroses: Fiction and Word Counts

[Image: “Doodle with Measuring Tape,” by Bryan Reyna]

I came across an interesting site this morning, called Renaissance Learning (subtitle: “Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools.” In general, Renaissance Learning is a resource for (as you might guess) teachers and other educators. One area of the site, the Quiz Store, peddles quizzes about specific books. What interests me today about the site — and may interest others among you who are also writing books — is one particular page at the Quiz Store, the “advanced search” page.

Here’s why this page interests me even though I’m not in the market for a literary quiz: when you do a book or author search, among the information you can easily learn is the number of words in the book.

Traditionally, the answer to the question, How many words should my book be? is It depends on your book’s genre. Then the answerer goes on to spell out, for each genre of interest, a range of word counts — 70-80K words for Genre X, up to 125K words for Y, and so on.

And yes, I know — this all probably sounds like so much foofaraw to those of you who aren’t writing for publication, or are writing to self-publish. You’re thinking: Just write the damn book, right? It takes as many words as it takes, period. Alas, neither the real world of publishing nor the minds of most writers work that way.

The problem with these guidelines, it seems to me, is two-fold: (a) they’re only rough guides (the recommendations always say things like, “Of course, there are plenty of exceptions!”); and (b) they presuppose that your definition of your own book’s genre will match the definition of the genre as used by whoever’s supplied the word counts in the first place. A more common-sensical approach, I think, is just to come up with a list of books and/or authors you like, vaguely “like” your book (and/or you) in terms of desired readership, career aspirations, and so on. How many words were in those books, as published?

The Renaissance Learning site doesn’t include statistics for every author, let alone book, ever published. But I think it includes enough to be instructive to curious writers (and readers!).
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