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Insights from Hawthorne Publishing

Formulaic Novels: Predictable, but they still can have merit!

An entire generation of romantic novels, with elements of the thriller and historical fiction, are on the market and offer interesting reading. I’ve just finished reading Song of the Jade Lily by Kristy Manning. It’s a worthwhile read. At times it’s compelling. But most of all it has been well-researched, and educates even one who has studied history for years in a little-known chapter of World War II.

The book tells the story of a young girl who is part of a Jewish family fleeing Germany in 1937, leaving behind her brother killed on Crystal Nacht by the new proto-Nazi storm troops.

We learn that thousands of Jews fled Hitler’s Germany to find refuge in Shanghai, an international city at that time, which welcomed them with relief agencies, housing, food and employment. Who knew that? I didn’t.

The story moves effectively through twists and turns involving the daughter Romy and her new friend Li, bonded by chance and love, who must soon face the Japanese invasion of China and frightful and dangerous occupation of Shanghai. Family members come alive and the Chinese-French-American culture is colorfully portrayed, elegant cocktail lounges, movies and all.

Romy and the man she finds to love eventually escape to Australia. Told alternately are segments of the adoption of their Chinese granddaughter with plot complications that are interesting and satisfactorily resolved in the end.

But I have said this was a formulaic novel? What do I mean by that?

This is a new class of novels which will have certain characteristic devices in their plots that today’s writers believe are what readers want (and they are probably right—at least until they tire of the repetition). Exotic setting in places that are little known in history or in our contemporary world, defiant and clever heroines (usually), tons of background scenery to bring the past scene to life, buildings, landscapes, street scenes complete with the exact garbage in the gutter.

But more importantly, it seems, is—lots of food, especially in restaurants. All the readers, these authors believe, love to hear about the dishes served in elegant or tucked-away cafes or at home in detail. In this book it’s Chinese cookery. Spices: ginger, nutmeg, anise, sunflower seeds, cardamom—on and on. Six types of noodles in their slurpy deliciousness. Broths, chicken, pork, two types of fish broth. And the names are quite specific, exotic, unusual.

Dress and clothing styles, described as if for Vogue magazine with French-sounding names. “She came down the stairs in a floor-length, cream satinette gown with a six-inch Parisian slit in its left side.” Same detail for the living rooms. “His eyes took in the Art Deco, quarry glass coffee table on deep mahogany, curve-legged, lion leg pedestals.”

Why all these details obviously pitched to the reader’s senses? It’s the formula, taught I think in the creative writing classes in universities who have recently begun MFA programs—Master of Fine Arts. One may learn there how to write—at least how to create platefuls of reading food served up with yummy sensual details.

In spite of this contrived feeling of the settings of these MFA-taught plots, they are redeemed by another part taught in the classes: how to significantly research the background history and scenery of the chosen time.

I did not know anything of the Jewish flight to, and acceptance by, Shanghai at the start of World War II. This author did her job; that historical story carries the entire plot and shifting scenery for the senses along. As usual, history itself is stranger than fiction, stronger than even a richly contrived, somewhat overdone story. That’s what makes this, and other new novels like it, successful.

Nancy Baxter. Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing


Posted in Book Publishing |

Spotlight on an Injustice: Modern history with women in the military Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling by Chaplain (Colonel) Janet Yarlott Horton US Army (Ret)

By Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing


Colonel (ret.) Janet Yarlott Horton was one of the first women and women chaplains in the United States military. A bright and energetic young woman planning to be a teacher and in college, she was contacted by officials in her own Christian Science church to see if she wished to train for the military chaplaincy. Women at that moment in history, the mid-1970s, had just begun to go into the United States Army. Men warily or even with hostility, were expected to accept the women as comrades in arms, and they weren’t at all ready to do that.

One does not enter the chaplaincy of America’s armed forces from a certain denomination. There were Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish chaplains. (Today there are also Muslim chaplains.)

Colonel Horton tells the story of studying in a tough graduate theological course and then serving an internship—graduating as a chaplain to be sent in 1977 to an army training area near Phoenix, Arizona. She would be a chaplain to all who considered themselves Protestants and some who just wanted to experience a faith community.

Janet was the “token woman” with the bunch of “guys.” They warned her their morning run into the desert would “be too much for you,” but she told them she was a seasoned long-distance runner. Into the desert they went, Janet with a bunch of skeptical men; as she tells the story in the book. As they loped in that early morning into along an unpopulated road a distance from settled areas, a pack of hungry, growling coyotes approached. The men climbed trees or hid, leaving her alone.

She told herself she was a chaplain, a person of faith with men from the army looking on.

“Having been ‘praying without ceasing,’ I felt very prepared. . . I prayed to hear the still small voice of God’s Word for this situation. What came to me was to ‘get down and speak to the lead dog.’” All the coyotes lay down as Janet knelt to speak to that lead dog.

She spoke as to a friend. “You have a purpose, but’s it’s not to harm me. And I have a purpose and it’s not to harm you. We need to be about our Father’s business, but it’s not here.”

She stood and pointed to the desert wilderness and the lead coyote trotted in that direction, followed by the others.

The men came forward from their hiding places, astonished,  and they all spoke together about what having a woman with them meant, as they made an effort to understand what the new world of equality even in the armed forces would mean.

Scores of episodes in Colonel Horton’s distinguished career are explored in this remarkable book which has been a best-seller for Hawthorne Publishing, going around the world.


To come: Colonel Horton is at the Pentagon when it is attacked on 9/11.

To purchase her book Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling: Faith Persistence and Progress in the Army Chaplaincy During the Early integration of Women in the Military click back to the website.

Posted in Winds of Change |

Audio books’ popularity soars. . .how does a publisher view this niche in the market?

New statistics show that 50% of Americans over 12 years of age have listened to an audio book in the last year. That percentage has grown from 44 percent in 2018.

A young business friend of mine said recently, “I don’t know why people keep buying cumbersome hard and softcover books. The minute I get into the car, I put on the audio book. It can be a popular thriller or a book that involves my business interest, which I’m supposed to read and discuss in an upcoming office meeting, but every minute I’m improving my mind easily as I drive.”

Smartspeakers are facilitating this surge in popularity in books that often feature well-known actors delivering the narrative and acting the characters.  A person may sit under a tree, on the beach, or on the road, and follow the latest mystery or non-fiction biography.

The popularity and success of many of these books, particularly fiction, depends on the voice and narrative, the reading of the book. Actors with rich, powerful interpretive voices will bring the narrative to life with a variety of tonalities, voices, and expressions. We enjoy hearing something coming alive, giving us some of the pleasure we receive watching a movie.

.But what value do they have for small presses or regional publishers, whose sales have been invested in soft bounds, diminishing amounts of hardcovers and e-books. The answer is not much value so far.

Small press sales can be in the low thousands for any given softcover title, at best. Historical presses are pleased to sell 2,000 at the release of any given title as a new release and then feature it for many years as a standard or backlist title. They have returned their original investment of print and typesetting costs and made a modicum of profit as well as serving their publishing mission. Authors have received some sales royalties and are satisfied.

But audio books are surprisingly expensive to produce. Any one title can cost around $3,000-$5,000 or more to record and produce with a sophisticated and talented performer doing the voice and smooth technology to produce it. E-books can be produced at a professional level for about $500 and very little trouble in India. Of course e-books do not return much when sold through Amazon for either small presses or authors, often a few dollars per sale.

Small presses sell softbound titles for $20 or more.  Audiobooks are sold by subscription usually, a situation small presses cannot manage easily.

So for now, we small presses are still in the business of producing high quality softbound books with arresting themes, titles and content. That’s the way the book business has been since the 1400s, and it’s clear that hand-held books with high quality reading content will continue to sell at least in the near future.

Posted in audiobooks |

E-books: Flash in the pan or a role well earned in the book industry?

When e-books first became popular and began to be widespread about eight years ago, the fad for them made observers predict that these convenient books in electronic form, transmitted to your e-book reader (generally Kindle from Amazon) would take over the reading market.

And indeed, releases purchased in e-book form quickly went up to 20 and even 30% of the book market in the heady days of 2014 and 15.

E-book or print softbound?

Readers remarked on the ease of having a book transferred in a moment from Amazon to a Kindle or Nook reader, the convenience of using the device to read in a car or on a trip, the advantages of having electronic storage instead of an overloaded shelf of books that will never be read again.

By 2017, though, e-book sales had begun diminishing. Market share of children’s books in e-book form fell sharply and adult e-books were declining—both markets taken together declined 12 %.

What has happened to the book format that was so touted as able to replace the book held in the hand? It turns out that the average reader actually still likes the book in the hands. There’s something comforting and leisurely and artistically pleasurable about holding a book, being able to physically turn a page ahead or behind to check something, stopping to instantly look at the photo of the author as the last page.

And it is of course softbound books that are preferred these days. Some statistics, (which are hard to interpret because they vary a lot) say that paperback books are outselling e-books last year by 20%.

But hardcover and gifting softbound books are one reason print books are holding their own and making a comeback. In the first place, publishers have been featuring stunning and beautiful graphics in many books for sale on Amazon. Illustrations throughout a book, or even a striking cover, done imaginatively can make a book a pleasant aesthetic experience, an appreciated gift, or even a keepsake. Christmas still comes and birthdays still appear, and wrapping up or packaging a book with an arresting or beautiful cover often beats giving someone a gift card to buy the dull electronic book online.

In the first flush of the fad for e-books, libraries rushed to stock them through the company Overdrive, which held an exclusive hold on the market and had technology to allow patrons to take out tiles and read them on their Kindles. The books then disappeared from their e-book systems after a reasonable amount of time.

Vincennes Indiana library director Emily Bunyan said recently, “All our patrons were so eager for us to stock e-books for them to take out, and we did that. Then the demand began to cool and they are not particularly popular these days. Our readers enjoy print books still.”

Electronic formats for books will always be a factor in reading. Readers now have choices.

Eighteen percent of the electronic book market is audio books. More on that next time.


Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing


Posted in ebooks |