Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Circus is in Town

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A Circus Performer Reads The Night Circus

n. a travelling show of performing animals, acrobats, clowns etc.
n. a situation characterized by lively and chaotic activity

A handful of times a year, when a book with sufficient accompanying brouhaha goes on sale, I do a segment called “Should I Read It?” for a CBC Radio One show. The segment name pretty much tells you what you need to know about its format: it asks whether the buzzy book in question is worth all the flap. But what makes a “buzz” book bzzzzz in the first place?

With a tried and tested novelist it’s their reputation that slates their next project as a buzz thang: once-a-decade novelists à la Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace; or eagerly anticipated next instalments in popular crime (or boy wizard) series, for instance. With non-fiction it’s a zeitgeist (An Inconvenient Truth) or perhaps a fame (Life, Just Kids... Morrissey’s autobiography if ever it gets published) thing. When a debut novelist is anointed buzz author of the season, however, that buzz is a hundred percent industry manufactured. With reading enjoyment being such a subjective thing, then, how do we go about marketing it?

Marketing books is hard. Correction: marketing non-fiction books with a specific cultural or current-affairs angle is OK; marketing everything else is *&^%ing hard. I’m considering lobbying Terry O’Reilly to do an Age of Persuasion about this — please, Terry, please? The publishing industry needs you! A book is a commodity that introduces hundreds of new variations to its brand every week. Lexus can say “Hey, this new Lexus looks sexier and goes faster and uses a bit less fuel than last year’s Lexus. Buy it and these attributes will transfer themselves to you,” (and, really, who among us doesn’t want to be newer, shinier and do a few extra miles to the gallon?). But books can’t do that.

We can say: “Reading is sexy, knowing stuff is cool,” but enjoyment of a book is such a subjective thing that it’s extremely difficult to build a campaign around one that doesn’t hinge exclusively on the consumers being book lovers, especially when the author in question is an unknown quantity. Instead of telling consumers how our product is notably different from our competitors, therefore, we instead try to show how it is the same: the new Eat, Pray, Love, the next Catcher in the Rye.

Cue The Night Circus, a debut novel by Erin Morgenstern with marketing checkpoints coming out the wazoo. It’s had industry types gushing since spring and now, Dear Reader, it wants You to start disseminating that industry hype. The book is set in a magical 19th-century circus, an aesthetic that lends itself to the theatrical. Already “an international sensation,” it is, we are told, just the thing to fill that void left by the end of Harry Potter and Twilight, or to tug at heart strings left slack since A Time Traveler’s Wife. At the risk of being exsanguinated (see book for explanation) by the publisher, I’m going to out myself here as someone who read The Night Circus and... didn’t much like it at all. I love a good, dark, phantasmagorical freak-show romp, me (Perfume, The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-reading Monster Hercules Barefoot, The Electric Michelangelo, anything by Angela Carter), but not this one. It felt too slow and two-dimensional to be magical and circusy, and it’s about a contest for which the parameters are never explained. (I’m a competitive person — if I’m playing a game I want to know what it is and how I can win it!) But that’s just me. Maybe you will think it the most extraordinary tale of magic-making ever told. Audrey Niffenegger and Téa Obrecht think it’s the cat’s pyjamas.

To transfer some industry buzz on to book-buying civilians the publisher staged a theatrical giveaway in Yonge Dundas Square at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, September 13. I was there. So were two circus performers on stilts and a horde of Random House employees ready to hand out a whopping 250 copies of The Night Circus, mini bags of popcorn and money-off vouchers to buy the book at Indigo. Trying to transfer an emotional response to an under-caffeinated, late-for-work worker bee in the split second they’ll glance at you before hurrying away is near impossible, but you have to find a way to do it. When I’m handselling books at Type I know that it’s the passion with which you describe a book that will sell it as much as describing what it’s about.

And therein lies the answer to what makes a debut author, and in this case The Night Circus, a buzz book du jour. Not that it’s the best, but that with all its magical (and in Morgenstern’s case, monochromatic) theatricality, it’s the most emotionally marketable. What better way to practice the illusion that is marketing than within a magical circus?

Is The Night Circus the best book of the fall? Well that, like all reading, depends on your personal taste. What is does have is marketing pegs aplenty on which to hang a campaign that’ll get you as excited as a kid with a belly full of cotton candy when the ring master brings in the clowns.

Fall’s mega publishing season has arrived in all its adjectival splendour. Roll up, roll up, book fans. This whole damn game’s a circus.

Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One, a bookseller and events and communications coordinator for Type Books, a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and the author of a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

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