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Writing Fiction That’s “Ripped From the Headlines”

by James Scott Bell

The news is obviously a great place to find plot ideas. I used to clip news items from actual newspapers and toss them in an “idea box.” When getting ready to develop a new novel, I’d go through the box looking for something that still grabbed me and could be the basis of a story, or at least provide an interesting subplot.

An example is my latest Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Justice (which, as it happens, launches today, at the deal price of just $1.99. What a coincidence!)

For Romeo’s Justice I riffed off a story I read about the mining of lithium in California’s Salton Sea. That’s obviously timely, as electric vehicles (EVs) are being…encouraged…and lithium—lots and lots of lithium—is needed for manufacturing EV batteries. Thus, there is a rush for “white gold” and the Salton Sea is the new Sutter’s Mill. This provided both a setting and a subplot for my novel.

That’s one way to use the news—find an issue of current moment and either weave it into the narrative or make it the foundation for the main plot. Goodness knows, there are plenty of issues to choose from these days, but a word of caution is in order. A novel is not a sermon, extended rant, or thinly-disguised jeremiad. It is not 80k words worth of Twitterspeak (or should I say Xtalk?).

You’ve got to play fair with the characters. You have a strong opinion, fine, but make sure it is dramatized and not hammered. Give characters with the opposing view a justification (even if it’s just in their own minds) for what they are doing. Otherwise, a good portion of your potential readership will likely skip your other books. If they want to get yelled at they can doomscroll on X for free.

There’s another way to use headline ripping, and that’s taking an actual event and using it as the main plot. Now you’re dealing with real people, and the primary caution here is defamation.

Now, libel cases are notoriously difficult to sustain, especially in the fiction context. Though not impossible. There was the case some years ago of a novel called The Red Hat Club in which the author based a character on her (former) friend. The character in the novel is “an out-of-control alcoholic, who drinks during flights. She has sex with ‘stud puppies’ and married men, dresses provocatively, acts rude and crude, and is labeled as a ‘right wing reactionary’ and atheist with an awful temper.”

The ex-friend was not happy about this. She sued, and since she was not a “public figure” (thus bearing a more favorable burden of proof) she won.

Blue-footed booby

And so, while libel cases against novelists are as rare as the blue-footed booby, there are a few simple things you should do just to be safe.

Of course, put in the standard disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

But also change key facts. For example, if the real person is a man, consider making the character a woman. If he’s a lawyer, you could make him an investment banker. If the event happened in New York, set it in Los Angeles.

At the very least, change the name, for goodness’ sake. The TV show Law & Order uses real events all the time. They always run their disclaimer, then usually do an episode based on a real crime. They change things around, but one time they got lazy. In a story with the headline Was a Law & Order Episode Ripped Too Closely From the Headlines? the Hollywood Reporter documented an episode where a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge accepts cash bribes from a bald, Indian-American lawyer named Ravi Patel.

A bald, Indian-American lawyer named Ravi Batra sued the show’s creator, Dick Wolf. “In real life, Batra had close connections with a New York politician who allegedly accepted bribes and was said to have influence over a a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge.”

Defendant Wolf moved for summary judgment (a dismissal of the suit as a matter of law). But a judge denied the motion, holding that there was “a reasonable likelihood that the ordinary viewer, unacquainted with Batra personally, could understand Patel’s corruption to be the truth about Batra.”

I don’t know what ultimately happened to the case; I suspect it was settled shortly after this. But the show could easily have changed the first name of the character. Or made him a Greek-American named Xander Papadopoulos. It was careless not to.

So remember the two Ds when riffing from headlines: Disclaimer and Differences. Do that and you’re golden. (Memoir writing is another kettle of carp. See this article over on Jane Friedman’s site.)

Speaking of headlines, I can’t resist sharing a few of my favorites, gathered over the years. These are real:

Milk Drinkers Turn to Powder

Iraqi Head Seeks Arms

Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Experts Say

Include Your Children When Baking Cookies

Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

Complaints About NBA Referees Turning Ugly

Do you use the news for inspiration? Or just frustration?

And don’t forget:

Do You Bleed on the Page?

by James Scott Bell

One of the more ubiquitous quotes about writing out there, almost always attributed to Hemingway, is: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Great quote, eh? Only problem is, Hemingway never said it, never wrote it, and probably never even thought it.

So why is he considered the source? Because some quote aggregator back in the 1970s thought it sounded like something Hemingway would say. You know, the running-with-the-bulls guy, the likes-to-box guy. He’d be all about blood.


Later, the line was given to him in a mediocre TV movie called Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012). So now you see it almost daily on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, along with another thing Hemingway never said: “Write drunk. Edit sober.” I’m starting to feel like that Britney Spears guy. “Leave Ernest Hemingway alone!!!!”

The real source for the blood quote comes down to a choice between two writers: Paul Gallico (author of The Poseidon Adventure) and the great sports columnist Red Smith. In a 1946 book, Confessions of a Story Writer, Gallico wrote:

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.

This is good advice. You can write competent fiction without feeling. Heck, that’s what AI does. But you won’t get that deep connection with the readers—and turn them into fans—unless you pour your own heart’s blood into the characters and your prose.

Shortly after Gallico’s book came out, the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell quoted Red Smith as saying, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” It’s likely, then, that Winchell and/or Smith paraphrased Gallico.

Smith apparently liked the blood metaphor, for in a profile in 1961 in Time magazine, he was asked how hard it was to produce a sports column every day. “Writing a column is easy,” he replied. “You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.”

This has a different meaning than the “bleed on the page” quote. It’s an obvious reference to the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44). Smith was talking about the agony of having to come up with a fresh column idea every 24 hours (not easy!) and then write it in his singular style.

Putting these two sentiments together, I find it essential to feel something when I write a scene. Music helps. I have a playlist of various moods taken from movie soundtracks. I need an inner vibration to make a scene come alive.

And while I wouldn’t describe myself as “agonizing” (Proust-like) over my style, I do go over my words at least three times. There’s the daily editing of the previous day’s work; then the first read-through in hard copy; and a final polish. I pursue that “unobtrusive poetry” John D. MacDonald talked about. The effort, for me at least, is entirely worth it.

Mega-bestselling author John Green (Turtles All the Way Down) put it this way:

[W]riting is difficult for me. Sometimes it is difficult because I do not know what I want to say, but usually it is difficult because I know exactly what I want to say but what I want to say has not yet taken the shape of language. When I’m writing, I’m trying to translate ideas and feelings and wild abstractions into language, and that translation is complicated and challenging work. (But it is also — in moments, anyway — fun.)

It is indeed fun, and fully satisfying, to sit back and look at something you’ve written and think, “Ya know, that’s pretty darn good.” Maybe that’s what Hemingway meant when he (really) said, “For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.”

So…do you ever think of yourself as “bleeding” on the page? Should you?

Minor Characters to the Rescue

by James Scott Bell

Today’s post is brought to you by the new Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Justice, now available for pre-order at the ridiculously low deal price of just $1.99. (Outside the U.S., go to your Kindle store and search for: B0CHMTRC6N)

Which brings me to the subject of minor characters (you’ll find out why in a moment).

First, let’s define terms. Though you’ll find variations on how fictional character types are defined, I’ll break it down this way: Main, Secondary, and Minor.

Main characters are those who are essential to the plot and usually appear in several scenes.

Secondary characters are supporting players who have a more limited, though sometimes crucial, role.

Minor characters are those who are necessary for a scene or two, and may only appear once, twice or a few times throughout.

For example, in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the main characters are Sam Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo, and Casper Gutman. They recur throughout the book.

Effie Perrine, Sam Spade’s secretary, is a secondary character, who provides information and plot relief later in the story.

Wilmer Cook, Gutman’s enforcer, is a minor character, as is Tom Polhaus, Spade’s cop friend.

I call secondary and minor characters “spice.” They can add just the right touch of tasty flavor to a story. But if they’re bland or stereotypical, you’re wasting the ingredient.

So where do you start? By giving each one a tag (something physical) and a singular way of talking.

The Maltese Falcon is a masterclass in characterization. The following descriptions are for main characters, but I include them as examples of Hammett’s orchestration—making each character different in order to increase conflict.

Early on, Sam Spade gets a visit at his office from an odd little fellow named Joel Cairo.

Mr. Joel Cairo was a small-boned dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. A square-cut ruby, its sides paralleled by four baguette diamonds, gleamed against the deep green of his cravat. His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips.

Cairo has a distinct way of speaking:

“May a stranger offer condolences for your partner’s unfortunate death?”


“Our conversations in private have not been such that I am anxious to continue them.”

Then we have the “fat man,” Casper Gutman, who—

was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown.

When he talks to Spade, he sounds like this:

“Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. And I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk.”


“You’re the man for me, sir, a man cut along my own lines. No beating about the bush, but right to the point. ‘Will we talk about the black bird?’ We will. I like that, sir. I like that way of doing business. Let us talk about the black bird by all means…”

You get the idea. Physicality and speech pattern. Tags and dialogue. Even for minor characters. In Falcon, Wilmer Cook, the “gunsel,” plays a small but important role. Hammett describes him only as a “youth” wearing a “cap.” When he talks, he tries too hard to sound like a tough guy.

Dwight Frye as Wilmer Cook in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon

The boy raised his eyes to Spade’s mouth and spoke in the strained voice of one in physical pain: “Keep on riding me and you’re going to be picking iron out of your navel.”

Spade chuckled. “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter,” he said cheerfully. “Well, let’s go.”

And while we’re on the subject of minor characters, I want to talk about how they can save your bacon when you close in on the end of your book. This happened to me as I was finishing the aforementioned Romeo’s Justice. My plot was rolling along nicely, unfurling several threads of mystery and suspense, strategically woven into the plot according to my outline. But when I got to the end, there was one thread that was still dangling. I needed to clear this up for the reader. But how?

I made up a minor character to explain it.

But wait, didn’t I just say this was at the end? You can’t just bring in some character at the very end, out of the blue, to save your keister, can you?

Of course you can! All you have to do is work that character into an early scene or two, setting him up for the big reveal.

I thumbed through my hard copy of the first draft and located a place in Act I where I could intro the character. I ended up with a minor character who I’m sure is going to show up in a future book.

This is what’s fun about being an author. You create your world and your people, and you remain sovereign over the proceedings. You can go back and move things around as you see fit. And then you can put the book up for pre-order.

What’s your approach to creating minor characters? 

The Two Most Useless Lines of Dialogue in All Literature

by James Scott Bell

The subtitle of my book on dialogue is The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. The converse, of course, is that dialogue can sink a book pretty darn fast, too. Sodden, cliché-ridden talk is like cement shoes on a mafia stoolie. Many a book has been found at the bottom of the East River because the dialogue dragged it down.

Before I get to the two most useless lines in literature, I have a runner-up. This couplet has been used so often it crossed over into the cliché zone around 1986:

“This isn’t about ____. It’s about ___.”

Now, you may have written such an exchange yourself, so I want to make something clear. I bear you no malice or derision. If you feel the absolute need to have a character say such a thing, I shall not throw a flag. I will, however, issue a warning. Clichés flatten the reading experience. Instead of delight, which is what you want to produce, the reader feels cheated. That feeling is usually subconscious, but why even flirt with that?

And by all means do not flirt with, entertain, or otherwise consider the two most useless lines in all literature:

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I have never read this exchange (or seen it in a movie) except as a shorthand from the author demanding that I care about these people! They love each other, see? You now must love them, too, so that when tragedy befalls them you’ll really, REALLY care, because these are wonderful people who are in love, okay?

Only the effect is the opposite. It comes off as manipulation. It does nothing to make me believe the characters actually do love each other. Words are easy. You need to show me that they do. An action is aces for this, but an original line of dialogue counts as showing me, too.

Now, let’s nuance this a bit. While 98% of the time you don’t need the words “I love you,” there might be a few exceptions. Perhaps a man recovering from a traumatic brain injury, who finally opens his mouth to speak after months of silence, sees his wife at the bedside and utters, “I love you.”

Yeah, might work, though I think you could do better by thinking up some line of dialogue that was meaningful to them both early in the book, as in, “Let’s have chocolate croissants.” I dunno, you’re a writer, make something up. It’s more work than that easy-peasy “I love you,” but work that is worth it to a reader.

This cliché was demolished years ago in a commercial for a certain beer:

Or you can freshen the cliché by putting a spin on it, as Woody Allen does in Annie Hall:

ANNIE: Do you love me?

ALVY: Love is too weak a word for what—I lurve you. You know, I loave you. I luff you, with two F’s. Yes, I have to invent… of course I do. Don’t you think I do?

But for “I love you” followed by “I love you, too,” I cannot think of any exception. Find something else, anything else. The movie Ghost (1980) did it this way:

SAM: I love you, Molly. I’ve always loved you.

MOLLY: Ditto.

That word, Ditto, is not a throwaway, as it becomes a key clue later in the movie.

As I said, readers are cliché resistant. When they see one, it shoots past them without landing, without leaving any mark except a speed bump of dullness. The essence of dullness is predictability. Conversely, when you ditch a cliché for something original, it’s gladdens the reader’s heart.

UPDATE: I just remembered there’s a nuance here also. In my Romeo books, there are a couple of occasions when Mike’s friend and mentor, Ira, says something snarky yet insightful to him, and Mike replies, “I love you, too.” There it has an ironic twist. It’s also outside of the romantic love context which this post is primarily about.

So next time you’re tempted to have a character say “I love you,” and especially “I love you, too,” I want the words of Eliza Doolittle—as portrayed by the great Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady—pounding in your brain:

A Risk Worth Taking

by James Scott Bell

I was reading in the back yard when Mrs. B came out to let me know that L.A. was in for two days of rain.

Without missing a beat I said, “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain.”

Cindy said, “What?”

“Spahn and Sain and two days of rain.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

I told her.

Back in my Little League days, when I was in love with baseball, the Dodgers, and Sandy Koufax in particular, I did a lot of reading in baseball history. In 1948, the Boston Braves were in a tight pennant race. They had two ace pitchers that year, Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain. In those days, ball clubs used four starting pitchers on a rotating basis. If only, fans mused, we could play the remaining games with our two stars doing all the pitching.

The sports editor of the Boston Post, Gerald V. Hern, set this hope in verse:

First, we’ll use Spahn,
Then we’ll use Sain,
Then an off day,
Followed by rain.

Back will come Spahn
Followed by Sain
And followed,
We Hope,
By two days of rain.

Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn

Now, who but a baseball nut from the past would know this? Bob Costas would know it. Vin Scully knew it. Yea, verily, most die-hard fans of the era would. Warren Spahn is a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He won 363 games (winning 300 is an automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame) even though, incredibly, he missed three full seasons serving in World War II. In that capacity he won a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for action at the Battle of the Bulge.

Johnny Sain had a fine career, with 1948 as the highlight, when he was runner-up as the league’s MVP (Stan “The Man” Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals won it). He also served three years in the Navy during the war. After his retirement he became one of the best pitching coaches in the game.

So why did I want my lovely wife to know this bit of trivia? Well, because it’s part of me and my experience, my interests, my memories of love (baseball). I wanted to share it with her, have her experience the joy with me.

And that’s why I drop historical or philosophical references in my Romeo books. Those interest Mike, they’re part of him. No surprise they interest me, too, and I want to share them with my readers.

But to do so, there must be a story reason for it, and it must flow seamlessly into the narrative. Most often Mike will do this in dialogue, as with his young charge at the beach, Carter “C Dog” Weeks.

Almost always Mike explains the reference. But sometimes he’ll drop a reference and move on. It’s a risk, for the reader may be stopped short (this is not a Seinfeld reference) and wonder what it means.

And that might induce the reader to take a moment to look it up. In the “old days” to do that would be a cumbersome process of finding a dictionary or encyclopedia to seek it out. But now a couple of clicks will get you there in nothing flat.

I’m okay with that. Indeed, I get the occasional email telling me something like, “I didn’t know about ___, but looked it up. That’s pretty cool!” Indeed, Dick Francis once remarked, “If you can teach people something, you’ve won half the battle. They want to keep on reading.”

Now, I’m always mindful of doing too much of this. It can easily be overdone. In fact, editing my next Romeo, I read one of these excursions that I found entirely fascinating. But it just felt like too much. So I cut it. This was killing a darling, but we all know sometimes we must.

John D. MacDonald’s famous series character, Travis McGee, would occasionally offer personal musings about something, like what land speculators were doing in Florida or what the city of San Francisco used to be like (one wonders what ol’ Trav would think now). A few readers and critics made a minor complaint about this, but I think the larger majority—which includes yours truly—enjoyed them. They gave a deeper insight into the character.

That’s why I think it’s worth the risk.

So what risks have you taken in your writing? How’d it work out?

NOTE: I’m traveling today but will check in as I can. Cheers!

Give Your Characters Memories

by James Scott Bell

Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories. — Steven Wright

We often talk about a character’s backstory, including a “wound” that haunts as a “ghost” in the present. It’s a solid device, giving a character interesting and mysterious subtext at the beginning. The wound is revealed later as an explanation. (Think of Rick in Casablanca. “I stick my neck out for nobody” and his casual using of women. The wound of Ilsa’s “betrayal” doesn’t become clear until the midpoint).

An often overlooked, but equally useful item, is a character’s memories. These can show up when we want a deeper look inside. It is sometimes recalled as a flashback, but can also be revealed in a dialogue exchange. One of my favorite examples of the latter is when the three friends in City Slickers are riding along together and share the best day and worst day of their lives.* In my workshops I have the students do a best day-worst day voice journal for their Lead, and suggest they do the same for other main characters, including the villain.

Another way to access this material is through your own memories. And a good way to do that is via morning pages. One exercise is to write I remember and just go. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Follow the tangents. The other morning I did just that:

I remember a mobile hanging above my crib. Do I? Or did I formulate it later as a created memory? I don’t know, but I can see it even now.

A nursery school memory I know is real. There was a girl crying in the room, which had walls with nursery rhyme murals on them. I vividly recall a grandfather clock with a mouse running up. Anyway, I went up to the girl and started to pet her hair. I didn’t want her to be sad. 

In third grade there was a girl in our class named Leslie. She was sort of an outsider. Never said much. One rainy day I was walking home from school in my raincoat when I came upon Leslie crying her little eyes out. She was having trouble holding her books, lunchbox and umbrella. So I took the books from her and offered to walk her home. Immediately she brightened up and chatted away all the way to her house.

Not long after that I was riding my bike when I made a wrong move and crashed into a tree. Down I went. My arm exploded in pain. As I lay there moaning, a woman ran out of her house to check on me. She helped me up and into her house, where she called my mom to come and get me. Mom took me to our family doctor (remember those?), the same doctor, Dr. Depper, who had delivered me into the world. My arm wasn’t broken, but it got wrapped up and put in a sling. When we got home, Mom turned on the TV. My favorite show was on, Huckleberry Hound. Mom gave me some ice cream.

About forty years later, Mrs. B and I were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant when an elderly gentleman came in with his wife and was seated.

“You see that man?” I said to Cindy. “He’s the doctor who delivered me.”

I went over. “Dr. Depper?”


“I’m Rosemary Bell’s son.”

“Well I’ll be!”

“I remember your office in Canoga Park. You had a great aquarium in the waiting room.”

“Oh, yes. Those were the days, weren’t they?”

Yes indeed, those were the days, and the memories are priceless.

Do you give your characters memories?

What’s your earliest memory? 

What act of kindness were you shown when you were young?

*Here’s that scene from City Slickers. It’s beautiful writing.


The Basic Formula of Fiction

by James Scott Bell

Many writers are not content merely to write a good story. They want to “say something.” This is not a bad impulse. We are awash in a culture of the trivial, the trite, and the downright stupid. It is part of the writer’s calling to stand against all that.

I can’t recall who it was, but one novelist said, “A writer should have something on his mind.”

That something is the theme, or meaning, of a story. It is the moral message that comes through at the end. The noted writing teacher William Foster-Harris believed that all worthy stories can be explained as an exercise in “moral arithmetic.” In The Basic Formulas of Fiction he expressed it thus:

            Value 1 vs. Value 2 = Outcome

For example, Love vs. Ambition = Love. In other words, the value of love overcomes in the struggle against ambition. If one were writing a tragedy, the outcome would be the opposite, with ambition winning out at the cost of love.

This is true even if you write without a fleeting thought about theme. Your story will have one, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

Each story has only one primary theme, which can also be stated as “Value X leads to Outcome Y.” James N. Frey says in How to Write a Damn Good Novel: “In fiction, the premise [or theme] is the conclusion of a fictive argument. You cannot prove two different premises in a nonfiction argument; the same is true for a fictive argument. Say the character ends up dead. How did it happen? He ended up dead because he tried to rob the bank. He tried to rob the bank because he needed money. He needed money because he wanted to elope. He wanted to elope because he was madly in love. Therefore, his being madly in love is what got him killed.”

So, “mad love leads to death” is the theme.

It is crucial, however, to realize that theme is played out through the characters in the story. In high school my son was tasked with a book report. He read (at my suggestion) Shane, the classic Western by Jack Schaeffer. One of the questions on his report sheet was to state the theme. He asked me for help, because he had never thought about books this deeply before.

With a little prodding, he was able to see that the homesteaders represented civilization, while the ranchers who hire gunmen represent brutality and lawlessness. Shane, of course, is the enigmatic figure who helps this moral equation become: “Civilization (a community of shared values) can overcome the forces of lawlessness.”

Look to the characters and what they are fighting for, and you will find the theme of your story.

But there is a common problem writers face when they have “something on their minds.” And that is simply that they often begin with a theme and try to force a story into it. This can result in a host of issues, among them:

  • Cardboard, one-dimensional characters
  • A preachy tone
  • Lack of subtlety
  • Story clichés

The way to avoid these is to remember: Characters in competition come before theme.


Develop your characters first—your hero, your villain, your supporting cast—and set them in a story world where their values, aims, and agendas will be in conflict. Create scenes where the struggles is vivid on the page.

Yes, you can have a theme in mind, but make it as wispy as a butterfly wing, and subject to change without notice. If you write truly about the characters, following the wants, needs, and desires, you’ll begin see the theme of your story emerge. At first it may be like the faint glow of a miner’s lamp deep in a dark cave. You may not have full illumination until the end, but it will be there.

So give your characters full, complex humanity, and then a passionate commitment to their own set of values. Even the villain. No, especially the villain. All villains (or antagonists) think they are right, and they are the drivers of the plot.

Sometimes, the theme may surprise you. That’s when writing becomes a wondrous act of self-revelation. Your story is revealing who you are and what you really care about.

Do you think about theme when you write? Or after you write? Or at any time? Have you ever been surprised at yourself when you finish a story and find a meaning you hadn’t anticipated?

Eye on the Publishing Business

by James Scott Bell

We’re over halfway through the year (ack!), so it seems an apt time to catch up on a few publishing business items. Here are five that recently caught my eye. Additions and prognostications are welcome in the comments.

Traditional Publishing’s Flat Sales

This from Jane Friedman’s Hot Sheet (subscription required; reprinted with permission):

For the first five months of the year, the Association of American Publishers reports that adult book sales are flat versus 2022 across all formats (print, ebook, audio), while children’s and YA sales fell by nearly 8 percent versus last year. The main weakness is in children’s hardcovers; as we reported last year, Barnes & Noble has become reluctant to stock such books due to high returns.


So far Big Five publisher Hachette has seen profits decline 16 percent versus last year; the company blamed a lighter publication schedule, lack of bestsellers compared to 2022, and a downturn in the US market. CEO Michael Pietsch said, “Sales of backlist titles, children’s and Christian books, and general and prescriptive nonfiction faced particular challenges in a down market. … Backlist sales began to grow toward the end of the first half, and we anticipate a considerably stronger second half.”

Layoffs at Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins

Penguin Random House has been laying off staff. Some employees have accepted a “voluntary separation offer” (VSO); others have been given the pick slip. PRH CEO Nihar Malaviya put it this way in an email to the company:

As you know, the book marketplace has had several shifts over the past years. At Penguin Random House, we, too, have experienced these shifts and changes, especially during the last months. We are halfway through 2023, and while the book market has grown, particularly over recent years, we have also faced significantly increased costs in all areas across the board, and we expect these increases, as well as inflation, to continue….

We have been taking various actions over the last months to adapt our business to these market realities, and I’m sad to share the news that yesterday some of our colleagues across the company were informed that their roles will be eliminated. Everyone being affected has been informed directly in individual meetings. We long sought to avoid these actions, but unfortunately could not do so. This was the hardest decision I have had to make as a leader.

The same challenges are happening at Hachette and HarperCollins. HarperCollins is “working toward a 5 percent workforce reduction.”

Kindle Unlimited Payout is Up

In belt-tightening times, a swath of voracious readers opt into a subscription model in lieu of buying books. Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited is the largest subscription-reading service, and offers indie authors a cut of the pie, promotional opportunities, larger royalties in certain international markets (when the book is purchased), and preferential placement in their online store. For these benefits, the ebook must be exclusively in KU for a 90-day period.

KU authors are paid by the total number of pages read (KENP) in any given month. The KENP payout has hovered at just under 1/2 a cent per page for the past year. At the end of every month, Amazon sets aside a pot of money called the KDP Global Fund, to be paid out to authors whose titles are enrolled in KU. Each author receives a chunk of the pot proportional to how many pages of their titles were read. The more pages read, the bigger the payout. According to one source, for the first half of the year (H1):

[T]he KU pay-out has reached $278.2 million. The figure for H1 2022 was $251.2 million, so an increase year-on-year of $27 million, or 10.7%.

[It’s] worth adding here that in June 2022 the KU pay-out for the month was $38.1 million. This year, 2023, the pay-out was $47 million, which you can no doubt work out is $8.9 million up, but will perhaps be interested to know equates to a 23% rise. And on past performance we can expect to see a December pay-out of about $50 million if Amazon adheres to that pattern.

This tells me Kindle Unlimited remains a solid option for indie authors who are revenue driven. There has yet to be a strong enough competitor to offset KU’s exclusivity advantages, though Scribd has a footprint, and Rakuten’s Kobo Plus became available in the U.S. earlier this year. We await developments…

Influencer-Driven Publishing

A new publishing model is being rolled out by an outfit called Bindery. Recognizing that internet influencers—or “tastemakers”—are a powerful marketing avenue, the company is setting up a membership platform for these “bookish curators” to monetize their “communities” and use a portion of revenue to become, essentially, a book imprint.

Bindery is a membership platform like Patreon or Substack, but designed for bookish curators. Tastemakers invite core fans into an exclusive community space for access to them and their extended content. Unlike other membership platforms, tastemakers with large communities on Bindery, upon invite, may opt to use a portion of their earnings to fund the publication of new books by authors their community will love. Use your platform to make it possible for an author to get a meaningful book deal, partner with them to bring it to life, and share in the book’s success.

Manuscript acquisitions will happen this way:

To find titles, Bindery will deal directly with literary agencies, approaching them … to solicit manuscripts that fit the interests of individual tastemakers. From there, Bindery will hand over submissions to tastemakers for consideration. Tastemakers’ evaluation process may be “in dialogue with their paywalled community members,” said [co-founder Meg] Harvey…. She added, “Once tastemakers identify a book they’re excited about and want to greenlight, Bindery offers a contract to the agency—between the author and Bindery—and manages the author relationship directly.” Bindery offers a standard $10,000 advance.

When the books hit the market, authors will make 50% of the net earnings, tastemakers 25%, and Bindery the other 25%.

Is Bindery’s vision of scores of micro-imprints “a recipe for an oversaturated market” (PW) or “a return to the days of independent publishers leading the industry: taking risks, uncovering new voices, and igniting a passion among readers who want to see more creativity and diversity in the publishing ecosystem” (co-founder Matt Kaye)? Time, as they say, will tell.

How Readers Pick What to Read Next

Over at Written Word Media, a survey found that the book description and author are the most significant factors for how readers choose a book, followed by book cover and average review score. While all are obviously important, the description is vital. But writing marketing copy is often not in an author’s skill set.

Which is why so many authors are using AI to generate ad copy. I know it’s the shiny new toy, and has some beneficial uses (like brainstorming). But my advice is to learn how to write copy on your own. It’s really not that hard and it’s good exercise for your creativity muscle. You can start with Sue’s post on the subject. Practice, write, show it to friends, get feedback.

Over to you. What have you noticed lately regarding the buying, selling, and publishing of books?

Sister Aimee’s “Kidnapping”

by James Scott Bell

Was she a prophet, a huckster, a healer, or a performer? Or a combination of them all?

Aimee Semple McPherson, known to her followers as Sister Aimee, was born in 1890 on a farm in Canada. As a teen, she fell under the spell of a Pentecostal preacher named Robert Semple, whom she later married. When Semple died on a missionary trip, Aimee carried on the ministry herself.

Those who heard her called her “spellbinding.”

In 1923 she made Los Angeles her home base, building a tabernacle in Echo Park. The Angelus Temple is still there, headquarters for the denomination she founded—The Foursquare Church.

Along the way she married a man named McPherson, who apparently couldn’t take the secondary role he played to the hugely popular Sister Aimee. They divorced in 1921.

But that didn’t slow down Aimee, whose sermons were often like theatrical spectacles. She would stage elaborate productions, often with her in costume and sets like a Broadway show.

The crowds were overflowing.

Then, in 1926, after going for a swim at Venice Beach, Sister Aimee disappeared.

The newspapers feared drowning. A massive search proved fruitless.

Several weeks went by. Her stunned followers began to pray for her resurrection.

Which happened, in a way.

In the dusty little Mexican town of Agua Prieta, a family was dining when there was a knock on the door. They opened it up to a tired-looking woman who told them she had escaped kidnappers, and could they help her?

It was Aimee Semple McPherson.

Newspapers across the country trumpeted the news. The D.A. wanted to know the details.

Sister Aimee told the authorities that on that day at Venice Beach, three strangers had asked her to pray for a sick child in the back of their car. When she got to the car (she said) they pushed in her and chloroformed her. They took her to an “adobe shack” in Mexico and held her there for ransom. The authorities wanted to know why no one ever received a ransom demand. Sister Aimee said she couldn’t speak for the kidnappers.

Something else the authorities noticed. Around the same time Sister Aimee went missing, so did the sound engineer for the Angelus Temple, Kenneth Ormiston.

Tongues began to wag. Had she and Ormisten run off together? Was the kidnapping story a way to cover up a tryst?

To this day, it’s an open question. The newspapers, as they are wont to do, seized on the potential of scandal. Eventually the District Attorney went to the grand jury to get an indictment against Aimee and her mother, Minnie, for perpetuating a gigantic hoax.

Imagine that.

Sister Aimee’s famous tenacity took hold. When reporters kept after her, she would calmly reply, “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

She and her mother we’re bound over for trial, on the charge of “criminal conspiracy to commit acts injurious to public morals and to prevent and obstruct justice.” But the D.A.’s key witness, who had claimed she was hired to help perpetuate the hoax, suddenly changed her story. Why? One theory is that an admirer of Sister Aimee, William Randolph Hearst no less, offered a little financial incentive to the witness.

In any event, without that testimony the case had to be dismissed.

The D.A., Asa Keyes, told the press, “Let her be judged in the court of public opinion.”

That court wasn’t kind at first. But in L.A., time is on the side of charming dissemblers. Sister Aimee immediately went on what she called her “vindication tour.” She came back to L.A. not just a local celebrity, but world famous. She even received an invitation from Mahatma Gandhi to visit him. Which she did.

She continued to preach until 1944, when she was found dead in an Oakland hotel room. The cause of death was officially ruled an accidental overdose of barbiturates.

Or was it suicide?

Either way, Aimee Semple McPherson passed through the portals of death into a permanent place in the annals of scandalous celebrity immortality.

That’s how it happens in my town.

Did your hometown have a local, controversial character? Ever used him or her in a book?

If you’d like to hear Sister Aimee at the height of her popularity, go here.

Some of the material in this post I owe to Daniel Mark Epstein’s biography, Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson.