Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Beach Reads: Important Label or Not?

So we all know, and perhaps resist the idea, that labeling is important in the publishing industry. Well, I came across this article in the Washington Post that asked an interesting question: What defines a ‘beach read’? As usual, I took this simple question a little further. To have the coveted description of a beach read bestowed upon your book—by people of influence (e.g. reviewers, book sellers, and celebrities) means bonanza sales for sure, but does it really mean anything at all?

I think, as with most scenarios in publishing, it means different things to different people. Obviously a ‘beach read’ is supposed to be a book most suited to being read at the beach—or by extrapolation, on vacation. To me a great beach read is a book I can’t wait to read and savor. It’s a book I expect to be a real treat that will enhance my relaxing, indulgent vacation experience. But to industry professionals, are there actually criteria that delineate a beach read?

The article I read consulted with the following authors and their responses are noted below:

Political thriller author, David Baldacci, believes it is a page turner with fast plots, engaging characters, twists and turns and is soothing, not-too-thought provoking about serious things.

Mystery writer, Janet Evonovich, believes it’s an indulgence, a well-crafted story by an author who consistently delivers a great story.

Suspense queen, Mary Higgins Clark, believes it should be something light and entertaining as opposed to a darker and more somber tone, and to be sure it doesn’t disappoint, she even recommends picking a book by a familiar author so you know what to expect and the opportunity to disappoint is minimized.

Not surprising, writer and critiquer, Thomas Mallon, disagrees with Higgins. He believes that a tranquil beach with the sound of rhythmic, soothing water helps create a relaxed, uncluttered mind, hence making the perfect scenario to enjoy more serious works.

However, not quite satisfied with their answers, I polled a few industry professionals of my own, and this is what they had to say:

Melissa Ann Singer, senior editor at Forge/Tor, said—“There are no hard and fast criteria. In one summer, we might have two or three different books that might be touted as beach reads. They are likely to be in different genres, but those genres will be more 'mainstream' than not. In other words, possibly a thriller, women’s fiction/romance, and general fiction, but probably not science fiction, fantasy, or mystery (though we all know people who take such books on vacation). Usually the books are relatively thick/meaty—something that a person might want or need a week or several days to read all the way through.

"Almost always paperback because we expect people will be traveling, we expect they will want to carry something relatively portable—and they may not want to spend $25 on something that is likely to be left behind in a hotel room when the vacationer heads home.

"Also, part of the goal for the publisher in designating a beach read is to get the book onto “\'beach read' or 'vacation' or 'summer reading' tables in bookstores, so there are marketing considerations as well.

"From what I’ve seen, the idea of a particular book being a 'beach read' develops organically, from a combination of things: people having read it; reviews; when it’s scheduled for mass market publication; what other books are being released in that month or in that season; etc. A book doesn’t start life as a beach read, except perhaps in the mind of its editor.”

Stephanie Kip Rostan, agent at Levine Greenberger, said—“I think any criteria are very informal. To me, a beach read is a light, fun, commercial novel that would be entertaining and easy to read.”

Jodi Picoult, best-selling women’s fiction author, said—“For some reason, I always thought a beach read was light - not just portable, but easy to read without heavy subject matter...you don't want to be sobbing on your towel, right?!”

Award winning fantasy author, Melissa Mayhue, said—“What an interesting question! I guess I've always assumed "beach read" referred to something quick, easy and fun to read... no in-depth thinking involved. Something you could pick up on your way to the pool and put down when you got ready to go get dressed for dinner... then pick up again the next day right where you left off....

Personally, though, I'm not a 'beach reader'... If it's a good book, I don't want to put it down 'til it's finished!!! :-)”

Jennifer Feldman, Scholastic Book publisher, said—“'Beach read' does fit into the description you suggest below. It also has the connotation of an easy read -- light, entertaining, something you would pass along to a friend when you were finished reading. As for any sort of category in the publishing industry -- no, nothing official. It's used more as a marketing description.”

Dr. Noelle Gracy, aka, Regency author, Catherine Blair, works as publisher, genetics and cell biology at Elsevier in Amsterdam for the past eight years and she has an interesting perspective on the topic of beach reads: “I always hear beach read used in an almost derogatory way--as though we were all normally reading deep literature but on vacation we would condescend to read something light and frivolous. I'd definitely say people mean it's a paperback that's light and a fast, fun read.”

Jennifer Rees, Scholastic editor, said—“Okay, so for me a beach read is exactly what you are talking about—something you’re saving and looking forward to reading/savoring. In the industry, at least where I’m coming from, I’m not sure a beach read is that. Our summer list tends to be fun, enjoyable, light, adventurous—think summer blockbuster movie. But we’re also publishing for kids who need to often be drawn into reading during the summer, lured if you will!”

Jessica Faust, an agent at Bookends, answered my question in a blog of her own today, check it out.

This is what my industry sources had to say. What do you think?


KL Grady said...

Great post, T!

My beach reads have been everything from horror to literary to romance. I don't mind crying on my towel, so long as I remembered my sunglasses. ;)

However, a book I consider a beach read will be so compelling, I'll forget that I'm flirting with skin cancer. It'll also keep me awake even as the wind rocks against me and the shushing of the waves soothes me right into a nap. If I'm trying to read a book on vacay, and it's not compelling enough, I'll put it away for later.

Donnell said...

T. agree with KL, T. Interesting post. My perception of a beach read is a book that everyone's talking about. Once such book is Water for Elephants about a veterinarian whose family has tucked him away n a nursing home. The story recounts his days in the circus, and three people outside of my writing world have raved about this book. In my mind, that's the book I'm going to pick up and take with me to the beach. The one people tell me I HAVE to read. P.S. I'm not big on Oprah's selections, sorry. Word of mouth sells a heck of a lot of books in my opinion.

jllove said...

It is so funny because I've never really thought about books in that concept, although I've practiced it time and again. I purchased a book at the beginning of the summer, but purposely waited until I went on vacation in July to read it. Why? One reason for me is because in my real world I don't have much time to read. So, a beach read for me is a book by a favored author that I haven't had a chance to read. Regardless of the genre, it is a book that I've tucked away for a "special" occasion.

Dr. M said...

I think a mystery can be a beach read, as long as it's a cozy one. I wouldn't want to be gritting my teeth on a real hard-boiled thriller and tasting the sand... eeeuw.