Deborah Dundas is the Books Editor at the Toronto Star with a broad background in the media, including stints in business, lifestyle, and national and city politics, in television and in newspapers, in Canada and while working and living in Northern Ireland. She’s reported and edited/produced on air and for print – and has interviewed some of the world’s most recognizable authors including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith and John Irving. She regularly appears on stage, television and radio and is deeply involved with the literary community, often acting as a juror or host. She studied English and Political Science at Toronto’s York University and is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of King’s College.
Inside the Pages: A Book Editor Demystifies the News and Reviews Process
One thing that I think we’ve all discovered over the pandemic is that books – and particularly print books – aren’t dead. Which is good news for all of us.
Sales of print books in the first half of this year screamed back from the first half of 2020, according to BookNet Canada. On the other hand, there has been some bad news – the books industry is facing shortages and challenges that threaten every part of the supply chain — from paper to printing capacity to shipping to, believe it or not, glue.
That big storm in Texas a few months ago? That led to a hike of 80 to 90 per cent in the price of glue used in binding books. And there’s more. I’ve taken a deep dive into what some in the industry are calling “a perfect storm” and what it will mean over the next few years.
But back to the numbers. The latest numbers from BookNet Canada – which measures these things for the Canadian industry – look like this. Book sales improved over 2020 – and are almost back to where they were in 2019. “Print sales for the first six months of 2021 vs. the first six months of 2020 show a significant increase of approximately 1.5 million unites (to 22,502,564) and an increase of $47 million (to $463,780,134) year-over-year.”
Books in Canada are a billion dollar a year industry. As writers, you need to know what the trends are in the industry, what readers want to read, what’s selling, and how the pandemic has
Go to booknetcanada.ca – they have a blog and are a fabulous resource for all of these numbers and offer a really good overview of the books industry. You can follow their blog for updates – most of their reports are at least partly available to everyone, although some of the more detailed information is subscription only. Still, they’re a great resource.
I’m here as the books editor at the Toronto Star
As books editor, I choose the books, interviews and stories that get covered in the books pages and also assign writers to do reviews or interviews, although I also myself regularly do interviews and industry stories. I don’t have a staff of thousands: it’s just me and freelancers I hire.
I get hundreds of books every month – books come from all of the big publishing houses domestically, as well as small indie houses from across the country – but I also get books from some international publishers, particularly in the U.S. I also get at least 100 emails a day in my inbox. This means a lot of books don’t get mentioned and a lot of emails don’t get answered. But it also points out that there’s a lot of competition for the limited space.
I have one to two dedicated book reviews pages each week – the second depending on advertising. I usually have a genre column, one or two reviews, the bestsellers lists and sometimes a round-up of new or notable books. I’ll also have likely at least one interview and sometimes news stories (awards, etc.) throughout the week. If I have some extra space I might run an excerpt. Basically, I like there to be a balance and rhythm to the pages, and changing up length and depth of stories allows that. So our books coverage is reasonably robust.
The pages are meant to serve our readers – let them know what’s coming out, what the trends are by giving a flavour of different writers and types of books, giving them a taste of their favourite genres, and giving them an inside look at author lives and craft, and what’s going on in the industry. Most writers want a review – and they do happen. I try to, again, balance out big and small publishers, local and national or international books, fiction, non-fiction and genre.
I make a particular effort to try to include small Canadian publishing houses as much as I can. There aren’t a lot of places they can turn to so, again, I’ll consider their pitches and do what I can. There are dozens of small publishers across the country – at least mid-40s so, again, it’s simply not possible to include everybody, but I do try to include something from everyone over the course of the year.
There’s only one of me, so if you don’t get a response, don’t take it personally. You can try resending – often it takes two or three attempts.
I try to reflect the books community in all its diversity and breadth of interests – in very limited space. Not everything is going to get mentioned. Balance is the thing that’s important to me. Also, don’t discount small mentions – whether in a new and notable column or as someone who can comment on a particular aspect of the industry in a larger piece. Every mention is good, even if you don’t get a full review.
I can’t do self-published books. There are more than I could possibly look through; traditional publishers have a vetting process, and publicists have an idea of what I’m looking for and make sure they mention the books they think would best suit The Star. That’s invaluable for me.
How to get noticed
I tend to plan in advance so if you’re a traditional publisher, make sure to send well in advance. Always put the pub date up near the top of your press release or email – I organize by pub date, and not including it means more work.
Tell my why I should be interested. If this is a good local story, say so. If there’s a particularly interesting back story, let me know it.
For independent publishers – give me the local story if you’re local – there are other parts of the paper that cover books, too. If I see something I think will work I pass it on to one of the other sections or reporters. Books appear throughout the paper, not just in the books pages.
For authors – there are lots of ways for you to get noticed. Get out there, be obvious, self-promote. Be on social media – engage with readers and other writers. Be a supportive part of the community and become part of the books community.
For self-published authors – there are so many resources out their in terms of digital platforms and word of mouth. Get out their and be on them. It’s a lot of work, but it sells books. Look at these numbers: When BookNet conducted a survey asking who those being surveyed believed had benefited the most from the digital transformation of the last five years, the top three responses were Amazon (72%), self-published authors (63%), and readers (52%).
Keep up to date
I regularly send out updates – our reviews, interviews and other stories, news, etc. – on social media. You can follow me on Twitter @debdundas or Facebook. I’m also on Instagram @deborahdundas