Sunday, March 27, 2005


Bee Season

In the LA Times (reg. req.) Merle Rubin reviews Hattie Ellis's Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee:

Peering into a specially constructed glass "observation hive," Ellis, a British columnist and food writer, found herself mesmerized: "I put my ear to the glass and both felt and heard the whirr of life: thousands and thousands of lives wound up like watches, ticking away in collective survival. I blurred my eyes. The bees formed an almost solid material, quietly, steadily seething…. Not repulsive, like the pulsing of maggots on meat. Not a crawling, or scurrying, or wriggling. It had a gentle, purposeful, cohesive movement, impressive and unstoppable in its numbers, like a crowd gathering at a large sports stadium, or a workforce funneling into a factory gate."

Her book -- which includes "the genial Lorenzo Langstroth, American inventor of the movable hive-frame; and the 20th century monk Brother Adam, whose extensive labors in crossbreeding resulted in the popular Buckfast "superbee" -- sounds fascinating. Unfortunately, it's hitting bookstores at precisely the same time another bee history, Holley Bishop's Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey, The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World.... oh, and Tammy Horn's history Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation. Ummm... and also Stephen Buchmann's book Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind. The four books have come out within weeks of each other.


If you're a nonfiction writer, this is one of your recurring nightmares: that you spend years and years researching and toiling away at what you thought was an obscure and yet fascinating subject, making it your own, only to discover that... someone else has been writing the same damn book.

(Cold-Sweat-Screaming-Nightmare Variation: that their book is also much better than yours.)

The notion gets bandied about occasionally that there should be an informal book development registry, where writers about to pitch books and editors about to buy them could check first to make sure that someone else hasn't already scooped them. Many book deals are already announced in Publisher's Lunch and similar industry reads -- if the Authors Guild or some such kind soul started compiling these agent and publisher announcements into a searchable listing, it would be a real service to authors.

Don't get me wrong: the reading public is immeasurably enriched by suddenly having four bee histories to choose from. But some writers are going to be very measurably poorer now.

When these authorial collisions occur, it's tempting for reviewers to ascribe it to some sort of fad or trend in publishing. Even more subtly, when a book comes out a year later on the same subject as some previous volume, it's easy to write it off as a "me too" volume. Ah, but publishing timelines do not work that way. Books take years to research and write, and what few outside of publishing realize is that once the manuscript is turned in, the marketing and production cycle means that it is roughly another year until the book actually hits the bookstore shelves.

Those books you see in the store are rather like the light from distant stars: they do not show you what is happening in publishing now, but what transpired years and years ago.

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