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An anniversary, some good news, and the other epiphany

A Big Number


This week, my husband and I passed a milestone: We were married 35 years ago. I have now been married for as many years as I was single. Ben has been married more than half of his life.

Having stayed in one marriage this long should have taught me something about monogamy or loyalty or perseverance or tolerance that I could pass along to someone much younger who is contemplating or planning on marriage. But, alas, I am stupefied by it all and cannot come up with an explanation as to why our vows stuck. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t happy about it or even proud of ourselves. Yes, we are. Both.

 The Good News: People Buy Books


“Yes, people do buy books.”

Well, obviously. That’s why there are bookstores (albeit not enough) and how Amazon got its beginnings as the world’s most voracious business.

But the point of this assertion from a Substack columnist earlier this month is that things aren’t quite as dire in the publishing industry as we writers tend to think. As a novelist who struggles to find readers and a loyal audience, I was intrigued enough to read on.

Counter Craft's columnist, Lincoln Michel, made his argument as a rebuttal to an earlier Substack article by Elle Griffin titled, “No one buys books.” Michel says Griffin’s article had “gone viral for its near apocalyptic portrait of publishing,” even though its only source of statistics was the Justice Department vs. Penguin Random House anti-trust trial documents. Those stats were chosen by PRH to show how badly it is beleaguered by Amazon and declining book readership, not to show a full picture of the industry, he says. “But there are lots of ways to manipulate these numbers—say if you are trying to convince a judge to allow a big corporate merger …” he writes.

“Much of the overall thrust of Griffin’s article is right: Most people don’t buy many books, sales for most books are lower than many think, and big publishing works on a blockbuster model where a few couple hits—plus perennial backlist sellers—comprise the bulk of sales,” Michel conceded.

But he then points out that about 900 million print books are sold each year in the United States, and that doesn’t include e-books and audiobooks. “For comparison’s sake, there were 825 million movie tickets sold in the US and Canada in 2023,” he says. (Of course, movie ticket sales don’t reflect the number of movies streamed at home.)

 His column goes on to examine book profitability and publisher behavior, which may be a unique obsession of writers. If you want to read more about his analysis, here’s a link:


My second epiphany

A couple of weeks ago, I write in this newsletter that what I enjoy about doing historical research for my novels is the discovery of things that surprise me. In researching The Candlemaker’s Woman (back cover below left), I came across two such surprises: the prevalence of slavery in the early medieval world, and the composition of the barbarians who invaded Gaul and the territories south of the Danube. I wrote about slavery in that newsletter (click here), and I received a lot of “wow, I didn’t know” emails from my readers. I’m glad it rang a chord with so many.

I know detailing my second epiphany—that the barbarians weren’t rushing across the Rhine to conquer Rome—is likely to raise some eyebrows. The surprise: the hordes of Sueve, Vandals and Alans who crossed the river at the stroke of midnight New Year’s Eve, AD406, were largely made up of families: old men, women, children and babes in arms chased out of Germania by the Huns and other invaders from the Steppes. The warriors who led those tribes across the river were radicalized and militarized by Rome’s refusal to let the starving masses into the Empire. But most of the migrants weren’t interested in overthrowing a government; they simply craved new homelands where they could recreate their communities.

(I know this will not sit well with at least one critic who gave my novel, The Rebel Nun, a one-star review three years ago, just days after belligerently ranting at me for a column I had written about the nature of the barbarian invasions. He posted his review minutes after the book was released, meaning he had no chance to read it before angrily sharing his take-down.)  

It is, perhaps, normal for people who feel beleaguered by immigration and migrants to reject any reference to immigrants—even those 1,600 years ago—other than as “criminals,” or “rapists,” poisoning the blood of a nation. It’s a mean, reductionist view of both ancient and modern diasporas that paints migrants as losers, undeserving of second chances in new lands. Mass migration and diasporas have been part of the human narrative since we first walked (or ran) out of Africa. Being chased out of a homeland by climate change, by Huns, by gangs, chaos, failing economies, or war is neither a uniquely old story nor a uniquely new one.

In researching modern historians’ theories and interpretations of the barbarian invasions, I realized that the real stories behind the migrations in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages weren’t the military sagas of high-school history books. The stories we missed out on were those about families: how they survived the devastations of the migrations and moved on to settle the lands that Romans abandoned in the fall of Rome’s hegemony. Such narratives are rarer than rare. Most people in 406AD were illiterate, and ink, parchment, and time to sit down and write were scarce. Only kings, bishops and military men could and did write history.

Today, we do have records of the motivations and depravations behind the mass migrations on our Southern border and in southern Europe in the form of books that tell these stories in real time. Among my favorite: Solito by Javier Zamora, a memoir of a poet who migrated from El Salvador alone as a nine-year-old boy; Where We Come From by Oscar Cásares, a novel about a grandmother who harbors a young undocumented immigrant; and the non-fiction Everyone Who is Gone is Here by Jonathan Blitzer, a painful accounting of the U.S. foreign policy decisions that have pushed huge numbers of migrants out of El Salvador and other Latin American countries.

For novelists like me, hamstrung by the lack of first-person narratives from the fifth century, these modern stories fuel our imaginations and help us build out the missing stories of earlier migrations. Humans haven’t changed much in 1,600 years, and what motivates today’s migrants isn’t much different from what motivated people centuries ago. What researching and writing The Candlemaker’s Woman taught me is his: ever since we’ve been able to walk away, fear, starvation, violence, and lack of opportunity have been driving families to move.

If you have read my book and enjoyed it, please consider posting a review on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or wherever you buy your books.


Books of the month


Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending more time reading than writing as I recover from trying to market The Candlemaker’s Woman.

The Wager, which typically wouldn’t be the kind of book I would choose, was recommended by my fellow reader and hiker, Jeanne Koss. Written by David Grann, who also wrote Killers of the Flower Moon, it tells the story of the British man-of-war, The Wager, which was shipwrecked off the west coast of Patagonia during the Spanish-English imperial skirmishes of the mid-1700s, and its survivors. My guess is that the story may appeal to more men than women in the way that Cormac McCarthy’s books did, but I will say this: I’m glad I read it. I never felt that way about The Road.

I enjoyed The Secret Book of Flora Lea, a two-time-period novel about a woman who never stops looking for her lost sister. The big coincidence upon which the ending depends knocked it down a notch for me, but for readers of Jodi Picoult and similar authors, it will provide a few hours of entertainment with no associated nightmares.

(Possible spoiler ahead.) I yelled at Colm Tóibín after reading Long Island, referred to by those in the

literary know as his “long-awaited” sequel to Brooklyn. I’m sure Tóibín didn’t hear me yell and wouldn’t care if he had. My displeasure was this: “How can you write two complete novels and not find a way to get these two people together?” Despite my displeasure at the story’s end, his story is captivating, and, as usual, his heavy reliance on the interiority of his characters (they think about things and then think about thinking about them) sets his writing apart.

Finally, Amor Towles’ new collection of short stories-plus-novella, Table for Two, is entertaining. I might recommend skipping the first story, set in post-revolution Russia, which I found so unsatisfying that I nearly stopped reading before moving on to the rest. That would have been a mistake. Set in the golden age of Hollywood, the noirish novella that makes up the second half of the book alone was worth the price of the book.

Now I’ve started on another long-overdue read: the Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel. I decided it’s silly to call myself a historical novelist if I’ve never read Mantel. (I don’t feel that way about Ken Follet.) Totaling some 2,500 pages, it may be the only thing I read this summer—especially if my knee finally heals and I can get out on the golf course again.

I hope you have a wonderful summer.

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Hi Marj. This was a real winner of a post. I really appreciated your thoughts about migration -- then and now. Very wise to show how migration is simply part of the human condition, and not a political matter. Compassion and empathy can come more easily when this is better understood. Congratulations on 35 years of marital bliss -- I say that with my tongue in my cheek because we are up on 33 years next month, and I will say there are both bliss and blisters. Nice photo of you two. And thanks for the book reviews. I hope your knee feels better soon.



Hello! I am a history and English teacher and I teach / tutor immigrants here in Michigan. I have worked with people from Mexico, Cuba, China, and even Ukraine. I can tell you that these folks have come to America to be safe, to have opportunities for work, and to live in peace. My ESL students are often frustrated because, back home, they were doctors, lawyers, finance directors ... here they bus tables and work in the Vlasic pickle factory in Imlay City. Why? Because they are dumb? NO! It's because they have almost no English speaking and writing skills. I am a certified TESOL instructor and I can tell you that our language is complex and illogical and very…


Seamus O'Connor
Seamus O'Connor

Thank you for this very informative blog. Your comments on the publishing biz are enlightening - if disheartening. I have 2 novels in the works and am almost reconciled to resorting to Amazon Publishing again. I enjoyed Mantel's trilogy and am confident you will too. Never thought I would be cheering for Thomas Cromwell - but there you go... creativity is amazing. Loved your take on the "barbarian hordes" invading Rome. Much more likely than what we were taught in school.


Good luck with your 2 new novels. It is so hard to catch the attention of a publisher or agent these days--especially for people my age. We're no longer "promising new talent" or an "emerging voice." And, yes, Cromwell does seem an unlikely hero. Mantel's contemporary expressions buried within a 16th century tale are quite unexpected, and I am enjoying her dry wit.

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