Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Animals Between the Pages

by Sandra Parshall

Forget all those formulas for writing a bestselling book. The real secret may be reclining at your feet – or in your lap – right now.

Write a book about your pet.

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. households have one or more pets in residence. We spend more than $60 billion a year on them. We spend more on our pets than we spend on books. But publishers have always known that books about pets are sure sellers, and that’s more true now than ever.

Domestic animal books fall into several subcategories. Advice on basic feeding, training, and health care is always popular and usually authored by a veterinarian. However, according to Publishers Weekly, the top dog training books remain the classic bestsellers The Art of Raising a Puppy and How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, written by the Monks of New Skete, who live as a community in Cambridge, NY. In January, competition arrives in the form of Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones, a product of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. If enough people read it, maybe fewer dogs will be dumped at shelters because of behavioral problems.

Obviously, authoring books like these is best left to the professionals. But the breakout bestsellers tend to be heartwarming tales of human-animal interaction, and writers like Willie Morris have produced bestsellers about life with their pets. This fall, Beautiful Old Dogs: A Loving Tribute to Our Senior Best Friends, edited by David Tabatsky, will provide anecdotes from a number of writers, including Anna Quindlen and Dean Koontz, and other celebrities.

Stories about dogs that made life more meaningful for their humans never fail to touch readers’ hearts. A September title, Weekends with Daisy by Sharron Kahn Luttrell, was written by a woman who, grieving the loss of a pet, volunteered for a service dog training program that involved sharing Daisy with a prison inmate. (Many service dogs, in case you don’t know, are trained by inmates.) Look for the movie version from CBS Films.

Jon Katz is back with his second canine-related memoir, The Second Chance Dog, about a romantic relationship that nearly foundered when his new love’s dog refused to accept him.

Other upcoming dog memoirs are Rescuing Riley, Saving Myself: A Man and His Dog’s Struggle to Find Salvation by former Marine Zachery Anderegg, and Flash’s Song: How One Small Dog Turned into One Big Miracle by Kay Pfaltz.

Dogs that serve in the military, law enforcement, and search-and-rescue units have been in the news a lot the past few years, and books about them have formed a subgenre of their own. Navy Seal Dogs by Michael Ritland comes out in October, and Trust Your Dog: Police, Firefighters, and Military Officers Talk About Their K-9 Partners by Joan Plummer Russell was published in July.

If you’ve ever doubted whether dogs understand what we’re saying to them, read Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words by John W. Pilley with Hilary Hinzmann. Pilley, a retired psychologist, has documented his border collie’s understanding of human language.

But what about cats? Well, take a look at A Street Cat Named Bob and How He Saved My Life by James Bowen. First published in Britain, this book has been a runaway bestseller, with readers standing in line for hours to see Bowen – and Bob. The man signs books. The cat provides a paw print. You can keep up with Bob and his human at

You’ve surely seen Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub on the internet. Grumpy has her own product line, and now Bub has a book: Lil Bub’s Lil Book: The Extraordinary Life of the Most Amazing Cat on the Planet. Bub has a genetic disorder that doesn’t affect her quality of life but has kept her a kitten forever. Her owner, Mike Bridavksy, will donate his profits from the book to animal charities that support responsible pet ownership.

The New Yorker has a long association with cats, and The Big New Yorker Book of Cats (October) is crammed with articles, humorous pieces, poems, fiction, cartoons and such gleaned from decades of issues. Among the man authors included are Roald Dahl, T.C. Boyle, Calvin Trillin, John Updike, M.F.K. Fisher.

The internet is filled with funny cat and dog pictures, and those pictures have spilled over into books such as the Cheezburger cat collections and Dog Shaming, inspired by a captioned-photo web site of the same name.

Other pets get their moments in the literary spotlight too. The Diary of Edward the Hamster 1990-1990 by Miriam and Ezra Elia is the illustrated diary (described as existential by Publishers Weekly) of the short, darkly humorous life of a domesticated rodent.

Do you enjoy tales of interspecies love? Look for Unlikely Loves: 43 Heartwarming True Stories from the Animal Kingdom by Jennifer S. Holland and One Big Happy Family: Heartwarming Stories of Animals Caring for One Another by Lisa Rogak.

Animals have always been major figures in children’s literature, and they’re also solidly ensconced in the mystery genre. Even hardboiled detective Elvis Cole in Robert Crais’s thrillers has a cat in his life. My own books, mysteries on the darker side, always have animals in them because one of my protagonists, Rachel Goddard, is a veterinarian. You’re more likely to find animals front and center in cozies, though. Blaize Clement’s publisher, Minotaur, provided catnip-scented bookmarks for The Cat Sitter’s Cradle, eighth in her pet sitter series. The queen of mystery animals, though, is Sneaky Pie Brown, whose name is on the cover as co-author of Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series. These books feature sleuthing farm animals that talk to each other but have a little trouble communicating with their dense humans.

I believe the addition of an animal improves any book, and millions of pet owners agree with me. So whether you’re sticking with fiction featuring animals or writing the story of a beloved pet’s impact on your life, I wish you luck and I look forward to reading your book.


Anonymous said...

Loved this, Sandy. My protagonist Byington Bailey, former CIA, has a lovely golden retriever named Honey, who sits under his deck chair on his penthouse balcony over the East River. Thelma Straw

Julia Buckley said...

Great post! I had not yet discovered Bub, but I will be looking at that blog now!

I love animal stories, and I think you're right--animals are fun to write about, but they can also be lucrative subject matter.

There does happen to be a dog in my latest book. :)

JJM said...

Fun post. Hadn't heard of Bub before -- thanks for the heads-up. I'm surprised you didn't mention Maru, though. He's got a book out, now too (and a second, as yet published only in Japan): I am Maru = ある です [Maru desu], by Mugumogu. (It's bilingual.)

Sandra Parshall said...

I only scratched the surface! There's an absolute deluge of books about animals, at every season of the publishing year. Christmas is huge, of course -- gift books. I like the way the internet is feeding the book business, introducing people to cute animals, creating a desire for.a picture or story book.