Novels get more air time on late-night TV

NEW YORK • Novelist Rebecca Makkai was preparing for the usual string of interviews with radio stations and podcasts this year for her latest book, The Great Believers.

But then her publicist told her to get ready for a more prominent appearance, on NBC's Late Night With Seth Meyers. The host has made it a habit to invite novelists to his show, which averages 1.5 million viewers.

In a television landscape where literature has become largely overlooked, late-night hosts like Meyers and Trevor Noah have made it their mission to champion writers.

The morning shows, which once featured interviews with acclaimed novelists like E.L. Doctorow and William Styron, have largely tilted towards lifestyle and diet books and celebrity memoirs.

Late night looked particularly barren after Jon Stewart, a champion of serious non-fiction, left The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert ended The Colbert Report, another reliable outlet for publishers.

Colbert, who now hosts the most-watched show in all of late night on CBS, has mostly left non-celebrity authors behind. And other author-friendly TV hosts - Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley - were ousted in sexual misconduct scandals.

Those departures - following the end of Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show and her book club, which could turn an obscure novel into a hit - felt like a devastating loss for the literary world.

The cumulative effect of those losses and growing fragmentation of the media landscape have made it harder for publishers and authors to drive readers to a book with a well-placed TV appearance.

Even when authors land one of the coveted spots, the sales boost is not what it used to be, in part because viewers have turned from network and cable television to streaming services and social media.

Still, apart from an in-depth interview on NPR's Fresh Air or a major literary award, few things can drive instant sales as dramatically as a television appearance.

The turbulent political climate has meant that the authors getting the most coverage are those whose books feed into the news cycle.

The appetite for political books has exploded, with sales in that category reaching 11.7 million copies this year, up from 9.2 million in 2010, according to NPD BookScan.

Michael Wolff and Bob Woodward, who had immense coverage with their exposes on the inner workings of United States President Donald Trump's administration, had two of the top-selling books this year. Former US first lady Michelle Obama's memoir sold more than two million copies in its first 15 days.

Some analysts blame the relentless news cycle for the decline in fiction sales. Hence these new spots for novelists on late-night television have offered some relief.

The guest list for Meyers' show in the last few years reads like a roll call of some of the most groundbreaking literary writers at work today: Tayari Jones, Marlon James, Celeste Ng, Sunil Yapa, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Jesmyn Ward.

Noah's guests included Yaa Gyasi, Terese Marie Mailhot and Kevin Young.

Mr Paul Bogaards, director of communications for Alfred A. Knopf, attributed the sales lift not just to the TV exposure, but also to Noah's palpable enthusiasm for the novel.

"When you look at Meyers and Noah, what publishers love is the intelligence the hosts bring to the conversations and the risks that they're willing to take with the subject matter.

"It doesn't have to be a brand-name author if it speaks to them," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2018, with the headline 'Novels get more air time on late-night TV'. Print Edition | Subscribe