Friday, August 31, 2007
Bouchercon isn't until the end of September, but I'm getting excited. I will be making quite a trip out of it, as I'm going to take the ferry part of the way and drive the rest. Plenty of people have said words to the effect of "Are you crazy?". But I've been in touch with my cousin Diane, who regularly communtes between the Lower Mainland (of B.C.) and the Yukon. Diane says that she's driven it, alone, many times, and I'll have a great trip. Several of the Typists are going to the conference, so I'm expecting to have a great time. In additon to the conference, we're taking part in the Authors in the Schools programme. We've travelling to various rural school districts to talk about writing and books. I'm going to Tenakee Springs, Sitka, and somewhere nearer to Anchorage, still to be finalized. Charles will be the guest of honour in Point Hope, and Debby is off to Emmonak, Kotlik, Alagunuk. Those last three names look like I just hit the keyboard randomly. Truth be told, I'm pretty jealous of them both. I'd love to go to those places. Look them up on mapquest - here's a hint: you don't get there by road. I'll post more about our Northern adventures as they progress.
My dog, Shenzi, had a wildlife encounter the other day. Think something small, white, black stripes. Yup. She was skunked. In further wildlife news, the Nelson City Police had to shoot a black bear recently, it was hanging around town too much in an area near schools, which gave me an idea for my next book. Exit.. Persued by bear.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
The topic of promotion keeps coming up on this and other writers' blogs. There is a reason for this: the publishing industry generally does a pretty rotten job of it – and EVERY author needs promotion.
Case in point #1: A new author finds that while his book is in a lot of the book stores, he's getting no media interviews, doing no book signings, heck, he's not even getting reviewed. "I thought my publisher was supposed to promote my books," he says. "It's going to disappear without a trace if something doesn't happen!"
This happened to me with my third novel, Shooting Straight in the Dark. I was with one of the major Canadian publishers, McClelland and Stewart, and figured their marketing department would handle all of this. With two self-published novels under my belt, I knew the ropes, but I could sit back now and let some pros do the work. Stupid me.
My novel got three reviews, I was sent to Ottawa to the Writers' Festival (now THAT was cool) and that's it. By the time I realized that nothing else was going to be forthcoming, I hired a publicist, but that was an unmitigated disaster, since they proved to be completely inept (this was one of the big shots in town, too).
When RendezVous Crime took my 4th novel, Cemetery of the Nameless (notice how smoothly I'm working in these references to my books), I vowed this wouldn't happen. Since then, I have done as many signings and events as I can afford to do/dig up. It's helped, not as much as I would like since it's me (or the other authors I've toured with) doing all the work. There's very little way we can get the same response from the media a good book publicist can, but it's certainly better than nothing.
It seems to me that the publishing industry has little imagination when it comes to promotion. They're still doing the same things they did fifty years ago and with the same mixed results: throw enough promotional money behind a book with an author who at least looks and sounds good on TV, and it should sell. That means that a few authors – the sure bets – get all the money. Not one of those lucky authors? Gook luck! You're on your own. In some ways this makes sense. I know an author who was told by her publisher, "We put the money behind the authors who will really sell. That way, we can afford to publish people like you."
About the only promotional move forward I've seen is the advent of the 'book trailer'. If you don't know what this is, you could look at Charles' which is really quite slick and effective (http://www.charlesbenoit.com/noble-lies.htm). My publisher also did one for me last fall when my most recent book, When Hell Freezes Over came out. This one is a little more involved in that it has an interview with me, as well as my editor.
What good are these? Well, you can tell prospective readers about it, bookstores where you're scheduled to sign, and of course, the media. It gives a quick promotional hit, and in today's media, that's what it's all about.
That's the good news: the publishing world has (sort of) discovered the Internet – other than having websites. As for their websites, these are no more exciting than Company A's where they sell widgets to make your life better. People get passionate about books; they don't get passionate about widgets. Publisher websites MUST do something to make the reader engaged and interested in what's being published.
So I had the idea of publishers pooling their money to make something the advertising world calls a 'magalog'. I think the first ever one was actually done by HarperCollins years ago, but the magazine industry soon took this form of promotion to heart and it's proven very effective for them.
What is a magalog? It's part magazine/part catalog. I'm sure you've received them in the mail for various publications. You may even have received some that I've worked on (the graphic design firm I work for is heavily into magazine circulation and we've done lots of magalogs – on both sides of the border. In a magalog, you're shown what the magazine is all about in glossy colour. There's usually a letter from the editor or publisher explaining what they offer. There are page images, advertising copy, interesting tidbits of information gleaned from the magazine, cleverly worked out lists of areas they've covered in recent issues, awards won, etc. In 8-12 pages, this little piece of promo is designed to make you interested enough to fill out the enclosed order card (always post-paid) and try a year's subscription at a very good price. You also almost always get some sort of premium if you say yes. It might be a ridiculously good deal on the subscription, or a free gift, but it's something they know you'll want.
There are also tracking codes on the cards, telling the circ department of the magazine from just what list, what newspaper, what store the responder got the magalog from. They want to know that they're hitting their targets, because putting out a magalog is fiendishly expensive. That says a lot. Even though they cost a lot, the magazines still put them out, and believe me, they'll cut something off in a big hurry if it's not pulling in the subscriptions.
McClelland & Stewart also thought this was a good way to sell books. Unfortunately, they really had no idea what they were doing which is what I discovered when I spoke to their head of marketing. It had been a very slick production, but it lacked several key components as I quickly found out when questioning her.
"How effective was it? I asked. "Well, we saw a small upturn in our Christmas sales, but really not very much to warrant the cost." "What sort of tracking device did you use?" "Tracking device? What's that?" I explained, "You want to know if you put 50,000 in bookstore chain A, that people are getting them. You give them something to mail back and it has a code on it saying where it came from." "Really? You can do that? We obviously want them to read about our new books then buy them in the store. What could we give them?" "How about a special M&S bookmark that doubles as a loyalty card for the store? Buy 10 books and get one free. Everybody wins. You are also building up a list of targeted book buyers from the information on the order card." "Those sound like really good ideas. We should have used them." My jaw dropped. "Aren't you going to try this again?" "No, they thought the magalog wasn't worth what we spent on it. Besides, they wouldn't go for your ideas. Books aren't sold that way."
I knew I was fighting a losing battle at that point. A year later, this publisher let go most of their mystery writers and a lot of employees because they were in financial trouble. I hope they've turned things around with their new management team.
Next blog entry: Charles and Rick resurrect the magalog idea.
Monday, August 27, 2007
I'm sorry I've been remiss in getting my blogs up on time. No worthy excuses, just busy-ness, like everyone else. Part of it has been that I've got a new book out, and everyone on this list knows how that is. For me, it's a mixture of fun and agony. I share Vicki's feelings, where self-promotion is an effort I've got to extend. Charles, on the other hand, radiates enthusiasm and overflows with marketing ideas. I wish I had a dose of that right now--maybe Starbucks could add it to my brewed Vente du jour--and instead of hazelnut syrup, I'll take a shot of his suave demeanor.
Yesterday, I did a presentation at a local library. I LOVE libraries, and I appreciate the people who work there. They're like me--they love books. So, why do I still get nervous? I fret for a day or two before the event, trying to make sure I'll give the people who took the effort to come a presentation worth their time and effort.
After the first five minutes, when I realize that we're all there for the same reason, and it's not about me--it's about books--I relax and enjoy it. Though I'd rather be sitting at the computer, working on my next novel, these people have a generous energy, one that reflects back. We share ideas, favorite writers, even thoughts on how to connect with one's readership. And it's a great experience. I learn from them, and hopefully the experience is mutual.
I worry about reports that one in four Americans read a book last year. The library was busy yesterday, but this is a concern that needs to be addressed. Just for today, though, I'm relaxing in the knowledge that there are still book lovers out there.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Awhile back, I got a message from Poisoned Pen Press informing me that they had received a call from a cousin-by-marriage of my father’s, who had read The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, and was anxious to get hold of me. Of course, rather than give out my number,the press contacted me with the information so that I could call her if I wanted.
I haven’t seen my cousin for almost forty years, but I did certainly remember her and her family, and called her. As it turns out, my father’s cousin is living in my great-grandfather's house. Though not exactly the same, this is the very house, Dear Reader, that I use as the model for my heroine Alafair's house in my books. My great-grandparents, George and Alafair, and their kids (including my grandmother ), moved from Hayden, KY, into that house outside of Boynton, OK, in 1911, and lived in it for the rest of their lives. The house stayed in the family after my great-grandparents died. I hadn't seen the house in twenty-five years, until my cousin invited me to go out and have a look at it when I went back to Oklahoma for the Hornswoggled book tour. It is much improved since I used to run around in the yard with all the other barefoot little great-grandkids, eating boiled chicken feet and jumping off the roof of the hen house.
My brother-in-law was somewhat amazed at my assertion that I had eaten boiled chicken feet as a child. He noted quite rightly that there nothing much edible about chicken feet. So I feel I should clarify that my great-aunt Mary boiled entire chicken legs below the joint, feet attached, and gave them to the little kids to eat. I expect she thought the little kids would enjoy the fact that they looked rather gross. I certainly did.
Friday, August 24, 2007
There’s an interesting thread running through one of the Mystery Writers of America’s discussion boards this week, all started by observant social critic and damn good mystery author, Don Bruns. A recent poll showed that 1 in 4 Americans read no books at all last year and that the number of people who describe themselves as ‘readers’ is rapidly dwindling. While it really comes as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about America, Don repositioned the discussions, getting us thinking what, if anything, can be done to reverse the trend.
Don started by recapping a pair of successful, industry-wide awareness campaigns, the Milk industry’s classic “Got Milk?” and the Beef industry’s successful “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner”. As Don put it, “I wonder why the major publishers can't band together for a campaign that doesn't sell individual books. A campaign that promotes the excitement of reading.”
Don’s thoughts parallel those of our very own Rick Blechta. Rick and I discussed this problem – not the US specific stuff, just readership in general – at some convention a few years back (a little help with the name here, Rick). At that time we knew it was a swell idea but the more we discussed it, the more we saw that the industry would not get involved, that as much as they are all suffering (relatively), the publishers are still in competition with each other and that every dollar spent promoting reading in general is a dollar that can’t be spent reading something specific, like their own authors.
This sad reality was also mentioned on the thread and while people came up with some really clever ideas (this from a guy who spends his days at an ad agency filled with clever ideas), we all know that nothing will come of it, and readership will continue to decline and one publishing company after another will go under, the others all excited until it happens to them.
And that reminds me of a parable.
Once upon a time, a man announced he was going to open a new business in town. That very day, the owner of an ad agency dropped by and tried to interest the man in her agency’s services.
“I’m just starting out,” the man said, “I can’t afford to waste any money on advertising.”
A year goes by and slowly the man’s business improves. The ad woman stops back to see if the man is interesting in adverting his business. “Why bother,” the man says, “I’m doing great!”
Well hard times hit the town and within a year the man’s business is struggling to stay afloat, and again the woman drops by. “I can barely keep my doors open,” the man says, “I can’t waste any money on ads.”
Six months later the man walks into the ad agency. “I’m going to need some advertising,” the man says.
“That’s great,” says the ad woman. “What do you need?”
The man groans. “A sign that says Going out of Business.”
In my last post I mentioned how I hate promoting, but love the people that I meet in doing so. Case in point, I spent a great morning on Vancouver Island with Lou Allin who recently retired from teaching, upped stakes and moved from Ontario to Sooke B.C. (just outside Victoria). We went for a hike through the rainforest to the ocean; Lou packed a lunch to eat on the beach. It was a lovely day. And I wouldn't have met Lou but for doing book promotion stuff. I should mention that now that she's relocated to B.C. Lou's starting a new series, set in Fossil Bay, which just happens to be not far from Sooke. Watch out for it in 2009. What will probably be the last in Lou's Belle Palmer series, Memories are Murder, set in her old stomping ground of Sudbury, is due out this fall.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
At the Write Now conference, the speakers talked at length about dialog, atmosphere, and character development, all of which is extraordinarily important. You just about have to master the basics if you want to write. I hear editors complain continually about receiving manuscripts from people who can neither spell nor construct a sentence. And yet, you point out, Dear Reader, what about some of the really genius writers who wrote earth-shattering literature that played with grammar and language to a fare-thee-well? Shakespeare, for instance, who made up words with wild abandon, or James Joyce, who created a monument of English literature without resort to sentences, punctuation, or a capital letter?
I think of Picasso. He stood the art world on its head by deciding to paint in two dimensions. But he didn’t start out as a Cubist. If you look as his earlier work, you’ll see that he could draw a realistic 3-D picture with the best of them. James Joyce knew one end of a sentence from another, so well, in fact, that he could mold the words like clay and create a masterpiece.
Michaelangelo was asked once (and I paraphrase) "How did you create such a gorgeous piece as David?" He replied, "I just take a block of marble and chip away everything that doesn't look like David." That's a great secret of writing, too. Great writing is in the rewriting, I think. You just have to sit down everyday and get those words on the page, and then go back and edit, edit, edit. You chip away until you have a David, but first you have to have that block of marble.
I expound, Dear Reader, and grow boring. So I’ll atone by giving you an idea for a good book to read - present company excepted, as always. Stella Pope Duarte was one of my fellow speakers at Write Now, and we traded books. She gave me a copy of her Let Their Spirits Dance. I just finished reading it, and it was spectacular.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
I will readily admit that I'm a radio junkie. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact of when I spent my formative years (late '50s). There wasn't a lot on TV in those days, even in the New York City area, and my parents limited the time we spent in front of the boob tube. I had a small transistor radio and used to secretly lie in bed at night, the little earphone in my left ear, listening to Gene Sheppard, Oscar Brand and Murray the K until I fell asleep. Anyhow, I've always loved radio.
So now, living in Canada as I do, I'm a confirmed CBC Radio addict. Some of the programming they have on weekends is particularly good, and my favorite of those shows is "And Sometimes Y".
This show is all about letters and groups of letters -- better known as "words" -- and I find it utterly fascinating. Yeah, yeah, I'm a writer. I SHOULD find this sort of stuff interesting, but I think that anyone with an inquiring mind would enjoy it and get something out of it. Two shows in particular have been outstanding. The first is about letters, how they came about, what they represent pictorially and about letter that "didn't make the cut".
Many of you are probably familiar with the letter known as "thorn". This one looks like a "y" with a curlicue on the front. It stood for the sound "th" as in the word "thorn". A ghost of it is still around when you see business' known by names like Ye Olde Pie Shoppe. In Early and Middle English, this was actually the way "the" was spelled. Anyway, rather than have me give you all the info in this blog entry, you can go to the official website of this show and hear it for yourself (they do a far better job than I can hear):
The second show that I found really fascinating was one dealing with punctuation. This is an area in which our language is very much in flux, and a lot of it is due to bad usage. To my mind, ost mortals don't know how to use punctuation correctly. When mistakes actually get into print, others look at it and figure that the bad usage must be correct because it's in print. You get sort of a punctuation vortex as English culture around the world starts going down the communications drain. Anyway, this is a fascinating show (and I don't agree with everything that's said in it), but if you love language it's a must:
Now I'm going to listen to the Blue Jays game. And I do mean listen. Only the radio will do for baseball.
Saturday, August 11, 2007
Writing is a - let us not say 'late' - but more like a 'mature' life career change for me. I put in my thirty-five years in the workplace, and now I find that getting out there and beating the bushes doesn't appeal. I like to be quiet for a change, and write. I like the public speaking. I've done a lot of it in my life and am good at it. But I don't like having to set up the gigs . If I had the money, I'd have a publicist do it for me.
It’s difficult when you start a writing career to know what the most effective things are to do to gain attention for your books. I think sometimes that I’d be better served to do fewer signings and start concentrating on attending more big writing conferences. That way I’d get to know more of the mystery writers around the country, and maybe get a little bit wider exposure. When I first started, I was advised to concentrate on a narrower audience until I was better known, which I have done, and it has served me well. But the law of diminishing returns kicks in after a couple of books, and you have to keep finding new venues.
I think that with the new book, I'm going to try more internet promotion. Which is pretty optomistic of me, since I'm not very computer-savvy, either.
Friday, August 10, 2007
First, read Vicky’s blog (see below).
The funny thing? I LOVE the promoting part. The book club chats, the panel discussions, the one-on-ones with would-be authors, the mini tours to introduce myself to book store employees, the email blasts, the postcards, flyers, and phone calls. I love it all. Some of my friends who have known me for years even claim that the only reason I write the books is so that I can talk about them. There may be some truth in that.
It’s easy for me to separate myself into two roles – the author and the promoter. When I’m writing I don’t think about promoting, when I’ve got my promoter hat on the only thing I can write well are, well, promo pieces. But remember, I work in advertising as my day job – this is what I do all day. And I’m lucky that I am both good at it and that I enjoy it.
So now I have a new book coming out in the fall. Expect a huge roll out, my friends. The trailer is just the start of this public relations juggernaut.
The weird thing is that I’ve already got the next book all but finished and the one after that plotted out rather clearly.Now about the trailer. The little snippets I used are from YouTube and other web sources. I’m pulling a page out of the dub/remix/rap school of sampling. The courts have ruled that small, non-iconic images/sound bytes can be used to create a new work. Yeah, it’s a gray area and I’m so small time that I doubt there will be any issues. Still, I’m having some folks look into the legal side before I go any further. The big question is, is it worth it? It cost me nothing – one of the interns at the ad agency did it for me so he could learn how to use the editing equipment. But will it help sell books? I have never bought a book based on a trailer (or a book mark, or a postcard) so I can’t see that it would work for me, but am I typical? So weigh in here, folks. What do you think of book trailers IN GENERAL?
Thursday, August 09, 2007
But as I am not JK Rowling (when was the last conference you were at where she was there, eh? Tell me that!) I will be spending a good part of the rest of the year flogging In the Shadow of the Glacier. I'm going to Alaska for Bouchercon and then doing a book tour down the West Coast of the U.S. in November. In December I hope to get in some appearances in B.C. I'll let you in on a little secret - I hate promoting myself. I feel like a fool, like a vacumn cleaner salesman standing on the doorstep.
Beyond bookstores, I am wondering what else I can do in the way of promotion. If you haven't already seen it, look down a few posts on this blog and check out Charles' book trailer for Nobel Lies. It is really, really great. I've been putting together some thoughts on how I might do a trailer for In the Shadow of the Glacier. But I don't know much about this stuff. What about copywrites? Can I just use music I like? Where did Charles get that great news footage? Is news footage in the public domain? I could use some old news pictures of anti-Vietnam protests, that would be a nice beginning for the trailer. The book is contemporary but there are old woulds from the Vietnam war being reopened. Some old 60s protest music would be good in the background, but again, what about copywrite?
In the end, although I mutter about having to promote, if I didn't have to go to conferences and booksignings I would never have met great people like Charles, Debby, and particularly Rick who was a super signing buddy when my first book came out. And I'm very much looking foward to some day meeting Donis and Kathleen. And I'm going to Alaska in September and Arizona in November! I guess if I was just sitting in my basement writing earth-shattering prose, I'd never have met those people, and had those experiences.
Sunday, August 05, 2007
Sunday morning’s New York Times Magazine has an article by Walter Kirn that got me thinking about travel. Mr. Kirn reveals that the
I’m about to get on a plane in a few hours, which always gives me the jitters. Some of this nervousness is due to my own neuroses, but today I’m going to focus on the sheer hassle of the Transportation Security Administration, better known in always-growing acronym-speak (another possible blog topic) as TSA.
Last week, my husband and I went to
Our hopes evaporated the minute we ambled through the automatic doors and encountered a wall of people. An endless queue of grumpy, sluggish travelers (amend that to sluggish adults; kids under five had plenty of energy) clogged every foot of space. The line was indistinguishable from the hordes at the ticket counters, which were inaccessible in the pack. Lethargic and discouraged, people snaked through a convoluted maze of roped poles. We expected to hear moos. Meanwhile, others jammed up behind us, because no one could find the end of the line, which apparently went back outside the terminal, through a different door than we’d entered.
In the center of the crush, a halo of space appeared around a five by five female goblin who shouted at the travelers. If someone appeared confused (for example, the growing crowd at the entrance), that person—or group of people—was treated to shouts of ersatz direction. “In line! Over there! You can’t come in here! Go to the end of the line!”
Not all TSA officials are like this. Once, a kind TSA gentleman mailed a penknife I’d left on my keychain at his own expense. But unfortunately, I’ve encountered more ogres than princes. There was the woman who confiscated two lip glosses and my mascara because they were insidious GELS. (This was before the plastic baggie rule). With an eager glint in her eye, she got louder as she ranted on the danger of contraband before her trapped audience of cringing travelers. On another occasion, I observed TSA agent spending way too much time on an elderly woman with a walker. Did she need to be wanded, and then patted down? Everyone else slunk away, afraid to be the next object of the tyrant’s attention.
The upshot of this rant is that I’m wondering if there might be personality test that both the TSA and airlines could give to people who are put into positions of temporary, underpaid authority. Perhaps it would be a way to weed out the employees who enjoy their momentary clout a bit too much. Or the ones that demonstrate a streak of malicious glee over people they consider below them—at least for the few moments they have them captive? Of course, I also wish I could be teleported, as in Beam Me Up, Scottie.
Saturday, August 04, 2007
I have read all seven installments of Rowling's books. I love them quite as much as anybody. In her writing, Rowling does the thing I enjoy most in a book - she creates people I'm interested in and a world that I love visiting for a while.
Thinking about the Harry Potter series led me to consider other authors and series that I admire (present company in this blog excepted, of course). I love good historicals as well as books set in exotic locales. If the author can take me there and let me live there while I'm reading, I'm happy as can be. I very much like Alexander McCall Smith's series - both The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series and The Sunday Philosophy Club. As for books that let me visit far-flung locales and time-travel as well, some of my favories include Colleen McCullough's five book series on the end of the Roman Republic, the first of which was The Grass Crown. I also greatly enjoy Laura Jo Rowland's series set in 17th Century Japan, and her Samuri detective/chancellor/family man Ichiro Sano. I'll read just about anything by Pauline Gedge. Her specialty is ancient Egypt, and she wrote a wonderful three book series about the founders of the 18th Dynasty, the brothers Kamose and Ahmose. The thing about these books that sets them apart, in my humble opinion, is that they are about human beings, and families, and daily living and how ordinary people deal with extraordinary times and events. Give me a real human story any time.
In the same vein, other books and series that are about real people in interesting places and times include anything by Steven Pressfield, who is one of my favorite writers of all time; the Falco series by Lindsey Davis; the "Gordianus the Finder" books by Steven Saylor. And let us raise our glasses at lst to Ellis Peters, author of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, who inspired me to write a mystery of my own.