Sunday, February 28, 2010

Patrick Millikan and PHOENIX NOIR


I'm pleased to introduce guest blogger Patrick Millikan, who is the driving force behind Phoenix Noir, a compilation of short stories which Publisher's Weekly calls "A stellar volume in Akashic's noir series," Patrick solicited and edited the stories, and even contributed one of his own.  Patrick is a serious student of the noir style, as well as one of the remarkable group of people who run Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ.
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-Donis, thanks for inviting me.  I’ve had a number of people express interest in the story of the PHOENIX NOIR, how the project started, how it blossomed, and why the publisher took a chance on a relatively unknown commodity like me to put it together.

The answer in a nutshell: luck and a whole lot of persistence. Like many noir nuts, I’d followed Akashic Books’ series of noir anthologies with a growingsense of amazement.  What started as  a sleeper hit with BROOKLYN NOIR some years back quickly grew into a successful series with such entries as D.C. NOIR, edited by one of my heroes, George Pelecanos, CHICAGO NOIR, LOS ANGELES NOIR, etc.  I knew that there was no stopping them and that sooner or later they’d get around to PHOENIX.  At first I had no real thought of editing such a book, but I did want to contribute a story to it if possible, so I contacted Johnny Temple with a casual inquiry.  I’d 

dealt with Akashic as a bookseller and had been hand-selling their books for a long time, so that helped.

At the time, Johnny was considering a proposal for PHOENIX NOIR from another writer, but after several months it had apparently fizzled.  I began to think more and more about trying to take it on myself, and with a good word from several well-known author friends, I put together a formal proposal.  First, of course, I had to convince them that Phoenix was indeed a suitable location for a collection of noir stories.  It surprised me that so many people I talked with about the project said “Phoenix?  Noir?”   Hell yes, I thought, this is the perfect setting.  The thought of revealing the city at street level, with all of it contradictions and its rich history of crime and corruption, began to possess me.

My ultimate concern in laying out the book and soliciting the contributors was to try to do the city justice, to create a collection that the locals would appreciate, that would reflect the diversity of Phoenix and respect its past.  This seemed to be a daunting task, and I began reading everything I could find about PHOENIX, a city that I grew up in but still only know a tiny bit about.  What I intuitively realized was that the city had a chameleon-like quality, that all one had to do was drive though town, especially in central

Phoenix, and simply turn a corner to find oneself in a completely different city.  The drive along Central Avenue, for instance, from Baseline to Glendale, or down Van Buren from the I-17 to 52nd St, or across Grand Ave from the Five Points intersection at 7th Ave all the way across the west side.

Lots of books helped to provide the historical background, but Bradford Luckingham’s PHOENIX: HISTORY OF A SOUTHWESTERN METROPOLIS and MINORITIES IN PHOENIX were Indispensable.  Mostly though I talked with a lot of long-time Phoenicians (including a lot of unsuspecting customers at the Poisoned Pen who didn’t realize they were being interrogated). I sweated over the intro to the book and spent a good bit of time driving around town and trying to get my head around this sprawling beast of a city.

  Next was mapping out the book and approaching the writers. One of the hallmarks of the Akashic Noir books is that each story must be set in a different neighborhood or landmark.  So, I tried to match writers with appropriate parts of Phoenix.  Jon Talton of course was at the top of my list.  The author of the popular Phoenix-set David Mapstone novels and a longtime valley columnist, he possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Phoenix history, and was a logical choice for a story set downtown.   His story “Bull” kicks off the book, providing readers with a revealing glimpse into the pervasively corrupt underbelly of town circa 1943.   

Diana Gabaldon was also one of my first choices.  I knew that her participation in the project would bring the book to a new readership, but I also knew that Diana, as a third-generation Arizonan and a devotee of dark crime fiction, would bring something unique to the table.  

  I’ve long admired Luis Urrea’s books and set my sights on him very early on in the process.  His work has an undeniably noir sensibility, and there are few out there who knows more about the border.  I knew that he’d produce something magical if I could just get him to agree to do it.  After much back and forth (ie a lot of nagging on my part), he came through at zero hour, just when I was starting to despair.  His contribution, “Amapola,” was just nominated for the Edgar Award.

Megan Abbott was finishing up a novel based upon our own 1931 Winnie Ruth Judd case, and was very enthusiastic about PHOENIX NOIR from the very beginning.  Her stylish take on 1970’s Scottsdale and the Bob Crane murder remains one of my favorite stories in the book.   Gary Phillips somehow managed to take elements of the early 1970’s murder of soul singer Arlester Christian of Dyke and The Blazers, the civil rights movement and the Lincoln Ragsdale family and create an unforgettable tale.

Perhaps the most exciting part of PHOENIX NOIR for me was to showcase local writers such as Robert Anglen, Kurt  Reichenbaugh, Charles Kelly and Dogo Barry Graham.  Anglen, an Investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic, created what is easiest the darkest and most depraved story in the book.  This gives me great pleasure… I feel honored to be able to showcase their  work in the book, alongside Jim Sallis, Don Winslow, Stella Pope-Duarte and other more established writers.

The biggest surprise of the book was probably Laura Tohe’s contribution, “Tom Snag.”   I wanted a Native American perspective In the book, and, though I’d never met Laura, I knew of her work and sent her a blind query asking if she might be interested in trying her hand at a noir short story.  She graciously agreed, and several months later emailed me an amazing story about a shape-shifting femme fatale who preys upon a drunken barfly.   

Sure, there were some frustrations along the way: I really wanted a story from Alfredo Vea, for instance, and I simply couldn’t track the guy down.  Vea’s novel LA MARAVILLA, set out in Buckeye with it’s odd mélange of transplanted Okies and Yaqui Indians, is one of the great neglected works of Arizona literature.  

Who knows, maybe someday there’ll be a PHOENIX NOIR II.   If so, Vea’s at the top of my list.  Along with a lot of other people.  While I’m very proud of PHOENIX NOIR and the way it turned out, it’s but a  glimpse of the city.  There are a hell of a lot more stories out there on the streets just begging to be told.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Alternative Lives

Last week I wrote that readers often tend to think that I am very like my main character, when in fact, my life and values are quite different from hers. John noted in his post last Thursday, that in fact, we may not be our characters, but they are us.


This puts me in mind of a line that I use a lot when I speak about my writing (for as we know, a really good line must be repeated at least 100 times, or what’s a heaven for?), and that is : “Alafair is me, if I were entirely different than I am.”


Of course, all our characters are us, in one way or another, since they have to come out of our brains, and how could they contrive to know something that their author doesn’t, or to be something that their creator cannot conceive of.  And yet, that’s exactly what authors try to have them do.  When we write, we live alternative lives.


Alafair lives the life I never did, or never could.  Through her, I get to be a moderately well-adjusted mother of children, who doesn’t worry about her own shortcomings nor her place in the world, instead of what I am, which we won’t go into.


I get to live in a time and place that no longer exists, and believe things that no one believes any more. I think sometimes that there is something of acting in writing fiction.  Actors and novelists both have to dig deep to inhabit our characters and make them real. Sometimes it takes research into people and ways of life one would never come across in her ordinary life, such as a former computer programmer-turned novelist like Vicki inviting a police friend over to her house to teach her Close Quarters Combat, or actor William Hurt spending a couple of weeks in Angola Prison in Louisiana for a movie roll.  


Author or actor, if you want your character to come alive, something inside you has to live her life with her.


Finally, I have to say that I am very sorry that Charles Benoit is no longer going to be a regular Type M contributor. Charles was always a hard act to follow.  I’ll miss his wit and insight very much.  Then, of course, starting next week I’ll be posting the day after the remarkable Peter May.  If only Peter weren’t such a hard act to follow...

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Tomorrow’s guest blogger will be Patrick Millikin, compiler, contributor to, and editor of Phoenix Noir, which Publishers Weekly’s starred review calls a “stellar volume in Akashic’s noir series.”

Friday, February 26, 2010

All Good Things

After 3 1/2 years of consistent (almost) weekly blogging, it's time for me to say goodbye to Type M.

I’ve had a glorious time and I’ve enjoyed every part of it, but like most things, it comes down to time. I need to focus on getting this new YA written before my July 1st deadline, preparing a study guide for YOU (publication date now moved up to August), and launching a new, martini-free (as opposed to free martini) website. All this on top of my ever-expanding job and demanding jet-set social life. The cloning didn’t work out they way I had hoped and the results were mixed at best for the amphetamine experiment, so until I can find a workable solution, I must step aside.

It’s been a great ride, and an easy one since I did it on the coattails of authors who are much better writers. And it's been a lot of fun. I'm sure I'll miss the chance to post my inane thoughts for the world to see, but I know this is the right thing for me to do, and now is the right time to do it. I'll still be reading the blog every day (who doesn’t?) and I'm sure I'll be unable to resist the urge to comment now and then, so even though I'll be gone, I'll still be within shouting distance. And you can bet I’ll finagle my way back as a Sunday Guest Blogger.

If you’re feeling blue about my departure, this ought to cheer you up – starting next Friday, writer extraordinaire Peter May joins the usual suspects at Type M for Murder. A man of many trades and master of them all, Peter is the man behind the popular Enzo Files cold-case series. Trust me, you’re in good hands.

To Vicki, Rick, Donis, John and Debby—thank you for making me look so good. I owe ya. And to you, dear reader, keep reading, keep writing and keep buying books from your local bookseller. I’ll see you at the bar.

Cheers,
Charles

Thursday, February 25, 2010

We are not our characters, but they are us

This week, I want to pick up on Donis’s thread. Her blog last week titled “I Am Not My Characters” struck a chord. It probably did for all writers because we certainly aren’t our characters. That is true. However, our characters—at least to some degree—are us.

Every time I do a reading and Q@A, I’m asked if Jack Austin is really me. A former student who asked that question followed with a really good point. “I mean, Jack is just another name for John, right?” Right. Expect I’m not Jack Austin (and anyone who has ever played golf with me can verify that statement). In fact, I’ve maintained (and have confessed repeatedly) that my Jack Austin series was conceived as Raymond Chandler-meets-the-PGA-Tour. It has grown beyond that conception, but those roots remain.

So, no, I am not Jack Austin.

But Jack Austin is me.

He has to be, at least in part, and I don’t believe I’m alone. I don’t know any writer who says plot is what they love; plot drives them to spend upwards of a thousand hours at the computer crafting a novel. Many writers enjoy the puzzle, enjoy trying to keep readers guessing, but at the end of the day, plot doesn’t keep them doing this. Phrase it any way you want—developing characters, exploring differing themes and ethos—but the exploration of the human condition keeps us all going. Sue Grafton, in an interview with MYSTERY SCENE, said, “Mysteries are about the psychology of crime and the psychology of human nature,” when asked why she hadn’t tired of her alphabet series.

Therefore, Jack Austin (and my other protagonists, consciously or unconsciously) is my vehicle for exploring a host of themes. So in the end, Jack Austin is partially me. But, although I wish I had Jack’s golf game, I am not him.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Farewell to Dick Francis

The venerable Dick Francis, one of my very favourite authors, died this past Valentine’s Day, and I would be very remiss in not recognizing him.

In the ’70s, my mother was always going on about what a terrific author he was, but I wasn’t reading crime fiction at the time. One day in October 1981, I was walking past Britnell’s, one of Toronto’s older and better bookshops, and who should be signing there but Dick Francis. “Aha!” I thought. “The perfect Christmas present for Mom!” And so in I went.

The lineup wasn’t too long, and when I got to the front, there he was, not a small man for a jockey, but then he was a steeplechaser where they’re often larger. I found Dick to be utterly charming and he seemed genuinely pleased to sign a book for my mother. It was Twice Shy. Of course I had to give it a “test run”. (It’s not good to give someone a substandard book even if it is inscribed.) I found it to be excellent. I, too, became a dedicated Francis fan.

Over the years, I met Dick twice more. Once on the Newton Abbot racecourse in 1990 where he was also signing books. We wound up spending a delightful few hours with him, walking around the racecourse, talking about steeplechasing, marveling at how much he knew — and how much he obviously loved to talk about it.

The last time we spent time with him was in Toronto on his final book tour in 1997. As then Secretary/Treasurer of Crime Writers of Canada, I arranged an evening with the group (on a previous visit to Toronto, Dick had been made an honourary member) at Sleuth of Baker Street for his signing, repairing after to a nearby restaurant. It again struck me what an enormously gracious person and a perfect gentleman he was. By this time, it was very hard for him to write (having broken many bones over his racing career), but he signed a huge number of books, then stayed behind for nearly half an hour to sign a stack of books for fans who couldn’t make it to the signing and even though his son and wife wanted to leave. “No,” he told them firmly. “These people want signed books and I’m not going to disappoint them.”

Later at the restaurant, I got a chance to chat with him for quite some time. The topic turned to, of course, horses. I got the strong feeling that Dick remembered every single one of the hundreds of races he’d ridden. Now a frail elderly man who hadn’t been on a horse in years, I asked him, “If you could ride in one more race, would you give up a year of your life?” He did not hesitate. “Absolutely.”

I hope somewhere Dick Francis is saddling up for a steeplechase.

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Sorry for my detour this week. I will be back on the Future of Publishing series next week. I just didn’t want to let another week go by without mentioning the passing of a great writer/rider. To see some photos, check out: rickblechta.com/Pages/Scrapbook.html. Scroll down near the bottom.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Close Quarters Combat – and Me.

Our guest blogger yesterday talked about going to Montreal to eat smoked meat as part of her research. Last week John speculated that Robert Parker didn’t appear to do much research at all. I suspect that ties into my musings of a couple of weeks ago as to how writers did research without the Internet. (Probably a lot less than is the norm now.)

Sometimes research is the fun part.

Case in point: yesterday I learned Close Quarters Combat.

As I have mentioned before, I have several police contacts who help me a lot with the Molly Smith books. For my new project, which is about a much harder character than Molly, I need to be able to take her through a fight. Not just a bar brawl punch up, of the sort Smith finds herself in, but a fight to the death. One woman against a man with a gun and a killer dog.

So I contacted my police friend and asked if she knew someone who could give me a few pointers. Instead she came around to my house and gave me a crash course. Turns out my friend used to teach Officer Safety at Police College. First she led me through the principals of preparing for a confrontation. What to look for in your opponent’s actions, how to get into the mind-set, breathing control, heart rate. I explained my scenario and we went through it using the padded punching blocks she brought. I immediately understood that I looked pretty ineffectual, standing there with my fists all clenched and a fierce look on my face, square on to my opponent.
After she showed me how to stand correctly, I punched and kicked while she defended herself with the padded blockers. We did it again and again, and she walked me through it.

I might not be a formidable force out on the streets, but I can tell you that my character now is.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Of Cemeteries and Other Plots

I’d like to welcome back this Sunday’s guest blogger, Barbara Fradkin. Why welcome back? Because she is one of the original members of Type M and has agreed to stop by and bring us up to date on what she’s been up to. Barbara is also an excellent writer, and to prove that we can talk about her back-to-back Arthur Ellis wins for Best Novel, a feat that no one else has accomplished.

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Mystery writers have some very strange adventures in the course of writing that dreaded first draft. Which is why next month I will be sampling smoked meat at the world-famous Schwartz’s Main Hebrew Deli in Montreal, and last month I was traipsing around the cemetery with my camera in pursuit of the perfect tombstone under the perfect tree. I was following the twists and turns of Inspector Green’s latest case, Beautiful Lie the Dead, due out in the Fall of 2010.

I subscribe to the ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ school of mystery writing, which is to say I start the first draft once I have an opening scene. I usually have a vague idea what the theme of the book might be — in this case, love — but it might turn out to be something quite different once it’s finished. I usually have a dead body to start the story off, and a few characters I’d like to explore. However, I have no idea whodunit, no idea where the story might go nor how my detective might actually solve the case. He and I are in it together. Occasionally we rush from scene to scene when the ideas are flowing well, but more often we inch forward together, scene by painful scene.

This is a very stressful way to write a book. It guarantees lots of shredded pages and sleepless nights. I used to think I was alone in this folly, but I’ve discovered lots of writers who admit, often proudly, to flying by the seat of their pants. Never use an outline, they brag. ‘Too boring, too predictable. I love not knowing what’s going to happen.’ Some writers can’t imagine how you can plot without knowing where you are going and without careful planning of clues, red herrings, and all those twists and turns that keep a plot percolating. The secret to that, of course, is rewrites. Once I’m finished and I know what the actually story is, I can go back to fix it, plant clues, strengthen characters, create diversions and all that craft stuff. But first I have to have the creative stuff. And for that, I must let my mind roam free.

It’s terrifying, exhilarating and full of surprises. I know it’s not for everyone, but it’s the way that works for me. I always figure that it must make my book unpredictable since if I don’t know whodunit, how can the reader possibly know? I also think it makes the story evolve out of the characters, rather than imposing a plot move on a character because that’s what the outline dictates. That’s because at each turn, one of the strategies I use to feel my way forward is to ask ‘what would this character do next?’ If it’s Inspector Green, maybe he’d visit surviving relatives, or ask the Ident unit what they found, or interview witnesses on the street. If it’s one of the victim’s family, they might poke around in the victim’s things, or question his friends, or lie to the police. Everyone in the book has an agenda and a goal, and the fun is in pushing them forward, interweaving them, and throwing surprises their way.

This is not to say I’m flying blind. I have guideposts. I keep notions like scene structure, tension, pacing, and story arc in mind. I think ‘okay, it’s time to slow down’ or ‘time for a surprise’. Having asked the question ‘what would this character do next?’, I then ask ‘But is that interesting or exciting enough?’ ‘What if this happened instead?’ Most fun is the question ‘What will give my detective the most complications?’ I cook up possible scenarios while walking the dogs, emptying the dishwasher, or driving the car. I’ve had my best eureka moments on boring Highway 401 between Ottawa and Toronto. Once, afraid that I would forget some brilliant idea, I pulled off the highway into the parking lot of a liquor store and scribbled the whole thing down on the back of an envelope.

When flying by the seat of your pants, you never know when a small fact or character introduced early in the book will blossom into a major plot development. In Beautiful Lie the Dead, I had some key characters originate in Montreal, my childhood home. Little did I know that a hundred pages further on, Inspector Green would spend two days in Montreal investigating an old death, and that of course, as a true smoked meat aficionado, he would have to visit Schwartz’s. And where Inspector Green goes, I have to follow. Research has its benefits.

This foray into Montreal also gave me the inspiration for the title and the cover. No first draft is truly complete until the story has its perfect title and cover art. I could not imagine a title and cover determined by a publisher’s marketing department. In Beautiful Lie the Dead, in dreaming up complications for Green, I made another character travel to Montreal with his own agenda, which involved visiting the grave of the father he never knew. While describing him slogging through the snowy graveyard, I had the vision for the perfect cover art. Beautiful, bleak, evoking a sense of a death unresolved. And from that image came the title. And off I went to the cemetery to take photos I hoped would capture that mood.

The photos are now in the hands of the publisher’s cover artist, but the finished draft sits before me, waiting for rewrites. That’s when my more analytical self takes charge, and tempers my imagination with realism and polish to make a compelling, coherent whole. That works for me. Other writers, I’d love to hear what works for you.


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You can learn more about Barbara at www.barbarafradkin.com/. And I encourage you to do so! Thanks very much, Barbara.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I Am Not My Characters

I just wrote a scene in which one of my characters does something that he absolutely believes is right, and in the context of the story, he is right.  But I, Donis Ann Casey, would NEVER consider justified.  One of the joys and perhaps one of the great challenges of writing is that you can explore lives, places, times, people, attitudes that are entirely different from your own. The series I’m writing now features a protagonist who leads a life that couldn’t be less like mine, nor does she believe the things I do.  And yet I know her intimately.  I grew up around her world and loved a lot of people who were just like her.


I wonder sometimes if readers think I have the same values and ideas as my character Alafair.  I always wondered how like their characters other authors are until I actually started writing fiction.  Now I think the answer often is, “not even close.”  I read an interview with Salmon Rushdie in which he said he didn’t have to be religious himself in order to understand quite well how a religious person thinks, and not only to understand him, but have great admiration for him.


We’re told to write what we know, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write what you are.  (aside : Speaking of books on writing, I once read in one that you don’t really have to write what you know, you have to write what you find out.  I don’t remember whose book it was, sadly - I’m thinking Janet Evanovich. This puts me in mind of Vicki’s recent Facebook post in which she said that a policeman was coming over to her house to teach her to throw a punch.  Now, that’s research!)


Friday, February 19, 2010

A Crafty Book

I’m a sucker for books on writing. I can’t pass through a bookstore without tracking them down, usually in the reference section, sometimes in the art section and occasionally mixed in among the books on gardening and origami. I enjoy skimming through the titles, opening up to random pages to see what kind of sage advice jumps out at me. But while I like to look at these books, I seldom buy any. It’s not that I’m a cheap bastard—my bank account shows that’s not the case—or that I think that they’re poorly written—they’re not—it’s simply that most of the books on writing appear to be written for people who have never written.

The books on writing that I’ve run across fall into/across a few broad categories. These include (but are not limited to) the basic primers (‘If verbs are the engines that drive our sentences, than adjectives are the windows that show us what’s racing by’), the how-tos that explain the obvious (‘You need to create characters that feel like real people’), the memoir-cum-writing book (‘I used the pain from my breakup, channeling it into my characters, finding solace and revenge as my heroine pushed the car off the cliff onto her worthless, cheating, lying ex-boyfriend who happened to share the same name as my ex-boyfriend.’), and the mystical-BS books (’Only by finding your inner travel-buddy-writer-coach—what the ancient OOloçoloþs called their wazizits—will you allow your true storyteller-self to cross the void.’).

I seldom find a book that offers practical advice for the published author/active writer looking to hone his/her craft so that he/she doesn’t end up writing sentences that sound like this one.

Over the years I have found a few I love – The Lie That Tells the Truth by John Dufresne, Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi and The Adventurer by Paul Zweig*. This week I add a new book to that list, The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House.

Tin House is a literary magazine, filled with the kind of literary fiction that some (many? most?) casual readers find a tad too literary for their tastes. The book’s contributors—people whose names I apparently should know—have written all sorts of award winning novels and poems and non-fiction pieces. I doubt I would have bumped into any of them at Bouchercon, but after reading their essays, I would like to buy them each a beer.

These are essays aimed at other writers, with all the basics assumed and all (most) of the mystic touchy-feely crap pared away. Like any collection, there are a few not-so-brilliant entries, but even these are worth a read. After reading the essays (some twice), I can’t cite any specific advice that I can sum up in a bullet point—and that’s a good thing. Anything that can be that easily stated is so obvious to be worthless. Instead, I came away with a clearer sense of what works and why, what’s essential and what’s baggage, what I’ve been doing right and what I need to try to do next. And I came away inspired to be a better, more thoughtful writer.

So, fellow writers, what books on writing are on your shelf?

*Good luck finding this one – it was last published in 1974. It’s a deeper explanation of the role of the hero’s journey in fiction, predating Frey’s own damn good book, The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth

Thursday, February 18, 2010

William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: What it’s all about

Robert B. Parker’s recent (and untimely) death has me thinking a lot about his work lately. I keep coming back to his noteworthy output and consistent quality—and to how well he must have known the works and writings of William Faulkner.

Parker’s output (70-odd novels in 37 years) is understandable. It’s been well documented that he wrote five pages a day, five days a week. I’m not going to say every one of his novels was a homerun, but, to me, they’re all pretty close.

However, when discussing the consistent thematic quality of Parker’s novels, there’s something that should be noted. In our ever-increasingly reality-or-bust society, a society featuring shows like CSI (and its numerous offshoots), NYPD BLUE, COPS, and endless hospital shows—all shows that call for procedural detail upon procedural detail—one reads a Spenser novel and knows instantly the book probably required little to no research.

There’s a reason for that, and it’s in this reason, I believe, one finds the answer to what makes Mr. Parker’s series so memorable.

This week, I gave my students William Faulkner’s oft-noted Nobel Prize acceptance speech to read. I asked them to read it and then to write a two- to four-page essay explaining how Parker’s novel DOUBLE DEUCE and Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP succeed or fail, given Faulkner’s criteria. In his speech, Faulkner stated, “…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat….He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust…” (Stockholm, Sweden, Dec. 10, 1950)

Love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, and sacrifice.

Mr. Parker had a Ph.D. in literature. In an interview with Jeff Zaleski in the Oct. 8, 2001 issue of Publishers Weekly, Parker was asked why his books were so popular. His answer: “I guess it has something to do with a story about someone who doesn't fail. And they're about love, they're about courage, they're about honor” (http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA170987.html). It is safe to assume given Parker’s academic pedigree that he knew Faulkner’s work well. And if you’ve read the Spenser series, you know that not only did Parker love Faulkner, but he could tell a hell of a story, too; a story full of thematic depth and suspense, one featuring characters you care about, set in situations you know about and experience. In short, Parker’s novels delve deeply in the human condition—which is steeped in love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, and sacrifice.

Faulkner and Parker knew those qualities are backdrop of all good fiction. They’re what we’re all after, as readers and as writers.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

E-Publishing, an online interview with Rob Rosenwald of Poisoned Pen Press

Last week, the tussle between Amazon, Apple, and the six New York publishers was hot news. It seems now, seven days later, unless I’ve missed something, the temperature has dropped. I’m certain, though, that it’s just brewing below the surface.

I thought it would be interesting to ask a publisher what his/her take on the situation was, so I contacted my own publisher, Robert Rosenwald of Poisoned Pen Press. He kindly emailed back with answers to my questions. Here they are, and I’ll quote his first sentence: “All my answers are strictly based upon PPP and do not reflect what other publishers do. And my prognostications are strictly mine and not the word of the Delphic Oracle.”

Not the Delphic Oracle? Drat. My next questions were going to be about the stock market.

How are publishers paid? We usually get direct deposit though some still send checks.

How do you see this changing? It will all be via direct deposit.

How are authors paid? Every ebook has a royalty record, just like the print books do. We have a single royalty record for ebooks and all digital sales, regardless of whether it be Amazon.com or Sony or B&N or any other, get accounted for in that record. When it is time to pay royalties that record will print out along with the other royalty records and a check will be generated.

How do you keep track of the books sold (for example, people TELL me they're downloading my book to Kindle). How do you keep track of this and are there ways of checking the numbers? Each ebook vendor has a website where we interface with the vendor. At the website are reports. When we receive a payment it covers a specific time period and we go to the website and get the sales report that matches that time period. We then pull those data into our accounting software in order to reconcile the sales to the receipt. One of the data we keep track of is number of units sold, the other is the net amount we receive.

What are your big concerns right now? Finding enough time to keep up with the data that needs to be dealt with and the enormous volume of email questions that it all generates.

Where do you think the industry will go? In three generations 99% of all books will be digital. In two generations 60% of all books will be digital. In one generation 25% of all books will be digital. The longest holdouts will be photographic books and coffee table books. It will probably take two generations before the quality of a digitally rendered photograph and a device convenient and inexpensive enough to display it will be generally available. We'll see trade fiction be 90% digital in less than 50 years.

What will happen to Digital Rights Management? Hopefully it will go away. It's a waste of time and an annoyance and is too easily defeated to be a deterrent to anything other than legitimate usage.


Am I even asking the right questions? No idea.

Thanks, Rob, for sharing your knowledge, especially considering the enormous volume of data and correspondence you have to plow through.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

E-book formatting and why it’s important

On the surface, there are certainly a lot more important things to discuss about the new frontiers facing authors in the electronic age than this somewhat obscure topic. But looks can be, well, you know...

Remember stereo LP records? Mono LP? 78s? Edison cylinders? They’re all obsolete technology. Okay, I’ve never heard an Edison cylinder either, but that’s where recorded music began. Now we’re on the cusp of getting Hi-Def music discs and they’re going to make CDs obsolete. All that money you spent on CDs? Well, if you want to move on with technology, you’re going to have to spend it again. And you’ll be forced because in 20 years time, it’s going to be impossible (or expensive) to buy CD players. If you don’t believe me, try to find a new VHS machine to play all your video cassettes.

Sure, new technology is great. (If we didn’t have the explosion of personal computers over the past twenty years, I wouldn’t even be talking to you right now.) A new product comes along, proves to be better and the public snaps it up, bringing huge financial benefits to the people (manufacturers, distributors, retailers) who sell them to you.

Then back in the ’70s, corporations discovered something: the ultimate way to control the marketplace is to control the format of the technological advance. If you can take over a particular marketplace with your product’s particular “way of doing things”, ie formatting, then everyone has to come to you.

The most obvious place to look at the consequences of formatting is computers. Once you commit to a format (Windows, Apple OS, Unix, Linux), they have you. You have become a captive audience. Obviously, corporations love this. They don’t like processes they have to license in order to do business.

So, when you want to manufacture an electronic book reader and take over the marketplace, you come up with your own proprietary format, one that will only run on your product. This is what Amazon is trying to do with Kindle and Apple with their iPad. It’s like the Beta versus VHS videotape battle back in the ’70s.

Ever wonder why all cell phones operate off the same basic system? That’s because they have to. Otherwise their manufacturers would be forced to build their own delivery network. Cell phone makers are too smart to get involved in the delivery of service for their products.

Unfortunately, publishers are at the mercy of the people who are delivering their product, be it e-books or paper volumes, and that means that authors are also at the mercy of retailers.

Here’s a really novel suggestion: if everyone at our end (authors, publishers, agents, etc.) got together and decided that electronic book distribution would be formatted using , then Apple, Amazon, Sony, would have no choice but to adopt that process to operate on their readers and the marketplace would be determined by whose reader operates better, provides more of what customers want, are more reliable, whatever.

Instantly, the marketplace would be more equitable and e-books could move forward to supplant paper books, find their niche, whatever is to become their fate. Publishers would be happy, we authors would at least know where we stand and the reading public wouldn’t have to guess whose product (and its required format) would take over the world.

But then, we’re too [add your own pejorative here] to take the bull by the horns and do this. It would mean everyone working together for the common good, and business is not particularly adept at this sort of thing.

The makers of e-book readers know this and so they’re free to go their way, a way that could potentially make them a lot of money — and that’s why they’re playing this dangerous and expensive game of chicken.

Unfortunately, we’re the ones being held for ransom.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Cost of Everything and the Value of Nothing


I wrote yesterday at Fatal Foodies about the pleasures of spending $7.00 on one chocolate truffle each for my daughter and myself vs. spending the same $7.00 on a massive hunk of mass produced chocolate bar and how the truffles gave us so much pleasure and the chocolate bar would have made us sick.

Last Christmas I was watering a vase of flowers and spilled a couple of drops of water into the CD player. The player never worked again. Over the summer I went out and left the windows open; it rained and so much rain came into the study I was mopping it up with towels. My twenty-five year old TV sits under the window and buckets of water got into it. The TV still works perfectly. (Incidentally it has rabbit ears and I get one channel.)

Twenty-five years ago that TV cost me a lot of money. The CD player not too much. I would also bet that it’s likely the TV was made somewhere in North America. The CD player – you can guess.

The difference, of course, is value. After destroying the CD player, I went out and bought another. It lasted six months before no longer working. I threw it out and bought yet another. On Friday night I watched the opening of the Olympics on the TV.
If I was to buy a TV today, I’d pay much, much less (adjusted for inflation) than I did for the old one. But I bet it won’t last 25 years. It’ll be made to sell cheap and to be replaced quickly.

What does this have to do with writing and reading books?

Sadly, I suspect the same thing might be happening in our industry. This bit caught my eye in an article about how publishers are trying to get Amazon to sell electronic versions of their books at a fair price. Problem, as reported by the New York Times:

"when digital editions have cost more, or have been delayed until after the release of hardcover versions, these raucous readers have organized impromptu boycotts and gone to the Web sites of Amazon and Barnes & Noble to leave one-star ratings and negative comments for those books and their authors,"

We’ll put aside the fact that these know-nothings are prepared to destroy a writer’s career because of something over which they have no control.

It’s easy to attack the publishing industry, and I have been known to do so myself. But the publishing industry does attempt to give the reader value for money. What does a publisher do:


• reads hundreds of dreadful manuscripts to find a good one
• works with the author to edit and re-edit and make the book as good as it can be
• copy-edits
• prepares and distributes review copies
• hires an artist or designer to do a nice cover
• prepares a catalogue so libraries and bookstores know what’s coming

Does all this have value? I think it does. There are some very good self-published books out there, but there is also a heck of a lot of crud. I have been told several times by readers that they know they can trust a Poisoned Pen Press book for a good read.

How do they know that?

Because Poisoned Pen has gone through the slush pile so you don’t have to, and because the editors at PP have done their job to make a good manuscript into an even better book.

Right now I am working with the people at Rendezvous Crime on Gold Fever. Someone has gone to the time and trouble to read the entire MS, very, very carefully, and note what isn’t quite working or where words are perhaps not the best choice, and to fix up my grammar and spelling. Someone else has designed a lovely cover and worked carefully on the cover blurb to condense the essence of a 300 page book into one paragraph.

Think they’re doing this for free?

If you want your reading experience to have value, pay what it’s worth.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Guest Blogger: Mark H. Phillips (and he's got a Box of Texas Chocolates with him)


We’ve been blogging a bit lately on the art of writing short stories so today’s guest blogger, Mark H. Phillips, is a perfect fit—plus, he’s got a easy-to-enter contest.

Mark grew up in central Illinois reading the classics—especially Greek mythology, James Bond novels, and Batman comics. He’s a graduate of both the University of Illinois and Northwestern University. His work includes the Eva Baum mystery series (written with his wife, Charlotte Phillips), The Resqueth Revolution (sci-fi), "Death on the Bayou" in A Death in Texas, and "Truffles of Doom" and "The Invisible Hand Will Smear Chocolate on the Face of Tyranny" in A Box of Texas Chocolates.


Themed Anthologies
by
Mark H. Phillips

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than with A Box of Texas Chocolates? As you might have guessed, that is the title of our writing group’s latest themed anthology, a multi-genre collection of short stories all having to do with Texas and chocolate. There’s mystery, suspense, romance, fantasy, science fiction—whatever your loved one’s heart may desire.

The Final Twist, a group of Houston writers, has produced a themed anthology each year for the past several years. The first two anthologies were mystery collections: Dead and Breakfast set in the wonderful world of Texas Bed & Breakfasts, and A Death in Texas which got rave reviews. A Box of Texas Chocolates is our group’s first multi-genre collection—our best seller yet and an award winner (New England Book Festival – 2009). It will be followed this year by Twice-Twisted Tales of Texas, a multi-genre collection all featuring distinctively Texan landmarks. The themed anthology process is getting so streamlined that we plan to release a second anthology later this year, a multi-genre collection that gets deep into the heart of Texas called Texas Underground.

Themed anthologies are a great way to get stories published, an effective spur to creativity, and are a way to pull a writing group together. So far, we’ve been lucky in reaching easy consensus on our themes. It probably helps that our members just all happen to be chocoholics. The brainstorming sessions are both raucous and fun. Everyone understands that the theme has to be broad—we want the most diversity and creativity possible within the connecting theme. Texas Underground is inclusive enough to allow both stories that take place literally underground and stories that explore sub rosa clandestine Texan culture.

Another factor in the success of our anthologies is the thorough professionalism of my fellow Final Twist members. Our writing group is all about getting material out there to our readers. We work on generating, peer-editing, publishing, and promoting our stories. It also helps that our members can produce with a hard deadline in place. Most of us are primarily novelists. Short stories are a refreshing change of pace, an opportunity to keep our fans aware that we are still writing, but never an excuse to stop working on our novels. Usually stories are produced and first round edited within a sixty day window. If your group members cannot be depended upon to produce quality material in that sort of time frame, themed anthologies could turn into a prolonged nightmare. You have to leave time to pull the project together, get it ready for the publishers, the inevitable last round edits, contracts, cover design issues, promotional engagements, blog tours, etc. Naturally everyone in the group has to be willing to pitch in; otherwise some poor soul will end up saddled with all that work and never get their own novel finished.

If you are looking for a way to make your writing group more productive I can recommend themed anthologies. Just don’t use the title that I’m still trying to get my group to accept: Texas Chili Cook-off Winners and Their Rip-Roaring Tales.

We’d like to share our award winner with one of you. To enter the drawing, hop on over to our publisher’s website, read about the different stories in A Box of Texas Chocolates, then come back here and use the comments to tell us your favorite.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

AmazonEncore

I’m with Charles when it comes to fretting over what’s going to happen with the publishing business.  The more I read about it, the unhappier I become, so the only way I can keep from making myself miserable is not to worry about it too much.  It would be different if I knew of something I could do.  Like Rick said, if Jackie Collins, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich, and their ilk got together and went on strike in the cause of all their fellow authors, then we’d be talking.  But if I went on strike, no one would even know.  So, as Charles noted, if you want to write, you can’t use the frightening state of the book business as an excuse not to do it.  There are plenty of other reasons  you can use if you need one. Even if you are a traditionally published novelist, unless you belong to the same club as the aforementioned Big Names, you aren’t making much money at it anyway.  Not to mention the fact that writing a book is hard work.


So you have to decide - what’s the point?  I don’t write because I have to, but because I like it.  I wish I could make some money with it, but I’d write anyway.  In fact, I have.  Maybe it’ll all work out in the end.  I hope so.


But as usual, I digress. 


Here’s an interesting bit of information to perk up the roiling discussion about the future of publishing.  Last week my local paper picked up an article from USA Today by Bob Minzesheimer entitled, “Amazon gives the self-published a second life”    It seems that Amazon has decided to create its own traditional publishing house called AmazonEncore Amazon has identified several self-published books that have sold well on Amazon, and contracted with the authors to publish them in paperback under Amazon’s own imprint.  Thus far, they have only published maybe half-a-dozen titles, but it will be interesting to see how this catches on.


The article states that Barnes & Noble and Borders list AmazonEncore titles on their web sites and that they are open to carrying the books in their stores, depending on demand.  Minzesheimer says that the Amazon editors use customer reviews (Crikey! Don’t make any enemies - D.) and sales data to find the books they want to publish.  Apparently, Amazon doesn’t pay advances, but a “competitive royalty based on sales”.  One of the authors whose book was picked up by AmazonEncore said that she is “thrilled to be part of an opportunity that encourages authors to take back their power by bypassing major publishing houses.”


Is this good?  Maybe it is.  I don’t know. It’s all too much for me to figure out.  I’m off to eat chocolate and have a glass of wine.


Friday, February 12, 2010

Kindling the Amazon



I'll be honest - I haven't been able to keep up with the ebook/Kindle/Amazon conversation. I know I should - one way or another it's my future - but it's so out of my control that the more I read about it, the worse I feel. Ten years from now it may prove to have been the best thing that ever happened for authors and readers alike, but right now it seems so stacked one way I can't see a real bright side. But, like I said, I don't know much about the issue.

One thing I do know is that if you're a pre-published author, you'd better not let this industry confusion keep you from starting/finishing your book. It shouldn't make any difference at all since if it does, it tells you something about your motivation. And the same goes for us lucky enough to have been published in the BK era (Before Kindle). That business model is dead and it won't be coming back. What will be coming can not make a difference in our motivation. It may make a difference in how we tell a story - like I said last post, writing/reading styles change - but it shouldn't be used as an excuse why we don't write.

I'm sure we'd all like to have been writers in that mythical era where more people read in their free time, where the books were flying off the shelves and authors were celebrities. Well, we do. Look at the numbers - book sales have never been higher, more people are reading (or claim to be) and some authors are indeed clebs. Okay, maybe not you or me, but there are famous writers.

So that's it for the pep talk. Go forth and write. When you finished you may be royally screwed, but at least you will have accomplished something good. Can the Big Wigs at Amazon say the same thing?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Losing My Virginity

I was a short story virgin until this week.

I lost my virginity Monday when I finished a story I’d begun last Thursday. Not a big deal for many of you. But, as I touched on a few weeks ago, the short story is a form that has eluded me. Then, two weeks ago, after finishing a novel I spent nine months on, I had an idea for a story. The character I imagined and his dilemma seemed, for lack of a better word, short. The story ended up being fewer than 6,000 words.

Gary Phillip’s guest column got me on the topic of short fiction. I wrote my Dec. 30 blog titled Stories & Novels: How different are they?. In that column I asked a lot of questions, one of which was: Are most writers either novelists or short story writers, not both?

I still have more questions than answers on the topic. But I can say the reason I wrote the short story is simple: It was the next story to appear to me. So I did what I do. And what do you know, I like the way it turned out.

Some people have said that writing is writing, regardless of the form. This would indicate that if one can write a novel s/he surely possess the tools to craft a short story. I agree that the mechanics of fiction writing (sound diction; a feel for syntax; the ability to plot and pace; an ear for dialogue; true imagery, etc) never change. Yet not all stories are the same because those who experience them and then attempt to write them are wired differently.

Alice Walker said she never picks the poems she writes. They pick her. Previously, the stories I had to tell were always 70,000 to 100,000 words long. The reason I never wrote short fiction before is because I never had the urge to try.

Is short story writing the same as novel writing? I’m not sure. But I did have a new experience this week.

And I liked it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

E-Book Publishing Wars

The e-publishing issue is just beginning to explode into the public eye. At first, I thought the tussle was among the big tech companies over Digital Rights Management (usually referred to as DRM), because someone is going to end up as obsolete as the Betamax. Who’s going to come out on top—Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, someone new? Though DRM is inherent in the struggle, the fight now is over market share.

Right now, Amazon supposedly pays a publisher 50% of the list price. Let’s make that price $25. Therefore, Amazon pays X Publisher $12.50. Amazon turns around and sells that book to download to a customer’s Kindle for 9.99.

According to Association of American Publishers, the e-book market soared 200% in November of 2009, to $18.3 million. E-books make up only about 4% of the market, and Amazon has a near monopoly of e-books. They also corner approximately 10-15% of the book market.

Amazon’s fourth quarter (2009) sales rose a whopping 42%, to $9.52 billion. Their net income growth was 71%, to $384 million, and is attributed to Kindle profits and e-book sales. Estimates based on their accounts place Kindle sales at around 2 million in 2009, and the market is just beginning to skyrocket. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said "We sell six Kindle books for every 10 physical books. This is year-to-date and includes only paid books -- free Kindle books would make the number even higher." These numbers come from a Daily Finance story, Wednesday, February 10, 2010, see link: http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/company-news/amazon-macmillan-start-e-book-price-war-and-amazon-loses-fo/19338550/ .

Publishers are struggling to retain a piece of this pie. Thursday, MacMillan’s CEO John Sargent offered a new proposal to Amazon. Either use what he’s calling the “agency model," or stick to the wholesale model. With the “agency model,” the publisher keeps possession of e-book files, sets prices for its digital editions, and pays a 30% retail commission to retailers. In the wholesale model, retailers buy stock at 50% off the list price. See Sarah Weinman’s article:
http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/company-news/publishers-try-to-protect-e-book-prices-from-apple-amazon/19324040/

Where do authors fall into this picture? Right now, we’re pawns. Take a look at Amazon’s latest offer: “70% Royalty Option for Kindle Digital Text Platform, scheduled for June 30, 2010.” http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1376977&highlight

The conditions of these new royalty options are stringent. (bullets below were taken from above link on Amazon’s site)
• The author or publisher-supplied list price must be between $2.99 and $9.99
• This list price must be at least 20 percent below the lowest physical list price for the physical book
• The title is made available for sale in all geographies for which the author or publisher has rights
• The title will be included in a broad set of features in the Kindle Store, such as text-to-speech. This list of features will grow over time as Amazon continues to add more functionality to Kindle and the Kindle Store.
• Under this royalty option, books must be offered at or below price parity with competition, including physical book prices.

Amazon will provide tools to automate that process, and the 70 percent royalty will be calculated off the sales price.
I worry about clauses like, "books must be offered at or below price parity with competition, including physical book prices," and in particular, the “digital list price must be 20% below the lowest possible physical list price for the physical book.” And I haven't even touched on the FREE e-books. Another time...

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The trouble with eBooks, part 1

First stop on our little trip around the publishing industry has to be here. The way I spelled these “little electronic wonders” (saw that term a while back) was entirely intentional now that those fine folks at Apple have thrown their hat in the ring.

Now to the meaning behind my subject line. There is trouble in Authorland because the landscape surrounding eBooks is more like the Wild West than what we imagine the staid old publishing industry to be. That’s because non-publishers are trying their damnedest to redefine publishing.

I’m the first to admit that the outmoded business model used by publishers could use a lot of tweaking, but in the free-for-all that’s going on now, authors are going to be the ones getting trampled even worse than we are now.

Case in point: Even though the costs of publishing eBooks is miniscule compared to their paper brethren, authors are being offered the same 10-15% cut of the pie. That is completely ridiculous. Here’s some of the things publishers don’t have to pay for with eBooks: hard copy proofing (more expensive than you’d imagine), printing, storage, fulfillment (that’s shipping and its related stuff) and returns. It also costs nothing to send out review copies.

So what do publishers still have to pay for? Editing, page layout (in this age of computers that’s no big deal) and promotion — and we all know how much promotion we get from most publishers. There are some fulfillment costs, but that’s easily set up and not all that expensive when you’re doing it for large numbers of books.

But the real rub for authors is that now it’s nearly impossible to trace how many sales have taken place. In the past, if you wanted to pay the expense of an audit, you could actually track how many books were printed, where they were shipped, how many were returned, etc, etc. With eBooks, the only real way to trace books is through bank deposits and electronic records. I don’t think I need to tell anyone how easy it is to fudge that sort of thing. Does the name Enron ring any bells? Have you ever heard of Judith Appelbaum vs HarperCollins? Read up on this story if you want your hair to stand on end.

So it seems to me that authors are going to get screwed worse than ever. We’re left with our usual royalty rate while the publishers’ costs plummet. That means a proportionally smaller cut of the profits, regardless of how many eBooks are sold. Couple that with the fact that eBooks sell for a lot less money, and it’s not a happy picture is it?

We’re going to stay in eBook-land next week when we'll look at what’s happening at the other end of the electronic pipeline: the battle over formatting and its fallout.

Stay tuned...

Monday, February 08, 2010

Is the Publishing Industry Dumbing Down?

I was stuck by a comment made by Jared Case in response to Friday’s posting by Charles.

I bet your narrative "sense" was set by your reading experience as a youngster, before you started watching films passionately. Mine was as well, but I may be the last of a generation of writers that was weened on words before images.
The last generation of writers who learned words before images.


Oh, wow.

In my house when I was a youngin’ we didn’t have a TV until I was in grade five or six. When we finally got one, my brother and I had our TV viewing restricted to one hour per weekday.

No, I am not THAT old – many of my friends had a TV.

I remember going to the movies once in a while, but it wasn’t a regular occurrence. And until the age of Beta and VHS it was a rare person who, like Charles, would see a movie more than once a week.

The biggest thing, IMHO, that books have over movies is that it is only through reading that you can truly get inside another person’s head. When you watch a movie, no matter how intimately the director tries to show you the mind of the characters, or how great the acting, you are observing from a distance. Just as you do in real life.

Shakespeare was able to get away with having his characters express their innermost thoughts and belief in monologues, but no one does that today.

What books have over movies is more than just words, but time to allow the expression of complex ideas and thoughts.

I fear that the new way of reading is going to change a lot of that. I was at a panel at a conference a few years ago when the owner of an electronic book publisher said that they were looking for books with ‘short sentences’ to fit the screen of the device.

Now they are talking about reading books on cell phones.

“Hello.”

“Hello?”

Riveting dialogue.

People are already complaining that too many books are becoming all action and quick dialogue. Full of short, punchy sentences, with little room for description, ideas, or anything but the barest sense of emotion. In which conflict is reduced to shooting the bad guy, but not bothering to figure out why the bad guy is acting in such a way, or even if he is the bad guy after all.

So, I wonder, are even the big publishing houses going to eventually start looking at manuscript submissions with an eye to how they will read on a cell phone screen or on a device with which the reader can switch to a video or the Internet if they get the slightest bit bored?

Are publishers already thinking like that?

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Fearsome Future

Speaking of books vs movies, I just finished watching No Country for Old Men, which is based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.  I knew that the book concerned an old lawman with an outdated code of honor, an overconfident Viet Nam vet trying to get away with stealing drug money from the Mexican cartels, and a psychopath.  The movie was fairly true to the tone of the book.  Both pretty much confirmed what in my lowest moments I already believe about the state of humanity, the world, and the randomness of life. Actually, I could have done without the validation of my darkest fears.  That said, the acting was excellent, and I really enjoyed those West Texas accents.


Now to business.  There is a lot of unrest in the publishing industry and among authors these days.  The awful economy in combination with the changing times - e-books, iPads, Kindles, and their ilk - have cast a cloud of uncertainty over us.  We begin to understand the true meaning of the Chinese curse that that you should live in interesting times.  Things are changing so fast that nobody can keep up.  How can one plan for the future?  You can’t predict which of the numberless trends is going to have legs and which is going to fizzle out.


I detect a lot of fear about what’s going to happen, and resentment, because as Debby pointed out, the authors are way down on the food chain, and no matter what format or delivery system comes out on top, the producers of the primary product will be the last to profit.  (Sort of like farming, isn’t it? Or the music biz.)


I thought of all of this sturm und drang when I heard last week of the death of J.D. Salinger.  The famously reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye left piles, stacks, boxes, rooms-full of manuscripts that he wrote just for his own enjoyment, any one of which he could have sold for an astronomical advance.  He made the conscious choice to create art strictly for art’s sake.*  He was able to maintain this philosophy because the first book he wrote made him a millionaire.  The rest of us can’t afford the luxury of such high ideals.  Sometimes I wish for the days when artists were supported by wealthy patrons.


I do like to tell stories, though, and will do my best to keep telling them however I may.

______________________

*or maybe he was just nuts.


Friday, February 05, 2010

Books and Films

Last night at an author event at the George Eastman House, Jared Case, Head of Cataloging for the museum, asked a good question that I can’t get out of my head: Is your writing more influenced by the films you’ve seen or the books you’ve read? I had an answer of course, but the more I’ve thought about the question, the more I’ve wondered just how film has shaped the way I approach writing my books.

I’ve seen far more movies than I’ve seen books. As a teen, my best friend Rick and I would see up to four films in a single weekend. I was reading a lot at that time as well, and while I probably spent as much time reading as I did watching movies, my book count didn’t even come close to my movie count. Novels and films are both temporal arts—you’ve got to put in the time to experience them—and it takes a lot less time for me to experience a film in it’s entirety than it takes to experience a full book. Add to that the reality that I read to myself about as fast as I read aloud to someone else and my low book to film ratio makes even more sense.

I’ve re-watched my favorite moves far more often than I’ve re-read my favorite books. I’ve seen Goldfinger around 20 times but I’ve read the book just once. After last night’s screening at the Eastman House’s Dryden Theater, I’ve now seen Dark Passage 4 times but only read the book twice. I doubt that I’ll read the book again, but I’m sure that some late night I’ll spot Dark Passage on AMC and get pulled in yet again.

When it comes to which activity I enjoy more, watching films or reading, reading wins by a landslide. Yes, they’re two different art forms and it’s really an apple/orange choice, but given that choice, I’ll take a book every time. Rose and I spend many nights sitting on both ends of the couch, silently reading or respective books, but we are just as likely to end up watching a film before the night is over, enjoying the shared experience, one of the things films (in general) have over books (in general).

So how has film changed/shaped my writing? I had an answer last night and it was good at the time, but the more I think about it, the more I’m surprised by the answer.

Speaking of surprises – Congratulations to filmmaker and screenwriter Johannes Bockwoldt, whose short Special Delivery, won first place at the 360 | 365 Film Festival. I posted Johannes’ film last week and then it went on to win the gold. Coincidence? Yeah, probably, but it is a great little film. Way to go, sir!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Fiction Writers are Optimists

Rick’s Tuesday post “Making Sense of it All” spoke to me and probably many other writers as well. After all, his comments had me asking a lot of questions about where the industry is headed and wondering if I’ll have a place in it.

Scary questions to say the least. But, truth be told, when the dust settles—in the wake of this recession and in the midst of this increasingly pressing need for writers to be fluent in the language of our electronic world—the publishing landscape might not be a very pretty sight.

However, I believe that writers—by nature—are optimists. We have to be. You’ve got be optimistic (and maybe even a little crazy) to try your hand at this game in the first place. Hell, we’ve all read THE GREAT GATSBY and HAMLET. We know we’re playing for second place. But we keep on. We write despite the odds, despite the rejections, despite the knowledge that Fitzgerald wrote sentences most of us can never hope to match.

My agent tells me there is reason to believe that this spring New York houses will once again be seeking new series. Good news for many writers.
But does that matter?

Not really. The great thing about what we do is that writing fiction is one of the few professions (especially the crime-fiction genre) in which you can constantly reinvent yourself. A new series. A new character. Even a new name.
The glass is always half full. If you didn’t believe that, you wouldn’t be writing.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

E-book Publishing Wars

There is something very big brewing in the publishing industry, and I feel like I’m missing something. In fact, I’m sure I’m missing something, but I doubt I’m alone. One thing we can be sure of—follow the money! Crime Fiction Writing 101, remember?

We authors are probably the least informed, but I have a strong hunch the publishing honchos don’t know all the stakes yet, either. (Kind of like stock market advisors. Buy this fund! Oops, mortgage securities? Not my fault.) Right now, the eBook market looks to be a jockeying game, positioning, threats, closed door handshakes. The stuff of mystery.

Except our livelihoods are at stake, but let’s ignore that right now. (Honey, can you run out for groceries? No? Do we have enough for beer?)

Kindle sales have been plugging along the last couple of years, and though Amazon won’t release any data on number of units sold, a lot of people I know are getting one. Even my college son wanted one for his birthday, which I take to be an excellent sign. Twenty-two year olds may be screen addicts, but they still read books. Alleluia on that note.

But along comes Apple with the new iPad, and the fur begins to fly. Apple offered publishers a better split of sales proceeds (70 percent vs. Amazon's 50), but these sales ultimately bring the publishers less money. Apple’s iBooks will be capped at $14.99, while right now, Amazon is paying publishers half of a list price that could be $25 to $30. Amazon then charges its customers $9.99 to download a book to Kindle, taking a loss on the book sale (aka “lost leader”) to expand its Kindle customer base.

“The iPad puts Apple on a direct collision course with Amazon.” New York Times, Wednesday, January 27, 2010. See link: (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/i/ipad/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier) The article underscores that though Steve Jobs gave credit to Amazon for pioneering the eBook industry, Jobs said, “We are going to stand on their shoulders and go a little bit farther.”

Peter Ginna, of Bloomsbury Press, found a taped interview between Steve Jobs and Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal (http://www.doctorsyntax.net/2010/01/playing-chicken-publishers-apple-and.html, Friday, Jan 29, 2010). When Mossberg asked about Amazon’s lower prices ($9.99 versus the iBook’s $14.99), Jobs responded, "The prices will be the same...Publishers are actually going to pull their books from Amazon because they're not happy."

Hmm, very interesting, because the next day, the L.A. Times, Saturday, January 30, headline states, “Amazon pulls Macmillan titles in first ebook skirmish.” http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2010/01/amazon-pulls-macmillan-titles-in-first-ebook-skirmish.html Five publishers announced that they were working with Apple, and MacMillan was one of them. MacMillan CEO John Sargent then asked Amazon to reset ebook prices ranging from $5.99 and $14.99, starting typically on the high end of the spectrum (between $12.99 and $14.99) and lowering the price over time. Amazon responded to MacMillan by pulling all versions, including paper editions, of Macmillan’s authors’ books from their online store.

One day later, Amazon capitulated. For the first time, five of the six major publishers lined up with Apple (Random House is sitting on a fence, but sounding favorable to Apple’s pricing format.)

This is big business. It looks like Apple has an eye on undermining Kindle’s reader base. Remember, follow the money. The two giants are facing off for long term eBook shares. Naturally, authors are are WAY down the food chain in this kerfuffle. The players on this shifting field are the Big Six publishers (except for Random House, which is still sitting on the fence), Amazon, and Apple.

The positive aspects coming to light are that people want to read, and expanding formats are a good thing. The bad news is that business ethics stink, and shifting allegiances are self-serving and among the few.

Some other interesting blogs on the topic: http://www.tobiasbuckell.com/2010/01/31/why-my-books-are-no-longer-for-sale-via-amazon/ and http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/02/kindle-missile-crisis.html

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Making sense of it all

It used to be that an author only needed to write the best book he/she could. That’s a tough enough job right there, isn’t it? Write a good book, find a publisher and the rest would follow.

Over the years — and accelerating as we move into the future — technology, our faster lifestyle, and I suppose, a bit of publishers’ laziness and disarray have all combined to tilt the authorship playing field quite significantly. It’s no longer enough to pen a good book, especially in the crime genre.

Authors have always needed to make themselves available for book signings and appearances (whether on the radio, TV, for readings, whatever) to help in promoting their works, but currently, unless you’re a top drawer name, publishers are increasingly leaving it to their authors to do it all themselves. I’ve even heard of one NY publisher telling authors, “You really should hire yourself a good publicist for this book.”

Excuse me? Correct me if I’m wrong, but my job is to write the book. It’s your job to produce and sell it.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

The publishing industry is floundering over how to reinvent itself for the brave new world we all inhabit. Vicki’s blog entry yesterday points out how book trailers have just not worked. That magic promotional bullet turned out to have wet powder and wouldn’t fire. It was supposed to be a can’t-miss marketing strategy, wasn’t it? It was cutting edge, it was sexy, and it bombed. What do we do now?

Then there are ebooks. To “e” or not to “e”, that is a big question. Are paper books really dead? If we insist on producing them, are we turning our works over to what will be a quaint little cottage industry in a decade?

Does an author website actually do an author any good? Publishers expect them now and they can be damn expensive if you want one with a nice design factor. If you do it on the cheap or try to do it yourself, the results can be a big negative to your career (just like do-it-yourself book trailers). Then there’s ongoing upkeep, fresh content for returning readers, and all that takes time and possibly more cash. And weren’t you supposed to be keeping your nose to the writing grindstone?

Then there’s the inevitable road trip to promote the book. If the author has to pay for it, do the results gained outweigh the cash and time outlay?

And let’s not forget blogs like Type M. Is Type M doing the six of us any good? All authors who seriously want to get ahead are told to create a blog.

Over the next little while, I’m going to take you along on my personal trip as I try to make sense of it all.

Pack warm clothes and bring lots of food. I think we’re going to be gone awhile...

Monday, February 01, 2010

Book Trailers. Worth it?

I recently read an interesting article on the value of book trailers. The author basically said, there isn’t any.

Salon.com: Book Trailers

I had a book trailer done for Valley of the Lost, the second Constable Smith book. The trailer, done by a professional advertising agency, is first class. It is short – 58 seconds - punchy and to the point. It has good music, live action, and great sound effects. The trailer for Charles Benoit’s Noble Lies was done by the same agency as mine. Another example of a good trailer.

As much as I liked the trailer, I decided not to do one for my subsequent books.

Why?

I don’t see any return on investment.

To have a good trailer done, costs a lot of money and/or a lot of time. It can be very expensive if you’re talking about original music, trained actors, a professional ad person to put it all together. If you want to do it on the cheap – shaky handheld camera, your friends acting out parts of the book, another friend strumming on a guitar, or just splotches of text, then definitely don’t bother. A poor trailer is worse than no trailer at all. Here’s a quote from the Salon article: as a reader and shopper for genre fiction, I've never been swayed to make a book purchase based on a trailer ... A few have featured actors so unattractive to me I was totally turned off.

Book trailers are promoted as serving the same purpose as movie trailers – a brief introduction to the product. But books and movies are completely different vehicles. A movie trailer gives you a glimpse of the actors in the movie, shows you the sets and the costumes, provides a taste of the exciting (or melodic or romantic or techo-pop) music you will hear in the movie. It shows you the action scenes and some of the dramatic special effects.

A book, however, doesn’t have music. It doesn’t have sets or costumes or dramatic special effects or beautiful people acting.

It has words.

All the bells and whistles of a book trailer cannot tell you anything about the quality of the writing or the skill of the author. Which is most people’s primary reason for buying a book.

How do people find your trailer anyway? My family and friends and previous readers loved the Valley of the Lost trailer. But they saw it only because they knew me: they were already going to read the book. Simply having a trailer on Youtube didn’t bring anyone new to my virtual door.

I question whether book trailers are hitting the right audience. Other than people already acquainted with my work, who probably saw the trailer on Youtube following a link from my webpage, are the sort of people who spend their time on Youtube the sort of people who are going to be interested in my books? Probably not.

Youtube viewers might go from one trailer to another but are they actually going to break away from that medium to buy and then read a book? They’re more likely to switch to a clip from the Daily Show or the latest cat-falling-in-toilet epic than call up their local library’s page to put a hold on a book.

Salon’s conclusion: The better a video is, the more it makes you want to watch more video.
Trailer for Valley of the Lost
Trailer for Noble Lies by Charles Benoit