Sunday, February 25, 2007

Self-publish or Perish the Thought

Be warned. This is a longish rant.

There’s been a lot of activity on the CWC listserv of late about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. For those of you who may not be clear on the difference (evidently I’m not because I haven’t done both), basically it’s this: self-publishing is where you, the writer, pay the publisher to produce your book, while traditional publishing is where the publisher pays you an advance against royalties for the right to publish your book. Not a difficult concept. No degree in rocket science required.

Self-publishing used to be called “vanity press.” You’ve probably seen ads in the newspaper or in magazines such as Writers’ Digest: Be a published author today! You gave them money and they printed your book using exactly the same technology as regular publishers. Um. Wait. Isn’t that self-publishing?

I pretty much started the kerfuffle by writing, “Fine, if you can't find a traditional publisher willing to take a chance, and actually pay YOU to publish your book, by all means, self-publish.” But some people took serious umbrage to my position that self-published authors are not “published” in the true sense of the word. Anyone can self-publish a book, no matter how dreadful, and call themselves an author.

It was quickly pointed out to me that both Margaret Atwood and Stephen King self-published at one time or another. Cheryl Kaye Tardif posted a long list of “Famous Self-published Books” that included The Celestine Prophesy and The Self-publishing Manual, although in all fairness, it also included Ulysses and The Adventures of Peter Rabbit. James Dubro even trotted out Samuel Johnson, for god’s sake.

Both missed my point, which was that all self-publishing outfits make their money from writers desperate to be published, whereas traditional publishers hope to make their money from readers desperate to find something worthwhile to read. Vanity presses don’t take any risk when they print a book. They are guaranteed a payback. Traditional publishers aren't. One could argue that most, if not all, traditional publishers in Canada get money from various levels of government, but generally they get it because they support writers.

In traditional publishing, it’s the writer who provides the service, in the form of content, to the publisher. Because the publisher is in turn providing a service to readers, it’s in his/her best interest to ensure that the product is as good as it can be, hence editing, re-writing, more editing, and so on.

Because vanity presses make their money from the writer rather than sales, there’s no real need to produce a worthwhile product. As a result, a significantly higher percentage of self-published books are astonishingly bad. There’s rarely any editorial control or decent editing. Cover art is often amateurish at best. And unless you’re prepared to pay extra, there’s no distribution or marketing. They’ll ship your books to you and put you up on their website. They might get you listed with Amazon.

Many self-published authors very good writers, a lot of whom eventually find their way into traditional houses. But it’s my view that most self-published authors haven't paid their dues. Maybe they just don't have the patience to go through the process of writing and re-writing and editing to produce the best product they can, then sending out dozens and dozens of queries to find an agent or a publisher. Maybe they just can’t handle rejection after rejection after rejection. And while self-published writers might think they've sweated blood over their books, they don’t know what sweating is until they’ve anguished over a scene or a paragraph or a sentence or a word because an editor says it just doesn't quite work and if you want to keep that advance cheque...

Yes, it’s bloody hard to get a traditional publisher to take that chance. It took me more years than I care to think about. Luck plays an important part in it. Perseverance does too. But believe me, folks, there ain’t much as down-right mind-blowing exhilarating as that first advance cheque. You almost wanna frame it -- almost! But if you think that’s exciting, wait till you open your first box of comps! And you didn’t have to pay for them, except in years and years of blood, sweat, tears, toil, editing, more editing, postage, disappointment, frustration, anger, fear, more disappointment, more postage, more sweat, more blood, more tears, more re-writing, more editing...

Hmm. Maybe there's something to this self-publishing thing after all.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

For Jyoti

Out of Order is set in India and no matter what you think about it, I’m telling you that the book isn’t as interesting as the person who inspired it, the person whose words I stole and who appears in the book in the guise of Laxmi, the beautiful and vivacious Bollywood socialite.

I first met Jyoti Moorthy when we taught together in Rochester. She was a masterful teacher and she taught me a great deal about true multi-cultural education and cross-curricular learning. But it was what she taught me about India that I will always be thankful for. Her guided readings and over-coffee travelogues took me beyond the stereotypes and well-intentioned myths I had formed about the country. Her depth of knowledge was inspiring and she always seemed to have just the right anecdote to illustrate her point – a point she’d underscore with an “Ab-so-lute-ly”, her finger jabbing it home on my forearm.

She was always kind and funny and she couldn’t help but being brilliant. In so many ways, she changed my life – she encouraged Rose and me to live overseas, supported my crazy decision to try to get Relative Danger published and to try my hand at advertising. And she helped me plan my many trips to India – from broad itineraries to the best train stations to get chai. It is no stretch to say that I would never have visited India – or written Out of Order – if it weren’t for Jyoti.

Several years ago Jyoti and her husband Sridhar moved to Toronto, creating a magical home for their two children, filled with books and art and family heirlooms. And when you visited their home, you could tell it was filled with love.

On Valentines Day, Jyoti dropped the kids off at school and returned home to meet a workman from the local gas company who was scheduled to do some maintenance as part of a street-wide repair program. Soon after, a gas explosion leveled the home. The workman was seriously injured but was pulled from the rubble by some truly heroic neighbors. Jyoti, however, did not survive.

It’s hard enough understanding and accepting death as it is, but when it comes like this, a crazy, horrific death – houses just don’t blow up – it’s close to impossible.

If you knew Jyoti, count yourself as lucky. She was one of the most wonderful, giving, warm, intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny people you will ever meet. And for those who didn’t know her – will never know her – know this: The way she died was not nearly as astonishing as the way she lived.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Let it snow, let it snow...

There was a fevered argument on the Poisoned Pen Press author’s discussion list about a week ago. Someone wrote that she was in a blizzard and enjoying it, and I wrote to tell her that I love a good blizzard also, and Charles said that we were both officially insane. Everyone else then chipped in with their opinion. When I tell people that I am retiring next month and moving, quite a few ask if I’m going to the Caribbean or Florida. “No,” I say, “I’m going in the other direction.” Yup, I’m heading north. I love winter; I love the deep cold and deep snow. I hate winters in Southern Ontario, too wimpy.

Last weekend I went to Ottawa to visit my eldest daughter and my brother. Saturday afternoon we went to LaNordique Scandinavian Spa in Quebec. They have a steam room, sauna, cold, temperate and hot pools and resting areas. And it’s all outdoors and nestled in the woods, so that you walk from one area to another in your bathing suit and towel and sandals outdoors (it was about -5 degrees). The cold pools are really cold – a waterfall flows down from the snow-covered hills. At one point I was sitting beside the outdoor fireplace (yup, in bathing suit and towel) and I touched my head to find that my hair was frozen. I was in the hot pool when I saw some people rolling in the snow. So I thought I’d try it. That was an experience, I can tell you. Invigorating, to say the least.

I am going to Bouchercon in Alaska in September, and had been considering staying on to spend the winter in the Yukon, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. But the new book is scheduled to come out in October, so I’m now planning to do a book tour down the U.S. west coast. Unlikely that I’ll want to drive all the way back to the Yukon after than. Another year, perhaps.

Speaking of the new book, I sent the final version of In the Shadow of the Glacier off to Barbara and it now in the process of being turned into an ARC (advance reading copy).

Until next time, Vicki, in the wimpy south.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Media frenzy

Sorry I missed last week; as soon as I finished the book I developed my usual antipathy towards keyboards, typing, thinking or anything much, besides lolling and wallowing in end-of-book bliss.
I was taken out to lunch by my publisher’s publicist to talk about promotion. It’s a weird business, as I spend roughly 50 weeks a year beavering away alone in my shed, then for the other two weeks I’m wheeled out to talk live to various regional radio stations with varying degrees of terror/success – but mostly terror. In the hands of an accomplished professional who actually reads their brief or, even better, the book, it’s plain sailing, if not actual fun. However, last time York Radio couldn’t find the telephone number of Bristol Radio where I was waiting to be interviewed and when they finally tracked it down, 45 minutes late, they talked about tractors: which as I write about a square mile in the centre of one of the largest cities in the world, were not wildly relevant. Needless to say, I had little to say about tractors or indeed, ploughing. London Radio had an interviewer who was so coked out of her tiny loaf* that all she could do was gabble about verruca plasters and kept insisting that my parents owned the Two Is coffee bar (a famous early rock & roll venue), which they didn’t: we just lived above it. Then there’s the interviewers who don’t ask questions, just make statements. One can’t answer statements with much more than a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, which is very boring for the listener.
The whole thing reduces me to a quivering wreck and now things may get worse. The publicist was talking about trying for some television, and I almost had a nervous breakdown at the thought. All I could think was, I don’t want to be SEEN, for goodness sake - I’m short, fat, knocking sixty and what on earth would I wear? Would I need to put on some slap*? And what about my mad barnet*, which being curly, sticks out all over the place?
However, I have managed to make a plan for lousy interviewers. I’ll do what politicians do; I’ll work up a spiel to go into if they start on about tractors or verrucas, and as for the telly – perhaps a bag over my head. Any suggestions about how to deal with all this with grace, charm and the minimum of terror would be gratefully accepted.
* Translations of Cockney slang: * loaf (of bread) – head; slap – cosmetics, make-up specifically; and finally barnet (fair) – hair.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Magic City Lives up to Its Name

[What, Charles again already?]

So last week I was down in Birmingham, Alabama for two events. I had never been to that neck of the woods so I was quite eager to put all my stereotypes to the test. The only one that survived was “Southern people are warm and welcoming.” I did pick up a new stereotype, however: “The women in a Sisters in Crime chapter only look like teetotalers.”

The first event was Murder in Magic City, a mini-conference to benefit Homewood Public Library organized by the Southern Sisters in Crime. The co-guests of honor were Thomas H. Cook and Laura Lippman and there were more than a dozen authors in attendance*. Unlike so many other conferences, there was only one panel to see at a time. That meant that everybody was in the room for every panel. No worrying that you were missing something else, now crowds of people hanging out in the common areas. It was a pleasant change and for the first time in a long time I had the chance to really listen to my fellow authors. A great time was had by all. (see previous post about the night’s festivities.)

Sunday we headed to Wetumpka, Alabama, about 2 hours from Birmingham for Murder on the Menu, an event to benefit the Public Library. Local bookstore owner Tammy Lynn helped put this one together and let me tell you I felt like somebody special from the moment I arrived. The people there treated me (and the others) like celebrities and I kept expecting someone to come up and say, “Wait a second, this is just Charles Benoit! Who screwed up and invited him?” Fortunately this didn’t happen, or if it did they were just too polite to do anything about it. If you live anywhere near Wetumpka – and I consider 200 miles ‘near’ – you should mark your calendars now and plan on being there next year. The authors are invited so who knows, someday they may have me back – but that shouldn’t stop you from signing up.

That’s it for that event. In my next blog I’ll be begging for your help in finding good conferences/events to attend this year.

*The authors at Murder in Magic City: Mark Arsenault, Joanna Carl/Eve Sandstrom, Bruce Cook, Troy Cook, Mary Anna Evans, Robert “Fluffy” Fate, Denise Hamilton, Sue Ann Jaffarian, Patricia Smiley, Julia Spencer Fleming, Patricia Sprinkle, Denise Swanson, Patricia Wynn, Heather Webber, Tony Burton, John Floyd, Chris Grabenstein & Carl T. Smith. Oh, and me.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Deverell and Truscott and WWOOF

I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read William Deverell. He’s one of Canada’s top crime writers, with a slew of books to his credit. His book, April Fool was last year’s Arthur Ellis winner for best novel. He’s a lawyer and most of his books (I believe) have to do with the legal profession. Perhaps that’s why I’ve avoided reading him. I don’t care much for legal books, because if there is one thing I really hate reading about it is people who have been put on trial or jailed for something they didn’t do. I don’t know why that turns me off so much, perhaps just the unfairness of it all. Perhaps because it’s, theoretically, something that could happen to any of us. Last June I heard a reading from April Fool at the CWC celebrity reading event for National Crime Writing Week. I forget who read April Fool, but I enjoyed it very much, and made a mental note to pick up the book. Finally I did. It’s very funny, quite light, cleverly plotted, and well deserving of that Arthur Ellis. Deverell handles the topic I hate (unjustly jailed person) with an amazingly deft touch.

Which of course made me think of the Stephen Truscott case. Everyone in Canada knows the story, but for those of you who might not – when he was 14 years old Stephen Truscott was convinced of the murder of a classmate, Lynne Harper. And sentenced to death. Can you imagine – he was 14 years old. It’s a long, convoluted story, but now he is in his 50s and trying to have his name cleared once and for all. Even at the time there was a lot of talk that the case had been very badly handled, and it has been in the news, on and off, since them. It is pretty obvious that this little boy was railroaded (he was released from prison after serving 10 years), the evidence against him appears to be nothing other than garbage and lies. A classic case of the police finding someone to charge and then ignoring any evidence that contradicts that conclusion. Plus what looks like a good helping of sheer police and medical incompetence. A very disturbing story, but the one thing that makes it bearable, in my humble opinion, is the simple dignity of Truscott himself. Anne Marie MacDonald fictionalizes the case very well in her book The Way the Crow Flies. (I skipped over the trial parts).

As well as providing an exceptionally good read, and making me think about justice and the Truscott case, April Fool also has me getting even more excited (if that were possible) about my upcoming sojourn to B.C. April Fool takes place on one of the Gulf Islands, and I’m going to the Interior, but Nelson has the same laid-back, hippie lifestyle that Deverell describes so fondly in his book. The book has a couple of WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms, and other similar verbiage), which reminded me that I might be interested in doing that. Today I joined WWOOF. Of WWOOF opportunities in Canada, about ½ are in B.C, and of that a good number are in the Kooteneys. Not that I’ve ever worked on a farm, but I’m looking for fun and adventure and cheap accommodation.

I bought a tape measure and cut it off at 34 inches and hung it on my cubicle wall. Every day, I cut one inch off. 32 days left until retirement!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Miss me?

[Charles here - days early or days late, you decide.]

Forgive me if it’s been a few weeks since I wrote but the last two weekends were spent far from home.

Way back at the start of the month I was in Seattle, Washington for Left Coast Crime. The best part of many conferences is spending time with old friends and meeting new ones and the serendipitous connections that come from it all. For example, I was hanging out at the bar with Kirk Russell (witty raconteur and author of the John Marquez mystery series) he introduced me to a pair of authors he said I had to read. Given the man behind the recommendation, how could I resist?

Eric Stone’s The Living Room of the Dead is a fast paced story that takes place in Hong Kong (mostly) and I got to tell you, the guy pulls no punches. Where some authors (me) would shy away from having their protagonist engage is slightly unethical/immoral behavior, Eric takes us right in. It’s intense and damn good. Thanks go out to both Eric and to Kirk.

On Kirk’s recommendation I also bought Tim Maleeny’s book, Stealing the Dragon. No, that’s not true. I bought it because I couldn’t resist the cover. I know, I know, you can’t judge a book by its cover but in this case you can. The cover screams exotic, dangerous, steamy and irresistible and so far – I’m only 100 pages in – it’s all that and more. A container ship runs aground at Alcatraz Island. The crew is dead and in the hold the authorities find Chinese refugees being smuggled in to the States. Right there you got me – and it’s getting better by the page. It’s part San Fran, part Hong Kong and all great reading. Don’t miss this one, kids.

Okay, fast forward from Seattle to Birmingham, Alabama and the Murder in Magic City event, organized by a human firecracker called Margaret Fenton. I’m going to devote my entire blog to this fantastic event later this week, but I bring it up now because there’s a Seattle connection.

There were twenty wonderful authors there and every minute was memorable – again, details to follow – but one thing I will always remember (or try to anyway) was The Great Barbecue Quest, which is also a perfect segue into a Blatant Name Dropping story.

On Saturday night Laura Lippman (Tess Monaghan series and others) and her husband, David Simon (HBO’s The Wire and others) drove Mark Aresnault (his Gravewriter was one of my top picks for ’06), Tim Maleeny (from above) and me (nothing worth reading) all over Birmingham to determine which establishment had the best barbecue. We started at Dreamland, a place we were warned was in ‘a bad part of town’. Obviously the person who warned us doesn’t get out much. The food was good – nothing to compare to The Dinosaur Bar-B-Q here in Rochester though – and the service was fast and friendly. We then set out for the Half Moon but it was closed. Ten pm on a weekend and you close? Come on, Half Moon. We finished the night off with a second entire meal at Jim ‘N Nicks Bar-B-Q where the service was again great and the food tasty and the pies yummy. The winner? Jim ‘N Nicks had better pulled pork, Dreamland had better ribs and Martha’s Pies were delicious. I would have liked to cram in one of the Half Moon’s legendary chocolate covered cookies, but there you go.

So back to Tim Maleeny. A chance meeting in Seattle led to a rewarding book purchase and he also picked up my bar tab at Dreamland. For both I am grateful.

Later in the week I’ll give you two perfect reasons to go to Birmingham next February.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I'm back!

Barbara here, finally. I know; it's not Monday, but better late than never. I've just come back from a crazy week in Florida with the Ladies Killing Circle gang. In between gabbing, shopping, laughing, wining and dining, we found a few seconds for writing. I'm working on the latest Inspector Green novel, called Dream Chasers, which is now in the re-writes stage. It's about elite young athletes, the price of success, and who pays it. Stay tuned to my website for more info. Maybe even an excerpt.

February is going to be a hopping month, starting February 14 when I'll be part of a panel discussion during CBC Radio's All in a Day from 4:00 to 6:00 pm. The topic is literary awards - how are they judged, how well do they reflect a book's worth, how important are they to success? I don't know who the other panelists will be, but I expect sparks to fly.

On February 21 I head down to Montreal with good friend and fellow writer Mary Jane Maffini for an evening about "the allure of mystery" at the Jewish Public Library. I was born and grew up in Montreal, and am really looking forward to being back. No city quite compares. We'll be talking about the changing landscape of Canadian crime fiction, so anyone in the vicinity, please drop by! The event is open to the public, and because there's a wine and cheese reception before the talk, there is an $8 fee for non-members. 5151 Cote Ste. Catherine at 7:00 pm.

That's it for now, I heading downstairs to watch Life on Mars, which is the most amazing British cop show on TV right now.

Help! My language is changing and I can't keep up!

If you go back through the years, you'll find all sorts of dire predictions from The Guardians of the English Language every time technology made a stride forward in the way we deal with words. The typewriter led to all sorts of warnings of how civilization itself would be forever diminished because of this horrible piece of technology. Was it? No.

I'm certain that if I went as far back as the printing press, I would find the same sort of comments being made. Things might change because of new technology, and sometimes change into something unrecognizable, but language by now it should be obvious the richness of language is more flexible -- and indestructible -- than that.

It should be obvious that because of computers, people are now writing far more than ever before. (One only needs to talk to publishers about the number of submissions and queries they get these days to know this is true.) We communicate with friends more often, have more business correspondence, send more greeting cards, even. How many of us have websites on Blog? All of this is a good thing. Quite frankly, it doesn't take as much effort to write as it once used to. How can that be bad?

As always, though, the language itself is changing and adapting to this faster and easier method of communicating. One only has to get a few emails to begin to pick up on this. How many of you know what ROTFL means? n/t? =0? All of these acronyms and symbols communicate ideas in very brief snippets, much as computers communicate solely in terms of on/off. And that's about as simple as it can get.

Written communication is in a high state of flux at the moment and I can't wait to see what happens next.

Next entry: what I don't like about what's happening. If you have any contributions, log in and post them as a comment, please!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Over and out (for the count)

I’VE FINISHED IT - thank the Lord. I don’t know about you lot, but the relief when I finally finish a book is enormous. I had hoped for a minor celebration-like heading for the hills shouting I’M FREE! I’M FREE!But, sadly, I went down with a dose of shingles on the very day I finished, and now I’m having to hug the house. Tomorrow’s going to be grim; hosptial tests that mean I can’t eat or drink anything from midnight until ten a.m., when I’m booked in - rats! Life without my first coffee of the morning – ugh! No nosh – ugh again! I’m a woman who likes her fang...It will be a case of gritting my teeth and thinking of England.
Apart from that, no news, except that more lambs are sproinging in the back field and a blackbird is singing its feathery heart out in the early dawn – lovely. Time to go; frankly, at this moment, I don’t care if I never see a keyboard again. But the copy edit will be here before I know it; new books are like children, they leave home with a fanfare of trumpets, and then the buggers keep coming back until they finally settle down somewhere.
I’m waffling; blame the fever – I do.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Houses and Dogs

Big changes coming at Casa Delany. The house is up for sale – there is a big sign on the lawn. To have a look, go to and enter the MLS number 1081186. It’s already getting tiring having to clean the house every morning before going to work. Normally, no one would ever mistake me for Martha Stewart. Then I have to take Shenzi to doggie daycare. She seems to like it there – the second day she sprinted up the path to the front door with great abandon. Last night and tonight people are coming to see the house so Shenzi and I have to vacate. I am up against a tough deadline to get the revised copy of In the Shadow of the Glacier to Barbara, so I’ll take my laptop to a bar somewhere and work.

Thinking about Shenzii… people are always asking me how much of myself is in my books. The easy answer is “not a single bit”. I had a very pleasant childhood, and come from a totally functional family, I like to think my own kids are pretty well balanced. Don’t tell them I said so. Pretty boring material for a book, in fact. But if the questioner pushes, I can start to think of little bits of myself that creep in. As I mentioned in my last post, I am somewhat food-orientated. My readers might get the feeling that I am a Lord of the Rings fan. I think there’s a LOTR reference somewhere in all my books. But perhaps the biggest part of me that comes out in my books is that I am a dog lover. All my books have a dog character. That wasn’t even intentional; it just seemed like a dog fitted into the story. A reviewer kindly said that Sampson in Scare the Light Away was the best portrayal of a dog she’d ever seen in fiction. (In interests of full disclosure, another reviewer heaped scorn on the ‘Timmy’s fallen down a well” dog actions). In In the Shadow of the Glacier the dog has a very, very small part. He’s just a family dog who lies on the floor and catches crumbs. But I wanted the main character to have a fairly normal family life, and for me a normal family means a dog. I also find that the use of a dog helps the character’s thought process achieve some credibility. Taking the dog for a walk, helps the cop to sort out details of the case in her mind. Not to say that books without dogs are missing something, but I find it works for me.

Woof, woof…