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The conventional wisdom isn't just wrong, it's dangerous
I delivered the Keynote Address at "Of Dark and Stormy Nights" on June 12, 2004 in Schaumberg, Illinois. Of Dark and Stormy Nights is a workshop sponsored by the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America; Jeanne Dams organizes the event, which offers help and support to new and aspiring writers. For more information on D&S, visit www.ofdarkandstormynights.com.
When Jeanne asked me to do this keynote address, she said that I needed to talk about publishing and I needed to be positive. Positive? About publishing? This is such a crazy business and its easy to be discouraged, to fall into the cynicism thats all too prevalent out there. I am a pretty optimistic person, and despite everything thats wrong with this industry and theres plenty wrong I do believe in it. Because in addition to being a reviewer, an editor, a publisher and a bookseller, Im first and foremost a reader. As readers, we all know why this business is so rewarding theres nothing like the moment when we fall in love with a book. Its what we hope for every time we open a book. Its everything that leads up to that moment thats the problem.
It took me a few weeks of thinking about it before I decided to accept Jeannes invitation, a few weeks to figure out whether I had something useful to say here. I hope this morning not so much to give you specific advice, but to suggest that you think about this business in a way that might be a little different from the way others tell you to look at it.
Theres a lot of conventional wisdom you hear about publishing, a lot of things that everyone says with confidence are true about this business. I believe that the conventional wisdom isnt just wrong, its dangerous. If we truly believe and act on most of what we think we know about the business, well be led astray publishers will do a lousy job and writers careers will be ruined.
Ruined careers arent what you want to hear about today. Youre at the beginning of your career, and this morning youre in a good place. Youll leave here this evening full of ideas and practical suggestions that will help you improve your manuscripts and your chances of success.
The business, however, may remain a mystery to you. Dont fret its still a mystery to me, and Ive been doing this for a long while now. I dont know that anyone understands everything thats going on in publishing today. Theres so much happening, and theres so little serious discussion beyond endless variations on a conventional wisdom that Ive already suggested to you is suspect well, its a bad combination.
What Im going do to this morning is talk about a few specific ideas about publishing and about writing, and how they relate to the mystery genre. Now I understand that our genre isnt necessarily representative of publishing as a whole for one thing, our genre actually respects the value of rational thought. All I care about are mysteries Ive devoted my life to the promotion of this genre, through my newsletter, my bookstore, the reference books that Ive edited and the other books Ive also published. Because youre here this morning, I expect that mysteries are what you care about too.
Ill give you the bottom line first, and as I rattle off these points, I expect youll see how your experience as mystery readers serves you well.
Thats my message. Now lets talk about how these points apply to specific cases.
The author of an unpublished 280,000 word vampire novel confidently declares on his website that "we all know that every book published out there doesn't become a best seller. In fact, 90% of all books published LOSE money for the publisher." Do we ALL know this? Shawn Coyne, former editor at Doubleday, St. Martins and Dell and one of the principles in the new company Rugged Land, says that its 60% of books that lose money. Sometimes a more moderate voice will say something to the effect of three out of ten lose money, four break even and three make money still not a great percentage if only three of ten books are making a real contribution to the bottom line. Whatever actual numbers you use, the conventional wisdom consensus is that as Denise Little puts it in a thoroughly detailed discussion of money that you can find on the website of the Science Fiction Writers of America: "Publishers lose their shirts on first books and many mid-list books." What were all led to believe is that publishers make their money on blockbusters.
Do publishers lose money on most of what they do? Especially in the context of mysteries, I just dont believe it. H.L. Mencken wrote that murder mysteries were one of four kinds of books that seldom lost money and if youre wondering about his judgment, the other three kinds he cited were "novels in which the heroine was forcibly overcome by the hero, books on the occult and spiritualism, and books about Abraham Lincoln."
The two main reasons I dont believe mysteries lose money are kind of obvious when you stop to think about it. For one thing, many houses have published mysteries literally for decades. Doubledays Crime Club lasted from 1928 to 1991, releasing new titles every month like clockwork in its standardized program. Its ridiculous to think that Doubleday would keep the program going for so long if they were losing money on these titles. You can imagine a year or two or five of losses, but after some number of decades, you have to think theyre actually doing ok. Maybe they only sold 3000 copies of each of these titles. Still, its my bet that they were profitable. We see indirect support for this supposition in Jason Epsteins book BOOK BUSINESS, which in part describes his experience as a Doubleday editor in the 1950s more on what Epstein says in a moment.
Lest you think that Doubleday is an isolated example, we can also point to similar publishing programs at Scribners and Penguin that also lasted for decades, or to St. Martins Press, a company that is built on a model devised by former CEO Tom McCormack, a model of publishing lots of small books, publishing them on a shoestring with small print runs strict contracts and cheap covers." McCormack "found he could make money on print runs of 3,000 5,000." If St. Martins can make money at 3,000 copies, why do others claim that they cant?
But wait, you say, theres making money and theres making enough money. Ill come back to this, but for now, lets stop and realize that weve gone from 60% or 90% of all titles losing money to wondering whether theyre making enough money in three easy paragraphs.
The second main reason that I believe most books make money lies in how publishers account for their costs. This is a little more technical than we need to be at this hour of the morning, so Ill touch on this only briefly. Its my contention that publishers unfairly allocate overhead costs in a way that makes midlist "unprofitable" and bestsellers "profitable." You could call this cooking the books, but theyre doing it openly and systematically and legally, in a way that not enough people question. Overhead is, of course, a legitimate expense. What you do with it, I believe, says more about your intentions than it does about the profitability of individual titles. Ill leave this point here, but I encourage you to investigate further on your own take a look at the Denise Little piece at sfwa.org and see if you can find the same hole in her discussion that I see.
Does it matter if publishers think theyre losing money on the books they publish? Does conventional wisdom really matter? I think it does, and I think it matters a lot. Because whats happened is that the notion that a book might lose money gets turned into a license to lose money. Thats the real problem. Once you adopt this attitude, theres no reason to do anything to support a title because money will be lost anyway.
No wonder the economics of publishing are so messed up. In fact, this attitude gets carried to ridiculous extremes, which you see in some publishers disdain for anything that actually does make money. These books arent valued for themselves theyre valued only because in the screwed up way publishers do their accounting, they produce revenue that supports the books that publishers really want to do.
In fact, its sometimes hard to believe the way publishers talk about books that do make money. In Epsteins BOOK BUSINESS, he writes and this is a direct quote, I couldnt make something like this up "Doubledays publishing division was devoted to commercial ephemera aimed at unsophisticated readers." This is the Doubleday Crime Club hes talking about, publishers at times of the likes of Ruth Rendell, Philip Macdonald, Cornell Woolrich, Leslie Charteris, Charlotte MacLeod, Barbara Paul, Georgette Heyer, Manning Coles and this years winner of the Edgar Award, Ian Rankin. And those "unsophisticated readers" hes talking about? He means you.
The situation is so bad that an editor at Publishers Weekly felt compelled to caution the industry about its tendency to "accord genre and commercial fiction second-class status." Jeff Zaleski believes "Its significant that many publishing professionals, when asked what they read, cite literature rather than commercial or genre fiction." He adds "its incumbent upon us, as it is upon professionals within any industry, to understand through personal experience our top-selling products." Well, duh!
Lets recap. Publishers have turned the conventional wisdom about books losing money into a license to lose money. In any event, its probably true that they dont really lose money on most mysteries they publish, even the ones with a 3,000 to 5,000 copy print run. And your taste isnt sophisticated enough for publishers, who dont chose to read the stuff they sell the most of.
How are we supposed to deal with this mess?
First, let me talk about one of the ways that publishers are dealing with it badly. Mostly, what publishers are doing is looking for the next blockbuster, "breakout" book is a term that you hear a lot, a term that goes along with the insulting critical term "transcending the genre" as if this genre needs to be transcended.
Sometimes "breakout" is the right way to look at a book. But not every book is a breakout, and not every author needs to be broken out. Now I have nothing against selling lots of copies of a book, when its possible. I think its wonderful that the book business has changed in the last twenty years to allow top-selling books to sell so darn many copies. Twenty years ago, could a novel any novel have sold 5.7 million copies one for every 51 people in the US in a little more than a year? No. Twenty years ago, this business wasnt set up to get that many copies of a book into that many hands. While this is probably more DAVINCI CODE than this world really needs, its good to know that such a thing is possible.
Where the business gets fouled up is in how is goes about trying to create blockbusters, in what publishers perceive is necessary to create a bestseller. Mostly, the approach boils down to "throw money at the problem." They basically do this for one reason, so that the house can turn around and brag about how much money its spending. Were supposed to be impressed that Putnam paid Jilliane Hoffman a seven-figure advance for her first novel, that they planned a $300,000 marketing budget and announced a 250,000 copy first printing. So impressed that as a bookseller, Ill be compelled to stock lots of copies and that you as a reader will be compelled to buy it.
On the back cover of the advance reading copy of Hoffmans RETRIBUTION, there are more words describing the marketing than there are describing the book itself a lot more and the few words devoted to describing the story are generic clichés. When Hoffman herself talked about the book at the Dearborn Library last fall, it was the money and the movie deal that she described. Readers and we are all readers first dont relate to your advance. We relate to your book. In pitching this book on the basis of dollars and print-run, all Putnam does is bring to mind Oscar Wildes comment about people who know "the price of everything but the value of nothing." Thats Wildes definition of a cynic, and it seems especially apt for a business with Jason Epsteins attitude.
Three months into the books release, Nielsens Bookscan, which claims to cover 70% of the market, said that RETRIBUTION sold 16,000 copies. If the percentage is right and you do the math, you end up with total sales of 22,860. Under the circumstances, thats pitiful. Personally, Ive sold one copy.
Numbers this bad echo those reported by an essayist published under the pseudonym Jane Austen Doe, who described her writing career in detail in March on salon.com in an essay entitled "Confessions of a Semi-Successful author." Semi-successful? She received a $150,000 advance for her first novel, a book that netted combined hardcover/paperback sales of 10,000 copies $15 per book, an outrageously bad result. I commend this essay to your attention as a perfect example of how writers should not approach the business. She cant get published anymore nor given what she describes in her own essay should she.
Its often said that bean counters are ruining publishing, that the bottom line mentality has undermined everything that used to be good about the business. This is another one of those nuggets of conventional wisdom thats hard to take seriously, in the face of examples such as Hoffman, the salon.com scribe and many others. This is ruined career territory. Maybe itll work out for Hoffman. Her publisher, Carol Baron professes optimism, saying that shes "building a franchise," and you like to believe thats true.
But anyone remember Douglas Kennedy? Hyperions 1997 Publication of THE BIG PICTURE, Kennedys first novel to be published in the US, was accompanied by what was described at the time as "the largest ever marketing campaign launched by a publisher." Hyperion published BIG PICTURE in paperback in 1998 along with a second novel by Kennedy, THE JOB. Today, both THE BIG PICTURE and THE JOB are out of print in the US in both hardcover and paperback. What did all that marketing money buy? Used copies of the two books go for a penny literally a penny on Amazon.com. That says something not just about the supply way too much but also about demand way too little.
Any counter worth his or her beans wouldnt have let this happen, and especially wouldnt let this happen over and over again. You cant blame stuff like this on accountants; the blame properly belongs on an editors desk and on a system that encourages this behavior and on writers who still dont understand the issues. Jane Austen Doe concludes: "I count among the losses my conviction that mixing love and art and business is a risk worth taking." Go look at what she wrote. The fact is that to the extent that she and her agent and her writing friends ever thought about business, it was only with disdain.
An especially interesting example of counting beans is in that interview with Rugged Land editor and publisher Shawn Coyne. After saying what I cited above that 60% of titles lose money Coyne goes on to add that "I kept thinking that the ideal situation for a publisher would be to find an editor with a better profitability batting average than .400 . As an editor with an interest in business, I kept very meticulous records of my own publishing track record. I published quite a number of books, over 250 titles in my career. So, I calculated my batting average and found that in my core genrescrime fiction, military non-fiction, sports non-fiction and fiction, narrative non-fiction adventureI batted about .860. That is 86% of my titles were profitable." If its true that Coyne batted .860, then he raises an obvious question why arent others in his league?
The publishing of books is a business, and businesses are and should be motivated by money. Whats the alternative? Rich patrons? Charitable contributions? Writers dont expect to write for free, and they shouldnt expect their publishers to publish for free, nor should writers and publishers expect booksellers to stock and sell books for free. Wanting writers and publishers and booksellers to make a profit isnt just a nice idea. Without a profit, writers, publishers and booksellers cant continue to pursue either the art of creating the mystery story or the commerce of putting books in readers hands. Shawn Coynes comment that the ideal is an editor who bats better than .400 stands in marked contrast to the approach of a Jason Epstein, who divides the business into "serious" publishing with no concern for profit versus the marketing of commercial ephemera. Who do you want as your publisher?
Good business practices arent just a necessary evil. In fact, theyre not evil at all. We should embrace the business, and take advantage of the perspective that business professionals can offer. We often hear of writers whose books didnt earn out their advances, even though they sold through their print run, and who then werent able to secure new contracts for their subsequent books. Theres something wrong with this picture publisher prints x number of copies of a book, sells every one and yet blames the author for failing to cover the advance. You dont have to be an accountant to know that this is wrong. But perhaps an accountant can get a publishing company to avoid making the same mistake again. Perhaps a statistician or an economist can help a publisher analyze sales history and demand to pick a better number. Perhaps a marketing consultant can help target a campaign more effectively. Perhaps sales professionals can work with publishers on how to close a sale, and especially how to avoid overselling and creating excessive returns. None of this is possible when you reject the idea that publishing is a business. None of this makes sense unless you plan for your book to be profitable.
Let me say one other thing about business practices. A good business knows that theres a difference between marketing and selling. Both are necessary. Good marketing certainly makes the job of selling easier. But marketing doesnt replace selling, something that you as writers need to understand just as much as publishers need to be reminded.
Putnam brags of a $300,000 marketing budget for Hoffmans RETRIBUTION, but the real question is "how are they selling the book?" There was a point in March when I had five copies of the advance reading copy of Ridley Pearsons new Lou Boldt novel, THE BODY OF DAVID HAYES plus an offer from a publicist that Pearson himself hired of cool point of sale materials. But no one at Hyperion ever called to say "can I take your order?"
Why is it important for you to know about this? As writers, you might be thinking "this is my publishers responsibility so its not my problem." Well, it is your problem. If your book doesnt sell, your publisher isnt out of business, YOU are out of business.
So what can you do? Think for yourself. Be creative. Ask for advice and help and ask for help from people who are in the business of marketing and selling. Then take charge. Ill give you one recent example that after all my years in the business surprised even me. Julia Spencer-Fleming learned that some of the mystery booksellers whom shed encountered were not getting catalogs from her publisher youd be surprised by how often that happens. Julia took charge. She wormed a supply of catalogs out of the company and sent them to her own bookseller mailing list. Problem solved, and solved in a way thats going to make a bookseller like this likable author even more.
Any new writer faces a skeptical marketplace. The newcomer who isnt prepared to get out there and hustle shouldnt even step up to the plate. Im not going to pretend this is easy, and Im not going to offer any advice that will lead to an instant Jilliane Hoffman-style million-dollar payoff. That would be a lot like a financial planner telling you to secure your retirement by buying lottery tickets and hoping for a jackpot. Its not impossible, but its not likely either. Lets talk about whats likely, and whats possible.
I do believe that theres a path to success in this industry and in this genre in particular, and I believe its actually rather simple when you stop to think about it.
The first part of the process is recognizing the power and the appeal of the genre. There are two parts to this the creative and the commercial. Im not going to go into the creative side much there are others here today who know a whole lot more about the art and craft of the mystery story than I do. But I will say that its vital you understand that in this genre, readers have legitimate expectations that you have to approach with respect. Take time to learn what readers like. You read yourself, so you know what you like. Get out there are listen to what other readers are saying. Join a mystery discussion group not as a writer, but as a reader and just listen. I defy anyone to hang out with these mystery fans and walk away thinking that theyre unsophisticated readers looking for commercial ephemera. In fact, when faced with market-driven books, they see right through them even the books they may say they like.
When you listen to how readers talk about books they love, youll learn not only what theyre looking for but youll also learn how to appeal to them. A practical thing you learn from readers is that they really want to start series from the beginning. Why does that matter? It means that when you look at a potential publisher, you need to look at how they publish series, whether they keep series in print, intact from book one. And if they dont, you need to figure out what youre going to do when your fourth book in series is published and your publisher lets book one go out of print. Be ready have a plan.
The commercial implications of being a part of this genre ghetto are a challenge. In education, critics decry the tyranny of low expectations, condemning inner city kids to under-resourced ghetto schools. This comparison isnt a great one because the stakes are of course so much higher when youre talking about real kids but the dynamics of being in a publishing ghetto are similar. Its said, for example, that mysteries can only sell so many copies, and that at some point the label "mystery" holds a writer back. Thats another one of those conventional wisdom nuggets thats ridiculous. After Shakespeare, Agatha Christie is reported to be the worlds bestselling author of all time, having sold more than a billion books in English and another billion in another 45 languages (as of 2003). I dont think that the label of "mystery writer" has hurt Christie much.
The main reason that "mysteries" dont sell more than a certain level is that publishers define anything above that level as something other than mystery. I remember stock-checking Tony Hillerman titles in the store I worked in in Boston in the late 1980s and early 1990s, using a category order form that his publisher had provided. I was in the order forms mystery section, working through the list and being confused until I discovered that his two most recent books the books that catapulted Hillerman onto the bestsellers lists were not mysteries. Harper had put these two bestselling titles into the fiction section of its order form. Same author, same series, same packaging, different categories.
Has anything changed since 1990? Not really. Today, Tony Hillermans books all but two that are mysteriously missing, probably by mistake rather than by design are listed in the mystery section of the current HarperCollins Trade Backlist order form. But what does it say on the spines of the books? "Fiction." The same is true of books by most all of our genres bestselling writers.
The Agatha Christies we have in the store are, incidentally, labeled "mystery" on their spines.
If mystery is a ghetto, then I suggest to you that what you need to do is to know your ghetto, embrace and support the community, and make sure that you sell like hell in the community.
The chain stores and the discount stores and Amazon and barnesandnoble.com will do a lot to help you after youve started to get established. Those retailers are going to help you move from a base level of sales in this genre the 2,000 to 4,000 copies that any credible new hardcover thats well-published, well-promoted and well-distributed will normally net (mostly to libraries) to the next level.
Who helps you get started? Theres a remarkable infrastructure out there that supports the genre. This conference is just the tip of the iceberg. Periodicals like my own Drood Review, but also Mystery News and Mystery Scene and Deadly Pleasures and the Mystery Readers Journal are eager to discover new writers and to share the enthusiasm of discovery with their readers.
And this communitys booksellers the independent booksellers whose stores specialize in the mystery but also the dedicated mystery lovers at general independents go out of their way to sell new writers. Independents dont make their livings off selling John Grisham. Our bread and butter is selling the next John Grisham.
Here, too, there are some things you can do. The first is to order your priorities. Make marketing to the mystery periodicals and selling to independent booksellers your first priority, not an afterthought. If we thrive on discovering whats new, make sure that we have an opportunity to discover you when you are new.
The second thing is to make sure that you support the community. That tyranny of low expectations for mysteries is a real problem. You can try running away from it and a number of writers do try this strategy. Or you can try to fight the expectations. There is one thing that I find striking about the book business in the last couple of decades. I mentioned earlier that the business has changed in a way that allows the top titles to sell many more copies than before. The odd thing is that sales for the average category mystery title havent changed much 20 years ago, 2,000 to 4,000 in hardcover. Today, 2,000 to 4,000 in hardcover. If were all supposed to be more productive and efficient, with all the new tools especially the internet at our disposal, then whats the problem?
I think its mostly a matter of attitude. Jason Epstein decries the loss of independent booksellers who might sell the kinds of books that he wants to publish, but he doesnt say anything about publishers policies that have helped drive independents out of business. We need to reject that kind of thinking, and vote with our own dollars.
What we need to do in this genre is make sure that we support the institutions the periodicals and the booksellers who support the genre. Because what we want is for all mysteries to sell more copies. We want a rising tide that lifts all boats. Strengthening the bookstores that believe in the genre and who need your help more than they will admit is a vital part of building the genre and its reach.
We all publishers, booksellers, writers need to have a serious conversation about how the category mystery series writer can make a living from his or her writing something I believe should be possible. But publishers arent interested. You cant have that conversation when the less-than-credible "unprofitable" is where publishers start. We need to make them start with a fresh point of view.
The Tony Hillerman example is, in fact, instructive, because his career illustrates what I think is the right way to hit the big time and the way to expand the popularity of the genre. In 1969, Hillermans agent read what was to become his first novel, THE BLESSING WAY. His agent wasnt happy, telling him: "its neither a mainstream novel nor a mystery. Reviewers wont know what to say about it. Booksellers wont know which shelf it goes on. Publishers wont know where to list it in their catalogs" little did she know that thirty years into publishing him, Harper still has that problem. The agents final bit of advice: she recommended quote "getting rid of the Indian stuff" unquote. In his autobiography, in his understated way, Hillerman says "today that sounds like bad advice."
Of course we know how things worked out. Nowadays, Hillerman is one of our genres top-selling writers. He got there by sticking to his guns. He kept the Indian stuff Hillerman writes that "it seemed to me that the only worthwhile part of my manuscript was the Navajo Nation and its culture" and he found a sympathetic editor. The book was published in 1970. Hillermans work was well regarded from the start THE BLESSING WAY was an Edgar Award nominee for best first novel. And reviewers managed to figure out what to say about it. Independent booksellers sold a lot of his books. Part of why I remember stock-checking Hillerman so well is that I had to do it so often. But he wasnt a big commercial success, i.e. he didnt hit the New York Times bestseller list, until A THIEF OF TIME, his ninth Navajo novel, in 1988.
Ok, I know what youre thinking. That was the 1970s and the 1980s no publisher today will let a writer go for nine books before he hits the list. Publishers are too impatient, thats the conventional wisdom. There are a few different answers to this.
The first is the theoretical one if publishers would only learn the value of the midlist book, if they saw each mystery as something more than ephemera and if they valued books that arent breakouts, then maybe theyd be more willing to publish five, six, eight books by a writer without making the New York Times list. Maybe theyd be more willing to keep a writers backlist in print. Maybe theyd really see working with each writer not just the Jilliane Hoffmans as "building a franchise."
The second answer is how else are you going to make the list? Ive talked about the throwing money at the problem approach, the notion that a publisher can spend a few hundred thousand dollars and bully its way onto the list for a new writer. Its not impossible for a publisher to do this, but the success rate is so bad and the cost of making the list is so high that you have to wonder if theres any chance the publisher will make money on these books, other than perhaps through the sale of subsidiary rights a can of worms that Im not going to get into here today, in part because I know practically nothing about this and in part because I believe that the sale of rights distracts publishers from putting actual books into the hands of real readers and its books and readers that I care about.
The third answer is the reality check answer. Things werent necessarily wonderful back in the late 1980s and theyre not all bad now. I vividly remember the example of a paperback book published in May 1989 that was out of stock indefinitely in July two months later. When I asked the sales rep what happened, his response and Im quoting is "it sold too fast." When I asked whether the company planned a reprint, he said no. The book is still out of print used copies go for a premium online. Think again about supply and demand.
At the same time, lets remember that even now, writers
do find success through building an audience over time, from book to book. Look
at the some of the writers who are bestsellers in our genre now. In each case,
it took several books for them to make the bestseller lists. And in each case,
their careers began in the 1990s, a time when publishers werent supposed
to be patient enough to wait several books: Minette Walters, whose first novel
was published in 1992. Michael Connelly, whose first novel was published in
1993. Janet Evanovich, whose first Stephanie Plum novel was published in 1995.
Dennis Lehane, 1997, Kathy Reichs, 1998. And lets not forget Dan Brown
DAVINCI CODE is his fourth novel.
You can rack up a pretty good batting average hitting singles every time you step up to the plate. Major league teams value someone who can get on base every time at bat. Publishers should too. Hit a single with your first book. Maybe hit a double the next time, and advance a runner. If and when you finally do hit a home run, you score all your runners thats what really puts you ahead. Dan Brown has five slots on this weeks New York Times bestseller lists. DAVINCI CODE isnt just a solo homer, its a grand slam.
Its true that publishers are impatient, but then who isnt? Arent you? What publishers need to see are signs of life real signs that readers are responding to a writers vision. Thats why its so important that you do your homework that you understand what readers like, that you understand how to appeal to readers, that you know the difference between pandering to readers and respecting them, that you know how to put books into readers hands.
And you need to know who your allies are. How will independent booksellers help you? When Minette Walters and Michael Connelly and Janet Evanovich and Dennis Lehane and Kathy Reichs each published their first mystery novels, each was nominated for the Dilys Award given by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association to the book we "most enjoyed selling" not just among first novels but among all titles we sold in their respective years. IMBA nominated these writers at the beginning of their careers not because we were impressed with marketing budgets for some of these folks, the marketing budgets were nonexistent or for promotional gimmicks or even for great presentation. Walters ICE HOUSE is a drab US first edition, and its flap copy I kid you not starts out "If Edgar Allan Poe had collaborated with Jane Austen to write a good British cozy ." Huh?
What we really learn, from these examples is that the way to be successful is to stay true to your vision. I get asked all the time what I think the hot trends are in this genre, usually by writers or publishers or other booksellers (especially booksellers who dont specialize in mysteries) who all are hoping to find a bandwagon to jump on as if I have any insight into whats hot. I hate the question and I always try to resist answering, especially because the real answer is one that no one asking the question will believe. Whats hot in this genre? Good books. Jason Epstein and I agree on little, but we do agree that at some point and at some level, this is still a business where what succeeds is whats good.
It doesnt matter if cat mysteries are hot right now or medieval mysteries or thrillers with biblical roots. The surest way to get burned in this business is trying to chase todays trend. By the time your book comes out, youll be too late. Thats a bit of conventional wisdom about this business that I do believe in. If only publishers would act as if they believed it too.
Riding someone elses wave is a pointless exercise anyway. What you need to do is find your own "Indian stuff." It may be the least likely idea out there it probably IS the least likely idea out there. But that doesnt matter.
Fifteen months ago, no one would have guessed that Dan Brown would sell nearly six million copies of the second novel in his series about a Harvard symbologist. Did any of us know even know what a symbologist did? A couple of years ago, the Columbia University Press imported a trio of odd-looking trade paperbacks, gentle, well-mannered novels about a hefty woman in Botswana named Precious who decides to open a detective agency. Would you have guessed that these books and the two that have followed so far would hit The New York Times bestseller list?
You know what, you might not have guessed it from a description. But once you opened the books and fell into Alexander McCall Smiths world, you probably did know.
Because when you have a concept you believe in, readers know. When your characters are real, when your writing is assured, readers know. When your publisher does a good job of packaging and presenting your book, readers will find it. When you do everything that readers expect in a mystery and still surprise them, or when you do exactly what they expect but do it with grace and conviction, readers will respond. No, thats too weak a way of saying it. Thats when youll steal readers hearts.
(Not part of the original talk, but something I want to emphasize.)
The sales rep who handles Hyperion for my store is a good guy, someone I've worked with for years and who has helped us out above and beyond the call of duty. But like most sales reps who call on small independent stores, he's terribly overworked. If this means that a store like mine ends up often ordering late and receiving books late (as was the case with the Ridley Pearson this spring), I am nevertheless grateful for whatever help this rep -- and each of the others who call on my store -- is able to offer. These beleaguered sales folk don't deserve the blame for the problems that small stores face in dealing with the big publishing companies; the issues are more structural and fundamental.
Shawn Coyne gave his take on the profitability of publishing in an interview on the Absolute Write website: http://www.absolutewrite.com/novels/shawn_coyne.htm
Denise Littles discussion of money is on the website of the Science Fiction Writers of America: http://sfwa.org/bulletin/articles/profit-motive.html
As you see, I dont agree with much of what Jason Epstein says in his book, BOOK BUSINESS (W.W. Norton, 2002, ISBN: 0-393-32234-3).
What I say about St. Martins Press is widely "known" but its hard to find attribution. I found a report of one persons observations of the company. Its by Erica Irving at and its located at: http://www.publishers.asn.au/awards.cfm?doc_id=25. (Click on Irvings name in the middle of the page.)
Jeff Zaleskis admonition to the industry, "The Need to Read Stephen King," was published in Publishers Weeklys October 27, 2003 issue.
The numbers on Jilliane Hoffman are reported by Paul Colford in The New York Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/business/story/178185p-154958c.html
Jane Austen Does "Confessions of a Semi-Successful Author" is on salon.com. To read this piece, youll need to either subscribe to salon.com or see an ad to get a free day pass: http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2004/03/22/midlist/index_np.html
The quotes from Tony Hillerman are taken from his autobiography, SELDOM DISAPPOINTED (Perennial, 2002, ISBN: 0-06-050586-9)
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