Competing with Candy Crush

Earlier this week, Jeff Bezos was quoted as saying that what books “are really competing with is Candy Crush.”  Really?   Nothing against Candy Crush, which is obviously addictive and fun, but I have to say that as a reader and as a publisher, I just don’t see it this way.  Maybe there are people who are genuinely conflicted between spending their next hour playing Candy Crush or reading a book, but that doesn’t describe me and it doesn’t describe the people I think I’m publishing books for.  I publish the kinds of mysteries I love to read, books featuring strong, intelligent, committed and passionate protagonists, real people who are devoted to their friends, families and communities, and who are unable to stop searching for truth and justice.  Candy Crush is fine for what it is, but I suggest that there’s no way it’s competition for the kinds of books I’m talking about here. Bezos thinks that because a book costs more than Candy Crush, that price differential creates “friction,” dissuading consumers from choosing a book over Candy Crush.  From a supplier standpoint, all I can say is that if Wall Street were subsidizing my every breath to the tune of billions of dollars, I could offer lower prices too.  It wouldn’t even take billions in my case; my publishing program would happily lower prices for a mere couple hundred thousand.

More importantly, from a reader’s perspective, I would agree with Bezos that there is friction between readers and books.  I just disagree about the nature of that friction.  Price has nothing to do with it.  Ok, maybe not nothing — who doesn’t want to pay less? — but the real issue when you’re searching for that next book to read isn’t necessarily how much the book costs but whether it’s a book you’re going to enjoy.  Of course readers are on a budget, but let’s also remember that readers share books, borrow from their local libraries, etc.  They find ways to read the books they want to read, once they know they want them.

So friction isn’t about price.  If overcoming friction is about helping readers identify books they’ll enjoy, then touting low prices isn’t the answer.  Posts on Facebook, Twitter or other forums that read — in their entirety — “TITLE TITLE on sale today for 99 cents on Amazon” are not the answer.  We read books because they’re good, not because they’re cheap.

My publishing program, Crum Creek Press/The Mystery Company, is a big part of my answer to the issue of helping mystery readers find books they’ll cherish.  We publish reference books that offer enthusiastic, knowledgeable and passionate essays about mysteries from a wide range of voices and perspectives.  Our two Organizing Crime volumes help you manage your reading and identify the books you’ll want next.  And I also publish novels that I’m excited to share with you.  John Billheimer, P.M. Carlson, Terence Faherty, Kate Flora and the others that I publish all write the kind of mysteries I describe above, books that I love and that you’ll love too.

Run over to and take a look at what we have to offer. Use this coupon code — GOODBOOKS — and we’ll take 10% off your order, now through Christmas.  (Mixed message?  Me?)  It’s not the kind of discount that a heavily subsidized guy like Bezos can offer.  All I’m trying to do here is give you a reason to click on that link and take a look at our line today.

Unlike Bezos, I’m confident that you have no doubt about whether you want Candy Crush or another good book.  That’s what Crum Creek Press offers — good books plus references that help you find even more good books.

What the Amazon/Hachette dispute is really about

It wasn't long ago that readers could walk into any bookstore anywhere in the country and have a reasonable expectation that they could get any book they wanted. The book might not be sitting on the shelves, but any bookseller -- chain or independent -- would without question take and fill a special order for anything published in the US. We booksellers could rely on wholesalers like Ingram and Baker & Taylor to help us fill those orders because they stocked books from wide range of companies. If a reader was looking for something that Ingram and B&T didn't happen to have, we could go directly to publishers and be assured that they'd fill our order on equitable terms. Publishers even developed an easy, standard system -- the Single Title Order Plan -- to facilitate orders from stores with whom they may not have a regular relationship. STOP contacts and terms for all houses were a part of every company's listing in the American Booksellers Association's Book Buyer's Handbook, so it was easy for booksellers to know how to get any book from any publisher. Publishers and booksellers worked together because we all had the same expectation that readers did, that they would be able to get any book from any bookstore anywhere. We worked together this way not just because we had a common interest in serving the readers who are our mutual customers, but also because we understood that booksellers and publishers were fostering the free marketplace of ideas. We are among the vital institutions that make real the promise of the first amendment, a place where readers could access the free press that the framers held so dear. Selling books and, in particular, the filling of special orders -- whether through wholesalers or STOP orders -- has never been just about money. No one -- not the publishers, not the booksellers -- ever made real money from special orders, given the time and the shipping costs that go into them. But all publishers and all booksellers participated in this system.

That sense of common mission has frayed, and the policies and processes that enabled readers to obtain any book from any bookstore are in tatters. The reason is Amazon.

Amazon is engaged in negotiations with Hachette, one of the few remaining large publishers in the US, over terms of sale. While the details of the talks are not public (at least they're not anywhere I've seen), we can surmise that Amazon is asking for terms that Hachette does not offer to other retailers and that Hachette has not agreed to Amazon's request. We know that they haven't because Amazon has made it more difficult for readers to obtain Hachette titles -- removing pre-order buttons, delaying shipments, reducing or eliminating discounts.

It's easy to see the Amazon/Hachette dispute as a petty business disagreement, and Amazon partisans have likened it to situations where Barnes & Noble or independent bookstores have not stocked particular books. A member of the DorothyL mystery genre discussion list writes: "Barnes & Noble can and does refuse to carry books because it doesn't like the cover. Most independent bookstores refuse to carry books by Amazon Publishing, because they don't want to support their competitor."

Of course any business is entitled to make decisions based on what it thinks is best for that business. For bookstores there is no more crucial calculation than weighing whether to commit inventory dollars, shelf space and other limited resources to a particular book. Retailers rise and fall based on these decisions. If Barnes & Noble thinks that a cover for a book isn't going to work, then they're right to pass on it, and use their resources to stock an alternative that their experience tells them is more likely to lead to a sale -- a better return on their dollar.

But here's the difference. Barnes & Noble might decide not to stock copies of a title on the shelves of its stores based on its cover. Some independent stores might decide not to stock books from Amazon Publishing because Amazon won't make its titles available to independents on the same terms that Amazon expects others to sell to it. However, in either case, if a customer walks up to the store's special order counter, the booksellers will take the time to locate and order in a copy of that book with the hideous cover or that book published by the company that is the store's fiercest competitor. Booksellers will take the time, every time, and they'll do it happily. No "real" bookseller -- chain store or independent -- would let a business disagreement stand in the way of a reader who's looking for a book. That's just not in a bookseller's DNA. The fact that Amazon is doing otherwise tells you that they're made of different stuff, that they're willing to impede readers trying to buy the books they want instead of just making books freely available to the best of their abilities.

I realize that sounds like an odd thing to say about a company that has genuinely done an enormous amount of good in enabling folks in remote and rural and isolated places to have access to a wider selection of books than they've ever had in the past. Through its CreateSpace and Kindle platforms, Amazon also offers countless authors and independent publishers (my own small publishing program included) access to readers that they would not otherwise reach so easily. There's no question that Amazon has triggered revolutions in bookselling and in publishing that have lead to many positive outcomes for readers, writers and publishers -- and even for other booksellers who have had to become more efficient and effective as a result of the changed landscape.

But even as we recognize the good that Amazon does, it's important to recognize that what they're doing is contrary to the bookselling ethos that grew up with and supports our democracy. In seeking preferential terms from publishers like Hachette, Amazon is seeking to bolster a monopoly position that threatens every other bookseller, a threat that puts Amazon closer to the position of being the only bookseller. Democracy is not well served by a marketplace of ideas that consists of only a few retailers; democracy is stronger when a level playing field supports a diverse marketplace made up of many retailers.

Even on its Kindle platform -- a system that allows many voices access to readers -- Amazon is making an effort to restrict the market. Through its KDP Select program, Amazon offers significant incentives to encourage authors/publishers to sell exclusively on Amazon, not allowing any other retail sale of a digital text -- not even on the author/publisher's own website. I can't think of any other example in the recent history of publishing where any one bookseller has ever tried to prevent publishers from offering books to other retailers. CreateSpace is no better. Much of what is produced on this platform is unavailable to the trade through Ingram or Baker & Taylor. There's no listing for CreateSpace in the Book Buyers' Handbook. CreateSpace titles might be offered direct to other stores on terms that Amazon itself would find laughable, an effort to achieve de facto exclusivity on these books.

These kinds of exclusive arrangements are prevalent in other categories of retail. It's not unusual for large stores to have their own "house" brands that are not offered to competitors. But that can't happen in the book business because books are different. Booksellers and publishers have always worked together so that readers could walk into any bookstore and have a reasonable expectation that they could get any book they wanted. Bookselling has never been about exclusivity. If a particular brand of toilet paper is sold only in one store, that's ok because toilet paper -- as necessary as it is -- is just toilet paper. Books are different because they embody ideas. If ideas are available from only one store, then the free marketplace of ideas isn't so free any more.

Adventures in bookselling: Values

On September 2, four days after the start of the Fall semester, the Kenyon College Bookstore still had two copies of RITOS DE INICIACION by Grinor Rojo and Cynthia Steele in stock. First published in 1986, this book is still required for Spanish 321, as it has been at Kenyon for several years in one Spanish class or another. What’s changed is that the book has been out of print for the last two years or so. Increasingly, for cost and pedagogic reasons, faculty are using old editions and out of print titles, but this can create sourcing challenges. The big used text suppliers usually don’t stock old editions and out of print titles; by definition, these aren’t available new from publishers either. We end up searching high and low throughout the internet to meet the needs of our students.

For Fall 2013, the bookstore was able to find a reasonable number of copies at reasonable prices, though our stock was on the low end of our expected sales range. So we were trying to keep an eye on sales and enrollment, and on our options should more students ask for the book. On September 2, we felt there was a good chance that we would need more than the two copies still on our shelves. Our retail price for the used copies we found was $29.00. When we checked online, the least expensive copy available on that day was being offered on Amazon for $225.45.

Welcome to the brave new world of textbooks, where dynamic pricing is fast becoming the new normal.

When folks ask why books sometimes cost less online than they do in the bookstore, they’re comparing apples and oranges. If you’re looking at a class of, say, 35 students and you’re looking at a book that we have priced at $100 and it’s a book that’s been in use here and elsewhere for a couple of years already, then it’s very likely that you’ll be able to find a copy priced at well under $100. But take a close look at the listings, on Amazon,,, alibris or any of the other sites that represent our competition. The first listing might be $30.00. The next listing might be $33.15. The third listing might be $41.69. By the time you get to the 35th listing – the number of books that we need to cover expected sales – you might perhaps see a price of $222.48. Copy number one is apples; 35 copies is oranges.  If you’re student #35, the bookstore’s $100 price – a midpoint price based on our sourcing costs and a standard markup – might be looking pretty attractive.

The least expensive copy of RITOS that we found cost $4.99, sourced through the internet, and the most we paid was $42.00 to a traditional used text vendor who happened to still have one copy left in its warehouse. We set our retail price at $29.00 based on our overall average cost and our usual target margin. Once we set that price, we held to that price, even when the market went crazy and pushed the price up beyond what most anyone would find reasonable. It’s been the policy of this store to set a price for the semester and then hold it for the semester. In other words, we would not penalize a student who came in late still needing copy of a book, even if we ran out and it cost more to restock. (It always costs most to restock, if for no other reason than freight charges.) But the increasingly dynamic marketplace and the increasing use of out of print titles are making it harder and harder to maintain this policy. When a student came in on September 25 looking for a copy of RITOS, we quoted a price in the mid-$40s, the lowest price we could find. We did not add in a markup for the bookstore.

For decades, the used text industry followed a rigid pricing model. For a book with a publisher’s suggested retail price of $100.00 for a new copy, the used copy would retail for 25% off -- $75.00 -- and the used text wholesalers would sell it to college bookstores for 50% to 67% off -- $33.00 to $50.00. If a book went out of print, the industry moved on to a new edition or to another title. All of the wholesalers and most all college bookstores (including Kenyon’s) followed this model. But when we’re using old editions and out of print titles, a percent off from the new price model makes no sense, and our new economy competition, led by Amazon, isn’t bound by traditional pricing practices. These folks are treating texts like commodities, adjusting prices constantly – down and up.  Today, February 7, the least expensive copy of RITOS on Amazon is $49.20 plus shipping; copy #10 is going for $101.79.

No one has suggested that the Kenyon College Bookstore start pricing the way our online competition is pricing – copy by copy. But as I’ve noted, we’ve already abrogated our previous policy of holding the price steady through the semester, charging more for the more expensive copy we brought in a month after the semester started. We didn’t like it, but the options aren’t good: 1) stick to the original price and lose money on this transaction, 2) help the student get the book she needed and only recover our cost, or 3) apply our usual markup and charge the student what would have been a stiff premium over our start-of-semester price.

We chose the middle option, and we are likely to continue this strategy in the future – set a start-of-semester price, hold this price through rush into the first couple weeks of the semester, and then move to market pricing. But this begs the question. Why shouldn’t the bookstore price all copies of all titles individually all the time? If the first copy of RITOS cost about $5.00 and our target margin is 30%, then the retail price of that copy could be $7.14. If the second copy cost $8.00, the same calculation leads to a selling price of $11.43 for that copy. And so on. The last copy of RITOS cost $42.00; we’d price that copy at $60.00. The first student to shop for that book might feel pretty good about the price. The last student, not so much.

Of course, no one would really be happy with this system.  In a store like ours, students expect each copy of each required text to cost the same. Actually, we already accept that the new copies will cost more than the used copies, but otherwise, we all believe that store prices are supposed to be the same. But why? Our competition online is charging different prices based on different costs or on different assessments of what marketplace sellers need to get for the product. Sometimes those outfits are just changing prices for the sake of changing prices; a recent analysis showed that Amazon changes 2.5 million prices each day. If this is how our competition is behaving, does our fixed price model still make sense? If faculty and students alike are asking us why a book is so much cheaper online than it is in the bookstore, aren’t they really asking us to be more like those other sellers?

Actually, they’re not. In his 2012 book WHAT MONEY CAN’T BUY, Michael Sandel challenges us to think about situations where “market values have crowded out nonmarket norms.” For example, the market may be efficient, but is it the right way to decide who should receive a donated liver or other organ? Sandel argues that there are moral limits to markets, that sometimes other values should take precedence over market values.

That’s why no one would be happy if the bookstore started dynamically pricing each copy of each book. Providing textbooks to the students who need them is one of those nonmarket situations, especially in the context of a nonprofit college store owned by the institution. We believe that it’s more important to treat all students equitably, to set a reasonable price based on our costs and to charge that same price to all. The market creates winners and losers, but we are about something more. Even if the value of a book happens to skyrocket in the marketplace, we continue to make our stock available to our students at our original price, instead of offering it for sale online to the rest of the world at the prevailing market price. We might have made more money on RITOS if we sold it online -- the store might be said to “win” in this situation -- but our students would lose out. Like any retailer, we get the whole maximizing profit thing. But other values take precedence, for us and for the community we serve.

Adventures in bookselling: One author event order

Yesterday, I worked on ordering books for an author visit two and half weeks away, in mid-February.  The book is published by a good-sized university press -- no little Mickey Mouse operation -- so you’d think that their policies and procedures would be established and well-considered, and that bringing in this title would be simple and straightforward.  Not so much, as it turns out.

I looked first at Ingram and Baker & Taylor, the two major wholesalers we work with regularly.  The wholesalers are easy, and we’re already ordering from one or the other or both every week for fast re-stocking and for special orders.  At Ingram, the title is net priced -- i.e. no discount from suggested retail.  Bookstores work on a discount from suggested retail price, giving us margin that allows us to cover our costs.  Traditionally, the discount on a regular trade title is 40% or better (the major New York companies are at 46%), and a lot of university press titles are normally 20%, though more and more university presses are selling their more popular titles to general bookstores for 40%.

Ingram’s net price means we’d have to mark up from suggested retail, never a good competitive strategy.  The only good thing here is that Ingram can get books to us swiftly and levies a low flat ship charge (when order minimums are reached).  This print on demand title would arrive in store three days after we ordered from Ingram.  At B&T, the title is listed as “available to backorder” with a 5% discount.  We’re set up with B&T for “no backorders” and the system does not appear to be able to distinguish between regular print titles (which we normally don’t backorder from a wholesaler) and print on demand (which aren’t really “backorders,” right?, they’re “demands”).

Still 5% isn’t enough of a discount to make this work.  That margin would be more than eaten up by return shipping, in case we had any unsold copies to send back.  I should say that while the store absolutely wants to support this author visit by bringing in books and displaying them prominently at the front of the store, our expectations aren’t all that high.  If we sell 6 copies we’ll be doing very well.  We’re looking to order 8, enough to have a good display and just in case the author surprises us with an especially engaging performance.  (Yes, this happens.)

I check Amazon, where I find a 7% discount, a better discount than either Ingram or B&T.  Is it weird that a retailer is undercutting the wholesalers?  Yes, I think it is.  But we’re seeing this more and more, and are increasingly worried about our ability to serve our customers well when the wholesalers aren’t helpful.

But no time to worry about that now.  I move on to the publisher.  The Book Buyer’s Handbook (a useful resource provided by the American Booksellers Association) offers no help for this press: contact info only, no info on terms of sale.  I see the name of the commission sales rep group that covers this territory, but they don’t call on our store, so no help there either.

At the publisher’s website, I am surprised to see that the book is being offered for 33% off their own suggested list price -- 33% website discount, available to anyone on “most” titles, undercutting every other vendor, wholesale or retail.  I don’t get this strategy.  Don’t they want others to be able to successfully sell their titles, or are they expecting to sell only through their own site?

I’m tempted to just place the store’s order online, but I figure that if they’re offering 33% off to everyone, perhaps there are even better terms available for stores.  So I pick up the phone and reach a pleasant woman who tells me that the discount will be 20%.  I think “so there’s a 13% surcharge for picking up the phone?”  I don’t say that, but I do point out that I know about the 33% offer on their site.  She says that I could place the order online and get 33%, but I’d need to prepay via credit card.  I then say that the eight copies I need are for an author event.  She says that since the order is for an event, the discount is 45%.  Ok, now we’re talking!  But then she asks for the date and says in order to assure that we get books on time -- for an event two and a half weeks away -- we should pay a $5 rush processing charge.  So what she’s telling me is that the publisher itself can’t produce and ship books as swiftly as Ingram can.

I agree to the $5 surcharge and place the order for eight copies at 45%.  We’ll pay freight in, much more than either Ingram or Baker & Taylor charge for freight.  And we’ll pay freight out, if we have unsold copies that we don’t want to keep for stock.  It’s not likely that the store will make much on this event.  But we’ll have done what we can to support this author’s visit to campus.

And we’re happy to do it.  It’s what we’re here for, what we enjoy doing.  It’s just hard to know whether to laugh or cry at all this confusion, hard to understand why the same book coming from the same warehouse to the same shipping address might cost 20%, 33% or 45% off suggested retail, depending on how and why we place the order.

POD machines and the bookstore of the future

On a discussion list, a writer who publishes digitally on the Kindle platform suggests that the bookstore of the future will consist of an on-site print on demand machine that produces books to order.  The “day of publishers printing up a quantity of books will be gone,” he suggests.

I'd love to have a print-on-demand book machine in store, and I work at an institution that could probably find the money for it -- if I recommended that we go that route.  But I haven't given the Espresso a thumbs up yet because the library of content available through the platform is not yet sufficiently robust.  In other words, I can't get enough of the titles that I need out of this box.  As usual in this business, it's not a technical issue or even really an economic issue.  The problem is content providers not playing well with others, not making the effort to make their titles available for printing on POD machines everywhere.  Too many people and too many firms are too happy to be on one platform only, without worrying about other possibilities.

I've tried to get some of my publishing program’s titles onto Espresso via Lightning Source, and I've been tangled in Lightning Source bureaucracy. You would not believe the strings of emails that have gone nowhere.  Lightning Source is, I think, too content to be its own entity and does not feel the need to engage others -- come to us only or go nowhere.  That's often true among firms across the board, so it's not just a Lightning Source thing.  In this era, that attitude is enormously frustrating.

But this discussion list thread reminds me that I need to take another run at this, probably trying a different route next time.  On the list, I asked two questions. “How many of you have tried to put your titles onto the Espresso system?  How many of you have succeeded?”  Not one person answered the questions.  Lack of interest or lack of success?  Impossible to say.  I'd love to hear some success stories in this area.

As for what POD machines mean for bookstores, I don't think it's either the salvation or the death of stores.  I don’t even think that the machines will change stores much.  I’ve visited Espresso machines at Powell’s in Portland and Politics & Prose in D.C., and in both cases these bookstores are still bookstores.  Great bookstores, in fact.  There’s a big price advantage to big printings -- the unit cost for a 1000 copy offset run is much less than a single copy printed on demand -- and the books produced through big printings need to be housed and showcased somewhere.

But more importantly  I still think that a roomful of books means something.  We are excited by and comforted by rooms full of books.  We crave what a roomful of books holds in store for us, in ways that a being in the presence of a print on demand machine can never hope to satisfy.  Not that the machines aren’t cool -- they are.  But it’s just not the same thing.

The challenge for stores is finding people to sustain those rooms.  Technology allows folks to separate reading from the roomful of books. Writers and readers have options now, and that's fine.  Better than fine if it means that texts reach more readers.  But I think it's too much to expect the two approaches to mix much.  POD machines help print-leaning people and institutions sustain that preference (in personal and in business terms) but only on the margins.  They’re not game-changers by themselves.  The production of a book via POD or large-quantity offset isn't what matters.  You have to want real books in the first place, and to be willing to pay for them and for the spaces in which we encounter them.

Where the devil lies

The book world is buzzing about Amazon's interest in seeing independent stores sell Kindles.  On one group, a bookseller writes that Amazon is the Devil.  On another, an author equates saying no to Amazon to saying no to the future.  The author doesn't say it in so many words, but her point is clear: Amazon = Future.  It's a common -- and dangerous -- misperception, equating Kindle with all ebooks.

Now I'm no luddite and I'm not opposed to progress.  But I am unabashedly a book lover -- books on paper, with covers and pages and dust jackets and crisp type and elegant design.  I'm really high right now on the Penguin horror hardcovers, which we're displaying prominently in the store because they look so good.  But we also feature day to day stuff like Penguin classics because folks (students especially) can build a library out of these books that are a pleasure to own.  We've sold a ton of copies of Matt Kish's MOBY DICK because it is such a cool, cool physical book.

It's easy to know what to do with cool books.  The dilemma right now is how to handle ebooks.  Obviously, we don't associate with Kindle.  There are other platforms out there, ones that don't tie us to a major competitor.  In the real world, no one would expect Target to carry a Walmart product, so it's kind of comical that anyone would suggest that an independent bookstore should feature an Amazon product.

Last year, the American Booksellers Association put together a nice program that allowed stores to sell Kobo readers and to earn a commission on the sale of Kobo ebooks. The association made it essentially risk free to get started.  We're glad we did, not because of profits -- which are minimal so far -- but because it allowed us to show our customers that we are participating in the future.

But here we are beginning year two of the program, and the we're trying to figure out where we go from here.  The tune from the end of the Buffy musical runs through my head a lot these days -- "Why is the path unclear / When we know home is near?"  Is the problem simply the weirdness of selling a digital product in a physical space?  Or is there more going on here?  Year two ABA program terms aren't as favorable, so it's not as obvious what we should be doing on the device side.  I do think it's vital that we help keep Kobo visible, otherwise we're helping to foster the impression that Kindle is the whole ball game.  But beyond maintaining the Kobo presence in the store and on our website, the path is really unclear.

It's hard enough to figure out what to do on the bookselling side.  I'm also confronting all these issues on the publishing side too.  We've gone to some effort to produce a pretty nice physical book for Terence Faherty's EASTWARD IN EDEN, which we just published last month.  This is something we do because we love books, and it's important to us to design something that you'll be happy to have and to hold.  This matters to us.  The packaging works in physical spaces.

But these days, we also have to sell digitally, and it's a struggle.  We publish on the Kindle platform but we've resisted all of Amazon's efforts to get us to commit to it exclusively.  So we also publish on Kobo, Nook, iTunes and Smashwords.  Our ebooks are selling, little by little, mostly on Kindle but on the other platforms too.  Overall, though, we're not selling in quantities that we'd really like to see. The main challenge here, I think, is figuring out how to enlist the help of booksellers in promoting these books.  The two series that we're working on this year -- Carlson's Maggie Ryans and Faherty's Owen Keanes -- are the kind of series that really benefit from recommendations and handselling. 

Publishers get how that works in physical stores.  We send out reading copies, booksellers get excited, that excitement gets stores to put copies on their shelves and into the hands of their customers -- literally.  But how does a small press make that work in the digital space?  As a publisher, I am enormously grateful for the support that independent stores have provided for the physical books that I've worked on.  You all make these titles possible, and it's obvious how this is a mutually beneficial relationship.  The books that I publish make money for you too, and help bind customers to your stores because they're appealing and "unique" titles that folks won't find elsewhere.  But that connection is less clear in the digital realm, where most promotional efforts bypass stores.  Authors and publishers sell direct-to-consumers/readers.  Or we see lots of platform-based marketing: I get a ton of emails from Kobo about new releases with percent-off offers.  All this bypasses independent stores, right down to the very concept of a "unique" product.  On the internet, nothing is unique.

At some level, the real question for physical bookstores, it seems to me, is whether the devil is Amazon or whether the devil is digital itself. Folks have enormous affection for the physical space that is a real bookstore. We just love being in a bookstore, and we know that the smart and friendly and knowledgeable people who inhabit that space will put the right books onto their shelves and into our hands.  We all understand how that process works, and I think we're seeing that today the bookstore experience is more valued than ever.  The plusses and minuses of reading digitally are also more or less clear these days.  But when you think about the fact that what you read is more or less determined by your route to text -- whether you're talking about print or digital -- the implications are not at all clear.  This isn't just about stores, it's about text itself.  Revolutions in publishing aren't just about publishers and booksellers, they're about what kinds of texts the marketplace supports.  Think about how the rise of the mass market paperback fostered writers like Mickey Spillane and you'll see what I mean.

Michael Pollan writes that "most of what presents itself to us in the marketplace as a product is in truth a web of relationships."  We understand those relationships in the physical world.  But we don't yet online, and until we do, it's going to be hard to know where the devil lies.

No guns, no gore, but plenty of intellectual guts

When Terence Faherty published DEADSTICK, his first novel, in 1991, this is what Marilyn Stasio had to say about it, in part, in The New York Times Book Review:

“... the answer to the mystery is a sad one, but worth the pursuit for the existential lesson he takes from it — to keep searching for the tiny bits of mental order that keep at bay that 'archenemy' of the thinking man, 'the idea that the universe is godless and capricious, without pattern or meaning.'

"No guns, no gore, but plenty of intellectual guts."

Stasio's review might give you a hint of why this series is so hard to describe and sell -- the words "existential lesson" are a pretty clear signal that you're a little outside the mainstream -- but it also hints at why this series is so amazing, challenging and, ultimately, endearing.

Over 20 years since that first appearance, the Owen Keane novels are still pretty cool.  I've been spending a lot of time this year with Owen Keane, working on reprinting the early Keane novels and prepping Keane's new adventure for its first publication in October.  This time through the books, I'm even more in awe of Faherty's elegant writing and plotting.  I'm especially struck by the way he's playing with time, perspective and memory in these narratives.

I'm also seeing more of the humor, such as this bit from the second in the series, LIVE TO REGRET: "I had looked for clues in poems before in my checkered career, and I found them to be unreliable. It wasn't that I couldn't find what I was looking for; it was that I almost always found it, a circumstance that made me think that poems might be the police informants of literature, telling me anything I wanted to hear." Practically nothing happens in LIVE TO REGRET.  The book is all dialogue and contemplation -- not for nothing did Kirkus label it "a heady read" -- but it's pretty mesmerizing anyway.

Eden250In October, I'll be publishing EASTWARD IN EDEN.  I'm thrilled by this opportunity.  It's a terrific book, and it's a privilege to be to able to continue the run of a series that's already been nominated for two Edgars, an Anthony, a Macavity, a Shamus and a Derringer.  That Shamus nomination is a new one, just announced in June for "After Cana," a short story published last year in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

EASTWARD IN EDEN takes the series in a new direction, sending Keane to rural Kenya, where he hopes to lose himself where no one will think to look for him. Instead, Keane finds another mystery: the murder of charismatic stranger who claimed to be the reincarnation of a long dead warrior hero.

EASTWARD IN EDEN can be pre-ordered now from any independent bookstore (your friendly local store or online via or from most of the usual other online sources (, or

Find out more about our Owen Keane reissues at

What we're not allowed to talk about

I’m in Kansas City for American Booksellers Association and the National Association of College Store events, which have been great so far.  Lots of great energy, and great ideas that I can bring back to my store.  Looking at today's session information, I’m pleased to see an opportunity for a Publisher/Bookseller focus group. But then there’s this sentence from the session description:

These Focus Group meetings are an opportunity to dialogue about ways in which booksellers and publishers can better communicate and work together in the mutual interest of selling more books -- they are not intended to talk about specifics regarding the publisher's terms of sale, operational practices, or backroom issues.

Leave aside using “dialogue” as a verb and look at what we’re “not intended” to talk about. The thing about “terms of sale” is that they’re more than just numbers – 25 copies earns a 46% discount. Terms are a statement of values, a manifestation of how publishers view the relationship between their companies and booksellers. Ultimately, it’s really about supporting the relationship that stores have with readers.

The fact is that we get the top-line stuff in this business right. Lot of great books are being published, more than enough to allow booksellers to fill their shelves and allow readers to find something that will suit their preference. In other words, there’s a more than adequate supply of great product to satisfy consumer demand. The passionate book lovers in the industry – and there are lots of us - might even argue that the best thing about the business is that we don’t usually think of what we’re peddling as “product.”

The problems we encounter as publishers, as booksellers and even as readers tend to flow from publisher’s terms of sale, operational practices and backroom issues. Usually, that's what stands in the way of getting the right book into the hands of the right reader and the right time. Minimum order requirements are too high. Publishers and wholesalers don’t work well together. Shipping times are too long. The flow of information overwhelms store buyers. Some firms (publishers and wholesalers) are clearly offering better terms to select retailers, making it hard for the rest of us to compete. Some publishing companies are seeking to bypass stores altogether, offering incentives for readers to buy direct.

I realize that there might be legal implications to discussing things like terms of sale in a group setting (especially after the federal government’s ridiculous action on ebooks). I also realize that it’s a lot less fun to talk about operational issues than good books. But as an industry, we need to find more ways to have these conversations, instead of suggesting that these questions are off limits.

People who set prices don't like me

Three lines in three different posts in this morning's Sisters in Crime listserv stuck me:

"So I suspect that the designers who charge orbit-high rates for work with InDesign may be trying to recoup the cost of the program."

"I think this shows that publishers don't like/appreciate libraries."

"I think the risk (and the reward of jacking up prices) is being miscalculated ... publishers that make it hard for people to try out books are the ones who are risking irrelevance."

I think we are all struggling with assessing value in a dynamic environment, and I think it's especially interesting to look not just at the ideas expressed here but also the words that we're using.

"Suspect" has at least a connotation of something inappropriate.  That connotation is reinforced by "orbit-high."  But is there anything wrong with a professional trying to recoup costs?

It's always difficult to ascribe motive, but do we really believe that publishers don't "like" libraries?

When we're talking about risk and reward, we're using terms that put us into the right realm -- commerce.  But are we imputing a duty -- trying out books -- that publisher should not have to bear?  Not that I don't agree with the trying-out goal.  I just don't know how we pay for it.

Perhaps because I've just completed another text rush season at my day job, I'm feeling bruised on price issues. It's easy for a consumer to decide that he or she is being overcharged, something that students seem to have little hesitation to say to us.  I actually prefer that our customers vocalize the thought, because at least it gives me an opportunity to have the conversation, to explain how we set prices, why our prices are different from what they see at Amazon, what our costs are, and that we're a nonprofit trying only to recoup our costs -- primarily wages, which in some cases are shockingly low at our store.  I don't tell students the last part; I don't think they need to know specific hourly wages.  But otherwise, we are willing to share all of our financials with students and everyone else in the community.

Of course I turn around at do it myself every time I fill up at the gas station.  I think I know what's wrong with gas prices -- that they're manipulated by speculators, and not driven by pure supply/demand considerations.  But who am I to say?

I don't like how much Adobe charges for InDesign, but I pay the price because I like the results I get out of it when I lay out pages.  I wish that the designers I work with cost less, but I know that they've studied hard to get to where they are, that they're proficient both technically and aesthetically, that they haven't skimped on the tools of the trade, and that their files will be trouble-free at all the vendors who'll be processing them.  It always seems that Lightning Source is charging a lot just to set up a title and accept files, but I also know that they've made a huge investment in their digital infrastructure and that the people who support those systems get paid well (as they should for their expertise and education).

There's lots wrong with the book business -- including the prices of various services, and the prices of our products.  But I think we could all be more careful about how we think about and talk about these questions.  I don't think we can suggest that it's wrong for a service provider to try to recoup the cost of the tools of the trade.  If the terms of an arrangement aren't favorable for users, it's probably not because the seller doesn't "like" them.

Except, of course, the gas companies.  They obviously don't like me.

Reintroducting P.M. Carlson

After our move to Ohio a couple of years ago, we faced the daunting task of dealing with all our books. We still don't have all the shelving we want in our house here.  It's a slow process getting that all figured out, especially with an old house where nothing is standard.  Those nice six foot tall bookcases that we brought from our previous homes, don't work as well in rooms with 11 and 13 foot ceilings!   So a lot of our books are still in boxes, slowly getting unpacked as we find time and shelf space.

It's been a lot of fun to rediscover books in our collection, and one of those rediscoveries was P.M. Carlson's AUDITION FOR MURDER. I had fond memories of this book, and of an entire series that I adored. As I pulled AUDITION out of the box, I opened the cover.  I didn't put it down until I was something like a hundred pages into it. Finished it the next day.

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I like everything about AUDITION FOR MURDER. Carlson's characters are wonderful, real people with real emotions and real problems. They're joyful, passionate and committed -- just take a look at how Nick O'Connor describes his work as an actor in chapter four, for example. And without flinching from tough realities -- war, justice and the personal demons (the book is set in 1967) -- they're also positive, upbeat and capable, ready to face anything, from a supercilious French restaurant waiter to the challenge of staging one of Shakespeare's greatest works, HAMLET. The HAMLET stuff in this book is great; you'll learn a lot about the play from Carlson -- and you'll enjoy learning it.

Because these books were originally published as paperback originals, and because they were first published in the pre-internet dark ages, you won't find much about them online. But if you look back through mystery bookstore newsletters and mystery fanzines, you'll find folks raving about Carlson's books. Tom & Enid Schantz in The Rue Morgue newsletter: "terrific characters, funny incidents, genuine suspense, and an absolutely right sense of period and place." Kate's Mystery Books newsletter: "this is an inspiring book, a joy to read and, except for the murderer and murderee, it seems that just about everybody is set to live happily ever after, just as in the favorite fairy tales of my childhood." Phyllis Brown in the Grounds for Murder newsletter: "Carlson is one of those writers who demonstrate an amazing degree of wisdom and knowledge about human nature and an equal degree of compassion and sensitivity. The characters and their interactions alone would make this a deeply satisfying novel. In addition, the reader is treated to skillful, literate writing and an engrossing, suspenseful mystery story. This is one of my favorite mysteries of all time."

Pat's books are just too good to be out of print. It's a privilege and a pleasure to make them available again.

AUDITION FOR MURDER and MURDER IS ACADEMIC are out now. They're in print, and you can get them through bookstores everywhere (independent, chain, online, US, UK and EU). We're also doing digital editions, which you can find on Kindle, iTunes/iBooks and Smashwords (epub for Nook, Kobo, etc). MURDER IS PATHOLOGICAL will be out in December, and we'll have the rest of the series available in early 2013.

Find more info at, where we've posted a note from the author about these reissues.

Bucket List

In an hour, I'll be part of a panel at Bouchercon 2012 entitled "Bucket List: Books to read before you kick the bucket." Not exactly sure how this session is going to go, but thought it might be useful and amusing (for folks here in Cleveland and elsewhere) for me to post my list. I'll try to come back to the blog here and talk about this a little more, but for the moment, here are the titles, a highly idiosyncratic list that would probably look a lot different if you ask me again about this next week.

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

(Look at 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century from the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association for lots more classic choices.)

Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell
Concourse by S.J. Rozan
Briarpatch by Ross Thomas
Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger
Still Life by Louise Penny

Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross
Death Comes As Epiphany by Sharan Newman
Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill
A Nail Through the Heart by Timothy Hallinan

(genre is conversation among texts)
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith
Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong by Pierre Bayard

Hindsight by Peter Dickinson
Breakheart Hill by Thomas Cook
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
The Ax by Donald Westlake

Happy reading!

The death of print is not inevitable

An edited version of a response to another Sisters in Crime discussion list conversation.  This is a little redundant -- you've heard me say much of this before -- but it's not like others aren't also saying the same things too, about the inevitable death of the print book and how young people are all about ebooks.  So this is just today's contribution to to the continuing conversation.  (At least I hope it's a conversation!)

Print will survive.  Obviously, it won't be the same, but I have no doubt that committed and creative readers, publishers and booksellers will find ways to sustain a market for books.  The mass market may move away from paper -- that's what the Bookscan figures are hinting and what folks at Apple said to the SinC summit team during our visit with them two years ago (members only at  But that's not the same thing as saying that print is dead.

At my day job, I work among the young folks who've been mentioned here in various messages and who are always citied in a discussion like this.  You can argue that the kids who find their way to Kenyon aren't typical.  As a group, they are more devoted to words than most.  But if you have any doubt about their devotion to books on paper, you need only observe how they browse the shelves of the Kenyon College Bookstore, dip into and out of books that catch their eye, and then take books to the register and spend their money on their new treasures.  It's not just our regular college students, it's also the high school kids who are on campus for summer programs.  You'd be impressed with what they're reading, too.  We sell a lot of Penguin Classics and Dover Thrift Editions, for example.  We also sell Jennifer Weiner and that new Doctor Who book you're seeing everywhere.

That's not to say there aren't challenges.  We can say that there will be a sustainable market for print books, but somebody has to actually do all that sustaining.  Of course it's not just a singular "somebody," it's all of us who care for books -- readers, authors, publishers and booksellers.  Publishers have to be smarter and more equitable.  Booksellers have to work harder.  Authors have to inspire us.

And readers?  Readers have to decide what they want the marketplace to look like.  At the end of the day, this business is driven by your dollars.  Whether we're talking about the dollars you spend on books or tax dollars that go to your local library, you have all the power there is to support the market for books.

Books are not so big an industry that a change in the behavior of a relatively small number of customers will go unnoticed.  I guarantee you that for most community booksellers, the decision of even just two or three individuals to buy their books elsewhere (be it the grocery store or online, or as e-books from a site not allied with a local store -- whatever) on any given day makes a difference.

This isn't about electronic books versus print books.  This isn't about being a luddite versus embracing technology.  I'm not talking here about the merits of one thing over another thing.  What I'm getting at is the fatalism.  The discussion here (and elsewhere) is largely framed as one inevitability.  The reality is likely to be more complicated and more interesting, with print and electronic text continuing to exist side by side.  So it's really the nature of that co-existence that's at issue, something that I believe is entirely within the power of readers to shape in the context of their communities.

Shaping our worlds

At the end of an intense week of discussing bookselling, marketing and sales on the Sisters in Crime discussion list -- a great resource and a great community that you should consider joining if you haven't already -- this is a slighted edited version of what I'm posting there this morning:

It may be that a writer can find success online with Amazon.  Or perhaps success can still be found in person in communities and their brick and mortar bookstores, local independents or national independents like Murder by the Book -- stores that if you're publishing nationally, I would consider part of your community too.  More likely, success will be found in some combination of virtual and real world marketing and sales efforts.

For writers who've concluded that brick and mortar stores are no longer capable of being a part of their success, all I can say at this point is that I'm disappointed that we won't be working together and that I wish you well.  Your vision, relying as it does on a single mighty online bookseller to sell all books, isn't my vision.  But that doesn't mean I hope you fail.  (For some reason, "one store to rule them all, one store to find them, one store to bring them, and in the darkness guide them" is running through my head right now.  That punchiness is a sure sign that my participation in this discussion has run its course.)

Wherever you are in the discussion, at least you're passionate.  This business, such as it is, has always been driven more by passion than by dollars.  Not to reopen that argument; I'm just saying that we're all here -- writers, readers, booksellers, librarians, publishers, all of us -- we're here in the first place because we love books, the world of books, and the people we get to hang out with because they love books too.  If dollars were all that motivated us, well, there are more dollars to be found elsewhere -- virtually or in the real world.

What we're talking about here isn't anything new.  Take a look at Daniel Pool's DICKENS' FUR COAT AND CHARLOTTE'S UNANSWERED LETTERS for an illuminating examination of these issues more than a century ago.  It's one of those books that leave you with a "the more things change, the more they stay the same" feeling.

That's not to say that this discussion is uninteresting.  I believe that every day we have opportunities to help create the world we want.  As consumers, we have an enormous amount of power to use our dollars to shape our communities, to understand how spending money locally sustains the businesses that make our communities good places to be.  And that's true of businesses as well.  Businesses -- including writers as businesses -- need to use their resources wisely; a writer's decision to promote Amazon isn't just about the access to books at a discount price, it's about the writer validating Amazon too.  (Mostly, that's why I find Ann Patchett's new venture -- -- so exciting, that it's such a strong, tangible statement in the opposite direction.)

The more we discuss, examine and understand what we're all doing, the better off we are -- wherever is it we each decide we want to be. I hope that writers and publishers will continue to want to be a part of what independent bookstores are trying to do.  But if not, I have to respect your decision as I hope you'll respect those of us who continue to do this work.

Measuring the success of an author event

On the Sisters in Crime discussion list, we've been having a conversation about -- among other things -- how one should measure the success of a book signing. I suggested that a signing is about more than just the number of books sold during the couple of hours a writer is at the venue, while some writers argue the opposite, that this situation is all about selling books. One writer offered an anecdote about a library event where the library engaged a bookseller to handle sales. The bookseller was reluctant to order in books for itself, and instead tried to get the author to bring books to the venue, where the bookseller would sell them for a 40% cut of the transaction. On her blog (scroll down to 11/6 - "Bookselling Today: A Cautionary Tale), she expressed her unhappiness.

What follows below is a slightly edited version of the response I posted to the SinC list, a description of how I as a bookseller look at sales at an offsite venue.

I'll repeat something that I quoted on this list earlier: the plural of anecdote is not data. (This quote is from a great article you'll find here: I'm sure you know that I could offer counter examples, tales of Heroic Booksellers Who Nobly Went Beyond The Call of Duty -- and I know you know I could. But if you're already soured on bookstores, well that probably won't help, and the plural of anecdote is not data so dueling anecdotes aren't the answer here anyway.

So, let's talk about this library situation, and how I look at offsite events.

As a general matter, I've used 40% for consignment situations. At the same time, I would normally not expect to need to go the consignment route for an author whose books are available on standard terms through the usual channels. My feeling is that the bookseller behaved badly in asking you to bring books when they're normally available, so I'll give you that point.

But 40%? I know that sounds like a lot, but 40% of what? If we're going to create a profit and loss statement for the event, we need more information. How many books were sold? What's the dollar value of those sales? Expenses? Did the bookseller take credit cards? Electronically or by hand? Who bore the risk of bounced checks or card transactions that could not be processed? (The risk of either bad checks or bad manual card transactions is not big, but it's not zero.)

How much time did the bookseller put into the event? Mileage or gas money?

Did the library ask the bookseller for a commission on sales? (Or for one of those "suggested" donations to the friends group?)

Libraries often pay authors honorariums for an appearance. They don't pay honorariums to booksellers who support author appearances by selling books. I'm not quarreling with the money that a library pays to an author for the event. But I would hope that others would join me in not quarreling with the money that a bookseller gets out of sales at an event. If that comes at a cost of a 40% margin on book sales, I'm okay with it.

In my experience, even at a 40% margin, offsite events are rarely profitable -- the few at which you can sell lots of books are more than offset by the ones where sales are minimal. I'll give you a detailed example. I sold books at a poetry reading 11 days ago. For about two hours in the room, I grossed $118 in sales. (I'm home now, so I'm doing these numbers off the top of my head -- forgive me if I'm off a little.) I think that the title I sold most came in at a 35% margin, and the other came in at 40%. Call it a 37% margin overall -- probably close enough. That's a gross profit of $43.66. I know that we paid freight on one of the shipments -- probably about $6 or so. We're at $37.66. No credit cards at this event -- which is unusual, but good because we don't have to figure a percentage for that, and no risk of messing up the transaction. No checks, so no risk of bouncing and no fee for depositing a check. (Hard to believe, but commercial accounts are often charged for depositing a check.)

What else? The trade book buyer and I put in about two hours' time between us to locate books from this poet's small presses, evaluate available titles and make decisions about appeal and quantities, discuss terms, place those orders and receive them. Working out logistics for this offsite event (arrangements, needs on site, packing books and putting together a cash bag to make change, finding and packing the receipt book, bookstands, etc) was relatively simple in this case -- call it 45 minutes. Event was in another building on campus, so travel time there and back was only 15 minutes. Post-event, I had to input the sales into the system, return the books to the display, return the leftover cash to the safe -- all easy in this case, call it 15 minutes. We've already returned some unsold stock to one vendor -- probably 15 minutes of processing and packing plus $6 or so for shipping. That $6 gets us to $31.66 or so. If you've been adding up all the time, the pre- and post-event time was about 3.25 hours. I was at the event for 2 hours, for a total of 5.25 hours. $31.66 divided by 5.25 nets out to $6.03 per hour. I'm salaried so the extra time -- I worked a full day came home then went back to campus to do this event -- is just extra time. But the store pays for the trade books buyer's time, and shouldn't have to count on extra time from salaried personnel to cover events. I just remembered that I haven't put in anything for mailing checks to three companies from which we purchased books -- another $1.52 in expenses for postage, not counting time for our accounting dept. to issue checks.

I type that all out not because I'm intending to offer an anecdote -- I said I wouldn't do that. I'm typing this out in full detail so that you can see that there are a lot of details involved in being a bookseller at an offsite event. In this particular case, I haven't yet even touched on the issue of in-store display that supports the event, and how much that front of store space ought to be worth. (We sold I think 6 more copies of the poet's books from the in-store display, but if the measure of an event's success is what happens in the room, then these sales don't count.)  I also haven't touched on any other aspect of publicity, something Libby's bookseller promised and failed to deliver -- but something that booksellers do indeed deliver on occasion.

Some events go better. Some go worse. But this one is in most respects utterly typical, esp. in the steps that we had to go through. Rarely is an event easier to arrange than this one -- it's not unusual to spend more time having to figure out details, esp. for the first time in a venue (which this was, but we had good support from the event's host). Rarely is an event closer than this one -- 15 minutes of travel time is hard to beat. Sometimes, it doesn't take 2 hours to locate, order and receive books. But it's always a noticeable amount of time for these steps.

Anyway ... more than you want to know. Or is it? From a bookseller's standpoint, this is the process, and all this is what we have to think about when we're measuring the success of an off-site event. Does this make 40% any more understandable?

It happens that I enjoy author events -- talks, readings, Q&As -- even when it's poetry. I enjoyed the reading that I described above; I was happy to be in the room for it. But as a business proposition? Well, you tell me. Did I make a good decision to commit my store to supporting the event by selling books there? Is there a business reason beyond dollars that justifies this effort? I'll be interested in your answers.

That’s what I posted to the list. Let me add two final notes. First, I love libraries – I was on the Friends board in my previous community, I’m speaking today at my current library (no honorarium or book sales) – and I’m delighted that libraries are hosting events, and that they’re trying to find a way to do book sales at their events. But if the current compensation system for bookstore is somehow objectionable, we're going to need to find an alternative. Secondly, if you shop at an online bookseller, I would ask you to think about whether that online bookseller would ever support an event at your local library.  This is another example of the way in which you spend your money having an effect on your community.

Mysteries and Thrillers

On the Sisters in Crime discussion list, a writer is asking for a simple way to distinguish mysteries and thrillers, and also asks whether mysteries "always have less suspense than thrillers."  Here's my reply:

A young Dane dons an antic disposition to investigate his father's murder.  That retrospective look at something that's already happened makes Hamlet a mystery, though at the time, of course, Shakespeare didn't know he was writing a mystery.  (Which accounts for the play's many frustrating failures to observe genre conventions!)

Driven by his ambitious wife, a Scotsman plots to kill the king and steal the throne, and then has to live with the consequences, as others plot to stop him.  That contemporaneous narrative focused on events as they happen or as they are about to happen makes Macbeth a thriller.

The question about the suspensefulness of mysteries versus thrillers is an interesting one.  My feeling is that the answer depends less on the elements of the narrative and more on the preferences of the reader, i.e. where you get your kicks.  If you prefer the ticking time bomb, chases and explosions, then thrillers are for you.  If you dig the intellectual challenge of puzzling out whodunit, howdunit and whydunit, then you probably prefer mysteries.

The main thing to remember, though, is that the two forms borrow shamelessly from each other.  Many great mysteries employ thriller tropes.  So, for example, the cat and mouse games that protagonists and antagonists play are present in both thrillers and mysteries.  Great thriller characters employ ratiocination to investigate and figure out what's going on.

The elements of mysteries and thrillers work well together and are intimately interwoven in our greatest stories and iconic figures.  That's why it makes sense to view both as sides of a single genre rather than two distinct forms of literature.  Sherlock Holmes is as likely to be involved in stopping a train wreck as he is to investigate why two trains collided.  As long as the game's afoot, we happily follow, regardless of which game we're playing.

"Minor" characters

On DorothyL yesterday, a writer posted this comment:

The woman who came across as "flat, stale" is a side character.  Yes, one of the more important side characters, but still only that.  How much time should an author spend developing the minor characters in a story?

Here's my reply:

At the beginning, what struck me about Crais' work was his ability to make the clients real.  Sure, Elvis and Joe were good, engaging characters.  But what I remember most about THE MONKEY'S RAINCOAT is Ellen Lang, and Crais' portrait of a woman who's so dependent on her husband that she doesn't even know how to write a check.  This was the focus of my short essay on this book that's in 100 FAVORITE MYSTERIES OF THE CENTURY, but you could also say the same about Karen Shipley in LULLABY TOWN or the kids in INDIGO SLAM.

When Elvis is focused on his clients and their problems, I'd rank him among the great fictional private eyes of all time -- right at the apex of the "private eye as social worker" movement.  (I'm often asked which among the mystery booksellers associations 100 favorites are my personal favorites.  My answer is look at the book; I was assigning the essays, so there's a clue in which titles I wrote up myself.)

When Elvis is dealing with his own issues (girlfriend, etc.), he's a bore.

Minor characters?  No such thing!  Great fiction only works when every single character is a vividly portrayed individual.  One other example: take a look at S.J. Rozan, if you haven't already.  She's an extraordinarily talented writer who does everything right -- intricate plots, great wisecracks, pitch-perfect portrayal of the uneasy relationship between her two principle characters.  But what single things do I remember most about CONCOURSE?  It's Ida Goldstein at the piano and, late in the book, the girl and the kitten.  Small moments with characters most would describe as incidental, but these small moments make big impacts.  CONCOURSE is another one of my 100 favorites essays.

Not familiar with IMBA's 100 favorites list?  Visit your local IMBA store (find one at, or you can order the book online at

Taxing online purchases

There's a conversation on the Sisters in Crime discussion list about Amazon and sales taxes.  One poster wrote:

the great question is why some, many think the state is entitled to these 'extra' revenues.  The company who ships the product to you is not taking advantage of any of the services of your state.

I've just posted this reply:

Lawyers on this list should answer this question, because they'd do a better job than I will.  But the word here is "nexus" -- an outpost, a facility, a brick & mortar element within a state.  That's what entitles the state to ask a merchant to collect sales tax.

So the issue here is not a matter of "extra" revenue or "new" taxes.  It's whether existing, well-established law applies to Amazon and other online merchants.  If Amazon has warehouses in your state, that seems like a pretty obvious nexus.  If Amazon has affiliates in your state, is that a nexus?  It's a debatable question, but Amazon seems to be taking the position that affiliates count as nexus because it withdraws its affiliate program from states that ask for taxes.  More interestingly in this internet era, does the hosting a website or a blog within a state count as nexus?  (How many of us could say for sure where our websites are housed?)

The California settlement isn't a capitulation -- by either side.  It's going to be interesting in this anti-federal moment to see whether the federal government will step up the way that Amazon is asking it to.  At the debate last week, a GOP candidate proposed a national sales tax system.  Anyone think that either Amazon or Herman Cain will get what they want?

I will add just one thing: the notion that an out of state merchant is not taking advantage of "any of the services of your state" seems to me to be to be an extreme position.  For example, state and local government pay for most of the cost of the roads that those products travel on.  State and local government respond if the vehicles that transport your purchases are involved in accidents.  (And there sure are more delivery vehicles out on the roads these days!)  If you shop over a cable modem, your local government was involved in the provision of that service (through regulation of the lines).  In some areas -- not where I am now, but in other places I have lived -- local government might take care of all the trash and/or recycling that results from all the extra packing used in shipping a product to you.  (No bringing your own tote when you're shopping online!)  If you have problems with your purchase, your state government offers consumer protections that the merchant probably hopes you don't take advantage of.

You can argue that state and local governments that are supported by sales taxes should not do any of these things.  But taking the position that Amazon does not benefit in any way from the existence of state and local governments seems a little over the top, no matter how fashionable that position is today.

Panel discussion this weekend

This Saturday, April 23 at noon, I'll be back in Indiana to moderate a panel discussion on The Future of the Mystery Novel.


In a sea of change, there isn't anything that we knew about books yesterday that we can be confident will remain true tomorrow.  We'll tackle a wide range of questions about how readers, writers, publishers and booksellers are adapting. We'll look at technology, of course, but especially at how technology might change the nature of the fiction itself.  We'll talk about the preferences of today's readers -- including young readers -- and we'll look at the ways in which change is serving or failing book lovers.


Our panel features:


Kate Stine, editor of Mystery Scene magazine, the premier guide to the genre. 


Jeff Stone, author of the very successful Five Ancestors series of historical suspense novels for younger readers -- over 500,000 copies sold. 


Larry D. Sweazy, a 2010 Best Books of Indiana nominee whose third Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger novel, The Badger's Revenge, was published earlier this month.


The conversation will begin at noon on Saturday at Barnes & Noble at 3748 E. 82nd St, Indianapolis.  (Store map page.)


The program is sponsored jointly by The Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and the Indiana Chapter of Sisters in Crime.  The program is free and open to the public. 


Hope you'll join us!

True believers

This week, SJ Rozan reported from Digital Book World on the Sisters in Crime blog ( and two other parts).  Her posts are fabulous, important and thought-provoking reading for all.

I was especially struck by one of SJ's editorial notes, on session eight, the future of independent bookstores.  She writes: "this session had a true-believer quality that made it hard to judge the realistic nature, or lack thereof, of what the speakers were saying."

I would turn this around.  It's only because readers, writers, publishers and store owners all together shared that "true-believer quality" that we ever had a strong independent bookselling community in the first place.  The book business has always been a challenging one, and independent stores survived only because all involved -- customers, shopkeepers and suppliers alike -- had an unwavering faith in the importance of what these stores were doing.

Interlopers have tested that faith, seducing both customers and suppliers with economies (real, sometimes, but more often false).  But the future clearly depends on the true-believers who will continue to count on independents' knowledge, erudition, curation and passion, and on independent booksellers' connections to their communities.  As the book business escapes its chains and, indeed, the entire industry becomes unbound (or is it unglued?), it's good to see the tide turning back towards independents, be it out of fear or necessity among those who have wavered or out of hope among those who've kept the faith.

Either way, it looks right now as though the future will be bright.  Independents certainly face challenges and it's going to be a bumpy ride.  But I do not doubt either the power or the number of true believers who sustained this industry in the past and will see it into the future.

Inside ball and corporate cultures

On the Sisters in Crime discussion list, there's been some chatter about a spreadsheet that Publishers Weekly made available on its website.  This spreadsheet appears to describe details of Amazon's levels of service for publishers.  You can find this spreadsheet on the PW website using this link -- then look for "Click here to download a spreadsheet detailing's new levels of service."  What follows are slightly edited versions of two messages that I posted on this subject to the SinC list, messages that I wrote while I was on the West Coast on SinC's 2010 summit visits to Amazon, Google, Apple and Smashwords.

I started by recalling something I learned during SinC's 2009 summit: writers write, publishers publish, distributors distribute, booksellers sell -- you have to let folks do their jobs.  One writer replied:

"Ah, Jim, you make me think of an old-fashioned husband, patting little wifey's hand and say, 'Now, dear, you don't need to understand all these complicated money matters. Be a good girl and go cook dinner.' Writers want -- need -- to understand these things because we're affected by them."

In another context on the list, the same writer wrote:

"Selling screen rights to your book is like selling a car. When the new owner drives off in the car, all you can do is wave; you have no control over what happens to it after that. When you sell screen rights to your book, the movie is
out of your control. Take the check, wave, and let it go."

There are part of the business that writer must take charge of, where you need to roll up your sleeves and get involved.  There are other parts of the business that writers just don't participate in, that are a lot more like waving and letting it go.  I think it's really important to make some distinctions, and focus energies where authors can make a difference, otherwise you'll go crazy.

What we see on the Amazon spreadsheet that so many are finding so objectionable and mysterious is all about the agreements between a publisher and a retailer, agreements that cover the publisher's body of work.  Is it a surprise that some publishers are going to be treated differently from others? In broad strokes, a writer should certainly understand a few things about her or his publisher's arrangement with retailers -- esp. whether a publisher conforms generally to standard retail marketplace practices -- and know what kind of clout a publisher has with retailers.   But beyond these broad strokes, I think writers need to let publishers and retailers do their jobs.

I don't disagree that knowledge is self-defense, but it's a matter of knowing what you need to know, understanding exactly how you can be helpful to your publisher and to retailers, and knowing when to back off.  I don't need to understand the chemistry of gasoline and oxygen and combustion to drive my car, but I know that I need to maintain proper tire pressure.

Yes, there are some inner workings of the business that every writer should understand.  (Right now, belatedly, I've become more interested in the issue of copyright, and the meaning of Google's scanning project.)  But "author pages foil banner"?  As an author, I'm not worried.  I'm not even worried as a publisher.

One aside: Amazon takes money from publishers for this stuff.  Apple does not take money for this stuff.  We'll report more on this in the 2010 Summit Report.  But I will mention this now, because the era that we're living in right now is, most of all, an opportunity to think about what you'd like this business to look like.  Co-op or no co-op?  Both models have merits, but I know which I prefer.  And I'll tip my hand by saying again that Amazon is not a monopoly -- they only have power because you all are enabling them.  There are alternatives, and not just my beloved brick and mortar independent bookstores (that many seem so eager to abandon), but online alternatives too.

What we're learning out here on these summit visits is, truly, eye-opening, and will offer writers lots of actionable ideas, ways that writers at all stages of careers can get involved.  Almost all of these ideas are free, even on Amazon.  Stay tuned for our report.

On Jul 17, 2010, at 7:13 AM, wrote:

Are Amazon's practices significantly different from those of other retailers?

The short answer is no, Amazon's practices are no different than those of any other big retailer dealing with any other big publisher.  Small independent stores and small independent publishers generally work differently.  Normally, none of this stuff is made public by either side, big or small.

The summit team asked Amazon about the spreadsheet.  The folks we met with said they were not familiar with this document -- which you may or may not choose to believe.  But they did say immediately that Amazon accepts co-op, just like others do.

As I mentioned on this list a couple of days ago, we learned that Apple does not take co-op for placement in iBookstore.  And I'll repeat this point too: the era that we're living in right now is, most of all, an opportunity to think about what you'd like this business to look like.

On my way back home, I stopped on Friday in the Chicago area, where I had a meeting with a vendor who supplies technology (among other things) to the bookstore that I manage.  The guy I met with was obviously earnest, smart, committed to his work and to his customers.  He's the kind of trading partner whom I'd be inclined to trust.  The problem is that he's working for a company that was founded in 1873, and the company is acting its age.  At Google, we were told, time is measured in milliseconds.  At this company,  the problems that I was there to talk with him about have plagued this system for 10 years, and the solution is not likely to be ready until next year.

During our travels, the four of us representing SinC talked a lot among ourselves about corporate cultures, the differences among the companies we visited, and the differences between these firms and all of the New York publishing industry.  We're going to be reporting to the Sisters in Crime membership on lots of specific details, details that matter and that you as authors will be able to act on right away.

But to me the larger questions are about corporate culture, and about who's steering the word business and their methods and motivations.  New York publishers aren't so incompetent because the individuals involved are stupid -- most everyone you meet from the NY companies is smart and serious about the work.  But there's no question that they're hamstrung by legacy practices -- a point that was made to us over and over by the new economy firms we visited.

To me, the most interesting thing about Amazon is that it's a new economy firm, but it's still trying to use old economy business practices -- such as co-op.  What does that mean?  Are they right?  It's not just the 64 billion dollar question.  It's the question about the future of words themselves.

p.s.  If you're not already a member of Sisters in Crime, I hope you'll consider joining, not just so you can see our report but for all the benefits of SinC membership. Visit for details.