... another door opens

A couple of weeks ago, I found my copy of Booked to Die. Both copies, actually, pulled out of two different boxes. One Booked to Die is a paperback full of post-it flags from when I used this book in a discussion group a five or six years ago. The other is a nice, later-printing hardcover that I brought home last year, a surrogate for the fine first edition I sold 12 or 14 or so years ago at a time when we needed money. Since closing my bookstore in Carmel, Indiana in February, and moving on to Kenyon College in Ohio, I’ve mostly been living out of boxes. The logistics of this move have been especially complicated, and I haven’t found time to unpack a whole lot. This move hasn’t gone the way my wife and I originally expected. As a result we’ve been apart for most of the last five months – she still working in Indiana while I’ve been trying to find my bearings in Ohio. Folks at Kenyon have been great, friendly and welcoming, but this still feels like a huge leap into a vast unknown. Without my wife around and with all the back and forth that we’ve been doing, it’s been a weird and difficult transition.

Pretty much from the moment I landed in Ohio, I found myself thinking about Booked to Die, John Dunning’s wonderful novel about books. Protagonist Cliff Janeway talks about his apartment, and about the “wall-to-wall books in every room.” He says “once I killed two men in the same day, and this room had an almost immediate healing effect.”

I’ve unpacked a few books in our new house, but many more of our books are still in boxes. Rooms and shelves need to be made ready, especially when the configuration of the house the books came from is so different from the house they’re going into. Books take time.

In the meantime, I’ve found that the healing effect of books just doesn’t work when they’re all boxed up. As Dunning writes later in Booked to Die, it’s “a comfort to see a book you loved on the shelf.” Seeing them seems to be key.

Each morning as I arrive at my new workplace, the vast and wonderful Kenyon College Bookstore, I walk past the mystery section. When I arrived on February 15, I found a few familiar books already there. Armand Gamache’s latest case stood out, but it seemed lonely without the rest of Louise Penny’s wonderful books to keep it company. I see Harry Bosch in 9 Dragons, and over and over again I relive that heartbreaking shooting in Hong Kong. But most of what surrounded me in my own store in Indiana was absent when I arrived in Ohio. The many real friends I made in my store might not follow me, but surely my fictional friends should be here!

Over the past few weeks and months, when I’ve had a few minutes, I’ve worked on the mystery section. Lydia Chin & Bill Smith are here now, along with Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin, Kiki Lowenstein, Sweeney St. George, Peter Diamond, Kate Fansler, Lincoln Perry and Lew Archer. Kiki’s creator, Joanna Campbell Slan, even stopped by for a conversation/demonstration a few weeks ago, and I can’t tell you how lovely it was to see her here. Marcus Didius Falco, Siri Paiboun and Joe Sandilands have arrived, bringing along their entire lush worlds; I feel like I’m in India every time I see The Last Kashmiri Rose. I wouldn’t call Lou Ford a friend, but he’s found a place on our shelves too – perhaps a matter of keeping enemies closer? I’ve brought in the rest of Louise Penny’s books; I’m even happier to see that they’ve been going out too. The section has a ways to go before it’s a really good one, but it has come a long way and, yes, it’s a comfort to see these books every day.

It’s been really interesting to reread Booked to Die this week, and to think about it in the context of where the book business is right now. Booked to Die is a great novel, as elegant as mysteries come, with a stunner of a last line. So you can read it with all the pleasure and rewards that we get from the very best mysteries out there.

More importantly, though, Booked to Die is about books themselves, and how we relate to books more as objects than as texts. Cliff Janeway appreciates great literature, and he’s dismissive of bad books and bad authors – by name. Throughout Booked to Die, he tells us about books he loves and uses characters and situations to talk about himself – “I was like Fred Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: I had started out a sane and decent man and slowly the obsession had turned me crazy.”

Still, it’s impossible to read Booked to Die without seeing that Janeway’s love of books is mostly about the objects themselves. He tells us that the right way to build a collection is to keep the books you like – always good advice – but Janeway’s own words and deeds make clear that the worthiness of the text is merely a threshold. That love of the words might get you in the door, but what really excites him is the book itself – its features, points, signatures, associations, etc. – and the thrill of the chase. This novel is filled with Janeway’s loving descriptions of books. More than once, characters talk about how handling books is like having sex.

Booked to Die was published in 1992, and it’s a perfect description of a particular moment in antiquarian bookselling, a pre-internet era when books were found in real bookstores, or purchased and sold through notices in AB Bookman’s Weekly. Back in those days, we didn’t usually think about the book and its text as distinct things (even though we pursued first editions and dismissed book club editions). The text, the paper it was printed on, the binding and the covers that held it all together – all this we thought of as one thing.

Things are different today. The internet forces us to consider text apart from the means by which that text is delivered. You have to wonder what the ultimate bookman Cliff Janeway would make of this. I’m no Cliff Janeway, but I too love the look and feel of a book, and not just because I find the book to be a great way to access text. I’m reassured by the books that I own, and take pleasure in seeing books not just on their shelves, but on nightstands, dining room tables, the floor by the couch and everywhere else my books can be found. No one who owns two copies of Booked to Die can pretend to be anything other than a lover of books as objects.

Still, at the end of the day, much as I enjoy the feel of book in my hand and the presence of books around me, I know that it’s the words that matter. So why do I find the separation of text from the means that text is delivered so troubling? Some of it is simply a matter of being forced out of the comfort zone of books. Some of it is crass: will there continue to a place for independent bookstores in the new digital age? (Given that I draw a salary from an independent bookstore, this is no idle concern.)

But more generally, what I really wonder about is what the transition of text from print to digital means, and how our relationship to words will change. It’s one thing to say that digital is “just another format,” just like the difference between a paperback and a hardcover. But do we really mean it? We already know, for example, that folks relate to audiobooks differently from print books. Of course they do: there’s a reader involved, and that reader is bound to bring a new element to the table.

Even when we’re talking about hardcovers and paperbacks, there’s a difference. Think about what the rise of the mass market paperback meant to the mystery genre, the kinds of writers who found an audience in mass market. Think The Killer Inside Me would have seen print were it not for a paperback mill like Lion Books? Even today, the mystery genre perpetuates a distinction between work published in hardcover and work published in paperback. Isn’t that why we have different awards for paperback originals?

We don’t any of us know how the digitization of text will change our relationship to text, but we already know that it’s going to be different. What kind of pride of ownership will a digital library engender? What does ownership mean when the provider of your e-book reader can snatch back a text without warning?

It’s already obvious that many value words differently when they arrive via download. There’s enormous consternation over the pricing of digital books. I was startled by this statement, posted on a mystery discussion list that I follow: “I recently decided to try a new author who has been around for a while, has several books out. Each of them was $11.99/$12.99 on Kindle. Really hard to understand since only one of them was a recent pub. But, since I draw the line at the $9.99 that Amazon promised, I ordered none of them.” As I bookseller, I’ve always believed that the hard work was in persuading a customer to try a new writer. Here’s someone who’s been persuaded, and yet he was dissuaded by a hard line on price that he believes a retailer “promised” him.

I don’t know what the price of an electronic text should be. Much of the conversation focuses on the fact that without ink, paper and binding, electronic texts must inevitably cost much less than paper texts. Still, writers need to be paid. Editors need to be paid. A book needs to be marketed, in order to find its audience. Paper and binding are small slices of the cost of a book. Who’s to say that the digital infrastructure that makes electronic texts available is any less costly?

I took the job at Kenyon College for a lot of reasons, but a big part of it is my own confusion about how we deal with words in this digital age. Last year, I confronted the fact that most leaders in the independent mystery bookselling community were unwilling to engage Amazon in a conversation about electronic texts. I began to see that I needed to look in different directions, that as the owner of a small, genre specialty bookstore, I didn’t have all the resources I might need to think through and to implement a way forward.

Right now, technology is driving the way we approach, relate to and own words. I like Apple and I like Google, and I use their products and services many times every day. But I’m not at all sure that I want decisions about the future of text to be made by the technologists. We know that leadership isn’t going to come from the big New York publishers and, frankly, we probably don’t want them involved. We don’t want to give the same people who’ve made so much of a mess of the business over the past few decades any opportunities to mess up our future.

Readers encounter words in any number of contexts, and we are fortunate that there are so many different ways in which writers and readers intersect and in which readers share words with each other. But in the business of words, bookstores are where the rubber meets the road. It’s in bookstores that readers exchange dollars for words. At least bookstores are where this interaction has taken place for the last few hundred years.

With the proliferation of electronic texts, the exchange of money for words moves out of stores and onto websites. Even chain bookstores are looking for ways to drive customers out of their stores and onto websites. The last time I walked into a Barnes & Noble store, I was greeted not by the traditional display of alluring new titles, but by a large kiosk promoting the company’s electronic text reader. This, too, is all very interesting, but are book lovers well served by this display?

My new position at the Kenyon College Bookstore offers a different vantage point from which to consider these issues and different resources to draw on. Kenyon is many things, but most of all it’s a community that values words. Where else but Gambier, Ohio would a village Fourth of July celebration include the naming of a 2010 Poet Laureate? Words matter here.

More to the point, it’s my hope that Kenyon and other communities that love words will find ways to take charge of the environment we’re in. The lack of vision and leadership among big publishing companies is allowing the New Economy to dictate how readers access texts. Is that what’s best for book lovers? Folks at Kenyon have the right tools – the passion and the intellect – to think about where we are and where we ought to be going. Wouldn’t you rather see decisions about the future of text made by people for whom words come first?

I don’t have any answers, but I hope I’m now where I need to be to ask the right questions.

* * *

This coming week, I’ll traveling as part of Sisters in Crime’s summit team. Each year, SinC’s board sends a delegation to visit industry leaders to learn more about what they’re working on and to report back to the membership. This year, we decided to talk with Amazon, Google, Apple’s iBookstore and Smashwords. We plan to begin reporting at the conclusion of this trip. If you’re not already a member of Sisters in Crime, I urge you to join, not just to see our report but for all the benefits of SinC membership. Visit www.sistersincrime.org for details.

One door closes ...

The Mystery Company is closing its doors.  The store that my wife, my staff, and all our customers and friends built here in Carmel, Indiana, and have struggled to sustain for nearly seven years will shut down in the next week or so.

We've just hosted our last two author events; we have discussion groups this week; we'll celebrate our time together here at a party on Saturday, January 30, 1:00 - 3:00 pm; and then we'll be wrapping up operations in the first few days of February.  We'll be at the Carmel Clay Public Library to support the launch of Jeff Stone's DRAGON on February 9 -- that will be our last event.

There will be some kind of clearance sale, or perhaps someone will come along ready and able to buy out our inventory/business in whole or in large part, and be able to carry on in some way -- we're open to all possibilities -- but I'll be moving on to new challenges in a new job out of state.  I start on February 15 at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, where I'll be general manager of the college's bookstore.

It's hard to express how disappointed we are that things didn't work out at The Mystery Company, and how much we'll miss the many friends we've made here in Indiana.  We've given this everything we could and we've had a great run.  In the end, though, it just wasn't enough.

Business here has been rough for a while, especially since gas prices spiked in the summer of 2008. Up 'til then, sales weren't great, but at least they were slowly growing. Almost overnight, though, that incremental growth evaporated and we started seeing our numbers turn negative.   We'd hoped to see a boost from our involvement in Bouchercon 2009; the convention was a great success and we did sell a lot of books at the convention.  But the costs of our participation -- in terms of both time and money -- were overwhelming, and we've seen no residual effects on our sales -- no additional walk-in business, no additional internet/telephone orders, nothing.  (That's been kind of a shock to us.)  Finally, we hoped for a good holiday season, but our sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year were once again disappointing -- our second straight poor holiday season.

I haven't had a paycheck from the store for two years, and we weren't feeling as though that would turn around anytime soon.  The only reason I've been able to stick with this so long is that Jennie has been well-employed, paid reasonably well by a company that offers important stuff like health insurance.  For some time, though, she has felt that she's been on shakier and shakier ground.  Her employer has been engulfed in its own problems and is in the midst of eliminating 5500 positions.  In particular, it has been actively working to outsource the kind of work that she's been doing.  Jennie still has a job today, but it's become increasingly difficult to believe that she'd continue to be employed there for much longer.  And even while she is there, the company's management has worked hard to make life difficult for its employees.  Instead of responding to the many pressures on it with grace and respect for the staff, it's engaging in the kinds of tactics that are designed to get people to quit so that the company doesn't have to offer buyouts.

(As I've been talking about our situation over the past few weeks, I've found that folks completely understand the difficulties that the store is facing and are completely understanding of our decision to close.  On the other hand, everyone is finding it difficult to believe that things at my wife's employer are so bad, and that the company has treated our family so poorly in these last few weeks.  It used to be a wonderful place to work, the kind of firm that truly valued its employees.  It's not like that anymore, and I think that the difficulty folks have believing that stems from real fear about what this company's new and horrible pattern of behavior might mean for this community.)

Since we no longer believed that Jennie was likely to stay in her job long enough to get us through paying for college for our daughters, we began to consider our next steps.

We thought hard about the book business, and what it might take for a small, independent store like ours to stay afloat.  The business is changing dramatically, pulled in many directions all at once.  Shoppers are shopping differently, big retailers are engaging in ruinous price wars and technology is completely rewriting the book on the book itself.

Our goal has always been to create an environment that offers opportunities for connection -- readers with books, readers with each other, readers and writers, readers with literary communities here in Indiana and across the globe.  While we still believe in the goal, we've found it difficult to achieve in this context.  The streetscapes of the Indianapolis metropolitan area aren't friendly to small, locally-owned independents -- far too much of the development around here is designed to exclude rather than include.  This is our second location, and while it's better than our original spot on Rangeline Road, it's still problematic.  The culture of discounting is at odds with a culture of customer service. We can't tell you how frustrated we are with the increasing number of people who are coming to us for advice, but are obviously doing most of their buying from others.  And, finally, the lousy economy is a drag on all of us, making it difficult for even our strongest supporters to spend much of their money here right now.

We can imagine strategies to deal with some of these issues, and the economy is cyclical, so some of the pressures would ease on their own were we able to wait things out without the pressure on our family that Jennie's job situation has created.  At the same time, though, there are larger challenges that won't go away without serious investments of time and money. We believe that even a locally-focused store that's built on the idea of getting to know our customers has to be built on strong technology.  Independent booksellers need to find ways to participate in print on demand, to offer electronic texts and the devices on which they're read, and to be available 24/7 with robust, full-featured virtual stores on the web in addition to keeping our real, brick-and-mortar stores open and lively.  Some of this is possible today, some of this is still beyond the reach of small independents.  But going forward, all of this is necessary and all of this will take resources beyond what we have at our disposal.

Making the decision to close hasn't been easy, but we knew that things had to change for both the business and for our family.  This position at Kenyon offers an opportunity to apply all my experience in a community that truly values books and words, and I'm especially looking forward to working through all of the book business' larger issues among so many smart people.  I love what I do, but I have been doing this for over 22 years now, working as a mystery bookseller in Boston, Kalamazoo and Carmel since 1987.  Kenyon will offer a fresh context and fresh perspectives, and I'm excited to be joining such an amazing community.

I'm not disappearing from the mystery genre.  Though I'm giving up our retail store, I'll still be doing the occasional mystery publishing project through my company The Crum Creek Press.  (We have some cool stuff in the works.)  I'm still expecting to be able to attend at least two mystery conventions this year.  And, of course, we do sell mysteries at The Kenyon Bookstore.

It's been a great ride here at The Mystery Company, and I'm grateful to all of you who've been along for part or all of it, all of you who've made it possible and made it so wonderful.  We've done so much here together!

Please keep an eye on our website and emails for details about our last days, and I hope to see many of you at the party on Saturday, January 30, 1:00 - 3:00 pm.  We are offering $10 off any purchase of $40 or more and $30 off any purchase of $100 or more, in store on on our website.  If you're ordering on the web, just ask for this discount in the special instructions box on the checkout form, and we'll apply the discount when we process your order.

Thank you!

Fish stories

It’s all about the metaphor.

We know what a “real” book is, how it looks and feels, which end is up, how the pages turn.  An electronic book is a different kettle of fish.

Indeed, an electronic book is just as much like a “real” book as is a kettle of fish.  Neither the electronic book nor the kettle of fish has a cover, leaves of paper that can be turned or flipped through, or page corners that can be folded down to mark your place. If we’re not reading a real book with real pages on real paper, then what we’re doing with either an electronic book or a kettle of fish is a metaphor for the process of reading a real book.

There are a fair number of folks who find the very concept of reading an electronic text as sensible and appealing as trying to read fish, but this number is getting smaller every day.  Here in my small, independent bookstore in Indiana, I have customers who are as far from early adapters as you can imagine asking “what’s a Kindle?”  More and more of my regulars have already taken the plunge.

Neither Amazon’s Kindle nor the current version of the competing Sony Reader is a bad piece of equipment.  They work, they have plusses and minuses.  Mostly, they’re good first drafts.  You can see where this is going, but they’re not there yet.

The biggest problem?  Neither has the metaphor just right.  As electronic reading devices, they are both closer to the “real” reading experience than kettles of fish.  But pushing a button isn’t the same as turning a page.  It’s not difficult, but it doesn’t look right and it doesn’t feel right.  It’s just not what we’re used to.

Then my colleague Austin Lugar showed me the Kindle reader on his iPod Touch.  Suddenly, I saw the metaphor done right.  You turn pages with a flick of the finger -- the same motion you’d use to page through a “real” book.  If you want, you can even dogear a page.

The Kindle app lacks some important features and the iPod’s small screen size limits the experience. But it masters the hard part: it gets the metaphor right.  Turning these electronic pages is as natural as turning paper pages.  It’s not something you have to get used to; it’s what you already do. You can feel how the e-book reading experience can be as familiar, comfortable and comforting as reading a real book.

Because it’s all about the metaphor.

As an independent bookseller who’s also an independent publisher, I can’t tell you how torn I feel about what’s going on.  I’m in this because I like to connect people and books -- that’s my mission and that’s my passion.  It’s cool to imagine how electronic books and electronic book systems (be they dedicated pieces of hardware or smartphone apps) will expand readership and put books in front of folks who just aren’t picking up old-fashioned paperbacks and hardcovers.  Like every other person in the book business, I want to see more people reading more of the time.

At the same time, the bookseller in me sees the writing on the wall.  Increased market share for e-books is likely to mean a decreased market share for the small independent bookshop.  The pie will expand, but a lot of the pie will move out of brick and mortar stores.  Once we move from selling the tangible good to providing digital downloads, it’s a whole new ball game, one that we’re not equipped to win.

Recently, the independent booksellers’ trade association, the American Booksellers Association, announced a program that will allow store-branded ABA-operated websites to sell e-book downloads for the Sony.  While this isn’t a bad program, one can already see the problem: e-book downloads aren’t a part of the “real” store. They are instead connected to websites that rely on the association’s virtual infrastructure.  No longer are small independent stores quite so independent.  No longer are we putting books in people’s hands.  We are, instead, web mavens, trying to understand and manage a metaphor for putting books in people’s hands.

On the other hand, the publisher in me is truly excited about the possibilities of the new frontier.  My publishing company has achieved a modest level of success.  Our books are well and widely reviewed. We’ve been nominated for and won more than our share of significant awards in our genre. Given the constraints of our resources, we can’t be unhappy with our sales.

Electronic books are a whole new market, offering even my tiny little publishing house the opportunity to reach a lot of new readers. There is considerable chatter about the fact that Kindle is a proprietary file format and, from a consumer’s point of view, it’s a closed system. There’s also much gnashing of teeth over about Amazon’s pricing practices for Kindle downloads.

On the other hand, Amazon offers small publishers the opportunity to walk onto their site and make Kindle versions of our titles available with little fuss and no expense.  In terms of access to this market, my tiny little publishing company now offers four titles in Kindle format, side-by-side with titles from Random House. Sony does not yet offer this functionality to us. Others provide access, but for a fee.

I’d like to be able to publish -- if that’s the still right term -- in all e-formats, and I’m sure that at some point, my tiny little publishing company will find a way to do so.  But in the meantime, we’ll take what’s being given.  You can now get Kate Flora’s Chosen for Death and Stalking Death and Terence Faherty’s Kill Me Again and In A Teapot on your Kindle, your iPod or your iPhone. You can discover these fabulous books by these fabulous writers.  And that’s what this is all about, it’s it?  The opportunity as a publisher to help put books in front of readers who are going to love them. (Go! Use these links to download them now!  You will love them!)

No longer are we talking about fish confined to a kettle.  As a publisher, I can leave the kettle to seek greener pastures.  Ok, there may be a limit to the usefulness of this metaphor.  But there are fewer limits to what we might now be able to accomplish.

Some guy named Dan Brown has a new book

I sent this offer to my store's email list earlier today.  Four hours into the offer, we still have few copies left...

Some guy named Dan Brown seems to have a new book that goes on sale today.  It's called The Lost Symbol, and boy is there a lot of desperation out there surrounding this new release.  In over twenty years of bookselling, I don't think I've ever seen like this!  Folks are falling all over themselves to give the thing away.

It all started with the publisher.  Our very nice Random House sales rep contacted us over and over again to get us to take a few copies. I bet we heard more from her about this one title than we did about every other new Fall title combined.  (Random House publishes many very fine writers whose work must just sell itself, since we hear so little about those books from them.)  If they were spending so much time and energy on The Lost Symbol, they must have been really worried that no one would want it!

I think that stores might have picked up on the publisher's concern because they're doing so very much to get you to buy it from them.  Have you been getting all those emails too?  The ones from the chain stores and online outlets offering huge discounts on this one title?  It just seems weird, doesn't it?  These big, big chain stores and even bigger online stores offer thousands of titles yet use so much of their email bandwith to sell you this one title at a price so low that they can't possibly make any money on it.  Truly they must be worried that they'll end up stuck with lots and lots of unsold copies.

We did oblige the publisher and take a dozen copies of The Lost Symbol, which will go on sale when we open in a couple of hours at 10:30 a.m.  I guess we've caught the bug, and are just as worried as everyone else is that no one will want it.  So we'll make this offer, limited to just the 12 copies we have on hand: buy $35 of other books from us in store, your choice, new or used, and we'll give you The Lost Symbol free.  If you can't make it in to the store, buy $50 of books from us online or over the phone, and we'll throw The Lost Symbol into the box for no additional charge.  As always, we will not add a  charge for standard shipping to any address in the US.

We do have lots of other great books in stock right now.  It won't be hard for you to find either $35 or $50 worth of books that you really want.

It would be nutty to think that a store like ours could get into a discounting war with all the big guys who are trying to trying so hard to give The Lost Symbol away.  But we are just as concerned as they are about being stuck with these things that -- given the signals everyone is sending -- probably no one wants.  So we will literally just give it away to the first 12 people, one copy each.

You can shop online beginning now -- www.themysterycompany.com -- or come in to the store starting at 10:30 a.m. If you shop online, be sure to put at least $50 of books into your shopping cart, and just mention "Lost Symbol" in the special instructions box on the checkout form.

(OK, I may be a little sarcastic about the rationale, but I am serious about this offer.  Don't hesitate to take advantage of it! Once these 12 copies are gone, we're done.)

Answers from a convention organizer

There's been some chatter on the Sisters in Crime discussion list about conventions.  I posted a long answer to the list earlier this week, and I'm sharing it with you all here today.  I realize that this is coming in on middle of a conversation, but I think that this will still make sense out of context.  If you're not a member of SinC and/or you're not on this list, I'd urge you to join both -- these are interesting and useful resources. (SinC website)

"Is there any panel organizer on the list who is brave enough to tell us the criteria they use to assign authors? "

Is it just me, or does this question sound somewhat hostile to you too? As co-chair of Bouchercon 2009, I have of course been following the comments here about conferences with more than a little interest. It may just be the circumstances that I find myself in -- sacrificing far more than I can afford on a job that's turned out to be way more difficult and distressing than I expected. I went into this process believing that an all-volunteer fan conference such as Bouchercon is a "we're all in this together" experience. That belief is being tested over and over again, each and every day, not just in the messages here, but in many aspects of our planning.

I don't think that the author who asked this question means to be hostile, nor do I think that most folks who comment about conferences mean to be hostile. At the same time, it is sobering to see Rosemary write "believe me, there are still people who give me dirty looks because I didn't do enough to get them to Murder 203." I know what she means, though. A programming decision that I made earlier this year has already cost me several twenty-year friendships.

Your Bouchercon 2009 program committee is right now deeply engaged in trying to find a way to give over 400 writers some kind of opportunity to be a part of the formal schedule. The answer to the question is really pretty simple: we schedule the participants that we believe are most likely to be of interest to our audience. To be sure, we look at popularity -- of course the big names are big draws -- but we also look at author's books, recall what we've seen authors say on lists like this one, visit websites (our browser histories for the last few weeks are dominated by your web pages), and solicit and heed the suggestions of folks we trust. We've all read widely. We've been to conferences. As program chair for Magna Cum Murder, I've already worked with hundreds of writers over the years.

All of this research and all of these experiences go into assembling the program. If you're not on the schedule, ultimately, it means one of two things: 1) despite our best efforts, we just couldn't find a way to include you or 2) we didn't think you would be as big a draw as other folks. It's pretty much as simple as that, so simple that you probably didn't need me to tell you that.

To the extent that it's called for, bravery lies not in saying "we did our best but couldn't find a spot for you" or "in designing program, we're looking for ways to reward service to the genre" or even "we found someone else more interesting." That's all kind of obvious, isn't it? Bravery (or foolhardiness -- it's often hard to tell the difference) lies in being willing take up the challenge in the first place.

Will we make mistakes? Of course we will. We'll get the mix of people wrong. Someone will turn out to be a bore. We'll miss out on a topic of importance. We'll meet someone whom we didn't schedule and find him or her so charming that we'll wish we did. I've told my committee -- which is working harder right now than you can imagine -- that we must not be afraid of making mistakes. We'll do the best we can and hope that we got more right than we got wrong.

And then we'll just have to learn to live with the dirty looks.

If one approaches a convention with an entitlement mentality -- i.e. the convention owes me a spot on the program or owes me XX number of book sales -- one will inevitably be disappointed. Nothing we can do as convention organizers can ever live up to these kinds of specific demands. No program assignment will ever be good enough. No quantity of book sales will ever be sufficient. I've written before (perhaps even here?) that if your convention experience depends on the few minutes that you'll speak to an audience as one-fifth of a 55-minute panel discussion, then please don't even think about registering for Bouchercon 2009. That's a bad attitude, and while we welcome everyone, we don't welcome bad attitudes.

I fully agree with Pari, who writes "even if a writer gets a crappy panel (and I've had my share), there's still the hospitality room and the bar and the restaurants -- even the darn hallway or lobby -- all places to make connections for current and future sales." As a conference bookseller, I've often heard folks say that they made the decision to buy a book because they chatted with the author at lunch or at the bar.

And more generally, I strongly agree with Barbara who thinks "the key to a good convention experience is remembering it's about extravagant love of mysteries and the reading experience, a bonding of people who are quite honestly a little obsessed about a genre and like being among their peers."

I would add only that we need to remember who our peers are. At a conference like Bouchercon, every one of us is there first and foremost as a fan. We may identify ourselves as writers, librarians, booksellers, agents, publishers, etc. But we all come to Bouchercon because we share a passion for our genre, and for books themselves. Sandy asks "why not cater to writers and to fans?" My feeling is that fans are the ONLY constituency that matters because we are all fans.

A few comments on some other points:

ON THE MONEY, PART 1 - PAYING PEOPLE: This may not be the ideal way to run a railroad, but Bouchercon has grown up around an all-volunteer model. What that means is that no one is paid for their work on the event -- not the organizers, not the presenters, no one. In fact, like presenters, my co-chair and I are paying for the privilege of hosting Bouchercon 2009. We wrote the first and second registration checks that Bouchercon collected. We needed to. At the time we got the ball rolling, we had not yet received any pass-along funds. The first expenses that the committee incurred -- making up flyers, application fees for the corporate stuff (such as non-profit status), copying and mailing registration acknowledgements -- were literally paid for out of these first dollars kicked in by the core members of our committee in the form of registrations. This is the model we're working with. Would another model, one that allows Bouchercon to pay staffers and presenters, be better? My feeling is no, that having everyone (other than guests of honor) kick in their own registration and expenses preserves the fan nature of the event. It's an arguable proposition, but until we take the time to have that argument, we're doing the best we can with the model we have. Bouchercon 2009's ability to attract so many people, including some of the biggest names in the genre, suggests that the model still works.

ON THE MONEY, PART 2 - BUYING BOOKS: I wish that more people recognized that the booksellers who are willing to stock and staff tables in the dealer's room are providing a valuable service. Instead, booksellers often feel like punching bags, having to endure complaints from writers who haven't thought about just how hard it is to be a bookseller at a conference. Think for a moment about the 20-copy number from Murder 203. In terms of sales, Liz writes that this is "a lot or a little." However you may look at this as an author, it's not a little thing for the bookseller, who might be contemplating a list of 400 writers at 20 books each for a total of 8000 books -- even before scaling up from Murder 203 attendance to Bouchercon attendance. If booksellers are cautious, if booksellers expect returnability, if booksellers ask for a 40% discount, don't automatically assume that booksellers are lazy or incompetent or greedy. Think about the quantities, about the hours to order, to haul and to return, and about all the sunk dollars in inventory before you lodge a complaint.

ON THE M ONEY, PART 3 - CONVENTIONS ARE EXPENSIVE: I'm glad to see folks try out low-cost approaches to running a convention. But most low-cost alternatives do come with other "costs," such as kid-sized desks in a school setting. I'm astonished by how much things cost at our host hotel and at the other venues we're working with. But if you want a nice setting, you have to pay the price. Our A/V costs alone will be over $40,000. While you’re sitting in our lovely hotel in the heart of Indianapolis’ lovely, convention-oriented downtown, think about that number. For the 1600 - 1700 or so people we'll have at Bouchercon, that means that about $25 of your registration dollars will go just to microphones, an occasional projector or two, etc.

ON FREE BOOKS AND WASTE: You will not receive a load of free books at registration at Bouchercon 2009. Instead, we are designing different opportunities for readers to get free books. We're doing this for a lot of reasons, but avoiding waste is a big part of our planning. We believe that the mass distribution of sacks full of books on arrival is a really poor use of resources. Especially in this brutal economy, we are all trying to be smarter and more efficient about everything -- including the ways we make free books available. As for extra books, Bouchercon 2009 will be working with Feeding Body and Mind to take care of leftovers -- and we will be soliciting donations for this group from all attendees. The bag, incidentally, costs about $4000. We are grateful to the Mystery Writers of America for sponsoring the Bouchercon 2009 bag.

ON ALTERNATIVE PROGRAMMING: Pari was kind enough to note that I've been experimenting with new ideas at Magna Cum Murder. I've been fortunate to work with an inventive and energetic group of authors, and to work with a conference chair who gave me complete freedom to innovate. We'll be bringing a lot of these ideas to Bouchercon: continuous conversation, resolutions, "one conference, one book," a first novelists' round robin, etc., and we'll be doing a few new things, such as a craft room and the Bazaar. You can read about some of this stuff on our website. The overall goal is to foster connections. I agree with Hope, who says of writers that she wants "to listen to them speak as normal people, not someone famous." I think that "one conference, one book" is especially effective for this as it gives everyone a common place to begin a conversation. One thing we won't do is just put a single writer in a room with no topic -- "15 minutes of fame" or whatever other events call this. Though these sessions can sometimes be effective -- and they're a great way to do a bookstore event -- this feels to me too much like an "it's all about me" approach to a convention. Really, no convention session should be all about an individual writer -- other than the few guest of honor feature sessions.

ON INVOLVING GROUPS: Reed notes that organizations such as SinC, MWA and ITW "have vast experience with conferences large and small" and that they "represent the interests of their members." I fully agree with his suggestion that conference planners engage these groups in the planning process, and we have in fact given these and other groups the opportunity to design and sponsor sessions on our program. I have reached out in many different ways to many different organizations and companies because I know that they're capable of bringing different experiences and expertise to the table. In most cases, folks have been eager to find ways to partner with us. Sisters and Crime is doing some extraordinary stuff, including the pre-conference SinC into Great Writing, an incredible value for writers, and a tea that honors librarians. Our vision is simple: Bouchercon doesn't belong to any one group or constituency or point of view, it belongs to the genre as a whole. In bringing in these groups -- and more -- we are trying to make that vision a reality.

GETTING INVOLVED: We've been watching some old episodes of The West Wing at home, and a line from a first season episode has been stuck in my head lately: "decisions are made by people who show up." Leslie urges folks to volunteer to help with conventions. I do too. Show up, participate in making decisions, and help keep these conventions vibrant. These events are important resources that help keep our genre great, and they need your help!

The power of the dodo

I'm responding this morning to posts on Murder Must Advertise, a list that discusses the marketing of mysteries (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MurderMustAdvertise/ -- you'll need a yahoo id). One poster wrote that "all books read just the same" while author Jeri Westerson (whose debut novel Veil of Lies is lots of fun) wrote:

"... the original model is outdated. I think hardcovers will go the way of the dodo as just too expensive to produce, ship, and sell."

Actually, Jeri, I think that hardcovers can and should be an increasingly large part of the mystery business, at least for the foreseeable future. (Which in this era of technological revolution means what ... maybe five, ten years?)

My feeling is that there are still a lot of readers who value the feel of a book in their hands, for whom reading is a visceral experience as much as it is an emotional/intellectual one.  Clutching a book is a little like holding a teddy bear: the object itself is comforting, apart from the words inside (which can also be comforting).

That's something that's rarely talked about in discussions of where the business is going, but I think we're foolish if we forget the power of the book itself and we're foolish if this industry fails to main high standards in book design and production.  I disagree with the statement that "all books read just the same." They certainly don't sell just the same.  That's why publishers spend so much time trying to get covers right.  It's absolutely vital that we craft a package that lives up to value of the text. The look and feel of the book can be a huge impetus in getting a buyer to take that text home -- or a deterrent.  Publishers who go cheap on production values -- and there are lots who are going this route -- are not just imperiling one title's chances of success but are undermining the appeal of the book itself.

One of the reasons my publishing company's edition of Terence Faherty's In a Teapot was successful (to the limited extent that it was) was that we were able to design a book that looks and feels right.  Faherty's words are wonderful -- and earned him a Shamus Award nomination for best novel. But we also got a lot of compliments for the book itself: an attractive cover, a trim size that's neither too big nor too small, nice interior illustrations (by Robin Agnew) at the head of each chapter, etc.  This book was also a Dilys Award nominee and it won a Benjamin Franklin Award from what was then the Publishers Marketing Association.  Teapot is a great story, but I think that even the author would agree that the package helped the story achieve all this attention and recognition.

Cost-wise, there's not a big difference in producing hardcovers vs. paperbacks (if you're running traditional offset).  The only real difference is the price of the jacket; the difference in the book itself isn't significant. (That's one reason you've seen some folks experiment with jacket-less hardcovers.) Hardcovers are more expensive to ship. But once in the store, they're no more expensive to sell.  In fact, if I take 15 minutes working with a customer to find books he or she will enjoy, I'd just as soon that person buy hardcovers. The unit price is higher, and as a result the gross dollar value of the sale is higher.

(Actually, many of our regulars buy enough paperbacks at a time so that their sales add up to significant sums.  And if we're really talking about profitability, the better gross margin is in used books anyway. Really, I'm grateful for every single sale, especially in this economic environment!)

I'm not knocking e-books. There's no question that e-books are a part of our future.  We're talking about how we'll talk about e-books at Bouchercon 2009, recognizing that readers and writers need to know about what this technological shift means for the stories they love, what kind of experience we're getting with e-books. Should we even be calling an "e-book" a book?  I'd like to see us think in terms of "book" for the physical object and "text" for the words the author has written.  But that may just be me, and this is a conversation that I'd like to see us all have.

Ultimately, of course, it's the words that matter.  But text isn't all there is to the reading experience, and the form of the text has huge impact on how those words reach readers -- or whether those words will reach readers at all.

Who bucks up whom?

This morning, I'm reacting to a question posed on the Sisters in Crime discussion list, and to a related discussion there about marketing bestsellers versus "long tail" marketing.

Here's the question from the SinC list, posed by Barbara Fister (whose latest book, In the Wind, is terrific):

Very few consumers realize the books they see most prominently featured are a function of money. Am I correct in thinking that, though indies get some coop dollars for promotion, they don't get big bucks for placement - so that in indies you generally are seeing the books the bookseller thinks are good, not just the ones the publisher wants promoted? Mind you, I wouldn't begrudge you the bucks... but to me that would be a meaningful distinction in choosing where to shop as a consumer.

I agree that this is a vitally important distinction.   Generally speaking, display space in chain stores is publisher-driven.  Display space in independents is largely driven by the preferences of real, local book-lovers who know books and know their customers. The distinction between chain stores and independents isn't completely black and white -- certainly not in the way that there's hard line between the inclusive practices of all bookstores versus the very restrictive (and I think destructive) methods of the discount stores (such as Walmart, Costco, etc.).  I'm not saying that the mystery buyer at B&N (whom I've talked with) doesn't know and love mysteries; what I am saying is that he works within one limited system, while as an independent I have the flexibility and freedom to promote and sell whatever books I like, regardless of system.

Independent stores like mine do get some co-op money -- usually for events and/or newsletter mentions. I'm grateful for every dollar that publishers approve for us.  But it's a drop in the bucket, and it takes real work to earn that kickback. (We spend many multiples of what we get in co-op on marketing and promotion.)  So it's not like the major subsidy that chain stores get for doing something that all booksellers ought to be doing anyway -- just putting books out for display in a way that should maximize sales.

Over and over again, I write that you all as consumers have a say in what the marketplace for books is going to look like in the future. Different stores offer readers different kinds of choices, different opportunities to discover new writers you'll cherish, different opportunities for writers and publishers to reach readers.  What the chain stores offer is a single publisher-driven, centrally-planned, top-down system. It's not an awful system and not all of the results of the system are bad, but this system has real limitations. What independent stores offer is careful, individual attention and consideration that can build into a groundswell, a foundation for multiple kinds of success -- local, regional, national.  This isn't a perfect process either, but it's a whole lot more open and it results in many more interesting choices.

A healthy book business would support both models of bookselling.  Even as an independent bookseller, I recognize that there are things that the chain stores do very well.  But there are other things that independents do well.  Publisher money supports what the chains are doing.  It's up to readers and writers individually to support what independents do.  That's where you all have to make a choice, and where I hope you'll realize that every dollar matters.  You keep stores like mine afloat so that we're here to champion the folks we like (here’s a current example). Or not. It's up to you.

On the issue of bestsellers versus the long tail, as raised in the Wall Street Journal, here are two quick notes:

1) I've said this before, so won't dwell on this.  There are basically two ways to make a bestseller.  One is to buy your way onto the lists. The other is to build a readership over time, and gradually find a way onto the list.  It's my belief that while either method can work, the latter is far more likely to result in durable, lasting success.  It's the difference between being Douglas Kennedy or Jilliane Hoffman versus Michael Connelly or Laura Lippman.  (Since I first cited Douglas Kennedy in this context, I've learned that he's actually had some success overseas ... so this example may be even more interesting than I thought.  For what I'm talking about here, I'm focused on his US publishing experience.  The verdict might still be out on Hoffman, though she and her original US publisher have already parted ways.)

2) In this morning’s New York Times, there's a comment from literary agent Amanda Urban that strikes me as shockingly naive. She's quoted as saying "Books can only support a certain retail price.... A book by James Patterson costs the same as a book by some poet."  Like hell it does.  James Patterson is undoubtedly the biggest beneficiary of a system that subsidies the sale of a handful of bestselling writers with huge discounts: 40% off is typical for a new James Patterson title.  That sure isn't typical of a new book by "some poet" or any midlist writer you can think of.

Take these points together and ask yourself this: if the discounts vanished, which writers would still be successful?  It's my belief that folks like Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman and P.D. James, who rose through the ranks based on strong response from independent booksellers and independent readers, will continue to sell strongly, whereas folks whose careers are built only on short-term gimmicks (huge advance, big discounts, costly promotion and inefficient mass distribution in chain and discount stores) will be dead in the water.

I said two points, but I'll add one more.  Remember that when a media outlet like the Wall Street Journal bashes the long tail, it's doing so out of economic self interest.  WSJ wants everyone to believe that the bestseller culture and the dollars that publishers use to support it are necessary components of success.  The reason they want everyone to believe this is that those publisher dollars get spent in places like WSJ.  WSJ does not want publishers to realize that there's a viable model that does not demand that publishers fork dollars over to them.  Actually, this is even more complicated by the cross-ownership of big media and big publishing.  Who owns WSJ?  The same guy who owns HarperCollins.  Is it surprising that these companies will work to buck each other up?

Independence Day

This is adapted from a message that I'm sending to my store's email list this afternoon. If you're interested in subscribing to the store list, please visit the website at www.themysterycompany.com

This morning, a book industry columnist named Robert Gray wrote:

People wanting to--choosing to--buy books directly from us, face-to-face, is no small miracle these days. Of course, we'd love to have even more of them make that choice regularly, and we continue to search for irresistible strategies that might encourage such behavior. At the same time, as independents we fiercely resist the siren song urging us to surrender to our presumed fate, as implied in phrases like "these things happen."

It's the "no small miracle" that strikes me.  The independence that we all cherish -- as a nation, of course, but also as caretakers and patrons of The Mystery Company, and other like-minded local businesses -- isn't just a gift. It's a responsibility.  It's a struggle.  It's a fight worth fighting.  It's a mission.  And it is, indeed, a miracle.

At one level, of course, we celebrate this little miracle here every day, every time we have a chance to recommend a book to you and to hear about what you recommend, every time we gather as a discussion group or for an author visit, every time we help folks get more involved in the world of books, and every time we help folks take steps on their paths to becoming writers.

But it seems especially appropriate to pause here on the eve of Independence Day and thank you for your support.  We are enormously grateful to all of you.

Two more bits of Independence Day fun:


The "Indie Bound" logo that you see in this post is the new identity for the American Booksellers Association, which we belong to, replacing "Booksense: Independent Bookstores for Independent Minds." I find the new logo a little goofy myself -- likable but weird. Would love to hear your opinions. I also encourage you to click on this link), which will take you to ABA's Declaration of IndieBound.  Again, likable but weird, no?

There's no real excuse to send this second link to you -- it has nothing to do with mysteries, but I found this video on information management to be oddly inspiring -- and oddly liberating and therefore appropriate for this day.

Have a safe and happy holiday weekend!

Choosing a publisher

Last week, I had a turn at "Mentor Monday," a Sisters in Crime program where I fielded questions on SinC's discussion list for a day. At the end of the day, I received and responded to a comment from an author looking for a publisher for her first mystery novel.  (For more information about Sisters in Crime, and programs such as Mentor Monday, visit the SinC website.)

"As an author of historicals I've written my first mystery and am trying to find an agent or publisher, but your words today have steered me away from small publishers, at least for now."

If I've left you thinking that you should stay away from small presses, then I've left you with the wrong impression.  You absolutely should consider smaller, independent presses.  There's no question in my mind that right now, the best of the small presses are doing a better job than are the worst of the big companies.  That's especially true if you're looking at the long run, with hopes of building a backlist and a career.  If all you're looking for is a quick buck for one manuscript, then, yes, by all means your target should be a Grand Central or a Simon & Schuster -- if your manuscript fits into the narrow confines of what they're looking for.  But the fact is that these companies are ill-suited to building and sustaining a long-running series.  The number of instances at either house over the last 10 years or so is so small as to be insignificant.  On the other hand, this is the kind of thing that Poisoned Pen or Soho does every day.  The jury's still out on Midnight Ink and Bleak House, but both are truly promising ventures.

Of course, not all small presses are created equally.  You need to research this carefully, take a long look at what those companies are really doing.  Visit stores -- read the shelves, look for publishing company logos to see if those companies' books are being represented. Ask a lot of questions of a lot of people -- booksellers, librarians, already published writers.  Ask booksellers -- chain and independent, but especially independents -- about whether that company's books are obtainable.  Be specific -- try to get someone to go online and check B&T's Title Source or Ingram's ipage for specific titles.  Ask about availability, stock level, discounts and returnability, because those things really matter.

If your goal is to have a real writing career (such as they are in this business these days), you need to remember that it's much, much more important to be published well than it is to be published at all.  The first novelist whose first publishing experience is a disaster never ever gets to be a first novelist again.  Given that in this business, it's easier to generate excitement for a first novelist than it is for someone publishing a third book -- you may or may not like that, but it's true -- then you need to do everything you possibly can to make that first publishing experience the best it can be.  Sometimes that means turning down opportunities when they're not right.  (That can be as true with big companies as it is with small ones.)

I counsel aspiring writers to imagine what they hope will happen with their books.  Are they looking for something to share with friends and family?  Do they hope to see their books on the shelves of a store like mine?  Do they expect their book to be in every airport newsstand display in the country?  Every goal is legitimate.  Once you identify yours, you need to backtrack and figure out what are the steps that will set you on the right path.  It's really important to do this, and to do it right, because each goal requires different steps.  If you're looking to be an airport author, in today's market that means writing a particular kind of book and selling it to specific companies in specific ways.

Because each goal requires different steps, the choice you make when you take your very first step will likely lock you in to a particular path, leading you down one road and foreclosing other opportunities.  If you want one thing, aiming for a big NY publishing house might be your only option.  If you want something else, you might find that AuthorHouse is the right thing to do.  I'd never tell anyone to aim only for big companies or only for small ones.  I would not necessarily even tell folks to avoid self-publishing or micro publishers, though if this is your choice, you have to be really, really careful and hard-headed, and be prepared to work harder, and invest far more time and far more money to achieve even a modest level of success.  That's emotional success -- if this is your choice, don't even think about a monetary reward!

The most important point is this: regardless of which way you choose to go, don't be fooled about what you're getting. It's not impossible to change paths, but the few examples where folks successfully move from one road to another should not encourage anyone into believing that it's easy or that it's likely.  What looks like an "easy" choice at the beginning can make reaching your ultimate goal that much harder.

Choose wisely.

Something different?

This is part of a message that I sent to my store's email list this morning. To sign up for Mystery Company updates, visit the store website at www.themysterycompany.com

I'm just back from New York, where I spent two days meeting with publishers and other book industry folks as part of a Sisters in Crime delegation. We had a lot of good conversations and I expect that a lot of interesting new ideas and initiatives will come out of this trip.

But there was one disturbing comment that gives me pause. Referring to categories within a large store, and the way mysteries are now sometimes called thrillers and sometimes shelved in the fiction section, a marketing person at a major publisher talked about how mysteries were out of fashion and said "you don't think you'll find something different in the mystery section."

I was astonished by this comment, which is diametrically opposed to what I believe about this genre.  Unfortunately, she was not the only one to express the feeling that "mysteries" are musty or moribund or even dead.

Part of what's going on is the difficulty of classification -- what is a mystery anyway? -- and what I think is the somewhat futile but vocal effort to divide thrillers from mysteries -- aren't most of the best thrillers mysteries too?  Yes, there are some differences between "mysteries" and "thrillers" but the lines are often so blurry as to be meaningless. The real point is that for many decades, thrillers co-existed quite happily with mysteries under the broader banner of "Mystery." What's going on here is relatively new.

There's nothing wrong with saying that thrillers are "hot" -- something that everyone appears to agree on. But doing so at the expense of the larger, deeper and richer mystery label isn't right. The perception that "mystery is dead" has clearly taken root at highest levels at some pillars of the New York contingent of the publishing business. I think they couldn't be more wrong.

If you're reading this newsletter, I can't image that you share the feeling that the genre is dead.  The vitality of our new releases table is astonishing -- new entries in treasured series (we have signed copies of the new Elizabeth George, for example), cool new writers like Richard Thompson and Tom Schreck, etc.  You know that we offer "something different" every day; you may even have heard me say something I say often: you can read ten mysteries in a row and read ten entirely different books.

Don't believe me? Try Alexander McCall Smith's The Miracle at Speedy Motors, Dan Fesperman's The Amateur Spy, Donna Leon's The Girl of His Dreams, Jane Langton's The Transcendental Murder (new edition of a 1964 classic), Charlaine Harris' From Dead to Worse, Karin Fossum's Black Seconds, Michael Allen Dymmoch's M.I.A., Katherine Hall Page's The Body in the Gallery, Jo Dereske's Index To Murder, Thomas H. Cook's Master of the Delta -- to cite 10 books on the new releases table right now -- and tell me that you're not reading 10 fresh, intriguing, engaging and different books.

We call this store The Mystery Company.  It's a badge we wear proudly.

The traditional marketplace

What follows is a reaction to a line in this morning’s Sisters in Crime email digest.  There’s a new SinC policy that references the “traditional marketplace” for books; in objecting to the new policy, an author wrote:

On Mar 6, 2008, at 6:57 AM, sistersincrime@yahoogroups.com wrote:

> there is no such thing as a "traditional market place" anymore.

I can't tell you how discouraging this is. I believe that it's important to the life of my community that we have an independent brick and mortar bookshop here. My store, The Mystery Company here in Carmel, Indiana, (www.themysterycompany.com) strives to uphold the best traditions in bookselling.

We are close to our customers -- not just our local customers, but the folks across the country who deal with us by phone, email or website. We try to get to know them well enough to make personal recommendations. We are passionate about the books that we sell. We are involved in this community, contributing to PTO silent auctions, holding nutty fundraisers to benefit a local adult literacy organization, etc. We've set up and we are paying for a new website, www.indylit.com, to promote book and author events anywhere in central Indiana -- not just in my store -- because we believe that there needs to be more visibility for the literary life in central Indiana. I'm involved in this genre's national and international community, helping out where I can, volunteering to host a Bouchercon.

Still, despite all that I do and all that my fellow independent booksellers do, there are folks who believe that the "traditional marketplace" no long exists, a conclusion that may be easy to reach given the way independents are closing across this country. There are even folks who might welcome the demise. I had a customer in my store this past Friday, a semi-regular. She held up the new Peter Robinson novel -- which we'd sell to her at $23.45 including her frequent buyer's program discount -- and said to me that she could buy it at Amazon for "$17 something." (Actually $16.47 -- I checked.)

This woman had been in my store for 20 minutes already, asking me about all kinds of questions about all kinds of titles, complaining to me about the difficulty in finding small press titles in the chain stores -- books that I had on my shelves for her to find easily if she only came here first. On one hand, I'm glad that we had a good enough relationship that she felt she could be honest about why she wasn't buying this book she wanted from me. On the other hand, I was appalled that it's come to this, that all that I do to try to keep this store open, to be knowledgeable enough about her and the books we stock so that I can make the right recommendations, etc. is worth so little. She did make a purchase -- two paperbacks that Amazon does not discount so heavily -- and left.

"There's no such thing as the traditional marketplace." Sometimes, one can start to believe that this has become something of a rallying cry for elements in the industry who are supportive of chain stores and warehouse clubs, or for those who espouse the primacy of the internet and its apparent efficiencies. To be sure, there are inefficiencies in the traditional marketplace, but in many ways the brave new world isn't all that wonderful for readers, writers and our communities -- our hometown communities or the larger genre community. I don't see a lot of new economy firms stepping up to volunteer to program a regional convention like a Magna Cum Murder or to host a Bouchercon, for example.

"There's no such thing as the traditional marketplace." Yes, this is happening in other industries as well. Our communities have changed, neighborhoods and streetscapes are no longer designed to include small, startup businesses, etc. But for reasons that I've written about elsewhere, I believe that the book business is different. If the local independent store that sells toilet paper closes, nothing will change about the toilet paper choices you as a consumer are offered. But if independent stores close, then the choices you're offered as a book buyer will change -- and change dramatically, and that the change will adversely affect many of the writers whom we want to continue to read.

"There's no such thing as the traditional marketplace." I like to believe that the walls and the shelves that we've built here at The Mystery Company and that surround me as a type this are real, that the services that we provide are valued, and the books that we stock are meaningful, that our customers want the choices that we offer to them, and that the relationships we've forged between us and our customers, between our customers and the many writers who've been good enough to come to visit us, and among customers themselves are important and enduring. This stuff happens because we are part of and believe in the best traditions of bookselling. But I may be fooling myself in believing that all this is still sustainable in today's environment -- you may not be wrong if that's what you believe of me.

"There's no such thing as the traditional marketplace." Whether that's wishful thinking or a lament -- and these days it's hard to say which -- what I know is that either way, a belief that we don't exist is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We're here and we're eager to sell books, but folks who no longer believe in the traditional marketplace are pretty unlikely to spend their dollars here. That's their choice.

I hope that there are enough of you who'll choose otherwise. If you believe in what we do here, if you want shopping for books to be something more than mouseclicks or tall stacks of a handful of bestsellers inside a cavernous warehouse club, then buy your books from me. Or, better yet, find the bookseller in your community who's making a contribution to your town or a bookseller who's making a contribution to the genre. I'm not the only one; you'll find others who are working harder than you can imagine and sacrificing more than you'll ever know to make their communities -- local, genre, national -- the kinds of places you'll want to call home.

There's no such thing as the traditional marketplace? I think that, yes, there is still such a thing. My store and hundreds if not thousands of others who are still hoping that there's enough air in the room for our brick and mortar stores. Some days, it's frighteningly hard to believe that there is a future here. Yes, there are other markets out there too -- niche markets, online markets, etc. -- all kinds of options. I count myself as firmly planted in the traditional marketplace. Believe in us or not -- it's your choice.

Junkie convergence

Super Bowl and Super Tuesday -- what a great convergence!  It's a exciting few days for a football and politics junkie like me.

I was born and raised in New York and New Jersey, then lived in Boston for 10 years right out of college.  A Giants/Patriots Super Bowl is like an inconceivable dream, esp. given the frustrating way the Giants have played since Manning took over as starter.  There's a nice piece in this morning's New York Times about moral victories (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/03/sports/football/03moral.html). I certainly believe that the Giants' loss on the last day of the season to the Patriots was one.  You've got to love the way the Giants approached what others called a meaningless game.

Do I really think that Giants can beat the Patriots this evening?  I'll make a prediction: yes, they will.  And that end of season loss will be a big part of why.  The way the underdog Giants have rallied together to play at this level is one of the best stories in football in years, and it would be so cool to see it end happily with a win tonight.

Indiana doesn't vote 'til May, and this morning's Star confidently tells us that the primary races will be decided by then.  Since everything else that the "experts" have predicted about both parties has been wrong, I fully expect that our state will play a decisive role in determining the nominees of both parties. Super Tuesday was designed to "settle" things, but what I most hope will come out of this is the sense that all those states that advanced primaries in order to be important will find that they lost their opportunity to be relevant later -- when the accumulation of delegates will really matter. So, for example, Huckabee supporters (not that I am one) should be furious that the media are ignoring him, calling this a two-man race. Huckabee may not win, but he's perfectly positioned to be spoiler, kingmaker or vice president.  Or maybe he will find a way to win; I'm not ready to write him off.

Here's what I hope will happen, on Super Tuesday and in the weeks that follow:

  • No matter whom you support or where you live, that you'll go out and vote; this process only works if you do.
  • The process works even better when you vote for the candidate you believe in, rather than the candidate that someone else is telling you is going to win. Given what we've seen so far, why should we ever believe anyone's guess?
  • I expect the races to stay open on both sides. Super Tuesday will not give anyone enough delegates to win, and won't even give anyone enough "momentum" (whatever that is this election cycle) to persuade opponents to drop out right away.
  • Because I don't see Super Tuesday as determining anything, I expect to see the conversation continue, so that we'll keep hearing from the candidates. Rarely do we see such stark differences between candidates and parties -- both in substance and in style. It's good for all of us to have the time to mull this over.  (I don't count anything that happened before about Thanksgiving; the public part of the early process is all just media horse race babble that's invariably wrong, irrelevant and, even destructive to our democracy.)
  • Finally, I expect that when the race comes round to Indiana in May, that we'll still have a race.  Right now, I don't see see that outcomes will be settled anytime soon.  May may be wishful thinking, but I feel sure that we'll still see candidates battling in March in Ohio and maybe even in April in Pennsylvania.

Of course, these predications aren't worth anything.  (The one title I felt absolutely sure would be among the Dilys and Edgar nominees turned out to be missing from both lists -- scroll back through previous blog entries and you'll find it -- and I'm supposed to know something about mysteries! You can see how good I am at making predictions.)

The prediction with an outcome I can control?  I know I'll be watching the game tonight and the votes rolling in on Tuesday with eagerness and excitement.  Great fixes for a junkie like me.

Where I am, after 20 years in bookselling

I wrote in an email that I believe that the center of gravity in mystery publishing is increasingly moving out of New York, and was asked to explain what I meant.  What ended up spilling out is this long essay about how I view the industry today. It's not completely responsive to the question, which  is part of why I've posted it here.  The other reason it's here is that I'm looking for your feedback, because these ideas are very much a work in progress.

At some point, I need to run some numbers to quantify how much of this is really true -- this is just off the top of my head.  But I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think that at least conceptually I may be on the right track.  Much of this depends on your view of the industry and your perception of what folks in our position are actually able to influence.  I don't expect everyone to agree with me on this, but here goes.

There's a level of NY publishing that's both crazy and impervious to change: the top of the market, the relentless and idiotic throwing of big money after "hot" commercial properties that lack pedigree.  These are the first novels that get six- (seven-?) figure advances, the high-concept thrillers and suspense novels that publishers try to bully into the marketplace with big marketing campaigns that more often than not are doomed to failure -- in the sense of being a building block in an author's long-term career.  This is roll of the dice publishing, designed only to make a splash without regard to what happens next.  Because NY publishers are so bad at this kind of stuff, history is littered with failures -- Douglas Kennedy, Jilliane Hoffman, etc. -- many more failures than successes.

(Given the poor quality of THE THIRTEENTH TALE, I'll be really interested to see what happens to Diane Setterfield.  A former B&N CRM who spoke at my store recently said that they sold hundreds of thousands of copies of this book, but it's hard to image that many readers will come back for a more on their own; I think she'll only be successful again with massive publicity and massive discounting -- costly tactics that would undermine the economic case for publishing her a second time.)

We recognize how foolish all this is, but we also know that no matter what we say about this, NY publishers are going to continue to behave this way.  To some extent, they have to, but more for corporate strategic reasons than for the advancement of an author's career or the genre in general.  That's fine to an extent, and we can tolerate that kind of stuff as long as it doesn't interfere with the real work of publishing in this genre.  Star-struck publishers can have all the one-night stands they want with these glamorous properties, but the rest of us in the mystery world much prefer stable, long-term relationships.  What we want is simple: every time we pick up a book by a new author, we're hoping to fall in love. When we find true love, what we want is to be able to hang out with the character we adore, stand by him or her through change and growth -- adventure after adventure, book after book, for better or for worse.

Years ago, the very smart co-owner of a mystery small press (not so small these days) said to me that it's impossible for a big publishing company to be bestseller-oriented and still publish category midlist, that the two mindsets were incompatible.  At the time I thought he was wrong, but I am more and more coming to the conclusion that he was right, that year after year of one night stands does in fact leave these companies incapable of committing to relationships.

I'm not against bestsellers.  As I've written and said more than once in the past, I'm delighted to see good writers succeed.  It's a great thing that the book business has evolved to the point where the top selling titles can sell so many more copies than bestsellers in the past.  What I'm talking about here, though, is the way in which bestsellers are made, and the way in which the genre as a whole can -- indeed must -- be sold.  Publishers may not listen to what we might have to say about massive advances and silly marketing campaigns, but if there's a chance that we might have any influence over the direction of the business, it may be at the level of the category midlist writers, the folks whose careers would be a lot stronger if we're able to change just a few small things about the industry.  The big question is whether the big companies as companies even care much about writers at this level.

These writers might not ever become New York Times bestsellers, but their livelihoods might be significantly different if their hardcovers sold 15,000 copies instead of 7,500, and if their backlist titles stayed in print, continuing to generate income instead of disappearing from the marketplace.  And, who knows, some of these folks might become bestsellers -- Hillerman, Parker, Evanovich, Connelly, Lippman, even Dan Brown started from relatively modest circumstances, publishing-wise, and they seem to be doing ok right now.  In fact, I believe that success built on the kinds of relationships these writers have built with readers is likely to be much stronger and more durable than a fling that starts with a one-night stand.  (Actually, let's leave Dan Brown out of this for the moment; the jury's still out on where his career is going.)

The point is to figure out what went right, and to get folks to see the success of this group of writers as normal rather than fluky.  And that's where I now have my doubts about big New York publishing.  Are they impervious to change?  I'm generally a pretty optimistic person and I like to believe that business makes sense, that companies will do the right thing when it's in their rational self-interest to do so.  But this month, I've hit 20 years in bookselling, and I'm not feeling especially positive about these companies -- upon whom I depend for product to stock my store.  After 20 years, I'm starting to feel that the big NY companies are hopeless, and I'm starting to wonder why I'm working so hard to sell products from manufacturers and suppliers who are not just bent on undermining my store  but on undermining the genre itself.  Thoughtlessly rather than deliberately, to be sure, but the difference in intent isn't such a big deal when the effect is so clear.

The big publishers whine about how difficult it is to sell in this genre, but the fact is that they're more or less completely unwilling to change anything about how they operate to match up with what customers want.  To the extent that independent booksellers succeed in this genre at all, it's because we are close to our customers and we understand how to sell to them.  That's it, the sum total of the secret of our success.  It's not a matter of our superior resources; most of us do all this without any resources whatsoever.  We do more with less money than anyone else in any other segment of the business, and yet we're the ones who are consistently dissed by policies and practices that favor other customers.

(The really curious thing in this industry is why the big chain stores aren't doing a better job of adopting the sales techniques of the independents.  It's not like what we're doing is rocket science, and there are plenty of fairly obvious things that they could be doing to sell more books.  Which makes you think that pig-headedness isn't limited to publishing companies, despite the fact that B&N is in most other respects a pretty smart outfit.  I would dearly love to have the resources of a B&N at my command, and I know that I could sell a lot more books -- for B&N, for publishers and for writers -- as a result.  Of course, I'll never get that opportunity.)

When I think about the center of gravity of the mystery genre, I still believe that it lies in series.  Seventy percent of the titles on the bestsellers lists of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association in 2007 year to date are part of a series.  Seventy percent of these series titles belong to long-running series of five or more books.  Sales in IMBA member stores are not necessarily representative of the marketplace in general, but they are the best indication we have of what the most devoted mystery lovers are looking for.  Yet you can in fact generalize from these numbers. When you look at the BookScan mystery bestseller list for the week of 8/12/07, representing sales throughout the industry, you see that over 70% -- closer to 80%, actually -- of these bestselling titles also belong to series.

So series matter, and what publishers do with them tells you a lot about their inclinations and abilities.  I write a lot about series and the bad job that the most publishers do with them: not keeping books in print (especially the first book which is where readers want to start), not clearly indicating the order of books in series, not identifying books as part of a series, not packaging series titles with a common look to make it easier to find them on new releases tables, not timing publication of new hardcovers and paperbacks to maximize sales, not indicating for the benefit of buyers for stores a new title's place in the series, not soliciting orders for series backlist and frontlist together, not waiting months (if not years) between UK and US publication, etc.

It's not even like what we're talking about major, insurmountable problems.  The issue of properly timing the latest paperback and hardcover releases in a series is simple on every level -- easy to explain, easy to grasp, easy to fix -- and it doesn't cost a dime to make that fix. It's incredible that a new hardcover release is ever published prior to the first paperback edition of its predecessor.  And yet it still happens, over and over again. Fixing this won't turn a midlist writer into a bestseller, but it will undoubtedly sell more of his or her hardcover books. That should be a goal that everyone agrees on.

I'm not alone in raising these questions, and none of them are new.  We've been saying this stuff to St. Martin's, Berkley, Mysterious Press (R.I.P.), Random House, etc, for years and years.  Those folks in publishing whom we're talking to, they're not stupid.  In fact, when you meet most of them individually, you end up thinking these are bright, earnest, serious folks who love books too. I know that's hard to believe when you see how they treat the books, but I still think it's true. (Most of the people I meet are on the editorial side of the business.  Most of these people blame folks on the sales and marketing side for everything that's wrong with the business.  I probably need to spend more time talking to people on the S&M side of publishing, to see if their world is as divorced from reality as I'm led to believe.)

So if these people are not stupid, then what's going on?  Is it as simple as lack of interest?  Is it something more complicated, rooted in the psychology of an institution addicted to the one night stand yet so jealous of those in happy marriages that it will work to undermine them as best it can.  (In terms of the mystery genre, this relationship metaphor only gets you so far.  Since mystery fans have lots of favorites, we have to conclude that they're polygamous, which may not be where we want to be, metaphor-wise.)

Yes, I'm being somewhat facetious in writing about the psychology of publishing, but not entirely.  The fact is that in order to change, institutions (like individuals) have to want to change.  If we've been giving publishers the same advice over and over again for years and years and they're not taking the advice, maybe it's time for us to say, "Ok, you're on your own.  We're cutting you off.  Just don't ask for our help anymore.  And don't whine to us when things go badly for you."

It's not that simple, of course.  I can't tell you how insulted I've felt by St. Martin's Press and its lack of help in setting up author events in my store.  They'll send writers everywhere around me -- literally, to Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Kentucky -- but not to Indiana smack dab in the middle. Except, of course, for sending the biggest writer on their list to the B&N store just 1.97 miles away without even a drive-by or drop-in here.  But it doesn't matter how my store's been treated, I still have to deal with St. Martin's because they publish so many books and authors that I love.  I place orders with them season after season, feeling worse and worse about my business' relationship with this supplier.  But I'm stuck.  (Here's where the relationship metaphors become addiction metaphors, and suddenly the metaphors aren't so much fun anymore.)

If all this were about nothing more than how I feel about particular publishing companies, then you all could feel free to dismiss everything that I've written as nothing more than the cranky complaints of crazy malcontent.  Many of you -- particularly I'm guessing those of you who work in publishers' S&M divisions -- will do so anyway.

But I think there is reason to take this stuff seriously.  I believe that what's going on with publishing doesn't just hurt individual authors here and there, but it's hurting the genre as a whole.  Take the issue of series.  Every time readers encounter a new series, the first thing they ask is "what's the first book in the series?"  And if those readers like the first, they'll want to go on to the second, third, fourth and fifth.  Most publishers make it difficult to figure out where a series begins and how it progress.  And that's even before we get to the question of whether the books are in print and available.  The lack of information and availability frustrates readers over and over again.  Because they are so devoted to the genre, they'll keep trying.  But engendering frustration at the point of sale should not be a publisher's goal, and I believe there is a limit to readers' patience.  Get your heart broken enough times, you might stop going out on dates altogether.

I do believe in the power of the mystery story, and I know that there's a vast audience of readers out there who would like nothing more than to fall in love with a new writer and read all of his or her books.  I'd like to be the bookseller who puts those books into the hands of those readers.  So while I gnash my teeth and rant in frustration, I'm also trying to change the things that I can change.  Sales haven't been especially strong in my store lately, so we're going to have to try do some things differently otherwise, I can't afford to keep the doors open.

These are among the things that I'm thinking right now:

1) I haven't completely given up on trying to influence the big New York publishers, but it's time to change tactics a little.  I'm told that publishers are more likely to include us on author tours if we whine.  I hate the idea of having to whine, but I'm willing to give it a try.  (At least a little; consider this essay a first salvo.)

2) We're putting a somewhat greater emphasis on our used book shelves, because publishers are pushing more and more customers to shop for the books they want used.

3) We're going to shift our stocking practices a little, to emphasize the series that are available, complete and intact.  That's not necessarily good news for writers whose publishers aren't doing a great job, unless we're able to stock their out of print books on the used side of the store.  Sometimes, used is the only way we know to keep a series alive.

4) We're going to try importing more books from the U.K., in some cases to fill in holes in series, and in other cases to import series as a whole so that we have enough intact series to keep our customers happy.  (Hard to believe, given how many books are published, but some days, there aren't enough to meet demand.)

5) We've always had an emphasis on events here. If we can't rely on publishers' help in setting up author events, we will continue to work with writers directly -- and many are happy to work with us directly. But we're also going to try to come up with different kinds of events to draw folks in.  We hosted a 50-hour round-the-clock read-a-thon as a benefit earlier this summer, and this fall we're partnering with The Writers' Center of Indiana to host a series of classes on mystery writing here -- which is the first time we'll be charging for something like this too.

6) More than ever, we'll emphasize books from the small presses that we like.  These presses are making a significant and growing contribution to the genre, in so many different ways. The main thing we see is that these companies truly respect the genre and understand how to appeal to readers.  Poisoned Pen Press doesn't just publish Mary Anna Evans, it presents her books the right way.  All three of Evans' titles are in print and available in paperback; the third, RELICS, features an appendix for "the incurably curious" -- which most of us are.

Change isn't easy, and obviously the major companies still have a big stake in this business, still publishing a lot of writers that we like.  And sometimes even the companies that are least effective in this genre will still on occasions do some things right.  Simon & Schuster is not doing especially well by the few mystery series it still publishes, except it nevertheless has done a solid job with William Kent Krueger's books. So we can’t dismiss them completely; we have to stay aware of what they're doing.

The main thing going forward is to recognize that the world has changed, and that the enormous mindshare that the major publishing companies have occupied for the longest time is no longer justified.  Yes, they do in fact have all the money there is in this business (because it sure isn't with the small presses or with small book stores).  Sure, they're capable of good work and they're going to publish more than a few books that we're going to enjoy.  The irony of the publishing industry as a whole is that as bad as they are on the business side of things, they're actually pretty good at identifying good stuff in the first place.

But on their own, publishers are unlikely to change just because we talk with them. So we let them do what they do, we work with them to the extent that we have to, maybe we can nudge them at the margins, look for the few real opportunities we have to make money for each other. But let's be realistic; those opportunities are few and far between, so those big publishing companies are not worth a lot of extra effort right now.

If change is going to happen among these big companies -- and ultimately the genre would be better off and we'd all sell a lot more books if these publishers were to change -- it's going to happen either because good behavior will forced on them by their biggest customers or good behavior will be modeled by others.  The former's unlikely, but not inconceivable; as I said, I've been waiting for B&N to realize that it's possible to do a much better job of selling genre fiction (even though this epiphany would really hurt stores like mine).  The latter?  Well, that's why it's important to deal with those newer, smaller companies, to make the time to work with firms whose polices and practices are helping the genre rather than undermine it. To see if -- working together -- independent stores can help turn these independent presses into economic forces themselves.

All this means re-setting our sights, re-calibrating our business relationships and, generally, being willing to think outside the box.  I hope we're up to the challenge.

At least that's where I am in my thinking today.  There's a lot that I need to do to flesh out these ideas -- this is all still very much a work in progress, one morning's ramblings,  a first attempt at solidifying my thinking, of pulling together various threads that I've been turning over.  I'll be very interested in seeing your feedback.

Store signings / Conference programming

By now you've observed that I sometimes collect here posts that I've sent to various lists that I try to follow.  The difficulty with doing this that if you're reading this here, you're coming into the middle of a conversation.  I hope that what I write gives you enough context to understand what's going on, and that my comments are still of interest (and, I hope, of value).

The post below is somewhat more problematic than most, in that it addresses two separate discussion threads.  Still, you'll catch on.

Store signings

On Aug 16, 2007, at 7:23 AM, sistersincrime@yahoogroups.com wrote:

When my first book came out I was assigned a publicist and was told by the head
of publicity that I should absolutely not attempt to contact bookstores
or set up bookstore events on my own. She said that I would run the risk
of annoying booksellers.

Your publisher gave you bad advice.

In terms of setting up events, publishers and writers don't have the same interests. There are some overlapping goals, to be sure, but not all are the same.  As a writer, you want the best opportunity to meet the largest number of people who might find your book of interest.  Publishers will schedule events to make key customers happy, sometimes without regard to the suitability of a venue for a particular title.

It's not uncommon for a writer to be scheduled into a B&N store when there's an independent in the same market that has a better track record with that writer or for that type of book. The reason this happens is that B&N is, overall, a very large customer.  That independent is likely to be a much smaller account, and therefore a much lower priority from the company's standpoint.  Still, that independent might have a better relationship with customers for your type of book, a bookselling staff that's particularly passionate about what you write, etc.

I have no quarrel with B&N in general, or Borders for that matter, and I certainly recognize that there are some things -- including events for some writers -- that the chains do well.  But there are other things that I do better, despite the fact that many big publishers steer writers away from stores like mine.  Almost none of our events in my store (http://themysterycompany.com/) are the result of a publicist's efforts; I'm always happy to hear from and work with writers who are as understanding of our needs as we try to be of theirs.

Conference programming

I'd like to add one thing on the conference issue, now writing as the unpaid, volunteer program director for Magna Cum Murder (http://www.magnacummurder.com/), and as the unpaid, volunteer co-chair of Bouchercon 2009 (http://bouchercon2009.com/).

Betty used a form of the word "entitlement" in her comments about some writer's requests/queries/bullying about conference programs.  I want emphasize her point: there are no entitlements at conferences.  Conventions such as Magna and Bouchercon are not designed for YOU to sell YOUR books.  Yes, book sales happen at conferences, and a well-run event will offer writers opportunities to meet readers in a way that improves their chances of selling books.  If and when such sales happen, though, they're a by-product of a program that's designed first and foremost (exclusively?) with goals that have little to do with book sales and everything to do with engaging and entertaining an audience, celebrating the richness of our genre, and enriching our appreciation of these books we love.

As a conference programmer, I'll try just about anything -- ask folks who've been to Magna over the past few years, and what you'll hear should prove that I mean that -- but what I won't do is schedule an author who tells me that he or she is coming to Magna only because he or she expects to sell books.  I schedule panelists -- writers, others working in the business, readers, everyone -- because I have reason to believe that they have something interesting to say and that the folks attending the conference will want to hear them.  Each and every person on the program is there because I believe he or she will make a contribution to the program, say something that others won't say, provide a different perspective on the issue at hand, have expertise that will be instructive, etc.  It's not my goal to simply put together a string of commercial announcements for writers' new books -- no matter who's published them.

Books vs. Bricks

Posted this morning to 4_Mystery_Addicts:

On Jun 9, 2007, at 8:34 PM, 4_Mystery_Addicts@yahoogroups.com wrote:

Jim Huang of the Drood Review (and also a mystery bookseller) hates everything about the "new" size paperback. He calls it a "brick," (I love that characterization!) and claims that it has none of the "feel" of a normal book. It is generally too thick and heavy for those who like the weight and size of a normal paperback or even a traditional trade paperback. And its bulk makes it uncomfortable and unbalanced for those of us that like to read hardcovers. Jim says that his customers just don't buy them in his store. They don't like them (could it be that Jim has passed on his prejudice?).

As an independent bookseller, I get to pass on my prejudices all the time. I think that's the main virtue of independents -- agree or don't agree, at least you know where we stand! But in terms of the bricks, I'm only reacting to my customers' complaints. I don't volunteer an opinion on them until asked. (That's in contrast to the opportunity to talk about and recommend titles and authors; that we do all the time, without being prompted.) My customers are picking these books up off my new titles table, they're bringing them up to me and they're basically telling me two things: 1) $9.99 is too much to ask for a book that's packaged like this --- they'll spend $23.95 for a new hardcover but balk at $9.99 for a brick -- and 2) these books aren't comfortable to hold.

Both are legitimate complaints. Couple of things to remember:

1) The $9.99 price is essentially designed to give room for discounting. At $7.99, there aren't enough dollars there for the big box stores and online sites to do 20% or 40% or whatever off the suggested list price. Publishers are dealing with chain booksellers who've gone insane with discounting, and the way they're dealing with it is by trying to find way to raise suggested retail prices. I hate this system. (The chains don't like it much either. If you doubt that, take a look at the reporting on B&Ns and Borders' most recent quarterly reports.) I'd much rather see a business where books are $7.99 rather than $9.99 less 20%, mostly because of the way that 20% gets financed: through publisher promotions that are available to the big guys but not offered to smaller independents. I can't discount the way the big guys can because publishers don't want me to. (If they wanted me to, they'd offer more support.) It's even worse when something that should be published at $6.99 instead gets released at $13.95 less 30% at Amazon. Consumers are paying more for the book, but they're being coaxed into believing that they're getting a bargain because it's 30% off. It's more than just insulting to your intelligence: these practices are having a real effect not just on prices but on the nature of what's being published and retained in print.

2) It's the balance thing that's most disturbing about bricks. For decades -- literally for decades -- we've come to expect that the ratio of height to width of the books that we read has been more or less constant. Run the numbers for the four standard trim sizes and you'll see what I mean. The bricks fall outside of the "normal" range. What this represents is a total failing on the publishing industry's part to appreciate the visceral aspect of reading a book. We love books for a lot of reasons, mostly having to do with the words they contain. But I also believe that there's a tactile sensation at work here, that the experience of holding a book in your hands is in and of itself reassuring and restorative. (John Dunning writes about the healing qualities of books in Booked to Die, albeit a different aspect of this but one that's very real for his protagonist.) It's a learned behavior, but it's been learned over all our lives. When we pick up a book in the brick format, our subconscious doesn't even recognize that it's a book -- it's some weird alien thing masquerading as a book. It's going to take a long while before readers unlearn everything they know about what a book feels like. That's what has to happen before we're comfortable with bricks.

I certainly understand readers who want larger print in books. In my 40s, I do too. But the way to get there is for the big guys to publish standard-sized trade paperbacks and price them at $9.00, $10.00 or even $11.00, instead of the brick at $9.99. There's no production cost reason why they can't do this. (As a small book publisher, I have to price my trade paperbacks at $14 or $15, but there's no reason that Simon & Schuster -- with its economies of scale and marketplace muscle has to do so.)

Why do I hate the brick? Because it's evidence that book publishers don't respect books and their readers. It's pretty much as simple as that.

Veronica Mars, R.I.P.

VERONICA MARS has been canceled.  We're mourning at our house -- me, my wife, and our two daughters.  This was a show that we could all watch together -- not a lot of those on TV these days.

In fact, I think VERONICA MARS was brilliant.  Part of the wake at our home has involved re-watching the first and second seasons.  (We own the DVDs, went out and bought them after my colleague Austin Lugar loaned us his set.) The girls are doing all of it; I've been dipping in and out.  Those first two seasons were just incredibly good.  Taken as a whole, seasons one and two add up to one of the most intricately plotted mysteries I've ever seen (in any medium).  There's so much plot in each episode; most episodes, more happens before the credits than happens in whole episodes of other TV detective shows.

The most incredible thing?  The individual episodes not only solved weekly mysteries but added pieces towards the solution of larger, season-long questions.  And it all made sense.  The pieces fit together.  The resolutions were satisfying -- horrifying, sometimes, but just right.

I love the attitude -- Neptune High is so tough and Veronica is so hardboiled, maybe the toughest detective ever on broadcast TV (except for the last ten minutes of the last episode of season one when she whimpers a lot -- weirdly out of character).  The setting is so Raymond Chandler -- the amoral rich, the downtrodden working class.  You won't see a starker portrayal of haves versus have nots than you see in this series, and it's not just window dressing, it's an integral part of how the stories play out.

The other thing is that there wasn't anything that the show wouldn't do; no character was sacred.  We know this right away when we find out in the first episode of season one that Veronica was raped.  Season two begins with a bus load of kids dying when their bus plunges off the Pacific Coast Highway into the ocean.  (I think season two is the best single season of series television that's ever been done.)

Veronica has a great relationship with her dad.  He's a private eye; she works for him.  They're both great characters, and their relationship is beautifully portrayed.  It's fascinating to see what she'll tell him and what she won't (and visa versa) -- though we all think she made the wrong choice about what to say/not say at the crucial moment in the final episode of the final season, broadcast last night.  I'm also really fond of a lot of the secondary characters -- Cliff, the lawyer, and Vinnie, the really sleazy private eye, are especially cool.

We haven't been as fond of the show this season; they've dumbed it down and Veronica's gone soft and the whole Veronica/Logan thing has gotten ridiculous.  College just isn't the kind of hardboiled place that high school is.  (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER had the same problem when the gang graduated from high school and went off to a college that was just not that interesting a place.)  Last night's two episodes were an improvement over most of the rest of this season.  But still not up to the earlier standard.

At least VERONICA MARS is good enough to stand up to repeat viewings.  We're spotting new things that we missed the first two times we ran through this series, seeing clues, spotting connections, etc.  Knowing where it's going, it's fascinating to see how the characters (good, bad and variable) are introduced.


Selling Alan Gordon

I’m just back from Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I sold books at an international congress of medieval scholars, Thursday through Sunday. (Apparently, if you're a medieval scholar, this meeting is the place to be.)

This is the sales pitch I did 50, 60, 70 times during our days there.  You can guess from the length of this that I didn’t get to say all this to all customers, but I did as much of this as I could whenever I could, and pieces of it for just about anyone who allowed me the opportunity.

Why post all this?  To persuade you to give Alan’s books a try, and to provide something of a guide to approaching this unusual and fabulous series. To illustrate how hard we have to work to describe these books, and to show how much describing a book’s publishing history becomes part of what we end up talking about when we talk about books. And to demonstrate one way that independent booksellers take a different approach in selling than other kinds of booksellers. Would chain stores or warehouse clubs or grocery stores be willing to work this hard to sell a book? Can you readily find all this information at online bookstores?

Alan Gordon’s books are wonderful – clever, funny, beautifully plotted. Alan’s premise is that all of the fools in the Middle Ages, including the fools in Shakespeare, are all part of a guild that works like a Middle Ages CIA: they run around, meddling in affairs.  The books are great fun.  Because Alan’s writing about fools, he gets to do all of the humor – the verbal humor and the physical comedy.  The banter and the wordplay are lovely, and there are some really hilarious juggling scenes.

The first book in the series is Thirteenth Night. It’s set in 1200, and you can probably tell from the title it’s a sequel to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Feste the fool – whose real name is Theophilos, Feste is a stage name -- is sitting in a bar when he gets word that Orsino is dead. He immediate suspects Malvolio, and races off to Illyria to investigate.  This one is here in paperback; it’s $14.

After Thirteenth Night, the characters go off to Constantinople and get involved in the crusades and all the intrigue there.  The second book is Jester Leaps In, and that’s out of print and not all that easy to find, but we have two signed first edition hardcovers that we borrowed from another book dealer so that we could have it here.  They’re $24 each.

Third in the series is Death in the Venetian Quarter. This one came out in hardcover in 2002 and it was just published in paperback for the first time last week.  It’s a $13.95 trade paperback.  They’re still in Constantinople, and they get involved in what’s essentially a locked room mystery.  This is probably the most straightforward mystery in this series, and it’s very well done.

The main action of Widow of Jerusalem actually takes place prior to the first book in the series, even though this was the fourth book Alan published.  There’s a framing story that puts this book after Venetian Quarter, but it’s one of those “around the campfire” tales, about the Fools’ Guild’s involvement in events of 1191 swirling around Isabelle, the Queen of Jerusalem.  It’s one of the most elegantly plotted mysteries I’ve ever read; the ending is just beautiful.  This one is out of print, but I’ve found a couple of used hardcovers; they’re $22 each.  I don’t know anything about a paperback edition.

For the fifth book in the series, Alan returns to Shakespeare. In An Antic Disposition, Alan deconstructs Hamlet, and it’s great fun.  The fools play a somewhat greater role in Hamlet than you might have suspected.  This one is also a flashback story; it takes place even earlier than Widow of Jerusalem, so you can jump right into the series here too. I have had Antic Disposition here at the congress the last few years; it was published three years ago. The hardcover is still in print, and it's $24.95.  No, I don’t know if it’s going to be done in paperback either.

And we finally after all this time have a brand new book in the series, The Lark’s Lament, which was just published last week in hardcover at $24.95, just in time for this event – lucky for us. This book takes the series in a new direction, and finally advances the story.  It’s 1204, and the fools are in the south of France, where they get involved in some intrigue involved a troubadour-turned-abbot and some mysterious lyrics. This new book is just as good as its predecessors, and because it's a new setting and situation, you can jump into the series here too.

Whichever one you decide to try, the main thing is that I recommend all of these books very highly. It’s a great series, among my absolute favorites in the genre.  I adore these books.

Just about perfect

This review was emailed out to subscribers to my store's email list on April 6. To sign up for The Mystery Company's e-newsletter, visit the store's homepage at www.themysterycompany.com.

There aren't a heck of a lot of perfect novels; Laura Lippman's latest, What the Dead Know, may be one. I've liked Lippman's work for years -- and she's already been nominated for and won scads of awards in this genre: Edgars, Anthonys, Shamuses, Agathas, Macavitys, etc. At some point, you've probably heard me talk about how much I enjoy Lippman's Tess Monaghan series and admire her feel for Baltimore, the city in which Lippman lives and sets her books.

Even this stellar track record doesn't prepare you for the excellence of What the Dead Know, an intricate, beautifully crafted and utterly engrossing standalone mystery novel -- the best I've read in months. The book starts from a premise that's both simple and utterly baffling: the apparent reappearance in Baltimore of the victim of a 30-year-old kidnapping. A woman is picked up by police for fleeing the scene of a car accident. She's guarded about every aspect of her life except one: she insists that she's one of the two sisters who never returned from a Saturday afternoon shopping trip on Easter weekend in 1975.

That's all we know. Lippman keeps us guessing about everything else. Is the woman really Heather Bethany or is she an imposter? What happened to her sister, Sunny? Why is the woman so reticent with details about her whereabouts since the disappearance?

Question after question, built on detail and nuance both small and large. Lippman doles out information in tantalizing bits, taking us effortlessly through 30 years of the lives of her characters, each one of whom is vividly drawn.

There's a rave review of What the Dead Know in yesterday's New York Times that compares Lippman to Ruth Rendell, a comparison that occurred to me as well because of the acute insight into the psychology of the characters, and for the puzzling gamesmanship of the woman who insists she's Heather Bethany. The problem with the comparison is that these characters aren't nearly as twisted as Rendell's, nor is the narrative nearly as dark. Part of what makes this book so effective is how much like you and me these folks are, and how much this suburban Baltimore landscape resembles our suburban Indianapolis. Perhaps a better comparison is Joesphine Tey, another master of weaving suspenseful stories from more ordinary situations and people.

Questions I hope you're asking

This is a slightly modified version of something I posted to DorothyL this morning.

Something I've come to realize lately is that in many ways, this isn't that big a business. Sure, we've know all along that there are many hardcover mysteries for which sales of five, six, eight thousand are considered good numbers -- successful, profitable, etc. At some companies at least; there are the Simon & Schusters of this world who say they won't stoop to that level. But on the other hand if every single St. Martin's Minotaur title were selling north of eight, nine thousand copies -- i.e. just a couple more thousand each -- with, of course, a few titles selling much more, that company would be happy.

Like I said, I've known this, but some of the implications of this have only become clearer to me recently. For one thing, it's now more evident to me than ever before that all we really need to do is to change the behavior of a comparatively small group of individuals in order to create a publishing business more to our liking. You know what I mean. We all hate the part of the business that throws too many resources behind books that aren't nearly as good as the books that are being overlooked and drowned out of the marketplace. We hate this, but we understand that we can't change publishers' behavior at the top of their lists: we're still going to see them spend way too much money to push bland mediocre generic marketing-department-driven books. Some of which we likely enjoy -- but even so, you know what I mean. That's just the way big corporate publishers are (no matter how foolish).

On the other hand, we ought to be able to affect everything else -- the "midlist" or the bottom of the list or whatever you want to call it. The reason we ought to be able to make a difference here is that the numbers really aren't that big -- again, just a couple more thousand copies per title, the movement of just a few dollars out of some distribution channels into other, more productive ones, etc.

There are 3,000 plus folks on DorothyL. Put together the customer lists of a handful of even the smallest of booksellers and you'll get to that number pretty easily. Add up the number of public libraries in 10 states and you'll get to 3,000. The point is that changing the behavior of 3,000 book buyers is all you need in order to create vast changes in the way that mysteries are published in the United States. And if you change just a few things about the way mysteries are published, distributed and sold, you open up many more opportunities for better, more substantial, quirkier, more interesting books.

So I'm reading all the various comments here about buying books in various formats, and why we're making these choices with all this in mind. And I'm asking myself what kind of business do we want this to be? What books aren't being published or aren't being published well? How do we want books to be sold? Can library buying practices change?

I have some vague ideas about all this, which I hope to have an opportunity to develop in the weeks and months to come. And, I except, each of you might have a few ideas too, if you stop to think about it -- which I hope you'll do.

Stocking the store

A woman working on a dissertation on cozy mysteries asks:

What are the rules (if any) in your bookstore regarding purchasing self-published books? Does your bookstore purchase any self-published books? How do you make this decision? I'm also wondering if there are any rules that apply to books produced by small presses. Are they less likely to be purchased by your bookstore, more likely, or is there no difference between small press books and large press books when it comes to placing them in your store?

Here's my response:

At The Mystery Company, the rule on self-published books is that we look at them one at a time.  We will stock intriguing, well-produced and properly priced self-published books that are offered to us on competitive terms.

The sad fact is that setting criteria like this -- 1) well-produced, 2) properly priced, 3) competitive terms -- virtually insures that self-published books eliminate themselves from consideration, even before we get to the question of "intriguing."  Let's face it: most self-published books aren't intended to be stocked in stores and we know this because most self-publishers have made little or no effort to figure out what being stocked in stores means.

I think you're asking the wrong question, though.  The real question is not whether stores will carry these books but whether readers will buy them.  Like any business, we are responsive to our customers.  Will our customers be interested in a self-published title?  If yes, then we have to be interested.  If no, then we don't have to be interested.  Are readers interested in most small press titles?

In fact, we stock and sell many titles published by small presses -- and some presses that were small in the recent past but aren't so small today.  Poisoned Pen, Rue Morgue, Crippen & Landru, my own Crum Creek Press/Mystery Company, Felony & Mayhem, Ramble House and others have supplied titles that in the past 12 months have outsold many, many titles published by the big guys.  Among the most fun titles we've had to sell in the past year are self-published: Mark Schweizer's choir mystery series.  By MWA's rules, he counts as self-published.  Of course, rules that label someone like Schweizer a self-publisher are bizarre to start with -- but that's a different discussion.

At one level, there's no difference between stocking and selling titles from self-publishers, small press companies and the multi-national conglomerates; if we didn't sell these books we wouldn't be in business at all.  But at another level, there's all the difference in the world: dealing with a plethora of authors and/or small companies, many of whom have idiosyncratic if not outright whimsical ideas about what it takes for a bookstore to successfully sell its books, makes this a very difficult landscape in which to make decisions.