In her new book Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned", Lena Dunham includes a section entitled "17 Things I Learned from My Father."
Number 13: "Hitting a creative wall? Take a break from work to watch a procedural. They always solve the case, and so will you."
So that's why we read mysteries!
I'm serious. That might be why.
No, as a matter of fact, I didn't go to Bouchercon but oddly, I will be in Long Beach, CA in a few weeks (read on) and visiting some friends I haven't seen in far too long. I did miss seeing dozens of people I'd have loved to see at the biggest mystery gathering on the planet, but there were other plans being planned and this trip couldn't be made financially reasonable. Hopefully next year on the East Coast, where I can theoretically drive.
Now on to business: I don't feel like a grizzled veteran just yet, but I realized recently that I've been involved with book publishing (as an author) for about 15 years now, given that's when I started writing my first novel, FOR WHOM THE MINIVAN ROLLS. And that sort of made me stop and think for a moment.
It's been a weird ride, a really enjoyable one, and I don't feel like we've even gotten far from the station yet, so there's plenty to go. And along the way I've met some people who will be friends for the rest of my life, I've heard from wonderful readers, I've been reviewed well and hilariously and I've been interviewed on radio and television, not to mention online.
But one thing I've never done has been a "book tour."
As you saw last week, the advantages (or dis-) of an author traveling from city to city and meeting with booksellers and readers (hopefully) can be a topic for debate. But I've never done one because publishers will generally not pay for an author to do so unless the author is a bestseller and can therefore afford to pay for it themselves. Keep in mind that the person who coined the phrase "Catch-22" was an author.
Still, I've always wanted to meet some of the booksellers I've contacted over the years and seen some of the stores other authors have told me about. So with the publication of INSPECTOR SPECTER a hair over two weeks away, I've decided that now is the time to hit the road.
But since I'm not a bestseller--at least not to that degree--I'm going on a short tour. There's only so much goodwill some authors can afford.
INSPECTOR SPECTER, the sixth Haunted Guesthouse mystery, will be published on Tuesday December 2. I have a class to teach on Thursday, December 4, so the "tour" will begin on Monday, December 8. And here's how it'll go:
Monday, December 8: Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor, MI (with our ex-DEAD GUY Robin Agnew!)
Tuesday, December 9: Murder by the Book in Houston, TX
Wednesday, December 10: The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ
Thursday, December 11: I'm on the road. Literally. Plans are to fly to San Francisco and then make my way, via Los Angeles to:
Friday, December 12: Mystery Ink in Huntington Beach, CA.
Saturday, December 13: Mysterious Galaxy's holiday party in San Diego, CA.
So, five bookstores in five cities in six days. And if you work for a bookstore near San Francisco and would like to discuss an event on December 11, get in touch!
If you're in one of those areas and would like to say hi, please come on out! Keep in mind that I'm probably coming from a lot farther away than you are! And it's the readers and the booksellers who make these events special. So I'm hoping to see you there. Wherever "there" is.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
ONA SIMAITE (1899-1970), Lithuania
Ona Simaite, a librarian at Vilna University, used her position to aid and rescue Jews in the Vilna ghetto. Entering the ghetto under the pretext of recovering library books from Jewish university students, she smuggled in food and other provisions and smuggled out literary and historical documents. In 1944, the Nazis arrested and tortured Simaite. She was then deported to Dachau and later transferred to a concentration camp in southern France. She remained in France following her liberation.
Photo credit: Yad Vashem photo archives.
So I was looking through my Facebook feed this afternoon, and there are all manner of posts mocking me. THIS friend is packing short and tees for Long Beach. THIS one, already there, is posed in front of a film studio in LA. THAT one is saying where she will be at every moment of the next four days (not the bar. At least not ALL the time…).
And not me, this year. I’ll be getting ready for Child #2’s Bat Mitzvah, which is the Sunday following the end of the conference. I had no illusions. Last year, when we saw how the dates lined up, it was very clear that the HSG Client Bowl-o-rama against Team Decker would need to wait another year. I’ll miss you guys. Have fun talking about, thinking about, learning about, and listening to people talking about Crime Fiction.
First and most important: An absurdly happy 22nd birthday to one of the most interesting and wonderful people I know--my daughter Eve. Hope you have the best time anyone could possibly have today, Baby Girl. But you know the old man's going to be calling sometime today, so carve out a few minutes, won't you? We're never not proud of you.
Now, then. (Which is, let's face it, contradictory.):
Those who read this space regularly might have come to the conclusion by now that I am a know-it-all pain in the buttocks who thinks his opinion on every subject regarding the publishing of crime fiction is sacrosanct.
Others might have actually seen that I'm not all that confident, but you never know.
Either way, I'm lucky--and in this case, so are you--that over the years I've met a good number of other crime fiction authors, and have learned that many of them are really smart. So I've asked a few to chip in on a question (one that I've been struggling with, but more on that next week!) that has been a topic for debate among writers for a while now:
The Book Tour: Important Promotional Tool, or Outmoded Expensive Dinosaur
And here's what they had to say:
Chris Grabenstein (author of the John Ceepak/Danny Boyle mystery series, middle-grade books like Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library, and Treasure Hunters: Danger Down the Nile, with James Patterson): I think the Book Tour is still pretty important when you’re starting out, especially in the mystery genre. It’s a good chance to meet all the indie mystery booksellers and see the country, too. Love that drive from Houston to Phoenix. Next time I think I’ll fly.
In my new kids world, there is a new kind of book tour. It’s called “doing school visits.” Those are actually quite awesome-tastic, to quote a fifth grader. You put on three shows. The kids treat you like a rock star. And you sell a ton of books, usually at a discount, because the publishers and many bookstores offer very generous price cuts to schools. And, you get to drink chocolate milk at lunch.
Lorraine Bartlett (also Lorna Barrett, author of Victoria Square mysteries, Lotus Bay mysteries, and much, much more): Total and complete waste of time. Usually a book tour involved giving away books. People who hope to win aren't going to buy. If they don't win on this blog stop, they might on the next. If you do want to spend a LOT of time writing posts that won't sell any books, at least give away a prize other than a book. (People LOVE coffee mugs.) Virtual book tours are useless. Anything other than a stock signing is pretty useless these days. Unless you have a HUGE following, people have other entertainment options. It's been my experience that people don't go to bookstore signings. But ... these days I have much better luck at holiday craft shows. I sell copies of my own books, pay a table fee, and come home in the black. It's not a lot of fun, but after several years, people actually look for me. I don't do booksignings anymore.
Harley Jane Kozak (author of the Wollie Shelley mystery series and Keepers L.A. series from Harlequin Nocturne): I didn’t tour for my last book and so the last time I did tour was 2010, so I feel completely incompetent. My 2010 book came out as Doubleday was falling apart — oops; I mean restructuring — and so the hardcover turned to trade paper and the “tour” was minimal. My real tours were for the three earlier books, but that feels so long ago and far away I can barely recall. Plus, the stores that did my book launches are now long gone. Frankly, the world is so changing. I think it always helps, but I have no idea how much, and whether the cost of the tour is worth it. Does anyone know?
Renee Paley-Bain (co-author with Donald Bain and Jessica Fletcher of the Murder She Wrote novels): First of all, if the publisher isn't paying for the tour, forget it. You'll never make back in sales what you spend on travel. If you're less concerned about the money and more eager to market yourself and your books, then keep careful track of your expenses; they're tax deductible.
Just my opinion but in general signings are a tricky business.They can be grueling and embarrassing if too few people show up. BUT getting the chance to talk with store managers and sales personnel can do you a world of good if they like you and your books. In that case, they may hand-sell your books to their customers after you've gone on to your next stop. Make sure you sign all their stock before you leave so they can put a sticker on it saying "Autographed by Author." Bookstore managers usually like to get your bookmarks, too. The biggest plus happens if you can generate press interest. An article in the local newspaper or radio or TV interview in conjunction with your appearance may reap online sales as well as bookstore sales. And thanking the store on FB and/or your website will endear you to the store manager who worked so hard to host the event.
Thanks to my pals for contributing! (But now I'm confused--are you confused?)
(Pay no attention to the photograph above. It's not their wedding picture, I'm relatively sure.)
Now on to business: Because Josh is a great agent, I had a little bit of extra money in the bank account. Not enough to go buy a new car or put a down payment on a mansion, but I didn't want those anyway. This was just a little extra. Enough after paying the bills (always a joy!) that I could indulge myself a tad.
So I went out looking for a guitar.
I have an excellent 12-string acoustic Takamine that my wife and children got me for a birthday that can't possibly be seven years in the past, and yet is. And I love that guitar. But every once in a while, you feel like playing something else, to get a different sound.
A few weeks ago, I joined my lovely wife in New Orleans for a few days after she had finished her work at a convention she was attending for her job. And strolling around while we were there, we'd wandered into a music store where a used six-string was on display at a very reasonable price. I sat down to play it and while I didn't fall in love, I certainly had a decent infatuation.
The problem was, by the time we added a case (you can't transport it without a case) and the cost of shipping back to New Jersey, it was no longer a very reasonable price for a pretty low-end guitar. So we passed it up--not really a big deal--and went to get some more beignets.
But it had put the idea into my head, so I figured I'd look around a bit.
Long story moderately shorter, I have been to all the music stores I know in the area. I've seen some nice guitars, many of which I couldn't afford no matter who my agent might be, and some that were affordable and knocking on the door of adequate.
But I haven't gotten an infatuation again. And I know why.
It's not the guitars' fault. No matter which brand name or model I try, the fact is that I'm not a very good musician. I can play all right as long as nobody's listening but me. I know a couple of tricks but my technique is certainly wanting, and 40 years of practicing bad technique have made it difficult to fix.
So I keep trying out guitars and I still sound like myself, which is disappointing. I'm sure that with some professional instruction I could improve my playing, and the day might come when I decide that's something I'd like to do. But a new instrument wasn't going to fix it.
It's the same with writing, to some extent. Each of us is born with whatever talents we're going to have. It's up to us to cultivate them and constantly strive to improve. But if we think that a new software program, a course from a "professional author" or an upgraded laptop is going to increase our talent level, we are seriously mistaken.
Yes, you can get better at writing. Practice doesn't make perfect, but it certainly does make better. But if you were meant to be a painter, no new gadget or online advice is going to make you a literary lion. You're already the writer you are. Practice and some instruction will make you the writer you're going to be. But if you're not a writer--someone who doesn't write just because s/he has to--there isn't a magic formula that will transform you.
Mel Brooks once wrote, "You may be Tolstoy--or Fannie Hurst." He did not suggest that if you're Fannie, you can become Tolstoy by getting a better pen.
I'll keep trying out guitars, though. And one of these days I'll come across one (probably used) that will have a sound I find pleasing when I play it. I just won't expect it to turn my into Eric Clapton.
That job is filled. My job is to be me.
P.S. I ended up getting a set of lighter-gauge strings. A definite improvement for less than $10.
Last week, alert client Elaine Powell tweeted an article at me about a new feature of some UK writers conferences: Dog Walks with Agents. The title of the article in the Bookseller was "Literary Agents Try To Change 'Distant' Image"
It seems that at two literary festivals in England, one of the featured events was a morning jaunt where agents and authors bonded over their dogs, thus humanizing the agents, who might otherwise be thought of as foreboding or unapproachable.
I had a bunch of thoughts about this, all of which were surprisingly negative. I say surprisingly because a) I am a huge dog person, having spent much of my life cohabiting with various retrievers; and b) because I have made a serious effort since becoming an agent to be Out There and approachable. I have spent a lot of time at conferences. I am active on Twitter and Facebook, and have written this blog weekly for more than three years now. So why was my visceral reaction to roll my eyes at such a benign (and likely fun) event?
As I parsed it, I realized that there were two things. The first is that the places I spend most of my time talking to authors at conferences tends to be at the bar (along with everyone else!), where people organically gather at these confabs after a long day of panels and pitches. It’s not forced and it’s not scheduled. (Sometimes it can get sloppy, but that too can say something—how much to do want to work with the agent who starts spilling secrets after a couple of vodka tonics? Maybe it’s a strikeout, but to some, maybe a home run…) I don’t find it to be filled with peer pressure, and agents assume they are going to chat with people they don’t know—with the invite and the plane ticket is the unspoken understanding that you’ll hold court in the lobby.
The second issue I had with this article had to do with the assumption that agents are scary and intimidating and unapproachable, and they will be humanized through their relationships with their pets. There are two things about this: The first is that fundamentally I find that the vast majority of agents (like the vast majority of editors and the bulk of writers I meet, for that matter), are very nice and human (at least in small doses). We enter this business, as I’ve said any number of times in this space, because we want to LIKE things, to say YES, even though we ultimately reject the majority of queries we receive. But our mindset is largely positive and we at least TRY to be optimistic. So we’re approachable. Not like a golden retriever, but not like a komodo dragon, either.
But the other thing that I realized is that, while I am very happy to hang out at the bar with writers who either just finished pitching their manuscripts to me or are going to in the morning, I do think there is a very reasonable desire to be slightly distant from writers who are not clients. My social media persona (as is true with many of my peers), is what I want it to be, by and large. If you look me up, you will know that I play drums, love women’s basketball, am active in my synagogue and with some animal rights groups, am married with kids, and represent a lot of crime and historical fiction, some children’s books, and Other. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s more than many of my colleagues would put out there, but I think it’s enough to be interesting without oversharing.
My clients often know me better, but then, we have a closer relationship, and it’s a two-way street. They can know more about what I think about things, or some of my views. But I think it’s appropriate for there to be a bit of distance between agent and prospective client.
Finally, I was wondering why walking a dog with me would give you an indication as to my knowledge of the crime fiction market, or how well I line edit (Sheila Boneham, don't kill me!!!!). Now I’m not being obtuse—I know that what breed of dog I have can give as much of an indication as to my personality as the brand of scotch I drink, and I can talk about noir with Frisbees as easily as with tumblers. But in the same way that certain manuscripts can be written perfectly well but have a tone that’s just slightly off, so too is the Dog Walking at the Lit Conference.
Darkhouse Books wants historical detective short fiction. Here's the call:
Darkhouse Books seeks stories for an anthology of historical crime and mystery fiction. For the purpose of this anthology we are defining historical fiction as, those works set more than a few decades prior to the present and written by someone without direct experience in the setting and events of the story. But should a truly superb story happen to stray from the above strictures and cross our threshold, we would happily consider it. The submission period is now open and will remain open through December 31st, 2014. We are seeking stories in the 2500 to 7500 word range, though if it’s knockout material, we’ll consider any length. The anthology will contain between twelve and twenty stories, depending on the overall length. Authors will share equally fifty percent of royalties received.
Visit http://darkhousebooks.com/ for more information.