Over on Spyscribbler's blog she has a post about quotes about reading and books and wonders what books are particularly important to people and why?
I think this is a really interesting question and I noted that books that can practically change one person's life can mean almost nothing else to other people. I also find that some books that meant a lot to me at one time or another sort of fade in their importance over time.
So I'll mention the two books I mentioned on her blog, but tell you a little bit about the books.
To The Hilt by Dick Francis.
I haven't read this book since my father died and I suspect at least part of that is because of an earlier part of the plot. The main character is a painter in Scotland, born more or less into some royal blood--his uncle is an earl, I believe. Alexander lives out in a bothy--basically a rustic cabin--out in the Scottish countryside with no electricity, painting things. His step-father has a heart attack and he returns to help his mother deal with his step-father's recuperation. (The medical at-home things bring back a lot of memories). His step-father, who owns a brewery, asks him two favors, convinced he's dying. One, there's a huge sum of money missing from the brewery and he asks Alexander if he can try to find it. Two, he has a racehorse that the creditors are going to take if he can't find the money and he wants him to hide the racehorse, because he's been told by Alexander's uncle that Alexander is good at hiding things. Indeed he is, because his uncle had asked him also to hide a priceless sword hilt given to some distant relative by Bonnie Prince Charles (I think) hundreds of years earlier. And a fair number of people find out Alexander is hiding things of great value and will pretty much do anything to get him to cough up the secrets.
So there's all sorts of plots about family and step-family and familial responsibility, but there's a lot about mortality and the artistic lifestyle (everybody in the large family thinks Alexander's a nut, living out in the middle of nowhere painting pictures about golf, not realizing he likes his solitude and he makes a lot of money about golf. And of course, one critic had looked at a painting of his and suggested that Alexander didn't paint pictures about golf, but painted pictures about human tenacity and will). So it's a mystery, several in fact, with some historical tie-ins, but really this book is about an artist somewhat isolated from his family who is brought into the fold, so to speak.
Anyway, it touches me a lot.
Bag of Bones by Stephen King
Michael Noonan is a bestselling romantic suspense novelist in his 30s when his wife dies of an aneurysm. He completes his work in progress, then suffers a form of writer's block that can only be described as pathological--he literally will suffer severe panic attacks if he attempts to write. This goes on for four years, when he returns to a vacation home he and his wife had owned in rural Maine. The home, a log cabin dubbed Sara Laughs, appears to be haunted. By his late-wife? Or someone else? While in the area, he comes upon a 4-year-old girl walking down the road and her very young mother. Suddenly Mike is thrust into a custody battle between Mattie DeVore (the mother) and her crazy 85-year-old computer mogul late-husband's father, who will do anything to take custody of her daughter.
Bag of Bones is a ghost story, but like To The Hilt it's also about creativity and the creative life. It's all mixed up with child custody, an early generation's sins coming to roost, and love and marriage. Describing the two books this way I can sort of see similarities, which is interesting. I'd never realized the extent to which their themes overlaps.
And in case you haven't read Bag of Bones, I'm going to give a spoiler here and tell you about the end (part of it) of the book. So if you don't want to know, don't read it.
Although for a time Mike's writer's block goes away--actually, it goes away for good, because it was being created by either the ghost of his late-wife or the ghost of Sara--but Mike never returns to writing. He writes on the last 2 pages of the book:
"...the machine which ran so sweet for so long has stopped. It isn't broken--this memoir came out with nary a gasp or missed heartbeat--but the machine has stopped, just the same. There's gas in the tank, the sparkplugs spark and the battery bats, but the wordygurdy stands there quiet in the middle of my head. I've put a tarp over it. It's served me well, you see, and I don't like to think of it getting dusty."
Then he writes:
"Thomas Hardy, who supposedly said that the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones, stopped writing novels himself after finishing Jude the Obscure and while he was at the height of his narrative genius. He went on writing poetry for another twenty years, and when someone asked him why he'd quit fiction he said he couldn't understand why he had trucked with it so long in the first place. It retrospect it seemed silly to him, he said. Pointless. I know exactly what he meant. In the time between now and whenever the Outsider remembers me and decides to come back, there must be other things to do, things that mean more than those shadows. I think I could go back to clanking chains behind the Ghost House wall, but I have no interest in doing so. I've lost my taste for spooks. I like to imagine Mattie would think of Bartleby in Melville's story.
"I've put down my scrivener's pen. These days I prefer not to."
Well, it's an ending and a line of thought that is significant to me and haunts me with its truth. And that's a hell of a thing for a piece of popular fiction to do.
How about you? What books hit you like a lightning bolt and why?
If all goes according to plan (we can always hope), I will complete my nonfiction book proposal today. Then I will start trying to find an agent to market it (my agent does not handle nonfiction).
I'm sort of tense about this. I make a living writing nonfiction. I've written and published literally hundreds of magazine pieces, probably close to a hundred on topics related to the proposal. I'm seriously qualified to write this book. I think the material I've written to-date, about 50 pages, is excellent. It's informative, interesting, well-written, and entertaining. I think it takes an approach to scientific material (it's about genetics and medicine) that more writers should take. I think it's great, in other words. (There's the arrogance).
And yet, I do understand how capricious publishing can be. I think this probably stands a better chance of getting picked up than my novels, just because it's nonfiction. But I'm nervous about this. Maybe I feel like there's a lot riding on its success, I don't know.
Aahhh, well, if you've seen the movie "Bull Durham" (picture above) you probably remember a scene later in the movie when Nuke (Tim Robbins) is being sent up to the major leagues and Crash (Kevin Costner) tells him, "You have to play this game with fear and arrogance."
I know exactly what he was talking about and it applies to writing, too.
Of course, Nuke says, "Got it. Fear and ignorance."
My son, Ian, took one of my ideas (I, Wolf) and ran with it last night, starting something he's calling (iWolf). Here's the first part. I think it rocks.
* * *
My name is Fang Titan and my parents don’t know that I’m a werewolf.
I should have cut my loses when I realized my plan was spiraling out of control. But that would have told the Hunters that I’m not the smart werewolf that I am. When trying to break out four hundred miserable kids who are in their werewolf form you have to expect chaos. What I had was pure chaos, my plan was not going as I had planned. All the werewolves were scared and angry at the same time and I was running out of ideas. I twisted around and saw that the only way out was a sewer. Great.
I growled low and the other werewolves turned toward me. I smashed the manhole cover open and the others knew what to do. I tell you four hundred werewolves trying to get in a hole about five feet wide is not a pretty sight.
I growled low again and the werewolves growled back at me. Universal code for shut up and leave me alone. When all the werewolves were safely through and I was about to go in when I felt a pain in my rear end. I looked around at my butt.
It was a paralyzing dart. I felt all the strength in my body leaving. Than I felt a strong tingling go down my spine. I looked at my body. I was changing back. Not good, not good. I stumbled for the manhole but was stopped. I hit the steel floor in a thud as all the energy in my body was zapped away.
So I was lying on the floor, cold and without the help of my werewolf rage, oh yeah and I had no clothes on. You don’t expect me to turn back to normal and still be wearing the clothes I wore when I turned into a werewolf? You are sadly mistaken.
* * *
Let us know what you think. And by the way, Ian is 14.
Just when I thought I had nothing to say (but when has that ever stopped me?)
I was walking Frodo this morning when a woman pulled up alongside us and asked if I was Mark Terry. It turns out I was. When I was looking for beta-readers for The Fortress of Diamonds, I had asked a friend if his daughter would read it. She did, and then her Mom read it, too, then her Mom asked me if she could give it to a friend of her's who is the youth section librarian at a nearby library. I said no problem.
Well, this was that woman, and she has a 15-year-old daughter who read it, as well.
So we chatted, not that much about The Fortress of Diamonds, although we touched on that, but about books in general and the marketplace. I mentioned my friend Erica Orloff commenting yesterday how she loves to write comedy, but the publishing industry says comedy is "chick-lit" and chick-lit is dead. And I commented that there have been rumors that "thrillers" are on the way out, although a year or so ago they were all the rage, and how many of those writers will probably start calling their books "suspense" or whatever.
She told me how as a librarian she's very frustrated by this, because there are a lot of readers at the library who won't read it if it doesn't have the "mystery" tag on the spine.
Tell me about it.
I'm less stressed about this as a reader, although frankly I find the fact the local Borders calls some books "romantic suspense" that I can't differentiate from a thriller or a mystery, but can only be found in the Romance section, and how some techno-thrillers can be found in the Mystery section while others are only found in the Science Fiction & Fantasy section.
As a writer though, it's like you have to make sure you label the damned manuscript properly so your agent or potential editors don't get confused as to what you are actually selling. Frustrating.
I took my oldest son to see "The Dark Knight" last night when my youngest got invited over to a friend's house. My wife and I had decided TDK was probably too dark and violent for a 10-year-old and as of right now, we made the right decision.
Did I like this movie?
I recognize that it was probably great. The script was good, the dialogue was terrific, the action scenes wonderful, the acting fantastic. From all those points-of-view, it was a brilliant movie.
That doesn't, however, mean I liked it.
Oh, let me count the ways.
1. Long. The movie runs 2-1/2 hours and felt like 3 (at least). I kept pulling out my cell phone to check the time. This movie never seems to end. And I don't mean that just because it's long. People have accused "The Return of the King" of having multiple endings, jeez, go see "The Dark Knight." Ian suggested it should have ended back when Harvey Dent gets turned into Two-Face. I'm inclined to agree. (Ooooh, is that a spoiler? Then you don't know much about Batman.)
2. Imagine for a moment that you went to see a gritty urban drama about a crusading public defender and cop who were trying to fight corruption in their city and shut down the mob. Take all the violence and noir qualities of say, a Scorsese film (without the swearing), then throw in Batman. Yep, you got TDK. Now, briefly, imagine taking your 14-year-old to see "The Departed" and imagine your ambivalence.
3. The beginning of "Iron Man" is pretty intense. (Hang with me here, there's a point to be made). Robert Downey, Jr.'s character, Tony Stark, gets ambushed in Afghanistan and is kidnapped by terrorists and with another man, forced to rebuild a missile system from scratch. Instead, he builds the prototype for the Iron Man and escapes, though his faithful assistant gets killed in the process. It's pretty real, pretty grim and yet... "Iron Man" was fun. (I saw it twice. It rocks.) I saw "Hulk" this summer, and although I don't think it's a great movie, it was still kind of fun. Spider-Man movies, of various stages of quality, still fun. The last Superman... okay, that movie just sucked. But my point is, call me old-fashioned, but when I'm watching a movie about a comic book superhero, I sort of expect it to be fun, even if it is dark and "serious." There was precious little fun to be found in "The Dark Knight." I think there's a fairly distinct line to be drawn in making these types of movies that allows it to be "serious" and artistic and yet be entertaining and fun. For me, TDK crossed it and the result was a brilliant, dark, grim and largely depressing film.
4. Who the hell is the audience for "The Dark Knight?" I had to wonder. It had a PG-13 rating, but frankly, I think the directors must have been sleeping with members of the ratings board to keep it from getting an R. Did I mention the part where the Joker places a pencil upright on a table then slams a guy's head onto it? Did we mention dozens of deaths and murders? How about the various scenes of torture? Beatings? How about the guy who's got a bomb sewn into his stomach? How about Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckland, going up in flames, then us seeing half of his charred face? So I'm guessing, that despite bringing my 14-year-old to it, the real audience for this movie were college-age males (although there was little or no sex or nudity, so who knows who the demographic was?)
I was thinking a little bit about James Lee Burke today. In case you haven't heard of him or read any of his books, his dominant mystery series involves ex-New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux. I discovered him somewhere around his 4th Robicheaux novel, went crazy and hunted down all the rest, bought all his books in hardcover, then abruptly stopped reading him. That's a blog post for a different day, that odd evolution away from a certain writer or certain type of book.
No, what I've been thinking about is Burke's odd career.
You see, a while back on Erica Orloff's blog I wrote once about fearing that I'd had my shot at being a successful novelist and I'd blown it. The Derek Stillwater novels were it, they didn't work out and that was it, show's over, folks. Erica responded that as long as I didn't quit, it was never over.
Maybe she's right. I don't know, given the current state of the publishing industry, but that's also a different blog topic.
So what's the deal with James Lee Burke?
Well, one thing, he had a novel he wrote that was rejected 111 times over nine years that when it did finally get published was nominated for the Pulitzer.
The other thing is, Burke published three novels in the late 1960s and early '70s. Then nothing. He couldn't give his books away. He sold one paperback original between 1972 and 1985.
He essentially had a 13-year dry spell before breaking back in with the Robicheaux novels, which have made him a bestseller and an award-winning author. In the January 1993 issue of Writer's Digest, Burke said:
"Those 13 years were really hard. I wrote a mess of short stories and so many unpublished novels that I can't even remember all of them. "
He later goes on to say: (and by the way, the piece was written by W.C. Stroby)
"My feeling is there's a time and a reason and a place for everything. I'm convinced that my career is not exceptional, but is instead indicative of the rule--namely, that you never quit. You can't be discouraged. But, at the same time, a person should not fault himself for becoming discouraged. It's going to happen, it's natural. But you still have to commit yourself. You have to do something every day for your art, or you'll never be a success at it."
Well, here's the problem. I agree with him. But I don't. Because, hell, we're all grown-ups here, right? We do realize that sometimes you can try your best and things don't work out. That not everybody can be first place? Right? Not every person who writes novels will get published, not every published novel will succeed, that success is different for each person, that success might be "published" for one and "multiple printings" for another and "bestseller list" for yet another and "number one on the New York Times BS List" for another.
Still, Burke's right. When you quit you only guarantee your failure.
To which I would add, "And try to enjoy the process because the goal isn't guaranteed."
That's about it. Really, that's pretty much what it comes down to. It probably doesn't come down to being a "good writer" because the typical book buyer doesn't care or can't identify it. That's not being snotty, either. I recognize beautiful writing, a Philip Roth, a John Updike, a Norman Mailer, but for me, too often, beautiful writing of that sort gets in the way of the story. From a technical point of view I can say, "Wow, this guy can really write," but mostly I just wish they'd stop glorifying in their own technique. I sometimes read a successful novel by some bestseller and I really struggle with it yet the typical book buyer says they loved it. If I analyze it enough, I often find there's something strange or clunky about the rhythm and word selection of the book that's getting in my way, a tendency for the writer to add in unnecessary detail that should have been deleted, but he/she still tells a great story. (Lewis Perdue comes to mind). Or maybe they're a really terrific writer, but for some reason I think the main character is acting like a total moron in order to make the story work (oh, don't get me started). Still, people don't seem to care, or at least, a big chunk of them don't, which suggests to me they're getting something out of the book that I am not.
I think this is true for fiction as well as nonfiction, although in the case of nonfiction it's generally easier to figure out what people want. People want to be informed about some topic they're interested in, whether it's how to keep their 2-year-old from having a tantrum in the grocery store, how to choose wines that go with steak, how to lose 15 pounds without dieting, or how to choose long-term care insurance.
With fiction, maybe it's not that hard either.
People want to be entertained. They want to spend time in the company of a main character that they like or hate but that intrigues them. They want to be transported away from whatever the hell is going on in their life. In many ways they want to be informed about something as well, whether it's the behavior of an assassin in Asia (Barry Eisler), the perils of some new technology (Michael Crichton) or how the police operate in Italy (David Hewson). They want to live someone else's life vicariously, whether it's a glamorous or non-glamorous New Yorker trying to find love, a spy in the cold war, a private eye in Boston, a cop in Los Angeles, a Homeland Security troubleshooter in Baltimore, a goofy bounty hunter in New Jersey, a child psychologist in L.A. or a haunted writer in Maine.
They probably also want to feel something, whether it's fear, anger, joy, nervousness, lust, humor or all of the above, sometimes all at the same time.
Joe Konrath recently had a post about giving and taking advice and I asked him what thing he believed was true about publishing but which in his experience did not seem to be true. He wrote:
"While I still think it's important to earn out your advance and think of your publisher as a partner rather than as a boss, I'm beginning to figure out that your partner doesn't always feel the same way..."
There sure are a lot of follow-up questions that come to mind there, but as I thought about this, I wondered, what did I once think was true about publishing that I no longer take as gospel and, in fact, might believe is just wrong. So here are a few.
Good writing will win out in the long run.
Well, in the larger world of publishing fiction, I think good writing (if you can define it) will get the short-term attention of an agent or editor, but will not necessarily get you published. In fact, I no longer believe that a "good story well told" will automatically get you published. Isn't that depressing? I think it kind of is. Now, unfortunately, my feeling is that the biggest things editors and publishers look for are: does the book have a commercial hook, does the author have a platform, and frankly, there's just a shortage of big publishers willing to take a chance on anything. (Ever noticed how many The Da Vinci Code clones there are out there?) There apparently are so many strong writers out there--and I partly blame computers and word processing programs for this, which has made it easier for people of modest talent to actually finish a manuscript--that "good" or even "very good" is so common that editors are increasingly looking for "great" or "excellent" which is very hard to come by.
Publishers will give you three to five books to grow an audience.
I wish, but apparently it wasn't the case for me.
The typical first book advance will be something like $20,000.
Hell, I thought $100,000 at one time. My first novel got $0 advance. My second $1500. Those sucked. They still suck. And this was in what, 2005 or 2006? In 1972 Stephen King got $2500 advance for the hardcover of "Carrie" and then $400,000 for the paperback of the same novel. I think the point here is that even back then Stephen King wasn't typical. And in 2005 or 2006, Mark Terry wasn't either... just on the other end of the spectrum. Typical would probably be about $5000 to $10,000 from a major publisher, although there probably is no "typical."
All published novelists are rich.
All published novelists are poor and living in a garret.
Maybe more true than the previous one, but what has struck me over the last four or five years is the blunt realization that the majority of published novelists are essentially "hobbyists," and that if I were to actually look at the history of the novel, it's probably always been that way.
Editors want to nurture and grow a writer's career.
Probably what they want is someone who becomes an instant bestseller that they only paid $5000 for. My impression now is that editors are under too much bottom line pressure from their publishers and the accounting department to nurture a writer that doesn't have an instantly upward trend in their sales figures.
Publishers will do everything they can to make a book a success.
No. Uh, hell no. If publishers have a significant investment in a book (read: big advance) then yes, they will do everything they can to earn back that advance. If they have little or nothing invested in a book--which is most of them--then they do little or nothing except cross their fingers. There are tons of books that get published and the sole marketing done by the publisher involves a mention in their catalogue and sending a few advanced reading copies out to the major trade review outlets--Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus.
How about you? Do you agree with me? Have I just depressed the hell out of you? What are your cherished notions about publishing? Any publishing myths you know about?
I started a new blog a week or so ago. It's called Fat2Fit and it has nothing to do with writing. But if you're interested in my ramblings about exercise and activity and this is an issue for you as well, swing on by and let me know what you think. Or if you have a jock friend or someone who needs to exercise or likes to exercise but has problems actually getting around to it, point them my way.
I am probably not an optimist. I don't think I'm a pessimist, either. A friend once said I was a "realist" of the Hope-For-The-Best-Expect-The-Worst Sort.
That may have been true then, but I'm not sure it's true now. Things changed, my life changed, I changed.
So maybe I am an optimist.
But let me tell you something about freelancing for a living, and this applies to novels or magazine articles and everything in between.
1. You have to be optimistic and have faith that something good is going to come along. Things have been a little dry lately since bailing on the full-time gig, exacerbated by some slow-pay clients, which is frustrating the hell out of me. But I sat down and started hunting for more work. There has been a little voice in my head that says, "You're not going to get work, the economy sucks, it's July and everybody's on vacation, you blew your good karma in New York when you turned down the job..."
And you've just got to tell that little voice to SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP.
And today it looks like I've probably picked up a new client. I expect it to be the first through an open floodgate.
2. Put it one of two ways: things change and/or shit happens. Magazines go belly-up (so do book publishers), editors change jobs, publications decide to stop working with freelancers, etc. Aside from my contract job crisis this summer, I also did some work for a lab company that wanted me to write copy for their website. Alarm bells should have been going off, but I did some work for her although she didn't seem to be answering my questions or putting me in touch with the people I needed to be in touch with. I finally pulled together what I felt was 95% of the job and sent it to her. She came back with, "Oh, this is good, about 20% there." To which I responded with an invoice and the comment, "I can't go any further until I have feedback from the company."
Guess who hasn't paid the bill or gotten back with me? Sometimes you just have to wash your hands of a client and say, "Enough of that shit." Thank God I only spent about 5 hours or so on that gig.
But overall, if you want to keep your sanity, you have to convince yourself there's more, good work coming, that the checks are in the mail, that by God, things will work out.
Here's a list--with comments--of the last 10 books I've read.
Phantom Prey by John Sandford
Yes, another Lucas Davenport novel. For some reason it's not sticking in my head, but I remember enjoying reading it quite a bit.
House Of Rain: Tracking A Vanished Civilization Across The American Southwest by Craig Childs
It took me a while to get through this, but it's really remarkable. It's essentially about the Anasazi and Craig Childs who is a writer, naturalist and amateur anthropologist/archaeologist, apparently spent several years hiking around the southwest following migratory pathways from Anasazi ruin to Anasazi ruin, talking to archaeologists and Hopi tribal elders and park rangers. Beautifully written, sort of dense, but fascinating.
The Sacred Cut by David Hewson
I tried reading this once before and gave up. In a stubborn streak, I tried it again and decided I really liked it. It's a serial killer book, but it takes place in Rome. It's a very dense, lyrical narrative, part travelogue, historical epic, police procedural and espionage novel. What finally turned the table for me with it was how satisfying I found it to be in the end.
The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan
The 4th book in Rick's "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series for middle grades. Wonderful, funny, exciting adventure. If you haven't read this series, start at the beginning--"The Lightning Thief" and catch up. Really, they give Harry Potter a run for their money, which is not fair to either Jo Rowling or Rick Riordan. Just read them because they're good.
The Cold Moon by Jeffery Deaver
A Lincoln Rhyme forensic procedural, and as is the case with Deaver's books, it was good. He's quite reliable in that way. Sometimes he drives me crazy because his books are so long, but they don't sag in the middle or anything, they just go on forever, twist after twist after twist. He's really good at twisting things unexpectedly, and just when I think I've got his tricks figured out, he spins them backwards or inside-out.
Beyond Varallan by SL Viehl
SF--the second book in the SpaceDoc series. I thought this one was a little slow, but I enjoyed it. I went out and bought the 3rd book, primarily because Viehl did such a great job of creating a cliffhanger at the end of this book. SL Viehl also writes romance novels, and I'm pretty aware that the SpaceDoc novels have a romance novel structure driving them beneath all the SF adventure stuff.
Homo Politicus: The Strange And Scary Tribes That Run Our Government by Dana Milbank
Nonfiction, which would be satire if it weren't so damned true. Milbank discusses politicians and politics within a quasi-framework that "Homo Politicus," otherwise known as the Beltway Man, has similarities to various anthropological studies of different cultures around the world, often primitive cultures. Hilarious, disgusting, fascinating. He does a really nice job of putting a lot of political scandals--and day-um, there's a lot of them--into a context of behavior and following up on what became of the figures in them and why. It makes me wonder, though, why the American people don't expect more from their elected officials.
Playing With Fire by Derek Landy
Another middle grades novel, the second to feature Skulduggery Pleasant, a skeleton who is a P.I., and his apprentice, a 13-year-old girl, Valkyrie Cain. I loved the first book and was so-so on this one. I'm not sure if it was just because it wasn't as fresh as the first or if by setting the book entirely in the fictional world rather than both the fictional and real world, it lost some of its effectiveness. I enjoyed it, it's a great adventure, but it just didn't seem to work as well for me as the first one.
The Last Oracle by James Rollins
A Sigma Force novel. Enjoyable, fun, crazy. Rollins has this whole thing going with intuitive powers affiliated with autism and a Russian program to exploit it, Chernobyl, ruthless politicians, gypsies, Greek myths, high technology... definitely a summer reading book.
Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais
An Elvis Cole novel and quite emotional. Elvis seems a lot less flip and funny in this book. A few years earlier he'd been hired to find an alibi for a potential murderer, and he did discover evidence the man couldn't have been where the killing was. Now, years later, that guy apparently committed suicide and has a photo album of seven murders that apparently he committed, including the one Elvis had provided evidence for. Beating himself up over it, he goes head to head with the police to try and figure out what happened. Brooding, dark, hard and short. Really excellent, but the tone's darker than most Elvis Cole novels.
Yesterday I got over-involved in a posting thread over on agent Nathan Branford's blog about a couple different publishers and/or imprints such as Vanguard, that are attempting a new business model. Essentially the business model involves publishes far, far fewer books, providing much lower advances, guaranteeing much more money gets put into promotion, higher royalties because of the lower to non-existent advances, and the upshot being that because they are going to publish far fewer books, they intend to treat each with tender loving care and turn each one into a bestseller.
It's not the first I've heard of it. I spoke with both David Morrell and Tom Grace (at length) about it, both of whom are at Vanguard. Both of them have a significant sales history and reputation and for one reason or another, can afford to go with a minimal advance (or none), or, at the least, are willing to. Vanguard, at least, seems to be focusing on authors who have sold quite well in the past and are looking for more promotional support from their publishers.
I'm not opposed to the idea, but I wondered in my first response if this would be a bad idea for the rest of us ilk, those of us with small or no advances already. Yes, it would be great if the publisher who was already not paying us much money decided to up our royalties and then promised and actually followed-through and spent a specific dollar amount on promotion. I just didn't see it happening that way, quite possibly because no publisher can afford to promote every book they publish effectively... most books are the equivalent of cannon fodder or spaghetti--you throw it at the wall and see if it sticks, and if it doesn't, you shrug and say, well, we didn't spend much money on it anyway and there's more where he came from. My point was that there were tons of books being published with small or non-existent advances so publishers wouldn't be inclined to increase the royalties to make up for that, and since their investment was so low anyway, what motivation did they have to throw any real money into promotion or co-op?
Somebody apparently decided I was focusing on the promotion element too much and money, and really, all it takes for a book to succeed in the marketplace is for readers to love it and talk about it, and after all, there's a lengthy history of books given modest advances and no particular push by the publisher that take off, and a lengthy history of books that are given big advances, huge marketing pushes that then fail.
Indeed there is and I didn't disagree, I just asked that she name 5, and I was specifically pointing out that I wasn't challenging the statement, I was just curious what she would put up. (Okay, yes, perhaps I was challenging the statement, but not because I thought she was wrong, but because I wanted her to substantiate her claim, that is to say, put her money where her mouth was).
So she did, and one of them was JK Rowling and Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone.
Yep, I don't disagree with that. Her publisher certainly did not realize when they paid her whatever little they paid her, that she was going to be the most famous writer on the planet. I would also add Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell and Janet Evanovich to that mix as well, and without spending a lot of time researching it, I'm sure I could come up with more.
I also pointed out, however, that it wasn't long after those authors developed an unexpectedly large following that their publishers started throwing a great deal of money into promotion. I specifically noted around the time the 3rd or 4th Potter book came out, how Borders had these giant 3 feet by 4 feet cardboard, glossy posters hanging from the ceilings in all their stores, that I asked who paid for them--the publisher--and could only guess how much it cost not only to make and deliver those signs, but then to pay Borders and B&N and everybody else for the real estate. (And I didn't say this, but I asked this when I was doing a book signing in their store where I was lucky to sell 7 or 8 books and there had been no promotion done by the bookstore or the publisher whatsoever, not even a sign in the store window saying I would be there. The only promotion done for that was what I did, which was minimal because I didn't have the money for anything).
My point, which I probably did not articulate as clearly as I should have, was that clearly the publishers weren't relying on word-of-mouth, they were spending money--and a lot of it--to promote their big authors, they were making sure they got reviewed by the major trades, but also made sure there were expensive ads and articles in major newspapers like the New York Times, USA Today, LA Times, et al., they were spending co-op money to make sure huge stacks of their books were placed on the front tables at the chain stores and at the New Titles sections, and next to the cash registers at Wal-Mart and Kmart and Sam's Clubs. In some cases they were paying for TV and radio ads.
Word-of-mouth is great. Absolutely great. But if your book is only available in every third store--probably 1 copy--and your distribution sucks, even if the 500 people who love your book talk it up, it probably won't sell. And it sure as hell won't sell if nobody can find it or has heard of it.
I find it interesting that "word-of-mouth" often seems, in reality, to mean that some feature writer at the New York Times writes an article about the book, then somebody at USA Today decides it needs a look and does an interview, and it grows from there. What seems to be missing is the notion of where that "word-of-mouth" may actually have begun. Did it begin with some reader buying a copy for his maiden aunt? Did it begin with a librarian or bookshop owner recommending it to readers? And how did they hear about it? Did they read a review in Publishers Weekly or Library Journal, did the publisher send them an ARC and they picked it up by accident, happen to like it and recommend it?
Or did the publisher's PR person send out press releases indicating how much money they had spent on the book and how hot it was and really, they should try and try to read this HOT NEW BOOK.
By comparison, for my last novel, my publisher sent out 4--yes, count them, 4!--advanced reading copies and I was mentioned in their catalogue and on their website. I believe it was also mentioned in a 1/3 page ad in Mystery Scene Magazine along with 6 or 7 other books. That is, as far as I know, the extent of my publisher's promotional efforts for The Serpent's Kiss. Again, welcome to the reality of publishing. (I, on the other hand, spent several thousand dollars on AuthorBuzz, sending postcards to libraries and bookstores, my website, and visiting bookstores and doing a couple radio interviews, library talks and book fairs. It sounds good, but it's a drop in the bucket and was largely wasted time, money and effort).
Let me give you an interesting example. I was a book reviewer for The Oakland Press here in Michigan for quite a few years. (Also other places). I still get books sent to me. Also press kits.
Most authors you've never heard of and even many you have, you get an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC). Sometimes it's the hardcover, sometimes it's the mass market paperback, most often it looks like a cheaper version of a trade paperback that may or may not have cover art on it--sometimes it's just a plain piece of paper with the title and author info on the front, no cover art. Typically there's a one-sheet describing the book--essentially the jacket copy and the author bio.
A year or two ago I received Barry Eisler's PR person's book. I think it was for The Last Assassin. Along with the hardcover of the book I received a black binder with a white label on the front that read: TOP SECRET. Inside the black binder were several pages describing the book along with potential feature story ideas. A multi-page biography of Barry. A one or two-page Q&A with Barry. A thing Barry wrote about acting like a spy and surveilling your surroundings.
Clearly, someone was going out of their way to sell Barry and his books.
Around the same time, David Morrell's book "Scavenger" came out. In this case, I know that David's daughter, Suri Morrell, was the one who sent it to me, and she's a professional book publicist. It came with an ARC of the book (with cover art), a binder, materials similar to Barry's with an author bio, Q&A, an article David wrote about time capsules, Internet links about time capsules, an article David wrote about how he came up with the story ideas. For David's previous novel, "Creepers," I got a similar press kit and a thin flashlight ideal for tossing in your luggage in case you're stuck in a hotel when the power goes out.
Okay, my question. What builds word-of-mouth? What generates the interest of book reviewers and feature writers? What does that word-of-mouth cost? What starts it?
When I posted this photograph the other day for a different post (and I use it a lot, especially the multi-part series on Freelance Writing For A Living), Spy Scribbler (AKA Natasha Fondren), commented that I must really like that picture.
But after thinking about it, I wondered, besides the obvious, why. Do I really think that I'm somehow going to find a job that's going to allow me to spend my days sprawled out on a hammock on some tropical beach and spend the day contemplating the blue sky and the beach sand on my toes?
It occurs to me--and it occasionally is reinforced by other people's comments--that I probably do already have my dream job.
I'm a freelance writer and I make a decent living. I get to work out of my house, my schedule is more or less my own and I like the work a lot. I have ownership of my life, or at least the illusion of it, and that's more than most people can say.
Sure, I'd like to be writing bestselling novels that make tons of money and allow me to work three-hour workdays and allow me to have vacation homes around the world.
But when I put it that way it starts to seem an awful lot like a Lotto fantasy or someone who hops on the bus to move to Hollywood to become a movie star.
Also, as I was discussing with Leanne yesterday (and although she was listening, she was probably thinking I was an idiot), when you turn something you love like writing into a job, your attitude about it does change. I've posted here before about the notion that if you suddenly inherited a bunch of money or won the Lotto, would you still write. And I thought it was interesting that the people aspiring to be writers typically say yes and those of us already making a living as writers tend to be a lot more ambivalent about that.
I once read a column by Lawrence Block where he said if he discovered an oil well in his backyard he's not sure he'd write another word. As an aspiring writer, that really pissed me off. Now that I've made my living as a writer for a few years and had a couple novels published, I don't find Block's statement terribly surprising or upsetting. It now makes quite a bit of sense to me.
There's a lot of world out there to explore and there might be other ways to find satisfaction than slamming my head against publishing's big, thick doors.
Or not. Because I do love to write.
One of the things that I think about though is that, generally speaking, I've found a way of making a living as a writer that allows me to stay at home, not travel except rarely, and do my work by myself except via e-mail and telephone interviews.
When my novels are published, to my surprise, I've been forced out into the larger world to do promotion, book talks, library events, bookstore signings, writers conferences, TV and radio interviews, etc. I'm not (to say the least) completely comfortable doing this. Nor do I honestly see where it has much effect, but that's a different topic.
It's possible (sort of) to be a novelist and do none of this. But you know, if you become a bestselling author, it's going to be pretty hard to avoid at least some of that stuff and my suspicion is, the bigger you get, the more promotional demands there actually are because, well, your publisher has a huge investment in you and they want to make sure you earn it back. Hell, YOU want to make sure you earn it back.
Well, I actually took pretty much an entire week off and aside from proofing some galleys and some correspondence and some query letters, I didn't work. Unfortunately for me, I'm rarely completely comfortable not working any more (this is a very unpleasant side effect of being self-employed and I'm fairly certain I'm not alone in it).
So tomorrow, after getting the oil changed on my truck, it'll be, as my father used to say, back to the salt mines. (My father was the supervisor of a bank vault, so I suspect there were layers to his "salt mine" reference. As a guy I knew who interned there for a couple months told me, "It sort of sucks to have to go through security just to take a piss.")
I seem to be in the summer doldrums in terms of pay, where people who owe me money seem to be sitting on the checks and where everybody who has your work plans to publish it ... next month. So tomorrow I'll dig in, crank away at a market research report I'm working on, start editing the materials for the next issue of the journal I edit, start rounding up interviews for an article I'm working on for a client and send out some queries in an effort to round up some more work. And yeah, probably start working on finishing a draft of a novel--China Fire--I've been dorking around with too long while I was working on Fortress of Diamonds. And there's also a nonfiction book proposal I'm working on.
Because I'm killing time not working and it's a low-keyed day doing nothing in particular, I wondered what I had to say a year ago. As it turned out, I was blogging over on the Inkspot blog (I no longer do) and it was, I think, a decent blog, so I'm reposting here in lieu of actually having something new to say.
July 11, 2007
I was meandering through blogs the other day (in lieu of actually writing) and I came across a writer’s blog talking about mid-list authors, which she seemed to define as anyone who is not a bestseller (a subject for a different post, I suspect). Anyway, the point of her blog was that when you’re an unpublished novelist, you believe there’s some sort of secret handshake—knowing someone, meeting someone at a con, writing a particular book, writing “I look forward to hearing from you” versus “Thank you for your time” at the end of your query letter, using Courier instead of Times New Roman—that will get you published.
Write a good, compelling novel, be persistent and get lucky.
Then the blogger went on to say that once writers (mid-list or otherwise, I suspect) get published, they start obsessing on what the secret handshake is to breaking out of mid-list into bestsellerdom—is it your blog, your website, your book tour, your postcards, your book signings, should you hire a publicist, should you blackmail Oprah?
Hell if I know. And she didn’t either.
But let’s talk about those four categories of getting published briefly.
Write a good novel. What’s a “good” novel? Oh, I’m ready to be tarred and feathered here. A “good” novel, in this context, is one that eventually gets published, is purchased by a reader, and read. Period.
Write a compelling novel. Presumably a “good” novel is also a compelling novel, but the truth is, “compelling” (like good) is pretty much in the eyes of the beholder. I’ve read some supposed bestselling “compelling” thrillers that I thought were boring. In fact, one of the writers’ organizations I belong to gave a “best” award to a book I later tried to read and couldn’t even finish. So who’s to say? But the fact is, your novel, in order to be published, must be compelling to someone, presumably your editor. There’s no formula that I’m aware of.
Be persistent. Sad truth of the publishing industry is there are a lot of books published in the U.S., but not by all that many publishers. So if you write a book and have an agent (this applies to getting an agent as well) you’re going to have to be persistent. You or your agent will need to determine a list of the 7 or 8 or 12 available publishers and quite possibly contact all of them. Legend has it that Elmore Leonard’s “Big Bounce” was rejected by 88 publishers. Every time I’ve read that I’ve thought: “Where the hell did they find 88 publishers in the United States?” Times have changed. I dare someone to come up with a list of 88 publishers, big or small, in the United States that publish mysteries or thrillers. Post it on your blog, you’ll get a ton of hits.
Get lucky. Persistence leads to this, as does writing a “good” and “compelling” novel. But still, your manuscript, no matter how good it is, needs to land in the right editor’s hands on the right day. The day the editor got ripped in half by the publisher for her last thriller tanking and not earning back its advance is not going to be the right day for your similar thriller to land on her desk. Sorry. You have no control over this. But it does happen. By the same token, the day an editor tells your agent, “The thing I’m really looking for is a private eye mystery that takes place in Thailand” is the day your novel about Bangkok P.I. Ping Ng might have a shot.
And how does this all apply to increasing sales once published?
I think marketing is like Chinese water torture. We drop our books one at a time upon the public’s head, hoping eventually it’ll notice. We drop our postcards, blogs, e-newsletters, conference attendance, book signings, etc., on the public’s head one at a time, hoping eventually it’ll notice. We persist. We write good, compelling books. We get lucky.
Or we don’t.
No secret handshake.
Unless, of course, I know it and am not willing to tell you.
Today was a gorgeous day, but it wasn't going to be quite warm enough to want to sit around lakeside. One of our favorite places on earth is Traverse City and the nearby Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes. So we drove into TC, had lunch at Don's Drive-In, then drove to Empire and climbed around the dunes for a while. If you've never been to Michigan and are someday interested in a little tourism, this is an excellent place to go. The lakes beyond Ian there are Glen Lake and the lake seen in the other picture is Lake Michigan, about a mile across tons of sand dunes.
In a very strange coincidence, we were hanging around the top of one of the dunes when a guy came up... my cousin Bill, who lives in New Jersey. His entire family was there. It wasn't totally weird--his in-laws live nearby and he does visit every summer for a couple weeks, but... small world.
Anyway, after that we drove to another town, Glen Arbor, to visit the Cherry Republic Store and buy cherry-related products (cherry jam for Leanne; sour cherry candies for Sean; dark chocolate covered dried cherries for Ian; and Confiscated Fruit Mix (the confiscated part is dried bananas, because, in the Cherry Republic, you must declare all bananas) for me.
Then we drove back to the condo, grilled some animal parts, spent some time on the beach, then just went and started a fire and made some S'Mores, guaranteeing my blood sugar remains high.
Okay, really, I took this shot yesterday shooting into the sun. It came out a lot better than I expected it to and gives the impression it's sunset, which it was not. I was going for all the silvery light on the water which doesn't quite across, but still, considering it's taken with a Nikon Coolpix, I think this is a hell of a shot.
Today was a little cloudy and overcast in the morning so we spent the morning playing poker in the condo. After lunch and a nap-period for the grown-ups, we headed out to the beach. Both Leanne and I essentially kayaked across the lake (separately and in different directions), we all hung out, swam a little (water was cold), hung on the beach and just generally lazed around doing nothing.
Then we went into Houghton Lake for dinner at Bucilli's Pizza, then back to the condo.
Well, that picture would have worked out better if I could figure out how to rotate it on Blogger.
Anyway, I'll be heading up north for a few days on Higgins Lake (and Frodo will be headed to the Doggie Hotel--oooohhh noooo!) where I will be on vacation. Alas, yes, I'll be taking my laptop with me so I can check e-mail, because, God forbid I be out of touch for four days.
Thanks to the wonders of digital photography, I'll post some pictures of the lake for you.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
We went to see Hancock this afternoon. Critics have been pretty hard on it. I thought it was pretty good (not great).
Here's the thing. The previews might give you an idea that this is a comedy. It's got its comic moments, particularly in the beginning, but it's actually a pretty serious drama.
And I think more importantly, it's got one hell of a lot of surprises in it. It takes quite a movie to surprise me and there was a MAJOR surprise in the middle of the movie that I really didn't see coming.
And the ending... nope. Didn't see how that was going to shake out.
So was it a great movie?
Um, no, probably not. The tone's uneven and it's a little odd. And Peter Berg's direction--or rather his persistent use of steadi-cam work (or unsteady-cam work, as the case may be) bugged me. That's hardly unusual. I find this current trend of jittery camera work to be annoying and distracting in most cases. Yes, I know that static camera shots are bad, but whatever happened to panning shots, etc., rather than shooting things so it looks like a movie shot by some amateur with Parkinson's disease?
Anyway, I think one of the things I liked most about it was it defied my expectations. I went in thinking it was a typical summer action/comedy film and discovered it to be something else entirely. And I was pretty happy about what that "something else" turned out to be.
About three years ago I got my first gym membership. I mean, really, first. Although I've been sort of semi-active my whole life, I've never worked out at a gym and lifted weights.
I've walked a lot. Played tennis when I was younger. Rode my bike a lot until I graduated from college. Swam well enough to become a lifeguard, although I never worked as one. In college I ran some off and on, took karate for about a year, then turned into a human version of the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
So, I lift weights three days a week and I like it. I started doing "cardio," which for me meant exercise bike, some running on the treadmill. Then, after about a year of that, I started taking long bike rides on my non-weight lifting days. That got to be a big deal for me (and still is). I love riding my mountain bike.
Also, right around the time I started freelancing full-time, I started studying Sanchin-Ryu karate. My sons were taking it and now that I had time, I thought it looked like fun. I'm currently a first degree brown belt. The next level is black. My wife and oldest son also study. My youngest, who is 10, and a second-degree brown belt, has more or less quit, although sometimes we drag him to classes and have him workout. I hope he'll get back into it someday, but it's up to him.
Off and on over the last couple years I've tried running. I ran cross country in high school one year and although I was considered slow at the time, I look back at those "slow" running times when I was 16 with a longing that I know I'll never, ever reach again. Ever. My fastest 3-mile run was 19 minutes and 8 second. My first mile in that race was 5 minutes 12 seconds. That seems dazzlingly fast to me now, but even then I was slow. (And you can see how my mile-splits dropped off significantly if I ran a 5:12 mile).
Every time I've started running in recent years I start to get my mileage up to a 2 or 3 (slow) miles and I get injured. Usually it's a pulled or strained calf muscle.
I recently bought a new pair of running shoes and am trying it again, telling myself to take it easy and not push things.
All of which makes me sound like the biggest jock in the world. I really don't think I am. I just hit my 40s and have struggled with my weight all my life and my triglyceride and cholesterol and blood sugar levels caught up to me. Also, I have time to exercise and I also have a job that involves sitting on my ass all day typing. Getting out and getting exercise helps me stay at the desk, interestingly enough. Also, you know, if you look down the road and think about your 60s or 70s, I'd rather have some fitness to help carry me into that period. (I also started playing guitar. I'm apparently having some thoughts about how I want to spend the back 40).
I do a lot of different sorts of things so I won't get bored and also because the cross-training helps keep me from getting injured. They also do different things for me. Weight liftings works on strength and muscle mass (you lose something like 1% a year after you turn 40 if you don't exercise). Biking works the cardio but keeps the strain off my knees and ankles. Sanchin-ryu primarily helps with flexibility, range of motion, agility and balance, although depending on how I work it it could have cardio and strength benefits as well. Running, in particular, helps me keep the weight off, but it plays hell with the joints, so I can't do it every day, even if I wanted to.
This post, though, isn't about exercising (although I recommend it. You'll be more energetic and it'll be good for you).
It's about writing.
I write a lot of different stuff. Over the course of my writing career I've written short stories, novels, poems, technical articles, magazine articles, online articles, white papers, web content, business reports, market survey reports, straight journalism, features, ad/sales copy, even the occasional ransom note (just kidding). Book reviews, Q&As, and I've even tried my hand at a screenplay (it sucked, but I should probably try it again someday).
Now, to re-emphasize the point of this, I want to mention some authors you might have heard of before.
Under his real name, John Camp, Sandford won the Pulitzer for his work as a journalist. He's also written several teleplays and nonfiction books, as well as his bestselling novels.
Started as a journalist, became a columnist, and, I believe, remains one. Has also recently wrote a nonfiction book about golf.
Before becoming a novelist, Child was a script and telewriter in England, as well as producer, etc.
Randy Wayne White.
Before becoming a nonfiction writer, White was a fishing guide, but he spent years writing nonfiction pieces about travel, then wrote some novels under a pseudonym, before becoming the novelist he is today.
Started out writing scripts for TV and film before becoming a novelist.
Started as a journalist, then became a lawyer, then wrote novels, then wrote for TV, then went back to writing novels.
Robert B. Parker.
College professor, then technical writer for an insurance company, then novelist and telescript and script writer.
Prior to his success writing for TV, Lee wrote nonfiction pieces (he put himself through college as a freelance writer). He's also written nonfiction books, TV scripts, novels, etc.
I'm sure I could go on and on.
I'm a writer first. The various other subgenres--novelist, report writer, magazine writer, etc., all come second. I'm a writer first.
The point is, try to write different things. It's a good exercise, if nothing else. If you write fiction all the time, take a crack at writing a script for your favorite TV show. Or write a magazine article. It uses different muscles and helps make you a stronger writer overall.
And for those of you whose first reaction was: "Oh, I just can't write that stuff, it just doesn't work for me." I have this to say: I used to say that, too. And then somebody encouraged me to write a magazine article and it sold and I got paid for it and I did another one and the rest is history. Nothing encourages you like a little success.
And two things might happen. One, you might find you like writing other things. And two, you might make some money writing other things.
Today I had to fast and go out to my doctor's office and donate a sample of blood. This was a pretty good opportunity to spend the morning dicking around. And besides, I was hungry, so on the way back I stopped at a McDonald's to pick up something to eat, and wouldn't you know it, the McD's is RIGHT NEXT DOOR TO BORDERS!
I have a Borders credit card for my business card, which essentially means they periodically send me $5 gift receipts to Borders. So if I spend a bunch of money, they give me money to buy books. Damn, life is good.
So I had $25 worth of gift receipts, and I ran in and James Rollins new book was there, "The Last Oracle," so I bought it. Then, as I've mentioned recently, I've been reading nonfiction lately, a major change in my reading habits. I'm now typically reading a novel and a nonfiction book simultaneously and it seems to work for me. I'm reading Bill Bryson's "In A Sunburned Country" which is is hilarious travel book about Australia. Before that I read "Homo Politicus" by Dana Milbanks, which is about politicians. This book up there, "Legacy of Ashes" has been on the edge of my awareness lately, so I bought it today.
And yeah, I recently ordered "Chasing Darkness" by Robert Crais from Amazon, which ought to arrive today. Also, I picked up "Endurance" by SL Viehl, a SF novel that's the third book in the StarDoc series. I've been slowly working through the series, which I enjoy far more than I expected to.
Another example of my addiction is my inability to travel without buying books. Airports suck, generally speaking, but they often have bookstores in them, several, and it's hard for me not to buy a book in one. My trip to Houston wasn't a particularly happy one and I didn't buy any books at airports, but there was a Borders across the street from the hotel, so that's where I bought the Bryson book as well as "Rain Storm" by Barry Eisler. That's his 2nd or 3rd, and I've read all the others, but somehow missed that one.
Crazy. Because publishers still send me books to review, even though I no longer review books. So I've got tons, most of which I really want to read... someday.
Oh well, it's a cheaper habit than nicotine, booze or illegal drugs and seems to have fewer societal consequences. And besides, my wife won't let me have a sex addition. Go figure.