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Monday, May 28, 2007

Book Burning

A Kansas City man is burning books, because he couldn't even give his collection away to libraries or thrift shops.

"This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today," Wayne told spectators outside his bookstore as he lit the first batch of books.

The fire blazed for about 50 minutes before the Kansas City Fire Department put it out because Wayne didn't have a permit to burn them.

Wayne said next time he will get a permit. He said he envisions monthly bonfires until his supply -- estimated at 20,000 books -- is exhausted.

On the one hand, the media coverage is obviously generating awareness, but I wonder about the message being sent here. Does this come over as a great tragedy and strike those who aren't avid readers as a sad thing, or does it suggest even passionate readers and collectors are losing faith in the power of the written word?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Media Predict: Thoughts

Regarding Media Predict, I think every single person has a responsibility to do their homework when it comes to an agent, publisher, contest. Many are quick to rush to judgments without all the facts. The initial criticisms I read were based more on speculation about the process, rather than anything substantive (and no, I haven't read all the criticisms). Even after my quickie interview earlier this week there were still a lot of unanswered questions, as the comment trail on my own blog, and Crimespace, proved.

My thanks to Brian for emailing me and mentioning the terms of use on Media Predict's site. After taking some time to look at them I have to say I have no desire to participate in this. The 'perpetual' right to sell your work will be a deterrent for agents and the ownership issues are of some concern. I'm no expert with contracts but I strongly recommend that anyone considering participation do their homework and consult a lawyer. I will be watching to see how this unfolds, but at this point in time I have to say that my long-term speculation is that it won't produce anything of note to the publishing world.

In short, experienced editors who have been working in the business for years cannot always predict what will catch on and what won't. The reality is anything posted to this site will be likely a minimum of 18 months from publication. By that point, any 'hype' from the process will have eroded. It will make no difference to bookstore staff and readers, who ultimately decide what succeeds and fails in this industry.

I applaud the idea of listening to readers to some degree, but that remains my single biggest issue about this: There is no guarantee that readers will participate. In fact, the proof is that the main crime fiction 'industry' blogs haven't even discussed this, but my interview was picked up by Midas Oracle, a site that focuses on market predictions.

It is my feeling that this approach will attract game players and not readers, or book-buyers. And one thing that anyone in this industry should know is that a lot of us readers don't like being told what books to buy by people who don't know anything about our genre or our industry.

No snap judgments. Two days of thinking about it. And I stand to be proven wrong, but that's my present personal position on the whole thing. Never take anything you read here as an automatic endorsement and act on it alone. Always - always always always - do your homework before signing any contract or entering a legal agreement.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Betting on a Bestseller: Media Predict responds to questions about the stock market approach to publishing

Yesterday we learned Simon & Schuster was (again) setting the publishing world abuzz with a strategy to involve the public in the publishing process. Brent Stinski, from Media Predict – the company overseeing the stock market game for S&S and the person who came up with the concept – takes some time to answer a few questions and explain how this process works.

Thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions about this new project with Simon & Schuster. First, can you explain a little about how it works? Can any writer (unpublished or published, agented or unagented) participate? What about those involved in the stock side of the equation? Can anyone participate or are there guidelines?

Hi Sandra. Thanks for writing. Let me start out with a few big picture comments – and then we’ll get into details.

Media Predict will help media companies do what they’ve never done very well: make good forecasts. Traditionally in media, around 10 percent of the product line generates about 90 percent of revenue. So – whatever method they’re using – media companies most often aren’t honing in on what people want. It’s a very inefficient process, and we’ve all come to accept it because, I think, we assume there’s no better way.

Media Predict uses prediction markets to address this problem. Prediction markets have built an astonishing record in forecasting election results, box office revenue, sporting events, and more. And this is true even when it’s a prediction market game like Media Predict.

So in a nutshell Media Predict uses markets to make sure good stuff gets through the system. That’s the goal.

Now to answer your question: yes, any writer can submit to the site, agented or otherwise. And anyone over 18 can register on the site and trade. We need avid readers (like Spinetingler readers) to look over the book proposals and trade shares of the book proposals according to their careful deliberation.

What would you say is the primary purpose behind this plan?

The primary purpose behind Project Publish is to ensure writers and users that at least someone will get published off of Media Predict. If you’re a trader, your predictions will have a huge impact. And if you’re an unknown writer then you can come to our site have a chance at getting published. All you have to do is impress the traders who evaluate your work at Media Predict.

How did this originate?

The idea started about two years go. I was in Iowa City (my hometown) and I had a cup of coffee with one of the people at the Iowa Electronic Markets at the University of Iowa. He encouraged us to forge on, and we did.

Is there any guarantee that a participating writer will get a publishing deal? Or is it possible several will, or nobody will?

I assume you’re referring to the setup of the contest. Some attention has been paid to this, but I think it’s a storm in a teacup. Basically Simon & Schuster wanted the right to opt out if we simply couldn’t provide them with any good, publishable books. Looking at what we launched with, we’ve already surpassed that goal. There’s some great stuff on the site. So yeah: there will be a winner.

Now, remember that anything that appears on Media Predict is eligible for publication at any time. Simon & Schuster will choose from the top-50 scoring works at a future date. But if a publisher wants to buy a book tomorrow, then they can. Given the quality of material we have, I expect that to start happening soon.

Author Barbara Fister has commented on this plan, saying, “On the other hand, I'd much rather be asked which book I'd like to read, not which book is likely to sell the most copies. This approach just seems to keep pushing away the question of what readers - real readers - actually like and gets the public involved in the same guesswork now done by publishers.”

I can sympathize with this view. The thing to bear in mind is that – one way or another – we’re all dependent on the internal mechanics of publishing houses to deliver our books to us. If we improve that, we all win.

I think the key is confidence. It’s hard to have a lot of confidence when less than 10 percent of books are supporting the production costs of almost 90 percent of what publishers put out. As it is there’s an overwhelming temptation for publishing houses to go for blockbusters, or cookie-cutter stuff that they think people will like.

But what if media companies had more confidence? At the moment, they often see unusual or innovative material as too much of a risk, but they’ll put out these kinds of works if they had good predictions to back them up.

So this author may chafe at having to make predictions about books he or she might never read. Then again, there are lots of different kinds of books on the site, and there’s no requirement to trade in them all. In the end, the method does its work – and the more it’s applied, the more we’ll raise the level of content that publishers put out for everyone.

Two questions came to mind when I read Barbara's comment. One was, what’s to stop the people from putting stocks on the books they do want to read, rather than what sells? Is there some incentive to “win” the game with the stocks by “investing” in a way that means you become the virtual Donald Trump of the game? If not, how do you gauge the intent behind any of the participation?

You become the virtual Donald Trump merely by predicting well what will happen. Will a book get a deal? Will a band get a deal? Will a television pilot win its timeslot? These are the questions.

What’s nice about markets is that I don’t have to know the individual psychology or motivation behind someone’s predictions. As long as they’re right, they’ll prosper. So one person might just bet on what they like as an individual consumer. Another person might make complex calculations in making a prediction. It doesn’t matter – in the end the market brings together everyone’s best ideas. And the end prediction is usually very, very strong.

And part of the article in the NY Times referred to this being used as a variation on a focus group. The commenter above clearly distinguishes between the question of what a person is interested in reading and what a person thinks will sell. For example, I read a variety of lesser-known authors – Steve Mosby, Carol Anne Davis, Allan Guthrie, John McFetridge – that I will happily buy future books by, but I know that an autobiography of Bill Clinton is going to sell more copies than any of their works. What would you say to those who wonder if this plan only gives ammunition to support projects that would be an easy sell anyway?

Going back to my comments above, the goal is to improve confidence. A guy like Steve Mosby (we can ask him) probably had a tough time getting people to pay attention to him at one point. But he’s good. He fought through, he got into print, and now he has his audience.

With greater confidence everything about media improves. Niche-specializing publishers put out and profit from niche books. Mainstream publishers put out and profit from high-volume books. The real problem is the risk and uncertainty – that’s what makes record companies crank out synthetic bands and movie studios put out something like Big Momma’s House 3. This kind of decision-making is based on a rational desire to recoup investment, since to executives these things seem like safe bets. Ironically in the end they’re not – since all kinds of derivative stuff fails too. But that’s the vicious cycle we’re in.

We say: if you have an audience, you have a deal. That’s the way it should be. Or at least that’s a future we’d like to see. And that goes for niche products as well as mainstream ones.

I recently discussed focus groups and having more reader feedback in the publishing process, which is something I believe in to a point. With this approach, what ensures that actual avid readers will participate, as opposed to those who enjoy playing with stocks?

We have no assurance. Media Predict makes some people very excited. Others don’t have the same reaction. So we’ll just work with the users who believe in us.

What’s nice about prediction markets is that you can generate very accurate predictions with only a few people – with only a few dozen, some researchers say. We may need higher numbers in the case of Media Predict. But we’re confident there are enough avid readers out there who will get hooked on this. (The site is supposed to be fun, you know.) We invite avid readers to join in and trade at Media Predict. It is their participation that will propel good stuff through the system. Their participation will be enough for us to generate good results.

Will there be status reports or updates through this process to try to drum up interest?

I’m not sure – we have a blog, and I’ll post there when I have time. As with any internet company, we’ll have to see how things go.

Now, how can writers participate? And how can readers get involved in playing the stocks?

Anyone can submit to Media Predict without any commitment whatsoever. Our current books were referred to us by agents, but we’ll include user submissions as well. Unfortunately we’re limited in the amount of material we can put up, but we’ll include as many books as we can on the site. After that, it’s up to the users to call the shots.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Not really . . . I guess we realize it’s a lot to take in, and that all of this can be confusing. I think some of the press coverage in the publishing community reflects that confusion. But we’re not trying to please everyone, and this isn’t for everyone. We’re really looking for the people out there who believe in this method – they’re more than enough to help us achieve our goals.

So if anyone out there has read this far, I’d encourage them to get involved. It’s your site. You can make it work.

Thanks for your interest Sandra. And thanks to your readers.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions Brent. This is one of the more original things I’ve seen lately, along with the author bus tours in Scotland. Very creative, and more than anything, it will be interesting to assess the entire process and see what happens.

Well, we never said we could compete with the bus tours in Scotland . . .

There has already been discussion about this on Crimespace, and undoubtedly as the industry takes note there will be more discussion. I guess you could say the jury is out – on the authors under submission and the process. The one thing I feel confident about is that a lot of people will be watching.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Debut Novelist Gets $1.25 million

Ed Gorman has already said it best. This is an absolute must-read, especially his commentary at the bottom.

Stocks on Stories

Simon & Schuster is in the news again, this time for a plan involving fantasty stocks based on manuscript proposals. Media Predict is soliciting book proposals from agents and the public, and posting pages of them on the site. Traders, who are given $5,000 in fantasy cash, can buy shares based on their guess about whether a particular book proposal is likely to get a deal, or whether Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, will select it as a finalist in a contest called Project Publish. If either happens within a four-month period, the value of the shares go to $100 apiece; if not, the share price falls to zero.

The site also allows traders to bet on the chances that unsigned musicians who currently top the rankings on MySpace.com, the social networking site, will get a record deal.

Media Predict is modeled after other so-called prediction markets like the Hollywood Stock Exchange, which allows traders to bet on the four-week North American box office receipts of movies, or the Iowa Electronic Markets, which allow people to bet on election results.

“Being able to predict the performance of something is key,” said Brent Stinski, founder of Media Predict. A prediction market, he said, “is a very powerful tool.”

For Simon & Schuster, the partnership is yet another attempt to gauge popular tastes. Earlier this year, the publisher teamed up with Gather.com, a social networking site, to run an “American Idol”-style contest in which voters pick a manuscript for Simon & Schuster to publish.

In the case of Media Predict, traders are not voting on the book they like best, but rather are placing bets on which they think will do well. According to Mark Gompertz, publisher of Touchstone Books, Media Predict could do for book publishing what focus groups do for soap and soda and what screening audiences do for movies.

One thing is certain: It will be very interesting to see how this project unfolds.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Aspiring Author on Tour

ASPIRING Scottish authors are being encouraged to apply for a unique writer in residency - on a bus.

Last summer Aberdeen City Council's pioneering "Reading Bus" took to the road for the first time in an innovative drive to encourage youngsters to read and to promote family learning in a non-school environment.

The converted single-decker targets children and parents in the city's St Machar area, which has a secondary school, ten primaries and three nurseries.

It was revealed yesterday that, thanks to funding from oil giant Shell UK and Lottery Awards for All, the Reading Bus initiative is to appoint its own writer in residence - a published author prepared to work on the bus for a year.

Click on the link for the full article. This is one of the more interesting ideas I've seen of late. Think of our discussions about author tours here: Why is it this can get corporate sponsorship? Could the same concept be applied in North American?

I suspect I'll be mulling over this for a few days, and perhaps back with more thoughts on it later. It isn't the same as my rock 'n' roll authors suggestion, but there are similarities that, if expanded upon, could be used as the platform for a very interesting author tour.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

POD Technology

In a recent discussion on one of the lists I read, there was debate about what qualifies a publisher to be recognized as 'legitimate' by some organizations. Every organization seems to have criteria that must be met.

One of the things that has kept some publisher from being recognized is the use of POD technology. In fact, most review sites will not consider reviewing POD titles. Others assert that stores don't carry POD titles because most aren't returnable.

It's blanket discrimination like this that makes it hard for technological advancement. I'm familiar with POD and some of the shortfalls. I'm also aware that places that use printers such as Lightning Source allow for returns and distribute through Ingram. I could go in a whole different direction with a rant here, but won't.

The main focus of my thoughts is a report on Galleycat, about changes to contracts with Simon & Schuster. Here's an excerpt:

S&S spokesman Adam Rothberg was surprised at the "overreaction" by the Authors Guild. "We believe that our contract appropriately addresses the improved technology, increased availability, and higher quality of print on demand books, and reflects the fact that print on demand titles may now be readily purchased by consumers at both online and brick and mortar stores. We are embracing print on demand technology as an unprecedented opportunity for authors and publishers to keep their books alive and available and selling in the marketplace in a way that may not have been previously possible for many authors, and are confident in the long term it that will be a benefit for all concerned." S&S further wanted the author and agent community "to know that, when necessary, we have always had good faith negotiations on the subject of reversions, and will continue to on a book-by-book basis."

Here's my first question: Will the newspapers that have policies against reviewing POD titles be subjective with future reviews of Simon & Schuster titles?

Here's my next question: Will we see more mainstream acceptance for POD?

I'm personally amused by the timing of this, because of some of the recent discussions. If you read the Galleycat article (and you really should) you'll know that this contract issue is a serious one. The rules concerning POD titles and reclaiming title need to be addressed before POD becomes even more common than it already is.

Theakstons Old Peculier Longlist Announced

The long list for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, given out at Harrogate Crime Festival in July, has been announced. You can vote online. The shortlist of six is then selected and there's a second round of voting.

The nominees:

Dead Place by Stephen Booth
All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye by Christopher Brookmyre
Death of a Chancellor by David Dickinson
Never Go Back by Robert Goddard
Two Way Split by Allan Guthrie
Little Face by Sophie Hannah
Ash & Bone by John Harvey
The Stranger House by Reginald Hill
The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill
Blood and Honey by Graham Hurley
The Lighthouse by PD James
The Death Ship of Dartmouth by Michael Jecks
Cold Granite by Stuart MacBride
The Train Excursion by Edward Marston
Ratcatcher by James McGee
After the Armistice Ball by Catriona McPherson
Dance with Death by Barbara Nadel
Jacquot and the Angel by Martin O'Brien
End in Tears by Ruth Rendell
Mr. Clarinet by Nick Stone

Vote here

My congrats to all.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Focus Groups, The Americanizing of British Novels & How Publishers Can Join The 21st Century

This is the inevitable follow-up to the last post. I've had a few days to think over the article. Cross-posted from my personal blog. (Evil Kev is my husband.)

”I am thinking it would be fun to do an arc in a f2f group. Discuss a book in detail BEFORE it is published and then give the author the feedback - or at least the feedback that might be useful.”

When I read that my automatic response was It’s never going to happen. Yes, call me a pessimist, call me a cynic. Lynne’s idea (posted on my Crimespace chat wall) has merit but adds a layer of work to the already lengthy publishing process.

Only a few days later an article in the NY Times said: The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.

Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.

“We need much more of a direct relationship with our readers,” said Susan Rabiner, an agent and a former editorial director. Bloggers have a much more interactive relationship with their readers than publishers do, she said. “Before Amazon, we didn’t even know what people thought of the books,” she said.

Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling. Publishing employees tend to be liberal arts graduates who enter the field with a starting salary around $30,000. Compensation is not tied to sales performance. “The people who go into it don’t do it for the money, which might explain why it’s such a bad business,” Mr. Strachan said.

I agree that reader feedback is important and that publishers should be seeking it. However, I don’t think that Amazon is the best way to get the kind of feedback publishers need. More on this shortly.

Evil Kev and I have been talking about this a lot lately, for a variety of reasons. Part of what spurred it was the fact that Lynne has read my new manuscript. Lynne read SC for me when it was in ARC form. A 4MA-er, she knows her in-depth book club discussions. She made a list of discussion questions for me that I could provide to book clubs.

Since she was interested in reading What Burns Within I thought that was more than fair, since she’d helped me out with SC, despite the fact it’s manuscript stage. I was a bit unfair to her, because I didn’t even give her a teaser to ground her with the story. Just handed her the manuscript. Duh. When people read books they have the back cover description to tell them who the main characters are.

Lynne’s response to WBW (“I stayed up till three thirty this morning reading it. WHY did that publisher turn it down? Nice or not whoever it was has made a mistake - this is really good. I am totally enjoying it, I like the characters and the story has me totally sucked in.”) was what ultimately led to our discussion about readers giving feedback at the ARC stage.

As Evil Kev pointed out to me, movies have been doing this for ages, with focus groups. Writers often participate in critique groups, but that’s not the same thing. Those are selected groups of writers who see your work again and again, and who pass their work back to you. I’m not discounting the value, but this is about giving readers some say. I don’t want to touch on the issue of sensitive writers but believe me, if someone offers me an ARC or manuscript to read to blurb and doesn’t ask for feedback, I don’t give it. I know better than to mess with an author’s ego about their work and I actually do value my life.

End of day, it is the readers we write for. Without an audience no books will see print. And sometimes publishers underestimate their readers.

What justifies that assertion? Well, here’s just one example. Several months ago I was working on a profile for a new publisher that had a focus on imported British fiction. The profile fell apart, but the groundwork was there, in reader surveys I did.

“I frequently order from the UK or Canada,” DorothyL reader Sarah B told me. “Why? Because either the book is not available in the USA and I've had it recommended to me, or it's not available YET and I can't wait. Recent examples are Anthony Bidulka from Canada, and Jo Bannister and Val McDermid in the UK.”

Sarah isn’t alone, either. “When the US release is a year or more later than the UK release, I find a way to purchase the UK version,” Kim in Minnesota told me. “I'm impatient. I can generally wait a month or two but not a whole year.”

Deb in South Carolina voiced stronger opinions. “The main reason that I order books from the UK is that I don't want my UK mysteries or fantasies 'Americanized'. I find the 'Americanization' changes to be demeaning to me as a reader -- and an insult to the author. The author intended the book to have a certain impact on the reader and I have to believe that that impact can change with the 'Americanization' - changing terms, spelling, etc. If I don't understand a term, I look it up on the Internet or in one of the marvelous books such as BOB'S YOUR UNCLE or FANNY PACKS AND BUMBAGS. Most of the orders took a week or more -- depending on what I wanted to pay -- or could afford to pay -- for postage.”

Within thirty minutes of posing the question on DorothyL on a Saturday morning I had half a dozen responses in my inbox. What that tells me is that there are a high number of American readers who feel strongly about this issue.

American publishers are automatically losing domestic sales to the international market because of “Americanizing” the novels or bringing the books out months behind their original release. I understand sometimes this is necessary to accommodate author tour schedules and for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with ‘Americanizing’ the books, but a good example would be the most recent Rebus book. There was no new US Rankin title in 2006. The Naming of the Dead could have been moved up to coincide with UK/Canada release. Don’t give me the song and dance about touring. Allan Guthrie was in NYC recently doing promotion and Hard Man doesn’t come out in the US until June. In Ian’s case, this would have allowed US fans to get the last Rebus book alongside everyone else. I mean, imagine asking the US to wait six months for Harry Potter. Right.

Instead, what happens is that reviewers in the US acquire copies early and say, “Don’t wait for the US release, get it now.” And people do, and down go the US sales figures.

This could be the same with American books being released in the UK – I honestly don’t know, so please don’t take it as US bashing. (If you want to hear someone bash just get me started on generalizations about Canada’s love of bloodless murders and stupid cops.) This is just one example of something I’ve seen readers discuss, that I know some feel strongly about.

I would like to see publishers utilize the internet to maximize their effectiveness. Having a website isn’t enough – it needs to be a professional website that suits needs. Friend of mine in the business told me about one night that $10,000 of sales were put through (educational publisher). She was finally able to persuade her boss that having a functional website that allowed direct purchasing was a sound investment. Go back to that last paragraphs in the NY Times article. Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling. Publishing employees tend to be liberal arts graduates who enter the field with a starting salary around $30,000. Compensation is not tied to sales performance. “The people who go into it don’t do it for the money, which might explain why it’s such a bad business,” Mr. Strachan said.

We may love writing and books, but this is a business. Presently, the method for determining popularity seems to be based on sales. However, that becomes cyclical at some point. Someone has a great book out. It gets lots of attention. The publisher puts money behind pushing the paperback release. It’s stocked in Wal-Mart and Costco and all the right places to fly off the shelves. Bestseller. Comparable success follows for the next book. The author becomes a bit of a brand name and so then every single title they produce is automatically stocked in those outlets. Of course the books will do significantly better than the one by the new author who got a $5000 advance and no promotional budget. Sales only show us part of the picture. This does not necessarily mean that there is more of an appetite for Mr. Bestseller’s book than for Mr. Unknown’s. It just means Mr. Bestseller’s book is more readily accessible and heavily promoted so more people are likely to see it and buy it.

A lot of authors seem to be invested in finding the way to get on that promotional cycle so they can get exposure. What I think could be great for everyone is if publishers would shift it in a different direction.

Here’s a thought. Okay, not all logistics considered. But what if publishers started forums attached to their websites. They pick focus books each month and the author comes on to do an online discussion of the book, interacting with readers. This would be an attraction feature. By that, I mean that if word got around that JK Rowling was going to be on one website interacting with readers and answering questions and reading their comments I bet the traffic for the site would go through the roof. HBO did this a few years ago, for THE WIRE, with David Simon. I hide behind the luxury that we aren’t on Orion’s radar and they’ll never offer me an ARC of a Rankin title. I’ve never had to make a choice about reviewing a Rebus book. I do still review books I buy but I use it as my ‘out’ with those titles so that I can just sit back and enjoy them instead of doing a more critical assessment when reading. But if there was an in-depth discussion Ian participated in on an Orion forum I doubt I’d be able to resist.

So, you have your attraction that draws an audience. In addition to selected monthly discussion titles you also have general discussion sections for news about upcoming releases and customer comments on books. Why? I have mixed feelings about Amazon, because of how the system works. Since Evil Kev orders the books when we do use Amazon I can’t post reviews because I’m not considered a customer. And since we share the same credit cards (you know, being married and all) well, I can’t participate. Then we see the power of anonymity at work and we know how some people use it to bash people they don’t like.

The forum could conduct polls, provide authors and editors with feedback on new titles, provide feedback on things such as covers, and properly designed be an effective promotional venue to spread the word about new titles from that publisher.

By comparison to some things publishers invest major promotional money on, this could actually be done cost-effectively.

Now, I’m going to leave you with more thoughts from Lynne. She gave me permission to use them. They are her opinion, but I think they highlight things I’ve heard other readers say on lists, in one cohesive email, and these are things worth thinking about. Please overlook the fact she’s talking about my manuscript (I mean, bless fans like Lynne, this is who I want to please with my work and I’d keep writing if for no other reason than that she’d come kick my ass if I didn’t, but she was reacting to the reasons I’d been given for a rejection) and see beyond to what she’s saying about styles of writing and what does and doesn’t have a place in a story, as well as older books that are still popular that don’t fit the modern conventions.

Your book is good. Yes you have a lot of characters. Yes you have to read into in a bit to sort them out --- what are we? Stupider than a hundred years ago?

H Rider Haggard, Erle Stanley Gardner, George MacDonald, SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE -- not one of them would get picked up today because you have to read three chapters to get a start on the story and even then it is slow and takes time to learn who is who and what is going on. People today want instant gratification - open the book and the first person you meet is the only name you need to remember, and the action is right there. That is fine now and again but it is not the only way to write and certainly it is not the only thing to read!

Edgar Rice Burroughs - like how famous is Tarzan? - and his first book of the series is almost entirely a buildup for the rest of the series! One of the best stories I ever read was People of the Mist by H Rider Haggard and really getting into it was work. Getting into Lord of the Rings is work. Why do people still read it? Because we know it is worth it. Without already knowing that would they still keep going through chapter after chapter of scene building? Can you tell this is a rant?

The bottom line is that your book is worth getting through the beginning with. Has Bob Fate read it? In some ways it is not so far off from his style. Baby Shark took a bit of reading to get going in too. Yes there is, in both cases, action at the start, but there is also character building and set up, explanation of future events, background - all good stuff. It can and is over done at times but not by you. There was one author who went into detail on the wife of a retired cop who was not in the story and the wife was certainly not in the story as she had been dead ten years yet he gave detail on her social life and colour preferences and stuff - now THAT was unnecessary and really ticked me off (in fact that whole book ticked me off and the author was and is widely published but I never tried another of his).

Okay, rant over. I am not saying your story is perfect - I am not qualified to judge really but I do know that I enjoyed it and expect a number of other people will too given the chance. It is better than what I am reading now.

Of course, maybe this is the reason publishers don’t have forums. Maybe they’re afraid…

(Quick news insert: Scotch on the Rocks over at Pulp Pusher, which you should bookmark because they’ve just accepted a story from yours truly for the July issue.)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

An Absolute Must-Read

This article speculates on what makes some books succeed while others don't. I suspect I could launch into a rant of my own based on my initial read of this.

Here's an excerpt:

The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.

Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.

“We need much more of a direct relationship with our readers,” said Susan Rabiner, an agent and a former editorial director. Bloggers have a much more interactive relationship with their readers than publishers do, she said. “Before Amazon, we didn’t even know what people thought of the books,” she said.

Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling. Publishing employees tend to be liberal arts graduates who enter the field with a starting salary around $30,000. Compensation is not tied to sales performance. “The people who go into it don’t do it for the money, which might explain why it’s such a bad business,” Mr. Strachan said.

I'm going to take a few days to digest this, but I felt it was definitely worth relaying. In part, it's funny, because I just started a thread on Crimespace asking if we can manufacture success.

I'm interested in seeing thoughts on the topic. Already there have been some interesting stories told. Thoughts welcome here as well.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Scam Publishers

Every month I receive a newsletter from Anvil Publishers, Inc. Specifically, what I receive is called Southern Review of Books.

Last month, I read the story of aspiring author Linda Wattley. Linda has told her story several places, about how she was victimized by a publisher. Here’s an excerpt from her story:

When I joined her, I was eager to get a message out about healing the damages of sexual abuse. She told me she could make it happen if I could front the funds. I paid for a trilogy and received one book with errors.
Prior to realizing she had published my book without a galley, she introduced me to Belinda Williams of Literary Lifestyle, LLC. Together on a three way call they convinced me together we could make great things happen. Ms. Williams informed me as my publicist it would take an entire year to do justice for my career and her fee was $10,000.00 plus a $500.00 retainer fee. Immediately I told her I it was far out my budget. She took a $1,000.00 off making my payments $700.00 a month. Reluctantly, I stepped out on faith.

The first rule about being published is that you should never pay your publisher to be published. You don’t have a publisher – you have a printer. (I am splitting hairs here. If you choose to be self-published there are viable options to consider – Lulu, for example – where you will not pay $10,000 to get your book out. However, if you’re seeking a publisher, that’s entirely different from pursuing self-publishing. If you’re looking for someone to publish your book they should never charge a fee.)

There is no doubt in my mind that the so-called publishers Ms. Wattley dealt with are scams. However, the one thing I did wonder about was how it is that there are still so many people who become entangled in these scams. Obviously, scam publishers stay in the game because they are able to make money.

Which means somehow, we haven’t spread the word enough about how to determine if a publisher is legitimate or not.

You can find exhaustive lists of key warning signs to look for at on Preditors and Editors, Writer Beware and Associated Content. The latter, from Associated Content, is perhaps the most balanced. I will be touching on the advice from Preditors & Editors specifically, as some of it is extreme. For example, one no-no they cite is that the publisher has a focus on new authors. Some publishers do begin with an open submission call. For example - Crème de la Crime is one example of a publisher that launched with a competition. Not only have Crème de la Crime been operating over three years now, garnering reviews, producing well-received books, being invited to participate in events like Harrogate Crime Festival, they have also expanded distribution into the US. This is an example of where I’ll jump on another soap box: Some sites that are designed to provide warnings can overstep and overstate. The advice for writers is always do your homework.

I am not bringing much new to the table here, but I would also like to direct your attention to the May 2007 issue of Southern Book Review. Item #2 tackles a publishing scam that touched on a book produced by Lightning Source, which is owned by Ingram. Item #3 goes on to outline another publishing scam.

Reading about these scams, month after month, I realize that our present method for distributing useful information to those at risk is flawed. Part of the reason is the reliance on forums. While helpful to some, they are often populated by anonymous and regular users. In some cases it’s possible that the users find a certain perverse pleasure in trashing new publishing venues without doing their homework. Look at some of the advice given for spotting a scam publisher:

“Acceptances usually take place in less than a month. Even less than a week is not unusual.”

In order to know this, someone actually has to submit to them. It may be possible to spot a scam quickly, particularly if they list fees on their site, but it may also be necessary to actually initiate a process with them in order to reveal the truth. I went through this myself, with researching publishers, and in some cases everything checked out until contract offers were made, stating the fees I was required to pay. In order to get the information it took time, and in some cases far more than a month.

Here is another example of dubious advice. Online forum criticism is frequently immediately responded to by a defender of that publisher. This is a circular argument, at best. It puts more doubt on the publisher if anyone has anything positive to say about them.

As I was looking over these articles and thinking about how we identify scam publishers, I was reminded of a conversation I had with another author, who was one of the first to be published by a new publisher that’s been doing quite well. Several of their authors have been nominated for awards, and some have even won them.

I asked the author about making the decision to go with this publisher, who didn’t have a track record, and they admitted that you can do all the required homework and still, in the end, without a publishing history behind them it’s a gamble. You don’t know how well the publisher will do at distributing your book. You don’t know if the editing will be solid or if the artwork will be professional.

Sometimes, things work out, sometimes they don’t.

Here are a few things I definitely think you should consider:

If at all possible, contact an author they publish and ask for feedback. If you can’t find a website or method to contact the author listed online, send them mail through the publisher. This is a standard practice. Put your letter in a sealed envelope, and put that inside another envelope, with a note to the publisher asking them to forward the mail to their author.

I would be very suspicious of any publisher that has no authors willing to engage readers. Most authors have websites or blogs.

The publisher should operate like a professional publisher. Publishers should work to release dates, do advance promotion of books, and their books should be reviewed by legitimate reviewing sources.

Any legitimate publisher should have their books carried by bookstores. If you’re considering a publisher you should check out local booksellers – both chain and independent – to see if their books are carried there. This may not apply if you live in a different country from the publisher (you will have to check their distribution) but even with legitimate publishers this is something for authors to consider. If a publisher does not have the ability to distribute and have books carried by stores then you are limited to online sales, which are estimated at only a fraction of total book sales.

You may still choose to go with a smaller publisher in order to break in and get an agent/larger publisher, but you should definitely do your homework.

Never commit yourself to a contract for more than one or two books if the publisher does not have a proven track record. If Random House offers you a four book deal, congratulations. However, most legitimate publishers are now offering new authors one or two book deals. A new author is a considerable financial investment, and if the first book bombs the publisher doesn’t want to be stuck with them through three more titles.

Always make sure there’s an ‘out’ clause in the contract, and, as I already said, if at all possible talk to someone with the publisher.

This is really skimming the surface. However, I would ask everyone to consider linking to an issue of Southern Review of Books, and reminding people that there are still a lot of writers who are falling for scams. The very best thing you can tell aspiring authors? Take your time, ask lots of questions and get to know legitimate people in this business. If you understand the way the business works you’ll be able to see through not only the scams, but the not-scam-but-not-professional publishers quickly.

I use that wording deliberately. It’s easy to identify scams. It can be harder for newcomers to recognize the difference between inexperienced and unprofessional.

Which is a whole other issue, and in some respects just as serious. At the end of the day, you want your publishing experience to be a positive one, not a journey to financial ruin filled with regret.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Author Tours

Rock ‘n’ Roll Authors

I don’t want to be a rock star but I think authors could learn something from them. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were more joint author tours? I’m not talking about a couple friends pairing up for a few dates in the usual haunts: I’m talking about taking authors with books out toward the end of one month and just at the beginning of the next month and putting them on the road together – a couple ‘bigger names’ and a couple ‘rising stars’ doing the twenty city gig.

Before any reading authors groan and contemplate if there might be some way to virtually smack me, let’s just think about this.

I was talking to friend and author Toni McGee Causey (whose debut book, Bobbie Faye’s Very (very, very, very) Bad Day has just hit store shelves this week and is funny as hell). Toni and I both live in places authors don’t often visit when doing book tours.

I said I wished authors toured together more. Three years ago, I went to my first concert at the Saddledome. Sting and Annie Lennox. Why that concert?

When do you think I’ll get another chance to see Sting and Annie Lennox in concert together? Never. Evil Kev and I like Sting’s music. And we like Annie Lennox and Eurythmics. We were teenagers in the 80s – The Police and Eurythmics are the stuff we came of age on. Sting coming to town? Interesting. Sting and Annie Lennox coming to town? Must see.

Musicians understand this. Two-for-one sounds like a deal. It’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss out on. You might never get another chance to have that experience again. And for all those ‘middle-of-the-road’ fans, who might be interested in going to see X but it isn’t top of their priority list, finding out that if they go see X they’ll also see Y can make the difference in boosting it to a highly anticipated event on the calendar.

I was telling Toni about the fact that it’s so hard to find out when author events are. We have one main festival, and they don’t seem to feel it’s important to let us know who’s attending until September. The festival is in October, just after Thanksgiving weekend. Is September not one of the busiest times of the year? Add in Thanksgiving, and the fact that there are only so many nice weekends left, and it’s a wonder the festival doesn’t fold. In fact, of the two years I’ve gone to events, in both cases I found out who was attending before the festival released in the information and in at least one of those cases I wouldn’t have known if the author hadn’t told me they’d be in town themselves.

Locally, there’s one main independent that hosts events. When I say locally, I mean it’s an hour’s drive away. Each way. They don’t send out email bulletins about events. If you want to know if someone’s coming you have to read through their events calendar online - I have to make a point of checking their website regularly. And I have to admit that, even as an author and a booklover, I just don’t have that much incentive. I lose track of time. I forget.

So… if I want to go see an author I know I have two hours of driving involved. For the average 10-15 minute reading and then standing in line to get a book signed? And it’s up to me to find out when the author is coming. Do you want to guess how many author events I’ve actually been to here? I hate driving downtown Calgary, for starters. Parking’s a bitch. Then there’s the walking for blocks alone at night in some areas… Not a big fan of that. And the cost.

But as I was saying to Toni, if there was more than one author, if they didn’t come as often but when they did come it was a noteworthy event, I’d go.

Like rock concerts, she said.


Here are a few of the advantages I see:

1. It’s cost-effective. Look, it takes time to plan a big tour. A publicist usually does that. But it doesn’t take much more time to plan a tour for three or four authors than it does to plan a tour for one. You’re just booking more tickets and hotel rooms. As I suggested, take a couple authors who have books out at the end of one month, and a couple with books out right at the beginning of the next month. Put them on the road together. Focused organizational time, and focused promotional dollars.

2. It’s easier to get people talking about it. Like I said, for one author it may not be critical to attend an event. But for three or four? Groundswell. Everyone has their fan base. A group of authors on the road together? More likely to generate buzz on the listservs, the blogs, forums, etc.

3. Media coverage. Not just another ho-hum-yawn booksigning. An event.

4. Speaking of blogs… Three or four authors on the road together can take turns blogging. Put up a post every couple of days. (More and more want to smack me now.) Seriously, have a blog for the tour. Share the load. With four authors and a post every other day, on average, that’s only once a week for a few hundred words. People love to hear stories. A few weeks ago, Al Guthrie was in the US. Not even Canada. But I know he hung out in Philadelphia, and I know he hung out in NYC and I know he did an event with Swierczywonderboy and Denise Mina and Ian Rankin. And, thanks to Duane’s blog, I am left to wonder why Ian Rankin felt it was necessary to provide anything more than a one-word answer to the question, Would you snort a dead relative? I guess I’ll always be left to wonder what he actually said. You know what I notice from being on the blogs? They have a domino effect. Duane hosted Al Guthrie week on his blog. I linked to it at the start here. I saw other people link to it. The blog became part of the event. For all those far from NYC we felt tied in, connected. And I find from reading the blogs that bloggers like to support other bloggers and feel more motivated to go and meet people at events if they know them from the blog.

A word from my experience

The first time I bought tickets to attend an author event, it was to hear Ian Rankin, and Val McDermid. In town, the same weekend. Our wedding anniversary. Crazy-busy time for us. That time of year always is. On the Sunday Val McDermid had an event, in Banff, with Laura Lippman.

At that point I (ahem) had not read any Laura Lippman. She’d just come on to my radar. The festival event write-up was impressive. We were actually tempted to drive the 2+hours each way to go and see Val and Laura together. I regret that we didn’t, because I know now it’s unlikely there will be another chance to see them here together. I didn’t go but bought my first Lippman, Every Secret Thing, and became a fan of her work.

Last fall, I went to see Mark Billingham when he was here. I estimated I spent about $250 going to see Mark. Okay, I went to see him three days in a row, and once was for lunch (and I didn’t pay) but by the time you factor in gas, parking, event tickets and meals around the two events because the time of day required eating out, it adds up. Even if Evil Kev and I had only gone to the one event we would have spent about $100 for the evening. (Since Kevin had met me from work we had two vehicles to park.)

I wouldn’t shell out that kind of money for just anyone. I can buy a lot of books for that much money.

And the best thing was…
My experience of seeing Ian Rankin locally was the most impersonal of all my author experiences. It’s not his fault. It’s the reality of how popular he is. Hundreds of people were there, and before they let us in people were being turned way from the box office because the event was sold out. I had no expectations for the event going in.

A few weeks later I got a postcard from Ian Rankin. I have to say that, from the very beginning, I was impressed by Val and Ian, the best in this business. The personal touch goes a long way. So, don’t shoot me when I suggest a group tour and a group tour blog. Believe me, sending the same group of authors out on the road together for a few weeks could build a huge amount of hype around it. You think I was a Rankin fan before getting a postcard from him? Things like that take someone from the place of the author of books I love to a really nice guy who writes books I love. And I like to see nice people do well. If we have a personal experience, even on that level, with someone we admire we tend to feel a bit more devoted to them.

In this day and age…

Face it. We have a lot of competition for finding an audience. Drives me mad that Word on the Street here is in September and Wordfest in October. There are only so many nice fall weekends, add in Thanksgiving and the fact that a lot of people like us, have a wedding anniversary in September or October and it’s insane. That used to be the time of year I was going back to work. The last few weekends of camping in Kananaskis and snow-free hiking in the mountains are those weekends.

The festivals compete against the busyness of our schedules, against the weather, and against all the other things going on, like concerts. And they compete for whatever limited amount of ‘fun money’ the average person has to indulge in special events.

Look at how much money I spent seeing Mark when he was here. Now, I went to Boucheron. Spent a bit less on the cost of that event. Used airmiles, so that was free. Shared a hotel room, and other related costs. So, for not significantly more money I saw dozens of authors at a convention only a few weeks earlier, and now I can write a con off on my taxes because of the promotional aspect.

Even as a fan of books it’s going to take something special to get me to the city to see an author over the next six months. I have Murder in the Grove and Boucheron. Things are really busy and there are just two of us to consider, not even a family schedule.

I don’t believe it’s of much use to authors to spend time on the road for ineffective tours. By this, I don’t mean all tours are presently pointless, and I don’t mean authors should use it as an excuse not to tour. I do think it’s draining, time consuming, and ultimately discouraging to invest that much energy, be away from family and home for weeks on end, and not get a sense the tour was a success.

One other thing I learned about from the music business was market saturation. When Deric was here a few years ago, I was talking to him after his show. I asked if he’d be coming back for Stampede. He said no, because of market saturation… If an artist makes regular appearances in the same place it isn’t important to make the effort to see them. The mentality is, we can see them any old time, there will always be another opportunity.

The thinking is that if you stagger your visits, and tour with different people, fans are more motivated to make an effort to get out to see you because they don’t want to miss the chance. They never know when they’ll get another one.

Here’s another reality. We live in a celebrity-driven culture. I’m not terribly happy about it sometimes, but I understand that from my youth people have always asked who your favourites are – your favourite rock stars, your favourite actors. We’re cultured and conditioned to think about it, and to some degree, idolize them. There’s only one reason Britney’s in the news as much as she is and the press come up with silly names like TomKat and Brangelina – because people pay attention.

In no way would I advocate authors start fights, have high-profile affairs, divorces and such to generate media coverage. Like I said, I don’t want to be a rock star.

But it seems every time I turn around lately there’s talk about losing review space, talk about bookstores going out of business, talk about libraries closing…

Talk about the death of the author tour.

We aren’t just working for our own sales. We authors and fans of books are in it together. When Mark was here he hadn’t realized where I lived. We were going for lunch and he said I should pick, it was my town. I pointed and told him how far it was to drive to where I live. Miles beyond the reach of public transit. He thanked me for coming all that way, and I said it’s worth it to make the effort sometimes. If we don’t support the events, they’ll stop having them.

I know a lot of authors say they wouldn’t mind not touring, but I think that’s shortsighted. It’s important we support booksellers. As review space declines, who’s talking about books? What good is it to have some magazines (wonderful as they are) focused on the genre? People who subscribe to those magazines are already pretty serious about crime fiction. We need external coverage.

It’s about perception. Declining book coverage suggests declining relevance. Libraries close because it’s possible to sell people on the idea they aren’t important to taxpayers.

After all, if nobody’s talking about books, doesn’t that suggest nobody’s interested? Who’s reminding people out there that books are important?

I know a lot of authors don’t like the public aspect that goes with being published. I am not saying I blame them… But let me point something out, maybe something that those who haven’t punched a clock in years have forgotten. Almost every job out there requires people to do things they aren’t as keen about. When I worked in education I was required to do a certain amount of upgrade training per year. You get your first aid certificate and it’s only good for two or three years, then you have to take it again. Sometimes I’ve had to go to after-hours staff meetings. That happens to Kevin. They aren’t our favourite things in the world, but they are a part of having those jobs.

This is about more than just selling our own books to readers. This is about showing readers we know they’re important and worthy of our time and attention… and about showing society there’s still power in the written word.

(Crossposted from my blog)