Leftovers eaten, giftwrap recycled, TV recorded – and a stack of new books on my shelf. And still a handful of old ones to recommend. Here goes.
By July I was catching up with birthday gifts from earlier in the year, especially Death in the Dordogne by Martin Walker. I discovered this delicious series a couple of years ago. Great plotting, perfect ending, wonderful characters I want for friends, and all set in a village I’d move to in a heartbeat if my command of French extended beyond pleasantries and restaurant menus. He even provides a recipe for barbecued steak which I can’t wait to try. And I don’t even eat steak.
August brought me Fiona Griffiths. Again. Reviewing for an e-zine sometimes yields up treasure.
If you haven’t yet discovered Harry Bingham series, it really is time you did. Fiona takes the maverick cop to a whole new level. The plots of this stupendously-written, character-rich, wonderfully-backgrounded series are unbelievably complex, and on the face of it completely unlikely, but once you start reading you’ll just keep going. That’s a promise. And The Dead House is one of the best yet.
I had to wait till the end of September for Never Alone by Elizabeth Haynes (another reviewing treasure), and it took me by surprise. It has a couple of stylistic quirks which sent my oh-dear-she’s-trying-to-be-literary antennae into orbit, but before I knew it I was on page 73 and didn’t want to stop. Atmosphere, misdirection, great characters and a long-drawn-out teeth-clenching finale that never falters. What a find.
October brought another end-of-the-month unexpected treat: Her Darkest Nightmare by Brenda Novak. I was put off at first by the naff title, but as a wise person said, you can’t judge a book by its... An eye-opener to many things: psychopathy, American prisons and police service, and above all Alaska. I really don’t want to go to Alaska on holiday, especially in winter.
November’s favourite was Lamentation, latest in C J Sansom’s excellent Shardlake series. A doorstop of a book, but unputdownable, from a master of the genre. The Tudor history feels right: far more important than being right, although I suspect the first follows from the second. More important than either: the characters feel real. And you’re left thinking it really could have happened. And who’s to say it didn’t?
December kept me waiting – many books, but nothing that stood out. Then, at the last minute came The Dry, a masterly debut from Jane Harper, an Australian newspaper journalist. If you enjoy tense plotting and the kind of atmosphere that makes you think it’s ninety degrees when it’s actually freezing outside, you’ll love this.
There were plenty more, of course; it’s a poor and sad year when my reading tally fails to top a hundred, but these were the cream of the crop.
So, just three days away from a brand new year, all that remains is to wish friends and blog-followers everywhere a lot of happy new reading for 2017.
I’m going to start this week’s post, as I typically do each year at this time, with a recap of my year with respect to clients and deals. But this time, as I’m winding down this blog, I’m going to add a little about the way my relationships with writers have evolved over the ten years I’ve been in publishing. It’s been interesting to mark this evolution, as it’s reflected everything from what stages of my career I’ve hit, to the backgrounds of my clients, to what kinds of authors I’ve attracted based on the genres of books I’ve requested on my website or announced deals for on Publishers Marketplace or discussed on Hey Dead Guy. OK, but first, the numbers:
I currently represent 53 authors actively, meaning if you were to ask them “who’s your agent?” they’d say me. I also have six former clients whose books I still have meaningful ties to. During the past year I’ve added eight clients, while subtracting six (which sounds more ruthless than it was—a couple left me, a couple began working with Danielle instead of me, and a couple were simply cases where, after not being able to sell their projects over an extended period of time, we decided it wasn’t working and they’d be better served finding someone new).
I made approximately 15 deals in the past 12 months (9 are up on Publishers Marketplace; the rest are awaiting announcement because we are finishing contracts or for other reasons). Another six are in the “final waiting” period, where I’m anticipating an offer with a better than, say, 75% chance that it will come through, but it hadn’t happened before everyone left town for Christmas. I currently have 11 manuscripts out on submission to at least three editors (so, not renewals of contracts). Of these, six are authors who have previously published books, where we are trying to move houses; four are first-time authors; and one is an artist who has published his art before but is not trying to be published in the trade publishing world. Eight of the eleven are novels; four of those are historical. Six of the books are set completely or mostly in other countries.
Additionally, I have 11 books not already under contract where I am expecting my authors to deliver their manuscripts in 2017 (again, this is in addition to clients with contracts who need to deliver their contracted books this coming year). So I anticipate that they will go out on submission during the course of the year.
If I sell all of them, along with the ones I mentioned before as being in “final waiting,” I’ll have an outstanding 2017 without anything else. The reality, of course, is that I’ll probably sell some of these; pull a few back for revisions; get less money than I was anticipating for some (and more for others); and simply not ever get traction with a few. It also doesn’t count any unanticipated projects—new clients, existing clients with different projects, or proposals from publishers or production companies for reverse-engineered books (where the author gets the idea from the publisher, rather than the other way around—“IP projects,” we call them).
The picture I’ve just painted for you is that of an agent in mid-career. I’m selling books consistently, have projects in all stages--from awaiting a first draft of a first book to publishing a ninth in a series. I’m now able, after 10 years, to choose to take on a narrower range of book—concentrating more on adult books, on historicals and crime novels and workplace dramas and ones with particular themes. I’m doing more nonfiction now, and while I represent middle grade children’s books, I’m doing much less YA.
I’m also getting my clients from somewhat different sources from how I did when I started out—fewer from the proverbial slush pile and more from referrals by other clients and members of the publishing world. (Doesn’t mean I am not still combing the unsolicited queries; merely that the bar is higher.)
As a result of these factors, I’ve found that what I need to do with the manuscripts I take on has changed quite a bit. I do less line editing than I did at the start of my career, and much more in the way of detailed editorial letters, followed by long phone calls.
And my relationships with my authors—and my conversations with them—have evolved as well since I began building my list in 2008. Because I have worked with several of my clients for upwards of seven years, my conversations with them are more personal, and also deal with different questions from what they did at the start. Instead of discussions of will we get the next one published, it’s should we go back to the same publisher or try to change. With my mystery writers, the contraction of the cozy market by (particularly) Berkley and St. Martin’s has meant a game of musical publishers.
And with a number of my clients, it’s a different conversation. I’m now far along enough that several of my clients are through their first or second contracts and haven’t always had the best experiences (or simply haven’t been lucky), and are now looking for new publishers. That is a point of great stress for them (also for me, but much more for them), and my job becomes part best friend, part shrink, in addition to financial advisor, as I need to keep them on track without destroying their livers or (God Forbid!) going off message on social media.
I’m also offering them new opportunities—ones that didn’t exist when I started out, and which, quite frankly, fascinate me. I’m working with a couple of clients on IP projects like I mentioned before; and guiding us through a new kind of Agreement, and new way of getting Out There, can be a challenge. I’ve also begun to work more with clients who have a real sense of the film and television worlds, and we are able to see how both exciting and difficult it can be to succeed there.
But there is nothing more gratifying—and this has been true from the first time I did it, with Jerry Elias in 2008) than to be able to make The Call to a client to say that there has been an offer on his or her manuscript. The satisfaction of knowing that the book was good enough, the editor and publisher were the right ones, that the fit was correct and the potential for success, great; is the highlight of my job. And when I make a guest Dead Guy post in five years to update these stats, I can’t imagine that this particular highlight will change overmuch.
And now I need to end this—we are in London and it’s dinner time. We have to get a good night’s sleep though—tomorrow afternoon we are meeting my client Elaine Powell and her husband Jon and daughter Angela, and spending the day together. Our kids are friends even though we live across continents, and Elaine and I try to see each other each time we are even close to the same neighborhood. I can tell stories like this about several of my clients, who’ve become more than business associates over the years. At the end of the day, it’s why I love my job.
A quick post today because it's the day after Christmas, there are five days to New Year's Eve (or as my daughter Eve calls it, "New Year's Me"), and almost everybody's off work today.
It's been an exhausting year and it ain't getting any easier as it draws to a close. Personally, there have been ups and downs. Externally it's been mostly downs, but that's a topic for another time and place. And there's no point in recapping all that's gone on.
Let's just end this day, this week, this year with the hope that things will improve. I know; it doesn't really seem like that's a realistic expectation right now, but it's possible. And keep in mind that we have some small say in our conditions if not our destinies. We can make our voices heard. We can disagree when we disagree and do so loudly. We can demand.
Some things will be beyond our control, surely. But a new year represents, metaphorically, a re-beginning despite it actually being a continuation. You will not feel that much different next Sunday than you do the day before, depending on how much celebrating you do Saturday night. It's like your birthday--you're technically a year older, but you worked your way up to that moment by living through all the other ones--and you'll be pretty much the same when it comes. Time is a concept we have created to ensure we can be late for meetings.
So here are my wishes for everyone who writes or reads this little blog we've put together: May you get all you deserve and maybe a little bit more. May you stay vigilant and conscious. May you enjoy your work and cherish those you love. Have a little fun. See at least one comedy. Read a book or four. Do all you can to enjoy yourself, but do no harm to yourself or anyone else. Pet a dog. Have a piece of cake. Try to understand, if not agree with, the other side of an argument. Care about people you don't know. Watch a baseball game. Go to the movies and DON'T TALK. See a live play. Listen to music, some maybe that you haven't heard before. Stay out of the hospital but maybe go to the gym.
And above all, do what makes you happy.
Here's to 2017. We don't know what it'll be. But there is hope in the idea that it could be anything.
Along with being a major holiday in a major religion, today is my birthday. To celebrate it, I share with you my diagram poem in the December issue of Poetry. (This is my first time appearing in that journal. Over the past fifteen years or so, I sent almost 100 poems, poetry comics, and diagram poems before they said yes.)
I have a vague memory of expressing the wish that 2016 would be better than 2015 in my final blog post of 2015. Yeah, right. 2016 has been a lousy year, both personally and internationally, and if 2017 isn’t an improvement I shall a) be very surprised, and b) find a remote corner of the known universe to emigrate to and quietly curl up in a corner and go to sleep.
But when things get tough and the tough get going, my answer is to lose myself in a good book. Of which there have been plenty over the year. Here are some of the highlights.
January was a very good month for books. I discovered Karen Rose, one of many prolific thriller writers who hadn’t come my way until Alone in the Dark , second in her Cincinnati series. It’s a hefty tome – weighs in at 600+ pages – but not a weighty read and well worth the effort and time. Great plotting, and a cast of characters you can touch and smell. In a good way.
Also The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths, the latest in her Ruth Galloway series. She’s one of my favourite crime writers; she gets better and better.
In February I rediscovered Meg – now repackaged as M G – Gardiner, with a standalone called The Burning Mind in the USA and Phantom Instinct over here. I shall never understand why this woman’s books haven’t been picked up by an enterprising maker of high-octane action movies. Great characters skid from one crisis into the next in vividly drawn locations. What’s not to keep you on the edge of your seat?
March found me comfort-reading one of my favourite authors – Reginald Hill.
Five years after the great man’s death, I’m still collecting his enormous backlist, and so far every one I’ve found has been a winner. Some authors’ work improves so much with the passing years that early titles are a tad – sometimes a lot – disappointing. With Reg Hill, the only downside is that the earlier ones are shorter. The Long Kill is a winner.
In April I rediscovered yet another favourite. Why Ruth Downie isn’t world-famous and multi-award-winning is a complete mystery. She combines wonderfully engaging characters, a sense of history and place that make Roman Britain jump off the page, neat and complex plots, and writing to die for, and the result is pure literary magic. Tabula Rasa is (or was back in April) the latest in the brilliant Ruso series. There’s another new one now – hurray!
May required more comfort-reading, and daughter provided it – Jolly Foul Play by Robin Stevens.
If you haven’t discovered this delicious YA series yet, go out and hunt it down! This is the fourth. Think Agatha Christie meets Angela Brazil. Two teenage girls at an upper-crust boarding school encounter dead bodies wherever they go: this time on the school hockey pitch during a firework display. It’s littered with midnight feasts, climbing up drainpipes, nasty prefects who dish out detentions at the drop of a textbook... If you were ever a youthful fan of 1930s school stories, or better still, enjoyed the brilliantly hilarious stage play Daisy Pulls It Off, you’ll love them. And if American blog-followers have no idea what I’m ranting about, I feel very sorry for you because you’re missing a treat.
June brought me back to once of my favourite favourites: Phil Rickman. December was the only one of his early creepy mysteries I hadn’t read; I now have the full set. OK, I know I keep banging on about him, but this man is seriously good, and even more seriously undersold. This is one of his pre-Merrily Watkins novels, and it made me shiver when I wasn’t standing back and admiring the sheer quality. Find him. Read him. That’s all I can say.
The rest of the year yielded up an equally rich crop, but I’m going to keep you in suspense until next week about those. Meanwhile, round here we do Christmas, and I’m off to play my part in the kitchen aspect of making it happen. Whatever you do or don’t do to celebrate or commemorate midwinter, have a great one.
Looks like I'm going to get this post in just under the wire. I suspect I won't post next week as I will have off from this Friday until Jan 3rd. Wow. What an amazing amount of time! I spend the time home in Wisconsin and I am looking forward to it very much.
I feel like I haven't been around as much lately. Frankly, since the election, I have been sleeping terribly and been feeling down quite a bi . There are times when I can escape, like digging into a manuscript, but as soon as I open Facebook all the anxiety and stress comes roaring back. I do think it's a bit crazy how much many of our lives are affected by social media. Facebook and Twitter can be great places to connect with old friends and family, but it can turn just as quickly. Misinformation runs rampant and it's hard to decipher which site is legit or at least minimally biased. I am fatigued. I need this break away from it all. I'm sure I will still post pictures from my family's Christmas parties. I will probably check out Facebook a few times. Check my work email here and there. But for the most part, I am taking this break to give my heart and soul a chance to heal and recharge. I hope a lot of you out there have the opportunity to do that as well.
Whatever holiday you celebrate, I hope it is joyous and fulfilling. If you don't celebrate any holidays, enjoy the time off! And I hope everyone has a few books waiting to be read. Be well, my friends!
As I get ready to give up my Dead Guy slot in January, I’m going to spend the next three weeks looking back on the past ten years in publishing. As I thought how to do this in a limited amount of time, I decided to devote this week to some changes I’ve seen in the ways editors and publishers relate to agents; then talk about agent/client relations next week. Then, to wrap up, I’ll give some figures about my own journey from sports executive to partner in a growing literary agency.
Ten years ago, when I joined Writers House as a very old assistant to two excellent (and patient) agents—Simon Lipskar and Dan Lazar—Viking Penguin and Random House were years away from merging. There was no such thing as a Kindle (or ebooks in any real form). We still periodically submitted manuscripts in printed form, via mail or messenger (though most of it was by email, to be sure). There were really no restrictions to speak of in terms of how many editors at a house an agent could submit a book to—if you thought six editors in different imprints at Random House could like a book, you could send to all of them and if more than one liked it, they would fight it out to see who would buy it.
Ten years ago, there was also just the beginning of a sense by publishers that literary agents could be productive forces in the process—that we were not simply sharks looking to gum up the works. More and more agents had editorial experience (as I did), and more and more agencies had active internship programs, so the population of English majors thought of both the buy and sell sides when trying to figure out how to enter publishing and not make any money. But there were also still many editors who treated me with skepticism—I remember a pretty venerable editor at a literary imprint of one of the Big Six ask me what, exactly, I thought I was adding to the publishing process beyond trying to fleece him for a ton of money for substandard novels. On some level, I thought of publishers as my opponents, and my assumption was that I was looking to defeat them.
As I left my office this afternoon almost ten years later, with 60 clients and a group of seven working together at the agency where I’m a partner, Publishing has undergone several intense disruptions. Digital publishing emerged, first as an existential threat to print book publishing and brick-and-mortar bookstores, then eventually as an incorporated and accepted form of distribution and format. The financial disasters in 2008, just as I was submitting my first list of manuscripts, meant that publishers were forced to cut what was probably a bloated population of editors and support staff—logical and probably necessary from the business side, but incredibly difficult to watch when those layoffs meant that a quarter of my friends lost their jobs in numbers squeezes. The folks who remained, as advances went down for many (though certainly not all) books, Borders went out of business, and contraction took hold, actually became substantially more congenial and collaborative.
After the financial crisis, Publishers also became more selective about how agents were permitted to submit books. Instead of unlimited access to the editors at Random House, for example, we were restricted to three: One each from the Crown, Knopf, and Random House Groups. (Again, this was probably logical, but made life somewhat more difficult for us, and limited competition—I’ll come back to this.)
Also, as time has passed, publishers established digital imprints in (mostly) genre books (mystery, science fiction, romance), closing imprints and establishing new models of paying authors, sometimes with low or no advances but slightly better royalty splits, to mixed success. (To be fair, in the past year or so, I’ve started to see these models begin to catch hold, so while the initial forays were pretty meager, there is greater hope now.) I am not going to get into the seismic changes that the Amazon/ Agency Model lawsuits caused to contracts and the business side of the industry as a whole, since there are many people (most notably Mike Shatzkin, Hillel Italie, and Michael Cader) who have done it brilliantly. Finally, I’m not going to get into self-publishing in any detail. When HSG began in 2011, we thought it possible that we would be spending a significant amount of our energy assisting our clients in independent publishing efforts. While we’ve done some, with different levels of success, it’s not emerged as a significant aspect of our business.
But the biggest difference I’ve found in the past ten years has been my relationship in the editorial and marketing aspects of my clients’ publishing experiences. Rather than being the guy who picks out a book, formats it, sends it to a publisher, negotiates a contract, and gets out of the way, agents need to play a very different role with publishers: that of partner.
Because lists have shrunk over the past ten years, but the barriers of entry to submitting manuscripts have been lowered to almost nothing with email subs, publishers now rely on agents to be true first layers of defense. We must be that much more selective because publishers will be even MORE selective. We must get manuscripts into extremely clean form—most of the time I do two or three significant reads of a book, with either a detailed editorial letter (with accompanying calls to explain and discuss) or full-on line edits before I will consider starting to submit a manuscript that starts out extremely strong. And once I sell a book, I am much more involved in the strategy sessions for publicity and marketing. And instead of a suspicious or antagonistic relationship with my counterparts at publishing houses, there is much more of a spirit of collaboration.
Now before we all sit in a circle singing Kumbaya, there are also some less-exciting aspects of the process which have evolved. I certainly miss the days, for example, when if an editor began to read a book and enjoyed it, she would call me and say “Don’t you DARE do anything without telling me first,” or “Oh my God, this is amazing—I’m taking it to ed board next week.” More often, I’m getting lovely, polite passes after long waits, with regretful statements like “Well, I had three reads, we were really excited, but just couldn’t get it through Acquisitions.” This serves to a book’s detriment in two ways: It means I can’t help an editor answer potential challenges that come up in editorial meetings; and not knowing that an editor is interested means that I can’t tell OTHER editors that there is action, thus allowing there to be momentum to the submission. It works against excitement to keep cards too close to the vest. That’s really a significant issue I’ve seen.
Another is a growing insistence, in the interest of a “360-degree worldwide business,” for publishers to insist on retaining foreign and translation rights for smaller books with little potential of being sold abroad by the overwhelmed foreign rights pros at publishing houses—who are going to make their nut on the big books. If agencies had greater opportunity to retain those rights, we could concentrate on them more explicitly—we have smaller lists, and each title is a bit more of a special individual flower than at most publishers.
This is a half mile wide and an inch deep, but it does illustrate in its own small way just how dynamic the relationship has been over the past ten years between agents and publishers. It’s only speaking from my own journey, and others surely have had different experiences and feelings about these aspects of the business. But hopefully it gives you a little idea of this piece of the job of a literary agent in late 2016.
After reading Erin's Friday post I was... well, inspired is probably going too far. But I did take her point about the "unpopular opinions" fad going around Facebook. Yes, people were looking at that prompt and thinking they had to post things that were inherently negative: I hate this, I think this thing everybody likes is stupid, and so on. I have in fact contributed to the problem (saying that I can't stand The Wizard of Oz, an opinion I have expressed here).
And since I think we have rarely been in a situation that required positivity more than the present day, I'd like to be part of the solution. So here are 10--mostly unrelated to crime fiction publishing--positive opinions.
10 Positive But Unpopular Opinions
1. I actually like the Electric Light Orchestra. "Serious" listeners to pop music think Jeff Lynne's 70s band that mixed classical strings and occasionally horns into the arrangement is silly and a sign that one is easily misled. I disagree. Trying something different often resulted in some spurts of genius (There has never been an arrangement besides Lynne's of Roll Over Beethoven that included actual Beethoven) and even though the later years were fairly disposable as Lynne lost interest ("The music plays/so loud and clear/but somehow I can't make you hear/the dream is gone") much of what is there is still worth listening to.
2. I think baseball is infinitely more exciting than football. "Baseball is a slow sport." Sure. If you're not paying attention. You want to be a casual fan who only has to look up every once in a while when 22 men try to knock each other down? Enjoy American football. For a "fast sport," I've never seen an activity that has so much downtime. But hey, to each his own. For me, the fact that something can happen at any time in a baseball game, and the situations that develop around each pitch make it a nail biter from beginning to end.
3. I think there should be cursing in cozy mysteries. I get it--many readers want a clean, safe space to read about violence, death and avarice. That's fine. There should be such a thing without question. But when I write a character who stumbles over a murdered corpse and has to say, "Oh, drat!" I think there should be an alternative. Perhaps two versions of each book should be issued: One with "bad" language and one sanitized for your protection. I don't think people who want a "clean" version are wrong. I just don't think they're all the readers.
4. I'm all for saying "happy holidays." People already think I'm a lefty liberal idiot, so I might as well go the whole way. What's wrong with acknowledging that not everybody celebrates Christmas? What's wrong with noting that not everybody celebrates ANYTHING? Those who rail against "political correctness" are missing the point. It's about accommodating those not in the majority to make everyone feel more comfortable. Where's the problem with that?
5. I still think Superman is the best hero. Keep your dark brooding types. Think of a better argument in favor of fair immigration: A being from another place comes here, has enough power to take us over and make us do his bidding, and instead decides to use his unique abilities and help in any way he can. There are lessons here and they aren't about who has the best things.
6. I think the Beatles are better than Beyonce. This is not to diminish Ms. Knowles at all. I thought the Beatles were better than Michael Jackson, Elton John and whatever other act was supposed to surpass them. Come up with better songwriting, better musicianship, more innovation and... you can't.
7. I think newspapers will survive. Yes, there will be massive changes and there will be downsizing. But I'm encouraged by the fact that the best investigative, in-depth reporting done during this past election cycle (about which no more will be said) was done by Newsweek and the Washington Post, followed by the New York Times. And in the week after the election, 41,000 people bought subscriptions to the New York Times.
8. I think independent bookstores can prevail over online sellers, and will. Sure, you can buy anything--literally--online and have it at your door within two days. But when you need a suggestion for your next read, do you want it to come from another reader, or from a algorithm? I once had a site recommend a certain DVD to me because I had bought a vacuum cleaner from them. The signs are there. Independent bookstores rule.
9. I think comedy is about to have a renaissance. And I don't mean just because political satire will be EVERYWHERE. I think the tide is turning in comedy and there will be a wider range of product to take in. It doesn't all have to be raunch or children's animation and nothing else, and soon we'll see that it's not. The recent Ghostbusters wasn't a great movie, but it did show off a tiny sample of the talents of Kate McKinnon, and she's going to be huge.
10. I believe the next four years will lead to something good. It'll take a while and it won't be fun, but activists will be born. Already the actor Michael Sheen has announced that he is no longer the actor Michael Sheen and is now the activist Michael Sheen. And the thing about activists is they're the people who get stuff done. Because they're, you know, active.
Last positive note: Pitchers and catchers report in 56 days. Happy holidays, to those who celebrate!
by Erin Mitchell
There’s been a post theme going around Facebook lately wherein people share ten unpopular—but not political—opinions. I wasn’t loving the posts because they seem to celebrate and encourage the negative...until I saw Rob Hart’s.
Rob is (in no particular order): a novelist, a writer of short fiction and essays, a father to a daughter who is my hero, one of James Patterson’s BookShots co-authors, and the publisher/COO at MysteriousPress.com. He is also a haver of opinions, some of which he shares on Facebook.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Rob’s approach to said opinions is that he encourages discussion. So I’m grateful that he gave me the OK to borrow his post and add a bit of my own commentary.
The bold parts below are Rob’s; the parts that aren’t are my additions.
Ten unpopular opinions, publishing edition:
I know there are some folks who think big publishers only publish crap. This bugs me, in no small part because it assumes that all readers are identical.
In terms of marketing, the most important thing any author can do is understand their audience. If you assume that you know your readers without looking at actual qualitative and quantitative data, you’re missing out.
I would have phrased this one a bit differently... I don’t know anything about Stephenie Meyer, but I worked for JP, Inc. back in 2005. He was already resoundingly successful with his Alex Cross series (the project I worked on was for a different series), and everything he did was geared towards marketing to specific audiences, which is not surprising given his advertising agency background.
Rather than being pissed off, as many authors seem to be, at whatever Patterson does or doesn’t do, we could all learn a lot from his activities. For example, when I’m asked why I think his books sell so well, my answer often surprises: short chapters.
But think about it: many people think reading is a slog. Like it’s work. With short chapters, readers feel like they’re making progress. Accomplishing something. It won’t work for every story, but I think it’s worth considering.
About all I can add here is YES. Covers are the most valuable marketing asset for any book. If you’re traditionally published and you don’t like your cover, for the love of Pete, say something. Or have your agent say something. Your publisher might not be able or willing to change it, but you owe it to your story to try.
Yup. That said, there are out-of-pocket costs involved in self-publishing (see above) that you might not be in a position to front.
When it comes to marketing, you’d be well advised to assume that the money a small publisher can spend is limited. If you’re looking at a contract from a small publisher, consider asking for some unusual terms, like getting sales reports on a monthly basis or having a commitment to timed promotions built in.
There are good books that are not published. For any number of reasons. But luck is indeed far from the only factor. I’m biased, but if you’re aiming to get published, maybe consider polishing your author brand.
I’ve worked with manuscripts that aren’t in Word, and I promise you it’s a tremendous PITA. And it takes me a lot longer to do what I do, which is time I’m generally not getting paid for. So yes, please use Word.
Office 365 costs $99 per year. This allows for five users. So if you can find four friends willing to go in on a subscription with you, that’s $20/year each. That seems like a reasonable investment to me. There’s also a $10/month option.
Of course the length of the publishing process isn’t personal. That said, publishing is one of the most inefficient industries on the planet.
I think this one is true of a lot more than publishing, but I certainly see it in marketing all the time. Lately I’ve had a rash of folks asking me to work for them for free...because they’ve written great books. Unfortunately, using my hard-won professional expertise for free won’t pay my bills.
I didn’t know this was a thing. All I’d add is that if you’re looking for a publisher or evaluating offers from publishers and not looking at their business, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Aw, Rob...I think you understand it pretty well. At least, you clearly understand the importance of constantly learning.
I know I’ve been missing a few Thursdays this year (thanks again for being there yet again last week, Chris), but last week I was here, fingers poised over the keyboard – until I realized that the little thingummy that tells me the broadband is working had an exclamation mark beside it. So I applied the highly technical fix my daughter told me about – switched off and switched on again – but the connection remained resolutely non-existent.
And so it remained for five days. It being the jolly old festive season, ho ho ho, I had things on my mind that didn’t involve technology. Besides, having investigated various possibilities, mainly asking husband whether or not his was working, since we use the same router, and found that it was, perfectly, I’d more or less decided the problem was that my antique laptop was about to expire, so I was steeling myself to dip into savings and invest in a new one. So for a few days I did nothing beyond checking now and again to see if it was working.
Then lovely daughter suggested that it might be worth contacting the service provider before going down the new laptop route. So on Tuesday, I did. And whaddyaknow, the problem wasn’t mine at all; it was Microsoft’s. Apparently, and anyone more techno-savvy than I am, which means everyone, probably knows this already, one of their multifarious updates to Windows 10 caused a glitch which meant some people couldn’t access broadband.
So, after what felt like an entire day spent on the phone to various helpline personnel, suddenly I had a broadband connection again. It went down again yesterday, but at least then I had a number to call.
The day turned out to be alternately hair-tearingly frustrating and hilarious, the first while it was happening and the second when I could stand back and see it from a distance. It went something like this.
Call helpline. Put on hold to await an adviser.
After twenty minutes, adviser answers and asks for details I’d already provided.
I provide details and explain the problem. Adviser offers to send me an e-mail with a link to a helpful website. Umm...
Somehow I restrain myself from throwing phone at wall, tear my hair, scream a bit and call helpline again.
Another twenty-minute wait, followed by asking for details etc etc.
This time the adviser clearly has no idea what to do, evidenced by the way she goes away several times to ask someone else for help.
Eventually she gives me another number to call.
After only a little bit of hair-tearing and screaming, I call it. Only a ten-minute wait this time, then Steve from Cardiff comes on the line. Forgive me my personal partiality, but I do find a Welsh accent extremely reassuring.
‘Oh, yes,’ says Steve, ‘that’s the Windows 10 glitch. We’ll have that fixed in a jiffy.’
And lovely Steve tells me exactly what to do, and lo and behold my broadband connection reappears. I come very close to telling Steve I’m in love with him and want to iron his shirts and bake cakes for him; husband is only a few feet away and I don’t want to hurt his feelings.
Next day it disappeared again, but at least I now had a number to call, with a reasonable possibility that the person who answered would know what to do. (He did.) And today, fingers crossed, touch wood, invoke all available deities, it was there when I switched on and has stayed put.
But isn’t it kind of worrying that Microsoft, the largest technology company in the world (unless someone knows different), with all the funding and resources they have at their disposal, can’t manage to produce a widely-used piece of software which doesn’t interfere with the few bits of technology they didn’t invent? Or did they invent broadband? I’m really not well versed in these matters. If they did, it’s even more worrying. A bit like pharmaceutical companies who invent new drugs without knowing how they’re going to react with old ones – and don’t get me started on that or we’ll be here till armageddon.
None of which has anything to do with crime fiction, of course. Microsoft getting it wrong may be unforgivable, but it’s not a crime. And my helpline experience... well, you couldn’t make it up!
One of these weeks I really will get back to posting about crime fiction. That’s a promise.
The first week of January will mark 10 years since I rejoined the world of books and began working as an apprentice literary agent at Writers House. A ton has changed over the ten years, and I'm going to use the next three weeks to analyze some of these changes. I'm going to divide it into agent/editor relationships, agent/author relationships, and how the industry as a whole has evolved, particularly after both the advent of digital publishing and the near apocalypse of 2008-9.
I'm also doing this because, after several years as the Tuesday Dead Guy, I'm going to step back after my column on January 3, and pass on the reins to a new blogger. I've found myself struggling in the last year or so to write interesting, fresh material, and I think a new perspective will be beneficial to this spot on Dead Guy. It's been wonderful writing (nearly) every Tuesday, and I will miss it. But it's definitely time.
In the meantime, though, I'm excited to explore where we've been, how the book world has changed, and, perhaps, think a bit about where it might go.
Someone asked me the other day (meaning a day that wasn't today) about having four mystery series going at more or less the same time. And I'll admit that as a concept that sounds pretty impressive. "How do you do that?" she asked.
I like to answer such questions honestly, and I did that time as well. "It's really not that hard," I told her.
Because when you look at it the right way, it's not.
The business of writing four 80,000-word (give or take) books a year is a question of organization and simple arithmetic. If you write 1,000 words a day and take no days off, you'll have a book in about 80 days. Fileas Fogg made it around the world in that much time, but it probably took Jules Verne longer to write that one. That means that you have about 10 days to revise and rest up before starting the next one. Four books a year, and you even get an extra five days off along the way. Six in a leap year. (Not the only reason to hope 2020 gets here in a hurry.)
Well, that sounds like a lot of work. And it is, if writing 1,000 words a day takes you all day, but it shouldn't. Assuming you have a general idea of what you're doing just for that day (3-4 pages double spaced), even with the requisite moments when something stumps you for a bit, you should still have time to go to your day job if you have one, see the spouse and kids for a while, maybe even watch a little TV or read a book that somebody else wrote.
Today (that being the day I wrote this and not today), I graded a number of student papers, watched a full-length movie with my wife, bought a holiday present for a loved one (admittedly online) watched a 90-minute concert online--you should check out the shows Circe Link and Christian Nesmith do from their home once a month--played a little guitar to clear my head, listened to a quiz show on the radio.
And oh yeah, I wrote 1,000 words.
The trick is to stop mystifying the process. Stop thinking of writing as a spiritual journey taken with a magical muse on your shoulder that must be indulged with rituals and processes, that can be stopped by a mythical disease called "Writer's Block," that happens only when the stars are properly aligned.
Writing is a creative endeavor, certainly. We make a story where none existed before. But writing is really a job, and when it's treated like one, it can happen quickly and efficiently. Whether or not that decreases the quality of the product is for better minds than mine to determine. I think I do all right.
It doesn't hurt to have a really good agent who can sell four series. That's key, and a deadline certainly provides ample motivation. So does making a living. But the trick is thinking of it as a job. Don't fret it, don't delay it, don't impose layers of artifice on it.
Just do it.
Pitchers and catchers report in 64 days.
As Curator of Colorado College Special Collections, I recently ordered a copy of Woody Leslie's book Understanding Molecular Typography. There appeared to be a snag in the cataloging, and the following email conversation ensued:
Cataloger Amy: Hello, Jon (and Jessy), If this link is behaving as it was for me just now, then you will see the image, with a link, to a Dr. Seuss book to the right of the title I just cataloged, “Understanding Molecular Typography.” Hmmmmmmm…….. :-/
Systems Specialist Jon: That bib record contains the ISBN for the Dr. Seuss title so it’s pulling the Dr. Seuss book cover image… Correcting or removing that ISBN should fix the problem. I also noticed that a subject heading of Humor is shown on that bib-is that correct?
Amy: I figured it had to do with the ISBN. The ISBN in the record is indeed the ISBN on the title page, so, I’m not sure how one might handle that. About humor, yes, that is correct, despite the rawther serious-sounding title.
Jon: Interesting-so it’s a humor book and they put the ISBN for a Dr. Seuss book on the title page? That’s kinda funny. WorldCat seems to have the same problem: http://www.worldcat.org/title/understanding-molecular-typography/oclc/920580763 –as do the catalogs of all of the other libraries WorldCat shows as holding this title… This is now actually hilarious.
Curator Jessy: Wow. This is fantastic actually! I wonder if they did it on purpose. Maybe I’ll try to contact the author or publisher and see.
Amy: I’d love to know what he says. It’s kind of like a library shenanigan. I mean, why “On Beyond Zebra”?? This is a first, for me.
Jessy: Dear Woody Leslie, As you can see from the email chain, your book is causing some confusion and hilarity at the Colorado College library. We think you did it on purpose. Are we right?
Artist Woody Leslie: Hi Jessy, This really made my day! Thanks for contacting me. Yes, I intentionally appropriated that ISBN number. Understanding Molecular Typography is a fictional textbook by a fictional author about a fictional science -- the science of molecular typography, which is based on the premise that all letters are in fact molecules, composed of atomic shape units known as typtoms. One of the ideas of the book is the concept of genetically modified, or invented letters. I used that ISBN number as a tribute to Dr. Seuss' book On Beyond Zebra, because it's all about invented letters. I didn't account for library cataloging of ISBNs when I used it, figuring it would mostly be ignored. I too have noticed the World Cat auto picture selecting based on the ISBN. Glad you were able to sort it all out. There's more about the book and project here.
by Erin Mitchell
This time of year—and this year especially—we’re all thinking more about kindness. We all agree that acts small and large that bring a smile, comfort, a laugh, or a moment’s respite from the craziness of daily life are a good idea, but do they have any marketing value?
Short answer: Yes, absolutely.
There are people who advocate that doing anything that is not completely selfless is pointless, that acts of kindness somehow have less value if there’s something in it for you. I don’t agree, because I think acts of kindness inherently create a positivity that envelops both the recipient and the donor of these acts.
Think of it this way: You hold the door open for someone and wish them a nice day. That person goes the extra mile for someone else. That someone else decides to make an additional effort on behalf of another person. It’s the butterfly effect.
I’m lucky enough to be involved with a couple of nonprofit groups, and honestly? Sometimes I wonder why I bother. Because we’re all human, sometimes these activities can be hard going, even though we’re all there for a common purpose. But ultimately, I do it because I have certain skills that are beneficial to these organizations, and I have a responsibility to serve the community that is my lifeblood.
Also, when I’m looking for new work and I need references or referrals, these organizations are a great source for both. So there’s a lot in it for me, and I’m cool with that.
How does this translate to the real world for authors and publishing folks? It can be as simple as thanking a reader or as complex as setting up a foundation. One thing I know to be true is that (most of the) super successful authors—you know, the ones who inhabit the top of all the bestseller lists the world over—invest in kindness. They take the time to be compassionate. They treat their readers (customers) with respect.
We all want to feel appreciated. To be seen. To be supported in times when we might not even realize how much we need it. So kindness does, in fact, matter...as a marketing tactic as well as a human attribute.
Lynne is having severe problems connecting to the Internet, so you’re stuck with me as a last-minute replacement, I’m afraid.
I’m in the middle of going through the proofs of my next book. It’s detailed work, as we all know, but it’s also surprisingly educational (and generally a guarantee that you’ll never want to read the book again in your life).
Definitely. After all, it’s been a while since you looked at the manuscript, so there’s a chance to see it with fresh eyes and pick up on the mistakes you’ve made, and that the editor’s missed. It could be a typo, because one or two always seem to slip through, or something as simple as repeating a word a few lines down.
Granted, the instructions are to only make the changes that are absolutely necessary. And you need to remember the pagination, too. Still, we all find things that could be phrased just that little bit better, and when you see that, well, you want the book to be the very best it can be…
Those are the mechanics. But what really makes it an education is having the chance to judge your work objectively. That’s a double-edged sword, of course. Sometimes it’s a sweet surprise, when the work is better than you imagined. But other times, well, we just hope those are few and far between.
I’ve found it’s best not to try and proof too much at a sitting. It needs all those Spidey senses alter, and full concentration. I’m generally good for 30 pages at a stretch, which probably makes me a wimp.
What about your proofing experiences? Any horror stories?
You’re supposed to be hearing from an editor today, but I whined and moaned until Terri Bischoff gave me her spot as a stop on my Reek of Red Herrings blog tour.
So I thought I’d blog about one of the reasons editors are so essential for writers. (At least, for writers like me.)
For one thing (of many), it takes my gentle editor to tell me every single last time that it’s a terrible plan to have two things in a book with the same name.
I don’t do it by accident. Well, I did have a Dinah and a Donna in the current work in progress until I noticed and made one a Rosalie. Nope, I just regularly get the conviction that a lot of similarity with names is a great idea.
In my defence, people do get called after their parents and grandparents, don’t they? My cousin Rick has a father-in-law called Dick and a nephew called Richard. And some names are common. I’ve got three friends called Simon.
But, now I think about it, that does cause endless confusion.
“What? No, other Simon.”
My bad habit reached its peak in a book about nuns (Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit), where twenty characters were called Sister Something and I decided that a convent, an asylum and a large house nearby should be called Hopekist, Hopekist Head and Hopekist Water. Genius.
Thank God for my editor, Francine, who thought “OH, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S HOLY, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?” then emailed “Hm, perhaps rethink the similar place names?”
But this time it wasn’t my fault. The Reek of Red Herrings is set in a fishing village in Aberdeenshire, where – in real life – a few settled families honour their relatives with the choice of given names for their children and hey presto: everyone’s called the same thing.
Slight exaggeration but in 1901, forty men in the tiny village of Gamrie were named either James or Alexander Watt. Add the women (and the Wests and Wisemans) and there a lovely muddle in which to lose suspects.
Enter my other editor’s-nerve-shredding habit. One character with two names. Or in the case of Gamrie “tee-names”.
The tee-names of the herring folk were the only way anyone could ever tell who anyone was talking about. Greta, Peggie, Mary, Etta and Maggie were all Margarets. Lizzie, Betty, Lila, Elsie and Nesta were all Elizabeths. And Janet, Nellie, Nan, Nancie, Annie, Netta, Aggie, Gissie and the anagrammatic Senga were all Agneses.
I was in heaven. Francine was in hell. But I did what I was told and sorted it out. I added Helens, Johns, Williams and Roberts (even a Euphemia, a Warwick and Durban) and made sure all the identically-named folk were in the background where it didn’t matter.
If you want to see if it worked, why not check out the pre-order gift and giveaway below.
All the best,
Catriona (one of two Catrionas in my class at school and who has a niece called Catriona).
THE REEK OF RED HERRINGS comes out on the 13th of December. If you pre-order between now and midnight on the 12th, I’ll send you an exclusive short story and enter you in a drawing to win a bundle of all eleven Dandy Gilver novels. See here for details.
So, this happened.
Sometimes when you really need a lift (and let's just say November 2016 was not my favorite month for a few reasons), one just appears. And when Library Journal lists your novel as one of the Top 5 Mysteries of the Year, that's the very definition of a lift.
But that's not why I gathered you here today. Although you might want to take a peek anyway.
Here's how the publishing business works: The author (in this case, me) writes the book about a year before it's to be published. When, as in this instance, the novel is the last on the contract from the publisher, there is always the possibility that there will be no offer for more and this will be the last story in the series. Of course, it's a year ahead of time and nobody knows what's really going to happen, so there's also the possibility that the publisher WILL decide on more books or that (as with the Haunted Guesthouse series many months later) the publisher does pass but another publisher decides to continue with more books.
But keep in mind that I'm writing this book a year ago, when everyone thought Jeb Bush would be the Republican nominee.
As a writer, one has to juggle the possibilities. This was the eighth in the series. Subplots and character interactions had been developed from Book #1 and the writer, as an entertainer, would hate to leave the audience (that, hopefully, is you) without a satisfying ending. So with the state of cozy mystery publishing being what it was in 2015 and what it remains today, writing a conclusion to the series seemed at least a consideration. Don't want to frustrate loyal readers.
But there was the other possibility, which in its own way came true. There WILL be more than eight Haunted Guesthouse mysteries. There will be at least 10 (that's a minimum of two more, the first of which is being written right now). So writing a definitive conclusion to the series would, in retrospect, have been a strategic error. Not to mention, there was no way of knowing when writing this book which way the wind was going to blow.
So what does an author do? Well, I'm not going to tell you because I want you to read the damn book. But suffice it to say that SPOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL leaves its possibilities open while offering what hopefully would have been a satisfying conclusion to many things that had been brewing since the series began. It's a high wire act and one that you'll have to read for yourself to determine if I've pulled it off successfully. I look forward to hearing from you. No, really. I mean that.
Suffice it to say: SPOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL brings back Alison Kerby's ex-husband Steven Rendell, to whom she refers, not at all fondly, as The Swine. Steven blows into town (Harbor Haven, New Jersey) with no suitcases but plenty of baggage: He's skipped out on a very large business deal, owes some shady people a good deal of money, and thinks they might be following him. So he asks if he can stay at Alison's Jersey Shore guesthouse because, this being February, surely she has an available room.
Given his nickname, Alison would be happy to turn The Swine away. But he is the father of her now-teenage daughter Melissa and she (Melissa) would be devastated if anything happened to her dad. So in comes Steven, his debts, his pursuers and his infuriating habits. And before you know, somebody's dead, somebody's suspected and everybody is scrambling for answers.
Meanwhile, Paul Harrison, the resident ghost detective, is distracted by an electrical experiment he believes might propel him into the next level of existence. Maxie Malone, the guesthouse's poltergeist, is carrying on her romance with Everett, the ex-Army ghost who was murdered in a gas station restroom, and Alison's boyfriend Josh is acting oddly. So it's a slightly more hectic week than usual at the Haunted Guesthouse.
And it all wraps up. Or not. Depends, I suppose, on how one looks at it. I hope you take a look and decide for yourself.
Possible Endings for
SPOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
Only one way to find out, and it starts this week.
One thing seven years as a publisher taught me was that people love to categorize. People in that context means marketing gurus and booksellers, of course, but if you look around you, I’m sure you’ll find, as I did, that it applies in many other circumstances too.
As a rookie publisher I was warned off crossing too many genre lines. I was publishing crime fiction, and staying firmly inside the lines that made a crime novel recognizable seemed to matter a lot; booksellers and librarians, I was told, need to know which shelf to place a book on, and if they’re not sure, they won’t put it on any shelf. So, since shelf appeal sells a lot of books, strong elements of, say, science fiction or erotica are not a good idea. And taking sales figures, as opposed to plain old-fashioned quality, as the main criterion, it looked rather if as if the advice was good. Pity about that in a way; the book I’m thinking about deserved better sales figures.
Extrapolating on the labels theme – someone raised an issue the other day regarding labels within the crime fiction genre. For instance, when is a police procedural not a police procedural? In this case, when it’s a psychological thriller. Yes, really. My fellow reader was reading a novel which had a police detective as its protagonist, a body in the opening chapter and an ongoing investigation as the main narrative thread – and it was labelled psychological thriller on the front cover! Which led him to pose the question, what is a psychological thriller?
My answer went something like this: it’s a crime novel in which the police don’t (normally) play a large part – in fact, there’s no professional sleuthing at all – and the protagonist, who may or may not have a past about to catch up with him/her, is spooked or scared by person, persons or incidents unknown, which, of course, are eventually explained and dealt with.
Not a straightforward police investigation of a murder, then.
That was when I started looking at a few book descriptions, and posing a question or five of my own. For instance, romantic suspense. An interesting crossing of genres if ever there was one. OK; where does romantic suspense end and fully-fledged mystery begin?
There’s an author whose books I would describe as pretty hard-nosed, with plenty of violence, ‘bad’ language and extremely nasty villains – so not at all cosy. In fact, in one of hers which I read recently, I found myself skimming over some pretty horrible torture scenes, being a tad squeamish about such things. Imagine my surprise, then, when a few days ago I discovered that she’s described as a writer of romantic suspense! OK, so a couple of lead characters usually take a romantic fancy to each other, and the books invariably include a steamy sex scene or two, but that’s a couple of thousand words out of a couple of hundred thousand! Hardly a whole different sub-genre’s-worth!
On the same subject, take Nora Roberts/J D Robb. (She is not the author mentioned above; that’s someone almost as well known, but quite different.) As Nora, she writes romantic suspense, which involves a love story with a mystery woven into it. But as J D she has a personality change. Yes, OK, Eve Dallas and her to-die-for billionaire husband get it on (phew!) at least twice in every book, but each one of the forty-three in the In Death series is unequivocally a hard-boiled police drama, with plenty of mean streets, bloody murder and fierce crime-busting. So do those glorious sex scenes make J D a romantic suspense author too? Somehow I think not.
So what am I saying here? Something like this: labels are fine in their place; people need to know what they’re buying, and people who run shops need to know which shelf to place things on. But misleading labels do no one any favours. So maybe the people who dream up those labels for books need to do a little more than dream; maybe they need to read more.
And that’s never a bad thing.