Saturday, April 18, 2009

Blatant Self Promotion

Blatant Self Promotion (aka "shameless plug") is rarely welcome in chat rooms, ListServes, blog comments and social spaces because it can be annoying, intrusive and appear to be arrogant. Even so, we writers are compelled to become our own publicists these days. What to do?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Marketing in a Recession

By all accounts, book sales are in a major slump thanks to the current recession. Publishers are laying off staff by the dozens and book-buyers are staying away from stores in droves. Just my luck: I have two books coming out this summer (one is pictured here; see the story summary at my web site).

A fine book that retails for $15-20 is still a good entertainment deal, considering the price of movie tickets today or the added expense of premium cable/satellite channels. As people cut off HBO and Starz and such, will they return to books? Hard to say. The better guess is that they will turn to the local DVD store or settle for Law and Order marathons.

The hard part about this downturn is that it is affecting that segment of the working population that buys books. Older, middle-to-upper-income people are finding themselves out of a job or even out of a home and suddenly looking for a 'survival job' that pays less but at least it pays the grocery, water and electric bill.

The good news may be that readers in this particular genre, mystery/suspense, are loyal and always on the lookout for good material. Fans will continue to buy the latest book from their fave, at least when it comes out in paperback. And mystery writers will continue to buy each others' books. The best-seller lists are consistently topped by mysteries, so we are in a category with a good sales record overall. If past recessions are any indication, people actively seek out escapist fare when times are bad - and our stuff qualifies (that's not to discount the fine craftsmanship that goes into such work).

So I have hope. I'm planning blog tours, mailings, interviews, signings and so on. Anyone who writes must be a hopeful person: hoping you'll finish the next chapter, hoping you'll finish the darn book, hoping you won't hate it when you do, hoping it will sell, hoping it will be noticed and, perhaps, that it will touch a heart or two.

So how are you planning to market your work in an economic downturn? If you're a reader, are you still buying books or have you set book-buying aside as a luxury that must wait (and hitting the public library instead)?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Writing a Series -- Part 2

John, I enjoyed your thoughtful post on “Writing a Series”. In Bleeder, your first book, your protagonist Reed Stubblefield is an amateur sleuth, and Selena De La Cruz is a minor character. In the sequel, Selena is the protagonist, a former DEA undercover agent who comes out of retirement to work a case, and Stubblefield is a subordinate character. You yourself say that Selena is a “completely fascinating” character, “much much” more so than Stubblefield (your “quietly dashing professor with the low-key sense of humor”). It will be interesting to see how things develop for them as the series evolves and you come to know them better as “people.”

Your “rules” for series writers to keep in mind make a great deal of sense.

Protagonists do have to be sufficiently compelling for readers to want to spend time with them in book after book. But they must be compelling for their authors too. Doyle got tired of Sherlock Holmes (thought he was interfering with his more serious historical romances, etc.) and tried to kill him off. Christie kept several series going (Poirot, Marple, Tommy and Tuppence, and the Parker Pyne stories), which not only gave her several sets of personalities to explore and develop, but also allowed her to take refreshing “time-outs” from writing about only one.

If the order of books in a series chronologically tracks the protagonist’s career, it stands to reason that the detective will age, mature, and change in subtle ways as the sequence progresses. You say that James Bond, Nero Wolfe, and even Sherlock Holmes don’t change. I haven’t read enough Fleming to know about Bond; but Wolfe is basically static (though Archie Goodwin may undergo some changes). Except for having aged in “His Last Bow” (set in August, 1914), Holmes, too, seems pretty much the same throughout. But in sequentially writing the cases for the Strand Magazine, Doyle did not follow the chronology of Holmes’s career: he allowed Watson to range over the whole span to pick and choose cases from the files almost at random. Thus, Doyle did not opt to pursue Holmes’s development; though, to be fair, cocaine comes and goes for awhile, and Holmes does seem to acquire a lot of general knowledge between A Study in Scarlet and the subsequent stories. You cite Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone as a character who ages, changes and matures. I would add Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan and Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn. But what about Father Brown? Kay Scarpetta? Adam Dalgliesh? Pam and Jerry North? Lew Archer? Travis McGee? Philip Marlowe? Miss Marple? Spenser? Pronzini’s Nameless?

As you suggest, one way to provide continuity between books and generate sustained reader interest is for the protagonist to have “some personal or family problems that carry over naturally to a second and third book and don’t get solved quickly.” That many series authors are doing this is in keeping with the shift in taste numerous commentators have identified: that readers nowadays seem to be as interested in detectives’ humanness and personal lives as in their cleverness in solving problems.

But I think there are dangers in providing the protagonist with personal or family problems that don’t get solved quickly. These issues can slow stories down, blur focus, and introduce extraneous material that drags like so much baggage. It requires a watchful eye, a steady hand, and a keen sense of proportion for authors to prevent their protagonists’ romantic and sexual entanglements, alcohol or drug addictions, boy- or girlfriend troubles, marital breakups, sibling rivalry, rebellious children, heavy-handed bosses, or “coming to terms with father” from tipping into soap opera or tedium. Either of these can distract and irritate the reader, impede forward movement, and detract from the mystery. Readers’ tastes vary, or course; some readers have a greater tolerance for this than others. For me, a little goes a long way.

Your second rule is also on target. I agree that it’s more credible for series protagonists to be in professions that bring trouble to them regularly, such as law enforcement and private investigation, than to be “amateur sleuths always stumbling upon bodies.” Yes, Jessica Fletcher’s facility at finding bodies is truly remarkable. She doesn’t even have to leave home.

I’m with Helen Ginger, who made the last comment in this thread. If I find that a book I like is part of a series, I try to find #1 and then read through the group in sequence, according to publication date. I do this in order to watch the evolution of characters, to assimilate background that explains things encountered later in the series, and to observe the author’s warming to the task. There can be disappointments in this approach, as when toward the end of the series you can sense a falling-off, as though the author has become tired, or ill, bored with the character, or “written-out” with little new to offer. I found this with Raymond Chandler, Tony Hillerman, Ross Macdonald (who was ill with Alzheimer’s) and Conan Doyle (in my opinion, the 1927 Case Book is not as interesting or well-written as the earlier Holmes stories). It’s sad to see the loss of power, whatever the cause.

On the other hand, to find a congenial series that sustains high excellence throughout its run is a joy unlike any other. I experienced it in discovering a long series of 29 books by Australian novelist Arthur Upfield, featuring as its protagonist Napoleon Bonaparte (‘Bony’), Detective Inspector of the Queensland police, a brilliant investigator who is half European and half Aboriginal. These books were enormously popular in the 1940’s and ’50’s, and, though reprinted by Macmillan/Collier Books in the ’80’s, are today found mostly in used book stores. A large selection is available on the Internet from Bony is an interesting and complex detective, highly educated and an expert tracker, who solves cases in many parts of Australia. Upfield’s intimate knowledge of immigrant and native culture and his vivid pictorial descriptions of the Outback inform as well as entertain.

I myself have not chosen to produce a series featuring a single detective. I understand the intellectual challenge and commercial value of doing so, of creating a “brand” which readers will recognize and (if they like it)
avidly follow. My most recent novel, The Farringford Cadenza (2007), is a stand-alone mystery with a female private detective protagonist; the action takes place in Baltimore, New York City, and the island of St. Croix. Readers have eagerly asked me, “When can I expect a sequel?” I tell them, “There won’t be a sequel, because on this matter, there is nothing more to say.” I think that attempting to crank out a series featuring this group of characters would be wrong-headed and phony. They and the story emerged together; they belong together, and there they shall remain. For more on The Farringford Cadenza and information on purchasing it, go to The Pikestaff Press website:

Vergil (aka Robert D. Sutherland)