My Mysterious Year

January 2, 2013

I didn’t read nearly as many books as Bernadette did in a bad year, but I can’t say I suffered from lack of books to read. I participated in quite a few of the discussion at 4MA, including three series discussions, a record for me. I read some non-mystery fiction (including Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, which slowed me down because of its length, but in an entertaining way). The following are my top ten reads of the year.

Whispering Death by Garry Disher
He does such a good job of weaving together a lot of plot threads, all of them very believable.

The Gods of Gotham by Linsday Faye
Wins the “socks blown off” award from me. Loved her use of language and how she conveyed the zeitgeist of NYC when much of Manhattan was farmland.

Invisible Muder by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis
I enjoy the way these co-authors pull together multiple points of view. Also enjoy the not-totally-likeable protagonist.

Lake Country by Sean Doolittle
This guy writes so well and has such a tender heart for people in trouble. Loved this book.

Wolves and Angels by Seppo Jokinen
A Finnish police procedural that gave me what I want from a procedural: a realistic workplace and a nice mix of characters.

The Dark Winter by David Mark
My dark horse. I especially loved the writing style; plot was pretty dandy, too.

The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan
A different take on fathers and daughters; great setting, as always.

A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller
I had to slow down and enjoy the scenery for this one. Very vivid sense of place.

The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina
How does she do it? How does she knock one wonderful book out after another? Loved it.

Paradise City by Archer Mayor
Another nicely done procedural series with multiple POVs, this one including a Chinese artisan looking for her own Workers Paradise (in western Massachusetts)

If I had a top eleven, it would include Michael Stanley’s Death of the Mantis, which I enjoyed very much (another 4MA discussion book which I’m very happy I read).

Four of the ten were new-to-me authors. Four were by women authors. I am not doing charts, much as I like a nice colored chart, but thought I would map my reading in the past year. This doesn’t include all the books I read, but most of them. In some cases I had to pick one place to drop a pin though the book moved around (as was the case in Reamde, a real globe-trotter of a book).

Here’s hoping for a great new reading year for everyone!

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SinC into Great Writing, #2

September 28, 2011

Libby Hellmann was the second speaker at the Sisters in Crime pre-Bouchercon workshop and the catchy title of her talk was “To E or not to E.”

Libby thinks the way publishers are behaving with electronic rights is ignorant and blundering.  But don’t rush out to make your own ebooks until you have considered the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing.

Advantages of traditional publishing: don’t underestimate their marketing support. Though they may not offer much personal support except for a small number of books they are promoting heavily, they do send out advanced reader copies and their distribution channels are strong and broad. Having physical books on retailers’ shelves helps get the word out in a different way than online chatter can do. Contrary to rumor, publishers still perform editing. Booksellers are valuable for the handselling they do, and traditional publishers get books into those stores. Awards tend to go to traditionally published books, though that is changing. Reviews, which tend to favor traditional publications, also give authors a valuable third party endorsement. It’s much hard to get reviewed by influential reviewers if you’re self-published.

Disadvantages: the percentage of ebook sales offered to authors is too small. Publishers tend to be inflexible. They are slow in reporting sales and royalties and slow in paying them. The marketing they’re good at is very short-lived – no more than six weeks for a new book, after which the next group of newly-published books is given the spotlight and your book is no longer promoted at all.

Advantages of self-publishing ebooks: control is in the hands of the author. This is attractive to a lot of writers. There is no need to go through intermediaries – agents and publishers. Libby recommends paying for critical services: cover art (which is different than traditional cover art because it is small and has to “pop”); editing – either copyediting or copyediting plus a developmental editor who can help shape a book. Conversion is a cost. Amazon is where her books sell most strongly, but they have so much control in the industry that it’s worrying.

Disadvantages: Amazon is bad when it is bad – which is often (meaning frequent technical problems when uploading ebooks and their associated files and metadata). There is little available at the moment in the way of third-party recommendation mechanisms (such as respected and widely-read reviews). Since there are no gatekeepers, every ebook has to distinguish itself while in the company of some awful dreck. It’s very difficult to know what works for marketing and very hard for readers to discover what’s good. Pricing is tricky – it’s a buyer’s market right now and Libby’s experience is that low is the most powerful price point. She pointed out that you can’t easily move up in pricing without sales plummeting. Moving down in price is another matter. However be aware that you pay a steep price for going low; Amazon pays a much larger percentage on books priced at $2.99 and up in order to discourage the 99 cent book price point expectation.

She also spoke a bit about marketing and the changing role of agents, who can’t make the income they did when advances are dropping so low. Incidentally, she’s a good speaker – very relaxed, yet energetic.

Next, there was a conversation between author Cathy Pickens and bookseller/publisher Jim Huang. Cathy made the scandalous announcement that Jim actually has read ebooks. (He’s a well-known defender of printed books.) That, of course, gave him an opportunity to talk about why he loves print, which was a good addition to the mix. Jim then made the point that authors don’t have to choose between agent and Big Six publishers and self-publishing; small houses offer a third way. Small publishers have the same distribution potential as major publishers so long as they are represented in the Ingram distribution system. What you need to know in choosing a small publisher is its “access  to market” – and that means the terms of sale are critical. These conditions for retailers (in this case, booksellers) have to match the industry standard (including discount and returnability) and be advantageous enough for booksellers to carry them; that’s what access to market means for authors. Beware of small publishers that can’t provide retailers the conditions that they need to make selling their books a realistic business proposition; you will lose a major advantage of having someone publish your book. Jim also argued that .99 cent pricing is bad for business, not just because the revenue is low but because it makes it seem all books are fungable – when each is actually unique and each choice should be based on the book, not the price of it.

photo courtesy of BMeunier and  MorBCN


meanwhile, at Bouchercon – SinC into Great Writing, #1

September 24, 2011

I’m interrupting my participation in the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary challenge to post some notes from a workshop held the day before Bouchercon 2011 , which, by the by, was extremely well-organized and fun; got to a lot of excellent panels and enjoyed the roomy and well-stocked book room. Previous SinC workshops had focused on the craft of writing and, according to a member survey, have been well received.

This year, the focus was different, partly because there were plans for the Mystery Writers of America to run a session of their MWA University at the same time (though in the end that didn’t happen). But it also seemed like an opportunity to do a program focused on the business of writing in an era when things are changing so fast. The issues tackled in this workshop were where is the publishing industry headed? how does an author decide whether to invest her time in trying to publish the traditional way or self-publish? and what is actually involved in creating self-published e-books (with a particular focus on writers recovering rights to previously-published books and turning them into ebooks) ? It’s shape was a bit of an hourglass, with broad issues, first, becoming narrowly focused on how-to before dinner, and then back out to a broader picture at the end when three speakers tackled marketing.

The first speaker was David Wilk, CEO of Booktrix, who teaches a course at the NYU publishing school on marketing. The last time he taught the course he was surprised that none of the students plan to work in traditional publishing. He cited a survey reported in Publisher’s Lunch that found readers of ebooks don’t know or care where they come from. The author is what matters, not the publisher, when making a choice.  Most publishers don’t have brands other than their authors (who might switch publishers). Small publishers are much better at developing a coherent niche and identity for their lists.

By offering self-publishing tools, Amazon is becoming a publisher; David pointed out that it’s not exactly true that you’re “self” published when another entity has control over making the connection between the customer and the book. He recommended reading MJ Rose’s essay, “The Writer as Willy Loman” about writers as business owners. Writers need to balance the time used up in public contact online with actually producing books.

He said that unlike other products, there is no predictable product line for publishers; each book is unique and has a unique audience – though this explains why series and big names are so well-liked – the marketing for a known entity is much simpler than developing an audience for an unknown quantity.

There’s a shift in the way that consumers see companies; they want to have a relationship with the companies they patronize. It can’t be broadcast, one-way communication. In a crowded market, this makes things more complicated – to be a bestseller you need to sell more, but the old “megaphone marketing” no longer works in most instances. “It’s not about promoting the next book,” he said. “It’s about an evolving relationship with readers.” He warned against relying on massive companies as intermediaries; they are bad for the ecology of books. If we trade dependence on the big six publishers for dependence on the big two—Amazon and Apple—is this truly healthier? (Interesting that Google didn’t make it onto his list – maybe with the settlement faltering it’s seen as less of a player.) He mentioned that booksellers and librarians have always been strong defenders of intellectual freedom, but they are cut out of the picture when the intermediaries control both the content and its access. Think about the long-term consequences of letting businesses control content, access, and the preservation of culture. (Insert my loud cheering and whistling here.)

He feels we’re at a Gladwellian tipping point and the plethora of new platforms and the changing relationship between reader and writer will alter things significantly. “Print publishing is in a lot of trouble,” he said. Economies of scale in printing favor big print runs. Now there are much smaller print runs (which are more expensive in per unit costs) as a cost-savings measure, which is an indication that the major publishers are not doing well. He predicted there we may have a big three in a few years instead of six.

He said that, when it comes to print on demand options, he feels Lightning Source is a better option for authors than other digital short-run publishers because they are owned by Ingram so can  distribute books more efficiently.  (They do have setup costs that other options don’t charge, and they don’t automatically distribute your books; someone has to want them enough to make it worth it.) He believes the thing that has been keeping the hardcover alive is Amazon’s deep discounts. People will buy a harcover if it’s discounted to the price of a trade paperback. The agency pricing dispute, he says, is really about fending off the ebook future for as long as possible – sustaining the current model by keeping prices high.

When planning for a long writing career, a major question is how much a writer wants to do for herself. DIY or purchase services? Publishing is becoming a service industry. The cost of services is in flux: trending downward, but there’s a range of prices, depending on what you want and whether you want to deal with an upfront payment or postpone spending money by sharing a percentage of sales.

That was just the first speaker. More to come – though you may be relieved to know that my note-taking slowed as the day wore on.

photos courtesy of koalazymonkey and jacktwo.


things found on the Internet when I should have been working, no. 4

January 10, 2010

Vintage advertising, by topic and by decade at Vintage Ad Browser (which has an equally tempting  Cover Browser sister site). Here are some book-related ads.

1960s

1980s

1890s


what is lost

December 26, 2009

I bought and read my first e-book on a phone this year using an iPhone app. I don’t plan to repeat the experience, not because it was horrible but because I know too many booksellers personally and until it’s easy to buy from them I’m not planning to purchase e-books. But I felt as if I needed some experience with e-books.

The good side? It didn’t weigh much when traveling and I could read it in the dark on the long shuttle ride from the airport. The bad side?

Let me count the ways.

First, the pages look ugly. There’s no other way to put it. There is no page design, just letters poured into a mechanical box, no art in the chapter headings, no thought given to initial capitals, words broken in the wrong place, justified lines full of gaps like bad teeth. And of course no page numbers. The design of a page in a printed book is a nearly invisible pleasure. Page design is something I appreciate more since seeing what is lost when it’s absent.

Second, reading on a phone is fine for e-mail and  for short form texts on a web page, but it’s hard to get lost in a book when you have to turn pages every paragraph or so. I also found it strangely disorienting to have only a bar at the bottom of the page telling me where I was in the book. A sense of place, of orientation in the arc of the story is harder to grasp. (I found this also true when I held my most recently published book in my hands for the first time. The last chapters felt different when measured between the thumb and fingers and the growing weight of the left side than when I was scrolling to the end of a document. Though I did read the galleys on paper, I shifted the pages to the back of the stack as I read and so was surprised by how profoundly the anticipation of an ending affects the reading experience.)

Third – I don’t like a future for the book in which sharing is disabled and ownership of an immutable copy no longer exists. It bothers me that a corporation could reach into my personal library and pluck a book back or alter it. I don’t like the fact that there is no such thing as fair use in a world of licensed content and that I can’t give a friend or family member a book I read and loved. Sure, I could buy them a second e-book version, but it’s not the same as handing on the book I read.

Fourth – this post from the Electronic Frontier Foundation spells out just how much we give away to Google and Amazon when we let them be our “bookstore” and “library.” Real booksellers and librarians have stood up for reader privacy. Personal information is a valuable commodity to these corporations. I don’t like the idea of my reading habits becoming a commodity and I don’t like the aggregation of readers’ behavior becoming a huge data mine of our minds.

Google’s new Google Book Search Project has the ability to track reading habits at an unprecedented level of granularity. In particular, according to the proposed Google Books Privacy Policy, web servers will automatically “log” each book and page you searched for and read, how long you viewed it for, and what book or page you continued onto next . . . your Kindle will periodically send information about you to Amazon. But exactly what information is sent? Amazon’s wording — “information related to the content on your Device and your use of it” — reads so broadly that it appears to allow Amazon to track all content that users put on the device, regardless of whether that content is purchased from Amazon. Some security researchers have indicated that the Kindle may even be tracking its users’ GPS locations. Is this the future of reading?

God, I hope not. Cory Doctorow has put some of this in sharp perspective in “How to Destroy the Book” in which he argues that the true pirates are the corporations who are remaking our book culture so that they can be in the center of it, controlling books for the sake of profits. He contrasts this perspective with that of “people of the book” who love books, want to fill their houses with them, and pass favorites on to their children.

Anyone who claims that readers can’t and won’t and shouldn’t own their books are bent on the destruction of the book, the destruction of publishing, and the destruction of authorship itself. We must stop them from being allowed to do it. The library of tomorrow should be better than the library of today. The ability to loan our books to more than one person at once is a feature, not a bug. We all know this. It’s time we stop pretending that the pirates of copyright are right. These people were readers before they were publishers before they were writers before they worked in the legal department before they were agents before they were salespeople and marketers. We are the people of the book, and we need to start acting like it.

What he said.

photos courtesy of brewbooks and Josh Bancroft.


by the time you’ve read these . . .

July 24, 2008

. . . you’ll have gone right around the world.

LibraryThing is having another book pile contest. I decided to join in this time – with a few books I’ve been picking up that are from different parts of the world. Here’s my entry:

In ascending order, there’s crime fiction from Sweden, Palestine, Slovakia, Turkey, Brazil, Botswana, Russia, South Africa, Australia, Iceland, Scotland, and Canada – with a non-fiction book about China, thrown in for good measure. (We’re reading John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons as a college common reading this year.)

By the way, LibraryThing is fun – and it’s where I keep track of what I’ve been reading, which is handy when you have a terrible memory.


the holy trinity

July 8, 2008

Karen Chisolm has tagged me with a meme that started over at David Montgomery’s Crime Fiction Dossier: who are the three authors you couldn’t live without?

A few years ago, I might actually have duplicated his answer – Lawrence Block, John Connelly, and George Pelecanos. Or maybe it would have been John Harvey, Reginald Hill, and Dennis Lehane. Or Elmore Leonard, Robert Crais and James Lee Burke . . . Okay, you get the picture. It wasn’t hard at all to name my favorites. I had a fairly short list.

Now I have a very long list. And an even longer list of authors I want to try, but haven’t yet. (Damn you, 4MA! I’ll read until I die and I still won’t be finished!!) Another thing that has happened is that some of my favorites ten years ago are still writing, but either I’ve changed or they have. They just don’t have the pizazz for me they once had.

So I think I’ll divide this into two parts: authors who made me the reader I am today and authors whose work really excites me right now. And then the Meme graders can give me an F for not following directions.

Three authors who made me the reader I am today – Dennis Lehane, who showed me you could write beautifully about terrible things. Elmore Leonard, who loves all of his characters, even the lame, the halt, and the uncool, and who has a laconic but utterly generous approach to the world. And John Harvey, whose writing has a very special quality of light.

Three authors whose work excites me right now – Jo Nesbo, who is simply brilliant and makes me believe in his world. David Corbett, who takes risks and is insightful about what’s going on. And Denise Mina, who had me with GarnethIll, but keeps surprising me with her range.

Of course that’s three authors among some 3,000 that I could name . . .

photo courtesy of Your Guide.