Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Support Your Local Bookstore – Part II

This weekend I will get a chance to hang with some of my favorite authors, and for a good cause. It all started back in October when I received this touching e-mail from JB Stanley:

“I have been writing as many authors as I can in hopes of soliciting help for a beloved Richmond independent book store. I'm sure many of you know Leila Taylor, the kind-hearted proprietor of Creatures 'n Crooks . Hundreds of authors love her as she has hand-sold many of our titles. I had a signing there recently and she began to cry, saying that she may have to close the store. I was very upset on her behalf!

She asked if I could think of an event that might bring folks into the store and help her pay the rent. I am planning to host a benefit for her the afternoon of Saturday, January 31st and was wondering if you could attend. It'll be called Books and Bling: A Benefit and will kick off a week-long raffle in which customers spending $25 or more will earn a raffle ticket to win, well, books and bling. The authors attending as of this date are Katherine Neville, Donna Andrews, Ellen Crosby, Maria Lima, Ellen Byerrum, and myself. If you're unavailable, would you consider sending me a signed book to put in the huge signed book raffle prize basket I'm gathering?”

Well, authors responded en mass and the week-long raffle stretched to the full month of January (so there’s still time to purchase and win.) This Saturday, from 1 pm to 4 pm we’ll be at Creatures ‘n Crooks in Richmond, VA. For you, it’s a chance to mingle with authors, have a sweet snack and win some cool swag. And every time you buy a book you’re supporting a wonderful genre-oriented bookstore.

More than 100 authors from all over the USA contributed prizes to be given away. Don’t live near Richmond? No excuse! Phone orders count too.

In addition to signed books from mystery, fantasy, horror and even nonfiction authors, the prize list grew to include a vampire basket from Charlaine Harris, a character donation from Margaret Maron , gold and sapphire earrings from Denise Swanson, a Carolyn Hart basket, a culinary basket from Joanne Fluke, a fantasy book crate with signed books by George R.R. Martin and a historical mystery book prize including a vintage Tiffany necklace.The list of authors planning to attend has exploded too. In addition to the aforementioned names, we’ll see Andy Straka, Joseph Guion , John Gilstrap, Maggie Stiefvater, Kristy Tallman, Dennis Danvers, Elizabeth Blue, Tee Morris, and probably a few latecomers I don’t know about yet. Best for me will be getting to shake and J.B Stanley’s hand. Sometimes I’m proud of a writer for more than her mystery plots.

Those of us who will be at the Creatures ‘n Crooks bookstore, 3156 West Cary Street, Richmond VA on Saturday from 1 pm to 4 pm are all grateful for a chance to support a store that has supported us and our peers. And if you want to make the scene, this is the literary place to be.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Can Obama Save Publishing?

I received e-mails from a few friends recently asking me to back a political movement. I generally shy away from such things, but as it affects the publishing world I’ve given it much thought.

The Obama transition team is seeking input from citizens on ways to bolster the economy. The e-mail, on behalf of Annie Finch, asks writers to post a message on the website asking for ideas - http://change.gov/page/s/ofthepeople - concerning bookstore taxation. In short, Ms Finch proposes a simple tax reform that could help save the publishing industry.She says that one contributing factor to the problems publishers are having is that retail inventory is taxable.

Stores have responded by dumping stock frequently to reduce quarterly statements. Bookstores adopted a policy of six-week returns. A new title shipped to bookstores is held no longer than six weeks before being shipped back to the publisher at the publisher's cost, often with the cover stripped. I agree with Ms Finch that a book by a new author needs more than six weeks to find its readership. Word of mouth is necessary. So the result of this policy is that more books fail and publishers take fewer risks. When an unusual book does beat the odds and get published, and then beats the odds again and finds its audience, publishers must absorb the high cost of reprinting.

Exempting bookstores from the inventory tax might tempt them to leave our books on the shelves a little longer. It might also make it easier for independent bookstores to compete again.

It’s a great idea, but it might be too late for repealing the tax to have much of an effect. Today nearly all of the independent bookstores are gone. Big publishers avoid publishing content that isn't a quick hit. They survive on the fast money that comes from turning movie blockbusters into books. Academic publishers rely on text book sales. Independent presses depend on niche markets they reach through their writers' networks and their own marketing expertise.

Susan Bright, publisher of Plain View Press, argues that everyone may have started using short run printing to eliminate the effect of inventory tax laws. But they learned that it’s faster, better, cheaper, and more flexible. So changing inventory taxes might not change things much after all. Changing one law probably won't save publishing.

But it might be a good start.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Stepping out of my genre

Not long ago my agent presented me with a challenge I wasn’t sure I could accept. Parties I cannot name here decided to assemble an anthology to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Twilight Zone TV show. She said they wanted to get this thing into bookstores in a hurry, and asked if I would submit a story.

Well, I write mystery novels and action thrillers but I wasn’t too sure I had anything for this genre. I wasn’t even sure what this genre was. The Twilight Zone was an anthology show of sorts, presenting 30 minute suspense-filled dramas that often defied classification. On a Venn diagram, the show sat in the intersecting space between fantasy, science fiction and O. Henry. The stories could be tragic to the comedic, scary or just thought-provoking. In a sense, “Twilight Zone” is its own genre of short stories from, as creator Rod Serling used to say, another dimension.

Whatever you called them, they were not adventure stories. They were not mysteries. Could I write one?

Ultimately I decided to try it, for two reasons. First, my ego would not let me admit that there was anything I couldn’t write. I’ve expressed the opinion from time to time that all fiction is mystery fiction. The mystery might be: will the guy get the girl (romance), how do we destroy this creature (horror), what’s out there beyond the stars (sci-fi) or how would life be different if sorcerers or flying horses wandered the earth (fantasy.) No story is worth reading without an element of suspense and a problem for the protagonist to solve. This challenge was a chance to put my money where my mouth is.

Second, any appearance in an anthology was a chance to promote my series character, Hannibal Jones. This would be a great way to introduce Hannibal to a broad new audience. With any luck I’d be shoulder-to-shoulder with some bigger, better-known authors too. To I had a couple of good “why”s. But what to write?

After some thought I realized I did have something to say about Hannibal Jones and his world that simply wouldn’t fit into one of his novels. Hannibal has a spiritual, metaphysical connection to his neighborhood. If I embodied that connection I could step outside the boundaries of his normal genre.

Thought soon became deed and I’ve submitted a 4,000 word mystery/fantasy called “Under the Hood” that takes my familiar detective into that other dimension. I think maybe Rod would have liked the story. Let’s hope the anthology editors do.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Support your Local Bookstore...IF....

I know I talk a lot about how writers need to support book stores. But that assumes that stores support writers, which is not always the case. I’ll give you an example of what I mean, and I’m not afraid to name names because no store manager who doesn’t support authors is ever going to think of reading my blog.

When I schedule a book signing I always have posters and brochures printed. These are dated materials, advertising that I will be appearing in that store on a particular day. I deliver or mail these materials to the store a week or two in advance. They arrive with instructions. The posters will help build a little anticipation for my event. The brochures make good bag stuffers, so each customer knows why they should come back that day.

With that as background, imagine my arrival at the large Books-A-Million in Potomac Mills yesterday. No signs. No indication that an even was imminent. The cashier calls the manager who wanders out from the back and says, “You’re here! Let me go find a table.” I ask about the posters. I’m told they never arrived. I inform her that my wife drove to the store several days ago to hand deliver them and would she please look again? She returns with a large envelope. It contains the posters and brochures for a signing I did there in October, when I mailed them and she told me they never arrived.

I press her to look again. She returns with the right posters and... hands them to me. How about some tape so I can put them on the windows? Oh, she now says, we aren’t allowed to put anything on the windows. She leaves me at the table with the 10 copies of Blood and Bone they have. I sign them in an hour and a half. I tell the clerk I’m going but never see the manager before I leave.

Now contrast that with my last visit to the little Borders Express in St. Charles Town Center in Waldorf. As I approach I see my posters clearly displayed. The table is already set up, with all my titles in an eye-catching display. Manager Becky Froburg greets me and asks if I need a pen (no) and if I’d like coffee? (yes!) BTW, I bring flyers to hand out because the ones I sent in advance have all been handed out.

While I’m there Becky tells the register staff to remind anyone who buys a James Patterson or Clive Custler book that there is an author present who writes in a similar vein. I speak to everyone as they come in, but the staff does bounce a couple people back out to me. I stay for 4 hours. At the end Becky checks the register and lets me know I brought an extra $900 into her store that day. Before I leave she asks when I can come back. She shares other bookstore managers’ numbers.

When I get home I contact other local writers and share Becky’s contact info.

I don’t know why it’s so different from one store to the next. But I DO know what store will have my new novel first in June. In fact, Becky has promised balloons and newspaper ads promoting the first availability of my upcoming novel, and plans to set up a list so people can pre-order.

Of course, I’ll spend some money promoting that event too, and I’ll make sure that no one can get the book anywhere, not even on Amazon.com, before my signing in Waldorf.

We need to support book stores. But make the big effort for the stores that support writers.