Archive for August, 2009

Social Consciousness

August 22, 2009

There’s been quite a bit of talk in the mystery writing community lately about issue-oriented and socially conscious plotting.  During a panel at Killer Nashville (a recent convention for mystery writers and fans) discussing this topic, Betty Webb (the Lena Jones series) was mentioned as the top example.  Grave issues we face today become the story and in some cases (Webb’s for sure) real change occurs as the result of a work of fiction! A novel can move the world?  YES!

Many authors, including myself, address social issues in their stories, though almost always to a much milder degree than Betty Webb accomplishes.  Our stories, for example, do not bring us the death threats she has faced.

Those who join the writing community today learn there’s much more to a writing career than simply writing “The End” on a sharply done manuscript.  Social consciousness can be one aspect of this.  Writing something we can happily promote is another aspect. A  second career, promotion of our work, is essential if we want anyone beyond family to buy our books.  In fact, I read advice recently suggesting those who don’t feel they can become hard-working advocates and promoters of their writing ought not to consider a writing career at all!

From experience over twenty-five years I can affirm the truth of that.  We  no longer lounge in the glow of being published while someone else sees that people learn about our writing and rush to buy and read it.  Those days are gone.

The days of the traditional book always being printed on paper between two covers are also gone.  Books on tape, (or CD), books read on screens, books downloaded on a multitude of technological wonders, are rushing into our lives.

The times they are a-changing.

Okay, let’s go a bit further.

How about bringing social consciousness into the book publishing business itself?  E-books of all kinds are environmentally sound.  They don’t require cutting a forest to make paper that is then bleached with chlorine.  They don’t use oil-based inks sheltering several volatile organic compounds to make words on that paper.

So far, so good.  But alas, what are the “I love the feel, smell, and eye attention gained from a real book” people to do if they care (as people increasingly do these days) about a “real” book’s impact on the environment?

The answer is staring us in the face and I use Wolfmont Press as my example.  Recently Wolfmont published a delightful little book called THE WRITERS’ JOURNEY JOURNAL.  Beyond being stuffed full of thoughts, entertaining insights, and good advice from sixty authors in the book’s essays and snippets of wisdom, this book was printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper not bleached with chlorine and produced in a mill powered with electricity generated by wind turbines.  Low or no VOC inks were used. Books are Print on Demand, in other words, no stacks of warehoused books, perhaps trucked long distances in gas-eating vehicles.  Just books made as needed.

In fact, all of Wolfmont’s books are created POD.  They cost a bit more to produce than thousands done at once by offset, but, by gosh, it’s “waste not, want not” and other old-timey values re-created in today’s world.

I love it.

My attention was first drawn to Wolfmont when I was invited to submit a story to their yearly holiday short story anthology, published to earn money for The United States’ Marine  Corps Reserves’ annual Toys for Tots campaign.  Neither publisher, editor Tony Burton, nor any author earns money for their work on these anthologies.  Promotion expenses  (and there is a lot of promotion, willingly done) are covered by the authors and Wolfmont.

As I grew to know more about this small but out-of-size valuable and moral company I dared to dream of working for them.  Now, more than a year later, I am grateful and proud to say that the small,  royalty-paying publisher Wolfmont will present the next novel in my “To Die For” mystery series in the spring of 2010.

A publisher can help move the world?  Yes, maybe it can!

See and page 61 in THE WRITERS’ JOURNEY JOURNAL, available through your favorite bookseller or



The Green-eyed MONSTER

August 9, 2009

Is it worth a cat fight?

A recent discussion on a popular list for mystery fans has centered around jealousy among authors.  Some (a minority) feel mystery authors, whether aspiring or published, are competing for limited publishing slots and therefore must always be in competition.

Others say no, as we open up to and help others, we, too are blessed.

I’m with the second group.

I’ve been a published author for about 25 years now, and my first book (hardcover, NY pub) came out 14 years ago.  My first  mystery novel (from a small, mid-USA press offering an advance and royalty) appeared in 2002.  Since then five of my series novels have been published by that press, and now number six is slated for appearance in 2010 from a new publisher who also pays royalties, is extremely environmentally conscious in many ways, including printing books on demand as they sell (P.O.D.) rather than printing thousands to be warehoused somewhere and–eventually–face the possibility  they will be dumped in a landfill while few mourn the trees it cost to create them.

Am I someone who’s name has appeared at the top of the New York Times bestseller list?  Nope.

Do my books sell tens of thousands?   Nope.

Am I a contented author who does sell quite a few books ?   You betcha!

Even before I sold my first book to a publisher, I understood the importance of professional friendships and cooperation.  In my previous roll as a journalist I had made friends in the media.  I soon joined several writers’ organizations and began to add many authors, whether NY bestsellers or those with one book from a mini-press, to my list of friends.  I began sharing opportunities and ideas with them.  I eventually formed a group in my home state called “Writers Roadshow” and invited author friends to join me in group signings and discussions.  We prospered.  And…and…my author friends began sharing ideas and opportunities with me.  Green-eyed monster?  No way!  We were a professional group, working together to sell books in an amazing variety of ways.

Though it seems many authors are competing for few and decreasing publishing slots today, folks who grieve over that are usually limiting their publishing aspirations by a desire to connect only with an imprint of one of the six (or seven, depending on your point of view)  New York conglomerates.  They worry about snagging an agent, then pray that agent will find them a publisher.  And no wonder there is anxiety.  A top NY agent recently told me that, whereas she used to find twenty or more editors she could submit her clients’ books to, now she’s lucky to find six.   WHEW!

That does seem to be a recipe for cat fights and jealousy.

My suggestion (as well as my own publishing experience) says aspiring authors need to turn outward, even if that’s only after months and sometimes even years of turn-downs in New York.  Filling the void left by decreased activity among the biggies,  small presses are popping up all over.  Sure, finding them takes diligent research.  Sure some are bloodsuckers who, feeding on an author’s desire to be published, take money (often a lot of it), produce an inferior product (badly edited, hard-to-read books with, often, unappealing covers), have few follow-up promotion activities, and usually no general distribution avenues.  For most, that’s a bad choice.

But for every one of those, there are (I’m guessing, based on what I see on the Internet and hear from many other authors) at least twenty small presses who offer many of the same services authors get in New York, though sometimes avenues of distribution are more limited.  That’s partly because of a continuing prejudice against print on demand books.  Why?  Sometimes those books can’t be returned to the distributor or publisher, and sometimes it takes longer to get orders in.  It isn’t that booksellers can’t adapt to this, it’s that they haven’t had to, so are holding to the old ways.  I can’t exactly blame them.

But the times, they are a changing.  My home state, Arkansas, had, at last count, 499 independent publishers.  (Numbers cover those who have purchased ISBN numbers–source, Bowker.)  Texas and California had several thousand each.  Sure, some are “Granny’s Garage Cookbook Press” or they were formed to create books for special niches like memoirs, museums,  and religious texts.  But, there are still a bunch of them out there waiting for you.

Can small press authors get around the no return policy problem?  My own experiences may be helpful.  Once, at a Barnes & Noble booksigning, I was horrified to see three cases of about 40 books each stacked near the signing table.  These did come from a publisher who accepted returns, but, because of damage, really couldn’t afford that burden and eventually went out of business.

Okay, so I do sell a nice amount of books at signings (35 or so being an average)  but I’m not a big name except in Arkansas.  A reality check told me that B&N had over-ordered, and many of those books would be returned.  Also, in another B&N,  I saw a costly book I wanted for research.  They had two copies on their shelves.  One pristine, the other shop worn.  I asked about buying the shop worn one at a discount.  “No, not our policy,” the clerk said. “We can return that for a full refund.”    URK!  Poor publisher who would have to eat the cost of that expensive book.

Now, when preparing for any signing event, I usually suggest the top number of books to be ordered or, in some cases, take books myself and, on a 60/40 or similar deal, supply them for the event and for bookstore  stock following that.   Also, these days, many small presses will make special arrangements for a limited amount of returns of books in good condition within a certain time frame.   (Old rules allow bookstores to keep books for several months before returning them.)

It all boils down to knowing yourself and finding your niche.  Interested only in NY?  Have at it!  Otherwise, look around you.  Talk to fellow authors.  Find out who publishes them.  Ask about their satisfaction with that publisher.  When I was between publishers recently, several authors offered contact information for their own publishers/editors for my submission benefit.  And, when a novel of mine  recently took first in a contest, a judge suggested I submit to her publisher.

Like I said, friendship counts, not cat fights.