Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Reverse Domino Effect

Does what readers have to say about books matter? If fans started a letter-writing campaign and asked for more, would it make a difference?

I have to say in my own experience it hasn’t. Despite emails, despite even reviewers publicly asking for more, it looks highly unlikely that the sequel to SC will ever see the light of day. Not for any good reason, either, as the book is strong, and the sales for SC make it the strongest title put out by that publisher.

The worst thing is I don’t know what to say to people when they write me about it. I understand mystery readers (and would venture to say anyone who doesn’t has no business publishing in this genre). I know how much we love our series books. We get attached to the characters and want more. It’s why authors often don’t get discovered until book 3 or 4 by a wider audience – we’re measuring how much shelf space they fill before we give them a chance. As one of the reviews I got said,

Suspicious Circumstances is the third great debut from January that I read. It’s a compelling read that makes me wish it wasn’t a debut just so I could go out and buy her other books, but sadly it is a debut and there aren’t more books for me to rush out and buy. I'm tempted to become like an impatient child in the backseat of the car on a long road trip and send "are we there yet" type emails to Ruttan, Sakey & Chercover every day that say " Are you done yet, are you done yet." I love that reviewer. I mean, a good review and he buys books? Can we clone him?

We all know that if we like a series we’ll go back for more. Less promotion behind a series. You start book 2 with an automatic readership. But I’m officially on the record saying that if there isn’t more Lara and Farraday, it’s not my fault. One would think a publisher would want to satisfy a built-up readership. One would think…

I’ve spent a lot of time learning about this business, about how things work, and it seems that just when I’ve got it figured out something comes up that throws everything off.

I’ve been thinking about the discussions we’ve been having here, and I’ve also been thinking about reviews a lot lately, and what I’m going to call the domino effect.

Half the battle is getting people to talk about a book before it comes out. It generates buzz, which builds demand. Booksellers know there will be people looking for that title upon release so they order in plenty. Because it’s well stocked customers think it must be a ‘big’ book. There’s limited shelf time on new books. If they don’t move through sales they get returned to make way for other titles. Orders of new titles are based on previous sales by the author. This all matters when it comes to getting into the stores, and staying in the stores. There’s a certain amount of sales that carry over just from perception… otherwise the publishers in the US wouldn’t pay for prominent display space.

How much of it is more suggestive marketing than actual assessment of a book? Some of the promotional packages I get with books have me wondering. What they tell me is, “We’re spending money on this one.” I mean, in the past few days I’ve had a handful of ARCs arrive. One, not even a promotional letter, the cheap bland cover version… and it’s a HUGE author. Another, a full colour printed folder designed specifically for the book, pages and pages of promo material inside telling me why this book is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

I’m a real cynic, so my automatic instinct is to chuck all that stuff out. It’s what’s between the covers that matters… so why do publicists do that sometimes? Well, I can only guess that for some booksellers and reviewers, it makes a difference.

I’ve definitely read reviews of books I’ve read and scratched my head over them. You guys hear me talk about what I like. When I’m not talking about what I’m reading it’s usually because I’m discarding stuff that stinks.

For those books that don’t get the promotional push, the hope has to be that there will be a reverse domino effect: That readers will discover the book and talk it up to the point that it surpasses sales expectations and that the editors/publishers realize they have a solid commodity on their hands, which means they’ll invest a bit more in the next work by the author. Or maybe at least not drop the author.

This is part of the reason I have always tried to talk up books and authors I like. I hope they’ll stay in the game. I hope more people will discover their work and enjoy it and that it will help the author build a solid career.

Lately it’s been feeling pretty pointless. My own experience proves to me that not even sales and reader support always make a difference. I would really like to believe that when people come out with solid writing, get strong reviews and demonstrate that their work does sell that it will help them build a career…

But I think they’ll have to start getting their reviews somewhere else.

A few things have really been getting to me. One is the authors who are only interested in themselves. If it doesn’t sell their book they aren’t interested. They won’t blurb, unless you’re ‘important’ enough so their name will get enough prominence from endorsing your work. Everything is one-sided. Wonderful if people talk them up but they wouldn’t lift a finger to help anyone else out.

Another is seeing some big-name people who do help others out, who get stabbed in the back for it.

And then there’s this, commentary on the declining review coverage out there. Publishers defend themselves against charges that they’re denying readers books coverage, by saying that there’s now a superfluity of literary blogs available for people who really care about the written word. So why duplicate efforts in the daily broadsheet?

That’s just wonderful. There are books here I’ve bought – bought! – that I haven’t had time to read yet because I’m wading through review copies and writing reviews in my free time, and now I get to carry some blame for declining review coverage in newspapers?

Do you ever feel like you just want to throw in the towel and call it quits?

I’ve got things through to the new year that I was already planning to deal with, but I think it’s safe to say this time next year I won’t be reviewing books anymore. It’s been a whole lot of time chasing smoke, and kidding myself that anything I say or do might actually help those I think have talent. Instead, it sounds like it's actually hurting them.

You know, interview after interview, conversation after conversation, I hear very successful authors credit not just hard work and persistence, but luck. I've also had one of the strongest lucky streaks anyone can have in this business and luck should not be under-estimated as a force in anyone's career. ~ Laura Lippman (in her interview in the Winter 2005 issue of Spinetingler). Maybe some authors shouldn't be so cocky and think it's all down to their brilliance. Most of the bestsellers I've met know better. There's luck, publisher support, agent support - and support from booksellers, librarians and reviewers - all in the mix. We don't even get that many books here by comparison to some places and there are tons I haven't read. And if you can't get your book read, you can't get someone enthusiastic about it. The writing only carries you so far... luck carries you further.

Or maybe I should say that luck is what enables the writing to carry you.

Maybe the only thing I should be surprised by is the fact that more readers aren’t jaded. Today, I definitely am. I’ve been trying to do something for several months now, and am officially throwing in the towel. Why? Because I’m tired of feeling like I’m swimming up a waterfall. I feel like I’m back in school, when everyone wanted to be my partner for group assignment because they knew if they didn’t do their work I’d do it for them because I didn’t want my grades to suffer. Okay, it's not the exact same scenario, but that's how I feel.

You know, I could be working on my own stuff. There's a thought...

And here’s the most depressing thought of all. If after years of giving up free time for Spinetingler I feel it’s pointless, what’s to entice the silent middle majority to start speaking out for the books and authors they love? I can’t blame them for not expending the energy. After all, once you do you become a bit more invested in the work and want to see a result. When you don’t, it’s that much more disappointing.

On a complete aside

I do pay a lot of attention to what readers have to say. Particularly avid readers, like the ones on 4MA. When that crowd dissects a book, they really dissect it. I had one member read SC and do discussion questions for the book, and I was stunned. She’d really scrutinized the book.

So, I let her read the draft of What Burns Within, as a thank you. And this is what she said:

I stayed up till three thirty this morning reading it. WHY did that publisher turn it down? … whoever it was has made a mistake - this is really good. I am totally enjoying it, I like the characters and the story has me totally sucked in.

Nothing matters more than readers who get what you’re doing and love it. Here’s to hoping their opinions still matter a bit.


Chris said...

This post is heartbreaking.

I'm relatively new to your blog, having stumbled across it on CrimeSpot, but your enthusiasm for the writers you love coupled with your passion for the genre are always so refreshing. The fact that you give back by editing Spinetingler (another recent find, and I'm happy for it -- the content is fantastic!) is just icing on the cake. That you feel like all you've done doesn't matter in the end sucks beyond the telling of it.

I write. I buy books. I champion the hell out of people I like. I turn books face-out in the bookstore. I harass friends until they pick up titles by people worth reading. And thanks to this blog, SC is on my "to-buy" list.

I wish I had some genius words of encouragement, but I don't. I can say this, though. What you do matters. Maybe not as much as you'd like it to, but ain't that always the way?

So good luck, and hang in...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thanks Chris.

I think what really gets to me is I've invested a lot of energy launching one book, and it's at a dead end. Sadly.

Then I get authors saying it doesn't matter if we lose review space. Really? Well... okay.

The thing about quitting reviewing is that I used to read books and enjoy them. Just thoroughly lose myself to it. When you review, you have to assess on a different level. The reading isn't as enjoyable, at least, not for me.

And more than anything, I don't get to read what I want to read anymore. That there should ever be a day I have a Val McDermid book sitting on my shelf for six months unread...

We're not quitting Spinetingler. I'm just quitting reviewing next year.

And we move books in bookstores too.

We'll still run reviews, as long as there are people who'll write them. As I said, I'm committed to certain things about a year out from now. But after that, I doubt I'll continue the reviewing. I can talk up books I like here. Whether it makes a difference or not, just anyone try and stop me. I've never been able to keep my mouth shut about what I'm enthusiastic about.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I suppose I should clarify something.

The thing is, I've seen a lot of people get behind SC, and I feel very disappointed on their behalf, like I've let them down. And as frustrated as I get sometimes, I get that much more discouraged when I feel responsible for disappointing someone.

Steve Allan said...

Just look at this as a stepping stone for a brilliant career. This shit takes a lot of effort. Everyone feels like giving up, you're not alone. I'm sure that with your name recognition you'll be able to find another publisher, so don't throw the sequel out yet.

As for the diminished enjoyment of reading, I think that is a casuality of not just reviewing but of writing as well. The only books that capture that sheer delight I used to get are, funny enough, the terrible ones. If I determine in the first few chapters that the book doesn't have anything to offer me in terms of looking at craft, I can just enjoy the bad book - kinda like watching SHOWGIRLS.

Anyway, buck up little camper, you're doing better than you think you are.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"The only books that capture that sheer delight I used to get are, funny enough, the terrible ones."

Oh my god. An argument to read The DaVinci Code? Okay, okay, having not read it I shouldn't say that. Maybe I should read The Bridges of Madison County? (Barf)

Wonders never cease.

Jersey Jack said...

Smack me if I sound like a toad, but I found out a few years ago it's not wise to make major life decisions while feeling depressed, disappointed, or pissed off. Emotion really screws up MY decision-making precess, anyway.

Sandra Ruttan said...

True enough Jack, but I've been debating quitting reviewing for a long time. I never wanted it to get to this point. And like I said, I have a year to change my mind.

But since you're here, other things have transpired of a personal nature that will prevent me from attending Murder in the Grove next month. I'm afraid right now all my energy is required on other things. I'm struggling to try to get my stuff done for the next Spinetingler, but I'm also at least four months behind on ARCs, and with the personal situation being what it is, that's not going to get much better any time soon. So if I quit reviewing, I'm really not apologizing to anyone for it.

I am still holding out hope I won't have to cancel Bouchercon - we'll see how things go these next few months.

Jersey Jack said...

Bummers, Sandra! I hope whatever personal stuff plagues you will soon disappear. In fact, I'm putting my private Swami on it today. He's pretty good with spells.

Sandra Ruttan said...

If your Swami proves good I want to hire him. ;)

John McF said...

Never say never, Sandra. It's really early in the game. Publishing is maybe the slowest of all businesses (there's good and bad in that).

Expectations for debut novels are tricky. Every once in a while there's a big hit, but mostly they are of the "Knots and Crosses" variety and sales come later (usually years later, which in most businesses would be unacceptable, but not publishing - maybe one of the good things about it).

Writing (and publishing and selling) is a marathon, not a sprint.

These SC characters are now characters that you've created and know well. Who knows where they'll turn up years from now?

Have a look at this, scroll down to 'In Praise of Bad Books' and the stuff on reviewing.

It's frustrating, but you've got to take it slow. (this form a guy who's seen publication of his second book delayed by a YEAR! How often do you think I remind myself to be patient?)

John McF

Anonymous said...

Everyones patience seems to be running out but I hope you hang in there.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Damn, I'm disappointed to hear about Steve. That just overrides everything else for the moment.


Randy Johnson said...

Don't give in and read The Da Vinci Code. I made the mistake of reading all four of Brown's novels(in order, Four, Two, Three, and One). As I realized as I was finishing the third, he's writing the same book over and over. When I started his first book, I decided to try and pick the villain as early as possible. On page twenty-five, I decided on my culprit. Guess what? I was right. He won't ever get another dollar of my money.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Randy, thanks for talking me back to sanity.

Oh, and John (etc.) to clarify, I'm not shopping the sequel to SC. WBW is a different book. The SC sequel has been officially dumped in my mind - moving on to other stuff.

Kris said...

Sandra, you shouldn't beat yourself up over your decision. I've often thought about starting an online 'zine. Why haven't I? Because it would take up too much of my scarce free time that I currently devote to my own stuff. It's a kind of selfish paradox.

On the Da Vinci Code subject - it's a chagrining thing for writers who care about their craft, but the fact is the majority of the book-buying public can't tell the difference between good writing and rotten writing. The silver lining seems to be that these same people will read whatever they are told to read. Which again puts the onus on authors, publishers and PR types to get in people's faces and tell them why they need to read Book X.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Kris, yeah, you see some books do well and think it really is more about marketing than anything else. I don't know if that's encouraging or discouraging. I suppose it depends on the day.

Sonya said...

Jesus, Sandra...

You know, sometimes I really hate this business. This is one of those times. This, in a word, sucks.

You have done wonderful, amazing things for writers and readers, and you've put out fantastic work yourself. You should not feel worthless (though I know it's impossible not to). There are so many people who appreciate what you do.

I'm one of them. I'm absolutely stunned by this - so much that I'm lacking in words, and that doesn't happen often.

In your posts above, you said you've made some decisions. I hope at least one of them is to keep writing. There are other bloody publishers out there, and you're very talented.

Do take time for you. You deserve it. (((BIG HUGS)))

Brian said...

I'm sorry. Not in an apologetic-its-my-fault way but instead in an empathetic way. If I could shoulder the burden then I would.

Reviewing CAN suck the joy out of reading sometimes, this coming from a guy who trys to write a full review for everything that I read, if you need to back off of it then do so. If you like something then mention it on the blog or elsewhere. In other words let the reccomendations come organically.

I do sincerly hope to see that sequel. Whether its next year or 10 years from now I'll still buy it and read.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Brian, your reviews are incredibly thorough. I don't know how you do it!

As to the sequel, it's a subject best explained off the blog.

Sonya, quitting writing isn't even a consideration. Part of the reason I'm cutting back on other things is to have more time to write. What I find is that I lose weeks worth of my own working time each Spinetingler issue we do. People say 'get others to review' and I've been trying, but sometimes you spend as much time coordinating with volunteers and chasing that up as you do anything else.

I'm also a painfully slow reader, as I've said before, and all this reviewing means long gaps of not reading what I want to read.

The only thing in terms of my writing I've given up on is the SC sequel, Past Transgressions. What Burns Within is an entirely different book, a police procedural/thriller with different characters.

I'm also writing something else that doesn't fall explicitly in crime fiction.

Sonya said...

Phew. I'm SO glad to hear that! :-)