Sunday, September 30, 2007

Authors, Celebrities, Attitudes and Interviews

There are times I’m struck by the contrasts between authors and ‘celebrities’. And then, there are times I’m struck by the similarities.

For example, the Toronto Star features has one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time mocking the lives of the rich and famous. It’s the biting sarcasm that works for me. “This week in taking boring to new and heretofore unimagined heights.” Oh, hell, yeah. And people pay money for those magazines.

However, before we authors too quickly pat ourselves on the back and applaud our industry as being filled with normal, level-headed, wonderful people, Jeri Westerson continues her thorough summaries of Bouchercon, with a day four wrap-up that serves as a cautionary tale on two levels.

First: Check your attitude at the door. In paragraph two Jeri recounts tales about author escorts, and what gets said on the gossip chain, and you better believe your behaviour will be noted.

It’s hard for many people to think about authors with bad attitudes, engaging in bad behaviour, and yet I think most of us have our stories. Perhaps it’s simply true that with some people, the reason they’ve done well is, in part, because they remained gracious.

For example, the other day I was skimming an interview with Ian Rankin. Yeah, yeah, you say. Except I don’t often read the interviews anymore… largely because the questions I want answers to never get asked and most of the material in the interviews is stuff I already know. But I was helping someone with a bit of background, so I checked this article out.

It touches on how Rankin’s train had been several hours late. Quoting from the article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The train that brought him from his home in Edinburgh was several hours late ("it was like travelling on a f---ing stagecoach") and he has arrived in a London brought to a snail's pace by a Tube strike. But, as ever, Rankin remains the perfect interviewee. Surely, on a day when everything goes wrong, he must want to renounce the publicity hoopla that surrounds each book? Even if he is contracted to do it ...
"Oh, I'm not contracted to do this," he says. "I'm always happy to do interviews; it's certainly better than being ignored. For the first four or five Rebus novels, hardly anyone took any notice. I would have died for attention. An interview in a newspaper? Something you just dreamt about. And the memories are vivid enough not to take anything for granted."

It’s the second paragraph that caught my attention, and almost tempts me to consider asking for a proper interview some day. You see, the angst over interviews isn’t something I’m the only person who feels. You have to consider that, when we started Spinetingler, I didn’t know anyone. Well, okay, I had met Val McDermid, though ‘know’ is a bit subjective there. I knew her a bit from her forum. I didn’t have a blog or read them.

And despite what many people think of me, I can be painfully shy. It’s probably a major reason I was doomed to failure in journalism. I have to switch to a different side of my personality to go at people in the midst of grief for the sake of a story. If anything, I presume things into people in an overly sensitive fashion. Until I feel comfortable with someone I assume I’m bothering them when I’m contacting them. I’m well behind on e-mails myself right now (and the longer the issue, more intricate the question the longer it will take people to hear from me at the moment, what with book 2 in the final stages and a Spinetingler issue to finish) and yet I love getting e-mails from people. I’m still horrid for assuming if people don’t write back they’re mad at me.

When we started Spinetingler I always felt like I was imposing on people, asking them for interviews. I always felt… guilty. So if someone didn’t respond to a request, they went on my little list… Don’t bother them again. I actually really don’t like bugging people and would rather be told to get lost than just tolerated. At least then, you don’t have to wonder where you stand.

Over time, though, my attitude about the interviews has shifted a bit. I’ve watched someone else go through this… the complete nerves about making the requests, the excitement when people they ask say yes…

And then there are the people who don’t even have the courtesy to say no.

For me, I’m going to bear Rankin’s words in mind when I’m asked for an interview. I know I’ve spoken to some people about doing an interview and followed up by e-mail – as they told me to do - only to get no reply from them whatsoever. And it’s a funny thing, because I’ve noted before that reviewers talk, and interviewers talk as well. I notice the same types of stories come up about the same people.

It’s a word to the wise. We aren’t celebrities, and attitude is important. I don’t ever want the marketing to come at the expense of the writing, and I’m not a mega-marketer by any stretch. But a bit of common courtesy goes a long way.

The other thing Jeri touched on was the distribution issues. This is, again, something for authors to be mindful of, and I feel it’s worth pointing people in that direction… yes, even readers. Why? Because it is the authors who are on the front lines, when many things are out of our control.

I realize we always assume publishers are actually interested in selling books, so it does make one wonder why distribution is such a prevalent problem. In fact, over on Tess Gerritsen’s blog she’s touched on the issue of co-op compliance. You know, in most other industries if you paid for promotional space and didn’t get it, the companies would be going after you.

Simply put, I think the publishers are trying to stay afloat with less and less as book sales decline. That’s a whole other issue I won’t even touch here, but it does tie back to the beginning. This is a tough business, and there are constantly new challenges and issues arising.

And if not even Ian Rankin considers himself beyond the interviews and still appreciates the opportunity for exposure, it’s worth pointing out to everyone to never take it for granted. You might be riding high today, and tomorrow be wishing for the interviews you blew off.

Things to think about. I have three interviews planned for the Winter issue – Tess Gerritsen, Ray Banks and Christa Faust. I need to do reading prep for all of them, which will take hours of my time, and I look forward to it. After that? Currently, nothing scheduled.

And to be honest, I dread the thought of asking. It isn’t something I’ve ever gotten completely comfortable with.


Barbara said...

I do wish book culture wasn't getting so swamped with celebrity-itis - but the entire culture is, and in the book business it runs from the big-name authors to the no-name authors who want so badly to be famous. I think in part the "author as brand" thing (which makes some sense - publisher are not recognizable brands, and authors move around) may sometimes mislead people into thinking authors are what people are craving. Actually, it's their books that matter to readers. It's nice when authors turn out to be pleasant people, and they can be very interesting, but it's really their books that people care about.

I'm not sure about the "sales are off" thing, though. Publishers seem always determined to make us think they're in terrible trouble, but their sales aren't shrinking in the US. The AAP reported sales of trade books growing last year - by a small amount (both hardbound and mass market were up by 4-5% over the previous year). Bizarrely, they're reporting that year-to-date sales are up 11% overall. (Hardcover way up, mass market way down. Strange.)

With all the moaning that goes on you'd think the business is on the verge of failure, but they've been saying that for decades and it's never actually been true. It's just not a high growth industry and never has been.

If they're pinched, it's not because sales are off so much as that their corporate masters demand that they trim costs to increase the profit margin.

Sorry for the US-centric view, but the AAP numbers were handy. I don't know if they are indicative of the business at large.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Actually Barbara, I think that's fantastic. And interesting. Scratch me up along with other authors who've bought in to some of the doom and gloom that's reported, albeit in "legitimate" sources.

Every industry levels out in a few years. Funny, the reason computer software sells is because other industries stop supporting the software and it doesn't work with new systems. Forced upgrades. That doesn't happen in our business - in fact, you could live off the works of classic authors alone if you so desired. And so people have to want our books - they certainly don't need them. Well, although I absolutely had to get the new Mark Billingham book (which I picked up yesterday) and I can't wait to read the new Rankin book, which Mark sent me a few weeks ago - I've read some of it, but haven't finished yet, so Mary, hold on to your question!

Readership numbers are steady in Canada, although the song and dance about promotion is even worse than what I hear from the US. I seldom see reviews, and in part, perhaps it's because nobody's doing a Canada-centric industry blog. There's no notation of Canadian authors getting picked up in US deals, or even Canadian deals. It's a PR nightmare.

If you refer to the comments on the second post down, about reviews, PJ Parrish adds something to the discussion that is very interesting, and ties in with all of this.

Sandra Ruttan said...

One thing I do wonder though: are sales in-house declining? Do we have more publishers the sales are being spread over? And does this account for self-published titles?

Questions, questions, questions...

Barbara said...

Err... good question. The AAP site doesn't really say which publishers are counted. For what it's worth, another industry data source, BISG, reports something similar - and does say they're beginning to include small publishers in their numbers, which apparently they didn't in previous years.

Bowker also changed how they count books in the past year or so which makes time series about how many books have been published a little whacked.

I don't have the Bowker Annual handy, but it seems to me when I've looked at it before there's a real "long tail" in that the vast majority of publishers are small - but the majority of sales go to the big ones.

angie said...

I love the books, but I'm also curious about the peeps who write them, read them, write about them, publish them...y'know the whole deal.

And yes, it's both exciting and nerve-wracking to shoot off an email to an author/reader/reviewer/editor/publisher I dig and ask him/her to give up a chunk of time to answer my (often silly) questions. For the most part, people have been really, truly awesome. I am learning so very, very much and that's tres coolio, if a little freaky.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That is interesting. Still puts a different spin on things, doesn't it?

Angie, I still completely freak out asking sometimes. It's eaasier to ask for someone else, actually. I don't know why. Possibly because I do have this morbid curiosity that makes me want to peel someone's scalp off and poke around in their brain to figure out how it works, so I feel like I'm asking someone to agree to be my lab rat.