Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Mired In the Same Flawed Thinking

There’s been a lot to worry about in the book business lately, if you believe every doom and gloom headline you see. Polls on reading are spun to emphasize the negative, discussions about the decline of review space go on and on and on and on. Add in criticisms on covers and lack of proper editing, and you can have a daily diet of negativity.

Now, some of this is very legitimate discussion, and sometimes, in order to get a handle on what’s going on, you have to process it all. My own philosophy is that you have to learn the business you’re in, to some degree. If I’d understood more about the inner workings of the publishing world sooner, I would have made some different choices along the way.

Of course, it reaches a point where it’s no longer educational or helpful. It’s just complaining, and that isn’t good for anyone.

Everyone will hit that point at a different time. I’m caught on two sides of this. One problem I have is being prone to negativity already. The glass isn’t just half empty – what remains is laced with cyanide.

So, I started this conversation on Crimespace about how negative things have been lately, and how my response had been to do something positive, and I was hoping people might have positive ideas to exchange, things we could do to counter all the negative crap.

I’m not going to get into an assessment of the responses, because there were quite a few that actually had interesting ideas, thoughts, comments to make. But I’m really not interested in feeding the negativity, and if people don’t want to do anything that’s certainly their right… Just don’t try to burst my balloons because you don’t want to carry your own.

In fact, the whole thread reaffirms to me the root of the problem to begin with. In the past 100 years a lot has changed in the world. One of the main points clear to me from article after article on the decline of review space is how desperate some are to cling to what is, instead of willingness to let something go and move on to the next thing.

We could do an assessment over history. Flash back to the 50’s with diners and drive-ins and waitresses on rollerskates. Man, I can’t remember the last time I was at a drive-in. I imagine there must be one around here somewhere, but the only one I know of was in Ontario. I don’t know if it’s still there.

Yet those used to be incredibly popular. Now, pretty much a relic or a novelty.

We used to have general stores, that carried some of pretty much everything. Then specialty stores came along. Now, we’re not exactly going back to general stores, but we’re going towards the mega stores, the Superstores and Wal-Marts that have everything crammed under one roof for our shopping convenience.

There are trends, cycles, ups and downs to everything.

Am I happy review space is in decline in newspapers? No. As an author, that’s not good news, and particularly as a newer author it’s not good news.

However, as Evil Kev pointed out to me, twenty years ago we didn’t have forums, lists, blogs, and internet communities. I can counter that by saying we also didn’t have spam, but I have to concede the point.

Yes, it appears to be true that authors have fewer kicks at the can to catch on, that while publishers used to grow someone through 8 or 9 books and give them a chance to break through, now it’s more like 2 or 3 books. While word of mouth has been one of the old standbys for getting people interested in books (many of my friends just ask for lists of what they should read this year – these are ones who aren’t active online for the most part) that does depend on getting passionate readers who are the type to rant and rave. Heck, a growing number of authors won’t even cite their favourite reads for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. It’s not like I want to upset people, but damn, is that ever flawed thinking. I’ve picked up so many books because of a referral from an author I trusted. (And there’s the whole ‘do unto others’ philosophy – personally, I’ll never get my head around people who want blurbs and reviews and refuse to blurb others. You pay it forward when people support you in your career, pure and simple. That doesn’t mean I’ll blurb the people who blurbed me, it just means that if I’m in a position to help someone out and I like their work, I don’t get on my self-righteous high horse and pontificate about my philosophy on blurbs… I do it, and be glad I can help.)

For all my awareness of the constant cries that the sky is falling on the publishing industry, I think it’s being overdone. I read publishers lunch. Publishers are not going out of business left, right and sideways.

Where I feel a better investment of time will be is in finding new methods of reaching an audience. I have this image in my head of running around like chickens with our heads cut off, frantically going after review after review after review or interview or running through bookstores moving our books to prominent locations (okay, I admit it, I move books I like, sometimes turn them face out). But if everyone is doing the same thing, it doesn’t stand out, it’s more of the same.

Being a negative person, I’ve had to turn off the lists to clear my head. No Rara-Avis. Dear God, no SMFS anymore. No DL. There comes a point where for me, it’s poop or get off the pot. Sure, I’ve signed some of the petitions to try to save review space – I’m not going to knock those efforts.

But I think the way forward is going to be through different mediums, different venues, different ways of reaching people.

While I have some thoughts about what forms those different options might come in (and can at least say there is something new coming soon from a friend of mine that I’m very excited about) I’m not ready to put them all in the public domain just yet. What I’ve learned is that if you want to do something, do it yourself. Teamwork by and large doesn’t exist. People will always be willing to latch on to something already going and successful because it’s a sure thing, but if you want to be really innovative, you’ll need to be prepared to carry the load.

So, it may take a while before I can put these ideas into action, but I am taking some consolation from the fact that if I can see that there are untapped possibilities out there, undoubtedly others see them as well. And perhaps they’ll be in a position to implement the ideas with better resources than I can muster and do a better job.

In the mean time, I’m open to all serious suggestions.

And keeping with traditions, I guess it’s time to mention some of the books I’m most looking forward to reading this fall. No doubt I may forget some, but these are the ones I know I’ll be buying.

Kevin Wignall, Who Is Conrad Hirst? Okay, I’ve read it, my review will run next Spinetingler, but I’m looking forward to hearing reactions from others who read it.

Mark Billingham, Death Message The new Thorne novel, which will be out here later this month, apparently. It may be November before I actually can read it, but I’m still looking forward to it. Mark read some last October when he was here and that was just cruel. I was instantly hooked.

Carla Banks, Strangers Finally got it, now just have to find the time to read it…

Megan Abbott, Queenpin Megan’s on my ‘some day, I must interview her’ list.

Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know Yeah, yeah, shush. I’ve heard most of it on audio CD, but I still want to read it.

Nick Stone, Mr. Clarinet Much praise about this book, and I look forward to reading it myself.

Tess Gerritsen, The Bone Garden Tess isn’t just on my list to interview some day, she already said yes. Poor her, lucky me.

Charlie Huston. I don’t care what, I just need to read him.

Denise Mina. Same deal as Charlie.

Ian Rankin, Exit Music A friend is going to attempt to get me a signed copy and ship it over from Scotland, so it may be a while before I get it. Then again, with the whole stupid delayed release thing happening here, I may have it before it’s in local stores anyway.

That’s off the top of my head. There are probably a bunch I'll feel bad for forgetting, or not even knowing about. Anyone else got books they’re really looking forward to reading?

** See, I already thought of another one. Craig McDonald, Head Games. Proof I shouldn't start lists...


norby said...

My problem is I have no impulse control. And it's now possible to get the books I want from a variety of places. In some ways, this has lessened the degree to which I look forward to books. In the 'old days', having no choice but to wait until it came to the local library or bookstore definitely increased the desire to read that next book in the series.

Take the latest Harry Potter for example. I knew that no matter what I did, I wasn't going to get my hands on that book any earlier. No ordering it from England, or Canada. I just had to wait, just like everyone else. At midnight, when I knew the local B&N had copies for sale, it was everything I could do to keep reminding myself that it wasn't necessary to go buy one, that there would be a copy in my mailbox the next morning.

With other books though, it's much easier. Not out in the US yet-order it from somewhere else. Not going to be out in the US, same answer. Of course if publishers would put books out in all countries at the same time I wouldn't have this problem, but that's another topic.

The downside, maybe I have lost that buildup, that anticipation that comes from waiting months for the US publication. On the other hand, don't I already wait long enough between books?

On another note-would you believe my word verification letters are deadx?

angie said...

You MUST read Queenpin, ASAP. It's absolutely wonderful.

And yeah, you have a long list of goodies, many authors/titles on my list, too!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Norby, that's interesting. I used to pay no attention whatsoever, and then I'd go in and there would be a new Rebus book and it was a wonderful surprise. Of course, that hasn't happened since A Question of Blood.

Now, I seem to be finding a new irritation - the books that are out but for some reason have been delayed here. That really pisses me off. Three or four weeks is fine, but four or five months? When it's coming from the same publisher?

I find myself wondering if part of the reason for the move is to increase profits elsewhere. Bestseller lists are hardly indicative of actual sales when so many Americans are ordering their Rebus books from the UK or Canada, to cite but one example.

But that's a problem we can't fix. It has to do with the fact that typically, foreign markets wait to see how an author does elsewhere before picking them up, so they're always behind with the series. And there are probably a whole bunch of other complicated reasons I know nothing about.

Nice verification!

Angie, I know, I know. But it will have to wait. I actually have Anne Frasier's on the go at the moment, but my reading is so sporadic right now...

norby said...

Mark Billingham said in his last newsletter that his next book will be published simultaneously in the UK and the US. I'm hoping that it starts a trend.

As for Canada's long waits, well, I get grumpy waiting a few weeks, you know that. Four or five months,with, from what you've told me, no explanation, heh, there would be injuries.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yes, but if I understand correctly, the reason Mark's books will come out same time US and UK is because they're skipping this Thorne book in the US. Now, I'm reluctant to say much more, for fear I'm muddling stuff said to me off the record during the interview last year, stuff that's in the newsletter and stuff that's been reported elsewhere. I'll leave it to Mark to clear that up, but that's the impression I was left with.

Of course, I admit to not caring as much as some others, because we're on the UK release schedule for Mark's books. And ultimately, we're all selfish creatures. It doesn't affect me if the US skips a book. (Aren't I nice?)

And as for the publisher that's decided to go for the multi-month delay, if it's a new trend on their part I guess it will be their loss. The books get hyped during US and UK releases, and tend to come out here without much fanfare. Without the external push from the US or UK to spread word on the release, I wonder how it will impact sales. Damn, you know, I was just in touch with Craig recently about his new book and forgot it when I made my initial list. There's only so much that sticks in my brain, especially when I'm on deadline. And I'll be avoiding more forums and lists just to avoid spoilers on the series that I do follow. While spoilers don't typically get to me the way they do some other people, one book, well... I think some write-ups managed to ruin one book for me. Too extreme, too much.

I have the odd flicker of concern, that by shutting off the external I'm not going to hear about new to me authors I'd want to read, but it can't be helped. And then my tbr pile is teetering dangerously already...

norby said...

Well, you're already hopelessly behind on movies...

Sandra Ruttan said...

I just caught up to the Homicide movie, though. So I'm almost in this decade!

norby said...


Sandra Ruttan said...

You can swear here. You know I don't mind.

Christa M. Miller said...

I finally picked up a copy of A Field of Darkness, largely because of your ranting and raving. I'm already enjoying it. Otherwise, Sean Doolittle's backlist (just read The Cleanup and loved it). And an anthology called Transgressions that I got on remainder. It features novellas by Ed McBain (who also edited), Joyce Carol Oates, and many others I've never read.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, Cornelia's publisher should have their butt kicked for delaying book 2. That woman is amazing. But at least I know what I'll be reading in January - the new Cornelia Read book goes to the very top of the tbr pile.

We have Sean Doolittle here, and Transgressions - Kevin's been reading them.

And (don't hit me) I intend to read my first Ed McBain.

Anonymous said...

I hear what you're saying about reviews Sandra - I have found over the last number of years the number of books reviews in book columns is shringing and even then the tend to be books nominated for one award or another.

Very seldom do they advertise books on TV here, which I think is a mistake, I'm a visual person, so if I hear an ad on the radio for a book say four or five time I may then notice it on the book shelves but if it's on the TV, the very first time afterwards I'll notice it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

In educational circles the school of thought is 8 exposures to long-term memory recall. But when you attach the visual to something with audio, it can serve as a double trigger. The music jogs the memory. You know how certain smells remind you of a season, or a place, or how a song can carry you back through the years? Powerful and instantaneous. See, that's the thing. Nobody's going to flip open the NY Times and automatically think Rankin, McDermid, Parrish, Lippman. It doesn't have the same trigger. This past weekend I was in the bookstore and I couldn't remember which book I wanted to look for. How insane is that? But when I'm really busy and preoccupied it happens. You have to find ways to connect to the senses so that people remember you.

And yes, visual helps. Much of the time I don't just remember the commercial, but I remember what program was on when it was shown. That means seeing the program again can trigger the memory of the commercial, and the commercial reminds me of the show. Boom. Another way to jog my memory about something, and it's external stimulus.

But the only way you're going to be influenced by those reviews is if you go and read them. They rely on motivation from readers. That seems to be the flaw in the thinking - we expect readers to seek out reviews, to sign up for newsletters, to attend conventions, to go to the bookstore... We expect readers to come to us.

I'm not suggesting we start spamming readers (as I believe that's incredibly rude) but I also find myself wondering how many people are like I was in my 20s, hit and miss with my reading for so long it took time and luck and persistence on my part to rekindle my passion for books? That's what Rankin's work did for me. How different my life would be now if I hadn't stumbled across his stuff.

Anonymous said...

Well to be honest I don't seek out reviews myself - I tend to act on old favourite writers and word of mouth - well I did until I joined Mark Billingham's forum and Crimespace - now I have a list as long as god knows whos'arm, to read and I'm finding new (to me) authors who are becoming my firm favourites - I don't really mind how long between book - well 12 - 18 months, otherwise I'll fall behind in reading my old favourites - I try and buy them when as as they come out - I won't be bored if I get to retirement, my tbr pile will keep me going.

norby said...

I was actually speechless.

Your first McBain. I am impressed.

Anonymous said...

Love your attitude Sandra. While yes it's good to have a discussion, a whinge, a vent, you have to end it and move forward. Can't stand whinging for the sake of it.

I've just found a bunch of writers from two events I've been involved in. Coming across names I wasn't familiar with and being blown away when I read them. So off to track their backlist I go.

John McF said...

I just read a Canadian novel, comes out this week, called "What Happened Later," that's about a kid in Chatham, Ontario who spends years, YEARS (his entire high school career in the early 80's), looking for a copy of "On the Road." Sure took me back.

I like the idea, Sandra, of trying to get away from negativity. I think the best way is to know as little as necessary about "the business" and just concentrate on the actual writing and reading.

It reminds me of something someone said about hockey a few years ago: This must be a great game to survive such crappy ownership.

People say the same thing about European soccer, about the movie business, my wife is in the energy business and is sometimes shocked by how it's run -- in fact, if you look at anything closely enough it'll drive you nuts.

Except the books themselves. There are still hundreds of fantastic books published every year and more backlists are easier to access than ever -- maybe it's not perfect, but it's actually way better than it ever was. That's part of the "problem" so many good books. Twenty years ago I couldn't find much beyond Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Amra, the event sounded (and looked) fun!

John, I think you have to understand how things work, depending on how serious you are. There are some publishers who only work with certain agents, so if your dream is to be with them then find out the agents and get one of them to represent you.

And when it comes to what I'll call presence, don't rely on your publisher either. Simply put, if you're happy the book just exists and not worried about whether or not it sells, no problem. Otherwise, you have to think smart about doing events, interviews, etc. And thinking smart requires an assessment of the options and whether or not they're your target audience. So to my way of thinking, you have to learn some stuff, and not doing so is potentially career suicide. I would theorize that the only way there will be improvements to how royalties and rights are handled (if that's desired or necessary -depends who you ask) is if authors band together, and that takes awareness and willingness to do something. Ignorance probably explains a lot of the existing things people do complain about in the industry. Frankly, the Canadian publishing industry is a bit of a mess because of a lack of promotion across the board. It goes back to the whole reason we scrapped the Canadian issue of Spinetingler. When I'm working twice as hard, begging publishers to put me in touch with authors to interview and coming up with half the material of a regular issue it explains why we don't have more Canadian bestsellers.

I actually find a lot of publicists for publishers are passive. Knowing this is a huge plus to me as an author. In one case, the publicist gave us 7 catalogues said, 'ask for anything, we'll send it'. Yeah, we've got time to go through 7 catalogues! But we went through some, gave them a list of 8 books. They sent 1. Major NYC publisher. We know it's a widespread problem, and the authors who end up getting reviews are the ones who follow up. Simple realities. The oil industry is huge out here - you can't tell me people only think Alberta when it comes to that. Whether or not there's war in the Middle East, the level of terrorist threat, all that stuff factors into the pricing and production stategies. I would say it's true in any business that the people who succeed are the ones that are aware of all the variables affecting them and do their best to counter the negative and take advantage of the positive.

The very good thing about awareness is I know it isn't 'put your feet up and move to Bali'.

Anyone who wants to see some smart forward-thinking promotion should check out Taking advantage of technology. Does more for me than any review.

pattinase (abbott) said...

If I look at a book log I kept 20 years ago, I see I read 4-5 books a week. Now I read one, possibly two. I think the main two things that have changed is the Internet and my own writing. If I limited myself to 15 minutes a day on the Internet, I'd read more. But that probably won't happen.