Tuesday, February 28, 2006

They're Playing the Wrong Song

On Ed Gorman's blog site, he recently profiled a writer named Carole Nelson Douglas. In response to Gorman's question regarding advice to the publishing world, she notes (and I hope somewhat facetiously) that publishers should forget acid-free paper and produce books that fall apart after two or three readings. She says this because of the perceived threat of the burgeoning used book market.

There have been a number of published articles regarding this phenomenon over the past few months but I think that, as usual, the people that should know better don't. I'd like to think that they're not stupid, that they simply are too far removed from the common sense of the book buying masses, but I don't know. What's more, there's an obvious parallel to the music industry and their ability to just not get it, and you'd think this would be noticed so it could be learned from. Blindness shouldn't be contagious.

The problem they have isn't with the "legitimate" disposition of out of print books, estate collections, or truly collectible editions. It's with the perceived loss of royalty producing new book sales. Herein lies the fallacy, both in publishing and music. I'll use music CD's as my example.

Music at some point in the past was more affordable than it has been recently. Over time, greed has caused consumer costs to rise even while the cost of producing the physical product went down. Quality, however, did not go up. There were still only one or two "good" songs on most pop music CD's. And once they reached a retail price point of $18.99, consumers finally rebelled. What took them so long I'll never know. In the midst of slumping sales, new technologies, including used CD sales and file sharing, gave the consumer more affordable options for acquiring music. The difference in price was such that it quelled any moral or ethical objections.

As a consumer myself, I can tell you the use of these new technologies in place of purchasing new CD's could have been easily avoided simply by making the cost of the CD's themselves more affordable. They've done this recently (many CD's now retail for $13.99) and time will tell how much sales will rebound (so far it's working).

That's the first half of the equation. The second part has to do with the "piracy" that has always taken place, always will take place, and isn't necessarily a bad thing. The recording industry is fond of publishing huge numbers when they describe how much revenue they lose each year to the illegal copying of music. The point that they're missing is that much of this copying does not come at the expense of a new CD sale. Rather, it is a way that potential fans of that particular artist sample the goods and learn whether or not they would ever actually plunk down their money for CD's by him/her/them. In other words, people won't take a risk on an unknown commodity for $18.99 a shot. But if they have a sample, and they like it, the artist goes from "unknown" to interesting and has a good shot at selling either their back list or their future releases to their new found fan.

I've blogged before about how publishers need to publish better books at more affordable prices; this would cure many ills. When I buy a used or remaindered copy of a book still in print, it is almost invariably because I am unfamiliar with the work of the writer and simply can't afford to plunk down twenty six bucks for a hardcover or eight bucks for a mass market paperback (or worse, fourteen bucks for a trade paperback). Chances are the book will be okay at best and I won't feel good about how I spent my allowance. If the book is good, though, guess what? I will now go out and buy the rest of the author's work, including new releases AS THEY COME OUT.

I discovered James Lee Burke in mass market paperback. I then bought his new hardcover and all of his back list in mass market (that's what was in print). Since then, I buy each of his books as they come out; I never even look at the price. I could wait a few months and pick up a used copy some where, but I don't. Why? Because as a book lover, the tactile experience is not the same.

Used CD's are not evil, nor are used books. Both fill very important niches to the consumer. They will always overlap with new sales, but the point that they cut into them needs to be examined closely. What you'll find are illustrations of your target market's dissatisfaction with your products and how they're sold. And that's the real lesson here.

In two weeks the 25th annual Antiquarian Book Fair takes place at the St. Petersburg Coliseum. Talk about used books? I can't wait.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Random Thoughts

I've posted before about how the use of CGI effects in movies typically ruin the damn things, but the same is true of commercials. I keep seeing that one where the guy walks out of his house, his wife tells him to be careful, and then he walks to the end of his walk and dives off a three thousand foot cliff. Clearly the house and the cliff don't match and are a complete figment. Sure, they actually shoot a guy doing a base jump off of something but at that point, so what? Any possibility of anything exciting me has been stamped out with a jackboot.

This commercial also poses several logistical challenges as well, chief of which is how the hell does he get back up again? And if you're so clearly lying to me about the house with the front yard cliff how do you expect me to believe whatever nice things you're saying about your own car?

Here's how you make this one better. First, turn off all the computers. Second, find or build a house near the edge of an actual cliff. Then start with the car or SUV parked in front of the house. Have the guy come out, kiss his wife, then drive the damn car over the cliff. If he can bail out, fine, who cares, show me the new thirty thousand dollar vehicle bouncing off the cliff side and pounding itself into the desert floor. Add a tagline about crash testing and you'd have me back simply by doing something real, for chrissake. Who wouldn't want to watch that?

Another thing that burns me up when I think about it is these Chinese bastards (or whomever they are) that traffic or partake in illegal animal parts for their sexual delights. No, I've never tried bear gall bladder or whatnot as an aphrodesiac. I don't think it will work. How's this for a bumper sticker: Save A Bear, Try Internet Porn.

I suspect that these things have any aphrodesiacal effects at all they come as a proxy representation of actually killing the poor beasts. Sort of like a hunter, getting off on killing a beautiful animal who on his worst day wants only to keep on living and breathing, just like us stupid human beings. I don't care how much of the animal you eat, you didn't kill it because your stomach was rumbling. Keep feeling good about yourself, though.

If you want a real aphrodesiac, one that doesn't come at the expense of a shark or a bear or any other animal, I can give you one that's been around for hundreds of years: prison. Stick these sexual predators (note the double meaning) in a prison cell for five or six years and see how horny they are when they come out. I'd bet it's suitably impressive.

Is it worth it, though? Let's see, I'll trade you a year's subscription to Penthouse or Playboy (your choice), membership to the porn website of your choice, and a Jenna Jameson video collection for either: five years of solitary confinement or the life of a grizzly or a black bear (your choice). I'll even throw in a bottle of Viagara. Come on, what do you say? Either way, you'd get laid eventually. If you choose the prison option and you're real good, you can have a cell mate who's all man, too. Does that make it easier? At least you have choices.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

"Life would not be worth living without salsa."

I first met a woman named Judith Heinz when she called me one day, desperate for help with a crashed hard drive. It contained the only copy of a book she was writing called, “Diary of a Whacked-Out Bitch.” I did what I could for her but while I was working on it she found an older version somewhere and went on from there.

Judy started her own publishing company in order to publish her book and was quite pleased to tell me that she had arranged for “Diary of a Whacked-Out Bitch,” published in 1992 by Windbag Books, to be carried in local B. Dalton Bookseller outlets. This was long before the days of print-on-demand, the world wide web, and most of the related technologies writers and publishers use today. I was impressed and given my own literary aspirations, envious that she was pursuing her dream so fervently.

We saw each other socially a few times, lunch or coffee get-togethers, but we never really dated. Judy was very attractive but bohemian with a capital B and I was an uptight office worker trapping myself in a career I didn’t really want. I think both of us knew that it wouldn’t have worked out with very well.

When her book was published, Judy either brought or mailed me a copy. Inside was a handwritten note dated December 7th, 1992 telling me that she hoped I liked the book and that I should call her for a drink some time. Also included was her phone number.

I never called it. In fact, I don’t think I ever spoke to Judy again.

I couldn't read her book, either, though I tried. I remember starting it and enjoying her sense of humor and her light yet poignant writing style. But when I got to the part where she wrote about her suicide attempt I had to put it down. I hadn’t known Judy all that well but I knew her well enough to see her pain reflected in the words she had written. And I knew myself well enough to know it was too much for me to read.

Her book is still on my shelf and I pulled it down the other day, thinking about giving it another try after thirteen or so years of distance. On a whim I looked her up on Amazon to see if she’d even gone on to write more books. Someone posted a review that wasn’t really a review, just a mean-spirited, jackass comment about the author blowing her head off with a revolver.
Using Google I tried to find out more about Judy, her book, or her publishing company. I couldn’t find anything new so I don’t know if she’s around somewhere or not.

Apparently some of us aren’t wired for happiness in life. I wouldn’t call myself a happy person, not how I’d like to think I should be. I have an incredible wife and a wonderful family but for some reason I’m always looking forward to where I want to go, to where I want to see us all end up. It’s better than living in the past, I suppose, but it also comes at the expense of not appreciating where we are today. The worst part is that sometimes a bit of it seems to rub off on those around me. I don’t believe there’s anything really wrong with me, it’s just the way I am and I work on it the best I can. I thought Judy may have been the same way.

Her pain was clear in her book but so was her joy, her love of her birds, and her sense that life really could be a wonderful thing if she could just figure out how to make it so. You can still buy copies of “Bitch” from Amazon's Marketplace and I would hope that people out there do so and think good thoughts of Judy. It may be the best way left to get to know a person worth knowing. Perhaps another message can be found, too, one that overshadows whatever tragedies may have befallen her life.

I never knew Judy Heinz well. In truth I barely knew her at all and we could probably pass each other on the street today without recognizing each other. But how I wish that could happen, at least once. I really do.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Making Time

I haven't written a short story for many, many years. When I began to become aware of how ordinary citizens became writers, at least in the science fiction world, it seemed that many novelists made their bones with short fiction. I have no real idea whether it was valid or not but the idea was that they could use their magazine appearances as a selling point when getting a book contract.

At the same time, though, I'd read where many people felt that writers could either write novels or short stories well, but rare was the talent who could produce both. This kind of bothered me as I could never really understand why this must be so. What about Hemingway and Fitzgerald? They wrote both well, or were they just the exceptions?

Anyway, the argument is pretty much moot due to the lack of markets for short stories in today's world. My thought, though, is that each form has a structure and the craft of their creation must be studied, learned and practiced to create something of quality. I've posted previously on learning to identify the structure of a novel; a similar process would probably need to take place to master the short story. Whether strictly for market reasons or not, I think that most writers simply don't bother doing this with short stories.

Personally I still enjoy reading them but I don't read as many as I used to. And I don't read as many consecutively. There was a time when I'd read anthology after anthology and it would be difficult to get used to reading a novel again. I don't remember the last time I've read an anthology, though. Between novels I'll often pick up a collection and read a story or two before picking up another. I just read two Hemingway stories, before that two by William Trevor, and before that, a few by Dickens in the second volume of "Sketches by Boz."

Trevor seems to me to be a master of the form. No sentence is out of place and he instantly transports you to the time and mood of his choosing. His stories don't rely on gimmickry or hooks or any other discernible device. He merely writes with an absolute clarity of vision that translates into a vivid reading experience. Not always a happy one, but at least an emotional one, and when a writer can make you feel, in any form, they've done something very, very well.

Even though I a few posts ago I mentioned I didn't have a clue about writing short stories, I immediately thereafter set about writing one. I finished it the other day and now I'm in the process of typing the seventeen handwritten pages into the computer. Then it'll be edit and rewrite time and I'll see what's there. I wanted to write something with a strong psychological feeling to it and I hope I've done it although I'm afraid it may come across as a giant gimmick. We'll see.

I'd just finished reading Marc Behm's "Eye of the Beholder" and thought that if Cornell Woolrich were still alive, this was a book he may have written. They've both inspired me, at least for the short story, and if it comes out okay I'll submit it to the few remaining short story markets. If nothing comes of that I'll post it here and if anyone reads it, perhaps they'd post a comment and let me know what they think. Again, we'll see.

Friday, February 03, 2006

If We're Doomed To Repeat the Past, Can We At Least Skip The Present?

I am acquainted with a woman author who has, I think, gone out of her way to be good to me. She has a good brain, and I respect her quite a bit, and I hope I won't do her a disservice by talking about her here.

One of the nice things she has done for me has been to invite me to participate in her book group. I've since resigned my chair after being castigated by several members for not only not caring for a book by P. D. James, but by REALLY not caring for her writing. That, and the fact that we read too many current books by authors I've long since tried and discarded did me in (not the castigation itself, it wasn't that severe, I just didn't care for it much).

In any case, my friend recently weighed in on the discussion floating about concerning the quality (or lack thereof) of work to be found currently in the mystery genre. She agreed that the she was also feeling cold about the state of the state. Yes, this is the same topic I posted on yesterday and there's no reason to rehash it again today. But the next thing I read in an e-mail to the book group (they never took me off the list) was that she didn't want to read any more classics. She felt that modern writers benefitted not only her reader's mind but her writer's one as well and that it was undesirable to read the old stuff.

I found this very interesting. On the surface, it occurred to me that she's bemoaning the state of current crime fiction yet she only wants to read more of it. I'm not sure that's as much of a contradiction as it sounds, but mainly because I think she must think there's enough modern stuff out there that's worthwhile. But I could be wrong.

In any case, the last book that I had recommended to the group was Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon." Unfortunately I left the group before the next meeting so I couldn't justify my reasoning. In short, today's crime fiction is today's crime fiction because of what was written in the past. The old classics, and indeed, merely writers from earlier ages, created the building blocks that today's writers use to create their books. To my mind, you're depriving yourself of a big portion of learning the craft of writing if you neglect the history or the evolution of the current crime novel.

People may not shoot each other as much as they did in Hammett's books and Los Angeles may not be the same as it used to be in Chandler's, but there's so much that can be learned from their work. The characters they developed, their plots, all the things that we throw stones at when we pick apart today's genre bestellers were done often much better back then. The era doesn't matter so much as the skill of the writer and better yet, the observance of the genesis of precisely those things one likes and doesn't like about today's work.

If you think today's work is more skillfully done than yesterday's, pick up a book by Harry Whittington to see how plotting SHOULD be done. Read a Peter Rabe for the sheer style of it, not overblown, just terse and hard hitting. Many of the writers from the Fawcett Gold Medal era had a profound sense of style, something that I find sorely missing in most of today's crime fiction. Many of today's bestsellers rely on gimmickry rather than a talent and style crafted by someone who cares.

I'm not saying that older works are better because they're older, either. A clunker's a clunker no matter when it was published. But neither does newer mean better and a reader is depriving themself of much enjoyment if they allow themselves to overlook the work of people like David Goodis or Ross MacDonald. And as a writer, I wonder that if looking at the new stuff in order to learn your craft is like trying to learn a new language by studying its slang. You're just not going to get it all.

I don't think I'm wrong, but who knows. I'm mystified daily that one cannot walk into a bookstore or go online and buy a single set of the works of Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway or John O'Hara. I learn a whole lot more from everyone of the older gents I've mentioned than I will ever learn from a James Patterson or Jonathan Kellerman. And I think that's a good thing.

Now if I can just wish these old guys back into print, I may get someone else to agree with me. One never knows.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Good, The Bad, and the Bestseller

It's interesting to me that as I write new entries for this blog so many of them seem to be related to topics from previous entries. I'm not sure why I find that surprising, but I do. It's gotten so that when I think about writing a new entry I also consider how it may tie back to older ones. Which leads me into...

From time to time, someone makes a point about how current mystery or thriller genre fiction is disappointing. The characters are no longer interesting, there are plot holes you can drive an Aston-Martin through, the ending could be foreseen ten pages into it, and on and on. Hello! Surprise! Most of the books published by established writers, in other words the mega-bestsellers papering the walls at airport bookstores, are not very good. From their publisher's standpoint, they don't need to be; they only need to sell through to the anticipated number, derived from the popularity of the author as well as past sales figures.

In previous entries I've talked about how too many writers write two good books and then coast into writing their own formulae. They simply don't try very hard. I'm sure contractually producing a book a year, tours, other promotions, and simply time away (family, anyone?) all take their toll. I'd like to think that somewhere, sometime, some new writer will make it big with their first books, then say no to a massive book a year deal with the excuse that it will take them a year and a half or two books to maintain the quality. I'd bet they'd still get paid and we'd get better books.

In a further digression, paying eight bucks for the mass market paperback of these diminishing efforts rankles. But I won't go back there (for now, anyway).

My point here is that while you can blame the writer (ultimately you should), the publisher, or the mass market tastes of the airport/grocery store reader, you can't blame the genre. Good god, do you think you can just pick up a random mystery and be satisfied with it? I mean, some of those covers are really interesting, but still...

I always thought it would be cool if you could pick up a book put out by a certain publisher and have a notion as to how well their books would likely appeal to your taste. With the exception of a Hard Case Crime, where you always know what you'll get (except for the King book, which was in no way "hard" anything) by wonderful writers with style (except for the one author whose second HCC book comes out this year). Some of the writing may be dated, sure, but that's because some of them are reprints from the Gold Medal paperback days. Just read the original novels if you feel that way but the point is, you're in for a failry consistent reading experience when you read their stuff.

The only thing you can do as a reader is keep looking. The books are out there but probably not on the NYT list. Clancy had a good couple but receded somewhat, Grisham shot to the top but couldn't keep going, and I have no time for the gimmickry of Patterson or Koontz. I've put down David Baldacci because I don't like the writing style on page one, and likewise for David Morrell although I have one on the shelf that I'll try again. Michael Connelly seems to me as though he may try but falls short. And on and on.

Give "Eye of the Beholder" by Marc Behm a shot for a psychological thriller you haven't seen before. Or "The Skull Mantra" by Elliot Pattison for a deeply immersive though heavy read in a foreign culture. Scott Phillips ("The Ice Harvest") and Adrian McKinty ("Dead I Well May Be") perhaps haven't broken through yet but may. Allan Guthrie from Edinburgh is good, as is Domenic Stansberry. For the established writers try the Parker series by Richard Stark, the standalones by his other identity, Donald E. Westlake, or the Scudder series by Lawrence Block. And on and on.

Being disappointed by the twentieth entry of a series written by one of the fortunate few to have made their nut with their writing shouldn't surprise anyone. The economics of the system are not set up for continued quality. You need that spark of brilliance to break into the biz, but once you have established yourself, the publishers will let you coast. As long as you sell.

John Sandford, though, seems to me to be an exception all his own with his "Prey" series. Some of his books are better than others, of course, and I let him go for a few years. I did go back, though, and I noticed something: he's actually getting better. He's a mega-bestselling dude who seems to be actually trying while still putting out a book a year. My hat is off. Of course now his hero's married and has a kid and that can't be good...

Keep looking, but don't damn the genre. Skim away the top maybe, and look a bit deeper. There'll always be good ones out there somewhere. Talent will out. I think.