Mark Smith on Writing “The Death of The Detective”

My friend Mark Smith’s The Death of the Detective is widely considered to be one of the best detective novels ever written…and was a National Book Award finalist. It was a honor for me to be able to republish it this last month through my company, Brash Books.  I’ve asked Mark  to share the story of how his remarkable book was written. 

Death of the Detective Front CoverI think it was Heywood Hale Broun who said, “When a professional man is doing the best work of his life, he will be reading only detective novels,” or words similar. I hope, even at my age, I have my best work ahead of me, but when I was writing The Death of the Detective, in my leisure hours I was exhausting the classic English who-dun-its written between the Wars, favoring Dorothy Sayers and Freeman Wills Croft, while also re-reading Raymond Chandler and re-discovering Nero Wolfe. In this regard I shared the addiction with the likes of William Butler Yeats, William Faulkner and FDR, among others.

My first two novels, the companion novels, Toyland and House Across the White (original title, The Middleman), were psychological thrillers and a modern retelling of a fairy tale. Before taking on the ghost story, my fourth novel, The Moon Lamp, I settled on my favorite genre, the detective story. Originally sketched out as something of a short story in which the detective in his quest of a killer discovers only his victims, with each murder leading both men to the next, the book became seriously ambitious when I added the moral and ironic complication of the detective himself being somehow responsible for the deaths by reason of his continued pursuit of the killer. This seemed to me a wonderful metaphor for the America of my time and place. And the detective as my representative American—or hero, if you wish. So much better for an urban environment than a cowboy.

The novel became enlarged when I added an interwoven subplot of young people and a minor plot of gangsters and made the killer’s victims believable round characters who were either sympathetic or interesting, so that, in a departure from the genre and the movies, the reader would be emotionally effected when their deaths occurred. After all, the tradition in Chicago writing, from Dreiser to Bellow, is compassion. Adding to the novel’s length was my recreation of each particular setting where the corpses were found strewn across the landscape of what is now called ‘Chicagoland”, thereby involving as many varied localities as I could in the crimes.

Many readers would say Chicago was the main character in the book, a response that surprised and disappointed me. Only years later did I come to find there was some justification for this observation. In my day, Chicago, for guys like me, was pretty much an open city, and I felt free to venture where I pleased. After high school, I worked as a mucker (sandhog) digging the subway extension beneath the post office, was a tariff clerk for the CBQ Railroad, the timekeeper on the foundation work for the Inland Steel Building and a merchant seaman on the Great Lakes before graduating from Northwestern University and living on the Gold Coast– across from the Ambassador East, no less.

Some readers, including allegedly mafioso and their children, have claimed the gangster plot is the best piece of the book, and that the gangsters are entirely believable, recognizable characters, perhaps something of a first in American fiction. The question asked then, is how did I come by my insights and knowledge? Henry James said writers should “receive straight impressions from life”, a piece of advice I find irrefutable for a naturalistic writer. Lo and behold, at the age of sixteen I worked as a busboy one summer at a nightclub-restaurant on the outskirts of Chicago owned by a former Capone mobster that was frequented by his fellows in the trade, alone (sometimes to play cards in a closed-off dining room), or with their families. These people not only became human to me, they became ordinary, and for a writer, now accessible to the play of his imagination. For example, I witnessed the tipsy top mobster in Chicago at closing time fail miserably in his attempt to pick up a not-so-exciting waitress, while my boss, a rather comic character who reminded me of Lou Costello ( a new restaurant in the area that threatened to be competition for his restaurant was bombed that summer every time it tried to open) would show up at the restaurant furious after losing a bundle at the track and order the help to drain all the nearly empty catsup bottles into new bottles. Without these contacts I suppose I would have had to take my gangsters from the cliches of movies and television (pre-Sopranos) and yes, probably from crime novels, also.

Mark Smith
Mark Smith

I have a couple of regrets about the novel. I notice a reviewer claimed I had predicted the practice of criminal profiling. If so, I’m not sure where that occurs in the novel. However I did make two predictions that came true that I cut from the book when I reduced its original text by some twenty percent which included not only blubber but the author’s commentary, prophecies and missteps into outright fantasy. One was the prediction that we would suffer from some new and deadly sexually transmitted disease which I changed to suggest old-fashioned syphilis. It seemed to me that given our new libertine sexual proclivities with limitless partners that such was likely to occur. Hence, soon thereafter, Aids. The other was my direct assertion that the mindless violence on film and television not only deadened us to the pain of violence, but encouraged violence, making it a centerpiece of our culture, a notion that was dismissed as hogwash at the time, but seemed an obvious cause and effect to me. Today this observation is pretty much accepted. So much for my career as Nostradamus.

A final admission. Although the Viet Nam war is never mentioned in this novel, and occurred after the time this novel takes place, it occurred during the time I was writing it with the nightly death count on the news. I like to tell myself my rage against that misadventure, along with my nostalgic love-hate relationship with the lost Chicago of my childhood and youth, were the energy sources behind the novel’s composition. It could even be said, with some hyperbole, that I wrote this book alone in my study in place of publically marching with the thousands demonstrating in the street.

One of my great pleasures of publishing this book, along with receiving a nomination for the National Book Award and seeing the novel on the New York Times paperback bestseller list, were the invitations to join the Mystery Writers of America and the British Crime Writers Association.

The Death of the Detective is available from Brash Books, Toyland and The House Across the White, from Foreverland Press.

How to Write a Crime Novel When You’re Afraid of Cops

The Big Keep by Melissa Olson
The Big Keep by Melissa Olson

To write her hot new crime novel  The Big Keep, my friend author Melissa Olson had to spend a lot of time in police stations, which meant conquering her fear of cops. Here’s how she did it…

I’ve been a little bit afraid of the police for as long as I can remember.

Maybe it’s because I was a child of the movies, where being a police officer is never just someone’s job; it’s a larger-than-life identity. Onscreen, a person and a badge are much bigger than just the sum of those two parts. Movie and TV cops are usually a representation of authority itself, charged with the power to do anything from ruin your day to kill you and make it look like an accident, Dirty Harry-style.

Or maybe I’m just afraid of cops because an encounter with the police represents getting in trouble, and I was never one for trouble. I never even had a detention; the idea of getting arrested in terrifying to me. I prefer my conflict on literary terms only, thank you very much.

At any rate, after a long path that wound from Wisconsin to Los Angeles and back, I ended up becoming a fiction writer. And despite my fear, I eventually found myself writing about a couple of very large, very famous police departments: first the LAPD (In Dead Spots and its sequels) and then later, the Chicago Police Department (in The Big Keep).  While I was writing these books I decided to adopt a “forewarned is forearmed” attitude with some serious research, but that wasn’t always reassuring – for example, the CPD Wikipedia page alone has a long list of scandals and coverups for your perusal. It’s a skewed sample of what these departments actually do, of course, but it’s still intimidating as hell.

Before long I began checking over my shoulder as I wrote, half-convinced that at any moment the cops would knock on my door, angry that I was making them too cartoonish or too intense. I’m not much of a speeder to begin with, but by the time The Big Keep was in edits I was keeping a careful eye on the rearview mirror, especially whenever I found myself in Chicago. It’s only paranoia until you’re pulled over for a brake light that isn’t broken.

All right, I may be exaggerating the danger just a touch. Eventually, I got past these early anxieties and realized that the only way to write cops is to write people who work as cops. Although some television shows (not written by Lee Goldberg, of course) may depict all police in black hats or white hats, the truth is that real police officers come in as many shades of gray as any other group of people. In The Big Keep, there are kind, thoughtful cops, like the protagonist’s friend Sarabeth Warrens, and there are vulgar asshole cops, too, like her partner Flanagan and his cronies. But all of them have their own histories and motivations, because they’re still characters, modeled on people, and brought to life as part of a larger story. I made myself remember that having a badge may give you authority, but it doesn’t make you one-dimensional. And hopefully that comes through in my novel.

I might stay out of Chicago for awhile, though. Just in case.

Melissa Olson was born and raised in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and studied film and literature at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After graduation, and a brief stint bouncing around the Hollywood studio system, Melissa landed in Madison, WI, where she eventually acquired a master’s degree from UW-Milwaukee, a husband, a mortgage, a teaching gig, two kids, and two comically oversized dogs, not at all in that order. She loves Madison, but still dreams of the food in LA. Literally. There are dreams. Learn more about Melissa, her work, and her dog at www.MelissaFOlson.com.

Writing Advice from Owensboro

The Chase

As some of you may know, the finale of  The Chase, which I co-wrote with Janet Evanovich, is set in and around Owensboro & Hawesville Kentucky. Last week, author Joel Goldman & I trekked across the country to Owensboro for “An Evening with Lee & Joel,” a program put on by Riverpark Center and Daviess County Library. We talked about self-publishing, plotting, how we broke into the business, etc….and now you can see some excerpts from the event up on YouTube.

Here’s a clip of me explaining why I believe this is the Golden Age of Publishing for Authors…

Here’s Joel and I talking about how we broke into the business:

I’ll have more clips from that event up on my website in a few weeks.

Read the Contracts

It astonishes me that writers, who make their living from their words, don’t bother to read the contracts that they sign. If you want a good example of this, read the  Wall Street Journal interview with Vampire Diaries author L.J. Smith.

Vampire Diaries Cast
Vampire Diaries Cast

She was hired by Alloy Entertainment to write a horror book series that they had in mind about a woman in love with two vampires. When she signed the deal, she failed to notice that it was a work-for-hire contract and that Alloy owned the underlying rights…. because she apparently didn’t bother to read her contract.

The books were an enormous success, and inspired a TV show, but she wanted to take the series in a different direction than Alloy did. So they fired her and hired another writer to continue the series.

 Ms. Smith was stunned.

“I knew that they were a book packager, but I didn’t realize that they could take the series away from me,” she says. “I was heartbroken.”

She should have read the contract before she signed it. She was dealing with a book packager, after all. What business did she think they were in? How did she think they made their money? Okay, so she made a dumb, rookie mistake. You’d think she would have learned an important lesson from that “heart-breaking” experience. You’d be wrong.

Now that Amazon is offering people the opportunity to write, publish and sell Vampire Diaries fanfiction through their Kindle World’s platform, LJ Smith has decided to write new Vampire Diaries novels and take the series in the creative direction she always wanted it to go. But she was stunned to learn that she doesn’t own the work that she’s publishing on Kindle Worlds:

Ms. Smith says that when she began publishing her Vampire Diaries fan fiction on Amazon this past January, she wasn’t aware that she was giving up the copyright to those stories, too. Nor did she realize she’d be giving Alloy a cut of earnings from the new stories. But had she known, it wouldn’t have deterred her, she says. “It wouldn’t have stopped me,” she says. “I didn’t do these books for money. They’re entirely a labor of love.”

If Smith had bothered to read her simple, and very clear, Kindle Worlds contract, none of that would have been a surprise. I hope she takes the time to read the next publishing contract that she signs or she could end up writing entirely for love.

 

 

The Authors Guild Wants You…But Should You Want Them?

 

Novelist Richard Russo
Novelist Richard Russo

The Author’s Guild has started a membership drive and the centerpiece is a letter from author Richard Russo, who talks about all of the evils the Guild is protecting us from and all the good things they do for writers. The Guild does some good, that’s true. Their legal services are hugely helpful to authors, especially those who otherwise couldn’t afford lawyers. But lately, I’ve been dismayed, and at times outraged, by the Guild’s wrong-headed stance towards Amazon and ebooks… and am seriously considering *not* renewing my membership to demonstrate my disagreement. The Guild’s antiquated thinking, misrepresentations, and outright fear-mongering is very hard to take or to justify.  At times, they seem more interested in protecting publishers and agents than the interests of any writer who isn’t already a superstar. My friend Joe Konrath summed up my feeling well on his blog today:

The Authors Guild under Scott Turow’s leadership has done an awe-inspiring job of trying to maintain the antiquated status quo, where publishers coveted their power and treated most authors poorly; technology is considered the devil’s sorcery; and Amazon is Satan himself.

In that blog post,  Joe and Barry Eisler go through Richard Russo’s wrong-headed letter point-by-point and do an excellent job revealing the flaws in his arguments (all of which seems to be based on his own fears and baseless assumptions rather than any actual facts). What follows are two excerpts from Richard’s letter interspersed with Joe & Barry’s rebuttals:

Richard: It wasn’t always so, but for the last two decades I’ve lived the life most writers dream of: I write novels and stories, as well as the occasional screenplay, and every now and then I hit the road for a week or two and give talks. In short, I’m one of the blessed, and not just in terms of my occupation. My health is good, my children grown, their educations paid for. I’m sixty-four, which sucks, but it also means that nothing that happens in publishing—for good or ill—is going to affect me nearly as much as it affects younger writers, especially those who haven’t made their names yet. Even if the e-price of my next novel is $1.99, I won’t have to go back to cage fighting.

Joe: Here begins the fundamental disconnect.

Richard, aren’t you aware there are thousands of writers making a living from $1.99 ebooks? That what you considered to be a slight (and, actually, it may indeed be a slight when your publisher pays you 35 cents on a $1.99 ebook when I can make $1.36 on a $1.99 ebook using Amazon Select Countdown) in fact represents liberation for writers–and for readers?

Inexpensive ebooks aren’t what make authors dig into their retirement funds. Or fight in cage matches. It’s quite the opposite. I’ve made my million bucks this year pricing my backlist at $3.99 and under. And my books weren’t available in every bookstore, airport, drugstore, and department store.

In fact, my books weren’t available in ANY bookstore, airport, drugstore, or departments store.

Richard: Still, if it turns out that I’ve enjoyed the best the writing life has to offer, that those who follow, even the most brilliant, will have to settle for less, that won’t make me happy and I suspect it won’t cheer other writers who’ve been as fortunate as I. It’s these writers, in particular, that I’m addressing here.

Barry Eisler
Barry Eisler

Barry: What is this based on? “…those who follow, even the most brilliant, will have to settle for less.” Where is the evidence for this? Because all the evidence with which I’m familiar indicates the opposite–including, for example, that a quarter of the top Kindle 100 books are self-published. Ignoring–or denying–the fact that thousands of authors are now making good livings outside the legacy system is at this point like arguing the earth is flat.

So Richard, I’m asking you: given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary (just click on the links in the paragraph above to get started), what is the basis for your fear that you and legacy publishing are all that’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and that it’s all downhill from here? Do you have any real-world evidence at all in favor of the proposition? If so, why do you not cite it?

I am not in complete lock-step with the opinions expressed by my friends Joe and Barry. For example, they don’t see piracy as a threat to the livelihoods of novelists and other artists. I certainly do, though I don’t copy-protect my books (except THE HEIST, but that’s outside of my control). That may seem like a contradiction, but I want people to be able to read my book on whatever device they own. And I believe the book culture is one that’s historically been built on people sharing books they love — essentially “hand selling” without exchanging currency — with their friends. What bothers me is when I find my books on file sharing sites being downloaded by the thousands and I don’t see a penny. What I’m sure Joe and Barry would argue is that it’s evidence of my popularity, that I am now gaining thousands of new fans who will eventually buy one of my books and spread positive word of mouth. They may be right, but I’m not convinced yet. I think if someone can download all 15 of my Monk books with one click that they will wait until they can find my new books for free rather than buy them. But I have no evidence to support that fear…nor, I suspect, do Joe and Barry have any to support their belief that piracy enhances sales.

Regardless of my disagreements with some of their stances, and the fact that their dissection of Richard’s letter may be a little too strident and snarky at times, overall they make some very strong, intelligent, and persuasive points that are well worth your consideration. And yes, I am speaking to you, Authors Guild.

Booksigning Hell Remembered

20x30_Remaindered_Novel_Way_FestivalsAny author who was published back in the pre-ebook days can tell you stories about some horrible booksignings. I did a signing years ago in a now-defunct Newport Beach bookstore. Not a single soul showed up. So the store clerk plopped herself down in the seat beside me.

“This is great,” she said.

“How so?” I replied.

“I can read you some of my erotic poetry,” she flipped open a thick notebook filled with illegible scrawl, and began to read. “Hello, He throbbed…”

I looked at my watch. I was scheduled to be there another hour-and-thirty minutes. And my wife had my car…

“My wife should be here any minute,” I said.

Her breasts swelled, waves of lust on a sea of passion…”

* * * * * *

Another signing, this one at a Waldenbooks in the South Bay, where I was stuck at a cardtable at the front of the store. Only one person even approached me. She wanted to know where the diet books were.

After two hours of boredom, I approached the manager and thanked her for having me.

“Would you like me to sign the stock?” I asked.

She looked at me in horror. “No way!”

“Why not?” No one had ever said no to me signing stock before.

“None our customers are going to buy a marred book!”

* * * * * *

I fictionalized one of my favorite bad booksignings for my short story REMAINDERED, which appeared in “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine,” a few years back and was later adapted into a short film. Rather then tell it like it was, here’s a bit from the story instead…

The voice of a new generation sat at the end of aisle 14, where the house wares department ended and the book section began. He peered over the neat stack of paperbacks on the table in front of him and, once again, as politely as he could, told the irritable woman in the orange tank top and slouchy breasts that he had absolutely no idea where she could find wart remover.

“You’re not being much of a help,” she snapped, leaning one hand on her shopping cart, which was filled with disposable diapers, Weight Watchers Frozen Dinners, Captain Crunch, a sack of dry dog food, a box of snail poison and three rolls of paper towel. “Look at this, it’s doubled in size just this week.”

She thrust a finger in his face, making sure he got a good look at the huge wart on her knuckle.

“I don’t work here,” he replied.

“Then what are you doing sitting at a help desk?”

“This isn’t a help desk. I’m an author,” he said. “I’m autographing my book.”

She seemed to notice the books for the first time and picked one up. “What’s it about?”

He hated that question. That’s what book covers were for.

“It’s about an insomniac student who volunteers for a sleep study and falls into an erotic relationship with a female researcher that leads to murder.”

“Are there cats in it?” she asked, flipping through the pages.

“Why would there be a cat in it?”

“Because cats make great characters,” she dropped his book back on the stack, dismissing it and him with that one economical gesture. “Don’t you read books?”

“I do,” he replied. “I must have missed the ones with cats.”

“I like cat books, especially the ones where they solve murders. If you’re smart, you’ll write a cat book.” And with that, she adjusted her bra strap and rolled away in search of a potion to eradicate her warts.

Report from Bouchercon Albany

Joel Goldman, Lee Goldberg, Jeffery Deaver at Bouchercon Albany
Joel Goldman, Lee Goldberg, Jeffery Deaver at Bouchercon Albany

The success of a Bouchercon has less to do with the venue, and the organization of the conference, than with the collective vibe of the people who attend…which is a good thing, because this was the worst location, and the most poorly organized, Bouchercon I’ve ever been to. That said, the people were great and I had an absolutely terrific time.

So let’s start with the good part. I’m long past attending the Bouchercons for the panels or the special guests…I rarely go to any panels or interviews anymore. I go to Bouchercon to see old friends, to get introduced to new authors and new books, to meet with my editors and executives from the publishing companies that I work for, to buy books, to talk shop, and to pick up the latest news in my little corner of the industry. I spend almost all of my time in the book room, or in the corridors of the conference center, or going to parties, or hanging out for hours in the hotel bar, talking with editors, authors, readers and booksellers. I usually come away from the event re-energized, full of new ideas, and armed with a fresh understanding of the marketplace. All of that happened this time.

What I like best is when I bump into people I’ve long admired but have never met…like Dexter producer Clyde Phillips and Law & Order SVU writer Jonathan Greene… or have a chance encounter with authors I’ve never met before that leads to long and interesting conversations….and that happened with Chris Povone and Jamie Mason, among others…or get to meet enthusiastic readers of my books…and I met many of them. I was especially thrilled to hear how much they liked The Heist. What really surprised me was how many of those fans were men.

I chatted with scores of authors, including Sue Grafton, Harlan Coben, Joseph FinderAlison Gaylin, Zoe Sharp,, Roger Hobbs, Jeffery Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, Matt Hilton,  John Lawton, Lisa Lutz, Dick Lochte, Hannah Dennison, and Hy Conrad, to name just a few. The big topics of conversation, of course, revolved around the massive changes in the publishing industry…all prompted by the big elephant in the room: Amazon.

Kentucky Colonels Sue Grafton and Lee Goldberg at Bouchercon
Kentucky Colonels Sue Grafton and Lee Goldberg at Bouchercon

And Amazon was there in force… at least in terms of the editors from Amazon Publishing and their many authors in attendance, among them my friends Kendra Elliot, Melinda Leigh, 2013 Anthony award winner Johnny Shaw, John Rector, 2013 Anthony Award winner Dana CameronSean Chercover, Joel Goldman, Max Allan Collins, and Helen Smith. But Amazon was also strongly represented by the many professional authors and attendees who are using KDP, their self-publishing platform, to republish their out-of-print backlists (in the case of the pros) as well as new books (in the case of pros and “newbies” alike), a list that includes big names like Lawrence Block, as well as lesser known, but successful, authors like Stacey Cochran.

There’s no question that the explosion of self-publishing, the emergence of Amazon’s imprints (two of their Thomas & Mecer authors scored Anthonys for best novel and best short story), and the Kindle device have changed everything…and authors trying to figure out where they fit in, where the best opportunities are, where the pitfalls are, and how all of this changes their approach to both the business and craft of writing. The big takeaway is that this is an exciting time to be a novelist…perhaps the best ever. Authors have choices they never had before, especially those of us who have been at this a while. But what about new authors? What is the path to success in this rapidly changing landscape? Where do agents fit into it all now? All of that is far less clear…at least from the vantage point of the Albany convention center last weekend.

Look closely and you'll see John Saxon running from the lesbian overlords of future earth...
Look closely and you’ll see John Saxon running from the lesbian overlords of future earth…

Which brings me to the venue, which had all the charm of a bus station men’s room, minus the urinals. The windowless pit was buried beneath the Empire State Plaza, which looked like a matte painting from a busted, 1970s Gene Roddenberry sf pilot. Finding your way into that bleak pit required a sherpa… or directions from one of the many crack addicts, toothless meth-heads, smelly panhandlers or opportunistic drug dealers on the streets surrounding the far-flung hotels where everybody had to stay (the convention center was virtually inaccessible for the handicapped). The conference rooms where the panels were held had terrible accoustics and the ambiance of police interrogation cells. The only author who probably felt at home in them was Marcia Clark.

Because bleak, destitute downtown Albany revolves around government workers, everything shuts down early in the afternoon and is closed up on weekends…those few places that already boarded up or out-of-business… meaning there was no place to eat on Saturday and Sunday….unless you wanted to wander into crack alley for a soggy burger or go back to the understaffed, woefully unprepared Hilton Albany, the nearest hotel…where even if you got served, it was a crapshoot whether inedible meal that was delivered was the one you actually ordered. The bar was even worse.

What were the Bouchercon organizers thinking when they picked this shithole? Who knows. But I can tell you this, Long Beach next year will be a big improvement…and I’ve already booked my tickets.

The Unsung Pros of Crime Novels and Westerns

Robert VaughanThere are scores of professional writers out there who are incredibly prolific, sell huge numbers of crime novels and westerns, and yet are virtually unknown. One of those writers is Robert Vaughan, who has sold 40 million books, mostly westerns. He was interviewed about his under-the-radar career recently and he’s pretty frank about his lack of celebrity.

I have written well over 400 books. If I had written every one of those books under my own name, Robert Vaughan would be a name that is immediately recognized. I would have established something of value that my survivors could capitalize on after I die…(such as I am doing for others now….continuing the name of a deceased author for the benefit of his survivors). Don’t get me wrong. I am also benefiting from this name….but with this author….and with two others, I have had seven books make it onto the NYT best seller list. Two novels, LOVE’S BOLD JOURNEY, and LOVE’S SWEET AGONY, which I wrote as Patricia Matthews, made number one on the list. In 1981, I sold 6 million books. In my life time, I have probably sold 40 million books, but nobody knows who I am.

But I bet he didn’t really have a choice. Like many writers, me included, he probably took the jobs that came along to pay the bills (do you think I wanted  to write for The New Adventures of Flipper or Baywatch?) and didn’t necessarily take a long-range view of what the cumulative effect might be on his career.

I have enormous respect for authors like Vaughan. They are true craftsman, and don’t get nearly the attention, or financial compensation, that they deserve for their crimes novels and westerns. I’m talking about pros like James Reasoner, Mel Odom, Bill Crider, Robert Randisi, Ed Gorman, Raymond Obstfeld, Mike Newton, Chet Cunningham, Donald Bain, to name a few… guys who can write just about anything in any genre…thrillers novels, crime novels, western novels, romance novels and do it well.  And who have ghost-written scores of books, or toiled under house names (a pseudonym created by a publisher or book packager for a novel or series of books), while others repeated the lion’s share of profits from their efforts. A few such writers have emerged from the shadows into wide popularity… guys like Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, John Harvey, and John Jakes… but most toil in obscurity, writing sometimes hundreds of books in virtual anonymity as “work-for-hire” authors.

But I believe that is finally changing, thanks to Amazon and the e-book revolution. There has been a massive shift in the economics of publishing, and it’s increasingly becoming financially impractical for a prolific, self-starting professional author to toil in the “work-for-hire” field,  where you don’t own the copyright, advances can be as low as $3000, and royalties as pitiful as 1 or 2%…if you get any at all.  When-Hell-Came-To-Texas-183x300

More and more writers who used to live on work-for-hire gigs are now turning to self-publishing…which offers them the opportunity to own their books, make more money, and become known for their work. For example, Crider, Odom and Reasoner are writing and publishing the Rancho Diablo westerns… just the kind of “house name” series they used to toil on as anonymously “work-for-hire” writers with no ownership stake.

Vaughan, meanwhile, has a new western out under his own name (When Hell Came to Texas) and is also writing romances for Pocket Books with his wife Ruth under the pen-name “Sara Luck.”

And though the Sara Luck books don’t have my name, Ruth and I at least own the name.

And that means something.

 

On the Lam

Marcus Sakey, Lee Goldberg, Sean Chercover and Ann Voss Petersen at On The Lamb. Photo by John Rector
Marcus Sakey, Lee Goldberg, Sean Chercover and Ann Voss Petersen at On The Lamb. Photo by John Rector

Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint brought their authors up to Seattle last weekend to meet with their executives and editors over dinners, parties and meetings…..and to talk shop at a conference entitled “On The Lam” that was open to invited members of the public. It was an amazing experience.

The best thing about  the “On the Lam” conference were the numerous, and lengthy, opportunities we had to meet, and spend time with, the Amazon executives and editors. It gave us a real chance to develop personal relationships with them rather than the typical short encounters you have at Bouchercon, etc.

 The first full day began with a breakfast meeting at Amazon HQ where the heads of their various departments gave us confidential briefings on the current status on all aspects of the Amazon Publishing program and the many initiatives they have in the works for the coming year. It was very interesting and I wish I could share the details…but we were sworn to secrecy. We were introduced to key department heads and went off to lunch aboard a yacht in Lake Union, where we got a chance to mingle with the execs one-on-one in a casual setting. We then broke up into groups for an afternoon cruise , a walking tour of the city , or a tour Seattle distillery tour. After the afternoon outings, we got back together for a terrific party at the Chihuly Glass Museum at the base of the Space Needle. There were a number of inspiring, short speeches by Amazon execs…and then we all mingled.

Saturday was spent in the “On the Lam” conference, where the authors in attendance were on panels moderated by Amazon editors and discussed many aspects of writing, marketing and the publishing business. The conference concluded with the authors breaking into several groups and going to dinners hosted by editors at some of Seattle’s best restaurants.

Authors Max Allan Collins and Jay Stringer
Authors Max Allan Collins and Jay Stringer
A lot of the authors and attendees have blogged enthusiastically about their experience at “On The Lam.” Author Max Allan Collins says the event was truly unprecedented:

[It]was unlike anything I’ve experienced in forty years of publishing. The T & M crew flew in 75 authors from hither and yon – “yon” being the UK, and hither being places like “Iowa” – simply to give those authors a chance to interact with each other, and the T & M editorial and marketing team. Editors have taken me out for lunch or breakfast many times, and publishers often have cocktail parties at Bouchercon and/or take authors out for a group dinner. But this was different.

For one thing, this conference was almost exclusively attended by one publisher’s writers. For the Saturday panels, family and friends and some local writers group members were in the audience, but mostly this was writers talking to other writers (and to editors). All weekend, the kinds of conversations usually only heard in secluded corners of bars at Bouchercon hotels was the up-front order of the day.

Barb and I both found it interesting and illuminating, and the generosity of T & M toward their authors was damn near mind-boggling. Everybody had a gift bag with a Kindle Paperwhite in it, for example…

The freebies went beyond that. There were t-shirts, notebooks, pens, umbrellas, and plenty of copies of the T&M books. Our money was no good at the restaurants and bars in the hotel. But it wasn’t the swag or meals that impressed me… it was the message that the gifts, and the event, underscored about Amazon’s attitude towards their authors: we appreciate you. We are in this together.

Author Helen Smith shows off some of her Amazon swag.
Author Helen Smith shows off some of her Amazon swag.

Author Christine Kling blogged about it on day one of the conference:

I guess you could say that in the 21st century with the advent (invent) of the Kindle, traditional publishing has come under siege. There is a war going on for eyeballs on screens. Authors are the ones who produce much that content that goes on the screens. It sometimes seems like the legacy publishers have forgotten that, but this is something that Amazon knows at the core of their corporate structure. I’ve been here 24 hours now and all I hear (and see) is how Amazon puts the author at the center of all business equations.

[…] all the talk among the authors was about how we, as authors, have never been treated so well by a publisher. They really want our opinions on covers, and when we say we think there should be changes, they go back to the drawing board and try again. They pay better royalties and they do so monthly. We have an online dashboard where we can see actual sales by the next day, so we always know how many books we’ve sold, and our final royalty statements are available online about fifteen days after the close of the month’s period.

Author Charlie Williams notes how lots of people like to depict Amazon as an evil empire …but that’s not how the company feels to authors or to customers.

You may have heard negative things about them, things about monopolies and doing the independents out of business and destroying the publishing industry. Well, all I can say is that they know how to treat an author. And if they treat you well too, dear reader, then that’s a pretty good deal. Right? See them as the dark overlord if you like, but I can assure you that they are a bunch of bright, imaginative men and women trying to find new and better ways of doing things. And they are book people. There is a new paradigm going on and they are at the heart of it, cutting unseen shapes from the rock-face. Lucky them. Lucky you.

Seattle Space Needle
Seattle Space Needle

Author Helen Smith says On the Lam was good business, for Amazon and for authors:

 It was an opportunity for us to meet each other and spend time with the staff at Amazon Publishing, including Russ Grandinetti and Jeff Belle, as well as the people who work across all the Amazon Publishing imprints. I had met some of them before at various events in London and New York and it was a joy to spend time with them again in their home town.

The conference made author Jay Stringer give serious thought to why he writes…and the direction his career is going.

I’m three books into my career. I’m still figuring out what kind of writer I want to be. At On The Lam I got to talk to many different kinds of writer. Some have forged successful careers mixing their own work with work-for-hire, some like to sit and slowly work through their own books, one at a time, and supplement their income elsewhere. Some have long-term deals, some only worry about one contract at a time. Each of them took time to talk to me about their careers, their paths, and to help me along in deciding on mine.

“On The Lam” was even great for the attendees who weren’t Amazon authors. Erin Havel reports for the Huffington Post that she found the panel discussions packed with information…

By the end of the day I was completely inspired. I realize I could write a separate blog on each of the panel discussions, perhaps I will in the future. However, for now, this is a small glimpse at a world few beginning authors have the opportunity to see. Thank you Thomas and Mercer!

Amazon has worked very hard to make their authors feel like partners, not like outside contractors or, worse, as a necessary evil (remember Harlequin complaining a few weeks back that their profits are down because they have to pay royalties to authors?).  I certainly can’t recall any publisher doing anything like “On the Lam” before…or being so open about sharing sales information (in real time!) or paying royalties so frequently and promptly (monthly!).

It’s very important to me to establish personal relationships with the people I work with.  The “On the Lam” conference is just one of many examples that demonstrate that the executives at Amazon Publishing feel the same way.

Remembering Elmore Leonard

1185685_10151775387733930_1638378797_nElmore Leonard died today…and just about every crime writer in America owes some debt to him in their writing. I’m one of them.

The wonderful thing about Leonard’s writing is how unobtrusive it is…it gets out of the way and puts you right there with the characters. And oh, what great characters they are, each one every bit as rich and complex as those in “literary fiction,” emerging through action and dialogue rather than belabored, self-conscious prose. He knew the power of simplicity and humor to convey character, ethical issues, and the often contradictory impulses that shape what we do. His characters are never simply good or bad. Even the most vicious sociopath in one of his stories can be surprisingly likable, gentle and polite in certain situations. His cops and marshals were often more bloodthirsty and lawless than the criminals they pursued. I return to his books not just for the pleasure of a great story well told, but to learn how to say more with less (something I’ve failed to do here) and to use humor to reveal character.

I was lucky enough to meet him on two occasions, and I’d intended both times to tell him how much his writing meant to me, but that’s not what ended up happening. We didn’t talk about writing at all. We shared a few Hollywood anecdotes, but mostly we just chatted about this and that. Amusing, time-passing small talk. In some ways, that was more gratifying and revealing than me gushing over him or grilling him. The easy familiarity he could create in person was the same experience he created in his books. I realized that his writing talent came naturally, that it wasn’t so much a skill as it was an outgrowth of who he was. And that, in itself, was a writing lesson…and maybe a life lesson, too.