Straight Talk on Mystery Writing

Winning an Edgar last month had a big impact on acclaimed "literary" writer Susan Straight, who writes about the experience, and the power of mystery writing, in a page two essay in today's Los Angeles Times Book Review. She's writes, in part:

In 1996, while in a Berkeley bookstore signing my novel "The Gettin
Place," which links the Tulsa Riot of 1921 and the L.A. Riots of 1992,
I met a sociology professor who told me only mystery writers truly
delineate and fully imagine America's often overlooked landscapes. He
taught a class using only mysteries, and told me mine would be joining
the syllabus.

It was one of the most gratifying things anyone has ever said
to me, and I felt that way during the Edgars, when I watched the
convivial, joking mystery writers pay tribute to one another and
realized how many of their books I've loved. The propulsive plots, the
dialogue, the intricate detail of murders and clues and geography. What
Edgar Allan Poe did — frighten us while fascinating us, digging deep
at the part inside us that we recognize even in those awful characters
— is what mystery writers still do.

[…]Now I look at Edgar's
downcast, black-brushed eyes and hope to write something dark and noir
again, something to take readers into places and souls where they might
never otherwise dare to venture. *

What’s Next? Are Restaurants Going to Charge Us For Dishes and Silverware?

American Airlines is charging domestic travelers $15 for their first piece of checked luggage. USA Today reports:

Blaming extraordinary fuel prices, American Airlines (AMR)
said Wednesday it plans for the first time to charge many passengers
$15 on top of airfares to check one suitcase on a domestic flight.

If American follows through, many domestic
passengers who check two bags this summer will pay $40 extra each way
in addition to much higher airfares than last summer.

Buying Praise

The following comment from Bill Williams was posted in the back-blog discussion a blog entry of mine regarding an iUniverse author who feels that I’ve "pissed on her parade" by slamming vanity presses. Her book was positively reviewed by, which is notorious as a place to go to buy positive customer reviews and have them posted on Amazon (I wrote about them back in 2004).


I checked with a friend of mine who had a positive review of a book
of his posted on the website. He said that he had not
paid for the review and it was one that had been cross-posted at by the reviewer. Was my friend lying or can you get a review
at that site without making payment?


I replied:

Your friend is probably telling you the truth. I just looked myself up on and, lo and behold, found many of my books reviewed there…all by Harriet Klausner.

It seems that Klausner’s reviews are cross-posted there as well as on a dozen other sites and blogs. I suspect your friend was reviewed by her as well.

However, her reviews on Amazon are credited to her, NOT When the reviews are posted on Amazon, "" is usually noted as the reviewer. reviews are not taken seriously by anyone because of their reputation of being bought-and-paid-for…and thus worthless.

I quote from the site:

"Get your book listed on!

Our Express Review Service guarantees that your book is placed at the top of the reviewers’ pile. At a cost of $125 per book, this service guarantees that one of our professional reviewers will read and review your book within 15 business days of receiving it. The review will be posted on as well as and will be eligible to become a Book of the Month. Please send bound books only. No .pdf files or unbound manuscripts.

Once the review is completed, you are free to use any part of it in your promotional materials as long as is credited.

Publishers, Publicists and Literary Agents can click here to check out our Bulk Discount Program.

Do I have to purchase an Express Review in order to appear in your database?

    No. You can submit your book through our regular review channels. We receive hundreds of books each day and can give attention to only a small fraction of them. Simply submitting your book does not guarantee that it will be read and having your book read by one of our reviewers does not guarantee a review. Only purchasing an Express Review guarantees a review.

They also suggest:

Some hints for new authors:

   1. Our reviewers love collecting autographed books. Sign your book before sending it and you’ll have a much better chance of getting read.
   2. Please don’t send us a loose manuscript. Convert it to Palm Reader format and send it via email if you haven’t got a bound version. Or take it to a Kinko’s and have them bind it for you.
   3. If you’ve submitted your book correctly and you haven’t seen a review posted after a month, feel free to email us. If you still don’t see a review, it is likely that your book didn’t inspire the reviewer who chose it. If you’d like us to pass it on to another reviewer, you can email us the request. Remember, we prefer not to post negative reviews, so if we don’t like it, we probably won’t review it.
   4. If you passionately believe in your book, and you are having trouble getting it reviewed, please check out our New Author Listing and Express Review Service. "

What’s interesting is that even though you can buy a review…and in BULK… and get preferential treatment if your book is signed…they still pretend to be objective and unbiased. This is how, in part, they describe themselves collectively in their Amazon reviewer profile:

"[..]We pledge to offer unbiased reviews of books from a variety of publishers on a multitude of subjects and genres. Established in 1996, we also offer Express Review Service and New Author Listings"

Funny, they don’t mention when touting their lack of bias that you can buy a review for $125…but that’s because they don’t see an ethical problem with paying for a review, as they explain in their FAQ:

"Does purchase of an Express Review guarantee a good review?

    No. Our reputation was built on honest, straightforward reviews and we will not compromise our integrity by posting false reviews. Please use our Express Review service only if you believe deeply in your work.

Will anyone know I’ve purchased a review?

    No. You are paying for the right to go to the top of the review pile. Your review will be as unbiased as any other review on our site, so there is no reason to flag it as a "paid" review."

The writer who emailed me, and criticized my stance on iUniverse, was not reviewed by Klausner…but by, which would indicate that the review was probably purchased. That said, I suppose there is a slim possibility that the review was not purchased…in which case, I owe her a sincere apology.

The Mail I Get

I got this email today:

Who the hell you are indeed!
Happened to come across
your website and couldn’t believe all the crap you have written about
iuniverse. I did publish with them not because I had a choice, but
because none of the so called legitimate publishers would take a look
at anything that is written by a person like me.   
Why am
I bothering writing to you? Because, indirectly, you are raining on my
parade. And I do not like it!

It’s not my problem that you have a hard time facing the truth. iUniverse is a vanity press, pure and simple.  iUniverse isn’t a publisher. They are a printer. They will print anything from anyone as long as the customer has a credit card. You still haven’t been published, you have merely gone to the online equivalent of Kinkos to have your manuscript printed in something resembling a paperback book.

Of course you "had a choice."  When genuine publishers declined to publish your manuscript, you chose to pay to have it printed by an online printing company rather than rewrite it, or stick it in a drawer, or move on to something else. 

The fact is, you still haven’t been published. You are deluding yourself if you think otherwise. In all likelihood, you will never get anything close to your investment back. That is the reality.

UPDATE: For the heck of it, I looked up the author’s POD book. Not only did she pay iUniverse to print it, she also paid to give her a positive review. How sad.

UPDATE 5-17-08: She wrote to me again. She wrote, in part:

What you are stating is from the point of view of
someone seeking recognition and making a living from writing. However, there are
people like me who do not share your ambitions. As long as my book gets in the
library, on the shelve of a bookstore, or is available through thousands of
retailers all over the world so people who share my concerns on particular
issues can buy my books, I have achieved my goal.

I replied, in part:

That’s the fallacy.
iUniverse books DON’T get into libraries, on the shelves of bookstores, or into
thousands of retailers all over the world. They have no distribution. They are not available in brick-and-mortar stores. Your book
can be found at web sites like iUniverse (and who shops there??) and Amazon, though even that will be ending soon, since they will stop carrying POD
titles that they don’t print themselves. The fact is, 99% of booksellers and libraries won’t touch a
print-on-demand, vanity press title.

I am glad you are a happy
customer of iUniverse…that’s great. But that doesn’t negate any of the things
I have said about them or the vanity press industry…or how they prey on the
desperation and gullibility of aspiring authors, whether you want to make a
living as one or not.

She also wrote:

All that speculations about my personal circumstances are nothing more
than a demonstration of pointless arrogance. I did not sent you an email to
seek some sort of validation from you, to ask your advice or to open my eyes to
the "truth". It was the  fact that in your obsessive–smart ass attitude
towards  iuniverse–you forgot, or failed to make the distinction between the
institution and the people who benefit from its existence. It shows certain lack
of imagination when one can’t separate one from the other. Pissing on people’s
parade (I have been too generous in using the conventional metaphor) is not
the right way to get even with iuniverse or any other ‘vanity press’.
Thank Goodness, we do not share the same perception of reality, for I do
not live in your bubble.

Hell of a Good Book

For book lovers, the pleasure and discovery of browsing through a bookstore’s shelves can never be replaced or replicated by visiting an online site.

A couple of months ago, I was browsing through an independent bookstore in Mendocino, California and happened upon HELL AT THE BREECH by Tom Franklin, which was published in 2003 and yet was still stocked on the shelves as a new title. Imagine a chain bookstore holding on to a title that long. I doubt I ever would have discovered the book otherwise.

I finally got around to reading HELL AT THE BREECH in two long, blissful sittings this week, finishing it at 2:30 this morning, invigorated and wishing the book wasn’t finished. The experience was like re-uniting with an old lover. The pleasure of reading this fine novel brought back memories of all the hours I’d spent reading good books in my life….huddled in my sleeping bag in a cabin at Loon Lake, sitting on the boardwalk in Capitola, sunbathing on a chaise lounge at my grandfather’s place in Palm Springs, lying in the bathtub with my head propped on a wet towel, laying in a hammock with my baby daughter asleep on my chest etc…. and all the associations that came with them, like the smell of suntan lotion, the fresh-caught trout in Nana’s smoker, the soap bubbles in the bathtub, the baby lotion on my daughter’s skin. A good book can do a lot more than simply entertain and pass the time.

HELL AT THE BREECH is one of those books. It’s a wonderfully entertaining book, the best western I’ve read since LONESOME DOVE, though far be it for any of the critics who raved about it….and there were many…to concede it’s a western. The closest anyone came was to refer to it as "historical fiction."

The book is full of vividly drawn, complex characters…violence, humor, and powerful imagery.  There are many moving scenes and darkly funny moments…and many masterful descriptions of people, places, expressions and emotions.  I often found myself re-reading passages just to experience the beautifully-evoked images and moments again…and to marvel at Franklin’s prose, wishing I had his talent. It’s a book that will make you eager to read another book to recapture that pleasure…and, if you are like me, it will inspire you to write.