Thursday, July 18, 2024

Why I Write PI Fiction

 I did a blog tour a few months ago under the auspices of Goddess Fish Promotions that went quite well. I’ve yet to have time to break down the sales figures, but my Amazon royalties for May set a personal record for a single month.


Anyway, today’s post was going to discuss a piece I read on the web before vacation, but the piece appears to have been taken down; so much for that idea. I decided to repurpose one of the posts I did for the blog tour, as it seemed appropriate to wonder why I write PI fiction, seeing how I’m halfway into the next Nick Forte book, with the outlines for two more already taking shape.


(This post originally appeared in the Momma Says to Read blog on March 25.



I am sometimes asked why I write private eye fiction, as it is not the dominant sub-genre it used to be. There are several reasons.


First and probably most important, PI fiction is what I cut my reading teeth on. Encyclopedia Brown, The Thinking Machine, then, of course, Sherlock Holmes. As I grew up I discovered Mickey Spillane and Robert B. Parker. Even now four of the twelve authors on the list of those I try never to let more than  a year go past without reading are PI writers: Lawrence Block, Ken Bruen, Loren Estleman, and James D.F. Hannah. Of the twenty-four writers I try never to let more than two years go without reading, seven write PIs: Raymond Chandler, Robert Crais, James Crumley, James Ellroy (the early works), Dashiell Hammett (currently working my way through all the Continental Op stories), Dennis Lehane, and Walter Mosley. I’m a PI guy from way back.


As a writer, while I love multiple points of view where the reader knows more than any single character, it’s rewarding to spend the entire book in one person’s head. There are things I can do with first-person point of view that can’t be done as well any other way. There are limitations, as well; the reader can’t know anything the protagonist doesn’t. That can be fun to work around, too.


What might be the biggest reason I keep coming back to private eyes is I feel, when done right, it is the most elevated form of crime fiction. The history of the genre traces its roots back to Edgar Allan Poe, and the stories that put crime fiction on the map in this country are dominated by private eyes.


Bouchercon 2008 was held in Baltimore; I had not yet been published. The brilliant Irish author Declan Hughes moderated a panel where he gave an impassioned tribute to the glories of private investigator stories as the highest level of crime fiction. By the time he finished I was not just committed to the form, I was proud to be a practitioner. I wish I had a transcript of his comments.


I also write police procedurals; the PI stories fill a different niche. Cops have to take whatever cases present themselves; PIs can cherry pick a little. (At least fictional ones can.) Because the cases come in faster than cops can handle them, police detectives focus on closing files while private investigators can look for closure.


Another thing that draws me back is my membership in the Private Eye Writers of America. PWA is a group of true believers where I always feel comfortable, whether I am working on a private eye novel at the time or not. The organization is tireless in representing the interests of the genre and its practitioners, but in a low-key way I never find off-putting. Having earned two Shamus Award nominations didn’t hurt my dedication to the genre, either. I have mixed emotions about awards, but it’s always nice to be validated by one’s peers.


Off the Books is my sixth Nick Forte novel. The outline for the seventh is almost complete; extensive sketches exist for Book Eight. I’ll write him as long as the ideas keep coming. They do not seem to be ready to stop.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

"No One Buys Books"

 (Sincere thanks to Gabino Iglesias for bringing this to my attention. The summer will include several posts similar to this, all thanks to his insights and willingness to share them. If you’re not following his Substack, you really ought to.)


It has become almost a mantra for me on Facebook. A friend posts an item about a publisher and I reply, “Every time I hear something else about the publishing industry, the less I want to be a part of it.” Sometimes I go on at greater length, depending on the initial post.


I have reasons for this distaste, but the core has been eloquently summarized  by Elle Griffin in her article for The Elysian, “No one buys books.” It’s long but well worth your time if you’re a writer or aspiring write, as all professions should be viewed in the hard, cold light of day.


The purpose of Ms. Griffin’s article is to describe what was made public by industry insiders at the anti-trust trial resulting from Penguin Random House’s attempt to purchase Simom and Schuster for $2.2 billion. Keep that figure in mind, as much of the testimony revolves around the idea there’s no money to be made in publishing.


I should probably leave well enough alone, as I cannot do justice to Ms. Griffin’s piece in the space I have here, nor can I match her ability to distill the evidence from a long trial into an article. She took a year to read the book that broke down the trial; I’m not going to do that. (You can read the book if you want the gruesome details.)


What I’ll do here is describe the sense of what a writer with a borderline career thinks about all of this. Consider or ignore my comments as you see fit. As always, please feel free to comment either here or on social media.


I’ll list the headings from Ms. Griffin’s piece, with my thoughts inserted, along with a few salient quotes.


Bestsellers are rare.

Q. Do you know approximately how many authors there are across the industry with 500,000 units or more during this four-year period?

A. My understanding is that it was about 50.

Q. 50 authors across the publishing industry who during this four-year period sold more than 500,000 units in a single year?

A. Yes.

— Madeline Mcintosh, CEO, Penguin Random House US


I think we all figured something like this, but god damn. Fifty over four years?


Big advances go to celebrities.

Top-selling authors were defined as those receiving advances (i.e., guaranteed money) in excess of $250,000. Far fewer than 1 percent of authors receive advances over that mark; Publishers Marketplace, which tracks these things, recorded 233 such deals in all of 2022.

— ken whyte, Publisher at Sutherland House


This was a safe bet, too. More on this later.


Franchise authors are the other big category.

Q. Putnam typically publishes about 60 books a year. Correct?

A. 60, 65, sort of on average… I will say of those 65, though, a good portion of those are repeat authors… franchise authors that we regularly publish every year, sometimes twice a year.

— Sally Kim, SVP and Publisher, Putnam


Can you say “James Patterson” or “John Grisham?” Not only are they getting all the money, they’re squeezing the rest of us out of the available publishing slots. I don’t hold this against either author – I’m in favor of anything that gets an author paid, keeps people reading, and doesn’t involve AI-generated content – but how can publishers be that lazy or timid not to want to keep trying to develop more writers for their stables?


Publishing houses want a built-in audience.

In some of the cases, the reason they are paying big money is because the person has a big platform. And if that platform is there for the advertising, then the spend might be lower.


— Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, former Agent


I can’t blame them for this, but I’m also aware most corporations take it as the cost of doing business to build audiences for their products, whether we’re talking about cars  or dish soap.


A big audience means publishing houses don’t have to spend money on marketing.

Well, duh. Of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t spend a bunch to paper buses, subway stations, and other easily visible locations with ads when one of the big boys drops a new one, when all they’d have to do is let the word out through social media and the fans will line up to buy the book..


Publishing houses pay for Amazon placement.

Q.  Penguin Random House has hired data scientists to try and figure out these [Amazon] algorithms so that its books get better presented on Amazon than its competitors’ books?

A. One of the many efforts that we pursue, correct.

Q. And Penguin Random House pays Amazon to improve its search results?

A. There is something that is available to our publishers, it’s called Amazon Marketing Services, AMS, and all publishers can spend money and give it to Amazon to have hopefully better search results.


— Markus Dohle, CEO, Penguin Random House


We all know publishers pay independent bookstores for placement. (Cover out, front table, special displays, etc.) It’s also not improper for Amazon to feature the books it thinks people are most likely to buy. That’s what they do, sell books. Paying to juke the stats that feed the algorithms cuts the legs out from the smaller publishers and independents without Amazon acknowledging the search results that are ostensibly tailored for each reader are artificially skewed. Every day I’m one baby step closer to sending my books out free as PDFs to anyone who sends a request via social media or e-mail.


But even celebrity books don’t sell…

Just because the publisher pays $250,000 or $500,000 or $1 million for a book does not guarantee that a single person is going to buy it. A lot of what we do is unknowable and based on inspiration and optimism.”

— Michael Pietsch, CEO, Hachette


I told you we’d come back to the massive celebrity advances. There are a lot more quotes in Ms. Griffin’s article, but the gist of it is the publishers have no idea what’s going to sell. Frankly, they seem to have little idea what they’re doing. As I have said for years, publishers will freely admit they don’t know what will sell, only what won’t. And your book won’t.


Books don’t make money.

About half of the books we publish make money, and a much lower percentage of them earn back the advance we pay.


— Jonathan Karp, CEO, Simon & Schuster


Yet PRH was willing to pay $2.2 billion for S&S. If that’s not a prima facie case for people who

a.    Don’t know what they’re doing;

b.    Are at best disseminating about the money to be made;

I don’t know what is.


Oh, wait a minute.


It’s all about the backlist.

I would actually expect a book that is selling 300,000 units in a year is probably going to sell at least 400,000 or 500,000 over its life once you get backlist in there too.


Our backlist brings in about a third of our annual revenues, so $300 million a year roughly, a little less.


— Michael Pietsch, CEO, Hachette


Also known as the “long tail.” It doesn’t take Paul Krugman to figure out this is a good sales vehicle, given the primary decision factor when buying a book is author name recognition. The long tail would also benefit what used to be called the mid-list if publishers could be bothered to deal with the mid-list again, but they’d rather go the same route that has so badly damaged the film industry and bet the bank on bestsellers they already know are at best fifty-fifty to recover their money.


Amazon is the biggest threat to the industry.

Q. Are you concerned that Amazon will favor Penguin Random House Simon & Schuster in terms of promotion and distribution and discoverability?

A. Yes.


— Donald Weisberg, CEO, Macmillan Publishers


Because they’ll pay more to juke the algorithms. Just as Macmillan could do, and almost certainly does at the expense of smaller publishers.


A “Netflix of Books” would put publishing houses out of business.

We all know about Netflix, we all know about Spotify and other media categories, and we also know what it has done to some industries… The music industry has lost, in the digital transformation, approximately 50 percent of its overall revenue pool.


— Markus Dohle, CEO, Penguin Publishing House


Yet movies still get made and music produced. Maybe the publishers might want to look into a business model that provides for this. It’s harsh – and likely a death knell for small, independent booksellers – but any entity with $2.2 billion to buy a competitor has the wherewithal to adapt to the times.


Authors are getting more independent.

I think really from the advent of online—really, once the internet became popular, you know, we heard the phrase disintermediation. And I don’t understand why that wouldn’t be a possible prospect for any best selling author, to just disintermediate, to go straight to the internet and sell directly if you have a following… Colleen Hoover has published with both Amazon and Simon & Schuster. And her Amazon book was on the independent book sellers’ best seller list. So what that says to me is that a Rubicon has been crossed.


— Jonathan Karp, CEO, Simon & Schuster


Gee, I wonder why. How many of us have gone to conferences and heard how even the top sellers are regularly badgered by their publishers to write more books quicker, do more promotions, and fudge what they write to suit the publisher’s perceived audience? Who needs that bullshit?


Another publishing house bites the dust.

After the Judge denied the merger, Penguin went through a massive round of layoffs and Simon & Schuster was sold to a private equity company instead.


Private equity tends to have one game plan: buy a company, load it with debt, wring out costs to improve its financials, sell at a profit. Dealing Simon & Schuster to private equity, The New Republic warned at the time with some slight hyperbole of its own, would mean “absolute devastation and wholesale job loss.”


— ken whyte


Private equity firms are evil incarnate, cannibalizing companies and destroying jobs for the short-term profit of a few investors with no regard for an industry, or the economy. This is not unique to publishing. If these vultures didn’t see a way forward to make money from publishing, they wouldn’t buy the companies. There’s a cognitive dissonance here someone should be able to exploit at some level.


#  #  #

It’s a shitty situation, but it doesn’t have to be the nuclear winter of publishing. Baseball analyst Bill James once wrote that if Major League Baseball as we know it were to fold overnight, professional baseball would be resurrected inside of a year. Different teams in different cities, but there are too many people willing to pay to watch young men play baseball for the enterprise to disappear.


There are also too many readers willing to pay money to read for books to go away. The business model may change – it almost has to – but books will always be around in some form because there will always be people willing to pay to read them. To those who say the reading public is aging out, I say there are more old people on the way, and old people read more as other, more physical activities are denied them.


We’re living through an historical sea change, and history is never as clean, or inevitable, as books make it sound fifty or a hundred years later. It’s messy, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s a little like wrestling with a pig: you both get dirty, and the pig likes it.


But that doesn’t mean you can’t come out ahead if you stick with it.




Thursday, July 4, 2024

An Interview with Charlie Stella, Author of Joey Piss Pot

 Charlie Stella is a force of nature. No one – no one – has done more to advance my career, or been more supportive to me, both as a writer and as a friend. I was delighted to hear Charlie was back in the crime fiction pool and couldn’t wait to get ahold of his newest, Joey Piss Pot (available today, July 5!) so I could grill him about it.


One Bite at a Time: Not that I haven’t enjoyed your recent books, but I was delighted to see you get back into mob fiction, as no one writes it quite the way you do. You’ve carved out a niche for showing the underside of mob activity, but in Joey Piss Pot you describe a lifestyle on its last legs. Tony Soprano once said he had the feeling he was coming in at the end of something. The characters in Joey Piss Pot are way past that, hanging on by their fingernails, but lack Tony’s gift for introspection, so they don’t always realize how close to the cliff they are. That’s a long set-up to ask what it was about this idea that took root in your imagination?


Charlie Stella: I tried writing non-crime for a couple of years and then had a burst of energy. I wrote three novels, two sold, the other not submitted yet (don’t like the ending enough). I needed to put a couple of runs on the scoreboard and wanted it to be familiar. I wrote Joey Piss Pot to get back into it, if that makes sense. Then we went to Yellowstone Park last summer and a sequel came into play from my fear of bears and the shit our government does. Just submitted the sequel, Rapino-Amato. We shall see, but I have a non-crime coming next April (I think), Raskin’s World. That one is about lawyers and affairs a tragic incident.


OBAAT: You’ve done this before, but I was struck here about how the story plays on the conflict between the mob and straight life, with the feds thrown into create layers of story. Did you lay this out ahead of time, just know what you wanted to do, or did you start writing and waited to see where it took you? (Notice how I found a way around asking if you outline?)


CS: Smiley face. I always build a table of chapters as I write (automatically in Word) and that serves as an ad hoc outline, I guess. I wind up moving scenes by the end and/or adding or deleting some. I have a basic idea and then let the characters/dialogue do their/its thing.


OBAAT: Joseph Gallo is the title character and very much the focal point of the story, yet he doesn’t appear in it as much as several others. He’s kind of the conscience of the book, and this causes him to create more than his share of trouble. Did you set out to show that a conscience can cause more problems than it solves in a situation such as this?


CS: That’s too deep for a Stella novel. (Another smiley face). I wanted the back and forth between Jewish and Italian old timers. Originally, the Jewish friend (don’t ask me for names now), wasn’t a former cop, but that helped move the thing making him a cop. Joey is the conscience, more or less, but it’s also a rip-off of a novel I wrote a few years ago but never felt good enough about it to submit. I like the idea of a guy on his way out losing fears of boogie men. Him shooting someone, for instance, is kind of a fantasy I’ve played with for several characters. It’s kind of like he’s playing with house money, so …


OBAAT: Interesting. The Beloved Spouse™ often mentions that the htreat of life in prison becomes less of a deterrent as we age.


I was struck by the name “Joseph Gallo.” Did you have any idea of playing off of the infamous Crazy Joe Gallo of the 70s?


CS: Good catch, but Crazy Joe wasn’t in my mind at all. The actual Crazy Joe was a big time rogue with a similar lack of fear he probably shouldn’t have ignored. I literally go to Google and search for whatever nationality I’m using and pick one. Gallo was easy to type. I’m thinking some of your characters names must be in a macro. 😊


OBAAT: As a matter of fact, several of the more common names in my books have “macros,” AutoCorrect entries that allow me to type in only the first few letters. 😊


The Mafia – excuse me, Italian Organized Crime – has nothing like the power it used to, but they can still kill you just as dead. How do you see things playing out over the next ten or twenty years?


CS: That’s the thing. Anybody can kill you just as dead. I suspect there will always be guys who are romanticized by the old Godfather movies and/or the idea of getting respect by being associated with the mob. The reality is no matter what happens there will always be a deal at the end of the day that precludes most tough guys from giving up 10-20 years of their lives (and that number may come down to 5-10). The so-called “come to Jesus moment” when a guy realizes how fucked he is.


OBAAT: The eternal final question: What’s next?


CS: Well, there is Raskin’s World next year, then probably (if accepted) the sequel to JPP, Rapino-Amato that takes place in Montana (for the most part). I wrote a book called The Winks (the one I’m unhappy with the ending), and I’ve started one called Blue Collar (mostly non-crime at this stage). The thing is, since I have this coughing condition, I have nothing else to do. I’m up 19-20 hours a day, working remotely and sometimes bored to tears. Now that the hockey season is over and I await another year of frustration with my beloved New York State Buffalo Bills … what the hell else am I gonna do? 😊



Thursday, June 27, 2024

Spring's Favorite Reads

 As you’ll soon see, the spring that just ended was a good season for reading, at least for me. Two vacations, one of them extended, gave me more time than usual for reading. I did not waste it.


The Monkey’s Raincoat. Robert Crais. A lot of writers tone down the things that made them popular once they become bestsellers; I guess it’s the way of the world. Once you’re on top, the publisher wants to keep you there, which inevitably leads to writing books they hope will attract a wider audience than the core group that launched you; the core will stay, whatever you do. This is not to imply Crais has watered down his writing in recent years, but I decided to go back and read the early Elvis Cole books in order, so I got myself a copy of The Monkey’s Raincoat and had at it. It was a pleasure to be reminded of what attracted me to his writing in the first place; this is as good a first PI novel as has been written since The Big Sleep. No question I’ll stick with the plan and work through these in order now.


All Them Wrong Things, James D.F. Hannah. I began to include as yet unreleased ARCs in these reviews about a year ago, but this is the first time I’ve included a book that is not yet under contract. Hannah is hot right now, with awards and nominations and inclusions in annual anthologies. Best known for his Henry Malone PI stories, All Them Wrong Things  is a departure for Hannah, the story of a decent man caught up in small town corruption and a brother who is an asshole for the ages. All the action and great dialog you’d expect from a Malone book is here, with a story sensibility more in the direction of Elmore Leonard or S.A. Cosby. Let’s hope this one finds a home quickly.


Joey Piss Pot, Charlie Stella. (I read an ARC; the book drops in July.) No one since George V. Higgins has captured the sense and attitudes of organized crime better than Stella, and even though it’s been a while since he wrote in this genre, Joey Piss Pot shows the author hasn’t lost an inch off his fastball. The book abounds with intersecting plot lines, characters who aren’t as smart as they think they are – or need to be – and dialog that reads like you’re at the next table in the bar eavesdropping. Stella’s fans will be delighted, and Joey Piss Pot should also bring him some new ones.


The Outfit, Richard Stark. The fourth Stark/Parker book I’ve read and, for my money, the best of the four. Stark spends more time in other people’s heads than usual here, and the effect is engrossing, as he takes events tangential to the main plot and spends entire chapters on them without making you wonder when he’s going to get back to what the book is ostensibly about; that’s a gift. Stark is on my list of writers I’ll make a point to read at least once a year and I see no reason why he shouldn’t stay there.


The Hot Kid, Elmore Leonard. This is a book that holds special significance for me. It came out in 2005, when I was not only not published, I wasn’t even what could be called a member of the writing community, more like a reader with delusions of writing adequacy. I won a contest with HarperCollins for an ARC of The Hot Kid so long as I wrote a review they could use. I used what I wrote for them as my audition to be a reviewer for the New Mystery Reader website. NMR editor Stephanie Padilla liked it, started assigning books to me, and gave me my first look inside. This exposed me to a lot of books and authors I would not otherwise have discovered, and interviews with several of them – notably Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes, and the aforementioned Charlie Stella – brought me inside the community; the interview with Stella led almost directly to my first contract. It’s been almost twenty years since I read Carlos Webster’s exploits, so I decided to see how well the book held up. The answer is, very. It rambles a little, but the action and dialog are all top-notch Leonard and the book is as much fun to read as anything he wrote, right up there with Get Shorty.


Killer’s Choice, Ed McBain. There isn’t much to recommend this 87th Precinct novel over any of the others. There’s also nothing that makes it not at least as good as most. In short, it’s a solid McBain Eight-Seven story, which means it’s outstanding.


Resurrection Walk, Michael Connelly. I was off Connelly for several years, mostly because his writing doesn’t have the kind of voice and style I like as much as do some others. I picked this up on an impulse because it had both Mickey Haller and harry Bosch, and now I’m back on board. For whatever reason, I picked up on Connelly’s journalistic voice better here than before. Couple that with an exceptional and well-crafted story and he’s now on my list of authors to read at least once a year. I’ll not say more about Resurrection Walk lest I spoil something. Just go and read it.


The Last Few Miles of Road, Eric Beetner. Beetner is an underappreciated gem. Not by other writers, where his reputation was solidified years ago; the general public should be more aware of him, and would be if the big houses weren’t so timid. There are more plot twists here than in any few miles of road. They’re all surprises, and all are prepared so your typical reaction will be “Is should have seen this coming,” even though you didn’t. Much as I like to read for style, Beetner gift for keeping out of the way of the story and characters is so well developed, and works so well, it’s something young writers – and writing teachers – would do well to at least be aware of.


Thursday, June 20, 2024

From the Archives: "But is it Art?"

 I’ve been traveling and unable to come up with a worthy blog post for this week, so I dipped into the archives to see what I thought about things ten years ago. The literary vs. genre debate seems to have lost steam, but it’s always good to look at issues afresh, especially if one is stuck or a new topic.


Will Self got his knickers in a bunch a couple of weeks ago about the death of the novel. Well, the death through lack of sales and public attention of what he considers to be “the novel,” by which he appears to mean “literary novels,” more specifically, “his novels.” I don’t expect you to read the entire diatribe. I couldn’t. If this self-absorbed and condescending essay is any indication of his fiction, then his novels aren’t just dying; they’re committing suicide.


This is, at its core, another self-pitying example of a “literary” writer lamenting a lack of sales and recognition compared to what he considers to be inferior work. As The Beloved Spouse would say, “wah.” To begin such a discussion is to admit defeat. The writers of the past, whose recognition the modern “literary” writer seeks to duplicate, did not, by and large, think of themselves as writing for posterity. They became “literary” after their deaths, because their books outlived them, not because that was the original plan.


Musicians have this debate all the time, though it centers along the lines of, “Why are programs so overloaded with dead composers? Where is the new music?” There is a lot of new (classical) music out there; few want to listen to it, with good reason. Not because it’s bad, but because around a hundred years ago composers started writing for their peers. Not even their peers, really, but those they liked to think of as their peers. A culture grew where an ever-smaller cadre of composers praised music that became ever more obtuse or formulaic in its adherence to arbitrary rules. Music that contained traditional elements (melody, harmony, tonality) was dismissed as “reactionary.”


This is a not uncommon situation in the arts. I was once coerced into a trip to the National Gallery of Art by someone who wished to appear more cultured than she was. (Editor’s Note: I am not claiming to be more cultured than she, just that I make no effort to appear otherwise.) At one point we encountered a painting that looks very much like this (bonus points to anyone who can identify the actual painting; its name escapes me):

A red circle on a white background

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Our discussion proceeded along these lines:

Her: What do you think?

Me: Huh?

Her: What do you think it means?

Me: You’re shitting me, right?


I’m a believer in art for art’s sake. I don’t consider my writing to be art—an opinion in which I need not stake out a lonely outpost to defend—I do it for the pleasure and satisfaction of the act, much the way a preschooler is more interested in process than results when finger painting. That doesn’t mean I sympathize with authors/musicians/artists who deliberately create for an audience so far to the right of their perceived bell-shaped curve no one else can understand it, let alone “appreciate” it. Too narrowly self-defining one’s audience guarantees its limits; the creator cannot then reasonably complain about a lack of acclimation.


This is not to say current cultural standards are not deplorable. Not enough people read, or listen to music, or, hell, even think about things beyond what’s right in front of them. This is not a new concept. Just as old ballplayers claim the game was better in their day, the erosion of cultural standards has been lamented since the origins of cultural standards. Here’s the thing: if you want to be popular, create things the general population can get into, and not things you think the general population should get into, if they had a clue. By all means, create those things; just don’t bitch when they’re not popular. No society owes any artist a living, not when there are too many people hanging on by their fingernails.


Thursday, June 13, 2024

What Makes a Bestseller?

I’ve written about bestsellers before and I’m not here today to go over the same ground; I’m going over the ground right next to it, so you may have to look closely to see the difference in terrain.


I don’t read a lot of bestsellers and I sure as hell have never written one, so sour grapes is the obvious motive for these posts. I also make a concerted effort to continue to learn and today I’m primarily concerned with what makes a bestseller, or doesn’t. (Yes, my name on the cover places it into the “doesn’t” category. I’m talking about more general things.)


First, and most important, a bestseller has to have a good story. It doesn’t much matter what the story is about. Could be boy wizards, vampires, hobbits, doctors, war, childhood, parenthood, anything. Whatever the story is, it must make it easy for the average reader to continuously suspend disbelief, allowing them to reside in a place where they can imagine themselves somehow involved in the story. To use John Gardner’s phrase, to create a “vivid and continuous dream.”


This is aided greatly by having relatable characters. Not necessarily likeable characters, though those are best for large volumes of sales. The characters need to be people – or animals or aliens – the average reader can relate to in some way so they will care what happens to them. How the author does this is far less important – if important at all – than being successful at it.


Another thing most bestsellers have in common is they were written by people who have published other bestsellers. The single most important determining factor as to which book a reader will buy is author name recognition, especially if they have read this author in the past and liked the book.


I hate to bring up this next one because publishers try to do everything they can to avoid it, but good marketing certainly helps. Authors are more responsible for this all the time, and those with existing platforms are the most likely to get the big advances, but it’s safe to say a book cannot sell a hundred thousand copies if fewer than a hundred thousand people know about it.


Last, and far from least, is luck. Any bestselling author who tells you luck did not play a significant role in her or his success is lying to at least one of you. No less an authority than Dennis Lehane makes no bones about the fact his career took off when a clip of Bill Clinton carrying a copy of Mystic River was shown repeatedly as part of an ad for 60 Minutes.


Capturing the zeitgeist is part of this. Some books, and authors, barely miss blowing up because they’re either a year too early, a year too late; or the timing is right but the mix of ingredients is half a bubble off the sweet spot. No one can predict this. Hitting that sweet spot is akin to winning the lottery. Yes, you have to buy the ticket, but a lot of people bought tickets. The author’s unique and unmatched talent is not likely to be the determining factor.


What a bestseller does not need is to be particularly well written. We’ve all read bestsellers where the dialog is wooden, the similes are execrable, the description overflows with adjectives and adverbs, and the plot has more holes than St. Andrews. How does this happen?


Because the average reader doesn’t care about that shit.


Notice how I’ve been talking about the “average reader?” That’s because they are who buys books in sufficient quantities to create a bestseller. I venture a guess that at least 90% of those who read this blog are writers. Make peace with this right now: writers are, by definition, outliers. What we look for and care about in a book makes as much difference to the average reader as the weather in Poland does to a raccoon in North Carolina. These people don’t give a shit what we think of a book; they know what they like.


And they’re right to do so.


Life is short, and too many things compete to see which can make us the unhappiest. Everyone chooses books based on the qualities they enjoy most when reading. Writers may care more about the writing than the story; that’s okay. It’s also okay for someone who has worked an eight-to-ten-hour day, taken care of urgent household chores, and helped the kids with their homework before getting them off to bed to pick up a book solely to escape for half an hour before falling asleep.


I still don’t read many bestsellers for all the reasons I have expressed over the years. I have also learned that I am an outlier and take pains not to ruin anyone else’s enjoyment of any book, no matter what I might think of it. Entertainment is subjective and I can read with no one’s eyes except my own. Whatever you read, enjoy it. Life is too short not to.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Goddess Fish Promotions

 I recently did a twenty-day blog tour though the auspices of Goddess Fish Promotions. Having (tried to) put together blog tours myself in the past, I was not looking forward to the process. A good friend pointed me in Goddess Fish’s direction and the process turned into not only being easy, but a lot of fun.


Indie writers are always looking for ways to promote their books that won’t break either their banks or their backs. Below is my conversation with the two woman who run Goddess Fish for your information, should you be so inclined. For even more information, check out their website.


One Bite at a Time: Let’s start with the obvious question and work from there: Where did the name Goddess Fish come from?


Judy: I’m the extrovert and B-type personality (well… we actually say I’m type Z, because I’m SO laid back) … and very much a “yes” person (as in, Marianne says, “I have an idea … let’s do this thing.” and I say, “Okay, yes. We can do that thing.”).  All of those associated with the sites started saying that I would wave my wand and get it done … and my nickname became “The Goddess”. 


Marianne: I, on the other hand, am more Type A, driven, more introverted and less a people person (despite somehow always ended up in customer service for work).  I’m always polite, but it takes a while for me to be authentically friendly.  And one of the folks who works on the site said she was reminded of Abe Vigoda’s character on Barney Miller (yes, we are dating ourselves here), “Fish”.  And the nickname stuck.  Don't know who he is?  Here’s is a tidbit:


Both:  When the time came to create Goddess Fish Promotions, we combined the two.  And Marianne (“Fish”) said to Judy (“Goddess”), “Can we make the logo a fish with big pink lips, a wand and a crown?” and Judy said (of course), “Yes.” and she made it so.  Because that’s what a goddess does.


We love the fish …


OBAAT: Now that folks can concentrate on why you’re really here, what does Goddess Fish do?

Judy: We started out just doing virtual book tours.  At the time we started, there was only one company doing them and they were breathtakingly expensive.


Marianne: I’d just published my first novel, and wanted to promote it, but I couldn’t afford the price of that company, so I organized my own virtual tour.  I hated every minute of it, lol.  It was an incredibly difficult task and took hours and hours to book it, to promote it and to follow up with hosts. I understood why that company was charging so much. However, I realized then there were likely other small press authors like me who couldn’t afford the only other company in town, so we decided to dip our toe into the virtual tour business.  That was fifteen years ago. As far as I am aware, we are the second ever virtual book tour company in existence and we’ve expanded since then.


Judy: When we started the company, we were both editors for a publisher.  We ended up having to leave that as the business got busier, but we decided a few years back to offer editing as another service we provide, and we’ve had well over a hundred satisfied editing clients since (most repeat with us, which is the highest compliment.)


OBAAT: I know there’s a Marianne and a Judy. What are your backgrounds and how did you get together to form Goddess Fish?

Judy:  My background, as it pertains to the work we do is that I have published a novel, worked as an editor for a new defunct online eZine as well as the publisher we mentioned before, and I have a Bachelor’s Degree in English.


Marianne:  My background isn’t quite as illustrious as Judy’s.  But I am multi-published, worked as an editor and have been a grammar nerd since birth. 


Judy: A funny story is that we only met IRL a few years ago (2021) even though we’ve been business partners for nearly 20 years—and how is that possible?  We “met” virtually in 1999, when we were in an online writer’s group together at Writer’s Village University and magic was born!  


Marianne: We actually started out in business by creating an online review site (Long and Short Reviews) that focused on small press stories and books because, at the time, it was difficult to get anyone to review them.  Once we started Goddess Fish Promotions, we really handed over the day-to-day running of LASR to our volunteers there, and they do an amazing job with it.


OBAAT: What’s the division of labor and how do you coordinate?

Judy: Every morning, we made a to do list with each item on a piece of paper and throw them in the air.  Whoever’s desk they land on does the job.


Marianne: *I* was going to say that I get all the best clients and since you worked primarily with me, clearly you are an all right person.  LOL…


Okay, in truth, mostly Judy handles initial requests and processes the tours when they first come in.  Marianne makes the banners, and posts the tours on the blog, as well as creating the sign-up form. Then Judy makes the media kits for each tour. At that point, we split them up by tour type and fill them up. 


Every week day we’re up at the crack of dawn checking every scheduled tour stop and promoting them on social media. That’s a job we share.  Otherwise, we try to make sure all business is conducted via email (instead of phone or zoom, etc) so there’s a record of everything for every tour in case something happens where one of us needs to take over. We’ve had family emergencies, illnesses, etc. that have kept us from working now and then… though we try to work through it all.  Judy brought her laptop into her husband’s hospital room and worked after he’d had a stroke.  She wouldn’t leave his side, but she did what work she could.  Our clients depend on us, so we don’t like to use any excuse. If we CAN work, we DO work.


And we are very good at helping the other whenever necessary.  We’re more than business partners.  We’re also BFFS. 


OBAAT: You recently organized a twenty-stop blog tour for me. I once put together a tour of five blogs and can honestly say it was a pain in the ass. How do you pull it off so seamlessly?

Judy: Well…. I waved my wand… seriously, we are a lot like that duck who appears to be swimming effortlessly on the lake. But, below the surface (and behind the scenes) there's an awful lot of pedaling going on!


Marianne: Also, keep in mind we have a pretty good process set up after all these years, as well as a strong rapport with our tour hosts, who we adore and couldn’t do what we do without. 


OBAAT: Are there genres you work with more easily than others?

Judy: As far as us working with them, not really.  We have a great group of hosts, most of whom work with a wide range of genres. Romance, Young Adult, and mystery/thrillers are among the genres that are most popular with the hosts.


Marianne: To be fair, we work largely with the top three genres: romance, mystery and Sci-Fi/Fantasy.  Not because we choose to, but because it’s what’s most popular and numerous.


OBAAT: Full disclosure: When I got my list of eighteen blogs to respond to – two were review only, no input needed from me – and saw what I had on my plate, I was a little intimidated. Once I got into the process, I had a lot more fun than I anticipated. What advice do you have for authors who are considering a blog tour, especially along the lines of what to expect and what attitude to bring with them?

GF: It CAN be fun. Writers write, so enjoy the process when you are doing guest blogs and interviews… don't think of it as a chore. Part of the reason for the interviews and guest blogs, in addition to getting to know you as a person, is to give the readers a look at the writing style. We have both bought books that we've toured simply because the guest blogs were so entertaining--- if you can interest a reader that way, the chances are good they will enjoy your writing. And, conversely, unfortunately, the opposite is also true. 


We send out pretty comprehensive instructions when you start a tour with us, and one line says this: “Please make sure that each post is unique, verbose and entertaining.”


We don’t say that to make it harder for you. We say it because engaging potential readers is really important and short one-line (or one word, ugh) responses are worse than useless.


Thank you so much for having us! This was fun J