The wonderful Patti Abbott, a huge supporter and fan and writer of crime fiction, has allowed me a few lines to guest blog. I’ve written a short piece about how I came to write a particular story, ‘A Good Boy.’
That story is included in Shotgun Honey’s first anthology, Both Barrels. That antho, full of the very best in hardboiled crime fiction, is now available for download and purchase. I promise, if you dig it hard and fast, you’ll love this antho. There are some amazing writers in it.
Give the guest blog a read, let me know what you think, and snatch up the antho!
Part of the conversation Friday night, in the hotel bar, went like this:
“I’m paying for those shots,” said Lori Armstrong.
“No, you’re not,” said I.
“Yes, I am.”
“No, you’re not.”
‘Those’ drinks were the sort-of-annual Non-Memorial Shots. They started in Madison in 2006 when, while I was still on chemo, one of my friends pulled me aside and reminded me that some of my friends were mostly glad I wasn’t dead.
Each time we do it, one of us chooses the shot. This year, Lori chose something called the Cowboy Cocksucker.
“Yes, I am.”
“No, you’re not.”
With the server’s head ping-ponging back and forth.
This year, in St. Louis, those drinking included the original three – me, Lori, and Sean Doolittle – plus a dear friend who simply hadn’t had the chance, Karen Olson.
My thing was not letting Lori pay because she had just won the Shamus Award for best novel…besting the international bestseller Robert Crais. She wanted to pay because she was lost in the adrenaline of such a huge night.
“Lori, this could go on for three or four days.”
So then I looked at the server and said, “Look, I’m a policeman and I carry a gun for a living. Who you gonna give the bill to?”
Without a word, she left.
Lori and I laughed at the surprise on her face and went about our business, which meant hanging with writers, drinking far too much, and basking in the glow of Lori’s win as well as her purple boots (her array of boots is actually quite impressive…most of them colored and many of them with various patterns).
Two hours later, Karen wanted to get the bill paid so we didn’t accidentally walk it. She asked the server for it and got a blank stare.
“No,” the server said.
“I don’t understand. Why?”
The server pointed at me. “He carries a gun.”
Karen laughed. “Yeah, but he’s with me. I’m paying.”
“Listen, it’s all right, it’s – ”
“No. He carries a gun. He told me he did.”
We laughed our assess off later but Karen said the server was truly concerned. Took Karen awhile to convince her. It’s terrible, I know, but that shit’s just funny. I’m sorry she freaked out…sort of sorry, anyway.
Other goodies include a face off with a security guard who told me I couldn’t stand on a public roadway and take pictures of private property.
“Yes, I can.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Yes, I can.”
Yeah, it was that kind of weekend.
The hell of that situation was that I hadn’t taken any pictures of the private property, which was a metal recycling joint. Hundreds of cars sliced, diced, and poured into waiting trucks. But when she started yelling at me, the point wasn’t whether or not I had taken pictures, it was whether or not I could take pictures.
I basically dared her to call the cops. In the end, she shrugged and drove away. Apparently I was a threat as long as she was in charge, but not so much when she wasn’t.
Two days later, I was shooting in the St. Louis subway. There was another security guard who really didn’t like how close I got to the edge. I kept moving closer and he’d yell at me and I’d back up. Then we’d do it again.
Actually, I appreciated the job he was doing, trying to keep me from getting smashed to a bloody pulp by the trains. The other guard was just being a power-mad wannabe, he was actually trying to help.
Helping or not, he drove me crazy.
As ever, Boucheron, the world’s biggest mystery convention, was crammed full of writers I love and admire…and more than a few I would just as soon shoot. (Note to writers: when you’re on a panel with six…six…other writers, shut the hell up for a minute, it’s not a solo show).
Reconnected with Sandi Loper-Herzog and John Purcell, both wonderful people. Karen Olson, my jazz buddy. Alison Gaylin, my shooting buddy (actually, a whole pile of writers have gone shooting with me). A fan named Graham who loves this blog but who’s last name I can never remember. Gina Slade, one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. William Kent Krueger (with whom I had a delightful conversation about the nature of redemption and whether or not it’s really worth a shit), Sean Doolittle, and Simon Wood, three of the nicest and most incredible men in the entire world. All of the Jordans, who work so hard to make sure every year is a great one.
Met lots of new people, including editors like Ron Earl Phillips and Kent Gowran. They’d bought lots of my fiction but I’d never met them. Ron was one of the true delights of the convention, wandering around with his cool pork pie delicately on his head. Eoin Colfer, author of the ‘Artemis Fowl’ books, who demanded I take him shooting next time we meet and who tried valiantly, if unsuccessfully, to say ‘Aw-ight.’ I really wanted to hear what that would have sounded like with an Irish accent.
Let’s be honest, it would have been a drunken Irish accent, but I’m good with that.
Rick…who I kept calling Greg and who never got bent about it. Josh…who had two of his fingers cut off or something on the first day, bled on his shoes, and then wore the bandages almost as invitations to an ass kicking for the rest of the weekend. Bob Trulock with his orange pants and pinkish shirt, with his gray braided hair and his hat with holes in it, Gary Phillips…who made me laugh every time he opened his mouth. Check out both of them if you love your fiction stripped down and straight up, baby.
Lots of laughing and carrying on, telling of war stories, wandering around trying to find this or that panel before finally giving up and going to the bar, threats to piss on a particular writer’s shoes, and watching a woman strip down for me so she could so me a scar. She’d just asked about my cancer surgery scar and wanted to share hers. Sort of like whichever ‘Lethal Weapon’ it is when Mel Gibson and Rene Russo start stripping for scars.
It was fun to watch her strip, but the scar was kind of boring….
Didn’t tell her that, of course. I mean, come on, how can you insult a woman who got half-naked for you?
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Maybe, but I got naked to show you.”
“True, that. Okay, it’s not.”
“Told you. Dumbass.”
I’ve had two literary agents in my career.
The first was straight up flim-flam. He was looking for a quick sale and when it didn’t happen dumped me quicker than a guy tearing open a box of Trojans for whoever he was going to screw next.
The second was just a few years ago. Though his heart was in the right place, he didn’t have the right contacts to get my writing where it needed to be.
So to find a new one, I went back to basics and worked the shoe leather, metaphorically speaking. Queries, queries, and still more effing queries. Focused queries to agents who rep writers I love, agents who repped odd books that echoed what I do, agents who rep friends of mine, agents who’ve contacted me based on friends of mine being their clients, who I’ve had drinks with and been on panels with, etc., etc., etc.
Sixty-two percent of those agents said, “Fuck off.”
Wait, that’s not right. Because to tell me something, you have to respond.
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, sixty-two percent of the agents I’ve contacted haven’t bothered to respond.
They’re busy, don’cha know. Too busy, in fact, to even post on their website they’re too busy.
Some, to their slight credit, tell writers up front they’re too busy to respond and I’m not talking about them. They explain their rules and a writer either abides or hits the pavement.
Hmmmm…can we all spell a-r-r-o-g-a-n-t sons-of-bi….
See, to get to a traditional publisher, a writer must have an agent. Most traditional publishers don’t even bother with books that have no agent. Thus the agents become the gatekeepers of almost everything literary.
Now, I understand that all decent agents are swamped with submissions. Everyone with a computer knows they are the next Hemingway or Updike or (God, how many times have I heard this) the next Stephen King.
After having taught writing for years, I’ll wager that less than one in a thousand ‘writers’ has spent a second learning how to write. They don’t bother honing their ‘craft’ to anything other than a dull nub. Then they take that dull nub, write a novel, and send it every agent in the world. So I understand that most agents are drowning in submissions.
So what? You wanted to be an agent. Fucking deal with it or get another job.
I wanted to be a cop to investigate murder and cold cases and kidnappings and help people seriously in need. My reality? Unlocking vehicles for idiots and handling calls from Mama who says her 14-year old daughter is disrespecting her.
If I don’t like it, I can work somewhere else.
They get thousands of submissions, that’s their world. Deal with it or get another damned job.
Instead, they ignore the writers, in essence saying: My time is incredibly valuable so you need to jump through my myriad submission hoops. OTOH, your time is worth dick so I don’t care how much time you spend jumping those hoops, I’m going to pretend you don’t exist.
Look, most agents accept, and many require, email submissions. So how do you tell someone you can’t respond when you’re reading their submission from their email?
Seriously…how long does it take to hit ‘reply,’ type “Thanks, but not quite for me,” and hit ‘send?’
Instead, what many agents post on their websites is that if the writer hasn’t heard from them in three weeks or six weeks or whatever, the writer can assume the agent has passed on the project.
What the fuck is that?
What they’re saying, again, is that their time is incredibly valuable and the writer’s time is crap. They don’t care if you have to troll your database, checking what date you sent them the query, then comparing that to the calendar to see if it’s still under consideration or they’ve passed.
That’s easier for them that taking a full five seconds to reply and tell you they’ve passed.
Don’t believe this kind of bullshit happens? Here’s one I got a few weeks ago:
Thank you for your submission, which we look forward to reading. Please note that, due to the extremely high number of queries which we receive, we will only respond if we are interested.”
Seems to me that if you’ve been swamped with that many submissions, maybe you should stop taking submissions for a little while. Magazines close to submissions all the time, or have limited submission windows, and everyone is cool with it.
So why not agents?
Come on, they stay open to submissions, even if they don’t actually have time for them, in case that one in a million book comes along that makes them bazillions of dollars. In other words, we’re so busy that we can’t answer any writers, but not so busy that we can’t look at just one more book…it might be the big one!
This is my current fav:
“Thank you for your submission to [agency].
Due to the volume of submissions we receive, we may not be able to respond to every query.
We will contact you directly if we are interested in talking further about your work. We kindly request that you do not call to follow up on your submission. Please understand that this only takes away from our ability to review your queries in a timely manner.”
No ‘Dear Author’ or ‘Thank you,’ which is just rude and pissy (especially in an automated response that’s already written). They tell me they’re too busy for me, then demand – though it’s couched in ‘kindly request’ – that I do nothing to check the status of my project. Then they explain to me, as one explains something to a third grader, why checking in is a bad thing.
Understand this: my rant has nothing to do with being passed over by agents. It happens. Fine. Sometimes a writer is up, sometimes a writer is down. It’s not about not getting picked for the team, it’s about trying out for the team and never hearing back from the coach. If you want to pass me over, fine, just let me know.
It’s about the rudeness and arrogance and self-involvement of expecting someone to bow to your every demand, and refusing to acknowledge that they even bowed. It is a truly shitty way of doing business.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I understand this is how business is now done. There ain’t thing one I can do about it except bitch and rant and stop submitting.
Or I can get to writing the next novel. ‘Cause I found this agent and I’ll bet you a million-dollar contract she loves it. Her website says she doesn’t respond unless she’s interested, but I know she’ll love this. I’ll be waiting for my email to chime and say, “Incoming Message”….
(I just finished a piece for a forth-coming book of writing tips. It’s all about dialogue and, as happens so frequently, my original was scads longer than what the editor wanted. I cut it back and we both came to a happy place. But I thought I’d post both the original essay and exercise here.)
“Then he will talk – good gods! How he will talk!”
That’s from Nathaniel Lee’s 1677 play The Death of Alexander the Great, and while it bemoans how much a character talks, I use it as a reminder of how a character talks.
As writers, we have to recognize that regardless of our style or genre, our work is absolutely pinned to our dialogue. If the dialogue is bad, the story will die a slow, horrible death. But the converse is also true: if the dialogue is good, it can save even a mediocre story.
How do I know? Because I know a reader will absolutely read the dialogue. They may ignore everything else, but they will drink in what a character says, and if it’s good, they’ll remember the story positively. Dialogue is so important that Elmore Leonard mentions it frequently in his Ten Rules of Writing:
“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing [is] perpetrating hooptedoodle…or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”
So the challenge is to write great dialogue without the hooptedoodle. Or, in crime terms, to get ourselves a nice, shiny, nickel-plated .357 rather than a beat-up .25 with a broken butt.
I believe great dialogue comes in three parts. The dialogue, the attribution tags, and the dialect. To help you get those three things together, I’ve got a few suggestions, then some exercises I do all the time.
You can’t have great dialogue on the page without great dialogue in your ears. So fill up your ears. Dialogue is anywhere and everywhere. People are the talking-est things ever. They talk in stores and bars, on street corners; and they do it morning, noon, and night. But they’re inability to shut up means we get to steal their great dialogue all the time.
Just make sure you listen critically.
Don’t listen for the exactness of a conversation because most conversations are verbal train wrecks. People talk over each other and into each other; they start and stop and start again. They begin ten sentences before finishing one. They bounce from topic to topic. They foul tenses and agreements, they mangle verbs. They talk in passive voice.
So don’t transcribe the conversation verbatim and call that dialogue. If you do, your editor will put a double-tap behind your ear, toss your body in the water treatment plant, and sleep like a baby.
Listen instead for the rhythm of those conversations; for the informality, the contractions, the dropped words, the questions phrased as declarations, the slang, the lack of exclamation points. Listen for the interesting ways people describe even the most mundane things. Discover the conversational short hand specific to people’s particular groups. (Cops are great for this. Listen during their coffee or meal break and you’ll wonder if they’re even speaking English.) It is that conversational short hand that can lift dialogue from bad to good or good to great by making readers feel like they’re being allowed to see inside some super-secret club house ritual.
Listen for who’s dominating the conversation. How are they doing it? By volume? By speed? Maybe they’re speaking softly or slowly, forcing everyone else to listen. Note, too, how others in that conversation respond to their domination.
Listen listen listen. Listen for rhythm and then recreate the essence of those conversations.
Okay, try this bit of dialogue on for size. It’s based on a real conversation and it is exactly how a real conversation sounds
“Good afternoon, ma’am. Deputy Mullins with the Sheriff’s Office,” he said officiously. “Can I see your license and insurance, please?”
She said, “But…what’d I do? Why did you stopping me? I…uh…I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Well, ma’am, you did not come to a complete stop,” he said. “At that sign back there? Route 40 and 2500 North Avenue? You did not come to a complete stop. In fact, you – “
“I did so, I stopped,” she interjected.
“Ma’am, I was watching and – “
“Yes, I did,” she ejaculated. “I absolutely stop – I absolutely…uh…stopped.” She said, “But I’m not going to argue about it.”
“Uh…ma’am,” he said, “Do you understand the definition of not arguing?”
“You listen to me,” she said forcefully. “I have lots of things on my mind. My head is just full right now. Did you even know my husband is in Iraq? He’s fighting over there and I can’t think about anything else.”
“Ma’am, I understand – “
“No, you don’t understand anything,” she yelled. “Most of the time he’s…that’s all I can think about. Because he’s fighting over there…. So I’ve got lots on my mind.”
Okay, so rewrite it, but just clean up the dialogue, don’t worry about anything other than what the characters are actually saying. Take out repeats and stops and starts. Remove stutters and anything that doesn’t flow. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Done? So what does your version sound like? Maybe it’s something like this:
“Good afternoon, ma’am, Deputy Mullins, Sheriff’s Office,” he said officiously. “Can I see your license and insurance, please?”
She said, “Why did you stop me?”
“Ma’am, you didn’t come to a complete stop,” he said.
“I stopped,” she interjected.
“Yes, I did,” she ejaculated. “I’m not gonna argue about it.”
“Ma’am, do you understand the definition of not arguing?”
“Well,” she said forcefully. “I have lots of things on my mind. My husband’s in Iraq.”
Not a bad cleaning job for just changing the direct dialogue. The essence of the conversation is still there, but it flows much better.
So now let’s look at how those characters said what they said.
Attribution tags, those ‘he saids/she saids’ which guide the reader, can be your greatest ally or your biggest enemy. I recognize they are a necessary evil with which I have to make peace, but mostly I don’t dig them. If handled badly, they will absolutely get in the way of a great story or scene. They are literary mechanicals, the equivalent of seeing the boom mic in a TV shot, or seeing a lighting source badly hidden on a stage set. But when done well, or done as infrequently as possible, they don’t have to be deadly.
When it comes to most writing, the biggest problem with attribution tags is that writers use entirely too many of the damned things. I’ve seen stories that have tags on every single line of dialogue…in conversations of two people. So how many do you have in your stories and novels? I’d bet a day’s salary it’s too many (and yeah, I realize that’s a subjective standard, but I’d also bet even you think you use too many).
The thing is? Most readers actually don’t need many. And fewer still if you’ve done a great job on the dialogue. Think of ‘said’ as a street sign that occasionally lets a reader know they’re on the right street. Anything other than ‘said’ is a giant stop sign that can yank a reader out of your story. This is another of Leonard’s rules:
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”
At some point, you’ll be tempted to use a tag that explains how the dialogue was spoken, thus hiding the tag behind other words.
“John, I’m leaving you,” she whispered.
“John, I’m leaving you,” she cried.
If she needs to whisper, have him lean forward so he can hear her. It’s more dynamic by virtue of movement and puts her in control by forcing him move. Also, when you tell us she’s crying, you miss an opportunity to explore the kind of crying and thus give us more about the situation and her character.
Okay, so you decide to use nothing but said. Great. Perfect. Except now you’re thinking maybe you should modify it.
“I did not,” Lindsay said forcefully.
“Yes, you did,” Goldie said evenly.
Bad idea. Think of it like an actual conversation rather than something on a page. If you were talking with a friend, you wouldn’t stop the conversation to tell them your emotional state.
“I did not,” Lindsay said. “By the way, I’m being forceful.”
“Yes, you did,” Goldie said. “And I’m being even.”
Instead, Lindsay would kick her shoes off into the street and Goldie would be expressionless.
Okay, so now you’ve decide to use only ‘said,’ and not to modify it. Just a plain, old, boring tag; literary vanilla ice cream. Now remember this: most times, you don’t need them at all.
At one point in James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain, Robicheaux and Cletus Purcel are deep in conversation. Toward the end, they have a rapid-fire back and forth, something Burke does frequently in a number of his books. In this particular conversation, during almost two full pages, Burke uses exactly three attribution tags.
I’ve read writers who have more tags in a single sentence.
But Burke doesn’t need them. We know who’s who not only because there are only two people in the conversation, but also by how those two people ask their questions and phrase their statements. Each character has his own rhythm in what and how he speaks.
Here are some examples of when you can bag the tag.
1) Don’t use a tag if there is some physical action immediately following. ”Not what I said,” John said. John flicked his hair.
2) Don’t use a tag if the next line of dialogue includes a name.
“I didn’t say that,” said John.
“But, John, you did say that.”
3) Don’t use a tag if there are only two people in the conversation unless you need a rhythm break.
4) If there are more than two people, cut the number of tags by giving a character certain words or phrases or sentence/structural style. It’ll signal the reader as to who is speaking.
With all that boiling in your brain and computer, let’s take another look at our conversation from earlier. Now edit it with an eye toward ‘said’ and its modifiers.
“Good afternoon, ma’am, Deputy Mullins, Sheriff’s Office. Can I see your license and insurance, please?”
“Why did you stop me?”
“Ma’am, you didn’t come to a complete stop.”
“Yes, I did. I’m not gonna argue about it.”
“Ma’am, do you understand the definition of not arguing?”
“I have lots of things on my mind. My husband’s in Iraq.”
That’s beginning to be a tight, sleek conversation. Lots of changes and fixes and clean-ups, but the foundation of the conversation hasn’t changed at all.
So my challenge to you, then, is to write an exercise that is a conversation with no tags. But do it with three characters (two characters is too easy). Remember the guidelines, but also remember rhythm and what words each character would use as well as their personal sentence structure.
And then do the same exercise but with four characters, or five, or more. Every time you add a voice, your job gets exponentially harder. It becomes more difficult to distinguish between voices. When you get this many characters, you have to use tags, there is no way around it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean blasting attribution tags like buckshot from a shotgun. Maybe, instead, you can yank a different weapon you’re your holster.
I mentioned earlier that you should listen for interesting ways people say what they say. Usually, that means conversational short-hand or slang. But every once in a while, you’re going to hear dialect.
Dialect, or patois, is a great dialogue spice as long as it fits the character. But a touch of spice goes a tremendously long way. Too much and the entire conversation goes off the end of the dinner table and even the dog won’t touch it.
For example, from early 20th century Georgia writer Will N. Harbin’s short story, “A Humble Abolitionist:”
“I reckon you’d ruther set out heer whar you kin ketch a breath o’air from what little’s afloat,” she said, cordially….
“An’, Pete Gill, I’m powerfully afeerd you are in fer it. As much as you’ve spoke agin slave-holdin’ as a practice you’ve got to make a start at it. The Colonel said that you held a mortgage on Big Joe, an’ ef you don’t take ‘im right off you won’t get a red cent fer yore debt.”
I think I’m choking on dialect. In fact, I think I’ve choked to death.
On the other hand, if he had stripped every bit of dialect out, how boring would that be?
“I guess you would rather sit out here where you can catch a breath of air from what little is afloat,” she said….
“And, Pete Gill, I am powerfully afraid you are in for it. As much as you have spoke against slave-holding as a practice you have got to make a start at it. The Colonel said that you held a mortgage on Big Joe, and if you do not take him right off, you won’t get a red cent for your debt.”
Nice and clean. Boring as empty hand cuffs.
Plus, some of it sounds Southern informal while other bits sound too formal. And there is really nothing in the second example that gives you much flavor of the character speaking.
So use dialect. Don’t be afeered of it. Make sure you’ve got the right dialect, and use it cautiously. Choose something obvious that the reader will instantly understand. Since you want to use dialect less often, make it mean more when you do.
And yes, Mr. Leonard discusses dialect as part of his rules.
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.
In the unpublished sequel to my novel 2000 Miles To Open Road, I have a character who peppers his dialogue with ‘y’all.’ Once upon a time, that was just a southern thing; it’s pretty well spread itself throughout much of the country now. But because he’s the only character who uses that word, the reader knows immediately who’s speaking. That reduces the number of attribution tags I need for him.
As obvious as it sounds, dialect is like a foreign language. If you have a Hispanic character, you wouldn’t write everything in Spanish, but you would drop Spanish words in every once in a while because those are the words that character would use. Dialect is the same.
Those are the three things I think make great dialogue. It takes lots of practice and lots of listening and an incredible amount of writing before you’ll get comfortable with it and begin to be happy with what you’ve written.
Lastly, remember this: dialogue can almost always be improved by cutting it. Look at the exercise we did. We cut half of it immediately because it just repeated – in different words – something the characters had already said. So figure out a better, shorter way to have your character speak and that’ll make it seem better instantly.
And read read read. If you’re not reading, but trying to write anyway, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Read anything and everything because every word that passes through your eyes and into your brain will teach you something about the words you want passing from your brain to your page.
There are new numbers out today from Publisher’s Weekly. Ooooh, boy, is it getting interesting.
According to PW, ebook sales rose last month to just about $40 million. Print sales fell to just about $180 million.
There are those who are wandering around with sandwich boards draped around their necks, ringing a handbell, tolling the death of books and traditional literature and proclaiming not only a sea change, but a veritable DNA rewrite in how mankind reads simply because of new delivery systems.
Not quite yet, my man.
I believe that day will absolutely happen, but not in the near future. Not this year, not next year, not the year after.
By the next Presidential election, ebooks could be half the market, maybe slightly more, but it’s going to be awhile yet before ebooks are the market.
Why? Simple: not everyone has ereaders.
Everyone who’s gnashing their teeth over the market has overlooked the fact that not everyone has an ebook reader and that, in this economy, when disposable income is at a premium, ebook readers are not going to saturate the market.
Doesn’t matter if your new book only costs $ .59. If the reader is $399.00 and Susie and Johnny aren’t sure if they’re going to have jobs in three days, you ain’t selling that book.
I understand the economy is transitory and eventually, like mp3s, nearly everyone will have readers, but that day ain’t coming soon.
But when it does, here’s an interesting question: will the ease of access spur more sales? Right now, you have to go to a store and buy the physical book. Or you buy it on-line and wait for delivery.
But what about instant access? If the books are inexpensive and I can get it NOW, am I apt to buy more things?
My personal experience is that I buy more music than I used to because I get it instantly. Will that tendency carry over? And what about people who watch movies instantly via Netflix? Do they watch more movies because of ease of delivery?
The ultimate question, hidden behind everything else, is: will these new delivery systems increase sales?
But here’s another lesson for why digital will never, ever completely replace print: vinyl.
Digital music didn’t kill vinyl and, in fact, vinyl is making a comeback.
Ink on paper will always be around and while I suspect I’ll have a reader at some point, I’ll always read books.
Actually, I could see myself getting a reader as soon as magazines and newspapers pull their heads out and start offering half-decent subscription services, along with value-enhanced content.
So don’t listen to the doomsayers who predict publishing is dead.
Don’t listen to their corollary, either: that publishers have no clue what they’re doing when it comes to ebooks. Those who say that are rewriting the narrative to fit their own notions of what they think is going on.
Look at some of Amazon’s best selling ebooks: George Bush, John Grisham, Stig Larsson, Nora Roberts, Lee Child.
Those writers don’t work for mom and pop publishers, they write for the largest publishers in the world.
In other words, what ebooks are being sold (and it’s still a small chunk of the market) are being sold by the big publishers…you know, the ones who are killing literature because they won’t get with it when it comes to ebooks.
Okay, enough random thoughts about publishing. Time to go check a book out from the library.
So here’s my thing (actually, just one of many, many things, but that’s another couple hundred stories….):
If you’re a writer who no one has heard of,
If you’re a writer who self-publishes and tries to hide it,
If you’re so unread in your genre that you’ve not read one of the foundational giants in your genre,
If you’re terrified of everyone finding out you are a talentless hack,
If you cover that terror with steely-eyed conviction that you know better about everything,
If you ruin a great pair of black boots with a froofy, blue dress thing,
If you’re a pushy, demanding, wench,
Then shut the hell up.
True story: at yesterday’s KidLit (a convention LuAnn organized centered on children’s literature) a writer I’ve never heard of went up to the incredible Richard Peck after Peck’s brilliant talk, shook his head energetically, and said, (I shit you not!),
“I’ve never read any of your books…I thought they’d be boring.”
I cracked a tooth my jaw hit the floor so hard. Officer Friendly was with me. He looks at me and starts to say, “Did she just say that?”
But he didn’t get it out because I said to him, “Did she just say that?”
Mr. Peck, to his credit, didn’t say a word, even as this idiot who publishes her own books (which I don’t have a problem with, I’ve done it myself) and hides that publishing history under the guise of a ‘publishing house,’ kept babbling and babbling.
I thought your books would be boring? Really? That’s what you want to say? To the man who created the young adult novel in 1972 with Don’t Look and it Won’t Hurt?
But that wasn’t the only brilliant thing this whackenhut nut job said to him. Later, in the book store, she said to the clerk (the inimitable Bob M, with whom I later debated the latest James Lee Burke novel…I think he’s done, Bob M thinks there’s at least one more): “Is this book depressing? I’m buying it as a gift but not if it’s depressing.”
Bob M was sort of stunned and went through what he loved about the book and she wandered off, the heels of her black boots clicking on the wood floor. She clodded right up to Mr. Peck and asked him if the book was depressing.
What? Shut the hell up, Pollyanna.
Other than that, it was a great conference, more so because it was the first. The turnout was good in spite of the weather and the rain that blasted everyone late in the day. Everyone seemed to have fun, parents and kids (and you know how much I ain’t no fan of no kids).
Damnit all to hell…just enough fun to have this damned thing again next year.
…except it hasn’t changed at all, has it?
Can it really be a change when everyone is watching for it? Waiting for it? If everyone – and I mean everyone except the absolute Luddites who have their heads buried in the sand – knows it’s coming…can it really be a huge change?
The Associated Press ran this two or three days ago, a story by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg:
Weeks after Amazon.com said that it is now selling more electronic books than hardcovers, a leading book publisher said one of its prominent new titles is generating greater e-book unit sales than hardcover unit sales during its first week on sale.
Laura Lippman’s thriller, “I’d Know You Anywhere,” went on sale Aug. 17, and in its first five days sold 4,739 e-books and 4,000 physical hardcovers, said News Corp.’s HarperCollins Publishers.
“This is the first book of ours of any consequence that has sold more e-books than hardcovers in the first week,” said Frank Albanese, a senior vice president at HarperCollins. “What we’re seeing now is that if a book gets a good review, it gets a faster lift on the digital side than it does on the physical side because people who have e-readers can buy and read it immediately.”
In recent weeks, a number of leading publishers have indicated that e-books today account for about 8% of total revenue, up from 3% to 5% in the same period a year ago. Some expect that e-books will account for as much as 20-25% by the end of 2012.
Okay, first of all, let’s talk about this dumbass at HarperCollins. Read his quote again. The first book of any consequence. In other words, there were other books they published that sold more ebooks than print books but they didn’t matter…they weren’t of consequence.
What in the hell does that mean? They’ve published books they don’t think were of any consequence? Then why the hell publish them? And what if you’re one of those writers? The Great HarperCollins has published your book and the world is looking peaches and cream and then one of the senior cheeses publicly – extremely publicly – denigrates you to the world.
And I do mean to the world. This story has gotten a ton of coverage in the last few days. See, for those of you who aren’t total book geeks, this battle (much like the internal civil war in the Republican party between the moderates and the whacked out Tea Partiers…who want government to be juuuuusssst small enough to cut their Medicare and Social Security checks) is about the future of publishing.
There are those who believe traditional publishers (big operations that print bound books that then have to be warehoused and sold and that use lots and lots of trees) are going the way of the Edsel. What they think is that the digital book revolution is going to put them out of business. If anyone can create their own digital book (and anyone can, by the way), then why do we need big publishers?
Then there are others who believe traditional publishers have been smart enough in the last few years to see the digital retrenchment coming and have invested wisely and therefore have already put their train wrecks on another set of tracks and it’ll be smooth sailing…to completely mangle metaphors.
I fall squarely…in the middle. First of all, there will always be traditional publishers. The methods they use to print the books will absolutely change, but there will always be people who want to hold a physical paper book. Second of all, none of the big publishers has ever spent a dollar wisely in their miserable corporate lives. They completely missed the ebook revolution and, in fact, are still missing it.
How many of you guys have read an ebook lately? What did you see? You saw pages on a digital screen. You saw exactly the same thing you see in a book.
Exactly the same thing.
It’s digital. It’s connected to the Internet or you wouldn’t be able to buy the books. If it’s connected, use the damned Internet. Give me value-enhanced content. Don’t make the ebook the exact same thing as a paper book. Utilize the new format and give me added value. Use the ability to glean information from all over the Internet and add it to what I’m reading.
But this is not my overall point. My overall point is this: remember where you were when you read that a major, major writer sold more ebooks than regular books because that’s the tipping point.
That’s when regular people – like the fucking AP who’s never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity and jump on the bandwagon months after it left town – realized something new and different was going on.
Eight percent of total revenue this year? They can’t count. When the cookies are all added up at the end of the year, ebook revenue will turn out to be closer to 15 percent and we’ll hit 25 percent of the market by Christmas, 2011. By the next presidential election, we’ll be hitting 35 percent, maybe higher. And that’s without any decent value added content. That’s with just quick and dirty paper to digital conversions.
It’s a brave new world and if publishers do it right, this is gonna be fun!
I expected writers, discussion of books and the philosophy of literature….
I got bottles of whiskey, reproductions of ancient Greek temples, and Japanese World War II rifles.
Welcome to Nashville, baby!
I’ve been to 24 or 25 convention and yet had never been to Killer Nashville. Seeing as how we have friends in Nashville who I hadn’t seen in ten years, we decided to go. After all, it would be a nice, easy seven hour drive through beautiful country.
The drive down was a disaster. First of all, I have back problems and as I get older, they get worse. So the fabulous little Mustang with bucket seats…that rides like a fabulous little Mustang with bucket seats…kills me worse every long trip I take in it.
And then, along a particular stretch of interstate in southern Illinois, the Illinois State Police had gone berserk. In a twenty or thirty mile stretch, they were stopping everything. Hmmm, we were close to Kentucky, the capital of the meth world? Uh…yeah.
Once we got through that, we hit the worst construction in the history of man. We were stopped more than not and crawling when not. It was the worst I’d ever been in and I lived in Denver for ten years so that’s quite a feat.
But…we also got to see the cross.
I’m not really sure what it is, or why it’s there, but it’s big. You can see it for miles. We didn’t have a place to pull over so I could get my gear out so I snapped a few with the phone.
Eventually, we made it to the hotel, got checked in, and realized we were starving. When we went food-trolling, we immediately came across a Famous Dave’s. Yes, it’s a chain, but it’s not bad and I had no clue where there might be any nearby Mom and Pop barbeque.
So we did that. But during the weekend we also had some great Mexican, Sonic burgers, and Schlotski’s sandwiches. Food-wise, the weekend rocked my black little heart.
Friday afternoon I gave my cold case presentation and it went swimmingly well. The audience, made up of writers, wannabe writers, and cops, were mostly three steps ahead of me the entire afternoon. Lots of questions, lots of interaction. It was great.
But we did have to start late so I filled the time with cop jokes. The writers tittered nervously while the cops laughed their asses off.
Friday night we went to see some dear friends, Randy and Stephanie Fox. Randy is one of the greatest writers in the history of…well, certainly Nashville, maybe all of Tennessee…(who doesn’t write enough fiction!) and we hadn’t seen them in ten years.
And, fabulously, it started as a meeting of whiskey. Randy works for Jack Daniel’s and I’d asked him to pick up a bottle of something for a friend’s birthday, and another pint of something for a friend who drinks Jameson’s because ‘merican hooch is too rough.
He’d brought those but also brought me a bottle of high-dollar Woodford Reserve.
Ahh…writers, barbeque, and lots of whiskey. So far so good.
After dinner, we went to Casa Fox to hang. During the hanging, Randy showed me his collection of World War II rifles. It was sort of odd to sight in a Japanese rifle that still had the chrysanthemum stamped on the barrel, but sort of cool, too.
Late Friday night I spent hanging in the hotel bar where a ton of people who’d seen the presentation bought me drinks and gave me their theories. And a bunch of people who hadn’t seen the presentation bought me drinks, asked me about it, and then gave me their theories.
But I also drank with young writers who believed I knew something about everything because I know people. It’s great to be a bit older and have met just about everyone in the industry. See, the young kids who don’t know any better think I actually know these people. That I call them and hang out and eat at their million dollar houses. Shhhh…don’t tell them otherwise….
Saturday dawned as a day of no panels and no requirements. Good thing, too, because LuAnn ended up quite ill. She wouldn’t have been able to make it through any panels. (though how hilarious would it have been for me to make a statement and LuAnn vomit at exactly that moment…sort of metaphoric and gastric all at the same time!)
Saturday afternoon I spent with Bill and Lisa Garramone’s house. Bill I’ve known since the 5th grade and his wife Lisa for about five weeks. My dear friend Brad was there from Atlanta, too. Sadly, my schedule had changed at the convention so I didn’t get as much time for them as I’d wanted.
But the time we did have was great. I walked in the damned door and Bill – who’d played for the opposing high school’s drum line when we were in school – cranked up two videos of their line at contests from 1983 and 1984. And yeah, both were tapes of contests THEY won, not us so that was nice for the old ego. Thanks, Bill!
And while I watched, his wife tried to get me drunk on vodka punch. She’s a beautiful woman no doubt, and normally I’d love a big, Amazonian blonde getting me drunk, but I just kept thinking about how to get my current high school line to play like the Midland High School line circa 1983.
Hehehe…how’s that for priorities?
After the video, Bill said, “Let’s go to the Parthenon.”
Seeing as how he’s a professional musician who’s played everywhere and knows everyone, I figured it was a recording studio or a club.
No, it’s the Parthenon.
You know…Greece? Big building, mostly fallen over? Foundation of western civilization blah blah blah?
Yeah, Nashville has one.
Why? Who the hell knows. It was built in 1893 or some shit, out of chicken wire and plaster of Paris for some low-rent World’s Fair or something, alongside a reproduction of a pyramid. For whatever reason, Nashville decided to rebuild it in stone. But they let the pyramid go because that would have been to gauche or something.
But this thing is absolutely incredible!
The scale is 1:1. That is, it is exactly the size of the broken-down old one in Greece. Let me tell you, standing next to the outside columns was delightfully humbling.
Much like my ego, this thing is gynormous! And when you walk in, you come around a corner and see a 41 foot tall statue of Athena. And doors that weigh about 3.75 tons each.
But the experience was marred, as so many of my experiences are, by the cops. There was a moment when I thought we’d get arrested (and how come I always assume I’m going to get arrested when I’m hanging with Brad?).
There’s no photography or cell phone usage in one particular part of the museum, see, and Brad yanked his phone out. Lisa had called him, see, to talk to Bill…who’d left his phone at home. I assume he did that so he wouldn’t have to talk to Lisa. But see, she was smart enough to call Brad and demand he give the phone to Bill.
At which point a security guard strolled by. I think she was swinging her baton like an old beat cop and she might have growled deep in her throat once or twice. Brad’s eyes swelled up like he’d been punched and we all started digging through our pockets for bail money.
But rather than hauling us in, she snapped a finger toward the exit. While we didn’t speed out, we certainly moved quickly.
Though the building was amazing, every once in a while I’d laugh because come on…in Nashville? Just randomly? There is one exact replica of this thing in the world and it’s Nashville? The absurdity of that just makes me laugh.
After, we went back to their place and I don’t think Bill or Lisa were particularly pleased with my instructions to their 2-year old daughter on how – exactly – to best dance a pole…you know, should she ever need to.
I had to leave to go check on LuAnn and her condition made it such that I couldn’t get back to them, which left me sad. But for the few hours I had, they were great fun, which is exactly how I remember Bill.
Sunday morning was my panel with other cops. It was great, except for one little problem that needed tweaking. And no, I won’t mention that tweak publicly, but if you buy me a beer or a shot in San Francisco, I’ll tell you all about it.
Great questions and the audience seemed very hip to learning about law enforcement. It was a great panel, too, because the other guys were retired and had worked different areas of large departments. I was active duty and with a small department so the audience go a great breadth of experience.
Overall, it was a great convention. Sold a few books, met a few fans, made a few more. And met some very hip writers and people. Gina Shade and Matthew Funk, Jessica and Lee Verday. Gary Jones. Ernie Lancaster. It was a good weekend, just what I needed.
Oh, wait, I almost forgot. I also saw a lady who’s fast becoming one of my dearest friends. Margery Flax, the biggest of the big wheels with MWA. It was great seeing her. And while she did kiss my cheek at one point, she also knocked me up for a hundred bucks.
Man, with friends like these….