Sunday, February 26, 2006

Death of the PI Novel

As Sarah Weinman notes in a recent posting, there’s a renewed debate on Rara-Avis (and elsewhere) about whether the private eye novel will survive.

Sarah takes an empirical approach and catalogs all the PI novels she’s aware of that are scheduled for publication in 2006/7—and the list isn’t any too long, especially compared to the publication calendar for the other crime subgenres like thrillers, cozies, etc. (She does neglect an important one: the prequel to that granddaddy of all PI novels, The Maltese Falcon, which, as I posted earlier, is being written by Joe Gores for delivery in 2007.)

I personally think that popularity of the PI novel has been in a decline since the early 90s. What I’m not entirely sure about is whether: 1) readers are less interested in reading them, 2) writers are less interested in writing them, or 3) publishers are less interested in publishing them.

If the system were working perfectly, of course, a decline in readership would cause a decline in publication, which would ultimately result in a decline in the number of writers who were trying to fob the things off on publishers and readers. However, I’m convinced that the buying behavior of editors is very similar to the buying behavior of movie studios and—an area I have even more experience in—the “buying” or funding behaviors of venture capitalists (VCs).

And the interesting thing I’ve learned about the funding behavior of VCs is there is a definite “herd instinct” in selecting investments: once one venture capital firm has a big success funding a company in a particular technology area, they all look for investments in the same area. For example, Netscape’s success in the mid-90s fueled the Internet bust of 2000/1 as everyone sought to put their money in companies with similar business models.

This makes the system less than “perfect.” Good ideas in other areas—such as ones having to do with plain old enterprise software—are ignored and more money than is ideally appropriate is put into companies developing Internet technology.

The analog in the mystery/crime book-buying world is probably the rise of the standalone thriller, based on the success of thrillers by Lehane, Coben and Crais, or the historical thriller based on the success of—you guessed it—The Da Vinci Code. Another piece of evidence that supports the notion of the hegemony of thrillers in the crime fiction world is the recent formation of The International Thriller Writers organization, complete with their own “Thrillerfest.”

This “over-training” on thrillers may be crowding out books in other crime subgenres, particularly subgenres that are perceived to be the oldest and least fashionable: to wit, the PI novel and, one might argue, the “genius” amateur detective novel with protagonists like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Perot and Nero Wolfe.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Bleak House Books is bringing out a trade paperback reprint of my PI novel The Immortal Game in March. I’m going to write a lot more about the process of selling my new novel, Candy from Strangers, in later postings, but I think a digression on the experience of shopping Immortal in the late 90s for its first publication would be instructive as a case-in-point.

The first review the book received when it came out in early 2000 was a very nice one from the San Francisco Chronicle. I’ll forever be in debt to its author—a working PI named Ellen McGarrahan—because it fueled much of the book’s later success, but I had to smile at the irony of her opening and closing sentences:

The appearance of an excellent book by an unknown author from a tiny press is a treasured publishing dream that every so often happens … It's difficult to imagine why this book wasn't snatched up by a larger house, but perhaps that's a fate that awaits the delicious Mr. Riordan next time. One can only hope.
The “dream” very nearly did not happen. After taking time off from my career in software engineering to work on the novel full time, I completed it in a little under a year’s time. I signed with a reputable and well-respected agent in 1997, and we began the process of shopping it to major houses. Here are some excerpts from the rejection letters we received.

From a very successful senior editor who recently paid in excess of two million for a historical thriller:

I like the setting and all the computer details, and I think the narrator’s voice is very entertaining. If I’d read this a few years ago, I probably would have tried to buy it. But the mystery market has become so crowded that I’ve really had to cut back, and I’ve also learned from hard experience that my personal affection for this sort of Chandler-esque novel is apparently not shared by many other mystery buyers.
From an award-winning editor in an executive position in at very large house:

This has a hip setting and a very appealing hero. But I’m afraid that we would have a tough time in today’s competitive market. So, with regret, I’m going to have to step aside.
From another senior editor:

This is a near-miss. I like Mr. Coggins’ writing, and the book is clearly publishable—ten years ago, I’m sure this would have been published without a problem in a mid-list program. Unfortunately, with the market being what it is today, and [publisher name] being overbooked in mysteries in general, I can’t take this on right now. If [it] is still available nine months from now, please feel free to submit it again—maybe things will have loosened up a bit.
It must be said, too, that there were editors who simply did not like the book, including two from the UK who felt it was too raw.

So what do these letters show? I think they back the notion that the PI novel has declined in popularity—that it’s harder to publish one than it was “a few years” or “ten years ago.” But it’s hard to say whether they support my “herd mentality” idea. In the first letter, at least, the editor notes that s/he likes PI novels more than the buying public, which suggests that s/he is buying to satisfy demand, rather than buying to adhere to a trend.

But they also mention the market being “crowded” and “overbooked,” which could just be a polite way of saying no thanks to a book they felt wasn’t quite up to snuff, or might be reflective of the momentum the other subgenres have in the market and the pressure they feel to buy in that pattern.

In any case, I don’t intend all this to be a harangue on New York publishers or an exercise in sour grapes. I’m very happy to have been given the opportunity to write the kind of books I like to write and to have found an audience of readers who share an interest in them.

And lest all this hand-wringing about the private eye novel go too far, it’s very instructive to note that at the moment of this writing there are two, count them, two, private eye novels on the top 15 of the New York Times hardcover fiction list, including a first time effort by an author who is one of the founding sponsors of the International Thriller Writers—John Lescroart!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Evolution of a Cover

Bleak House Books is bringing out my first book, The Immortal Game, in trade paperback this March. I’ve been talking about the activities involved in bringing a reprint like this to market.

One of the obvious ones is developing a new cover. The cover of the first edition looked like this:

I may be biased since I took the photo of the Lewis Chessmen pictured in the foreground, but I always thought the cover had a cool, noirish look and it had the advantage of highlighting the book’s connection to chess.

However, there were some disadvantages, too. One was that it was black and white. Distributors, booksellers and other authors told me repeatedly that books with black and white covers simply do not sell as well as ones with color covers.

The other problem is that, while chess is integral to the story, an interest in or knowledge of chess is not at all critical to enjoying the story—nor is it the only major theme in the book. In fact, bondage and discipline—a topic about as far from chess as I can imagine—is also central to the book. The presence of that theme, among others, argued for incorporating something a little racier than chess pieces.

The Bleak House Approach

Bleak House did something I thought was smart. Since we had signed a three-book contract, they approached the design of the cover from the perspective of the series, rather than just The Immortal Game.

Design work for my second Bleak House book, Candy from Strangers, actually started before The Immortal Game, but the evolution in thinking about the cover for Candy ended up affecting what was done for Immortal. As my editor Alison Jenson put it, “We decided to try a new approach that we can stick with throughout the series, which will help to tie the books together visually. The idea is to use a photographic ‘contact sheet’ layout, changing the images in the contact sheet for each book.”

The first version of the new cover (that was shared with me) looked like this:

I thought it was fabulous—it incorporated the chess theme, but managed to mix in sexier images suggestive of the other themes in the book. And it had an attractive color palette. However, opinionated bastard that I am, I did have a few suggestions. The Bleak House folks were kind enough to listen. Here is an excerpt of the e-mail I sent to Alison:

I think the cover looks great! And I can see how it will work well with Candy, too. I do have one correction to mention and a couple of suggestions

The correction is that August's last name is spelled Riordan, not Reardon. On the suggestions, if you check this large pic of the cover of the popular book Kite Runner, you'll see a little call out with the words, "A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year". We're entitled to do the same with Immortal b/c the Chronicle picked the book in its annual best of the year list.

My other suggestions are pretty small. Symbol-wise, Riordan is the knight on the chess board (and in the story), so it would be nice if one of the photos were a knight—or if we substituted a little knight symbol for the little crown symbol in the middle. I suppose you could even carry that forward to the other books, including the knight somewhere on their covers.

Last, and this is really nit-picky, if the checkerboard pattern were such that the square below my name was green instead of white, it would "snap" out a little better. (I know, vain, vain authors.)
Here is the final version of the cover:

You’ll see that some of my suggestions were incorporated, and perhaps more importantly, the designer selected a different set of photos to intersperse with the chess pictures and stepped the hue of the colors down a notch.

I’m very pleased with the final cover and feel that it really captures the essence of the book. Hopefully potential readers will find it equally enticing.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

On Proofreading and New Editions

As I’ve mentioned, I’m using my blog to describe the lifecycle of a mystery novel with my third book, Candy from Strangers—which is being published by Bleak House Books this September—as the prototypical example.

However, I’m also in the midst of what you might call a “mini-lifecycle” with my first novel, The Immortal Game, which Bleak House is bring out in a new trade paperback edition this March. I thought I’d use the next few postings to give you a feel for some of the activities involved in bringing a reprint to market.

The Immortal Game was originally published by Poltroon Press in Berkeley. Poltroon did a wonderful job with the design—modeling the book after the first edition of The Big Sleep—but could not afford a professional proofreader. We “solved” this problem by enlisting friends and family to review the final draft, and since they found so many typos, I thought we had things well in hand.

I thought we had things in hand, that is, until I started getting all the e-mails, letters and comments at my readings. All of the mistakes were my own fault, of course, and some of them were very embarrassing.

The buyer at a distributor we were using, who loved the book and had a gray-haired ponytail such as fan of 1960s music might sport, pointed out that Jimi Hendrix’s first name was not spelled “Jimmy.” After a signing in my neighborhood bookstore, I got an e-mail from someone who lived in the area suggesting that I could see a Galaxie 500 like the one August Riordan drives parked on a particular corner. He said a trip to visit the car might particularly informative because then I would see that its name is not spelled “Galaxy” like the heavenly body.

Most embarrassing of all, I was told that, like Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue, I’d mixed up prostrate for prostate. And there were many other errors of a less egregious sort.

Bleak House Edition

I’ve been working with Alison Janssen, my editor at Bleak House, to prepare the text of The Immortal Game for the new edition. Before sending off the file, of course, I made sure to crank in all the corrections I’d accumulated from the prior edition. There were a lot.

And once again, because there were so many, I assumed that I was out of the woods in terms of handing over a clean draft. Wrong typo-breath!

Bleak House does engage the services of proofreaders for their books, and when Alison put them to work on the manuscript, they found quite a few more. They also found a few errors of logic and generated a several questions about language choices I made. Here are a few examples:

Terri's tattoo is on her left breast on p19, and on her right breast here.
Terri is the femme fatal in the book and the tattoo in question is of a praying mantis. Apparently, I’d moved the location of the mantis without realizing it.

“Teller’s are there in several places: the refrigerator door, the beer bottle, the photograph you said he was holding when he walked in.”

Suggested change:
“Teller’s are there in several places: the refrigerator door, the beer bottle, the photograph you said he was holding when you walked in.”
This is a logic error. This is dialog spoken by spoken by a cop to August Riordan. The cop is talking about fingerprints, but August was the one who walked into the room in question, not the character named Teller.

“I suppose that makes sense,” said Stockwell. “Why leave any more loose ends than you have to. Well, how’s to rifle the wallet. Or have you already done that?”

One proofreader was curious about the bolded sentence. Is it as you intended? Should it end with a question mark?
"How's to" is made-up slang that Raymond Chandler created and I use it occasionally. It basically means "how about," so we agreed to put a question mark at the end of the sentence where it’s used.

All this goes to show that it’s very difficult to publish a novel (especially from a typo-prone writer like me) without the professional services of a lot of other people besides the author. I’m very pleased that Bleak House has brought to bear the appropriate resources and I’m looking forward to their edition as the definitive one for Game.

Dated References

Apart from plain old typos and logic errors, another thing that is tempting to address in a new edition of a previously published novel is anachronisms. Like all of my books, The Immortal Game is set in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley and involves computers, software and other high technology. One of the challenges in writing about software and computer technology is that it changes so fast. For example, when the first edition of the book was released in 1999, people were still using floppy disks to distribute software and the PC operating systems extant were Windows 98 and Windows NT.

Among other things, the first edition of The Immortal Game had references to these items and Alison and I discussed whether or not we should try to remove or update them. Of course, any novel is a portrayal of a particular place and time—that’s part of the appeal of reading novels from the past—and changing things to keep up with technology is a losing game. If you change Windows NT to Windows XP, eventually XP, too, will be out of date.

Alison didn’t feel strongly about making the changes, but in the end, we decided to remove some of the references and update others because, by and large, the novel still reads like it is set in the present time and a mention of floppy disks might be jarring to readers of the new edition who are not expecting a late 1990s setting.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Joe Gores and Sam Spade

Joe Gores is one of my favorite writers. He is a three-time Edgar award winner (for Best First Novel, Best Short Story and Best TV Series Segment) and a premiere expert on Dashiell Hammett, particularly The Maltese Falcon and Hammett’s time in San Francisco.

In his 1975 article “Sam’s Spade San Francisco” for the City of San Francisco magazine, he described the research he did to locate the real locations that served as models for fictional settings in The Maltese Falcon. The most important of these was probably Sam Spade’s apartment, which Joe located at 891 Post Street. As I discuss in an article for Mystery Scene Magazine describing the dedication of the building as a literary landmark, this was also the apartment building Hammett lived in when he wrote Falcon.

Joe used his knowledge of Dashiell Hammett’s time in San Francisco to write Hammett, a novel where Joe has Hammett return to his old vocation of private detecting, just before the publication of his (Hammett’s) first novel, Red Harvest. The book has some great details of 1920's San Francisco and also drops some clever hints about how Hammett's later characters came to be (including the “fat man”).

I like and admire Hammett very much, but my favorite book of Joe’s is Interface. As Kevin Burton Smith says on his wonderful web site, The Thrilling Detective:

Interface, one of the finest PI novels ever written, introduced morally-challenged Neal Fargo, and features possibly the best surprise ending since Sam Spade refused to play the sap for Brigid O'Shaugnessy. The style, a totally objective third-person narrative (what one writing teacher of mine called "camera/tape recorder") is, like the socko surprise finish, reminiscent of The Maltese Falcon.
And regarding that objective, third-person point of view, Vince Emery, in his essay “Hammettisms in The Maltese Falcon” written for his the book Discovering The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade notes:

Third-person objective is not commonly employed because of the difficulties involved in writing with it. Few writers have been able to sustain it throughout a novel-length work. Hammett was one; Ernest Hemingway was another.
And Joe Gores is a third.

I had heard rumors of some exciting news regarding Joe and The Maltese Falcon, but Joe gave more details in a recent letter:

In February of last year, lightning struck. Hammett’s surviving daughter, Jo, whom I met in 1999, was in San Francisco for a conference, and asked to talk to me. In 2000 I had hit her with the idea of a prequel to The Maltese Falcon. She turned me down flat. But last February she asked me if I would be interested in reviving the project! I was floored. But we have slowly and cautiously ahead through hundreds of phone calls, outlines, proposals, agents, lawyers, letters, and I finally signed the contract with Knopf—Hammett’s publisher—a couple of weeks ago … My title is Spade & Archer and I’m revving up the research right now. I have my own research from 1975 for Hammett, and am digging out a great deal of new stuff now. I hope to start writing the novel in March or April … It is a really exciting project to be working on.
I’m very excited, too. There’s no other writer I would trust with Sam Spade and Hammett's literary heritage.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Jade Starr Interview

One of my first postings for this blog was a short plot synopsis for Candy from Strangers. The plot involves two young women who have put up a web site featuring still photographs, video and web diaries to help pay their way through art college.

As part of the research I did for the book, I visited a number of sites set up by young women to get a sense for the kind of things they put on them, what they wrote about themselves and to get an overall feel for how the “wish list” and subscription mechanics worked. One thing I determined from the research was that I wanted my characters’ site to be Goth-influenced, and that in turn led me to a site called Gothic Babe of the Week, which features photos of, well, Gothic babes.

A woman on the site named Jade Starr caught my eye (she was Gothic Babe of the week for March 31st, 2002 ), and I followed the link to her personal site, That site has gotten a lot “steamier” (as Jade puts it) since I first discovered it, but it was clear to me that she’d been very successful in developing a large and loyal fan base and it impressed me as a good prototypical model to draw upon in describing my characters’ site in Candy from Strangers.

I contacted Jade recently and asked her if she’d be willing to be interviewed for the blog and she very graciously agreed. Here are her answers to my questions about the experience of having a pay site for fans.

How did you get started putting pictures and content about yourself on the web?

I started putting up pictures of myself in about 2001. At the time, I also ran a fan site for a favorite band of mine and I started to like the attention it brought me, so I began doing more shoots and eventually started a pay site that only had something like three galleries! It was really cheap to join then and all my pics were very amateurish.

What do you like about it?

I love being adored! I can't help it! I grew up without much attention in school and I guess that’s why I crave it so much now. Plus I love having sex with beautiful women!

What don't you like?

The only thing I really don't like is that—just as with any job in the entertainment business—there are shady people who will try to tell you that you should be doing more, and they continue to try to get you to cross boundaries you have set for yourself. Plus, I hate dealing with catty soft-core models who look down on the more adult-oriented performers. People are very two faced in this scene … they'll be nice to your face and then you find out they've been trashing you all over town!

Have you ever had a bad experience with a fan?

Not anything extreme since I've just been modeling, but I had a few stalkers when I was stripping in Georgia (my home state). Even that was nothing really dangerous, although I've known plenty of girls who got themselves into more serious situations with obsessive fans. I've just always been more careful.

Do you have rules or boundaries that you set for your interactions with fans?

Yes! I have no problem with people writing me with their comments, but if they are ever rude or just too crude I discontinue speaking to them. When I danced I never gave out personal information about myself and I rarely even gave out my number. I also make it clear to fans that I am here as a fantasy and that even if they buy me gifts they are not getting me! I never lead people on because that is where most trouble starts for models.

What did your friends and family say when you got started? What do they say now?

I lost most of my old friends … if you want to call them that. I had a lot of friends who just weren't as open minded as they should have been. I still talk to only a few people from the little town I came from. As far as my family goes, most of them do not know … only my sisters know. My parents found out I was stripping a few years back and they completely freaked, so I'm more than positive they could not handle knowing I am also an adult performer.

Do people that you meet in other spheres of your life treat you differently when they find you have a site?

For the most part no, although I have a lot of people who just can't believe it because when people meet me I can be very quiet and shy. They just don’t expect me to be the type of girl who has sex for a living and runs a website.

Do you make a full time living from the site?

I do not make a full time living from just my site. I wish! Most of my money comes from movies I do and modeling for adult websites.

Are fans more likely to subscribe or buy things from your wish list?

Fans are definitely more likely to subscribe because—let’s face it—most people don’t want to spend money with nothing in return! However, to encourage wish list purchases I always offer rewards. Usually I offer a subscription to my site of equal value to what they’ve bought, or if they buy me something extra special, then I will send them things like custom videos, panties, exclusive pics, etc.

I first noticed your pictures on the "Gothic Babe of the Week" site. Are you into the Goth scene?

I would say I'm definitely into the Goth scene, though I am not a Goth girl. I'm more of a rock chick. I dress in a lot of black and I dress skimpy, but I like to explore many different looks in my modeling.

Do you do the web design/maintenance yourself or do you work with someone?

I do everything completely by myself!

How do you select the photographers with whom you work?

I am extremely picky with my photographers. There are a lot of creeps out there, so I really screen them beforehand. If I'm doing trade work for content for my website, then I make sure their photos fit the look I want. I make sure they are ok with my contract terms for working with me, and I always insist on bringing an assistant to the shoot. If I'm doing a paid shoot and I've never heard of the person, then I bring an escort. But if they are established, I sometimes go without one.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

More on Frey? Please God No!

I’ve resisted the temptation to comment on the scandal surrounding James Frey’s admission that portions of his memoir A Million Little Pieces were fictionalized because I didn’t intend to use my blog for Op-Ed pieces on the publishing industry. There are many others who are doing that already—and no doubt they are doing it much better than I ever could.

However, Frey’s last appearance on the Oprah show has completely shattered my will power, and I find now I must weigh in on at least a few aspects of the story.

As I’ll highlight in future postings when I discuss the process of selling Candy from Strangers, it’s getting harder and harder to place novels. My wife, for one, keeps telling me that I’m wasting my time writing fiction—particularly private eye fiction—and that I ought to be doing “creative nonfiction” instead. Maybe with all the alternative media available, consumers want to get their “fiction” from other, more tangible sources such as TV, movies, video games, etc. and the few precious hours they devote to reading they only want to read “true” things.

In any case, it’s clear from the many rejections that Frey received when he shopped the book originally as a novel that the desire to get published was at least partially responsible for his decision to label the book nonfiction.

Another factor that contributes to the “untruth” of any memoir is the simple fact that humans do not have perfect recall, so conversations, descriptions of surroundings, clothing, etc. must necessarily be augmented through the “creative” part of “creative nonfiction.”

Two of my favorite memoirs are Ernest Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. In the preface to Feast, Hemmingway says:

If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.
And Wolff includes the following at the front of his book:

I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it a truthful story.
Frey had no similar sort of statement in the first edition of his book, and of course, there is a difference between outright fabrications and a creative “filling in of the blanks,” but no one should read a memoir and take what he or she finds in it as the gospel truth—just as no one should do that with a newspaper, a history book or Internet blog.

Apparently, few in the jaundiced publishing industry thought Frey’s work was the gospel truth. Miss Snark, for one, claims that it was common knowledge that the book was at least partially fabricated. Is the antique dealer who sells you a fake Chippendale any less guilty than the maker? How about the local TV show host who picks the chair for “antique of the week?”

Which brings us to Frey’s appearance on Oprah. I watched some clips from the show and I found them cringe-making, to say the least. Frey comes off as weak and mealy-mouthed, and Oprah righteous, indignant and vengeful.

Probably he deserved it. Probably he should have come clean in his earlier appearance on Larry King’s show. But why did Oprah call into the King show to support him, and why did she abruptly change her opinion about the situation and invite him to a public whipping on her own show?

Mainly because of the spate of newspaper editorials and Internet blogs that criticized her support of the book. And perhaps because it made great television (to some, at least) to play the avenging angel.

I once heard an interesting story about Oprah’s Book Club from an employee: Oprah representatives used to insist that the “Amazon Sales Rank” for Oprah editions of books be higher than non-Oprah editions, so Amazon rigged them to make that the case, even if the sales numbers didn’t bear it out.

This was particularly important when Oprah had taken a hiatus from recommending current releases and was only endorsing older books, such as Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The Oprah Edition had to be higher than the plan old Penguin edition.

Is that the sort of behavior you expect from an organization whose leader told Frey, “I feel duped … you betrayed millions of readers?”

I submit all this not as an apologia for Frey’s actions, but to highlight some of the extenuating circumstances in the case. If I were prosecuting attorney, I’d consider pleading him to a lesser charge in exchange for testimony into the broader conspiracy.