Monday, April 24, 2006

On Selling Books to Bookstores

Sounds a little like selling ice to Eskimos, doesn’t it?

I’m using this blog to talk about the process of writing, placing and marketing my new book Candy from Strangers, but I’m in the middle of a “mini-cycle” with the reprint for my first book The Immortal Game, so I thought I’d use my efforts with Game to talk about one critical step in getting a book into the hands of readers: having bookstores stock it.

Bookstores buy books from one of three sources: the publisher, a distributor or a wholesaler, so part of the challenge of getting a bookstore to carry your book is insuring that the book is available from at least one of those sources on terms that are attractive to them.

I’m going to talk more about the wonderful world of distributors and wholesalers later, so for the purposes of this post, let’s assume that bookstores can readily order your book through a preferred supplier on terms that they like. The next step is to get them to do it.

To help me sell the Game reprint to bookstores, the first thing I did was to develop a flyer targeted to bookstore buyers. This pretty much looks like a flyer you might develop for end consumers, except it includes information bookstores need to order the book through their preferred supplier. Here’s the PDF file for mine. Note in particular the information in the gray box that gives the ISBN and lists Ingram, Baker and Taylor and Big Earth Publishing (the umbrella company for my publisher, Bleak House Books) as suppliers for the book.

The flyer reproduces reasonably well on my color laser printer, so I opted to print them at home rather than taking them to a copy center like Kinko’s.

Now the question was, what to do with them? I decided to target two classes of independent bookstores: local stores and national mystery stores. I choose only independent stores (as opposed to chain stores like Borders or Barnes & Noble), because chain stores do almost all of their buying centrally and I found it’s very difficult to get the buyers at chain stores to pay attention to an individual author.

I culled my list of local stores from the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association and hit the pavement, trying to visit each of them personally. Typically, I asked for the person who purchases mystery books, gave them a copy of the flyer and pointed out some of the highlights of the book, focusing on the local setting and the selection by the San Francisco Chronicle.

I had several pleasant surprises. The San Francisco Mystery Bookstore already had the book in stock and had sold three, and M is for Mystery and Cody’s Books also had it. The person I spoke to at City Lights seemed ready to buy it and went so far as to enter the book information into their ordering system, and I had a cordial reception at many other stores. I also got a few “give me the damn flyer and get out of my hair” type experiences and timed my visit to some stores poorly and had to settle for simply slipping the flyer under the door.

In the case of the national mystery bookstores, I used Katie Derie’s Deadly Directory Online to develop a list of stores and mailed the flyer to the owner or store manager. I usually checked the web site for each bookstore before mailing the flyer off, and once again, had a few pleasant surprises. For instance, The Mysterious Bookshop had mentioned the book in their latest newsletter.

The downside of snail mail, of course, is you can’t make a personal connection with the book buyer. To avoid that problem in the past, I have sometimes followed up a flyer mailing with a phone call, but this time around I (cravenly) decided to save the cold calling for when I’m flogging Candy from Strangers.

I’ll report later on the results (if any) of all these efforts!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Writers Groups III

In my earlier posts on writers groups, I’ve given my take on the benefits of participating and described my first group. In this post, I’m going to give some details about my current group and—to make concrete some of the benefits I described only in the abstract—list some of the specific suggestions I received to improve my novel Candy from Strangers, which is due out this fall from Bleak House Books.

My current group formed as a spin-off of a writing class taught by Ellen Sussman. Ellen is a very accomplished writing instructor, and has published numerous short stories and a novel, On a Night Like This. I believe everyone in the group has taken a class from Ellen with the exception of me. I was recruited later when a few of the original members had dropped out or taken a sabbatical.

The current membership of the group also includes Harriotte Aaron, Sheila Scobba Banning, John Billheimer, Bob Brownstein, Anne Cheilek and Ann Hillesland. All of the members are very talented writers, and while I don’t know the publication history for the entire group, I do know that John has published four wonderful Owen Allison mystery novels, and as you’ll find if you follow the links on their names, Harriotte and Ann have published award-winning short fiction.

In addition to being talented writers, the members of the group are also very skilled critiquers. During the course of rewriting a chapter, I pulled the groups’ annotated copies from my file, referenced notes taken during the face-to-face discussion, and made selective use of all the documented suggestions to guide the rewrite. The groups’ feedback included everything from line edits to ideas for improving believability or character development to plot direction.

Here are a few examples of things I changed in Candy from Strangers as a result of group feedback:

  • Plot Pacing – I got feedback from several members that the broader mystery in the book wasn’t engaging enough to pull the reader through the early chapters. During a partial rewrite of the first section before I had even finished the complete book, I added another (more quickly developing) hook near the beginning of the book that ultimately ties into the larger mystery. I believe this problem of a “slow start” comes—at least in my case—from over-reliance on outlining. A plot that seems engaging enough in outline form can often be a little flat when developed in complete chapters.

  • Dialog for Key Female Character – I struggled throughout the book writing dialog for the “love interest” for my private eye August Riordan. Often the things I had her say came out stilted or overly formal. The group, and particularly the women, helped me achieve a more sincere, realistic tone.

  • Plot Point Mechanism – The plot near the end of the book turns on having a gun in a certain situation be difficult to fire. The original solution I came up with seemed contrived and distracted the reader from the developing story. Bob, who is a military history buff and a firearms expert, suggested I replace the original gun with another sort that would intrinsically be more difficult to fire in the circumstances. I also did some work to foreshadow problems with the gun before the key scene, with the result that the plot point worked well without calling attention to itself.
An interesting thing about the preceding list is that no one individual could have provided all the suggestions. This, I think, is one of the key benefits of a writers group. “It takes a village” to write a novel, and a group provides that village.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Game is Afoot!

The Game, in this case, referring to the trade paperback edition of The Immortal Game, which Bleak House Books is reprinting for release this month. Here's a photo of a freshly printed copy sitting on my dining room table:

I've already waxed poetic about how pleased I am with the design, and the only thing I can say upon seeing the real deal is it definitely lived up to my expectations. Friends, family and strangers in the street who I've corralled all agree that the cover and the interior are very appealing.

We still have a few weeks before the book hits the distribution channels, but I'm excited that my first signing with the new edition will be at the Mystery Bookstore booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of books at 11 am on Sunday, April 30th with ... (insert drum roll here) ... Michael Connelly! Check out the nice description the good folks at the Mystery Bookstore have given the new edition here.

By the way, in writing this post I did a little Internet search regarding the derivation of the phrase "the game is afoot." I assumed that Arthur Conan Doyle coined the term in "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange" when Holmes tells Watson: "Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!"

But, no! Like most phrases in the English language, it was first coined by Shakespeare in his King Henry IV. To quote, "Before the game is afoot, thou still let'st slip."

And with that little bit of trivial, I'll let'st you go (for now) ...

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Autograph Hound

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’re probably aware that I’m big fan of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

I recently had the opportunity to purchase (what was purported to be) Dashiell Hammett’s signature, taken from the autograph album of a collector interested in entertainment celebrities. The signature is undated, but was filed in the collection under "Early 1940s." Here’s a scan:

An official “certificate of authenticity” came with the signature, but it provides no information on provenance (i.e., where and when the signature was obtained). It merely certifies that the Hammett autograph is original and authentic.

I know from Richard Layman’s biography Shadow Man that Hammett joined the army in the fall of 1942, so—assuming he refrained from signing autographs during his tour of duty in the Aleutian islands—it is still possible for it to have been produced in the period from 1940-1942.

Furthermore, it does look like other Hammett signatures I’ve seen, and was clearly written with a fountain pen—presumably the writing instrument of choice in the 40s.

Because there’s no provenance, and because I paid such a reasonable price ($99) for the autograph, my wife is convinced it’s a fake. I can sort of see her point. This eBay auction wherein the seller wants nearly $4,000 for a similar signature could give one pause.

But I’m not going to let it. I’m going to frame the autograph and put it up in my office and continue to be very pleased in thinking that I own a small memento from one of my heroes (and also be secretly relieved that I didn’t pay any more than $99 in case I am wrong!)