Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Off to Bcon and lands beyond

Well, its hiatus time for this blogster. I leave tomorrow -- Northwest Airlines and Mother Nature willing -- for Chicago and the annual crime writers group grope, Bouchercon. Kelly is already up there via train from Memphis. We're on a panel Saturday at 4 p.m. called "That Could Never Happen: Believability in Crime Fiction." If any of you are there, please come up and say hey. If you say the secret words CABBAGES AND KINGS, we will buy you a drink!

Then Kelly and I take a train up to Michigan where we will be wandering the north researching our next book. If you are in the Ann Arbor area, please come see us for our appearances:

On Sept. 10 we are at the Romeo Library's "Mystery Comes to Michigan" fest with our fellow panelists J.A. Konrath , Terence Faherty, David Ellis , William Kent Krueger , Jessica Speart, Julia Spencer Fleming and M.G. Kincaid

Then Sunday Sept. 11, catch us at the Kerrytown Bookfest ,Kerrytown Book Festival with the same lovable reprobates listed above!

We will be back blogging in mid-September with gossip from the convention and all sorts of good stuff. In the meantime, our prayers go out to all of you in the gulf area who endured Katrina.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

When good covers go bad

There's an interesting little story in the New York Times today about Rick Moody's new novel The Diviners. It should be an object lesson to anyone who is involved with publishing books, but alas, it probably won't be. Moody's book is a literary satire about Hollywood, but the cover looks like a bad fanstasy POD with a Conan-like Viking dude standing on a rock branishing a stick. The Diviners had a huge pre-pub buzz going -- until it was unveiled at BEA. That's when its publisher, Little Brown, realized that the cover was turning folks off. "I saw a lot of people, particularly women [Moody's main readers, the article says], just turn away from the cover," said Michael Pietsch, LB's publisher. "I realized we were making a mistake...we loved it, and the author loved it, too. But it was not communicating the information we wanted about the book."


So LB went back and retooled. The final product is only marginally better, in my humble opinion. But what is most interesting was the line further down in the story: "Covers are occasionally changed based on the response to early copies, but not often. In an industry where publishers are the first to admit that they can rarely tell in advance whether a book will become a best seller, market research seldom extends beyond such seat-of-the-pants inquiries."

To which I can only ask: Why the hell not?

Conventional wisdom says that the two main things that sell books, especially if the author isn't a megastar, are word of mouth and a great cover.. Publishers have no control over the first. But they have all the control in the world over a cover -- and how well it conveys the tone and intent of the author's vision. Be it high-faluting literature or lowest-brow genre, you can judge a book by its cover -- or you should be able to.

So why don't publishers test market covers, say, like movie studios test endings or promotional posters? I'll let M.J. Rose speak to this point, as she did recently on her blog Buzz, Balls & Hype:

"Why don't publishers find out what readers think about covers before they settle on them? It's readers who ultimately are the ones who are either going to pick up the book or not. Not other publishers. Not booksellers. Not editors. Not art directors.

"When I self published my first novel, I had five covers done, went to the mall in Stanford, CT., stood outside of Victoria's Secret and over the course of an afternoon ran an impromptu focus group with a few dozen women. One cover won hands down. It would cost a publisher about $1500 to run a test like that. Or even less if to do it on line.

"At least by doing this, we'd have practical information to go by. Or is it really better to have in-house publishing folks who see hundreds of covers each month continue making subjective decisions? Or asking bookbuyers who are equally overexposed to make all the decisions? Why is our industry leaving so much to chance? Why do we continue to rely on all the same old ways of doing things? With over 1000 novels showing up on the bookshelves every single month why are we still making decisions based on little else but gut instinct. Book sales being what they are, isn't it time to get gutsy and try some new methods of making decisions

Good questions.

We've been very lucky with my covers so far. Our pub, Kensington has worked hard to make them reflect our themes and has even been great in asking for our input (we don't have cover consultation in our contract; few authors do.) And since our stuff is PBO, there isn't a lot of room for error on our covers. I think one reason our third book, "Paint It Black" made it onto the New York Times bestseller list was its striking red and black cover. I think the big reason our followup book, "Thicker Than Water" didn't was because the cover was too dark and got lost on the shelves.

When Kensington was readying our latest book, "A Killing Rain," they showed us the cover ahead of time. It was very striking -- a gold imbossed sea of sawgrass blades cut with the prow of a boat. We loved it, except for one thing: There was a dead man's hand laying in the boat. We had no dead men in our story. We had no boats in our story. But the cover was so damn good, we forged a compromise. We rewrote a murder scene to include a boat and Kensington went back and made the hand look feminine.

But I think my favorite cover was for our second book "Dead of Winter." I liked it because its single image of a guy caught in the snowy glare of headlights was clean, evocative and immediately telegraphed all you needed to know about the book's tone and setting. I can't tell you how many fan letters we've gotten that begin, "I never heard of you before but I picked up your book because the cover looked interesting..."

So you tell me? Why the heck don't publishers test market? They routinely send proposals, manuscripts and covers to their sales departments for input. They have even been known to consult with the lone buyer for Costco, Pennie Ianniciello , who is solely responsible for chosing which books make it into all the Costco stores. When Simon and Schuster was planning a series of William-Sonoma cookbooks, they showed the covers to Ianniciello, who told them they were too dark and wouldn't stand out on the shelves. S&S changed them.

Shoot, I wish I could have gotten Pennie to sign off on "Thicker Than Water!"

p.s. For a look at some really nifty covers, go to this website
  • Cool bookcovers
  • I don't know if they capture the spirit of the books themselves, but they are fun to look at.

    Friday, August 19, 2005

    Invasion of the POD people

    Twice in the last week I have been asked for advice about publishing. Normally, I will oblige and try to be as encouraging as I can given my somewhat wary attitude. (i.e. This is not a business for sissies, the thin-skinned or people who still play old LPs of Janis Ian's song Seventeen

    But these two poor souls were asking my advice about self-publishing. Or as it was known in my salad days, vanity press. Now, let's get our terms straight first. POD (print on demand) is NOT the same as self-publishing, though we all tend to use POD as a shorthand for what is now vanity press operations. POD is only the technology that makes self-publishing possible. So I guess we should be using SP here for the process by which any monkey with an IMAC can publish his memoirs.

    That last sentence should give you a hint about where I line up on the self-publishing debate. I can hear the grumbles out there: Well, of course she thinks SP is a scam...she's already made her big bucks and didn't get enough rejection slips to paper a john. Wrongo, pulp-breath. I am neither rich or famous...or without rejection slips. I still get 'em on occasion.

    So why do I hate POD and SP so much? I hate the way they prey on dreamers. I hate that they overinflate expectations. But what I really hate is that they make it possible for people to think there are shortcuts, ways of circumventing the craft, hard work and legitimate editorial process of becoming a writer. Becoming...that's the key word here folks. Like way Tiger Woods became a great golfer. The way Renata Scotto became a great soprano. The way your Uncle Morty became a doctor. Or the way your mom became a great cook.

    Here is what set me off:

    At a Mystery Writers of America meeting, a woman asked, "Should I go POD?" I drew in a long breath so I wouldn't start screaming and spewing spittle. Then I asked her: "Do you want to publish a book or do you want to have a career as a writer?" She looked at me like I was nuts and said, "Well, the latter, of course!" So I told her: "Then do your homework, learn the craft of writing, educate yourself about the market place and your genre, submit your manuscript, get rejected, rewrite, rewrite again, throw out a book and start over, do it all over again and again and again until you are a legitimately published writer."

    Wash, rinse and repeat. She walked away. She didn't want to hear it.

    The second question came a couple days later. The guy had already PODed his book. And now he was asking me how to "promote and publicize it" and "get it into Barnes & Noble." I didn't tell him the truth, that he had almost no chance. I just didn't have the energy. And you know what? He wasn't going to listen to me anyway.

    So what I did was direct him to two websites about PODs and self-publishing. These people can preach the gospel much better than I can.

    Writers Beware . This is a site run by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It is chockful of great practical advice about agents, PODs, self-publishing and scams. I can't recommend it enough.

    The second site is POD-Dy Mouth . This published author brings some balance to the POD debate by offering great advice and warnings but also with her reviews of those rare POD books that deserve notice.

    In her words: "So, why am I here? To tell you about an entire world of books we are all missing: self-published titles -— specifically, POD titles. For those who do not know, about four years ago the self-publishing world took an awkward and potentially regrettable turn: Publishing on Demand. This means anyone with a word processor and a few hundred bucks can create a book that can be distributed on Amazon, and various other online venues without having to pre-print a single book (at an inflated price—about $3 to $5 more per trade paperback.) As a result, however, the world has seen an influx of some of the absolute worst writing known to mankind....

    [BUT SHE ADDS]..."There are some good books in there. But it’s like trying to see a constellation through a cloudy sky. There is just so much crap in the way. Well, that’s why I’m here. We’re going to find the good ones."

    I beg you. Go read these sites. Before your soul is sucked dry by the POD people.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2005

    Meet the new P.J. Parrish

    Mark Terry is onto something with his post to my column about Salinger. (see previous entry). Mark thinks John Twelve Hawks has the right idea about reinventing yourself and starting over. But Mark takes things one step further and says it is time for us lumpy, bumpy average Joe and Joette authors to hire body doubles for our tours. So, the new Parrish sisters (Above)

    Oh, and we are changing our name to Elena Eight Egrets.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2005

    Why Salinger wouldn't make it nowadays

    My friend Ken sent me an interesting link today to a Wall Street Journal article, about what happens when an author gets out in public to push her book vs the author who remains anonymous.

    By now, you have heard the story of John Twelve Hawks whose "debut" novel "The Traveler" got all sorts of press -- mainly because Mr. Hawks, who purports to "live off the grid," refused to identify himself even to his editor. Word is, he is a moribund midlist toiler who is reinventing himself thru a this ruse and a grandiose pen name, but we will reserve judgement.

    Then there is the story of "The Historian," a vampire tale written by an engaging college prof who apparently has charmed audiences on her first national tour. "The Historian," the WSJ points out, has almost 1 million copies in print. "The Traveler" has a "mere" 200,000 in print. But given the big push and huge expectations by both books' publishers, "The Traveler" didn't travel far enough -- as least for Doubleday's bean-counters.

    So what do we peon authors take away from this? In a nutshell, to quote the WSJ article: "Only 'The Historian' has emerged as a breakaway hit, and their differing fortunes show how relatively small differences -- the personality of an author, for example -- can have a big impact on the bottom line for publishers trying to create a best seller. It also demonstrates the new marketing challenges in a segment of publishing that has the power to spawn sequels, movies and other spinoffs...

    "...Publishers say it is hard to over-emphasize the publicity value of a writer who also is an accomplished speaker. Best-selling authors such as John Irving, Janet Evanovich, and David McCullough all sparkle on book tours, retailers say."

    I guess it doesn't matter how big or little you are, you gotta get your act together and take it on the road. Problem is, not all of us are good at that sort of thing. I have an author friend -- won a major awards, starred reviews in PW, goodlooking chap -- who hates the very idea of public appearances. Ironically, when you get him talking about his craft, he is marvelous. But he just isn't that comfortable in front of a crowd. Then there is my friend Joe Konrath, an admitted self-promotion nut (you don't believe me? Go read his over at the left there). Joe could sell New Jersey swampland -- and would probably throw in a couple Jets end zone tickets to boot. Both guys write good books. But we all know, great books go unnoticed every day.

    More on that to come...I gotta go find a Toastmasters class or print out some bookmarks or something. Or maybe work on my chapter. Geez, now there's a real time-waster.

    Saturday, August 13, 2005

    When death becomes real

    Dear readers: I am giving way to Kelly for this post today -- Kris

    We write about crime, death, torture, corpses, graveyards and cops and we do it very often with a glass of wine near our keyboard or across from each other at a table at Mango’s on Las Olas. It’s pretty easy for us to use our purple sticky notes to move one murder from chapter forty to chapter thirty five, because, when you write fiction, you can kill anyone you want whenever you want and then finish off the wine and go to bed.

    Sometimes, with enough wine or after a particularly gruesome scene, Kris and I would wonder what kind of people we are to be able to write this stuff, and almost always, the answer is that no matter how graphic we may get, in the end, we know none of it is real.

    But I have learned it’s far different when it is real.

    I have had both the pleasure and discomfort in recent months of assisting a new author on a true crime novel. He is a police officer and he had a story he wanted to tell but he had no idea where to start. As a published author working on a new book, I was in need of technical information about his department. Outside a bowling alley one night, we struck a deal. I would do a little editing for him. He would answer my police questions.

    I thought it would be easy. Like many authors, as PJ Parrish, we have frequently done light editing and critiquing for charity auctions and occasionally for friends, and I suspected this would be no different. There were a few things I did not anticipate.

    First was the author’s passion for his story. His need to tell the story eliminated any of the usual author ego issues and it made the editing so much more honest and easier. Second, I did not realize how different it would be writing about events and people that were real.

    Over the next few months, as the story unfolded on my monitor, I found myself weighed down by the sadness of it. I started to think about the victim at the oddest times. I even found myself playing the what if game on the crime, building on the tragedy of a murdered police officer and making the nagging sense of loss for a man I never knew, even deeper.

    Now driven with a duel passion, we kept on.

    But even as the chapters went back and forth over the internet, and the scenes started to come alive with more vivid images, and I began to see the finished project as publishable, the late night haunting continued.

    I expected at some point, that the repeated exchanges of the same chapters and scenes would work to dull the emotional impact. But it didn’t. It got to the point where I would postpone sitting down to edit until I knew I had two days to be depressed afterwards.

    Then I was allowed a peek at the crime scene photos. And I looked.

    Now everything was real.

    The project is nearly completed now. The author’s passion has not waned, and except for his heavy work schedule, I am sure he would prefer to write until dawn, even as he wraps up the final chapters. On my end, I continue to fill his pages with red ink and the learning process for both of us goes on as a book is nurtured to maturity. And as strange as it sounds, when it is complete, I know I will miss it. I will miss the author’s passion and dedication and I will miss the people in the book, because in a way, telling the story allowed the victim to live once again, if only on pages and if only for a few months. I hope we have done him justice in our efforts.

    I have thought recently about what I will ultimately take away from this experience. It is a complicated answer because I know I will reap some sense of satisfaction from helping a new author, and as someone who deeply respects law enforcement, there’s a part of me that is honored to have even penned a single word.

    But I suspect that in the end, what I take away from this will be something far different and more meaningful.

    Tuesday, August 09, 2005

    How do you do what you do?

    I don't know what readers are most surprised about when they discover who P.J. Parrish really is -- that we are women or that there are two of us. See, we get a lot of emails from readers who are just discovering us and many of the emails are variations on this theme:

    I am a retired peace officer Santa Barbara County District Attorneys Office Chief Investigator). I recently discovered your books and have just finished my second one. I was very impressed with your knowledge of police procedure. I was also impressed with your black detective. You created a unique character and two great plots. Curiosity got the best of me and I went to your website to see if you were black. I was very surprised to find out that not only were you not black but that PJParrish is two white sisters. Your insight into law enforcement is terrific but your ability to present a black character with such understanding is really remarkable. Well done. I really enjoy your work. – Ralph Thomas, April 25, 2005

    Our readers are okay with us being two old white Yankee women writing about a young black man from the South. But when they find out we are a writing team, they have trouble wrapping their brains around the idea. One lady told us that if she had known ahead of time our book was "written by committee" she never would have bought it. For the record, she enjoyed it. But she was confused because she "couldn't see the seams." I guess that is a compliment.

    So, how do Kelly and I do it? That is the most common question we are asked. I'll try to explain the best I can. The lofty answer is that we share a common vision of what we want to accomplish with our books. We know the tone we are striving for, the dramatic arc of each story and arc of the entire series. We also know our character Louis Kincaid from his heart out. Everything we do is in service to this vision. And when you have that dynamic going, there's no room for ego.

    Now, here is the less lofty answer. We do it with wine and Post-Its. Yeah, you heard me. Booze and little slips of gummy paper. See that picture above? That is Kelly hard at work on our latest book An Unquiet Grave, due out this coming February. I'm sure you can guess how wine enters our creative process. But what about Post-Its?

    Here's how it works: We start with a doughball of an idea, then we roll it out into a concept (we don't do complete outlines anymore). Then we work about 3-5 chapters ahead using a template of each chapter's purpose(s). We choose "assignments" (ie. I might take the opening scene-setter chapters, description and narrative; Kelly favors action scenes and dialogue). We write down each chapter's main points on Post-Its and stick them on our big boards. Each Post-It is one major scene -- kind of like how Katherine Anne Porter once described her way of writing as creating scene islands and then building bridges of transitions to connect them. Since we live in separate states, we each keep a Post-It board going. We write our chapters, exchange them over AOL and edit each other.

    But once a year, as we sprint madly for the finish line, Kelly comes down to my place in Fort Lauderdale and we do the hard work of finishing and rewriting. That's when our Post-Its really come into play. We then switch to three-color system. The Yellows are for major plot points. Blue is for backstory. Purple or Pink is for changes we have to go back and make during rewrites. (We don't rewrite until we are finished with a complete first draft. To paraphrase Woody Allen, writers are like sharks; they have to keep moving forward or they die)

    This all started by accident. A couple books ago, we were struggling to get the arrangement of plot points in the right order. I got frustrated and went to the store (probably to buy more wine). I came home and there was Kelly, sitting on the floor with dozens of scraps of torn-up paper, moving them around like pieces of a big puzzle. I grabbed my Post-Its and we found an old piece of cardboard. Voila! The PJ Parrish Method of Post-It Plotting was born.

    Post-Its is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. And the PJ Plotting Method is going to be featured in a special comemmorative book. Maybe the nice folk at 3M will send us a couple free packages. Now, if we could just get Turning Leaf on board...

    Tuesday, August 02, 2005

    The green-eyed monster

    A good friend of mine got some great news this week. She is going hard cover after toiling in the paperback original ghetto far longer than she should have. We got together to celebrate over a glass of Sauvignon Blanc last night. She confessed she had been wary of telling me, because she knew I would be jealous. Well, hell yes, I'm jealous! I've been PBO for six books now and we are the Rodney Dangerfields of the fiction world. You should hear us when we get together -- and we do, gravitating to each other like redhaired stepchildren at mystery conventions, mumbling that so-and-so HC author is a hack and such-and-such HC writer should be on the Sierra Club hit list for deforestation.

    Okay, I admit it. I AM covetous. I want the respect that comes with being hard. I've been lucky to get reviews in some major rags like the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle. But will you ever see my name in the New York Times? (well, it has been on the bestseller list there, but I guess that doesn't carry any weight with their reviewers. Go figure). And today I called a bookstore in Key West who a reader had told me did not stock my books -- this despite the fact they had a prominent FLORIDA AUTHOR section. The owner snottily told me he carried only "selected" authors. I pressed him and he gave me names. Okay, the usual guys like Hiaason, but also some midlist laborers and even lesser lights. But they were hard, brother!

    But here is the bottom line. As a PBO peon, I have a lot of books out there every year. And with HC prices pushing $30, do you really think most buyers are going to take a chance on someone they haven't heard of? Let's face it, there are two groups of crime book buyers out there. There is the intelligensia, those readers who follow the posting boards and subscribe to the mystery magazines, who know what the Edgar is, who are tuned into the genre. But then there is everyone else -- that vast pool of general readers who must rely on the media and reviewers to tell them what is hot. There are folks -- we have seen them in action -- who walk into B&Ns bestseller list in hand and who seldom venture down the aisles to check out the spine-out books. And then there are the readers -- thank God! -- who use word of mouth to cull their reading choices. These are the people we writers need, like it or not. These are the readers I am going after -- one at a time. Being a succes d'estime is great. But it doesn't give you a good sell-through or keep your publisher from dropping your series.

    So am I really jealous of my friend's good fortune? Sure, but her good fortune does nothing to diminish me. I will lurk here in the PBO weeds, waiting for my chance. And in the meantime I salute my friend Elaine Viets She's moving on up, to the East Side. She finally got her piece of the pie.