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.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Ugly Babies

So we just turned in the new book and our new editor loves it. But he does not love the title.

This is the first time this has happened to us. Through seven books now, we have gone to press with the title we turned in. I know this is not always the case. I have many friends whose titles are vetoed and a new one is slapped on (sometimes by -- HORRORS! -- the marketing department).

Which is why I am getting very nervous. I go to bed at night thinking of possible titles. I wake up in the same agony.

Because I know the power of a good title cannot be overestimated in our business. It is your first chance to make a good impression. It is a billboard by which you the author telegraph your whole book's theme and tone. And when your book is shouting to be heard above the din and roar at Barnes & Noble, a blah title is a meek squeak.

I suppose there are authors who don't sweat this. Some don't have to. They race through the alphabet (Grafton), numbers (Evanovich) or The Complete Bartender's Guide (Joe Konrath). And then there's James Patterson, who could slap LEAKY MEAT on a cover and it would sell millions.

But the rest of us resort to desperate measures. Like typing keywords into Bartleby's Great Books Online poetry engine. Try this: type in "death" or "bones" or some other crime-fiction hot-button word and centuries of poems come up, just waiting for you to steal. C'mon...those of you who've done this can fess up. I've used it. Do you think An Unquiet Grave came from my brain? Hell no. I stole it from an Arthur Quiller-Couch poem.

But Bartleby's has failed me on this latest book.

A while back, I was at festival in Sarasota with a passel of other Florida mystery authors. I was seated next to Randy Wayne White at dinner and I found myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied. (Partly because Randy and I till the same fields in our fiction -- southwest Florida -- and he was there first. But mostly because Randy is this Hemingwayesque dude who scares people). But then Randy leaned in and told me, "You have good titles." I took it as a supreme compliment.

Some authors just seem to have a knack for titles. Laura Lippman calls it the "title gene." Who has it? Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos...I'm sure you can name others.

What gives a good title resonance? Just for fun, I went to my shelf and found these:

Off The Chart
Absent Friends
Murder Unleashed
A Place of Execution
Devices and Desires
Blue Edge of Midnight
A Seaon in Purgatory
Hidden Prey
Parallel Lies
A Cold Day in Paradise
The Whispering Statue

Without knowing the authors, which ones work for you and which do not?

Titles I like:
Absent Friends. This title of SJ Rozan's book has resonanace for the characters and the unifying event -- 911 NYC.
Murder Unleashed. A cozy by Elaine Viets about a dog groomer. Of course!
A Season in Purgatory. Dominick Dunne's fictionalization of the Martha Moxley case neatly describes the moral dilemma at the book's core.
Blue Edge of Midnight. Captures Jon King's moody Everglades in a single vivid image.
A Place of Execution. Works on multi-levels for Val McDermid's claustrophic plot.
A Cold Day in Paradise. "Paradise" is a butt-end town in Michigan's UP. It works as metaphor for Steve Hamilton's chilly story.
The Whispering Statue. One of my favorite Nancy Drews.

Titles that leave me cold:
Hidden Prey. Yeah, I recognize the John Sanford franchise is title-proof but can you tell one from the other anymore?
Parallel Lies. Didn't give me a hint of Ridley Pierson's story. Sounds too Hollywood for comfort.
Devices and Desires. P.D. James has boooooring titles. Sorry.
Off the Chart. I like Jim Hall's books, but this title is too flippant for this book's dark tone.

Some of my all-time favorite titles (not just books):
The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter.
The Iceman Cometh
A Hard Day's Night

Most stuff by Philip Dick but especially The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike.
And the memorable: Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness? (a really bad 1966 Brit-flick but a great title for Charades.)

So back to my title search. I know there's a good one out there somewhere. I just pray I find it before the marketing department gets ahold of things.

Oh. And Ugly Babies? Has nothing to do with my blog today. But damn, I like that title!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A latte and a Ludlum to go, please!

Today, finally, I think I have something nice to say about the POD thing. (Yeah, hold onto your beanie, Lee).

There is a new gizmo out there on the horizon that could be the big saviour of publishing that so many folks have been waiting for. The thing that could wipe out the disgraceful 40 percent return rate on books. The thing that could do away with the need for huge warehouses and antiquated shipping and distribution systems. The thing that could eliminate the god-awful waste in publishing and finally silence the Terminator pulp machines that turn our unsold copies to dust.

Let me introduce you to the Espresso Book Machine.

It slices! It dices! It makes perfect potato hash browns --

Sorry. Been watching too much late-night TV. Back to the point...

The Espresso Book Machine is a real thing. This is a machine that allows the printing and binding a single copy of a book at the point of demand without human interactions. Here is how it would work:

Say someone wants a copy of my new book, "Darker and Stormier Nights." It hasn't exactly been burning up the lists, so it's hard to find. But my intrepid fan could just go to her local bookstore, punch in the title, insert a credit card to pay and less than three minutes later, walk away with a nice copy of "Nights." Kinda of like an ATM at your local B&N.

But wait! There's more!

This machine can produce a 300-page bound paperback with full color cover at a cost of about 3 cents per page. Three cents!

I know. Sounds like sci-fi, right? But I am not making this up. And it's not a pie-in-the-sky someday thing, the print on demand chimera publishing has been chasing for the last decade. The Espresso is churning out books even as you read this and by next year, you could see one in your town.

The Espresso is being spearheaded by Jason Epstein of Random House. Last year he teamed up with some corporate heavyweights to create On Demand Books. The first Espresso Book Machine was installed in April at the InfoShop at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., which has loaded 200 of its titles online for the three-month test period. Two more Espressos will be installed at the New York Public Library and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in Egypt, in September. Epstein, who hopes to have the Espresso available more widely next year, is also now talking with a bookstore chain outside the U.S. about installing the machine.

Why is this a good thing for authors?

For starters, it could save endangered midlist titles, give new life to backlists and just maybe, start weaning the publishing industry off its mega-bestseller dependency. When and if every book is finally digitized, the market will be radically decentralized. The old ways of competing for ever-shrinking shelf space in stores will be obsolete.

Sez Epstein: The chief benefit of the machine is that a requested book would never be out of stock or out of print. Books would be less expensive, he believes, because it would eliminate the need to warehouse and ship books. And instead of the current system of guessing how many books to print -- a game that leaves bookstores stuck with piles of unsold flops and readers unable to find out-of-stock surprise hits --the supply will always be just right.

And get this. The Espresso will retail for less than $100,000. Not only can bookstores increase what Epstein calls "their footprint" but average Joe authors might finally have a presence in everything from airports to libraries to your corner Kinkos.

I won't bore you will all the details here. For a good scoop, go to this article in US News and World Report.

This kind of POD people I can take.

Save the Indy 500

Robin Agnew has been welcoming authors and readers in her delightfully cluttered cubbyhole store in Ann Arbor since 1992. Set down on Fourth Street, hardby the ivy-walled campus of University of Michigan, this is a must-stop place for readers looking for a great mystery -- or road-weary authors looking for some TLC.

213 South 4th Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48104

How'd you get in the business?
My husband Jamie was working for Borders and I was doing art fairs, and he was frustrated, I had a baby and was tired of travel and the physical labor of art fairs (plus producing all that art work was difficult with a baby). I had always loved mysteries and so I suggested a mystery bookstore. Classic case of leaping into the unknown before looking too closely at what it might entail!

Favorite thing about being a bookseller?
A toss up! Either favorite customers to talk books with or meeting all the authors we've gotten to meet over the years. Both are great.

What's unique about your store?
I think our huge backlist of used books. We are able to often supply out of print, hard to find stuff and also find all the books in a series when people want them all, and not just the most recent title.

What's your best advice to writers?
Write a good book, show up on time for events and don't be too pushy or disappointed if there aren't a million people at your signing. We are doing our level best to get the word out, and want writers to succeed almost as much as they do themselves.

What do you wish publishers knew?
That ALL the titles in a series should be in print! Mystery readers like to read series in order. Also that they should give good writers a bit of a chance to get some "legs" and word of mouth. A recent example which drives me crazy is M.G. Kincaid; she wrote two fantastic books and her series was picking up some momentum when she was dropped. That's a real waste of talent!

Three books in your store you wish more folks knew about?
SATAN'S LAMBS, Lynn Hightower
THE WOODEN OVERCOAT, Pamela Branch (these are subject to frequent change!)

What's on your night stand right now?

If you were an adult film star, what would your name be?
I have no idea!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Damsels in distress

One of the good things about touring is that you get a chance to read. And after days of hearing the sound of your own lips flapping (talking about your own stuff) it's blessed relief to sink into someone else's book at the end of the day.

When Kelly and I were on our recent Michigan Mitt Tour, we read alot. Whether we were sprawled on the nylon bedspread in a suburban Livonia Best Western or sitting on a balcony of a cottage overlooking the woods in Leland on Lake Michigan, books were our sanctuaries.

We read Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Stephen White, T. Jefferson Parker, PJ Tracy, Jan Brogan, MJ Rose, Allison Brennan. Lots of good, entertaining stuff. I had a great time with Charlie Huston's "Caught Stealing" and absolutely loved a quirky Michigan novel called "The Lake, The River & the Other Lake" by Steve Amick.

But then I hit a wall.

A friend gave me a book by an author whom I hadn't heard of before. I love discovering new authors, especially first-timers. I read the back copy. Good premise. I skimmed the first page. She had me. I forked over the cash.

That night I cracked the spine and settled in. I was in bed. I was ready. I wanted to be seduced. The first chapter was really good. A female cop, a grisly setup, a clear narrative voice, taut writing that teased me to turn the page.

So I did. And damn, I wish I hadn't because things went downhill fast. This female cop suddenly turned into a blithering mess. Worse, her ex-boyfriend came sniffing around and after she took him back, he took over the case. HER case! Suddenly, this cop -- traumatized though she might have been -- allowed weasel boy to take charge of everything. Worse, the writer LET HIM DO IT! Every time there was a new twist in the case, it was weasel boy who led the charge. Where was our heroine? Weeping and whining on the sidelines, a pathetic Hamlette, torn by indecision.

The thing degenerated into a writhing mass of bad romantic cliches. Complete with a see-it-coming-a-mile-away pregnancy that by book's end gives our girl a good reason reason to quit her police job and make waffles for weasel boy.

I was furious. Do you ever have the urge to throw a book across the room? I was sitting out on my friend's deck and heaved this one into the bushes.


It wasn't just because I hate women in distress books. The female in jeopardy is a standard of our genre and in the right hands, this can sometimes rise above cliche. But this author was dishonest. She started out with a premise that promised a woman of strength and depth. And I had expectations that this character would rise above her awful trauma through her own grit and courage. THAT was the story, wasn't it? As I finished this book, I found myself thinking about another book I had read, Theresa Schwegel's "Officer Down." This was also a debut and as such, it has its flaws. (Though it won Best First Edgar this year). But at least the author let her female cop heroine solve her own problems. She wasn't waiting for Dudley Do Right to right her ship.

In the end, I decided I was angry about this first book because I had been misled. I don't begrudge readers romantic escapism. Hell, I used to WRITE it. But this book was so schizophrenic it was like the first three chapters were written by Germaine Greer and the rest by Phyllis Schlafly. If your setup is a dark tale of a woman cop's redemptive journey, you can't switch tones mid-book and start going for the Rita Award.

What's the lesson here? Be honest with your readers. I don't mean be predictable. Be honest. That means finding a tone for your work and sticking with it so that the reality you create on your pages is believable. If you want to write romance or romance suspense, go for it and do it well.

But don't promise me Diana the huntress and then give me a damsel in distress. The book will end up in the bushes.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

WiFi in the woods

Greetings from northern Michigan! We are up in Grand Haven, a lovely little burg on Lake Michigan with a great indy bookstore called The Bookman. Lots of big sand dunes up here, high enough to block cell phone signals. Which is not a bad thing, actually. But I managed to find a hotspot for the lap top and wanted to check in just long enough to tell you all that I am guest blogging this week for my friend Elaine Flinn over at Murderati. I am writing about what it takes the survive as a published author these days...and some of the strange strategies publishers and authors alike are resorting to.

Check out Murderati.

And have a great safe Fourth!