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, April 24, 2006

New York state of mind

Dear blog buds,

I'm taking a little shore leave this week to go up to New York for the Edgar festivities. If any of you are in the city this week, please stop by and say hey!

Tuesday: We'll be at Black Orchid Bookstore, 303 East 81st Street (between 1st and 2nd) 6 p.m. at a signing party with other Mystery Writers of America authors

Wednesday: At 10:30 a.m., we share the dais at the Edgar Week Symposium for a panel on Writing Teams with Jason Starr, Ken Bruen, Charles and Caroline Todd.

Wednesday noon: Big group grope signing at Borders 461 Park Avenue at East 57th St with fellow MWA authors Janet Evanovich, Linda Fairstein, Tess Gerritsen, Thomas H. Cook, S.J. Rozan and many others.

Thursday evening: The Edgar banquet, where I will wear red satin, drink red wine and be green with envy for the nominees and winners.

See you on Monday with a full report. Have a good writing week!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

First round picks...and busts

Was thinking today how much two of my favorite icons -- Dan Marino and John Grisham -- have in common. Stay with me on this.

I love the NFL. And because pre-season doesn't start for a couple months yet, I -- like many football geeks -- resort to a sad substitute, The Draft. I read the magazines, check out the websites and listen to the talking jock-heads on ESPN. Will Heisman god QB Matt Leinart go No. 1 or will the raw Vince Young leapfrog over him? Will my Dolphins go for a beefy safety or a WR so Culpepper has someone to throw to?

Yeah, I know. I need a life.

But sports section devoured and in need of something loftier, I turned to the Arts section of today's New York Times. There I read about Charles Frazier's upcoming book. You remember Frazier. He's the fellow who scored big with his debut novel "Cold Mountain." It was a critical darling, won the National Book Award and was a surprise bestseller.

Right after his big splash, Frazier chucked his agent and editor at Grove/Atlantic and on the basis of a one-page outline, sold his SECOND book at auction for $8 million to Random House. "Thirteen Moons" is set to come out this October. It is another epic love story set in the 19th-century South. Random House "is betting that readers who made 'Cold Mountain' such a hit will do it again for 'Thirteen Moons.'"

I gotta wonder. Is Random House making a shaky bet on a future prospect?

Sure, Frazier has a track record. But it was just one book. And this is literary fiction. Plus it's been 10 years between books. And $8 million is a lot of shekels for one book. Does Frazier have the arm to score another touchdown? Have his fans left the stadium? Is this going to be another one of those expensive busts we read about at the end of the year in Publishers Weekly that will make it tougher for Random Houses lesser lights? Wouldn't it be wiser to maybe trade down, and use all that money to build a couple of steady talents with potential?

Which takes me back to Grisham and Marino. Both were overlooked in their drafts. But both took rejection and turned it into a positive. Both turned out to be huge assets for their bosses.

Marino was taken by the Dolphins with the 27th pick. That means 26 teams took a pass on the guy who became the first rookie QB to go to a Super Bowl and was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Five teams chose QBs ahead of him. The Colts drafted John Elway knowing they couldn't sign him. Kansas City took Todd Blackledge. Buffalo took Jim Kelly. New England took Tony Eason. The Jets took Ken O'Brien.

Now let's look at John Grisham. He struggled to write his first book "A Time To Kill" while working fulltime as a lawyer. You can read about that part in this interview. Grisham was turned down by thirty-some publishers. "Everybody said no," he recalls. After a year of rejection, his agent sold "A Time to Kill" to the tiny Wynwood Press. The book sold 5,000 copies, most of them from Grisham hawking them from the trunk of his car. Wynwood went bankrupt leaving Grisham with no one to publish the second book he had been laboring on, "The Firm." But then a bootlegged manuscript of "The Firm" surfaced in Hollywood, and as Grisham has explained: "Some guy ran 25 copies, said he was my agent, and sent them to all of the major production companies. He got nervous when they started making offers. At some point he called my agent in New York, and the rest is history. It was an unbelievably lucky break, and I had nothing to do with it."

But like Marino, Grisham did go on to have a rather long and productive career.

Publishing is a lot like the NFL draft. Every year, there is buzz, hype and great hopes surrounding a handful of hot prospects. Is what goes on in the booths of BEA so much different than the machinations in the war rooms of the NFL, where team owners place multi-million-dollar bets on unknown kids in cleats? Is a publisher dazzled by a photogenic face and a "media platform" any different than a scout besotted by a 4.4 and a good Wonderlick score? And is an editor any better at predicting which writer will have a sophomore slump than a coach is at foretelling which rookie will blow out a knee?

No one talking about the NFL draft really has any idea what they're talking about. No coach can predict which guy is going to be the next sixth-round steal Tom Brady and which one is the next first-round dud Todd Marinovich. Likewise, no editor can predict who's going to be the next J.K. Rowlings and who -- despite all the money they throw around -- is going to be the next John Twelve Oaks.

The people whose careers depend on drafting players and authors have no real idea how they'll turn out, if they will be one-season wonders or if they'll have a long and prolific career. Like my guys Marino and Grisham.

So will Charles Frazier bring home the Lombardi again for RH? Or will he just be this year's David Guterson? I dunno, but if there were a fantasy league for writers, I'd be tempted to take a pass on this one and find a couple second-round gems with -- as the sports cliche goes -- a good upside. But what do I know?

When it comes to finding a winner, in the end sometimes it's just plain, blind, dumb luck.

Monday, April 17, 2006


I was watching the movie "Dave" the other night. It is one of my favorites and there is this great scene where the ersatz prez Kevin Kline asks his veep, "How did you get started?"

Ben Kingsley answers that he started as a shoe saleman and things kind of snowballed from there.

It made me wonder: How did you "become" a novelist? It is a strange track to choose, fraught with disappointments and so subject to the whims of the vox populi. (In our case, how well we register on on the B&N computer). What we do is not that different from politics in a way. Our best politicians begin life as something else (shoe salesmen) and through passion, ambition or whatever, morph into something else. So it is with novelists, I believe. We start out as something else in our quests to make money, support our families, live up to whatever dream we subscribe to, or what our parents hoped we would be.


Something clicks. And you are willing to give up all that for something you believe in. Something that makes your heart beat faster. Something that makes you sleep better at night. Something that lets your soul grow. Even as you know that nothing may come of it in the end.


What were you before you became?

What were you doing when the notion hit you? What were you collecting a paycheck for when you realized it wasn't enough? Now, I know that most of us are still working the "real" jobs, and that's okay. Necessary. But I really want to know: When did it happen for you?

When did you become a writer?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

In celebration of four good paragraphs

I'm sorry. Please, indulge me.

It has been a bad writing week. I read over the last chapter I wrote, which took me five days to complete. It is pedestrian, banal, mundane. The best thing I can say about it is that it got the job done. It advanced the plot.

But tonight. Tonight, I started a new chapter and I wrote four paragraphs that I know are really, really good. Spare, simple, evocative.

This does not happen very often. As you well know. We fret every word, every paragraph, hoping the parts come together. We live in terror that the whole will not hold.

Very soon, I start rewrites and I don't know if the 100,000 words I have put on disk so far are good, bad or indifferent. I have lost a sense of things and am now running on total faith. It's enough to make you Catholic.

But those four paragraphs. That is enough to sustain me.

This is why we do this. No?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Confessions of a book mover

So I go into my local supermarket a while back to hunt and gather and lo! there on the paperback rack is my book. As Martha says, it's a good thing. But alas, I am down on the bottom, wedged between the horoscope books and a romance with a really creepy cover. I curbed my cart, looked around to see that no one was watching, and promptly moved my modest stack of five books up to the No. 5 slot, bumping James Patterson down to No. 9.

Uh-oh... I hear sirens. I hear gasps. You MOVED your own books? You took over another author's legitimately won bestseller space? How crude, desperate and socially unacceptable!

Yes, I did it. I confess. I moved my books. And before you get all self-righteous, I know that are hundreds, nay, thousands of authors out there who do the exact same thing. But they won't fess up. And even the ones who claim they would never stoop to such a low, well, they commit sin by comission because they have whole armies of friends and relatives strategically placed all over the country who move their books FOR them. ("Hey, what can I do? Aunt Nancy up in Maplewood is just trying to help.")

I used to move my books all the time when I was just starting out back in my romance writing days. But I stopped. So why did I do it this time? What made me lapse? I think it was because I was feeling a little bit of disgust at the whole wacked-out book promotion and display system.

Most experienced writers know that prime shelf space in the chain bookstores is bought. This is called co-op advertising. It is a system adapted from the supermarket model where manufacturers pay more money for better shelf visibility. This is why the Special K is on the top shelf and Generic Oat Flakies are on the bottom. This is also why some authors get the Just Published shelf in the front of Barnes & Noble and your new book is shoved in the back of the store somewhere.

What? You didn't know that prime bookstore space is BOUGHT? Many published writers don't know. Most unpublished writers don't know. And I'm betting almost no readers know. Most folks who walk into B&N, Borders and see the big stacks of books by the front door believe they are there because they are bestsellers, or really good or important books.

Co-op is a complex, multi-tiered "cooperative" enterprise between publishers and bookstores, an advertising agreement really. In plain terms, it means that many of the books on display at the front of a store or placed face out at the end of an aisle are there because the publisher paid for them to be there, not necessarily because anyone at the bookstore thought the book was noteworthy or interesting.

The way it works is booksellers -- mostly chains, but also larger independent stores -- keep a certain percentage of a publisher's net sales, usually 3 percent to 5 percent annually. This money is used by the bookseller to defray advertising costs (like when a chain takes out ads or prints fliers to promote certain books.) But the publisher's money may also buy prime real estate in the stores -- those nice tables near the front door, the Just Published shelf, the Recently Released shelf, the good spots by the register, and even having a book shelved cover out inside of spine out.

You can see where this is going. But what does it mean to you, the powerless author? I'm lucky. I've gotten pretty good co-op support from my publisher so far. And I am sure it has been a big factor in getting me on some bestseller lists. But I wasn't so lucky on my first go-around as a writer. When I first started out as a romance writer, I was naive. Hell, I was dumber than a box of returned books.

I used to go to my local Big Bookstore and wonder why my books weren't there. Or if they were, why they weren't out on the New In Paperback table. I went to the manager and told him my books were on the South Florida bestseller list and I was a LOCAL AUTHOR, so why weren't my books out on the front table? The manager tried to be nice but there was pity in his eyes as he said I should talk to my publisher.

I got even angrier when I went to my local drugstore. My book was there, too, but it wasn't on one of the racks labeled 1-10 Bestselling Books in South Florida. The 18-year-old manager shrugged and told me to call his distributor. I did more than that. I went to the distributor's Miami office and asked him. Nice man in a blue suit. Told me, with pity in his eyes, to talk to my publisher. Later, I found out that the bestseller slots in drugstores and supermarkets and airports have nothing to do with sales. Each slot is bought and paid for on a sliding scale.

Now, back in the 1980s, publishers held their promotion cards even closer to their vests than they do now. No one would talk to me about co-op. And like I said, I was too dumb and disconnected from other writers to find out the truth.

To make a sad story short, I got dropped by my first publisher and had to climb my way back into the business. Flash to the present and my second career as a crime writer. I networked. I educated myself about the business. I asked my publisher if there would be co-op support for my books. I got answers. I now know that if my publisher has say, XX-dollars to spent on promoting my book, I don't want a tour. I don't want an ad in the Times or USA Today. I want end-cap displays in B&Ns, stepladders in Borders, and as many slots in as many airports as my publisher's budget will buy.

I don't begrudge the co-op system. It is what it is, a complicated merchandising machine that has evolved over the past two decades to accommodate the huge number of books competing for shelf space and consumer attention in superstores like B&N, Borders, big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco, and other outlets. Everything has been supersized and many publishers say that the tables and flashy cardboard displays that crowd the front of chain bookstores have become a marketing force more powerful than the traditional ones -- reviews, newspaper and magazine ads, tours and interviews.

I read an article recently that quoted a veteran New York editor saying "The Barnes & Noble stepladder is the best piece of real estate there is. When I go into a store I practically genuflect in front of the stepladder." (He added that one of his books with sales of about 800 copies a week immediately jumped to 3,000 to 4,000 copies a week once he paid for its placement on stepladders in stores across the country.)

I know I have to live with this. Even try to embrace it, if I am to succeed. So why did I move my book the other day?

I dunno. Maybe I was remembering the humiliation of my long-ago meeting with that empty suit in Miami. Maybe I was just pissed that so many good books languish in the backstacks spine out and never get found by readers. Maybe I am just distressed that so many readers today don't realize their choices are being made for them the moment they walk into the bookstore door.

Old habits die hard. I did move one more book...a really good book by a friend of mine who isn't getting any support from her pub. But I haven't moved any more of my own books since that day. I am P.J. Parrish and I am a book mover. I have been clean now for four weeks.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Night Terrors

The new book is almost done. First draft, that is. I haven't read it through since we started the thing months ago. I am afraid to. I have this really bad feeling that it is a heaping, stinking, fetid, rancid pile of crap. I dream about it now, this pile of crap, almost every night, like Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters." I wake up in a sweat over it. My only consolation is knowing that I feel this way with every book. And that I am not alone.

Found this entry on Lee Goldberg's blog the other day, in which John Connelly talks about his own demons: "There is always that fear that this book, this story, is the one that should not have been started. The idea isn’t strong enough. The plot is going nowhere. I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way and now have to try to find the right path again."

To which Lee responds: "This happens to me, too...but less often if I have a strong outline to start with (though an outline is no insurance policy against realizing 35,00o words into your book that it's crap and you're a complete fraud). In talking with other writers, I've noticed that the ones who hit the wall the most are the ones who make up their plot as they go along, preferring to be "surprised" by their characters and the turns in the story. Of course, this means the turns may lead to a creative dead end."

My night terrors are especially bad this time out for two reasons. We have a new publisher and I want things to go well. We have a new female protagonist who we are still getting to know. She is a spinoff character from our Louis Kincaid books. Can she carry a new series? Or will she be the Matt LeBlanc of crime fiction? Will our Louis readers follow us to the new one? Have we run out of good plots? Have we finally jumped the shark?

I don't know, maybe there are writers out there who never have any doubts. Maybe Nora Roberts or Joan Didion never break out in a cold sweat at night. But I suspect there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of you out there who are in the same sweaty boat as I am. Because getting published is the easy part, my friends. (I know, those of you who aren't don't want to hear that, but it's true.) Staying published is what's tough. That means consistently writing good books that people want to read. And did I mention trying to always become a better writer?

For those of you just starting out in this business, this is what awaits you. Days spent staring at your computer screen, deep in thought and faith. And nights spent twisting in damp percal. What can I tell you? I offer the same two words of advice I give to my youthful female friends about menopause: cotton pajamas.