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, September 25, 2007

Go ahead, make my day

This is a tough week, book-wise. The deadline dogs are biting at my heels. The computer is getting ready to die. And those demons of doubt -- is this the biggest piece of crap I've ever written? -- have me staring at the clock at 3 a.m., twisting in my sweaty sheets.

But then, an email like this comes into my in-box:

Dear P.J. Parrish,
Hello, I just wanted you both to know that I started reading your books about three years ago. I am originally from the Detroit area and now live in Broward County with my wife and three kids. Your books have rekindled many memories when I was a child. Family vacations to Irish Hills, Houghton Lake, Frankenmuth, fishing trips on Lake Erie and the Huron River, and weekend trips to the U.P. I am a deputy with the Broward County Sheriff's Office and your books gave me a new inspiration about law enforcement and reinforce what I love about police work. Keep up the good work, I always look forward to the next book.

Thank you, Deputy Danny Krystyan. You gave me new inspiration and reinforced what I love about writing.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Making The List

The news has finally come out that the New York Times is breaking its paperback bestseller list into two: mass market and trade. I had heard back in July that this was coming. Our latest book, A THOUSAND BONES, had come out and done well in sales, breaking onto USA Today's extended list but not making the Times, as everyone had hoped.

We were disappointed because expectations had been high for this one. But then our agent put things in perspective: the publisher was extremely happy with sales because the book had sold well for a long time.

In official publishing terms, it didn't have "velocity,"

but it did have "legs."

You'll have a better shot with the next book, our agent said. The idea being, of course, that once the paperback bestseller list got rid of perennial pests like Jodi Picoult, kite runners and crabby old Cormac McCarthy, good old fashioned genre books could retake their rightful turf.

The Times, in defending the split lists, said they did it to give more visibility to the literary fiction that is increasingly being published in trade format. (Nicholas Sparks is "literary"?) But the change is also bottom line-driven, considering that the Times's ad revenue has been declining and adding another page of lists might boost ad sales.

I suspect there's some plain old whining behind this as well. A couple years back, the Times added a children's bestseller list. This happened because some publishers were bitching that the Harry Potter books were hogging too many spots on the Fiction list and leaving no room for "serious" books. (In 2000, there were three Potter books in the Top 15). So children's books -- and Harry -- was banished to the kids table. And now that the trade paperbacks have been separated from the mass markets, all those "serious" novels won't have to go up against James Patterson and Nora Roberts et al.

So what does all this mean for us commoners, especially those of us who toil in the mass market ghetto? Well, just as the "literary" writers get more slots, so do we PBO folks have more chances to crack into the rarified atmosphere of bestsellerdom.

But does being a "bestseller" really have a big impact on your career? Some would argue no, that you can have a successful life as a genre writer without making it onto the Times list. Laura Lippman, for one, didn't do too shabby for herself before her latest, "What The Dead Know" finally made it to The List.

Making The List DOES matter, I think. First, on the simplest level, we are obsessed with all "best" lists. It's the ultimate game, one that we can all play, as we put our own tastes up against the official arbitors. Best movie? The critics have their favorites, with this guy leading the pack:

My vote would go for "Lawrence of Arabia" but I am a sucker for this scene every time I see it:

Best dressed? Vanity Fair says it is someone named Charlotte Gainsbourg.

But I think best-dressed guy Tiki Barber is a lot purtier.

Best hotel in the world? According to Travel and Leisure its Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, India.

My vote goes to a little auberge in Bagnol-en-Foret, France, where I had fabulous frog legs in garlic, a memorable Meursault and a room with a view. I think I had great sex but it was a long time ago so I could be wrong.

It's all subjective, you see. But then again, so are "best books" lists. They are subject to all sorts of vagaries in our wacky business. Like which stores are reporting and which are not. Which lists are to be taken seriously and which are not. And, if you believe authors who have sued the New York Times, which editors like your stuff and which don't.

Although it is generally acknowledged that the New York Times bestseller list is the one and true list, there are others. And getting on any one of them can give you a toehold. There's the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly. Some think these other lists are becoming more a factor, especially the USA Today list because it publishes the raw data of actual sales from independent stores, chains and the dot-com dealerships. Liz Perl, executive director of publicity for the Berkley Publishing Group was quoted in Time Magazine recently: "A lot of people are looking at [the USA Today] list. It gets stronger and stronger."

And what about everyone's favorite whipping boy Its Hot 100 list, a reflection of sales over the web site, is updated hourly. (The Times Book Review, because of its long lead time, can publish only the very latest estimate of the books people were buying two weeks ago.) "The beauty of Amazon is the instant gratification," Perl says. "If you have an author who appears on, say, 'Rosie O'Donnell,' you can find out right away whether or not there's a bump in the Amazon numbers."

The Amazon sample can be misleading. Self-improvement books do better on Amazon, romance novels far worse. In one example, Nora Roberts' "Tears of the Moon" was the Times' paperback No.1 and USA Today's sixth top seller, but only hit No. 19 on Amazon. One of USA Today's best-selling romances, "Wild Child," didn't even crack Amazon's top 1,000.

So is the Amazon list important? Again, in Time magazine: "In terms of actual sales, somewhat," says Bill Thomas, the editor in chief of Doubleday. "In terms of author psychology, very important. Authors check it like daytraders keeping track of the NASDAQ."

Nooo....authors checking their Amazon rankings? None of MY friends do that.

Then there are the major regional lists: the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune. The regional lists are valued as "predictors." The bestsellers "Snow Falling on Cedars" and A.S. Byatt's "Possession" among others were bestsellers in northern California well before they made it onto the Times list.

Getting on the Independent Booksellers list carries weight, as does the Mystery Bookstore list. There are lists that compare sales at chain stores with sales at independent stores. There are romance lists, business lists, African-American lists, religious lists, health lists, and children's lists.

As I said, making a list these days is not really a matter of sales so much as velocity. A book that sells 20,000 copies in one week may shoot to the top of the bestseller lists, whether or not those are the only copies it ever sells. A novel that sells 200 copies a week for 10 years will never appear on the lists, because each week it will be beaten by faster-selling books.

Why do bestseller lists matter so much? Well, because they create buzz. If a book is a best seller, bookstore folks are more likely to give it prime placement; some stores even discount NYTimes bestsellers. And readers are more likely to buy bestsellers. Alan T. Sorensen of Stanford Business School, who studied sales of hardcover fiction, found that the majority of book buyers use the Times’ list to see what is worth reading. Therefore, according to Sorensen, relatively unknown writers get the biggest benefit from being on the list, while for already best-selling authors such as Danielle Steel or John Grisham, being on the list makes virtually no difference in increasing sales. Most authors -- us included -- have a contract clause that provides a bonus for making the Times list. Typically, it is $7,000 for postions 1-5; $5,000 for postions 6-10; $3,000 for positions 11-15.

But no one seems to understand exactly how bestseller lists are compiled, especially the Times's list. Its exact methodology seems to be a trade secret. According to Edwin Diamond in his book "Behind the Times," the list is based on a survey of over 3,000 bookstores as well as "representative wholesalers with more than 28,000 other retail outlets, including variety stores and supermarkets." The list is based on weekly sales reports obtained from a selected sample of independent and chain bookstores, as well as wholesalers, throughout the United States. The sales figures represent books that have actually been sold at retail, rather than wholesale figures, in an attempt to better reflect what is actually purchased by individual buyers.

But guess what’s missing? All the mass market outlets like Wal-Mart, KMart, Target, Costco, and Sam’s Club -- and Christian bookstores (some 2,300 stores or so). This is a big piece of the market. As a result, the Times completely misses the number of units that are moving through some very significant sales channels. At best, they can claim that their bestsellers list represents sales through only one specific sales channel.

At the other end of the spectrum is a bestseller list like the one compiled by The Voice Literary Supplement, which polls a mere 25 indie stores, places like San Francisco's City Lights, Washington, D.C.'s Politics and Prose, and the Harvard Bookstore. Some list makers rely on statistical sampling and extrapolation to provide an estimation of what is selling at the stores that do not report; some don't. Some lists, such as the Wall Street Journal's, only track sales in big chain stores. Others, such as USA Today's, include online booksellers. Some follow only independent stores.

Quel mess, huh? You can compare this with how it's done in the music biz. Billboard magazine tracks every single album sold at every single music store in the United States. There has been talk about using BookScan in a similar way for publishing lists, but BookScan is very expensive for booksellers. And frankly, if there were only one legitimately tabulated national bestseller list, well, where would that leave the kingmakers of The New York Times et al?

For all its weight, the Times was slow to the bestseller business. Bestseller lists have been around since 1895 when novel sales were tracked by a trade publication called The Bookman. Nonfiction bestsellers didn't arrive until 1912, when Publishers Weekly began its own list. The New York Times didn't get into the act until 1930. If you want to read a juicy overview of this whole thing, get a copy of Michael Korda's book "Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999."

One of my favorite observations from Korda's book is his assertion that there is no way to tell what books by unknowns will make it big, given that readers are so unpredictable. He gives the example of the biggest selling book of the 1920s -- "The Specialist." It sold more than 1.5 million copies and was on display next to cash registers for years. It was about building outhouses.

And I can think of no other wisdom to add to that. So just for fun, I leave you with a sampling of lists from our past. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose!


1. Exodus by Leon Uris
2. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
3. Hawaii by James Michener
4. Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
5. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
6. The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene L. Burdick
7. Dear and Glorious Physician by Taylor Caldwell
8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
9. Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico
10. Poor No More by Robert Ruark


1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
3. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, by Richard Bach
4. The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré
5. Oliver's Story by Erich Segal
6. Dreams Die First by Harold Robbins
7. Beggarman, Thief by Irwin Shaw
8. How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong
9. Delta of Venus: Erotica by Anaïs Nin
10. Daniel Martin by John Fowles


1. The Partner by John Grisham
2. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
3. The Ghost by Danielle Steel
4. The Ranch by Danielle Steel
5. Special Delivery by Danielle Steel
6. Unnatural Exposure by Patricia Cornwell
7. The Best Laid Plans by Sidney Sheldon
8. Pretend You Don't See Her by Mary Higgins Clark
9. Cat & Mouse by James Patterson
10. Hornet's Nest by Patricial Cornwell

This week

1. Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen
2. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hossein
3. At First Sight by Nicholas Sparks
4. The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
5. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
6. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
7. Dear John by Nicholas Sparks
8. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
9. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
10. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See


1. The Collectors by David Baldacci
2. 74 Seaside Avenue by Debbie Macomber
3. Killer Dreams by Iris Johansen
4. Innocent in Death by J. D. Robb
5. Act of Treason by Vince Flynn
6. Beyond Seduction by Stephanie Laurens
7. The Mephisto Club by Tess Gerritsen
8. Inferno by Troy Denning
9. Exile by Richard North Patterson
10. Silver Master by Jayne Castle

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


This isn't news to you if you have been trying to get published. Or even stay published: You have to be tough. How tough? You have to have the hide of a

The tenacity of a

And the drive of a

But even with all those qualities, you are going to get rejected. It happens to all of us. And it never stops. Even after you sign your first contract, you will deal with it. Your editor will make you rewrite. The marketing department will veto your title. Barnes & Noble will stock you but Costco won't. You won't get reviewed or worse, you get panned. And someday, you will be stalking some poor reader in the bookstore, see him pick up your book [YES! THEY LIKE ME, THEY REALLY LIKE ME!] and put it back on the shelf [NO! WHY DO YOU HATE MY BOOK?] Rejection is a staple of the writer's life, so no matter where you are on your path, you might as well begin to come to grips with it.

Even after you are published with a decent track record, you can still get dumped on. Four books into our current series, Kelly and I decided we wanted to try our hand at a light mystery. We finished it, convinced we were the next Janet Evanovich, had our new pen name picked out and everything. But our agent couldn't sell it. Not even to our OWN PUBLISHER! Which taught me a valuable lesson: It is not easy to write funny.

Rejection begins, of course, with query letters. This is a painful thing, the query process, because the agents who are rejecting you are usually maddeningly oblique about why they are giving you the thumbs down. Here's some examples of coded rejections I have seen:

1. "This doesn't fit my needs at this time."
2. "Your writing is strong but I don't feel I can be enthusiastic enough to fully get behind this project."
3. "I'm afraid I will have to take a pass. But I am interested in seeing other projects..."

What they really mean:

1. You can't write.
2. I already have four authors who write vampire detective series.
3. DaVinci Code rip-offs are yesterday's news. Have you considered paranormal chick lit?

I don't mean to make light of your woes if you are going through this phase of rejection now. But believe me, I have been there. My entry into this business took place during the Ice Age when it was possible to still submit to editors without having an agent. But the rejections were still as awful. I used to have all of them -- kept them in an old manila envelope in a desk drawer. Then when we moved a while back, I finally threw all the rejection letters away. Except for the first one I ever got, which I keep framed above my desk:
It is a classic! It doesn't reproduce well here, so let me point out some really nifty things about this particular rejection letter. First, it's a form letter. Second, there is no date. Third, there is no signature. But someone WAS kind enough to pencil in my last name and even take a moment to cross out "Sir."

I think this rejection letter is circa 1980. But you'll notice the language has not changed since. The inserts are how I felt at the time:

Dear Sir or Ms. Montee,
We thank you for the opportunity [yeah, right!] to consider your proposal or manuscript. [what, they can't figure out WHICH?]. We are sorry [I'll bet!] to inform you that the book does not seem a likely prospect [how elegant!] for the Dell Book list. Because we receive many individual submissions every day [you think I care how overworked you are?] it is impossible for us to offer individual comment [I'd say so since there is no human being attached to this letter to begin with!] We thank you for thinking of Dell [insert sound of raspberry here] and we wish you the best of success [ie don't darken our doorstep again with your crap] in placing your book with another publisher. [you'll be sorry some day!]

Sincerely, [you're kidding, right?]
The Editors [aka the evil Manhattan cabal trying to keep me unpublished]

So why did I keep this one? Well, with the passage of more than two decades I have gained a certain perspective about it. The manuscript I sent to Dell was really really bad. It had no business going out in the world in the state it was in. I know, because I kept it. Like this rejection letter, I kept it to remind me that this is a learning process. It still is. It always will be.

So if you are feeling blue today about rejection, just know this one thing: You are not alone. Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth” was rejected on the grounds that Americans were “not interested in anything on China.” A editor passed on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” explaining it was “impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” And let's not forget the agent who dumped Tony Hillerman and told him to "get rid of all that Indian stuff." (You can read more about Knopf's archives of other famous rejections by clicking here.)

Keep plugging away at your craft. Grow a tough hide, be brave, don't give up. And have a little faith:

Because it only takes one "yes" to make all the no's bearable.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The worst mistake you can make

I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date.

But today -- for the first time in months -- I feel good enough about the new book to leave it alone for a few minutes.

That is why I haven't been here much lately, even though I promised I would. See, the work in progress aka The Wip is due November 1. And this one is a killer. And I don't mean that in any of the normally good ways we crime writers refer to our work.

Kelly and I were on the road so much this year that we got a late start, and the ticking clock has been as loud as Poe's tell-tale heart in our ears all summer.

And the worst thing you can do to screw up your career is turn in your book late.

Being on time is very important. And it gets increasingly important the further into your career you go. Why? Because you can't get a foothold in today's crowded marketplace -- or keep one -- if you can't turn out a book a year on time.

That's the hardest thing a new writer has to grasp, I think. Before you get published, you have the luxury of time. Time for the virgin writer is a lovely, expandable, ever-accommodating thing. Kind of like a big purse. The bigger your purse, the most junk you carry around, right? Same with deadline. The bigger and looser it is, the more you will abuse it. Trust me. I know.

First-time authors spend YEARS making their books as good as they can. You have to in order to get an agent to take you on. Ah, but then what? Then you enter the big machine and you have to produce another. And another. And yet another. And here's the worst part of it: Each book has to be better than the last because publishers' attention spans (dictated by the computers at B&N and Walmart) are increasingly short.

Again, it's the luxury of time. Few writers entering the game today will be given the time to find their legs, their voices, their audiences. The reason is awful but pretty simple: It's all bottom line these days and there are too many young turks waiting to take your place on the publishers list. You have to produce well...and often.

So, what happens if you are late?

You lose your place in line. I learned this in great detail recently at the Killer Nashville conference. On Sunday morning, there was a very instructive panel with an agent, a Barnes & Noble manager, and the main buyer for all of Ingram (whom the other panelists called one of the most powerful women in publishing). It was all great advice, but the best insight came when someone asked what happens if you are late delivering your manuscript. All the experts agreed: You don't want to do this. Ever.

Here's the simple explanation: Your publisher creates its schedule at least a year in advance. And when an editor buys your book, the process begins whereby a bunch of folks decide where that book will be positioned to get maximum attention. Publishers jockey around each others schedules, trying not to have their books competing with similar books -- or with big star authors. Or Harry Potter for that matter.

So you sign your contract. You get your slot. Say you have a July 2008 release with manuscript delivery Nov 1, 2007. Now things get more complicated. To oversimplify things:

The cover design is based on your delivery date. Ditto advance reading copies (which are extremely important in getting bookseller buzz). Sales people start gearing up material for in-house and outside catalog placement. Marketing and publicity set a schedule of their own. And in the end, bookstores buy your book based on YOUR firm delivery date. And remember, this is happening for many other books at the same time -- from your own publisher and everyone else's. Every domino is in place.

Then you miss your delivery deadline. You're two, three, four months late. Life intruded, the kid got sick, you wrote yourself into a corner and had to backtrack, you had writers block, there was that three-week hiking trip in the Cinque Terre you really wanted to go on...blah, blah, blah.

What's the big deal, right?

That silence you hear is dominos NOT falling. You've lost your place in line, Bunky. And guess what? The world -- and the process -- will keep right on turning without you and your masterpiece. You've also been...unprofessional and made yourself a pain in the ass. Not something you want to have a reputation as being. Because publishing? -- it's a small world, after all. Once you've been labeled difficult, a prima donna, or unable to produce, that rep will follow you no matter how many times you switch houses.

I am not telling you this to scare you. Well, maybe I am. Because I got scared myself listening to the experts at Killer Nashville. See, I am not a fast writer. Writing is hard, even at times painful, for me. I try to worry each word into place, torture each paragraph into perfection. And that, my friends, leads me to paralysis.

Sometimes, you just have to sit down and let flow out. As the King says in Alice In Wonderland,

"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

Because, as the Queen tells us,

"In this country, it takes all the running you can do to keep you in the same place."