This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

What the Future Holds for Quill Gordon

            Like the first blossoms that herald the advent of spring, signs are appearing that my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, is gradually beginning to develop a readership beyond my circle of friends and acquaintances.
            This past Saturday I offered the book free as a promotion on Kindle, and it moved 18 percent more e-copies than were downloaded in my March Saturday promotion. Paid sales have increased every month this year, and as I write this, it appears that April will continue that trend. In the past three weeks, three fresh reviews were posted on Kindle, bringing the total number to ten, all legit. Seven of the reviews gave the book 5 stars, two gave it 4 stars, and one gave it 3 stars. And on top of all that, I just got a free plug from the alumni magazine at my alma mater, UC-Santa Cruz.
            Friday night, I finished the first draft of the first chapter of the next book, working title, Wash Her Guilt Away, which I hope to have published by the end of this year. It’s all beginning to prompt some thoughts about the future of Quill Gordon, my lead character.

The Perpetual Vacation

            When I wrote this book, I did it with a running series in mind, and without giving too much away, I can say that by the end of The McHenry Inheritance, Gordon has decided he’s made enough money in the stock market that he doesn’t need to keep his day job any more. That means he can go fly-fishing whenever he wants, and each fishing trip is an adventure (or mystery) waiting to happen.
            Quite a few people have asked if I’m working on a sequel. If you’ve read the first book, you’ll understand the question; if you haven’t, you will when you do read it. But a sequel generally suggests the same characters in the same place or places, and that’s not happening in the second book.
            In the next book, the fishing trip is to a place a couple of hundred miles away from the setting of The McHenry Inheritance. It’s a different location, with a different feel, a different type of story, and different characters. Gordon is the only repeat personality; he even has a different, and more edgy, fishing buddy than in the first book, and my plan is to switch off the two sidekicks in future novels, depending on which one suits the tone of the particular book.

Fly-Fishing in San Francisco?

            From the very beginning, it was never my intent to have Gordon keep coming back to the same place, as Martha Grimes’ Superintendent Jury does to Long Piddleton, or Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache does to Three Pines. Aside from Gordon and his sidekicks, the places and characters will generally change from book to book.
            That doesn’t mean, of course, that Gordon couldn’t return to Summit County, scene of the action in The McHenry Inheritance, or that one or more characters from a previous book couldn’t make an appearance or play a part in a subsequent one. All I’m saying is I want Gordon’s vacations to be without too much baggage so that I have maximum freedom to create new and interesting situations for him.
            It’s even possible, since Gordon lives in San Francisco, that I might set a future book in The City, with fly-fishing scenes introduced through flashbacks. I don’t have a story to fit that concept yet, but what I’m saying is that readers should feel that anything could happen in a Quill Gordon mystery. Keep reading, or you might miss it.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Grade Inflation, Literary Style

            I suppose it’s a sign of literary grade inflation that when a reviewer gives a book three stars out of five and calls it a fun read, Amazon classes that as a “critical” review. That just happened with my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, and if that’s the worst review the book gets, I’ll take it to the bank any time.
            When I was setting up my author page on Goodreads, there was a caution about negative reviews, part of which read, in effect, not every review will be five stars. It seems that five stars is the expected standard nowadays, and anything less is a letdown.
            So far, my book has nine reviews on Kindle. Seven of them are five stars, one is four stars, and the one just put up is three stars. That’s pretty respectable, and since five stars is probably what most searching readers are looking for, I’m grateful to have a few of those on the page. Still, I would have given my book only three stars.

When In Doubt, Flunk ‘Em Out

            Maybe I’m just a hard-ass grader, but to me a five-star mystery is one where the plotting, writing, atmosphere, and characters are all so spectacularly well-done that at the end, you put the book down and say, “Wow!”
            A four-star book would be one that is considerably above the norm, but not quite in the pantheon. Three stars is a book that’s solid, entertaining, and well written, but that doesn’t have that special something that takes it to the next notch. Two stars is for a book that’s problematic but has some points of interest and could be worth reading depending on your tastes. Less than two stars — Fuhgeddaboutit. As a college professor of my acquaintance likes to say, “When in doubt, flunk ‘em out.”
            What constitutes a five-star book can also change with the times. When E.C. Bentley’s classic, Trent’s Last Case, first came out a century ago, it was so wildly inventive and original that it would have been a five-star book, no doubt. After all these years, it’s still worth reading, but probably not too many people would give it five stars today. Probably the last five-star mystery I read was Sjowall and Wahloo’s The Laughing Policeman, and that was back in October.

Building An Audience Takes Time

            Conventional wisdom says that reviews help attract readers, but the payoff can take time. The McHenry Inheritance was first published nine months ago, and I’m just beginning to hear from the people who found out about it on their own, rather than through knowing me. So far they seem to like it, and that’s a good thing.
            When the book first came out, I had fantasies of it going viral, like Fifty Shades of Grey. Unfortunately, I forgot to put any S&M scenes in my book, so it hasn’t taken off quite that fast. That’s probably the typical experience. A self-published author has to put the book out, flog it relentlessly, blog, use social media, offer free promotions — the whole nine yards.
            It’s hard to get someone to buy a book by an author they never heard of, even if the book is only $2.99 on Kindle. And unless you bought the book on the recommendation of a trusted friend, you probably aren’t going to put it at the top of the reading list. Not everybody who buys it will read it; not everyone who reads it will like it; and not everyone who likes it will review it. Building the numbers in those areas takes time. Patiently, I wait.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What's In an Author's Name?

            When I put my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, up on Amazon last summer, there were quite a few decisions I had to make about it. I now realize I messed up on one that should have been easy.
            That would be the decision about what name to use as the author of the book. My friends all know me as Mike Wallace, but since that name also belongs to the late longtime anchor of 60 Minutes and to an all-pro NFL wide receiver, I rejected it out of hand. I didn’t want to confuse anyone, or have anyone feel they’d bought my book based on false pretenses.
            So I went with my full first name, and put the book out under Michael Wallace. I’m pretty conversant with the mystery section of the bookstore and had never seen that name on anything, so figured it would be pretty safe. I now realize that I should have gone a step further and done an author search under that name on Amazon.

How Many Michaels Are There?

            Had I done so, I would have realized there were a number of Michael Wallaces with books on Amazon, writing in a number of different fields. I should not have added another Michael to the list, if only because it makes a search by author name a lot more work. And the more work you make the customer do, the less likely you are to get the sale.
            It would have been a relatively simple matter to use some other variation. I could have called myself M.E. Wallace, Michael E. Wallace, or used my middle name in some variation: Eugene Wallace, Eugene M. Wallace. As glaringly obvious as it seems to me now, I didn’t bother to do the check because I didn’t realize the ginormous number of authors on Amazon and how common a name Michael Wallace really is.
            Maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing. The flip side of being hard to find in that thicket of Michaels is that some people slogging through that thicket, in search of one of the other chaps, will find me and my book. I know that’s already happened at least once.

Best Thing He’s Written

            One of my eight reviews on Kindle is from a complete stranger who apparently bought my book on the assumption that it was written by one of the other Michael Wallaces. The stranger gave The McHenry Inheritance five stars, for which I am deeply appreciative, and wrote a short review along the lines of, “it’s not like his other books, but it’s one of the best things he’s written.”
            As an author, I am happy when anyone reads my book all the way through and likes it, and if someone finds the book by mistake but still likes it, so much the better. As we all know, it’s tough to sell a book these days.
            Still, I can’t help feeling I should have used a more distinctive author name, something that would stand out and be appropriate for the series of fly-fishing mysteries I hope to write. This week it came to me. Instead of my real first name, I should have used another that carries a resonance of the Old West; that is the name of one of my favorite trout streams; and that, when coupled with my last name, doesn’t show up on Amazon and would have been a unique author. The author name I should have gone with is Carson Wallace.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Effect of Free Book Promotions

            In an attempt to figure out how things work on Amazon, more specifically Kindle, I tried a new approach to free promotions of my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, during the month of March. I still don’t understand how things work on Amazon, but pulled together a few strands of information that I’ll share for whatever they’re worth.
            For starters I decided to run three promotions during the month, all on weekends. The first was Sunday March 3 and the second was Saturday March 16. I figured I’d see whether Saturday or Sunday generated more downloads, then run the third promotion the following weekend on whichever day yielded better results.
            It wasn’t even close. That first Sunday I moved 306 free books, the best day I’d ever had to that point. The McHenry Inheritance climbed to number 53 on the free mystery list. On Saturday the 16th, the total was 72 books and my best showing was number 2660 on the overall list. So I scheduled my third promo (and last for the 90-day period) on Sunday March 24.

Making a Big Push on Twitter

            For that day, I tried something different — a big push on Twitter (handle: @Qgordonnovel). I always tweet that I’m offering a free promotion early in the morning of the day it’s happening, but this time I went overboard.
            The day before I went to Twitter and followed 150 new people, which generated a number of follow-backs while the book was out there. During the day of the free promotion, I also tweeted every couple of hours about how the book was doing. It’s hard to say how much, if at all, that helped. I wasn’t re-tweeted at all, and my overall follower base is still relatively small (under 2,000).
            Nonetheless, the book did great, with more than 470 downloads — far and away the best day ever. It was in the top 4 percent of free books downloaded on Amazon that day and climbed to number 33 on the mystery list. If I’m not proving anything else, I’m at least demonstrating that I can give it away.
            The big question, of course, is how many of those people who got it free are going to read it at any time in the next year, never mind sooner. I can’t even imagine how you could get a reliable answer to that question.

But Does It Pay?

            Also unclear is whether the run on free copies of the books translated (or will translate) into paid sales of any significant nature. The week after that big Sunday, my book sold a little better than it had earlier in the month, but the numbers involved are so small that the difference is probably statistically insignificant.
            I’ve visited a few online conversations about the value of free promotions, and the consensus seems to be that there’s no immediate impact. No one, however, seems to be looking at it as a long-term proposition. If ten percent of the people who download the book free end up reading it in the next year and telling a friend who buys it (or better yet, liking it on Facebook), that’s a good return on the promotion, even if it takes a while.
            “Even if it takes a while” might actually be the operative phrase in evaluating self-publishing results. For every Fifty Shades of Grey that gets crazy-good sales results, there are probably hundreds of good books that build an audience slowly through word-of-mouse and through subsequent books the author writes. I can only keep moving forward and hope that The McHenry Inheritance will be one of those.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Classified Ads: A Remembrance

            If the community newspaper of bygone days could be viewed as an economic engine, its premium-grade fuel was the classified ads. Display advertising fluctuated by the season and with the economy, and subscriptions barely covered the cost of the ink and paper. But classified ads were there day in and day out, a steady stream of dollars that certainly contributed significantly to many of my past paychecks.
            It was a stream of revenue that was almost untouched by economic hard times; after all that was when people might think of selling the second car or the couch sitting in the garage. And they were the people’s ads, affordable to all. The Glendale Independent, a twice-weekly local paper where I grew up used to advertise that it would print three lines three times for $1.09. Five of those ads provided my paycheck for covering a high school football game and left the paper with 45 cents profit.
            They were also the subject of jokes. In Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell tells Cary Grant, “So he took the gun and shot him in the classified ads.” You probably get the drift.

Invincible, But Vanquished

            Classified advertising was the one thing that people in the newspaper business always figured that television and radio could never take from us. We were right about TV and radio, but there was this thing called the Internet that we never saw coming.
            (For the record, I also figured the weekly grocery ads would never go away, and I was wrong about that, as well. But that had to do with the decline of the full-time housewife, who had the time to comparison-shop those ads.)
            The deal that the Internet has given to newspapers is about as one-sided as the deal the robber barons gave their factory workers before unions came along. The newspapers bear the cost of hiring people to gather, write and edit the news, then the Internet puts it out for nothing and uses it to attract customers and sell advertising. But the unkindest cut of all was when Craig’s List and similar websites did what TV and radio couldn’t — undercut and destroy the classified ad section. This morning’s local paper had a scant quarter-page of classifieds; 20 years ago it was six pages, minimum.

When the Unimaginable Happened

            Technological advance is notoriously unkind to the status quo, and classified ads are now as obsolete as a buggy-whip factory. Posting an ad online has so many advantages over print: It costs nothing, reaches a wider audience, and when the item in question is sold, the ad can be taken down right away, rather than showing up in the paper the next couple of days and generating numerous annoying phone calls.
            Two years ago, when my son Nick decided to leave college and work for a while, we used Craig’s List to find a cheap car from him. It eventually led us to Raul in Fremont, who had a nice little 1990 Ford Ranger he was willing to part with for my roll of $100 bills. It has served Nick (and us, since we’ve used the truck for some hauling) very well.
            Early next month Nick will be going into the Army, and we’ll be putting the truck up for sale again. My inner newspaperman would like to shell out the $1.09 (or whatever it is now) to run an ad in the paper, but the businessman in me knows we’ll be advertising on Craig’s list instead because that’s where we have the best chance of making a quick sale. Sorry, newspapers. Nothing personal; it’s just business.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Listening to My Father's Music

            One of the things I got when I leased a new Ford Fusion a little over a year ago was Sirius Radio. It wasn’t something I asked for specifically, but it was part of the package that came with the car and I said why not. It’s turned out to be a welcome addition.
            For the last 30 years or so, I’ve barely used the radio in any of my cars. About the only occasion, really, has been to listen to a baseball or football game during a long drive, and situationally to see if I could get news about a traffic snarl from KCBS in San Francisco.
            The rest of the time I’ve pretty much listened to tapes, or, increasingly, nothing at all, preferring to use my drive time for thinking. It’s a measure of my estrangement from vehicular sound systems that the car before this one was a 2001 model that was the last of its kind to have a tape deck rather than a CD player. And it mattered so little that I didn’t feel cheated.

The Rat Pack Will Never Die

            Sirius has brought me back to radio and the joy of accidental discovery. There are so many channels and so many pleasant surprises that it’s hard to decide what to listen to. Backstage at the Met with Metropolitan Opera radio, or getting the latest Broadway dish from Seth Rudetsky and Christine Pedi on the Broadway channel? Wade Jessen’s look at the week in country music history on Classic Country or the World News on BBC?
            Not surprisingly for an older guy, I find myself gravitating to the music of my youth. The Sixties and Seventies music channels are the first two pre-programmed on the radio, and I listen to them a lot — great road music and I know most of the songs.
            But lately I’ve found myself spending a lot of time with another blast from the past. That would be Channel 71, the Sinatra/American Songbook station. It is, in one sense, the music I grew up on, but it wasn’t my music at the time. It was my parents’ music, and I mostly tuned it out back then. But now I’m surprised at how it speaks to me, and how hearing some of those performers I grew up with gives me a fresh appreciation for their talent.

Getting Over Past Prejudices

            Coming of age in the Sixties, I soaked up the conventional wisdom of my peers, which included such arrant nonsense as, “Dean Martin was just a bum doing a bad drunk act,” and “Nat King Cole was just an Uncle Tom who wasn’t true to where he came from.”
            Listening to them sing, decades after they’re gone and on a good sound system, their virtues become obvious. Martin was a great singer, whose words came from his mouth like a great whiskey, slowly poured. He took Bing Crosby’s crooning to the next level. And how could I not have noticed at the time how wonderful and distinctive Cole’s voice was — clear and pure like a mountain stream. Jim Morrison had a similar clarity and purity, but in an altogether different style.
            Then there were the women. Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee were dames, in the best sense of the word. Billie Holliday had a voice whose cracks mirrored the cracks in her heart. And Julie London almost seemed to be exhaling cigarette smoke with every word. I’d forgotten all that, but now I remember — and just because my old car broke down badly and I had to get a new one.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Return of the Slow Mystery?

            Frank Bruni of the Times wrote earlier this week about the return of “slow TV.” Inspired by the new Holly Hunter cable series Top of the Lake, he wonders if complex dramas with multiple themes might not be making a comeback and finding some sort of market niche with people who are tired of the in-your-face reality shows.
            As a former food writer for the paper, he also wonders if such a movement might not be akin to the “slow food” movement, which has been gaining a following among people fed up with fast food and chain restaurants.
            Maybe that’s all wishful thinking, and there will never be any turning back from the louder, faster pace of both food and entertainment. Maybe it’s all been dumbed down for keeps. But there’s a part of me that would like to hope it isn’t so and would also like to see a return of the “slow mystery.”

They Were All Slow Mysteries Once

            When I wrote my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, I styled it in part on the classic mystery novels of the “Golden Age,” which ran from about 1920 to 1940. In most of those books, the author would set up a situation with a variety of characters and predicaments. The murder would arise organically from the people and the situation, and part of the pleasure of reading such a book would be, for instance, trying to figure out which of the financially strapped nephews had the best motive and most likely character to have dispatched the rich uncle.
            As originally written, The McHenry Inheritance opened with the courtroom scene that now begins Chapter Two, then proceeded for a couple of chapters, introducing other key characters and dramatic situations. Only in Chapter 4 (now Chapter 5) did the simmering characters and tensions boil over into the murder that then drove the rest of the book forward.
            I felt pretty good about the way I had handled all those elements, but the first time an agent took an interest in the book, she said in no uncertain terms that I had to get the murder into the first few pages of the book because that’s what readers expect these days.

Do Readers All Think Alike?

            At the time I had my doubts about that argument, and I still do. My feeling is that agents and publishers expect that body in the opening pages because everybody does it now, and no one is willing to take a chance on failing by departing from the template.
            Readers, I think, have different tastes and sensibilities, and there should be a market out there for a book that offers a more deliberate development, provided the book is well written and plotted. After all, Agatha Christie typically took her time turning a character into a corpse, and no one has sold more mysteries than she has, even through today. And she still sells.
            When you want to get published, there’s a limit to how much you want to argue with the people who can help you get there. So I took the agent’s advice and wrote a new first chapter, “The Angler and the Sharpshooter.” It’s a flash-forward to the murder in what is now Chapter 5, but told from the alternating points of view of the killer and the murder victim. I thought it turned out pretty well, and the agent loved it, but at the end of the day she decided not to represent the book and I wound up putting it on Amazon myself. And I’ll never really know for sure it the change reluctantly made really helped the book find more readers.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Quarter Century Club

            When you walked through the front door of the small-town newspaper where I used to work, you came into a lobby area with the main switchboard on one side and the newsroom on the other. On one wall was a set of sepia photographs that attracted almost everyone’s attention. As a young reporter I often looked up from my typewriter to see someone standing in front of that wall, gazing at the photographs in rapt fascination.
            Above the photographs was the headline “The Quarter Century Club.” They were pictures of the men (and one woman, Virginia Peixoto) who had worked at the paper for 25 years. Time spent in the military, if served after being hired by the paper, counted.
            At the time of my hiring in 1972, the newsroom was represented by editor Frank F. Orr (hired in 1938), managing editor Ward Bushee (1946) and city editor Howard Sheerin (1931). Quite a few of the photos were of printers and pressmen, guys without a college degree who became damned good at a skilled trade and made a life’s work of it: Gordon Littlefield, Hank Senini, Dick Heebner, Cy Crawshaw, Bill Brazil. Others went up on the wall later.

You Got a Watch for Your Time

            One of them was Sam Vestal, the paper’s first photographer, whose pictures proved the connection between the district attorney and a notorious gambler and helped the paper win a Pulitzer Prize. Sam went on the wall in 1975, and I remember being out with him on a story a few weeks before. At one point he reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a beat-up wristwatch with a broken band and checked the time. I asked when he was getting it fixed. “Not worth it,” he replied. “I hit 25 years in a few weeks, and I’ll be getting a new one from the company.”
            They gave watches in those days, too.
            In today’s economic and employment environment, where two-way loyalty is an alien concept, the idea of a quarter-century club is incomprehensible. It wasn’t always that way. A company with solid roots in the community could provide steady, long-term employment at a decent wage, obtained, to be sure, with some coaxing from labor unions representing the printers and pressmen. If you had a high school diploma and the willingness to learn some skills, you could make a career of it.

The Decline of the Physical Product

            What happened in the newspaper industry is typical of what happened across America to businesses that actually produced a physical product. There are no printers any more because technology wiped out their jobs; computers enabled editors and reporters to do the typesetting and produce the pages themselves. The high cost of maintaining a press, coupled with satellite capability and the internet, has decimated the ranks of pressmen. Many newspapers no longer do their own printing; instead, the editors design the pages on the computer and send them electronically to a press at a distant location. One community newspaper has even tried moving its newsroom offshore, outsourcing reporting work to people in India, who cover the city council meeting by watching a community TV broadcast on the internet. The printed newspaper itself will no doubt vanish during my lifetime, replaced by images flickering across a computer screen or smart phone.
            For a long time I assumed my picture would be on the wall some day, but the company was sold and I left after 19 years. I remain grateful for having had the experience of working in such a stable and welcoming environment, forever gone. Newsrooms will have typewriters again before the Quarter-Century Club makes a comeback.
Originally posted February 2012