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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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Locked-Room Mystery

            One of the pleasant surprises I’ve experienced since my second mystery novel, Wash Her Guilt Away, went live several weeks ago has been the response to the mystery itself. Several people have commented that they found the puzzle puzzling and the solution and explanation of it interesting and entertaining.
            Seventy five years ago, the puzzle or mystery was why people read mystery novels. Some authors (early Ellery Queen comes to mind) would even issue a challenge to the reader at the point where the detective was about to unmask the killer and explain the crime. The challenge was, essentially, you know everything the detective knows; all the clues have been laid before you fairly and openly; can you deduce who the killer was and how the crime was committed?
            There’s a certain pleasure to be had from this sort of matching wits with the detective/author, but the genre has largely gotten away from that sort of story. Instead, we tend to have police procedurals, where we follow the cops as they collect one piece of information after another until the picture comes into play, or we have books where the killer is known and the suspense is in catching him or her.

Doing It Backwards

            In my book, the puzzle is a locked-room mystery, an old chestnut that goes back nearly a century and a half. For all that, modern practitioners have still tried their hands at it. I’m thinking of Peter Lovesey in The Circle and Sjowall and Wahloo in The Locked Room. And why not? It’s a nifty gimmick.
            I originally conceived my book, years ago, as a social-tension mystery, where a group of people are cooped up in a remote place and things start getting a bit chippy. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that having the murder occur in a locked-room setting would be a nice touch, so I worked that into the outline and used it as a selling point in the book description I put up on Amazon.
            That sort of device is fun, but there are two things that have to be understood. The first is that there is no mystery involved for the author. He essentially does the story backwards, figuring out how to create the locked-room situation, then writing it in such a way as to misdirect the reader and sow confusion. The second is that the solution is always a bit disappointing, since it has to be more prosaic than the situation as presented.

Underestimating the Mystery

            Perhaps because I approached the locked-room mystery in the way described, I wasn’t all that impressed by my own creation. In fact, I went through moments of angst in which I was telling myself the solution was so obvious as to be cringe-worthy and subject to ridicule by readers.
            I was emboldened, however, by the fact that neither my wife nor my editor figured it out, which was an indication that I had pulled off the literary shell game with at least some degree of competence. And, after all, it was a good tease for the book, so I went ahead with it, and that’s looking as if it was the right decision.
            In the handful of reviews now up on Kindle, most comment on the quality of the puzzle as being something the reader liked in the book, and I’ve received several comments from people who said they were baffled until the mystery was explained by the detective at the end. I suppose it goes to show that the old pleasures never die; they’re simply reinvented over and over.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

So What's Your Angle?

            When I self-published my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, nearly two years ago, I had to figure out a marketing plan. And I have to say that doing my own marketing for the book gave me a better understanding of why no agent wanted to touch it.
            Modern publishing, for better or worse, is mostly about the big score. Fifty years ago, a publishing house would be willing to nurture a writer whose first book sold five thousand copies; whose second book sold ten thousand; whose third book sold twenty thousand; and whose fourth had a breakout and sold forty to fifty thousand, plus drove readers to buy the earlier books.
            That sort of investment in an author is all but unheard-of these days. Agents and publishers are looking for a book that will sell in six-figure numbers straightaway. And in order to do that, there has to be an easily explained, highly exploitable angle for promoting it. Call it the book’s elevator speech, if you will.

A Good Story Is Not Enough

            Saying you have a good, compelling story is not enough. The marketing question is what makes the book stand out from its competitors; what makes it new and fresh and promotable.
            My angle was to promote the fly-fishing aspect of the book. Quill Gordon, my protagonist, is a man of independent means who can go fishing whenever he wants. The stories in the Quill Gordon Mystery series occur and will occur when he goes on a fishing trip and gets caught up in the local drama. So promoting the fly-fishing angle seemed logical — except that I’m starting to think it wasn’t.
            From the standpoint of selling books, there are two problems with that approach. The first is that there aren’t that many fly fishermen and women out there, so the appeal is being made to a small market niche to begin with. The second is that a lot of people who fly fish don’t read fiction. And I am rapidly coming to the belief that people who don’t read fiction are rarely going to change their ways because a certain work of fiction happens to be about their hobby or area of enthusiasm.

Free Advice and Worth Every Penny

            Well-meaning friends are always offering suggestions for selling the book by connecting with the fly fishing market, but I have grave doubts. Amazon already links my books with other fly-fishing-themed mysteries, and that probably serves to put it in front of most of the mystery readers who are looking for that kind of book.
            With the second Gordon novel, Wash Her Guilt Away, I’ve tried to take a broader approach to marketing the book — stressing the character tensions, the locked-room mystery, the witches’ coven and other aspects. I do believe I have a good story here, and I’m trying to promote it as such in a way that will attract readers who don’t necessarily care about fly fishing.
            The ones who do care about fly fishing will probably get more out of it, in the same way that people who love horses and horse racing get a bit more out of a Dick Francis novel than a horseless guy like me. But the point is, I like Dick Francis and I believe readers can like my books without caring about fishing.
            The ongoing marketing of my mystery series will undoubtedly be a matter of trial and error, trying a bunch of ideas and discarding the ones that don’t work. It will take time to reach an audience, if I ever do, but that’s all right. When you self-publish, you have a boss who can take the long view.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Selling Your Book Is Like Fishing, Part II

            In last week’s post I developed the theme that publishing (and trying to sell) your own book is kind of like fishing. If you don’t want to scroll down and read the whole thing, the gist of it was as follows:
            Amazon, the big player in self-publishing, can roughly be compared to a large lake teeming with fish, i.e., the customers for your book. Selling your book is kind of like taking a boat out into some point in the lake and casting out your line. If your bait (that is to say, your book) is any good, you’ll probably catch a few fish (make a few sales), but most of the fish in the lake will never know you’re there.
            Publishing a second book, I reasoned, should significantly improve your chances. It’s like having two lines and two rods working, plus with two books, you have two different pieces of bait to dangle from each line. All other things being equal, you should do better with two books out than with one.

An Experiment in Real Time

            On April 30, I published my second Quill Gordon mystery, Wash Her Guilt Away, as an e-book on Amazon. A month has now elapsed, and the early returns seem to be vindicating the theory.
            My hope was that the second book would do better at the start than the first one, and that turned out to be the case. Wash Her Guilt Away recorded paid sales in May that were 20 percent higher than the best month the first book, The McHenry Inheritance, has yet had. It also did well on two free-promotion days, cracking Amazon’s top 40 free books in crime fiction on both occasions. I don’t make any money from the books given away, but it’s a great way to get people who never heard of me (which would be 99.99999 percent of Amazon customers) to give me a try. If they like the book they got free, the theory goes, they’ll pay for the next one and the one after that.
            So far, so good. But probably the biggest surprise from that first month was the positive impact the release of the second book had on the sales of the first. I figured there would be a little bump, but it was much more than I expected.

Like a Candidate With Coattails

            Amazon doesn’t tell me who buys my books and why, so I have to make deductions. The first free promotion for Wash Her Guilt Away was on Saturday May 3, and several days later, I started seeing a distinct uptick in sales of The McHenry Inheritance. By the end of May, the first mystery had registered its fifth best month (out of 23) in paid sales and was selling almost even with the new one in the second half of the month. It sold ten times more copies in May than it did in April.
            Maybe I’m being a crazy optimist here, but the only explanation I can come up with is that some of the people who got the second book free read it, liked it, and came back to buy the first one. Or at least were intrigued enough to order it anyway.
            If true, that’s good news, and it certainly provides a powerful motivation for writing and publishing the third novel in the Quill Gordon mystery series, given that for sales, the more the merrier seems to be the rule. So here I go. I have the story and characters in place; all I need is a title and a year of work.