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, August 27, 2014

The Second Book Sells the First

            When I published my second mystery novel, Wash Her Guilt Away, four months ago, I had only two commercial hopes for it. One was that it would sell better than my first mystery, The McHenry Inheritance. The other was that the second book would attract new readers, who would then go back and buy the first book in the series.
            So far, so good. In a short time, I’ve discovered that there are considerable benefits to an author who has multiple books in a series on the market. Not the least of these is that when I do a free promotion on Amazon for one of my books, there’s another book that people can come back and pay for later, if they liked the one they got free.
            What has really surprised me, though, has been how much that first book has benefited from having its successor on the market and being part of a series. I expected it to get a sales bump, but nothing as good as it has so far.

A New Wave of Interest

            In the six months before Wash Her Guilt Away went up on Amazon, I was devoting nearly all my literary energy into getting it done, and almost nothing to promoting The McHenry Inheritance. As a result, McHenry sales had plateaued at a fairly low level.
            When the second book came out, the sales impact on the first was immediate. Wash Her Guilt Away appeared on Amazon April 30, and in May, with no particular promotional effort on my part, paid e-book sales for The McHenry Inheritance were ten times what they’d been in April. It was the book’s fifth best month for sales since it had come out in July of 2012. Publishing another book in the series made that much difference.
            For both May and June, sales of Wash Her Guilt Away were more than double those of The McHenry Inheritance, which was what I would have expected. But in July and August something else has been happening. The first book has been accounting for a bigger share of total sales.

One Good Thing Leads to Another

            Wash Her Guilt Away sold 30 percent more books on Amazon in July than The McHenry Inheritance did. And as of midnight last night, August is the best month so far for Quill Gordon mystery sales on Amazon. Best of all, the good month has been fueled by both books. As I write, the second book is leading the first in paid e-book sales by only one copy, and with five days remaining in the month, their respective sales positions could conceivably flip.
            What’s more, The McHenry Inheritance has a reasonable chance of beating its previous best month for sales this August. Even if it doesn’t, it’s having its second best month, which is quite the sales renaissance for a book published more than two years ago.
            All this has been very encouraging. From the sales and reviews so far, it’s beginning to look as if some people are enjoying my mysteries and that I’m beginning to build a small nucleus of readers that could conceivably grow with the publication of more Quill Gordon mysteries. I don’t know if that will happen, but there’s one thing I can say for sure. After seeing what publication of the second book did for sales of the first, I really want to get the third one out there (next year some time) and see what it does for the first two.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Story Behind a Family Photo

            One of the treasures I picked up at the Wallace family reunion last month was a print of the photograph that accompanies this post. It’s a picture of my father (standing, second from right) and his brothers and sisters (with the exception of Uncle Tom, who had died earlier) gathered together for the first time in almost 40 years. The occasion was the funeral of their mother in the spring of 1961.
            There’s a story here, and a few observations as well.
            My father was one of 10 children born to William Sumner Wallace and Mary (DeArmond) Wallace of Blount County, Tennessee, just south of Knoxville. It was a large family, but not uncommonly so by the standards of their time. William’s father, Theophilus Wallace, had been an officer in the Union army during the Civil War, and John DeArmond, Mary’s father, was one of the soldiers who served under him. William was born in 1869, and Mary in 1876. They married in 1895.

A Large Family Scatters

            They settled on a farm outside Maryville TN and raised their 10 children there. The children were born over a period of 20 years, and seven of them stayed in the area as adults. The oldest, Hugh, (standing, far left) moved to California shortly after World War I and raised chickens in Orange County. My father followed him to California in 1929, and a third son, Roy, (seated, far right) moved to Florida.
            William Sumner Wallace died broke in 1937, when the country was still in the Great Depression. My father and Uncle Hugh had enough money between them to pay for one train ticket, so they pooled their funds and sent Hugh to the funeral. My father wouldn’t make it back to Tennessee for another 24 years — when his mother died at the age of 85.
            Living today, when air travel is easy and relatively affordable, we forget what it was like back then. When family members moved from one part of the country to another, there was a real chance they might not see each other again. So when all of William and Mary’s surviving children got together again for the funeral, it was a big deal. And they did what people used to do back then, when something happened that was a big deal. They hired a professional photographer to document it.

Too Important for Amateurs

            That was hardly an extravagance. Sure, they could have gotten someone with a Kodak Brownie to snap a few shots, but it would have been a few days before the prints came back from the drugstore, and if anything went wrong, everyone would have been scattered. And no amateur would have been able to arrange the people so well and get them all to look good at the same time. Whatever it cost (and it probably wasn’t much), it was worth the money.
            The name of the photographer isn’t on my print, so I don’t know who it was. I’m pretty sure it was a man and that he used a large camera on a tripod, probably producing a negative of 4x5 inches or 8x10 inches. He probably knew his business well enough that he didn’t have to take more than one or two shots to get it right.
            All the people in the photo are gone now, and those gathered for the family reunion last month were largely their children, most of whom are collecting Social Security or getting close to it. And because a half-century ago, our parents went to the trouble and expense to get a photo that would endure, we have a priceless image of all of them in their prime.

THE WALLACE CHILDREN, with order of birth following name: Standing, from left, Hugh (#1), Margaret (#10), Helen (#3), Clarence (#7), and Clyde (#4). Seated, from left: Mary Lois (#9), John (#6), Grace (#8), and Roy (#5).

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How Important Is a Book Title?

            My friend and sometime marketing guru John Bakalian was visiting us a few weeks ago, and the topic of discussion turned to book titles. John suggested that perhaps for my next mystery novel, I should research the bestseller lists to find out what words appear most frequently in the titles. Then, he said, I should come up with a title that uses the most common words, regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with the book.
            The problem with that, I countered, is that James Patterson could call one of his books Scrubbing Linoleum Floors, and it would sell a million copies. Authors and books sell books — not titles and covers, though they can help at the margins.
            (On an impulse, I decided to try out John’s theory by coming up with a title that would meet his criteria, Death Lust for Sex, and doing a search for it on Amazon. Nothing turned up, and I won’t be using it myself, so feel free to appropriate it if you’re so inclined.)

Part of the Filtering Process

            Ideally, of course, a title should be catchy and memorable and capture the spirit of the book. Three good examples would be Gone With The Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Farewell to Arms. On the other hand, you have to remember that The Great Gatsby was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s worst title, but his best book.
            In the mystery genre, in which I work, a book title is probably first of all the beginning of the potential reader’s filtering process. Mystery readers tend to favor certain subgroups of books, and titles can help them sort things out. A book called Dead Meat, with a cover illustration of a meat cleaver dripping blood, is probably going to appeal to the hard-boiled action crowd, while The Ellsmere Manor Murders, with a pastoral image on the cover, would likely appeal to readers of classic British mysteries.
            When I’m browsing, either in a bookstore or online, a title that catches my eye (and not many do) will likely lead me to look at the cover, then the dust-jacket blurb. Those three things, along with a glance at the first page to check for fundamental writing competence, will typically lead me to a decision. The title, then, is part of the filtering process, not the deal clincher.

Which Comes First?

            Another interesting question — and the answer varies from author to author — is which comes first, the title or the book? In the case of my first two mysteries, I had a title in place before I started writing.
            Book one, The McHenry Inheritance, had a title that suggests a legal conflict and characters of considerable wealth. Since my mysteries are more traditional than hard-boiled, I felt that was a good choice.
            The second book, Wash Her Guilt Away, takes its name from a famous Oliver Goldsmith Poem. I’d like to believe it suggests a quest for redemption, a strong female character, and an emphasis on personal moral responsibility, rather than corporate or organized crime.
            With the third book, it’s different. I’m well into writing it now, but haven’t yet decided on the right title. I’ve come up with four candidates, and at the moment I’m liking the fourth one. They’re all good titles, in my view, but each conveys a different feel, and there’s the problem.
            At times like this, I envy Sue Grafton. All she has to do is come up with one word to match a letter of the alphabet. Maybe that’s why she picked that title format.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Fishing Days: Fall River

            The first time I went fishing on Fall River, I thoroughly embarrassed myself. It was June of 1984, and I had been trying fly fishing for only two years. Linda and I went out with a guide named Carl Jaeger, and it probably wasn’t very long before he realized he would be earning his money that day.
            To call Fall River a difficult stream would be understating the case, and a novice angler who’s all thumbs has no chance. After an unproductive morning (despite a good insect hatch and plenty of rising fish), Carl tactfully suggested that we take a long lunch break and do a bit of practice casting. In a short time, he pinpointed my critical problems, and that was the beginning of my path to becoming reasonably competent at the sport.
            Over the next few years, I went out with Carl several times, generally with respectable results. But five years later, in the spring of 1989, I finally had my breakout day.

You Could Look It Up

            At the beginning of the year, I had become editor of the newspaper, and had been working at an insanely intense level for four months. I knew from the outset that that would be the case, so early in the year, I blocked out a week of vacation to go fishing at Hat Creek, with a day on Fall River with Carl. That day was Wednesday May 17, 1989.
            Weather in that country at that time of year can be a crapshoot, so I was holding my breath. It could be wintry, summery, changeable, or something between the three. It ended up being a wonderfully sunny day — not too hot, and with no wind to speak of. Sometimes, on a bluebird day like that, the fish go to the bottom and refuse to feed. Not so on this day. They were hungry all day long, and there was rarely more than a brief interval (30-45 minutes) that we weren’t getting action.
            A couple of hours into the day, I sensed that this might be something special. I hadn’t brought a camera, so I have no pictures, but I began keeping track in my head, and at the end of the day, before driving off, I wrote down a list of fish caught in a notebook I kept in the VW camper. That yellowed piece of paper was still in my desk when I looked just now.

Knowing When to Quit

            It shows that we landed 21 trout that day, 15 of which were 14 inches or longer (and they were fat and scrappy). And for every one we landed and released, there were probably two that got away. It was the kind of day you always imagine you’re going to have when you set out on a fishing trip — before reality intrudes.
            A little after six o’clock, Carl took me to a place he called “The Office,” where there were usually a few large fish feeding along the bank in a tight current. It took a near-perfect cast to have a chance of catching one, but he thought I might be able to make it. I did, and hooked and landed a 17-inch rainbow. (A slightly fictionalized version of that fish appears in my mystery novel, Wash Her Guilt Away.)
            After taking the hook out and letting the fish go, Carl turned to me and said, “You probably won’t make a better cast or catch a better fish. What do you say we call it a day and head back?” And though there was at least an hour and a half of fishing light left, I agreed. In doing that, I learned a valuable lesson. A good fisherman, like a good athlete, has to know when it’s time to quit, and because I stopped then, I’ll remember that last fish to my final breath.