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, September 24, 2014

A Sabbatical From Social Media

            One of the most famous advertising aphorisms ever has been attributed to many people; the first time I came across it, it was credited to F. W. Woolworth: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.”
            It’s been coming into my mind lately as I’ve been thinking about the ways I’ve been promoting my mystery novels. Before self-publishing the first, The McHenry Inheritance, on Amazon, I hired a social media consultant to teach me the ins and outs of Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin. I don’t like those things, but they’re not going away soon, so I figured I’d better learn the basics.
            For the past two years, I’ve been aggressively promoting my two books on social media to the best of my learned ability. They seem to be slowly gaining a modest audience and helping sell each other, but the one thing about which I have no idea whatsoever is how much, if at all, my social media efforts have helped sell the books. I haven’t an atom of hard information on that point.

What if No One Advertised?

            Back in 1989, when I had just become editor of a daily newspaper, our corporate group, Scripps-Howard, held a gathering of all the editors and publishers. A featured speaker was Christopher Whittle, who at the time was attempting — unsuccessfully, as it turned out — to launch a TV channel aimed at schoolchildren.
            In the course of his presentation, Whittle said something I’ve always remembered for its boldness. I’m paraphrasing, but it was that the dirty little secret of advertising is that it doesn’t work. He maintained that Ford, General Motors, Procter and Gamble, et. al. could eliminate their advertising budgets altogether. If they did, he claimed, the worst that would happen is that they would lose about 1 percent of their sales, but the money saved on advertising would more than compensate for that on the bottom line.
            Was he right? I don’t know, but he certainly could be. And lately, I’ve been entertaining the heretical question of what would happen if I stopped using social media to promote my books. If nothing else, I’d certainly have time for more writing.

Try It for a Month

            To hone in on one area, I looked at Twitter. Do I see more book sales on days when I tweet about a book and get retweeted extensively? Some days yes, some days no. But even on a day when Twitter is kind to me and the sales are good, I still have no way of knowing whether there’s any causation behind the correlation.
            The one conclusion I’ve drawn from running free-book promotions on Kindle is that how well my book moves seems to depend on how many people are shopping in the Kindle store that day. I’ve been in the top 50 of Kindle free crime fiction on days when I had 50 downloads, as well as on days when I had over 500 downloads. The number of people looking for free books on any given day seems to matter more than what I tweet.
            In any event, I’ve decided to take a sabbatical from social media for a month, and will not be posting anything in October. I doubt that anyone will notice, and I doubt that it will give me any relevant information on the impact on book sales, but it may clear my mind a bit and help me go back to using it more effectively.
            And if nothing else, I’m hoping to get more work done on my third Quill Gordon mystery.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Fishing Memories: Pleasant Valley Creek

            To get to Pleasant Valley Creek, you drive out of Markleeville, the tiny seat of Alpine County south of Lake Tahoe, on the county road leading to Grover Hot Springs State Park. About halfway to the park, there’s a road that leads off to the left, through a small subdivision, then over a hill and down into Pleasant Valley itself.
            I first made the trip in 1983 and have been back more times than I can count. It’s a special place, and there isn’t really any one day of fishing that stands out — rather, quite a few of them. Most anglers have a creek of the heart, if you will, and this is mine.
            When you come down into the valley, the dirt road runs alongside the creek. There are some primitive campgrounds alongside it: No tents, no toilets, just fire pits and a place to park a camper or pitch a tent if you are so inclined. The road then passes a ranch house, comes into a large meadow, and dead-ends a half mile or so later at a trailhead leading into the backcountry.

Starting the Day off Right

            For years, whenever I was in the area, I’d make a point of getting up before dawn so I could begin the day by watching the sun rise over the mountains to the east of that great meadow. I was generally camping at the state park, and would get up, make a pot of coffee in a thermos carafe, and take it with me to the meadow. I’d pull our VW camper into a grassy area, pour a cup of coffee, have a sweet roll and put on my waders. Most of the time, I had the place to myself.
            There are several large pools in the meadow, and it’s not uncommon to see quite a few fish gathering in them. When that’s the case, a halfway competent angler can have a good streak of fishing simply by drifting nymphs (Hare’s Ear, PT, stonefly imitations) through the pools.
            From the meadow, the creek begins to tumble down a gorge, looping behind the ranch house, then coming back to parallel the road again. I’m getting a bit old to clamber through steep gorges like that now, but in my 30s and 40s, I did it without a second thought. Unless I was fishing next to where someone was camped, I rarely saw another person.

Two’s a Crowd

            Because of its more remote location, and because it was restricted to fly fishing only with a two-fish limit, Pleasant Valley seldom attracted crowds. For someone like me, who fishes to be alone, that’s a real selling point. Over the years I’ve had a lot of good days on that stream — good not only because of the fish caught but because of the total quality of the experience.
            In addition to being a favorite fishing spot, Pleasant Valley Creek also helped launch my literary career. On one of the rare days there were other people there, I was fishing the bottom of the meadow when one of the campers came over to tell me they were going to be doing a bit of target practice. When they started to blast away, the peace you look for when fishing was gone, and, so, soon, was I.
            Readers of my first mystery novel The McHenryInheritance will no doubt recognize a similarity between the scene described above and Quill Gordon’s being chased off the fictional West Buchanan River in Chapter 2. It was a clear case of art imitating life, albeit with considerable embellishment.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Giving Books a Second Chance

            A couple of months ago, rummaging through one of those recommendation lists Amazon sends out, I spotted a book called Crossover by Judith Eubank. I had never heard of either the book or the author, but I read the description of it and checked out the first page. It was well written, and the price was right, so I bought the e-book version.
            On Labor Day, looking for a short book to read, I came across it on my iPad and went with it. At only 172 pages, it was just right for the day, and I flew through it. It was a highly enjoyable read, better written than most of the bestsellers I see today, and I thought I’d discovered a promising new author who had self-published on Amazon, like me. In the Kindle store, the publication date showed as April 2014.
            Then, at the end of the book, I came to the copyright page, which showed that it had originally been published in 1991 by the now defunct publishing house Carroll & Graf. What I had been reading was not a new book, but rather an electronic reissue of an older one.

Not Dead, Just Resting

            I’m guessing, since it appears Ms. Eubank has written only one other work of fiction, that her book didn’t do terribly well from a commercial standpoint, and that she eventually moved on to other things. That happens. There are good books that sell poorly and bad ones that sell quite well. But like many other authors, Ms. Eubank has gotten a second chance from Amazon and the e-book.
            Not all the authors who have done so are living. I’m noticing a lot of reissues of mysteries from the 1920s and 30s on Amazon. In fact, one of those, The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude, is on my schedule for this month. The first e-book I ever read, Murder at Bridge, was a 1920s American mystery novel that someone put up on Kindle for 99 cents, apparently after discovering the copyright had expired.
            And my own first mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, got a second chance on Kindle. Passed over by agents and publishers in the 1990s, it has sold modestly but steadily since I put it up on Kindle in July 2012. In fact, this August, more than two years after publication, it had its best month ever in paid sales on Amazon, and this Monday it had its best-ever free promotion, with nearly 600 downloads worldwide.

The Library Vanishes With a Click

            There are quite a few good authors whose work has long been out of print. In the mystery genre along, I can think of Father Knox, John Dickson Carr, Richard and Frances Lockridge, and so on. Sometimes a long out-of-print author gets a revival, as Earl Derr Biggers did when the University of Chicago reissued his Charlie Chan novels. But that’s the exception. E-books offer a way for good writers whose audiences would be limited today to stay in circulation, if not exactly in print.
            Still, I can’t help remembering the Library at Alexandria, which burned in ancient times, leaving us without many of the great works of antiquity. With everything on a computer somewhere, fire won’t be an issue, but some day a rogue computer virus could wipe out much of the literary canon, and a lot of secondary good stuff, too. I try not to think about it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Who Needs an Agent?

            Last week the Times ran an obituary of Jeremiah Healy, the Shamus-award-winning author of the John Francis Cuddy mystery series. As a wannabe mystery novelist myself, I devour such things, and in this case was struck by the next to last paragraph of the news story.
            Paraphrased, it said that he was one of the many mystery and mid-list writers who were slammed by the contraction of the book industry in the 1990s, and that his last mystery novel had been published in 1999. Doing the math, I figure he would have been 52 at the time, which is way too young for a good mystery writer to stop writing.
            All of which got me to thinking. If an award-winning detective writer, one good enough to merit a significant obituary in the Times, can’t get his books published in the conventional way, why should the rest of us even try? Maybe the old-school book-publishing industry has become the sole province of the top bestsellers, and no one else need apply.

No Room to Grow

            Once upon a time, book publishers felt that developing and bringing along new talent was an integral part of the business. A first novel was considered to be reasonably successful if it sold five thousand copies, and the publishers would keep such an author going a while, looking for a breakout.
            The breakout wasn’t necessarily a million-seller blockbuster. Quite a few of these authors reached a level where they could consistently sell 25-50,000 copies of a book, and each new one brought a fresh batch of readers back to the earlier ones. Such mid-list authors could be steadily profitable for a long time, comprising part of a publishing house’s financial foundation. And occasionally one of the mid-list authors could have a big success that took his or her reader base to the next level.
            I see myself as a prospective mid-list author of mystery novels, so the decline of the middle ground in publishing is an unhappy occurrence as far as I’m concerned. If the advent of e-books and the growth of self-publishing hadn’t come along, I’d be stuck with a bunch of manuscripts in my computer. Instead, those books have been bought and (if you believe the reviews) enjoyed by a modest number of people who are complete strangers to me.

Why Go Back to the Old Way?

            A friend of mine recently suggested that, now that I have a couple of books up on Amazon, I should try again to find an agent and a publisher. My immediate reaction was, “Why?” The time spent trying would certainly slow down the writing of the next book or two, and it’s by no means clear to me that a) an agent would be interested in the first place; and b) an agent and publisher could get significantly better results for me than I could get for myself by sticking with Amazon. Plus right now I’m a self-employed author, and I get along with the boss just fine.
            The agent-publisher route would make sense if I thought I had a book that could be a huge bestseller and possibly a movie. But my mysteries are in the classic tradition. There are enough potential readers to make them decently profitable, but top of the New York Times bestseller list strikes me as an unsustainable fantasy.
            So for now I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. And if I were a mid-list author with an agent and publisher, I’d be thinking about moving into self-publishing anyway. I might as well get rid of them before they decide to get rid of me.