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, March 25, 2015

Reviews, Honest and Otherwise

            One of the people I follow on Twitter put up a post recently asking why it’s easier to get people to shell out money to buy your book than it is to get them to review it if they get it free. I feel her pain.
            Probably the great delusion of every self-published author is that once the book is out, a couple dozen friends will quickly post positive reviews on Amazon. Hah! A lot of them won’t even download the book on a free promotion day, and half the friends who actually do buy the book will insist on getting a hard copy from you directly. That means, of course, that Amazon has no record of the sale and won’t let them do a review, even if they wanted to. Which they usually don’t.
            On the plus side, that means the reviews of the book pretty quickly get honest, which means the author has at least a marginally real idea of how his or her work is being received.

4.7 Out of 5 Stars

            My first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, is currently averaging 4.1 out of 5 stars, with the overwhelming percentage of reviewers now being strangers. What mattered most to me about the reviews was that no one gave it fewer than three stars. That said to me that, whatever they might have felt about the book’s strengths and weaknesses, the reviewers at least conceded it a fundamental level of writing competence. That helped me have the confidence to write the second one.
            The second book, Wash Her Guilt Away, came out less than a year ago. Fewer friends reviewed it than reviewed the first, so nearly all the reviews are from strangers. When I put the book up on Amazon, I held my breath. I had tried to build tension and interest at the beginning through character development and atmosphere, rather than action and bloodshed, and had no idea how that would play. When the first three reviews from strangers came in at five stars, I heaved a sigh of relief.
            By the way, the second book is now averaging 4.7 out of five stars. I feel it’s a more fully realized work than the first one, and it’s good to see that, so far at least, readers are agreeing.

Who Writes Reviews, Anyway?

            Even so, it seems to me that my books aren’t getting as many reviews as the sales numbers indicate they should. Part of that might be that the readership probably skews older, and older readers are a bit less self-absorbed and inclined to think the world is waiting for their opinion.
            Which got me to wondering what kind of reviews an undisputed classic gets. So I checked the Constance Garnett translation of Anna Karenina on Amazon and found that it had been reviewed by more than 1,200 people. I wonder why any of them thought, at this point, that anyone would care about what they had to say.
            Another interesting thing was that Anna Karenina averaged 4.1 out of 5 stars in its reviews — same as my first trashy mystery and lower than the second. So much for the idea that the crowd generally gets it right. And you have to feel a bit sorry for poor Tolstoy. His book went up on Amazon after all his friends were dead and couldn’t help him out with a positive review.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Courthouse Pressroom

            Last week I had to pay a visit to the county courthouse to get a certified marriage certificate, in connection with my wife’s retirement. We downloaded the forms ahead of time and filled them out. And I remembered the wedding date without having to look it up.
            I walked into the County Recorder’s office shortly before 11 a.m. and a woman behind the counter came up to one of the windows.
            “How can I help you?” she asked.
            “I need to prove I’m married,” I replied.
            “Are you?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.
            Touche! But hey, if you spend eight hours a day in the County Recorder’s office, you probably have to amuse yourself any way you can.
            That isn’t the story I want to tell today, however. That story has to do with what I saw at the courthouse on my way to and from the Recorder’s office.

Just Like ‘The Front Page’

            In my salad days as a reporter, I spent a lot of time at the county courthouse. It wasn’t my regular beat, but I was often sent over to cover for the reporters we normally had there. They operated out of the pressroom in the basement of the courthouse, much like the one in the Hecht-MacArthur play “The Front Page.” Two daily newspapers, several weeklies, two TV stations and two radio stations worked from that room at one time.
            It was a cramped room filled with 50-year-old desks and even older typewriters. People in the county brought by press releases and notices of press conferences all the time. Judges, prosecutors, politicians, and law enforcement types came down to shoot the breeze on a regular basis. It was a happening place, especially in the early 1970s when we had a rash of sensational mass murders in Santa Cruz County.
            And it isn’t there any more. Hasn’t been for a while. I remembered that as I walked past the former location on the way to the elevators. The number of media outlets has shrunk dramatically, and those that remain aren’t about to have a reporter sitting at the courthouse all day.
            After finishing my business at the Recorder’s office, I walked through the parking lot to my car. Something seemed different, but I couldn’t immediately put my finger on it. Then it dawned on me.

Parking Like Commoners

            Close to the section of the courthouse where the courtrooms are, there used to be about a dozen spaces reserved for press parking. Back in the day, most of them were occupied. Now that space has been turned into two-hour visitor parking, just like the rest of the lot. On the rare occasions a reporter gets to the courthouse any more, I suppose he or she has to park like a commoner.
            If this were but a sign of the decline of conventional media, it might be tolerable. But it also represents the decline of attention to local government by institutions that had the resources and credibility to look into the workings of government and keep its practitioners reasonably honest. The prospect of being shamed by two newspapers with a combined circulation of 40,000 in a county of slightly over 200,000 probably had a more salutary effect on the level of public probity than we’ll ever know.
            Old media had its flaws, and plenty of them, but no other institution monitored the public business the way it did. Its time has come, I suppose, and if something newer and better were coming along to replace it, I wouldn’t feel so bad. The problem, and it’s a big one for a democracy, is that I don’t see anything comparable taking its place.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Rethinking Free Book Promotions

            Last week I was thinking about free promotions on Amazon and whether they work any more. I’ve been using them since I published my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, in July 2012 and have given away more than 4,000 e-books since then.
            All right, I know what you’re thinking. Go ahead and say it. At least we’ve established what my books are worth. Can we move on, now?
            Seriously, anyone who decides to start writing novels, even popular genre novels like I do, has to look at it as a long-haul proposition. Sure, there are people who get a bestseller on their first try, but maybe one author in a hundred thousand catches lightning in a bottle like that. The rest of us are doing well to be making grocery money after five or six books. Rent? You’d better have a day job.

Chasing Readers, Not Dollars

            With my third mystery novel, Not Death, But Love, about to be published on Amazon, I’m still very much in the business of going after readers, not dollars. If I build a reasonably sized, loyal audience for my books, I’ll eventually make some money. And the good thing about self-publishing is that I don’t need to have Stuart Woods or Mary Higgins Clark sales numbers to make a go of it.
            That’s just as well. My books are more Josephine Tey than Mickey Spillane, and they’re aimed at the classic mystery niche. But finding the readers who inhabit that niche takes a lot of time and effort.
            For some time now, I’ve felt that free promotions were part of that effort. When you’re an unknown writer, one way to get people to give you a look is to offer a free sample. If they like it, the reasoning goes, they’ll come back and pay for the next one.
            There’s a lot of slop in that approach. When a book is free, plenty of people will download it and never look at it. So I figure, based on the return rate for direct mail solicitations, I’d have to give away a hundred books to get two readers who will actually read my book.

Diminishing Returns

            In the beginning, I was averaging more than a hundred books a day on free-giveaway days, with a few considerably bigger blockbuster days. Over the past six months, the well has been running dry, and I’ve been wondering if free promotions work any more. I Googled that question and found plenty of other writers who shared my skepticism.
            Monday of this week, with misgivings and low expectations, I did a free promotion for my second novel, Wash Her Guilt Away. Halfway through the day, it looked as if I’d fall short of 100 downloads for the day. Then, between 1 and 4 Pacific time, the book started moving like ice cream in a Georgia July. It finished the day at #12 on the Kindle free crime fiction list, and it was the second best day ever for free downloads of that book.
            So what do I make of this? My guess is that it was an anomaly — that there happened to be a large number of crime and mystery readers who started looking at free books at the same time, and I just rode the wave. But I could be wrong. It’s hard enough being an author, but the hardest thing of all is trying to make sense of your sales numbers. My head is being perpetually scratched.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

From Fact to Fiction

            Last summer, when I began writing the third Quill Gordon mystery, Not Death, But Love, I expected that it would be finished and up on Amazon by the third quarter of this year. Instead, it became available for pre-order this week.
            The book itself will be available May 27, after my editor, Lauren Wilkins, has given it her toughest look and I’ve accommodated her concerns. That will surely improve it considerably in the details, but it will still be essentially the same book it is now in story outline and tone. I feel pretty good about it — better than pretty good, actually — which scares me, because there’s a saying in publishing that an author isn’t necessarily the best judge of his own work.
            Nevertheless, I’m going to trust my instincts until proved wrong. I think the plot and characters are more complex, and, if I do say so myself, I feel I came up with a pretty good confrontation-with-the-killer scene at the end. Let’s see if the readers agree.

One Thing Leads to Another

            This wasn’t originally going to be the third book in the series, but things happened. In 2012 I was hired by a family foundation to write the family’s history. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, because it paid generously and the work was fascinating. By the end of it, I felt the long-deceased family members had come alive inside my head and that I was able to convey a reasonably good sense of them to the readers.
            In the course of that work, I came across several things that were a surprise to the people who hired me. There were no terrible scandals, but there were lawsuits and family schisms they hadn’t known about until I started digging. At the time, I was simultaneously working on my second mystery, Wash Her Guilt Away, and at some point it occurred to me that a family history with a deep secret — one worth killing to keep — could make the basis for a good mystery.
            One of my plans for a future book had been a story centering on a controversial land-use plan, something that would make use of the knowledge I picked up working as a consultant for Wells Fargo Bank and The Home Depot more than a decade ago. I decided to combine ideas to make the land development part of the family history, and was off to the races.

In the Character’s Own Voice

            When I was working on the family history, I often lamented that none of the family members had kept journals (at least none that had survived). I decided to give my murder victim, a retired English teacher named Charlotte London, a journal. It was originally supposed to provide a set of clues to complement those in the family history, but it ended up being much more than that.
            Simply put, in the course of creating the journal sections, I discovered that Charlotte had come to life most vividly, and, surprisingly to me, became one of the most dominant and complex characters in the book. Not to be gooey, but I got to be rather fond of her, and I’m hoping the book’s readers will, too.
            The history aspect carried through the rest of the book as well. I found myself wondering about, and inventing, histories of various elements of the book. These included the lake, the Italian restaurant where the characters ate dinner, the Rotary Club, where community and political alliances were cemented, and the town where the story was set. Such details, I feel, are what add richness to a book. They can often be what a reader remembers long after he or she has forgotten whodunit.