Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Three years ago, full of hope and inflated expectations, I put my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, up for sale on Amazon. Good as it was, I thought it might sell 10,000 copies the first month.
It sold 11 copies, and I personally knew 9 of the people who bought it.
That was hardly an auspicious beginning, but the more I learn about self-publishing, the more I have come to realize it was par for the course. The old rule of thumb used to be that the average self-published book sells 150 copies. There’s a reason for that.
Sociologists figure that between work, church, clubs, neighbors, and old friends, the typical American knows about 150 people reasonably well. If you write a book (and who doesn’t these days?) you can figure half your circle of people will buy it, and a similar number of outliers will stumble across it somewhere as well. And perhaps Amazon has pushed the number of outliers up a bit.
Reason to Keep Going
Despite the slow start for my book, I started getting positive feedback from people who didn’t have to say anything, and the book gradually began getting positive reviews from strangers. Encouraged by the response, and experiencing a serious case of Writer’s Ego, I decided to write a second mystery in the series.
Wash Her Guilt Away was published at the end of April 2014. At the time of its release, I expected it would boost sales of The McHenry Inheritance by a bit. After all, I reasoned, people who never saw the first book might read and like the second, then go back to the first. In a good month, I figured, The McHenry Inheritance might sell half as many copies as Wash Her Guilt Away.
Wrong again. In September, the fourth month the second book was out, The McHenry Inheritance outsold it. And it continued to outsell Wash Her Guilt Away over eight of the next nine months. Furthermore, from the scant information Amazon provides its authors, it appeared that a fair number of people were buying the two books together.
What’s Happening Here?
At the end of May of this year, I published the third mystery novel in the series, Not Death, But Love. June was the first full month it was available. And The McHenry Inheritance had more paid downloads (e-book sales and borrows) that month than the new book did.
I must confess I’m at a loss to explain why the three-year old book is steadily outselling the newer releases. Is it because the cover is more of an attention-getter? Is it because it has more reviews on file than the other two books, having been out longer? Is it because it’s the first book in the series and people want to start at the beginning? Or is it some combination of those factors plus something else I haven’t thought of?
Whatever it is, the book is showing legs that I never imagined it would have, and the wise author takes any sale he can get. Last week, on the third anniversary of its publication, The McHenry Inheritance got two new reviews from strangers (five and four stars) and sold its first copy in Spain. Spain! If this be magic of some sort, I’m going to get out of the way and let it happen. The wise author also has to suspect that the readers might be right.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Last week we got back from a 10-day trip to Washington and Oregon. We drove up Interstate 5 to Seattle in two days, spent a long weekend visiting my sister, who lives in the University district, then took the long way back. That involved cutting over to the ocean and taking U.S. 101 down the Oregon coastline and through California redwood country before getting home.
The most interesting thing about the drive down 101 occurred when we left it for a bit and went inland. Isn’t that how it always happens — the detour becomes the highlight of the trip.
And it all started with a really simple concept. We decided we didn’t want to stop at a Starbuck’s or other espresso joint for a latte and pre-fab pastry. Instead, we decided to seek out an old-school bakery or café that served fresh homemade pie and coffee — preferably the kind sitting in clear, institutional pots on warming burners.
You Could Always Ask
Pie patrol began Tuesday afternoon, and for a while there, it didn’t look promising. We stopped at several places along the 101, but none had pie. Finally, though, a waitress at one recommended the Otis Café, at a small town just down the road and slightly off the highway.
It was good, and we’d go back in a heartbeat, but it just whetted our appetite for more. So the next afternoon we were driving south of Coos Bay, looking for pie again. Figuring that going inland had worked once, I suggested we try the town of Coquille, 11 miles east of the main road.
It was set in a rich and picturesque valley along the river of the same name, and I’m guessing most of its few thousand occupants earned a living related somehow to farming or logging. Just outside the town proper, we stopped at a fruit stand and bought a jar of locally made raspberry preserves and a larger jar of local blackberry honey.
Then it was back to town in quest of pie. We drove around the streets while Linda searched to no avail on Yelp, and finally stopped in front of the Chamber of Commerce office, which was open. Linda went in and asked about a pie place, which is what we used to do all the time before the advent of smart phones.
Of Course There’s Pie
After a bit of misunderstanding, we hit pay dirt. When Linda said she was looking for coffee and a piece of pie, the woman at the chamber heard pizza pie instead and referred her to a place with a name like Luigi’s.
Fortunately the error was self-evident and we end up being sent to Frazier’s Café and Bakery, which had a formidable array of pies in a clean, well-lit establishment with décor from around the 1950s. We each ordered a slice, with a cup of coffee, and each of us got the first piece cut from a fresh pie.
Linda had a plain cherry pie, and I had the razzle-dazzle: a combination of blackberry, blueberry, cherry, strawberry and raspberry. It was without a doubt one of the finest pieces of pie I’ve ever eaten. The waitress, a young local woman, told me that the bakery has a customer in California who periodically orders a razzle-dazzle pie shipped to her overnight. I’m surprised there’s only one such customer.
We ate slowly, savoring it all, and when we were done, the check arrived. It was $8 for two slices of pie and two cups of coffee — about what one slice of pie would cost where we live — if you could get it. The décor wasn’t the only thing old-school about Frazier’s.
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
As I’m writing this on Fourth of July morning, one of the major holiday parades in our area is going on in Aptos Village, just a half-mile away. Thousands of people are lining the street to watch. I’m not one of them.
There’s an old saying that everybody loves a parade, but it isn’t true. I must have somehow gotten shortchanged on the parade-appreciation gene because this is one activity I’ve never much cared for. I rarely go to one any more, and when I do, my reaction when it’s over is what I call the Peggy Lee response: Is that all there is?
Between Fourth of July and Gay Pride, there have been a lot of parades around the country lately, and they’ve been well-attended, festive events. I suppose people are getting something out of them, but whatever it is, I don’t see it.
The Granddaddy of Them All
I grew up in Southern California, in two towns very close to Pasadena, where the Rose Parade is held every New Year’s day. It’s nationally televised, but when I was very young, we didn’t have a TV, and I pestered my parents to take me.
So when I was about 7 or 8, they bought tickets at a grandstand set up on Colorado Boulevard, near Vroman’s Bookstore, and we went to see the parade. After about 20 minutes, I was done.
It was boring. The first couple of floats you saw were kind of interesting, but after that it was just one more moving floral display after another. They all looked alike, and nothing was happening on them — just people sitting on the flowers, waving like robots at the crowd. About the only interesting entry was some past-his-prime movie cowboy doing rope tricks as he rode down the street. Then it was flowers and more flowers. Bring on the football game, please!
Seen One, Seen ‘Em All
And that was supposed to be one of the greatest parades in the world. I’ve seen other parades in other places since, and there’s not one I recall with any particular fondness. So these days, Fourth of July parade time is pretty much a good time to stay home and do the laundry and clean up my computer desktop.
It’s funny, because people come from all over the county, and even outside it to see our Aptos Parade. It’s billed as the Shortest Parade in the World, which may have been arguably true when it first started half a century ago. But anyone who wants to can be in it, and that includes a growing number of businesses that are using it for self-promotion. So it has grown exponentially and no longer has even the virtue of brevity.
Maybe if we ever have grandchildren, I’ll be able to go to this parade with them, see it through their eyes, and be able to appreciate it more. Maybe. But left to myself, I have more exciting things to do than go to a parade today. In fact, I think it’s time to move the clothes from the washer to the dryer.
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Coming up with a great idea for a book isn’t all that hard. Lots of people — maybe even most people — do it at some point in their lives. Great ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s the ability to execute that matters.
The problem is that a great idea is like a good seed. Planted and properly cultivated it can grow to majestic proportions, but it can also die underground without putting up the most meager of sprouts.
Viewed in that light, the great idea is properly understood as but the beginning of a long-term project. What goes into turning a great idea into a compelling book is something like what goes into turning a piece of cotton into a sweater, only harder. Much harder. Anybody can have a great idea, but very few can develop credible characters, write good dialogue, pace a story effectively for 300 pages, or create a sense of atmosphere with the written word. There’s a name for those who can. We call them authors.
It’s The Middle That Kills You
As one who writes mystery novels, I’m here to tell you I have more good ideas than I know what to do with. Typically, the great idea begins with a concept, followed, in most cases, with a beginning and ending for a book using that idea. Most of the time, that’s where the matter ends.
Some author, I don’t remember who, once said that anyone can come up with a good beginning and ending for a book, but it’s doing the middle of it that kills you. That’s where the grunt work of keeping a story going and working out its details is hardest but most essential. And my experience has been that the more prepared you are going into it, the easier it goes and the more likely it is to turn out well.
I marvel at the people who are turning out a book every couple of months now, to feed the ever more voracious maw of Amazon. A book a year is the best I can do, and half that time is spent developing a detailed outline that arranges the details of the story. To me, that’s more demanding than actually writing it once I know where the story is going and how it’s going to get there.
Edison Had It Right
The great inventor Thomas Edison once said that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Even for a non-genius like me, writing a book is exactly like that. Getting the details of plot, character and language right — in other words, the things that make a good book — is where the rubber meets the road.
A good idea or concept can get a book noticed or published, but such a book can only go so far if the rest of it isn’t up to snuff. The graveyard of unpublished and non-starting self-published books is littered with skeletons. They are all that remains of good ideas that were insufficiently fleshed out.