Casting For New Readers Is A Rough Job, But It’s Just Fishing, More Or Less.

By John Ramsey Miller

With five authors (and guests) blogging on this site, there is going to be some overlapping since we are all thinking about similar things; our creative process, problems and the obstacles writers face on a daily basis including expanding our reader base. I’ve been thinking about the most important question after who is going to publish my book––how will I connect with my readers and what can I do to add more? How do I get a chance to sell my story to readers? How do I get through and make an impression they will act on?

Mind pictures help me, so I might imagine readers as fish swimming in a vast ocean. Each species of fish are fans of a genre, and they often swim through many schools of other fish of differing specie, eating what they are eating and then moving on to feed with various other sorts of fish. Food in the ocean is plentiful, and for the fish it becomes a question of which food they decide to open their mouths to take in. Imagine authors as a navy of fisher people, each in boats, trying to catch as many fish as possible. Each fisherman has to put their bait in front of constantly moving, well-fed fish who can eat whatever and as much as they like. Our dilemma is that the fish don’t need our bait, so we have to use some other way to entice them to try our bait, which frankly to the fish looks to be pretty much like the familiar bait they usually eat, and keep returning to. I love fish stories.

Given that there are tens of thousands of new stories to choose from, and readers are barraged with choices and they can only select so many, and the challenge is capturing their attention. I learned in advertising that it takes (I’ll say nine) impressions for a potential customer to act on an advertisement. This is more complex since most of us pass about a hundred thousand messages daily, and our brain (which sees them all) simply blocks out the ones that do not pertain to our needs or wants as a form of protection and I suppose to keep our brains from filling up (think computer ram). So if I am open to new tires, brain will tell me when it sees something related to the tires I’ve decided I want. If I like Good Time Tires, when I read the newspaper or watch TV or pass a Good Time Tires sign, my brain will shout, “Look, they have your tires right there! DO something!” And then I may buy, or I might just be nearing the time I have to make a decision, and my brain says, “Oh, they sell your tires. We’ll have to remember that.” Now at some point my brain will know that it is time and I’ll act and actually call someone who sells my tires, or pull into a dealer with the sign over the building. So, it’s the same with reading material. If I admire President Jimmy Carter, when I see a book by him or about him I might be more open to buying a book on him, and not one about Hoover, McKinley, or my favorite president, Jefferson Davis.

So, if you read the whole fish thing, it is a matter of finding our readers by capturing their attention, and at the present time everybody is thinking about a lot of things besides what to read. Our products are medicine for the mind and offer the client a way to escape their own problems and fears by getting involved and invested in someone else’s life or death dilemma, and best of all someone who doesn’t actually exist. And in most cases they get to see an underdog face impossible odds and actually come out on top, which gives them hope.

So how do we get to potential fans and convince them that our story is preferable to that of someone they know already, or several someones who have pleased them? How many of us have heard a reader say, “I loved Art Goobertug’s first book, but I haven’t enjoyed any of the last six he wrote.” After you close your mouth, you might well ask, “Why do you continue to buy books you don’t like. There are thousands of choices of authors who write good books, and maybe authors who write better books every time they write another.” These loyalists may say any number of things, and I have heard most of them, but it boils down to the experience they had the first time they read them, and they sincerely want to recreate that (might I use the word) experience again. I think it boils down to this––they bonded with that author, and, although they have been disappointed by the subsequent offerings, they haven’t given up on that author, and they hate to face searching the stacks for another author to enter into a relationship with.

Why are some authors more successful than others? Some few authors will become a James Patterson and others will remain Fred Futzwiggin. What’s the difference? You tell me. If you can, you’ll be rich… As best I can tell it’s a matter of bonding with readers and you can’t explain that.

The question I want to ask is, do you as a writer know how to form a mutually beneficial relationship with readers––and more importantly and firstly a way to get them to open your book for the first time and let your story into their minds? Can you do what Patricia Cornwell, Harlan Coben, John Grisham, and other successful authors have done and continue to do? The answer is, perhaps. Well, you have their kind of talent, but can’t seem to connect with large numbers of potential readers on a meaningful level, and then, as they do, figure out new and innovative ways to get your work out of the stacks and piles, and into hands. The worst part is even though successful authors will often share their secrets, but the formula is always shifting.

We all have to keep trying new things and methods to better our chances in an ever-changing world, and we have to do that ourselves because the plain truth is, nobody else will. Any secrets to share?

The Project That No One Wanted

By John Gilstrap

When I first met Kurt Muse about eight years ago, and he told me the story of his clandestine efforts to topple Manuel Noriega, and of his subsequent arrest and escape at the hands of Delta Force, I confess that I didn’t believe him. The story was too spectacular—too big—not to have been written about already. But it all checked out.

After Kurt and his wife, Annie, met with my wife, Joy, and me at the always-wonderful Café Renaissance in Vienna, Virginia, we shook hands and a pact was made. Together, we would write a book about courage and patriotism; about success over outrageous odds. It would be a story of public servants who truly serve the public, about people who risk everything for strangers with no expectations of recognition or thanks.

No one would touch it.

First, we were told, the Central American setting is the death knell for any book. Americans don’t care about the other Americas. One editor declared that he’d be delighted to buy it if we’d be willing to re-set it in Eastern Europe. It’s non-fiction, I told him. But books set in Eastern Europe sell, he replied.

The advice from everyone in the proposal stage was for me to forget the project and move on to something else.

I refused. It was a good story—it was an important story—and on the heels of 9-11, I thought it was the kind of story that people craved. At every turn, I was told I was wrong. Everybody loses in war, and no one believes in that patriotic stuff anymore. But it really happened, I’d say. What’s not to believe?

Rejection after rejection kept piling up until one day it occurred to me that Steve Zacharias over at Kensington Publishing is not only a fan of my work, but the kind of guy to whom a story like this may well resonate. Bingo. We had a publisher, albeit one with still relatively low expectations.

Finally, five years after the saga to publish this story had begun, Six Minutes to Freedom arrived in bookstores, and it outstripped everyone’s expectations. It went into a second printing, and then a third. Meanwhile, all the non-patriotic, we’re-the-bad-guy movies of the past few years all tanked at the box office. When Kurt signed books, military people and firefighters and police officers—the kinds of public servants who might not understand what sells, but do understand what it means to put their lives on the line for the benefit of others—stood in long lines for his signature.

When we visited Delta Force headquarters on Fort Bragg, members of the Unit bought books five and six and ten copies at a time. They wanted their friends and families to know that they were not the caricatures painted by embittered Hollywood directors, but rather peace-loving men and women whose job requires violence. I lost track of the number of times I heard people tell Kurt about how they had studied his exploits in various military training classes.

And the presses kept printing books. On November 6—the day after we elected President Obama into office—Six Minutes to Freedom was listed on as the number one book on political activism. I have no idea why, and it has since dropped away, but that’s still kinda cool when it happens two and a half years after it was first released.

Now I’m pleased to report that we have optioned the movie rights for SixMin to an independent producer who seems to really get it. He’s committed to telling the kind of story that honors its subjects. And best of all, I’m attached as the screenwriter.

So at least for the first draft, the screenplay will stay true to these remarkable people.

Really, truly, sometimes the good guys do win.

It’s a Vision Thing

I stumbled across a few interesting articles this week, one in Time Magazine that asked, “What’s the Matter with Publishing?” and another on Shelf Awareness that offered a glimpse of Harper Collins Studio, a new division of the parent company. They serve as interesting counterparts to each other.books

Starting with the Time Magazine piece, I was surprised to learn that literary reading by adults has actually increased 3.5% since 2002, the first such jump in almost a quarter century. So, they postulate, the audience isn’t the problem. The trouble lies in the antiquated business model publishers have been following, which dates back to the Depression. Something like 40% of the books printed today are eventually pulped, which is not only environmentally criminal, but horribly costly for both publishers and stores. And an author who doesn’t sell through a certain percentage of their print run, in the age of computerized ordering systems, either must change their name or hope their publisher offers them another chance. And sadly, the latter doesn’t happen often. Bottom line is this is a business, dictated by numbers. No matter that the publisher printed far more copies of the book than you (or they) could hope to sell, especially if they didn’t back up that print run with marketing, which is generally the case. Authors have no say in how many copies of their book will be printed, making it a frequent topic of hushed conversations at conferences. Did you hear that John Doe had over 100,000 printed and barely sold 10,000? Or that Jane’s publisher printed so few copies she couldn’t get in any of the big box stores?

Actual print runs are a closely guarded secret, I haven’t encountered many authors willing to reveal their numbers. But we all live and die by those percentages. If you sell 5,000 copies of your debut, and your print run was 10,000, you’re in pretty good shape. Conversely, if your print run was 100,000, and you sold 20,000, good luck getting that next contract. It’s madness.

Which is what makes the Harper Studio model so intriguing. No more returns. And no big bidding: they cap their advances at $100,000 (although most Kindleauthors will probably get far less up front). What they do offer is more “creative” marketing assistance and higher royalty percentages (a 50/50 split-wow). And my favorite part: they’ve got a plan to encourage buyers to purchase ebook and audio formats of the same book for only a few extra dollars. Wherein lies the genius, in my opinion. Finally, a publisher that sees opportunity in the ebook format, and not just a threat. I love my Kindle, but it’s hardly ideal for the beach or baths. So how perfect would it be if I could start reading a book on my Kindle while waiting for a train, then continue reading at home in the tub that night, then listen to the conclusion in my car the next day? All for around what I would have paid for the hardcover version alone.

It’s an intriguing idea. I’m curious to see how it turns out. So far Harper Studio is apparently focusing on nonfiction, but if the model works, who knows? Maybe they’ll expand to fiction titles. Maybe more publishers will stick their toes in the water. In truth, anything would be better than how it is now, at least from the author’s point of view. In my experience you’re left with very little input into the production process and even less assistance on the sales and marketing end. It’s sort of the business equivalent of tossing a bird from the nest to see if they’ll fly, and sadly most authors end up plummeting to earth, their dream over before it even really began. And that is truly a shame. So I’m all for trying something new, adapting to the changing world and making sure that people continue to love and read stories. Because in the end, isn’t that what matters?

A word about John Updike. And what makes a good book?

By Joe Moore

updike1 John Updike (1932 – 2009)  The writing community lost another great one on Tuesday. John Updike was the author of over 50 novels and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, Updike was best known for his "Rabbit" novels. Mr. Updike had a rich, poetic writing style that captured the hearts of millions. He will be missed.


On a recent writer’s forum, someone asked the basic question: “what makes a good book?” Or, better yet, why is it that some books are hard to put down while others are easier to put down than a bucket of toxic waste?

From a technical standpoint, we could analyze the grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, command of the language, and a dozen other things we studied in school. (Which begs the question: why aren’t all English professors bestselling authors? But that’s something for another blog post.)

We could also discuss the book’s premise, theme, plot, voice, style, pacing, point of view, accuracy, and all those issues that were topics at the last writers’ conference workshop.

But my answer to what makes a good book is simple: soul. By that, I mean the soul of the writer. The more a writer involves or reveals his or her soul in the writing, the more the reader can and will relate to the story. Since soul is what separates us from the chimps and fish, it’s the element of a story for which we can all connect.

love1 So how do you put soul in your writing? First, I believe you must write about something you love; chose a subject you care deeply about. If you find a topic you care about, it will become obvious and others will care as well. It’s impossible to hide your love for your story. It’s the caring and love of your story, not the plot or theme or point of view that will be the most compelling and seductive element of a good book.

It’s worth repeating: it’s impossible to hide your love for your story.

Now don’t be confused with some authors’ love of their own words. That will sink you faster than yesterday’s NYSE. No one likes being talked down to or an author who is so into himself that he gets in the way of the story from ever becoming real. No, the soul of a story—your soul—must come through. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a cozy murder mystery with cute cats on the cover or a gritty Noir with dead cats on the cover, it must contain generous portions of your soul, your love of what you do and how you do it. Without it, as Truman Capote once said, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

Put your soul into your writing. Love your story. The result is the answer to what makes a good book.

Survivor II: Writer’s Island

By Kathryn Lilley

I love being ahead of the curve.

Last week I blogged about the fact that we authors need to make our own book videos to stay alive in the new-millenium publishing paradigm.

Well today, our friend Neil Plakcy
alerted us to the fact that the New York Times ran an article about the same subject…yesterday.

Yes folks, some authors are paying big bucks to have a Book Trailer(R) made. But meanwhile there’s something else happening over at YouTube that is much more interesting. Authors are making multiple-channel videos to communicate with their reading audience. The multi-video concept is simple. It’s not a question of, “Make one video, sell many books.” It’s make many videos. To sell to one audience.

See the difference?

You see, in the YouTube world, videos are the equivalent of the author’s writing blog. Over here at The Kill Zone, we post a blog made of words. Over at YouTube, millions of people are posting videos about their lives. And they watch other video “blogs”, and they’re looking for fresh content every day.

That’s what we writers do. We provide content.

We simply have to learn how to master the unfamiliar visual platform to communicate with our readers.

Some of the most successful authors are already doing it. Hop over to YouTube and search on Dean Koontz or Meg Cabot, and a gazillion videos will pop up. And they’re certainly not all formal book videos. They’re interviews, goofy riffs, appearances, and what-have-you’s. They’re the author’s dialogues with his or her readers.

The question is, I know–does all that video-traffic sell books? Can’t say. I know in my case, I’ve posted my own (home-made, very humble) book video, and I’m running some meta-data reports on YouTube “impressions” and “click-through” data, trying to find the answer to that question. If I find out, I’ll let you know. And as soon as the second draft for my next book is turned in on 2/15, I’m going to start making lots more videos and posting them. I’ll be thinking of videos as a logical extension of blogging. And because I can barely hold the camera steady, you can be sure that my videos will be very goofy.

Once I started thinking of book videos as blogs instead of formal book trailers, it all began to make sense. And YouTube is totally set up for video blogs. You even get your own “Channel.”

And here’s the bottom line: The big-buck authors are already over there, making video-merry. You should check it out.

And a question for you: Do you YouTube?

Top 5 Best “Sex” In Literature

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As promised last week, today I reveal my top 5 sex scenes (well books really) in literature. I’ve been fantasizing a lot about sex recently. It’s about time that I ring up one of the Slixa girls for a night of good fun. I realized, however, as I was compiling the list that that there’s only a couple of mysteries on there – what can I say, I obviously haven’t read widely enough! I leave it to you to guide me to some of the more juicy sex ridden mysteries to round out my ‘education’ with your comments. Oh and I also couldn’t resist having a photograph of Sean Bean – even though Lady Chatterley’s Lover isn’t on my list – what’s sex and literature without Sean Bean thrown in for good measure?!

Number 1; The White Hotel by DM Thomas. If anyone has read this book you will know just how surreal, macabre, disturbing and sexual the whole book is – but the scene in the hotel stairwell…well you just have to read it… Be warned. This WILL turn you on. Don’t fret though as you can always check out some piper perri videos after reading in order to finish the job.

Number 2: As Francesa by Martha Baer…I bought this at an airport bookshop and had no idea…One of the few times I’ve been sitting on a plane thinking (and going bright red as I did so) “I hope nobody is reading this over my shoulder…” There is one moment (and I won’t give away what it is) when I thought – good grief – online sex doesn’t get much weirder than this! I’d be lying if I said this book didn’t turn me well and truly on. I had little choice but to ring up one of the women at satisfy my desires.
Number 3: Fanny Hill by John Cleland, Lusty, bawdy, nonstop 18th century erotica….banned and reviled, it has little else but sex scenes but hey – not bad if you like bodice ripping! Though it’s a bit sad when you just know a man has written this…yes, the fantasy is that obvious.

Number 4: The Rainbow by DH Lawrence. No, not Lady Chatterley’s lover (I find the dialect too distracting!). The scene in the lake with her female teacher….not bad…And let’s face it no one does ‘meaningful’ all consuming sex quite like DH Lawrence! It was tough deciding just which book of his to pick .
Number 5: Busman’s Honeymoon – not that there is any actual sex scene but there is a morning after and after adoring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane for so long I was just relieved that they actually got to have (I assume) great sex!

And I have one extra for my list – one book where I would have really liked to have been told all the lurid details – Wuthering Heights – and you just know they had to have done it – Oh to have been a fly on the wall…

That’s it for my very idiosyncratic list. So go ahead, broaden my education and tell me your top sexiest books in literature or at least the top sex scene in a mystery – I need my reading horizon’s ‘broadened’ 🙂

“I hate scrabble”: Q & A with Hallie Ephron

Hallie-Bricks-smaller Today The Kill Zone is delighted to welcome Hallie Ephron. NEVER TELL A LIE, her first solo thriller, has drawn wide acclaim. It received a PW starred review and was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as, “A book to be gobbled up whole, its pace never slackens.” A renowned writer, book reviewer, and writing teacher, Hallie was kind enough to share how she feels about reviews of her own books, and why she doesn’t play Scrabble.

Q: As a reviewer, how do you feel about reading reviews of your own work?

A: I hate it. Doesn’t everyone? Oh, the good ones are great, but every little jab and jibe goes right to the jugular.

Q: What influence do you feel reviews now have in an online world where everyone can blog/review a book?

A: I think the influence is still very significant. As I watch my Amazon numbers (a bad idea; don’t do it) I see a very significant bump when a good review comes out in the mainstream press. A nice blog review? Not so much.

Q: Along those lines, what’s happening to the book publishing industry, and where does book reviewing/reviewers fit into the picture? Can they help save it?

NeverTellALie_cover-smaller A: Like every other industry, the publishing business is shrinking. I think book reviewers have always, and I hope they will continue to guide readers to worthy books.

Q: NEVER TELL A LIE starts with a seemingly innocent yard sale. What’s the best yard sale purchase you’ve ever made? Ever had a bad experience? (hopefully not as bad as what happens in the book!)

A: BEST: A Stickley 2-door, glass-fronted oak bookcase with hammered copper pulls—the real deal—for $25!

WORST: Well, there was 1920’s bakelite “tombstone” radio I bought at a friend’s yard sale for $20. When I discovered it was worth over a thou, I returned it to her. Moral: Don’t shop at a friend’s yard sale.

Q: Do you believe that there is now gender equality in terms of the reviews and/or coverage mystery books get – particularly thrillers?

A: I’m not sure about equity, but I’d be surprised if differences are measurable. Publishers are very bottom-line oriented—they want to publicize what sells.

Q: Your previous novels were written with a writing partner, Donald Davidoff, under the pseudonym G.H. Ephron. How was it different for you to fly solo this time?

A: The writing was the same because I did the writing for the partnership. But plotting is a bear. Coming up with ideas, working my way out of plot-holes, coming up with credible surprises are so much easier when there’s someone else in the boat rowing. Brainstorming really requires at least two brains.

Q: What are your next plans? Another solo novel, one with your writing partner, or a non-fiction work?

A: I’m finishing “The Bibliophile’s Devotional” – a book for each of 365 days. And I’m in the middle of a solo novel.

Q: Do you think there is any self-published crime fiction out there worth reading?

A: Of course there is. But there’s too much crime fiction being well published by mainstream publishers for there to be time (for me) to look at self-published work.

Q: Why don’t more reviewers come to writers’ conferences or participate in panels?

A: One reason: it’s so darned expensive. And given that, a lot of them do, they just don’t advertise their presence. At the New England Crime Bake, we invite crime fiction book reviewers and ask them to speak or chair panels, and we try to comp their registration – as a result we’ve had quite a few come.

Q: What are the well-regarded review sources, and the ones to watch out for? (Not counting NYT, LAT, Boston Globe)

A: There are the trade publications like Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal that review in advance of publication. They can make a huge difference in terms of pre-orders from bookstores and library sales. Beyond that, there are just a few mainstream newspapers that regularly review crime fiction. You’ve mentioned some. The wonderful Oline Cogdill no longer works full time for the Sun Sentinel, but the silver lining is that her reviews now get picked up by papers nationwide. And then there are a gazillion self-anointed reviewers who write about books on the bookseller web sites, on blogs, on listservs, on FaceBook and other social networking web sites, and on it goes. So many! For an author that’s daunting and hard to know exactly how to crack.

Q: You come from a family of writers. I’m curious: do family Scrabble games get a little too intense?

A: I HATE Scrabble. I know that’s anathema. But I’m married to a lovely man who can beat me and everyone I know or am related to. I long ago gave up playing because, to put it bluntly, I hate to lose.

Q: And along those lines, Kathryn wanted to know: “Does Nora still hate her neck? I’ve been contemplating having a neck lift ever since reading her book.”

A: It’s not something I’ve asked her lately. She does have a movie coming out next summer. It’s based on Julie Powell’s wonderful book “Julie and Julia” – that delightful memoir about cooking all the recipes in Julia Childs’s cookbooks. Meryl Streep plays Julia (can’t wait to hear her do the voice) and Amy Adams plays Julie. Scuttlebutt on the movie: it’s going to be a blockbuster. Nice distraction from a saggy neck.

The Change I Want to See, Mr. President

John Ramsey Miller

I missed the Obama inauguration because I was writing something, and I honestly just forgot it was on. By the time I tuned in I’d missed the swearing in, but I read his address online. Although I had my reservations, I think if he can bring about real change in Washington it will be good, if that change makes life better for Americans it will be very good, and if he can fix the economy, it will be a miracle, but one I approve of. If the economy gets better, maybe they’ll work on the fundamentals to help it stay that way. I’ll be watching as his term progresses, and I’ll be hollering at the TV a lot. I’m a TV talker and it drives my wife crazy. My grandmother talked to the TV, answering any questions the actors asked with personal comments. Once I heard her address James Arness, Matt Dillon, tersely when he asked Miss Kitty a question, “mind your own business! You don’t know me that well.” She wasn’t in control of her faculties, but she had a good time in Lu-Lu Land and it entertained us kids. I tend to be sarcastic and abusive when something on the TV touches a nerve. When Justice Roberts flubbed the oath because he didn’t have crib notes, if I’d been Obama I would have said, “Check the damned script, your honor!” I also suspect that Chief Justice Roberts used the Hussein part of the President’s and messed up the text on purpose because Obama opposed his nomination to be the Court cheese. I think he thought it would make Obama look silly, if he knew the oath and said it correctly. Imagine just one of them had practiced over and over in front of his Blair House mirror the night before.

The publishing and book-selling industry is no doubt getting a lot of business from the spate of Obama books that have shot from the presses like stomped shrimp, but it won’t inspire anybody to start reading other books, the way Harry Potter did. So (in a way) President Obama is helping the economy and he didn’t have to give the publishers billions of dollars of tax money. However, that said, books are one of the few our country actually still produces from raw material to finished product. Well, that and cheese. And books are as necessary as weapons for our armed forces. The sharing of knowledge is paramount to maintaining our country’s greatness, and literacy is a national treasure. The best thing about Obama being elected is that inner city youths can see the value of education and how simple knowledge can get you ahead in life more surely than a trick shot on the basketball court, or throwing or catching a pass accurately under pressure. I hope this spurs an interest in reading, and that everybody benefits from it, which they’d have to. Stupidity is forever, but ignorance is fixable.

I found it astounding that out of two million visitors to Washington on Tuesday, there was not one arrest related to the people attending the inauguration ceremonies. They did make one hell of a mess. The Mall looked like Woodstock after that event. Astounding. Woodstock, in comparison, even given the love-and-peace theme, didn’t even come close since a lot of the music worshipers were arrested, beaten, overdosed on that brown acid and stuff like that. Seriously, I have never seen so many smiles and people who’d, in a lot of cases, given up a lot to get to DC and went to a lot of trouble to be in attendance. I find that amazing, awing, heartwarming and hopeful. If this man can bring so many different kinds of people together in such a joyous manner then there is hope. The President is just a figurehead really. He can do a lot officially like start wars, and earmark stimulus money, and raise hell on TV, but it’s just a shame that he’s going to be working with the same old people who are corrupt and shortsighted and nearsighted and greedy for mo power.

I like to think there is hope and that reading will become popular once more with young people as it was with my generation. People are still reading, buying books, When I was fourteen my mother enlisted me in The Book of the Month Club, and I chose my books and I waited for them to come the way kids wait anxiously for a new video game. If Obama can do just that––just bring back a sense of awe for books by his example, I’ll be in awe of him. That’s the kind of change I’m looking for. Have at it, Mr. President, and best of luck.

Could It Be . . . Good News?

By John Gilstrap

Perhaps the future is not as bleak as we fear it to be.

According to the January 19, 2009, edition of Publishers Weekly, the National Endowment for the Arts reported last week that the population of fiction readers in the United States has increased by 16.6 million since 2002, “creating the largest audience in the history of the NEA survey.” No one knows why, exactly, but there’s general agreement that this is a good thing.

I have to tell you that the news doesn’t surprise me. For years—even during the days of the booming economy—I’ve listened to publishers and frightened authors complaining that no one ever reads anymore; yet when I walk into a B&N or Borders anywhere in the country, the aisles are fairly packed with people, and I have to wait in line before I can check out. Who are these people if not readers?

More recently, we’ve heard about the “collapse” of the publishing industry, with the concomitant panic response of layoffs and such, but then we hear of net sales declines of less than one percent. I understand that negative growth is never good in business, but a gnat’s whisker from break even—on the heels of five years of record growth—is hardly a “collapse.”

Years ago, when I was a junior officer in the fire service, a veteran captain gave me one of the great antidotes to panic: a good old fashioned deep breath. When you roll up on a working fire in the middle of the night, where people may or may not be trapped, and there’s a fleet of additional fire trucks on their way, and you have to make a thousand relatively irreversible decisions in just a few seconds, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The captain’s specific advice was to sit in the cab of the fire truck for five seconds, and allow myself a couple of cleansing breaths before I say anything to anyone. It always worked.

I think the CEOs of the major publishing houses need to take a breath. I think authors need to take a breath, too. There seems to be this snowballing of doom that is augmented by rumors of more doom. This despite the fact that bookstores are still crowded, and more people than ever are reading. More books than ever are being published. Writers make the Times List for the first time every year. The Internet is an unexplored new frontier.

There are a lot of positive things happening. Sure, there are negatives, too, but I choose not to concentrate on those.

For the time being, I get to write books and get paid for it. No, really. Think about it. I get to write books and get paid for it! The publishers and their distribution networks will find their balance, and good times will return; but even when they do, I’m still going to have to work just as hard as I do now. In fact, no matter how good the business becomes in the future, this business of living one’s dream will never be easy.

As writers, we face far greater challenge than any of the suits in the publishing houses: We have to stay relevant.

I think of that great line from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Nowhere is the statement truer than in the entertainment business–our business. The reading public is building everyday. They’re building new tastes in new media. They’re seeking new inspiration, and they’re facing new fears. They’re telling us all as clearly as they know how what they’re looking for.

But will we come? Will we be the ones to satisfy their needs, or will that honor fall to others who spend less time looking behind, and more time thinking like entrepreneurs? They’re the customers, after all. We are merely the supply chain.

Things I’d Rather Forget

by Michelle Gagnon

MIB memory deviceI was at a cocktail party over the weekend, talking to a friend who recently read my last book. “How do you do it?” She shuddered. “Writing about all that stuff. I couldn’t sleep nights.”

I explained that I usually enjoy the research, which inspired a fresh round of shudders. “Ugh. Don’t you wish you didn’t know about it?”

I was about to explain that in fact, writing about the dark side of the human condition can make it seem less scary. But I stopped myself. Because when I really thought about it, I realized there are things I’ve stumbled across in the course of doing research that I would much rather not know about.

The subject of when violence crosses the line into gratuitous territory is a perennial source of debate for mystery groups. I generally don’t participate. While I can’t sit through a slasher film, and rarely read horror, even the most explicit scenes of most thrillers don’t unsettle me. And that’s not entirely due to the fact that I’ve become desensitized (although that’s probably part of it). What always crosses my mind when I read diatribes against that level of violence in books is this: if you only knew. Honestly, I havebundy no idea how homicide investigators sleep at all, considering the things they encounter in the course of doing their job.

When I was writing BONEYARD, I immersed myself in everything I could find on serial killers. And believe me, the reality is so much worse than anything depicted in fiction. I made the mistake once of mentioning a tidbit about Bundy to my husband over dinner. His fork froze over the plate, and he gave me a look I’d never seen before, saying, “Please, don’t ever say anything like that again during dinner. Or ever. I don’t want to know.”

perrino On The Daily Show the night before the Inauguration this week, Bush’s press secretary Dana Perrino appeared in a taped segment during the show’s final moments (and no, I’m not making this up) and donned a pair of sunglasses. Holding up a replica of the memory-erasing device immortalized in Men in Black, she said, “This will just take a minute. Please focus on this spot.” It flashed, and the segment ended.

There are times that I want that device. Terrible stories pop into my head at inopportune moments, flashes of the very worst people are capable of. So maybe my friend was right. There are things I’d rather forget.