A Lot Has Changed, But Reading Remains

by James Scott Bell

The other day I woke up and felt like I was in Groundhog Day. Truly. When I tweeted about it, someone replied I should add I Am Legend and Swiss Family Robinson to the mix. That was brilliant. The streets of my city—Los Angeles—do look like the zombie apocalypse. And our homes are like tree houses in this urban archipelago.

And it’s like that every dang day.

Maybe you’re feeling something similar, wondering what to do next within the confines of your domicile.

Or what to read next. If that’s the case, I’ve got your back.

First off, ebooks are suddenly the coin of the realm for readers. With bookstores shuttered, print purchases have slowed considerably. I’ve also heard that audiobooks, once the growth slice of the publishing pie, have stalled. Why? Because no one is commuting to work!

So for homebound readers hungry for entertainment and escape, the ebook is fast and reasonably priced. As a recent BookBub post put it:

This is a turbulent time for the publishing industry. Many bookstores, publishers, and authors are facing significant challenges due to the impact on their print sales from store closures. However, one thing that seems clear is that people are still seeking out your books to help them learn, escape, find solace, and cope at this time. 

In that regard, I give you some new pulp fiction of my own — LAST CALL:


For call girl Keely Delmonico, having a client die was a new one. Now she has to avoid the cops and all their nasty questions. She manages to get out of the fancy hotel free and clear. But lurking in the shadows is another danger, a deadly one—a killer who is determined to make Keely’s next step her last call.


What possessed me to write a book from (mostly) the point of view of a call girl?

The challenge! Writers need to stretch if they’re going to stay on top of their game. As Kris so eloquently explained in her post on Tuesday, sometimes you just have to take a risk, knowing that at the very least the resulting book will:

  • Help you grow as a writer.
  • Make you stronger.
  • Help you find your way to your next story.

This book actually started some time ago when I sat down before a blank screen and asked myself what sort of book would I probably never write? A book about a call girl came immediately to mind. So what did I do? I wrote a first chapter. And liked it. I liked the character that was forming in my mind. Naturally I had to add a killer. From there I plotted and planned, and eventually wrote the thing.

Now, some of my loyal readers may be wondering if a) I’m off my rocker; and b) if the book has, um, well, racy parts.

As to a), I’m a writer. Of course I’m off my rocker.

And b), heck no. The content of the book is what would have been acceptable in a 1960s episode of Mannix or Mod Squad or Hawaii Five-O. The action takes place in L.A. and Las Vegas. Pre-pandemic. But I felt I had to handle that issue in the book. How did I do it? With a couple of Easter eggs I will not reveal here.

What a rat!

I know, but I want you to have the book as pure, lockdown reading pleasure. That’s why I’ve priced it at the lowest end of the Amazon scale—99¢—and will keep it there for the next few weeks. You can order in here.

So here we are, friends, deep into the shutdown. Lots of things have changed, but reading remains. I wonder, though, have you noticed any changes in your reading habits and/or preferences over the last six weeks? Do you think they will carry over when we get, finally, to the “new normal”?

49 thoughts on “A Lot Has Changed, But Reading Remains

  1. I ordered LAST CALL at 3:45 this morning. Thank you!
    I have been reading books online for a few years because we camp and spend weeks on the road boondocking. Not enough room to haul physical books along. Since the first stay-at-home ‘suggestion’ I’ve used it as an excuse to read, guilt free, dozens of ebooks. I’ve read across genres, books I would normally not have chosen because of time restraints. It’s been educational and has certainly changed my reading habits, if only for a few months. With warmer weather, yard and garden keep me outside with a never-ending list of chores. My reading is now only at night. Sometimes all night. If I could only put that much effort into writing! Hmmm . . .I believe I have your book about that, too.

  2. What is this?! A 225-page novel by a master of the craft for a buck?!
    Talk about value for money. Best of luck with this one, JSB.

  3. Oooh, sounds right up my alley! I’m reading Kris’ The Killing Song now (it’s amazing, btw, held me hostage for two days already!). Can’t wait to jump into Last Call when I finish. Thanks, Jim!

    To answer your question… When we first went into lockdown I searched for upbeat books, but I realized something about myself. I don’t really enjoy upbeat books. My mind wanders while I wait for someone to get murdered. 😉 I will always be a die-hard thriller and true crime fan, the darker the better. THAT’S my escape. Throw in a serial killer and forget about it. I’m physically unable to resist clicking that buy button, regardless of price.

  4. Only the master could pull off a story about a call girl that’s rated PG-13! I enjoyed the novella on your Patreon and now I’ll enjoy the whole enchilada.

    Thirty years ago at a conference, I met a Christian mystery writer and read her novel about a biker gang. Her book made an impression on me b/c she managed to write 300 pages w/o a single swear word, yet still captured the outlaw tone.

    Thanks, Jim, for being the steady light guiding us through dark times.

    • Thanks, Debbie, for the kind words. When people ask me about the swear word thing, I usually point to Law & Order. They kept it street tough without the words. And when asked about sex scenes, I say the best tension and suggestion were in 1940s film noir.

    • I am currently mentoring a mystery writer, and I’m giving her heck about being prissy on details and events to the point she didn’t even write the scene where the main character finds the first dead body. You must also not step away from the important emotional moments by not writing the scene or by going so cold viewpoint that the scene is almost omniscient. A writer has to decide if a scene is important to the reader and write it honestly even if he/she is uncomfortable writing it.

  5. As a Patreon member, I read the book Friday night, sitting at my computer and finished near midnight. Next Friday I’ll review it on my What I’m Reading Friday blog, and it’ll be a verified purchase review on Amazon. I loved the storyline and the character! I love reading about a strong woman character who can outwit the bad guys!

  6. Thanks for the post, Jim. Just what the doctor prescribed.

    Being in the health field, I have been so inundated with “required” reading, every night keeping up with what the local hospital is requiring, the local health department, the state health department, our governor, the state medical board, the task force, etc., that by bedtime I want escape.

    Normally, my reading is more craft of writing than fiction. But feeling the need for something different, I looked around. I tried Stephen King’s “The Stand.” (I believe Mark had listed some books that were eerily prophetic.) Too depressing. Last night I looked around for something different. I picked up Neil Gaiman’s Star Dust (since I write fantasy) and decided to finish it (previously I had made it to the 3/4 mark). It quickly put me to sleep.

    So, I was excited to read your post this morning, have purchased the book (for a give-away price), and am excited to start reading it tonight.

    My goal for reading when we return to “normal” is 50:50 – craft vs. fiction.

    Thanks for a great prescription.

    • Stephen King twittered that THE STAND and these current events aren’t remotely similar so his readers need to calm down. Snicker.

      With my background as a writing teacher and writing craft blogger, I believe that learning about craft is important, but all the craft books and articles in the world won’t help you if you aren’t writing yourself. Too many new writers use craft books to avoid the writing which is the scary part. Don’t let be you.

  7. I’m building a gate for the side yard–in 80-deg. weather. In the sun. I want sympathy. Or at least an attaboy.

    Just got Last Call and look forward to another great JSB creation. My reading habits haven’t changed, but I finally got my wife to read ebooks–from my old Kindle. She’s on a time-travel binge right now and loving it.

    • Dan, I got my wife a Kindle a few Christmases ago. She’ll use it when we travel, but now that that’s off the table, she has gone back to her print TBR pile.

  8. Well, I’ll add my two cents.

    I also enjoyed the Patreon version and couldn’t resist buying it for .99. What’s that tell ya? And, I also am completely wowed that I’d enjoy a story about a lady of the evening. Tells me there is no segment of any society without value and beyond redemption.

    One benefit of all this “distancing” is that I’m finally feeling retired. I haven’t been called in to the cancer center, where I work on call, since March 6. Getting my retirement legs under me, and have actually worked out a somewhat set schedule at home, which yields 5-6 hours a day writing. Yippee-Skippee…!

    As I’ve said before, my life hasn’t changed that much. My usual routine is cloisterish. However, my reading habits have morphed. I still enjoy espionage/thrillers a la Rosenberg and Follett, and still can’t quite choke down a romance story that is nothing but.

    However, I’ve branched out a bit, to include your Ty Buchanan “Try” series, and Mike Romeo, and Sue’s “Marred”, and Mark’s “Extinction”. Those are waiting in the wings while I finish Rosenberg’s latest, “The Jerusalem Assassin”.

    And then there’s all the craft books, the latest of which is “Layer Your Novel” by C.S. Lakin. When I unload my current WIP back to my editor, I’ll be delving into that one and applying the layering technique to my next WIP. Her process sounds intriguing to this pantser, even though “You pantsers out there: I don’t know how you are still following my blog and reading yet another of my writing craft books (she says, laughing)…” (From her introduction)

    Talk about a slap in the face with a flounder! (Bow to JSB.) But I’m going to read it anyway. Maybe she’ll teach me to outline. NOT!

    To summarize, the shutdown, while not too grueling for me, has helped me to widen my reading horizons. Progress. I’ll be quiet now. (I can hear the man chortling in the living room…)

    • Now is the perfect time to branch out on reading, Deb. You know what a great source is? Gutenberg.org. I’ve been downloading non-fiction, like a history of the Civil War from 1919, and a book of Chesterton essays. It’s a treasure trove of public domain.

  9. I have 234 books on my TBR shelf (shelves & boxes, actually). I spent two evenings last week recording every title with author, page count, genre and copyright date to create a “Carl’s Library Spreadsheet” (I’m a bit obsessive-compulsive sometimes). This lets me see all my options without having to move books around and dig through boxes. During this process, I found several titles that I’d forgotten I had. I’m reading one of those now.
    As far as changes to my reading habits goes, I have been printing off and plowing through a lot of original pulp-fiction (all originals and free to the public – there’s a huge database). I haven’t done this for many years. These stories are perfect for a “quick fix”.
    Speaking of pulp, I just got Last Call. At $0.99 for 235 pages… a no-brainer. Thank you, sir.

  10. Hi, Jim,

    Congratulations on your new release! Snapped up a copy just now.

    I have changed my reading preferences–I’m plowing through mystery novels and have a new virtual to-be-read pile of mystery story collections and anthologies like Block’s massive collection of his short fiction, “Enough Rope,” and several equally massive pulp and classic mystery story collections edited by Otto Penzler. And of course, more novels. My wife and I just plumped for all the Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael historical mystery series on Kindle. We’d both read the first few in print years ago, but hadn’t gone back to them. Now is a perfect time.

    I’ve always enjoyed reading mysteries, alongside fantasy and science fiction, but right now, they appeal to me more than ever. I’ve also been mainlining mystery television, like the delightful 2019 British series, “The Queens of Mystery,” and the relatively recent Agatha Christie Marple, as well as catching up on CBS’s “Elementary.”

    I reading much more mystery and suspense will carry over for me, when we reach the far side of this. Right now, it’s certainly providing a welcome diversion.

    • Good choices, Dale. I have the hardcover of Enough Rope. Great stuff from the grand master. Also, several of the Otto Penzler collections.

      Great minds read alike, eh?

  11. A new JSB novel for 99 cents? A bright way to start our umpteenth day in lockdown!

    My reading habits are roughly the same, but the volume is on steroids. Since I write mysteries, I read them, and I’ve found some delights lately, including “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore” and “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.” I also read books for the book club I belong to — which isn’t meeting, but still reading. “The Girl with 7 Names” and “Year of Wonders” were two recents. Although I’m reading more, my TBR pile seems to be growing. How does that work?

    I would read a grocery list on the back of a napkin if JSB wrote it. I’m looking forward to diving into “Last Call.”

  12. One of my publishers uses Smashwords to distribute ebooks outside of the Kindle system so I received an email from Mark Coker, the founder, where he shared sales numbers. In an averaged comparison between January/February and March, the Smashwords store’s sales are up 42% and Overdrive which supplies libraries is up a whopping 64%. B&N is just a bare blip upward, and, oddly, the Apple store is down 16%. So, yeah.

    On the sites I hang out at, people are asking about ebooks, and I’m busy educating them and telling them of sites to find legal free books outside of the Kindle system. If they are like me, I imagine some of them will go totally ebooks after this. (Ask me about the great stinkbug disaster!)

  13. Thank you for adding to my quarantine reading choices. I just purchased your new book.

    My TBR pile was down to several non-fiction books I’d put aside to read later. Well, it’s later, and they’re not appealing to me at all. So I charged up my Kindle and settled in for a reading binge. There was a week of crime fiction, then one where I went through seven or eight paranormal urban fantasy novels. Then my monthly hardcopy romantic suspense and mystery subscriptions arrived and I’m powering through them. Once I finish those I’ll follow the will-o’-the-wisp that beckons me to explore many genres.

    Happy reading to you, James, and to you and all the TKZ contributors and readers–stay healthy.

  14. I’ve shifted a bit to streaming movies. But, keeping writing craft in mind, I’m usually on the lookout for plot points.

    Watching a recent one, I stopped the movie on my tablet and turned to my wife. “That’s Plot Point #1 (Doorway of No Return #1).” Then I checked the timeline: 30:02 into a 2-hour movie. A little late per JSB’s 20% but right on the nose for 25%. The others all lined up, too.

    Congrats on the new book!

    • That’s perfect, Harald! Just a reminder, when I lecture about structure and talk about the movies (25%), I tell them I think that’s too late for a NOVEL. So <20% for a book.

      Glad you're keeping tabs! I annoy my wife with that stuff all the time.

  15. Of course, I had to buy Last Call. I have to compare it to all of your nonfiction books and see how well you follow your own advice. Learning never stops.

    Plus, your titles, with their double entendre, are always so inviting.

    I am buying more ebooks because of the sanitary thing. But contrary to the polls, I have just gotten in to Audio Books because my eyes are so tired from all of the reading. It’s dry here in Scottsdale, and reading paper, in particular, now comes with a burning sensation.

    • Nancy, good point about eyestrain an audio. I have an app that reads pdfs of old pulp mags, and amazingly has an audio function. It’s a bit robotic, but what the hey? It’s free.

  16. Nice bit of marketing, Jim…Something to learn from in that alone, for authors everywhere.
    I ordered it, looking forward to reading. Thanks!

  17. Just clicked on the “buy now” link, Jim! Looking forward to another great read.

    I’m currently finishing Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers (a pandemic novel in the current climate makes for an overactive imagination and some deep introspection). It’s a tome; it’s taken me about 2 months to read it.

    Before our lockdown, I bought 3 books, all three of them are the first in a series (what a terrible idea!). Can pretty much guarantee that once the bookstores are open, I’ll be in buying the second books. Then, there’s the 5 books I just bought off Amazon in the last few days, and the other two that are calling my name. Between writing and working (and taking care of a household), reading has fallen down the list of priorities.

    Gutenberg.org has been my go-to for *years* now for all kinds of classic literature and poetry. I love the site, and can’t recommend it enough.

  18. Are you sure not living in the post pandemic San Angeles of Demolition Man? Helmets for sex (no kissing!), a fine dinner at Taco Bell, and don’t forget the three shells for your personal business.

    My reading habits haven’t changed at all. The big change is I’m spending a lot more time in front of the tv catching up with all those movies and shows that I always said I would catch up with when I have the time.

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