Everything I Ever Learned
I Learned From Potboilers

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers.

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” — William Styron

By PJ Parrish
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and like a plant with shallow roots, I was always sending out feelers toward solid ground. I found it in libraries. I couldn’t always count on having the same address every year, the same classroom or even the same friends for very long. But I always could count on finding old faces and familiar places in the local library.

Paradoxically, it was in libraries where my love of exotic places and travel was born. No matter what was going on in my little life, I could escape to somewhere else by opening a book. My library card was my first passport.

Novels took me around the world, but they also taught me things — about history, religion, politics, philosophy, human psychology, medicine, outer space – filling in the gaps left by my spotty education. Even after I went to college, made my own money and settled down, novels remained my autodidact keys.

I learned about the American Revolution through John Jake’s Kent Family Chronicles. I studied medieval Japan through James Clavell’s Shogun. I was able to wrap my brain around the complex politics of Israel and Ireland after reading Leon Uris. James Michener taught me about Hawaii and Edna Ferber took me to Texas. Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series sorted out the Church of England for me. Ayn Rand made me want to be an architect for a while, or maybe a lady reporter who wore good suits. (I skimmed over the political stuff.)

And Arthur Hailey taught me to never buy a car that was made on a Monday.

I got to thinking about Hailey and all the others this week for two reasons: First, was an article I read in the New York Times about the Common Core teaching controversy (more on that later). The second reason was that while pruning my bookshelves, I found an old copy of The Moneychangers. This was one of Hailey’s last books, written after he had become famous for Hotel, Wheels, and that quintessential airport book Airport. I interviewed Hailey in 1975 when he was touring for The Moneychangers. I remember him as sweet and patient with a cub reporter and he signed my book “To Kristy Montee, Memento of a Pleasant Meeting.”

I had read all his other books, especially devouring Wheels, which was set in the auto industry of my Detroit hometown. Hailey, like Michener, Clavell, Uris et al, wrote long, research-dense novels that moved huge, often multi-generation casts of characters across sprawling stages of exotic locales (Yes, Texas qualifies). Hawaii, which spans hundreds of years, starts with this primordial belch:

Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principle features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.

How could you not read on after that? But the main reason I loved these books was for their bright promise of cracking open the door on something secret. Here’s some cover copy from Hailey’s The Moneychangers:

Money. People. Banking. This fast-paced, exciting novel is the “inside” story of all three. As timely as today’s headlines, as revealing as a full-scale investigation.

Shoot, that could be copy written for Joseph Finder now.

Many of these books were sniffed off as potboilers in their day. (Though Michener and Ferber both won Pulitzer Prizes). But the writers were, to a one, known for their meticulous research techniques. Hailey spent a full year researching his subject (he read 27 books about the hotel industry), then six months reviewing his notes and, finally, about 18 months writing the book. Michener lived in each of his locales, read and interviewed voraciously, and collected documents, music, photographs, maps, recipes, and notebooks filled with facts. He would paste pages from the small notebooks, along with clippings, photos and other things he had collected into larger notebooks. Sort of an early version of Scrivener.

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For my money, these books were a potent blend of entertainment and information, and they endure today as solid examples for novelists on how to marry research with storytelling. In his fascinating non-fiction book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall analyzes what commonalities can be found in mega-selling books. One of the criteria is large doses of information that make readers believe they are getting the inside scoop, especially of a “secret” society. The Firm peeks into the boardrooms of Harvard lawyers. The Da Vinci Code draws back the curtain on the Catholic Church. Those and all the books I cited delivered one thing in spades — the feeling we are learning something while being entertained.

Which brings me to Common Core.

This is an educational initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that details what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. I read this week that as part of the Common Core mandate, English teachers must balance each novel they teach with “fact” material –news articles, textbooks, documentaries, maps and such.

So ninth graders reading The Odyssey must also read the G.I. Bill of Rights. Eight graders reading Tom Sawyer also get an op-ed article on teen unemployment. The standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what English students read must be supplemental non-fiction, and by 12th grade, that goes up to 70 percent.

Now, I’m not going to dig into the politics of this. (You can read the Times article here.) And I applaud anything that gets kids reading at all. What concerns me is that in an effort to stuff as much information and facts into kids’ heads, we might not be leaving room for the imagination to roam free. As one mom (whose fifth-grade son came home in tears after having to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), put it, “If you look at the standards and what they say, nowhere in there does it say, ‘kill the love of reading.’”

One more thing, I then I’ll shut up:

There was a study done at Emory University last year that looked at what happens to the brain when you read a novel. At night, volunteers read 30-page segments of Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii then the next morning got MRIs. After 19 days of finishing the novel and morning MRIs, the results revealed that reading the novel heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. Reading the novel also heightened connectivity in “embodied semantics,” which means the readers thought about the action they were reading about. For example, thinking about swimming can trigger the some of the same neural connections as physical swimming.

“The neural changes that we found…suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Maybe those poor eighth graders just need to crack open some Jean Auel, SE Hinton or Cassandra Clare.

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What’s in a List?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week Publisher’s Weekly reported that the New York Times was going to revamp its bestseller lists (see article here) to include reporting on niche markets including travel, humor, family, relationships and animals as well as (on a rotating basis) other niche lists such as Politics, Manga, Graphic Novels, Food and Fitness. 

Now, I’m just as happy as the next person to see books I love listed on bestseller lists – but isn’t this all going a little too far?  I mean already have to read Facebook posts from authors about hitting every conceivable niche bestseller list for that day or hour on Amazon but now I have to puzzle over what it means to be a NYT bestselling animal book (which is, I assume, by topic  rather than author – though I suspect my collie Hamish would love to be on this list!). 

Isn’t our obsession with term ‘bestseller’ getting to the point where it is no longer meaningful?

Apart from the obvious kudos, I’m starting to wonder what many of these lists actually mean (especially since many don’t necessarily reflect what you think they reflect). The NYT list, for instance, has a fairly secretive methodology based on weekly sales from a sampling from selected retail outlets. Although this methodology been the subject of controversy, nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that the NYT list is pretty influential!  The mantle of ‘New York Times Bestseller’ is a much coveted title – even though many of us aren’t exactly sure what it means. 

As I said before, I love seeing books from authors I admire on bestseller lists and I admit I can be influenced by said lists in terms of deciding which book to purchase. But I am getting a little jaded by these lists too – and the thought of having niche lists for topics such as fitness and family, seems too much. I would be far more interested in seeing a list that breaks down mystery, romance, science fiction genres – but even then it could get so niche market driven that that the list becomes less meaningful to me as a reader (though we could have as much fun as this Melville House blog post in coming up with our own possible lists)

So what about for you? What do you think about niche bestseller lists like the ones the NYT are proposing? Does it make sense to you?  Does the NYT bestseller list even resonate with you any more? Or do you think in the age of indie publishing, that Amazon or Nook sales matter more? 

As a reader, how much influence do bestseller lists have? As a writer I’m assuming, like me, you would have no qualms appearing on any of them…

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The New Bestseller Lists

Guest post by L.J. Sellers

 [Note from Jodie: I’m on my way home from When Words Collide, a writers’ conference in Calgary, where I presented two craft-of-writing workshops, so I didn’t have time to prepare a post for today. My good friend LJ Sellers kindly accepted to step in for me. Thanks, LJ!]

Elements of the publishing industry have never been more hotly debated! The most passionate discussion is the Amazon/Hachette dispute over distribution terms and pricing, but another issue has come up that may have a broader effect on authors. Or at least, a more personal influence. 

Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited program was unveiled recently, and it’s already affecting the measure by which authors all live—the Kindle bestseller lists.  I’ll get to that in a moment, but first the background: Kindle Unlimited (KU) is a subscription service for ebooks. For $9.99 a month, readers can download all the digital books they want. So far, the books included in the service mostly come from the Select program of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and Amazon Publishing (AP) imprints. 

[You can enroll in the KDP Select program by clicking on the box when you upload your book. When you click the Select box, you’re agreeing to make that ebook exclusive to Amazon and not sell it in ebook form anywhere else. In exchange, you get various promotional opportunities, plus you’re enrolled in KOLL (the lending library), so you get paid each time someone borrows your book. And now, with the new program, you’re also in Kindle Unlimited, for even more paid sales.]

The issue of how authors get paid for books that are read through subscription services was already under debate with the launch of other services such as Scribd and Oyster. But deep-pocketed Amazon is offering to pay authors for each download that the consumer reads more than 10% of—the same as if it were a sale or a Kindle Lending Library download. 

So the famous Amazon algorithm—that generates the Kindle top 100 lists—treats these downloads/reads the same as it does a retail sale. Now books that are being consumed through the subscription service are being bumped up in the rankings, and many are making the top of the bestseller lists. 

This is great news for authors like me, whose books are published either through Thomas & Mercer or KDP. Those lists represent visibility, and visibility leads to more sales, and more sales lead to higher rankings, which leads to more visibility. A positive cycle! 

But for authors with traditional publishers, or KDP authors whose books aren’t in the Select program, the effect may be the opposite—bumping their titles farther down the list. 

Digital Book World has decided that phenomenon isn’t fair, and so it’s excluded from its own bestseller list all titles listed in Kindle Unlimited. Which is also not fair, when you consider that the top-tier books from KDP and AP are bestsellers even without help from KU downloads. 

And now they’re being excluded from this one particular bestseller list. Many of those authors may not care much about Digital Book World. Ranking high on Amazon’s lists is the key to success. The other lists they care about are from the old guard: The New York Times and USA Today

But what if those print-media lists decide to exclude Kindle Unlimited titles too? That could be a major concern for those authors. So the big question is: Are those subscription downloads the same as a sale? Digital Book World says they’re not, because they’re not point-of-purchase sales. But Amazon and authors in the program argue that those downloads are paid for and should contribute to ranking—which is about popularity. 


What do you think? Are they sales? Should they count toward bestsellers lists? 

L.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson Mysteries—a two-time Readers Favorite Award winner—as well as the Agent Dallas series and provocative standalone thrillers. L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon where many of her novels are set and is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Housing Help. When not plotting murders or doing charity work, she enjoys stand-up comedy, cycling, and social networking. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes. LJ’s Website  Facebook  Twitter  Google+

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Show me the money!

By Joe Moore

dutch11First, some breaking news to share–MONTEZUMA’S WRAAK, the Dutch version of my new thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (co-written with Lynn Sholes) was released on August 18 by my Netherlands publisher Karakter Uitgevers.B.V. Here’s a look at the cover.

And now for today’s post.

According to a recent article in Forbes, the sale of adult hardcover novels was down 23% in the first half of this year. Despite the downturn, some authors are holding their own. Their names may be familiar. Chances are you’ve read a few of their books. So why are these guys doing so well while most of the industry is in a state of funk? Forbes attributes it to the increasing popularity of ebooks, but even more so the diversification of these writers’ personal brands.

money (Small)James Patterson is a good example. Mr. Patterson signed a 17-book, $150m book deal in 2009 with Hachette. Teaming up with a number of co-authors, he placed 20 titles on Publishers Weekly’s year-end bestseller list. Those titles totaled 10m copies. In addition, he sold 750k ebooks. He’s also expanded into the YA market with great success.

Other examples of authors doing well in tight times is Stephenie Meyer, whose Twilight series at one point accounted for 15% of all books sold in the US; and J.K. Rowling, who is about to jump into the electronic book market by launching Pottermore, her new virtual online bookstore. Pottermore will offer ebook versions of her novels compatible with any e-reader. Other collateral merchandise will be offered as well.

What the numbers don’t show is the quality of the writing. That, of course, is in the eye of the reader. Much criticism has been leveled at James Patterson that his books lack the depth and magic of some of his early works. I see comments on writer forums saying that Patterson has sold out and become an assembly line pouring out books just to make money. The commenters don’t understand why people keep buying his books. It reminds me of what people say about a very popular local restaurant. “No one ever goes there, it’s always too crowded.” The reason James Patterson makes so much money is because bazillions of readers around the world are willing to buy his books. Why? Because they like reading them.

Now for the list of the highest paid authors (May 2010-April 2011). Get out your royalty statements and compare.

James Patterson ($84 million)
Danielle Steel ($35 million)
Stephen King ($28 million)
Janet Evanovich ($22 million)
Stephenie Meyer ($21 million)
Rick Riordan ($21 million)
Dean Koontz ($19 million)
John Grisham ($18 million)
Jeff Kinney ($17 million)
Nicholas Sparks ($16 million)
Ken Follett ($14 million)
Suzanne Collins ($10 million)
J.K. Rowling ($5 million)

What does this mean for writers that make less money that these folks? It means that people still want to buy books and be entertained with good stories. I consider all this to be a very positive sign. How about you? How does this list of mega-authors make you feel? Are you deflated or defiant?

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Book tours and signings and such

By Joe Moore

A few weeks ago, my blogmate John Gilstrap, posted Best Advice Redux in which he said, “Standard book signings are to me a waste of time. Ditto book tours.” I left a comment that I agreed and could prove it was true, at least for me. So that’s the subject of today’s blog: are book signings and tours necessary? And in addition, are the marketing efforts of the publisher important if not critical?

First, let me start with a disclaimer. My comments here are my own opinion based on my personal experience. I fully expect that others will feel different, and have equally compelling reasons to believe that the opposite is true. That’s fine. But here’s what I believe:

You can have a bestselling novel and never conduct a book signing or book tour. I know because I’ve done it—more than once.

The first book I had published was THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (2005), co-written with Lynn Sholes. It was released by Midnight Ink, a small Midwest imprint of a large and venerable house called Llewellyn Worldwide. We had modest domestic sales with TGC, earned back our advance and experienced an excellent sell-through percentage. Midnight Ink went on to publish our next 4 books including our newest, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. I don’t know the numbers on TPA yet, but the others (THE LAST SECRET, THE HADES PROJECT, and THE 731 LEGACY) also had modest sales, earned out their advances, and had high sell-through.

Lynn and I did many book signings through the course of the first 4 novels (the Cotten Stone series). Some signings drew impressive crowds while others drew a handful of friends and family. Sometimes we would sell 60-70 copies while other times we would sell just a few. Our number of signings fell off over the years in part because we are located at different ends of the state with over 400 miles in between. We still do a few signings a year, mostly at conferences.

Now, let’s shift gears. THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY was bought by a publisher in the Netherlands (same company that publishes Dennis Lehane, Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Stephen King, and others), dutchtranslated into Dutch and released. They bought it solely because they liked the story, not because it was a bestseller with high numbers in the U.S. In fact, TGC had no significant domestic track record. The only factor that affected the sale of the Dutch version was the efforts of the publisher to market it. Lynn and I never held a book signing in the Netherlands. We never did a book tour. In fact, to this day we have never communicated with our Dutch publisher. THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (Het Graal Complot) spent 9 weeks on their national bestseller list and earned us more money than our domestic sales for the same book. And all we did was write the book.

sholes_moore_kyotovirus_08Our Dutch publisher went on to buy our next 4 thrillers. Our 4th book in the Cotten Stone series, THE 731 LEGACY (Het Kyoto Virus), also hit the bestseller list in the Netherlands and brought in more earnings than the domestic version.

The same thing happened in Poland. With no track record, our Polish publisher (Grisham, Cussler, Cabot, Tolkien) promoted THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (Spisek Graala) right onto the bestseller list where polishit sat for weeks. No signings or book tour or any communications from us. Nothing.

Over the years, our books have been translated into 24 languages including Chinese, Russian, Greek and Thai, even Serbian. The majority of the foreign publishers have bought all our books. Almost half were hardcover deals. Many were later republished in paperback. Our foreign royalties have far exceeded all our domestic sales many times over. All done with no book signings. No tours. No communications with these publishers. How can you have a bestselling novel with no personal author involvement? I believe it’s starting with a good book combined with aggressive, savvy publishers who know how to market to their audience.

So, are signings useful? Should writers conduct book tours? Are the publisher’s marketing efforts important? I can only speak for myself, but my answers are, probably not much, no, and definitely yes.

What do you guys think. Do you tour? Do book signings work for you? Does your publisher do a decent job of promoting your books?

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THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is “awesome.” – Library Journal. Visit the Sholes & Moore Amazon Bookstore.

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