How Things Have Changed

A new Stephen King book hit the bookstores this week. It’s titled JOYLAND, and it’s much more like THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON than THE STAND or MISERY or DESPERATION or the Tower series or any of a couple dozen books that I could name. It’s published under the wonderful, indispensable, and at this point venerable Hard Case Crime imprint. The book’s appearance made some major news in those places where books are still news because if you want to buy the book, you’re going to have to buy The Book. There will not be an e-book version of JOYLAND for the foreseeable  future; yes, you’ll be able to obtain an audiobook, but something for your Kindle or Nook or other e-reader isn’t going to happen for awhile, unless you want to buy a copy of the book, tear out each page, paste it on Your Precious and…of course, you are not going to do that. 
There is a bit of irony here, given that one of the first e-books by a mainstream writer to be published solely as an ebook  — not as we know them now, but it was an ebook nonetheless — was a novella entitled “Riding the Bullet,” a chilling little ten-finger exercise that was written by, uh, Stephen King. You had to download some (free) software called “SoftLock” in order to read it. This occurred way back in 2000. There were other ebooks published, including a pay-as-you-go serial by King titled “The Plant,” but the format never really caught on until some smart folks at Amazon came up with what they came up with. King, however, was there at the beginning. There accordingly have been some who have now taken King to task over what they perceive to be his apparent one-eighty, somehow finding him to blame for the popularity of the electronic format since he was one of the first to embrace it with the same fervor that Jack Torrance embraced that rotting corpse in THE SHINING. I would disagree. King has made quite clear that his reason for limiting the format of JOYLAND to physical form isn’t to disown the child he midwifed at the turn of the century; he is doing it to help physical booksellers. This is not something new for King; those of us of some age will recall that King did an unapologetic tour of indy stores in 1994 to promote INSOMNIA, riding his motorcycle from city to city and making appearances to yes, mobs of people. There’s also a more recent model for this. A growing number of musicians are occasionally releasing some new songs only on vinyl, to support independent record stores.  Is he taking a risk financially, by limiting the format to physical books, and cutting out the impulse buyer? Possibly. Is Hard Case Crime? Almost certainly. JOYLAND won’t be available at the press of a button; it’s going to take some effort, and yes, some waiting to get it, maybe even some inconvenience. Some folks may feel it’s not worth the hassle.
But can I tell you something, as someone who loves his Kindle? JOYLAND is worth whatever it takes for you to get it. Let me go further than that: this is a book that should only see the light of day as an actual book. It’s a coming of age novel, with some mystery and romance and a bit of the supernatural thrown in, and it works as a physical book. JOYLAND is set in 1973, at a downheel amusement park on the coast of North Carolina, and I swear that as I turned the pages I could smell — very faintly — popcorn and taffy and ocean water and hear ferris wheel music rising up from between the pages. Am I given to imagining things? Maybe. But isn’t that what reading is all about? I don’t think it would be quite the same on an e-reader.
Let me now ask you: what was the last physical book (and we’ll count audio books in the mix) that you purchased? How long ago was it? And what do you think of what King and Hard Case Crime are doing with JOYLAND? Do you think that limiting its format to a physical product is a good idea or a huge mistake?
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How Writers Should Die


When I first waded into the waters of self-publishing, I did so with two novellas. The first, WATCH YOUR BACK, showed me within the first month the potential for shorter books in the indie world. The second, ONE MORE LIE,became the first self-published work to be nominated for an International Thriller Writers Award, for which I will always be grateful.
And I owe it all to James M. Cain.
Cain, as most of you know, was the author of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, his most famous work. Just behind it are DOUBLE INDEMNITY and MILDRED PIERCE. With hit movies based on each, Cain was, by 1947, one of the most famous novelists in America. The postman was delivering him a lot of money in those days.
His best books were written in a style that Cain made his calling card: the first-person confessional. The narrators recount their downfalls due to the entanglements of lust or greed or some combination thereof. There is something so direct in Cain’s prose. Spare and unsparing. Hardboiled but with a heart. Dialogue that snaps. Plots like runaway trains.
So one day I found myself sitting down to write about a man with a confession to make, and out came WATCH YOUR BACK. I liked it so much I did the same with ONE MORE LIE.
And I’m pleased to no end that the novella is back! You couldn’t get them published traditionally. They just didn’t sell. They were a staple of the old pulp era, but dinosaurs by the end of the twentieth century.
Now, with self-publishing, with low prices and instant delivery, novellas are back stronger than ever. I plan to make them a staple of my future work.
But even more important to me in all this is the example of Cain the man, Cain the writer. He was riding high when the 1950s hit, but then began a period of decline. Publishers started rejecting his stuff. He became, in the eyes of many, “damaged goods.”
By 1963 Cain was 71 years old and without any contracts. He thought he might be the very thing he never wanted to become: an ex-writer. Yet James M. Cain still wrote a 1200 words every morning. Here he is doing that very thing, on his beloved typewriter, at the age of 75:

Now that is inspirational. And guess what? At the age of 82 James M. Cain received the largest advance of his career, for his novel RAINBOW’S END, which was published to excellent reviews. He completed another novel that was published and well received, then immediately got to work on a new one. He had just completed THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS when he died at the age of 85. That last “lost” novel has now been published by the good folks at Hard Case Crime.
That is a writer’s good death–type THE END and keel over! Don’t you believe that? You’re a writer, after all. It’s what you do. You’d do it even if everyone in your family came to you at midnight, woke you up and begged you, for your own good, to stop writing once and for all. You’d tell them to get out of the room because you’re dreaming of your next book and the boys in the basement need to get to work!
And that is why I will never stop writing. Even if the postman stops delivering checks. 

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What You Can’t Do with an e-Book

I recently received a box in the mail. It was from a life-long friend, a gent named Bill Plant who is responsible (or maybe irresponsible) for shaping much of my taste in literature. While Bill and I remain close friends, we aren’t in the habit of sending each other gifts on the spur of the moment, so I had no idea what was in the box. It could have been anything from a head to…well, anything. After making sure that it wasn’t ticking, crying, or leaking, I commenced to open it, a formidable task since Bill apparently used three rolls of scotch tape to seal it. After some effort, I folded the flaps back, pulled out some newspaper packing, and…well, I’ll confess, The Kid got just a little misty-eyed.
The box was full of books. Paperback books. From the 1950s. They were marked up and in one case a little chewed up and some of them had the binding falling loose and they all had that sweet scent of slow but inevitable decomposition. In other words, every one was a little treasure. These were USED, used books. Bill deals in antiques, and will buy items such as books in inexpensive lots in the hope of finding an acorn or two among the Buena Sierra. Collectors, alas, aren’t much interested in paperbacks that are dog-eared, or have had a crayon taken to them, or that have been labeled, using an indelible marker, with a five cent price tag.  took a bunch of such and sent them to me. I don’t think I’ve had a better present in quite a while. It reminded me of one Christmas, some fifty years ago, when my mother ordered a bunch of science fiction paperbacks for me from the gone but not forgotten S & SF Bookstore in New York. It was a laborious procedure back then — check books off an order list, write a check, send the whole kit and  caboodle off in the mail and wait six weeks for delivery — since the only “Amazon” most folks knew then was either 1) a river in South America or 2) Irish McCalla. But when that box arrived, it was special. And so was this one.
So what would I possibly want with such a litter of mutts? The idea of it, pure and simple. These were books that had been read and re-read before being consigned to a cellar or an attic or the back shelves of a used bookstore.  Most of it was science fiction. There were Ace Doubles in that box. Ace doubles. These consisted of two covers and two novels bound into one; read one, flip it over, and there was another novel waiting for you.  Hard Case Crime is going to publish two Lawrence Block novels in the doubles format in May 2012, and I can’t wait. But these were the original thing. A few short story collections were in that box, and included forgotten stories by famous authors (“Death of the Senator,” by Arthur C. Clarke, for one). There were a couple of early and forgotten novels by authors who have gone onto better things (Robert Silverberg’s THE PLANET KILLERS); and some soft core science fiction porn (are porn paperbacks even published anymore?). Then there was a copy of GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton, one of the first science fiction books I ever read.
Yes, there were a couple of mysteries and thrillers as well. I was six years old when Marjorie Carlton wrote ONE NIGHT OF TERROR. It got past me the first time but I’m going to read it this year. And there were a couple of Carter Brown novels in that box.  Most of the ladies who contribute to The Kill Zone are probably too young to remember Carter Brown. but gentlemen, certainly most of you do.  “Carter Brown” was the pseudonym for Alan Geoffrey Yates, and there was a time when he ruled the revolving wire paperback racks. Who could forget those Signet covers? I fogged up my eyeglasses in many a drugstore perusing the wares of those gaudy damsels while pretending to look for Mad Magazine paperback collections. I have discovered, belatedly, that the stories aren’t bad either.  It occurred to me a couple of nights ago, while reading   NO BLONDE IS AN ISLAND, that I had never actually read a Carter Brown book until now. I had committed many a cover to memory, however.
Some of the older paperbacks are now appearing in e-book format.  I discovered recently that all of those Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books which I purchased with my allowance a half-century ago are available in Kindle format, and for free; and there are even three Carter Brown books up for sale. It just isn’t the same, however. The smell and the small, non-adjustable print and the feel of paper and ink aren’t there. It’s like having a rabbit and a hat that sit next to each other without any involvement or relationship: there’s no magic. That may sound strange — if pressing a couple of buttons and having an entire book appear in a wafer thin tool that you can slip in a coat pocket isn’t magic, then what is? — but it’s true. We get something, true, but also we give something up.
So. If you had a friend as good as mine (and Bill, I know you read these posts, and you remain the best), and that friend sent you a box such as I received, what books would you want to find in it? What would bring a smile to your face, and a tear (or five) to your eye?

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The Demise of Mass Market Paperbacks?

by Michelle Gagnon

Recently, Dorchester Publishing, one of the country’s oldest mass market publishers, announced that it is abandoning traditional print books in favor of digital format and print on demand.

That announcement reminded me of a conversation I had with an editor at a conference a few months ago. She predicted that in the coming digital shakeup, hardcover print runs would be smaller, trade paperbacks would boom, and mass market books would vanish entirely.

I was skeptical. After all, the great thing about mass market books is that they remain almost as cheap (or cheaper) than digital downloads, and they’re ideal reading material for all of those places you wouldn’t take your Kindle/iPad: the beach, the tub, the pool. So why would this be the first format to fall to the digital ax?

The fact that Dorchester is the first to make this shift is particularly bad news for Hard Case Crime, the imprint that has revitalized the pulp fiction industry with semi-ironic works by major novelists such as Ken Bruen and Stephen King. Going digital stands in stark contrast to what publisher Charles Ardai was attempting to achieve–a return to the era of dime store novels you could tuck in your pocket. (On a side note, how ironic is it that Ardai, who made his money via the dotcom boom, is deadset on producing books in print?) In response to the Dorchester move, he’s apparently considering moving the entire imprint to a different publisher.

I was encouraged to see that in the article, a representative from Random House expressed faith in mass paperbacks. These days, most midlist and debut authors are only offered a mass market release. If that shifts entirely to digital content, it would be a shame. For me, the best part of the publishing process was the day that I opened a box to find a stack of novels with my name on the cover. I’m not sure that opening a pdf file would convey the same thrill.

So what does everyone think? Are mass markets the new eight tracks?

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