Are you here for the conference?

by Michelle Gagnonconference

Until I received an invite to Bouchercon, I had no idea conferences like that even existed (and until relatively recently, I had no idea how to properly pronounce Bouchercon, either, as it turns out. I have to stop myself from French-ifying it).

How cool, I thought- the opportunity to meet some of my favorite authors and discuss their books with like-minded fans. When I joined some of the online mystery groups and found out that not only could I attend, but I might even be asked to serve on a panel, it was downright mind-boggling. So the year my debut thriller was released, I devoted most of my marketing budget to conference fees, flying everywhere from Anchorage to New York.

Was it worth it?

Well, I had a great time, that’s for sure. The camaraderie at these conferences is fantastic- where else could I spend a night kicking back with Jeffery Deaver and Harlan Coben? But after two years of attending as many as I could afford, I’ve developed some basic parameters:

  • Cost and release dates: My last two books had summer releases: great for conferences, since most of the big ones occur between March and October and they’re clustered in the summer months (I always think of Bouchercon as closing out conference season). THE GATEKEEPER will be released in November, so I’m cutting back dramatically on what I attend since I’ll just end up pitching BONEYARD to people, many of whom already heard about it last year. Cost is always an issue- even if the conference fee isn’t very expensive, once you factor in all the ancillary costs (travel, hotel, etc), each conference runs me at least a grand. And that adds up quickly. Which leads to…

  • What do I hope to get out of it? Mind you, I love hanging out with fellow writers and fans, but it’s hard to justify spending a thousand dollars over a weekend to do that (especially in this economy). So ideally, I hope to get on at least one good panel, and to network with people I haven’t met yet. There’s always a lot of debate on the lists about which conferences are worth attending, and I’m certain that everyone has a different experience. You might sell more books at smaller regional ones where you’re one of a handful of authors, whereas at larger conferences you might get lost in the shuffle. Yet at those big conferences there’s an opportunity to meet domestic and foreign editors, booksellers, and agents, and to get your name out to a larger cross-section of mystery fans.And sometimes the regional conferences are skewed toward local authors, so if you’re not from the area, you might find yourself relegated to the panel on bug detectives (not a well-attended one, in my experience). So it largely depends on what your career goals are at that given moment. Personally, I’m doing the same thing with conference attendance that I do with my financial portfolio: spreading it out between smaller conferences like Left Coast Crime (they had me at “Hawaii”) and big ones like Bouchercon (which I always seem to get a lot out of).

  • Is it a fan conference, or a writing one? Not that writers aren’t fans- we all are, obviously. But some conferences specialize in helping new authors hone their craft and pitch agents- which is invaluable for them, but I’ve discovered that at those conferences, I spend most of my time dodging requests to pass a manuscript on to my agent. I’d much rather go to a true fan conference, where most of the attendees are readers who want to meet their favorite bestselling authors, and who might be persuaded to try a new one as well.

  • Which genre does the conference emphasize? I’ve gone to a few romance conferences, and so far haven’t had much luck with those (although I know my friend Alex Sokoloff has had a much more positive experience). For me, going to RWA felt like starting over again; I didn’t know the lingo, and since romance isn’t a major component of my books, I drew a lot of blank stares. I’m considering giving Romantic Times a shot when it lands a bit closer to home, but flying to Orlando isn’t a possibility for me this April.

Even though I’m cutting back, as of right now I plan on attending Left Coast Crime, LA Times Festival of Books (a cheap flight, and I can stay with friends), Book Passage (local, and no conference fee), and Bouchercon. I’m on the fence about Thrillerfest, since NY is just so darn expensive, and I’m skipping BEA since my ARCs won’t be ready yet. Also, no Edgars for me, sadly, or Sleuthfest (I could really use a trip to Florida, too. Oh well).

On the plus side, this leaves my summer largely free. But I have to wonder what poor Harlan and Jeffery will do without me. So my question for the day is: are you going to any conferences? Which ones, and why?

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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?

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Book Inhalation

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com

Just a quick post today as I have just returned from book tour for The Serpent and The Scorpion and look a little like this picture – not that my boys care. They seem happy just to have me back home (bless ’em!) I had a terrific time visiting amazing mystery bookstores (and meeting actual readers!) in LA, Houston, Seattle, Portland and of course here in the SF Bay Area. I also got to have a great time at Bouchercon in Baltimore – am I lucky or what! But above and beyond this I also got to read some terrific books – with flights and travel I get to indulge in my favorite past time – ‘book inhalation’.

I’ve been away nearly two weeks and have managed to ‘inhale’ the following books (all of which I loved):
* Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (embarrassingly I hadn’t read this until now!)
* Charlaine Harris’ first Stookie Stackhouse – Dead until Dark
* Harlan Coben’s The Woods
* Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye
* Tana French’s In The Woods followed immediately by ‘The Likeness’ – you can see how much I loved those books int hat I read both in three days!

Not bad going I must say and my brain was thankful to finally have the time to sit back and enjoy. So I loved the book tour – spent lots of time with readers, fans, other writers and bookstore owners as well as books!
Now for some sleep…Before I do some more local events this week and then off to Arizona next week!

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Charmed Nearly to Death

Below: Harlan Coben hits me up for a blurb.
Kidding.

He knows I’d never blurb an Amherst grad…

I’ll say one thing, Bouchercon ’08 held the appropriate moniker. People sent to the hospital with food poisoning, people tumbling down flights of stairs, people consuming alcohol in levels roughly equivalent to those experienced at college frat parties (far be it for me to condemn that behavior, however, as anyone who saw me in the bar on Thursday night can attest).

Bouchercon ’08 was truly one for the record books. As has already been noted on various blogs and lists, the Jordans and Judy Bobalik did a phenomenal job of organizing something that makes herding cats look easy. Let’s call it the equivalent of herding parrots. And despite the few inevitable mishaps, it went off largely without a hitch. Here, then, are my belated comments on the experience…

The Panels: Wow, I ended up on some great panels. Those bribes really paid off. Booze and books (or something like that) with Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Liz Zelvin, Con Lehane, and the inimitable Ali Karim moderating, Gordon’s Gin in hand. Lively and lots of fun. I also loved the one on “Psycho Killers,” here I thought I was an expert but I learned some things (like the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Seriously. Ask Mark Billingham if you’re curious). My only complaint was that my fellow panelists were all far too witty and well-informed. I much prefer to be partnered with dullards, it makes me look so much better in comparison.

The Food: I might be alone in this (although I suspect Robert Gregory Brown would agree with me), but I could not seem to get a decent meal in Baltimore. Part of that might be due to the fact that I ate a fair portion of my meals at the hotel restaurant, Shulas. Never expect a good meal from anyplace bearing any relation to football (I should have learned from all those years I ate at Boomers in NYC.) Lots of salt, copious amounts of butter. I escaped relatively unscathed (although the girl who vomited on Alison Gaylin in Burkes came dangerously close to hitting me as well). But I was definitely a little disappointed in the cuisine: I don’t mind a mediocre entree, but I do mind paying $30 for it.

Baltimore: I didn’t see all that much of it, not having a rental car, but wow– the Harbor? Awesome. I quickly learned, however, that there was only one proper route back from the harbor to the hotel. Take the street running parallel to that one, and you were quickly in the midst of seedy bars and places named things like “The Jewel Box.” I might be wrong, but they didn’t appear to be selling jewelry. Though I’m a hard core fan of The Wire, stumbling on set is unnerving. I kept expecting Snoop to turn the corner with her nail gun.

Lee Child: The man throws the best parties. Do whatever you must to get invited, they’re amazing. And Lee is always a class act.

Harlan Coben: Next time you see him, tell him Amherst is a safety school. He loves it, I swear.

My Voice: Started out normal, went through a series of phases from Lauren Bacall to Kathleen Turner on two packs a day to Froggy from the Little Rascals. I’m still recovering.

It was incredible linking faces to all those familiar names from various groups and blogs (such as this one), and I love it when people come up and introduce themselves by saying, “I’m your Facebook friend.” How 21st century is that?

Anyway, I returned home as always with no voice, twenty extra pounds worth of books (no checking the bag on this leg of the journey), a few photos, and a miserable hangover from lack of sleep and general overconsumption of liquor and salt. Whew. Thank god I have a full year until Indianapolis, this time I start training early…

PS- Stay tuned: next week I’ll tell you all about my tour of the FBI Academy in Quantico, including an interesting tidbit I picked up about what tomato sauce resembles under a black light.

Louise Ure, under attack by a rabid fan. Note her calm demeanor, this woman is pure steel…

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“The envelope, please…”

by Michelle Gagnon

Congrats to Ann Littlewood, commenter extraordinaire and winner of our $50 gas card prize! And now, on to today’s controversial subject…


PBO Award, we hardly knew ye…

There’s been an interesting debate recently regarding changes to next year’s Thriller Awards.

Basically, here’s the scoop: the ITW (International Thriller Writers) organization has eliminated the Paperback Original (PBO) category. Now everyone (aside from debut authors) will pit their books against each other for the Best Novel award.

I’m actually surprised there wasn’t more of an outcry. PBO is a treasured category, in that it gives writers who aren’t necessarily guaranteed a spot on the bestsellers’ lists an opportunity for some recognition.

Writers and reviewers weighed in on both sides. Some claimed this was a fantastic decision, that a “Best Novel” category where only hardcovers are eligible makes the “Best PBO” look like a red-headed stepchild. It should be the content that matters, not the format, the argument goes. Which is a valid point, and one I always wondered about: why isn’t it simply, “Best Hardcover,” since nearly every other awards category is defined by format?

And many who chimed in said they trusted their fellow writers to treat the binding on submissions with a blind eye.

But just to play devil’s advocate, here are some things to consider:

  1. Bias

Allison Brennan made an interesting analogy based on her previous work in the legislature. I’m paraphrasing, but basically she said that when you wanted to talk to voters about the economy, you used a man as your spokesman; if you were discussing education, a woman. Because even when people think they’re completely fair-minded, there are inevitably some biases lurking in our subconscious.

There’s a chance that authors might prove to be more, not less, biased when it comes to formatting. After all, we understand how the publishing industry works. Sure, we acknowledge that there’s an arbitrary element to what kind of cover ends up on a book, and some publishers tend to favor one format over another. But given a choice, most authors would probably opt for a hardcover deal. It’s easier to get reviews, and collectors value them more highly. Also, since the production costs are higher, there’s a chance the publisher might throw some marketing money behind the book. These are all things someone who’s spent some time in the publishing trenches knows.

The average layperson, on the other hand, has no idea what the different formats mean, they just know that certain books are more expensive. But while they wouldn’t necessarily assume that a hardcover is superior to a paperback, an author just might. Even if they don’t think they’re biased.

  1. History

I asked during the discussion if anyone could remember the last time a paperback has been nominated for a Best First Edgar (since that category traditionally pits hardcovers against paperbacks, it’s a good reference point). I was curious, having submitted my debut thriller for consideration despite the fact that in recent memory I couldn’t recall a PBO garnering a nomination (if you know of one, drop me a line). Thanks to a bout of insomnia, I ended up going through the winners of Best First Novel Edgars (and believe me, I have discovered the cure for sleeplessness—this exercise could put Ambien out of business for good).

I got all the way back to 1971 before finally drifting off. For at least the past 37 years, no paperback has ever won an Edgar for Best First Novel. Next time I can’t sleep I’ll trudge through every nominee in that category, but I suspect the story will be the same. We all want to believe our books are being judged on a level playing field. But if that’s the case, then is it really true that for the past thirty-seven years, a hardcover was always superior to every paperback submitted?

  1. Why awards matter

When I’m writing a book, the last thing on my mind is whether or not it’ll end up being nominated for an award. I doubt any author is envisioning that as they tap away at their keyboards (although I have been known on occasion to accept imaginary Grammy awards in the shower. But you should hear my singing voice in there, it’s pure Mariah Carey.)

But we can’t pretend that awards don’t matter. Even my local bookstore (which has on occasion been downright hostile to genre fiction) mounts an Edgar display every spring. Harlan Coben has credited his 1997 Best PBO Edgar Award with keeping his career afloat, in that it persuaded his publisher to stick with him in the face of declining sales.

And again, I believe that a layperson couldn’t tell you the difference between an Edgar and a Barry if their life depended on it. But if they see, “____ Award Winning Novel” on the cover, they’re more likely to select that book over another one. Hey, it won an award, it must be a good read. So eliminating a category reduces the chance that five other books might garner some attention. IMHO, that is not a good thing.

  1. Apples and Oranges

There is inevitably some randomness to award distribution. Books on the whole are subjective little beasties, after all. And depending on the composition of the judging committee, some years noir may be favored over cozies, or vice versa. And really, how do you compare the two? Does the best romantic suspense novel trump the best paranormal? How do you weigh books written in only loosely related genres against each other? There are great books produced every year, across the board, in all formats. Yet it does seem that the more “serious” books (which tend to be hardcovers) have an edge. This is precisely why the Golden Globes feature separate categories for comedy and drama; it gives the comedies a shot, when traditionally they’re overlooked.

The RWA’s RITA Awards acknowledge this issue by having separate categories for Historical Romance, Paranormal Romance, and Romantic Suspense, among other subgenres. And these awards are generally acknowledged to be the romance publishing industry’s highest distinction.


  1. Multiple categories dilute the significance (or “Brand,” if you will) of the award

This claim I really don’t agree with. If anything, changing which books are eligible for an award on an annual basis would seem to threaten its legitimacy far more than keeping or adding categories (not to mention being incredibly confusing for authors and publishers). For example, last year my debut thriller was not eligible in the Best First category since it was a mass market paperback. The year before (2006) it would have been in the running, and it would again this year (2008). But in 2007 it was thrown into the mix with every other paperback author, regardless of whether they were on book one or twenty. Random? Absolutely. I’m glad they reverted to a true “Best First” category, with every debut eligible regardless of format. You only get one first novel, after all.

  1. “The Thrillies”

Personally, I’m all for having your more serious “Thriller Awards,” with gravitas, pomp, and circumstance. But after handing those out, why not have a little fun? Present an alternate set of awards and call them the “Thrillies.” Give a “Best Psycho” trophy (a knife, perhaps?) for the most terrifying villain, or a “Best Sex” prize for the best sex scene (I’ll let you use your imagination when picturing the prize for that one.)
I realize that will probably never happen, but it’s fun to consider. I’ve always thought that the Thriller Awards should be to the Edgars what the Golden Globes are to the Oscars: more entertaining and light-hearted, with someone throwing up in the bathroom by the end of the show. The Golden Globes achieve that by passing out more awards, not less (and by serving copious amounts of liquor). And I
don’t think an actor has ever turned one down because they felt having more categories diminished the significance.

I love the ITW organization, and have volunteered for it because I’m such a believer in their mission and goals. But in this instance I believe they’ve made a mistake.

There are many strong and legitimate opinions on both sides of this debate, and I’d love to hear them. Plus, if anyone has a spare Grammy hanging around, I’m in the market for one…

(my imaginary Grammy)


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