Monday, January 31, 2005

Self-Publishing - A Bad Idea

For several months now, Lee Goldberg has been railing against vanity presses, especially the scam artists like Publish America. I thought it was time that I weighed in with my own thoughts.

The problem with self-publishing is that the resulting product will have no credibility and no exposure -- and very little chance of ever obtaining either. Everyone will know that the only way you were able to get your book published was to pay someone to do it, and they will judge your work accordingly. (In that sense, I think it’s even worse than having no book at all.)

A self-published novel will not be sold in bookstores, nor will it be reviewed in any newspapers or magazines. You might be able to get reviews on certain websites, but even that’s pushing it. The chances of anyone other than friends or family (and even that is probably a stretch) reading your book are so slim as to be insignificant.

I've had dozens of self-published books submitted to me for review and the vast majority of them are appalling. (So much so that I won’t even agree to accept them anymore.) Out of all the books I've reviewed over the past few years, a number that’s in the hundreds, only 2 of them were self-published. In each case, I had some personal contact with the author beforehand, which was the only reason I agreed to read their book. (And both books, for the record, would have benefited from being professionally edited.)

The ultimate goal of every self-published book is to get picked up by a traditional publisher. Anytime someone relates a self-published success story, that is the end result. There’s a reason for that. Vanity publishing is meaningless on its own. Success for a writer means having your book released by a trade publisher. Period.

Sure, it is theoretically possible to be successful self-publishing your work. It’s also possible to win the lottery. It is not, however, a realistic or viable option for anyone wanting to pursue a legitimate writing career.

The only thing self-publishing is good for is to have a chance to buy printed copies of your book for yourself, and to give them to your friends and family as presents. (Of course, even your own mother will know that you had to pay someone to publish your book, so she probably won’t want to read it either.)

Vanity presses prey on the hopeful, the gullible and the naïve. And that’s a damn shame.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The Gumshoe Awards on the ITW Website

The International Thriller Writers have an announcement of the new Gumshoe Award for Best Thriller, presented by Mystery Ink, on their website.*

Robert Crais helpfully inquires, "Why is an award for thrillers called the Gumshoe, which is a term usually associated with mysteries?"

Okay, it's a fair question. When Mystery Ink started giving the Gumshoe Awards a few years back, I racked my brain to think of a name for the award, and "Gumshoe" was the best I could come up with that wasn't already taken. Since back then we didn't make distinctions for mystery/thriller/etc. -- we just gave awards for Best Novel -- it didn't seem like that big of a deal.

This year we decided to split the award into separate categories: Best Mystery & Best Thriller. Now, of course, the name doesn't make a lot of sense for a thriller. But we're stuck with it.

I don't suppose anyone who wins will complain. And if they do... No Gumshoe for you!

*I've also been helping with their selection of the Must-Read Thrillers as well. There are some great books on the list so far, so check 'em out!

Books Into Films

Making a good film is a difficult proposition. Making a good film that will please the fans of the book that inspired it is all but impossible. What’s more, it’s a bad idea even to try.

The thing to always remember about books and movies is that they are two very different and distinct mediums. You can't expect a film adaptation of a book to resemble its source material in anything more than surface ways. If you watch a film expecting it to somehow capture what made the book special in your mind, it is inevitable that you will be disappointed.

What makes a book special is not its plot, nor the physical attributes and actions of its characters. Not the dialogue, nor the pacing, nor the setting. Rather it’s all of those things put together in the author’s own unique way. Translating that from the page to the screen is impossible. It makes about as much sense as drawing a picture of a symphony.

In order for a film to be any good, it has to reflect the style, talent and artistic personality of its creators -- and the author of the book is not one of those creators. It must work on its own, as a motion picture. To the extent that the book, and the author’s vision behind it, can be used to contribute to the making of that film, so much the better. But above all, the film must be the unique creation of the filmmakers.

The chances of a reader being disappointed by any eventual film version of a book they love are nearly overwhelming. There is just no way that any filmmaker can capture what it is that you see in your mind when you read the book, no way they can duplicate that magical connection between the reader and the author. This is especially true because that vision and that experience are unique to each reader.

The only reasonable way to view these projects is simply to think of them as fun, disposable pieces of entertainment, almost completely separate from the books that inspired them. That and a fat paycheck for the writers, most of whom are pretty cool people.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Does James O. Born really hate James W. Hall?

James O. Born, author of last year's terrific debut Walking Money, returns this April with Shock Wave, another crackerjack thriller. In the current issue of CrimeSpree magazine, he relates some of his experiences from his first book tour.

I Hate James W. Hall
By James O. Born

The past twelve months have been good ones for me. The crowning event was a contract with a New York publishing house. That’s what makes the development of a negative emotional reaction to another Florida based author so sad. This is not the deep-seated hatred I feel for, say, Osama Bin Laden or Steve Spurrier, but a feeling I believe is based entirely on experience and rational deliberation. At least as rationally as any superficial emotion based on limited exposure and exploited for no apparent reason.

Like any aspiring writer, I’ve read a lot over the past fifteen years as I attempted to have something published. My reading experience was deep as well as broad. From W.E.B. Griffin's heart-stopping stories of the U.S. Marines in World War Two to the details of horse racing in books by Dick Francis, I devoured everything. As a cop, my idol was Joseph Wambaugh, a former Los Angeles police officer who wrote compelling non-fiction like Fire Lover as well as entertaining fiction such as the Golden Orange. As a Floridian, who wanted to be a writer, I found a model in a Florida International University professor named James W. Hall. He captured the essence of the Florida Keys through a character that seemed human and interesting. From early books like, Under Cover of Daylight to his fourteenth book, coming out in January, Forrest of the Night, Hall has maintained a level of excellence difficult to match. Here is a writer to emulate, these are books to appreciate. Then what could have gone so terribly wrong? What could turn a Floridian such as myself against one of Florida's literary treasures? It's a long and circuitous path to the darker emotions, but I believe I can document my journey without resorting to cheap theatrics or name-calling.

It actually started in January when I met Mr. Hall in person for the first time. We were both at Coral Gables' famed independent bookstore, Books and Books. We were there to see our mutual friend and Godfather of modern crime fiction, Elmore Leonard, deliver one of his famous readings in which one must marvel at the dignified form of a seventy-eight year-old man using the F word in such an eloquent manner. I was introduced to Mr. Hall and promptly determined him to be, in fact, a very nice guy. He was friendly and, after finding out about the impending release of my first book, encouraging. He never talked down to me and by any standard was exactly what I had heard from others: A really good guy. It made the transition to hating him that much more surprising.

Over the next few months I continued to write and worry over the release of my book. I would read a review of any book and try to relate it to mine. Had I been too verbose? Was my theme too erudite? Although I was uncertain of the exact meaning of erudite, I felt comfortable I had managed to avoid the obvious pitfall of being too much of it. At least in my first book. One way I believe I avoided it was by not really thinking about theme at all. During this time I also joined the Florida chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. After the first meeting I was certain that being exposed to local writers such as Barbara Parker, Elaine Viets and Jonothan King would serve to help me cope with the coming changes of becoming a published author. This, in addition to my meeting of James Hall, would all result in a smashing debut. At least that was the hope.

Then came my first real interview. It was early April as I recall. I was into my usual routine of running early in the morning, going to my regular police job during the day and writing at night. It was daunting and tiring but fulfilling in a way I had never known. Everything was going well at work and at home, an accomplishment not normally achieved by humans in this day and age. I got a call from the local PBS radio station asking if I would be interested in appearing live, on-air, during a pledge drive and offer an advanced reader's copy of my book, Walking Money. I agree immediately, all the while trying to sound uninterested and detached as any cool writer might sound. Several days later I arrived at the station freshly bathed and wearing my best Dockers. The interview started off with a bang as my head swelled to the repeated compliments of my book. In my mind I saw my name climbing the New York Times best seller list as all the smart, I-don't-have-time-for-TV people, listened to public radio and counted down the days until they could purchase their own copy of Walking Money.

Then it happened. Without warning or reason. The interviewer, an intelligent, well-read woman, after calling me by name for the first eight-minute section of the interview, started referring to me as Jim Hall instead of Jim Born. Can you believe it? I wait my whole adult life for someone to ask me about a book I had written and they call be by the wrong name. And it continued. On live radio. She would repeat, "I have Jim Hall in the studio," or, "Mystery writer Jim Hall is with us." I was panic-stricken. What should I do on a live broadcast? Correct her? Just stare at her? Then she holds up a copy of my book. Now I breathe a sigh of relief. My name is on it in bold letters, James O. Born. She had caught herself. Instead she says, on the air, to her book-reading audience, "I'm here with James W. Hall, Florida author." This was a real Hall fan. Everything went black. I thought I had suffered a stroke. Then the blood started to flow back into my brain and I realized I had, unfortunately, survived the humiliating incident. At the break I pointed out that while my name was, indeed, "Jim", my family name was "Born" not "Hall". The interviewer corrected her mistake after the break and apologized appropriately. My psyche had been taught a cosmic lesson. I was nobody.

To make matters worse, I e-mailed Mr. Hall with this tale and he found it amusing. Funny. He even went on to be supportive and, dare I say it, nice. I recovered. At least temporarily.

My book launched in late June and I was off on my tour. It was proving to be all I had ever hoped. That is until I visited a lovely bookstore in Sarasota, Florida named Circle Books. Located across the John Ringling causeway, Circle Books is known as a store that is very supportive of Florida writers. This became apparent when I arrived on a sunny Saturday afternoon and found a pretty good crowd for a first-time author. I spoke to the assembled patrons for a few minutes about the hardships of publishing and the dangers of police work (for the record I have suffered neither) and then sat down to sign their books. The second person in line, a pleasant looking woman about sixty with a warm smile and typical, reader-like intelligence, placed a copy of Walking Money on the table before me. I looked up and she gave a slight giggle. I had to inquire, what was so funny? She said, "I misread the newsletter and thought James Hall was signing today. My mistake. I'll buy your book anyway." I managed to get through the encounter and sign the book. Although I must confess I almost signed it James W. Hall. Once again my nemesis had struck through one of his surrogates. That's right, I‘m no idiot, I saw the movie Signs and I now know there are no such thing as coincidences. That means Mr. Hall, evil genius that he is, had engineered these incidents to destroy my sense of worth and prove he is the master.

I learned the lesson but have not forgotten the feelings. That is why I hate James W. Hall.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Gumshoe Awards Shortlist Announced

Mystery Ink announced today the shortlist for the fourth annual Gumshoe Awards. We have expanded the categories this year to include separate awards for Best Mystery and Best Thriller, plus an additional category to honor the Best European Crime Novel.

The Gumshoe Awards are given by Mystery Ink each year to recognize the best achievements in the world of crime fiction. The shortlisted books were chosen from those published for the first time in the United States in 2004. The winners will be announced on March 9, 2005.

Best Mystery:
Laura Lippman - By a Spider's Thread (William Morrow) (Review)
T. Jefferson Parker - California Girl (William Morrow) (Review)
Jim Fusilli - Hard, Hard City (Putnam) (Review)
Denise Hamilton - Last Lullaby (Scribner) (Review)
S.J. Rozan - Absent Friends (Delacorte)

Best Thriller:
Barry Eisler - Rain Storm (Putnam) (Review)
Dean Koontz - Life Expectancy (Bantam) (Review)
Alan Furst - Dark Voyage (Random House)
Daniel Silva - A Death in Vienna (Putnam) (Review)
Robert Ferrigno - The Wake-Up (Pantheon) (Review)

Best European Crime Novel:
Henning Mankell - The Return of the Dancing Master (New Press) (Review)
Carlos Ruiz Zafon - The Shadow of the Wind (Penguin)
Donna Leon - Doctored Evidence (Atlantic Monthly Press) (Review)
Boris Akunin - Murder on the Leviathan (Random House)
Ian Rankin - A Question of Blood (Little Brown) (Review)

Best First Novel:
J.A. Konrath - Whiskey Sour (Hyperion) (Review)
Raelynn Hillhouse - Rift Zone (Forge) (Review)
Dylan Schaffer - Misdemeanor Man (Bloomsbury) (Review)
Harley Jane Kozak - Dating Dead Men (Doubleday) (Review)
Charles Huston - Caught Stealing (Ballantine)

Still to be announced is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, which will be presented at the same time as the other winners. There will also be an award for Best Crime Fiction Website.

Last year’s winners were:

Best Novel: Steve Hamilton - Blood Is the Sky (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Best First Novel: P.J. Tracy - Monkeewrench (Putnam)
Best Crime Fiction Website: Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Lifetime Achievement: Ruth Rendell

Congratulations to all of the writers!

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind

Penguin is releasing one of last year's best reviewed titles of 2004 in trade paperback next week. Advance word is that Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind is receiving strong consideration for the Gumshoe Awards, which should be announced shortly.

The publisher is sponsoring a contest to celebrate the release. (You've probably gathered by now that I'm a sucker for contests. Not that I ever win.)

You can read an excerpt of it here. I hate excerpts, but I know some people dig 'em.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Scholastic announced today that the new book from new mom J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, will be 672 pages long.

For those keeping count, this is only 77% the length of the last one (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), which clocked in at a hefty 870 pages.

Looks like I'd better clear my schedule for the middle of July!

Monday, January 24, 2005

Welcome to the Blogosphere, Frank!

Frank Wilson, the book review editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer (whom I sometimes write for), has started a blog about his experiences as, well, a book review editor.

The very catchy name of it is Books, Inq. and I think it's a great idea. Maybe now we can figure out what the heck really goes on behind the scenes of the book review pages. I look forward to reading what Frank has to say.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

What's a lot of books? This is a lot of books.

According to Nielsen Bookscan, John Grisham's latest thriller, The Broker, sold 218,000 copies in its first week on the market. That's a cool 500 g's in JG's pocket in just 7 days.

The paperback edition of Grisham's previous book, The Last Juror, was #2 overall in sales for the week.

You've gotta hand it to the man, he knows what he's doing. At least these last two are supposed to be pretty good.

The Return of John Rain

Exciting news today on the thriller front!

Barry Eisler, author of the excellent John Rain books, returns June 23rd with another entry in this top-notch series.

Killing Rain will be the fourth book to feature the Japanese-American assassin who specializes in the "natural causes" hit.

Each of the first three books (Rain Fall, Hard Rain, Rain Storm) has been terrific -- and each has better than the last. (There's a reason Eisler keeps getting shortlisted for the Gumshoe Award.)

Advance word is that the trend continues, with Killing Rain even surpassing last year's superb Rain Storm. (See my full-length review of the latter over at January Magazine.)

Between John Rain and Jack Reacher (who will return this June in One Shot), summer is already shaping up as one kick ass season!

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Robert B. Parker -- Why bother?

A recent post on Lee Child's message board put forth an interesting question regarding Robert B. Parker: My basic question about Parker is why bother?

The reason to bother with Parker is because he wrote some of the finest PI novels extant and he was a key figure in the transition from the classic detective novels of Hammett, Chandler & Macdonald to the modern stories of Connelly, Crais, Mosley et al.

Parker was crucial in helping to update the PI archetype to include a more modernistic approach and outlook, especially with regards to the genre’s treatment of sociological themes, as well as a greater emphasis on realism.

The best Spenser novels (e.g., Looking for Rachel Wallace, Early Autumn, Mortal Stakes, Promised Land, etc.) are as good as anything in the detective genre and are certainly deserving of reading and discussing.

Now, one could reasonably put forth the question: why bother with new Parker novels? That would be a fair point, and my answer would be: most of them probably aren't worth a great deal of bother. Parker's work is still entertaining and the man would be hard-pressed to write something that wasn't eminently readable. But it’s true that his books don’t have the vitality, resonance, or importance that they once did.

Parker will turn 73 this year and he doesn't seem to have much interest in being the writer he once was. Of course, considering the sales he racks up these days, I can't really blame him. (He's a much more popular writer today than when he was a better one.) Most of us would be lucky to be as comfortable and successful in our careers when we reach his age.

Of course, Parker still has the tools of a fine storyteller, should he choose to use them, and even now he can turn out a book that will surprise you. Witness last year’s Double Play, which although I didn’t get around to reading it, got some very good notices, and certainly represented a fine effort at telling a new story.

As Max Allan Collins once said: “Disliking [someone’s] writing is one thing -- ignoring history is another. I am not a huge Robert B. Parker fan, but he is important, and a lot of us in the 1980s and 90s were able to sell private eye novels because Bob Parker led the way.”

Saturday, January 15, 2005

I've been playing with my anagrams again. Found one too good not to share:

Patricia Cornwell = "I write crap: con all".

Thursday, January 13, 2005

New Series "Tilt" Premieres Tonight

ESPN's new dramatic series Tilt, about the world of high stakes poker, premieres tonight on the cable sports network.

The series is notable to crime fiction fans as one of the writers is none other than Lawrence Block, one of the greats of the mystery world and a favorite of mine.

It looks like it might be a fun show. Check it out this evening at 9!

Friday, January 07, 2005

Just Too Much

What, exactly, is too much? This.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Final Tally for 2004

I read 125 books in 2004.* The vast majority were crime fiction titles, of course, with just a few others thrown in.

I reviewed 56 of those books, some of them more than once. The breakdown was:

  • Chicago Sun-Times: 50 books
  • Boston Globe: 6
  • Mystery Ink: 3
  • USA Today: 2
  • January Magazine: 2
  • Philadelphia Inquirer: 1

  • Note: Those totals don't include reviews that I cross-posted to Mystery Ink. I also reviewed 2 books for USA Today that never ran in the newspaper.

    In addition, there are 5 or so books that I read last year and will be reviewing this year.

    This was by far my busiest year so far on the reviewing side. This year will probably be lower, as the Sun-Times is cutting back on their review coverage and I'm busier with the day job.

    How much dough did I make for all of that? Quite a princely sum, I must confess: $3375. Guess I'd better stick with the day job, huh.

    Oh well, at least it was fun. I never became a writer for the money anyway.

    *I might have missed a few, as my record keeping isn't always as precise as it should be, but that's pretty close.

    Monday, January 03, 2005

    Must-read Thrillers

    I was recently asked by the new International Thriller Writers Association to compile a list of the must-read thrillers. Here is what I came up with.

    Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mister Ripley, 1955
    Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana, 1958
    Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate, 1959
    Len Deighton, The Ipcress File, 1962
    Adam Hall, The Quiller Memorandum, 1965
    Mario Puzo, The Godfather, 1969
    Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain, 1969
    Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal, 1971
    Trevanian, The Eiger Sanction, 1972
    William Goldman, Marathon Man, 1974
    Ross Thomas, Chinaman's Chance, 1978
    Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity, 1980
    Dick Francis, Whip Hand, 1981
    Thomas Harris, Red Dragon, 1981
    Thomas Perry, Butcher's Boy, 1982
    David Morrell, The Brotherhood of the Rose, 1984
    Warren Murphy & Molly Cochran, Grandmaster, 1985
    Stephen King, Misery, 1987
    John Grisham, The Firm, 1991
    Dean Koontz, Mr. Murder, 1993
    Lee Child, Killing Floor, 1997
    Daniel Silva, The Mark of the Assassin, 1998

    It's not an exhaustive list, but they're all damn fine books.