Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A Face Made for Radio

Let's talk about looks.

I'm pretty honest with myself, and I know I'm not going to win any beauty contests.

Under low-lighting conditions, after a lot of drinks, I might be considered average. This doesn't bother me. I'm not a vain guy. And I know that good looks and charisma are two different things, which helps compensate for the fact that the celebrity I most resemble is John Belushi.

But in this business (and in all businesses for that matter) looks do count.

If you've ever watched someone browse the bookstore isles, they always glance at the author photo in the back. Always. And many bestsellers possess above-average looks. I don't think this is coincidental.

As a society, we prize beauty. We use it to sell products. We use it in our media and entertainment. We're bombarded with it from all directions. Mystery conferences even have unofficial beauty contests for male and female writers (the Bouchercon Babe and the Sleuthfest Stud come to mind.)

This is genetic. Studies with infants have shown they stare at beautiful people for longer than they stare at average people. We imbue attractive folks with qualities like intelligence, health, wisdom, humor, and kindness, before we've even met them. We're more forgiving of them, and more anxious to help them.

When I decided to go with the name JA Konrath on my books, rather than Joe, it was a subtle attempt to make readers think I was a female. My idea entirely. After all, I'm writing for a female protagonist, and 80% of all mysteries are purchased by women, and many of my favorite authors in the genre are women.

As a result, my author bio on the book is asexual, and lacks a photo.

Which may have also been a little bit calculating on my part. If I looked like Lee Child, or Robert Crais, or Barry Eisler, or David Ellis, I might not have been so eager to use "JA." And my publisher may not have been so eager to comply.

Do publishers care about looks? Absolutely. I had to FedEx an 8x10 glossy to my future publisher before being offered a contract. I guess my picture hadn't been bad enough to be a deal-breaker (thank God for Photoshop,) and the aforementioned charisma I believe I possess helped my cause. If you can't be gorgeous, be funny or nice.

But everyone knows that publishers do consider looks at acquisitions meetings, along with the quality of the book and the marketability of the concept. Is this author photogenic? Does the camera like her? Does he give good TV? Will she captivate a room full of people? Do the women want him, and the men want to be him?

Which is why, even though I'm sexless on my books, I try to look decent for public appearances. I bought a few nice suits. An expensive pair of designer eyeglasses. I wear a touch of cologne. I even, on occasion, cover up a blemish with make-up.

Still, I can't help but feel I'm just putting a fresh coat of paint on a condemned house.

I got an email the other day from someone who wondered why I made fun of myself on my website, namely in the photos. He seemed angry at me for being self-disparaging, and told me I was taking away from the professionalism of my site by cracking jokes about my weight.

He also pointed out that it seemed I was uncomfortable with my body, and was targeting out my own problems before anyone else had a chance to.

I thought about this for a few hard seconds, and dismissed it. I make fun of everyone, including myself. I like to joke that I lost ten pounds, but then found them again in my ass. I think it's funny.

And I'm also guessing the guy who wrote the email had some issues of his own he needed to deal with. Issues involving Doritos, Twinkies, and husky pants.

Am I uncomfortable with my body? Sure. Who isn't?

Would life be better if I was more attractive? Of course it would.

But the most important question is: would I sell more books?

Which is why I'm currently working hard to lose weight. You can read about my efforts HERE.

In the meantime, I'll continue in my efforts to be funny and nice, and take some solace in the fact that the most famous writer who ever lived, William Shakespeare, looked a lot like Mr. Potato Head.

Didn't seem to hurt his sales.

Monday, June 27, 2005

I'm Certain that I'm Uncertain

Nothing in life is certain, but few things are more uncertain than publishing.

A lot of stars have to align in order to become a successful author.

First off, you have to write a book. But that's not enough. It has to be a good book. But that's not enough. It has to be a good, marketable book. But that's not enough either. You have to write a good, marketable book that an agent will fall in love with. But that's still not enough. The agent has to make an editor fall in love with it, and the editor has to make the sales reps and the marketing department and her boss fall in love with it.

My sources tell me that happens about once in 13,000 times (I've blogged about this in my earlier BEA post.)

If you reach that stage, and your book is published, then the hard part begins. You have to get readers to discover your book and fall in love with it.

Writers and publishers have various ways of trying to make this happen. Advance reading copies, reviews, blurbs, ads, tours, library talks, conferences, signings, radio and TV interviews, awards nominations, widespread distribution, newspaper articles, movie options, foreign rights, websites, email campaigns, snail mail campaigns, co-op, discounting, catalogs, newsletters, and more.

No one is sure why some books sell and others flop. No one knows what works and what doesn't. People can't even agree on if a book is a good book.

If you're an author, trying to figure out your part in all of this, you can wind up a little overwhelmed.

Some authors just concentrate on writing they best book they can, and leave it up to fate to decide if it becomes successful.

Some authors spend a lot of time and money self-promoting, but even if they visited one bookstore a day for an entire year, and sold twenty copies of their book (a decent number) at each store, that's only 7300 copies a year, which won't get them on any bestseller lists.

How many books become bestsellers? Let's do some quick and dirty math to find out. The current top 15 NYT bestsellers in hardcover fiction have spent a total of 259 weeks on the List. If we average that, each book spends 17 weeks as a bestseller. That seems high, because of The Da Vinci Code and The Five People You Meet in Heaven (both over 91 weeks). If we remove them from the List, it seems to be the average bestseller is in the Top 15 for 4 weeks.

At 52 weeks in a year, there are 780 bestselling slots available (52 times 15 for the Top 15).

If we divide 780 slots by 4 (4 weeks for the average bestseller), that means there are roughly 195 hardcover novels that make the NYT Top 15 every year.

According to MJ Rose's blog, the top 12 NY publishers put out about 5100 fiction titles a year.

So, if you're the 1 in 13,000 that gets published, you still have to face odds of 1 in 26 to make the NYT Top 15 List.

Altogether, the odds are 338,000 to 1 that you'll write a bestseller.

Pretty daunting. And those odds are skewed because many of the folks on the NYT List have been on their previously. I'm sure it's much harder for a new author to crack the List.

I did an event with an award-winning and very popular author, whom I respect. He believes that writers are artists, and that the book is more important than the buzz. But he also understands the need for promotion, which he gladly does and is very good at.

Over a beer, he suggested that I stop worrying about what could happen and try to appreciate what is happening. Why drive myself crazy, when the future is largely out of my control? Shouldn't I appreciate the success I've already attained? I've sold a few books, been nominated for a few awards, gotten some decent reviews. Shouldn't that be enough? It's more than most writers ever have.

Another author at this event, one who has many books in print, is currently without a book contract. He believes that writers are craftsmen, and reminisced about being a young author, speaking to older pros without contracts, and swearing that it would never happen to him. But it has. Over a beer, he lamented his career, wondering what went wrong.

I couldn't help but think that a few years ago, when he was doing well, he hadn't been worrying about his career as much as he should have been.

I'd love to say that I'll be in this business for 30 years, and that someday I'll make the bestseller list. But all writers believe that. It's what keeps us going.

The numbers tell a different story. A discouraging story. Writers get dropped by publishers. They spend years in the business and never make the NYT List. They tirelessly self-promote and still have to keep their day jobs.

You can write a wonderful book, have a publisher that's behind you, get great reviews, win awards, do a lot of promotion, and still fail.

Scary thing, uncertainty. A very scary thing.

But today I'm going to take a little break from worrying. Hyperion just sold the Czech rights for my first two novels, and tonight I'm doing a reading in front of a crowd of friends.

I'll panic tomorrow.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Self-Doubting Thomas

Hard topic, and something few talk about.

So I will.

Most writers I've met have secret fears. They're driven by uncertainty, and then proven in a dozen different ways.

We fear that our books won't sell. That we won't get another contract. That we'll get bad reviews. That our editors will switch houses. That our cover art will suck. That no one will show up at our signings. That our efforts are in vain.

In short, we fear failure.

That's a pretty normal thing. Most people fear failing. But writers have so many obsessive, neurotic ways to reinforce their fears.

We don't admit it, but we all do the same things, and think the same thoughts. Some of them include:

Google our own names. Most writers do this daily. Some do it hourly. Searching for another mention, another signal that we're getting our brand out there.

Check Amazon. Again, it's a daily, possibly hourly thing. We're looking for rank, to see if it's gone up or down. Watching your rank go down is like a little slap in the face. An even bigger slap is when some helpful soul gives a you one star rating for no discernible reason.

Deny success. Many writers refuse to acknowledge their own accomplishments, because they're waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or they think that success was a fluke that won't last.

Stress out. Rather than enjoying the wonderful ride we're on, writers worry about the next goal ala Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow was right--as soon as we fulfill our dreams, more dreams take their place.

Avoid humiliation. A great number of writers I know refuse to do signings. I understand why. Sitting alone at the signing table while customers walk by is awful. It's worse than not being asked to dance. It's worse than being the last kid picked for backyard football. Smiling at person after person, shaking hands, pitching your book, and getting shot down over and over again is a direct punch right in the ego.

Watch our websites. A lot of writers I know have invisible counters that show how many people have visited their sites. The obsessive ones (you know who you are) also check for length of stay, entry and exit pages, keyword activity, browser activity, system stats, visitor paths, geo-location, returning visitors, number of downloads, and on and on.

Obsess over reviews. Good ones are a cause for celebration. Bad ones can cause depression. Having none is worst of all. I know writers who don't read reviews anymore. Or at least they say they don't. I don't know how that's possible.

Envy each other. This is never mentioned, and hardly ever shown, but we all secretly wonder about our fellow authors. Why does she have a movie deal and I don't? Why is he a bestseller? Why does she make more money, and have bigger print runs, and have books in 30 different countries? Why is he in hardcover? Why does she have books on tape? Why did he get a book tour and massive publicity? The unspoken tagline is "...especially since I'm a better writer."

Hate rejection. Doesn't matter how long you've been in the biz, getting your work rejected still stings.

Dislike imposed edits. Maybe we say we love to be edited. But deep down, we all feel that what we originally wrote was right. That's why we wrote it that way. And I'm pretty sure that we're wrong, and that the editing is necessary, yet it still rankles a bit to be told something needs fixing. I have a theory that the bigger an author gets, the less editing they allow. Which is why so many bestselling authors aren't as good as they were years ago---they refuse to be editing. (But that might just be envy talking.)

Drink. Where do you always find authors at a conference? The bar. Writing is a profession that pushes social drinking to the boundaries. Good news? We drink. Bad news? We drink. More than one writer in the room? We drink. The only thing bigger than my liver is my bladder.

Become a little conceited. Or perhaps very conceited. Having strangers tell you how much they love you is a heady experience. If it happens enough, it's very easy to believe them.

Forget where we came from. All pros were once newbies, dreaming about being published, struggling to get an agent. But once we get a key to the clubhouse, we forget how hard we struggled. A lot of writers I know make an effort to help new authors. They blurb. They teach. They critique. They make themselves accessible. But some don't. They're at the top, but they haven't sent the elevator back down.

If you're a published writer, you might look at these things and think, "How did Joe know?"

Or you might look at these things and deny them all.

If you're not published yet, you might look at these things and think, "I'll never do any of that."

But I'd put good money on the fact that you will.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Ups and Downs of USPS

I go to the United States Post Office (our nation's fourth largest armed force) a lot.

This morning I have 18 packages to send out. I average about 30 a month.

Today I'm mailing:

30 signed bookplates to a store in PA that request them
2 copies of BLOODY MARY for reviewers
3 handouts from Dark and Stormy Conference for folks who missed my classes
4 copies of Ellery Queen for folks who won a website contest
1 magazine to a guy who won a newsletter contest
1 BLOODY MARY for a woman who won a newsletter contest
3 copies of WHISKEY SOUR for people who ordered them from my website (I break even on the deal)
1 free copy of WHISKEY SOUR for an ailing fan
1 copy of BLOODY MARY for a radio interviewer
1 copy each of WHISKEY and BLOODY for a mystery conference chairperson

No submissions to magazines or anthologies this week, because I haven't written any new short stories lately. But I did mail out five in May (two rejections so far, need to send those back out.)

Last year, I mailed out over 500 free things: chapbooks, books, magazines, signed coasters, bookplates, flyers, etc. The mail is yet another weapon in my marketing arsenol.

I don't do postcards, because people throw away postcards, and I never bought a book because I received a postcard.

Everything I send out is signed, which I do because I'm hoping that peole won't throw away something autographed.

Does it work? Does giving folks signed stuff and running ten contests a year make them rush out and buy my books? Or do the same three people keep entering over and over because they want something free?

I dunno. But I keep doing it anyway.

I do have some proof that my ongoing association with the United States Postal Service is working. Last week, my mailman came to my booklaunch party.

See? I'm a marketing genius.

Gotta start working on the garbage man next...

Monday, June 20, 2005

With a Little Help from My Friends

I had a revelation of sorts at my booklaunch party, one that made me glad to be a part of this business.

Among the 100+ guests were many published writers, including Jay Bonansinga, Libby Fischer Hellmann, David Ellis, Robert W. Walker, Raymond Benson, Thomas Keevers, Brian Pinkerton, Tim Broderick, and several others.

Though it's possible they'd been lured there by the free beer, each of them was congratulatory and bought books. Some bought several. Some even brought champagne.

While other jobs inspire intense competition, jealousy, political maneuvering, and back-biting, I've never felt that from the professional writers I've known. Quite the opposite---almost every pro I've met has been gracious, generous, and truly happy for the success of their fellow novelists.

Though I know writers who are bitter, the bitterness is directed at their publishers, their agents, or themselves, never at other writers.

In a field this crowded and this competitive, that's a pretty amazing thing.

But it doesn't end with just a booklaunch party. The few times I've been nominated for an award, my email overflowed with well-wishes from authors. When I get reviewed, fellow writers will give me a 'atta boy' if the review was good, or a 'that reviewer is an idiot' if the review wasn't so good.

I'm new to the blogosphere (so new I don't know how to change my template and link to other blog sites) but that hasn't prevented many blogging novelists from linking to me and sending traffic my way.

For WHISKEY SOUR and BLOODY MARY I've gotten more than thirty blurbs, many from NYT bestsellers.

When I considered editing a thriller anthology, almost everyone I contacted sent me a story, knowing full well that the money would be trivial.

And while I'd love to think that the behavior of these writers is directly linked to the undeniable charisma that I ooze, I know for a fact that I'm not the only recipient of this ongoing kindness.

I belong to an online writing forum called Backspace ( and the membership there is so overwhelmingly supportive that entire threads are dedicated to congratulations.

I attended the ITW Cocktail Party in NY ( and some of the biggest names in the thriller world were drinking and eating and schmoozing with newbie writers like we were equals.

Whenever a group of writers get together, they share tips and tricks and wisdom and experience that would get folks in other professions fired for revealing trade secrets.

Writers support, promote, and help each other. This appears to be the norm.

What a cool profession I'm in. Now can someone please tell me how I can link to other blogs?

Friday, June 17, 2005

Booklaunch Party June 18

BLOODY MARY is now available, along with the paperback version of WHISKEY SOUR, and I'm celebrating by buying beer and eats for family, friends, and fans.

It's happening from 11:30am-2:00pm, at Damon's Grill on 1140 East Higgins Road, Schaumburg, IL 60173 Phone: 847-995-0064.

Many authors worry about their booklaunch, or have unrealistic expectations, or don't know what to expect. Here's my take on what makes a successful launch party:

1. Food and liquor. This means the party can't be held in a bookstore, which is OK---a bookstore wouldn't comfortably hold 200 people anyway. Can you have a booklaunch without alcohol? Sure... but don't expect as big a turnout.

2. Books. Well, duh, no brainer there. But you don't want to get the books from your publisher and sell them, because those don't count toward your sales numbers and royalty figures. I suggest getting a bookstore to come to your event and handle the sales. That should be easy--it's basically free money. Who wouldn't want free money?

3. Publicity. You could contact local radio and newspapers, but that would mean feeding people you don't know, which could cost a fortune. I stick to a newsletter announcement, a website announcement, some messages on newsgroups, and some flyers to pass out a few days before the event.

4. Working the room. Once the party starts, make sure you circulate. Sitting in a corner, signing books, is anti-social. Your booklaunch party is for your biggest fans, and you need to be lively and fun and gracious and appreciative and schmoozing like crazy.

5. Location. I usually begin at a restaurant and do most of the signing and selling there, then take people back to my house for more beer and food. Restaurants will usually cut you a good deal because you're bringing in a lot of people, and a book signing is good publicity. Stick to appetizers and finger food.

A friend just had his launch party at a house, and had it catered. That also worked well (though parking was tough to find.) He also had a pianist there, which made me extremely jealous---I have pianist envy.

6. Sponsorship. I didn't even consider this for my first booklaunch, but for this one it fell into my lap. Goose Island, which is a local brewery, is helping to publicize the event and they're giving me a deal on the beer. Their flyers say "Enjoy Chicago's beer with a Chicago author." Pretty cool. Next year, I'll see if maybe I can get the Mrs. Paul's Fishstix folks involved. Mmmmm... processed and pre-formed fried scrod.

7. Merchandise. A party costs big bucks, and the bookseller is making all the $$$. I like to take some of the sting out of this by selling other stuff, like magazines and anthologies I've appeared in, and T-shirts.

Last year I sold T-shirts. I printed the iron-on transfers on my computer (of my book cover), bought some white Hanes for cheap, and sold them for $6 each. I had 30 of them, and sold out in five minutes. People paid me to be walking advertisements of my products. How cool is that? Bring a marker to sign the T-shirts.

When you appear in a magazine or an anthology, you can buy contributor's copies at a discount. I've been in a bunch, and these always sell well at a booklaunch.

My bookseller is happy to do the selling of this stuff for me, even though she doesn't get a cut of it---it's a mutually beneficial relationship.

8. Have fun. This will probably be your best-attended event of the year. All the people who knew you before you became an author will be there, heaping on the praise, buying multiple copies to give away as holiday gifts. Everyone will want a picture. You're the king for a day.

Enjoy it... the rest of your scheduled yearly events won't be as big, as smooth, or as satisfying. In fact, many of the events ahead of you will be poorly attended, stressful, nerve-wracking, and depressing. But don't dwell on that now---today is your day.

Savor every second.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

And the Hits Keep Coming...

When I relaunched my website last May 15th, I installed an invisible hit counter to keep track of how many people were visiting.

I'm averaging about 200 page loads a day, which isn't bad considering I'm a newbie midlist author with about 90,000 books in print.

A few days ago, I began checking the hits this blog has been getting, and not counting all the times I re-edit it to correct numerous typos, I'm managing about 50 unique hits a day.

This information begs the question: do websites, and blogs, help sell books?

Let me state right now that selling books isn't the main point of my blog or my website. If it were, I'd have the standard five page author advertisement site, which only exists as a 24 hour link to

I've tried to make my homepage more user-friendly, with some fun free stuff and some useful information.

But, ultimately, I hope that those who find the site fun, or the information useful, will buy one of my books.

Unfortunately, my hit counter only tracks people who visit the site, not people who visit the site and then run out and buy a copy of WHISKEY SOUR. And if it did, I can't help but think that I'd be disappointed by the stats.

Why are some of the most popular blogs out there written by folks who aren't huge bestsellers, even though their blogs are huge hits? Does blogging, or a good website, actually influence sales?

Even more to the point, does anything influence sales?

We've all seen advertising disasters, where authors with six-figure ad campaigns sold poorly, so clearly advertising isn't a key to success.

We've all read brilliant books that remain unknown, and crappy books that hit the bestseller list, so obviously talent isn't a key to success.

We've all seen authors who are brilliant self-promoters, or who hire brilliant publicists, and still fail to crack the NYT list, and those who do zero promotion and make the List constantly, so how well you toot your own horn isn't a key to success either.

So I direct this question to you, my 50 readers a day. Have you ever bought a book because you enjoyed a blog or a website? If not, what makes you buy a book? Seeing a big ad? Meeting the author in person? Knowing the author has a six-figure marketing campaign? Getting a postcard or bookmark in the mail? Reading a review?

Or does it ultimately come down to if the book is about a topic you normally enjoy?

Why do you buy books?

Monday, June 13, 2005

A Weekend in the Life


6:00AM - Wake up.

6:05-8:30 - Answer email (I get anywhere from 10 to 30 a day that need replies.)

8:30-12:00 - Write. Mailman comes, gives me a rejection. Find a new market and send it right back out.

12:00-4:00 - Work on handouts for Dark and Stormy Conference tomorrow. I'm teaching two classes, each an hour long.

4:00-5:00 - Write Blog.

5:00-12:00 - Continue printing out handouts, and flyers, while updating website.


6:00AM - Wake up.

7:45 - Get to Dark and stormy conference.

8:00 - Meet bookseller. Schmooze. Notice they didn't bring enough copies of my books, and provide them with some copies at a 40% discount.

8:15-9:45 - Meet and greet writers, old friends, and new fans. Pass out business cards. Put flyers and cards on goody table. Introduce myself to strangers.

10:00-11:00 - Teach first class. Crowd of twenty. The class is about writing and selling short stories. I curtail the humor in favor of actual teaching, though there is still some humor. The class seems to get a lot out of it.

11:00-12:00 - Teach second class. Most of the first class also appears in the second one, which I consider a good sign. Thirty people this time. I keep my energy level high and stay animated, enthusiastic, and interesting. After class, I ask about 15 people how I did, asking for criticism rather than praise (can't learn from praise.) The only crit I get is for letting a student drone on too long when asking a question---I should have cut her off. I'll know better for next time.

12:00-1:30 - Lunch. Sit with strangers, work the table.

1:30-3:30 - Have a beer with William Kent Krueger, whom I haven't seen in a while. We're joined by Jon and Ruth Jordan (Crimespree magazine), Charlaine Harris, Libby Fischer Hellmann, and Laura Lippman.

3:30 -4:00 - Check with the bookseller. They're out of books. I bring them more. I'm stopped by a group and sign some copies. The woman running the conference (Jeanne Damms) tells me that the audio tapes of my two classes are selling like crazy.

4:00-5:00 - Attend last panel of the day. Sign more books.

5:00-6:00 - After conference cocktail party. Four people buy me beer, and I mingle with an armful of Heinikens. Several folks are going to Shaw's, a fine dining crab house, for dinner, and I snag an invitiation.

6:00-9:30 - It's like deja vu going to Shaw's; I used to be a waiter there four years ago. I see a few people I used to work with, tell them I'm a full-time writer now, invite them to my booklaunch party on Saturday. It's weird to think that had I not sold a book, I'd probably still be working there. I spent a lot of nights, serving seafood, wondering if I'd ever be published, wondering if my dreams would ever come true.

Dinner is pleasant. Most of us are writers, and we talk shop and compare notes. Gary Warren Niebuhr reminds me that I have to be in Milwaukee tomorrow at 10:30AM.

10:30 - Get home. Brief hello to the family before falling asleep.


6:00AM - Wake up.

6:05 - Panic because I can't find out the address to the place I visiting in Milwaukee.

6:07 - My wife suggests I check my website. The info is there. Apparently I'm more organized than I thought.

10:30 - I get to the Sheraton on time, bring in a box of books, and am met by several members of the CLOAK AND CLUE SOCIETY, who are at the bar and immediately buy me a beer.

My kind of crowd.

11:00 - After mingling, we go into the banquet room and eat a damn good buffet. I make sure I introduce myself to everyone in the room.

12:00 - I give a keynote speech. This time, I try to be funny instead of informative, with great results. I may never have a crowd this good again. They laughed at everything, applauded at several different points, and were a joy to talk to.

12:45 - Sign some books, take some pictures, then head for Chicago. I feel energized during the two hour drive. A great event always makes me feel like that.

3:00 - Arrive at the Printer's Row bookfair. Parking costs more than I paid for my shoes. I lug a box of books to the Twilight Tales signing booth, meet everyone, then settle in to sell some.

Perhaps "settle in" is the wrong terminology. I was signing with two other guys, who sat behind their tables and waited for people to approach. I walked out into the stream of bodies and talked to people as they passed, introducing myself.

I sold about 25 books in two hours. I could have done better, but the fair was winding down and so was I.

5:30: Dinner with more writers: Brian Pinkerton, Henry Perez (and his wife Cheryl), Tom Keevers, Raymond Benson, and Robert W. Walker.

9:00 - Get home. Brief hello to family. Crawl into bed, thinking about the summer.

I have to do 38 events in the next 48 days.

I'd better get some sleep.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Of Dark and Stormy Nights

So I'm sitting at my computer, my fingers soaked in yellow, magenta, and cyan ink, trying to tell the difference between 20# paper and 24# paper by holding them up to the light and judging which is slightly thicker.

Pre-conference excitement at its apex.

Tomorrow is Of Dark and Stormy Nights XXIII (, a convention for writers by writers. I'm faculty, which means I'm teaching two classes: one on creating series characters, and one on selling short stories.

The teaching is the easy part--I enjoy public speaking, and am very familiar with these topics.

The preparation is the hard part.

I've put together a handout for each class, but rather than the typical black and white Xerox, I've created a color booklet that the attendees will hopefully keep longer than the time it takes to get to the nearest garbage can.

The booklets are pretty easy to make using MS Word, but printing is a pain because it's double sided and each page needs to be fed into the printer twice.

My helpful wife, ever the enemy of disorder, unwrapped all of my reams of paper because the wrappers were unsightly, then neatly stacked it all next to my desk.

Since double sided only works with 24# (20# bleeds through), I've spent the last hour trying to separate the two. Prior to that, I refilled my ink jet cartridge, which is much cheaper than buying a new cartridge, but I didn't bother using the handy rubber gloves they included with the kit, so now I look like I've been arrested and printed by Jackson Pollock.

I should be done in about four more hours.

Why bother? Why not go with the black and white Xerox, or even simpler, tell the classes to take notes?

Because this is part of the business that I have control over.

I don't have control over some little old lady in Sheboygan Wisconsin who picks up my book in a Borders. But I do have control over my public appearances, and I want to be remembered. The more people who remember me, the more likely they are to buy my books and talk about me afterwards.

So I dress my best, make sure I have a fun, energetic, informative presentation, and give out handouts that folks will keep.

I'll also bring business cards (one with my address and phone number, one with just my book covers and website URL), flyers for the freebie table, and extra books for when the bookseller runs out of mine (they always seem to, and I let them have copies at a 40% discount. I buy my books at that same discount from an independent bookstore---buying from your publisher doesn't count toward your sales.)

It's a pain to print everything up and haul it there, but I think it's worth it. Though it's hard to judge the effectiveness of handouts, I get emails every week from folks who have met me somewhere on the road and want to thank me for the short story/booklet/coaster that I gave them.

What amazes me are the writers who come to conventions with NOTHING. No flyer. No business card. No copies of their book.

These same writers get upset when the dealer room runs out of their work, or didn't have it in the first place. They lament the fact that their website isn't getting any traffic, when they didn't pass out a single card with their URL on it. They spend hundreds of dollars attending conferences, and then their spend time boozing with old buddies rather than meeting new faces.

Yes, publicity is thankless, boring, and difficult. Yes, it's much easier to sit in a corner and hope to get noticed rather than put on a big smile and introduce yourself to strangers.

But isn't that why we attend these things? To be remembered?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

An Award Nomination is its Own Reward

I got news a little while ago that WHISKEY SOUR was nominated for a Macavity Award for Best First Novel. The Macavitys have been given by Mystery Readers International ( since 1987, and are highly regarded in the mystery genre.

I'm thrilled to be considered for the award, even though Harley Jane Kozak is going to smoke me like a pack of Winstons (her debut novel DATING DEAD MEN already won an Agatha Award.)

After she takes the Macavity, later that Bouchercon ( weekend she'll also take the Anthony Award, which we're both nominated for.

And when she's done with that she'll probably also take my car.

But that doesn't bother me, because I'm happy just being nominated.

I've heard that phrase said a million times at awards shows---almost as often as I've heard a victorious sports hero say his superstar effort was all for the team. But it's so true.

As writers, we have two ways to measure our success: sales and awards.

Sales are important, because they allow you to do important things, like eat.

Awards are also important, because they validate those of us, like me, who don't have high sales.

Earlier this year I was nominated for a Gumshoe Award, a Derringer Award, a Love is Murder People's Choice Award, and I made the prelim ballot for the Stoker Award. I won some and lost some. But I was always excited to get nominated.

I write because I love to entertain people, but I chose a medium that doesn't allow me to witness the audience reaction. Being nominated for something means I'm hitting the notes that I'm striving to hit. It's like getting feedback, and feedback is always welcome.

Plus, I'll use any excuse to get together with a bunch of writers and drink.

So come Awards Day, I'll be at a table in my tuxedo with my family and friends, applauding mightly when Harley Jane, or perhaps Sandra Balzo (Uncommon Grounds), wins the Anthony and the Macavity.

My applause will be genuine, without envy. Being nominated is an honor, not an entitlement, and the fact that my book was recognized is more than I ever could have hoped for.

And on the very slight chance that I win something, I really hope the award is made out of something edible, like ham.

Gotta feed my family somehow...

Sunday, June 05, 2005


I just returned from Book Expo America in NYC, and it went well.

BEA is the publishing industry's trade show, and there are hundreds of booths, and thousands of people who attend.

Do you need to go to BEA? In my opinion, yes. Here's a quick rundown of what I did and why I did it:

Caught the red-eye to NY June 2, and went from the airport to the Park South Hotel, where I was toastmaster for the Backspace Conference (

The conference went well. Good attendance, and some big names.

Note to everyone who ever speaks in public: the secret to success is threefold.

1. Be entertaining.
2. Be brief.
3. Keep things moving.

It's very important to keep one eye on your audience to gauge their reactions. I'm surprised how many folks in this biz don't do that. You want to dazzle, and enlighten, and motivate. If there's a mass exodus to the washroom during your talk, or you're hearing snores, wrap it up.

I've done a few dozen conventions, and you can actually lose sales by being boring. Don't be boring.

The conference lasted from noon until eight, and then the after-conference drinking began.

If you're an author, you need a liver made of steel, and kidneys the size of watermelons. Also, have your general practitioner sew on a second bladder. Preferably not where it can be seen.

Schmoozing is essential in this biz. Talking with other authors to get advice and wisdom, learning the industry gossip, and being generous with buying rounds will help you make friends, and you need as many as you can get.

I'm pretty good at schmoozing, and got to my hotel room by 3AM. Note to all: DO NOT stay at the Hotel Pennsylvania. It's a Soviet Gulag. The room was the size of an appliance box, and had paint flaking off the walls, suspicious stains on the carpeting, no batteries in the remote control, crummy pillows, a funny smell, and a bathroom straight out of Midnight Express. The towel bar had been ripped from the wall, leaving two large holes. Why had someone ripped off the towel bar? Possibly to beat themselves over the head with it because they were paying $150 a night for the room. I tried to place a wake-up call for 7AM, and the phone rang over eighty times before the operator picked up.

Since I didn't trust that I'd get the call, I phoned home and woke up my wife, asking her to call me. I would have set the alarm, but my room didn't have a clock.

At 7AM, I did get the wake-up call. I swallowed some Advil, hopped in the shower, and walked the fifteen blocks to the Javits Center because the rumors were true--you can't get a cab in Manhattan.

The sheer size of BEA is overwhelming. There are rows and rows and rows of publishers, all giving out free books, book bags, CDs, DVDs, magazines, catalogs, etc. I went to the Hyperion booth ( to find my escort to the Book Sense Luncheon.

Book Sense is the brainchild of the American Booksellers Associate (, a group of 1200 independent bookstores who have joined together to help promote themselves and authors they enjoy. I was a Book Sense pick in 2004 for WHISKEY SOUR, so I got an invite.

The banquet went well. I got to meet many indie booksellers, shake some hands, give away some copies of BLOODY MARY, and meet some cool authors.

After the luncheon, I met with my agent, Jane Dystel ( whom I adore. I then visited the Brilliance Audio ( booth, where I found out my book made the cover of their Summer catalog. I also visited Hyperion again, where they had huge stacks of BLOODY MARY to give away, and got caught up in signing a few dozen copies for those who asked.

Hyperion had also made some business cards for me, which looked much better than the ones I printed up on my computer. I actually feel like a pro now, when I hand out a card. I should have gotten some made earlier.

At 6PM, I left BEA and took a shuttle back to the prison camp to change clothes, and I discovered that my room hadn't been cleaned. I called housekeeping, but after 60 rings gave up.

Then I walked to the Horror Writers Association ( NYC chapter meeting at a nearby bar. There was schmoozing, and alcohol was consumed. I managed to get back to the hotel by 4AM, and with great effort managed to place a wake-up call for 7AM.

Saturday was busy. I met my editor for brunch, and she's a joy to be around. We spent about two hours together, then went back to the Javits Center for my first official BEA signing.

Official signings take place at the author area, at the back of the building. There are 30 lanes, each roped off into isles and about thirty yards long. Most authors get a half hour to sign books. Bestsellers get an hour.

My signing was from 1pm-1:30pm. I got there at 12:40, and son of a gun, I already had a line. I spoke to the folks, took a few pictures, then went to my table and began to autograph.

I signed for 70 minutes, because the line never ended. It was an absolute joy. They had to bump the guy who was supposed to follow me.

After the signing, I hit the floor again. I met with Uglytown (, who is publishing an anthology I edited (THESE GUNS FOR HIRE, a collection of hitman stories, for 2006). I also met with Andrew Gulli, editor of The Strand Magazine (, who is publishing a story of mine, and Kristin Godsey of Writer's Digest, who is publishing an upcoming article of mine.

By 6PM, it was time to get to the ITW Cocktail Party (, where I got to schmooze with some major big shots in the business.

Party ended at 8PM. Then, to the bar.

I made it back to the Gulag by 1AM, so exhausted I fell asleep in my suit.

Early flight back to Chicago, where I got home at 3PM and slept for six hours.

Was the trip worthwhile? Absolutely. Besides seeing my agents and editors, I had a chance to see and be seen by many terrific authors, booksellers, librarians, and fans. Among the folks I had a chance to talk to were Lee Child, David Morrell, Gayle Lynds, M.J. Rose, Candace Bushnell, Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritson, Sandra Brown, Barry Eisler, Harry Hunsicker, Richard Curtis, David Hale Smith, David Dun, James Rollins, Elizabeth Becka, Sarah Weinman, Nathan Walpow, Mark Conrad, Leslie Wells, Jane Dystel, Miriam Goderich, Michael Bourret, Steve Alten, Adam Pepper, Monica O'Rourke, Tom Fassbender, Jim Pascoe, Reed Coleman, F. Paul Wilson, Douglas Preston, Christopher Rice, Steve Berry, Jack Ketchum, Jeff Strand, Jeffrey Anderson, Ty Drago, Robert Liparulo, and so many others.

Plus, I confirmed some suspicions I'd always had about publishing.

Agents get dozens of submissions a day. They request full manuscripts on five percent of those, and choose to represent about 3 perscent of those. I'm no math wizard, but I think that means for every 2000 folks who submit, they'll take on three.

On the editorial end, they reject nine out of ten agented submissions. And of those that the editors like, more than half get turned down at the ax meeting (acquisitions).

So, by my very rough estimation, one out of 13320 books gets represented and published.

Of course, one publisher might accept what another rejects. Ditto agents. But we're still talking long odds here.

Which is why, once you do get published, you need to make sure you stay published. BEA is one way to do so.

But next time I'm in NY, I'm staying at the Algonquin.