Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: Popular Crime

I continue to have mixed feelings about reviewing books because I think I'm basically polluting my own waters by commenting on my fellow writers. But things are changing so quickly in the book-writing world with the advent of e-publishing, that I'm not sure that I will even have a viable writing career unless I take the bull by the horns myself and extract myself from the current publishing model. My latest novel (a pastiche of Pride and Prejudice set in the mystery writing world) is currently been rejected by a number of agents, and I'm seriously now looking to self-publish it. I think it's a fun book and a decent read, but no takers so far. I refuse to let it sit on my hard drive--after all I spent a year of my life working on it-- so as the rejections roll in, I'm now leaning toward publishing it myself.

How in the hell does this relate to book reviews? Well, I'm really curious at what is currently being published, because I know so many authors with a tried and true record of sales who are being dropped by their publishers. I follow what is being published fairly closely to try to get a handle on the market and see if I fit in (um, no), and increasingly I'm in shock at what is hitting the shelves.

To whit. (I love typing that.) Bill James' book Popular Crime."Now I understand he's written something of the bible on baseball and I really do like his style. It's the type of writing that always charms me. Breezy, funny, knows when to turn off the sarcasm and get serious (something I struggle with). I cannot fault him his voice in this book, and I have an admittedly unabashed (and unapologetic!) fascination with crime. This writer even got a spot on Colbert, which is why I bought it.

But. It's not a book. There's no central theme, no overreaching arc that I could point to and say, this is what Bill James' thinks of crime. I know what he thinks of specific crimes, but I don't have much of handle on what he thinks our relationship to crime should be. Seriously, that it was a book at its most sneaky is trying to do. Woo you over to the dark side. This can't woo us because it's too far-reaching and not specific enough.

It would have worked as series of magazine articles. Maybe. It's largely a catalogue of gruesome crimes, with some not-so-veiled criticisms of the legal system, criticisms of the police, a panache of historical commentary, and his opinions on various crimes (did Lizzie Borden do it sort of thing). That's it. There's the throwing out of possible themes but none of them gel into what I would call a central theme that runs through all these anecdotes. And I kept looking for it, something that binds all this together in one package and, well, it's not there. It seems to me that something could be made about popular crime and the media, how it changed over history. People's reading habits. Did technology fuel the interest in violent crime. If yes, how? If no, why not? He tries to get there but he doesn't ever succeed because I think there's too much of him in the books for that to work. Plus, that would have taken some deep wading into sociological issues that I don't think he's interested in exploring. He could have written a book about police departments and the historical evolution of crime fighting. Mistakes that are no longer made. Mistakes that are continuing to be made. And, again, there's hints of this but no real cigar we can smoke. I can think of several directions this book could have gone in, and the principle problem is that it touched on many but refused to dedicate itself to one or even two themes.

As I end up saying nearly every time I write one of these reviews: where is his editor? Once again, we have a very decent writer who doesn't have a lighthouse operator showing him his way. That is what a good editor does. She/he is the beam of light that says, "This is your safe harbor. That idea, that construct, that context is going to smash your writerly efforts on some pretty nasty rocks. Come this way."

Blog Stuff

So. I have feeds for several blogs and the majority of them are food-centered blogs. (There is one that I absolutely adore, even if it's primarily about men's shoes. It's at times totally irreverent and a tad aging frat boyish and bone-deep charming and sometimes achingly sweet and touching. I'm grateful I don't live in the south because I have a feeling there are tons of men with exactly this swoon-inducing combination of traits--not the aging frat boy part but even in him it has a boyish come hither about it).

And you know what kills me? They can use wonderful pictures of lemons and strawberries and cool plates and wonderful champagne flutes and I write mostly about ideas and it's really hard to find pictures about ideas. You know? So this blog is visually flat--although I'd like to think intellectually as sassy as a lemon. Yet we are a visual culture these days, and I'd like to give this space more punch and I'm stymied;

Stymied, I tell you!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I'm Back to Normal

I'm generally a very happy person. Glass half-full is my motto at the best of times. However, there was a really dark period in my life, which was exacerbated by moving to the burbs and a bunch of issues that aren't any one's business but me. I can honestly say that I was so clueless regarding my depression that I couldn't even label it depression until my therapist forced me to name it. It took a long time to go away completely, and I didn't even realize that vestiges of it hung on for a good long time; sort of like a prolonged hangover of the psyche.

But I knew that it was finally finished and buried (one hopes forever) by the fact that I'm cooking again. Serious cooking, pouring over magazines and web sites and itching to try new things. I'm also gardening (interestingly that was the first thing to come back), and I've just ordered a slew of sewing patterns. Although I might not seem like it from this blog, I am a revoltingly domestic person and my love of all that went when I became depressed. And that's what is so awful about depression. It cuts you off from you. It's like your soul has been put in locked box and the key is nowhere to be found. You know that you used to cook, garden, and sew, but those are nothing but memories. For the life of you, you can't fathom who that woman was. When you come back from something like that, then you find yourself looking at your depressed self and saying the same thing: who was that poor woman?

Anyway, I've just purchased a slow cooker from Target now that my working ass is full time. The first recipe definitely needed some serious tweaking although the bones are there. The dog has claimed the garden from me, but we have a large yard and there will always be the debris to clean up. And the watering, since the dog ate the wonderful irrigation system my husband toiled over for months. Oh, and I think I'll make myself a cape for when I attend those crazy Harry Potter functions. I'm always decidedly under dressed.

Yes, I'm back. What a long strange trip it's been and I never, ever want to go back.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Wow, Authors Are Caught in the Middle Here

So, I just finished Michael Connelly's The Fifth Witness. If you like courtroom procedurals, this is your kind of book. I have several friends who are D.A.s, and I like books that delve into the strategy aspect of a trial. Unfortunately, the plot is nearly identical to the first book in the Mickey Haller series, The Lincoln Lawyer, but Connelly is a compelling writer so I think most people will enjoy this if it is a little deja vu-ish in terms of plot. Personally, I didn't think that the characterization was all that swift: (a) the new legal sidekick was boring and her moral dilemma even more boring because this issue was dealt with very effectively, again, in The Lincoln Lawyer, and we seem to be back-tracking in terms of Haller's personal moral ethos; (b) the victim was surprisingly absent in this book, merely a name, and by the end of it we really didn't care that he was dead because he was a scumbag, too; and (c) Haller's client was too much of an enigma. That is what made The Lincoln Lawyer so compelling a read. Louis Roulet was an exceptionally well-drawn predator, and we were practically eating Haller's frustration along with him. This client remains at a distance and to me that's problematic. However, I did stay up until 3:00 am reading it in one fell swoop, and I can't say that about many books these days.

What is most interesting about this book is the review war currently going on at Connelly's amazon page. Readers complaining about e-book pricing are flooding the site with negative reviews because the e-book version is more expensive than the hardcover. Yes, you read that right. And readers are pissed off. Man, are they pissed off. People are heading to libraries, waiting for the paperback, deciding to cross Connelly off their reading list, it goes on and on. The book itself is being lost over the issue of its pricing. Obviously, I don't know how much control Connelly has over the pricing model for his novels. I know that the one-star reviews are overwhelming and while a few of them didn't like the novel, the vast majority of them are complaints about the pricing.

In an era when publishers should be doing anything possible to keep their readers reading, they are alienating the readers who are their future market: those with e-readers. This doesn't make sense to me. The statistics that I've read say that 50% of the market will be electronic in five years. If you piss off the e-reading market, then I can imagine the piracy market will all of a sudden become exceptionally attractive. The only rationale that makes any sense at all is that they want to maximize their hardcover release by making the e-market release too expensive. I would imagine three months from now this will appear as an e-book at about $12.99 or less. But now there's a whole lot of pissed-off readers who aren't going to read a Connelly book no matter how cheap it is or in what format. They consider an e-release as a first-run release, and they don't care about the hardcover market. At this point I think it's a tug of war. The publishers are pushing this pricing for e-books because when most books are e-publications they will be in a position to price it like it was a hardcover; they think they just need to ride this out. Eventually readers won't have a choice.

I don't think it's going to work like that. I think that books are going to be pirated or authors are going to start cutting out the publishing houses and publishing themselves, which is already happening. I would imagine that Michael Connelly and his agent are reading every single one of those negative reviews related to pricing, and if I were him, I wouldn't be too pleased at the way this is coming down.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Birthers and Racism

I'm a very political person, so please bear with me. Those who seek to deny Obama's election to the presidency by virtue of his birth (the charming sobriquet "birthers") are, to me, inexplicable. You don't like his policies? Fine. You don't like his cabinet choices? Okay. You fundamentally disagree with his political outlook? Great. Start throwing your energies into trying to defeat him in 2012. But to try to deny him his right to be president as duly elected in this country--and to my knowledge there is no movement to declare that election fraudulent or questionable, unlike some other elections I could name--you've lost me. And not only that, you've enraged me, because the lack of bonafides of other U.S. presidents hasn't been an issue, obviously, for a number of people who have sat in the Oval Office. How does been president of the Screen Actors Guild or being the owner of a baseball team qualify one for the being President of the United States?

I don't watch much television--the news is about it--but finally one of the more august journalists, Bob Schieffer, labeled what I believe is behind the genesis of this movement: old-fashioned racism. However, there is an interesting article in Salon today that delves into this issue a little more deeply, and, yes, birtherism seems to have its roots in old-fashioned racism, and it's yet another example of how the Civil War and the issues surrounding that conflict still confront us over one hundred years later:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

It's Here and Sooner than I Thought

Check out this link

to the S.F. Chronicle regarding Krakauer's new non-fiction book ripping to shreds the mythology surrounding the immensely successful book, "Three Cups of Tea." I'm not going to weigh in on the validity of either book because I haven't read either book. What is fascinating is that Krakauer released his book from Byliner, a no-name e-publisher (although now soon to be a household name in publishing). "60 Minutes" ran a story on Mortenson and  "the day after the program aired, 70,000 free PDF versions of "Three Cups of Deceit" were downloaded within 72 hours of its release, according to the company. Six hours after the release of the $2.99 tablet version, available on the Kindle and Apple's iPad, it shot to the top of the Kindle Single list and has led Amazon's overall nonfiction sales ever."

I don't think anyone needs to wonder why Krakauer went with Byliner. First of all, check out the pricing: $2.99. I doubt any mainstream publisher would have agreed to that kind of bargain basement pricing. Sure, it means he has to sell a hell of a lot of downloads to make any money, but he's got the writing cred to pull something like this off. As he has proved. Will a bricks and mortar publisher pick up the paper rights to this book? I'm not sure. Because they'd have to match what is inevitably a sweetheart deal between Krakauer and Byliner in terms of profit sharing. Plus, if you don't have the e-rights, is it worth printing?

This is not to say that Byliner didn't score an incredible coup by signing Krakauer. If I tried to do something like this, it would be pointless. It takes someone of Krakauer's stature and marketability to pull this off. His track record sells him, and I would imagine it took some serious mental crunching to determine the demographics of his readership. I think they probably ran the numbers and realized that 70% of his readership has an e-reading device of some ilk (a number only bound to go up). The exposure on "60 Minutes" was the ultimate coup. All of this was very well timed, and I suspect that Krakauer went with a small publisher because his traditional publisher couldn't get their act together to publish ASAP.

The continuing disarray of mainstream publishing and their head-in-the-sand approach to the whole e-book phenomenon means that e-publishers like Byliner have a real chance of stealing a whole lot of their talent. Of course, a mention on "60 Minutes" is about as good as it gets in terms of free advertising, something not readily available to the fiction writer. But it's the wave of the future, and if I won the lottery, I'd set up an e-publishing house yesterday. Because I love books, and I don't have a lot of respect for what is coming out from New York these days.

This does raise the thorny issue of pricing. Because that sort of pricing demands that you sell a ton of downloads, but authors like Krakauer have that capability. Someone like me, not so much. And if enough authors of Krakauer's stature keep publishing books at $2.99, then there is constant and unrelenting pressure on all of us (publishers and authors alike) to match that pricing. It's like how amazon offered best sellers at $18.00 and all of a sudden people only expected to pay $18.00 for best-sellers, and good-bye independent bookstore, hello amazon and chain stores: capitalism at work.

Clearly, this is a cautionary tale for all mainstream publishers. Scrappy, fearless e-publishers are out there making deals with your writers. They are handing them the lion's share of the profit and harnessing the power of amazon.  It's a new day and publishers are hiding under the covers. Get off your butts and stop delaying publication of your manuscripts for over a year. Set up, IMMEDIATELY, your own e-division so that you can publish asap material that is hot and relevant. Some authors will work both in "print" and the "e" medium, but some manuscripts can do very nicely in only "e" versions. What you will lose in print sales you will gain by printing something relevant and CURRENT. Start labeling yourselves as hip, current, on top of what is happening. Stop seeing the e-revolution as the death knell and more of a different cash cow. Krakauer's 75,000 downloads speaks volumes. At least it does to me.