Ro Cuzon recently posted a link on Facebook to a piece written by Laura Lippman for Rogue Reader. She took an opportunity to mention one of her favorite movies, Funny Bones, starring Oliver Platt and the great Jerry Lewis.
Every time I see a photograph of Jerry Lewis, a vivid memory of one of his greatest solo skits comes to mind. I was perhaps six or seven years old, sick with a flu and home from school. I lounged on the couch in front of the black and white television set (we’re talking 1961-1962 – don’t say a word), watching whatever I could find on one of the three channels the rabbit ears would deliver. That particular day, the morning movie was The Errand Boy (1961), starring Lewis, Brian Donleavy as “T.P. Paramutual,” and Howard McNear as “Dexter Sneak.”
I was a Lewis fan already, because The Bellboy had come out the year before, and what six-year-old wasn’t captivated by Lewis’s goofy rubber face, idiot voice and exaggerated pratfalls?
Then there came a point in the movie when I became hypnotized.
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Known to Lewis movie aficionados as “The Chairman of the Board,” the skit portrays Lewis’s character, Morty Tashman, a lowly errand boy in the corporate office of Paramutual Pictures, as he takes liberties in the Boardroom. He slips into the Chairman’s seat at the head of a conference table, helps himself to one of the Chairman’s cigars, and proceeds to direct an imaginary phalanx of board members in a magnificent pantomime, expertly choreographed to the incomparable “Blues In Hoss Flat” by Count Basie.
Yes, it was comedic genius, but why? What was it in that skit that seared my memory so completely that I remember it so clearly fifty-four years later?
The Big Band music is a factor, of course, but listening to Basie’s orchestra without the visual of Lewis doesn’t quite fit the bill.
It is Lewis’s choreography, his timing, the deftness with which that character seamlessly moves from stealth corporate spy to ruthless bigshot, and the disconnect between the angry Chairman and the hilarious, goofy faces that are flashed in that anger.
This certainly translates to storytelling, especially as it illustrates how humor can work so well in the tough environment of crime fiction.
As anyone who’s read some of my stuff knows, I’m fond of humor. The punch line that delivers on the very last syllable. The pause before the snarky reply. The raised eyebrow before the one word riposte. I can only hope that the more I work on that, the closer I can get to the exquisite timing of men like Lewis.
Filed under: Craft, crime fiction, Music, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: chairman of the board, comic timing, count basie, errand boy, jerry lewis
Back in June, I attended my 40th reunion – Phillips Andover Class of 1973.
We have an unusually close group of classmates. Many of us return every 5 years and pick up a conversation like it had never ended – even if we haven’t had a moment of contact in between. There is something magical about the experience of returning to a campus you first saw when you were 14 years old – a place where you grew from a boy into a young man, mostly away from home and in the company of other boys facing the same challenges and fears.
We might not have had the prescience to know then how much that experience bound us together, but every five years, we come to appreciate it more and more – and even though every time we reunite we are five years older, we still manage to regress to that time as easily as though it were our first reunion. It’s a little ridiculous, 58-year-old men staying up until 3:00 am, recounting the same madcap pranks, but it’s a good ridiculous.
This past event was something special and poignant, though. Over the years, we’ve lost a number of classmates, but this past year, one of the class’s bright lights lost a short and tragic battle to cancer, and it hurt a lot. He would slap me if I wallowed in the maudlin, and his widow instructed us that, being Irish (of course), he would have insisted that we not mourn his death but celebrate his life. And we did the best we could under the circumstances.
As a testament to that, Mike Fox wrote a little tune, shared it with me and his buddy, Dan Miner, and the three of us lightened up the class dinner with a little Blues for Sully.
If you ever met Steve Sullivan, you’d understand how perfectly Foxy had nailed it.
Filed under: Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: dan miner, mike fox, phillips andover, steve sullivan
As I approach the second anniversary of the publication of Diary of a Small Fish, I’ve now had more than three years to observe and participate in the discussion about the distinctions between traditional publishing and self-publishing. Despite the monumental changes that have occurred in the fiction market, and the meteoric speed at which they’ve taken place, the arguments haven’t changed that much on either side. The evidence (pro and con) changes, new examples arise, success stories are one-a-week, it seems, on both sides. No matter how robust the indie market, trad pub still seems to be doing fine, if their numbers are right (if ANY numbers are right). Very smart people are discussing this at great length, I learn a lot from them, and I applaud them for their leadership in this industry. It’s fun to watch, and it’s fun to be a part of it all.
But I have to say, I’m getting a little tired of this singular focus (not only by trad industry stalwarts) on the sheer numbers of “free” or “underpriced” self-published novels that meet the critics’ definition of “dreck,” or [pick your own pejorative], as though that is reason enough to discount the whole indie fiction market.
After much masticating, I’ve found the proper metaphor to put the “cheap is bad” meme to rest.
My wife and I honeymooned for nearly a month in Portugal, in November of 1984. Back then, the dollar was strong, the Portuguese escudo was weak, and modest Americans could travel the countryside in royal fashion. The best hotel rooms were under a hundred bucks, and better yet, the best bottle of Aguardente could be had for under $25 (less than half its equivalent French product).
Elizabeth and I covered the countryside in our tiny Deux Chevaux, following a rough figure 8, beginning in Lisbon, traveling southeast through Evora to the southern port of Faro, west to Portimao and Sagres, up to Braganca in the northeast corner, west to Braga and then Porto, and south along the coast to Aveiro, Figueria da Foz and eventually to the Costa do Sol and the casinos of Cascais. We made a point of stopping in a lot of the smaller villages to buy bread, cheese, sausage, fruit, and of course, wine. You know, honeymoon picnic stuff. We ate by the side of many a country road, watching flocks of wild turkeys, or shepherds driving their sheep, or cork harvesters, while we ate local food and drank local wines.
Each little village had its own Vinho Verde or Vinho Tinto, and they would cost a maximum of $2, usually less. So, being good consumers and generous contributors to the local economies, we would buy 2-4 bottles at each stop. We’d open one and sample it. If it was good, we drank it. If it wasn’t, we poured it out and moved on to the next one. (I know this appears to be an admission of drinking while driving, but we were very conscientious about moderation. *cough cough*)
So this is how I’ve found sampling indie-published novels as well. Like the village wines, most of them are inexpensive, and it doesn’t take much of a sip to decide if it’s worth consuming. If it isn’t, it’s deleted from the kindle and you move on to the next one.
I’m an avid consumer of very good wine, and I know my stuff better than most. My ancestors produced some of Burgundy’s most famous Clos De Vougeot long ago (Chateau Morin, Pere et fils). But I hate wine snobs, and while I certainly can appreciate the difference between a Romanée Conti and a mid-range Oregon pinot noir, I am happy that so many excellent quality wines are accessible to the wine drinking masses! Just because you run across a lousy bottle of wine every once in a while, you cannot condemn all moderately priced wines. Even Two Buck Chuck is potable.
The same goes for fiction. I majored in English lit, read most of the greats and a lot of the highbrow literary critics of the day. There is a lot of great literature produced by the “Domaines” of traditional publishing. The reading it rich and full-bodied, like an elegant old Bordeaux.
But viniculture has evolved. Good wine can be produced inexpensively and efficiently today. It doesn’t have to stay in a musty cellar for 15 years any more.
And good fiction doesn’t require 3-5 years of lead time between completion and publication.
Epublishing is the new viniculture of fiction. Grab a few bottles, get yourself a baguette and some Gorgonzola, and check out some of the unknown brands. You might have to pour a few out, but you’ll find some good drinking, too.
If you’re looking for a recommendation, why, this one is a good place to start.
Filed under: Book Marketing, Indie | 20 Comments
Tags: cheap wine, indie, portugal, small fish, two buck chuck, vinho
I get prickly when I run across an author who whines about the awful, nasty, undeserved bad review he has received from some illiterate, jealous wannabe who obviously can’t write his own Magnum Opus. Why, this book has so far received only 4 and 5 star reviews, so it is plain that this is a spiteful, hate-inspired attack from the sock puppet of an insecure competitor.
I touched upon the subject of thick skin some time ago, a full year before Diary of a Small Fish went live. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to avoid too many bad reviews, which is something, I suppose. But the ones I have garnered, I’m rather fond of.
There was the 1 star review from the Christian lady who didn’t appreciate the profanity, and subsequently deleted her review despite my plea to leave it.
There is the one remaining 1 star review that complained that “the author rambled on and on with too many characters and too many irrelevant details, eventually I lost interest and prayed for the book to end, seemed like 2000 pages which I had to skim through for the ending.”
And my all-time favorite, from a prolific reviewer with a real resume, who characterized my hero, Paul Forte, as a “sneaky, petty, subsumed-guilt Bush-loving Michael-Scott frat-boy douchebag” and described the novel as a “sometimes ugly book that often wallows in casual stereotyping and the mocking of others for its small-moment humor, and loaded with the kinds of mistakes that almost every attorney who tries fiction seems to be guilty of…”
Now that’s some first-class criticism right there! The only thing wrong with it is it was accompanied by 3 stars – when clearly the reviewer ought to have given it 2 at most. I feel cheated.
Let’s get this straight.
Diary of a Small Fish is not my child. Even if it was (in a strictly anthropomorphic sense), I’d probably be inclined to let it figure out how to defend itself. Teach a man to fish and all that. (Did you know the origin of that proverb? See what blogging does?)
It is also a first novel. Of course it’s far from perfect. I’d only been writing fiction for 3 years, for crissakes. What kind of fool would take this criticism personally?
It is said that writers, engaged in a form of the cultural arts, are sensitive types, as though that is some sort of license to rant over a bad review. It isn’t. It simply compels one to work harder at being professional about the pitfalls of putting your work out there. As Nathan Bransford said, steel yourself.
While researching this piece, I found a fine opinion from Kimberly Vargas at the Wordserve Water Cooler (“A community of agented authors, encouraging, engaging and enriching others throughout their writing journey”). The title of the piece says it all: Sticks and Stones: The Highly Sensitive Writer Toughens Up. Kimberly recounts her experience at a writers’ workshop with a defensive, thin skinned novice, and reminds us that literature’s greatest stars have received some blistering rejections:
1. Sylvia Plath: “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”
3. J. G. Ballard: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
4. Emily Dickinson: “[Your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
5. Ernest Hemingway (regarding The Torrents of Spring): “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.”
Then she recounts her own war story as a painter:
At one of my showings, I overheard a man telling his friend that my art might be best displayed at a fast food restaurant. “It’s convenience store art,” he said as I looked on, trying not to have any sort of facial expression. The critic didn’t know I was the artist or that I was in earshot. It stung, but feedback is still feedback and should be regarded as just that. It proved to be a valuable lesson – you can’t win them all. If you will accept nothing less than 100% acceptance, you will be plagued by disappointment. But here is the silver lining: You don’t need to win them all. You just need a percentage, and as long as you keep putting your work out there, the correct audience that appreciates you will find your work. It’s all about maintaining perspective.
So, what is the value of a bad review?
Well, even if it is one that lacks common courtesy, is crude, insulting or downright slanderous (very tough to pull off since it is merely an opinion), it teaches us how to grow thicker skin.
That in itself is worthwhile.
Remember, we all make our work available in a commercial transaction, the terms of which we, ourselves, dictate. If we give it away for free, that’s our decision, and there is no refuge in the lame defense, “what do you want for nothing?” The buyer does not waive his right to express his opinion.
If anyone wants to insist that he be spared bad reviews, then let him put a disclaimer on his buy page that insists no buyer shall have the right to post a bad review. See how well that goes down.
Whatever he does, he ought not emulate Wink Wordless.
Filed under: Book Marketing | 7 Comments
Tags: amazon reviews, goodreads, one star, reviews, self-publishing
I meant to post this two weeks ago, but life is too damn hectic.
A few weeks back, I did a three-day promotion in connection with Bookbub.com. For the benefit of the book marketing wonks out there, here is my report.
Diary of a Small Fish had received a lot of very good reviews in its time, but for some time, my book marketing mojo ain’t been workin’. Consequently, its sales ranking on Amazon languished in the low 400k area, save for the occasional ebook purchase that drives it down to the 200k’s for a day or so. Sales through Smashwords have been almost non-existent for months, save for the occasional onesie from Barnes & Noble.
When my agent submitted Law & Disorder to the acquisition people at Thomas & Mercer, she urged me to shake off the cobwebs and boost Small Fish, because the editors at Amazon (unlike a lot of TP types) pay attention to stuff like that.
My experience to date with paid book promotion had been pretty dreadful. Ereader Daily News, Facebook, Ads on the Cheap – none of them achieved squat. I was beginning to wonder if any paid promotion worked.
Bookbub’s attraction is that they have developed a huge number of actual BOOK BUYING readers who have signed up for email alerts of daily book deals. Imagine that – readers who are ASKING for email spam! All you do is sign up, give your email address, your preferred genre(s) and your chosen format (i.e., sales venue). When I signed up (to see the product as it is delivered), I soon received a nice, clean, clear and simple email with three book deals – one free, one 99 cent and one a higher price (usually, the email includes one traditionally published bestseller). I clicked on the 99 center, and it brought be right to the Amazon buy page. So far so good!
Bookbub also seems to recognize that the value in their mailing list is preserved by insuring that the products they’re selling are of good quality – so before they take your money, they check out your book. You have to have a certain number of favorable reviews to be approved. I do not know if they utilize any additional vetting criteria beyond that. Perhaps the bar is fairly low, but I know of at least one superb novel that was turned down. However, several of the free books I’ve downloaded I quit on after only a few pages. Not poor formatting or typos, just not grabbing me.
So, Bookbub accepted Small Fish, took my money, and scheduled my promotion for the date I chose. Their fee is based on two factors – your genre (which dictates the number of readers) and your price promotion: the lower your price, the lower the fee. Free book promotion is $220 for the mystery/thriller genre. At 99 cents, the fee was $440. For the traditionally published bestsellers that are lowering their $9.99 price to $5.99, the cost is over a grand.
I chose to run the email on a Wednesday, for a promotion that ran through Friday. My limited experience is that ecommerce drops off heavily on weekend days, so I scheduled the promotion to lead into the weekend.
The Bookbub email went out in tranches, the first of which appeared to land at 2:00 pm on Wednesday. I tracked the sales hourly for the first day. Here’s what they looked like (totals are cumulative):
Notice that Smashwords is not listed. Why? Because not one single unit was purchased through it during the entire three days. Not one.
So, sales chugged along at between 60 to 120 sales per hour throughout the entire day, totaling 865 for the day (Wednesday).
Sales on Thursday dropped off significantly to 153 (B&N) and 203 (Amazon), and even more so on Friday, 59 (B&N) and 41 (Amazon). Totals for the three days were 537 units at B&N and 799 units at Amazon.
Financially, things worked out fine. Obviously, when you shell out $440 for this type of thing, you’re most concerned about breaking even, which I did comfortably. The key is what happens after the promotion and you’ve brought your book back up to $3.99 (or whatever). It’s a little soon to tell, although I have sold several units through B&N today.
As far as Amazon ranking, the promotion drove Small Fish from the low 400k’s to a best of #134 overall, #38 in the mystery/thriller category, and #14 in “contemporary fiction.” Those ratings, unfortunately, did not last a long time, and I am left with the nagging reminder that online book sales require – REQUIRE – persistent promotion of one sort or another.
I’ve got this cool sandwich board I’m going to try out.
A final word about Smashwords. Does anybody, anywhere, sell any books through them? Is it really possible that a promotion of this type could sell 1300+ books without a single one of them through Smashwords?
Filed under: Uncategorized | 6 Comments
Tags: amazon, book promotion, bookbub, diary of a small fish
Early in my short political career, I learned an old adage known to politicians around the world and attributed to many: never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. The meaning is plain enough, and the advice is indelibly sound: do not start a fight with the press.
I must confess that I did not heed that advice, although not out of courage as much as a lack of fear in the consequences. I was only going to serve for a few years anyway, so how much damage could they do? It was a liberating thing, knowing I could speak frankly to reporters and editors. And boy, did I.
This strategy cannot easily be translated to an author who wishes to take issue with a reviewer, or worst of all, with the Big Ugly Goon standing right behind him. I offer as Exhibit A the unfortunate case of Jeffrey Hammer.
Hammer is a self-published author of several books, including Mind Reading in Written Form!: The Magic, Power, and Secrets of Handwriting Revealed! and An Advanced Guide to “Basic Hypnosis”.
Mr. Trendl, the Evil Reviewer (and Top 500 Reviewer, a fact of some note), didn’t think much of Mr. Hammer’s books, and said so in numerous book reviews posted on Hammer’s Amazon book pages. In the reviews, titled “Shallow Look at Hypnosis” and a “Disappointing Look at Graphology,” Mr. Trendl compared Hammer’s book on hypnosis to “the dust under my couch,” and questioned Hammer’s “spelling, grammar and teaching on the subject” of hypnosis. Needless to say, Trendl did not recommend Hammer’s books.
It is at this point that Mr. Hammer would have been well advised to ignore Mr. Trendl’s criticism and gone about his business. Unfortunately, he did not. Hammer sent a letter to Trendl, threatening future litigation if Trendl “did not stop libeling him on Amazon.com.” Trendl ignored the threat, and the next month, April, 2002, Hammer sued him in federal court, alleging that Trendl’s nasty reviews amounted to both copyright infringement and defamation. And no, he did not do so through a lawyer. He proceeded as the notorious “pro se” party.
Mr. Hammer’s (handwritten) Complaint, which can be read here [WARNING: TRAIN WRECK AHEAD], appears to put to rest any lingering doubt as to the fairness of Mr. Trendl’s criticism of Hammer’s writing abilities. Among other claims, he asserted that Trendl’s reviews illegally referred to competing works, resulted in a decrease in sales of his books, ruined his reputation and subjected him to public humiliation. He accused Trendl of targeting him and his books to prevent him from selling them, and claimed that Trendl was being paid by competitors to do this.
Well, predictably, Amazon did not take kindly to all this bad karma. In July of 2002, Amazon’s Vice President of Litigation (wow, what a corporate title!) notified him that: (1) it would not take Trendl’s comments down; (2) his lawsuit against Trendl was meritless; (3) Amazon would provide Trendl with counsel; and (4) if Plaintiff did not agree to dismiss the Trendl Action with prejudice, Amazon would remove Plaintiff’s books from their website.
“Plaintiff” did not accede to Amazon’s requests.
And Amazon removed all evidence of Mr. Hammer from their website.
Undeterred, Mr. Hammer doubled down. After he had filed more than 50 motions in the Trendl action, in January of 2003, the federal district court dismissed his complaint, and took the extraordinary step of entering the following orders:
ORDERED, that, as a result of the more than 50 motions made in this case some of which were repetitive and frivolous, Jeffrey Hammer shall not file any papers in connection with this case unless prior to any such submission: (1) he files a one-page written application to the Court for permission to file papers in this case; (2) in that one-page written application, he explains why the case should be reopened and why he seeks permission to file papers; (3) the Court grants his application in a written order; and (4) Hammer submits a copy of the Court’s order granting him permission to file papers with the papers he has been allowed to file; and it is further
ORDERED, that the Court will not accept any papers filed by Hammer in this case unless he complies with the procedures set forth in the preceding paragraph; and it is further
ORDERED, that Hammer’s failure to comply with the foregoing procedures may result in monetary sanctions including, but not limited to, the defendant’s attorney’s fees; and it is further
ORDERED, that Clerk of the Court is directed to close this case.
You can say one thing about Mr. Hammer. He is persistent. He sued Amazon in the same federal court, six months later. And what a Complaint it was, containing such provocative claims as theif [sic] of personal property, cyberjacking of his website, robbery, violation of his copyright, deprivation of his right to freedom of speech, discrimination, violation of normal business practices, and anti-competitive conduct/violation of consumer’s rights.
He shared his deep suspicion that, had Amazon not provided Trendl with legal counsel, he would have recovered a default judgment of $ 5 million, and speculated that “if the matter . . . would have been allowed to go to trial, the plaintiff would have won and Mr. Trendl would have lost! (Big time!).”
He insisted that Amazon was aware of Trendl’s unfavorable reviews and “should have removed [Trendl] from their system[,] but they refused and uped [sic] his ranking as a top book reviewer.” Because the “reviews” of parties become the property of Amazon.com upon submission, he asserted, “Amazon.com clearly becomes a party to these attack essays by allowing [Trendl] to alter [sic] attack essays.” In short, Plaintiff accused Amazon.com of colluding with Trendl.
Unfortunately for Mr. Hammer, Judge Seibert did not share his suspicion. She dismissed his case against Amazon.
And Mr. Hammer’s books? Well, there is dust under the couch.
One might think this is a wild exaggeration, an outlier. But there have been others who’ve claimed contacts with the FBI over reviews as nasty as Trendl’s. These bogus claims have been accepted as gospel by members of a shadowy website claiming to be supporters of authors “bullied” by nasty reviewers, who have recommended to their readers that contacting the FBI is a good idea.
YES! The NEW PARADIGM!
We are dealing in the Wild Wild West again, where the crusty old laws of tort and contract are not quite attuned to the internet behavior of authors and reviewers. Where the DMCA takedown provisions are used as weapons and swords by battling contingents.
There is one lesson to be learned about all this – besides “a man who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
It is this:
Do not respond to negative reviews (unless it was a particularly excellent negative review, and you can pull off “boy, you got me on that one!”
Filed under: Book Marketing, law and fiction, Peter Morin | 7 Comments
Tags: amazon, negative reviews, self-publishing, suing reviewers
At my first Bouchercon (debrief here), I met the charming and bubbly C.L. Phillips, who wasted no time recruiting me to participate in a blog “chain” in which authors discuss their Next Big Thing. C.L.’s is called Second Drink, and you can read about it in this post here.
But there was a catch, you see. I had to recruit five others who will keep the chain alive. At this rate, I anticipate that every published author in the world will have been solicited by February 11, 2014.
With luck, you’ll be able to find their blog posts next week.
So, my next BIG THING (sounds dirty) is LAW & DISORDER, which sits at this very moment on an editor’s desk at an imprint whose handcuffs I would gladly wear.
One Sentence Synopsis
LAW & DISORDER is the story of Marty Bishop, a recovering sex addict whose homicide investigation of a murder implicates politically powerful people and leads to revelations he wishes he’d never had.
Marty Bishop’s family and career are in tatters after the discovery of his tawdry sexual liaisons with his boss’s wife – and dozens of others. Called to the home of a notorious drug kingpin, he finds the subject dead among teeming evidence of a wild party that likely involved members of the District Attorney’s staff. But the one piece of evidence that is missing – a laptop computer with video images of what occurred in the kingpin’s master bedroom suite – holds the clues to not just the murder, but to secrets that hit too close to home.
Marty’s witness interview of the elderly socialite across the street plants a seed he cannot shake, leading him through an investigation that ends with dirty laundry very much like his own.
What is the hook? What’s this book really about?
As the title might suggest, LAW & DISORDER is a story about the dysfunction that accompanies power and privilege, and what the ruling class is capable of doing to preserve their reputations.
What inspired the book? Where did you get your idea?
In the early 1980’s, the gruesome murder of a Cape Cod drug dealer during a wild party fostered many rumors. None of them were proven. This is a fictional tale about the worst that might be imagined.
What genre is this book?
It is straight up crime. There are bits of police procedural, bits of mystery. But there is a dead body on page one, and the objective is to solve that murder. In the end, the murders themselves are inconsequential. It is what is behind the murders – retribution, and the motive for it – that is the revelation.
Where and when can I read the book?
That depends entirely on how my wonderful agent, Christine Witthohn, fares in her tireless efforts to sell it. But you can read the first chapter, which is appended to the end of Diary of a Small Fish.
Make sure to check out what my friends are doing next week!
Filed under: crime fiction | 6 Comments
Tags: crime fiction, law and disorder, next big thing, work in progress