Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Sisters in Crime Publishers Summit team members Roberta Isleib, JudyClemens, Jim Huang, and Nancy Martin visited publishing professionals in NewYork on May 14 and 15. The report on the publishing summit will run all week. Your comments and discussion are encouraged. The summit team is available to field your questions.

First Installment
By Nancy Martin

Our Sisters in Crime Publisher's Summit was a terrific experience for me, personally. In all my years as a writer, I've never had such access to such bigwigs who were so kindly willing to chat. (On Thursday evening when all our official appointments were over, my own agent asked with some astonishment, “How did you get in to all these people? Why would they see you?") I'm still amazed by how candid everyone was with us. If you are ever asked to join the summit team, grab the opportunity.

Our purpose in visiting the various insiders was to take the current temperature of the mystery business—particularly in regard to our organization’s membership and our mission. Some of our findings were disappointing, but we weren’t surprised, and we’re grateful that everyone felt they could be honest with us. We heard plenty of encouraging news, too, and some good suggestions worth passing along to you

This year, our first stop was HarperCollins, ( ) We sat down to a very friendly (and delicious) lunch and talked about the state of mysteries today. The HC contingent (several editors and publicists) got right to the good news which was that they were very pleased with the sales of paranormal books, including urban fantasy. And thrillers are hot, hot, hot—especially the “edgier, sexier” thrillers. They are also doing well with cross-genre books, such as historical suspense, which they’re actively seeking.

The bad news? Books are selling better in the fiction section of the big chains, but not so well in the mystery section. Without sugarcoating, our hosts said that from their perspective, the wholesale support for traditional mysteries was drying up. They are taking on fewer cozies because the market has gotten to be difficult. On the other hand, they do have some cozy authors that aren’t just working, they’re thriving. Although they were quick to say that most books have a thread of mystery in the story, editors now avoid putting the stamp of “mystery” on the cover or use it in discussions with booksellers. Why? It limits the audience.

Mind you, our travels took us to none of the publishers that are currently publishing traditional mysteries or “cozies,” so our findings are definitely skewed. To read the report of last fall’s summit, which included calls paid on female-centric (my phrase, so don’t blame anyone else) mystery houses such as Berkley and Kensington, go here.

To our team, it seemed as if any books that are selling well these days are automatically called "thrillers" by the industry. Even mysteries that are clearly mysteries are given the label of thriller if good sales are anticipated. Which may sound ridiculous and frustrating, but it's indicative of how the whole industry is trying to position books for the public.

That word came up over and over: "positioning." Trying to communicate to the sales staff and the public what a book is, is vital. The process begins when the author conceptualizes her book at the beginning of the writing process or perhaps as late as a query letter. Can you define your story in a high concept way? If you can, you’re helping your publisher position your book. If you can’t . . . well, for godsake, try.

The folks at HarperCollins said they can do a lot for authors who write more than a book a year. (This was a common theme among the publishers.) Pubbing authors more frequently helps to brand them better. And that’s the goal--to establish every author as a distinct “brand.” We also talked about sales velocity--the speed with which large numbers of books should be sold in the early weeks of a title's release. The old publishing model was to keep books in print for the long haul. But now all the publishers want books sold fast, upon release. Good sales velocity encourages keeping books in print. Confusing? Yes, but it’s the current wisdom.

Many HarperCollins publicists lunched with us and shared these thoughts:

Mystery writers have the best websites in the industry. (Yay, us!) All authors are encouraged to have a website and keep them up to date and fresh with podcasts and book trailers, if possible. The publisher can build on what you’ve created. For example, take a look at what they’re doing for Tasha Alexander. Lots of ‘Author Extras”--newsletters to sign up for, an ad you can place on your own website or MySpace page, plenty of what I’d call publisher support: here.

(Although not part of our summit report, go check out Meg Cabot’s video on this Amazon page. It has nothing to do with her book, but it very cleverly helps establish her brand. Here.)

Also: Blogs seem to be helping sales. (Perhaps because they engage readers who appreciate the frequent updating?) Build and maintain your mailing list. Having a platform—“writing what you know”—helps to get the aspiring author noticed by a publisher and later helps the publicist promote the published book.

One of the hottest booksellers today, in the view of HarperCollins, is Target. If you’ve strolled through your local Target store lately, I’m sure you’ve seen all the trade-sized paperbacks, all displayed face-out. The success of selling the trade size at Target triggered a discussion about the decision to put certain authors in hardcover vs. trade size paper vs. mass market paperback. The format depends upon the anticipated audience and the anticipated accounts to which the book will be distributed, so that’s a discussion worth having with your editor. We can talk about it today in the comments section, too, but this post is already too long.

I also appreciated the HarperCollins take on the "when should an author realize it's time to move on?" question. Rather than trying to read the handwriting on the wall, HC encouraged authors to ask your editor for sales numbers so you don’t get blindsided. You can get out your pencil, estimate a cover price and figure what kind of sales you need to make to pay the mortgage. Can you survive on a small press print run? Should you keep your day job?

Our next stop was Simon Lipskar, a friendly and forthright agent at Writers House.

So far, I’ve been totally professional, right? Can I take a minute to tell you what really happened when we arrived at the hallowed halls of Writers House? It was a warm day, and we’d walked a long way and…well, I’m a woman of a certain age. As soon as we arrived in his lovely office, I had the most gawdawful hot flash of my entire life. Purple-faced, sweating so hard my hair began to drip, I had a long, horrific hormonal meltdown on his Danish modern sofa. I took notes while mopping myself with a crumpled cocktail napkin dragged up from the bottom of my handbag. So everything I heard in this interview was clouded by a fog of estrogen.

Mr. Lipskar confirmed the general view that thrillers are the success stories of the moment. Any book you can call a thriller, he said, you should. Advice we heard many times during our travels.

He also talked a lot about the "franchise" authors--like James Patterson. I think every agent and publisher is looking for authors they can turn into franchises.

He talked a bit about the importance of blurbs, particularly among the sales reps. (It also spoke to our discussion about positioning authors.) He cited flap copy as another important positioning tool. And covers are extremely important to consumers and sales staff alike these days---a mantra we heard nearly everywhere we went.

Mr. Lipskar did say the midlist was on the verge of dying. He felt the current US economy is contributing to the midlist demise, but I think this subject worth discussing. What role do we all play in this situation?

Of all the people we met with in New York, Simon Lipskar was the only person to voice the opinion that the author can’t do much, PR-wise, to help his career. Except write a great book. In an era when some desperate publishers are asking authors to be bloggers, filmmakers, graphic designers, sales managers and marketing whizzes, it’s nice to hear somebody actually say that our time is better spent what we do well—the writing of a book.
Preferably a thriller, I suppose.

As I wiped hormonal sweat from my brow, we thanked him for his honesty, said good-bye and headed down the stairs.

Tomorrow, we’ll post the next installment of our trip to New York. But for today, do you have questions to ask the team? Is there anything here that sparks your need to vent?---Er, discuss? We’re here, so fire away.


Sheila Connolly said...

Can we hope that the midlist will be boosted by all those readers who can't afford vacation gas this summer and stay home and read instead?

nancy martin said...

Here's hoping, Sheila.

We heard a lot of dire predictions about the midlist, but the news of its imminent demise has been floating around for at least 15 years. I think bookstores are looking for more and more ways to shelve books face-out (or on table tops, end caps, towers, etc.) and that kind of creative salesmanship makes more space for books other than the bestsellers, so that should help.

Carole Nelson Douglas said...

Great summary.

Actually, Sheila, I just read something that said book sales are losing out because people aren't driving to nearby restaurants and other stores and then stopping in at bookstores to browse and buy, midlist or not.

The everything's a "thriller" point explains why mystery was folded into a thriller/mystery section at one of the chains.

That Meg Cabot link didn't print the entire address; can someone fix this?

nancy martin said...

Sorry about the link, Carole. It should work now. Scroll down on the Amazon page until you see the box labeled "See Related Media." Click on the box to start the video. I can definitely see you doing this kind of thing in the near future!

Joyce said...

Thanks, Nancy. It's interesting to get an "insider" view of the industry. I actually expected the news to be worse! I'm glad to see all the time I've spent with the blogs and website will eventually be time well spent.

nancy martin said...

Joyce, I think everybody's throwing online ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Staying current with the technology is important. (I've gotta learn about podcasts!) Building an audience is the purpose, though. A lot of us lose sight of that while trying to make things look pretty.

If you go to the HarperCollins site, you can find some really excellent book trailers and other media. Leading the industry, I'd say: Try this link:

julie kramer said...

How do editors and publicists react to SinC's tracking of reviews of women mystery authors in various media? Does this make it easier to pitch women authors to certain media because those publiciations might want to improve their stats?

Susan said...

There has been some discussion over on the Guppy List about 'high concept'--and it has mostly run to; what the heck is it? Was it defined for you? What are they calling 'high concept'? And the other buzz word that is being bandied about lately--'Thriller'. I thought I knew what a thriller was, but now I'm not so sure. How can 'any book' be a thriller? (that brings to mind the joke where the editor tells the author "your book is great! Just put 'suddenly' at the beginning of each sentence and we'll call it a 'thriller'!"--please tell me this is really a joke!)

And one last question(then I promise I'll let someone else talk). Did they mention anything about e-books, or the electronic format (like Kindle)? There's been such a buzz about it lately that I would think a big house like HC would be looking at positioning themselves for that bandwagon.

Thanks, Nancy! Your willingness (and the rest of your team's)to go out and make this effort on behalf of us all is much appreciated.

Naomi said...

You mentioned branding and writing more than one book a year--can you elaborate more on this?

Sarah Wisseman said...

Very encouraging to hear that some folks want us to concentrate on writing rather than producing video trailers.
What are publishers saying about other kinds of online promotion, particularly when gas prices are so high and people may do more shopping in their pajamas at their computers?

nancy martin said...

Julie, to be honest, most of our interviewees were unaware of the SinC review stats. We've made a promise to ourselves to release that info in a bigger way from now on, for exactly the reason you mention.

That said, most of the people we visited lamented the reduced number of traditional review possibilities. More and more, I think publishers are feeling their way into the daunting number of online review sites. Those who can promise lots of hits, I imagine, are more likely to look attractive to publishers.

Nancy Martin said...

Susan, I don't think we have the space here to define what a high concept is, and to be truthful, I'm not sure I heard a good one from the people we visited. My own definition would be a story idea that can be simply explained and universally understood. Perhaps best of all, it's an idea that can be conveyed in a title. I'll look through my notes to see if I heard a better one on our trip. Perhaps one of my colleagues plans to address this later in the week.

As for the difference between a thriller and a mystery, I think we heard more than one person say that the primary dramatic question is "whodunnit" for a mystery, but the question the reader most wants answered in a thriller is "Will the hero prevail?" (Simon Lipskar's words.) He also suggested that most thrillers have multiple POVs, a sense of threat to the protagonist and appeals to a wider audience than a mystery. Does that help?

nancy martin said...

Susan, I'm paging through my notes to see if there's anything significant said about e-books. Everyone is certainly aware of the trend, but still clinging to the bricks and mortar stores that are their bread and butter. (Cliches are all mine.-Sorry!)

nancy martin said...

Naomi, we spoke to Putnam and Mira about writing multiple books a year, so that subject will certainly be covered in more depth later in the week. But here's the short version: The old business model was that a bigtime author should produce one book a year, which built anticipation in consumers. But with the current examples of James Patterson and even Robert Parker (who has 3 series in production and writes one of each a year) the prevailing wisdom is changing. Most publishers said they could better build an author into a brand name if they the author can produce two or three books. MIra said they liked authors who could write 3 books a year to better develop the author's name. But MIra also brought up the possibilities for authors to write short fiction to boost their brand name--their online "Bites" program is a good example.

nancy martin said...

Sarah, we talked to a couple of publishers who were easing up on author travel. Most were happy to help an author who's paying for a tour, but it struck me that everyone was looking for cheaper, more direct ways of reaching consumers. That means online to just about everyone.

At the moment, I think publishers are looking at all kinds of online possibilities. If you have a good idea, I bet your publisher will jump on it. But right now, nobody was saying, "Hey, this new idea is really working for us and we're selling tons of books as a result!"

But did you look at HC's book trailers? Their whole approach to online promotion seems aggressive to me.

Rhetorical question: Is the book tour dead? I think one publisher said they'd pay for a tour if the bookstores could bring 100 to 150 readers into the store to see the author. I don't know about you, but that's a lot more than I see when I do signings! But it's not out of the ballpark for the big brand name/franchise authors.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nancy,
I know that edgy, sexy thrillers are hot right now. In a query letter do you think an author is better off categorizing their manuscript as a sexy thriller or romantic suspense. Did the subject of suspense novels vs. thrillers come up? Is it really all the same anyway?
MF Makichen

nancy martin said...

MF--I think different terms work for different publishers. Putnam called them "thrillers." HC made a distinction, but later retracted it, saying thrillers and suspense were pretty much the same. Mira considers the two very different genres, according to my notes. So I think it's a matter of checking the websites before sending to a house. Of course, if you're querying an agent, check what kind of books s/he represents to discover what terminology works for them when positioning your book.

Myself? I think you make the distinction by choosing the audience. If you intend the book to be read primarily by women and stocked in the romance section--and if there's a strong romance in the story that's securely twisted up with the plot-- call it romantic suspense. But if the audience is more general and the romance is less integral to the suspense or mystery plot, call it a thriller. Just MHO, of course.

Or you could use Susan's method and stick the word "suddenly" in a lot and presto--! You've got a thriller.

Anyone who's more expert in this field have some insight?

Jeanna Schilling said...

Nancy, I'm interested in what was said about historical thrillers. Were any examples given of current ones they've published? You mentioned Tasha Alexander (whose books I love, btw) -- would her books be considered historical thrillers?

Judy said...

What I'm hearing is that the "in" book publishers are looking for is the thriller. Sad news for a cozy writer--but the truth is that we have heard forever that the "in" book is what ever is selling at the time. Thrillers are always in, as are suspense, as are cozies as are any thing that catches the readers' fancy. This info is great and encouraging and I am a grateful sister for all the info gathering. I'll send out a thriller now and work on a cozy for next year when that will be what is all the rage. Ta dum. The bottom line is the book has to grab the agent/publisher. What do you do with your DaVinci Code imitation thriller? Will they still take that? I doubt it. Judy Smith

nancy martin said...

Jeanna, if there was any real good news on our trip, it was hearing the enthusiasm for historical suspense. At more than one location, we were pointed to historical suspense written by women. (Unfortunately, I can't remember who!) But at one house we were cautioned that historical *mysteries* weren't hot right now. The DaVinci code success lingers.

nancy martin said...

Judy, you are so right! Thrillers are the "it" genre at the moment, but will the market expand with too many so-so books until it turns soft? The cycle continues.

If you write a good book, somebody's going to publish it. And if you write a truly great book, somebody's going to turn it into what was called "an event book"--a book full of meat that really excites both publishers and consumers. (First time I've heard this particular phrase.) So write what turns you on, girl. Your enthusiasm will be contagious.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm troubled to hear the summit team didn't visit any traditional mystery publishers. St. Martin's, for one, is still putting "mystery" on the cover of new authors' books. And as a reader, I'd be one frustrated customer if I loved thrillers, bought one by the label, and discovered when I read the book that it was a classic whodunit.

nancy martin said...

Liz, go back and read the report of last fall's summit. You'll find lots of info about traditional mystery houses there. I think it would be a mistake to go back to the same publishers every 6 months.

There's also a report coming later this week from Barnes and Noble that will be interesting reading for you.

Robin Burcell said...

For any interested, the article I wrote in this month's SinC somewhat coincides with this blog entry in HarperCollins search for thrillers, when they asked if I'd be willing to revise a finished book for my new series. I just got the cover for it a few days ago. The cover of The Face of a Killer has the words "A Novel of Suspense" on the front. On the back, it talks about the book using the words "suspense fiction" and "electrifying new thriller."

nancy said...

Robin, I'd take that change as a vote of confidence in their author! Can you share what kind of editorial changes transformed a mystery into "suspense fiction?"

Either way,I'm looking forward to the book.

Robin Burcell said...

In a gist, the plot or mystery had to be "Big." It had to impact on a national scale or a global scale. My first version was about a cover up/conspiracy in a local police department. The new version was about a cover up/conspiracy in the U.S. government. And the cover up couldn't be something like a politician has an affair with a girl and was trying to save his election, therefore has the girl killed. It needed to translate into something that, if not solved or fixed, would impact a large amount of people, if not globally, then nationally.

It doesn't have to be US government, of course, but it was easier for me to switch over a police procedural from the local PD to Washington, D.C. (In some respects.)

nancy martin said...

Robin, I just rec'd my SinC newsletter, and your article is terrific! It exactly answers the question I posted here---how you turned a mystery into a suspense novel. Thanks very much for a great piece!