Sunday, March 31, 2024

Freedom in Diversity

I’m seeing more diversity offered in reading these days and am reading a lot more diverse protagonists and subjects. I feel as if it’s opening up my world. What trends have you noticed in the last year, for better or worse?

Brenda here.

I remember my good friend creating a gay character some twenty years ago and being told by the publisher that this would greatly limit her book's appeal. She was advised to remove the gender diversity. Happily, this narrow-minded lens has opened, and books, television, movies, even commercials, are more honestly portraying the true make-up of society.

Sometimes, I believe readers have been way ahead of publishers, agents and other movers and shakers in the book industry when it comes to reading choices and what 'sells'. For instance, Canadian authors are often told that they need to set our books in the U.S. if we want to have a bestseller. However, readers I've spoken with about this, both Canadian and American, are perplexed -- they enjoy books set in Canada and don't consider this an issue. I believe time is bearing this out as more and more books with Canadian settings are finding an international audience.

But this week's question asks about diverse protagonists and subjects. I've also noticed a greater choice in this regard and have enjoyed reading some fabulously diverse stories, particularly by Indigenous authors. Books take us into other people's lives and give us a greater understanding of the human condition and enhance empathy across cultures.

I recently sat in on a virtual webinar given by a black, female author who spoke about creating diverse characters in our stories. I was pleased when she encouraged all writers to create characters from diverse cultures and backgrounds, but to go beyond the stereotypes to have them be fully rounded and realistic. After all, our books should be a true reflection of society with very real, diverse people populating the pages. This seems like good advice and matches how I view my characters.

In this same webinar, the presenter offered statistics to show that diverse writers still have fewer opportunities to break into the industry. So, readers appear to be ahead again on their openness to embrace books from all cultures, genders and locales. In fact, I believe we have a thirst for these stories. Everyone needs to see themselves reflected in books in leading roles. How many times have we heard successful people of colour say that growing up they never saw themselves on television, or read about people of their culture or gender identity in books and stories. Sometimes, it was one break-through role model that made them feel seen and sparked them to spread their own wings.

Readers can continue to support diversity through the authors we champion and by the books we chose to read. My wish is that diversity will continue to be celebrated -- because honestly differences are what make this life interesting -- while diverse characters and stories become so accepted in literature that we don't even need to have this discussion.


Instagram & Facebook: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Twitter (X): brendaAchapman

Friday, March 29, 2024

Welcome to Writer’s Jail or Some Rules Need Breaking, by Josh Stallings

 Q: Crime fiction has tried and true conventions, such as a murder/crime in the first chapter (or soon thereafter), an investigation, believable motive, hidden clues etc. Add to this, the conventions for each subgenre, such as cozy or police procedural. Have you ever ignored or deviated from these established conventions? Do you find them restrictive or do you like working within them?

A: As a life long contrarian I have never been a fan of rules of any kind. But if you read a lot of genre fiction those pesky rules slip into your operating system unbidden. I don’t consciously think about these rules while writing. Writing feels like riding a wild horse down a skinny canyon trail. Hold on and pray that either me or the horse knows what we’re doing. 

That sounds oh so very punk. And likely not true. Over the years I’ve come to see that what some call rules, are actually tools for the writing tool box. When writing Young Americans I tried not to use any profanity. The book was a heist novel based loosely on my dangerously wild teen years in the 70’s. It does have some “bad language” as my son Dylan would say. But by setting that rule I found it made me more intentional about where and what expletives I used.

My first three books took place in the world of sex as commerce, and it was important that I wrote bluntly about the subject, even if it made some readers uncomfortable. After the Moses Trilogy, I wanted to dial back on being so sexually explicit. I had become desensitized and needed to reacquaint myself with the subtler side of writing. Modern cozies are a great place to find quieter ways of writing about adult subjects. 

I read for pleasure. I read to be reminded why I write. I read to adjust what I think is possible. I read to reset myself between books.  

Lately I have been filling my literary tank reading South/Central American writers.


Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is mind bendingly dreamy or maybe nightmarish depending on your personal taste. It has all the elements of a crime story, or an adventure novel. There are multiple mysteries. But none of it follows a “normal” structure and it clearly makes up the rules as it goes along. 


Death in the Andes: A novel by Mario Vargas Llosa is a classic mystery. Three men have disappeared in a small Peruvian mining town leaving two Civil Guards to discover the who, how, and why of the case. It also has pishtacos (fat sucking cannibal vampires), a bar owner named Dionisio who behaves much like his Greek namesake Dionysus, murdered drug dealers, and more. It flows smoothly back and forth in time. It is unlike any crime book I’ve read and again it follows its own rules.    


The Old Man Who Read Love Stories: A Novel by Luis Sepúlveda is an adventure novel set in Ecuador’s Amazon basin. It breaks no rules, it is simply a brilliantly told tale and reminded me how good writing can be.

“The woman, Dolores Encarnación del Santísimo Sacramento Estupiñán Otavalo, was dressed in finery that had existed and continued to exist in those stubborn corners of the memory where the weeds of solitude take root.” — Luis Sepúlveda

My father called the frame of a painting a cage without which his artistic intentions would never be possible. We need constraints for our visions to take form inside. The work I’m most proud of often came from rebelling against english rules. In All The Wild Children I played with tense, moments from my past that grabbed me were in present tense, they live in my memory as real and right now. Other sections were told in past tense because old Josh was retelling them.

I broke tense rules in the 2nd Moses book. In hard boiled crime fiction books the rule is 1st person past tense. But in Out There Bad an assassin showed up who needed to be there. Their chapters were present tense, they had no past or future, they were a deadly force of nature, so this made sense to me. I don’t remember making a choice to do this, it came naturally when writing these chapters.

Rules in any book are set up in the very beginning. The author signs a contract with the reader about what kind of book it will be. 

On page two of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, he wrote;

“Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I don’t want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work.”

Even if you were unfamiliar with McCarthy’s work, you would now know what kind of book you were in for.

The opening of my book Tricky finds a intellectually disabled man in a stand off with two LAPD officers. How that scene is written tells the reader of the book’s respect for humanity. If you pick up a book called Beautiful Naked & Dead and are offended by sex and violence, you didn’t read my contract with the reader. It was blatantly in the title.

Now go out and break as many rules as you can. If you serve any time in writer’s jail, I guarantee you will discover some great writers hanging out in the yard.  

Thursday, March 28, 2024

The Concept Album and other adventures, by Catriona

Q:  Crime fiction has tried and true conventions, such as a murder/crime in the first chapter (or soon thereafter), an investigation, believable motive, hidden clues etc. Add to this, the conventions for each subgenre, such as cozy or police procedural. Have you ever ignored or deviated from these established conventions? Do you find them restrictive or do you like working within them?

I love them! The rules of crime fiction are like a corset: yes, okay, they hold you in a bit but they also hold you up. 

Which is not say that I haven't broken them, both deliberately and out of ignorance. Here's a partial list of the rules I've broken, to the best of my recollection, and an honest account of why it happened.

Rule 1: You find out who dunnit.

After the Armistice Ball was my first attempt to write a detective story. Still today, when I sign copes I add the plea "Read this gently; I was learning". What worried me was that everyone would know the solution and, in trying to look clever, I'd look stupid. So I went the other way. Three out of four early readers didn't know who dunnit after they'd finshed the whole book. Also, I added a little kicker of a bonus mystery right at the end and made an oblique reference to its solution that still - 19 years later! - has people emailing to ask if they've missed something.

Rule 2: you find out who dunnit at the end.

Next, I wrote The Burry Man's Day and I was determined not to trip over my own insecurities this time, so I made the murderer more obvious. So obvious, in fact, that everyone who reads the book knows who dunnit about halfway through. But seasoned readers know that that can't be, so they read on waiting for the twist. I imagine people turning the last page and going "Huh". Maybe some of them think I was "problematising the genre" in that insufferable way. Nope, just getting it wrong. Again.

Rule 3: in a murder mystery, there is a murder.

Bury Her Deep
came next. It's the one my husband calls the concept album and other people people call "the one where nothing happens". Listen, I still like it. Dorothy L Sayers wrote Gaudy Night and I wrote this. Also, it led to one of the most hilarious bits of feedback ever. David Headley of Goldsboro books in London said - in all seriousness, "Around about p.160, I realised nothing was going to happen and I have to say, Catriona, if nothing's going to happen, your reader should know quicker than that."

Rule 4: in a murder mystery, there are suspects, clues and red herrings.

Book four was The Winter Ground. Loads happened! It was set in a circus with many, many, many characters. And it was packed with incident. But none of the circus folk are possible culprits and none of the incidents are clues to the murder. Oops. Again, though, I still like this book. Did I say it was set in a circus? Come on!

Book five was when I really hit my stride. Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains has a plot, suspects, clues, red herrings, an investigation, a solution and has never sparked a single email asking follow-up questions. I'm very fond of it for all those reasons and also because I happened to set a story below-stairs in a grand house just as the world caught Downton Abbey fever, and my career moved from hardly-deserving-of-the-name to ill-advised-and-precarious. Yippee!

I've broken lots of sub-genre rules. Once, during a panel, I was musing about whether the Dandy Gilver series was cozy and someone shouted from the audience, "It's not a cozy if you nail a kitten to the road". Hard to argue. I've also, in a contemporary supsense novel, killed an old lady, a kid and the dog. And I still think it's a happy ending. 

I'm not putting up a picture revealing which book that is (spoilers) so here instead is Dandy Gilver No. 16, The Witching Hour. Isn't it pretty? It's out in the UK in May, and coming to the US in September.


Tuesday, March 26, 2024

A is for Ambiguity and D is for Deviant


Crime fiction has tried and true conventions, such as a murder/crime in the first chapter (or soon thereafter), an investigation, believable motive, hidden clues etc. Add to this, the conventions for each subgenre, such as cozy or police procedural. Have you ever ignored or deviated from these established conventions? Do you find them restrictive or do you like working within them?

I see rules as guidelines, as training wheels. I break rules, but they’re not the usual suspects.

I’ll save us time and quote Lionel Twain in the dramedy Murder by Death for some of the ways authors infuriate readers:

You’ve tortured us with surprise endings that made no sense. You’ve introduced characters at the end that weren’t in the book before! You’ve withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it.

Lionel’s complaint speaks to the violation of the contract between Author and Reader. In my mind, THE most unforgivable crime any mystery author can make is to kill an animal. Do that and, as Australian author Sulari Gentill pointed out at CrimeReads, it’s a deal-breaker.

I do like to subvert expectations, though. I’m tired of the indestructible hero, who, like a Timex watch, ‘takes a licking and keeps on ticking.’ Pounced, punched, thrown from heights, burned, iced, hit by a car, struck with a baseball bat, stabbed, and shot, the guy or gal carries on. It’s as if descendants of the knight-errant Marlowe are Monty Python’s Black Knight, who says, “Tis but a flesh wound.” In my novels, pain is real, and violence has consequences. In real life, violence is ugly, often brutal and fast. I don’t feel compelled to dwell on violence or be graphic about it in my writing. Like sex, which I think is often comical in real life and which most writers write horribly, violence is best implied or kept minimalistic.

My Shane Cleary dishes it out and receives it in kind, but I make short work of it. There is context, purpose. It is never gratuitous, though I like to surprise readers. This year’s Agatha and Left Coast Crime nominated author of Time’s Undoing Cheryl Head wrote me after reading HUSH HUSH (curious, or) upset that Shane had thrown a guy down a flight of stairs after he’d attacked Shane’s cat Delilah, but did nothing when thugs attacked his girlfriend Bonnie. The short answer is Shane’s relationship with Delilah was stronger and deeper than his with Bonnie. Sorry, not sorry.

My characters are subversive, against type. My ‘bad guys’ do good things. Mafioso Tony Two-Times defends a drag queen in THE BIG LIE. Criminals are people, and individuals in my novels are gray. Behavior is neither all black nor all white. People are, however, motivated by self-interest. People are capable of darkness and light. As a person, I seem able to tolerate ambiguity in others better than most. I see both sides of the street in unique ways. The mafia, for example, is ‘bad’ but I don’t see the government and its RICO laws against organized crime as ‘better.’ Why? The quest for justice starts with a crime, then proceeds to an investigation. With RICO, it’s the opposite: law enforcement targets an individual first and then ‘looks for’ the crime second. The legal logic is bonkers. A person could be acquitted of a charge, but that same alleged crime can count as a ‘predicate act’ a decade later for another bite at the apple. That’s gray and very real world. Our world. That's why I don’t follow all the rules.

I tend to favor open endings over tidy resolutions because, again, that’s life. The traditional denouement where the detective explains all the clues, exposes the red herrings, and the bad guy is dragged off is too traditional and clean. Sometimes the villain gets away with it, and returns to commit more crimes another day.

We would like to think life is rational and linear. A leads to B, then C. This is perception.

It’s more ‘realistic’ to factor in chaos. A might lead to B, or maybe C. This is perspective.

I don’t want to be a predictable writer. I put forth the idea that sometimes the truth is unknowable, and we are forced to embrace that. The movie Anatomy of a Fall masters this point perfectly. Did the wife do it? Was it murder or suicide? This embrace is a form of empathy.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Are Rules Made to Be Broken?

 Q:  Crime fiction has tried and true conventions, such as a murder/crime in the first chapter (or soon thereafter), an investigation, believable motive, hidden clues etc. Add to this, the conventions for each subgenre, such as cozy or police procedural. Have you ever ignored or deviated from these established conventions? Do you find them restrictive or do you like working within them?

-from Susan


My first thought when I looked at this week’s question was that rules make me itchy. But that’s from the perspective of someone who’s found a voice, a rhythm of writing, and who reads widely and in great gobs within the crime fiction genre. It’s easier for me to say to hell with abstract rules, I write from my own confidence, than it is for a writer just feeling her way into the profession.


The examples in the question of conventions to follow are not wrong as long as they’re not accepted as rigid rules. It helps to understand the scaffolding that supports a genre, and to use it to build a story – as long as it doesn’t squash a good tale. I’ve been flattered to be part of a crime writing conference faculty and we’re gearing up for the 2024 program. When I was a learning writer and attended this same conference, I wanted to know what the rules were, in part because I feared I’d never get published if I colored outside the lines. It gave me confidence to know how to create the story within some kind of frame, so it didn’t just drift around. Now, I share many of those ideas with other writers trying to do the same thing. Many of the other faculty say the same thing: you need to know what the conventions are, and to follow the ones that will get your book into the hands of readers, but not to feel so bound by them that you get blocked.


One aspect of the conventions is significant and has to be faced: It’s often the readers who are the strictest followers of the rules. We love readers, their opinions mean a great deal. But think about it – are we self-censoring, giving up on our belief in what makes the best story, if we’re writing too much in response to what we fear readers will say? How many of us who’ve become published have gotten blowback in reader reviews because we didn’t hew to a convention?


“There was swearing!”


“It started too slowly!”


“I knew who the killer was right away!”


“I never figured out who did it – not enough clues!”


“It was depressing!”


“A dog died – I’ll never read him again!”


Get too many of those and any author has to face the crits honestly. Am I going to lose readers (and, therefore publishers) by ignoring a major expectation? Did I make some unforced errors in the book that I can learn from? Who am I writing for? 

As an unpublished author getting feedback from beta readers, those responses properly demand attention and serious, non-defensive thinking. Are there ways to re-frame what you’ve written so it doesn’t bury clues too deeply, starts a bit faster, eliminates all but the essential expletives. (Don’t tell me, dear reader, that someone who stumbles over a dead body in 2024 says “Oh dear.”) As a published author, you may have a strong following of readers who love what you do your way. Then, the complaints may be outliers and you can smile, bless them, and keep on your chosen path.


I think following the conventions at least loosely is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t mean you’re trying to fit your size 10 foot into a size 8 shoe! It helps agents sell your book, it helps publishers market it, it helps booksellers shelve it, and it helps readers who have preferences for a sub-genre find it. The caveat for me is that if you believe it’s vitally important to the story to have readers get to know and care about the characters before one of them is killed, for example, and a death on page two crushes that, then you have to write so persuasively and engagingly that the readers you want stick with you. 


Rules, someone has said, are made to be broken. I would only add, yes, but proceed with caution.

Two current books. If you read them, you can look for the breaks from convention and decide if I blew it!







Thursday, March 21, 2024

Marketing Books - A Novice's Tale, by Harini Nagendra

Having one’s book rise above the crowded marketplace is difficult. What have you tried to get yours noticed — what has worked and what has not?

This is the million dollar/rupee question, isn't it? My fellow Criminal Mind'ers, Brenda, Terry, Dietrich and Jim, have terrific and very varied responses to this, which I hope you get to read.

Compared to my other friends here, I'm still very much the novice. While I do have six published books, and a seventh on the way - four of these are non-fiction, sold to an Indian market. I've only published two fiction books as yet - The Bangalore Detectives Club, and its sequel, Murder Under A Red Moon, both released to a worldwide audience in March 2022 and May 2023. The third in the series, A Nest of Vipers, will be out in May 2024. 

At heart I'm a number crunching scientist who likes to deal with data, but I have a relatively short time series to work with. I am already finding some interesting patterns, though. I'm a writer living in Bangalore, but selling books to an audience primarily in India, USA, Canada and UK, with some sales in other parts of the world. The patterns seem to differ across geographies, and what I am able to do with marketing also differs across locations.

In India, most of my sales come from print books. The independent bookstores in Bangalore - most of whom are on one tiny stretch of Church Street - account for many thousands of sales in themselves, and the very knowledgeable owners and staff in these stores are amongst my biggest supporters. I drop by these stores regularly to sign and personalize books and to do book events. Because I already have an audience in the country for my ecology books, it's much easier for me to spread the word here.

In the UK, where my main publisher, Little Brown Books' Constable Crime is based, half my sales come from print books, and half from ebooks. I haven't been able to visit the UK since the books were released, or to do much publicity there. I got some help from bookstagrammers - I posted on Instagram asking book readers if they would like to read and review. A number of them responded asking for the books, creating and posting videos with stunning backdrops, mood boards and the like. Many Indian bookstagrammers also picked up the books, and continue to ask for them, posting terrific reels. I have no idea how these impact sales, but they do attract a lot of viewers, and I love it - that's the best way I would love books to reach readers, via word of mouth.

In the US, ebooks far outstrip my print book sales, and audio books are doing very well too. It does seem like the modes in which people like to access their books varies hugely from location to location. In both the US and in Canada, libraries and library readers have been terrific supporters - The Bangalore Detectives Club has been featured in a number of library book club discussions (which makes me very happy, because public libraries are the best). I can't claim to have influenced this in any planned way. I can't, because I live so far away - I haven't been able to attend any writer's conferences, visit bookstores, or promote my book in-person in any way. 

More than anything I did, though, it was some very good breaks that I got with book reviews that helped. The Bangalore Detectives Club and Murder Under A Red Moon got terrific reviews in the New York Times, and were selected as Amazon Editor's Choices, as well as starred reviews in influential magazines like Publishers' Weekly, BookList and Library Journal. All of this made libraries order the book, which led to more library patrons reading the book, and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, which (I hope) led to organic sales. Book 1 was on the NYT list of Notable Books of 2022, shortlisted for a Lefty, Agatha, Anthony award in the US and for a Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger. I didn't win any of these, but being shortlisted certainly helped keep it in bookstores, which means that potential readers got to see the book.

This was good luck, I lay no claims to brilliant planning or strategy, or even just being around and making myself a familiar face. I did get to Canada last year to the Motive Crime and Mystery Festival in June 2023, and met some readers and fellow-writers like Vaseem Khan, which was a blast! 

So far, the books are doing much better than I hoped, and I'm very happy. I would really love to spend more time with my readers outside India though, and I need to find innovative, low carbon ways to do this.

And so - here's the promo! Libraries, bookstores, book clubs, readers - if you see this and would like me to interact online or on email, let me know. I'd be happy to join you virtually, and if I can manage it, even in person. Please visit my website at, or send me an email at harini (at), to reach out.  


I’m Always Chasing Rainbows from James W. Ziskin

Having one’s book rise above the crowded marketplace is difficult. What have you tried to get yours noticed — what has worked and what has not?

My distinguished Criminal Minds colleagues have covered much of the ground I will cover here. The truth is if authors knew how to get noticed, we’d all be best sellers. There’s no magic pill. No roadmaps, either. If only this were like a foot race and all you needed to do was run faster and harder. We all do that, metaphorically speaking. All of us try our best to follow the advice out there, but few distance themselves from the pack.

And I’ve decided that that’s okay.

In attempts to be more than a just face in the crowd, I’ve done it all. I’ve attended conferences. Hobnobbed and glad-handed. Smiled when readers told me they didn’t think much of my books. Sat on panels and yucked it up with fellow authors, hoping desperately to charm the audience into buying my books. I’ve closed the bar countless nights at Bouchercon, Left Coast, ThrillerFest, Malice, New England Crime Bake, and California Crime Writers Con, socializing with writer friends and readers. 

I’ve written guest blogs galore, organized book- and tchotchke-giveaways. Done readings, signings, seminars, and luncheons. I’ve hired publicists, traveled near and far, visited libraries, bookstores, and retirement homes. Yes, I’ve done that several times. I’ve blogged for the past seven years here at Criminal Minds (159 posts and counting), and I’ve guest blogged all over the Internet. I’ve happily provided blurbs for aspiring and established writers alike, hoping to help/pay back/pay forward, but also to get my name out there and keep it there.

I’ve even had the great fortune to win a few prestigious book awards. An Anthony, two Macavitys, and a Barry award. And finalist nominations for the Edgar (twice), Lefty (five times), Anthony (five times), Agatha (once), and Sue Grafton Memorial (once). But as anyone who’s been shortlisted or even taken home those prizes knows, you don’t increase book sales just because you won a statuette.

Yet I suppose all of that has sold some books. Maybe a couple of hundred. Not enough to move the needle. Still, it’s been fun and educational. I wouldn’t trade any of it. Well, perhaps I could have done without the woman who told me she’d read my first book and didn’t think much of it…

So why haven’t any of these efforts borne fruit? Why aren’t I smoking a pipe and wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches? Why aren’t I picking books for readers on the Today Show? What’s missing?

Though it’s surely not the magical, miraculous, simplistic solution, the thing that has been lacking for me, at least, has been a publisher’s engagement. True engagement. Financial engagement. Support, backing, pushing for sales. I can’t blame my publishers for this. They have been, after all, mid-sized houses that didn’t have the deep pockets and staffing necessary to promote a book that way. But, let’s be honest, if a major publisher wants to boost sales of a title, they can jolly well do it. All it takes is money and determination. A publisher can cajole the media, organize book tours, pay for prominent display space at Barnes and Noble, and take out TV ads and billboards.

I’m not crying sour grapes. (Not like Judy Garland singing “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.”) Of course I’d love to make the New York Times bestseller list, get a movie deal, and vacation in the South of France on the proceeds. But it’s okay if that doesn’t happen. That’s not why I write. I write because there’s no option. I eat too. And breathe and sleep. It’s simply something I have to do. I want to do. 

I’ve found peace with my lot. I’m a writer. I’ve had success and I’ll work for more. But I’m not going to twist myself into a self-promoting shill to achieve that success. I’m through with chasing rainbows. I’ll keep trying, of course, but not to become a best seller. As we’ve discovered this week, there’s no known way to do that. I’m going to work on my words instead. The rest will take care of itself.


Wednesday, March 20, 2024

One reader at a time …

Having one’s book rise above the crowded marketplace is difficult. What have you tried to get yours noticed — what has worked and what has not?

by Dietrich

My publisher Jack David once gave me this bit of advice: “Don’t guess what the book-reading public wants, because you never will. Just write the best book you can.” He also told me Elmore Leonard wasn’t recognized right out of the gate, but he just kept on writing. A New York Times piece back in October ’83 said this about Elmore: “Novelist discovered after 23 books.”

So from early on, I decided I was in it for the long haul, and I put my focus on improving my chops. As well improving my writing, I learned it was key to pen the best synopsis I could, and to always have an elevator pitch ready for when someone asked what the book was about. And it’s a good idea to have a carefully chosen book excerpt at the ready as well.

Of course, I never held my breath, thinking that was all there was to it, hoping for the best as far as promoting my books. I heeded the saying, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” and I considered what I could do to get the book noticed. I was pleased (and relieved) to know there were publicists and marketers out there —  those who knew much more about it than I did — and they were the ones who sought out advance reviews, took care of sales catalogues, trade publications, and the like.

“The first page sells this book. The last page sells your next book.” 

Mickey Spillane

I attended conferences and festivals, and there were the Noir at the Bar and LitCrawl events where I got to know other authors and readers alike, and I made many lasting friendships along the way. And although nervous about it at first, I discovered it’s great fun to read to an audience, both large and small, and the same goes for doing a live interview or a panel discussion.

There have been book tours, both in-person and online, as well as guest posts and podcasts, and all of these have been well worthwhile. The same goes for having a professional-looking website, which needs to be updated regularly, along with an up-to-date bio and event calendar. And there are the blog sites I contribute to regularly: Off the Cuff, and right here at Criminal Minds.

Although results may be hard to track, there are other way to promote books which may be worth considering: Social media ads and other paid promotion, teasers and trailers, giveaways, newsletters to build a mailing list, Q & As, merch (okay even a simple bookmark counts as merch), so you don’t need to go to hats and keychains and t-shirts.

I’m sure Brenda, Terry, James, and Harini will all have worthwhile tips to add to the mix, so be sure to check out their posts all this week.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Hello! Is Anyone Out There?


Terry here, lamenting the answer to this week's question: Having one’s book rise above the crowded marketplace is difficult. What have you tried to get yours noticed — what has worked and what has not? 

 As far as I can tell, nothing I’ve done has ever worked to raise my books “above.” I am a solidly midlist writer (or lower than midlist), who has never “broken out.” That’s not to say I haven’t had some local and minor success with sales. But I mean I sold “tens of books.” Rising above means selling hundreds, or thousands, of books. 

Oddly, someone told me that most people think I’ve made a lot of money from writing because I’ve had ten books published (#11 is coming April, #12, sometime in the fall.) But as any midlist writer can tell you, being published in the lower echelons is largely a vanity undertaking. I love being in the spotlight, love doing events at bookstores and book clubs. I enjoy being on panels at conferences, which gives me the illusion of “success.”
But it doesn’t make money, and the only way to make money in the writing game is to get noticed—big time. 

 One would think that touring the country for a book tour would get some notice. (By the way, touring is on my dime. Publishers don’t pay anything for midlist writers to tour. And it’s expensive! Flights, hotel rooms, ground transportation—all obscenely expensive—and without much to show for it, except ego boosts.)
I have routinely publicized bookstore tours on social media and in newsletters. And sometimes I’ve sold quite a few books at bookstore events. But those were usually in bookstores in the Bay Area, where I lived—friends and family! One little breakout was a reading in a wine store, where I sold a lot. Also, I have sold a number of books in Texas, where my books are set. But no matter how many books I’ve sold at these events, it’s small potatoes in the larger scheme of “success.” 

 I’ve had more success at drawing people to book club talks and libraries. But bottom line, no book “events” have ever moved the needle to permanent best-seller status. 

 I have always been with medium-size presses, and they don’t budget much for author publicity. I’m usually on my own paying for any publicity. Occasionally I’ve wheedled a publisher to pay half of an ad. And occasionally they’ve sprung for an ad when several of their authors are being promoted. But it’s rare. 

 Some authors do break out of the pack of midlist doldrums, and it’s usually because they are picked up by a large publisher—one that’s willing to put money into promoting and publicizing. 

 The only thing that ever really got my books noticed was when a widely-read author, Carolyn Hart mentioned my first book as her favorite of the year. That created the coveted “buzz.” And for one shining moment I had great book sales. But as so often happens with series, the first few sell well, and then sales drop off. 

 How about awards and good reviews? Do they affect sales? My first few books were finalists for awards, including the Strand Critics Award and the Left Coast Crime “Lefty” awards.
The fifth book won a critics award from the now defunct RT Reviews. Have the awards garnered sales? I don’t think so. 

 All of my books have garnered terrific reviews, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. It’s exciting to get those great reviews and I holler about them on social media. But have those reviews resulted in being noticed? Not that I can tell. 

Happily, I do have a loyal fan base, to whom I’m very grateful. They email me, rave about my books on social media, and tell their friends. They buy multiple copies. And that, as far as I can tell, has been the only thing that works—word of mouth. 

One problem I have is that the books are set in small-town Texas. Regional. As Library Journal, said, “The Samuel Craddock series may be the best regional crime series around today.” But even in Texas, I don’t think that resonates with book buyers. I was on TV in Dallas, I’ve had long reviews in the Dallas Morning News. But nothing has ever sparked the buying public to buy my books by the carload. 

 I have high hopes that my new series, a thriller series set in various places around the globe,
might be more generally read. But the question remains, how do you get “noticed?” Bottom line: I haven’t figured it out.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Book Marketing Tips

Having one’s book rise above the crowded marketplace is difficult. What have you tried to get yours noticed — what has worked and what has not?

Brenda at the keyboard.

Such a pertinent question for all authors. It's been 20 years since my first release, and my marketing ventures have run the gamut from the good to the bad to the ugly.

First, the ugly.

I remember my first event was with about five fellow authors at a used book sale at a public school in the east end of Ottawa. It was the school's annual fundraiser and the books were being sold for next to nothing. Bad idea, therefore, to attempt to sell new books at a profitable price. Author books sold (for all 6 of us) = 0.

I used to agree to participate in just about any event that came along. My favourite misadventures included a turkey parade in a neighbouring village, and a plowing match at a different neighbouring village. Between the two events, books sold = 1. Selling one book didn't even begin to cover gas, time and humiliation.

Events such as these were not a total waste, however. I learned to be discriminating and only agreed to participate in events that attracted readers and book buyers. Yet, I've occasionally been fooled by these too. 

I once travelled to Toronto to be part of a street book fair that was spread out over quite an area with many tables, lots of authors, and no way to stand out. People were looking for handouts and freebies and those actually selling their books at a reasonable price didn't stand a chance. Books sold = 0.

Book signings in stores can also be hit and miss. I tend to do better in my own city but line up signings when I'm travelling. I had one at a Chapters in Regina several years ago - we were in Moose Jaw watching our daughter curl and drove to Regina for the signing - no publicity in the store and no absolutely no interest by anybody. Books sold = 2 (only because my husband bought them for people back in Ottawa).

I was once in Saskatoon on business as the communications advisor of an Indigenous retreat. I set up a signing one evening at the McNally Robinson bookstore. They had about 40 chairs set up for a reading and asked if I'd invited anyone. When I said no, I didn't know anybody in Saskatoon, the woman said, "Oh dear, normally authors have their own people come out. Well, we can scrap the reading." As the time drew nearer only two people were sitting in the chairs (I hoped not just resting for a minute), and I prepared myself for the humiliation to come. And then ... all of my colleagues from Ottawa began arriving (I hadn't invited them because it seemed inappropriate), bought books and filled the seats for my reading. I still think of them with immense fondness and gratitude. (a potentially awful situation turned wonderful.) Books sold = lots.

Now, more of the good.

An even better idea than bookstore signings are book clubs. The members buy and read your chosen book and will continue buying other books in the series. They also tell friends about you and your books and this results in more invitations. I've even done virtual book club visits with clubs in other towns and cities. Recently, a woman at a book club asked if her charity could raffle off a book club visit and a couple of my donated books, and I said of course. This resulted in meeting a great group of new readers and helping out a cause. She's lined me up for another raffle this year.

Media and book reviews in traditional outlets have been terrific for sales over the years, but these opportunities are becoming scarcer. I've been fortunate to connect with a couple of local community newspapers and a local tv station and recommend fostering relationships where possible. A good website and social media are also imperative for getting the word out. I've maintained a personal blog for a number of years, talking about my writing and projects, and this keeps me in the public eye. I'm surprised sometimes by the number of people who read the blog and comment, either through social media or in person.

I can't stress enough the importance of getting to know booksellers and librarians in your town and region. Booksellers will hand sell your books, hold signings and recommend you to festivals or other events. Likewise, librarians will order in your books and help to spread the word, and word of mouth is huge in marketing. It's the intangible, biggest factor in turning your book into a success and rising it above the multitude.

I'll end here with a few last truisms I've learned during my two decades in the book business. The best way to sell books is gently. In my experience, the aggressive sales approach doesn't work in the long run. (Someone told me only last week about a woman who forced her book on a customer in a bookstore, even signing it to them. The customer left the book on a shelf before leaving the store.) I will also add that you should stay true to yourself and to your values, as in any business. Accept opportunities that stretch your comfort zone and don't be afraid of failure. When this happens, refuse to become discouraged. There will always be another opportunity. Think of marketing as a muscle that strengthens the more you work it. Control what you can control and accept the rest with humour and grace.


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