Monday, March 02, 2009

Sleuthfest Guest Blogger: NEIL PLAKCY

I will have lots more to say about my adventure at Sleuthfest, but this is from Neil Plakcy:

This year the big focus at Sleuthfest was on writing, and the people I spoke with indicated that paid off. Several writers I spoke with said that they got their money’s worth from the first day—“Third Degree Thursday.”

That afternoon I led a group of writers through some exercises to clarify their “elevator pitches” – those one or two sentence summaries of your book that you need to be able to make while riding in an elevator. Or while trying to convince an agent or editor to take a look at your manuscript.

That led to a lot of discussion of character motivation. What makes your amateur sleuth press on in her investigation against resistance from the police, or the danger posed by the villain? Her childhood love of Nancy Drew isn’t enough. What drives your killer to take a human life? You have to know those things to write a good book, and you have to be able to articulate them to make a strong pitch.

Vicki Hendricks, Miriam Auerbach, PJ Parrish, and Christine Kling gave hands-on help with manuscripts, from starts, to humor, to “Why am I stuck?” Even on Friday and Saturday, when panel discussions dominated, we kept up the pressure on writing well, with Vincent O’Neil, Joan Johnston, SJ Rozan, and Martha Powers getting down to nuts and bolts.

Jim Born’s presentation on guns was a standout; he showed us three different types of holsters, let us get a grip on a plastic gun that was an excellent replica of the real thing, and tossed out a few do’s and don’ts. Don’t have your hero use a shoulder holster, for example; it’s too easy for the bad guy to get the gun away. If your hero uses an in-pants holster, he might suffer from a skin rash, or have to distract the villain before drawing on him.

Sun-Sentinel mystery reviewer Oline Cogdill provided a few insights into book publicity from the newspaper perspective, encouraging writers to schedule library events, because papers often want to publicize libraries. She also pointed out that deadlines are getting longer and longer; the book page at the Sun-Sentinel is worked out a month before publication, and reviews are often tied to local appearances, so advance planning is imperative.

At the editors’ panel, we heard that book sales are down 10-20% across the board at Putnam, and that an editor can’t “kind of like a book”—he or she has to really like it to get it published. They are looking at books three times before making publication decisions. But Neil Nyren pointed out that has always been true—it’s not just due to the current economic environment.

The forecast isn’t completely gloomy, though. Publishers have to keep buying books to stay in business, and unlike many of the large New York houses, boutique imprint Bleak House is growing. As the big houses reorganize, many mid-list authors may have to move to small independent presses to stay in print.

There is still a great appetite for hardback books; however there are lots of authors whose natural market is the paperback. It’s often better to introduce authors in paperback because of the lower price point. Some publishers are considering doing hard/soft releases simultaneously, rather than waiting a year after the hardcover to bring a book out in trade or mass market paperback.

No one felt that e-books will replace paper, but all agreed that it will be an important additional source of income, like audio books. At Putnam, e-book revenue is way up this year, but it’s still a very small part of the total. Editors are using e-book readers to review new manuscripts, and sales people are using them instead of carrying around armloads of books.

All the editors and agents agreed that their biggest turnoffs in query letters are phrases like “guaranteed best-seller” “My mother/friends/critique group love the book” and “Oprah is sure to want me on her show.” Skip the gimmicks too; no green ink on pink paper, for example.

Finally, and most important, all the editors agreed that the most valuable tool for selling books is still word of mouth—media, reviews, friend recommendations, coupled with co-op promotion—publishers paying to have books displayed prominently in bookstores, on front tables or step ladders, or through email blasts. So if you read a book you love, tell everyone about it!

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