Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Sleuthfest Day Two: The Plot Thickens

It seemed the crowds were bigger today, or maybe I was just attending more popular panels. First up was Oline Cogdill moderating a panel of new authors. This was definitely geared towards the writers in the room and the discussion ranged from naming your characters (be careful not to use the same first initial for all your characters!) the importance of setting and the always popular, write what you know. That panel was followed by the standing-room-only "Editors' Roundtable" with Putnam VP/Editor Neil Nyren, St. Martins Press/Minotaur editor Toni Plummer and Benjamin LeRoy, the editor/owner of the excellent small press, Bleak House Books.

First was the slightly depressing news that book sales are definitely down 10-20%. Editors are a bit more cautious about what they are buying and are looking at books 2-3 times before acquiring. The good news is that isn't really all that different than any other time. Publishers are in business to sell books, so they have to buy books. So what are they buying?

Nyren is the king of the thriller with a stable of authors that includes some of the biggest names in the business: Clive Cussler, Robert B. Parker, John Sandford, Tom Clancy, to name a few. On the other hand, LeRoy explained that Bleak House has a different approach to purchasing; if turning your book into a movie "would require a large special effects budget" than it probably isn't the right book for Bleak House. Plummer is buying all kinds of mysteries from cozies to gritty noir, but passing on the international spy thrillers.

Things to avoid? Nyren begged for no more alcoholic ex-contenders, ex-cops, or dogs. What does he want? "Something extra." A fresh voice. Something that "makes me sit up straighter in my chair, makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up"; "something that I haven't read a million times before" or if he has, then it has to be "so damn good I want it anyway." Bleak House is buying from authors who have terrific series that have been dropped from the big publishing houses. They have different goals with their numbers. Bleak House was also the only publisher on this panel that still accepts manuscripts from authors rather than agents.

The discussion meandered into James Patterson territory. For many years, it was considered "cannibalization" if an author wanted to put out more than one book a year, the thinking was they would be stealing their own sales. Patterson blew that theory out of the water and did it anyway. Now many of the top bestselling authors are producing 2, 3 or even 4 books a year.

Finally, the secret to selling books was revealed: word of mouth. Reviews, media attention and personal appearances all help spread word of mouth. The other secret to sales is a "subterranean cost" called "co-op". That's where the publisher pays to put your book on the front table at Borders or on the ladder displays at the front of your local Barnes & Noble, or even having Amazon send out emails offering your book for 30% off.

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