Wednesday, March 04, 2009


The Laws of Harmony is bit of a departure for me in several ways, although, having said that, the themes I wanted to explore in the book are some of the same themes that have always interested me…the way the past shapes the present and drives the future…the ways in which children grow up differently in the same family…the family dynamics of loss and grief…and most particularly, how the ties that bind mother and daughter—however we might struggle against them—are not easily undone.

One difference lies in the tone of the book, which I think is just a shade darker than my first three books, although there is plenty of what Publishers Weekly called “gentle humor.” I can’t really write a story without humor, anymore than I can write a story without food and music.

The other difference is that The Laws of Harmony has more plot than my earlier work, which some readers will like more than others. But on the whole, I still feel that the story is driven by the main character’s conflicting needs to escape the past and to come to terms with it. The book is really about her discovering that those two things are one and the same.

On my website,, you can watch a video trailer for the book, as well as a video I taped at the HarperCollins studios in New York last fall that details the true incident that sparked the idea for the story.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Sleuthfest & Scandinavia

Current trends in the mystery field was a hot topic of discussion throughout the entire Sleuthfest weekend. Oline Cogdill mentioned Scandinavian mysteries becoming more and more popular. Today, I read this in Publishers Lunch:

"Patterson's Latest Collaborator
James Patterson is reaching across the ocean for his latest writing partner, working on a new thriller set primarily in Stockholm with Scandinavian crime writer Liza Marklund, best known for her Annika Bengtzon series. The book will be published in Sweden in 2010 with Marklund's regular publisher Piratförlaget (of which she is a part owner), but that is the only territory sold so far. It's a bilingual collaboration as well. Marklund will write in Swedish, which will then be translated for Patterson, who will work in English as usual.

Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly is representing rights for the US and the UK and has "a great deal of interest" from Patterson's existing publishers in both territories. Linda Michaels, who was the "driving force in brokering the collaboration," represents rights for the rest of the world for Barnett, except for Sweden where The Salomonsson Agency represented Marklund.

Barnett sees it as "another example of Jim being innovative" as well as "an opportunity to introduce him to a whole new area of fans [internationally[ who might not be aware of him" while doing the same for Marklund.

Marklund says in a brief statement, "Writing this book is so much fun. The story is violent, emotional, and fast paced. It’s very exciting to work with such an intelligent and creative writer. James Patterson is not only exceptionally smart and funny, he is also incredibly humble."

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.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Sleuthfest: John Hart, Guest of Honor

This year Sleuthfest had two guests of honor, John Hart and Brad Meltzer. John gave a terrific talk at the Friday luncheon. He was engaging, entertaining and I think all the writers in attendance - most of the room - really took away some important lessons. Believe in yourself. Listen to your editor but also trust your gut. And if your father-in-law offers to feed your family for a year while you write your novel, find out if he is including you in that offer!

I've been lucky enough to review all of John's books for Library Journal. His first book, The King of Lies, was nominated for several awards. His second novel, Down River, won the Edgar award for best novel. His latest novel, The Last Child, doesn't come out until May but my review went out yesterday. It's a starred review, and it's his best book yet. It's a bit darker than his previous books, but it's the protagonist, a 13 year old boy, that really got to me and will stay with me, in much the same way Scout did in To Kill A Mockingbird.

I am a fast reader, and normally I read a book, especially a thriller, straight through in a night or two. With The Last Child, I was reading a bit, then stopping to savor it, putting it down to save some for the next day. It was a very unusual reading experience for me. By the third day, I couldn't take it anymore and just ripped through the rest. When I was done, I walked around my house hugging the book, I didn't want to put it down. So then I read it again. And I loved it even more. John signed it for me and that book will have a place of honor on my bookshelf - that means on a bookshelf somewhere instead of in one of the piles of books or boxes of books that are all over my house. I know I am totally romanticizing the whole reading experience but when you fall in love with a book, that's what happens. So now you all know.

After lunch, there were more panels. I went to a panel on how to get press with Oline Cogdil, the mystery reviewer for the Sun Sentinel newspaper, Sharon Potts who has her first novel coming out in a few months, and Cheryl Solimini, whose first novel, Across the River, was published last year. It was a good mix of people with very different perspectives, and there was a lot of interesting ideas and good advice. The bottom line is that authors need to promote themselves, publishers don't have the resources (read: money) to do much for new authors. Some suggestions included writing an article about something you've researched for the book that may be of interest to a specific group or location, for specialty magazines or local newspapers. Make sure your press release is well written - if it isn't, people will wonder how well written your book could possibly be. Finally, a website is crucial.

There was a last minute cancellation when one of the presenters had to appear in court, but Joann Sinchuk, manager of the Murder on the Beach bookstore filled in with a presentation designed to answer the question, "Now that you're published, what next?" Neil Nyren, Putnam VP/editor was in the audience and participated a great deal, offering a lot of good advice (Book trailers? Don't do them.) Joann let all the budding authors know a couple of really important terms: "sell-through", when most of the books that have been printed have sold is very important. Nyren pointed out that no one really expects 100% sell-through, but 80% within 6 months is a good guarantee of another book contract.

Joann also pointed out that an author has an obligation to try and sell their books. Some authors think they can turn in a manusript and be done with it, but that is just the beginning. She suggested attending conferences, arranging book signings, especially at libraries where you are more likely to get newspaper coverage, and that all important website. Also of note: every author has a publicist, but not every author has a publicity budget. The other term she mentioned was "sell sheet;" every book has one that is given to the sales staff. The sell sheet includes things like a plot summary, author bio including comments like "tireless promoter" (hint, hint) and quotes & reviews. The books that don't sell are remaindered, and authors don't get royalties on remaindered books.

The next panel was the politically incorrect "Book Broads", hosted by Randy Rawls. Christine Kling, Joann Sinchuk, Kris Montee (PJ Parrish), SJ Rozan and Elaine Viets sat around drinking wine and shooting the breeze about the book biz. This panel had the best stories. First was how PJ Parrish got their name. Kris writes with her sister, Kelly, but their publisher didn't want two names on the book. The sisters were on vacation in Paris, and were quite drunk when they got the inspiration to call themselves, "Paris". They called their agent and in slurred speech said "we know our name - Paris" which translated in drunken English to "Parrish" and the award winning writing duo were on their way.

Then Elaine Viets explained the "small penis theory of revenge." Elaine was "spectacularly fired" from her newspaper job and started writing novels. She would have a character suspiciously like the jerk who fired her, and she would give that character a small penis. That way she figured no one would want to sue her, go to court and tell the judge, "I'm the jerk in the book with a small penis." So she's had her way in her novels with everyone who ever wronged her.

I ended my day enjoying a drink with John Hart, Neil Nyren, and a couple of aspiring writers in the hotel bar, looking forward to day two of Sleuthfest.

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!

Search This Blog