Thursday, January 29, 2015


Zestful Blog Post #90

Hi there! I hope you survived this week’s storm of the century. Here’s the next installment in EPH (Elizabeth’s Publishing History). Let’s call this one:

9) Subprime

The Actress was released in the summer of 2008. Does this time period resonate in your memory? You betcha: the mortgage meltdown, the government bailouts of banks and General Motors. (As a native Detroiter, I shake my head at that: in the days of tail fins and pushbutton radios, GM could have bailed out the government.) The dark dawn of the Great Recession.

Just about everybody’s net worth went down a little or a lot, and the most significant result was that people did not rush out to buy The Actress.

I might add that they didn’t rush out to buy debut hardcovers by just about anybody else, either.

The efforts of the Macmillan marketing machine were mighty (felt I ought to stick with the alliteration as long as possible there), and the book did sell some in stores and online, as well as, notably, to thousands of libraries across the country. God bless all librarians everywhere. It still does my heart good to hear from a reader who found my books in their local library (even recently in Canada, which surprised me, given that country’s restrictive content laws governing book sales (another subject)).

Side note: It’s true that a library copy represents just one sale, and usually at a reduced royalty rate because publishers sell to libraries at special discounts. Some authors actively scorn library sales. I remember watching a filmed interview of James Ellroy during which he recounted a fan approaching him somewhere and gushing that she got L.A. Confidential out of the library and LOVED it. He said that he replied, “Well, that doesn’t do me a goddamned bit of good, does it?” But the point is, that library copy gained him a fan, and library fans will often buy the paperback, or even the next hardcover because they don’t want to risk a waiting list. James was perhaps not brought up to receive compliments gracefully.

When the financial crisis got going, even before my book was published, I immediately thought, ‘This bodes ill for The Actress,’ and I was right.

[Original cover.]

My deal with Macmillan was for two books. As soon as I signed the contract in 2007, I got right going writing the second in the series, The Extra. So when The Actress came out in 2008, I had already turned in The Extra and they were happy with it, and they offered me a contract for the third in the series.

The plan was to release the mass-market paperback (that is, the small-format, pocket edition) of The Actress simultaneously with the hardcover of The Extra in 2009, about a year after The Actress’s debut. That is a common practice.

The economic storm was rolling, but nobody knew how bad it was going to be, nor how long the pain would last, so most publishers were doing business as usual. I might add that Amazon was getting rolling on this thing called, sinisterly, “Kindle”. The Actress and the other books in that season’s Macmillan catalogue were the first books published by that company in e-book format.

When Macmillan saw that sales for The Actress were less than hoped, in spite of an almost uniformly enthusiastic critical reception, one of their responses was to redesign the cover for the paperback. This was a great move, because the original cover had issues.

So, backing up to pre-hardcover release: I had expected the cover for The Actress to be kicky and bright, to suggest the biting humor and almost over-the-top plot, along the lines of chick lit. I know there’s a mystery and some graphic gore (what with my killing off a main character, see Zestful Blog post #87), but I felt the book was wacky and light too. I didn’t get such a cover, but when I first saw it I was thrilled, because compared with the original covers of the Lillian Byrd series, which were predominantly black and pretty consistently horrible, it was good. It was professional.

The cover told the story, we all thought: it showed, from the back, a blonde-haired woman (Rita, my protagonist) dressed in a business suit, facing a courtroom. The thing that only struck me after I’d lived with the book staring me in the face in my office for a few months was that it was not a welcoming cover image. Someone standing with her back to you does not draw you in; when you walk into a party, do you immediately approach someone with their back to you? Customers in bookstores are like party guests.

So, a redesign was done. No, my opinion was not solicited; I didn’t even know they were doing it until they sent a proof image to Cameron, who forwarded it to me.

The redesigned cover still lives as a ghost on Amazon:

What happened to the mass-market paperback of The Actress? Tune in next week.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Throw the Baby in the Maw

Zestful Blog Post #89

Continuing on my journey through the publishing world, we have this week’s installment:

8) Throw the Baby in the Maw

The baby, is, of course, one’s manuscript, and the maw is your publisher’s machinery. Once the contract is signed, the maw opens.

The main thing to realize about traditional publishing (or whatever you want to call it; some call it ‘legacy’ publishing, which is a beautifully underhanded slap) is that the process takes a long time, even with the ever-evolving digital technologies. Typically it’s a year from acceptance to books-on-shelves, though publishers keep trying to shave this down, with spotty success.

What has to happen before blastoff?

[From my recent trip to Cape Canaveral.]

A long list of stuff:

Contract negotiations. These can take a day or weeks.

Revisions. You might wait three months for your editor, once the contract’s in place, to send you his or her notes on suggested revisions. This go-round is often called a ‘line edit,’ because the editor goes over your manuscript line by line, making comments and suggestions. They always want the thing back from you within a tight time window, like two weeks.

I’ve been lucky that the editorial process on all my books has been light. You can pretty much count on this: these days, if a book isn’t in pretty great shape, editors simply pass on it, with rare exceptions.

I remember reading, before I got published, an account of Pat Conroy working with his editor, Nan Talese, on revisions. Reportedly they holed up in a hotel together and went over his manuscript(s) for days and days on end, with Talese massaging the material, helping with every aspect of rewrites, etc. And I marveled, thinking hell, does she hold his dick for him while he pees? Talk about coddling. But when you’ve got a zillion-selling author, I guess you do what you feel you need to. (I tried to find the source of that report for this post, but could not. It was back in the 90s as I recall.)

Copy edits. This is where a copy editor, who specializes on the molecular level of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and formatting, goes over everything. Some of them also do fact-checking; for instance, a copy editor once looked up a particular firearm I mentioned, and told me it had been out of production for a few years. That was OK, since the gun didn’t have to be brand-new.

I worked once in a situation where I was given (with no notice) a weekend to go over copy edits for an entire book. The time pressure is because of their publishing schedule. For one example of a link in the chain, the publisher’s printer schedules jobs as tightly as possible. This is efficient. But if your book misses its slot, it might have to go to the rear of the queue, so to speak, so as not to throw off jobs all down the line. If you miss your print date, you’ll miss your release date. So editors are hyper about their publishing timelines, and when the crunch comes, it’s usually on you.

Final proofreading of the galleys. This is done by you. The galley is your book as it has been designed and typeset. That is, you’re looking at the exact product that will go through the printing press and be bound. Last chance to catch errors.

I might add that sometimes copy editors will inadvertently add errors to your manuscript, as when they’re inputting all the agreed-upon changes. A period or a quote mark might go missing, so when proofing you have to really focus.

More on the publisher’s side:

Release date has to be decided on, taking into account other books they’ll be releasing at the same time.

Marketing plan. Needs to be developed and groundwork laid for it.

Cover design. You’ll probably have no say in this.

Catalogue. Usually twice a year, publishers develop and release ‘catalogues’ of their upcoming titles to buyers at the bookstores and libraries, so these folks can browse and decide what to pre-order, and how much.

Galleys need to be sent to reviewers; increasingly this is being done electronically.

Printing and shipping. Of course e-book release is in here somewhere.

On top of all this, you have to factor in weekends and holidays, everybody’s vacation time, maternity leave, knee surgery, etc. etc., as well as slippage due to other authors missing their deadlines during the edit process and throwing your editor and thus everybody else off. (I plan to write more about the actually fairly intriguing subject of deadlines in another post.)

OK, next week we’ll see what happened when The Actress hit the stores.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Zestful Blog Post #88

When I left off last week, The Actress was on the verge of getting published. After I refused to make drastic changes to satisfy a certain editor, she opted not to make an offer.

We'll call this installment:
7) Champagne

But another editor was interested; in fact, she very much wanted to bid on The Actress, but couldn’t get the marketing guys on board. (Cameron related this to me.) Their feeling was, nobody wants to read about people in Hollywood. Evidently they’d published a book along those lines that didn’t do well, so they nixed a deal for The Actress.

[A hazy day in the Hollywood Hills, photo by ES.]

But yet another of the ‘Big Six’ wanted the book, and made an offer. The way it works is: they make an oral offer on the phone to your agent; the agent calls you and discusses, then the agent calls them back to say yea or nay. Only the most basic things are discussed during the oral process: the amount of the advance, and just a few details about the back end. (An advance is front end. Royalties after you earn out, any advertising/marketing arrangements, etc. are back end.)

If more than one publisher is interested simultaneously, the book ‘goes to auction’. That simply means the interested publishers are told by your agent that there are multiple interested parties, and they’d better put out their best offer during a certain tight window of time, like three days. Auctions for hot, multimillion-dollar books sometimes take only hours or minutes.

(When this offer came in, I was vacationing in Hawaii with friends. Because of my phone call from New York, I delayed our morning a bit, enduring their impatience to get out and look at the damn volcano already. But I’d worked for years to get to this point and was like, ‘Dudettes, you must delusional if you think I’m gonna cut this call short.’)

We came close to an auction situation for The Actress, what with the first publisher (who wanted changes) being so hot for it, but in the end we got just the one solid offer, which was for a two-book hardcover deal, and went with that. The publisher was St. Martin’s Minotaur, a division of Macmillan.

The whole process, from when Cameron started shopping the book around to getting the offer from Minotaur, took only two weeks.

Once the deal is accepted orally, the publisher draws up a contract and sends it to your agent, who sends it to you. (This one was done via U.S. Mail, but eventually everybody has pretty much gone electronic.) Once you’ve read it, you discuss it with your agent, and the agent gets back to the publisher with the changes you both agree to ask for.

Having negotiated my own contracts for my Lillian Byrd series, I was familiar with the process, but the contract from Macmillan was much longer and more involved than any I’d seen before. Here is where Cameron earned her percentage, by advising me on what we should and shouldn’t press for. Basically, a higher advance is always a good idea, but once you’ve gotten them as high as they’ll go (and without an auction you don’t have much leverage), you start talking about the back end. A good strategy is to ask for lower ‘bumps’ in the royalty schedule.

Say the contract says you’ll get ten percent of sales for the first fifteen thousand copies, then twelve and a half percent for the next fifteen thousand, then fifteen percent for the rest of all copies for eternity. You agent can ask for the first bump to be at ten thousand or seventy-five hundred, and so on, so that you’re eligible to make more total money on the book, sooner. You can ask that your highest percentage be bumped to twenty percent, stuff like that, as well.

You won’t get everything you ask for, but like an annoying corporate vice president I once worked with used to say, “Don’t ask, don’t get.”

So now is the time to ask away. More next time. Thanks for looking in.

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Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Rock in the (Main)Stream

Zestful Blog Post #87

I hope the holidays treated you well. I'm pleased with how Left Field is doing, but I have much more promo work to do. This week we’re back to my journey through the publishing world. This post necessarily contains spoilers from Holy Hell and The Actress. But they’re worth it, baby.

Let’s call this installment:

6) A Rock in the (Main)Stream

It took me about a year to write The Actress, then I sent it to Cameron (McClure, at the Donald Maass agency, who had expressed interest in the idea; see post #84). She liked the book a lot and offered to represent me. At the time, she was fairly new at Don’s agency. Before agreeing, I asked her why she thought she was right for the job.

“You already know I think you’re a great writer,” she said. “I’m young and hungry, and Don’s reputation opens all the doors for us.”

I said that sounded good. She replied, “From now on, it’s my job to be a bitch on your behalf.”

Such lovely, lovely music.

Some agents are hands-off and never make editorial suggestions; others are quite involved with their clients’ projects. I found that Cameron was into making suggestions. She got back to me with a long memo on The Actress, known as ‘notes’. This is the same thing as in Hollywood, where the producer or director or whoever tells the scriptwriter “I have some notes for you.” This can be ominous, signaling a horrifying ordeal for the writer, or it can turn out to be a most helpful, cooperative kind of thing.

Fortunately, I felt Cameron’s notes were valuable. While I rejected some of her ideas (which she insisted upon knowing reasons for), I adopted many of them, and the book became stronger for it.
I might note that early in the process, even before I wrote the whole book, one of Cameron’s suggestions was to kill off a main character. “because once you do that,” she explained, “your readers will never feel safe.” So I made sure to kill off a main character in The Actress.

During this, I reflected that in Holy Hell, my first title with Alyson Books, I made an opposite move. When my editor there got down to work on the book, she called me and said, “You know, I really think you shouldn’t [spoiler alert] kill off Minerva LeBlanc. She’s such a great character. Think what you could do with her in future books!”

I said, “Well, that’s the way the story goes. I needed a dead body to be found in Lillian’s apartment so suspicion falls on her and she has to deal with it. Like, you know, I’ve put her up a tree and now I’m throwing rocks at her. I wrote Minerva solely so I’d have an appealing character to kill off for this purpose.”

“Well, couldn’t you put her into a coma or something instead? So at least you have the option of bringing her back in the future?”

I thought for a minute. “Yeah, I could do that. I could have Minerva be viciously attacked in Lillian’s apartment while she’s away, and it would be attempted murder instead of murder, and Lillian would still be the natural first suspect for a serious crime.”

“OK, that’d be great.” And that’s how it worked out.

When both Cameron and I felt The Actress was in top shape, we discussed strategy. She knew I wanted a contract with a big publisher, so she prepared a list of the top ten, as well as a pitch email and so forth. I did not ask to see her pitch materials, trusting her to get the job done.

I didn’t have long to wait.

A few days after she started telling publishers about my book, she phoned me. We’d gotten one no-thanks from one of the ‘big six’, but another was expressing serious interest. Great, right? Just one hitch.

[Rocks make it dangerous--but fun.]

An editor for this publisher’s main crime-fiction imprint had read The Actress. She told Cameron, “I read the first half and thought it’s fabulous! I jumped up and ran down the hall to our contract department and said, ‘We’ve got to put together a offer for this book! It’s terrific!’ Then I went back to my office and read the second half. When I got to [spoiler alert] Gary’s death, I went, ‘Oh, no! She can’t kill off Gary! Rita and Gary have to get married and then solve crimes in the courtroom together!’”

This editor asked Cameron to see if I’d be agreeable to changing the book and the trajectory of the series. “What do you think?” Cameron asked.

This was a tough situation, but I said, “Well, no. I mean, I could put Gary into a coma”—hey, with one hand tied behind my back, lots of experience with coma-inducing injuries here—“and have him recover in the next book, but this can’t be a lawyers-together courtroom series.” I had initially conceived of a series of linked stand-alones, with some characters recurring, and I wanted to go forward with that. I wanted the next in the series to feature a different protagonist from Rita Farmer.

Cameron said, “Every editor who sees this says it absolutely has to be a series starring Rita. Everybody wants to know what happens to her next.”

“Well, I guess I could keep Rita as the main character, but I don’t have the background to write a lawyer/courtroom series, nor do I want to. I want [spoiler alert] Rita and George [the private eye in the story] to be together at the end of this one, and I’d be comfortable writing them working together going forward. I’m going to put Rita into law school, because she’s so interested in law after this one, but she’s not going to have a career as a lawyer. Maybe she’ll flunk out or something, I don’t know yet. I can write her as an actress, but not as a lawyer.”

Cameron explained all this to the big-shot editor, who said sadly that she wouldn’t be making an offer on the book after all.

She was sad. Righto.

However, Cameron had already heard from another couple of editors who were very interested in the book.

And we’ll have more on that next time. This is getting pretty detailed, but I feel the full story is worth telling.

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year, New Book

Zestful Blog Post #86

January 2015 Newschat

I just sent this message out as a Newschat, and now to my special Zestful friends!

I write this on the first morning of 2015 and all I can think about is Ach, I wonder how many times I’ll have to cross out 2014.

Regardless, happy New Year to you and yours. May your team win the bowl, and may the coming months of winter darkness be cheered by… oh, say, the new Lillian Byrd novel you’ve been craving!

Yes, it’s true: at long last, Lillian #5 is published and available, as of just a few days ago. Here’s where you can get Left Field,, and this is the back-cover skinny:

Lillian Byrd has been searching her soul after the gut-wrenching experience of killing someone in self-defense. Scrabbling to make ends meet, she takes a job as a quasi detective, solving life’s little mysteries for a pair of eccentric women in one of Detroit’s last prestigious neighborhoods. When she spots a corpse on the next-door lawn, she jumps back into honest work as an investigative journalist.

Her friend Mercedes reveals that the dead woman, Abby Rawson, played on a women’s softball team she manages and pressures Lillian into taking her spot. Softball turns to hardball when Lillian not only plunges into a love affair with the team’s sought-after pitcher but also goes undercover as an exterminator, a squatter, and a charity worker to investigate Abby’s death and the corrupt medical organization she worked for. No one on the team is above suspicion, and as they get closer to snagging the coveted championship title—and Lillian gets closer to discovering the dark truth behind Abby’s murder—she fights to keep her new love in her life and literally save her own.

Filled with Lillian Byrd’s trademark snark, nail-biting twists and turns, and a thrilling climax, Left Field scores a grand slam that’ll leave readers cheering in the stands.

I’m absolutely jubilant about the book, and I hope you’ll be too. Early notices have been raves. This snippet from an Amazon reader: “The pacing in the book is exquisite, and I found myself laughing out loud at the antics of Lillian and her pal Lou throughout the book. Brisk, smart writing; insightful social commentary regarding Detroit; lovable characters; and a highly original plot make for a paging-turning read.”

(Needless to say, if you read it and like it, please spread the word by posting a review.)

More news:
The publisher of Left Field is Spruce Park Press, an imprint I founded last summer to publish my new and backlist work. So far we’ve released:
- For the first time! Paperback editions of the three Rita Farmer mystery novels: The Actress, The Extra, On Location. Now you can get them, with beautiful new covers besides.
- Kindle editions with the new covers of the three Rita Farmer novels with the new covers.
- Besides both Kindle and paperback editions of Left Field, new Kindle and paperback editions of the first four Lillians with terrific new covers:

We worked with the award-winning firm of TreeHouse Studios to create covers that are lively, fun, and unique. We have much more in store for you in 2015, including a new stand-alone novel, short stories, and more writing instructional pieces. I might add that TreeHouse also developed the Spruce Park logo, which I love:

To answer a frequent question I’ve already been getting: We’re not publishing other authors. Yet, anyway.

Currently we’re experimenting with Amazon’s ‘Select’ program, so the e-books and paperbacks are available there. Also, the paperbacks can be ordered through any bookseller.

If you’d like to download the e-books to your non-Amazonian device, you can quickly and easily get the free Kindle app here.  It enables you to get any Amazon title on any computer, laptop, tablet, or phone, including all the i-devices. Furthermore, my titles are available for lending on Kindle devices, and they’re also available in the Kindle Unlimited subscription program.

I’ll be doing some test marketing using the tools available at Amazon and will let you know how it goes.

And yes, I’m already working on the next in the Rita Farmer Mystery Series!

Before I go, I want to give a plug to two terrific women and their new ventures. I mentioned them in my blog a short time ago:
- An outstanding writing coach who also happens to be my friend, Jamie Morris, has supercharged and expanded her business. Check it out via her new web site: The blurb from me is heartfelt.
- Another of my friends, Lori L. Lake, has recently founded a publishing company, Launch Point Press. I've contributed a story for an upcoming anthology. Lori is a terrific person and businesswoman.

I’ll resume my publishing narrative next week.
With love and thanks,
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