Publish or Perish the Thought…

February 18th, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

Recently here, I’ve bemoaned the perils of having three books published almost simultaneously by three different publishers. Some of you might be thinking, “Oh boo hoo hoo – poor him, having all that success.”

That’s an understandable reaction. But this imperfect storm really does present me with a shaky future (as if my impending 72nd birthday didn’t make my future shaky enough). The threat is that one, or even all three, may under-perform.

Aside from this, I have noted some troubling things going on in the publishing of fiction (non-fiction, too, but my emphasis is chiefly fiction of course) that have already had a negative impact on many writers. Till now, I’ve been lucky. For a non-household name in the pop fiction field, I have had a long run. Many writers, touted as the next big thing, have fallen by the wayside while I traversed the road to Perdition with Quarry, Nate Heller, Ms. Tree, the Borne girls, and a good number of others.

Barb and I have always done a certain amount of promo ourselves. Most publishers have traditionally had a PR staff (or at least a staffer) who we could call upon for support. We assembled a list of reviewers over the years (a once proud thirty or so, now dwindled to a dozen, with the passing of so many print venues) that could be shared with PR reps, who would see that copies of the latest novel were sent out. Meanwhile, these promo folks took care of getting advance copies or finished books to the trades and often many newspapers and other publications around the country known to do reviews of mysteries.

Of my current publishers – no names will be mentioned – two still have a PR person assigned to me, and the help is much as before, and much appreciated. In the case of something special – like the 100th birthday of Mickey Spillane – that help gets ramped up. In the case of several other publishers, no PR person is available to me at all.

I have been told the approach to marketing, on one of my new books, will be “holistic.” This reminds me of George Carlin when he said, “Real chocolatey goodness! Know what that means? No fucking chocolate!” An editor at that same publisher told me flat-out that – beyond sending copies of the trade publications (Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal), publicity was my responsibility, a “D.I.Y.” effort.

Much of this comes down to utilizing social media. Now, while I do this weekly update/blog here, and also post it on my two Facebook pages, I have chosen (thus far) not to use Twitter or Instagram or whatever other platform has come along since I began writing this piece. I am, after all, a man in his early seventies who has a land line. I use my cell phone to keep track of my e-mails, do simple Internet searches (“Davenport Iowa movie times”), and…what else, there’s something…oh yes, make and receive phone calls. I text rarely and with great difficulty.

I don’t use any apps. I live in Iowa. Do you really think anyone my age in Iowa knows how to use an app? Just in case you don’t get the reference, I will share (briefly) our experience at the local Democratic Caucus, when the debacle it was to become was only a twinkle in the Iowa Democratic Party’s twitching eye.

The woman running things – a volunteer, bless her heart – spent the early part of the evening reading aloud instructions in the wrong order, and laughing hysterically about how badly she was screwing things up. As things got worse, this nice woman (not being sarcastic), who was a retired school teacher, began to attempt to regain order by counting, very loud, “One..two…three…!” to the rowdy class before her.

So.

Let’s not depend on a soon-to-be-72-year-old author (from Iowa) to use apps, shall we?

Yet a number of my publishers want me to expand my social media footprint. I am supposed to write entertaining, pithy Tweets. I am supposed to provide photos of my food and pets and now and then a book of mine on Instagram. And my son Nathan and I, teeth gritted, are exploring doing some of that.

But am I crazy to think that I should be spending my time and creative energy writing my fiction?

In certain areas of fiction writing, writers are given modest advances and then essentially required (if they want another contract) to spend those advances on promotion – going to each other’s signings (how this works without flying around the country I can’t tell you), attending numerous conventions (which does require flying or in some cases driving around the country), and endlessly interacting with readers (and other writers) on social media. Not only is this time-consuming, it turns professional writers – these writers are pros by definition, since they are receiving advances and sometimes royalties – into amateurs.

Like any real professional writer, I need the bulk of my income to…how shall I put this?…live on.

This began with the romance writers and the very positive practice of writers groups. For decades I taught at a writers conference and interacted with romance writers (had several romance novels dedicated to me, which took some explaining to the novelists’ husbands and my wife) and that included their writers groups. From these groups in my area, and the support and help the writers gave each other, came any number of published novels. Obviously, the same is true all around the country.

But a downside, which in my opinion some publishers take advantage of, is the maintaining of an amateur approach by requiring those writers to sink or swim largely based upon the willingness of those writers to plow their hard-earned advances into promo.

The romance writers have taken a hit lately. Romantic Times, once a powerful newsstand magazine, has recently ceased its annual convention and its web site is shutting down, too. This seems to flow at least in part from a controversy having to do with a romance writer attacking another romance writer’s perceived racial, sexist and other biases. Sides were drawn in the controversy and attacks and apologies began to fly. Whether writers should be criticizing each other in this manner is a topic worth discussion, but I won’t get into that here.

Still, it points out that concerns related to political correctness now hover over publishing in a very real way. I recently had an editor I respect label something of mine as “dated” in its “hardboiled” approach. Now, “dated” in that context is code for two things: first, the content may not be in step with politically correct attitudes; and second, I am an old white male. It’s also worth noting that you don’t hear an editor use the term “hardboiled” in any fashion but a negative one. I never use the term myself. When an editor likes that sort of thing, it’s “noir.” You know what “hardboiled” is? It’s a dated term, in the right and proper sense of the word “dated.”

These are, as I perceive them, realities in the world of fiction writing and publishing these days. I point them out not to try to change them – we’re past that, I’m afraid – but to explain to those of you who are kind enough to like my work why I have spent so much time worrying about having three books out at the same time.

How I am doing my best to promote my work in this climate?

For some time, I have accepted very, very few “friend” requests on Facebook. This was back when I checked my “feed” frequently. But a good two years ago, I curtailed that because I was disgusted by the amount of political blather. I also couldn’t keep my mouth shut (hard as that might be to imagine) and wound up damaging longstanding, real friendships. So lately I’ve been accepting “friend” requests if I can tell that the individuals making those requests have a real interest in things I care about…non-political things. Accepting these friends is a part of trying to expand my footprint.

A few days ago Barb and I sent out two big boxes of books to, first, winners in our last book giveaway here; and, second, to reviewers, with a letter explaining that having three novels out at the same time was not my idea. Some of these reviewers I’ve never sent to before. To get Girl Can’t Help It into the hands of potentially friendly reviewers, I spent a day searching Google to locate every positive review (including mixed ones) for Girl Most Likely and offered those reviewers/bloggers a copy.

Beyond this, Nate and I will be exploring using Instagram. Maybe Twitter too, but that puts my stomach and my head in a competition over which hurts the most.

And I want to say, to any publishers or editors who might be reading this, that I understand they are struggling to stay afloat, too. These are tough times in publishing, and have been for a while.

But here’s the thing: I came to this planet to write, not to Tweet.

* * *

I know what you’re all looking for – another book with Max Allan Collins content to buy!

Well, you’re in luck, because this is a good one – the new Mystery Writers of America anthology, Deadly Anniversaries. My story, “Amazing Grace,” is based on a real incident from my childhood, which Barb suggested I use when an assignment in this thematic anthology came my way.

I think “Amazing Grace” might be my best short story. I am pleased to say that Publisher’s Weekly singled it out in their rave review, giving me lead position in a book filled with work by Grand Master mystery writers:

“Anniversaries of all kinds are the source of mayhem for the 19 stories in this entertaining all-original anthology from MWA grand masters Muller and Pronzini. Wedding anniversaries feature prominently, as in Max Allan Collins’s diverting ‘Amazing Grace, ’in which a 50th anniversary cake becomes the catalyst for murder.”

* * *

Barb and I are listening to Dan John Miller’s reading of Girl Can’t Help It in the car (he’s not in the car with us – we’re using CD’s). We’re about half-way through. He is doing his usual masterful job, making the book come alive, and making me look (sound) good.

Dan has also performed Do No Harm, meaning he’s narrated every Heller to date. We are really looking forward to that. He is fantastic.

* * *

Finally, my pal Paul Bishop (I’m tempted to say “pard”) includes the forthcoming Caleb York novel, Hot Lead, Cold Justice, on the premiere episode of his podcast (with Richard Prosch), Six-Gun Justice. These guys do a great job.

M.A.C.

Book Giveaway, an Award Nomination, and Three Fond Farewells

February 11th, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

I have ten finished copies each of the new Nate Heller, Do No Harm, and the second Krista Larson, Girl Can’t Help It, available first-come-first-served, in return for Amazon and or other reviews, including blogs.

[Note from Nate: The giveaway is over. Thank you for your participation! Keep an eye out for more to come.]

I am counting on your support because, as I mentioned last week, I am in the unhappy situation of having three books published by three publishers simultaneously. This may sound like an embarrassment of riches, but really it limits buyers and reviewers for all three titles.

If you have a blog or review site of some kind, you can request a book without being part of the giveaway. Just state that you are a reviewer.

I can’t emphasize enough how much reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and elsewhere – including blogs – impact sales. So if you have purchased either of these books, please consider reviewing them. Reviews at booksellers like Amazon do not have to be lengthy. The number of stars you give a book is as important as the review itself.

And this doesn’t apply just to me, obviously, but to any author whose book you enjoy, particularly authors you follow regularly.

Keep in mind, too, that the latest book in a mystery series – like Heller – seldom gets much publisher promo. Thomas & Mercer gave The Girl Most Likely a big push, just as they did Supreme Justice. But after a series has been launched, books depend on authors for D.I.Y. promotion.

I don’t have copies of the new Mike Hammer, Masquerade for Murder, yet; but hope to have enough on hand to do a giveaway for that one, as well, in the next few weeks.

* * *

I’m pleased and honored to say Killing Quarry has been nominated for a Barry Award for Best Paperback. You can see the complete nomination lists here. The Barry Awards are presented by the editors of Deadly Pleasures, and is named after fan/reviewer, the late Barry Gardner.

It’s been very gratifying to see Killing Quarry so warmly received – the reviews have been flattering, to say the least.

By the way, for those keeping track: I have completed the first Nolan in 33 years – Skim Deep – and it will go out to Hard Case Crime by Wednesday at the latest. All that remains is one last read and the minor tweaking that will entail…unless I screwed something up, in which case all bets are off.

* * *

I will be 72 in March, and one of the bad things about surviving this long is having to see friends and heroes go on ahead of you. Three passings this week were especially hard to take.

Mary Higgins Clark, in addition to being a hugely successful author and the creator of a whole style of thriller focusing on female protagonists, was a kind, sweet, generous human being. Barb and I were on a cruise with her – one of those mystery cruises with a whodunit game part of the activities – and she and her daughter Carol made wonderful company. Mary was warm and displayed a lovely sense of humor. Carol, who was also a delight, has gone on to her own great success as a suspense novelist.

Orson Bean died at 91, hit by a car (two cars actually) jaywalking to get to a play. The absurdity of that – and that theater was a part of it – shows fate in a fitting but cruel mood. Bean was a whimsical, wry stand-up comic early on, a comic actor of charm and skill on stage and (large and small) screen, and a particularly popular, adept and (of course) funny game show participant. He also has a small but key role in Anatomy of a Murder. Bean had a searching mind as several of his books display – Me and the Orgone, Too Much Is Not Enough, and M@il for Mikey (not a typo).

He was also the star of an obscure but wonderful shot-on-video version of the time-travel play The Star Wagon by Maxwell Anderson, with a pre-Graduate Dustin Hoffman as his sidekick. It was shot in 1967 for PBS and is available at Amazon on DVD.

In January a man few of you have heard of passed away in Muscatine. Howard Rowe was a chiropractor, my chiro for many years. He and I disagreed on much – he was conservative, very religious, and a home-schooler, none of which I am, and yet we never argued. He supported my work, and was an enthusiastic fan of the movies we made here in Muscatine. His life was a reminder of how to be individualistic with strong opinions and yet still be a pleasure to be around. When I picture him, he’s smiling. Always. Most of you never met him, and some who did meet him considered him an oddball. He was, I suppose. But a glorious one.

* * *

Rue Morgue, the major newsstand magazine on horror films, interviewed me online not long ago, and did a very good, gracious job of it. Now a Rue Morgue review of the Mommy/Mommy2 Blu-ray has appeared and it, too, is positive.

The Flick Attack website has given Mommy’s Day (as part of the above-mentioned Blu-ray) a very nice write-up. Check it out.

Earlier Flick Attack talked about Mommy, in a mostly favorable manner, here.

With the release of Girl Can’t Help It imminent, seeing a favorable review of Girl Most Likely by Ron Fortier feels like a good omen.

So does this solid Girl Most Likely review.

Ask Not with Nate Heller is still on sale as an e-book for $2.99 right here.

Finally, my old friend Rick Marschall writes about the creators he worked with as an editor in the newspaper comics field, and I’m pleased to say his role in landing me the Dick Tracy job is something he’s proud of.

M.A.C.

Working on Nolan’s Return

February 4th, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

Cover of Mad Money, which will reprint Spree and Mourn the Living.

I am “coming down the pike,” as Barb puts it, on the new Nolan novel, Skim Deep, the first in the series since Spree (1987). Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai has for some time been encouraging me to write a new Nolan, lately to help launch HCC’s upcoming reprint series of the previous novels (they will be done two books to a volume). These sport excellent covers by Mark Eastbrook, and that includes the novel in progress.

Also, a fair number of readers have wanted another Nolan. I’ve resisted this because I felt the character’s story was over – that Spree concluded it nicely. Nolan has always been an ongoing saga as opposed to a series with a premise, in the way of a P.I. novel does or a Quarry or even an Antiques entry.

Of course, Nolan has always been a homage to the Parker series by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake), and as I often said to Don himself, “Homage is French for rip-off.” Don was always nice enough to say that Nolan, largely because of surrogate son Jon, was distinctly different from Parker. He also on occasion described my Nolan as the Jayne Mansfield to his Parker, and I would correct him, saying more the Mamie Van Doren.

To be fair to myself, the Nolan series did (after the first novel, Bait Money) quickly become its own thing. Nolan is a professional thief of fifty trying very hard to go straight and take part in the American Dream; but karma keeps looking for him, and finding him.

Editors wanting me to write something for them are a seductive lot indeed. So I’ve embarked on Skim Deep and am enjoying it a great deal, or anyway as much as possible when I’m up against a deadline – which is today, as it happens, which I’m going to miss by a week or two.

Then, out of the blue, there’s been some Hollywood interest in Nolan, which seems vaguely serious and involves a bunch of talented people. I’ll say no more because such things often do not play out into anything at all.

Rejoining these characters required little besides checking my previous novels for continuity issues. That’s in part because over the past several decades I have written various versions of a Spree screenplay (optioned a few times) that had me dealing with Nolan, his lover Sherry, and of course cartoonist/musician, Jon.

As is the case with continuing Quarry, I am keeping the novel in the time frame of the original series. Skim Deep takes place in 1988, about six months after Spree.

But I thought you might like another peek behind the curtain, this time as it pertains to working on this as yet unfinished novel.

Over the years I have developed a process that begins with an outline breaking the book down by chapters. Each chapter gets a paragraph or two, and occasionally just a couple of sentences. Among much else, that allows me to make sure the novel will be long enough to satisfy the editor (word count is often specified in contracts, although mostly that’s a guideline not a rule).

Each chapter has to be outlined, at least in my head, like a little novel or anyway a short story. And the narrative tends to develop in ways and directions I didn’t plan. So it is not uncommon for me to re-plot about half-way through, to accommodate the surprises I’ve given myself.

Fiction writing is largely a writer solving problems of his or her own making.

More often than not, I re-plot again, about half-way through the new half-a-novel outline. Sometimes more frequently. I have just written Chapter 11 of 17 (two of which are short chapters near the end). And I have, at this stage, re-plotted four times (after the initial first outline), and have also written a two-page outline of Chapter 11, which had a lot of moving parts to keep track of.

Last night, trying to get to sleep, I re-plotted again, but have not committed those changes to paper, although I will.

This is a tad (just a tad) unusual. But this represents my belief that plotting carefully must still allow for spontaneity. Have a roadmap, yes, but if a sign says, “World’s Biggest Ball of String NEXT RIGHT,” don’t be afraid to veer off. Some things just happen in a story – the ending of Road to Perdition had not been planned…just came out of my fingers when I was writing the final installment for artist Richard Piers Rayner.

Chester Gould did not plot ahead. He liked to say, “If I don’t know what’s going to happen next, neither will the reader.” That’s a little extreme, but Chet had a point.

* * *

Here’s a great write-up about the Reeder and Rogers political thriller series by Matt Clemens and me.

The Mommy/Mommy 2: Mommy’s Day Blu-ray gets some cool coverage at Media Play.

With Girl Can’t Help It waiting in the wings, here’s a nice review of Girl Most Likely.

Finally, MacMillan has the Kindle version of the Nate Heller novel Ask Not on sale for $2.99 here (regularly 7.00).

M.A.C.

Why You Are More Important…

January 28th, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

…than the trade publication reviewers.

Okay, here we go into the weeds. For the record, there are four trade publications in the publishing industry – Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal. These are our version of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

I have nothing bad to say about any individual reviewers who write for those publications. Often I get good reviews, occasionally great ones, now and then bad ones. Recently Girl Can’t Help It got a very good review from Booklist; shortly thereafter, Publisher’s Weekly hated it (apparently the same reviewer who felt the same about Girl Most Likely). And that’s one of my two big complaints about the reviews in the trades – PW and Kirkus publish unsigned reviews. I prefer knowing who hates me, thanks (also who loves me). Booklist and Library Journal have signed reviews.

I also consider the reviewers for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mystery Scene and The Strand to be in a class of their own – these publications clearly love and support the mystery. So do Crimespree and Deadly Pleasures and a few others (don’t mean to leave anybody out). Some web-based review/news columns are also great boons to the genre, including my favorite, The Rap Sheet.

My other complaint about the trade publication reviews is that most contain judgment with no supporting evidence. If you stink, you just stink – no excerpts or examples to prove a point. Same goes if you smell just fine.

But okay. The format is fairly short for all the reviews in these publications, so maybe I’m asking too much that a reviewer support an argument. You can’t expect a limerick to be an epic poem.

Where it gets unfair has to do with the book industry’s publishers and editors. They love it when you get good reviews. They hate it when you get bad ones, and often write or even call authors supportively. Some publishing houses hold bad trade reviews against the authors, though. You may think that’s fair, but stick around….

I have received rave reviews from all four trades on a book, and then had that series almost immediately cancelled. The reviews and a dime wouldn’t buy you a cup of coffee. But I have also not received a new contract, at least in part, because the trades reviewed a book of mine unfavorably.

The technical term for this is damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

So where do you come in?

If you come by here often, you know that now and then I do book giveaways to encourage reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other web sites, and at blogs, where many reviews appear. I do this because I believe those are the reviews that really count – that sell books (and sometimes discourage sales, but that comes with the territory).

This March I will have three books from three different publishers come out almost simultaneously – Do No Harm (Nate Heller), Girl Can’t Help It (Krista and Keith Larson) and Masquerade for Murder (Mike Hammer). This was not planned – it’s sheer accident, and not what I wish were happening.

This feeds into the notion that I write too many books – an editor (who should know better) recently said to me, “Are you still writing six books a year?” I have never written six books in one year. All I’m trying to do here is (a) tell my stories, and (b) make a living (okay, avoid real work, but that’s understood). But this kind of thing feeds into careless reviewers essentially panning me for being prolific and not taking each book on its own terms.

It puts you on the spot, too.

As a reader of my work, how can you be expected to shell out all that dough for three books of mine in the same month? Some of you selfish people seem to want to eat. And three books out at the same time encourages the trades to only review one of them, or none, or praise one and trash the other.

You, ultimately, are more important than the trades where reviewers are concerned. Amazon is the world’s biggest bookstore and reviewing there definitely sells books. Blogs are part of the social media world and that tells real people about books. The love for books and authors that comes through in many such blogs is a gratifying thing to see.

My hunch is that the trades are read by booksellers and libraries, both institutions that already know what their audience buys. If Stephen King gets a bad review, do you think bookstores won’t stock it? Or libraries won’t handle it? That applies to authors who aren’t bestseller types, too. I constantly hear from readers who know and support my work through their local libraries. A stealth good influence for an author like me is the bookstore employee who is a fan and makes sure my stuff is stocked.

You are the valuable reviewers. You read and enjoy books, and don’t get paid to review books you’d rather just throw out the window (like the reviewer who suffered through Girl Can’t Help It).

I’m writing this to encourage reviews for my books, sure, but I want to emphasize that if you are a reader who loves to read – who follows favorite authors – you owe it to yourself to review those authors and their latest books at Amazon and elsewhere. It keeps the books from those authors flowing from them to you.

I recently sent out copies of Girl Can’t Help It and Antiques Fire Sale to readers who requested them when I ran out of advance copies of Killing Quarry. I hope to have more of both titles and Do No Harm soon to do another big book giveaway.

Antiques Fire Sale by Barbara Allan will be out May 1.

Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher by M.A.C. and A. Brad Schwartz on Aug. 4.

* * *

This coverage of the Blu-ray release of Mommy and Mommy 2 appears on the web site of the major horror magazine, Rue Morgue. It’s a rare interview with me that focuses on my filmmaking. Hope you’ll give it a look.

My editor and friend Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime gives a terrific interview specifically on Killing Quarry and the Quarry series at HCC. Thank you, Charles!

Check out this great review of Killing Quarry at Paperback Warrior.

A very nice review of the Mike Hammer graphic novel The Night I Died appears here.

Here’s an earnest appeal for DC to reprint my continuity for the Batman newspaper strip as drawn by the late, great Marshall Rogers.

A smart and nicely favorable review of Killing Quarry can be read here.

You’ll have to scroll down for it, but here’s a fun review of the Mommy/Mommy 2 Blu-ray.

Same thing here – scroll all the way down for another favorable Mommy Blu-Ray review, although the word “terrible” is involved.

M.A.C.

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