The ON THE LAM conference, put on over the weekend in Seattle by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer crime/mystery imprint for their authors, was unlike anything I’ve experienced in forty years of publishing. The T & M crew flew in 75 authors from hither and yon – “yon” being the UK, and hither being places like “Iowa” – simply to give those authors a chance to interact with each other, and the T & M editorial and marketing team. Editors have taken me out for lunch or breakfast many times, and publishers often have cocktail parties at Bouchercon and/or take authors out for a group dinner. But this was different.
For one thing, this conference was almost exclusively attended by one publisher’s writers. For the Saturday panels, family and friends and some local writers group members were in the audience, but mostly this was writers talking to other writers (and to editors). All weekend, the kinds of conversations usually only heard in secluded corners of bars at Bouchercon hotels was the up-front order of the day.
Barb and I both found it interesting and illuminating, and the generosity of T & M toward their authors was damn near mind-boggling. Everybody had a gift bag with a Kindle Paperwhite in it, for example. A Friday morning visit to the Amazon HQ proved the place not to be the stronghold of a Bond villain, rather a campus that reminded me of a well-funded community college right down to friendly students eager to help (and to herd). A fun, tasty lunch on a tour boat on Friday morning was followed by various Seattle touristy options in the afternoon, after which came perhaps the best buffet supper I’ve ever eaten at an event with a Clue-theme (no “mystery game” aspect, thankfully) in the Glasshouse of the frankly eye-popping Chihuly Garden and Glass museum. The next evening, small groups of authors with a T & M editor or other staffer or two woven in, were treated to terrific dinners at a variety of top Seattle restaurants.
What was perhaps most impressive were the Saturday panels. I was on one, and saw two others, and they were as good as anything I’ve seen at a Bouchercon. The lead-off panel, with Lee Goldberg, Marcus Sakey, Johnny Shaw and Greg Widen, was a hilarious inside look at Hollywood’s treatment of writers, but also an insightful discussion of adapting one’s own work (as well as the work of others) to the screen. I was on the following panel, and the topic (as I revealed here last week) was branding. After the incredible first panel, I decided the only thing I could do to compete was be an outrageous ham, and I opened by pretending that I was wholly unprepared, because I’d thought I was going to be on an S & M panel – “but I guess this is a different kind of branding.” I shamelessly went for laughs, and got them, but the panel was informative as well. T & M’s Gracie Doyle had done her homework and her questions were spot on. My fellow panelists, Barry Eisler and L.J. Sellers, explored the topic with insight and humor. Eisler is a charming guy with a sharp mind, very serious about his work but always ready with a winning smile. Sellers had a lot of focus on the branding issue and shared her approach of really staying in touch with her readers.
As far as branding is concerned, I came to a couple of conclusions during and after the panel. Because I’m lucky enough to have created something famous – ROAD TO PERDITION – that becomes a brand: BY THE AUTHOR OF. And thanks to PERDITION being historical crime fiction (never mind that it’s a graphic novel), that’s helpful to my historical- crime-fiction brand. I also think individual series are “brands” – and certainly not all readers who consider themselves Max Allan Collins fans read everything. Some Quarry readers are not (surprisingly) at all interested in Nate Heller, and (surprisingly) vice versa. Plenty of my regular readers ignore anything that smacks of tie-in. And a good number haven’t tried the Barbara Allan ANTIQUES fare, while the considerable number of readers that series has generated are unlikely potential Quarry or even Nate Heller fans.
But it was Barb who nailed it: “Your brand is ‘Max Allan Collins.’” Thank you, doll. (Yes, I call Barb “doll” – I am the guy who collaborates with Mickey Spillane, you know.)
Anyway, the T & M event was both fun and educational, our hosts unfailingly warm and generous, and I had a number of conversations with editorial, PR and marketing folks who make me feel that WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER is in good hands.
Which brings me to Amazon reviews. One thing I come back from the On the Lam conference with is a better understanding of how that system works. So I’m going to repeat something I’ve said before: if you like my stuff, please post reviews at Amazon. A sentence or two will do, though by all means express yourself at length if so inclined. If you review a book of mine at your blog, post it as an Amazon review as well. Four- and five-star reviews really boost sales (they are averaged, so a book gets an averaged star rating). Marking good reviews as helpful and bad ones as not helpful is also beneficial.
This doesn’t just go for me. Any book by any writer whose work you enjoy will benefit from your positive review at Amazon (and at Barnes & Noble). Do an Amazon search for a writer you like (for example, Max Allan Collins) and look at the averaged star-rating of individual novels. If the overall rating is under four stars, that book could use some love. By the way, what often brings the ratings down is another Amazon practice that is mostly positive – offering a title at a (temporary) bargain e-book price. The bargain pricing of TRUE DETECTIVE, when the Amazon reprints/e-books first came out, helped get a 1983 novel to number one on the Kindle fiction list. But the low price brings in readers who are looking for a cheap thrill and who are not necessarily a good fit for a given book – readers who don’t like mysteries say, “What the hell, I’ll try this.” Sometimes you get a new reader; but lots of times you don’t. Not a good author/reader fit. So an author winds up with a bunch of one- and two-star ratings. Anybody reading this blog knows that TRUE DETECTIVE is not a novel that deserves that kind of rating.
So go back and see what kind of ratings your favorite writers have racked up for their various books, and when it strikes you a book has been under-valued, drop in a review – again a sentence or two will do: it’s the star rating that matters most. Give your favorite books a nice boost. It’s free.
Which brings us to EARLY CRIMES. Right now EARLY CRIMES, not a T & M publication, has no reviews. Nada. I was told by an Amazon marketing expert that books with terrible reviews and lousy star averages do significantly better than a book that has no reviews at all.
A while back, I offered ARCs (bound galleys) of WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER to a limited number of readers willing to do an Amazon review. I screwed up a little, because those reviews can’t be posted till the book is out – September 17, kids! Well, EARLY CRIMES is out now, and is, so far, decidedly a non-event.
So I am offering copies of the book to the first ten readers of this blog who are willing to do a review. (If you read it and hate it, you are excused from class.) Request one at my e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. But this is only for readers who live in the United States. The overseas and Canadian postage damn near broke me last time I tried this. My apologies.
I want to emphasize that readers should get in the habit of supporting their favorite authors and books by writing these short reviews for Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And don’t forget Goodreads. The more reviews that appear, the more important the book seems to potential new readers; the higher the star rating, the more new readers will be attracted. This is an easy grass-roots thing you can do for all of your favorite writers.
I was one of many authors who noted the passing of the great Elmore Leonard last week for J. Kingston Pierce at his fine Rap Sheet blog.
And here’s an interview I did that I’d forgotten about, from a December 2004 sitdown for a documentary about crime in Chicago that never happened. I talk a good deal about DICK TRACY, Ness, Capone and Frank Nitti.