Tuesday, July 08, 2008

To Bouchercon, Or Not To Bouchercon... With Lists!

Through some quirk of my intermittent talkativeness, some of you may know i started my college career as a music major. I wanted to be the next Mozart*. It didn't quite work out. See I had to take two courses in my first semester - Music Theory which i got an A in with no trouble, and sight singing which was a long hard struggle. At the end of the semester, the sight singing instructor asked me to step out into the hallway and explained:

"I'm going to give you a D for the semester. This means you move on to the next level where I hope you pick up some of the abilities you haven't got the hang of yet."

The instructor said all this shyly like he was afraid of hurting my feelings.

"Wait," I said. "What did I actually earn for the class?"

"Oh, an F," he responded.

"Then," I said. "Just give me the F. Then I won't have any false hope, and I can move on to something I can do."

The professor quickly agreed to fail me, and I did move on. I put my energy into being an English major and I was successful at that. Now I'm an English professor.

As the story illustrates, having a proper estimate of yourself - of your worth, of your abilities - is crucial to me.

When it comes to writing, however, I've found the waters to be muddy. In fact, I'm not even sure who is supposed to give me my grades.

See, I know I'm a good writer - I have talents in that way, and I've written good short stories and novels. Editors and reviewers have agreed with me on my talent. But the large numbers of readers that make an author commercially viable have not agreed. Most haven't even heard of me though I've done just about everything I could think of to change that. However, just as in college, an INC does not allow me to move on to the next level.

Currently, the career stands at this: St. Martin's Press has a fifth Precinct Puerto Rico novel that they bought from me years ago. That's supposed to be published in late 2009, but might go into 2010 or, if they decide to cut their losses, it'll never be published. My agent has tried selling other books that I've written and gotten back very gracious rejections: "Steven is a very talented writer but given his sales figures we can't..."

I have, therefore, three options:

1 - I can publish my books at ever smaller publishers (especially if I can find a publisher that is interested in"growing down" their sales). Dorchester has said, for instance, that they simply can't take my books anymore - apparently, their current business model doesn't call for losing money...

2 - I can publish under a pseudonym. Something that hasn't been burned up with booksellers. I'm thinking "Laura Lippman." Of course, I couldn't continue the series under the new name.

3 - I can switch genres - write sci-fi for instance. This would also probably go along with a name change. I'm thinking Isaac C. Clarke...

Of course, there is the fourth option: Stop writing.

People will say that a real writer NEEDS to write (for publication) like writing (for publication) is oxygen, but I've never thought that. I think I've proven that I'm good at writing. I've also proven I can't sell for beans. Unless something happens soon, it simply won't make sense for me to spend hundreds of hours a year to write a book that no one will pay to read. Sorry that it comes down to money - money often controls where it should enable - but there you have it.

So then, the initial question - Bouchercon or not? I've no doubt that the Baltimore Bouchercon will be talked about for decades. The Jordans are smashing people. There are also a lot of people I would like to see - friends I only see once a year. That is a strong draw. But...

1 - It'll cost a thousand dollars.
2 - I won't have a new book out to flog.
3 - I will have a brand new bouncing baby.
4 - It'll feel awkward telling people "Me? A writer? Well, that depends..."

Anyway, this is the conundrum I'm working through this week. Help me if you can...

* As the saying goes "By the time Mozart was my age, he was dead three years..."


Blogger Daniel Hatadi said...

Those are some tough thoughts to be having there, Steven. I for one would be upset if I didn't read another one of your novels (even though I've only read two!).

The direction you began moving in with THE CONCRETE MAZE was much more than just damned interesting, it was powerful stuff. I guess you could call that direction something like "Puerto-Rican literary blockbluster." I can see you continuing that, perhaps outside the realm of crime fiction (and genre altogether).

If takes a pseudonym to get you there, then that could be the way to go. But I really don't know that much about this biz, so I'm just throwing thoughts out there.

As for Bouchercon, is it possible to save some cash and go the con without registering? That way you could still see a bunch of people at the bar and the external parties.

July 08, 2008 8:22 AM  
Blogger Gerald So said...

Sorry to hear this, Steven. I hope you find a publisher that appreciates your unique voice. At the very least, I hope you continue writing stories.

July 08, 2008 9:07 AM  
Blogger Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

No more books from Steven Torres on my shelves would be a crime.

And I'd have to kick your ass.

July 08, 2008 9:18 AM  
Blogger Steven said...

Many thanks guys for the words of support. Much appreciated.

Daniel, the expense isn't really the big thing. It's more the sense of being a poser.

Gerald, I'm still looking for a publisher. There is one book left that SMP might actually go ahead and publish. Who knows? Maybe that one finds an audience.

Jon, trust me, if we wind up with no more Torres books on the shelves, it won't be because I haven't tried.

July 08, 2008 10:00 AM  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I think it would be inaccurate to conclude that readers have decided you aren't a good writer, based on sales.

The Precinct Puerto Rico series is considerably different from the direction you moved in with The Concrete Maze. IMHO, the sales problem probably stems more from the series books, where Dorchester is concerned. I don't have numbers to back that up, but I'm guessing that issuing the books in paperback wasn't as commercially viable, in part because they were already available in hardcover. I'm just making a guess that if you'd done TCM only with Dorchester, they would have taken the next book.

But I could be proven wrong, and that's all hindsight.

The reality is, it isn't about good writing all the time. It's about being edgy enough/original enough to get an editor fired up. It's not about the way the words are put together alone - it's also about the story that's being told and whether or not it's one that will capture mainstream interest.

Some books, and some authors, are better suited to what small publishers can do for them, because they allow leeway. They'll move in riskier directions. Other publishers want more mainstream offerings because that's their audience, and I think once you get to big publishers that's the reality, because big publishers want to move big volume. That means that an edgy police procedural set in Boston is going to get snapped up faster than ... well, probably a lot of other books.

Read Barbara Fister's blog post on The Long Tail. Consider what Val McDermid did when sales of her Tony/Carol series didn't meet her expectations in the US - she funded her own trip from the UK to Bouchercon to talk up the book. There have been a lot of authors who've struggled through more than half a dozen titles with lacklustre sales and even been dropped by their publishers who've broken through because they took the long-term view. My questions would be, do you want to be published in crime fiction again? If so, what you should do is, I think, obvious.

July 08, 2008 11:39 AM  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Boy, I'm hearing this same sort of news from a lot of different people. It is incredibly depressing, especially for someone with your talent and who's bringing a different group of people to our attention. Those conference costs are tough. The typical academic, like my husband, gets his way paid. But in this case, the writer or reader has to bear the costs, which are high. If you took a train, shared a room and ate light, maybe...

July 08, 2008 12:14 PM  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't really consider the costs high. If you want to be an engineer, how much money do you drop on tuition? A journalist? A teacher? Every career requires financial investment. Yes, we all have to consider cost-benefit, but a lot of people have used conventions to raise profile, both with readers and editors, and make the connections with booksellers as well, all of which are important if you want to get published, be stocked and sell copies of your book. I certainly wouldn't do every convention every year, but if the point of attending is the business aspect, learning all you can and making all the connections you can to further your career, it's worth it. If the point is just shooting the breeze at the bar, it's a whole different subject.

FWIW Steven, I think you're too good to quit.

July 08, 2008 4:39 PM  
Blogger Jen Jordan said...

Sandra is right. You are too good to quit.

My faith in this industry would be seriously threatened if your writing and one of the best series I've ever read can't find success.

July 26, 2008 9:42 PM  

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