Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Follow the Book Trail

Sharon Wildwind

It’s spring and time we had a talk about the birds and the bees—of book reproduction, that is. Have you ever wondered what happens to that physical object called “a book”? Where is it born, where does it live, and how does it die?

What I’m talking about today is the classic book: pages of printed paper, held together with a cover that is either slightly thicker and glossier than those pages—the paperback—or a lot thicker—the hardback. Books that are produce in print runs of anywhere from a few hundred copies to a million copies at a time.

Somewhere there is a room, usually with a specially reinforced floor, where a big printing press stands. A completed and edited manuscript is fed from a computer to that press to turn out page after page of printed text. The pages are cut, folded, and bound into a cover. If it’s is a hardback, a paper book jacket is usually added. Books are packed tightly into boxes and boxes put on pallets to go to temporary storage in the printshop warehouse.

The publisher does publicity. A warehouse or distributor hears about the book and decides to stock it. Boxes are put on a truck and driven from the print shop warehouse to their warehouse. Tony Burton (June 23, 2007) and Katheryn Wall (June 13, 2007) have both written excellent blogs on the current state of book distribution, and I refer you to them for more information about this stage of the process.

The book is now listed on web sites and in catalogues as available for purchase. Publicity happens and readers go looking for the book on-line or in bookstores and other venues. Stores—both on-line and bricks-and-mortar—decide to stock some copies.

They buy books on consignment from the warehouse or distributor. Buying on consignment means they don’t have to pay any money up front. They essentially get free books to have available for a period of time, say 30 days. The books are sent by mail, courier, or delivery service and eventually reach the store. The box is opened—releasing that wonderful new book smell, of course—and copies go on display on a table or shelf in the bookstore. Extra copies are kept in the back storage area, next to the coffee pot.

A person buys a book, takes it home, and does something with it. Hopefully reads it, or gives it to Aunt Ethel so she can read it, or tells their friends how wonderful the book is and encourages them to read it. A few very fortunate books find a permanent home. They go on a bookshelf and quietly settle in with the other hundreds or thousands of books that the reader loves.

However, many books are now ending up being quickly sold to second-hand stores, so that a second person buys it, reads it, sells it; then another, and another and so on. The problem is that the author gets money for the sale only the first time that book is sold.

Some copies are never sold. At the end of the consignment period—which may be only a few weeks—the vendor either has to pay for the books or return them for credit. Because books are heavy it’s not cost-effective to return the whole book, so the cover is torn off and that returned. Rather like sending in box tops for a decoder ring, in case you are old enough to remember that. Look on the back cover of a book. If there is a triangle, or a triangle with an “S” inside of it, that doesn’t mean this book is endorsed by Superman. It means the cover can be “stripped” and returned for credit.

Those stripped books are supposed to be tossed in the garbage, but check out any used bookstore and see how many books are there without covers. How they end up there is anyone’s guess.

The vendor gets to repeat this process. Order 10 books, sell and pay for 3, strip and return 7 covers; order 8 the next month, sell and pay for 2, strip and return 6 covers, etc. for as long as the vendor wants to play the game. Most of the time the vendor doesn’t want to play very long. Maybe 1 month, maybe 3; longer if the book generates terrific sales every month.

Unless a book is selling like hot-cakes, orders are always in decreasing numbers in subsequent months, and each vendor comes up with their own private formula for what the decrease will be. As an example, one vendor might make an order for X number of copies in the first month, order 50% of X the second month, and 50% of the second month’s order the third month. Unless the book is a consistent seller, most vendors reach a point at somewhere between 3 weeks and 3 months when it is no longer profitable to send in any order at all on this particular book, though they may order individual copies if a customer makes a special order and pays for it in advance.

Tax time rolls around. There may still be books on that print shop’s shelves; on the warehouse or distributor’s shelves, and on the vendor’s shelves, back by the coffee pot. In the United States, anyone with books on the shelves has to pay inventory tax on them, and they are taxed for every year that they are on the shelves. So the impetus is to clear out the stock after a year, or even better just before the year is up.

As we’ve seen, the vendors are already returning books rapidly. They might put a few copies out for a sidewalk sale, etc, but essentially their shelves are pretty clean. The warehouse or distributor returns all their copies to the print shop, who contacts the publisher and says, “We have Y number of copies of this book and tax time is coming. What shall we do with these books?”

The publisher will likely decide to send the book to remainders. Hopefully, they will first give the author a chance to purchase any or all remaining copies of the books, at a reduced price.

With smaller companies, what the author doesn’t want is packaged into remainder boxes. Employees go down the line and pick 3 copies of this book, 4 copies of the next book, 2 copies of the third book, until they can fill a box. The key here is how many books fit neatly into a box without regard for title, subject, or author. It is, if you will a grab bag, or in this case a grab box. The boxes are sealed and sold, closed, as is, with the buyers having no idea what they are getting.

Larger companies participate in remainder sales, like CIROBE (The Chicago International Remainder and Overstock Book Exposition). At these book expositions, books are sold, not by the box, but by the pallet or truck load.

The next time you see you see a big bin of books in your local grocery store, being bought as a remainder is how they got there. Authors get no royalties from the sale of remaindered books.

After a book goes to remainder, it’s dead. The only way for readers to get a copy is to borrow one, either from a friend or on inter-library loan, buy from the author who might have a few of those remainders sitting around, find it by accident in a remainder bin, go on-line or to a used bookstore and hope for the best.

Not all copies are sold, even as remainders. The rest are pulped, which is a fancy way of saying recycled into other paper products. Many people don’t know that, yes, you can put discarded books in the average household recycling, if you take them apart first. Get a sharp craft knife and slice the individual pages from the spine, then put those pages in paper recycling. It’s the covers and the glue that shouldn’t go in recycling.

The difference between the number of books printed and the number of books destroyed is called the through-put. Most publishers are happy at about a 45% through-put and ecstatic at a 55% through-put. That means for every two books printed, roughly one is sold and one is pulped. It’s a horribly wasteful system, and one unique in commerce. Can you imagine stores being allowed to destroy cars or washing machines or denim jackets and return a fragment of the original product for full credit?

Surely someone can come up with a better system.
A sad quote for the week. Thank goodness most book sellers don’t think like this:

A book is only a widget. The purpose of a bookstore is to sell units. ~District manager, large chain bookstore, reported by mystery writer Viccy Kemp

Monday, March 30, 2009

Adventure Film Festival

by Julia Buckley
Everyone would have a different list if I asked this question: what are the best suspense or adventure films of the last fifty or so years? The fun, though, is in compiling that list and remembering some truly fantastic films.

I was watching The Fugitive today with my sons and thinking what a well made, suspenseful flick it was, not to mention what great performances Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones delivered to ratchet up that suspense. I thought, if I had the time, that I would love to just sponsor my own mini-film festival for friends and family and show them the movies I think are great. Here's a list of what I think are the best, in order of release:

REBECCA (1940): It will surprise no one that my first four selections were all directed by Alfred Hitchcock. He dominated film and suspense in this time period, and Rebecca is still thrilling as the suspenseful tale of the woman who feels haunted by her husband's first wife. Joan Fontaine is fantastic and vulnerable as the new Mrs. DeWinter, and of course this is based on the novel by Daphne DuMaurier.

DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954): I was always a huge Grace Kelly fan (she appears in two movies in this list) and I never quite understood how Ray Milland, her husband in this movie, could plot to kill her when she is so obviously out of his league. :) But what fantastic suspense in this flick, directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock and backed by a score that has you squirming in your seat.

REAR WINDOW (1954): Is it possible that TWO men would ignore Grace Kelly? But in this classic Hitchcock suspense film (based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich), Jimmy Stewart's L.B. Jeffries has more on his mind than the flirtations of Lisa Fremont (Kelly), namely the murder the wheelchair-bound Jeffries thinks he witnessed across the street. Several homages have been made to this classic movie, the most recent of which is Disturbia.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959): Even if you've never seen the movie, you must have seen the legendary clip of Cary Grant running from the crop dusting plane in the middle of Midwestern nowhere. This movie is fun from start to finish, and Cary (whom my father for some reason always despised) was charming and sexy to me until the very end of us career (he only made six films after this one). This, too, is a Hitchcock film.

DIRTY HARRY (1971): This is in many ways still a shocking film, but it solidified Clint Eastwood's place in the echelon of action stars, and it's worth renting the flick just to see Harry Callahan take on a bank robber while eating a hot dog. And of course he says the now-famous words, "Do you feel lucky?"

THE STING (1973): This funny and stylish suspense film is set in 1930's Chicago, where two con men take on a mobster to avenge a mutual friend. Paul Newman and Robert Redford are fantastic here, and I love them even better as Hooker and Gondorf than I do as Butch and Sundance. The Sting is full of plot twists, and the first time I saw it I think my mouth was hanging open for most of the movie. (In amazement, that is).

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976): Considering that much of the action never leaves the 1970s-era newsroom, this is still a surprisingly suspenseful and well-acted drama in which Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffmann play Woodward and Bernstein in the time that they were investigating Watergate and the mysterious dealings of CREEP members (the Committee to Re-Elect the President, that is). Nixon was re-elected, but he didn't last long before Woodward and Bernstein's investigation blew the case wide open and even Nixon's right-hand men couldn't protect him.

STAR WARS (1977): Nothing can duplicate the experience of seeing this in the theater for the first time, and as one who was a kid in 1977, I can attest that no dramatic experience has ever really blown me away to the extent that this space adventure did back then. I can never totally duplicate it, since videos and DVDs today have been altered by George Lucas, and I actually far prefer the original. But it still wears well, and my sons grew up watching Luke, Leia and Han battle the evil Lord Vader.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981): This, too, I saw debut in theaters, and I think I held my breath through this whole amazing Spielberg movie. Harrison Ford is in three of the movies on this list, and he really does deserve the title of adventure movie king. It's hard to imagine, now, that anyone else could have played Indiana Jones, and Spielberg has a gift for never stopping the action--not for a moment.

THE FUGITIVE (1993): See above.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002): I've watched this movie several times since it came out, and it's still a pleasure. Leonardo DeCaprio was a surprise in this demanding role, playing real-life con man Jack Abagnale,Jr. who led FBI agents on a wild goose chase all over the world and writing bad checks all the way. Tom Hanks is loveable in his role as Agent Carl Hanratty, who never gives up, even when his colleagues have given up on him.

THE INCREDIBLES (2004): This computer-animated gem is surprisingly suspenseful and visually beautiful. Directed by Brad Bird, it is fun, funny, scary and breathtaking. The voice talent helps a lot, led by the great Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter. It's not just for kids, and if you haven't seen it you are in for a huge treat.

THE BOURNE SERIES (2002-2007): Matt Damon became the new action star with this fantastic series of movies based loosely on the Robert Ludlum novels. They are stylish nailbiters with a hero who is loveable despite his robotic persona. He starts out as The Terminator but ends up as fragile and human as everyone else. The final movie left a chance for a fourth . . . let's hope.

Okay--that was a long list, but of course I've missed some great movies--I mean, we're looking at a seventy-year span here. So tell me: what are the great suspense films I haven't listed? Or which of the ones on this list are your favorites, too?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Caught in the Web(site)

Janet Koch is an engineering designer, a writer, a web products creator through her company, Deepwater Design and a pretty decent water-skier. Today she’s talking about website design. Next month Janet will be back to talk about book trailers.

PDD: This one always seems to come up: Does an unpublished writer need a website?

JK: Primary cautionary note: the following answers are my opinion and my opinion only. Secondary cautionary note: as I am only a budding web designer and book trailer producer, my opinions are not exactly being sought after by the new administration.

Does an unpublished writer need a website? As in I’m-gonna-kill-my-writing-career-before-it-starts-if-I-don’t-have-a-website? Nah. But there are reasons to go ahead and get started, even if you’re uncontracted and/or unagented.

First, becoming familiar with the whole business of creating a website is valuable. Whether you do it yourself or hire a designer, there’s a lot to learn. Waiting until two months before your publication date to get a site going isn’t a good idea.

Next, it’s an opportunity to get your name out there. Take Jeri Westerson. Long before her debut novel, Veil of Lies, was published, she’d established a web presence with a blog focusing on medieval history. By the time the book came out she’d already established a solid base of potential readers. Sure, that’s a blog, not a website, but the same principles apply.

Next, having a website provides instant credibility. Maybe only a teensy bit, but when dealing with the cold, cruel world of publishing, writers can use all the help they can get.

Last – it’s fun!

There are, of course, a couple of reasons for an unpublished writer NOT to have a website. If you can’t see the value of expending all that energy on putting together a site when you’re not even close to being published, don’t bother. And if the cost just flat out doesn’t fit into your budget, don’t worry about it. But I do advise spending ten bucks or so a year and reserving a URL in your name.

PDD: If someone doesn’t want a website now, but wants to be able to use their name as a URL someday. What should they do?

JK: Someday is now. For about ten bucks a year you can stake out your domain name claim with any number of registrars. Google “domain name registration” and you’ll be inundated with options. Go Daddy is popular. When you’re ready to pull the trigger, ask around for what your friends use. Just don’t forget to renew that domain name every year.

Fun fact: a URL (uniform resource locator) is the complete web address: http://www.yourname.com while a domain name is the www.yourname.com part.

PDD: What makes a good website, aside from content? What design elements entice visitors to look around?

JK: Um, you said aside from content, but in my opinion content is king. You must offer your users something of value. With that opinion out of the way ... getting people to look around means having good content. Oops. Said I was done with content, didn’t I? Sorry.

I’m not sure any particular design element is universally attractive. Jake over there might think a background grunge graphic with hidden links is way cool, but his mother might wince and make a mental note to avoid the site. A site designed with light pastel colors might appeal to Heather, but her boyfriend Tony wouldn’t be caught dead with that site on his laptop. Moral of the story? Know your audience.

No matter how you assemble your website, functionality is key. A user shows up at your site for a reason, so when designing a site you need to guess at all those possible reasons and make it easy for users to accomplish their goals. Steve Krug, website consultant, titled his classic book on web usability Don’t Make Me Think. And that kind of says it all.

But there’s no denying the Cool Factor. If you come up with something cool, people will flock to your site. The CF is that indefinable thing that makes you say, “Hey, that’s cool,” and pass the link to ten friends. Cool can vary from a slick animated Flash production to historic photos to a laugh-out-loud essay. Unfortunately, you can’t predict what’s going to be cool. I mean, post-1980, who would have guessed that bell-bottoms would ever again be considered cool?

PPD: You said, "You must offer your users something of value." What kinds of things can writers offer aside from book excerpts?

JK: The simplest offering is content that might be of interest to other writers. Essays are always good. Talk about the funny thing that happened when you started researching the history of chimneys. Talk about your original goals, your revised goals, your accomplished goals. Lists of links are good – links to your favorite conferences, links to helpful research sites, links to inspirational sites, a list of the blogs you read. Have a page listing your favorite novels. Have a page featuring your favorite writing books. Add reviews.

A better idea is to offer things of interest to the complete strangers out there who might become your readers. If your writing tends to feature Great Danes, add a page about Great Danes. If your manuscripts always seem to include an exploding house, add something about that. Post interesting facts about the setting for your WIP. Post photos you’ve taken for your Work In Progress. And keep adding information on a regular basis. New information draws new readers.

Bottom line: offering content of interest to writers is good, but offering good content to the greater world is even better. Build name recognition everywhere! And don’t be shy about adding a page about your chia pets. Anything you happen to be interested in, some other people are, too.

PDD: What things don't work on a website other than my personal pet peeve--red type on black background?

JK: If you Google “Website mistakes” you’ll find lists that include things like: slow-loading pages, low contrast pages, broken links, bad fonts, bad content, browser incompatibility, etc. Almost every item on these lists is saying the same thing: don’t design a webpage that annoys users.

What’s the most annoying? The biggest mistake of all -- making your website hard to use. I once came across a website that included a link to instructions on how to use the site. Please. How many people are going to take the time to read that? If a site doesn’t make itself clear about its purpose in life, users won’t hang around.

Second biggest mistake? Not providing the information users want. If someone is, say, trying to find your photo to paste into a conference brochure, having those photos buried at the bottom of your Pets page isn’t going to make that someone happy. Along those same lines, not providing contact information is a slow form of web-death.

Everyone has their pet peeves regarding websites. Some people hate music. Some people hate clever little animations. Some people can’t stand red type on black background. Just as there’s no book that every person on the planet likes, there’s no website design that everyone likes. What can you do? Get familiar with your target audience and make your site easy to use.

PPD: Do you have any examples of mystery writer websites that you think are particularly effective or well done?

JK: Joe Konrath’s site does a great job of presenting a tremendous amount of information in an orderly and easy to navigate way. Jenny Cruise’s site design perfectly presents the personality of her books. I love the photos of Paris that Cara Black has on her site, Isabel Allende’s home page is beautiful, and ... are you going to stop me or can I keep going?

PDD: When a writer--or anyone else--is looking for a website or book trailer designer what kinds of questions should they ask?

JK: First thing is to determine your budget. Falling in love with the designs of a firm that charges $2000 a site isn’t going to work out very well if $400 is the most you want to spend. Designer’s websites usually give at least a ballpark indication of the price range the firm typically charges.

(Have I said lately that everything I’m saying is opinion and opinion only? Yes? Good.)

Next, check the design firm’s portfolio of work, which should also be on their website. Poke around and, if you like what you see, try contacting a client or two. Ask if they’d mind if you ask a couple questions. If they don’t mind, see if you can get a feel for how happy they were with the firm, the design process, and the final product.

Other than that, I’d turn your question around. To get the website of your dreams, I think what’s more important than the questions you ask a designer are the questions a designer asks you, the potential client. There are probably an infinite number of ways for a designer to get at your dreams and I wouldn’t presume to say which way is best. But I do think a designer should spend time learning your likes, dislikes, preferences, tastes, and something about your personality. If you dress in, say, city black and wear hard-soled shoes that click-click-click, you’re probably not going to be happy with a site that, say, includes sidebar images of decorated outhouses.

One last piece of opinion: before you start looking for the perfect designer, spending some time thinking. Think about what you want to accomplish with your site. Think about who is going to visit your site and what they’ll want from it. Make some notes. Think some more. Your future website designer will bless you.

Thanks Janet. Join us next month (April 25) when Janet returns to talk about book trailers.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Spring has sprung??? Life and writing and other stuff . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Way back in high school (when dinosaurs still roamed the earth) my friend Sandy would quote this little ditty to me every spring:

Spring has sprung
the flowers is riz
I wonder where
the birdies iz.

In spite of that, we stay in touch. Where was I? Oh, yeah, spring. And growing things.

Having flexed her mythical muscles in February with a huge ice storm that kept our area literally in the dark for anywhere from three days to three weeks, Mother Nature is now demonstrating how quickly she recovers. Rebounds. Whatever.

The neighbor a few houses up the road from us has a stand of Bradford Pear trees that were practically destroyed by the recent ice storm. Bradford Pear trees are notorious for splitting down the middle in ice storms and/or high winds, dropping both heavy and light branches in a circle on the ground. Personally, if you gave me a free Bradford Pear tree and hired someone to plant it, I'd have to politely (or possibly not so politely) decline. Did I mention they are notorious for splitting and dropping heavy limbs everywhere, in ice or wind? Anyhow, things have warmed up around here and the neighbor apparently hasn't found time to clean up yet, so when you drive by his place right now you see dead limbs in circles around his trees and the few pitiful branches that did survive are covered in beautiful white spring blooms. Spring is sprunging out all over as I type.

These Bradford Pear trees are VERY common in our area, and I have to admit, despite the major damage they seem to suffer every winter, they do their best to recover. Gotta love their spirit.

Several years ago, as spring was doing its annual sprunging, I spotted a large abandoned farm truck in the middle of a field. Vines had grown around and through openings in the truck, trapping it in the spot where someone parked and left it, who knows how long ago. The truck is held in place by something much smaller, but when the vines work together, they overcome.

That set me to wondering. How often are we, as writers or wannabe writers, held in place, kept from doing our jobs, writing our stories, by things much smaller, working together to stop us? Fear? Indecision? Procrastination? Laziness? Lack of faith in our abilities? Lack of focus? Life? And dare I type it? Old age?

Which brings me to my next point. Late bloomers. If you are "of a certain age" do you remember when you thought thirty was OLD? Sigh. But with so many Baby Boomers recently crossing the line from late fifties to early sixties, we now pretty nearly outnumber the "younger generation." And lest you be fooled by our complaints of aches and pains coupled with "I sure can't do the things I used to" trust me, we've learned to adjust, and you younger folks need to watch out for us.

I recently went into a local large discount store to shop and had to leap to safety in a side aisle when a fellow senior citizen whizzed by me in a motorized chair/shopping cart. And she wasn't the only person using that shopping method. I had to keep one eye on my shopping list and the other on the aisles due to multiple speeding seniors using motorized carts. And whose idea were those dangerous things, anyhow? Mercy! Okay, so I'm thinking of limping into the store so I can try one, myself. Hehehe.

So what is the ratio of older writers out there in the published world, anyhow? A member of Sisters In Crime recently asked on a discussion list who among the authors there were "late bloomers" in the area of writing and publishing their work. An amazing number of mystery writers appear to be, umm beyond our first blush of spring, so to speak. FYI, many of the writers you read and love (who have young sounding names, I might add) are near or at Social Security age. Receiving it, that is, not paying it in.

These are the folks who probably spent the last thirty or so years raising the next generation, working to feed and house said generation, and putting their own dreams on hold. Now we are retired, with much more time. Or at the very least, empty nesters with no little ones to care for 24/7. So we try things we haven't had time to do in decades, like ride a bike, play golf, take long walks, and write down our thoughts. Some of our thoughts are funny and some are downright scary. My hubby, for instance, is used to being asked if he sleeps with one eye open. Yeah. He is.

Have you always loved reading other people's writing but thought you couldn't write? Afraid the "journalism police" would kick in your front door and drag you off to jail? I was. Think you're too old? I did.

If you have a story to tell, then tell it. Then find a good critique group and let them help you get it ready to publish. Then send it out. Don't be afraid. You didn't get to be this age by being timid, did you? So take time out of that whizzing cart and write. And please, watch out for me when you're racing around in the store. I'm not as fast as I used to be. Jumping to safety on a spinning clothing rack can be difficult at this time of my life.

And if you'd rather stick to reading stories than writing them, please DO keep on reading. We writers NEED you.

As spring is sprunging into your area, I trust you are forging on, blooming in spite of damage the winter around you did to your psyche? Whatever your age or situation in life, don't let yourself be held in place by new vines shooting out from the old, ever wrapping themselves around you, paralyzing you in place. Just a few thoughts, about spring and about writing, or perhaps not writing.

May I just add that the daffodils were an extremely welcome sight this year, after the difficult winter we had? Hubby has pretty much cleaned up all the downed trees and limbs out back, and we can finally see our little sitting area where a couple of benches are located near the creek. We do, however, both need to learn our physical limits. We dug up and moved five VERY LARGE hostas to a better area last week, dividing them so they will spread out. And I dug up a few tiger lillys that were down near the creek where no one could see and/or enjoy them except the rabbits and deer and re-planted them up near the bench area so we can enjoy them. And, yes, I left plenty for the rabbits and deer. But by the time we were done relocating these plants, it was all I could do to get up three steps, into the house. The spirit is still willing, but the flesh is mighty weak. Whew. Wonder how one of those motorized shopping carts would work in our back yard? I'll get back to you on that. I hope.

Happy spring, everyone. Hope it's sprung where you are. Anyone seen the hummers yet?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Covers of 2008, Part 2

Here are some more covers from mysteries published in 2008. We put out a call for authors who loved their covers and got a great response. If you're eligible to vote for the Anthonys nominees (including the cover art category), you have a ballot that asks for your picks by author and title and also book format (hardback, trade paper, or mass market paperback). Authors can add format information as a comment at the end of this post. Or folks who want to vote for them to be nominated can check Amazon for the format. If you didn't see the first batch (Covers of 2008) last Thursday, March 19, you can find that post via the search box or scrolling down on the blog. Again, we're not connected in any way with the Anthonys--just giving as many covers as we can wider circulation.

Donna Andrews, Cockatiels at Seven and Six Geese A-Slaying

Rhys Bowen, A Royal Pain and Tell Me, Pretty Maiden

Libby Fischer Hellman, Easy Innocence

Sheila Connolly, One Bad Apple

Karen Olson, Shot Girl

Toni Kelner, Without Mercy

JL Wilson, Autographs, Abductions, and A-List Authors and Candy, Corpses, and Classified Ads

Leann Sweeney, Pushing Up Bluebonnets

Barbara Colley, Wash and Die

Charlotte Phillips, Hacksaw

CM Albrecht, Music

Franklin Levy, Die, Decorator, Die

Charlaine Harris & Toni Kelner, Wolfsbane and Mistletoe

Leslie Klinger, The New Annotated Dracula

Lois Carroll, Just A Memory

Maggie Bishop, Perfect for Framing

Marion Hill, Death Books A Return

Maryann Miller, One Small Victory

Nix Winter, The Silver Comb

Tony Wolfmont, Dying in a Winter Wonderland

Joanna Campbell Slan, Paper, Scissors, Death

Michelle Gagnon, Boneyard

RJ McDonnell, Rock & Roll Homicide

Larry Karp, The King of Ragtime

Deb Baker, Murder Talks Turkey (trade paperback)

LJ Sellers, The Sex Club

Michael Stanley, A Carrion Death

Mary Ellen Hughes, Paper-Thin Alibi

Elizabeth Zelvin, Death Will Get You Sober

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thank You

To Kaye Barley, who presented us with a Blog Sisterhood Award today (see our sidebar). We appreciate it, Kaye!

Mysteries with Extras

The winners of the free books are Sobaka, Margaret Franson, Sandra, Daryl a.k.a Avery, Kim, Lesa Holstine, and Gail Hueting. Please send your mailing address to sandraparshall@yahoo.com. Congratulations, and I hope you enjoy the books!

Sandra Parshall

When did mystery writers begin including recipes and/or useful tips for readers in their novels? These extras are so common now that it’s hard to pinpoint when the trend started.

Food has always been a favorite means of delivering poison, but it also figures prominently in traditional mysteries because this type of story usually has a domestic setting. Characters often drink tea, gnosh on cake or cookies, and sort out the facts of the case. What's different now is that readers expect to be given the full recipe for any food consumed in the book.

When I asked on internet mystery lists if anyone knew whe
n recipes began appearing in novels, I received a lot of guesses and approximations but no definite answers. Several people said Dianne Mott Davidson was among the first to include recipes and that she had to talk her publisher into allowing it. Liz Zelvin and a couple of others pointed out that Virginia Rich included recipes in the front and back of her mysteries, which debuted with The Cooking School Murders in 1982. Nero Wolfe was a gourmand, and Rex Stout’s novels have a lot of food in them. The Nero Wolfe Cookbook, giving recipes for dishes featured in the novels, was published in 1973 and remains a favorite of many cooks, but the recipes were not included in the novels.

As for craft cozies with patterns, one avid mystery reader said that Crewel World by Monica Ferris, published in 1999, was the first novel she remembered seeing that included a needlework pattern. All craft cozies now feature patterns or tips, and the trend has expanded to include cleaning and decorating tips and advice of every kind. If a protagonist has a special skill, she must share it with readers.

Why? It’s a marketing ploy, of course, and primarily an American one. (Although the coz
y was born in Britain, few mysteries of that type are produced by British authors now. M.C. Beaton writes cozies, but she doesn’t include recipes in her Agatha Raisin books. Considering Aggie’s ineptitude in the kitchen, that’s probably just as well.) Mystery lovers buy books for the stories and characters, but in a crowded market, the extras may entice readers and persuade them that they’re getting more than a good mystery for their money.

Here are a few recent cozies that have distinctive characters and settings but follow the trend toward giving readers something extra.

Turn Up the Heat (hardcover 2008, paperback 2009) by Jessica Conant-Park and Susan Conant, is part of the Gourmet Girl series and has 22 pages of recipes, some of them contributed by professional chefs. The heroine, Chloe Carter, is helping her chef boyfriend get his new Boston restaurant off to a good start when one of the waitresses is found dead in a fish truck. Booklist recommends Turn Up the Heat to “fans of foodie crime” and Publishers Weekly, in the language typically inspired by this kind of mystery, calls it a “delectable dish of detection.”

Death Takes the Cake, in the Della Cooks series by Melinda Wells, has 14 pages of recipes, most of them for cakes that sound delicious and look easy. Della Carmichael is owner of a cooking school and star of a new cable cooking show. In an attempt to boost her ratings, Della enters a televised cake competition sponsored by Reggi-Mixx, which happens to be owned by Della’s old college nemesis. When people warn her that competitive pastry-making is a blood sport, they’re not kidding, as Della discovers when someone is drowned in a bowl of cake batter. Because a friend’s husband is suspected, Della is determined to solve the crime and clear his name.

Fatal Flip is the March 2009 entry in Peg Marberg’s Interior Design Mysteries. No recipes here, but at the back of the book you’ll get tips on living in an old Victorian house and decorating a house to make it more attractive to buyers. The whole book is an education in “flipping” – the business of purchasing fixer-uppers, restoring them, and selling them. Marberg’s heroine, Jean Hastings, is a small-town decorator who is recruited by the local Fast Flippers to decorate one of their projects. Soon enough, one of the Flippers turns up dead and Jean sets out to find the culprit.

In Corked by Cabernet (2009) and A Vintage Murder (2008), author Michele Scott includes recipes between chapters as well as at the end of the books, and recommends wines to go with the dishes. The heroine, a former actress named Nikki Sands, is manager of a Napa Valley vineyard, and the reader learns something about wine-making while Nikki is solving some inconvenient murders.

Eggs in Purgatory (December 2008) by Laura Childs is the first book in the Cackleberry Club series by an author already popular for her tea shop and scrapbooking mysteries. The Cackleberry Club is a cozy café created by friends Suzanne, Toni, and Petra after they all lose their husbands to either death or divorce. Not long after the café opens, Suzanne’s lawyer is found murdered out back. The murder exposes a scandalous secret involving Suzanne’s late husband and brings a refugee from a cult into her life. At the back of the book you’ll find recipes for the dishes Suzanne serves her customers while she’s trying to find the link between her dead husband and the cult.

Suzanne Price's Notoriously Neat (April 2009), third in the Grime Solvers series, conta
ins the kind of tips I desperately need but am too lazy to use. The protagonist, Sky Taylor, is a professional cleaner in the town of Pigeon Cove, and throughout the book excerpts from Sky Taylor's Grime Solvers Blog offer advice for cleaning up all those nasty little messes that clutter our lives. The plot centers on the murder of Dr. Gail Pilsner, a popular Pigeon Cove veterinarian, and Sky's efforts to clear the animal hospital lab tech she believes is innocent.

If you’d like to enter a drawing for a free copy of one of these books, post your answers to the questions below in the comments section. If you have a strong preference for one or two of the books, let me know. Come back tomorrow and you’ll find the names of the winners posted at the top of this blog entry in red. After you look over the 2008 covers Liz will post tomorrow, scroll on down to find this entry.

Now my questions for you:

1. Does the inclusion of recipes or tips of various kinds make a cozy more attractive to you?

2. Do you look at the recipes and/or tips before you buy a book?

3. Have you ever bought a book because you wanted a particular recipe? If so, share! What recipe was it? And did you enjoy the mystery too?