Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Behind the Scenes at Spinetingler

Sandra Parshall

Online review sites and ezines are increasingly influential with readers -- especially mystery readers -- and Spinetingler has rapidly become one of the most popular. Sandra Ruttan, a Canadian mystery writer who started Spinetingler with her husband, Kevin, answered my questions about what’s involved in creating an ezine and building readership.

SP: Why did you decide to start an ezine devoted to mysteries? Did you see a gap you wanted to fill or were you following a personal dream?

SR: It was Kevin’s idea. I was reluctant, because I didn’t think we knew enough to make it work. I was right about that. Part of the first year was about trial and error. We did no real investigation of the other ezines operating. At the time, I had no idea how to find them. This was before I even knew what a blog was, and the forums and lists I had joined at that point weren’t talking about ezines. In the past three years there’s been a lot of growth.

Oddly enough, this was always something I was interested in doing. In grade school I used to make up class newspapers and write stories about people. I have a background in journalism and had my first newspaper column at the age of 13. My husband had the web skills. Our backgrounds and interest contributed to the success of the site, as well as the fact that we focused on producing what we wanted to see. I was tired of reading so many interviews that left questions unanswered. Ten questions that barely scratched the surface. I’ll interrogate people for three hours if they let me, but the result is that readers get something different.
When we talked about starting Spinetingler, I was worried it would take up a lot of time, and I was right.

SP: What’s involved in creating an ezine? Did the process turn out to be more difficult or time-consuming than you expected?

SR: Register a domain name, after Googling to see that it isn’t already in use for something prominent. Once you have your web hosting lined up, you need to build the site. Of course, you also need to get word out there, somehow, to get submissions. Starting off is always tough, which is part of the reason we try to talk about new ezines and I’m glad we’ve started Crime Zine Report. Hopefully, it will help new ezines grow faster, connecting writers with new markets.

In the beginning I was also trying to figure out how to approach authors for interviews. I usually don’t interview anyone unless I’ve read all or a fair bit of their work, and some other interviews with them. I like to do my background research. At the same time, we were dealing with implementing policies. You have to have submission guidelines in place, or you can’t be upset with anything people do. And believe me, people do some weird things with their submissions.

We decided to do this in December 2004, and we launched in March 2005. It wasn’t until the Fall 2005 issue that we started to get things together, and that was also when people really started discovering us, thanks to Stuart MacBride. I met him at Harrogate and after a bizarre conversation in the bar he agreed to an interview. He gave us a huge plug on his blog when the issue came out, and when I started blogging he was one of the first people to drop by and comment. He raised our profile, and when I approached authors for interviews they’d often heard of us as a result.

SP: Are any operating costs involved other than fees for web hosting?

SR: We ran some contests to get submissions, so we had contest prize money to give out. We also pay for stories now.

SP: Do you sell advertising to bring in money?

SR: We do have the option of selling advertising, and sell a bit. We don’t sell enough to break even on the basic expenses of paying for the site and submissions, though. One thing Kevin and I both want is to have the liberty to promote books we’re genuinely enthusiastic about, so we put in personal picks, and sometimes authors do interviews or donate books for contests for us and we run an ad as a thank you. Kevin designs most of the ads himself.

SP: About how many regular reviewers does Spinetingler have? Do they receive any payment?

SR: We have myself, Kevin and Tracy Sharp. None of us receives payment, for anything, and we’re all editors as well. We’re adding a few more reviewers, but there is no pressure, no commitment. They’re volunteers so I leave them to work at their schedule. If they take a review copy they get to keep it. We don’t sell review copies.

SP: Do you recruit reviewers or do most of them approach you? If someone wants to review for Spinetingler, what qualifications must they have?

SR: Most reviewers approach us now. On occasion I’ve posted on lists that we’re looking for reviewers. Sometimes people come forward. We don’t have qualifications, exactly. We explain what we want in the review. Our only real rule is that it not read like a personal attack on the author. When new reviewers join, we read what they send carefully and make sure it fits the ezine.

SP: Have you ever dropped a reviewer?

SR: No, we’ve never had a problem. Some people get too busy, and aren’t available anymore, but we haven’t had to get rid of anyone.

SP: About how many books does Spinetingler review each year? How do you decide what to review?

SR: It varies, and in part, it depends on my schedule. I’m a slow reader, and if I’m busy with other things it hinders me from reviewing as much. Heaven help you if you’re on my TBR pile. I expect the number of reviews we run to increase now that Kevin is also reviewing. He reads fast, and he takes books to work. He also listens to audio books when he commutes.

We ask that people send a brief description of the book they’d like reviewed, and I send it to available reviewers and see if any of them are interested. This gives people the flexibility to consider their schedules and their interests. It also means it’s less likely the author is wasting a review copy, sending it to someone who won’t like it and ultimately won’t review it.

Sometimes I review books I’ve purchased. We rarely approach people for review copies. I’ve done this a few times, when a reviewer who’s contributed a lot to the ezine has asked for a specific book, but usually I don’t. I still believe in supporting authors, and there are some books that, even if I did have a review copy, I’d still buy. I wouldn’t want to mess up my Rankin or Bruen or Val McDermid collections, for example, so even if we were offered review copies I’d still buy a hard copy.

SP: Do you receive ARCs from publishers?

SR: I think a lot of US publicists don’t realize we’re web based (as well as having most issues available for print purchase) and when authors ask them to send us review copies, most don’t. This has been an issue with ARCs coming from the US, mainly. We never have problems with Harcourt, because I know their rep in Canada quite well. And we’re on the mailer for Bitter Lemon Press and Serpent’s Tail now.

When independent publicists (those who don’t work for publishers) contact us, 90% of the time we get the book if we okay it. When the request comes from an author who then asks their publicist to send it to us it’s more like 40% of the time that we actually receive it. I try to follow up with authors, at least to say, “We never got the review copy” but that’s time-consuming.

If a reviewer has expressed interest, we ask for the review copy to be sent straight to them. It typically takes three weeks for books sent media mail from the US to reach us, and then we’d have to send them back across the border. That delays the review about five weeks.

SP: As a Canadian writer yourself, do you make a conscious effort to give Canadian crime novels ample attention in Spinetingler?

SR: Well...

We tried to do the Canadian issues the first two years. They were like pulling teeth. I spent more time working on them than any other issue, and always got less material. And despite doing those issues we still get referred to as an American ezine. Ultimately, I think our focus isn’t where the bulk of Canadian crime fiction is centered. Cozies and amateur sleuth stories are dominant here, and Kevin and I lean into the hardboiled/noir camp. I’m a police procedural junkie. When we do find Canadians we’re excited about, we’re very excited, but I guess I’m too much of a pessimist for most of what we’re publishing this side of the border.

Spinetingler’s focus is more international than anything. If stories are submitted in American English, they run in American English. If they’re submitted in British English, they run in British English. We try to retain the flavour of the writer’s work. We give no preference when selecting books for review unless we’re doing a Canadian issue.

SP: Do you feel that U.S.-based publications overlook many Canadian writers?

SR: I would like to think that the success of authors such as Giles Blunt and Louise Penny proves there’s an appetite for Canadian-based crime fiction outside our borders. Rick Mofina is another fantastic Canadian author. Vicki Delany has a US publisher. John McFetridge, who is doing hardboiled Canadian crime fiction, has been picked up by Harcourt for paperback release next year. The Canadian industry has problems that complicate the issue. The publishing industry here relies on government grant money to stay alive. Without it, the publishers would die. The result is that publishers aren’t always as focused on selling work to balance the books. We seem to have a lot of niche publishers.

But when you look at what sells, the tone of the work is quite different from what a lot of the publishers here seem to be looking for. Ian Rankin is one of the top sellers in Canada, but many of the Canadian publishers have been focused on the cozy/amateur sleuth subgenres. Last summer I had a chat with Ian about who was writing Canadian noir and it was a pretty short list.

In my opinion, the reason Canadian material hasn’t been picked up more internationally is because it isn’t in the mainstream. When people write something that has wide appeal, it will sell widely, regardless of the setting. I think Giles Blunt is the proof of that. There are some Canadian authors capable of selling internationally and doing very well, but it takes time to find the publishers who will give them the chance. My agent, a Canadian, suggested I move my current manuscript south of the border, so clearly some of that mindset that Canada can’t sell still exists. I understand moving the location might make a sale easier but I wouldn’t do it. We’re always reading about how people love books that use setting as a character. Part of the plot hangs on something very specific that isn’t true of even all Canadian cities, so I had to select the setting carefully. I picked a setting that worked that I know, and love, and want to explore in a series. Vancouver isn’t exactly unknown to the international audience, either. With the Olympics coming up I have great material for the subsequent books.

SP: Do you run reviews of self-published books?

SR: We’ll consider it. If the book isn’t good, a review probably won’t run, because few volunteers want to spend time finishing a book they don’t like. It doesn’t matter if the book is self-published or comes from a leading New York house. Most reviewers do not want to sign their names to a scathing review. Neither do I. I’ll make criticisms if I think they’re valid but there has to be enough merit to the book to make me want to finish it in order to get the review.

SP: Have you had any protests from authors about reviews of their work?

SR: We’ve had some issues. I have a very short list of authors whose books we won’t review. I will stop reviewing before I start engaging in arguments over the books. As an author, I understand you have to live with bad reviews sometimes. You can read a review and think it’s unfair, but it’s just one person’s opinion. You have to trust readers to have discernment. I agonize over any criticism I put in a review, because I understand it can come back on me, and I consider how the author will feel. But my obligation is to the readers who want enough information to decide if the book is for them. That’s one of the things I think some authors are exceptionally short-sighted about. You aren’t just selling one book. You’re selling your future books. I’m not trying to deceive anyone into buying a book they won’t like.

The main job of a reviewer is to identify the audience for the book and help the reader figure out if they fall into that category or not. And any issues a reviewer will have with a book are (unless they’re based on a personal attack) bound to come up on forums/listservs from readers sooner or later. I don’t see the point in arguing. Nobody’s wrong. It’s a taste issue, and not everyone likes the same things.

The primary reason we don’t run rebuttals is that it causes hurt feelings, and opens the doors to an argument. I also have no interest in turning Spinetingler into a trash and smear site. It would turn into an endless flame war, as we’ve seen on discussion lists. I can’t turn that stuff off, and it would consume me. I’d end up pulling the plug on the site, because I don’t do well when I feel friends are under attack. My instinct is to step up and defend them, and I feel very protective of my reviewers, because they are being so generous with their time to begin with.

Authors aren’t entitled to reviews, and they certainly aren’t entitled to good reviews. They should pay more attention to which reviewers like material similar to their own. It increases the likelihood they’ll get the positive reviews they’re after.

SP: Now that you’re a published mystery novelist, do you see reviews in a different light? Do you have more sympathy for writers whose books are reviewed negatively?

SR: Not really. I’ve always been a person who considers the feelings of others. I feel it every time I send out a rejection letter for a story submission. I feel it every time I abandon a book I don’t like and won’t review, or write a mixed review. But I know what the obligations of a reviewer are. In reality, it would feel horrid, but if all the reviews were polarized it would probably be the best thing. Strong opposing opinions make people curious and make them want to check out the book for themselves. The very worst thing is if a lot of reviews say, “It was okay.”

SP: Does Spinetingler impinge on your personal writing time and book promotion efforts, or do you hold yourself to a firm schedule?

SR: Spinetingler takes up a lot of my time. As I mentioned, I try to read all or most of the titles by authors I interview, and then the interviews take a fair chunk of time. If I do the interview in person or over the phone I transcribe it, which can take me as much as 10 hours. I go squirrelly transcribing. I need a lot of breaks.

The average interview probably takes 40 hours of my time, including reading one book at least and other interviews. I still love doing it. I try to capture the personality of the author, which is why some interviews are more serious and others are pretty wild.

SP: What’s next for you as a writer? Have you completed a second mystery, or are you working on one? Will the next book be a sequel to the first?

It is unlikely there will be a sequel to Suspicious Circumstances. The contract gives the publisher option on derivative works, and I’m looking to move to a different publisher.

My new manuscript, What Burns Within, is under consideration. I’m currently in that horrendous waiting phase. What Burns Within is a police procedural, set in the Greater Vancouver Area (GVA), where I used to live. The story follows three detectives, each working a different case. One is a serial rape case. Another is dealing with multiple abductions that have led to murder. The third detective is investigating a number of arsons. The cases collide, with deadly consequences. What works for the manuscript is that it’s an action-packed, intensely paced story, but that can also work against it. I wanted to use the style of narrative to convey a sense of what the police are facing – multiple cases where things are coming at them from all directions. When people are under pressure, lives are hanging in the balance, and then tragedy strikes your own police department, even experienced cops can make mistakes.

It’s an intricate plot that was inspired by something very real in my own life. I don’t want to say too much more, but my best friend’s husband is a professional firefighter in the GVA, and my husband is a firefighter and trained arson investigator. One night while he was on a call I was lying in bed, thinking I should really go back to sleep when I had this startling realization about the call. It haunted me until I wrote this manuscript.

Read Spinetingler at Visit Sandra Ruttan's web site at


Julia Buckley said...

Great interview, Sandra and Sandra! Spinetingler is a classy magazine, and this is interesting information.

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm amazed that Sandra and Kevin do this as a labor of love. I'm exhausted by the very thought of all that work!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind words about the magazine.

While it is a lot of work, the reward is knowing that we can give someone their first publishing credit, review or interview. And with the calibre of the content that is being submitted, that makes it all worthwhile.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Whew, I agree with Sandy, this does sound like a lot of hard work. Thanks Sandra and Kevin for stopping by!