Monday, August 27, 2012

An Interview with Lawrence Block

One of my favorite authors is Lawrence Block. He’s famous for his mystery novel series about Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr among others. He’s been an acclaimed writer for decades now, and I’ve been particularly excited to see some of his characters given new life in 99 cent Kindle Ebooks. His blog is also particularly interesting to me. Going there is a pleasure as he always seems to be focused on his readers, giving them what they want.

Amazon's Lawrence Block Page

Anyway, as someone interested in book promotion in the 21st century, I’m excited to ask the master how his experience promoting online has been. Here is our conversation:

Mr. Block, thank you very much for taking time to answer my questions. I have been a fan for years, and this is an honor for me. My blog focuses on new ways for writers to market their work, and a simple google search reveals how much you have done. I’d like to talk first about the changes you’ve seen in the promotion of your books.

Me: To what degree do you think it’s important to establish and sustain personal relationships with readers through email and social media?

Block: Hard to say. Thomas Pyncheon seems to get along fine without it, doesn't he? I think it's useful, but only if the writer in question is so inclined. The folks at publishing houses, of course, think it's essential—because they always want the writer to do things that won't require any work on the publishers' part, or cost them anything.

Me: I have been reading a number of your 99 cent Kindle Ebooks lately, and I love them. It’s great to get another short story from Bernie Rhodenbarr and especially Keller since I was afraid that series was over. From a promotional point of view, however, I’m wondering what you think the largest benefits of these stories are. Have you noticed a renewed interest in the older titles? Or do you simply want to get more of your stories out there?

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Block: I don't know that I've thought it through that far. I've got the stories, and figure I might as well make them available. 99¢ stories are a slow way to get rich, but I’ve never found a fast way, so I'm happy to ePublish them.

Me: Readers can get a good sense of who you are as a person from your blog, and I wonder if that’s what you see as its great advantage. Is that personal connection with your readers the primary reason you’ve established the blog?

Block: Yes, that's probably it.

Me: What do you see as the main disadvantages of marketing online?

Block: The time and energy it requires.

Me: Has reaching your audience online affected you and the way that you work?

Block: Possibly, but not in any way I've noticed.

Me: How do you choose new books to read?

Block: I read less these days, and mostly read books by authors I already enjoy. In fact, I'm more apt to reread a book than pick up something new.

Me: Do you have any marketing or promotional advice for new writers?

Block: Just as I advise people to write first and foremost to please themselves, I'd recommend that they do such marketing and promotional activity as seems natural and appropriate to them. And don't push too hard, or expect too much.

*          *          *

So, what is the advice of the master?

The last answer seems to be the key to his philosophy, and in general that’s the key to writing well. Of course, the writer must push, and there is a level of dedication necessary, but in the end, it has to be pleasurable for the author. Otherwise, what was once joy will become tedium, and the readers will sense that frustration.

So, I generally finish these posts with a question. I will be doing more interviews with authors and fans like Mr. Matetsky of the last post. Cathy Day will be next. My question is, who would you like me to interview? Whose insights on book promotion do you think would be interesting and relevant?

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

An Interview with Ira Matetsky, Werowance of the Wolfe Pack

In my quest to try to reach readers, I thought I’d find a really and truly dedicated mystery fan. My favorite dead mystery writer is Rex Stout, who wrote the Nero Wolfe novels among others.

My favorite current living writer is me. However, I don’t have a fan club, and Mr. Stout does. In lieu of going to the president of my fan club, I asked the Werowance of the Wolfe Pack, Mr. Ira Matetsky, a few questions about how he chooses to read novels and how we can reach him.

(Until I talked to Mr. Matetsky, I thought of myself as Stout's most loyal fan.
This is my dog, Archie Goodboy, named after Rex Stout's famous character.)

Question: Thank you so much for being a part of my blog. To begin, could you tell us a little bit about your job in the Wolfe Pack?

Answer: I’m the “Werowance” of the Wolfe Pack.  In this context, “Werowance” means the same thing as “President” or “Chairman.”  “Werowance” was reportedly a title used by the chiefs of some American Indian tribes, and it is a title or nickname by which Nero Wolfe’s assistant, Archie Goodwin, addresses Mr. Wolfe in one of the greatest of Rex Stout’s detective novels, TOO MANY COOKS (1938).  The Wolfe Pack is an international group of aficionados of the Nero Wolfe corpus, which comprises 33 novels and about 40 short stories, spanning the period from the 1930s to the 1970s.  We hold several events each year, primarily in New York City but also at other locations; publish a journal of Wolfean scholarship, The Gazette; and have a website that I believe contains far more information about our subject than any other.  Information about membership in the Wolfe Pack and our activities can be obtain on that website,

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(Too Many Cooks -- one of those novels
that made me want to write mysteries.)

Question: Great. I’m going to join. As the Werowance of the Wolfe Pack, you are probably the ultimate mystery novel fan, exactly the kind of person I and most small press writers would really like to reach with our novels. Can you tell us what it is in a novel that you're really looking for?

Answer: Well, I’m the ultimate fan of these novels, and of a few other mystery and detective fiction writers.  My other personal favorites include R. Austin Freeman, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Henry Cecil, Jacques Futrelle, Isaac Asimov, Cyril Hare, and John Mortimer, among others.  But I don’t really think of myself of being particularly knowledgeable about the whole world of detective fiction – as I was reminded when I attended a Bouchercon a couple of years ago, and didn’t recognize the names of a large percentage of the authors who were being discussed in the various forums.  As one can tell from that list of authors, it’s not always easy for me to tell in advance whether I’ll enjoy a particular author’s work or not until I start reading it, so it’s hard for me to define what it is that I’m looking for.  (I would cite here Potter Stewart’s comment that “I know it when I see it,” but for those who remember the context, that really would send the wrong message about what I’m looking to read.)

Question: Ha! That’s great. Aside from Rex Stout's novels, how do you generally find out about a novel that you're going to read?

Answer: Typically word of mouth; occasionally a review.

Question #4: What can writers do to help you find our novels?

Answer: I’m afraid I don’t have too many insights to offer about this.  The Wolfe Pack confers two annual literary awards – the Nero Award, for literary excellence in the English-language mystery genre, and the Black Orchid Novella Award, presented in accordance with Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, for an outstanding mystery novella.  The winners of these awards receive a publicity boost, both within and well beyond the 500-member Wolfe Pack, so authors whose works satisfy the criteria for these awards may wish to submit their work for consideration (again, further details are on our website). 

Question #5: Do you have a favorite living author, and if so, who is it and what do you love about him or her?

Answer: My favorite living author of fiction was probably John Mortimer, but we lost him a couple of years ago.  Today, perhaps Elizabeth Peters, for her Egyptian novels.   I also have a number of non-fiction authors whose works I look forward to avidly, but that is probably a completely different kettle of sea life.

Question #6: Do you have any advice for mystery writers, both those who are trying to break into the field and those who are established?

Answer: I’m afraid not.

Question #7: How do you feel about ebooks?

Answer: I think they are a great idea in theory, and also that my apartment and my office would be a lot less cluttered if I’d been buying e-books rather than book-books for the past few decades … but this far, I haven’t gotten started with e-reading, and have stuck with hard copies.  I am sure that will change sooner or later, and that when it does, I will wonder how I lived for so long without an iPad or a Nook, just as I wonder today how I lived for so long without a BlackBerry.

Question #8: Do you have a favorite Rex Stout novel

Answer: My favorites have varied over the years, so I am hesitant to pick a favorite novel.  A would-be reader of Stout’s works can start virtually anywhere; there are only two or three books that I think would not be a good introduction to the Wolfe corpus.

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(This is my favorite Wolfe novel.
Also Timothy Hutton did a great television adaptation of it.)

Thank you once again Mr. Matetsky. It has been kind of you to take time out of your schedule to answer these questions.

As a writer, I find Mr. Matetsky’s answers to be provocative.

His answers tell me a great deal about how readers find authors. The first thing they tell me is what readers don’t do.

As a rule, they don’t go out searching for new authors to take a chance on. Why would they? What readers want are satisfying experiences, and they know they can get that from the authors they love already. When I read the work of a great author, the experience will last me many hours after I’ve read the book. I’ve dreamed of Rex Stout’s novels for days. John Steinbeck's and Mark Twain’s books keep me company while I’m standing in line. Readers want the reliability of that experience.

They also don’t necessarily want anything modern. Mr. Matetsky is obviously not averse to the modern novel, but he seems satisfied reading 19th and 20th century novels as well. Why shouldn’t he be? So we’re not competing with each other as much as with the dead novelists whom we all love dearly.

What he seems to want is an experience that is satisfying without a lot of research on his part.

The way he finds out about a book is through word of mouth most of the time. What this means is that as authors, we need to identify who those hub personalities are, people who are going to spread the word for us. What I found particularly intriguing is that Mr. Matetsky finds more of his books through word of mouth than through reviews.

Of course, the reviews reach a lot of people, but reaching the correct people is key. As writers, we need to find who is going to read our books and recommend them to friends. When a lot of people are talking about our books in an excited way, we are going to get our work out there.

So we need to personalize our search for readers. What are your best tips for that personalization?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What I Learned This Summer

The computer people lied to me in high school.

Old classic computer

I'm a child of the 70s and 80s, and when I started high school, I was told that everyone was going to need to learn the programming language BASIC and COBOL. "Just to get through your day, even if you're a businessman," my computer teacher told the class, "you're going to have to know programming. Everyone is going to be programming."

Halfway through the year, he admitted that he didn't actually believe that.

He was also my typing teacher, except we didn't have enough typewriters or computers for the entire class. Those of us who weren't blessed with a keyboard were given a photocopy of the image of a keyboard and sat there twice a week poking the paper. At the end of the semester, he would stand behind me and watch me finger slapping a picture of a keyboard.

"You're not improving, Brantington," he missaid my name. It was the first time he'd ever spoken to me directly. Then he pronounced my grade based on how accurately and quickly he thought my sweaty fingers had moved. "C-."

So I've always been a little distrustful of the whole computer thing.

I spent this summer turning around 25 years of conditioning. Okay, 30 years of conditioning. My good friend Sunny has guided me through small press promotion for mysteries, so I've been engaged in a crash course. I've been putting in long work weeks writing, which has been great. It's helped to keep my mind off some personal sadness Annie and I had lately. I'm to the place that I understand some things, and I don't think I'm going to have to work constantly to keep up.

In fact, I was in Morro Bay this last week, and I've been keeping up with it all in between moment of extreme relaxation.

(This is as far as Ann will go into the ocean.)

Anyway, here's short list of what I've learned about computer networking and what can be done when I don't have the whole summer.

1. Blogger sites like,,, and are easy and fun if you like to blog at all. Great potential for promotion and they're filled with like-minded people. Some of the conversations are boring but many are good. There are a number of really negative people on these sites, but 98.554% are not.

(This is as far as Archie will go.)

2. You (or maybe just me) must time how long you stay on these sites or they will eat your life away and leave no time for writing or reading. Hence the egg timer. I spent 8 hours one hot summer day chatting and blogging and posting and reposting and I didn't even realize that I'd done it.

3. Most blogger sites will allow you to write blog posts and delay their publication dates. I'm set up for blogs through December and I have a bunch more to put up. This is future promotion without any work for me when I will be most busy.

4. People like my own blog when it's short and interesting. Well, I suppose that's obvious.

(Morro Rock -- Also the site of one of my favorite Huell Howser episodes "WOW! This is high!")

5. Other bloggers are looking for content. Guesting on blogs is a great way to create content.

6. If I have insomnia in a motel, I can send out about 50 stories and poems in a long night to publishers. Not a bad idea, and it's better than sitting there watching a rerun of Maud. For years I've advocated sending out one a day, but I've learned to use my insomnia for me.

7. I need to write about more than just promotion  on this blog. I'm going to start blogging about my research too. What kind of research do I do? Most of my stories (and the sequel to my mystery novel) happen in national parks and natural wilderness area. I research through trips into the wild. This is my research and coming soon!

Anyway, I learned much much more in my long summer of re-education. This isn't all of it, but these are the main reasons I will be able to keep going in the long months of frantic teaching coming up. I can do promotion in about an hour a day, and really keep going well.

What about you? Have you learned anything about promotion for busy people? I'll tell you what -- let's make this a give away. I have an old, used copy of a Nero Wolfe novel that I will give away to the first person who posts a good idea for low-impact ways to promote your work.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

American Caliphate

"Find something you're passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it." -- Julia Child

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William Doonan’s American Caliphate

Years ago, I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in literature at UCR for a number of reasons. I was working towards a dissertation on Rex Stout, but I realized that this wasn’t the world for me. I can’t remember why I thought I should get a Ph.D. in the first place. I already had an MFA in fiction. Maybe it had something to do with wanting to get a job.

Anyway, I do remember why I dropped out. There were about ten reasons, but one of them was that I love literature. But as much as I love it, I wasn’t interested in researching the minutia of Rex Stout’s life. It takes a special kind of person to be able to do that, and I was more interested in writing my own stories than figuring out whether what Archie Goodwin represented to a post-structuralist.

I’ve always admired people who can do that kind of research. The only time I’ve been able to focus like that is for my own writing.

To me, research equals love.

And if it does, William Doonan must love what he does and what he writes. Doonan is an archaeologist and anthropologist by training who spends much of his free time on digs – or "excavations" as the anthropologists in his book reminds us. That experience comes through clearly in this story about an excavation in Peru, which might or might not prove that there was an American Caliphate in 1500s.

Doonan’s research makes the work come to life. His flashbacks into Spanish history open up not only the political realities of the world but feel real as well. We get the texture of that world. I’ve never been to modern-day Peru, but I have a great sense of what it is like. The archaeology felt real, and I was there.

Doonan’s a great writer and his book is terrific. I lost count of how many major characters there were as I flashed back and forth between their perspective, but I was never lost or confused. I just wanted to see how my favorites were going to make it through their day.

Now, since this is a blog about promotion, I contacted Mr. Doonan and asked him about his promotion:

Me: When you first started to promote American Caliphate what surprised you the most?

Doonan: I guess what surprised me most is how hard it is.  As a lifelong reader, I'm always in search of my next read, and I always have my ear to the ground listening for tips and suggestions.  But it's quite another thing being the person giving out the tips and suggestions.  Encouraging someone to read a book is more of an art than I had expected.  More than anything, it's about making connections, even making friends. Books are sold one at a time, and I didn't see that coming.

Me: What do you find to be most effective for promoting it?

Doonan: I've done some readings, and some bookstore appearances, but I think when it comes to face-to-face engagements, I do better at book club meetings.  More valuable still is the range and scope of an online platform.  It's not an easy presence to manage, and it's not a magic bullet, but a solid suite of Facebook, Twitter, website, and blogging is absolutely essential.  I'm still not moving a lot of books, but I get readers and comments and new friends from all over the world.

Me: What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you as an archaeologist?

Doonan: I was on survey down in southern Costa Rica some years back, down by the Panamanian border (possibly even across it) and we came across a clearing only to find a mean-looking battle helicopter guarded by six American soldiers wearing no insignia.  They weren't very talkative.  When we asked what they were doing there, and if we could get a ride in the helicopter, they asked us to leave.

Me: As a teacher?

Doonan: Too many things to count.  Once on a primatology exam, I had a student write an essay about reprehensible thumbs.  I commented that although primates might have opposable thumbs, most digits are not objectionable.  Another time, a student left class and forgot his motorized wheelchair.  I drove it around for nearly half an hour before I found him.

Me: As a Writer?

Doonan: I think the weirdest thing that's happened to me as a writer is the degree to which I've become efficient.  Not to say that I'm particularly good at it, but I can get a few sentences in before breakfast, tweak the intro while changing a diaper, and nail the conclusion waiting for the toast to pop.  I seldom get long blocks of free time, so I've learned to colonize the moments.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Networking in High Gear

I've been going to a reading a day, featuring in some, watching others, networking like crazy for about 6 weeks now. Of course, I was going to readings before that, but the last six weeks has been one or two a day.

All of this is in part in support of future promotion of my books. (More about that at the end).

Friday and Saturday were exceptional in a lot of ways.

Friday I helped to host Poetrypalooza's stop in Covina at The Thematic Attic.

The place is decorated like Disneyland on the inside, all kinds of zones of interest. Jungle over here, pirates over there, and it was fun to wander the store.

Better were the people who were there and read. Here's a quick list in case you missed:

Kimberley Cobian -- she's the founder of Zyzzyx Writers Group and she's the genius behind Poetrypalooza, which has readings all over Los Angeles in the month of August. What a great poet and organizer. I'd take my hat off to her, but it's holding down what's left of my hair.

That's Kimberly in the background. In the foreground is Andrea Montoya who also read.

Also up were Scott Creley, Elder Zamora, Rick Stepp-Bolling, Nicola San Juan (the only person who read a children's poem even though it was a children's book store. The rest of us didn't have children's poems.), Maria Arana, Lalo Kikiriki, Chris Trevilla, Andrew Turner, Marta Chausee, Lloyd Aquino, Ken Lieu, Michelld Dougherty, Natalie Morales, Alexander Vogel, and Michael Torres (who brought it as he always brings it).

They brought fans, they brought friends. It lasted for four straight hours.

I love poetry, but that's a marathon. If it hadn't been a great group, we never would have survived, but there was energy, energy, energy. And we were beyond capacity.

From there, I was of to Long Beach. For those of you not from the LA area, that's a good 35 miles away through traffic. Gah!

But it was well worth it. Sarah Miller hosts a reading in an art studio and we were surrounded by paintings as we listened to Clifton Snider read from his new book, Moonman from World Parade Books.

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Was there ever a point in your life when you enjoyed a poem? If the answer is yes, read his book. He is one of the best poets I've known in real life. And if you don't like poetry because it's esoteric and downright weird, read his book. It's accessible and powerful. You'll love it.

Sunday I was off to downtown LA where I read at a photography show featuring the work of Lisa and Jeremy Height.

So, what does this have to do with promoting mystery novels? Everything.

I've been following some email advice from Sunny Frazier and making personal connection everywhere I go. There's nothing talking to people to get that contact. And I've been writing people notes as well. I can't think of a better way than actually meeting people and talking and writing to them. Blogs are great too, but this part is so much fun.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Making Contacts

Everyone who knows me personally knows about the upcoming San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival. Please, check out our website (after you finish reading this post). For those of you who don't know, we're going to host a 3 day book festival in West Covina this February.

Where is West Covina, you may ask.

That question is why we're having it in West Covina.

West Covina is just East of Los Angeles (also the name of my first full length poetry book) on the ten freeway.

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Who's going to be there, you might ask.

Well, as many poets, writers, graphic novelists, childrens authors, and publishers as we can fit in, but most especially mystery writers. As far as I'm concerned anyway. The other organizers have their own loves.

I went to a meeting with representatives of West Covina today, and they all asked me if I was going to bring in mystery writers. Seeing this as a moment of shameless self-promotion, I said "yes," and "a lot of them," and also, "I'm a mystery writer with a book coming out."

It turns out that a couple of them were a part of book clubs. Let me at em. I will promote my book to any club that will have me. I'll go from here to Singapore on a catamaran.

It goes beyond trying to make sales. I'm a writer, and these are people who love books. I'd talk to people like that all day long.

Anyway, to promote my books and the festival, it looks like I'm going to be teaching a monthly seminar on mystery novels in the West Covina library.

But where is West Covina, you ask, seriously? I've never heard of it.

That's why we need a festival. It's one of the largest cities in the Los Angeles area and writers have to leave it to get their literary fix, to meet a mystery novelist, to hear a 78 year old in a black mock turtle neck and a beret muttering his Kerouac-style poetry into a squeaky microphone. Let's bring that old hipster codger here.

Where is West Covina? -- Right next to Covina -- off to the west of it.

Okay fine, take the 10 past the 605 and exit on Sunset.

I got some shots of the city hall too. That's where we're having the festival: check them out and then go to

By the way, my mystery writing friends who read this blog -- you'll be invited to our party soon. I hope you come.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Writer Killed by Mime

I attended a meeting of the local chapter of Sisters in Crime this afternoon and had a great time. It's an organization that is well run and helpful and full of people who are well meaning and kind. It was so well done, it's almost no fun talking about. Great conversation, great reading, great panel discussion.

I found out that Jeri Westerson is going to mention my long dead forebear, Thomas de Brantingham, bishop of Exeter in the 1300s in her upcoming novel. We weren't always the kindest people, so I'm not expecting praise, but it should be exciting.

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The meeting got me thinking about my last post, where I talked about some of the readings I've run that haven't gone so well. And then my thoughts broadened to a couple of meetings and readings that I've been to that have gone extremely badly. So in the spirit of continuing on my last post, here are some of the stories of the strangest readings/meeting I've ever been to. But these I wasn't in charge of.

They're not my fault!

By the way, I LOVED the replies to the last post, so please give your favorite bad reading/meeting stories too.

1.  I went to a bar in a seedy part of Long Beach a couple of years ago for a reading to watch G. Murray Thomas and Jeff Eply. As I came in, I was told specifically that the back door would not open. I don't remember why this was pointed out to me, only that it was. About halfway through the reading, a troup of badly painted up mimes came in, stood in front of the stage and stared at the poet on stage. They were stoop shouldered and breathing through their mouths.

I guess they'd been there earlier, but before I showed up. The only thing I could think of was that they were there to murder us all. Why else wander Long Beach in a pack of mimes? Herd of Mimes? Flock of mimes?

They stared gap mouthed at the open-micker who had never read before until she was intimidated off the stage. And the back door was locked. They stood between me and the front door.

I have nightmares of that day. In fact, I wasn't murdered, but I'm not sure that they still aren't watching me. Silent buggers can sneak up on you.

2.  In a reading in Swansea, Wales, I'd been invited to read with an international group. There were a few other Americans including the man who was running the reading. He kept everyone to a strict schedule of oddly specific times. That night we were all to read for exactly 7 minutes. A couple of people went over time enraging him to the point where he yelled that no one could go home until everyone had read, and then he walked out.

None of us had been planning to leave early, so we sat and listened. At the end of the reading, it turned out that he had locked us all in the theater to teach us a lesson. I talked to him later, and he said (in all seriousness) that if he had been a few years younger he would have murdered the people who had gone over. Later, I was standing in his way, and he half-jokingly threatened to murder me.

3. Okay, I never saw it, but a friend of mine went to a reading that she said was small. Since it was so small, the poet said, he wanted to connect with each audience member, so he spent 30 seconds staring into each person's eyes. She liked it. I can't imagine the level of my discomfort.

There have been others. Someone brought a starter's pistol and brandished it like a real gun. A friend of mine showed up naked. Others have crossed other lines.

The thing about it though is that I had fun at all of these. Maybe the mime moments weren't great, but the reading turned out all right. The good ones aren't worth talking about. I learned something new. I connected with someone. I got something that I hadn't had before.

That's the best part about a good reading.

And bad readings -- the worse they are, the more entertaining they become.