When someone I've never met reviews my book and says, "keep food and drinks close by so you don't have to put it down because you won't want to," I know I've done something right. And that's saying a lot, because writing and publishing a book involves working alone for a long time (years, for this first book) and hoping it all makes sense.
I also appreciate the descriptions of Dark Mural in this and the other reviews. They help readers decide whether this is the kind of book they would like. Since there are lots of good books to read, we all have to choose the ones that appeal most.
There used to be two ways to find out about good new books: hear about them from a friend or read a professional review in a newspaper or magazine. Now there's a third way. Reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads let us hear from more fellow readers.
This is good for writers and good for readers.
I appreciate the 5-star rating from Malena (whom I do not know), and I love what she has to say about Dark Mural. Her descriptions of the setting, characters and plot are on the mark. And I couldn't ask for higher praise than her closing statement: "It's great that the second book in the series is out already. Can't wait to continue on with these characters."
I've written before about the special thrill of knowing a story has communicated to a complete stranger. That satisfaction is right up there with the satisfaction that comes with writing the story in the first place.
People who get their books on Amazon tend to trust their fellow readers. That's why a rating and review like this means as much to me as a rave in the New York Times. I hope this is the first of many.
I don't know who Willie is, but he gave Dark Mural a four-star rating under the delightful and ironic title, "Welcome to College." Also, his one-line review contains a better advertising slogan than anything I've written: "a world where publish or perish has new meaning."
I've been delighted with the way my friends have responded to Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit, the first two Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries. I've received many words of support and some rave reviews. A few friends even sent photos of the paperbacks and the envelope in which they arrived.
I'm now learning that hearing from strangers brings an extra thrill. As a professor, I experienced this when I published my research. Occasionally an article I wrote would turn up as a footnote to someone else's paper. But stories are more personal, and knowing they mean something to someone I've never met is a real kick.
So thanks, Willie, for the rating and the review. Next to word of mouth, customer reviews are the best way a writer has of finding new readers.
Mystery novels written as part of a series let the reader enjoy the same principal characters in a new adventure. If the sleuth is Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Harry Bosch, or Kinsey Millhone, we know each book will be fun in the same way the last one was, even as the plot serves up new puzzles to solve.
So the cover of the next book in the series has to tell the reader this book is the same, only different. I suggested to my designer, Zach McGinnis, that we do this by using the same layout for Dark Exhibit as we used for Dark Mural and changing the details.
In both covers we are looking at a work of art from Nicole's point of view, but this time it's an exhibit of pictures on a wall, rather than a mural. The fonts are the same, but Zach made the letters bright orange instead of white. Zach also gets credit for dressing Nicole in a short-sleeved dress, rather than a sweater and skirt, and showing her hair pulled forward over her shoulder, rather than hanging down her back.
I already have an idea what the cover of Dark Picasso will look like when it's ready for publication.
We may not judge a book by its cover, but we definitely choose a book by its cover. When we take a book off the shelf in a bookstore, and when we shop online, the first things we do is look at the picture..
While preparing my first murder mystery for publication, I learned that the first question a cover must answer is, "What's it about?"
The cover art for Dark Mural, designed by Zach McGinnis, tells the reader it's about a woman looking at a rural scene. Since her back is to us, we are looking from her point of view. The somber colors create an ominous feeling.
All this is true of the story inside. The rural scene is the mural mentioned in the title; the story is told from her point of view; and the action has some fairly sinister twists and turns.
I had spent many months pounding out the story, but I couldn't imagine what the cover should look like. I told my designer about the elements of the story, and he imagined what it should look like. That's what designers do.
It's very exciting to be this close to publishing a story I've lived with for so long. It's even more delightful to accomplish this step in collaboration with such a talented professional.
I've just finished formatting the manuscript of Dark Exhibit for publication with Kindle Direct Publishing. It was so much easier than formatting the manuscript of Dark Mural.
As you may see on my Books page, Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit are the first two books in my series of murder mysteries. I got this crazy idea that it would be best to postpone publishing the first one until the second was also ready.
As a result, I had my first adventure in turning a docx file into some that that looks right as an ebook and as a print book about a month ago with Dark Mural. As always with new software, there was a lot of trial and error.
This week, I gritted my teeth as I set about turning Dark Exhibit into the kind of books you can buy on Amazon. I am pleased to report it went much better. In fact I mostly set aside the directions and worked intuitively.
If I had published the first one six months ago, I probably would have gotten out of practice and had to learn this all over again. Maybe my idea was not so crazy!
Prutting my manuscript in book form continues to teach me lessons.
For instance, that line at the bottom of the page on the left begins a paragraph that continues at the top of the following page. In book-design jargon it's called a widow. I suppose that's because it's left alone.
If you see a paragraph at the bottom of a page and its last line carries over to the following page, that line is called an orphan. I suppose that's because it's disconnected from its origin.
Word processing programs like MS Word and Google Docs usually avoid widows and orphans by keeping at least three lines of the paragraph on each page, but book designers do not. I had to teach myself this by looking through books from my shelves and seeing they frequently have widows and orphans.
This explains why some of my pages in the print previewer were one line shorter than the others. When I allowed widows and orphans, those blank spaces at the bottom of the page filled up.
As with most things about book design, I find myself saying, "I never really noticed."
By the way, those clamps holding the book down are from back when I used to repair guitars.
Recently I discovered that reading my book in Kindle Direct Publishing's ebook previewer taught me some lessons I hadn't learned by reading and re-reading my book in a word processor and on paper. Specifically I learned to use paragraph breaks in a new way for e-publishing.
Preparing my book for publication as a paperback has yielded still more lessons. Perhaps because throughout my life I've done most of my reading on single-spaced, facing pages, I never had to think of how the eye and the mind work together to turn those ink-blots into images and thoughts.
I've been over Dark Mural so many times in the past two years, I have parts of it memorized. Yet, when I saw it in the familiar form of a printed book, it looked different and read different. I became aware how parts of a scene fit together and raised questions that would be answered on the following page. In a few instances, I saw how the scene could be better built, and I've made changes.
Of course, most writers say they always want to change things, even after a book is published. So perhaps this was just one more opportunity for me to see such things. But I really don't think I would have seen them without reading it in book form.
Novels in print don't have tables of contents. They don't bother to tell you that Chapter Ten starts on page 83, for instance. Have you ever wished a novel did?
But all ebooks have them. They give you a list of links so you can jump to any chapter, or to the goodies at the front and back of the book.
But how do you know you want to read Chapter 21? The table of contents doesn't tell you what's in Chapter 21.
I guess you can use the links to jump halfway or two-thirds-the-way through the book. But you have the slider at the bottom for that.
I question all this only because I was having trouble adding the table of contents to Dark Mural, the first Nicole Tang Noon mystery, which I will publish on Amazon in September.
I finally found a simple way to do it after trying several other simple ways that didn't work. So Dark Mural will have a table of contents, just in case you feel the need.
Having uploaded my manuscript to Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon), I used the preview feature to see how it will look as an ebook. I found a few spacing and formatting problems, and I learned there's more to it than that.
For instance, these two paragraphs look like normal bits of narration in my manuscript, but, on an ebook reader, they look like brick walls. The monotony of the page might make a reader think my story was tedious. These two paragraphs will become four.
This is not the way writers are trained to think. According to my ever-handy copy of The Elements of Style, "The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached."
However, in the world of independent publishing, the writer becomes a book designer and learns visual composition has a logic all its own. While consciously reading the words, the reader subconsciously follows the shape of the text.
Book designers have done this for centuries, making decisions about margins, line-spacing, indentation, typeface, and other things, all to make the appearance of the page support the intent of the prose.
New printing press . . . new rules.
Reading Robert Polito's biography of Jim Thompson reminded me of just how revolutionary paperback originals were in the 1950s. At first scorned as an outlet for inferior writing, and later accused of de-stabilizing the publishing industry, paperback originals actually created a market that hadn't existed and connected readers and writers in new ways, just as ebooks have done in the last ten years.
I became aware of paperback originals last April, thanks to an article by Bill Crider. He points out that some well-known crime writers such as Lawrence Block and John D. MacDonald, got their start in paperback originals, and he appends "A Reader's Checklist" of less-known authors who compare favorably to them.
Since he was writing in 1971, Crider recommended searching used-book stores for original copies of these mystery novels. Today those copies would be available only from specialty dealers such as Kayo Books.
Checking my libraries (The Mechanics Institute and The San Francisco Public) I discovered new copies of these novels from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Stark House Press has been publishing re-issues of paperback originals for several years now. They offer books by every author on Crider's list and many more.
As I prepare to publish the first of my murder mysteries in the fall, I have to wonder: will readers be attracted to a book about a woman who solves crimes if it's written by a man?
Lots of writers use initials for lots of reasons, one of them being to de-emphasize the sex of the author. For instance, G. M. Malliett, a woman, writes a series about Max Tudor, a man. E. J. Copperman, a man, writes three series in which the sleuth is a woman.
To get a sense of what's going on in the marketplace for the kind of book I write, I went to the website for Malice Domestic, a conference for fans and writers, devoted to the "traditional mystery," a form typified by the novels of Agatha Christie. By making a list I found that about equal numbers of women and men use initials instead of a first name. Some of their sleuths are the opposite sex, some are the same. So there does not appear to be a standard practice for this.
My sleuth is an art historian named Nicole Tang Noonan. Will potential readers be less attracted to a series of books about her if they are written by "Rick Homan?" Would a reader be more likely to give them a try if they are by "R. L. Homan?"
Michael Connelly's latest book runs over 100,000 words by my estimate. Agatha Christie's novels typically run less than 70,000 words. So the present-day bestseller is half again as long as the bestseller of the early twentieth century.
Lawrence Block, recalling the beginning of his career writing paperback originals in the 1950s, says he learned that 60,000 words is a standard length for a novel. Today some publishers of mysteries require at least 80,000 words from a first-time author.
Why? Do mystery readers have more leisure to read longer books? That seems unlikely. Are stories more complicated, requiring more pages to work through all the twists and turns of the plot? Probably not.
Here's a clue: Connelly's latest is really two novellas and a short story (labelled "Part I," "Part II," and "Part III") packaged as one big book and called a "novel."
Some speculate that the traditional publishing industry needs to charge $30 for a hardback in order to pay all the costs of bringing the book to market, and that readers are willing to pay that much if they get a lot of pages for their money.
If so, Ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks may be the best vehicle for the traditional mystery novel of 60,000 to 70,000 words because the costs of production and distribution are so much less. The ebook can sell for around $2.99, and the paperback for $10 to $12. The revenue to the writer can be more than with a hardback from a traditional publisher.
"The paperback original as we know it was born in 1950," says Bill Crider in his excellent article from The Mystery Readers Newsletter in 1971. That's when Fawcett began publishing its Gold Medal Books, paperback editions of new novels. Up until then, paperbacks were issued only for reprints of books previously available in hardcover.
Fawcett published its paperback originals through the 1950s and 1960s and other publishers imitated its success. Some of the great names in crime fiction learned their craft and launched their careers writing for this market, including John D. MacDonald, Donald E. Westlake, Jim Thompson, and Lawrence Block.
With this new concept, these publishers built a huge audience for what is now called genre fiction: mystery, western, science fiction, and romance. Fawcett guaranteed its authors a first printing of 200,000 copies. It's easy to see a parallel to today's ebook phenomenon: lots of people reading lots of books that otherwise would not have been written and published.
The reaction of the publishing industry to paperback originals also sounds familiar. Crider quotes an executive of Pocket Books, which published paperback reprints, as saying, paperback originals were, "mostly rejects, or substandard books." The traditional publishers also said writers couldn't make a decent income from paperback originals and couldn't sell their stories to Hollywood. These accusations were quickly disproven.
When the success of paperback originals became undeniable, an executive of Doubleday complained that this new format would, "undermine the whole structure of publishing." But soon those traditional publishers were offering their own line of paperback originals and announcing plans to publish new fiction in hardcover and paperback simultaneously, just as traditional publishers now do with ebooks.
Kayo Books, in the photo above, is San Francisco's book seller devoted to collectable vintage paperbacks.