A Good Mystery…

The final step of our review process is that I read every manuscript under consideration. The reason is simple – as the publisher, I am responsible for the quality of the books we bring to market. Because I make the final decisions on what we publish, I wanted to spend a few blogs talking about what I look for in submissions for various genres. This week we’ll discuss mysteries. Here are a few of the things I look for:

  • Start with the mystery. This advice actually brings two TV shows to mind: Columbo and Murder She Wrote. In the first, viewers are introduced to both the criminal and the crime in the beginning of the episode and watch the detective solve a crime where viewers already know “who-done-it.” In the second, the crime but not the identity of the criminal are revealed at the beginning, and viewers try to solve the crime along with the sleuth. The important point is that, in both cases, the story starts with the mystery. In my opinion, manuscripts that start with a large amount of back story and don’t introduce the mystery early will not get readers involved in trying to solve the mystery (or watching the sleuth as they solve the mystery) and draw readers in – which is essential for a mystery.
  • This one’s just right. You don’t want your plot to be too complex – readers who can’t solve the mystery along with your sleuth will not enjoy the manuscript. Similarly, if the book does not start by disclosing the identity of the bad guy and it’s too easy to figure out who the bad guy is, your readers will be wondering why your sleuth is so inept and why it’s taking them so long to solve a mystery that is so obvious. In my opinion what you want to strive for is your sleuth solving the crime right after your readers have been given enough information to solve the crime themselves, assuming the book does not start by disclosing the guilty party. If you start by disclosing the guilty party, you want your readers to be able to follow your sleuth without getting lost.
  • Make your sleuth interesting. In Don Westlake’s The Mercenaries, the sleuth is a gangster forced to solve the murder of a prostitute, who also happened to be the mistress of the police commissioner, in order to take the focus of the entire police force off the crime family. In Chris Rakunas’ The 8th Doll, Alex Guidry is a college professor brought in by a friend to help solve a crime. In our upcoming A Bother of Bodies, Amanda Capper makes the sleuth a former criminal whose past comes back to haunt her. Keeping your characters interesting will keep your readers interested.
  • Don’t kill the main character. This is not to say a book where the main character dies (such as our upcoming Dime Detective by Hal Schick, which has the detective “solving” his own murder, or Dragon’s Teeth by Suzanne Van Rooyen) will not be an entertaining read. Keep in mind, however, that once people find a character they like they are much more likely to continue to follow the exploits of that character. Featuring the same character in a number of books is the best way to build both your brand and your following.

This is not to say that a manuscript that does not fit this format will be rejected automatically. However, because I like mysteries that start with the crime, books that start differently will need to catch my attention in a different way.

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Series Killers…

I need to start this blog with a confession: I did not make it all the way to book fourteen of the Wheel of Time series. I believe I stopped at book eight. I wanted to share my views on series with authors so that authors will know what we will consider and, more importantly, what we won’t and why.

I want to start by mentioning a few series that I really like for comparison: Midnight at the Well of Souls, by Jack Chalker, was book one in the Saga of the Well World series. I’m also a fan of the Jack Reacher books by Lee Childs. Then there is our own Chris Rakunas, who is writing the Alex Guidry series of mysteries. These books all have one thing in common: Each book is a self-contained manuscript – you don’t need to wait for the second or third book in the series to know the full story. Compare that to The Wheel of Times series, which was fourteen books that spanned 23 years (1990 to 2013). Each book required you to have read the previous book in order to follow the plot. Writing books that require a reader to have read the previous manuscripts creates several issues:

  • Authors should not assume readers will read their books in order. The first Jack Reacher book I read was Persuader, which was book seven in the series. Because the book was written to be a separate story from the others, with back story lightly dispersed throughout the manuscript to fill in information I would need from previous books, I was able to enjoy the book even though I had not read the previous books in the series. The same is true for Chris’s Alex Guidry series; you can read The 8th Doll and Eye of Siam out of order and enjoy both manuscripts.
    I know some writers are saying it is much harder to write self-contained manuscripts for their genres than for mysteries. The Saga of the Well World series is an example of why this is not the case. Midnight at the Well of Souls is a self-contained book, with no plot arcs left unresolved at the end. However, because Nathan Brazil is left alone in his ship at the end, it leaves the door open for him (and other characters from the book) to have new adventures as part of the series. In fact, the Nathan Brazil character is not seen again until book four in the series.
  • Too much back story is required in books that rely on “cliff hangers” in the previous books. Each book in The Wheel of Time series had several cliff hangers – plot arcs left open at the end that required a reader to buy the next book to find out what happened. But because you can’t assume readers will buy your books in order, authors need to “fill in the blanks” in the current book with regards to what happened in the previous books. This usually results in the beginning of subsequent books in a series containing large amounts of back story, leaving the last chapters of the book for all of the actual action and throwing off the pacing.
  • Readers are left unsatisfied if a book ends with too many “cliff hangers.” I know what most authors are thinking – having a book end with a cliff hanger will make readers want to purchase the next book. However, if authors leave too many open plot arcs at the end of a novel, forcing readers to buy the next book to find out what happens will in fact turn off some readers. Most people like the stories they read to have the beginning and ending in the same book. In the case of The Wheel of Time, readers had to wait 23 years to find out what happened, and your average reader does not have a 23 year attention span.

In short, I’m not looking to publish the next 14 book epic in any genre. As I review submissions, I’m finding many of the authors who submit manuscripts are writing them as part of a series. This is actually a good idea, because once a reader becomes invested in a character they will continue to purchase books about that character. I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t leave one or two unresolved plot arc in your book to entice readers to buy the next book – Journey Through Travelers’ Tower by Hope Gillette and Guardian’s Nightmare by Darren Simon both have one plot twist at the end that is a perfect setup for the next book in the series. But authors need to keep in mind that, if readers need to wait too long to find out what happens to a character, they will lose interest as their attention moves on to other characters whose exploits are easier to follow.

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What We Look For…

In my last blog I talked about the journey your manuscript takes as it moves through our review process. Just like the characters in your manuscripts, your submission will face several hurdles and challenges as it moves through the review process. I touched on one of those hurdles last week – the decision on whether to forward a manuscript to a reviewer is often based solely on the query letter, and the sample chapters are usually not read until the manuscript is assigned to a reviewer. Thus, a strong query letter that clearly describes your work and why a publisher should be interested in considering it is essential. In this blog I want to focus on some of the questions we ask as we consider your manuscript for publication.

Is the manuscript original? A BISAC code is what tells a bookstore whether a book is a fantasy, a mystery, or something else. I’m sure there isn’t a BISAC code for this genre, but we are currently working on the edits for a Christian young adult novel. Why would we take the chance on a book whose genre can’t easily be described using a BISAC code? For the same reason we are taking a chance on a book about a young girl becoming a Spitfire pilot during World War II – they are both well-written manuscripts that are unique. This is not to say you should come up with some crazy genre for your manuscript to make it sound unique if it doesn’t accurately describe the work – if the Acquisitions Editor can’t tell what the manuscript is about from the genre you include in your query letter, it is likely that the manuscript will never see a reviewer. What this is saying is I’m more willing to take a chance on a manuscript that is unique than on one with a plot line I’ve seen a dozen times before. This is also not to say I don’t enjoy a good vampire book (we will be publishing one this fall). What it does say is the vampire had better not sparkle.

Is the word count in line with the genre? I’ve written two blogs on word count in the past (A Word on Word Count and Biblical Word Counts) that you can refer to for specifics about our guidelines, but my advice here is simple. We are much more likely to consider an 80,000 word manuscript from an unpublished author than a 150,000 word manuscript. Also, authors should keep the genre of their manuscript in mind when writing, as the genre often dictates what a reader expects in terms of length.

Is the dialog interesting? I’ve written a blog in the past about dialog. In short, several pages of dialog with no character actions (what are your characters doing while they are speaking) are very two-dimensional and uninteresting. When dialog is broken up with actions it is easier to follow who is speaking.

Is the story realistic? Even for Sci-Fi and Fantasy, your story needs to have a level of realism – unless there is a good reason for it, 400 years after a war you should not still be scavenging for food and water.

Is there a social message? I’ve previously blogged that we set a pretty high bar for publishing memoirs, but we have published them in the past. In Tears for the Mountain Chris Rakunas recounts his trip to Haiti to deliver medical supplies after the earthquake. A book currently under contract by Sharia Mayfield examines whether mass surveillance and the use of material witness warrants to force suspects to testify in front of grand juries are a violation of our fourth and fifth Amendment rights, and tells the story of a man who had these new tools in the “War on Terror” used against him after a botched fingerprint match resulted in him being accused of a horrible crime. In short, a manuscript with an important social message will always catch my attention.

Does the beginning of the manuscript make a reader want more? For the manuscripts we reject, the most common criticisms I get from reviewers are that the sample chapters either just didn’t make them want to read more, or they left the reviewer wondering what the book was about. In most of those cases, the issue was too much back story in the beginning of the manuscript. In an age when a person can download the first 10-20% of your manuscript for free as a sample before they purchase it, a book where the beginning doesn’t completely grab a reader’s attention and make them want more is not going to sell, no matter how much the vampire sparkles.

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Your Manuscript’s Journey…

In my last blog I mentioned a book by Tony Russo that, although several editors the author had pitched the manuscript to did not consider the manuscript to have “shelf appeal,” I really liked. You’ll be happy to know we have gone to contract on “Call of the Kestrel” and are looking at Tony’s other works.

This does raise an interesting question. If we’re not necessarily looking for books that editors from the major publishers would consider to have “shelf appeal” or books that fit a predefined format for a genre, what are we looking for? To answer this question, I want to give you a glimpse into the journey your manuscript takes after you submit it to Divertir Publishing. This week I will talk about our review process in general. In the upcoming weeks I will talk about specific things we look for. I hope that, by understanding the decisions we make at each point in the process, author will have a better feel for what we will publish and how to navigate the process successfully.

Initial queries are reviewed by our Acquisitions Editor Jen Corkill. Jen usually makes the decision whether a query will be forwarded to one of our reviewers or rejected based solely on the query letter (she will almost never read the sample chapters), so a strong query letter that clearly describes the manuscript is essential. It is also important that an author clearly identify the genre of the work in the query letter – telling us your young adult romance novel is a mystery could result in it being sent to a reviewer that does not like young adult romance, and your work may get a bad review for all the wrong reasons.

Who are our reviewers? They are people we’ve identified who are not only avid readers but who can articulate the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript. In short they are your target audience, and we take their opinions very seriously. The reviewer will make the decision whether we request a full manuscript or reject a query based on the synopsis and sample chapters. While I will talk about this more in my next blog, the best way to ensure that your full manuscript is requested is a strong opening without a lot of back story. Interestingly, I can usually tell the manuscripts that will make it to the final review stage at this point; if the reviewer behaves like a child in the back seat on a long road trip when asking about your full manuscript (“Is it here yet, is it here yet?”), then I can usually predict how the review of the full manuscript will turn out.

When we request the full manuscript it will always go back to the person who did the initial review if they are available. The reason is we want to see if the same excitement about your work exists the second time the reviewer reads it. For full manuscripts we ask our reviewers to write a brief critique (which we are happy to send to authors if requested), which is then discussed during a weekly meeting where we decide as a group which manuscripts will move forward.

The final step of our review process is that I read every manuscript under consideration. The reason for this is simple – as the publisher, I am responsible for the quality of the books we bring to market. If I disagree with a reviewer on a manuscript it will also be read by Jen. I admit there are some books that don’t grab me (I wanted everyone to die by book eight of the Wheel of Time series), and in those instances it’s best to get another opinion. If we decide a book should go to contract, I will always set up a time to talk with an author before sending the contract. Being published by a small press is not the same as being published by Random House, and I think it’s important I personally explain what an author should expect before I send a contract.

Because I make the final decisions on what we publish, I want to spend my next few blogs talking about what I look for in submissions. The next blog will focus on what I look for in general, while several blogs after that will focus on specific genres. But the short answer to this question is simple and something I stated last week – I want to be the publisher who discovers the next format that has “shelf appeal” and not one who only publishes books that stick to the current formats. A well-written manuscript that is unique will almost always end it’s journey with me setting up a time to talk with the author.

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A Matter of Taste…

Recently author Tony Russo posted a blog about a manuscript he has submitted to Divertir Publishing for review. He had attended a “pitch workshop” for writers where he presented the pitch for his manuscript Vanquish to a panel of New York editors. The editors basically told him that a young adult alternate history novel about a young girl becoming a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain had no “shelf appeal” and that he should completely rewrite the book. The reason? None of the things in his book (like the fact it was set during World War II) would appeal to teen girls, who are the primary readers for this genre. To quote his blog:

So girls and vampires, yes; girl who shoots a bow and arrow in a dystopian future, yep; but a girl flying a Spitfire == no.

After working with the editors on what was “wrong” with his book, the pitch he finally presented was for a very different manuscript than Vanquish. I only have one issue with the advice from the editors who helped Tony rewrite his pitch:

I like the book the way it is.

The plot is very clever, and while I did not like one of the subplots and think the ending needs work, I think overall it’s a well-written manuscript. It could very well be that I’m nothing more than a “Tool of the Publishing Elite” who has no understanding of what gives a book “shelf appeal.” More likely, it’s a matter of taste. I’m not looking to publish the next Twilight – I’m looking for manuscripts that are different than what mainstream publishing has decided is the “format” that works for a particular genre. In short, I want to be the publisher who discovers the next format that has “shelf appeal” and not one who publishes books that stick to the current formats.

This is not to suggest that authors should not think about the “shelf appeal” of their manuscript – a 250 page novel written in Haiku is probably not going to be picked up by any publisher, no matter how clever an idea that might be. Readers of different genres expect certain things in the books they read, and to ignore this is to guarantee that your writing will never develop a readership. But the fact that your manuscript does not fit the “format” for a genre does not mean it’s not a good idea for a book. It just means you might need to work harder to show publishers why it is…

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The Taxman Cometh…

No, this is not a blog about the fact that I am going to spend this weekend finishing royalty statements and doing my 2013 income taxes. Rather, it is a blog about another annoying set of forms I apparently now need to fill out – applications for state reseller identifications.

I live in a state (New Hampshire) that does not have an income or sales tax, but many of you live in states that have both (and I do feel for you). I found out last week that for me to ship you books (even complimentary author or review copies), my printer is now going to charge me sales tax based on the state you live in. Their reason? Because the states are coming to them and demanding that they charge sales tax on any books they ship that are not for resale. Further, most states will only consider a shipment not for resale if the publisher has a reseller’s permit on file with them. Last time I checked there were 45 states that have a sales tax, so I am not looking forward to all the applications.

I contacted my printer and informed them that none of the books I ship are the result of retail sales – they are either copies authors have ordered to give away or for signings (in the second case they would in fact be for resale), or they are complimentary copies of the book. Thus, none of them are subject to sales tax. It would actually be as easy as the printer adding a checkbox on the order form saying “complimentary copies” and not collecting sales tax on those orders. I was informed that, in order to make things easier for the printer, they have adopted a “one-size-fits-all” approach to this problem. Thus, unless I file paperwork with all of the states requiring reseller IDs and then file those IDs with the printer, I will be charged sales tax even on the free books I ship.

I know the states are claiming that they are just doing this to “level the playing field” so that stores can compete with online retailers. However, when you consider shipping, online purchases are often just as expensive as in-store purchases, even with the sales tax. The truth is this is all about state revenues – when you are a government it’s always easier to find new sources of income than to control your spending.

While I could have books shipped to my home and then reship them (avoiding the sales tax that way), I would now be incurring twice the shipping costs for each order. Thus, I really only have three options. The first is to pay the tax. The second is to file paperwork with every state that has a sales tax affirming that nothing I ship to their state is subject to sales tax. The third is to find a new printer that is not implementing a one-size-fits-all approach to this problem.

I suspect most people who have known me for a while can guess which option I am looking into…

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Size Does Matter…

About 13 years ago, when we bought our current home, my wife and I decided it was time for a big screen TV. Off we went in search of the perfect home theater system. People who are old like me will recall that 13 years ago rear-projection TVs (there were no LCDs back then) cost several thousand dollars. In fact, the difference in price between the 55 and 60 inch units was over $500. While I was in the middle of making the argument for saving $500 and asking if we really needed the extra 5 inches of viewing space, my wife suddenly turned to me and yelled loud enough for everyone in the store to hear “Contrary to what you men believe, size does matter!”

For the record, back then they also did not make washing machines large enough for a human being to hide in.

So what does this have to do with publishing? The answer is that a few weeks ago we received a manuscript that was approximately 12,000 words long about coping with fibromyalgia. The author explained that the reason for the short length of the manuscript was that people with these types of diseases don’t want to read long books looking for help – they want quick answers. While I can appreciate why a book of this length would be perfect for the target audience, some of the realities of publishing make it difficult to bring this book to market:

  • For books shorter than 108 pages we pay a fixed price for each copy which is printed. That means we pay the same amount to print a 50 page book as we do for a 100 page book. The issue is that we can’t charge the same price for a 50 page book as for a larger book, so the profit margin on a 12,000 word book (which is about 50 pages) is too low to cover the cost of editing, cover design, typesetting, and press fees (which are what we are charged by our printer to review the digital images of a book for printing).
  • The obvious question is why not come out with the book as just an eBook? The answer is there are two ways one can publish an eBook. The first is to do a quick spelling and grammar check, find a single stock photo for the cover, and upload the Word document and cover for conversion to an eBook format by the vendor who will sell the book (for example, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Smashwords). While this is a quick and inexpensive way to publish a book, it often does not result in a quality product – there is only so much spelling and grammar checks catch, and the programs that automatically covert Word documents to eBooks can sometimes result in poor formatting. To ensure a quality product requires the same level of editing, consideration for the cover design, and “typesetting” (in this case creating the HTML files that will be converted into an eBook) as coming out with a paperback. In truth the only thing we would save by coming out with eBook-only versions of our titles would be the press fees the printer charges. Given that we also could not charge much for an eBook of this length, again we would probably not cover our publication costs.

In the past I’ve spoken about why we rarely publish books over 100,000 words, both because of the associated costs and what readers expect. In the case of manuscripts below 45,000 words, the reason we don’t publish them really come down to cost – the cost required to produce a quality book of this length would probably not be recovered due to the low retail price a book of this length would require. In instances like this, my recommendation is often that authors find a reputable editor (more on this in a future blog) and self-publish the manuscript.

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