Monday, February 15, 2010

Dick Francis, R.I.P.

Not even a month after the death of Robert B. Parker, the world of crime fiction loses another giant with the death Sunday of Dick Francis. The retired jockey, who turned to writing thrillers in his middle thirties, produced a steady stream of books over the next forty-plus years that never failed to entertain.

Most of the books were set in the world of British horse racing that Francis knew and obviously loved so well. Though he only rarely featured the same protagonist from one book to another, virtually all of his heroes shared the same characteristics. Typically they were in their mid-to-late thirties, as Francis was when injuries forced his retirement from racing. Often, like their creator, they were in the midst of some career change that had been forced upon them. They were quiet, modest, but extremely clever and capable men; almost always they were single, and inevitably the right women found them attractive and compelling.

Lurking in the background, and usually exposed only near the end of the book, was a deliciously malevolent villain, pulling strings from behind the curtain in pursuit of some grand scheme that often threatened to inflict gruesome damage on any number of victims and upon the world of horse racing as a whole.

In the end, of course, Francis's hero always exposed and thwarted the evildoer, albeit usually at great personal cost. While Francis's sex scenes were always fairly tame, he wrote great scenes of gut-wrenching violence that could give a reader nightmares for weeks after.

Best of all, Francis's work has stood the test of time, unlike the work of some other writers of his generation that already seems dated and uninteresting. Even now, nearly fifty years after its initial publication, one can pick up his first novel,DEAD CERT, or any of the many that followed and it will seem as fresh and new as it did on the weekend that you first read it.

Dick Francis leaves behind a body of work that will entertain readers for years to come. He will be sorely missed.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Joining the Game

Since creating this blog in August, I’ve been caught up in all of the activities essential to the launch of my new book, No Place To Die, while at the same time working on the book that will follow. (Perhaps) needless to say, this has left me no time at all to attend to this blog.

Happily, the release date for NPTD for is set for July 27, and my website is now live at I am still caught up in the effort to prepare for marketing the book, and, of course, I still need to be working on the next one, which is tentatively titled, Until Death. That said, I now feel like I have a little more breathing room, and I hope that I will now have time to blog, at least occasionally.

This is, I think, a very interesting time in which to be appearing with a debut novel. The state of the general economy is obviously not good, and in consequence one worries that potential readers who, in better times, might have been willing to gamble on a new author, will now stick to buying the books of better-known writers or, even worse, might stop buying any books at all.

Additionally, the publishing industry is in a fair amount of turmoil, battered by the recession and roiled by the growing competition between the smaller independent booksellers and the larger chains, between these more traditional bookstores and the giant discounters like Costco and Wal-Mart, and between “brick and mortar” bookstores and the online retailers led by

Beyond that, of course, publishers who have, since the days of Johannes Gutenberg, built an industry based on paper and ink and on a business model that has been essentially unchanged for years, are now confronted with an entirely new paradigm in a digital world of Kindles and iPads.

How book publishing will work in this brave new world is very much in question. Certainly no one expects that the traditional book will disappear anytime soon. Still, it is also apparent that growing numbers of readers are migrating to e-books, for at least some of their reading, and one can only assume that this trend will continue, especially as more e-readers come to the market and as the price for these devices falls.

But while the technology for delivering e-books is evolving almost at warp speed, the business model for their sale and distribution is still very much up in the air, and a number of issues are being debated heatedly out here in the blogosphere and elsewhere.

For example, should e-books be released simultaneously with the first edition of the printed book, or should their release be delayed, and if so, for how long?

How should e-books be priced when the cost of producing and distributing them is virtually nothing compared to the cost of printing and distributing a traditional book?

Are readers paying principally for the content of the book (which would suggest that the price for an e-book should not be that much different than that of a printed book), or are they paying for the physical object that constitutes the book (which would suggest that the price of an e-book might be significantly less than that of a printed book)?

Who will set the price of e-books, the publishers or the retailers?

As demonstrated by last week’s brawl between Macmillan and, opinions are strongly held on all sides of these questions, and I certainly would not pretend to have definitive answers to any of them. But I confess that I am concerned by those people who argue that even $9.99 is too much to pay for an e-book that consists of nothing more than a few lines of digital code that can be conveyed from the seller to the buyer for virtually nothing.

The problem with this argument, I think, is that it fails to acknowledge the fact that the price of a traditional book includes much more than just the cost of the paper, the ink and the diesel fuel required to truck the book from the printing plant to your local bookstore.

Long before the book even got to the publisher, a literary agent had to wade through perhaps several hundred query letters and submissions to discover the book in the first place. He or she then had to invest a considerable amount of time, energy and money, first working with the author to polish the book and then submitting it to publishers.

At the publishing company, someone had to review lord-knows how many manuscripts before selecting the book for publication, and in the wake of that decision, an editor had to work with the author to further refine the book and shepherd it through the publication process. The art department had to create and produce cover art that would make the book attractive to readers; the marketing department had to develop a strategy for selling the book; and the sales force had to get out and sell it. And all along the way, these people had to pay rent, salaries, utilities, insurance, and all the other costs necessary to keep their staffs employed and the lights on long enough to get the book out into the world.

Leaving aside the whole issue of what the author should be paid for conceiving the book in the first place, then spending perhaps a year of his or her life writing the book, only to suffer through the daunting and often discouraging process of trying to find an agent and a publisher, certainly the rest of the people involved in this process deserve to be fairly compensated for their efforts. And, certainly, the owners of and shareholders in these companies should be able to expect at least some minimal return on the money they’ve invested.

There are those who suggest that, in the new digital world, all of these “middle men” are now superfluous, and that we no longer need literary agents and traditional publishers standing as gatekeepers between authors and their potential audiences. The assumption is that anyone with a computer can now pound out a book, offer it for sale as an e-book for $1.99, or whatever other price he or she might choose, and thus launch a literary career.

Certainly this will happen, and indeed it is already happening. And I imagine that for some authors, being “published” in this fashion will be sufficiently rewarding, psychologically and perhaps even financially. But this trend will almost certainly result in waves of e-books coming into the market place. Some of these books may well be treasures that otherwise might never have found an audience. But I suspect that many more of them may not live up to that description, and as a reader, even more than a writer, I think it’s critically important that someone continues to sort through the “slush” pile to discover and produce books that are deserving of a wide audience. Agents and publishers have performed that function for a good many years, and for the most part, I think, they have done it very well.

Whether one prefers to read a book in a hardcover edition, a mass market paperback or on his or her e-reader, is ultimately of little consequence to the larger debate. Irrespective of the format, we all want to read great books that are well edited and attractively produced, and this almost certainly cannot be accomplished in an environment where the books are virtually given away (no pun intended).

Obviously, everyone involved—authors, agents, and publishers—will have to adapt to the realities of this new age, but I believe that all of them still have very important roles to play. And in spite of the daunting challenges presented by the current environment, I’m very happy to be joining the game.