Saturday, December 25, 2004

A Christmas Greeting

Just a note to thank all the kind, intelligent people who are making this blog what I consider to be a success. Last week this blog was getting between 50 to 60 hits a day. This week it has been over 100 hits a day. A very nice Christmas present. Without the people who drop in here to read my ramblings, this place wouldn't exist. Thanks, everyone.

Tomorrow, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy

The day is upon us. May everyone have a merry time the next week. I'll still be around, posting here and there, so if you're taking the next week off away from the computer, boy, will you have a lot of catching up to do!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

The Short Story Market UK -- Part 1

The people who put this marketing report together interviewed writers, editors, publishers, agents, booksellers and readers. The sample seems to be a little light to me: 19 authors, 102 readers, 6 agents, 12 editors (half from mainstream publishers, the other half from independent and small presses), 7 booksellers (one marketing manager for a chain, 2 managers for large retail chains, and 3 independent booksellers). Because of the small sample I'm not sure how valid the conclusions drawn are, but it at least represents more information than we had.

One of the first things that struck me reading this report is how different the UK market is from the US market for short stories. In the UK it seems that the primary outlets for short fiction are collections (single author) and anthologies (multiple authors). They apparently have almost no magazines publishing short stories. Like the US, with a very few exceptions, the book length works don't sell very well.

Frederick Forsyth's The Veteran sold just over 116,000 copies and was #1 for 2002. Catherine Cookson's The Simple Soul and Other Stories was #2 and sold over 48,000 copies. Both of those were paperbacks. Stephen King's Everything's Eventual was #5 and sold 34,000 copies in hardback. That was the only hardback in the top 20. Ian Rankin's A Good Hanging and Other Stories was #12 at 13,500 copies and was the last one to sell in five figures. The figures drop below 5,000 with Edgar Allen Poe's Selected Tales at #26. They drop below 3,000 at #54, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth Stories. They drop below 2,000 at #70, Annie Proulx's Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Number 100 on the list for 2002 sold 1,434 copies.

I don't know how this compares with US figures for book-length works, but I suspect it's not very different.

One of the most interesting conclusions drawn from this study was the impression that marketing short stories for their brevity (fitting into a busy lifestyle) might not be the most effective way. The readers they interviewed said that they wanted the stories they read to be "provocative, meaty, and satisfying." Short stories are, by their very nature, brief, so marketing them on that basis is rather like "All hail, King of the Obvious." They felt that it was better to market on the basis of the depth of the characterization, the meatiness of the plot, etc.

Another interesting tidbit was that most readers felt that short stories were harder to read than novels. The authors of the study believe that this attitude might just be the fault of the educational system. Think back to your literature classes, both in high school and college. While doing this, think not on your own experiences, but on those of the others, the jocks, the popular crowd, the science geeks. How did they react to reading the short stories and answering the interminable and annoyingly vague questions at the end? Personally, I think this conclusion might have some weight.

This entry is starting to run a little long. Since I don't particularly like reading long-form posts, I'm going to cut this off here. There is still a lot to cover, and I'll do that in future posts. But I'll leave you with one other little tidbit: only 4 of the 102 readers interviewed thought it was easier to dip in and out of a book of short stories than a novel; a full 1/3 of the readers through it was harder. The other 2/3 said it didn't matter, novel or anthology. Kind of shoots the old "brevity to fit into a busy lifestyle" argument in the foot, doesn't it?

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Update

I'm currently reading that 60-page marketing report on the state of the short story in the UK. I will post about it tomorrow including some thoughts on whether it translates to this side of the Pond.

The Essentials

"The Essentials" by John Randolph, SDO Detective, October 31, 2004

This is one type of story that I've always liked to read but don't see many of anymore. It's as much an adventure story as a crime story. You've got a tramp freighter (though you never actually see it), an exotic locale, beautiful women, tough men and danger abounding. God, I love this stuff!

This story follows a young man with more guts than brains who tries to help a friend out of a hole. It's also a little bit about growing up.

Mr. Randolph writes pretty well, though I did have problems with the following sentence: "What do you have to do with him?" A non-native English speaker utters this stellar bit of clumsiness, which is hard enough for me to say. I wouldn't have thought she would know enough English to be able to mangle a sentence this way.

A failure of research resulted in my next quibble. The author makes reference to a shipment of Armalite rifles being shipped to the Air Police at Clark Air Base north of Manila. First, if the rifles were going to the APs they would have been M-16s. The Armalite Corporation manufactured the civilian semi-automatic version of the M-16 many years ago. I don't keep up with the arms industry the way I used to, but I think Armalite went out of business or was absorbed a long time ago, probably before this story takes place.

The only other thing I noticed was a structural weakness. After the main character, Hank Evans, helps his friend, Marc, out of a beating in progress, Marc proceeds to spill his guts to Hank about his rather illegal activities. Now Marc is the supercargo for a large shipping line. This is a fairly exalted position. He coordinates loading and unloading ships to shorten the stay in port. Why would this guy spill his guts to a 20-year-old third mate from a tramp steamer who might go back and squeal on him? Mr. Randolph should have spent a little more time establishing the relationship between the two men before this scene.

And the twist at the end is a nice touch, though it felt the slightest bit forced. Fortunately, none of this is fatal to the story.

In short, it's a good read, and I'd like to see more of Mr. Randolph.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Naughty

"Naughty" by Steve Hockensmith, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2005

"If you think about it, Santa Claus is a little like Dirty Harry. He's a vigilante."

With an opening like that, how could you NOT read the entire story? I'm of the opinion that the first couple of sentences in a short story, the first chapter of a book, the first ten minutes of a movie are the most important sentences, chapter, minutes in the work. You have to catch the interest of the person reading the story quickly (especially these days) or they move on to something else.

If a writer can nail that first sentence, he's usually got the chops to make the rest of the story work, and Steve did a terrific job with that as well. The characters are a little over the top, but not excessively so. In a humorous story over-the-top characters are required.

The basic plot is completely believable. A frustrated young woman feels that being good isn't getting her anywhere and decides to be naughty for a change. This attitude gets her into a situation of her own making (an important point) that makes her think that being naughty isn't all it's cracked up to be. The way she extracts herself really makes the story. The fact that the main character is a down-on-her-luck former child of privilege serves as the perfect setup for the ending set in the ritzy neighborhood where she grew up. Steve does exaggerate some aspects a little bit, but that is part of what makes humor work.

The nice thing about Steve is that I never know where he's going until he gets there. I had no idea how the main character was going to get out of the fix she was in. I loved the ending.

In short, read the story and have fun.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Promoting Short Fiction, Part 2

There's been some discussion of this topic on the Short Mystery Fiction Society list, but the bulk of it seems to be missing the point. It's not about getting magazines on the shelves of bookstores or even about subscribing to the magazines that do carry short fiction.

What it's about is convincing people who do not now read short fiction, for whatever reason, to begin doing so. You cannot increase the readership of short fiction without increasing the number of people who read short fiction. Editors have to see that the people who read their magazine want short fiction before they will publish it, and wishing won't make it so.

It's about getting out of the traditional publishing rut and attracting the attention of a person with something they like. That's a person, not a reader or a customer or a set of eyeballs, a PERSON who does not now read short fiction. We will not do that by continuing to do the same old thing.

I'm about to gore a couple of sacred cows here, so hold onto your hats.

Maybe part of the problem is the names of the two powerhouses in mystery fiction themselves: Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen. At the time these magazines put out their first issues the names of Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen WERE the cutting edge of mystery fiction. Now, how many of the people under 30 even know who Ellery Queen was? How many can remember the TV shows? Or the radio shows? Today, to the Great Unwashed, those names convey nothing, with the possible exception of a connection to old movies.

I'll bet that if you stopped a bunch of 20- and 30-somethings on the street and asked them what the names Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen conveyed to them, high on the list of responses would be the words "old" and "stuffy". The fact that these magazines publish stuff that is neither old nor stuffy has nothing to do with it. It's all perception.

Take a look at our science fiction brethren. Analog has been around for longer than either AHMM or EQMM, and it has had three (I think) names. Asimov's is a new kid on the block having only been around 27 years, and Fantasy and Science Fiction says what it is without any confusing ancient personalities leading off.

Are their readerships any larger than AHMM and EQMM? Don't know. But I do know this: their readerships AREN'T BIG ENOUGH.

Now, am I advocating a name change for AHMM and EQMM? Not necessarily. But something has to be done that they aren't doing. And aren't likely to do. They are the Old Guard (bless 'em, and long may they prosper). A new demand for short fiction will not come from them; they will, however, benefit from it. The new demand will come from the new media: the iPods, the Audibles, the blogs, the ezines and probably something nobody's thought of yet.

What we have to do is increase visibility and access.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Nice Tie

"Nice Tie" by Candace Wiggins, Hardluck Stories, Fall 2004

This story has nothing of a criminous nature in the first 90% of the tale, but the writing is so good you don't care. The interaction between Trace and Kate is terrific. There is a true attraction between the two that keeps things going.

I haven't hung around the art scene much, but I have hung around a lot of architects who are, by nature, artsy. The showing and the after-showing party seemed completely authentic to me.

I'm not sure how she did it, but Ms. Wiggins had me convinced from the first page that something important was going to happen. I wasn't sure what it was, but I was determined to find out.

When it happens, it happens off stage. And, unusually for me, I didn't care. In fact, it's probably better than it happened out of the reader's sight. I believe the attractiveness and the likeability of the main characters would have suffered had we been baldly presented with the ultimate act.

Now someone who has read the story will have to leave a comment telling me whether I was completely blind in not noticing one important fact about the couple of Kate and Trace before they begin to explain the significance of the phrase "nice tie". I swear I had no clue.

There was a hint in Ms. Wiggins' bio that Trace and Kate might make a return appearance. I'm already looking forward to that.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Promoting Short Fiction

Since I began blogging I have become interested in the phenomenon of blogging itself. As a result I read way too many blogs, especially those about blogging and marketing. This morning I read a posting on Scobleizer, a blog written by Robert Scoble, a Microsoft employee, that kicks Microsoft's ass for the piss-poor marketing campaign they have for Microsoft's Portable Media. The iPod is trouncing them.

So, you ask, what does a rant about marketing portable music and players have to do with short fiction? I'll tell you. Everything Scoble says can be applied to short fiction just as easily as music. He makes two very important statements.

"Listen, music is all about CULTURE!"

"For those of you who want to sell like the iPod: start to think about how to create a cultural movement."

The American Heritage Dictionary defines culture this way:

cul·ture n. 1.a. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. b. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population. 2. Intellectual and artistic activity, and the works produced by it. [Emphasis mine]

Fiction is no less culture than music. For crying out loud, look at science fiction fandom. If that's not culture, what is? Scoble went on to say:

"I learned that if you get three people who a lot of people want to have dinner with that you'll have a large interesting group. So, I'd start by getting three musicians who everyone knows and respects and build a marketing campaign around them."

Getting three celebrity writers might not work too well. I mean we're trying to attract people who don't already read extensively. Preaching to the choir is not good marketing. Could we, the writers and readers of short fiction, convince people like the Mystery Writers of America, the Science Fiction Writers Association, the Dell Magazine Group and others to go out and find three movie stars, TV stars, musicians that like to read short fiction, or even LISTEN to short fiction [more on this later] and finance at least a modest advertizing campaign. God knows it's in their best interests as much as it is ours as writers and readers.

And what about the iPod and its ilk? What is stopping us, the writers, from recording our short stories and putting them up for sale on iTunes? Granted, it's not quite that simple, but it isn't that complicated either. There's also
Audible. Their business has increased by leaps and bounds every year since they got into business. They have an awful lot of collections and anthologies for sale over there. Might not they be open to selling recordings of individual short stories? What would it take to find out? And then there's Fictionwise, the ebook seller. They're starting to sell an increasing number of their books as MP3 files. They already sell a lot of individual short stories as ebooks. What would it take to get them to sell MP3 files of individual short stories? [Guy Belleranti, are you listening?]

And what about some grassroots effort on the Internet? At this point I don't know what that might be, but I'm going to be thinking about it. Aldo Calcagno over at Mystery Dawg prints out short stories he likes from the web and leaves them at hotel pools, meeting rooms, restaurants, and other places for people to pick up and read. I mean, damn, people! We're creative. Let's create!

The opportunities are out there. All we have to do is find them or make them.

Seductive Barry

"Seductive Barry" by Ray Banks, Shred of Evidence, November 2004

This is a nasty little tale of revenge - even nastier than I first thought.

I read the story. The woman scorned. The hired muscle. The bait in the trap. It read easily. Like all of Mr. Banks’ stories the atmosphere and setting felt completely authentic. I got to the end. The victim died a horrible death. OK. I liked it.

Then my wife called me to dinner. Right in the middle of cutting a piece of pork chop - BAM! Right between the eyes with a 2x4. I was wrong. That one didn't do it, the other one did! Then, eeew. Then wow, how acrobatic! How did I miss that?

It was subtle. It was. Really.

OK, OK. The only excuse I have is the weather. It's cold today. I must have had my head up my ass for the warmth. But I wouldn't have changed a thing. In spite of feeling like a doofus, the ending, the real ending, was a real rush.

Thanks again, Mr. Banks. A lovely little story.

[I apologize for not having the direct link to the story, but for some reason I can't get to Shred this morning. I'll correct that as soon as I can.]