A Cozy Arrangement

Murder, She Read, is a research report from Nielsen Book Research (a copy will set you back $1,500), on the book-buying preferences and habits of some 6000 nationally representative U.S. mystery/crime readers. The researchers defined “mystery/crime” as

a genre of fiction typically focused on the investigation of a crime. Mystery fiction is often used as a synonym for detective fiction or crime fiction—in other words, a novel or short story in which a detective (either professional or amateur) investigates and solves a crime mystery.

This is a more restrictive definition than most, but a lot of books fit it. Highlights of the study results:

  • cat reading

    (photo: raider of gin, creative commons license)

    Most “mystery” readers (70%) are female

  • The biggest age group of mystery readers (28%) comprises people 65 and older, with almost half of mystery readers 55 and older and
  • Many mystery readers are not actually buying their books; they’re getting them free.

The gender and age concentrations revealed come as no surprise. Month after month, I see lists of the mysteries agents and publishers are signing. Their decisions are creating and reinforcing this important audience, and its dominance is an effect of the choices they make.

I certainly don’t want to suggest there shouldn’t be books geared to the older female demographic, but mysteries that involve clever kitties, cutesy shops, knitting patterns, and recipes not only succeed in appealing to one specific group but also fail to develop new communities of interest.

Authors can—and do—write novels that appeal to both men and women. And many women readers devour books by Michael Connelly, Tana French, Ian Rankin, and Laura Lippman just as much as men do. However, a focus on novels with marketing appeal to only one segment of the population (and a low- or non-paying one at that) may prove counterproductive in the long run. I hope authors and publishers read the Nielsen findings as a call to reach out to tomorrow’s audiences—readers who will be as loyal and enthusiastic as the older woman audience is today.

What Color Is It?

color, green

Emerald, Pantone’s 2013 “color of the year” (ijokhio, flickr.com, CC license)

The role of color in the creative process is one of those backgroundy things that no one really thinks about, and writers, filmmakers, artists, and fashionistas either get so right that the decisions involved seem invisible or perhaps intuitive, or so distractingly wrong that we forget that, somewhere along the line, a choice was involved.

Smart use of color hasn’t escaped web designers, either (some, of course, are beyond redemption; I’m thinking of those black backgrounds with tiny red and yellow type that mystery sites seem to favor). Most interested in color are designers of commercial sites that want you to “convert,” not in the religious, but in the wallet-opening sense. Their advisors cite data suggesting color is “85% of the reason you purchased a specific product.” And isn’t that just about the first question you ask when a friend buys a new car?

So, you might want to pay attention to these designers’ approach. Though brown is great in some contexts, research says women like blue, purple, and green (yes!) and not gray, brown and orange. Men like blue, green, and black, but not brown, orange, or purple. No red for anybody.

People designing brochures and adverts and a new color scheme for the living room might find some new thoughts in this infographic on color theory from designmantic. It includes the basic “meanings” attributed to each color and how colors can be combined successfully, for those throw pillows and whatnot.

Next time you look at a web page you particularly like, take a sec to see whether it’s because the color is just that exactly right shade of trustworthy blue. Thank you, Facebook.

P.S. Pantone’s “color of the year” for 2015 is Marsala, which the color company calls an earthy wine red that “enriches our minds, bodies and souls.” Looks like brown to me.

color, brown

(Frank Daugaard, flickr.com, CC license)


Categories vs.Tags = Chapters vs. Index

tags, tea

(photo: wikimedia)

No doubt this blog would benefit from a better system of categories and tags (the words that appear at the bottom and let readers search for similar content). Here’s a guide from the Elegant Themes blog on how to make those improvements. My tags alternate between the too general (“book”) and the too specific (the name of a person I’ve written about once). Time for a clean-up.

If you’re a blogger, you may have been as mystified about the difference between categories and tags as I still am, and this post will help there, too. It asks you to think about your blog as a book, with your categories as chapter titles and your tags as the index—more detailed, in other words. That means it’s easier to change and add tags than it is categories, if you already have a lot of content. (Ideally, this should have been done two years ago, when I started, but there you have it. Perfection is elusive.)

The link provides a helpful list of do’s and don’ts, too. Many of which this blog violates. Faced with such a situation I always hear the immortal Jonathan Winters calling, “We’ve gotta get organized!”

Google Algorithms at Work


(photo: c1.staticflickr.com)

Everyone has noticed—and is from mildly to serious annoyed—that after we visit a website looking for garden tools, say, Google generates an avalanche of related ads. Last year I bought a scarf online and, for the next few months, my social media were draped in it. What gives? I already bought the darn thing! You’d think the system could distinguish between “Purchase completed” and “Still interested. Maybe? Nice, right? You like?”

Two RISD graduates—Jason Huff and Mimi Cabell—decided to test the limits of networked marketing by emailing to each other, page by page, Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 scorcher, American Psycho. You’ll recall the book is about Manhattan businessman and serial killer Patrick Bateman, and is notorious for its graphic sex and violence. What ads would Google’s hard-working algorithms find relevant to these emails? Huff and Cabell wanted to know. The interesting results revealed what the author’s say was “GMail’s unpredictable insensitivity to violence, racism, and sex.”

A page that included the murder of a man and a dog by a knife-wielding attacker did generate ads for knives and, in a grisly touch, knife sharpeners. And a page with a racial slur carried no ads at all. But the most common ad across 408 pages of mayhem? Crest Whitestrips. Maybe a “just keep smiling and all this will go away” message there.

You can get a pdf of the book they compiled from their results, which includes all 800+ ads as footnotes (minus the contribution by Bret Easton Ellis). Something he wrote that appeared on page 27 stimulated an ad for “folding chair parts.” I can’t imagine. And, on the very last page, a way to avoid “3 Awful Guitar Mistakes.” Probably not one of Bateman’s top-of-mind worries.

Writing in A Digital Age

book ereader Kindle

(photo: upload.wikimedia.org)

Last week in London, the Literary Consultancy held its third Writing in a Digital Age conference. Participants heard the usual hand-wringing over the issues of digital rights management, the decline in bookstores, especially independents, and the attention-sucks of our various digital tools and devices. Panelists discussed the irony that the gadgets developed to expand reading are the very same ones that can reduce it, if what we use them for is interrupting our reading time to play a game, send an email, scan Facebook, tweet a half-formed thought, watch a YouTube cat video, and check the current weather in Paris. One speaker called them digital Trojan horses.

And while these de rigueur arguments are familiar, echoing past concerns that television would be the end of radio, and video would be the end of movies, one statement by panelist Steve Bohme, who manages the Books and Consumers survey for Nielsen, sent a chill from my toes to the roots of my hair: “When everyone you know has a Kindle, why would you buy them a book?” No more buying (and receiving) books as presents? Oh, no!

Indie-Author Book Promotion Spending Lags


(photo: wikimedia.org)

A recent survey of a mix of self-published authors, reported by Dana Beth Weinberg, suggests the extent to which individual authors are outsourcing some of the tasks that in the good ol’ days, were done by their publisher. There’s a range of those tasks, and some authors do a few of them on their own, and some authors engage several people to accomplish the whole shebang. Recently, some formal book-publishing “teams” have been developed, and they can be expensive and low-performing (see the recent update on the class action lawsuit against Penguin-Random House’s company, “Author Solutions, Inc.,” a costly team service many authors complain under-performs.)

The 2014 survey was conducted by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest and received information from almost 2,200 self-published and hybrid (both self- and traditionally-published) authors about their most recent self-publishing experience. Just under half of these authors obtained outside help. Apparently believing you can judge a book by its cover, most often they hired a cover artist (35% percent); and 20-25% obtained help with formatting, print on demand, and copy editing. Amazingly, since book sales is the biggest problem for self-published authors, only 11% got help with marketing and promotion!

Only 112 of the 1,900 authors who reported their earnings (net or gross? article doesn’t say) made $10,000 or more from this recent book, and there is a definite trend line between spending more on services and higher earnings. However, most of the authors had a median expense of $0, and earned less than $1,000 on their book. Even among the highest-earning group, only 20 percent of authors spent on marketing and promotion. Something wrong here. And it may be in part that authors feel competent to look at a book cover and say whether they think it’s good or not, but not to assess a marketing campaign that isn’t working.

Personal Branding Pitfalls


(photo: farm7.static.flickr Derek Gavey)

Say you’re a Hollywood icon, but business has been a little slow. You need a new brand, an new image. Business cards! Italian designer Behancē has ideas for you! From Nemo’s Sushi Bar, to Rosemary’s Babysitting, they can repackage your celluloid skills into whole new career paths, suggests a Wired article by Angela Watercutter. (Her name itself could be a brand, in whole.)

Branding, like any other good idea taken to extremes, lends itself to parody, and no branch of it more so than the dubious activity of personal branding, with “people turning themselves into web superstars in their niches.” The pro-branding author of this hilarious web post provides personal branding stories for seven individuals. The post confirms that I’m out of the branding zeitgeist because, regrettably, I have never heard of any of them (have you??). Take, for example, Erika Napolitano, about whom the blogger says, “Anybody that refers to her followers as ‘bitches’ deserves my immediate respect.” It’s great to see Americans haven’t lost their ability to laugh at themselves. At least I hope that’s what’s going on.

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Girls Books, Boys Books?

girls books, boys boooks, Let Books Be Books, gender stereotyping
(photo: farm5.staticflickr.com)

Is “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” a girls’ book or a boys’ book? Is “Chicka-Chicka-Boom-Boom”? These are books for any child. But as children grow past the board-book stage, it doesn’t take long for gender stereotyping to creep in, with princesses and cupcakes for girls and superheroes (OK, a few not-so-interesting super-heroines, too) and robots for boys. Last I knew, boys liked cupcakes, too. Too bad the ones in books are always pink.

The UK grassroots (moms and dads) gender-neutral toy campaign, Let Toys Be Toys, has launched a “Let Books Be Books” effort to encourage publishers, booksellers, (and bookbuyers) to be reexamine their marketing practices and better reflect the diversity of kids interests, rather than channeling them into girl-boy stereotypes. It’s gaining support. I loved Nancy Drew until I read my first Hardy Boys adventure, and I never looked back. The “boys books” were just more fun!

The covers of the books on the Let Books Be Books web page tell the story. The boys’ covers feature adventure! Skills! (Submarines, kites, soccer, vikings, rocket ships); the girls’ books? Cupcakes, butterflies, flowers, balloons, jewelry. You’re nothing if not slathered in cutesy stuff. The message is clear: Boys DO. Girls look pretty. In 2014? (You can sign a petition here, if you care to).

“Artificial boundaries turn children away from their true preferences,” the LBBB website says. They narrow kids’ perspective on the world. A recent birthday party for a four-year-old girl provided cloying evidence that “Princesses Rule” in the constricted world of gifts for diminutive females. This tiny effort may be a dragonfly wing in the hurricane of gender-based marketing, but still worth taking a stand.

Working Both Sides of the Brain

 Saturday’s “business side of writing” workshop reiterated the familiar disheartening theme that today’s authors (especially new authors) cannot focus solely on their writing. They need to think like entrepreneurs. Extroverts make great entrepreneurs. Alas, most writers are introverts, people who love to sit alone at their computers and create worlds.

“I don’t want to do all that promotion stuff, and I don’t know how!” is the common reaction. It’s like telling a boy who loves baseball that to succeed he also needs to take up needlepoint.

One of the presenters, Bob Mayer, pointed out today’s writers must compete fiercely for discoverability. In recent years, the estimated number of books published (mostly self-published) in the United States is between 600,000 and 1,000,000 a year. It takes a lot of effort to have any book noticed. It’s one frozen drop in a Niagara of ice.

Only two hardcover fiction books have been on the current New York Times list of best-sellers for more than 16 weeks (alas, and my snobbery is showing, one is by Dan Brown, but the other is Gone Girl, a super read).  Eleven of the 15 have been on the list less than three months. Remember when books were on the best-seller list for a year or more? Those were the horse-and-buggy days of book marketing, as gone as the girl is.

Our second coach, the estimable Jen Talty, pointed out the flaw in writers’ tendency to hang out with other writers—people who don’t ask, “So when is your book coming out?” when they learn the first draft (of probably 15) is done. What she advised writers to do is to connect with readers. That takes work and as much creativity as goes into the novel itself. “My book is for everyone” isn’t a marketing strategy.

Talty and Mayer have their own publishing partners enterprise, Cool Gus Publishing, capitalizing on opportunities in both traditional and electronic publishing. A key difference between the two is that traditional publishers are most interested in initial sales. If a book doesn’t do well out of the gate, traditional publishers’ efforts to promote it go from minimal to nonexistent, and the book vanishes. By contrast, Amazon (Kindle) and other e-publishers are in it for the long haul. Maintaining the e-file is all but free, and if an author has a book success next year or the year after or the year after that, sales of the earlier book will likely head up, too. Writers sitting on a backlist of books that never sold well are finding new revenues.

The publishing mountain gets steeper, but writers persist. It’s in our bones. Perhaps that’s because, as Mayer said, and contrary to the common expression, “Storytelling is the oldest profession.”

A Book AND Its Cover

What makes you pick up a new release from the tables at the front of Barnes & Noble? You might recognize the title, or the author, or it might just be the cover. Some books cry out to be investigated further. A good cover design captures the feel of the novel and the browser’s eye with equal facility. Years later, just seeing the leafy jungle cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude brings back the whole story.

The New York Times has published its annual “15 best” compilation of covers (slide show). I’d need to know more about some of the books to know whether the covers really nailed it, but I must say the amazingly simple cover for the reissue of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying certainly does. It’s fearless and would certainly have failed a censor’s scrutiny, if there were such a post as Defender of Dust Jacket Decorum.

The ability to capture the essence of a book is very different from the generic approaches typically used in genre fiction. The shootouts, dark alleys, and steamy sex on these covers, although possibly eye-catching, could pretty much be used on any number of Western, mystery, and romance novels. (A quick and clever blog post on the latter can be found here.)

In the Times compilation, see whether you like the covers for F – Poems by Franz Wright and Middle C by William H. Gass as much as I did. I’m tired of the chalkboard writing style of The Art of Sleeping Alone, first noticed last year on The Fault in Our Stars. If you look at the B&N tables just from a design perspective, you can spot trends and copycats. Book jacket design, like everything else designy, has fashions and fads. Amazon’s blurb for Phil Baines’s Penguin by Design, calls the parade of covers for the publisher’s various book lines, which began marching forth in 1935, to be “a constantly evolving part of Anglo-American culture and design history.” Another intriguing book on the topic is Alan Powers’s Front Cover. Powers also has assembled a collection of children’s book covers and their many influential illustrators.

Book covers are designed to appeal to specific readers, which creates an interesting gender dilemma. Check that B&N table and ask yourself, is this a book for men or women or both? Women writers are concerned their books receive the “pretty” treatment, which means men are very unlikely to read them. More on this issue here—and be sure to check out this post’s coverflip slides, which show how covers of popular books might have been presented had the authors been the other gender. Eye-opening.

Notable covers on books I read this year included the one for Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. The blue version (top), which I have (or had, since I seem to have made the mistake of lending it out), suggests the massing and subtle movement of butterflies in the trees, the phenomenon that leveraged the story’s action. I much prefer it to the more literal treatment given the Kindle edition (middle) or, least imaginative of all, the UK edition (bottom).

Another gem was the cover for Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which gives a pretty darn accurate assessment of how that particular meal went. A linen tablecloth can do only so much.

My take on both these books can be found in the Reading . . . section of this website, with The Dinner in the audio list.