Transcripts

"Changing World of Mystery Fiction" with Taffy Cannon.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Taffy is Taffy Cannon,author of nine novels, including the Agatha and Macavity Nominee for Best Novel, Guns and Roses. Currently available are Open Season on Lawyers and Murder Will Travel, written under the pseudonym Emily Toll. For more about Taffy, visit her website at http://www.TaffyCannon.com.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator for this evening and the web editor of this site. Tonight I'm pleased to introduce Taffy Cannon to you, who is speaking on the "Changing World of Mystery Fiction." Taffy is the author of nine novels, including the Agatha and Macavity Nominee for Best Novel, Guns and Roses. Flexibility is the name of the game in publishing these days, and if you love to write mystery fiction, here's the mystery writer who can answer your questions. Welcome, Taffy!

Taffy: It's nice to be here.

Moderator: Taffy, how did you get interested in writing mysteries in the first place?

Taffy: I always loved reading mysteries, but I was afraid to start writing them. I didn't start until after I'd published a mainstream novel called Convictions, about the sixties. Then I took a deep breath and decided to see if the plotting still terrified me. It didn't, so I started writing mysteries around 1989.

Moderator: When was your first mystery published?

Taffy: A Pocketful of Karma was published by Carroll & Graf in 1993. It introduced Nan Robinson, an attorney-investigator for the California State Bar. There were three books in that series.

jack: Did you always read mysteries as a child? What about them "grabs" you? (And is that the reason you like to write them?)

Taffy: I started out on Nancy Drew like most of the women mystery writers I know, and then moved on to Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Erle Stanley Gardner. What I like about mysteries is that there's usually a puzzle. There's frequently a continuing character who's fun to be with, and there's almost always a satisfactory resolution.

Moderator: How has the mystery field changed in the ten years since your first mystery was published?

Taffy: It's gotten both bigger and smaller. There are a lot less opportunities to publish with large traditional houses, and publishers are less likely to stick with an author while you build a following. A small number of people make a great deal of money, and they like to have folks on the opposite end make as little as possible!

Moderator: How does the consolidation of publishers affect writers?

Taffy: Every time that one publisher buys another, mystery lines are consolidated, editors are fired, and writers are dropped. As business people make more of the creative decisions, it's harder to stay published if you aren't making significant sales.

jan: What happened in publishing to start this consolidating and "taking over" other publishers?

Taffy: It isn't just publishing. All the media have been buying up each other, and I think it's mostly because they can get away with it.

Moderator: What are considered "traditional publishers"?

Taffy: Traditional publishers are usually New York based, and at this point in time usually part of a larger conglomerate. They often publish both hardcover and paperback, have an editorial staff and have a sales force to aid in distribution.

Moderator: What can somebody being traditionally published today expect?

Taffy: You can expect to get an advance against royalties, to have your manuscript edited and copyedited, to have ARCs sent to media and reviewers, to have some kind of distribution system in place. But unless you receive a VERY large advance, you aren't likely to get as much promotion or attention as you'd like.

Moderator: ARC?

Taffy: Advance Reading Copy. These look like the book and are uncorrected page proofs, bound to be sent out to solicit quotes (blurbs), entice booksellers and reach media so the book can be reviewed in a timely fashion.

mbvoelker: Do you see a change in the nature of the fictional detectives? I'm thinking I see fewer complete amateurs and fewer police detectives and more semi-pros with some connection to law enforcement but not actually police.

Taffy: Hmmm. I don't think there are fewer amateur sleuths, and indeed the "cozy" market is always strong. Because it's tough to break into the field, it helps to have an unusual setting or character. That may be why you have the semi-pros. And there are always plenty of police procedurals and PI novels.

jack: Do traditional publishers offer more money? Should a new mystery writer start there?

Taffy: Traditional publishers do generally offer more money, and anybody starting out would LIKE to be published that way. The problem is that while the publishers were consolidating, they also have cut way back on the size of their lists, so they're actually publishing fewer authors now.

Moderator: What are some of the options outside the traditional publishing world?

Taffy: There are small presses, POD, self-publication and electronic publication, or e-publishing.

Moerator: What's the role of small presses?

Taffy: I'm a big fan of small presses, since three of my recent books were published by Perseverance Press. Small presses have picked up a lot of authors who were dropped by traditional houses, and they've also provided a foot in the door for folks who hadn't been published at all.

James: How do you find a list of small press publishers?

Taffy: They're changing all the time, so I'm not sure there even IS a list. You could check the Deadly Directory or subscribe to some of the online discussion groups. You could also go to your independent mystery bookstore and ask the bestseller what houses she's carrying.

jack: What's a Deadly Directory?

Taffy: The Deadly Directory is a listing of bookstores, publishers, reviewers and just about everybody who's associated with the mystery field. It's published by Kate Derie and updated annually. Check out www.cluelass.com for more info.

Moderator: How has POD opened opportunities for writers? (And what is POD?)

Taffy: POD is a technology. Print On Demand publishing allows a publisher to print a small number of copies whenever they're needed, instead of doing a large print run of 1000 or more. In theory, you can print one book at a time. This allows small publishers and self-publishers to get into the game without a huge investment.

Moderator: What's the downside of POD?

Taffy: There are several problems. First, many houses that publish POD don't give the customary discounts to booksellers. Often POD books are not returnable, either. This really puts a bookseller in a tough spot because they're already just squeaking by, most of the time. Also, it's hard to get POD books reviewed, since there tends to be an assumption that they're actually self-published, which a lot of them are.

Moderator: I thought POD books could be found at chain book stores, like where you print the book while you wait. I can't find any of these in my local bookstores, even the big ones.

Taffy: This was how the concept was originally put out and they'd do demos at big book-selling events like BookExpo, showing how this big old machine would produce an entire book (printing, covers, binding, the whole bit) while you watched. It hasn't happened that way because most bookstores could never afford the equipment to do this on site. Barnes & Noble was supposed to market iUniverse books, which are essentially self-published with a few exceptions, but even they don't carry them unless it's a special order. It's been used with more success for authors who want to make available earlier work that's gone out of print. The Author's Guild back-in-print program has worked very nicely for a lot of folks.

Moderator: What about self-publication?

Taffy: Self-publication has always been problematic. It used to be that if you wanted to publish your own work, you'd go to a subsidy house and for a lot of money ($7400 is a quote I heard about recently) they would publish your book. They'd send you cases of books which you were responsible for distributing and selling yourself. Many POD publishers today are updated versions of this with a much smaller initial investment. I recommend places like iUniverse to students who have a specific project like a family history that they want to distribute to a limited audience. Advances in computers and software have made it very easy to produce something that LOOKS like a book. But the problem with self-publication is the same one that's always been there: Distribution, distribution, distribution.

Moderator: Do mystery writing organizations recognize these new media?

Taffy: The Mystery Writers of America doesn't recognize self-published books for the purpose of becoming an active member, though you can join as an affiliate or associate without being published formally in the mystery field. It's sometimes hard to tell if a book is from a legitimate small press or if it's self-publication masquerading as a small press. MWA allows any book to be submitted for Edgar Award consideration, however, and some books from small presses and/or POD have been nominated. There've even been a couple of self-published books that have been nominated for Edgars. The Romance Writers of America has stricter standards, and there's talk in MWA of adopting similar standards.

Moderator: What's currently happening with electronic publication?

Taffy: Not much that I can see. E-publishing is one of those things that people keep talking about, but not very much has actually been done in the field. There are several problems. First is that you usually have to have a specific type of hardware or reader before you can use it at all. There's a lot of different readers out there and most are not compatible with each other. Then you have the problem of reaching your audience. It isn't possible to go into too many bookstores and buy an e-book, though some are available on CDs. Other e-published books are downloadable off the Internet. But again, you have to find your audience. A couple of years ago when Stephen King experimented with selling a work-in-progress online, a lot of us were watching very closely. It started out fine, but after a while, people weren't paying for what they downloaded and I'm not sure if he even finished offering the book that way. (I don't read Stephen King, other than his book On Writing, so I'm not sure about this.)

mbvoelker: Are people really buying and reading e-books?

Taffy: I'm not sure that they are. People who are published this way always SAY that they're selling their work, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've seen somebody actually reading an electronic book. Libraries are experimenting with systems where you'd download a book into a reader for a specific length of time (like the two-week checkout period, say) and then at the end of that time, the book would just disappear into cyberspace. My guess is that the first major inroads into e-publishing will be in the area of textbooks. Textbooks are expensive to produce and to buy, and if it were possible to cut that cost by doing it all electronically, then you could download the latest edition of a Zoology text, say. And when the course ended, you could push a button and get rid of it. The kids who are coming up today are very computer-savvy, and if anything is going to happen electronically, it will probably be through them.

jack: Do traditional publishers see e-books and then offer traditional contracts? Is this a good way to attract a traditional publisher?

Taffy: I've heard a lot of folks claim that this is what is going to happen, but I haven't seen any instances where it's actually worked that way. You'd still have to have another really great manuscript to offer the traditional publisher because they're not likely to put your e-book into print.

Moderator: Are things very different for children's and YA mysteries?

Taffy: Yes, and the playing field is really leveled here. Children's and YA mysteries are a completely separate part of most publishing houses, with their own editors, standards and rules. I don't even use the same agent for the children's mystery I have available right now because my adult mystery agent told me she didn't know enough about the world of kids' books.

Moderator: Are published short stories a good calling card for selling a novel?

Taffy: Published short stories can be a GREAT calling card. I know a number of people who have developed a character in one or more short stories, then later sold a full-length novel with the same character. There are some good opportunities online for mystery short stories, too. The Best of the Magazine Markets has a great article about mystery writing, with a lot of new markets in print and electronically. One of my Long Ridge students just sold a hard-boiled mystery short story to Nefarious Tales, which is online.

janp: What do you think the future holds for the short mystery, under 6,000 words?

Taffy: I think it's pretty limited, actually. There aren't all that many mystery magazines in hard copy and those that exist have limited space. You can publish something longer online more easily, and that may turn out to be the future of that length. You can also publish material on your own web site, though there's not much you can do with it beyond placing it there and telling folks where it is.

mbvoelker: Are crossover SF mysteries, Romance-Mysteries, and other stories that push the boundaries of the genre well received?

Taffy: SF mysteries are trickier than romantic suspense because the readers tend to be more clearly defined. Mysteries with a strong dose of romance tend to sell very well, though you could probably have higher sales and income going at it in the opposite direction, by succeeding in romance and then adding elements of mystery. I don't recommend trying to write in a genre that you don't know very well, however.

Moderator: Should you have your work professionally edited before submission?

Taffy: Absolutely, if you're at all uncertain. If you've gone over your manuscript 400 times and your writers group has all read it and you've ironed out the little mistakes and problems, AND you're a really good grammarian, then maybe you can get away with not doing this. It can be a really good investment to have a manuscript at least read by a professional editor, somebody who isn't close to the project and can see it objectively. You don't have to agree with that person if you think she's dead wrong, but it's important to have some kind of intelligent feedback. If you're going to a POD house or self-publishing then you REALLY should have it copyedited and proofread thoroughly. Every typo in the electronic file you submit for publication will come through bright and clear on the printed page. Hallmarks of a slapdash self-published book include typos and major grammatical errors.

sam: How much should you expect to pay if you choose this "pre-editing" before you submit your manuscript? What is reasonable, do you think?

Taffy: There's a real range. You should find somebody who is familiar with the general type of work you're writing. I wouldn't presume to edit science fiction because I don't know very much about it. Sometimes a copyeditor will work by the page at $3 to $6 per page. A lot of the really good writing coaches, people you can trust to edit your work intelligently for the audience you seek, charge $75 an hour. This sounds like a lot, but if you end up published, it's a worthwhile investment.

mbvoelker: You've said a lot about changes in publishing. Has the mystery market itself been changing too? That is, has the balance shifted towards any particular type of mystery? Have any new types emerged?

Taffy: There are always mysteries that bring new types of protagonists. Andy Straka's new series deals with falconry, for instance. But it's tough to come up with a totally original angle. A few years ago, men were starting to complain that they weren't being published as much as women, which is a total reversal from about 15 years ago, when the organization Sisters in Crime was founded. My new travel mystery series for Berkley is the first I know of to feature a tour guide taking out people on various types of interesting trips, and while I was developing this series (written as Emily Toll) I kept thinking that some big shot would announce HER new travel mystery series and I'd be out of luck! This series, which starts with Murder Will Travel, set on a tour of Sonoma wine country, is very specifically aimed at the cozy market, which Berkley knows quite well. There are certain things that you just can't do in a cozy.

Moderator: In the adult mystery field, do you need an agent?

Taffy: You can find a small press publisher without an agent, but when it's time to do the contract, you'll want somebody familiar with the field to go over it. Some of the big houses will read material that comes in unagented (over the transom), but it can take forever. Tim Myers sold his first mystery without an agent, but it took 19 months from the time that he first submitted it!

Moderator: Oh my!!! How do you find a reputable agent?

Taffy: Start by asking the people you know if they have any connections, and try those people first. Remember when I said that new technology has made it easy to produce a manuscript? Well, agents have them piled all over their offices. A LOT of people are competing for representation and the standards can be tough. It can actually be harder to find an agent than to find a publisher. If your college roommate's cousin doesn't work out, the next step is to find out who represents work like what you're writing. You wouldn't want Tom Clancy's agent if you're writing YA romance, after all. Who's writing books similar to yours? Look in the acknowledgments and see if an agent is mentioned. Check Literary Marketplace for the representative clients listed there. You could even try calling the publisher to ask who represents somebody whose work you like. I'm not sure they'll tell you, in this privacy-conscious environment, but it's worth a shot. Finally, a couple of hints:

First, send an agent what she asks for. If she wants an outline and two chapters, don't send your whole manuscript (and of course you're always enclosing SASE). Second, be realistic about how long it takes to get to your manuscript. You may have only one book out there, but the agent could have several hundred waiting in her office. Make your cover letter one page long. Period. If you can't say it in a single page, you're doing something wrong. And finally, if you're writing cold queries, start at the end of the alphabet, or in the middle, or around the letter R. (A cold query is when you have no connection whatsoever to exploit. You're writing out of the blue to an agent who's never heard of you and has no idea whether you even exist.) The folks at the beginning of the alphabet are always swamped. Imagine how many queries come in to Dominick Abel!

Moderator: You said it can be harder to find a good agent than a publisher. Why is that?

Taffy: Most publishers today only look at agented material, so there's a major screening process that takes place when a writer is accepted by an agent. The agent has presumably made contact with the writer and is satisfied that she is who she says she is and that she wrote the material she's submitting. The publisher doesn't have to worry about these issues when something comes in through an agent. I should add, however, that having a bad agent can be worse than having no agent.

Moderator: Should you concentrate on standalone or series mysteries?

Taffy: A standalone mystery, or "one-off" is a book that is self-contained, and not envisioned as part of a continuing series. A lot of thrillers are standalones because by the time the events of the book end, many of the characters are no longer available for a sequel! Series is what most mystery editors want. It's also what most mystery readers want. They want to know that when they sit down with the latest book from a particular author, that the protagonist will be the person they remember and like. One problem, of course, is that when you start to write your first book, you probably aren't thinking about how to make it a series. You're wondering if you'll be able to finish it. So you finish it, you find an agent, the agent sells it to MegaBooks in New York and the first question your new editor will ask is, "Is this a series?" And you'll answer, "You bet!" and go home and try to figure out how to turn your book into a series. Which is a wonderful problem to have, by the way.

Moderator: I see that you use a pseudonym. What's the role of pseudonyms in current mystery publishing?

Taffy: Traditionally a lot of mysteries have been written under pseudonyms. Ross Macdonald, Ellery Queen, Carolyn Keene, Franklin W. Dixon: all of those are names made up for a particular situation. Some writers today are so prolific that they are able to write two series, or two types of books at once. Elizabeth Peters is also Barbara Michaels and they both are really Barbara Mertz, who publishes archaeology texts under her real name. I chose the name Emily Toll because these were family names. Emily was my grandmother's name and it's my real middle name. Toll was my mother's maiden name. I decided to sell the new travel mystery series under that name for several reasons. First, I knew I had a standalone thriller, Open Season on Lawyers, that would be published at about the same time as Murder Will Travel and publishers don't like to have more than one book at a time from an author. Berkley had originally expressed interest in continuing the series I THOUGHT I was starting with Guns and Roses, which was nominated for Agatha and Macavity Awards as Best Novel. But Berkley decided that Guns and Roses was insufficiently cozy and asked me to develop a new series. I figured I could just as easily develop a new identity at the same time and in some ways it's been really useful. Emily Toll has no track record, so booksellers and readers don't have a lot of preconceptions. This book got my first sale to a book club, the Mystery Guild.

Moderator: Congratulations! You also have a great personal web site. Is one necessary these days for most writers?

Taffy: It's not only necessary, it's expected. Your publisher may have a smidgen of information about your book on its own web site, but they expect you to provide much more. Most mystery writers I know have web sites and the best way to do this is to register your own domain name like mine, http://www.TaffyCannon.com. That makes it easy for people to find you. A good web site will have excerpts from the books you have available, say a chapter or two. People can check to see if it's something they'd like to read. Any information about the author that explains how and why she's written what she's written is useful. The web site puts you out in cyberspace, which is both good and bad, but the upside is that it's easy for people to send you a fast e-mail that says they liked something you wrote. And every now and then, I hear from somebody I haven't seen or spoken with in thirty or forty years.

Moderator: How can you effectively make use of a personal web site for selling or promoting your work?

Taffy: I don't sell anything off my web site, but the people who are self-published or with POD houses often do. I have links on my web site to the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, which can put people in touch with a nearby mystery store. I also have links to some mystery bookstores, and instructions on how to find and buy my out-of-print books. At the very bottom of these choices, I say that if all else has failed, they can try Amazon.com. Independent booksellers become upset with authors who only list Amazon, and rightly so.

Moderator: What's the best way to break in?

Taffy: Write the best book you possibly can, fine tune it till it glows, and then start to query agents. As you do this, you should start your next book. That may be the most important part of this process, actually. You've demonstrated that you can finish a good book, and now is your opportunity to write an even better one.

Moderator: I'm sorry to interrupt now, but we're out of time. This is such a popular genre, and we thank you, Taffy, for coming and sharing with us tonight about the changes in the mystery genre.

Taffy: It's been a pleasure, Kristi.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on September 26 when our "mystery" guest is actually unknown, as I just had a cancellation tonight! So please watch your newsletters in the next couple weeks for more news. And now, good night, everyone! Have a good writing weekend!

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