Thursday, January 28, 2016

From Editor to Designer

The process of writing and publishing a novel has a lot of highs and lows on the highway to launch day. But one of the most exciting, the one that makes the whole thing seem real, is the writer's first look at the new cover. Good or bad, the cover is a jolt of excitement. We may mutter about the colors or praise the choice of images, or wonder if the title is too large or our name too small. But none of this matters, because it is always thrilling to see our book with a real cover.

I have been very fortunate in the covers designed for the Anita Ray series. Five Star not only chose beautiful designs but also allowed me to make comments on the first one, Under the Eye of Kali. The cover was a perfect fit for the story. The same was true for the mass market paperback edition from Harlequin Worldwide.

This raised the stakes when I decided to publish a trade paperback through Create Space. All of a sudden I was lost. Fortunately, I found an excellent graphic designer, Kathleen Valentine, who solved my problems.

Kathleen came up with a template that I can use for the entire series, making changes only in the main photographic image, color scheme, and titles. I've used this template for the first two Anita Ray novels, Under the Eye of Kali and The Wrath of Shiva, and liked the results for both. I'm now working on the third book in the series, For the Love of Parvati.

I found two photographs that worked perfectly for the first two books, so I've been scanning my photographs from my last several visits to India.

The challenge becomes choosing the best image to indicate the story or setting. In the third Anita Ray, For the Love of Parvati, the story takes place in the foothills of Kerala, in an old mansion, during the monsoon, and involves a new maidservant, the family scion, who is in trouble with his employers, and a daughter visiting her mother. Someone seems to be stalking the household, and the police have been searching the area for a presumed terrorist. Secrets abound, of course. A family servant has gone missing, and Anita finds the body of a man washed up by the flooding river.

I don't have any photographs of the monsoon in the hills, but I have a few images of old mansions. I've narrowed the choice down to three. My final choice will depend in part on how well the image accommodates the title and author name.  

I never thought about book covers when I was taking photographs in Kerala, but I've since found myself reframing an image that might serve later. I'll make a final choice in the next week or so, and then I can move on to uploading text and cover for ebooks and paperbacks.

If the choice were up to you, which one would you pick?

To purchase one of the Anita Ray novels, click on the links below.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The End of Five Star Mystery Line

The volatility and unpredictability of the publishing world hit home last week for Five Star/Gale, Cengage authors. Our publisher has decided to drop the mystery line and focus on the Western and Frontier Fiction lines, though it will publish all those titles already contracted. I read through the list and found my name there, as I expected. Five Star will publish the fourth in the Anita Ray series, When Krishna Calls, and the fifth novel will sit unfinished on my desk a little longer, but I will finish it.

Five Star/Gale, Cengage appended a list of publishers of mystery fiction, to help authors find a new home for their work. This was considerate and I hope it will prove useful.

The ending of the mystery line hasn't upset me as much as I thought it would. My heart goes out to the other writers who have seen their first book pushed aside for months, contract talks silenced, and future books left in the slush pile. If I were at an earlier stage in my career, I would be devastated at least for a while, but too much has happened recently to let this drag me down.

For the last few years I've considered myself fortunate to be published with Five Star. They have a good reputation for their fiction lines, treat the writers fairly (at least they've always treated me well), and are easy to work with. But complacency is dangerous, and the jolt from Corporate probably means now is the time to try something new.

Perhaps the reason I'm so calm about the changes at Five Star is my perspective. Last year, in late 2015, Harlequin Worldwide Mystery accepted For the Love of Parvati, the third Anita Ray mystery, for the mass market paperback line, and then asked to see the second, The Wrath of Shiva, which they promptly accepted also. I didn't tell them they'd turned the book down two years earlier. But that was then, and this is now. New editor, new tastes, new policy. I signed the contract and received the first payment.

In February 2015, almost exactly a year ago, I sent Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine a short story. They accepted it yesterday. I had been thinking about withdrawing it, to save the editor the trouble of rejecting it. I wrote The Strand to withdraw a short story they'd had for almost two years and the editor said he never saw it and would I send it again? I did.

Well over a year ago an agent asked me about what I was working on, we talked, and one thing led to another, which in the end turned into a new novel. It's different from anything else I've tried, though it is a mystery. I like it, she likes it, and we hope someone else will like it. Who knows? But it is ready to go out into the world and find a home.

The day before I received the email from Five Star announcing the end of the mystery line I had sent a query about the seventh Mellingham/Joe Silva mystery. At the moment the novel is homeless, but I'm sure I can figure out something.

Five Star was founded by Ed Gorman and Marty Greenberg, to provide an opportunity to writers who were dropped by their publishers in the 1990s, when publishing went through a period of upheaval. Scribner went from 24 mysteries a year to 12, more stand-alones than series. Lots of well-published, talented writers were looking for a home for at least a few books, and Ed and Marty stepped up. Since then, the publishing world has changed even more, and the opportunities are now in self-publishing and the numerous small presses popping up all over the map. Writers have to be savvier and more astute in business practices, but the opportunities are there, just different.

I don't try to make sense of the publishing world. I write, I submit, I write some more. Change is inevitable, and it's been a fact of my professional life from the beginning. In 1985 I signed a contract with G.K. Hall, and the next day it was taken over by Macmillan.

I will miss Five Star in the years to come, especially the editors I've worked with. I have no idea what the future holds, but I invite the writers whose careers have been temporarily disrupted to consider this an opportunity to try something new and perhaps better. In any event, take the long view. There is always more to come.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Writer and the Contract

Over the last year the Authors Guild has been discussing with its membership what constitutes a fair book contract. This sounds ideal, but bringing it to fruition with the major publishers, the Big Five as they are now known, could be an impossible ideal. As part of their strategy, the Authors Guild sent an open letter to publishers urging them to amend their contracts to be fairer to writers. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a successful writer in several genres, has taken a look at this letter and offered a commentary. You can read it (see the link below), and I urge you to do so, but I have a few suggestions also. 

The Authors Guild program to improve contracts for writers seems to depend on publishers offering more generous terms, but in fact it depends on writers becoming better business men and women. It is axiomatic that a new writer will be so thrilled to get a contract for a first book that he or she will accept almost anything that is offered. Reputable publishers won't take even more advantage of this, since they already hold most of the cards anyway, but writers need to be aware of what they are getting and what they are giving away. This post is not about specific clauses, and how they should be written. I'm not an attorney and cannot and will not give advice. But I urge writers to be aware of what they agreeing to or even discussing.

The writer is licensing rights to his or her book. You're not giving it away or selling it; you're licensing it.  Learn what this means and what the limitations are. How long does the publisher have before it has to publish or return the manuscript; when is the book out of print? What formats will the publisher use? Is the publisher publishing the manuscript as a hardcover, ebook, serial? Ask questions if you don't know what something means.

I always keep the copyright in my name, and if the publisher doesn't register the book with the Library of Congress, I do it myself. It costs $35 and an hour of my time, but it's worth it. 

Learn the difference between the various sub rights. Some publishers begin by asking for everything, but if you ask in return, they will hand over the sub rights that don't matter to them. If you want the trade paperback rights, ask for them. If you want mass market paperback rights, ask for them. The publisher might say no, but you won't know what you can get if you don't ask. Of course you want to keep all the movie rights, translation rights, and other rights because you're an optimist and the publisher will just sit on them forever.

Some writers insist on cover approval, but this isn't always possible to get. The more successful you are, the greater the likelihood that you'll get to see the cover and make suggestions. Some publishers ask for ideas, but that doesn't mean the designer will follow them. I've been fortunate with Five Star/Gale, Cengage. They showed me the cover of my first Anita Ray mystery, Under the Eye of Kali, and followed my suggestions. Their covers have been perfect for each novel in the series, which means they are reading the detailed synopses I include with the manuscript.

In previous years the Authors Guild published a small guide to a fair contract, which I encountered in the 1990s. When a partner and I set up The Larcom Press, we went forward as writers who wanted to be fair to other writers. We accepted the first novel of a nonfiction writer who negotiated the contract like a professional agent. She was so precise in her requests, referencing the AG guide several times, that her agent called me and said he was going to let her conduct the negotiations. Working with Leslie Wheeler was an education, and her book, Murder at Plymouth Plantation, a success.

The rapid changes in the publishing industry mean that writers have greater leverage in negotiating contracts but they also have greater responsibility in understanding the industry and its terms. Anyone who wants to be a professional writer should learn to read a contract carefully, and be ready to refuse clauses that are unreasonable or patently unfair. Many publishers are reasonable, and writers must now do their part in the negotiations.

To read the letter to publishers, go here:

To read another writer's response to the AG letter, click on the link below.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Random Observations after Compiling a Short Story Collection

One of my resolutions for the New Year was to gather a number of Anita Ray stories into a collection for publication in response to requests from readers. These stories about life in a South Indian resort are scattered among Level Best Books anthologies and issues of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The first story appeared in 2003, and thirteen have followed over the years. The current collection gathers those only from LBB anthologies. I’m almost finished with the editing and arranging, and it’s been educational and enlightening.

First, the Anita Ray stories are uniform in length, all of them ranging from five to seven thousand words. I’m not sure why this is but it may have to do with the time I take to establish the setting and traditional cultural issues involved in the mystery. As a result, I plan to write a number of shorter stories, closer to two thousand words, to introduce greater variety.

Second, not every story includes a murder though every one includes a crime. This is something I’d like to do more with. One of my favorite Marian Babson mysteries is Line Up for Murder (1981; English title: Queue Here for Murder, 1980), which takes place on a London sidewalk outside a department store in the days leading up to the store’s famous New Year’s Day sale.  There is no murder, but there is the threat of one. The novel has stayed with me partly for the setting and partly for the skill with which Babson manages to create suspense without the usual corpse.

Third, the Anita Ray stories hover around two main themes—jealousy and greed. These are the same themes found in the Anita Ray novels, in particular For the Love of Parvati. I didn’t intend these themes in the short fiction but it became obvious when I lined up the stories. When I get an idea and start writing, I begin with a character and follow his or her behavior, not intending any specific motive for murder or a crime, but I evidently take a familiar path. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999), for which I served as consulting editor, dedicates four and a half columns to “Motives,” with numerous references and discussion. The author considers greed the most common, but I’m now looking to the many others listed for future stories.

Fourth, I am an American woman writing about South Asia, and there are many who now say that no one outside a culture should try to write about it. This is nonsense. But I am sensitive to any charge that I am writing with less than respect for the India I love, so rereading the stories was an absolute requirement, to search out anything that smacks of the “otherness” that academics search for so avidly. (Oh, dear, my biases are showing.) Anyway, I think the stories hold up well, and if anyone thinks there is anything subtly disparaging in them, I certainly want to hear about it.

Fifth, one of the themes throughout the stories is the clash of old and new, traditional and modern. Another theme is the changing role of women in modern India, though the settings and individuals belong often to a traditional culture. But I am an equal-opportunity writer of villains and victims—both groups include representatives of all cultures found in South India. The visiting Western tourist is just as venal and vicious as the middle-class Indian.

As it stands now the Anita Ray collection includes eleven stories, three of them new for this publication. The ms now heads out to beta readers before getting a final read-through and a cover. Until then, try these books featuring Anita and her Auntie Meena.