This year I will have been writing and publishing books in the mystery field for thirty years, since A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery came out in 1988, published by G. K. Hall. Does anyone remember them? Founded by a Mr. G. K. Hall in the 1950s, the publishing house changed hands a few times, and in 1985 was sold to Macmillan. I remember the event because I went in to sign my contract and as I handed it back to the editor, she said, “This is the last contract we’re allowed to sign. Macmillan bought us and showed up last night.” The whole thing began to sound like a hostile takeover, the foreign army massing on the border. The senior editor was told not to come in the next day, and that was only the beginning. My book was published, and I went on to edit a series of reference books on popular fiction, but G. K. Hall has become an imprint of others, and few remember this house.
I was fortunate to sell Murder in Mellingham, my first mystery, to Scribner, and merrily went about taking things for granted. In the middle of my three-book contract, Scribner was purchased by Simon and Schuster, and the mystery editor, Susanne Kirk, was told to switch from mystery series to stand-alones, and to reduce the number of titles annually from 24 to 12. My third Mellingham mystery, Family Album, appeared in 1995, and that was that.
In the 1990s publishing was going through one of its usual upheavals, with editors leaving to become agents and writers picking themselves up stunned from the sidewalk. The late Ed Gorman, one of the saints of this business, stepped in with an idea to start an imprint for established mystery writers. Thorndike Press liked the idea, and I signed up with my Mellingham series. Five Star published Friends and Enemies in 2001 and A Murderous Innocence in 2006. Why the first gap of six years? I can claim I was occupied with The Larcom Review, which a friend and I co-founded in 1998 and with the co-editor responsibilities I took on for the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing(1999), but in reality I was still trying to sell the Mellingham series.
Eventually I set Mellingham and the beloved Joe Silva aside and turned to one of my lifelong loves, India. I offered Five Star, by now purchased a few times and owned by Gale, Cengage, the first in a new series set in India. Under the Eye of Kali: An Anita Ray Mystery appeared in 2010, and has been followed by three more Anita Ray novels at modest intervals of two years. And then Five Star/Gale, Cengage dropped its mystery line, and my colleagues and I were once again outside staring at the pavement.
Apparently I’m a slow learner (probably goes with being a slow reader) but by now I had learned my lesson (helped along by my agent, Paula Munier). Time to try something new. From this great insight came a series about Felicity O’Brien, who has recently inherited her family farm where she gets involved in not one but two murders. Below the Tree Line: A Pioneer Valley Mystery appeared in September 2018. That’s just a couple of months ago. Midnight Ink announced it was dropping its mystery line in October. The second book in the series was ready to go, due in November. But there it sits, on my desk, homeless.
Now, really, I ask you, is this any way to manage a career?
When I’m not being flippant, which I admit is one of my less endearing coping mechanisms, I look back on my path to publication and marvel that despite the best efforts of publishers to thwart my progress I have managed to write what I wanted to write, publish a number of books that received good reviews (and brought me modest royalties), and enjoy the friendships of numerous other writers and reviewers. I’ve enjoyed going to conferences, workshops, and annual-get-togethers, meeting new people and telling stories about the writer’s life.
I can berate myself for my own missteps, of which there are many—not knowing my limitations as a writer, taking too long to start a new series, getting sidetracked with that pesky income problem—but in reality many other writers who made none of my mistakes found themselves right there next to me on that piece of concrete, listening to that door slam behind us.
The godsend for me and perhaps many others has been the rise of print-on-demand services and publishers, and the many writers who have shared suggestions and ideas, contact information and feedback on various new houses. I self-published two Mellingham books, and am looking at new small presses to continue the Anita Ray series.
And then I did what I hadn’t expected: I began a stand-alone, in a voice that matches none of what I’ve done before. It was loads of fun, and I’m hoping my agent and an editor will like it.
I expected this thirty-year review to go in a different direction, but here I am, looking back at a ride that in hindsight seems to have worked out better than I could have predicted, and has brought me safely to this point where I have a track record I'm proud of, more options for more books, more short story ideas, and lots of friends in the world I have chosen. There’s nothing better than this.