Why I Love E Books

They’re the same books they always were. Some of them have been around for a very long time. There were people who liked them, people who didn’t, and a huge number who didn’t know they existed.

When I got an opportunity to put them out there again and give them a second chance, I grabbed it. E books. First, a publisher who put all the work and all the blame on the authors. We didn’t sell because we didn’t do enough to publicize our work. That gets old.

When a writer friend started an e book company and asked if she could have my books—and said she actually put some money into publicity—I hopped aboard. With all the Jake Samsons and what was then titled Blackjack.

Blackjack was first up. She loved it enough to suggest some edits. She was right. I was happy.

The covers are all great.

I had always avoided looking at the Amazon rankings because they were depressing. A Two millionth? Might as well have dug a hole in the yard and buried them. So I wasn’t in the habit of checking on my books. But my publisher kept an eye on everything she published.

Publicity? Editing? Paying attention?

She emailed me to tell me the great news. My books were up there. In the top 100 of several categories. Torch Song (nee Blackjack) was #1 in a category I can’t remember. Overall, all the books, under a hundred thousandth, often much lower, often a figure more like 5, 6, 7 thousandth. One of the Jakes recently hit 1200th.

Now I look at the rankings every day, which is probably not a good idea. A watched ranking can stop boiling. Isn’t that the old saying? But so far, so good. I love e books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Band of Brothers

One ghastly feature of modern romantic fiction is how boring the heroes are.  It’s all very well to hire a male model or body-builder, rip his shirt, and pose him, sword in hand, as Rock or Knute or Prince Knuckle of Ramstein for the cover of the book.  But what happens when you have to put him in a conversation?  Not just with the heroine, with anybody.  “Erg, awk, aggghhhh!” he said.

This past week I’ve had reason to think about one of my biggest assets as a creator of characters, romantic and not–I have lots of brothers.  I have four, to be exact, all of them younger than I am, so I got to watch them develop into personalities.  I have only one sister, and she’s ten years younger.  We didn’t interact much.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my male characters are more varied and interesting than my female ones.  This is particularly helpful when I’m writing romances, but it comes in handy elsewhere too.

For the purposes of narrative simplicity, I’m going to call the boys Able, Baker, Charlie, and Dog, with Able the eldest and Dog the youngest.  They are now all retired, some several times, and among them have had six marriages and twelve children.  Three of my brothers are pilots, one a professional, and the same three were sky-divers before sanity prevailed.

We were raised as Catholics, but they have all departed from the bosom of Mother Church with only brother Baker, after a brief deviation into Hinduism, returning to Christianity.  Most are now amiable agnostics.  Among them, they have worked at a wide variety of jobs ranging from mink farmer to postman to canner of green beans to researcher into conversion of bio-mass to fuel.  Three are combat veterans and one a war protester, and, fortunately, all four have senses of humor that permit them to be in the same room for long periods of time, playing their guitars (and banjo and cello) and singing silly songs with each other.

My brothers are at least as verbose as I am.  In fact, Able and I amused ourselves while we washed dishes for all eight family members by reciting narrative poetry at each other, alternating the verses–“‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves,” etc.  Able (between mink farming, lawyering, and selling real estate in Mexico) has written two thrillers, Baker is both an actor and a playwright, and Dog has done three novels and a film script.  Charlie, for reasons that will be clear, should write his memoirs and can if he will  just sit down and do it.

Ten days ago I had a call from my sister in law to say that my youngest brother Dog had suffered a stroke.  It was a minor one, fortunately, but it affected his peripheral vision.  It also caused an interruption between hand and eye that makes it hard for him to work the computer or drive a car.  I talked to him the next morning and was relieved to know that his wit and enthusiasm are intact.  He has since dived into physical therapy.  Let’s hope it works.

That woke me up.  I began to think about Dog and the others and wish I could see them face to face.  Then last week I got a phone call at eight in the morning from brother Baker.  “Turn on the tv,” he said.  “Charlie’s on the morning news.”

He was indeed.

Charlie, who lives in Miami Beach, is a pilot, the professional one.  He retired from the Air Force as a lt. colonel and flew for American Airline for some years, mostly in the Caribbean.  When he retired from AA, he ferried Russian millionaires around the globe for a while.  He knows I’m a geography buff, so he called me with a stumper one winter morning.  “Bet you can’t guess where I am.”  “Where?”  “Sharm el Sheik.”  “Ha,” I said.  “Sinai.  Red Sea.  Right?”  He was terribly disappointed, but we had a nice chat about the weather.  He was basking on the beach.

Charlie has his own small plane, but he wanted to fly regularly and that can be expensive, so he got himself a part time job flying a tow plane along Miami Beach.  The planes the company uses were built in the 1950s for forward air control, to use as spotters. High wings, single engine, open cockpit.  You get the picture.

Now visualize Charlie on a peaceful weekday morning, flying along the beach with his banner trailing an advertisement for snake oil.  All of a sudden, with no warning, the engine quit.  He cut the banner away and tried to start the engine.  No dice.  As he told the tv commentator later, “I said to myself, ‘I may have five seconds to live.'”  His face quirked in a typical Charlie grin.  “‘We’ll know in a minute.'”  Both of them cracked up on the air.

In fact, as he told me later, he barely had time to verify that he wasn’t going to land on top of a swimmer before the plane hit the water at 45 miles an hour–800 yards off Miami Beach in about twenty feet of water.  The wings held the plane on the surface for a few moments, then sea water swept into the cockpit.  He took a deep breath, unhooked his seat restraint, and swam up, free of the wreckage.  He could see light.  He swam toward it, inflating his life jacket.  When he reached the surface, a jet-skier whooshed over to him and pulled him aboard.  The entire event lasted less than fifteen minutes.

Well, there you are.  A woman who has four brothers shouldn’t have any difficulty crating male characters who are as nutty and interesting as real people should be.  My problem is that I don’t have any models of male villainy.  SPOILER.  My murderers tend to be women.

 

How Did I End Up Here?

When did I become a mystery author? Or rather when did I become aware that I wanted to be, not just a mystery author, but an historical mystery writer. I’ve wondered about that a lot lately, for some reason.
I may have noticed it while browsing paperbacks at my local bookstore. I might have picked it up in the school library. I remember that it had something to do with Ellery Queen’s famous challenge (paraphrased here) – “Dear Reader, you are now in possession of all the clues and should be able to solve the mystery.” But I remember reacting strongly to the challenge. I remember thinking, “well, if he can think it up, I can figure it out.” Of course I couldn’t. In fact, I’m not sure that I ever conquered the Queen challenge. But I never gave up trying. And I read them all, every single one.

Though I read some Agatha Christie, I was never taken with Christie’s novels as I was Queen’s. But, as I grew, my reading habits changed a little. Ellery Queen novels mixed with the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts, Esther Forbes and Irene Hunt. Then enter the novels of Fletcher Knebel – The Zinzin Road, Night of Camp David, Dark Horse. I was addicted to political thrillers. Fletcher Knebel became Frederick Forsyth became Robert Ludlum became David Ignatius. But I also discovered George MacDonald Fraser and the Flashman series and John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR mysteries. And with that I was hooked on historical mysteries.

But I never quite lost my love of Ellery Queen and his version of Dupin’s ratiocination, and when my love of reading mysteries turned to a passion for writing them, I couldn’t help but be influenced by Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee’s creation. In my first two mysteries, I tried out both William Shakespeare as Sherlock Holmes and Ernest Hemingway as Dr. John Watson, so to speak. And though I was not dissatisfied with the results, I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.

Years passed, and I spent some years traveling the world, wondering if perhaps I was destined for something other than mystery writing. But on a layover at Gatwick Airport one night, I happened on the idea that became my Arthurian mystery series, and, suddenly, I was back in the historical mystery world. Now, I’ve returned to Shakespeare for Perseverance Press and am having a ball.

I am happy as a mystery author now. I consider it a proud and honorable distinction, and, for me, a natural evolution from mystery fan.

After all, everybody loves a mystery. Right?

Shadows on a Maine Christmas

 

Lea Wait, here, delighted to announce that Shadows on a Maine Christmas, the 7th in my Shadows Antique Print Mystery series is now available … in bookstores (if they don’t have a copy, ask them to order one,) at on-line booksellers, and in e-book editions.   Thank you to Perseverance Press for continuing to believe in Maggie and her adventures … and to my readers. Without my readers, Maggie would have stopped solving crimes several books ago. Never underestimate the power of a book sale, whether to an individual or to a library.!cid_487CF410-53E3-4F9A-B4E9-3E3180900689

So, what’s happening this time around?  We left Maggie and Will (her beau of two years) barely speaking to each other at the end of Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding. After all this time, the future of their relationship is still in question. Maggie teaches at a New Jersey college. Will is now taking care of his aging Aunt Nettie in Maine. Maggie wants to adopt one or more  children. Will doesn’t want to be a father. He also complains Maggie spends too much time solving crimes, and not enough quality time with him. (Can she help being the heroine of a traditional mystery series?)

So they’ve decided to spend the Christmas holidays together and talk. But between seeing each other on Cape Cod in October, and the end of December, they’ve each made some decisions they haven’t yet shared with each other. Important decisions.  Decisions that could complicate their lives, and relationship,  further.

So … that’s the background. Of course … other issues interfere with their romantic holiday.  The usual relationship complications: blackmail and murder.

Bored in a wintry Maine? In Shadows on a Maine Christmas, not a chance.

Reviews have been generous. Publisher’s Weekly: “loving descriptions of the Maine winter and the area’s strong sense of community.”

Mysterious Women: “Surprise ending … beautifully written.”

Kingdom Books: “one of the best and most intriguing plot twists … quick-paced and charming.”

Now it’s all up to readers. The author/parent creates the story, but then must send it out into the world to fend for itself.

I have my fingers and toes crossed for Shadows on a Maine Christmas. And I’m writing the synopsis of the 8th in the Shadows series.

Because that’s what writers do.

Moving from Mystery to Suspense

Though I was a fan of mysteries from junior high school on, it wasn’t until I’d published several books in other genres that I launched my Nick Hoffman series in 1996.

I can’t claim the idea was entirely mine.  I’d been writing a lot about children of Holocaust survivors, and my editor at St. Martin’s suggested a change of pace.  “You’re got a great sense of humor.  Why don’t you write something funny?”

Well, the funniest stories I knew were about academics, so I chose academia as my setting and the series was born.  I picked a fish out of water for my narrator/protagonist.  Nick Hoffman was a New York Jew somewhat stranded in the Midwest, gay, and improbably for his colleagues, in love with teaching composition even though he was an Edith Wharton scholar.

The series took off, but my other work leapfrogged it and was taught at many schools around the U.S. and Canada, so I found myself invited to speak at one college and university after another.  Wherever I went, some faculty member would take me aside and tell me about what Borges calls “bald men arguing over a comb.”  Every department–whether it was in a community college or at an Ivy League school–had some scandal, imbroglio, vendetta, or other juicy story.  I was bombarded with material.

I tried different forms with the series: dead body in the first line, dead body halfway through, no corpse at all.  And of course I attended a slew of mystery conferences and appeared as a panelist or moderator on dozens of panels.  But after Hot Rocks, the seventh in the series, I had run out of steam.  Nick was never one of those sleuths who was untouched by the crimes he encountered; if anything, he was battered and beaten down by them as much as he was by academic stupidity and cupidity.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t under contract and forced to squeeze out another book.  I let the series lie dormant while I kept publishing in other genres.

Assault with a Deadly Lie by Lev Raphael

And then over the course of a few years, I noticed a disturbing trend reported in one newspaper after another: even small town police departments forces were becoming militarized.  They were getting surplus assault weapons and armored vehicles from the Pentagon, setting up SWAT teams, and recruiting from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Even more disturbing was a shift in consciousness due to being trained by the military: cops were starting to think of citizens as The Enemy.

This shift is an enormous change in our republic, and it disturbed and fascinated me enough to make it the centerpiece of my 8th Nick Hoffman novel, Assault With a Deadly Lie.

The academic satire hasn’t disappeared, but now Nick’s world of academia has been infiltrated by a more dangerous worldview, and even tin pot administrators think of themselves as arbiters of national security.  The stakes are much higher for everyone involved, especially Nick, in a story that I seem to have ripped from the headlines, though it’s been under way for several years.

Assault With a Deadly Lie is Lev Raphael’s 25th book.

TAKING CHANCES IN LAS VEGAS

This article was first published in Black Lamb.

I’ve been passing through Las Vegas since 1960, when you could pay for a full tank of gas with a five-dollar bill and get two silver dollars in change. I ate 99¢ dinners at the Silver Slipper before I was old enough to gamble. I spent a weekend in the Vegas Greyhound station when I was twenty-one, but because I was almost broke at the time I only gambled on penny slots.

The fact is, I’ve never been much of a gambler. But when Susan and I went to Las Vegas in 1990, we made the biggest gamble of our life together. No, we didn’t get married; we had already been married for three years, and that decision had been no gamble. It was a lock, a guaranteed jackpot.

We had also been in business together as publishers for five years. Using the name John Daniel, Publisher, a sole proprietorship I’d established in the 1970s, she and I had combined our skills, our contacts, and our financial assets to build a publishing house that was tiny but distinguished. We had published such treasures as Janet Lewis, Hildegarde Flanner, Nancy Packer, Mary Jane Moffat, E. S. Goldman, Carolyn See, John Espey, and, most recently Jess Mowry, plus others you may not have heard of but who had dedicated, devoted, book-collecting fans.

It was a bit embarrassing that the American Booksellers’ Association would chose Las Vegas, the epitome of nonliterary pastime, for their annual convention. But they did, and they did it to the hilt. One publisher got to have it both ways by hosting a “bad taste party” at Caesar’s Palace. Susan and I didn’t go to that one, but we went to one just as weird, a party thrown by Random House at the former Las Vegas residence of Elvis Presley, promoting a new piece of fiction by Jackie Collins. Talk about class.

While we were in Las Vegas for this business convention, Susan and I didn’t do all business, and in fact we actually indulged in the goofy game of video poker, a relatively new high-tech version of old-fashioned slot machines. Video poker did not require the gambler to use any right-arm elbow grease, and this new-fangled no-arm bandit fostered the fantasy that thought and talent might improve the gambler’s chances. (By the way, it was still “gambling” in 1990, not the euphemistic “gaming” it has since become.) So we spent twenty dollars a night—a ten-dollar roll of quarters for each of us—and played at adjacent stations, amiably competing for who could run out of coins last.

But that wasn’t our big Las Vegas gamble.

Amidst all this Hype, Glitz, Hokum & Schlock (Is that the name of a law firm, or what?), we decided on the floor of the convention hall to take our business seriously and make it grow.

To grow we needed big-time book distribution. We had, only weeks prior to the ABA, been dumped by our small press distribution company, Texas Monthly Press, leaving us without a venue to show off our wares at the Vegas ABA. As it happened, Texas Monthly Press had been bought by Gulf Publishing, which had bought the booth at ABA but decided not to use it. Since TMP was breaking their contract with us, we had the chance to forgive them in exchange for their entire booth—free. No hard feelings. So long, Dearie.

Then, free of TMP, we had quickly made arrangements to be distributed by National Book Network, a strong and rapidly growing distributor of mid-sized publishers. It was an expensive contract, but the best offer we had. So, even before we got to Las Vegas, we had made the first steps in our scramble up the slippery mountainside. We now had a prominent distributor, and we had a booth all to ourselves in the choice part of the convention hall, which happened to be back-to-back with NBN, our new distributor, on the aisle behind us.

So part of the Big Gamble was already under way when we rented a Ford Taurus station wagon; filled it with books, posters, and convention supplies; and drove over the Halloran Grade on Interstate 15. As we descended into Las Vegas, we passed, way out on the outskirts of town where the sidewalk ended in the desert, a new casino under construction named Excalibur, which looked like Camelot on steroids.

We got to the convention center on a Thursday afternoon, and the big affair lasted until Tuesday morning. It was grueling. It was thrilling. It was a roller-coaster of adrenalin and exhaustion. We worked the floor hard, shaking hands with friends old and brand new. We cruised the aisles for handouts, ideas, and contacts. We worked just as hard at the parties as we did on the convention floor, laughing, swapping business cards, and listening for more ideas.

With every day that passed—and those few days felt like two weeks—our resolve to grow grew stronger. We had gambling fever. We said to each other, over and over, “Maybe we should…” and “What if we tried…?”

Tuesday noon arrived, the convention was over, and it was time to dismantle the Emerald City. As we knocked down our display and schlepped our wares to the Taurus, we were exhausted physically but still high on the changes we were going through, knowing we were on the verge of a growth spurt. So instead of driving all the way back to Santa Barbara and our one-room office on lower State Street, we decided stay the night in Nipton, a two-building dot on the map of the Mojave Desert, ten miles off the Interstate on the California side of the state line. One building was a four-room hotel; the other building was the store where Nevadans came to gamble. It was the closest place to Las Vegas where a hard-core fool could lose money to the California lottery.

We stayed in the Clara Bow room of the Nipton Hotel, named after the sexy silent star who had once owned the entire town. Freight trains roared through about once an hour, sounding like banshees on roller blades. The late-afternoon light on the New York Mountains was crevassed with purple shadows. The stars at night were ablaze. Morning was still and silent, except for those wonderful fast freights rattling by. Noon was hot and alive with the buzz of desert life, if only you listened hard enough to hear the lizards crawl.

We decided to stay another night.

We made lists. We went over our notes, over and over. We made phone calls from the pay phone outside the store. We flexed the muscles of our imagination. The gamble was only half placed, so it was time to bet all the chips we had on the future of our business.

We decided to incorporate, to become Daniel & Daniel, Publishers, Inc. Health plan, the works.

We decided to do everything our new distributor, NBN, suggested that we do, which meant a lot more work for us. And more expense.

We decided to hire a staff, starting with a production manager/designer and a marketing director. Payroll taxes.

We decided to rent a bigger office in the center of Santa Barbara.

More warehouse space.

Two more computers.

A company vehicle, big enough for hauling forty-pound boxes of books.

We made more phone calls, loaded the station wagon, and zoomed out of the desert, back to Santa Barbara, and into the big time.

Les jeux sont fait! The chips were down, the dice were tossed, and here goes nothin’. What were we doing? Would we go broke? If so, what would we do? Go back to clerking in bookstores?

Or would we win big? Would we publish best-sellers? Would our brilliantly reviewed novels be bought by Spielberg? Would our authors get on Johnny Carson? Would Daniel & Daniel become a household name among publishing houses? Would some big publisher (hello, Random House?) buy us out and put us out to green pastures?

So. How did we do? Bars? Cherries? Lemons?

A bit of all of the above. Yes, we did grow measurably. We moved into a two-room office, and later into a four-room office, and eventually into a giant cavern of space in an arty building on Lower State, which was hard to heat in the winter, impossible to cool down in the summer, but huge enough to handle the growing accumulation of equipment and staff.

We hired a staff, starting with a production manager/designer/typesetter. Then we added a receptionist who also worked as Susan’s assistant in the marketing department. Next we split that job into two, so we had a receptionist and a marketing director. Then our production manager started using one or two interns. The place was buzzing.

We went from publishing ten books a year to publishing about thirty-five. A good number of these books were published under a separate imprint, Fithian Press, which was reserved for author-subsidized projects, which was how we earned enough income to keep this whole boat floating.

We made more and more money.

We spent even more and more money.

It more and more resembled gambling addiction. We had to keep covering our bets, and the bets kept getting bigger. Businesses have growing pains, just like teenagers, and this one was outgrowing its britches with every passing season. We had to publish more and more Fithian Press books to be able to afford the expensive losses we incurred by having our literary A-list distributed by NBN. We were working our butts off just so we could stay in business and work our butts off harder. We were riding on a wild horse. And, as long as we’re tossing metaphors in the air, we were swimming in deeper and deeper water.

We did incorporate, and we did buy a company vehicle. Those bets paid off. We established a payroll, with benefits for us and our staff, and that was good, and given our size it was necessary, but it was costly. More quarters into the slot machine than quarters coming out. Being distributed by NBN was a disaster. They oversold our books, earning huge commissions, then charged us for the returns when the sold books came back. NBN might have been a good distributor for other publishers, but for us it was an unwise bet. One of those bets when you know you have to quit while you’re behind, and there was an extra charge for quitting.

None of our authors got on Carson or any of Carson’s successors. We had no best-sellers, which was fortunate because we would have had to go into debt to finance the reprints. No big company came knocking on our door to buy us out.

By 2002, twelve years after the Las Vegas ABA where we had placed our big bet, we decided to cash in our remaining chips and face the fact that when you gamble in Las Vegas, the house always wins. It was time to downsize.

We got rid of the payroll, we moved into a tiny office and then into home offices for just Susan and me. We’re back to publishing about eight books a year. We now call ourselves semi-retired, which means we only have to work half-days, and we get to decide which twelve hours a day to work.

Yes, we still work as hard, but we worry less. We’re done taking chances. Getting to this point was a roller-coaster of a twelve-step program. From now on, if being in business means taking big gambles, in the words of Samuel Goldwyn, “Include me out.”

But I’ll say this much about that 1990 ABA in Vegas. It gave me all I needed for the most successful novel of my writing career, The Poet’s Funeral. Set in Las Vegas at the very same convention, it’s a send-up of every aspect of the publishing business: the authors, the agents, the editors, the publishers, the publicists, the critics, the distributors, the booksellers, the readers and collectors.

That book was my love song to the gambling industry that defined my working life.

 

Labor Day

My favorite thing to do: WORK. So, you might say that Labor Day, yesterday, was my holiday. If I’m not working, I hear my mother’s voice, notwithstanding the fact that she’s been gone for 40 years.

“Get off that chair. You’ll never amount to anything,” rings in my ears. (I’ve cleaned up the language here.) “Do you have to read that book for school?” (Easy to lie here since, through no fault of her own, she didn’t finish sixth grade.)

In my family, if you weren’t working, you didn’t deserve to live. Tough baggage, but too late now to check it at the gate.

Besides, there are so many other pluses to Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer. Even in California, where there is no fall to speak of, I’m comforted by the fact that there’s supposed to be fall, and that the days of dry, unrelenting 90+-degree sunny weather are numbered.

My first place of employment -- twirling cotton candy for 50c/hr.

My first place of employment — twirling cotton candy for 50 cents/hr.

Here’s what’s coming:

  1. I can put away those nasty white clothes that need ironing, show spills without mercy, and are not as slimming as blacks (sometimes you just have to add an LOL).
  2. I can officially buy large bags of Halloween candy without getting strange looks at checkout.
  3. School starts! My husband doesn’t like this aspect of fall because we’re surrounded by three schools and it’s hard to get out of our driveway. I take the optimist’s view and rejoice in the fact that maybe some learning is going on right here in our neighborhood.
  4. The ratio of kid movies in theaters to adult movies will change from 100 to 1 to 10 to 1.
  5. Ice cream parlors will be kid-free again before 3 PM.
  6. Pumpkin flavored everything will be back.
  7. Theater comes alive on Broadway; all museum wings are open; and it’s finally safe to plan a vacation. Unless my mother tells me I don’t deserve one.

 

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