Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On Coop

No, this isn’t a post about chicken coops. The coop I’m talking about is publishers’ coop, which is pronounced “co-op” even though it’s spelled like the barnyard habitat of our little feathered friends. So what is coop? Coop is the money publishers pay to get their books a better position in stores. The theory is, the more people who see a book, the more people who will buy a book. If a book is simply stuck sideways on a shelf at the back of the store, it could be the most brilliant novel ever written but no one will ever know it because it will languish unseen and unread in the dark.

Until I became involved in the book industry, I did not know publishers did this. I thought when you went into a drug store or grocery store and saw Stephen King’s latest in a stand by the checkout behind a sign that said, “Number One Bestseller,” it was because the book was, literally, the number one best seller. Now, it could very well be, but that’s not why it’s there; it’s in that slot because that’s the slot King’s publisher paid for. If the publisher had only paid for “Number 8”, that’s where it would be. If a publisher hasn't paid any coop, then you won't see that book at those racks. Simple as that.

Publishers’ coop money also pays for books to sit on the tables at the front of Barnes and Nobles and at Borders. The books on the end caps (the ends of the rows, where books are displayed face out) are all there because of coop. And the cardboard display stands (“dumps”) at the front of stores? Coop, again—although dumps seem to be going out of style these days. The biggest outlay in coop ever spent in publishing history was laid down for, you guessed it, The Da Vinci Code. Bottom line: coop works.

So for writers, having their publisher agree to pay for at least some coop is a Really Big Deal. It’s also frustratingly hard to get. I’ve written over a dozen books, yet The Archangel Project is the first book I’ve ever had come out with coop. Traveling up to Baltimore barely a week after Archangel’s release was a heady experience. I checked out every Hudson’s News I passed, on every concourse, and there it was: The Archangel Project, in Bestseller Slot Number Twenty-something. A little higher number would have been nicer, since it would have brought the book up to eye level, but hey, I’m not complaining!

As the writer of one of those twenty-five Anointed Ones, it was great. But as a reader, my reaction was a little bit different. You see, the more bookstores I ducked into, and the more I saw the exact same books (in the bookstalls on the concourses, the twenty-five “bestsellers” were typically all they carried), the more troubled I became. I mean, what if I was flying and none of those twenty-five titles appealed to me? Think about it: thousands of newsstands and bookstalls in airports across the country, all carrying the same twenty-five titles, all there courtesy of the coop paid by their publishers. Magnify that by the Walgreens, the Walmarts, the fill-in-the-blank chain. Oh, look; there’s the latest Grisham. And there’s the Lisa Kleypus. And there’s the latest Raymond Khoury. Again and again. What if I was looking for, say, C.S. Harris’s Why Mermaids Sing (also released this month in paperback, but given no coop)? Tough.

Is Archangel a better book than Mermaids? No. Is it going to sell a heckova lot better, thanks to all that coop? You betcha. On which thought I’ll leave you with this snapshot of Archangel on the shelves of a bookstall in Tampa—right between the latest Grisham and the latest Khoury.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Still Alive, Barely

I brought a nasty case of flu home with me from Baltimore that I still haven't shaken. But I wanted to share this STARRED Publishers Weekly review of Where Serpents Sleep, which hits the stores the first Tuesday in November. I could have done without the "predictable" line (excuse me?!) but since they gave it a star, I can't really complain!

"Where Serpents Sleep: A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery C.S. Harris. NAL/Obsidian. The savage murder of eight prostitutes at a London house of refuge provides Sebastian St. Cyr with yet another challenging puzzle in Harris's outstanding fourth mystery to feature the Regency-era gentleman sleuth. St. Cyr, who's been despondent ever since a stunning personal revelation toward the end of 2007's Why Mermaids Sing, is roused from his funk by Hero Jarvis, the fearless and independent daughter of his mortal enemy. Jarvis, who was doing research at the house of refuge at the time of the murders and barely survived the massacre herself, asks for St. Cyr's help in tracking down those responsible. The amateur detective finds no shortage of suspects, ranging from the pimp of some of the dead girls to Bow Street magistrate Sir William Hadley, who had patronized them. While the developing attraction between St. Cyr and Jarvis is a little too predictable, Harris does a nice job of weaving the many plot strands together while exploring the complex character of her protagonist. (Nov.)"

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Thought Police and the Thriller

A disturbing story was making the rounds among authors and editors at this year’s Bouchercon: it seems that a segment of Lee Child’s readers are so enraged by antiwar statements made by characters who are Iraq War vets in his latest Jack Reacher novel that these readers are tearing out the offending pages, using them as toilet paper, and mailing them to Child.

Child found this reaction somewhat bemusing, given that he literally took quotes from real Iraq War vets and put them in the mouths of his characters. We all know that anti-war vets exist—they haven’t exactly been keeping quiet. Not only that, but it’s a time-honored tradition in fiction to have characters disturbed by their war experiences. So what’s going on here?

I first encountered this troubling mindset in some of the reactions to my Sebastian St. Cyr books. The fact that the series is about an Englishman in the early nineteenth century didn’t stop certain readers from objecting to statements my main character makes about things like the Napoleonic Wars and the American slave trade. That’s right; evidently having a character who is speaking in 1811 criticize the existence of slavery in the United States (while trying to wheedle information out of an ex-slave, no less) marks me as both liberal and unpatriotic. And as for the idea that Englishmen might have committed what we would today call war crimes or that a war veteran might be troubled by his experiences? How dare I suggest that anyone of Anglo-Saxon origins could ever be anything less than a hero in war, or that wars can be horrible rather than ennobling experiences.

So when Steve and I wrote The Archangel Project, we knew what we were letting ourselves in for. We could have written a safe, predictable thriller about Islamist terrorists, but the truth is, we don’t find the menace of terrorism nearly as scary as the threats to the American way of life that come from inside this country. So Archangel is about things like the Big Brother trends in modern government, the influence of giant energy and defense conglomerates on foreign policy, the dangers inherent in the privatization of the military and intelligence sectors, and the inevitable economic impact of militarism and empire building. And the bad guys? Basically, they’re people who are greedy, although they try to disguise their greed behind an exaggerated patriotism and neo-conservative philosophy. Given what they’re doing, it would be beyond implausible to have any of these guys profess to be a “liberal.”

But any reader who therefore leaps to the conclusion that Steve and I are “liberals” is making, well, an unsupported leap. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those people who considers the “L” word a dirty slur. But I’d like to point out that Libertarians also condemn the above-named tendencies as Bad Things, and they think of themselves as “conservatives.” In fact, Libertarians are virtually the only group that has been vocally against the war in Iraq since before it began. They run a great website called that provides links to all the news that is either never printed in this country, or is typically buried on the bottom of page F56. You’ll notice that is in the list of links on the right; it’s always been there. Does that mean I’m a Libertarian? No. The truth is, I’ve lived such a huge chunk of my life outside the United States that I don’t find I can identify too closely with any of the current parties.

Yet there’s no denying that Steve and I feel passionately about current trends and follow them closely; otherwise, the idea for The Archangel Project would never have occurred to us. The important thing to remember is this: our stories are STORIES. “President Randolph” is President Randolph, not President Bush; he will be in The Deadlight Connection next year, long after Bush is gone. We write dialogue, not polemics, and every word is there either to advance the plot, deepen characterization, or provide information the reader needs to make sense of the story. Some readers may find that the realities we choose to mention threaten some of their deeply held beliefs, but that doesn’t alter the fact that our purpose is not to challenge their beliefs, but simply to tell a story. Our female protagonist, Tobie, is actually a fairly apolitical figure; she’s never been particularly interested in history or current affairs, and it shows. Our male protagonist, CIA agent Jax Alexander, is keenly aware of both. But Jax is not a front for either Steve or I; instead, Jax, Matt, and Colonel McClintock are all inspired by the many intelligence personnel we have known over the years. Because the truth is, when you’ve heard your President get up and tell the American people something you know is directly contradicted by the report on your desk, or when you’ve been ordered by your superiors to go up on the hill and lie to Congress, you tend to get a little cynical. A lot cynical. This unblinkered realism is the reason so many veteran CIA agents have been forced out of the Company in recent years. And yes, we do touch upon that, too—again, not because we’re writing a polemic, but because in order for our story to make sense, this little-known reality needs to be stated—however uncomfortable some readers may find it.

Every writer inevitably brings his or her own particular ideology to their books. You can only write thrillers about the things that scare you. Certain modern American thriller writers whose names I won’t mention display such vitriolic bigotry and xenophobia that I can’t read their books; yet one rarely sees their racism criticized. Why? I suppose because if a writer’s basic beliefs and assumptions chime well with the popular passions of his age, the majority of his readers won’t even notice his bias. Back in the days of the Cold War, most American thriller writers took it as a given that the Russians/Commies were the bad guys and the Americans were by default the good guys. Only a few, generally British authors dared look at some of the things Western governments were doing and suggest that maybe overthrowing democratically-elected leftist governments and replacing them with right-wing dictators backed by death squads was both morally objectionable and stupidly short-sighted (can anyone say, “Iran”?). All you need to do is consider the reception given a few years ago in the United States to the film based on Graham Greene’s The Quiet American to realize how far we still have to go in this respect.

So Steve and I expect The Archangel Project to rattle some readers. That’s okay; controversy is good for sales. But there’s a difference between controversy, and the kind of unreasoned hatred that once prompted angry mobs in Pakistan to burn Salmond Rushdie in effigy, or that leads partisans at a political rally to yell “terrorist” and “kill him” when the opponent’s name is mentioned. What has happened to the civil discourse we once liked to think characterized our country?

No writer should ever have to worry about what is going to show up in his mailbox.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Back from Bouchercon

Well, I’m back from Baltimore, and exhausted. This was my first Bouchercon, and it was a heady experience. I met Lyssa, my Harper Collins author, for the first time, and so many authors and wonderful, enthusiastic fans of mysteries that my brain is still spinning.

Writing full time is such a quiet, solitary endeavor that these eighteen-hour days spent around people and being bombarded by excessive noise has left me in sensory overload shock. I’m hoarse from shouting to be heard over the roar in the bar, and I can only wonder at my fellow authors who spent those hours in the bar drinking adult beverages rather than sipping iced tea. How do they do it?

I’ve come home with some great tales of bizarre behavior, none of which I have any intention up putting up on the Internet (sorry, guys!). What is it about conventions that leads some people to indulge in stupid antics? Or do these people behave this way all the time? One would think that, eventually, the Darwin Law would take them out of circulation.

All in all, Bouchercon provided me with much food for thought, which I’ll be pondering over the next few days. After I get some sleep and this headache goes away.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Charmed to Death

I hope this is a case of better late than never: I will be Baltimore, Maryland, attending this year's Bouchercon ("Charmed to Death") from Wednesday, 8 October to Sunday, 12 October. For those of you not familiar with Bouchercon, it's the big American mystery convention, and is being held at the Baltimore Sheraton City Center Hotel, 101 West Fayette Street. Because I was so slow getting my act together, I'm only on one panel--Thursday, at 10:00am, in room International E. The panel is "Let's Work Together" (i.e., writing with a partner), and my fellow panel members will be Cara Black, Meredith Anthony, Donald and Renee Bain, Larry Light, and Michael Stanley. There will be a book signing in the Carroll Room immediately following the panel.

So, if you're in the area, I hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Archangel Is Here!

The Archangel Project arrives in bookstores this week. Given this book's long gestation--Archangel was half written when Katrina hit three years ago--I'm finding it a bit hard to believe this is finally happening. But il est arrivé!

I understand some bookstores even have a stunning dump (one of those cardboard display boxes you see at the front of the store) with a great "tag" line: Think you know what's real? Think again. I myself haven't seen one yet, but if anyone spots one, I'd love a picture.

It's been a busy week. My sister arrived for an eight-day visit last Friday. I had a birthday--on what will now go down as the greatest stockmarket crash in history . Archangel was released. I got Deadlight in to my editor ON TIME. I'm getting ready to be on a panel at the Louisiana Book Festival on Saturday, and then next Wednesday I fly to Baltimore for Bouchercon. Phew!

As soon as I get back, I need to buckle down and finish book five in the Sebastian St. Cyr series. My editor shot down my working title--What Hell Marks. So we have a new title: What Remains of Heaven.