Susan and I spent last weekend at a conference in Sacramento. The conference was called Left Coast Crime, and it's an annual gathering, with a different host city each year, of mystery and thriller writers, fans, and assorted pros, such as agents, editors, and publishers. We were there as publishers, sowing off our wares and selling books in the book room. I was also there as an author, talking up, selling, and signing copies of Behind the Redwood Door.
We arrived late Wednesday afternoon and set up our table. The conference lasted all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, plus Sunday morning. It felt like about three weeks. It was fun, but being anchored in the book room, as Susan was most of the time and I was part of the time, alternated between boring and flustering. The show's main events were panel discussions, and while the panels were in session there was virtually no traffic in the book room. Then, when the panels let out, there was a brief but hectic mob of customers buying books to get them autographed by the author/panelists. We had only two author/panelists attending, and we sold a dozen or so of each of their books. They were each on a couple of panels. Their presence attracted attention to our table, and we sold a lot of other books as well.
We didn't come anywhere close to making our money back, what with the hotel costs, the registration for the conference, the travel expenses, and the restaurants, not to mention the books we bought by our colleagues. But making a financial profit wasn't the main goal anyway. We also attended a number of interesting panels, saw many friends, and made a point of cementing friendships and associations, which is tiring work but enjoyable, too. I learned a lot from the panels I attended, which were on small and independent presses, social Internet networking, and senior sleuths in mystery novels. I also was a panelist on a panel titled "Writing Is a Real Job." I was the least professional of the writers on the panel, by which I mean I make the least money for an equal share of hard work at the computer.
What I took away from the panels and the general chat at the Left Coast Crime conference: it is perhaps harder than it has ever been to be published by a major-league publisher (who are now collectively called the "big six" because of all the clumping by a few conglomerates that has happened over the past couple of decades). The problem is not just that all the major leaguers are owned by so few corporations, but also that those corporations are having financial difficulties because of the way the publishing business has been attacked by online bookselling and ebook distribution, and also, of course, the economy in general.
On the other hand, it is perhaps easier than ever to be published, if you're willing to settle for a small, independent publisher who uses ebook technology, and/or POD technology. The drawbacks of this route to publication are having to accept that you were accepted virtually without gatekeepers, having to do your own editing and proofreading (or hire people who will do a good job at these chores), and having to do all your own marketing, promotion, and publicity. Of these drawbacks, the only one that is a real problem is the psychological problem of Groucho's paradox: "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that would accept me as a member." Because the other downsides exist at the major-league level too: unless one is a superstar, one does all one's own editing and all one's own promotion at all levels of the industry these days.
Applying all this newfound (actually reconfirmed) wisdom, and riding the wave of enthusiasm that abounds at writers' conferences, I am now in the process of submitting two of my manuscripts to people I met last week in Sacramento. One is my bookstore mystery, Hooperman (alternate title Bookstore Cop), which I've sent to Billie Johnson, the editor/publisher of Oak Tree Press, the publisher of Behind the Redwood Door. The odds are against me on this one because Hooperman is such an unconventional mystery (no murder, for one thing; also it's short, and it's full of "language," as the movie raters say). But it's worth a try, and it's better than letting that gem (sez I) sit on a closet shelf. It was, by the way, a pleasure to meet Billie in person at Left Coast Crime and to know that my current publisher is a smart woman with a sense of humor.
The other novel I'm shyly submitting is my latest, Promises to Keep (alternate title 1963), which I will send to an agent I met named Chip MacGregor, who places books with epublishers and small independent houses. This is another long shot, because the novel is weirdly constructed (interwoven short stories support the structure of the plot). But what can I lose? And what I could gain is a foot in the door for the family saga trilogy of which this new one is the final third. These three books, which I call collectively The Wizard of Elephant Lake, can be read in any order, and the other two books, Elephant Lake and Geronimo's Skull, are available only as ebooks. I'd love to find print publishers, no matter how small, for all three.
Anyway, both Susan and I feel we got our money's worth in terms of newfound contacts and knowledge, and we both enjoyed the schmoozing aspect of the gathering, even though neither of us is especially comfortable with schmoozing. We will no doubt do more of these conferences (although at least once per conference one or both of us will take a solemn oath never do do this again). We're looking forward to a possible one-day show in Santa Rosa (a four-hour drive away) in September, a one-day mystery conference in Irvine (a two-day drive) in November, and out in the distant future of 2014, the Bouchercon, the annual meeting of the Mystery Writers of America.
Unfortunately, this recent conference ended on a painful note. Literally painful. As we were getting ready for bed on our last night in the Sacramento hotel, Susan tripped and fell against the bedside table. She was able to complete the show and we drove home without much difficulty, but an xray has revealed that she cracked a rib. This means her mobility will be limited for the next six weeks or so, and it couldn't happen at a worse time (spring) for such an avid gardener.