Tuesday 17 May 2011

J. Carson Black interview: The Shop

THE SHOP by J. Carson Black

J. Carson Black is the author of five crime fiction thrillers.  The first book in the Laura Cardinal series, DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN, was nominated for the Daphne du Maurier Award and was a selection of the Doubleday Book Club.  A native Arizonan, she lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband.

Why the pseudonym?

Although I am proud of my earlier books, they didn’t sell for much money.  When I was cut by my publisher, I decided to take my time, buckle down and write the best book I could. That book was DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN. By then, I was already thinking about using a pseudonym.  I thought a gender-neutral name might appeal to a wider audience.  But the main reason I chose a pseudonym was due to realities of traditional publishing. 

As a product, a book can be returned at any time by anyone without explanation.  The publisher expects returns and prints more than they expect to sell in the hopes that lightning will strike and the author hits it big.  So let’s say Barnes & Noble orders 6 books for each store. They sell 3.  After a month the store has to clear its shelves for next month’s books, so they send 3 back.  The following year, when the author’s next book comes out, Barnes & Noble orders 3 instead of 6.  It’s a vicious cycle: The bookstore orders fewer books, the publisher sets a smaller print run, and pretty soon any author who can’t get over the hump (few can) is dropped.  The author’s name stays in the computer.   Barnes & Noble is not going to order a lot of books by that author---they just won’t.  And so the agent, editor and author together will decide a pseudonym is in order.  By using my new name J. Carson Black, I received ten times the amount I was paid for the previous book. (I’d improved that much as a writer, but that’s beside the point.)

When I went indie with my thriller, THE SHOP, I decided to put all my books back under the name J. Carson Black.  Without booksellers, I don’t need to change my name again, and can finally start building my brand the old-fashioned way. 

You have terrific sales. How much have you relied on social media to spread word about your books?

I’m on Facebook.  I’ve been on for a long time just as myself, and have probably made a fool of myself more than a few times.  I talk to my horse-racing pals a lot.  And the writing community.  And yes, that third rail---politics.  I’ve probably lost a few friends on that score.  I have not tried the hard sell as some authors have on Facebook.  I don’t say, THE SHOP, now only 99 cents! I think peoples’ eyes just glaze over when they see that. One thing I’ve learned: Try different things, but if it doesn’t work, don’t waste time on it. There’s too much other stuff to do.  We did start another Facebook page, the author’s page, but so far I haven’t had time to do anything over there, so it’s just me on my own page talking to people.  My husband is my publisher, and he has a company called Breakaway Media.  So if there’s any horn-blowing, he does it.  I will admit that when I hit some of the lists I had to share.  Probably too much, in retrospect.  Look at me!  I’m on the Thriller list!  Wheeeeee!  My mother (who is English, by the way) bought me a children’s book when I was little. The title was WATCH ME, CUBBY BEAR, about a bear cub who got into all sorts of trouble. I was always a Watch-Me-Cubby-Bear kind of kid, and it didn’t change when I grew up.  At a certain point, I realized I was Cubbying all over the place, so I am trying for a modicum of modesty.  I’ll tell you how that works out. 

I’m just ramping up on Twitter, which is to say I haven’t Tweeted yet.  I’m still building up to it. And I’m making friends at the Kindle Boards.  That’s how I came to blog here, at Allan’s Place.  I think being social, making friends, strengthening relationships will only help, especially if it’s a natural thing to do. It’s great when friends have your back, and you have theirs.

What's the most effective piece of marketing you've discovered?

To be honest, I don’t know why THE SHOP is doing so well, except that I believe in it.  I have always believed in this book.  I’ve written for twenty-five years, so I’ve had plenty of practice at winning---and at failing.  But really, it’s never a failure to pour yourself into a novel.  One of the truly sweet things about writing a book: the times you spend doing real-life research. Spending time on the racetrack backside, riding into the Superstition Mountains looking for the Lost Dutchman mine, tracking a sexual predator online along with a police detective---those are experiences I will never forget.  Writing a book marks a time in your life, especially if you’re a slow writer like I am.  And then there’s the joy of writing a really great scene.

Regarding sales, I don’t think there’s any silver bullet.  It seems to me that there are a myriad of little things that lead to success.  Good books---great books—go rejected and unnoticed all the time, but there’s always a chance that will turn around. Think about the book that is considered to be the greatest in American literature, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES.  No one would buy that book.  The man who wrote it hanged himself.  Not long after his death, his mother received an acceptance letter. Think of how many books he could have written if he had not slipped into despair. 

I believe that catching on with readers is a result of many little things. Attention to detail, learning from others, the willingness to be clear in your message to readers – “this is the promise I make to you”, whether it’s romance, memoir, literary, non-fiction, or thriller.  Write a good book.  At a certain point, you may reach critical mass, and then there’s a lot less for you to do. Luck plays a part, too.  The wave has to come.  But to catch the wave, you have to be ready for it.

Who designed your cover? 

My husband, Glenn McCreedy, and I designed the cover for THE SHOP. At the time, he had not yet qualified in Photoshop and it took several days to get it right.  When he finally had something viable, we got into the weeds a bit.  He would make a change.  We’d stand back from the monitor and look at it.  He’d make another change.  At a certain point, it clicked.  Just a nudge one way or other, until the composition gelled. 

All our books have a similar font.  We studied the important hardcover crime fiction and thriller covers from the American big six publishers, and saw that the title and the author’s name are more influential than the actual art.  Cover art is important, but the right font (simple, large, and well-placed) projects strength and gives a book weight.  By the way, Allan, your covers are a marvel.  Your use of a uniform font and your trademark colors say to the reader, “this is another Allan Guthrie book.” 

Our first cover attempt [right] was beautiful – a photo of the bayou at sunset.  It was eye-catching and very much like a book jacket on a James Lee Burke novel.  But we consulted with a friend of ours who specializes in internet marketing, and she suggested that for a thriller, we should find a way to project menace.  So we had to scrap the beautiful one and came up with the cover you see now.  There is a definite a sense of menace with this cover.

Do you have any other projects on the go? 

I am writing another crime fiction/thriller called ICON.  It’s about a Hollywood star named Max Conroy who escapes from a rehab place in the Arizona desert.  He’s sick of his life and wants out, but suffers from hallucinations and unreasoning fear---the Desert Oasis Healing Center really screwed him up.  Not only that, but now they’re coming to kill him.  Despite his fractured state, Max discovers his own inner strength and resourcefulness to survive.  He teams up with a female sheriff’s deputy and deals out a little revenge of his own.  (That’s the plan, anyway—I’m about halfway through.)

The assassin hired to kill him is a little strange. She has adopted a twelve-year-old boy, kind of, and he is now her “son,” although he’s more like her cub.  She trains him to be a killer.  I start the book this way:

The woman and the boy came from L.A.  They drove a white 1999 Toyota Camry, which looked like a million other Toyota Camrys all over the west.   The woman, who bought the car two days previously from a man in Anaheim, wanted something that would slip under the radar.”

As a reader, how would you describe your taste in crime fiction? 

I like good strong crime fiction thrillers.  Sunny in nature, I gravitate toward sunny places for my noir.  I like the California writers: Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker, John Lescroart, and Jonathan Kellerman. I like the Florida writers, too—James W. Hall, Carl Hiaasen, Randy Wayne White.  Thriller writers like Lee Child, Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Joe Finder, and Gayle Lynds.  I love Dennis Lehane.  Those are the kinds of writers I love to read, and their books are the types of books I try to write. I’d written in many genres and finally found a genre that would challenge me.  One agent pushed me in the direction of romance just because I was female.  I tried that, and failed miserably. I then realized I’d only be happy writing the kinds of books I love to read.      

What are you reading now? 

I just finished John Lescroart’s DAMAGE.  Before that, I read T. Jefferson Parker’s THE BORDER LORDS.  I’ve got Michael Connelly’s books in my sights right now.  But first, I’m reading Michael Wallace’s THE RIGHTEOUS.  He’s a fellow ebook writer and the opening is knock-down-drop-dead gorgeous.

If you had to re-read a crime novel right now, what would you choose?

If I had to choose, it would be THE CONCRETE BLONDE by Michael Connelly.

From an artistic rather than financial perspective, what book do you wish you had written?

What's the best collection of short stories you've read?

I generally don’t read short stories. Ironically, my attention span is too short.  I’m not big on starting out with a character who will last only a few pages.  But there’s one exception – I ate this book up like candy: TWENTIETH CENTURY GHOSTS by Joe Hill.  Wait – there was another book of novellas I loved just as well.  FULL DARK AND NO STARS, by Stephen King.  Hmmmm. I wonder if there’s a connection there...

Ever tried your hand at screenwriting? 

Yes.  I wrote a screenplay for my first book, a ghost story called DARKSCOPE (Now available on amazon!).  It was a different process and in many ways a different story.  I entered the screenplay in a screenwriting contest called “Film in Arizona Screenwriting  Competition.”  I was one of five finalists.  We were flown to L.A., breakfasted in the courtyard of the Mondrian, and met with “development people.”  We flogged our screenplays, then had lunch at the Warner Brothers Lot commissary.   It was a delightful day, but nothing ever came of it.  That’s Hollywood!

What was your favourite book as a child?

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, by Ray Bradbury.   That was the book that made me want to be a writer.  I got sidetracked, though, as often happens. Years later, I started reading Stephen King.  THE SHINING was the second book that made me want to be a writer.  I finally did something about it and here I am, a twenty-five-year overnight sensation/drop in the bucket---however you want to look at it!   

What advice do you have for traditionally published authors who are stepping into the self-publishing arena?

I think indie publishing is a different ball game. In traditional publishing, an author waits breathlessly for the day the book comes out, then goes on book tours and radio and does everything possible to sell that book, because that book has to be sold over a very short period of time. The author has only a two-week to one-month window when the book is out in stores and being seen.  Amazon has helped authors somewhat by keeping their books available, but when the buzz is gone nobody is looking for these books. Whereas in ebook publishing, if the author can keep attention on the book, people will see it.

Now the author is responsible for the cover, the product description, and the marketing, and she can put the book up any time she’s ready.  At first, it’s slow.  I think I sold one book last July, when my husband and I put up our first book on Kindle.  At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to my one sale.  The next month we sold a couple more, and added another book.  I was busy chasing my dream of a hardcover deal with one of the legacy publishers.  But my books bumbled along, doing a little better each month. 

It finally became clear to me that I was not going to get a print deal for my thriller, THE SHOP.  But I noticed that one of the three books in my Laura Cardinal mystery series was climbing the best seller lists. It just sort of started creeping up.   

I began to see the shape of something new and exciting. 

In the old days, editors wanted to “build an author slowly.” They would give a writer the chance to find his footing.  They would give an author the gift of time to write three, four, five, six books and find his audience naturally. But now publishing is a big business, most of them owned by corporations, and publishers and editors are feeling the squeeze. Now more than at any other time, they throw a book up against the wall to see if it will stick.  Usually, it does not.

But at last, here is the chance to build your own career.  You have to put a lot of sweat equity into this, and work smart.  And be aware, it’s not a done deal.  Most ebooks spend their lives in obscurity.  But here are a few tips:

Say you’re writing a thriller.  Write the best book you can.  I mean really.  And have someone good edit the book.  You’ll probably have to pay an editor to do this.  As an indie author, it’s up to you to cover everything.

To market the thriller, you have to make it look like a thriller. Everything---the product description, the cover, even the company your book keeps---must say thriller, thriller, thriller.  If your book looks like a paranormal romance, no matter how beautiful the cover, you will not realize your goal.  You cannot be willful on this score. What is pleasing to your eye might not fit the type of book you are selling.  A soft-focus photo of a daisy does not imply threat and spycraft. Stephen King can get away with that; you can’t.

My third piece of advice: go to Kindle Boards Writer’s Café.  There you will learn the ropes.  There are people there on every level. Some have sold one book.  A year from now, they might have sold 100,000 books.  Watch and listen.  Pick up little gems in what the successful authors say.  That’s what I did.  I tried to learn from everyone.  When I saw that ordinary people were selling extraordinary numbers of books, I felt hopeful.  I could see the broader outlines, the possibilities. 

Set goals, big and small.  Set large, over-arching goals and don’t be afraid to reach high.  Set smaller achievable goals, and congratulate yourself when you surpass them. 

Write. Without writing, there are no books. Writing is the core of everything.  It’s easy to obsess over the numbers (boy, do I know that!), but it’s the book that counts.  When someone sits down to read, they’re not reading your numbers or your ranking. They’re reading your story. 

What are the greatest opportunities facing writers these days? 

The ebook boom, undoubtedly.  It’s like the Land Rush in 19th century America.  It’s as if we all have our wagons and mule teams lined up and someone shoots in the air and we’re off!  There’s territory out there for us to claim.  I’m planning to find me some nice bottom land where I can run a few head, build my cabin, and then amass more land, and pretty soon I’ll be a cattle baron.  This really is like the 19th Century, every man for himself, with the publishing companies taking the rear. 

The publishers have some hard decisions to make.  Their paradigm is closer to the real 19th Century than the 21st.  An author waits a year for his book to reach the shelves, and boom!  It’s out.  Then it’s try and move those copies for a few weeks, until the next wave of books comes through.  It’s all over in a minute.  Wait a year, and repeat.  In my opinion, publishing has become more and more of a crapshoot, and ebooks seem steadier, with a common-sense approach.  Publishers used to “build” authors over several books, but now they don’t.  Now an author, if she is resourceful and a damn good writer, can build her own following.

THE SHOP by J. Carson Black


  1. I really enjoyed reading this interview as I'm always interested to hear what authors are saying about social media and e-publishing.

    Publishing houses are more likely to take a chance on an author because the cost of publishing and distributing an e-book is much less compared to traditional publishing. This is a good thing for authors and book readers alike.

    Marketing and promoting ones book is, almost without exception, the most reviled aspect of writing based on all the interviews like this that I've come across. This is where a thoughtful social media strategy becomes handy. The social web allows for authors to promote their work and grow their fanbase without hammering people over the head to buy their book.

    I was happy to see that Black does not do the hard sell for her work. That's the biggest mistake anyone can make. The social web is not about selling -- well, ok, it is --- but not in the traditional sense. The social web is about conversation and engaging with people over common interests first, the sales part will take care of itself.

    Some of the best authors that I follow on Twitter are constantly sharing pictures of the their work space, their writing process, and the times when the cat turns over their coffee. The true secret is that they engage with their community and have conversations. You can't buy marketing like that. You stop being just a name and a cover photo on a book sleve and you become an actual person; in other words, taking care of your relationship with your fanbase can be one of your most enjoyable and important drivers of success.

    Would be interested to know what others think!

    Michael Girard
    Community Engagement, Radian6

  2. "Publishing houses are more likely to take a chance on an author because the cost of publishing and distributing an e-book is much less compared to traditional publishing."

    Michael, I take it you're referring to digital publishers? Traditional publishers are heavily reliant on print sales, since that's still where the vast majority of their sales come from.

  3. I've just read The Shop and loved it. It's a glossy, complex thriller with one of the best opening scenes I have ever read. You know when you start reading a great book and you get that tingle? That's how I felt when I read The Shop.

    She also, along with Victorine Lieske, has the best covers of all the indie authors on Amazon.