Saturday, February 12, 2011


Yes, that’s a redundant expression of the name of the hotel where I stayed this past week in Los Angeles, but that’s not its meaning.   Nor is it intended as the lead-in to any particular website.  It’s a pessimistic acronym in formation, something along the lines of “writers wrangling werewolves” or “we won’t win.”

I’m not quite sure where my mood comes from but it can’t be because I’m in LA.  What’s there not to like about this place?  Pause.  It’s probably tied into my reason for choosing a hotel in the Westwood section of town.  My first LA area book event this trip was scheduled to take place February 9th a few blocks from here at The Mystery Bookstore on the edge of the UCLA campus.  But the signing never happened because TMB closed forever on January 31, 2011.  A victim of many things, no doubt, and my canceled appearance was but a trivial bit of collateral damage.
Sign in the window of The Mystery Bookstore, Los Angeles

So much history gone in an instant.  I wonder what will happen to that massive “arrest ledger” each author appearing for the first time was asked to sign?  I’ll never forget how I felt looking at the names of all the legends who’d signed before me, and that shiver down my spine at the honor of being linked to them in even such a small way.  It saddens me to think of all those who will never have that chance.

But I knew of its closing a month ago, so there must be more to this feeling.  I think the reality of seeing TMB’s shuttered doors brings home much of what I’ve been hearing in my travels along the Seattle-San Francisco-Los Angeles digital heartland of America.  These were not conversations with book people, but with techies—which means I have no way of verifying if what I heard was true, false, pie-in-the-sky thinking, old news, or fattening.  All I know is that I heard essentially the same thing from different people.
Google's Wael Ghonim

Each conversation took off from the same place: the power of the Internet as witnessed in world headlines.  A Google executive using Facebook is heralded as champion of Egypt’s (successful) revolutionary efforts and a content provider gains editorial control over its acquiring AOL delivery system (plus hundreds of millions of dollars).
AOL's Tom Armstrong and Arianna Huffington

There is feverish, worldwide competition for bringing traffic-generating content to the Internet.   And amid that frenzy digital pirates flourish.  Just look at what’s happened to the record and movie industries, they’re awash in pirates.  And publishing has boarders threatening on all sides.  There is a horrible inescapable truth out there: the market will be served.  Accept that and prepare, or perish.

For those who say publishing is different, because book buyers are different from lovers of music or films, go light a candle along with your prayer.  It was readers of books who put an iconic bookstore out of business because what TMB offered could be found cheaper elsewhere.  What then makes one think a book buyer would not pay less still to a pirate?

Yes, I see the shrugging at all this old news.  But if what I’ve heard has any merit, far more daunting problems lie ahead.  The U.S., a relatively observant protector of intellectual property rights, is approximately five years ahead of the rest of the world on methods of exploiting the World Wide Web.  Imagine what will happen when that knowledge spreads unchecked across the globe to places far less respectful of such IP rights, and the masses are tempted with near freebies in the privacy of their own downloads?

Let’s hope that what I’ve heard is wrong, or that the publishing industry is preparing for the challenge.  If not…

Sunshine...if you can't recognize it at the moment.
Well, I’m a firm believer that the only ones who lose are those who give up when they’re down, so it’s time to change the mood, with journeys to bookstores that keep mystery reading alive by offering unique point of sale value to their customers.  Today at 1:30PM it’s Mysteries to Die For in Thousand Oaks, tomorrow (Sunday at 2PM) Book’em Mysteries in South Pasadena, and Wednesday at 7PM Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego.  We shall prevail.

Next week I’ll talk about fun things, I promise.

Jeff ­— Saturday


  1. Excellent comments, Jeff. Every week my internet sleuth (Google alerts) finds some website that is offering our books through a free download. Of course, we are flattered that they are taking the time to do this and that perhaps someone somewhere is reading the books. But our publishers tell us that this is an ongoing battle, and that as soon as their legal people shut down one website, another springs up.

  2. Stan,

    I really hate going back to the old days--at least my old days, when I was a New York City litigator handling "complex commercial cases"--but in my opinion the battle plan publishers are waging is the proverbial "you know what in the wind."

    First of all, the sort of litigation they're waging addresses the manifestations, not the root, of the knockoff problem and, second, pirates never heard of the Marquis of Queensbury.

    In fact, at times I wonder if even our "guilds" get it. The Authors Guild just put out a suggestion on how to get around the bottom line disparity in ebook versus print royalties. A serious concern to be sure. The problem they say is that if the current royalty arrangements change for one author, many contracts would require a similar change for all with that publisher.

    The Guild suggests that instead of arguing for increased ebook royalty rates, authors should demand parity between print and ebook sales. In other words, if an author gets three dollars per hardcover, they should amend their contract to get the same amount for each e-book. And that, they suggest, will get around the "parity" concern.

    As a litigator, my eyes roll. Judges have seen subterfuge before and (generally) it does not work. That very Authors Guild email being Exhibit A against the efficacy of its suggestion.

    One must attack such threatening issues head on by driving at their core. Ruthlessly if necessary. Let us hope someone out there is listening.

  3. Jeff,
    I'm variously excited and scared to death of the e-book tsunami. It has so many advantages for authors and so many disadvantages. But as you say, the market will be served so we have to live with whatever happens. A good reason to try to position ourselves to be washed forward rather than sucked under.
    I also have a soft spot for The Mystery Bookstore. Stan and I only signed there once. We were an hour late (schedule snafu). As a result we delayed the author following us so we managed to pitch to some of his audience. Neither the author nor the bookstore made any complaint. We signed the Book, and the new author set up. It was Tim Hallinan, but we didn't know him at the time...

  4. Michael,

    I would love to have been there at TMB just to watch the three of you massed together at the same book event. That's what's called "critical" mass. Can you imagine what would happen if that mass increased to say eight?

    But what name could possibly describe such an overarching event...a virtual gateway to unbridled energy and genre exploration. Whoops, sounds like I'm describing a Saint Louis landmark. How silly of me.

    By the way, I fully agree with your tsunami observation. The warning bell has rung, so keep those surf boards waxed and ready--or whatever it is one does with those things to stay afloat AND enjoy the ride.

  5. As the only non-writer in this discussion so far, I have many questions, the big one being - what is best for authors?

    Who publishes e-books? I know that Tim Hallinan released CRASHED as an e-book for Kindle (I don't know about Nook). Is he the publisher or is it Amazon? Who decides the price of an e-book? I have read posts by Leighton Gage that indicate he has control of pricing on some continents but not on others? How does that work?

    Is it too soon to have reliable figures regarding whether print or electronic versions of the same book sell better in one format than in another?

    I have a very large stack of books waiting for me. During all our bad weather, it was comforting to look at my large stacks and know that as long as I had coffee and books I could ride out a blizzard.

    I bought the e-book versions of Tim's Simeon Grist books. I downloaded them to my PC. I forget I have them. Do people actually read the books they download or is something of an impulse buy that is then forgotten? If people read what they download, like what they read, and search out the author's other books, that is a win on both sides ( a "ww"). But if they purchase one book and don't read it, will that author only make one sale, the other books overlooked?

    I have chased down books that I have seen people reading on trains and in waiting rooms. The Kindle does away with some very effective advertising.


  6. Beth, why do you always ask the tough questions?:)

    I certainly am in no position to answer what's best for all authors. Plainly, those with "leverage" will do better in negotiating their e-book deals than those without, yet by the same token those deals will blaze the way for changes ultimately inuring to the benefit of us all. The market will find the way to equitably resolve remuneration in the legitimate publishing world.

    What most concerns me is how publishing plans on dealing with the dark side, roamed by pirates.

    Anecdotally I've heard that some record companies are down to 10% of what they made just a few years ago; household names recording artists are out on tour because that's the only way for them to make money; and at least one major film studio now releases its big films in China before doing so in the U.S. because it gives the studio at least a chance on getting into that market ahead of the pirates who have U.S. premiered films distributed there before the popcorn is stale.

    I'm sure all that is somewhat overstated, but look at these stories taken off the internet (legally): "Modern Warfare2," the most pirated video game of 2009, had 4.1 million illegal downloads in six weeks; the film "Avatar" topped the charts for 2010 with 16.6 million illegal downloads; and in a report released just yesterday, one "credible anaylsis" concludes that global music piracy causes $12.5 BILLION of economic losses every year.

    We're starting to talk about some real money here.

    Let's just hope someone out there in the book publishing industry has a plan. And that there are people who will listen and take action. That's probably what's best for everyone, authors and readers alike.

    Time for me to put all these thoughts aside and have a good time. After all, it is a Saturday night in LA. So, it's off to dinner tonight with Lenny Kleinfeld--and, Lenny, you damn well better be funny.:)

  7. A friend of mine here in SOuth Africa, who is head of Sony SA, told me last year that the monetary value of the illegal downloads of music by students at the Ivy League universities was about the equivalent to the monetary value of the damage done by Katrina. It seems as though we may have to turn ourselves into stand-up entertainers, charging at the door!!

  8. I can guarantee you that whatever plans the publishing industry has to deal with piracy are (a) futile, and (b) futile.

    After all, they can't even deal with legal e-books. Facing a potential torrential downpour of cash, they all went out and bought umbrellas. They resisted e-books, and when they finally bowed to the inevitable, they overcharged their customers and underpaid their writers.

    So, sure, they're going to have an absolutely crackling plan for dealing with piracy.

  9. In fact, Stan, I think it's SONY that's releasing its films first in China. Not sure about that though.

    Isn't it interesting, Tim, how so many different institutions under competitive siege somehow think in terms of controlling their profits by (a) hitting their customers with price increases and (b) leveraging down their dependent suppliers margins, rather than addressing the threat head-on.

    Whether that reaction (I dare not call it a strategy) is born of the institution's short term concerns over stock price (and/or executive compensation), a "we're the kings in this castle" arrogance, or simple ignorance does not matter. The result is invariably the same: customers now have a justifiable reason for moving on, suppliers the incentive to seek out a more dependable outlet for their labor, and the competitor who started it all, a wide open opportunity to eat the institution's lunch.