Thursday, July 10, 2014

Paradise Found, Lost, Regained

Every author has a tale to tell – actually at least two, usually more.  Even authors who have published only one book have more than one story.  And one of these stories is always about their journey, their experiences as an author.

And we are no different.

Since Michael Stanley doesn’t have a new Kudu mystery coming out this year, I thought I would use my annual BSP (Blatant Self Promotion) posting to share our author story.

The long story starts in the mid-1980’s on the Savuti plain in Botswana’s magnificent Chobe national Park.  Together with some friends, Michael and I witnessed a pack of hyenas hunt and kill a wildebeest.  Within hours, all the flesh AND bones had been consumed.  Yes, hyenas eat both, which is why sometimes you see white feces in the bush – calcium-rich hyena turds!

Anyway, we immediately said to each other that if we ever wanted to get rid of a body, leaving it for hyenas would be a fine way – everything would be eaten.  No body, no case.

With typical academic consideration (we were both professors), it took us about fifteen years to start a book based on that premise.  So, in 2003, we decided to see if we could actually write a mystery novel.  Since neither of us had had any real experience writing fiction (although our students may question that statement), it took us three years of trial and error, of writing and discarding, of excitement and frustration to finally type ‘THE END’.

When we read the finished manuscript, called A CARRION DEATH, we thought it was worth the effort to find an agent in the USA.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  As is the case with most authors, this was not a trivial task.  But with about forty rejections under our belt and with some luck, a well-known agent in New York picked us up.  We were ecstatic.

At about the same time, we heard of an award in the United Kingdom called the Debut Dagger offered by the Crime Writers Association.  Designed to encourage new writers, the entry requirement is to submit the first 3,000 words of a mystery novel.  It didn’t matter whether the novel was finished.  So we did that.  And to our enormous surprise, we were shortlisted from an entry of four-or five-hundred submissions.

We didn’t win.  But being shortlisted probably helped our agent in New York sell a two-book deal to HarperCollins.  Two-book deal? you may ask.  That was our reaction too.  Our agent told us before she went out selling A CARRION DEATH that it would be easier to sell a two-book deal because publishers wanted series, not stand-alones.  We hadn’t given a second book much thought.  So we cobbled together a synopsis and sent it to the agent.  It didn’t take her long to land the deal. 

The advance offered was so much bigger than we had ever fantasized about – so big, in fact, that we started thinking that maybe we were a good writer (sorry about the mixed grammar here – it’s difficult to get it correct when the writer comprises two people).

Our swelling heads grew even more when we had a nice New York Times review, a starred Publishers Weekly review, and many flattering words in a broad spectrum of publications.

Then A CARRION DEATH was shortlisted for a slew of awards: the Minnesota Book Awards in Genre Fiction, the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best First Mystery, the Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Mystery and Mystery News and Deadly Pleasures Barry Award for Best First Novel.

We didn’t win any, but being shortlisted was already a big win.

Then the Los Angeles Ties included A CARRION DEATH in its Top Ten Mysteries for 2008.

Needless to say, we were flying high.  We thought we should try to organize a panel at Bouchercon called The Dream Can Come True or perhaps Paradise Found.

We totally outgrew our hats when A CARRION DEATH was picked up in the UK, France, Italy, and Germany.

However . . . .

Despite the great critical reviews and much excitement from our editors, sales were disappointing.

THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU was released in 2009 in the USA with good critical reviews, including a starred review from Booklist and an ‘A’ rating from Entertainment Weekly.  Our foreign publishers released the book at different times over the next few years.

However . . . .

Despite the good critical reviews and more muted excitement from our editors, sales continued to be disappointing.

Then our hats started fitting again.  HarperCollins bought DEATH OF THE MANTIS, but decided to bring it out in paperback, not hardcover.  This time the advance had shrunk considerably, but was still higher than our initial fantasies.  Headline also bought the book.  Our German publisher wanted to buy it, but went out of business before our agent closed the deal.  Our French and Italian publishers decided not to buy it.

Fortunately the reviews were very strong, including a starred Library Journal review.  And again, the book was shortlisted for a number of awards, including an Edgar, the Minnesota Book Awards, an Anthony, and a Barry, which we won.  And Library Journal and Strand Magazine had DEATH OF THE MANTIS in their lists of top mysteries for 2011.

Hoo boy!  Our heads grew a bit again.

However . . . . sales continued to be disappointing.

Headline decided not to continue the series.  Fortunately HarperCollins bought the fourth Detective Kubu mystery, DEADLY HARVEST, but for a smaller advance.  It was released in April 2013, and the good reviews continued.

Publishers Weekly, in a starred and boxed review, wrote "...richly atmospheric...gritty depiction of corruption and obsession".

And DEADLY HARVEST is a finalist for Best Paperback Original at the International Thriller Writers conference starting tomorrow.  The winner will be announced on Saturday evening.

However . . . .

Not long after DEADLY HARVEST was released, we received a two-line email from our editor at HarperCollins saying that it was dropping us.

Aaargh!  It was time to offer a panel at Bouchercon called Paradise Lost.

The difficult things to reconcile were the great critical acclaim and the poor sales.  Being professors, we tried to find reasons for this chasm.  But the reality of publishing – and this is good advice to wannabe authors – is that very little makes sense.  That’s the way it is, unless you have mega sales, in which case the 7-figure advances sort of make sense.

Being dropped was very hard.  We were proud of what we had written – a pride that had been reinforced by the critics.  But there just weren’t enough readers buying our books, despite having worked extremely hard at all sorts of marketing and publicity.

It was very difficult being an author without a publisher.

We decided to continue writing without a contract, and finished Kubu #5 earlier this year.  We gave it the working title DEATH IN THE FAMILY.  We like the book.  It is different from the others.  And Kubu goes to places he’s never been before.

Fortunately, the story has another twist, although I’d bet it is not the last one.

Our agent, Jacques de Spoelberch, showed the manuscript to Marcia Markland, a senior editor at St. Martin’s Press.  And we’ve just heard that she has offered us a two-book contract.  Needless to say, we’ve accepted it.  The advance is understandably modest, but more importantly, we have a publisher again.

And I must run now as I am having lunch with Jacques and Marcia in half an hour.

Whoopee!  High five.

Paradise Regained.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Stan, I could NOT be happier for you and Michael, especially since you are joining me in the ranks of St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne authors! To rest of you I say, I hope you enjoy this post, written at my dining room table, since Stan, whose company I had gotten used to enjoying, completely ignored me while he was writing it!

  2. Count me in the ranks as well - maybe they will open up a "Murder is everywhere" imprint.

    This is excellent news. Congrats Stan and congrats Michael!

  3. Great news!
    I have a similar story and I hope you two are as happy with your new publishers as I am with mine.
    My new book isn't out until 31st of July and is already Scottish book of the month for August. (!!!!!)

  4. We are the true beneficiaries of your regained Paradise, Stan and Michael. That's "we" as in wee little folks who live in the glen awaiting Kubu & Company to deliver more of the magic. Congratulations St. Martins for landing another fine pair...

  5. That is very good news, so glad you found St. Martins Press and they found both of you and your series.

    It is really so bad for both writers and readers that the big publishers are focused on best sellers and mega hits. So many good authors and books are just tossed aside.

    The front shelves in my library as at big bookstores just feature the nega-hits and big name authors.

    So good that St. Martin's and other smaller publishers exist and are willing to be open to new authors to them.

  6. Stan: Obviously you and Michael have been writing LITTER-A-TOUR, as anything that sells like hotcakes is obviously crap, as that's all the masses buy. So be thankful that you're writing in such rarified atmosphere!

    AmA: It's only FAIR that you share the spoils with the rest of us! We're barely subsisting on your meager crumbs!

    Stan, again: In reality, it's neither Paradise Found nor Paradise Lost, it is (appropriately) Paradise Created.