TOPcrime2012

If you don’t know anything about this festival you can learn more here.  It was a great chance to meet friends and readers and to hear authors whose work I love debate issues about writing crime.  It’s also a chance to network.  I met my Dutch publisher, Claudia van der Werf from De Fontein,  who will be bringing out the Scott and Bailey novels, starting next year.  On Friday afternoon a panel on eBooks caused a great buzz.  Other people have written eloquently about it – you can read a good account from Steve Mosby, also coverage on the welovethisbook website and from the controversial author at the heart of the storm.

The consensus is that eBooks are here to stay and everyone in the industry needs to adapt to the changing market.  How cheap and disposable should our stories be was a key issue.  How to value books?  If people get used to downloading books for 99p or less will that devalue books as a whole, and end up leaving most authors even more hard up than they already are?  So far my experience of digital publishing has been very positive.  My publisher Constable and Robinson won the Ingram digital publishing award this year and Rob Nichols, the digital marketing director, is skilled at using promotions for limited periods to attract readers.  It worked so well for me that Witness reached No.2 on Amazon’s Kindle fiction list and No.1 in Crime, Mystery and Thrillers.  I’ve also self-published some of my backlist and set a modest price which keeps sales ticking over – and keeps out-of-print titles available for new readers.

On the Saturday evening I was delighted to be one of the suspects in Come Die With Me, a murder mystery dinner organized by Ann Cleeves, and based on her novel The Glass Room novel.  One of the Vera Stanhope series.  What’s special about the event is it gives readers an opportunity to meet and get to know the upcoming authors who host each table.  And to take away free signed copies of the author’s latest title.  My fellow suspects, real identities, author N.J. Cooper, publisher Jeremy Trevathan, forensic soil scientist Lorna Dawson and actor Jon Morrison turned in stellar performances.  Though one of them was lying through his teeth and turned out to be the guilty party.  It was a great event – part of a great weekend and I’m already looking forward to next year.

And the winner is…

I am celebrating this week, after a surprise win at the Daggers Awards on 5th of July.  Margaret Murphy and I jointly won the Short Story Dagger, Margaret with her story The Message and me with Laptop, both from Best Eaten Cold, a Murder Squad anthology, edited by Martin Edwards.  Many thanks to Martin for his excellent work as our editor, and to Matilda Richards at The History Press who approached us initially with the idea of doing a new anthology, also to Barry Forshaw for writing the foreword and, most of all, to Murder Squad.  Since forming, in 2000, at Margaret’s instigation, we’ve been able to support and encourage each other and jointly promote our work and that of the genre as a whole.  I’ve been lucky enough to be short listed twice before, for the John Creasey best first novel in 1995 and for the dagger in the library in 2006.  It is a tremendous honour and a real boost to get on a shortlist (and something to include on book covers and in biographies for time immemorial!).

I can tell you now it genuinely was a surprise to win, there is no subtle whispering in corners to tip you the wink.  So I was very relaxed during the meal before the announcements, not expecting to have to do more than share in the applause.  Our amazement at winning was such that I’m only glad that Margaret was able to string together some words of thanks.  I was useless.

As a reader, when choosing library books, I’d often be drawn by a Dagger reference on the cover.  A guarantee of quality if you like.  I think awarding the Daggers is the most important aspect of the CWA’s work and I’d like to say a big thank you to those in the CWA who have worked so hard to raise the profile of the prizes in recent years.  Congratulations too to everyone who made the shortlists and to those on the long lists for the Gold, John Creasey and Ian Fleming Steel Daggers.  Those winners will be announced later this year.

Finally a massive thanks to all the crime fiction readers out there – the most important part of the equation.

Are Some Books Too Long?

I read for pleasure – and to feed my habit.  I get antsy if I’ve not got a book available (and one for after I’ve finished it).  My addiction is fiction – stories.  There are many more good books out there than I have time to read so if I’m not captivated by a story early on I don’t persist – life’s too short.  If it is trite or confusing or boring or inaccessible then I give up.  I won’t finish a book just because I’ve read 30 pages. But there seems to be a recent trend for ever longer books.  Novels that I start out enjoying but that lose their appeal as I reach page 300 and realise there’s still 200 to go.  I wish they’d been streamlined, edited more fiercely and were less spun out.  I know contracts often state 80,000 or 90,000 words for a book and perhaps when supermarkets sell books there’s a pressure to offer quantity as much as quality.  I’m a short writer myself (tall woman but skimpy on the page) and always panic about whether I’ll have enough material for a whole novel.  For the record my latest offerings Split Second and Dead To Me come in at 312 and 393 respectively which is something of a mystery to me given I was fretting all the way through about running out of story.  Are writers being asked to write more wrist-breakers?  Is it a question of pacing rather than size?  Perhaps.  After all, I devoured Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel at over 600 pages and didn’t want to reach the end.  But when I see a book is 400 pages or more I do wonder if it’s worth all those words or if the story would have been better told leaner and meaner.

Book Covers

It was amusing to read in the Guardian Review John Dugdale writing about the trend for copycat book jackets, especially as three of my recent titles fall into one of the categories.  The Single Female Eye.  The book jacket is phenomenally important; it’s what makes the reader pick up the book in the first place or click on the listing.  Though sometimes publishers seem to coy about the notion of imitation.  My first book Looking for Trouble, a private-eye novel, was published by Crocus, a small press, as a result of winning a competition.  On a shoestring, they produced an effective,  three-colour cover (black, white and red) featuring a woman in a car watching a typical Manchester street in the rain.  When I got contracted to a much bigger publisher for my next title in the series, Go Not Gently, they designed a brand new cover.  It featured a woman in a car watching a typical Manchester street in the rain.  ‘Great,’ I said, ‘you decided to stick with the same design.’  There was a flurry of disavowals and denials.  This was four colours, it was a different angle, it was nothing like the first jacket.  Hmmm.

People sometimes ask how much say authors have a cover design.  It’s minimal in my experience (apart from that very first time).  A standard letter goes out along the lines of, ‘We think this is delightful, we hope you agree.’  And that’s that.  To be fair, most of the time it is delightful and I do agree and when I have on occasion raised concerns, which tend to be about the cover not reflecting the tone of the book, I have been lucky to have publishers who have addressed them.  But involvement in the process, chatting with a designer, or thinking up ideas or motifs?  Nope, doesn’t happen.  The most bizarre jackets tend to be foreign translations where one can only assume that cultural differences account for the bemusing designs.  For example the Chinese edition of The Kindest Thing, my novel about assisted suicide, shows a woman in a billowing white dress, face obscured by windblown blonde hair, standing in a wheat field.  But they must know what sells for their market.  Meanwhile I’m waiting to hear about design ideas for my next novel – I’m betting on another Single Female Eye.