Leighton Gage’s Legacy

Leighton Gage’s Legacy

On Wednesday, 13 May, Facebook reminded me that it was Leighton Gage’s birthday. I found the reminder somewhat disturbing.

Salute to a Pioneer

Disturbing, because fellow mystery author Leighton Gage passed away some time ago. I never met him, but respect him tremendously as a pioneer. His was the first commercially successful mystery series I encountered with a Latino central character.

Chief Inspector Mario Silva is Brazilian.

Not American. Not British.

book coverrelated post: Book Review: Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage

At the point I read an article about the series, and rushed out to get the first Chief Inspector Silva book, I was still smarting over advice received from an Important Author who assured me that a book in which all the characters were Mexican would never sell.

Huh.

related post: Why Write a Book About Mexico

RIP, Social Media

Facebook wants me to celebrate Leighton Gage’s birthday. Goodreads wants me to suggest books to him.

The social media machinery doesn’t know when we have passed away. On one hand, this reassures me that we are not yet robots; embedded into social media so much that it knows our every move, every thought, every hope and dream.

But on the other, it is as if our lives never stop. Without being able to log in one last time and cancel an account, our personas last forever inside The Great Web.

Memory trumps machinery

So much for Great Thoughts on life and social media. I choose to regard Facebook’s prompt as a gentle reminder of a great mystery author, who if he got the same advice I did, chose to ignore it.

We never met, but his choice unlocked a door and made all the difference to me.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Intention versus Reaction

Intention versus Reaction

“Persistence is the master virtue.”

The quote is attributed to the great thinker Anonymous. As I plug away at the 4th Detective Emilia Cruz mystery, KING PESO, it really resonates. But along with persistence, a few other key words have been useful lately.

A friend is a student of human behavior and has broadened my everyday vocabulary with words like “intentional” and “threading.” Not only have these words led me to consider how I plot mysteries but also how my characters behave.

And me, too.

Related: The Emilia Cruz series character bios

Intention

To act with intention, or be “intentional” is a positive I-will-own-this-outcome concept. In contrast, by not acting with intention, we are willing to be reactive. That means possibly ending up owning  someone else’s agenda.

That’s not to say that acting with intention means you’ll always get your way. But to risk another quote from Anonymous: “If you aim at nothing you will surely hit it.”

Threading

Threading is another great term. When I’m threading, I’m carrying my intention through a series of actions. We talk about the “thread of a conversation,” often in the context of losing it. What if we kept the thread, unspooling it via multiple intentional interactions? Wouldn’t that improve the odds of getting what we intended?

Huh. I think that’s called persistence.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

The Elusive Charms of Productivity

The Elusive Charms of Productivity

I’ve been reading the blog of James Clear, a life coach and productivity expert. While I mostly agree that productivity is all about Me, I also think it’s all about Them.

Where for art thou, Productivity?

Clear gives great advice on how to live a richer life and enjoy the ride as you journey toward your goals, which I soak up like a sponge. As a mystery author, it is easy to lose sight of why I started writing in the first place and instead focus on sales numbers, useless comparisons with other (invariably more clever and successful) authors, and what I’m doing wrong (no marketing acumen) instead of what I’m doing right (creating memorable characters and stories that resonate and entertain).

Clear’s advice on productivity is thoughtful and practical. But he’s not the only one. There are oodles of tips for authors looking to maximize their time: write 1000 words a day, use these writing prompts, set a timer to take a break every 45 minutes because you’ll work like the dickens before the break.

But progress on the next Emilia Cruz novel, KING PESO, is merely crawling along. With all this great advice out there, why isn’t my productivity through the roof?

Maybe it’s not about me at all.

The Therapy Chair

For years, I wrote in the spare bedroom. The room featured a desk, a computer, and a pull out sofa. The kids were small and my writing time was limited to weekend mornings when Dad kept them busy.

When we moved, the new guest room featured two twin beds. The bed closest to my desk was a magnet for the kids as they made their way through elementary, then middle school. They’d lay back and talk about everything; teachers and homework and dogs.  They jokingly called it “the therapy bed.”

Another move and I gained a proper writing office, albeit with only enough space for an extra chair. It was promptly dubbed “the therapy chair.”

Over the years, I spent hours at the computer, hands in my lap, mystery plots replaced by conversations about teen romances, crazed teachers, and American TV shows the kids were missing because we lived overseas. The doctor was in.

Of course I don’t begrudge that time with my kids, and think those conversations helped them both to be the college honor students they are today. Could I have written more without that therapy chair? Possibly. But I would have missed the important stuff.

The most fascinating person in the world

Sometimes it is hard to be productive because you’re just too fascinating. Everybody wants to be with you. Talk to you. Have some of your glitter rub off on them.

Fellow scribbler Deb Nam-Krane wrote a short but brilliant list of why productivity can be so elusive and gave me permission to reprint it here:

1. If you want to convert Night Owls to Morning People, just start waking up really early (like 4:30 AM early) so you can work out, wash the dishes and get some writing in. This will ensure that everyone else will start waking up early, too, no matter how quiet you are. Because you are the most fascinating person ever.
2. Take advantage of every second of Adult Alone Time you have if you’re trying to be productive in ways that require concentration; otherwise you’ll be trying to get things done while two of your children are chatting in your room. Never mind that Every. Other. Room. in the house is unoccupied. Because, again, you are the most fascinating person ever.
3. The best way to get people to stop complaining about things you do and decisions you make is to put them in your shoes. It might take a long time, but it works.
4. Laundry is always there for you, just like the dishes.
5. Don’t waste energy resenting that you have to clean up after people who technically should be able to clean up after themselves. Just do it for your own survival– and then start throwing away anything of theirs you find in a place you disapprove of.

You can read more of Deb’s clever observations on life and writing on her blog: http://writtenbydeb.blogspot.com/

Productivity goes to the dogs

The therapy chair was semi-retired when the kids went to college.

But then we got a puppy.

A killer attack voodoo puppy. Or for the layman, a Belgian Malinois from a breeder who sells to Navy Seals.

While we lived in Mexico, our big dogs thwarted more than one robbery. When it was time for another dog, we knew we wanted one that could keep our home safe no matter where we live.

Well, the home is now safer than Fort Knox. The dog is slowly becoming a good citizen, as long as you aren’t the pizza delivery guy, the mailman, or other intruder with evil intent. Training takes time. Plus there are toys to destroy, endless trips to the back yard to investigate the woodpile, walks to get used to her new urban setting, and an insatiable need for belly rubs.

Hmm. Maybe productivity is overrated.

2016 update

The killer voodoo puppy passed away and we now have a charming lab-shepherd-beagle-boxer mix. The kitchen sink could be in his bloodline, too. He has become my faithful companion, snoozing on my feet as I write. With him around, we’ll never need a therapy chair again.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Mexican Retablos: Prayers on Steel

Mexican Retablos: Prayers on Steel

After a few bites of the cake Raul seemed to realize that she was waiting. “He read about the United States and wanted to go. He tried to cross the desert but the Virgin abandoned him because what he was doing was wrong. He got lost and died in the sun.”

“I’m so sorry, Raul,” Luz said.

“His mother had a retablo made for the Virgin to have pity on his soul.”

“I’m sure his soul rests in peace.”

“When his mother died I had the retablo buried with her.” Raul continued to eat.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Luz’s heart twisting in sadness. Retablos were primitive paintings of a scene of something that happened in a person’s life for which they were giving thanks to the Virgin. But not this time. The son had died trying to get to El Norte and the mother had probably died of a broken heart. (THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY)

I’ve been giving alot of thought to visual inspiration as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th novel in the Acapulco Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series. The quote above isn’t from one of the Emilia Cruz books, but from romantic thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, which drew on many visual cues such as  Mexico’s architecture and food, as well as Mexico’s fine art.

Related: Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

The Catholic Church is a strong cultural and artistic influence in Mexico, and my books reflect that. Retablos are part of Mexico’s tradition combining art and faith, made all the more interesting to me because they are rustic folk art meant to capure a moment in time for which someone is giving thanks to God.

I bought these two retablos in a small shop in Mexico City’s  Zona Rosa a couple of years ago. They are each about 5×7 inches, and painted on rusted steel. The edges are sharp. My guess they were cut from a barrel and done by the same person.Retablo as visual inspiration

In this retablo, thanks are given to the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes for saving the school children from the ox (el buey) in Jalisco.religious retablo inspires a mystey series

This retablo depicts the Virgin appearing and saving Jacinto from the black dog which appeared in the cemetary in Oaxaca. I don’t know if this should be taken literally or is a reference to illness or the devil.

I wonder at the journey these retablos took from Perla and Jacinto, who were giving thanks to God some 50 years ago, all the way to that shop in Mexico City. Now they are part of my writing journey. Just like you.

THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

“A multilayered novel of love and drama” — Literary Fiction Review

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Little Silver Miracles

Little Silver Miracles

I’ve been thinking about visual inspiration lately, as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th Emilia Cruz mystery. Thankfully, Mexico is replete with visual cues to creativity, from large (the Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico City’s Zocalo, assorted volcanoes) to small (shots of tequila, Chupa Pops, silver milagros).

The word milagro means “miracle.” Milagros are small charms, typically silver or tin, that represent an intention. The Zanzibar art website, which carries folk art from around the world, talks about milagros on its page devoted to Mexico.

The bearer typically is asking a saint to intercede on their behalf. They may be asking for health after an injury or illness, a successful romance, or the survival of their livestock. The charms are in the shape of an item related to the request, such as arms, legs, hearts, animals, etc.

The requestor leaves the milagro at the shrine of the saint that they are asking to intercede on their behalf. Mexico is full of statues and crosses covered with the silver charms, including those pinned to ribbons or threads adorning a statue. In many cases, the milagros are pinned to clothing worn by a statue. A milagro can also be carried for protection and good luck, in the way Detective Emilia Cruz carried her rosary with her in DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd Emilia Cruz mystery.

I used a milagro as visual inspiration in The Angler, a stand-alone short story that takes place before the books in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

When I left Mexico, I took some milagros with me, in the form of this crucifix and a shape known as a Sacred Heart.silver charms adorn a purple cross

Mexican milagros charms

I’m writing in the room where they hang. KING PESO is coming together, albeit slowly.

Not that I’m praying for an intercession, mind you.

But visual inspiration that turns into faster typing wouldn’t hurt.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

How to write a political thriller

How to write a political thriller

One of the most often-asked questions for a mystery and thriller author is “Where does your inspiration come from?” Political thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY had quite the auspicious beginning . . .

Fateful dinner party

We were invited to a dinner party at the home of another expatriate family in Mexico City. I’d met the mom, Amanda, at a school function. Amanda was a writer and we both participated in an English-speaking writer’s group. Her boys were close enough in age to my kids for them to play together.

A dozen guests sipped cocktails on the patio, then went into a dining room glowing with fine crystal and china. A lovely gazpacho started the meal, prepared and served by the family’s new maid. Itzel was about 18, wearing a stiffly starched uniform and a nervous smile.

We waited quite a long time after the soup for the main course. Amanda excused herself and went into the kitchen. A few minutes later she asked me to come with her.

The main course was fish but it was still raw. Amanda looked close to tears as she contemplated the ruin of her dinner party. She didn’t understand Itzel’s frantic explanation.

But I did. Itzel had turned on the heat and put the pan of fish in the broiler. Nothing had happened, she wailed, and began to cry.

I nearly laughed. She’d put the fish into the storage drawer under the oven, thinking it was the broiler.

We found a frying pan and some butter. Ten minutes later the guests were eating trout almondine while Itzel recovered in the kitchen.

Itzel and I talked after that. This was her first job as a maid. Itzel was from a small town near Veracruz and had never lived with electric appliances, air conditioning, or flush toilets. The young girl went home every other weekend and supported her mother and siblings.

Itzel’s story became that of Luz de Maria Alba Mora, the central female character in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. I left out the part about the oven, however.

Gotta save something for the next book.

Related: Read Chapters 1 and 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Inspiring reads

Itzel’s story was only one source of inspiration. Two books also guided the narrative.

Ken Follett’s THE KEY TO REBECCA has always been a favorite, for its characterizations, pacing, and points of view. I wanted HIDDEN LIGHT to have that same sense of developing danger–whether from the drug cartels or Luz’s risks–and for readers to have the same insight into the hero as the villain. Set against the backdrop of WWII and the British campaign in north Africa, it is probably the best thriller I’ve ever read.

The other book which provided inspiration was THE EAGLE’S THRONE by Carlos Fuentes. In this novel, Mexico’s power players are forced to conduct their political intrigues via letters. The result is a tribute to cunning craftsmanship. But more importantly, from my optic, the book perfectly captured the tone of Mexico’s politics. I wanted to portray the same sense of mistrust, intrigue, and constant one-upmanship.

Musical Interlude

Many authors talk about music they play as they write. I like silence–my head is always crowded with dialogue so things are noisy enough as they are. But I like to match music with characters.

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass was one of the first Latino music superstars. The Lonely Bull is one of my favorite albums. If HIDDEN LIGHT is ever made into a movie, that title song will be the theme of the main male character Eduardo Cortez Castillo.

Putting it All Together

Pinterest is where all my inspiration for THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY comes together. There’s a board called “Inspiration for a Thriller,” with tons of pictures and videos that reflect the book and the elements that inspired it. If you’re on Pinterest, please follow along! https://www.pinterest.com/carmenconnects/inspiration-for-a-thriller/

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Leighton Gage’s Legacy

Theme for 2015: Maximize!

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

At our family New Year’s Eve dinner, I asked if anyone had made any resolutions. My husband had some fitness goals, while our college kids talked about GPAs, Zumba classes, getting more sleep, and internships.

Later, I realized that no one had asked me if I had made any resolutions. I pouted for a minute, until Kathy Griffin striped Anderson Cooper’s head with hair dye, leaving him look like a startled British rocker, and I forgot about the whole dinner/resolution/hey-you-forgot-mom business.

The truth is, like last year, I’m not doing resolutions in 2015.

Yes, Virginia, it’s okay not to resolve

As we all know, resolutions evaporate fairly quickly unless they stick around long enough to become a habit. (I believe gym memberships are based on this business model.)

Check out The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin on habits.

So instead, I pick a theme for the year.

I can post the word above my desk and be reminded all year of my intention. I can give myself little checks as the weeks fly by, asking if what I’m doing is in keeping with the spirit of the theme.

This year’s theme is: MAXIMIZE

Related post: 2014–Does your year need a theme?

Maximize Me

I’m going to maximize my year in three ways:

  1. Maximize my time

I waste a lot of time on social media. Sad, but true. I’m going to use automation tools for marketing purposes and be more intentional with the personal time I spend on the 3 Deadly Sins: Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.

book outline

I will also go back to working from an outline. I tried NaNoWriMo this year with a strong sense of the novel I wanted to write but no outline. Hey, pantsers do it all the time. The result? I wasted a ton of time slack-jawed in front of the screen, trying to figure out the right sequence of events for an extremely complicated mystery plot.notebook and handwriting

I will also spend more time writing longhand. I wrote almost all of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY in notebooks, typing up a few pages at a time. Pen and paper help marshal my thoughts and I find I have less editing work later.

  1. Maximize my creativity

Being an author these days isn’t just about having fiction for sale on Amazon. It is about creating a connection with readers and reaching them wherever they are. To that end, I’m going to do some fun and creative things on new platforms, like Slideshare and maybe even YouTube, with the goal of maintaining the connection via the Mystery Monthly emails.

I’ll also offer a few different reader gifts besides a free copy of THE BEAST. I’ve got some surprising ideas from the work I’ve been doing for bookmarketingtools.com and a lecture I gave about crafting a mystery series. Stay tuned.

  1. Maximize my reach

I have had the good luck to be offered guest post opportunities and interviews on writer blogs and would like to do more. It’s great to extend my reach and I’ve also met some terrific folks. The next step is to look at syndication opportunities for this blog.

Your theme for 2015

It’s all about attitude. In my mind’s eye, I’m drawing in deep breaths, the way an athlete does before a race to maximize lung power.

How about you? What is going to be your theme this year?

How to Make an Informed Reading Choice

How to Make an Informed Reading Choice

With so many books out there, how do you make an informed reading choice? From the author’s point of view, it’s all about “book discoverability.’ But I read more than I write and from the reader’s perspective, it’s all about knowing the book won’t disappoint.

How to choose

There are alot of Goodreads discussons about how readers choose a book. Cover? Synopsis? Word-of-mouth? Book of the month chosen by others?

Here’s a different answer: the book itself.

Sample Size

When the Emilia Cruz short story, The Beast, was featured on The Huffington Post’s Fiction 50 showcase, sales of the first two Emilia Cruz books, CLIFF DIVER and HAT DANCE, went through the roof. Readers got to meet Emilia, the first female detective on the Acapulco police force, and see what a fighter she is.

The lesson was the best way to help a reader make an informed choice with an excerpt that sets up a conflict, introduces characters to love, or otherwise intrigues. We want to make sure it won’t disappoint.

Reader Zone

That’s why I’ve created the free Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library for readers. It introduces Emilia to readers who might have seen the books on Amazon or on a book review site, but wonder about the tone and quality of the books.

The Starter Library includes a copy of The Beast, just in case you missed it on The Huffington Post last year. Free of charge.

Character Bios

In addition to the Reader Zone, in response to a reader suggestion, I’ve also added bios of the main characters in the Emilia Cruz mystery series. The bios were previously only available on Shelfari.

It is a real look behind the scenes. For example, you can find out what real life union jefe inspired the character of Victor Obregon or what Emilia Cruz and an Olumpic boxer have in common.

Writing for Water

Choose a book that gives back. During 2014 I’m donating $1 to Water.org for every Kindle book sold. Several other authors are joining me and together we’re the Writing for Water team. Each month I tally up how many peope we have been able to give clean water for life through our donations to Water.org.

We met our annual goal in August but we are still working hard. How much more can we do in the last 3 months of the year?  Help us out by buying books from Writing for Water authors.

 

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Where’s a Cheerleader When You Need One?

Where’s a Cheerleader When You Need One?

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was part of my high school’s cheer team. I was also a member of the band, playing—yes, you read it here—the cymbals. Those cymbals were red hot when we New Yorkers played the Wisconsin fight song. Alas, we could only play the song before or after a game. The trombone player was also the captain of the football team.

It was a very small school.

The school team was the Red Wings and the cheer team was called the Wingettes, although we were also called Dingettes for unknown reasons. We wore red skirts and red and white vests and had a great time dancing to Journey tunes and rocking the crowds at half time.

Where’d the cheer all go?

But lately, as adult issues crowd in, cheer can be hard to find. That shouting, dancing, it’s-okay-to-be-the-center-of-attention kind of zest can often be replaced by fatigue, overwork, and feeling  overcome by change and responsibility and stress. Too much stuff we don’t want. Not enough of what we used to have.

Without energy, goals seem unreachable or too lofty. We slog in place, consumed by the day-to-day.

I’m tired just writing this.

Related post: Sweeten Life with 4 Jars of Happiness

Note to self

For several years, I carried a Blackberry with a couple of documents on it. Letters from me to me wherein I was my own cheerleader. These little notes reminded me of my goals, pointed out that I had what it took to achieve them, and exhorted my true self not to get distracted or pay attention to naysayers (“A book where all the characters are Mexican? Naaah.”)

I read the notes over and over again, particularily when it felt like my books weren’t gaining traction or finding a readership. But as with all Blackberry products, so it would seem, mine suffered a demise. My letters to self were lost.

Virtual cheerleading

I could perpetually mourn the loss of my Wingette uniform, my Blackberry notes, and my goals. Or this can be an opportunity to rewrite my letters to self. Make them more articulate, more focused on the kind of success I’m willing to work for.

So can you! Set it out there. Write that letter to self. Cheerlead for you. After all, if you won’t, who will?

No pom-poms required.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

The Lure of the Open Notebook

The Lure of the Open Notebook

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Maybe it’s a sickness.

Yesterday, as I was cleaning out my den (also known as the writer’s cave, Mom’s office, and a total mess) I found a COMPLETELY VIRGIN hardcover spiral notebook from Agatha Ruiz de la Prada. The rush of excitement was intense.

Paper Snob

I love the notebooks from Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, a Spanish designer whose paper products I first found in Greece. The notebooks have bright colors and the pages have color coded edges. But the important thing is that both front and back are hard laminated cardboard, which makes it very easy to scribble notes.

But why was I so excited?

Because a blank Agatha is an open invitation to write another book.

notebook mystery series 001

A scribbled scene from DIABLO NIGHTS between Emilia and her cousin Alvaro, since deleted from the final manuscript

The rush of ideas

I write many scenes, as well as my outline, longhand. At least one notebook is dedicated to every book. When I wrote THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY I used a dozen before the manuscript was completed, labeling them and taping peso coins to the covers for good luck. Don’t ask me why.

So I stood there, in the den/office/cave/mess clutching my Agatha, knowing that I suddenly had the tool needed to start the next book, even before DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd Emilia Cruz novel set in Acapulco, was out the door. When I finished DIABLO NIGHTS several weeks ago, I felt wrung out. To some extent it had been hard going.

The latest Emilia Cruz mystery deals with some heavy issues–religion and martyrdom, drug smuggling, Mexico’s vigilante problem, and being honest to your significant other. Emilia contends with the first 3 but suffers from the last.

Notebook Carmen AmatoMy reaction caught me by surprise. It said “I’m ready.”

Yes, the next book will be the 4th Emilia Cruz mystery. Several scenarios are already circling around, each biting at my imagination like a shark.

First things first

A few things need to happen before that new notebook gets used, however. DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd Emilia Cruz mystery novel, will be hitting the shelves soon–my subscribers will be the first to know the exact release date, so sign up if you haven’t yet.

Second, I’d better clean the den. Gotta find a pen.

Bookstores of the Future: 5 Lessons About Survival of the Fittest

Bookstores of the Future: 5 Lessons About Survival of the Fittest

Will bookstores survive? Must they innovate in order to stay relevant and solvent in the era of ebooks and ecommerce?

Simply out of curiosity, I began posing this question to authors, book bloggers, publishers, and store owners.

This led to a series of articles on this blog, including 25 Influential Authors Weigh In, 12 Influential Bloggers Debate, and 13 Divergent Views from Publishing Insiders. The series included some memorable virtual encounters such as with veteran thriller writer Dale Brown, blogger and author extraordinaire C. M. Mayo, Lebanon-based publisher Carole Corm, and #LitChat host Carolyn Burns Bass.

The result is some personal conclusions, which likely run counter to traditional publishing’s preferences. I make no excuses; these conclusions are based only on my experience asking questions. I’m a mystery author and claim no expertise or management experience in the publishing field. Which might be a good thing. But I digress.

After 7 months and over 800 emails, here are my conclusions.

 

1. Bookstore owners can no longer stay in business simply because they love books

Surprisingly, bookstore owners were the least responsive out of all the groups I queried,  with whopping a 5% response rate. This compares to authors (60%) and book bloggers (72%). Those who did respond, however, had something smart to say:

Emily Stavrou, Schuler Books & Music,  Michigan, www.SchulerBooks.com Schuler Books & Music, Michigan-based, large-format, independent bookstore (established in 1982), has credited its continued success with the ability to evolve quickly as the market changes.  Over the years, Schuler has diversified the bookstores’ inventory to include unique gift merchandise, games and puzzles, home accessories, and more.  Schuler Books has developed a strong Used Books & Media section in each of the stores that continues to be successful.   Over the years, Schuler has added and expanded each location to include a full-service gourmet cafe, and has integrated Chapbook Press,  a publishing arm of the company,  with their recent purchase of the innovative Espresso Book Machine for print-on-demand book publishing. These are just a few ways Schuler Books has continued to remain a vibrant part of an ever-changing market. 

Not to be overlooked, technology has become an ally in innovation for Schuler Books. Utilizing social media to connect and collaborate with community groups & non-profit organizations locally has proven to be a wonderful way to bring business to the bookstore.  Schuler offers a conference room space for hosting monthly meetings, and brings in authors for events pertaining to the organization’s focus.  They also offer fundraising opportunities through many community service efforts.  These partnerships have had a positive effect on business in many ways.  The cafes see additional business through catering revenue; marketing efforts get a broad audience through the benefiting organization’s supporters, and the bookstore is able connect with their community in a meaningful way. 

Karin van Eck, The American Book Center, Amsterdam, Netherlands, http://www.abc.nl/index.php

ABC offers local authors a chance to print and publish and sell their book at ABC. The EBM, or like ABC’s owner Lynn Kaplanian Buller likes to call it: fab lab for books, is situated in both stores. ABC also offers local ( and self published) authors a chance to present their book at Meet My Book events or pitch their book (idea) to a professional publisher once a month. 

The Espresso Book Machine® (EBM), which Time Magazine named an “Invention of the Year,” provides a revolutionary direct-to-consumer distribution model for books. Put simply, the EBM is an automated book-making machine. The operator selects a title to print, and within a few minutes a book emerges: bound and trimmed with a full-color cover.

Pete Mulvihill, Green Apple Books, San Francisco, CA http://www.greenapplebooks.com/CBD-at-green-apple-books

Green Apple spearheaded the effort to create California Bookstore Day–a statewide celebration of books, authors, and indy bookstores. We took the lead, from convincing the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association to back the idea to getting publishers and authors on board, from launching an IndieGoGo campaign to get it off the ground to finding the perfect candidate to produce the event. Now, thirteen unique books and art pieces will be featured and sold at 93 indy bookstores in CA on one day only–May 3, 2014.

Ed Gillis, Ed’s Books & More, Sydney, Nova Scotia, https://www.facebook.com/edsbooksandmore

To stay competitive, I added more than books to the store. To succeed and remain relevant, I knew that I needed more than readers to enter the store; I needed to reach people who had other interests.

Besides a huge stock of books, we also carry DVDs, CDs, albums, jewelry, and collectables. Due to the variety, we have more opportunity to reach new customers; and once in the door, they discover a world of books.

 

2. The debate over print vs ebook is both emotional and distracting

Asking questions about how bookstores might look in the future, instead of leading to discussions about shared retail space, community partnerships, or clever promotions, in almost every case led to a debate about print vs ebooks. Although publishing insider Doris Heilmann of  SavvyBookWriters.com/blog and author Jane Rosenthal had some actionable ideas, many respondents were less ready to talk about practical solutions than were willing to discuss the impact of ebooks. This view was brought home to me again during a recent #LitChat session on Twitter sponsored by Carolyn Burns Bass’s Litchat.com website. While the moderator’s questions were designed to spark a debate on bookstore innovation, most of the chat was another print vs ebook discussion, with firm views on both sides.

 

3. The elephant in the room is quite comfortable, thank you

Bookstores are being squeezed on two sides, in my view. The first is from the chokehold on distribution by the traditional publishing industry. Major publishers control the distribution funnel with a limited number of select books, store displays, and may even dictate book placement.

The second squeeze is from the growing number of independent author or small press titles that aren’t in the distribution funnel, yet are increasingly popular with readers who find them through book blogs, Amazon, and other online outlets. Authors and small presses bemoan the fact that they cannot get their print books into bookstores, with a few exceptions for local connections. There is no systematic small press or indie author distribution network to stores. Plus, there is no return policy as with traditionally published books, given that most small publishers and independent authors operate on a just-in-time inventory basis.

Author Bob Mayer, who also has his own Cool Gus publishing imprint, commented that “The bottom line is that authors will totally support bookstores when that support is extended the other way.”

The traditional publishers’ return policy is often mentioned as the stopper. After selling the store a chunky quota of books, publishers accept returns of the unsold. As long as enough large stores survive for this model to continue to work, there is little incentive for publishers to shift or take on distribution of books they don’t publish.

Can this dynamic last much longer? Either bookstores will be able to innovate enough to stay ahead of the dual squeeze, or enough will fail to significantly erode the traditional distribution model. But here’s the catch–publishers can make up the difference in print returns with ebooks, leaving bookstores that rely on print in the cold.

 

4. The power of the backlist

I was most surprised to receive comments from established–no, let’s be frank, they are famous– authors acknowledging the power of ebooks. Dale Brown and Bernard Cornwell were among them, with Brown saying “It’s so easy and convenient to get a book these days, and with the Internet you don’t need to browse through a bookstore’s shelves to find a new release from a favorite author–Facebook, Twitter, a Web site, or the blogosphere will inform you.” 

Brown, Cornwell, and Mayer are all prolific authors with extensive backlists. They typify the authors who have the most to gain from ebooks, which are always for sale and never out of print. In contrast, bookstores generally don’t have the space to carry all the print titles by very prolific authors. The more titles an author has, it would seem, the less incentive to align with the traditional publishing distribution model.

 

5. The reality of books as part of the highly competitive entertainment industry

Most people associated with books and publishing regard books as something separate from other entertainment options such as music, television, or (gasp) online gaming. But for much of the book world, especially for fiction, that isn’t true. Many entertainment options are available to take up the consumer’s time and books are one of those choices. My own teenagers have shown me that.

Countering the entertainment option, many respondents said the bookstores of the future should be quiet places to browse, with a coffee bar. Basically, a library with a Starbucks attached. That model won’t pay the bills.

What will pay the bills, however, is using bookstore space to create a broader retail experience. Whether it is linking books with food and drink, or a service or an activity like hotel accommodations, an approach that generates more income streams will let bookstores survive. Are there still music stores? Yes, but they sell more than just CD’s or LPs or are part of a larger retail concept. Ernest Tubbs’ in Nashville might be the exception, but heck, they don’t call it Music City for nothing.

I wrote about a few innovating bookstore examples early in the series. Stores in Europe, for example, with the grand new Foyle’s in London, are taking the broad view and building around it.

 

Parting words

Overall, this series was harder than I thought it would be. It was hard to justify the resolute business-as-usual attitude of traditional publishers–and reading sneery literary agent Donald Maass’s recent comments about “freight class” authors–didn’t help. Neither did the near-deafening silence from store owners, whose lack of participation was underscored by some truly terrible store websites.

Yet I’m optimistic. Many print books don’t translate well to current ebook technology and are best served up in print. There is a dedicated cadre of print devotees who will spend the extra dollar for a print book and drive the extra distance to find the store. Stores that find the sweet spot between service, community, and creating a retail experience will survive and thrive.

I’ve been asked what would my perfect bookstore look like. I’d call it The Book Bar. The walls would be lined with books to browse, specialty drinks would be named after memorable titles and authors (the Detective Emilia Cruz Hot Pepper Mojito, for example), and it would be an awesome venue for author chats, book clubs, speed dating, and singles nights. Not all at once, of course.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

On the Occasion of My Second Anniversary as a Published Author

On the Occasion of My Second Anniversary as a Published Author

In addition to being a famous Mexican holiday, now celebrated around the world for reasons unrelated to the Mexican victory of Puebla over the French in 1962, Cinco de Mayo is also my anniversary of being a published author. My first book, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, officially came out on 5 May 2012.

Second Year Goals

Last year, when I reflected on the momentous occasion of my first anniversary, I was really amazed at how far I’d come in terms of books sales and skills acquired. I also set out some goals for my second year:

  • 5 books listed on amazon
  • Redesigned website with free download of Emilia Cruz mini-anthology
  • Re-release of HIDDEN LIGHT with new cover, lower price, and at least 1 promotion

It was a short list but all the goals were measurable and had a timeline attached to them. But the year ended up being much more than just those three goals.

Learning as I Go

As I headed into Year 2, I was uncertain about book marketing, this blog, the whole face-to-the-world thing. So I took time out from writing to take two online classes: Blog that Converts with Derek Halpern and Instant Bestseller with Tim Grahl.

Blog That Converts was supposed to help me redesign the website. It did that but also opened my eyes to the whole issue of how people respond to online messaging and what makes them connect to a blog/product. Blog That Converts is primarily directed at those who run an online business but I really got a lot out of it.  Derek Halpern’s socialtriggers.com website is full of ideas, not just in regard to the content, but also in regard to how Derek presents information and how the site is designed.

I was one of the beta testers for the Instant Bestseller course, which is based on Tim Grahl’s book, YOUR FIRST 1000 COPIES. The book is hands down the most intelligent discussion of how authors must connect with readers in the new publishing age in order to be successful. Tim has a lite course that is free on his website. I hope Tim expands both the course and his website with more resources and case studies; I plan to regard him as the oracle for the foreseeable future.

Website Redesign

Both the classes helped me give this website a major upgrade with catchthemes.com’s Catch Everest pro theme and a monthly author newsletter via the aWeber email service.

Subscribers get a copy of THE BEAST, the first Emilia Cruz story which was previously featured on The Huffington Post’s Fiction 50 showcase, plus a guide to writing book reviews, my list of top 10 international mystery series, and monthly updates with exclusive excerpts and book release news. Making a newsletter has been another learning curve and I’ve been helped by fellow Instant Bestseller students.

I’ve probably spent too much time this year on web design, Twitter profile design, and Facebook covers. But as a book may be judged by its cover, so is an author judged by the professionalism and quality first impressions. I get a lot of positive feedback on the look of this website, my Twitter background, etc. Presentation makes a difference.

Book List

This anniversary I have 4 books listed on Amazon, not the 5 I’d planned. The 5th book was to be a short memoir based on letters I’d written while a student in France many years ago. I put it on the back burner while taking the courses above and the manuscript stares at me balefully as I type.

HAT DANCE and MADE IN ACAPULCO were released, however. HAT DANCE, the second Emilia Cruz mystery, was on the Top Rated Top 10 for Amazon’s International Mystery category for several months, and might still be in the Top 100. I think CLIFF DIVER still is. (I’ve stopped obsessively checking things like that, which is a major accomplishment on its own.) MADE IN ACAPULCO is a collection of short stories and includes the first two chapters of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

The black matches-and-smoke anniversary cover of HIDDEN LIGHT turned out great. Bold, eye-catching, yet clean. It might be my favorite cover yet. HIDDEN LIGHT sells more in paperback than any of the other books. Maybe it’s the cover or maybe political thriller readers buy more paperbacks than mystery readers who prefer Kindle?

glasses of waterWriting for Water

Long before the Emilia Cruz series hit Amazon’s algorithm I knew that if I made enough I would donate a portion of my proceeds to Water.org, the charity co-founded by Matt Damon to bring clean water to communities worldwide. So despite the fact that Emilia hasn’t knocked Jo Nesbo off the top of the mystery charts, I decided there was no time like the present.

I started in January 2014, donating $1 from every Kindle book I sold to Water.org. After a bit I wondered if some fellow authors might like to help and Sharon Lee Johnson, Norm Hamilton and Jerry Last all stepped up with donations and promotional support. As I felt the effort gaining traction, I put up the Writing for Water page and set a goal of giving 25 people clean water for life. And it is happening! @Water is retweeting our updates, I got a nice email from the home office, and our numbers are climbing!

Have you ever done something that turns out to be bigger than the sum of its parts? Seen real change because of just a small thing? That is what is happening because of all the wonderful readers and fellow authors who are sharing this journey with me. We are giving clean water and changing lives. It feels amazing.

Golden Friendships

More than anything else, be it steadily rising book sales, the growth of the Emilia Cruz series, or an improved website, this second year has been made memorable by some wonderful virtual friendships with fellow writers. Norm Hamilton, Sandra Nikolai, Khaled Talib, Andrew Chesnutt, and especially Jane Rosenthal and Jerry Last have shared time, attention, advice, and good cheer. David Bruns from the Instant Bestseller course has helped with website ideas and tips, while Sharon Lee Johnson has been an infectious cheerleader and work ethic champ. Every day, on Twitter and Goodreads, I meet a fellow author with whom it is a pleasure to trade war stories and cheer success.

I’m thrilled to be participating in a group blog with 4 talented writers: Jane Rosenthal, Christopher Irvin, Guillermo Paxton, and John Scherber. The Mexico Mystery Writers Cartel is just getting off the ground but will be a locus for mystery and Mexico fans alike.

The team at Latinas4LatinoLit.com really gave my visibility a boost last summer with a series of 10 blog posts. Likewise, the editor of Mamiverse.com, Lorraine C. Ladish was a guest on my blog and hosted my article on bilingual humor. More opportunities came my way for guest posts, reviews, syndicated posts, etc. 

Time Management

Done properly, social media is not so much of a distraction as great tools for connecting and researching. I use Twitter and Pinterest to find great web design resources, news about Mexico, etc. Facebook is for advice from fellow authors and some great free promotion. I had been using the free version of Buffer, which seems to have gotten the vapors, so HootSuite is likely in my future.

Keeping a blog updated is hard work and it is tempting to turn each post into a nonfiction article about something I find interesting.  My “Future of Bookstores” series has been a huge time investment but I’m not sure it has had any impact on book sales. DIABLO NIGHTS might have been out 2 months earlier, too.

Yet I had the opportunity to connect with some amazing folks I would have  never have encountered otherwise: thriller author Dale Brown, with whom I had a memorable online exchange; Bernard Cornwell, author of the legendary Richard Sharpe series: Guy Kawasaki, author of APE: Author Publisher, Entrepreneur, and C.M. Mayo, author of a number of literary gems set in Mexico.

Now that I have some experience behind me, however, in the coming year I will keep unrelated blog posts from stealing too much writing time. Maybe I’ll cleverly combine things with a series on time management for authors!

For Next Year

For my third year of being a published author, here are my goals:

  • Meet or surpass goal of providing 25 people with clean water for life via donations to Water.org based on book sales in 2014
  • 2 more books listed on Amazon (DIABLO NIGHTS, the third Emilia Cruz novel is slated for late June release)
  • Publication of at least 1 Emilia Cruz short story in an anthology or ezine
  • Book trailers for all the Emilia Cruz books
  • A core group of 500 readers I connect with monthly via the newsletter
  • 100 subscribers to the Mexico Mystery Writers Cartel

Watch this space to see how it all turns out. While you’re at it, let me know your goals for the coming 12 months!

All the best, Carmen

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Carmen Amato at Spring Hill

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