American tours.

When I started out, seventeen years and thirty two books ago, it seemed to me that the idea of being a writer was simply brilliant. I never expected to be a multi-millionaire, but to be fair, in those days, it was pretty easy to earn a fair living. Price protection on books meant that authors knew how much they would earn per book. If it was hardback, ten percent of the cover price, while paperbacks earned seven and a half percent. And they rose, if you sold lots.

Life was good.

Well, it would have been, if it wasn’t for the fact that new authors like me earned a pittance. Still, I was happy with my three thousand spread over the next two years. I was a published author.

Sadly, the money’s dried up still more since those halcyon days. For a Brit author, almost without exception, breaking into the US seems fabulous, until you look at the sums. Most publishers have to sell through distribution deals, which means massive discounts, and peanuts for the author.

The loss of so many bookshops means that the mid-list authors aren’t producing as much as they used to. Once, publishers could expect this middle-of-the-road brand of author to generate almost all their profits. The large number meant the publisher’s accounts were secure. So what if the mid-listers earned little as individuals – there was an actuarial certainty that the majority would sell, and sell moderately well. Those profits could be spent on the high-rollers, the celebs who wouldn’t pay back their advances, but who added glitz to the imprints and generated tons of publicity.

Small bookshops helped because they had diversity. They could use the profits from the latest Jeffrey Archer to subsidise books that they wanted to stock and sell. Readers would wander in and find esoteric novels on underwater basket weaving in Norfolk, and walk out delighted to have found another niche of high street eccentricity. And they generated a lot of money. They didn’t expect, or receive, massive discounts, so publishers kept more money. So did authors.

There was a spin-off to this. Authors could be sent off to pester readers.

Now, my last publisher, being new, but very old-fashioned in outlook, didn’t believe in paying good money to have authors wandering around selling their books. My first marketing campaign was – well, mine. I found a friend of a friend (friend of a wife, really, but don’t be picky) who owned a printers’. He agreed to shove pictures and words into the edges of his white card print runs. Result? Hundreds of bookmarks that were effectively free.

My publisher didn’t want any.

With future books, I managed to pay minimal amounts for all the bookmarks I had produced. Wonderful resources. I learned in one store that they doubled my sales – but giving away my bookmarks with all the crime books they sold that I hadn’t written! What, Graeme reasoned, was the point of preaching to the already converted? Hello, Graeme. A wonderful salesman shocking that he should have retired!

It was about then that I met a wonderful lady in the publishing house, who was actually interested in selling books. When I first met her, she expressed some shock that I had to pay for my bookmarks, and insisted on getting them done herself. She was a wonder.

Another thought I had was, America actually had quite a few people. Now, this may come as a surprise, but even I, as an author, could see that there might be a bit of mileage in trying to sell books in the US.

Sorry, I was told, but we as a major international publisher, don’t send authors to America. Not unless you’re famous.

So, by scrabbling around under the bed, in some drawers, and  in my wife’s purse, I discovered almost enough to get me to America. I flew out, and attended Bouchercon. A great event, full of all the world’s best crime writers, and I made a lot of friends very quickly. And came straight home (look, it was expensive, OK?).

Oggie, a great bookseller !

The next year, I proposed to the publisher that if they’d pay for part of it, I could afford to go again. And since I was making really good contacts out there amongst the book sellers of America, it would be worth their while. And Lo! and Behold! after some fairly persistent nagging, I got them to agree.

After that, my expenses started to reduce a bit. Thank God – I couldn’t afford to take my wife for a holiday, and it was expensive getting to America. But at least in future I shared the expenses with the publisher – they never paid all the costs.

I had a lot of arduous travelling. Never so bad as the time when, after three weeks of solid meandering around America, I ended up on a Saturday night in Madison (I think) for one night, and was installed in a hotel with not many people. So few were staying that the barman had gone home for the night (this was 9 pm). I wasn’t allowed any alcohol, not even with my meal.

Disgruntled, I went off next morning to stay one more night in a hotel. There, I was looking forward to a good meal and an appalling amount of drink. No. This hotel, I was told, didn’t have a bar. It was dry.

So was I. My thoughts that night I did not note down. Probably lucky I didn’t. They might have scorched the paper.

However, other trips stick in my mind. I remember with great fondness a wonderful week or two with Quintin Jardine, travelling from Boston to San Fransisco. It sticks in my memory because one morning we were taken by a voluble cabbie to a bookshop. It was a long ride, and our driver kept up a monologue for most of the way. At last, a few blocks from the shop, he dried up, and asked what we did.

Quintin said, ‘We’re pro’s. We kill people for money.’

The cabbie didn’t say another word.

Then there was the wonderful and hilarious road trip with Paul Johnston and John Connolly, driving from Austin (now that is a beautiful city, really loved that) to Houston.

Houston leaves me a little cold. Something to do with sitting in Houston airport waiting for the back-end of a hurricane to fly over me. Although I was five hours early for my flight, I ended up two hours late for my next engagement in North Carolina, and all the audience had gone by the time I arrived.

There was the time I was staying outside Chicago, and gaily asked where the local combat zone was, only to learn I’d walked through it that morning. I never  realised . Or the time I got lost in LA, and ended up in what looked like an ideal spot for the attempted filming of “Mortal Combat, Rise of the Murderous Mob”. If there is such a film. I remember driving very quickly indeed out of that.

I distinctly recall the trip I made to Las Vegas. It convinced me that if there was one town I’d go back to, it wouldn’t be that! Never have I seen money elevated to such a pedastal, and never have I seen prostitution so gloriously promoted. So many pretty girls’ faces pasted on to visitors’ cards and stuck in chain-link fences around these beacons to overindulgence.

But the trip which really sticks in my memory was the last one.

I wandered off all alone, as usual, and landed in Chicago. I had a day or two to kill, and spent it wisely, reading a friend’s manuscript, which was a delight, and commenting on it. After that, it was off to the bookshops, and learning to my joy that all the bigger stores actually had my books. That was good.

Then, however, I had a convention. Another Bouchercon. And this time, it was in Anchorage.

View from the hotel room

I had no idea how far from Seattle Anchorage is. It is a very long flight, believe me!

Now many of my UK colleagues chose to back out of that one. I suppose they looked at the map and said ‘All the way up there?’ So did a lot of Americans. And I’m damn glad they did, because it meant lower-level authors like me could hog the limelight. But that wasn’t why I liked it. No, I just fell in love with the city.

It’s not beautiful. Picturesque it is not. But Anchorage is charming. If you like wildlife, it’s spectacular. If you like wilderness, it’s perfect. The city is like a Canadian one, in that the locals are all so busy fighting the elements they don’t have time to fight each other. But to sit in a hotel room and be able to look at a ring of snow-capped mountains every night, to be able to watch a moose idling along a road in the main city, and of course to enjoy the company of some delightful, kind and friendly people, these made the whole trip worthwhile. And while I went on from there to Seattle, it is still the joy of Alaska that sticks in my memory.

But such trips have dried up. Publishers don’t pay for authors to go abroad and sell books, because the majority of books are now sold cheaply on the internet, and at the profits made, the publishers don’t see the point.

Which is a huge shame. It’s important that writers should meet their readers, and it’s good for readers to meet their favourite authors. But more key, too, is that authors need to travel. We have to get away from our homes, from our comfort zones, and see how other people live. Otherwise all we can do is rehash all our own thoughts and beliefs, and that is no benefit to anyone.

Well, I have promised myself that I will take my family out to Alaska and other parts of America. I’d dearly like to go fishing in the lakes, take them to see the great glaciers around Prince William Sound, or just go walking in the woods. Oh, and I’d need to go pistol shooting, too, if I could find an auto to rent. I really miss my Glock and the Colt. Sadly it’ll not be possible to take my family there for quite a while. If incomes keep on reducing at the rate they are, I may have to wait until both children are gainfully employed and can take me with them! But it’s something to aim for.

I have been invited to visit Alaska again next year. That one will probably be a solo trip, because it’ll be in school time, but I do hope to manage to get out there, and if possible, fit in some talks on the way there and back as well. After all, if I can fill in the time a bit, so much the better!

So, if you want an itinerant author wandering around near you, let me know. You never know, I may get there next year!


2 Responses to “American tours.”
  1. San Francisco isn’t too far from Seattle, and we’ve got direct flights back to London – maybe you could swing back through here on your way home? It would be cool to meet you again, and I’d take you to a really good dinner with lots of whatever you want to drink!


    • I’d dearly love to get back to SF – it’s all up in the air just now, because it really does depend on overall costs versus my income, versus any investment from publishers! Still, going to have a good dig around with my agent in a fortnight, and hope to be able to get something moving. Thanks for the offer – from the sound of things, I could easily end up drinking and eating my way across all the states in the US!


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