Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Publishing Stories

One of the ways I'm trying to promote Mahu is to get some of the short stories I've written about Kimo published. I've written some non-fiction which is around on the web, and I've always attached a tagline about the novel, but I think that giving people a taste of my fiction may make them want to read the book.

At this point, I've written about a dozen Kimo stories. Most of them are straightforward mysteries, always with a gay twist, and a couple are erotica with a mystery twist. (Why does that big, sexy guy look so unhappy? Let's get into his shorts and find out!) So far I haven't been very successful. Both Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock have turned stories down without comment, and a story I wrote for the last MWA anthology wasn't selected.

But my spooky story, Refuge, is still up at Blithe House Quarterly. In it, Kimo and his friend Gunter head off to the Big Island for weekend camping and run into the spirit of a gay ghost. And I've just won second place in a "Bad Santa" contest at Mysterical-e, an onling mystery magazine. The story, "Christmas in Honolulu" takes Kimo up into the hills above Manoa (home of the University of Hawaii's main campus) to figure out who killed a man in a Santa hat.

Does this work? Time will tell. In the meantime, I'm getting my name out there and giving Kimo a little more exposure.

Hurricane Wilma

No matter how much you plan, there are some things you just can't anticipate. Who knew a late-season category 1 or 2 storm would sweep across the state of Florida, from west to east (most go from east to west) and cause so much damage and devastation? I certainly didn't.

Wilma forced me to cancel two events-- a reading at the Stonewall Library, the gay and lesbian library in Fort Lauderdale, and a signing at Murder on the Beach, a small mystery bookstore in Delray Beach. In addition, it caused the Broward County Library to cancel publication of its monthly newsletter for November-- which was advertising my reading on November 30 at the South Regional Library.

That event, where I shared the podium with fellow mystery writers Joe Moore and Lynn Sholes, authors of The Grail Conspiracy, came off nicely, but the only audience were BCC students who were there for extra credit in their classes. The newsletter may have brought additional library patrons in.

New York, New York

When I left New York in 1986 to move to Florida, I knew I'd go back some day as a published author. And I did, in November.

The seeds for this trip started nearly seven years ago, when I attended a gay & lesbian writers' conference in Washington, DC called Behind Our Masks. While there I made a number of contacts that have been very fruitful. I met Dan Jaffe, a talented writer whose background is similar to mine in many ways, and we became friends. When Dan edited an issue of Blithe House Quarterly, the online gay literary magazine, he selected a story of mine, "Refuge." And then he was kind enough to provide a blurb for the jacket of Mahu.

I also read a shortened version of "Refuge" at an open mic reading towards the end of the conference, and that made an impression on Carol Rosenfeld, a New York-based writer and attorney who is involved with the Publishing Triangle, an association of gay men and lesbians in the publishing business, and with Out Professionals, a gay and lesbian networking group.

Fast forward many years. This summer, at Saints & Sinners, I met Carol again, and she remembered that story, and was kind enough to give Mahu a good review, as an advance reader for Insight Out Books, the gay & lesbian book club. She also said she'd be willing to help me organize an event in NYC.

Fast forward again to November 2005, when I gave a reading and discussion at the gay and lesbian community center in Chelsea. Only four people showed up, but I did sell two books-- a 50% conversion rate!

I learned from this experience that I have to be very aggressive at publicity for every event, even those organized by others. I assumed that the sponsorship of several different organizations, including GOAL, the organization of gay and lesbian police officers, would draw a crowd. I did send out some press releases and get into some events calendars, but as a first-time author with a largely unreviewed book, it was hard to get any additional publicity.

Even so, I thought the event went well and I enjoyed having dinner with Carol afterward. My event on Saturday, though, was a much bigger success, mostly because I leveraged my personal mailing list to get my friends to show up. About twenty people came to a reading on Saturday night at Partners in Crime, a charming little mystery bookstore on Greenwich Avenue in the Village. The store provided a lovely space at the back, with chairs and a comfy sofa, and a fabulous poster in the window advertising the reading.

The event organizer, Chandra, did a terrific job of getting the books and poster in place, and told me that the day after the reading she'd sold two books based on the poster.

Location also mattered-- the event at the Center was in a fourth-floor room,up two flights at the back of the building, far west in Chelsea. Partners in Crime has a good location in the heart of the Village, with lots of foot traffic.

Would I go back to New York again? Absolutely-- but with lots more advance planning!

Saturday, September 17, 2005


I'm still on a high from my second reading-- the big one, followed by a party. It was tonight, and seemed to be a big success.

I think readings are an important way of connecting with your audience. I love to go to readings myself, because I want to hear the author's voice, which then stays in my head as I read the book. I've gone to great readings, and I've gone to terrible ones, and I've tried to put everything I've learned together to create my own.

The first thing to do is to start scheduling your readings. You need to do that at least two months in advance, to ensure that the store has enough time to publicize the event. Many stores publish printed calendars, and now many send emails out as well. Since other authors are scheduling in advance, you need to do so as well.

My first call was to our local independent store, Books & Books, which has four branches. The main store is in Coral Gables, an elegant suburb on the south side of Miami. That store has the largest space for readings. But I'd already been invited to participate in a joint reading of alumni of Florida International University's MFA program in creative writing at that store, which will take place on Sunday, September 25.

So I asked to give a reading at the branch on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road. That's a big gay neighborhood, and I didn't want to go to the same branch twice.

I invited my friend Hannah Lasky, who is a talented painter and poet, to bring some of her art work to serve as a backdrop for me. I brought a CD of Hawaiian music for the store to play as we were setting up, a fake grass-skirt banner that reads "ALOHA," and some other small props to set the scene.

The readings I've enjoyed the most have given a sense of the author and the process of writing-- so I tried to do that. I began with about ten minutes on the Hawaiian language and culture, and how I came to write the book and get it published.

Then I read the first page of the book-- to establish the voice-- and jumped to about halfway through the first chapter, which I then read through to conclusion. After I finished, I asked for questions.

The whole process took about forty-five minutes, and I enjoyed riffing off the questions I was asked. There were about twenty people in the audience, and after the reading I signed about ten books-- one couple, my friends Eliot and Lois, had flown in from New York and bought four copies. (They are now officially my VERY best friends.)

I duplicated the process tonight, at a big Borders store in a gay neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale. The store had printed up posters for the reading, including one on the front door, and I got some great press-- nice announcements in the alternative weekly, the New Times, and in a couple of local gay papers; one, the Express Gay News, did a huge feature on me, with a teaser on the front cover and a big photo inside.

We had a capacity crowd-- thirty people sitting, and probably another dozen standing or hovering around in the background. And there were many men I didn't even know! Lots of them even bought books! I was more than thrilled.

It's wonderful to sign books for friends, colleagues, and neighbors-- but it was really terrific to feel that people I didn't know were touched and motivated to dish out $19.95 (plus tax.)

I was also helped in promotion by networking with local groups; Karen Dale Wolman, who organizes gay and lesbian writers' workshops, sent out a press release for me, and I think her credibility helped me get noticed.

In the end, both readings were great events, and I think at least part of that comes from doing my homework-- going to lots of readings myself and listening to what I liked and what I didn't, and doing as much groundwork as I could to let people-- both friends and strangers-- know about the book and the reading.

Monday, September 05, 2005

More Bouchercon

Overall, I had a great time at Bouchercon. In the mornings, I walked around Chicago, and during the day I sat in on panel discussions that were interesting and fun.

My own panel was less than successful. A very bossy panel moderator refused to let us do any publicity for our books, and kept a very tight rein on what we said. The star of our panel was Lee Child, who has written nine books in the Reacher series, and it was clear that most of the audience was there to see him, so though I was annoyed at the moderator's bossiness, it isn't like I lost a major opportunity to publicize Mahu.

I sold one book through a great bookseller, Rue Morgue (where I bought all my books) and autographed one program. But I met lots of great people and had fun. On the last day, I attended a program on short stories, with the editors of both Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. I made sure to go up and say hello at the end, and hand out my post-it note pads. I have stories out to both magazines; I'm hoping that the name recognition will help when those stories get read.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Bouchercon - Day 1

On Wednesday, August 31, I left South Florida for Bouchercon, the worldwide conference of mystery writers and readers. There are over a thousand people here, including a bunch from Florida, so I’m much more comfortable here than I was at Saints & Sinners. And frankly, the people here are so much nicer than the people at Saints & Sinners were. There, I thought everyone was very clique-y, yet here, everyone is much more approachable and friendly.

After I got in, I went shopping on North Michigan Avenue—hitting every chocolate shop in town, I think. Then on Wednesday night, my friend Eileen drove in from the suburbs and we went to dinner at a great – though very rich and fattening – French restaurant. Then she drove me around Chicago for a while, proving a great tour guide.

Thursday began the first day of the conference. I sat in on a panel on sex, which was actually pretty dry, then a demonstration of K-9 dogs. In Chicago, they use Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds and Dutch shepherds. The dogs are actually trained in Europe, and then purchased by the city when they are about a year and a half old. Seeing them made me want to incorporate a K-9 dog somewhere in a book or story.

I had lunch with Christine Kling and Fred Rea at a little cafĂ© near the hotel, and made it back for a panel on anthologies, where I actually picked up some tips for the anthology I will be editing with Sharon Sakson. Though we haven’t gotten the official word yet, Alyson Press will be publishing a collection of true stories about gay men and the bonds they have with their dogs. It was very interesting to hear the experiences of the anthology editors.

The last panel of the day was on series characters and whether they age or not. Some characters, like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, age only a few months at a time, while others, like Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter, age in real time. It was very interesting to hear the panel talk about these issues.

After some email and relaxation, I went to the Hammett Awards and welcome reception, then hung out with Chris for a while before going to the Akashic books party. Again, everyone I’ve met so far has been very nice and friendly. I think it helps that I have that little red dot on my badge that identifies me as an author—though only a little.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

My first reading

I had my very first reading at Books & Books, Miami’s great independent bookstore. I was running late, speeding down I-95 at 80 mph, driving right into storm clouds and drizzle. Fortunately, the heavy rains had already passed, leaving only the humidity behind.

I had invited my friend Hannah Lasky, who is a wonderfully talented artist, if she wanted to bring some paintings over to serve as a backdrop for the reading, so I met up with her in the alley behind the store and started dragging the paintings and the wire display wall in through the back door.

I brought my own props, too—an inflatable palm tree, an ALOHA banner, and a plate of coconut macadamia nut chocolate chip cookies. When I walked in, it didn’t look like there was much of a crowd, but by the time we got everything set up, all twenty seats were filled and there were a couple of other people standing around.

Of course, I knew all but a couple of those people—but I was still delighted to see them. Classmates (and a professor) from my writing program at FIU, members of my writers’ group, and friends—it was so nice to have such a supportive group. I talked for a bit about how I came to write Mahu, and about the Hawaiian spelling and symbols I used in the book, and then I read.

I read the first page of the book, as Kimo’s moving toward a drug bust, and then jumped to the last section of chapter one, beginning as Kimo leaves the bar where he has been hanging out with his cop buddies to go to the Rod and Reel Club, the gay bar where lots of the action of the book takes place.

Then I answered questions, including “When will the book be translated into Hawaiian?” It gave me an opportunity to talk about writing in general, about the research that I did for the book. Overall, it was a fabulous experience—and I was equally excited to sign about ten books afterwards, as well as signing a half dozen stock copies. There was even one ordered by a collector.

I generally wrote “Mahalo nui loa” which means “Thank you very much” and then tried to add something personal, since I knew everyone who bought a book. Overall, I don’t think I could have asked for a better first reading experience.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Updating the Website

When I first started writing Mahu, I did some research on other authors of gay mysteries. I put together a list which I used to send out along with queries, to show prospective agents and editors that this was a thriving subgenre. And I always knew that I would include this list on my website and use it to help promote Mahu.

Well, now's the time. I've had the list online for some time, and I knew there were probably a few new authors to include. So I started work yesterday, and ended up updating 6 authors, adding 9 new ones, for a total of 28 new books. Now of course, some aren't that new; they're only new to me. But it still shows that this niche is continuing to build.

Once I finished, I sent an email to two different listserves that I subscribe to-- DorothyL, which is for mystery lovers, and Blue Place, which is specifically for gay mystery, but often expands to gay literature in general. Now we'll see if I get any hits!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Books are Here!

Yesterday evening, the dog started barking-- generally a sign that we're about to get a delivery. And sure enough, by the time I got downstairs, there was a heavy box sitting just inside the gate-- the thirty books I ordered from Haworth. I get a 50% author discount-- and there was a bill right on the top of the pile.

Now I have books to carry around to readings and to sell to friends & family. Not quite sure how I'm going to handle that-- I guess if anyone asks "Where can I buy it?" I'll let them know they can buy from me.

I'm a little worried that Amazon & Barnes & Noble online still don't have the correct information and pricing-- it doesn't look available yet, and each of them has a different price. The current price should be $19.95 but neither site has been updated yet.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

My First Interview

Well, I had my first interview today about Mahu, with Andy Zeffer of the Express Gay News, a local paper in Fort Lauderdale. I think the interview went well; we'll see how it comes out in the paper.

But it showed me that I really need to prepare better for this publicity stuff. I threw together a press kit at the last minute, and I know I have to get a fairly nice one put together. I'm heading off to the office supply store to buy some folders, and I'm ordering more of my Mahu labels for the cover of the folder.

I need to think more about the main points I want to convey, as well-- and how I'm going to get those across. Just another step in the process, I guess.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Book in Hand

Wow! I got my first copy of Mahu in the mail yesterday. It looks very cool. The cover illustration stretches around the spine, and my name and the title are high enough up on the spine that a library sticker won't obscure them.

This is a small peeve of mine. I get a lot of books from the library, and I hate it when the author's name is flush to the bottom of the spine-- so the sticker covers it.

They used the same picture I'm using for my blog on the back cover-- me looking demonic (or so Marc says) in my pink and white Hawaiian shirt. I love that shirt-- and I actually bought it at Hilo Hattie's on one of the islands, on one of my trips, so it makes sense.

Since I sent out my first email press release, I've been contacted by two local journalists who want to write about me and the book. So it's all starting!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Published at last!

Well, I got an email yesterday from my publisher, the handsome and charming Bill Palmer (anyone who publishes me automatically becomes handsome and charming.) "MAHU is off press as of today. It looks great! Congratulations."

Boy, have I been waiting a long time for those words! Of course, this is just another step in the process. Now I have to start promoting the hell out of the book. After all, I've already written two sequels, and I know that Mahu has to be successful in order for those two books to see print.

Bill also noted that he was reducing the price of Mahu from $22.95 to $19.95. When I met him at Saints & Sinners in New Orleans in May, we discussed the book's pricing-- which I thought was too high. It began at $24.95 and then dropped to $22.95-- which is what all the printed materials say. I told him that I thought it would be tough for Mahu to compete with other trade paperback gay books -- and other mysteries-- at that price. And I guess I made my case.

I ran out to Office Max today and picked up some little blue circle labels, on which I printed "Now $19.95!" and spent the morning peeling and sticking them on my postcards. Then this afternoon I drove down to the post office in Hallandale and mailed them all out-- about 300, I think.

I also sent out an HTML press release to a short email list, and now I sit back and see what happens.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


I think this may be the hardest part of the publishing process-- or at least it seems like the hardest part now. Waiting.

Mahu was originally scheduled for publication in March 2005. But then I got a letter announcing that because they had bit off more than they could chew at present, they were pushing me to July. I wasn't happy, but I shrugged and accepted fate.

But it's July 2005 now, and still no book. I know it "went to press" about two weeks ago, but no one's giving me any more information than that. "You will receive something from Haworth informing you that your title is off-press, available and ready for sale," I've been told. But I don't know when that will happen, so every day I'm checking the website, hoping the word "forthcoming" will be replaced by something like "now available."

I'm not just waiting for the books. I'm waiting for reviews-- though I've already gotten one very nice one from Gay Web Monkey. I'm waiting to schedule readings. Basically, I'm just waiting for something to happen!

Monday, July 18, 2005

An Agent

Like most writers, I've had a long, convoluted relationship with a series of agents. Agent N represented a couple of my faculty advisors at FIU, and when I finished Mahu I sent him a query letter, as all the writing books instruct. He wrote back "I enjoyed the writing enough to want to read the balance of your manuscript."

However, there were warning signs. N is a straight man in his sixties who lives in New York City, and perhaps has a different view of the world because of it. "There's no longer any shame in being gay," he wrote. "My first problem is in Kimo's relating to his homosexuality." He didn't seem to understand that even in a time when "gay cops even parade with other gays," a gay man can be conflicted about his sexuality-- and other people might react negatively to his coming out.

He also wasn't that excited by series mysteries. "After a couple of books, most publishers seem to abandon the work." Well, gosh, nobody told that to Ed McBain, Janet Evanovich, or Sue Grafton. Imagine being told when you submitted "A is for Alibi" -- "Sue, you'll never make it to "G is for Gumshoe" no less the current book, "R is for Ricochet."

But I really wanted an agent, and N had made some good deals for people I knew. He is a real hands-on agent, sending me pages of (generally) good advice. I went through three rewrite for him, and Mahu is a much better book because of his advice. He even suggested the title, because he felt my first title, "Death in Waikiki" sounded "too much like a category mystery."

Finally, though, he wrote, "I've decided not to take your book on." He cited three significant flaws, the most damning of which was that he felt the book was dated, because "I can't quite believe there would be so much hostility to a gay cop." At that point I didn't think it was worth sending him all the news clippings about gay men being beaten to death simply for going to a gay bar, being in the army, etc. I accepted his letter and went looking for another agent.

I'd started writing a sequel to Mahu while I thought I was represented by N. After all, I figured, when he went to sell Mahu it would help him to be able to show that I had ideas for a series. When he declined me, I stopped work on the sequel.

I sent out new query letters, and Agent M (a lesbian) requested the whole manuscript. Six months later, Agent M called me. She'd read the book a six weeks before, and the fact that it remained in her head convinced her that she should represent it. She took the book as it was, and submitted it to a selection of gay and lesbian editors.

While M was working, I finished writing the sequel, energized by my new representation. Then I got the rejection letters-- alld the agents M had queried had turned the book down. Some didn't like the writing, and some felt that it wasn't right for their house. I accepted the results.

M submitted the second book in the series to a smaller group of editors-- the ones who had liked my writing. Unfortunately none of them were interested. M was very supportive and encouraged me to write other books. I did-- a gay romance, a mainstream novel with gay characters, and a proposal for a non-fiction book. Over six years, nothing sold.

Then a couple things happened in quick succession. I went to the Miami Book Fair, and heard from Jay Quinn that Haworth (who had originally rejected Mahu because it didn't fit their line) was expanding their offerings in gay mystery. By the time I was ready to send the manuscript, though, agent M had retired from the business. So I sent the book in unagented, and probably signed a contract that was less favorable than if I'd had an agent.

But that was OK. I was getting published.

Then at Sleuthfest (the Mystery Writers of America conference in Ft. Lauderdale in March 2005) I met agent R, a straight guy who was intrigued by the idea of Mahu and its sequels (there were now 2 more in the series.) He asked me to wait, though, to query him formally, until I had a proof copy of Mahu.

I finally had that a few weeks ago, and sent it to him on a Friday with my standard query letter. Only I was so rusty at querying that I forgot to include my phone number and email address. Tuesday afternoon, he called-- first to remonstrate me for not including my phone number in the letter.

I didn't want to say "So far, nobody has called-- they usually just send the manuscript back in the mail." Instead I apologized profusely. He told me he liked Mahu and thought he could make a deal for me. By the end of the week I had signed a copy of his agreement and sent it back to him.

Let's hope this story continues in happier mode!

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Setting up Readings

I've started trying to set up readings for Mahu. Fortunately, my first opportunity dropped in my lap. I got my MFA from Florida International University here in Miami, and have been invited to join a group reading of alumni and students on Friday, September 30. The reading will be at Books & Books in Coral Gables, our local literary bookstore, and a real supporter of local writers.

That made it easier when I called Books & Books to set up my own reading-- the woman I spoke with already recognized my name. Since I'm already going to be reading at the Coral Gables store, I decided to have my own reading at the store on Lincoln Road on Miami Beach. The store isn't as large, but it's got a great location and there's a large gay population on the beach. I'll be there Tuesday August 30 at 8 pm.

I wish it had been so easy at Borders. I'm waiting to hear if Mahu is in their system-- or will be. If they aren't selling the book, I can't have a reading there. They have a large store at the edge of Wilton Manors, a big gay neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale, with a nice reading space on the second floor. I was really hoping to have my launch party there on a Saturday night at the end of August, after school has started and everyone I know is back in town.

I went to their website, which is run by Amazon.com, and got no results when searching for my name. However, at the bottom of the page it said there were 2 results in books-- which I believe must have come from Amazon's database, not Borders'. I am in the database at bn.com-- Barnes & Noble. Right now you can buy an advance review copy from some guy on Long Island.

I may end up at the Barnes & Noble down the street from Borders-- which wouldn't be bad. They have a lovely store, too, and a big selection of gay & lesbian books. But I think this is all the readings I'll set up for now, unless another opportunity presents itself.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

More Copy Editing

Back in February, I wrote about page proofs. An eagle-eyed copy editor at Haworth had reviewed the manuscript for Mahu and found many inconsistencies.

Well, it's like it's February all over again. I just got a six-page single-spaced Word doc from my publisher with more inaccuracies and problems in the book. A gold and diamond bracelet that morphed into gold and emerald bracelet later in the book. A drive that began in one character's car and ended in another's. Kimo wanting to be "a Hawaiian J.D. Salinger" when he really meant "a Hawaiian Holden Caulfield." Kimo asks "Do you think he shot our victim because..." when the victim was not shot, but hit on the head. And on and on.

Jesus, how many mistakes did I make in this book? I'm so grateful that these copy editors keep catching these problems-- but really-- does it ever end? I guess part of the problem is that I began the book back when there people had tapes in their cars, then changed most-- but not all--references to CDs. And changed the method of murder somewhere along the way. I was reminded that one of Kimo's brothers has a new baby in this book-- a baby who has mysteriously disappeared from the next book, which takes place a month later. Oops, got to bring that baby back.

I'm seriously grateful that Haworth has such dedicated copy editors, and I'm feeling very humble. I've always taken pride in submitting very clean copy-- no grammatical errors, no wrong facts. But obviously a whole novel is a different animal.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Press Releases

My friend Steve Greenberg has been helping me put together press releases for Mahu. He says I need all different kinds of releases-- one directed to South Florida media that emphasize I'm a local resident; one for the gay media that emphasize the gay content of the book; HTML email releases with images; plain text email... the list goes on!

It's really hard to write your own copy! Steve has been helping me polish up the copy that Haworth wrote for their website, adapting it to my use.

I've been hunting for lists of book reviewers on line, and have found a couple. Those folks will be able to contact me or Haworth (I haven't figure out which yet) to get a review copy of the book.

I'm also going to send my email release out to contacts & acquaintances for whom I don't have a snail mail address to send a postcard. Hey, you never know who will want to buy a book!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Course Adoption

I'm working on my marketing plan for Mahu right now. Trying to think of everything that I can do to help promote the book is a tough job! When I signed the contract with Haworth, I had to fill out a long marketing questionnaire, and I know that they have things they'll do to promote the book, but I want to do my part, too.

Haworth is mostly an academic publisher, and I don't think they have much experience promoting fiction. One cool thing they do is offer a review copy for academics, so one of my projects is going to be to send an email to people who teach gay studies or gay lit courses letting them know about the book. I think it would be great to get the book adopted for a course or two.

I think there's a real justification for this, too. I think any survey of gay lit course should include current books as well as classics, and because Mahu is a gay coming out story, I think it can fit with any survey of gay lit. Also because it crosses genres-- combines the coming out story with the mystery-- it's a unique approach.

According to the president of Haworth's book division, Bill Palmer, whom I met at Saints & Sinners, Haworth already has a list of these courses. I've been doing my own research online, to come up with my own list as well. I know from my own experience choosing books for courses I teach, it's a long process, so I'm not expecting anything to happen quickly.

In August, once the book is out and professors are returning to campuses, I'm going to send an email to as many professors as I can find explaining the book and inviting them to register for a review copy. Then we'll see what happens.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Saints & Sinners

This past weekend I was in New Orleans for the Saints & Sinners conference, my first opportunity to go to a writer's conference as a real, published author. (OK, the book isn't exactly out yet, but it felt real!)

I went to a couple of workshops (John Morgan Wilson rocks!) and picked up a couple of tidbits. I participated in a panel discussion with three other authors: Alistair McCartney, whose queer encyclopedia is coming out next year (really interesting writing); Lauren Sanders, whose book I haven't read but want to; and Aaron Krach, author of Half-Life, which I had just read before the conference.

It was a really interesting panel-- after we got past the basic stuff about how we got started and what we write, we actually talked a bit about what moves us as readers and writers, and about gay publishing and our obligations to our audience and our material.

Later in the day, I participated in a group reading with a bunch of other authors. It's the first time I wasn't really nervous when reading my own work.

Friday, May 06, 2005


Another way to publicize the book, beyond the postcards, is through a logo that I had designed last year. My friend Maury hooked me up with an artist, and the three of us brainstormed the book's title and concept to come up with a visual way to represent it.

It was a fascinating process, thinking about iconography-- the science of symbols and their meanings. There are certain symbols that say "gay"-- the rainbow, the pink triangle. Symbols that say "Hawaii"-- palm trees, leis, the hibiscus flower, volcanoes, surfboards. (Of course these symbols can have other meanings too-- other tropical locations, for example.)

John, the artist, came up with a row of surfboards in rainbow of colors, with the title, Mahu across them, and the book's website, www.mahubooks.com, underneath. It's gorgeous and powerful, and you can read that rainbow as gay if you want, or just read it is a bunch of pretty-colored surfboards.

I've started having some merchandise made up with the logo. Golf shirts (which I can wear to work, to writer's groups meetings, conferences, etc.) t-shirts, a sleeveless T I can wear to walk the dog. Labels and boxer shorts & other junk that I can give away as promotions, too. I set up a site at cafepress.com where anyone can buy the stuff, too.


I'm moving into the marketing phase for Mahu now. Haworth agreed to print up some postcards with the book's cover on the front, and info on the book on the back. I've been assembling mailing lists of labels, in two groups.

First, I went on line and found lists of gay bookstores, gay newspapers, mystery bookstores and mystery reviewers. I sent one round of postcards out to that list already, letting them know that the book will be out in July. From what I understand, they need long lead time for orders, requesting review copies, etc.

I have also started a mailing list for friends & family. First, my holiday card lists, then everyone I remember from college & business school. Anyone I have a business card from-- doctors, dentists, realtors, etc. You never know who will turn out to be a mystery fan, or need a gift for a gay or mystery reader.

I'm also taking a whole stack with me to New Orleans next week for Saints & Sinners, a gay & lesbian writer's conference, and I'll have a stack held back for Bouchercon, the worldwide mystery conference in Chicago in September. I don't know if anyone ever buys a book based on a postcard, but the whole idea is to get your name & the book's name out there. The more times someone runs across you or your book, the more opportunities they have to buy it.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Setting the Price

I learned something interesting today. I've been complaining to my editor, the director of Haworth's book division, and anyone else who will listen that I think the price of Mahu is too high, at $24.95 for a trade paperback. Haworth publishes a lot of academic books, so their experience seems to tell them people will pay that much. But this isn't a text, it's a mystery novel, and an impulse purchase.

Two things happened. First, my editor emailed to tell me that the book's price is set by the word count. Running the word count over 90,000 (Mahu is about 105,000 words) means a price of $24.95. I wish I'd known this earlier; in my last rewrite before I submitted the manuscript, I shaved close to a hundred pages off the book. If I'd known 90,000 was my limit I would have edited much more harshly.

Then I got an email from the press. At my request, the book's price was being dropped to $22.95. That's certainly a step in the right direction.

We'll see where things go from here.

And another thing that happened today-- I heard from my friend Jamie that his book's sales are lagging, and I agreed to give him a shameless plug. The book is called Dionysus Logged Out, and the author is James David King. It's a pretty cool novel about a group of friends on a BBS system in the Bay area in the late 80s-- interestingly evocative of the time and the people who first began communicating via computer and modem, before the Internet, and surprisingly moving as well. Check it out, at http://www.dionysusloggedout.com.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Page Proofs

It was really exciting for me when my page proofs arrived-- the first real, concrete sign that my book was coming out since the contract. Then I looked at them.

I really appreciated that the copy editor was so careful and thorough, but periodically, I'd just throw up my hands. She changed commas to dashes and added commas, spelled out numbers and "okay," and pointed out logical problems she found. I thought I could just skip through the book, looking at the changes and initialling them, but I couldn't.

I had to read the book through again in order to answer some of the more complicated problems-- why didn't the police interview the bartender, or search the victim's house? How many doors were there to the office?

All changes longer than a sentence had to be typed and attached to the appropriate page, and had to be copied onto a disk as well. Once I'd read the book through and made the changes, which took nearly two weeks, I had to spend a couple of hours on the last night printing, cutting, and stapling, then putting the package together to be returned to Haworth.

Coincidentally, I had dinner with my friend Vicki and her friend Woody, who I'd known was a surfer-- but I'd forgotten. He was able to do a last minute read on the pages that had surfer terms, and give me some really good suggestions. Now I just have to hope we caught everything!

Working with the Press

In September of 2004, I had my first contact with the production process at the press. A production editor sent me some questions, mostly having to do with the spelling of Hawai'ian words in the book. I have tried to be faithful to true Hawai'ian spelling, which includes both the macron, the line over a vowel that indicates you draw that vowel out a bit, and the okina, or glottal stop, which is used between vowels, as in the word Hawai'i.

I felt these are important parts of the Hawai'ian language, and I wanted to be respectful. There are also certain words whose meaning changes with or without the macron or the okina. I had to go back and double check all my spellings, providing references. I felt like I was really working on the book, at last!

A manager at the press emailed me a little later to express concern about the book's title. Properly, mahu has macrons over both the a and the u. I had been using ascii characters to show that, and she was worried that the book's title wouldn't be searchable on line if I spelled it that way. I thought about it for a while and said that as long as the printed book looked correct, I didn't care if the website used the macrons or not. She thought that was an acceptable compromise.

Then, in December, I was sent the pre-publication announcement for the book, and Haworth added the book to its website with a great description. I was really impressed that a copywriter had read the book, figured out what it was about and how to market it, and written great copy. To read the copy, you can go to www.haworthpress.com and search for my name: Plakcy.

There was bad news, too. Haworth wanted to charge $24.95 for a trade paperback, and I thought that was way too much. I did some bookstore research on comparative prices, both for gay-themed trade paperbacks and for first mysteries, and tried to get the president of the book division to reconsider. But he ignored my phone calls and emails, so I guess I'm stuck. I sure hope they have a strategy figured out for how to sell the book at such a high price.

The Long Wait

After Greg accepted Mahu, nothing happened for a long time. As part of the contract, I had to fill out a marketing questionnaire that was pages and pages long. I had to write about myself and the book, list people who might give it a blurb and list magazines and newspapers that might review it.

But the real part of marketing a book doesn't start until four to six months before the book comes out, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I decided I wanted to do some promotion during that time, so I got my friend Maury to help me design a logo that I could use. He worked with an artist, and we came up with two different designs. You can see the one I picked on my home page, at http://www.mahubooks.com/. It's basically a guy dressed as a detective, in a trenchcoat, carrying a surfboard that reads Mahu.

We decided it was the best because it said both "detective," and "surfer," and my hero, Kimo, is both. The other logo, which I really liked, showed a bunch of surfboards in a rainbow of colors, with the word Mahu across them. It was subtly gay and it showed Kimo as a surfer, but it didn't really say mystery, so I couldn't use it.

I did use the rainbow idea when building a website to show off the book. I built the site using frames, and the left frame consists of a ladder of links in the colors of the rainbow. I had to decide what I could offer on the site that would interest readers, and I came up with a couple of ideas.

When I was first researching agents and editors for Mahu, I put together a list of other mysteries featuring gay detectives. With a little updating, I put that list on my site as a way to draw people in. I began posting on gay and mystery newsgroups: Interested in mysteries with gay detectives? Visit my site. I did this a long time ago and got a lot of traffic; hopefully it will work again this year.

I also had professional quality photos of myself taken, and put them on the site for the press to use. I put together a dictionary of Hawai'ian words used in the book, and their definitions. I put up a guest book, and I started using my website address in my email signature and in postings on websites I visit.

I also started researching gay and lesbian bookstores as well as mystery bookstores, trying to decide where I could go to have readings that might publicize the book. And I considered hiring a publicist who was familiar with gay books to help me get the word out, so I had to search for appropriate people, contact them and discuss what I wanted.

I used the time to write another book in the series, too-- at least in first draft. All this stuff kept my mind off worrying about what would happen when the book finally came out!

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Preparing the Manuscript

Greg told me he'd prepare some comments for me, and have them to me by December 15, 2003. The contract specified that I'd have until February 1, 2004 to make the changes and submit an acceptable manuscript. Since I was by then a college professor of English, with a long Christmas vacation, I thought that would be no problem. He thought the book was too long-- because Haworth prices books based on page length, and he was worried my price would come in too high.

In November, I went back to the Miami Book Fair. On Sunday morning, I had a bad allergy attack and had to leave early. On my way out, though, I heard familiar music-- the song "Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride," from Lilo and Stich. It's about surfing, and I really like it. So I stopped to watch a bunch of little kids dancing around on a stage to the song.

Something clicked, and I realized how I could cut some pages from the book. I went home, took some allergy medicine, and started to revise. By the time I was done, I had trimmed the manuscript from 450 pages to 350, changed the villain, and eliminated one murder. I thought it was a much stronger book, and quickly sent a revised copy to Greg.

I didn't hear anything from him by December 15. Finally, February 1, I emailed him again, noting that was the date I was supposed to have my revisions done by-- and I didn't even know what I had to revise. A few weeks later, he responded. He loved the new draft, and didn't think I had to change a word.

The Road to Publication

Once I had an editor, I set about writing a second book in the series, to give her even more to sell. Unfortunately, none of the publishers she contacted were willing to buy. Over the next few years, she tried to sell that second book, and at least two others I wrote, without success.

In the fall of 2002, I finally came to the decision that I needed a new agent. I was lazy, though, so I kept putting it off. That November I went to the Miami Book Fair International, and saw an announcement for a discussion of a book of stories about gay men in the south. I don't think of Miami as part of the south-- though we are indeed south of the Mason Dixon line, I think of us more as the capital of the Caribbean. So I wasn't planning to attend.

I was actually on my way to hear my friend, classmate and now colleague Vicki Hendricks read when I passed that discussion. I forced myself to walk in the door-- after all, you never know what you'll discover if you force yourself to go to events in your area.

The speaker was Jay Quinn, who had edited the book for the publishing house where he worked, Haworth Books. (Are you seeing where this is going yet?) During the question and answer period, I asked how he felt about gay mysteries. He said he felt there was a strong market for them, and that he was soon going to hire a sub-editor to concentrate on gay genre books-- mystery, horror, romance, etc.

I went up to him afterwards and asked if I could send him Mahu. He asked me to wait until the sub-editor was in place, and gave me his card. I followed up with him a couple of times, until in April 2003 he announced the editor had been hired and gave me his name and address.

I sent Greg Herren the book a few days later, and waited for his response. And waited. And waited. By September I'd pretty much given up; then I got a letter announcing Haworth wanted to publish Mahu.

Kimo and I Come Out Together

It was only after I began the coming out process-- acknowledging to myself and the rest of the world that I was gay-- that I started to understand Kimo. I realized he'd left the force because he was gay, and started his own p.i. agency.

Then I realized that I still couldn't go back to that book-- I had to write the book in which Kimo came out, and eventually left the force. At least that's what I thought when I started writing Mahu.

The title then was still Death in Waikiki-- a very generic title. But I had this image of a body being dumped behind a gay bar, and a cop finding it who shouldn't have been there. That was Kimo, and that became the genesis for the book.

Writing and revising was a long process. When I finally thought I was finished, I approached an agent I had met at a writer's conference. He liked the sample chapters enough to request the whole book, and then gave me extensive notes toward revision. I went back to the computer and did what he asked.

Then he asked someone else at the agency to do some line edits, and she gave me pages of suggestions, including pointing out that people gave up the information to my detective very easily. She asked me to go back over those scenes and make things tougher for him-- make him actually work at detecting. This agent also suggested Mahu as a title for the book, which I thought was a great choice.

They were great comments, and the book improved tremendously because of them. Unfortunately, on a third read, the agent decided he didn't think the book worked, because so much of it was focused around Kimo's struggles to come out. This agent, who lived in NYC, thought being a gay cop was no big deal-- even though the organization of gay cops weren't allowed to march in the police-controlled St. Patrick's Day parade.

It took me another year of sending out sample chapters and outlines to agents before I got another who was interested. She called me months after getting the manuscript, long after I'd wiped her off. She said the book had stayed with her for months, and that was a sign that she should represent it.

I was delighted; she was a lesbian and got the book. I was sure she would sell it and my long-awaited career as a writer would be launched.

Beginning Mahu

I began to write Mahu under the title Death in Waikiki. I created a hero, Kimo Kanapa'aka, who was a former police detective, now working as a private eye. He was called in by the manager of a hotel to investigate the suspicious death of a hotel guest.

I wrote about 200 pages and then went to the FIU Writer's Conference in Seaside, Florida. My MFA thesis advisor, Jim Hall, (James W. Hall to you mystery lovers) read and critiqued the first 40 pages. His first question was to ask how many pages I'd written. His face fell when I told him 200.

His next question was, "Why did your hero leave the police force?"

I gave him a jumbled answer about inability to accept authority, and admitted I didn't really know more than that. I said I'd hoped that the writing would tell me, but it hadn't yet.

Jim sadly advised me that I really had to know the answer to that question before the book could succeed. I left Seaside and stopped work on the book. It was another four years before I found the answer to that question and could start to write again.

Publishing a Book

My first novel, a mystery featuring a gay detective, will be published in May 2005 by Haworth Press. I thought I'd record some of the steps I've gone through in getting this book published so that other writers, and people interested in gay books, can see what's involved.

I started writing Mahu, which means homosexual in Hawaiian, in 1992, after a visit to Hawaii. I had just graduated from Florida International University with an MFA in creative writing, and I was trying to find something to write a novel about.

I studied under two writers who were already writing mystery novels set in Florida, Jim Hall and Les Standiford. Other classmates, including Dennis Lehane and Barbara Parker, had staked out their territory. There was an explosion of writing set in Florida, and I despaired of finding my own turf.

Then I went to Hawaii. My father had just passed away, and my mother inherited his frequent flyer miles. I had accumulated a lot myself, flying back and forth between the northeast and Florida, so we decided to use those miles for a trip to Hawaii. It seemed like a once in a lifetime trip, so we planned to visit as many islands as we could in two weeks.

I fell in love. I'd learned so much about Florida by reading mysteries by authors like Edna Buchanan, Carl Hiaasen, and others, so I thought I'd look for the same kind of books about Hawaii. There weren't any. Aha, I thought. Market opportunity!

I discovered that what I loved about Florida was found in Hawaii too-- the mix of cultures, the contrast between light and shadow, the fragility of the environment, and the sense Hawaii, like Miami, was on the edge of the country. It was as if somebody had shaken America and all the nuts had landed at the bottom.

I thought there was novelistic possibility in what Graham Greene called "shady characters in sunny places." So I got an idea for a book and started to write.