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

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 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 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.