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Are We There Yet?

Two Authors Load Four Kids Into a Pair of Rented Minivans for a 6,500-Mile Novel-Flogging Adventure.

November 01, 1998|MARTIN J. SMITH | Martin J. Smith and Philip Reed are working on their third novels

We're rolling along the I-10 eastbound, chasing destiny in a rented minivan. The sun is broiling the hard-pack California desert outside our little bubble, but inside we're more than comfortable. To get ready for our four-week, 10-state book-flogging odyssey, my two kids supplemented our vehicle's considerable amenities with a few of their own--a cooler full of "snicky-snacks," dual Game Boys, Auto Bingo cards, journals, donated audio books, a CD player and 25 favorite CDs. We are a 75-mph, climate-controlled entertainment complex.

More important, we have a box full of my second novel, "Shadow Image," and a supply of foam-board sales displays featuring its cover, each churned out on an after-school assembly line by 9-year-old Lanie and 6-year-old Parker. We have 3,000 promotional postcards that I designed and paid for, and a schedule of events organized by an independent publicist I hired to help promote the second in my three-book series of psychological thrillers keyed to the vagaries of human memory.

A quick glance in my rearview mirror lets me know I'm not alone. My friend and fellow author, Philip Reed, is tailing us in a nearly identical minivan with his two sons, Andrew, a 12-year-old chess master, and Tony, an 8-year-old air-guitar impresario. Phil is promoting "Low Rider," the second novel in a "car noir" series published by Pocket Books. The New York Times called the first "a volatile concoction of speed, sex and sleaze."

Together, as our wives back home work at the less-risky jobs that sustain our families, we're barnstorming a circuit that will take us from Southern California in a counterclockwise, 6,500-mile loop around the West. Along the way, we intend to sign books and read selected passages to anyone who'll listen. We'll pass out free copies to influential booksellers and exploit the novelty of our self-styled Dads Tour to get air time on radio and feature stories in local newspapers. When things get slow in the larger stores, I'll play my harmonica as loudly as I can to attract a crowd.

Silence equals death in our line of work, and we're out to make some noise. We're shedding the mien of serious novelists to become a bookstore version of those human directionals who point giant foam fingers at model homes.

This is not exactly what we envisioned when we gave up regular paychecks to spin crime fiction, but reality for newcomers like us is as cold and hard as the bottom line: Critical acclaim is nice, but most publishers bet on sales figures, not kind words. And so we're on the road--Kerouac and Kesey for the '90s, as one Colorado bookstore owner dubbed us--driving hard toward a dream, bestseller or bust.

"Are we there yet?" my impatient boy asks just 40 miles into the trip, and I tell him no, we aren't there yet. He focuses again on his Game Boy. I refocus on the horizon, but his question perches on my shoulder like a mockingbird. The answer is unavoidable: No, I'm not there yet.

*

Most mystery or crime-fiction writers get just a few chances in which to evolve from a flyspeck on the literary landscape into something approaching a John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell or Dean Koontz. "Figure you've got five books to make it," Koontz told me after I signed my two-book contract with Jove in 1994. Used to be, he said, publishers gave promising writers time to develop an audience. And even if their books never became bestsellers, those novelists could make a decent living writing so-called midlist books. Today, the midlist has virtually disappeared as the industry risks fewer and fewer dollars on books of modest potential. "There's the top of the list and then there's everything else," says Hillary Cige of Jove, who edited my books. "No one can afford to do little [books] anymore. And the stores just don't support little."

Koontz's five-book estimate seems, in retrospect, wildly optimistic. More than 50,000 new titles will be published in the United States this year, about 1,400 of them in the broad genre known as mystery or crime fiction. Only a handful will break through to the bestseller lists. Some will get there because they're great books hand-sold by enthusiastic bookstore owners. Others will stink, but will get there anyway thanks to huge promotional budgets or an incomprehensible alchemy of topic, timing and public mood.

Then there are books such as "Shadow Image" and "Low Rider," which arrive at stores like abandoned children--and sometimes don't arrive at all. Mass-market paperback originals like mine have a life span only slightly longer than that of a mayfly--three to six weeks, during which they're reviewed, recommended by booksellers and displayed prominently in stores. After that, many stores keep a copy or two, then strip the covers off the rest and ship them back for a refund. If a book's sell-through rate is less than 50%, the publisher starts to worry. Your editor wonders what went wrong, and your agent may lose faith. It's brutal, and effective promotion is critical.

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