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Blog Archive December 2006

Small Miracles in Publishing: A Book Back from the Dead

A Story for Christmas Day in Bangkok.

In 2000 Heaven Lake Press published my work of fiction titled Chairs. In terms of sales, the book has been a disappointment. Everyone wants the latest Vincent Calvino novel. Vinny isn’t featured in Chairs. Guess what? Many readers passed. They love Vinny. Good for him. Bad for Chairs.

Suddenly in the USA Chairs has become a big seller (relatively speaking of course) on amazon.com

So how can a book that should have sold well in my home audience suddenly take off in the States.

Awareness of an author or book makes a difference. Recently one of my back listed titles “Chairs” had gone into a deep sleep on amazon.com Actually it had been in a coma for some years. If it had been a patient on a life support system, the plug would have been pulled a long time ago.

Then the gods pulled strings in some backroom of amazon.com and it was linked with Christopher Moore’s novel You Suck: A Love Story. In a few weeks Chairs had touched 26,000 in the rankings. It was the same book. But it woke up. Coma boy was alive again.

The single amazon review made it clear that the book was significantly different from You Suck: A Love Story or any of Christopher Moore’s other novels. The fact my name had a middle “G.” signifying a different Christopher Moore didn’t matter.

A different Author and completely different type of novel but these substantial points of departure simply didn’t matter. Suddenly “Chairs” was on the amazon.com radar screen (the ranking has cooled down as book has once again sold out).

What happened was something more like Lourdes than advertising. But there might be a lesson. In the space between the publisher and reader is a high ratio of noise to signal.

The book market is not alone in facing this problem; many other entertainment avenues add to the amount of noise publishers must get through. Advertisement is both noise and a signal locator. The problem for authors, publishers and readers is finding the right frequency where communication is possible and readers can tune in.

Once they find the frequency, you have their attention, and once their eyeballs are focused on what you’ve written, then you have a fighting chance.

There is a footnote. The publisher received the most recent order for Chairs. It was the largest order ever for a single title. Guess what? They couldn’t fill it. Chairs is now sold out in the States. It enters the realm of very expensive books. A number of my novels now out of print sell for over a hundred dollars on various bookseller web pages. I saw a copy of Cut Out sometime ago advertised for 1200 pound Sterling. Go figure.

Posted: 12/25/2006 3:02:15 AM 



I have been checking local bookstores—new and second-hand—for William Marshall’s Yellowthread Street Series. The first book in the series is titled Yellowthread Street. In 1975, Marshall was 31 years old and living in Hong Kong when Yellowthread Street was first published. The last book in this series appeared in 1998.

One reviewer wrote:

“This is the first in a series of police books (procedural is not quite the right term for them) set in the mythic underside of Hong Kong. Take one part Ed McBain and one part Susie Wong, mix it up in the high-speed blender of Hong Kong action flick influence, and serve over a taste for the bizarre with a little paper umbrella stuck on top -- that's as close as I can come to describing this unique body of work.”

Wikipedia summaries the main characters in the series:

“In the Yellowthread Street series, the detectives of the Yellowthread Street police station in fictitious Hong Bay, Hong Kong -- DCI Harry Feiffer, a European born and raised in Hong Kong; Senior Inspector Christopher O'Yee, half-Chinese, half-Causasian American, and all neurotic; and the ever-bickering team of Inspectors Auden and Spencer -- attempt to find the rational basis for inexplicable and seemingly bizarre crimes.”

I wonder if the Senior Inspector Christopher O’Yee character inspired John Burdett in fashioning Bangkok 8. Burdett also lived in Hong Kong. Marshall, who was born in 1944, is an Australian. His books have consistently received good reviews in the New York Times. “But for the most part, ''The Far Away Man'' is a well-wrought, convincing piece of work with a shocker of an ending. And there are the sights and smells of Hong Kong, a city the author knows intimately. The Yellowthread Street series may not be to everybody's taste; it is altogether unconventional, and its farcical side may strike some readers as forced.”

And again, the New York Times wrote in connection with the Yellowthread Street series, “Those were procedurals set in Hong Kong, and were distinguished by a wacky kind of writing in which seriousness was mingled with farce.”

In 1990, the series was turned into a 6-hour TV series.

Marshall started the series in 1975, inventing a fictional district and police station in Hong Kong. Altogether there are16 books in the series. All of the books have been published by major US and British publishers. One has to wonder why the sales representatives haven’t placed them in the English language bookstores in Thailand. No doubt they would have an audience.

A fan of the Marshall books writes, “Yellowthread mysteries serve up a satisfying three-course meal. They always have three distinct plot lines, each offbeat and inventive, woven together into a neat, tidy conclusion. Three plot lines per book, times sixteen books, no two ever trite or even remotely similar - an astonishing accomplishment. Often scary, often gruesome, these books balance deadpan humor with intelligent and challenging stories. Marshall's stylish writing, zany subjects and perfect control of the implausible, make it easy to overlook the fact that these are all great mystery stories, with whirlwind pace and wildly unpredictable twists and turns. They all have a variable mix of violence, suspense, frenetic action, and wacky, offbeat humor. There's not a bad one in the bunch and you could comfortably read them back to back and not burn out.”

Now that is what I call a rave review.

Yellowthread Street series

- Yellowthread Street (1975)
- The Hatchet Man (1976)
- Gelignite (1976)
- Thin Air (1977)
- Skulduggery (1979)
- Sci-fi (1981)
- Perfect End (1981)
- War Machine (1982)
- The Far Away Man (1984)
- Roadshow (1985)
- Head First (1986)
- Frogmouth (1987)
- Out of Nowhere (1988)
- Inches (1994)
- Nightmare Syndrome (1997)
- To The End (1998)

Posted: 12/19/2006 11:41:21 PM 


Book Signing: Saturday 16 December 2006

Jake Needham will be signing his latest novel The Ambassador’s Wife at Kinokuniya, Emporium Branch. Jake will be on hand between 2.00 to 3.00 p.m. You can call 02-664-8554-8. This is a good chance to meet the author. Please drop in at Kinokuniya and show your support for Jake.

Posted: 12/15/2006 2:43:59 AM 


Getting the details right

When you read a novel set in your own turf, the details incorporated into the story must be right or the creditability of the storyteller is destroyed. Fiction requires a suspension of disbelief. Mistakes about the location of where the characters move, love, hate, scheme, and survive turn drama into a cartoon.

The question becomes to what extend a publisher does elementary due diligence when it decides to publish a novel. It may be that such an investigation is viewed as suited to non-fiction on the basis (false in my view) that a novelist is entitled to flights of fancy.

I have been reading Nick McDonnell’s The Third Brother published by Atlantic Books. This is no lightweight publisher. They have a reputation for excellence and publishing literary fiction of a high standard. The author was born in New York in 1984. His first novel, Twelve, was translated into 20 languages. It was published when he was 17 years old. One can only hope that those 20 languages will be spared the translation of The Third Brother.

The Third Brother is the story of Mike, a 19-year old American, who goes to Bangkok in search of his father’s missing friend. He’s an intern at a magazine in Hong Kong and decides to write a travel story. Chapters alternate between fleshing out the sleeping, studying and drinking arrangements between the father and his friends, and young Mike making his way through Bangkok. The prose are flat, lifeless, displaying little emotional depth. Of course that is a literary judgment and reasonable minds can differ on whether one finds a sentence like this one elegant: “Mike looks out the window at the flat turquoise sea below. He wonders if Analect has spoken to this father since he arrived in Hong Kong. No, or his father would have said something.”

Some of the amazon reviewers have commented on how The Third Brother brings Bangkok alive. One reviewer said, “It is in describing a very specific scene --- a backyard in the slums of Bangkok, or the 24-hour bar of a sleazy hotel --- that McDonell proves his staying power. His skill lies in his very real ability to bring his reader into the world on the page.” Let’s keep that conclusion in mind and have a look at the first part of the book that is set in Bangkok.

What is off-putting about The Third Brother are the manifold errors about Bangkok and Thailand. You don’t have to wait long to find the first one. “Following Bishop, Mike sails through Bangkok customs on a tourist visa. The room is hot but the lines are short. Customs officials in lizard-colored uniforms slam their stamps and the pale European and Americans in bright, patterned shirts sweat in line and shuffle through.”

This is total rubbish. Don Muang Airport (which is now no longer in service) was air conditioned. I never in 20 years saw anyone sweating in line. The passport is stamped by an Immigration official. Customs officials don’t stamp passports. To describe the immigration clearance area as a room is as misleading as describing an airport hanger as a barn.

Mike meets up with an old hand, Hardy, who has been in Thailand for 22 years and hangs out with backpackers. It seems that Mike, while only 19 years old, is also a journalist doing a travel story about Thailand.

“Mike asks if Hardy can point him to a place where he might score some pills. For the travel story. Mike doesn’t want the pills, he just wants to ask for them.”

Does this make even remote sense? You meet someone your father’s age, you don’t know him and he doesn’t know you, and you ask him to buy drugs. Not because you want drugs but you don’t know what else to ask him. If that piece of logic is off the rails, then have a look at this. Remember Hardy lives in Bangkok. He has survived 22 years.

“No problem, somethin’ like a couple pills,” Hardy says, and resettles his crotch before continuing. “How about a girl, too. Local, the real Thai experience. I’ve got just the one.”

“No thanks,” Mike says, noticing that Hardy is slurring his words. How high is this guy? He wonders.

“Yeah, a girl can be trouble,” Hardy goes on.

Anyone who would talk like this after 22 years in Thailand isn’t high; he’s brain damaged. Even hooked up to life support systems, you wouldn’t hear a long term resident talking like this.

A girl comes up to Mike in a restaurant near his hotel and tells him she knows some good bars. She tells Mike that “Thailand has expanded her consciousness and brought her closer to God. Not really God, but the state of truly organic being.”

Then comes the kicker, “Mike goes back to his room and writes this down in a notebook. He realizes Bangkok is probably full of these people.”

You read that logic and you start to understand how easy it was to sell weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the Americans.

Mikes takes a motorcycle taxi from Khaosan Road to Soi 4 Silom. What does Mike see along the way? This journey takes place at 8.00 p.m. “Mike leans into the turns, watches the city slide past him. Wild dogs everywhere and carts of rice and vegetables. In one neighborhood, bald men in red robes. Buddhists, but out at night?”

Wild dogs? Everywhere? Mike has been doing drugs. Carts of rice and vegetables? Excuse me, where does anyone see carts of rice and vegetables, and no doubt circled by those wild dogs. Monks aren’t bald. Their heads are shaven. The robes aren’t red. They are saffron color. And monks are not out walking among the wild dogs at 8.00 p.m.

Mike asks Paul where he’s going, and Paul replies, “A sex show,” Paul laughs. “Where else on Buddha Day?”

“It’s a kind of holiday,” Bridget tells Mike. Everyone is supposed to be in prayer, around little fires. You should come with us.”

Yeah, and it is important to keep close to those little fires as it has been established that there are wild dogs everywhere and there may be some dietary problem if you have to live off rice and vegetables.

I have not read Twelve. Perhaps it is brilliant. But in The Third Brother, the author is not in control of his material. He is like someone who has never driven a car, pretending that he is a Formula A driver. It is very difficult to pull that off especially when he spins off the road on the first curve. Books like The Third Brother paint a comic book picture of Bangkok, the residence, the culture, the religion, the nightlife. How did such a book ever come to be published? Obviously someone liked wild dogs and little fires as a way to win over readers.

Posted: 12/14/2006 11:09:18 PM 



To see my entry click here!

Fabio Novel, an Italian novelist, has sent along a note about the publication of DizioNoir which is distributed throughout Italian bookshops. DizioNoir (as DictioNoir), a sort of dictionary of thriller, noir and spy stories authors, plus some articles on subjects in topic. It is a teamwork, and a first time for this kind of essay in Italy.

I was pleased to find the listing on page 112 of DizioNoir. The Italian edition of Pattaya 24/7 comes on in December 2007.

Posted: 12/8/2006 12:02:50 AM 


Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police bureau investigates corruption

There is a good piece from Detectives Without Borders featuring Qiu Xiaolong's A Case of Two Cities This is the fourth of Qiu Xiaolong's novels and his Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. In a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, the conclusion was made: “Chen stands in a class with Martin Cruz Smith's Russian investigator, Arkady Renko, and P.D. James's Scotland Yard inspector, Adam Dalgliesh.”

I have been rereading Death of a Red Heroine and found the first 150 pages slow. At that point the story kicks in as Inspector Chen Cao’s relationship with the journalist starts to go into high gear and the high-ranking cadre who takes nude photographs becomes the main suspect in the murder. The author according to a recent interview has drawn from his own childhood experiences, passion for poetry and interests such as chess are drawn upon to flesh out Inspector Chen Cao.

What is amazing is that the novels are written by someone whose first language is Chinese. The author has admitted that writing background narrative and dialogue in the English language have been a struggle. Reading the books, though, you would never detect the author’s second language is English. These novels are a rare look on a rapidly evolving China where information is strictly controlled and people are sent to prison for expressing views that are critical of the political establishment.

Qiu Xiaolong's novels are not really detective fiction but they fit in the category of police procedural fiction where the overworked, underpaid police officer is up against the usual political problems but is expected to solve the case. What makes Qiu Xiaolong's novels worth pursuing is the inside look at the fast changing political landscape of China, and in particular the high octane growth in Shanghai’s economy and the acceleration of greed and corruption that has resulted.

Posted: 12/3/2006 9:26:30 PM 



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