Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Once and Future Storyteller: a guest post by Dana Stabenow

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: You know those introductions where the host says, "Our guest needs no introduction," and then proceeds to tell you stuff you already know about the speaker? Yeah, this is one of those times. If you're a mystery lover, you'd have to have been living under a rock for the past two decades not to have heard of Dana Stabenow. New York Times bestseller. Edgar Award winner. Author of three science fiction novels, two thrillers, four Liam Campbell mysteries (Dana, can we have more Liam? Please?) And with the publication later this month of Bad Blood, twenty Kate Shugak books. Oh, and she's also been the president of the Alaska chapter of Sisters in Crime, the chief organizer of the 2001 Anchorage Left Coast Crime convention and chair of the 2007 Anchorage Bouchercon.

All this is a long-winded way of saying when Dana speaks about the book business, smart people listen. Today, she's going to tell us about literature's past, publishing's future, and how she got all those wonderful stories back into readers' hands.

Sometimes I think I should just unsubscribe from all my publishing listserves. This past week (written January 12th) I read three different stories about Barnes & Noble going under. I know I was not alone in noticing, because there was a great online yawp of anguished response from mid-list and wannabe authors, smugness from self-published authors and their adherents, and indifference from those authors who sell
enough in Wal-Mart and airport Hudsons and W.H. Smiths to hit the printed list every time, so they don’t give a damn.

In the face of all this continuing doom and gloom on the publishing front, I persevere! I refuse to give up on the notion that stories are necessary, that you and I and all of us scribblers are direct descendants of that guy sitting around the fire, hoping to get a few coins in his bowl before everyone rolls in for the night.

Recently I mentored a young friend through a high school lit class. The reading list was politically correct to the ne plus ultra and dozingly boring, but one of the titles was The Odyssey, and in this one instance I was amazed by how well the story had
improved since I had had to read it in high school. Athena had a sense of humor! Who knew?

Homer knew. He was that guy, sitting around the fire, trying to keep people awake long enough to pitch a few drachmas into his bowl. Comedy and sex, The Odyssey has plenty of both, and that’s what kept people up at night. Still do.

So if stories are necessary, if Homer proved it three thousand years ago and
Michael Connelly, Diana Gabaldon and Stephen King are still proving it today, it follows
that people will seek out stories wherever they can find them. On the bookshelves of local libraries, on the shelves at indie bookstores, at used bookstores, at, yes, at Barnes & Noble, and on e-readers, studies and statistics say
again and again that people are reading more than ever before.

Ah. E-books. You knew I was headed there.

Two years ago I had sixteen books out of print. This year? None. And once all the books were again available, this time on Kindle and Nook and iBooks and Kobo, you know what happened? Everybody bought them, and at a time when print sales werec
dropping like Wile E. Coyote over a cliff the e-book sales drove the sales of my next print book onto the extended NYT bestseller list. My titles were available for the first time in the UK, and everybody bought them there, too. A UK publisher took note and is now bringing the others out there in e and in print. I’m now a bestseller in Italy, and last I heard I’m about to be published in France.

It’s a whole new world, folks. Writers have never had choices like these. You can write, design and publish your own books direct to Kindle, like John Locke or Amanda Hocking. Like Hocking you can then abandon self-publication for a four-book contract
with my publisher for $2 million. (They never offered me that kind of money.)

You can hire an intermediary to do the heavy lifting for you, like I do, where
somebody else handles the design and the uploading and collects all that lovely lucre for you. You have to pay them a percentage, but you have that much more time to write. Like I said, choices.

Or you can go the traditional route, and sign on with a print publisher. Some things traditional publishers still do better than anyone, produce actual books, tour authors, get heard above the noise. If you’re lucky you get a great editor who loves your
stuff and makes sure it gets good covers and good promotion. I’ve been that lucky, and it’s a nice place to be.

But it follows that if so many authors are publishing in so many different venues, it must be worth our while. Which means readers are still coming to us for stories, still curling up next to us by the fire. Barnes & Noble may not survive, but the need, the
hunger for good stories always will, and readers will seek them out. All we have to do is
write them and make them available.

Stop reading those listserves and get back to work.


I know we have quite a few aspiring and novice writers on our back blog. What do you think about the future of publishing? Are you shooting for traditional publication, or are you considering D-I-Y? And for you readers, does it make a difference how the book gets into your hands? Hop onto the comments and join the discussion.

Dana Stabenow's twentieth Kate Shugak novel, Bad Blood, will be out on February 26. You can read excerpts if it, and her other books, at her website. You can friend Dana on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @DanaStabenowswap book recommendations at Goodreads, and check out her voluminous photo stream at Flickr. Want more? Dana also blogs delicious recipes for the solo cook at Feast For One.


  1. It matters not how the book gets into my hands . . . just as long as it gets there. There’s much to love about eBooks [although I have been known to rail over those that are simply begging for a good copy editor] but there’s nothing like a “real” book, so I’m definitely hoping they don’t go the way of the dinosaurs . . . .

    Although I have [and love] an eReader, I don’t find that I do most of my story-reading electronically. I appreciate the convenience, but I still seek out traditional books and will probably continue to do so even though my bookshelves have long since been overrun by more volumes than they could ever dream of holding. [Maybe that’s because I learned to love books and their stories long before there was such a thing as an eReader, but I don’t know that for certain.] In any event, I’ll take a good story however its writer chooses to make it available. And, Dana, I’m with Julia, looking for more of those wonderful Liam Campbell stories, please . . . .

  2. Hi Dana,

    There is something beautiful about a well done and attractive hardbound book. But about reading it? I much prefer a good recording. And I read e-books every day, online and on my iPad mini.

    An e-book on an iPad mini is just about perfect. You have everything at your disposal that you ever want while reading a book. You have only to tap a word and you have a dictionary or thesaurus entry. You can search the text. You can place electronic bookmarks anywhere you want. You can write notes ton the page available for later use. You can use speech-to-text to write those notes, and you can use text-to-speech if you need it.

    The story is the important thing to me. As solid as a hardbound book is, they get lost; they get wet; they expire in fire. Nothing is safe. But if you buy it you own.

    The same is not true, apparently, about e-books. When you buy an e-book you don't buy a book. you buy the right to read it. Sometimes you buy the right to loan it under certain circumstances or conditions.

    So, while I love a beautiful hardbound book, I love the usefulness and the ability that is restored to me for reading with e-books. I do not understand why you cannot pay for and download an e-book for a fair price and have it on your electronic device without going through a third-party--why you can't own that copy. Companies like Amazon and Barnes and Noble should be required to make it clear that you are not buying a book. You are really just renting it, because they can deny you access at any time.

    Writing? Anything that works.

  3. Thank you for your words, Dana, both here on this blog and in your books. I love the Kate Shugak books but I'm way behind and not ready to read #20 yet. I have work to do. But thank you for her stories. I'll have to look for the others.

    I admit to being an avid audiobook listener. I adore a hard-covered book and do have a large assortment. But I get more books consumed through my headphones as I knit. (Multitasking?)

    There's something about being a bookstore, too. In my area a locally-owned bookstore chain closed recently. I really miss it. B&N is over an hour away and I stop there whenever I can. But eBooks and Audible allow me access to so many books whenever I need them.

  4. Dana, welcome to Jungle Red. You have a very inspiring story! And I remember years ago at a Left Coast Crime, sitting through your tutorial on contracts--well before I had one. thanks!

    But most of all, I love the advice to quit reading listservs and get back to to do that now!

  5. While I have two Nooks myself, I am in agreement with Reine on every other point. I see change coming, eventually, to the delivery system, or it won't continue to work. So we are in a state of evolution, of sorts.

    My mother is 83, and a diehard reader. I gave her a Nook Color for Christmas, and it has taken her reading to a new level. Because of her aging eyes she was having trouble reading printed books. Now with the ability to change screen lighting, typeface size, and background color, she is able to enjoy her favorite authors again. And even better, she and I can share many of my books. She's on a fixed income, and even though she still buys actual books, it's nice to know I can help her out a little this way.

    I published my first e-book as a .pdf file in 2004. It actually sold better than the print version did, and cost me way less to produce. And even better, I could deliver it to the customer via email, with no reproduction costs at all, so I passed that savings on to the customer. That is something that bothers me about the way e-book sellers price their books: there's no way an e-book should cost the same as a hardback book. Period.

    It's a process, I guess.

  6. Nothing will ever replace a paper copy of a book for me, but I do like my eReader. With it I'm reading more, trying books and authors I might have passed by when I had to figure out how to squeeze another book onto my shelves.

    And I'm seconding (thirding?) more Liam, please.

  7. I am pretty sure that E-books will become the norm in the not too distant future. I am ok with this, but it does make me a bit sad. There is just something about holding a book that brings comfort.

    I love my Kindle and agree that it has opened up reading for many (the ability to change font size, etc is a major thing).

    I, however, will continue to collect physical copies of my favorite books. But I do have space limitations, so it e-books are great for those books that I want to read, but don't necessarily own. And if I discover something incredible, I can then always buy the physical book.

    For publishers, I think we will start to see an increase in "luxury editions" of physical books that don't translate well to the e-book format. Special bindings, color inside, exclusive content, things like that.

    The new Stephen King book, Joyland, is delaying the e-book release for quite a while to encourage sales of the physical book, we'll see how that goes. King has some major influence in the industry, after all.

  8. Welcome Dana--look forward to hiking with you soon!
    And you're so right--so many new opportunities. I never thought I'd find myself as an audiobook bestseller, or published in Korea and Poland.
    I only lament the passing of the neighborhood bookstores, those places we grew up browsing.
    Good luck with the new book!

  9. I'm getting ruthless about what I keep on my bookshelves, Joan, and a lot more careful about the books I buy in print. I ask myself two questions: Am I going to read that again (corollary: One, am I going to need it for work?), and two, can I get it from the library? If the answer to both those questions is yes, the book goes in the donation box for the library book sale. Mostly.

    Reine, I especially love e-books on the Kindle app on my iPhone when I travel. Talk about space (and weight!) savings. And I agree, the story is what's important. I don't care how you get the story to me, just get it to me and make it a good one!

    I will always love a bookstore, Marianne, especially the small, local ones like the Homer Bookstore. I'm reading an arc right now that they gave me because they know what I like and thought I'd enjoy it. Have to point out, though, that Amazon knows somewhat what I like, too, I get an email from Kindle every day suggesting a hundred different titles.

    Write hard, Lucy!

    Karen, I hear that comment all the time. E-reading has revolutionized reading for older readers, and for that alone I have to love it. I can't imagine a life without reading in it, and now I don't have to worry about it being taken away from me. My aunt has macular degeneration. When she was diagnosed, we had a long talk, I got her started on iTunes, and the upshot was she bought the biggest iPod there was and started downloading audiobooks. She is not about to quit reading, either.

    Darlene, I find that I'm sticking to hc in non-fiction, as I read it in a different way than fiction, highlighting, underlining, dog-earing, marginal notations. When I pull it down again I love to flip through and see what I said to myself. This may be a new form of narcissism, but what the hell.

    Kristopher, I don't see print books going anywhere, but I do see fewer of them printed.

    Julia, Joan and Darlene--More Liam when I have a moment to call Liam's. Right now I'm letting the Kate field lie fallow while I write an historical novel, which I'm going to publish originally in e. There is talk of a limited print edition with fabulous maps and special binding and gilt lettering, something Scott Gere refers to as "so beautiful it looks too expensive to have been made." I hope we get to do that mostly because it sounds like so much fun.

    See you soon, Rhys!

  10. I read books any way I can get them. Thicker volumes are physically easier for me to read on Kindle, easier to carry on vacation. I also like all the other advantages mentioned by Reine. I still read and purchase traditional books but as I said, if I want to own it and it's thick, then I get the e-form.

    Dana, I have read ALL of your books. When I found out that the ones that had been out of print were available on Kindle I started buying them on Kindle. I also recently purchased and LOVED your essays about Alaska!
    And I'm in love with Liam, even though he's spoken for!

  11. Funny that this comes up today...

    My kids are in the middle of their very own bronchitis epidemic and have just discovered self-publishing. Right now they are sticking with the traditional format (note paper, markers, and staples), but I'm waiting for it to occur to them to use the computer.

    I have a kindle app for my iPod, and I use it when I "need" a book Right Now (usually a sequel), or if there are new authors to try for good deals. Otherwise I really prefer paper books. (Old-fashioned, I know!)

    I agree with what's been said about our need to seek out stories. (Or write our own, as our new six-volume set of "The Monster Book" in which the monster decides not to eat the Mommy [whew!] but go to a restaurant instead would indicate...)

  12. Right there with you, Deb. Anyway, anyhow, anywhere I can, I'll find the stories I want to read.

    Paula, a while back I gave a workshop for a group of corporate execs, all of whom had way longer strings of letters after their names. Their boss told me she couldn't trust them to write an article about their department for the in-house newsletter or a letter to go out over her signature or a monthly report she could understand. What I remember most is how terrified they all were of me, and how even more terrified they were of putting words down and having them read. Somehow this nation managed to raise one (if not two) entire generations to be frightened of the written word. And I do not believe that that is in any way an overstatement or an exaggeration.

    I do believe that e-books, reading and writing them, are going to raise the next generation differently. Parents like you (glad you survived, btw) who are encouraging their kids not just to read books but to actually write their own, in conjunction with a technology that allows you to write and print their own books without getting out of their pyjamas are going to make books an everyday, demystified, even commonplace part of their lives. And that can only be good for everyone, authors, readers and society as a whole.

    Aaaaaand now she descends from her soapbox...

  13. Such a timely topic! I'm in agreement, particularly right now, about reading across the spectrum.

    I have fewer bookshelves in my new (old) house and am getting older myself. I'll buy a book and keep it if a friend of mine wrote it and it's autographed. Otherwise I'll look for it in the library. If I can't get it any other way (for example, Debs' In a Dark House), I'll spring for a Kindle version - it's cheaper and doesn't need space on the shelf. I regularly give paper-based books as gifts, though.

    As for my own books, I was pleased last fall when my (debut) paperback from a small press also came out in all eformats, as will my hardcover this May. And I recently self-published as .99 ebooks two short stories that I now own the rights to that had appeared in juried anthologies. In part to get them out there and in part because they are backstory to two main characters in my first book.

    It's just a feast of riches, in my opinion, for readers and writers!

  14. Dana, I've been trying to get a very well-traveled friend to write his amazing story for several years now. This is a man who has owned a very large, very successful corporation, and who has been places most people have never heard of, but he is terrified of letting others, especially me--the "real" writer--see his potential flaws.

    Personally, I think it would be good for him, but hey, you can lead a horse to water, etc., etc.

    Love your Kate books, by the way. Thank you for writing them, and showing a glimpse of life in that part of the world. It's fascinating.

    Paula, good for your kids. What a great sick-day activity.

  15. The more ways we can sell books, Edith, the more books we will sell. One of those infamous listserves recently cited some statistical study that says Americans are now reading more books than ever. We all know what Mark Twain said about statistics, but my gut says it's true.

    He wasn't a member of my class by any chance, Karen? These were really smart, really accomplished people, none of whom had ever been properly taught English, reading or writing, from kindergarten through piled-higher-and-deeper school. It wasn't that they couldn't write, it was that no one had taught them how, and they were so intimidated (like your friend) at the thought of writing something, anything down that would pass before the eyes of a published author that they nearly, as a body, expired with fright. The moment I realized how scared they were was the moment I realized how utterly our educational system had failed them. Pissed me off. Still does.

  16. Simple declarative sentences are not rocket science, for crissake.

  17. Dana, when I was counseling medical students, I had several over the years, come to my office and tell me that they decided on medicine, because they didn't want to write a doctoral dissertation.

  18. No, I'm fairly sure he's never taken a writing class, at least not since college. I have seen some of his writing, since we had a small group writing circle a couple years ago, and he wrote very well.

    I guess everyone is intimidated by something.

    One of my favorite aspects of e-books is finally being able to read backlist and out of print titles of so many of my favorite authors. I can't imagine why publishers aren't leaping on this previously untapped source of revenue for them and their authors.

  19. So frustrating, Reine.

    I think they are now, Karen, especially when they see how positively an e-backlist can effect new print sales. What bothers me most is that too many writers wait for their publisher to bring their backlist into e-print, when the writers could do it so much more profitably themselves. I'm told industry standard in a boilerplate publishing contract nowadays pays 25-30 percent in e royalties. I'm making 75.

  20. I'm a Kindle convert and proud of it. While I still have a ridiculously large physical collection of books, most of my reading is on the Kindle. I convinced my mother to try it, and she now uses it almost exclusively.

    I'm not (too) embarrassed to admit that a lot of the books on my Kindle were free. I read a lot of stuff that is borderline quality, and sometimes it's so bad that I just quit in the middle an delete it. But every once in a while I find something worth reading and then I seek out other books by that author and buy, buy, buy. That's how I found your Kate Shugak books, in fact. Actually, I'd bet at least 75% of the books on my Kindle that I paid for were written by Jungle Red writers.

  21. I find that heartening, Sandi. You prove my point: If we write it, you will come!5

  22. The listserve strikes again, PW reporting on Nook losses:

    I'm not real surprised at this. I've got apps for Kindle, iTunes and Nook on my iPhone, and the Nook app is the only one demanding I call a phone number when, for reasons best known to its programmers, it decides I have to log back in and I've forgotten my password. Haven't bought a book from them since.