Thursday, February 17, 2011


A Horse of a Different Wheelbase

Change is happening so fast in the publishing business, it's enough to give any writer a major migraine. In less than a year we've seen the demise of publishers and distributors such as H.B. Fenn and Key Porter Books, the mergers of other Canadian publishers and the closure of all but one of the mystery bookstores in Ontario. Just yesterday the huge American chain, Borders, filed for bankruptcy protection. One wonders where and when the next shoe will fall.

In the midst of all this turmoil I find myself reading Pierre Berton, A Biography, by A.B. McKillop. This is a fine read about a fine Canadian journalist, historian and author. But I'm gobsmacked by how different things were in the glory days of Canadian publishing. It's amazing to read that the author of a book called The National Dream would send blistering letters complaining about a launch for several hundred guests organized and paid for by his publisher, McClelland & Stewart. Not only was the champagne a trifle tepid, but the 10,000 very large candles for a cake the size of a pool table had to be snuffed to prevent setting the hotel on fire. Pierre Berton was miffed.

Now, of course, I'm talking about "mainstream fiction" here rather than mysteries and we all know that genre fiction don't get no respect, as Rodney Dangerfield would say. But today even the hottest mainstream authors are doing a lot of their own promotion. And while we're on the subject - what the heck does mainstream mean anyway? I've just completed four flights to and from Florida. Did I see copies of The Sentimentalist in peoples' hands? How about George Bush's Decision Points or Stephen Hawking's latest tome? No. I had a good look around and the books I could see were all mysteries and thrillers with a single romance novel in the hands of the lady beside me. So please don't talk to me about mainstream.

We in the crime fiction world have been doing our own promotion for years. Arranging signings and launches is up to us. We sign in malls and storefronts and goofy-sounding festivals, sometimes crouched under tarps in the cold and rain. We talk to book clubs and church groups and just about anyone who'll listen. Mystery writers sink or swim in this business according to how good we are at promotion and some of us are a lot better at it than others. I watch authors like Mary Jane Maffini and Violette Malan draw people to them on the strength of their warm smiles and easy banter. I, on the other hand, would rather be anywhere else than sitting at a flimsy table with a pile of books in front of me. It must have been fun in those glory days though. Imagine swanning through the Ballroom of the Royal York Hotel with paid publicists making sure you got to talk to all the right people. I'm not even sure you had to sully your hand with a pen in those days. Maybe the publisher took care of that along with the caviar and champagne.

Sue Pike has published nineteen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted will appear in the January issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Sue and her husband and an opinionated Australian Shepherd named Cooper spend the winter months in Ottawa and the rest of the time at a mysterious cottage on the Rideau Lakes.


  1. An interesting summation of the 'way it used to be'. While much of e book publicity is done in cyberspace will there always be a call for face to face meetings with authors?

  2. All my life, I have wanted to swan through a ballroom. I'd better get that on the bucket list because we're all cybered up.

    Great post, Sue!