Category Archives: Tess Gerritsen

The mystery of humor

I am not a naturally funny person.  Try as I might, I’m hopeless at telling jokes or coming up with a brilliant off-the-cuff quip.  J.A. Konrath, I ain’t.

But I do know how to laugh, and I certainly laughed when I came across this recent article: 

Police: Woman bites man after being called fat

Police say a 24-year-old man is missing a chunk of his right ear that was bitten off by a woman who didn’t like being called “fat.” Police spokeswoman Katie Flood said officers were called to a Lincoln hospital around 3:25 a.m. Wednesday to talk to the injured man.

He told them that he’d been bitten at a party.

Flood said officers later learned that the injured man and two others had been arguing with other people at the birthday party. Flood says the man told 21-year-old Anna Godfrey that she was fat.

Officers said Godfrey then tackled the man (after chasing him for half a block) and took a bite.

Flood said the ear chunk was not found.

Godfrey was arrested on suspicion of felony assault and remained in custody Wednesday. Case records don’t yet list her attorney’s name.

 

Did you laugh?  Why?

If you dissect the incident, the elements of what happened are not particularly funny:

— A drunken man insults a woman and calls her fat. What a jerk.  

— A man is attacked and sustains permanent damage to a body part.  That’s tragic.

— A woman is arrested and will probably be convicted of felony assault.

Yet add all those elements together, and suddenly you’ve got prime fodder for Dave Letterman.  What makes a story about assault and mutilation funny?  Is it funny to everyone — or just to a few sick minds (like mine)?

First, let’s consider a definition of humor, and for this I turn to Wikipedia: “Humor: The tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement… Though ultimately decided by personal taste, the extent to which an individual will find something humorous depends upon a host of variables, including geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, intelligence and context.”

What strikes some people as funny will not be funny to others.  And I’m betting that there are some people who don’t see any humor at all in the above woman-bites-man story.  In fact, some may be outraged that I think it’s funny and they’ll accuse me of a double standard when it comes to violence.  “What if this were a man mutilating a woman?” they’d ask me. 

No, I would not find that funny.  

So am I operating under a double standard where it’s okay for women to abuse men, but it’s not okay for men to abuse women?  

I don’t think the explanation is as simple as that.  Nor do I think that I’m alone in finding humor in woman-bites-man stories.  Think back to Lorena Bobbitt, who lopped off her philandering husband’s you-know-what.  Remember how all the comics (most of them male) went to town on that story? Obviously, they saw the humor in a story about spousal mutilation.  But if it were a man who lopped off his wife’s breast, no one would be cracking any jokes.  Instead, there’d be outraged demands to put the jerk behind bars.  

Let’s go back to that Wikipedia article, which tries to explain what makes something humorous.  One theory has to do with the “Incongruity Theory,” where an expectation comes to nothing.  Another is “the perspective twist,” where there’s an unexpected shift in perspective.  Finally, the article mentions a theory proposed by Arthur Koestler, who argues “that humor results when two different frames of reference are set up and a collision is engineered between them.”

Now, back to the woman who bit the guy.  Analytically speaking, it’s funny because it’s incongruous as hell.  You don’t expect a woman to beat up on a man.  You certainly don’t expect her to chase him half a block and tackle him.  

 But the part that makes it truly hilarious?  She’s so angry about him calling her fat that she … eats his ear.  Which I suppose would be called a perspective twist: the guy’s hurtful insult turns out to be absolutely accurate. She really will eat anything.

Being alert for the incongruities in humor helps us understand why a big dog attacking a kitten isn’t funny, but a kitten attacking a big dog is.  Why an adult spouting profanity isn’t funny, but we’ll laugh when a five year old does it. 

Sometimes, though, we’re better off not thinking too hard about why something’s funny and just enjoy the laughter.  Because, as E.B. White once warned, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.”  

Stop me before I panic again

I sat down today to write a blog about what’s more important to readers, plot vs. character.  But I’m completely unable to focus on my planned topic because news bulletins about that erupting Icelandic volcano (I won’t even try to spell its name) keep distracting me. In fact, all weekend, I’ve been unable to read, write, or do much of anything because I’ve now got a volcano fixation.  Especially after a brief scare earlier today, coming from MSNBC, that a plume had appeared above a second Icelandic volcano, an even bigger one named Hekla. (Update: now MSNBC says that report of a second volcano was incorrect. Thanks a lot, MSNBC, for scaring the crap out of me.)  

I know a number of folks in the books biz who are personally affected by that spreading cloud of ash. Publishers couldn’t fly to the London Book Fair.  My UK editor is stuck in Italy. And I just got a Facebook message from fellow thriller writer Linwood Barclay, who’s stranded in Paris and won’t be able to join me at dinner this week.  That volcano is disrupting peoples’ lives, professions, and pocketbooks.  

But my obsession with the volcano isn’t about mere disruptions; it’s about what else could happen.  I can’t write because I’m paralyzed by visions of disaster.  Airplanes grounded for months, even years.  Nuclear winter, mass starvation, food riots, revolutions. I’m thinking of what happened in Europe during the disastrous Little Ice Age.  I’m looking out my window at the bay and wondering if we could live on seaweed once the food runs out.  Or would we be better off in the woods, hunting for game? What happens when all the deer starve to death? What happens when ravenous city folk from Boston and New York come up to steal what little we’ve got left?

Maybe it’s time to get a gun.

I’ve always been way too good at that game of “What’s the worst that can happen?” Give me a disaster, and I can do you one better.  That’s the downside of being a thriller writer; our imaginations take us straight to the dark and scary places.  But when those scary places are extensions of what’s actually going on around us, well, sometimes we wander into loony land.

I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve been there.

About a week after 9/11,  after you’d think the initial shock would have worn off, I woke up one morning in an inexplicable panic.  The world was ending, and I had to protect my family from starvation. I drove straight to my local supermarket and began buying boxes and boxes of Kraft packaged macaroni and cheese, something I’d never eat under normal circumstances.  But there I was, loading boxes of it into my shopping cart, along with jars of peanut butter and cans of tuna and cling peaches.  When I got home, my teenaged son looked at that bag of weird groceries and said, “Um, mom?  Are we actually eating macaroni and cheese for dinner?”

No, we did not eat it.  We never ate it. Those boxes sat in the closet for about a year, an embarrassing memento of the day mom let her imagination get the better of her.  Finally, I donated them to a food pantry.

Then there was bird flu.  Oh god, there was bird flu.  I had made the mistake of reading The Great Influenza by John Barry, a fascinating and alarming look at what happened during the 1918 pandemic. Just about the time I read it, outbreaks of bird flu were going on in Asia. I began clicking on the CDC website several times a day. I had frightening conversations with pandemic officials about how all social order would disintegrate.  No food delivery, empty supermarkets, failing electrical plants and water supplies, dead bodies stacked up on sidewalks.  I studied the worldwide migratory patterns of birds.  I worried about getting our sons home to Maine where I could look after them. 

And here’s another stunningly embarrassing confession I have to make: I bought supplies of Tamiflu.  Yep, I shelled out hundreds of dollars to make sure that my darling sons would have it available when the pandemic took hold and every drugstore in America was emptied of its Tamiflu supplies.  They probably still have their Tamiflu stuck somewhere in the back of their medicine cabinets, where it will be ready for when the end of the world happens.  Assuming the drug hasn’t already expired.

Then there’s the swine flu scare.  And the tsunami that will wipe out Maine when that volcano in the Canary Islands blows up.  And the Yellowstone volcano that will wipe out north America.  Oh, and don’t forget there’s an asteroid that’s headed straight toward us, though we don’t know about it yet.

A vivid imagination can be a crippling thing.  It can make you lie awake at night, obsessing over all the terrible things that can happen to the future of mankind.  Or even worse, to your kids.  But that same imagination is what fuels the stories we tell.  Without it, “the worst that can happen” would be a lot less alarming.  It would amount to a few thousand canceled flights, instead of worldwide Armageddon.  And how boring a book would that be?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go check on my Tamiflu supply. 

 

 

 

You are what you are

 

In my family, I’m known as the Trip Daddy.

When arrangements need to be made, passports checked, flights booked, everyone rounded up to get to planes/trains/ferries on time, I’m the one in the family who does it.  I go around the house banging on doors, telling people it’s time to get up so we can get on the road.  I herd people along, get them to gulp down breakfast, and ask if everyone’s got their toothbrushes packed.  In short, I’m the horrible family nag.

I became aware of how irritating that can be during a recent trip to the US Virgin Islands.  I was trying to hurry everyone along to catch a ferry, and my son blurted out, “God, will you just chill out, Mom?!!!”

That hurt.  I was just trying to get everyone where they needed to be, and no one appreciated it.  Yes, they wanted to catch the ferry.  They wanted to get moving.  But no one was doing anything about it.  And the one person trying to do something about it — me — was getting criticized for trying to make things happen.

I decided, then and there, to adopt a completely new attitude: Whatever.  So what if we didn’t make the ferry on time?  So what if no one got to do what they’d planned to do?  It wasn’t my problem.  I was just going to lie back, read my book, and wait for someone else to take charge and be the Trip Daddy.  

And that’s what I did.  The next morning, the family had plans to go into Charlotte Amalie to go shopping.  But noon came and went and no one got out of bed.  Whatever.  I just enjoyed myself sitting on the porch, reading.  Eventually family members started stumbling downstairs to eat breakfast.  They surfed the internet.  They hung out.  I didn’t make a peep.  It got to be late afternoon.  The ferry was long gone.  

Whatever.

The family started whispering to each other.  I’m sure they were wondering: “What’s wrong with mom? Why isn’t she nagging us to move our butts?” 

Evening rolled around.  We had reservations for a steak dinner on the beach.  I didn’t say a thing; I just kept reading my book.

The earth was beginning to shift.  My husband said, “Um, maybe we should get going…”

Hunh.  Whatever.  I was no longer the Trip Daddy, so let someone else round up the troops.

Hubby got more insistent.  Maybe he was hungry; maybe he’d sensed that in this new vacuum, someone had to take charge.  So he got everyone moving.  I cooperated, obedient as a cow, but I was through being the leader of the pack.  I was tired of it, and tired of having to be the nag.  Because, let’s face it — no one likes Trip Daddies.  

Even though they know they need one.

I resolved to adopt Whatever as my new motto.  No longer would I be responsible for the family’s daily vacation schedule!  No longer would I feel the pressure of making sure that everyone was happy and well-fed!  It was every man for himself. I was just going to look out for myself.  

 I luxuriated in irresponsibility.  The next two days, I ate breakfast alone when i wanted to, got up when I wanted to.  I didn’t tell anyone what to do or where to go.  We missed ferries.  We got to dinners late, and ended up at the lousy tables that no one wanted.  Not my fault, not my problem.  I was learning to be a slacker, and it felt pretty darn relaxing.

But two days later, I realized our vacation cottage had run out of bottled water, as well as milk and bread and fruit and eggs.  Someone had to catch the ferry into town and go shopping. I looked around at my dear family, who hadn’t even noticed that the refrigerator was empty, and realized that if I waited for one of them to notice the problem, the last ferry would be long gone for the day.  And we’d have no breakfast in the morning.

I caught the ferry and went shopping.

My brief experiment in slackerhood was over.  I was back to being the Trip Daddy and the obsessive-compulsive mom, back to automatically taking inventory of toothpaste and oatmeal.

What I discovered from this vacation experiment is that it’s not easy to change one’s basic nature.  From the time I was a little girl, I was irritatingly responsible. Occasionally, I’ve tried to cut loose and be spontaneous, but I just can’t keep up the charade. I look at the calendar and can’t help but think of deadlines.  I obsess over everything that can possibly go wrong, and I plan accordingly.  And because I do, no one else feels the need to.

No matter how much I may want to change, I’ve accepted that this is who I am.  I’ll never be the wild woman who throws on a backpack, abandons the family, and disappears without warning into the jungles of Borneo.

 But if you want your refrigerator stocked and dinner on the table every night, I’m your gal.

Are your characters telling secrets about you?

by Tess Gerritsen

Because the upcoming TV series “Rizzoli & Isles” is based on the characters from my thriller series, the show’s writers have been reading my novels to familiarize themselves with Jane and Maura’s personalities and back-stories.  A few weeks ago, they flew out to Boston for a research visit, and I got the chance to meet them.  Over dinner, the lead writer turned to me and said, “Maura Isles has Asperger’s, doesn’t she?”

Her insight startled me, because I had no idea it was so obvious.  I never set out to make Maura an Aspie.  I never even knew that she was an Aspie… until I discovered that I’m one, too.

I’ll admit that Maura reflects some aspects of my own personality.  Some of her biographical details come straight from my own life — where she went to school, what car she drives, her taste in music, food, and wine.  Also drawn from my own personality is her belief in science and logic and her drive to understand why things happen.  Nevertheless, she’s a fictional creation, someone I thought I’d simply made up.  

I didn’t realize that it was me emerging on the page.

Those who’ve read the series know that Maura is uncomfortable in crowds.  She’s not skillful with small talk, she likes her solitude and she doesn’t have a huge circle of friends.  In fact, her friendship with Jane Rizzoli is more a matter of their linked occupations rather than from any interpersonal connections.  None of these details struck me as strange, because that’s the way I am too, and I always thought of myself as normal.  My father was this way as well, very much a lone wolf who was obsessive about his work as a chef. 

Growing up, I was the awkward kid who never said much in class.  My few friends were the other awkward kids, the ones who were always last to be chosen for field hockey and volleyball.  When an equally geeky boy I liked took me for a ride in his truck, we didn’t go to the movies or lover’s lane or anywhere that other teens might go.  We drove to the Salk Institute to ooh and ahh at the cool research buildings, where we fantasized about working someday.  

Even though I felt okay about myself, I was always a little envious of people who could walk into a room and circulate and instantly make everyone like them. I’m unable to circulate; I get stuck talking to one person in the room and I have no idea how to move on to anyone else.  I marvel at how good others are at small talk, and how easily they make friends.  I assumed they just had a gift, that they were special.  I never considered the possibility that they were the normal ones.

Then, at a literary dinner last year, I had the privilege of sitting beside a spokesman for an Asperger’s support organization.  Neither one of us was any good at small talk, but we were both really good at being obsessive about a particular topic.  His topic was Asperger’s.  He began to describe the characteristics: Trouble looking people in the eye.  Uncomfortable in crowds.  Tend to focus on minutiae.  Good with numbers. 

“This is starting to sound like me,” I said.

“It doesn’t mean you have it,” he said.  “Now, if you also had synesthesia…”

“Does it count that I see colors when I hear certain notes played on the piano?”

Now he got interested.  “What do you see?”

“If I hear an F, I see yellow.  If it’s C, I see orange.  If it’s B flat or E flat, I see purple or mauve. That’s been true ever since I was a kid.  I assumed that everyone saw those colors.”   

“Yep,” he laughed.  “You’re an Aspie.”

It was something I hadn’t realized until that conversation.  Yet the TV writer, after merely reading my books, immediately saw the diagnosis.  She understood something that I myself hadn’t perceived: that Maura Isles has Asperger’s.  

Just as Maura’s creator does. 

It’s discomfiting to realize how much I’ve unwittingly revealed about myself in my books.  I wonder how many other secrets my characters have told about me.  It’s inevitable, isn’t it?  When we sit down to tell a story, our character’s voice has to come from somewhere.  It’s shaped by our own experiences and personalities, by our own perceptions of the world.  Without meaning to, we spill ourselves onto the page in so many subtle ways.  

It doesn’t mean that mystery writers are all homicidal maniacs and romance writers are lusty women. Our characters are just as likely to be our complete opposites, so readers shouldn’t assume they can psychoanalyze a writer based on how his characters think. But every so often, we writers allow ourselves to walk onto the page.  We take a turn in our own story, and speak the truth straight from our hearts.

We just won’t tell you when we’re doing it.

 

What would Jane Rizzoli eat?

by Tess Gerritsen

I’m the daughter of a professional chef.  My father’s family owned a popular seafood restaurant in San Diego called Tom Lai’s, and in that noisy, chaotic kitchen, my dad performed culinary miracles. Six days a week, he’d wake up before dawn to buy the fresh catch off the fishing boats.  He’d spend the morning fileting the fish, then he’d cook for the lunch crowd, followed by cooking for the dinner crowd, followed by the cleanup. He’d get home around midnight, fall into bed — and be up the next morning to start all over again. That was his schedule, six days a week, fifty weeks a year. 

Growing up in a chef’s family, I learned that the restaurant business is not for the faint of heart.  It requires superhuman stamina and dedication and an abiding passion for food.  While I don’t have my dad’s stamina, I did inherit his obsessive passion for food, and I have an eerie memory for meals I’ve eaten over the years.  I don’t remember faces, I don’t remember names or dates, but I sure as heck remember the exquisite asparagus I ate at L’Arpege in Paris and the mahi filet at Burdine’s in Marathon and the fried lettuce (it sounds weird but it was delicious) at the long-gone Nanking Restaurant in San Diego.  

In fact, not only do I remember what I ate, I often remember what other people ate.

A few weeks ago, while I was visiting New York City, I had dinner with friends, another married couple. We got to talking about the year we’d all had dinner together in Paris.  It was 2003, and we ate at a lovely little restaurant called Flora’s.  I looked at my friend’s husband.   “And you ordered the turbot,” I said.

He looked a little startled.  “Wow,” he said.  “You remember that?”

Yes, peculiarly enough, I do — even seven years after the fact. I’m the idiot savant of past meals.  I’ll play the same game with my husband, too.  “Remember nine years ago, when we had dinner at such-and-such restaurant, and you ordered those lovely snails?” I’ll ask him.

“You remember I ordered snails?” he’ll respond.  “I don’t even remember the restaurant!” 

As someone who thinks way too much about food in real life, it’s not surprising that I think a lot about fictional food, too.  I often find myself asking: “What would Jane eat?” or “What would Maura eat?”  It’s not as trivial a question as you’d think, because what a  character eats reveals a lot about them.  It can tell you their family history, their ethnic background, whether they grew up in a city or a small town, whether they’re choosy or undiscriminating, whether they’re neurotic or obsessive or bursting with joie de vivre.  It might even tell you something about their political persuasion.

Your characters’ dining habits also reflect their skills in the kitchen, and whether or not they value those skills.  Which again tells you something about who they are as people.

Jane Rizzoli, one of the two co-stars in my thriller series, is a Boston homicide detective.  She grew up in a blue-collar family with a homemaker mother, so she’s been exposed to the role model of a woman who cooks, and cooks well.  

But don’t expect to read too many scenes with Jane cooking dinner.  She certainly knows how to, because she grew up in an Italian-American kitchen.  But Jane has struggled all her life to be accepted as “one of the guys.”  She’s tried to project toughness and professionalism, and cooking symbolizes a traditionally female role that she’s been trying to escape from.  She has a love/hate relationship with the kitchen, and only when she’s with her mother do we see Jane’s inner Italian chef emerge as she cooks gnocchi and veal sauce and roast lamb and cannoli.  (Naturally, I had to test out those recipes myself first.)

Jane’s diet isn’t limited to home-cooked Italian food.  In the eight books she’s appeared in, Jane has eaten fried fish and lobster rolls, barbecue and french fries.  She’s very much an all-American, middle-class gal who’d choose beer over wine, hot dogs over sushi, and would probably not go hunting for exotic French cheeses at her local grocery store.

Then there’s Dr. Maura Isles, Jane’s co-star in the series. Maura grew up in San Francisco, trained as a physician, and she has a great deal more disposable income.  She also has far more exotic tastes.  In BODY DOUBLE, she cooks herself a spicy Thai dinner with fresh basil.  When her lover comes to visit, she cooks him osso bucco and opens a bottle of Amarone wine.  But when she’s exhausted and depressed and too tired to cook, you’ll find her hunched over a grilled cheese sandwich, washed down with a gin and tonic.

Yes, not only does food help define who your character is, it also helps define mood.  A dinner of scrambled eggs says: “in a hurry.”  A dinner of home-made risotto says: “willing to fuss long and lovingly over the stove.”  And a dinner of Oreo cookies — well, that’s just plain pitiful.

I realize that I’m guilty of stereotyping here.  Although we hear sneers about “latte liberals” and the snooty “white wine and Brie cheese set”, taste in food can cross class and cultural and regional lines.  But as writers, we have to consider whether a character’s particular choice of foods seems a bit … unexpected.  And if it is, we need to explain it.  A neurosurgeon who loves Cheese whiz? Um, needs explanation.  A Bostonian who eats grits?  Again, needs explanation.  But a San Francisco artist who dines on sushi one night, tacos the next, and Thai food on the weekends?

No explanation required.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the public turns scary

by Tess Gerritsen

When I sit alone in my office, writing my stories, I imagine my readers as a big, sprawling community of friends around the world, and I want to please them.  I know I’m bound to disappoint some of them from time to time, but I hope that they’ll give me another chance, and that I’ll redeem myself in their eyes with my next book.  We writers depend on our readers for our livelihoods, and most of us try very hard to stay in their good graces. 

But sometimes, those readers make us want to run for cover.

So far, I’ve had only a few such experiences.  There was the man who leaned close and whispered how much he liked THE SURGEON (my book about a killer who slices and dices women) because it allowed him to enjoy his secret fantasies.  There was the agitated woman in the leopard-print pants who waited until the end of my booksigning to insist that I write her life story.  Which she then proceeded to tell me, ending with the sentence: “And after all that, the jury only convicted me of manslaughter!”  At which point my media escort swooped in, insisting that we had to leave now.

I count myself lucky that my fans, by and large, are nice, reasonable people, especially when I read the latest news about Susan Boyle, the shy spinster from England who shot to fame with a show-stopping performance on “Britain’s Got Talent.”  Poor Susan now has a stalker and her home has been broken into several times.  Then there was the frightening incident at Stephen King’s house several years ago, when a mentally unstable man broke into the kitchen, forcing Tabitha King to flee in her bathrobe.

This past week, I’ve witnessed yet another example of how the public has teeth — and how quickly those teeth can start ripping into an author.  I’m talking about the astonishing wrath exhibited over at the Amazon.com page of Douglas Preston’s new book, IMPACT.

Full disclosure #1: I know Doug Preston.  He’s a charming, delightful, literate man.  And we both share a lifelong passion for science.

Full disclosure #2: I’m a fan of his books.  When I board an airplane, if I’ve brought along a thriller by Preston, or by Preston and Child, I know I will be well-entertained during that flight.

Soon after Preston’s new book was released, I hopped on over to Amazon to see if readers were enjoying his book as much as I did.  I was surprised to see a number of 1-star reviews.  My surprise turned to consternation when I read those poor reviews and realized that almost all of them weren’t about the book at all.  Instead, the “reviewers” were using the site to express their fury that the Kindle edition of Impact wouldn’t be released until months after the hardcover went on sale. They expressed their rage by attacking Preston and his work, saying they would never buy another one of his books.  The New York Times caught wind of the turmoil, got Preston to comment on it, and he expressed his quite understandable annoyance with the whole affair.  Which resulted in an even more furious, even vicious onslaught of one-star reviews on his Amazon page.  (Note to self: if the New York Times ever calls asking for statement, politely decline and hang up phone.)

The public e-lynching of Douglas Preston is a frightening spectacle that will almost certainly be replayed, with other authors as fresh targets.  As a result of the recent battle between MacMillan and Amazon, Kindle e-book prices for new releases will probably be increasing across the board.  Already, I’ve received an email from a reader, complaining that the Kindle edition of my upcoming book, ICE COLD, is priced at $14.30.  “I will not be buying your book at that outrageous price,” the reader said.  The email was a civil one, but I’m bracing for others — far less civil — that will probably follow.   

What’s astonishing is that “greedy” authors are being blamed for this.  That’s like blaming the fisherman for the price of  sole meuniere on the restaurant menu.  Writers, like fishermen, are simply responsible for delivering the raw product.  Standing between us and the final consumer are processors, packagers, and retailers.  Unless a book is self-published (in which case the author can set the price) writers have absolutely no control over the final list price, in whatever format it may be published.  

Let me repeat: traditionally published authors have no control over the final list price of their books.  

In all my twenty-three years in the publishing industry, I have never been asked what my book should cost in the marketplace.  Not once.  Just like the fisherman never gets asked what the restaurant should charge for its Catch of the Day special.

Because of what happened to Preston, I thought long and hard about whether I should even be discussing this subject on a public blog.  It’s tempting to just dive under your desk and stay out of sight, where the bullets can’t find you.  But that doesn’t change the fact that every author is a potential target.  When the public gets enraged about book prices, and they want to attack, they won’t be hurling their stones at something as nameless and anonymous as the “publishing industry.”  They’ll be aiming their fury at the people whose names they know.  The names on the books.  The “rich and greedy” authors whose $14.00 e-books are — to the public — as potent a symbol of avarice as a banker’s multimillion-dollar bonus.

Put on your armor.  It’s going to get rough.

(I’m afraid I’ll be on the road when this post goes up.  I’m sorry I won’t be able to respond to comments.)

 

 

 

the inadvertent pirate

by Tess Gerritsen

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post over on my own site about e-book piracy, and how victimized I felt, as an author, about my books being pirated.  After I wrote the post, I thought I’d add an appropriate graphic to accompany the entry, so I went searching for a pirate image.  I did a search on Google Images and found 17,700,000 entries.  

Now, I don’t think of myself as the type of person prone to be a pirate.  My daughter-in-law and my younger son both make their livings as professional photographers, so I’m well aware of the issue of photographers’ rights.  Photographers want copyright control over their images just as much as we writers want control over our creations.  

So as I looked at all those pirate images on Google, I automatically shied away from any and all photographs, because I knew they were probably under license.  I shied away from anything with a live model or anything that looked like a hand-drawn illustration.  I shied away from anything that had a trademark or an obvious business logo.  I finally settled on the most generic black-and-white skull and crossbones I could find.  It looked like your standard pirate flag symbol, something that might actually have flown on a flag two hundred years ago.  How could something so generic be under license?

The blog post went up, and two weeks went by.

Then I received an email from a helpful soul, pointing out how ironic it was that I’d chosen a licensed image to illustrate my blog post about piracy.  Take a careful look at that image, he advised me.  There was a watermark there, almost hidden in the background.  Yep, my generic skull-and-crossbones flag was a licensed image.

I’d completely missed it.  I’d pirated an image for my post about piracy.

Of course I took it right down.  And it got me to thinking — how often does this happen?  How often do we unknowingly pull off licensed images from the internet, thereby violating the rights of artists or photographers?

I asked the person who’d written me how one can tell if something’s licensed or not, and he passed the question along to a friend of his who works in the graphic arts business.  And the response was: all original creative works are copyrighted by default.  The problem with Google images is that there’s no way of knowing if the image is indeed in the public domain.  So to be safe, none of us should be using anything off Google images.

So where can we find free images?  

He suggested a site: morgue file, a public image archive.

He also suggested that one could head over to Wikipedia to look for public domain image sites.

Finally, he added that “Many US government produced images are Public Domain, except for “agency logos” as we paid for them. NASA, EPA, etc… image can be be freely used in many cases.Just see the term of image use on most agency pages. Some require crediting the agency or photographer or not commercial use.”

It’s a valuable tip for anyone who blogs.  If we hate being pirated as writers, then we should understand that it’s just as much a sin to be pirating off artists and photographers. 

Just my tip for the day.

(I’ll be traveling today so won’t be able to personally respond to any comments.)

the end of the world as we know it?

by Tess Gerritsen

Last week, after I blogged on my own website about e-book piracy, the post garnered some reactions elsewhere on the web.  A few commenters felt that my fears of piracy are overstated, and that we authors should look on piracy as a good thing because, hey, it gets us more readers.  Even if they’re not paying us for our work.  It is far better to be popular than to pay our bills, and theft is the highest compliment one can pay you.  If your work wasn’t worth it, no one would be stealing it, so cheer up!  Someone thinks highly enough of your stories to swipe them!

It’s a strange new world for authors, and I’m struggling to figure out just what to expect next.

Recently I had a fascinating conversation with a man who offers paid editorial and design services to authors who want to self-publish their work as e-books. Over drinks, we got into a lively discussion about what the future holds for authors.  He predicts that e-publishing will level the playing field for all authors, everywhere — and in a good way, he believes.

 Every aspiring writer, he said, whether talented or not, will be able to bypass the traditional publishing route and get his own work published online, at minimal cost.  Amazon.com, Scribd, plus a variety of other online booksellers will allow you to sell your poems, memoirs, recipe books, what have you, direct to the consumer.  All you have to do is turn them into pdf files and upload them to the bookseller.  You can also go here for further guidance.  It sounds so tempting.  Within hours, you could have your work available for sale, and be earning royalties.  And the royalties are a hefty percentage of the cover price — a far higher royalty rate than you could get with a traditional print book from a traditional publisher.   Why would anyone want to brave the gantlet of traditional publishing — the rejection letters, the dismissive editors, the astronomical odds — when all you have to do is upload your work and presto!  You’re making money!  

He made the whole prospect sound so tempting that I couldn’t help wondering, just for a moment: hey, why not? What author in his right mind would turn down a 70%  royalty rate?

But then my logical mind clicked back in place. E-publishing has not been known (so far) to produce a James Patterson – level bestseller.  I mentioned that particular detail to him, and he responded that e-publishing is just the entry point.  Those authors who have really strong sales in e-format will end up attracting traditional publishers, and then they can become James Patterson.  

In other words, his definition of true success really isn’t any different than what it is now: print publishing.  In his heart of hearts, he still believes that e-publishing is really just the try-out for the big leagues.  And the big leagues, even for this enthusiastic e-publishing advocate, is the old-fashioned printed book.  A book with real pages.

From the author’s point of view, e-publishing your own book does sound enticing.  It gives you a direct connection to the consumer.  You are both creator and manufacturer.  You cut out the publisher as middleman, and take home a bigger share of the profits.  No longer will some pipsqueak editor keep you from your goal; you are in total control.  And with the expanding share of readers who’ve moved to digital books, the whole world is your audience.  On the face of it, it sounds like traditional publishers are doomed.

Then I came across an article in January’s Fortune Magazine.  “The Plan to save the Music Biz,” by Mina Kimes, is about how the music industry has struggled, and how major recording companies appeared doomed.  

When iTunes and other Internet music providers exploded onto the scene, the worry was that bands would bypass the four big music companies — EMI, Sony, Universal, and WArner Music — and earn their bling by self-publishing on the web.  And indeed, more artists than ever are putting out albums online — there were 106,000 new releases in 2008, compared with 44,000 five years ago, according to Nielsen SoundScan.  Precious few, however, ever break through.  Of the 63 new releases that sold more than 250,000 copies last year, 61 were issued by major music companies.”  Yes, occasionally a singer-songwriter like Ingrid Michaelson, whose self-released hit album, “Girls and Boys”, has sold 286,000 copies since 2006, makes it big.  But as the story of Hollywood Undead suggest, the record labels will continue to play a major role, albeit a new one.

Even rebel bands who launch themselves on MySpace or YouTube still aspire to the old-style definition of success.  They want to be picked up by a traditional record label.  They want their work available in traditional formats.

So much for being a real rebel.

In the book world, I suspect this is also the secret desire of even the most successful e-pubbed author.  Authors still want to see their book in actual print.  They still want that deal with Random House or Simon and Schuster.  

There’s another reason to desire traditional publication.  The strictly e-pubbed author is frighteningly vulnerable to piracy.  If your book is released solely in digital form, pirates can have it copied and available for free within 24 hours (as Dan Brown’s experience shows.)  Which gives you only a 24-hour window for actual sales before your book turns into a freebie.  Think about it.  The book you spent a year sweating over has only a day to turn a profit, and then it’s dust.

Luckily, we still have a healthy audience of readers who prefer print books.  But within a generation or two, that audience may be migrating to e-readers.  At which time the book market could look very, very different.

How different?

With easy e-publishing available to every aspiring author, there’ll be a glut of content that’s never been winnowed down or edited. Online bookstores will be overwhelmed by the very material that now sits in the slush pile of literary agents. Some of it may be wonderful; most of it will not be.  The consumer won’t be able to tell which is which, because there’s been no screening process to weed out the good from the bad.  It’s going to be anarchy out there.

Then piracy will make it all free, anyway.

In that overwhelming sea of novels, though, a few writers will stand out and develop a fan base.  How? My guess is, they’ll distinguish themselves not through word of mouth (which is going to be difficult to build when you’re competing with a million other novelists, all of whom start on an equal footing in the e-publishing morass).  It’ll be because they’ve been anointed by — surprise! — a traditional kingmaker.  A real print publisher.  Or Oprah. Or a TV or movie deal.  

In other words, everything old will be new again.

In the meantime, as the world spins crazily toward the future, what can we writers do?

Those of us who are now traditionally published are the lucky ones, because we’ve already been anointed. This is our chance to solidify our brand and build our visibility, before everyone in the world is self-published.  By virtue of having made it through the obstacle course of traditional publishing, we’re ahead of the pack. When publishing swings to mostly digital, when everyone and his uncle can call himself an author, we’ll be known as the authors who were vetted — and found worthy of reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ogling the hot new things in Las Vegas

by Tess Gerritsen

There were two conventions in town.  Over at the Sands Hotel, the Adult Entertainment Expo was in full swing. 


I, however, was at the other convention.  

 

The Consumer Electronics Show, at the Las Vegas Convention Center, was THE place to check out the mind-boggling new gadgets about to come on the market in the next few months. From cars to cameras to TVs to gaming systems, this is the show where you’ll catch a glimpse of our electronic future.

 

 Months ago, the Interead company (which makes the Cooler E-book reader) invited me to be a guest author at their CES booth.  Although I knew that the show attendees would be overwhelmingly male, and probably not many would be familiar with my books, I jumped at the chance.  Who wouldn’t want to check out the cool new gizmos on the horizon?

 

As predicted, the show was indeed overwhelmingly male.  (It’s the first big event I’ve ever attended where there was no wait at the women’s restroom!)  But, this being Vegas, buxom gals weren’t hard to find on the showroom floor.

 

 “Booth bunnies” were everywhere.  I sent my husband around the hall to take photos of them, and I have never seen him so eagerly take on an assignment. (For a glimpse of some more booth bunnies, hop on over to my own website for other photos.)

But dazzling electronics and chesty girls aside, CES was also where you could catch a glimpse of gizmos that will be part of the publishing future.  At last year’s CES, or so I’m told, you could scarcely find an E-book reader on display. This year, there were at least a dozen booths, clustered in their very own section of the exhibit hall.  Oddly enough, the world’s bestselling e-reader, Amazon’s Kindle, didn’t have a booth at CES.  But check out the wide variety of other e-readers that will soon be available: 

 

Here’s the Cooler E-reader, the product sold by Interead, my host at CES.  It’s the lightest one on the market, easy to slip into a pocket or purse.

 

 

And where E-readers go, accessories are sure to follow.  There were several booths devoted to just that specialty item:

 

Judging by all the E-reader products — and the interest in those products — a tipping point has clearly been reached.  E-readers are the future, and whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing, we writers can’t afford to ignore the tidal wave that’s rushing toward us.

Nor can publishers.  Because along with the E-reader revolution comes a publishing revolution.  As a writer, you can now publish with any number of e-book sites, and sell your work directly to readers — without any publisher involved.  It means there will be an overwhelming amount of content for consumers to choose from, much of it low-quality.  E-book land is going to be a busy, anarchic universe with a dizzying array of great books sold along with bad books, and lord knows how it’s all going to shake out.

And hanging over us all will be the one thing that could doom us all.  Piracy.  Once books can be copied and disseminated for free, there will be no way to make a living in the writing profession. I fear that it’s only a matter of time before that happens.

And we will look back on this era as the last age of the professional writer.

 

 

why spouses and book tours don’t mix

by Tess Gerritsen

I believe it was the great Nora Roberts who once said: “You don’t take someone you love on book tour.” I was reminded of this quote when my husband and I had a, shall we say, spirited conversation about this topic.  He asked whether it would make my life just a little easier if he came along on my next book tour abroad.  “Don’t you want me there to carry your bags?  To share the experience and provide companionship?  Wouldn’t it make the tour a lot more fun?”

I committed one of those cardinal sins in a marriage.  I told the truth and said: “No.”

What followed was a very tense half hour as I tried to soothe his hurt feelings while explaining why I really did mean “no.”  Because what Nora Roberts said is the absolute truth.  You don’t take someone you love on book tour with you.

I’m sure there are non-writing spouses out there who think this is a terrible reflection on my marriage.  That it must mean I don’t love my husband, or we don’t get along, or we don’t like spending time together.  That’s the furthest thing from the truth.  When I travel on vacation, there’s no one I’d rather be with than my husband.  We have the same interests, love the same foods, share the same daily rhythms.

But a book tour is not a vacation. And to illustrate that point, let me describe a typical book tour schedule abroad — and where the spouse would fit in.

— After overnight flight, you arrive jet-lagged and exhausted. If you’re lucky, you get a few hours’ sleep, then it’s up for work that first evening with media interviews, cocktails with publisher, maybe even a bookstore event.  Spouse tries to participate, but without the same adrenalin you’ve got going, fades out early and vanishes off to bed.  Is sound asleep by the time you stumble back up to the room.

— The next day, time to pack up and move on to the next town.  More travel followed by more media, more bookstore events, into the evening.  Spouse is tired and dragging.  You are in “work mode” so you manage to soldier on, forcing yourself to smile, to be charming, to shake countless hands.  Lots of attention is showered on you by readers and publishing people.  Spouse feels neglected.  By the time you finally crawl into bed, you are close to collapse.  Have to spend the next sleepless hour making spouse feel better about being ignored.

— Ditto the next day, and the next, and the next.  Except that spouse is getting angrier and angrier.  Feeling like you’re not paying attention to the most important person in your life.  Meanwhile, media and publicist and bookstore folks are completely focused on you, you, you.  Spouse is standing in back of bookstore with steam coming out of ears.

— By day five, the pace is killing you. You feel the flu coming on.  Your feet hurt.  Your smile muscles hurt.  You’re trying to focus on the questions the radio host is asking you, but you’re preoccupied with your spouse, who is now giving you the silent treatment.  When you finally get back to your hotel late at night, you want to take a long hot bath and relax in complete silence.  Spouse knocks on door to have one of those deep talks about why you’re being so self-centered.

— By day seven, it’s time to board the airplane home.  Spouse has not seen any wonderful tourist sites, but instead has spent the whole seven days in bookstores, hotel lobbies, cars, train stations, and airports.  You, the media star, the celebrated author, are in the doghouse. Neither one of you has had any fun whatsoever.

Lest you think I exaggerate, a publicist told me of one author who went through something just like this while on book tour.  The author made the mistake of bringing along his rather high-maintenance wife. Instead of focusing on what he should have been doing — plugging his book and networking with publishing executives — he expended much mental energy desperately trying to soothe his wife’s tender feelings.  Nevertheless she packed up her bags halfway through the trip and flounced home in a rage while he was still struggling through that grueling book tour.  Yeah, I’m sure that did wonders for his focus. 

A book tour is not fun and games.  It’s hard work.  It’s physically and emotionally exhausting.  If you’re an introvert (as are so many writers) you need your rare downtime to be  alone, to rest and re-charge.  Then there’s the, er, practical considerations.  Hotel rooms have only one bathroom.  With all the rushing around and irregular hours and frequent travel, you will get a limited time to use that toilet.  With two people fighting for it.

For you non-writers, imagine it this way.  Imagine you work in a law practice or hospital or any other busy setting.  Imagine you’re at work while your spouse is sitting in a chair by your desk, waiting for you to pay attention to him while you rush around between clients or patients. Imagine how hard it is to focus on your job while spouse is sighing deeply beside you.

Yep, that’s what it’s like.

There are, however, certain spouses who probably do fine on book tour.  These are people who are happily independent, who are delighted to do their own thing while you work.  At every new stop, you wave goodbye to each other, and while you head off to promote the book, she’s off to the museum and lunch and shopping.  Only at night do you meet up back at the hotel.  No recriminations, no whining, no feelings of being neglected. That sort of spouse, I can see bringing along.

Otherwise?  Leave the beloved husband or wife at home.  Trust me, you’ll both be happier for it.