What Are Words Worth?
(Alert: Near the bottom, to avoid plural pronouns [they, them, their] when gender is unknown, I use my own genderless pronouns.)
Last night, I spent too much time reading an article on a book promotion site about whether an author should give hiser book away. The writer, publisher of a much-respected small press, opined that giving one’s book away devalued it.
“Most authors sacrifice a lot to write a book,” wrote Rhonda Penders of The Wild Rose Press. “They give up any and all free time in exchange for getting the story on paper. That has to be worth something; certainly more than a freebie.” (I, and many marketing experts, disagree: 90% of our time is spent on marketing, only 10% on writing.)
Most of the authors who replied in the comments section agreed, though a significant number didn’t. Most books are sold on Amazon, and authors may enroll in a program called Kindle Select, which allows them to give their ebook away five days in a 90-day period. I admit to doing that with my novel Murder in Palm Beach: The Homicide That Never Died, which garnered considerable exposure as the No. 1 downloaded book in as many as three genre categories, and always in at least one, for 15 straight weeks. How it affected sales was hard to determine.
However, that strategy has not worked nearly as well with the current legal thriller, Blood on Their Hands, for three reasons that I have deduced. 1) Murder is closely based on a real assassination, and people love to read about real crime. 2) The event occurred in Palm Beach, famous for its wealth and glamour – although the enclave has become better known for its most infamous resident, whose name I need not deign to mention. (Maybe I shouldn’t complain; he’s drawn even more attention to the town.) 3) Blood has two serious, related themes, which most readers, as whites, don’t care much about: police brutality toward blacks, and racial bigotry (about 53% of whites voted for Donald Trump in 2020).
I’ve arrived at that conclusion after selling my books at a number of local street fairs and festivals. Despite my insistence that Blood is more entertaining, a more exciting read, Murder invariably gets more sales. People don’t even have to know it’s garnered 162 reader reviews with a 4-star average. Maybe if they knew that a noted New York literary agent reluctantly declined to represent it, commenting that none of the several storylines in the first 100 pages focused on a particular one (I felt obligated to present the main scenarios about the motivation for the murder), but adding, “You write well, and your dialogue is true to life, hard to do.”
The reaction of a particular woman who read the description on the back of Blood is, I strongly believe, emblematic of the big majority of readers: “I’m not interested in that.” She put the book down and hastened away.
Yes, the book has a message for our time; I am driven to write stories that go beyond entertainment value. What many readers don’t understand is that a book can have both. Indeed, several have made that point about Blood, including its most recent reviewer, who holds a doctorate in Classics and formerly wrote for the Huffington Post:
“Blood on Their Hands is an excellent legal thriller (no spoilers ahead) that takes place in Florida against the back-drop of small-town policing. Brink's main characters are drawn with warmth and humor and he brings you into the plot's ethical dilemmas immediately. The action is crisp and the plot moves swiftly along through various surprising twists and turns. Brink's understanding of legal machinations informs the action and the way a traffic stop turns into something much, much more serious is more timely than it has ever been. Blood on Their Hands also lays bare the casual, entrenched nature of racism in our society, how tragedy often grows out of off-handed acceptance of ignorance and pointless hate. The book's tension builds, the characters are colorful and absorbing, and I strongly recommend this book as an addition to the great tradition of Florida thrillers.”
Another reviewer, brilliant New York author Michael Hartnett, had this to say:
“The generous humor in the novel belies the fact that Brink explores serious issues in Blood on Their Hands … Yes, serious business transpires in this novel as deaths and shady dealings pile up, yet what gives this novel buoyancy is watching Garbuncle rise to the occasion … Blood on Their Hands, a novel that manages to examine serious issues in wildly entertaining ways.”
A professional reviewer concluded:
“Despite the issues of racism and corruption at its heart, the novel is a suspense-filled, fast-paced crime drama that lovers of finely constructed crime thrillers won't want to miss. Deliciously readable!” The Prairies Book Review
Finally, an upper-level literature educator wrote: "Blood on Their Hands is a thriller that explores some serious issues ... Good thriller with some interesting insights into human nature, though the book is never preachy.” Robert O. McGraw
But I digress. One commenter on the article about the wisdom of authors’ giving their books away encapsulated the issue: “I think our collective problem is that there are so many writers now, and readers have so much choice, that the effort to become known, to build a ‘platform,’ becomes an obsession. Selling should be fun, talking about your work a joy. But statistics work against writers. The average American reads 5 books a year. Amazon adds 3000 a day. Good luck with that.”
And that observation was made almost eight years ago. The numbers now are much higher, with many millions of books sitting on Amazon. An author’s enormous challenge is to get hiser book recognized. Hesh has to “brand” hermself, book marketers say. In my case, I guess I could call it the Bob Brink Brand. Try saying that 10 times. One’s tongue, or fingers, get(s) twisted, as did those of the Palm Beach Post copy editor who wrote the headline and byline for a story I penned years ago about a brand (sorry about that) new big band: “Bob Bird’s Big Band. By Bob Bink.”
On that levitous note, I mercifully conclude this tome.