An exclusive interview with

Ray Manley


Carol Givner

This month we are privileged to have as our guest Ray Manley, Senior

Editor/Wizard of Soda Creek Press. Please curl up with a lively interview

from a man who knows the answer to a writer's most puzzling question.

Who will buy my book and why?

Mr. Manley, Soda Creek Press has

set a new standard for excellence

that few can match in our

industry. How did your "book selling by

post" begin?

With a little nod to Mickey Rooney and

Judy Garland, it all started in an empty

barn. Writer and major mystery fan,

Lucinda May, had a vision to sell

mysteries via mail order and talked her

husband, Tom Segar, into giving it a

go. They had moved from Southern

California to their ranch outside

Boonville, a small town about two to three

hours north of San Francisco. The barn

was sitting there empty, so Tom started

building shelves, Lucinda began

reviewing and selecting books and they

were off. Before long, the first issue of

Mysteries by Mail was out and they were

busily answering the phones and fulfilling


Along the way, Lucinda noted that

romance fiction was enjoying a certain

literary revival. Excellent authors were

being drawn to the genre, so it was

natural to start a companion catalog,

which came to be called Manderley

Since then we've started a third catalog,

Bargain Book Warehouse, but right

now we're really excited about our work

on the Internet at out website,

For each book in your catalog you provide

readers with a cover photo and an

excellently written paragraph containing

both a synopsis AND review. What made

you decide on that form of promotion?

When you're selling books through the

mail, or over the Internet for that matter,

you have to find a way for the reader to

"experience" the story in some small way.

In the bookstore, readers can thumb

through the pages, read the opening, and

get a good sense whether or not they are

going to enjoy the story. We like to give

our customers a fair idea of what to

expect from the story, coloring our

comments with a little of our

own--sometimes humorous--personality.

What qualities help you decide which books

to include in your catalog? What spells

instant rejection?

To be completely honest, and a bit flip,

anything we don't think will sell

is instantly rejected! We have a lot of

history on which to base our decisions,

and actually, Manderley readers don't

always parallel the romance fiction

industry in general. Mail order shoppers

tend to be older women, and what they

read reflects this. Our customers are huge

fans of British historical romance, and

only lukewarm toward contemporaries.

They also love Regencies, so we've been

more than a little disappointed around

the office lately since that genre seems to

be dying a not-so-slow death.

Books published in trade paperback

format are also a problem for us. We do

sell a few, but there seems to be a lot of

resistance in our market niche for this

format. Unfortunately many aspiring

writers are first published in trade


What guidelines do you have for author

submissions? A press kit? One or more

promo copies? Do you prefer to deal with

publishers only?

We take any and everything but deal

mostly with publishers. We do like to

know what other reviewers are saying,

although I haven't yet seen an author

submit copies of negative reviews.

Reviews are helpful to us when we can get

a feel for the tone of the story; if they are

just heaps of high praise, they are

meaningless. Authors only need to send us

one copy of their book.

Are you a writer yourself?

I am currently working on 324 novels,

and have been for a number of years. I

can come up with great beginnings, but

never find the time and energy to

finish them up. I have enormous respect

for all authors, both beginners and

established names. Newbies are doing it

without any promise of future success,

while established names keep cranking

out good stories under the unbearable

pressure of publisher deadlines.

Have you met the perfect mystery? If not,

what characteristics are you

looking for in that genre?

I look for originality. An entertaining,

well-plotted mystery with a good dose of

originality, to me, is "perfect". It's very

hard to write something original. As soon

as someone does it, it get copied ad

naseum. For instance, have you ever

counted how many female sleuths are

named Kate? How many "wacky"

mysteries are set in south Florida? Right

now, if a writer wants to be considered

"serious," the plot will involve child abuse

or female disfigurement. Reviewers like to

see authors "deal with" serious issues. I

think parents deal with "serious

issues"--most authors are merely using

"serious issues" to get attention.

What are the most readable qualities for a


Characterization and dialog are the two

most important elements in romance

fiction. We know how it's going to end,

don't we? So to keep the reader involved,

she has to connect to the characters and

the dialog has to ring true. Poor dialog

can kill a story faster than any other

single element. If, as Americans, we have

any native talent left, it's talking to each

other. We've elevated talking to both a

profession and an art form. We relish talk

radio and TV talk shows. We "chat" over

the Internet. When the dialog goes

bad in a romance, we sense it


What trends do you see in fiction? Which

would you like to see?

With the consolidation among publishers,

the dominance of large national chain

bookstores and the rising power of

Internet bookselling, I think readers are

being offered less variety. Publishing is

becoming more and more like the film

industry, beating trends into the ground

and putting a new cover on an old story.

Recently we were treated to a remake of

"The Thomas Crown Affair". In the

world of books, we're seeing publishers

slap on a new cover, either lower or raise

the price, and reissue older works of

popular authors. These re-marketing

programs seem to be happening on

shorter cycles. Books that are no more

than a couple years old are now being

"reissued". Or, in the attempt to cash in

on the success of Diana Gabaldon, we

now have so many characters time

traveling to Scotland, there are huge lines

at Medieval Glasgow International.

What percentage of romance readers are

women? Are most mystery readers men?

Among our customers, almost all romance

readers are women and I think this is true

industry wide. Also, among our

customers, almost all the mystery

readers are women, but this, I believe, is

not true industry wide. Since female

shoppers dominate the mail order

business, this is reflected in the

demographics of our customer base. We

are developing a strong presence on

the web at our family of bookselling sites

centered around

So far, on the web, male shoppers

dominate. But at the same time, romance

readers and authors are incredibly active

on the Internet and we see them a lot at

Do an equal number of men and women

write suspense/thrillers?

I'm not counting, but I think women have

achieved near parity in crime writing. I'm

not an "insider" in terms of how each sex

is getting paid, but I do sometimes hear

women authors make the case that they

aren't making the same money men are.

What books did you read while you were

growing up?

My first encounter with great literature

occurred when I read, at an early

age Homer, uh, I mean Homer Price by

Robert McCloskey. I loved that book

and moved right into Beverly Cleary's

Henry Huggins stories. My youngest son

loves them as much as I did. At a slightly

older age I read each of Ian Fleming's

James Bond novels as they were

published. Next I moved through most of

Hemingway, all of Steinbeck and

everything by Kerouac. Then one day

I found myself buying a copy of Dr.

Spock and realized that somewhere along

the way I had grown up, however


With the advent of mega-huge online

booksellers, what can an independent

bookseller do to keep the personal touch?

To offer authors and publishers perks that

create an atmosphere of "family"?

At the very core of their being, the

"mega-huge online booksellers" are

impersonal. The reader, during the

shopping "experience," is interacting

with a bunch of computer code and cute

graphics. It's a kind of cartoon world. At, you will actually

find me posting opinion pieces here and

there. Browsers are even "treated" to a

little drawing of me that a caricature

artist did of me at Bouchercon a few years

ago. So, we're trying to keep a personal


You hit on an important point when you

mentioned authors and publishers. We

have a great rep at Harpercollins. She's

been connecting us with authors willing to

sign bookplates that we can use for

promotions in Mysteries by Mail and

Manderley. When she first approached me

with the idea, I didn't think it would

boost sales by more than a handful of

books. But it has turned out to just about

double our expected initial sales.

We try to make personal contacts with

out customers. Our customer sales

representatives often write special thank

you notes to customers. Last week I

received a note from a woman

questioning whether or not a certain story

was the fifth or sixth in a series. We had

included an audio-only story when we

tallied up our total, but she hadn't heard

of it. I happened to have a copy of the

audio I was able to send to her. I hope she

enjoys it.

It took quite a while to offer

customers a toll-free telephone number to

field questions. But you can't place an

order over the phone to We

try to be a flexible as possible, allowing

our customers to order over the phone,

through the mail, on our website, or via

e-mail. We even have a little outlet

bookstore at our offices in Ukiah,


What advice would you give to writers who

wish to become editors?

Sometimes let a dangling preposition pass


What advice would you give to authors who

write their own cover blurbs?

First, focus on the one quality of your

story that sets it apart from the rest.

Second, write the blurb before you write

the book.

And finally, what sells?

Whatever Oprah picks. I'm not really

being flip here. Look at the stories she

chooses. The element of redeeming a

seemingly lost life has universal and

eternal appeal. As long as we need

hope--and we always will--these stories

will strike a chord with readers. Mix in

good characters, realistic dialog and an

original twist or two, and you have a story

that should sell. And even if it doesn't,

you can be proud of what you have