BOOKLOVER TO BOOKSELLER EXTRAORDINAIRE

An exclusive interview with

Ray Manley

By

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 orders.
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, 1bookstreet.com.


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 paperback.


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 romance?


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 immediately.


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 www.1bookstreet.com. 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 www.1romancestreet.com.


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 inadvertently.


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 www.1bookstreet.com, 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 touch.


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 amazon.com 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 amazon.com. 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, California.


What advice would you give to writers who wish to become editors?


Sometimes let a dangling preposition pass by.


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 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 written.