Jun 9, 2007

A GRAVE Situation

I got a phone call this week from my favorite mystery critic. That would be my Dad.
"You were right, it's a great book!" There really were exclamation marks in his voice. More than one, but I'm showing a little restraint here. After all, I had to ask, "Which book?"

My Dad is a professor by day and he'd saved a particular favorite of mine for after the grade sheets were turned in and before Summer truly began. A summer kickoff if you will.

And then today I clicked on Salon, and there was my precious book, a summer pick.
THE GRAVE TATTOO by Val McDermid is an ambitious and brilliantly executed 'mysteries' book. I was not and am not alone in my assessment of this read. A year ago every mystery periodical in the States dropped an issue with McDermid either on the cover or featured within its pages. We'd heard the call of both the book itself and the energy with which it was received by her publishing house. I adore George Easter but for both Deadly Pleasures and Crimespree to feature cover interviews of the same writer proves conclusively that there's something truly special in the work.

A curious thing happened between the writing,editing and printing of our various magazines and the initially scheduled drop date for the American edition of THE GRAVE TATTOO. St. Martin's moved it back. Seven months back, From June of 2006 to February of 2007. You've got buzz, you have the most extensive genre coverage ever and you send out a giant raspberry to the mystery community.

All of which would have been fine with me, the McDermid Savant I am, if when the book dropped in the U.S. in February they'd have marketed TATTOO to the general fiction community. Tattoo is a book crafted by a genre master. The plot is executed to be 'historical', 'cozy', 'thriller', 'urban crime' and two traditional who-dunnits. McDermid, with THE GRAVE TATTOO, has written that rarest form of contemporary literature, the "airport book" that will not disappoint the person who normally picks up a biography for their long flight. A book guaranteed to be reminiscent of that one "genre" book they remember reading time and again before they became 'effete'. BECAUSE, FOLKS, EVERYTHING IS IN THIS BOOK.

People have guaranteed me that Andy Martin understands what is wrong with St. Martin's. That he intends to fix past transgressions and clean up this imprint. Crimespree relies on the good will of the mystery market and St. Martin's is in many respects, "the mystery market, U.S." They publish more of our favorite authors than anyone else. They believe in this genre. But from A to B they seem to get it wrong.

February came and went, THE GRAVE TATTOO hit American soil already having won "literary" awards. McDermid came to the States to promote and a funny thing happened. After long scheduled dates at mystery indies St. Martins changed up the tour, again with no warning. Scheduled dates were canceled less than 2 months out. In one case a bookstore learned just 2 days before their publicized event that it was being shifted from a reading 'meet and greet' to a drive by. Bad form, St. M's.

So what are the folk at St. Martin's thinking? If THE GRAVE TATTOO is indeed Mcdermid's 'break-out' American book (P.W.), why did the company that has lovingly published her for the past decade shoot itself in the foot not once but twice while at the same time giving TATTOO one of their largest initial print runs ever (100,000 is the Amazon count)?

I believe that St. Martins sees quality, but traveling on a wing and a prayer does not fly in today's publicity blitz oriented world. I also know that for the maximum people who'd enjoy this book and recognize its brilliance to be exposed to the title, St. Martin's must indeed move beyond the 'usual genre outlets'. But with TATTOO they failed , cutting off the hand that feeds and failing to regenerate on a bigger scale. They have the technology. McDermid has the capability. Why then is the book still one of this years best kept secrets?

I am frustrated. I am chagrined. But it all comes back to the phone call.

"It's a great book." And so it is.
Do yourself a favor, put it on your Summer Reading list. The truest coarse in published fiction is the individual interaction with a writer's prose. THE GRAVE TATTOO is an adventure every reader can enjoy, written by someone who enjoys words and their craft as much as you do. Add Wordsworth, Fletcher Christen, an inner city youth and cut throat academia and you won't go wrong despite the actions of the author's publisher.


Anonymous said...

I agree, this seems very strange. I live in the UK and the book had been out (and sold well) for a long time before the US official release. I enjoyed it too -- I reviewed it for the Philadephia Inquirer, the review ran last month. I agree she is moving away from a crime "niche" and into the "mainstream" -- makes sense, as she is one of the very top selling UK crime authors so she has saturated our market! (the other is Ian Rankin).

Anonymous said...

Ruth, you have a marvelous sense for the business side of things. I did some research on the original Minotaur (not St. Martins or Holtzbrinck, the mother ship, mind you, but specifically Minotaur) business model, which was, and remains, quite unique in the crime fiction world. Unlike other houses, it WAS deliberately predicated upon mass volumes of titles with limited overhead (i.e. marketing support)and limited print runs. Kind of the Burger King of publishing. The amrgins would be tight, but the sheer numbers would enable it to be profitable. And it has worked! And given any number of writers the opportunity to be published who otherwise would not have had the opportunity. But I cannot help but recall the member of senior management who told me regarding a Minotaur debut author's first book one week, "we can't spend any more money on marketing; it's not justified" and then the very NEXT week told me, "don't do any marketing on your own, leave it to us...we know what we're doing."
Okayyy...we did the math, and it was not long before this author joined the Barry Eisler/JA Konrath/MJ Rose School of Coop and Collegial Marketing (with a degree in BSP).
Minotaur brings in a lot of critically and commercially successful European authors, giving them entree to the US market, which is all to the good. But they do NOT break them out. Which also explains why any number of Minotaur authors, including SJ Rozan, Charlaine Harris an, lately, Marcus Sakey have moved elsewhere before breaking out. This may change under the new regime. Andrew Martin is a man of his word; he has the house backing him, and change is assuredly in the wind. And I speak ONLY of Minotaur, not other SMP imprints. But the history remains.
And those ignorant of history...

ruth the crimespree gal said...

Thank you for the post. THE GRAVE TATTOO is a book that cried out to me Summer Read and Brilliance at the same time. An instance where the stars should have been aligned and a genre treasure should have shone upon the pages of book media. It didn't happen. Nor is the story of this book unique. There are overlooked books everyday, in almost every house, regardless of business model.
To know that Minotaur is trying to revamp their model is encouraging. They have a cornicopia of talent and wonderful books to work with. IF they can get more exposure for their catalog it will be a good thing for readers everywhere. In the interval I suggest everyone read McDermid's THE GRAVE TATTOO.