Tuesday, July 8, 2008

(More than…) A few questions for Doug M. Cummings

Now a full time writer, Doug M. Cummings once worked both sides of the crime scene tape, first as a deputy sheriff and then as an investigative reporter. Putting all that experience to work, Doug created his series character, TV reporter Reno McCarthy, who made his debut in Deader by the Lake.

In Every Secret Crime, McCarthy returns after a homicide rocks wealthy Chicago suburb, Falcon Ridge. When the 17-year-old son of celebrity attorneys is found shot to death just outside his bedroom door, the police rush to the scene – and while there, conduct a bizarre investigation. McCarthy suspects a cover-up, and endeavors to find the real killer without police help. As he gets closer to discovering the truth, the killer gets closer to him – and aims to make McCarthy’s next TV shot his last.

Hello Doug and thanks so much for taking time to answer my questions.

Hi Ian and thanks for your questions.

Q. I self-published a novel a few years back and learned so much from that experience. I see that your first novel, Deader by the Lake, was self-published with iUniverse. Why did you self-publish and what was that experience like for you?

A. I brought Deader by the Lake out myself because I had tried for years to have it published traditionally without success. Self-publishing was a wonderful experience with the old iUniverse. I have no idea what it's like for new authors, now that Author House has taken over. I was treated with great respect and the folks I worked with, who I think have all moved on, really went to the wall for me. They not only tried doing some things for me that they hadn't done before, the former CEO Susan Driscoll also managed to get me quoted in articles in the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and a program on satellite radio. iUniverse was a first-class operation.

Q. Any advice for writers considering self-publishing?

A. Anyone who writes books should do three things. Number One: finish the book before even giving a thought to finding an agent or a publisher. Number Two: Go the traditional route before considering self-publishing. Try to find an agent, the whole bit. It gives you an insight into the business you will not have otherwise and you may receive valuable advice along the way...and get offered a contract! Number Three: Always, always, always have your book professionally edited before you attempt to sell or self-publish it. The word "professional" does not include your daughter-in-law the English teacher or your buddy, "the guy who reads a lot of books." It means hire a professional who does not know you and who is free to offer suggestions without constraint. Hiring a professional editor does not guarantee your work will sell, but it gives it a far better chance. For a first-time author, publishing a book without professional editing is like selling a car without a steering wheel: something essential is missing.

While self-publishing was fulfilling for me, the industry's response to it was lukewarm then (in 2003/2004) and has turned frigid since. Talk to bookstores before you decide to self-publish. Ask critics. Go to a writers' conference and ask other authors. You will find that self-published authors are considered pariahs in the publishing world. Few bookstores, if any, will stock self-published work and the mainstream critics will ignore them. Professional associations will generally not accept self-published authors as voting members and those that say they do will have hidden restrictions that only surface after you've paid your dues. A case in point, without naming names: I joined a major mystery authors group because they showed no prejudice to self-published authors. When the time came to sign up for a Hollywood pitch conference (the opportunity to go to Hollywood and meet with producers), I was told I didn't qualify because I was self-published. No matter that their excuse was long and complicated; it boiled down to the fact that some members were more equal than others. Now traditionally published, I would never consider joining that group again.

Having said all that negative stuff, self-publishing is a way to maintain complete control of your work. You retain your rights. One piece of advice: make sure a lawyer reads whatever contract you're offered.

Q. You must be thrilled that Every Secret Crime was picked up by Five Star?

A. I'm pleased, yes. It's always great to be offered a contract for real money. That said, publishing is a business. Getting picked up is like being hired at any job . . . just the first of
many steps. Once you cash that advance check, you're on the clock. You become a salesperson. Very few houses will offer any more than extremely basic promotional support to their first-time authors. As with self-publishing, it's your responsibility to get publicity, get your books into stores, arrange book-signings, and lobby to be sure the publisher has books available for you to sell when you need them. I've heard stories from booksellers and librarians about authors who walk into stores and libraries and say, "This is a place that has books...so why don't you have mine?" It doesn't work that way. In the four years I've been pushing books, every time I've found my book on a shelf it's been because my publicist and I worked to get it into that particular store. It's not an automatic process.

Q. You've held a few jobs from crime reporter to sheriff. How has that work experience benefited you as a writer?

A. I think any life and work experience you have benefits you as a writer, especially jobs that encourage you to ask questions, do research and learn about how other people live. In that way, being a cop and being a reporter has been enormously beneficial. Many of the questions new crime authors have to ask the professionals I already have the answers for and, if I'm confused about something (which is the case about 99 percent of the time), I have great friends to ask. As a reporter, I saw all sorts of weird things and met loads of interesting people. I also learned a bit about working under stress and on deadline. Some people find asking questions difficult; I got over that in my first year in television. It was great training to be assigned the Man on the Street question of the week...and makes it very unlikely I will ever buttonhole people in shopping malls to get them to buy my book. Spend time at enough crime scenes where the last person a cop wants to see is a "freaking reporter" and calling someone on the phone to ask a question will be a breeze.

Q. I'm sure this is a question you've tackled on occasion but I can't help myself - any situations in your books mirror those that happened to you on the job?

A. I don't think there are any scenes that exactly mirror real-life but many that are similar. In Every Secret Crime, there is constant conflict between the police and the reporters covering a couple of murder cases. I dealt with that at virtually every crime and crash scene I ever attended. Most cops don't want anything to do with reporters and the less intelligent folks in law enforcement will go to ridiculous, and sometimes even illegal, lengths to keep reporters from getting a story. The better, more professional, police officers know dealing with the media is just another facet of the job.

As far as action sequences, I know a bit about guns, both from work and because handgunning is a hobby. I've been in high-speed pursuits and crashes. I know how fights usually happen and how painful they can be. What I try to do is, accepting that I write fiction, try to make the action as realistic as possible. Reno, my protagonist, will never take on a room full of thugs, for example. When he shoots someone, he has to deal with real-life feelings about it. Blood gets spilled, but not by the barrel and, I hope, not in a wanton way. Sometimes the bad guys don't go to jail. Sometimes good people die.

Q. How much of you is in your main character, Reno McCarthy and vice-versa?

A. Reno and I are both handsome, debonair and have women falling all over themselves to take us to bed. When I shake off that fantasy, however, I realize we really are alike in a few ways. We're persistent. We deal with the horrible things we see with dark humor and a realistic attitude. We wisecrack. We resist authority. Sometimes we don't play well with others. Occasionally you'll see us running with scissors. Mostly, we both really care about the victims, probably more than anyone else in the stories we cover. They really are the most important part of the work.

Q. How long does it take you to write a novel starting at the idea stage and ending with a final edit? How do you feel about edits?

A. My first book took ten years, my second two and I've been working on the third for about a year and probably have another six months before it's finished and six more until it's edited. I know some authors who can put a book together in a month. Frankly if I did that, I'd spend the following month in the hospital.

Editing is fun. I feel a great deal of freedom when I finish a book and editing is where I get to express that freedom. I have worked with great editors and most often I incorporate the suggestions they make.

Q. A lot of writers believe that marketing their book should be the publisher's responsibility. That, as we both know, is not reality. How and when do you start the marketing process for your books? Was the decision to hire a publicist influenced by your self-publishing experience?

A. For Every Secret Crime, I started six-months before the publication date by hiring a professional publicity team. I had a single publicist for the first book, Deader by the Lake, but we didn't start much more than a month ahead of time. Promoting a book is a full-time job. I probably could do it by myself but it would be to the exclusion of everything else, including working on the next book. I want every single base covered. It can't ever happen that way but if you approach it with that attitude, you'll certainly have some successes. Publicists are expensive. I started budgeting for book promotion when I first began attending writers conferences in the mid-eighties.

Q. How important is the internet as a marketing tool? I noticed you wrote on your blog a piece about how your readers can help market your books. Was it your intent to include your readers directly in the process? Have they responded positively? What is the best marketing tool at an author's disposal and what's worked best for you?

A. I guess I take a certain Zen approach to marketing. Every marketing tool works in its own way. If you try a tactic and it works for you, keep it in your tool box. If it doesn't, don't use it again.

The internet is essential. Word of mouth is what sells books. Someone reading about you in a blog or on a website may have no interest in your work themselves but, by virtue of cut and paste, can send your name along to their friends. I have found a number of new authors from signing up for sites like Crimespace and Goodreads. Blog book tours are fun. If just one person buys a book after reading about me on a blog, that's terrific. If they show up for a book signing, that's great. If I just get practice honing "the message" I want to use, that's a good thing, too.

I want to involve my readers, my friends and even just those nice helpful folks out there in promoting my work because it's so easy. Asking a library or a bookstore to stock Every Secret Crime takes less than ten minutes. Writing a review for one of the book sites is easy, fun and can be a learning experience because it gives you a chance to think critically as well as being another chance to write and be published!

My best marketing tools are my publicist and events coordinator. Their energy is contagious!

Q. What advice would you have for writers trying to get published? What does the future hold for Doug Cummings?

A. I love these questions because they both give me a chance to use my father's favorite expression: "Get workin' and quit shirkin'!"

Thank you again Doug for taking time to answer my questions. This has been incredibly insightful. Best of luck with Every Secret Crime

To learn more about Doug M. Cummings and to find out where you can purchase his books or visit him at a signing, visit his website and blog.


DianeG said...

An excellent interview, Ian.
Mr. Cummings was very straightforward with his answers.

Good job!

Helen said...

Interesting questions and answers.

I like your marketing ideas, Doug -- and your Zen approach. The Internet has become THE way to market for writers, not to the exclusion of the traditional methods. But Internet promotion can really make a difference in sales and loyal readers.

©Hotbutton Press said...

I'm putting this comment on my bulletin board:

"Editing is fun. I feel a great deal of freedom when I finish a book and editing is where I get to express that freedom."


Now, what do you think of eBook publishing? I've recently read several and was astounded at the quality of writing. As good as any hardcover print mystery. Caught me totally off-guard, and I think the ePublishers will start giving everyone a run for their money. Especially when the associated gadgets become more universal. Your thoughts?

Nice post all around, guys!


Doug M.Cummings said...

Dani, (and Ian) I'm embarrassed to admit it but I have never read an e-book.

That is about to change. . .

Doug M.Cummings said...

Thanks, Diane!

Ian O'Neill said...

Nothing to be embarrassed about as far as I can see. This is an emerging technology that still has some growing to do.

Katie said...

Great interview! It's always good to hear from an author that has been both self-published and traditionally published. As an author, I was sorry to hear once more about the necessity for an author to promote themselves. I find that task daunting.

Katie Hines

Julie said...

Thanks for the insight. It gives me a lot to think about.


Anonymous said...

Great interview, Ian!

I was especially interested in the parts about publicity and marketing since I'm tackling those right now!

Doug M.Cummings said...

Katie, even I found self-promotion daunting the first few times. Being on the other side of the microphone for those first few interviews, especially on TV, was a little nerve-wracking.
For you and AJ...I posted a blog awhile back on the subject, offering some thoughts about what the media looks for when people ask for publicity. You might want to take a look. Check the index at http://everysecretcrime.blogspot.com or look at my page on CrimeSpace. If you have specific questions or if I can help you in any way, please let me know.
Julie...same goes for you if you have questions or want further info, please send me a note.

Edith said...

Good words.