Saturday, March 7, 2015

Gettng Ready For Joseph Kanon and "Leaving Berlin"--To Series or Not to Series, Consistent Packaging and Whether That Drives Bestseller Sales, and Our Event on March 10.

I wasn't planning to write a post specifically about Joseph Kanon's visit for Leaving Berlin on Wednesday, May 11 (7 pm, at Boswell), but I find that I have so much to say every time I talk about the book and author, that I find myself actually wanting to pull up a mouse and start rambling.
One thing I always have to note to newcomers is that Joseph Kanon doesn't write series. Whenever we have a series author, I always have to decide whether I start at the beginning or just jump right into the newest volume and hope for the best. Readers should know by now that I am not the kind of person who discovers and author and zips through their entire oeuvre, at least not at my age. When I was young, there were mystery authors I followed, and I still pull them out of my arsenal on occasion.

But the truth is that many of the authors I did like did not write series, at least not until towards the end of their writing cycle, when the push from commercial forces was just too strong not to. My two favorite writers who worked in genre, Elmore Leonard and Dick Francis (or rather his wife, who is said to have written the books), had a similar but different hero at the heart of many of my favorite works. This is unusual, to be sure, though Tana French does something even more interesting, pulling different but connected narrators to the center of her works. And yet I haven't read her, though I've hand-sold hundreds of copies of In the Woods. Just one of those contradictions!

John Grisham is perhaps the most prominent writer who hasn't tended towards sequels, though he has at least one. David Baldacci, who initially followed the John Grisham playbook, is now almost exclusively writing series. Harlan Coben is one author who went in the opposite direction, starting with series but not breaking out until his stand-alones. But these stand-alones are usually with ordinary folks at the center of the narrative, almost like a Hitchcock movie. Once you have a professional protagonist, it's hard not to keep going.

The espionage genre has a stronger tradition than straight-forward mystery, if only perhaps because of the looming presence of John LeCarré, whose series and stand-alone work is almost fifty-fifty. Alan Furst is another writer who carries the espionage torch, and he also doesn't generally repeat protagonists, though the novels are said to be a series, because characters jump from one book to another. But is this a true series or a marketing conceipt? 

There are of course plenty of writers with spies, or special agents, at their center, such as Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan and Jason Bourne in Robert Ludlum's series, but wait, Ludlum's books were stand-alones, and it wasn't until after he died that his most famous protagonist became the center of his novels. What's true is that series are easier to sell in, especially to big box discount retailers. They become review proof, and in fact, most of them don't even get reviews.   But that's not true at most indie retailers. Without the reviews or the strong reads and word of mouth, our sales on grind-em-out series sink to negligible sales.

Kanon's books do connect though, in that they are all set in the same time period, that moment between World War II and The Cold War, though they take place all over the globe, from Istanbul to New Mexico. If it weren't for this darn job, I'd read them all to see if he does play games with incidents in one book reverberating in another. I'd want to know if there is some grand master plan.

As I mentioned, Kanon's lack of a recurring protagonist probably prevents him from consistent bestsellerdom. There's another hitch, at least in terms of building momentum in bookstores; he's bounced around to several publishers and that's given him an inconsistent look for his backlist titles. Some of his books are trade and others are mass market. At least one important book is now print on demand, and a bit overpriced at $20. I'd love to see a consistent look for his work, and that's not impossible, even for an author at several houses. Andrew Wylie once negotiated a reissue of Elmore Leonard's work at several houses, and the cover treatment was quite consistent. And best of all, Kanon is a slower writer, meaning it doesn't take as much time to collect them all, and Atria's current look works well in that regard.

If you don't much about Joseph Kanon's Leaving Berlin, I will tell you that at the heart of the story is Alex Meier, a half-Jewish writer who fled Germany before World War II, for obvious reasons. But after 15 years in the United States, he's finding himself unwanted there too, with the rise of anti-Communist sentiment and his socialist leanings. So he heads back to Berlin, where the Russian sector has invited him back to be an artist in residence. The socialists in control, with several Jews involved, think that they are building a new Germany, but in fact, they will soon find themselves under Russia's thumb. So the Germans and Russians think they are working together, but they are really at cross purposes. And it turns out that Alex has divided allegiances as well; he actually will be allowed to stay in the United States, but only if he does some spying first, with the target being an old family friend. Needless to say, this is a great setup for any number of double crosses.

In some ways, Leaving Berlin is a hybrid, with the first half of the book being more of an intellectual mood piece, and the second half being more plot driven. It reminds me of playing a pinball machine (I can't help it, I just spent over an hour at the Asheville Pinball Museum, and I have to agree, the Flintstones live-action movie was pretty bad but the accompanying game was spectacular) with a very slow pulling back of the plunger.

Like we did for Mary Doria Russell, we took advantage of an early booking to start promoting Joe Kanon's event before Christmas, putting Istanbul Passage on our "coming in 2015" event display and picking it as a selection of our mystery book club. We had pretty good success with advance sales, and while it did not rocket us to the top of the Above the Treeline (selected indie bookstore) numbers, it certainly got us into the top ten. There are some stores out there who sell massive numbers of Kanon!

The newest book is getting really great reviews, such as Tom Nolan's in The Wall Street Journal. He writes "Leaving Berlin is a mix of tense action sequences, sepia-tinged reminiscence, convincing discourse and Berliner wit (“The Russians think aspirin is a miracle drug”). The book is stuffed with incident and surprise yet it heeds the sage advice of Mr. Kanon’s simulacrum of shrewd playwright Brecht, who advises: 'Leave something for the second act.'" And yes, Brecht is a character in the book.

As you know, I'm not the kind of person who can pick a bestseller, though I can often predict which kind of book has breakout potential. Kanon's last, Istanbul Passage, hit #13 on The New York Times, and I think his newest could break even bigger. We're the second week of sale, so we'll probably know how the book's doing by the time of his event on Wednesday (yes, March 11, 7 pm). I'm hoping for top ten.

Your Joseph Kanon checklist:
Los Alamos
The Prodigal Spy
The Good German
Istanbul Passage
Leaving Berlin

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