We have a publicity intern working part-time for us, and this week she asked me, "Agatho, what is the single best piece of advice you can give me?" I thought a moment and responded: "You need to get the right books into the right reviewers' hands, and keep the wrong books out of the hands of reviewers who are not right for them."
Reviews are a completely different subject on which I've blogged before (probably ad nauseam), so I won't get into all that again. But my own advice made me think about why I've developed such a strong feeling about this situation that it became my #1 piece of advice to a young person just starting out in publishing. And I think I've figured it out -- it comes down to one of the realities (and glories) of our genre, which is the presence of the many sub-genres.
I think I've come to the conclusion that each sub-genre is judged by a different set of standards and expectations. And that those who really don't care for, say, cozies will at best tolerate a very good one. Herewith some further thoughts:
1. THE COZY. The cozy is needed more than ever, what with wars abroad and economic turmoil at home. A cozy is a true piece of escapism, a romance in which an English village or small Midwestern town is peopled with delightful, slightly wacky, and basically good-hearted folks, except for those one or two bad seeds who happen to be murderers. I think it's getting harder and harder to do these well, because they often require (for many readers) an almost insurmountable suspension of disbelief. They run the risk of being cutesy-poo and saccharine. And yet, when they work well, they do create a kinder, gentler world in which one wishes to live. For such a series, look no further than Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe series.
When I get a cozy manuscript, I look for that feeling of warmth that I expect from a cozy. I also like to make sure there are at least a few normative characters among the wacky/quirky ones. Because these books can seem so inane (you know, the Cabot Cove syndrome--how many murders can really take place in one idealized village?), the most important thing to me is to see some psychological acuity in the manuscript--an understanding of human nature and psychology.
2. THE POLICE PROCEDURAL. These have come a long way. In the past, in the books by Dell Shannon and Ed McBain (two old favorites), the cops were idealized and oh-so-moral, with happy families and home lives. Today's procedurals do a much better job of exploring the darkness that goes with the job--and often the darkness in the personality of the people who choose to work in law enforcement. This more honest look at cops has made the psychology of the novels much more complex (in a good way), while all the advances in technology have made for excellent plot devices.
I confess that some of my expectations for procedurals come from my own experiences with the police in the various places I have lived. I don't want to make any vast generalizations, but I have dealt with many a police officer on a power trip and/or ego trip, and I've seen awful police behavior in small towns as well as cities. I think a good police procedural manuscript acknowledges this dark side while not devolving too much into those things that have been done to death, such as alcoholic cops and depressed cops. Also, I like a police procedural to acknowledge the political side of police work, and to show a realistic sense of how the police feel about and treat journalists, civilians, and so on. Most importantly, I feel the need to see at least one truly moral character in these books, someone who may struggle but who tries do what is right in a greedy, perverted world.
3. THE AMATEUR SLEUTH. I confess that I tend to like these books. For some reason they often seem "realistic" to me, probably because so many people do love to stick their noses in where they don't belong. I like the idea of a lone person feeling so angry or emotionally involved in something that they choose to take action, to get involved, to do the investigation because they want to do what's right, get answers, or see justice served. We're all so busy that we may have a tendency not to get involved, so these amateur sleuths (for me) represent a positive force in humanity, to make a difference.
A good amateur sleuth manuscript must be meticulously researched. I know, I know, the heroine needs to find herself in bed with the investigator at some point, but I gnash my teeth when Jane Q. Nosybody gets in the face of Police Chief Hardass, berates him into giving her information, and then finds herself being invited along as the Chief grills witnesses or does stakeouts. Many of these manuscripts have unsuspecting heroes/heroines do exceedingly stupid things, and while I can put some of this down to naivete, there is a line that should not be crossed. Like pornography, I know it when I see it, but here's an example: The hero might try something really daring like breaking into someone's house and looking around. I can buy that. But having a heroine deciding to poke around a crack house filled with AK47-wielding thugs who'd shoot her on sight pushes the envelope too far for me.
4. THE PARANORMAL MYSTERY. These appear to be all the rage, and I admit I have never acquired or edited one. I need to read some beyond the Charlaine Harris books, which I like but which haven't really captured me. There is something about a book in which vampires, elves, and werewolves consort daily with humans with various psychic powers that makes me wonder if these books can be read (with a great stretch) as symbols of our diverse society, and the way in which certain groups always seem to be marginalized or misunderstood. They may also be appealing to those who have a pessimistic view of this world and dream of a world where supernatural ("above the natural") powers are the norm. But I have not read at all widely enough in this sub-genre to even begin to form an opinion. Still, I would say I have been somewhat actively looking for a paranormal manuscript/series, because I would like to learn, and I bet it would be great fun.
5. NOIR/HARD-BOILED. Dare I say it? I think the older one becomes, the more appealing noir and hardboiled mystery fiction. I didn't care much for it when I was younger; but with age comes experience, and perhaps cynicism. Dark forces are at work all around us (cf. Bernie Madoff), and even the most sunny of persons can become a tyrant or demon behind closed doors. We are driven by desires that are carved into our DNA, and some of those impulses aren't all sweetness and light. A really good hard-boiled book forces us to scratch below the surface, to visit those places and thoughts that make us uncomfortable. And I admit to liking a book that makes me feel uncomfortable or that challenges me.
In a hard-boiled manuscript I look for rays of light in the dark. There has to be something there among the bleakness to keep me going. The best of these books inspire a sense of moral outrage, a desire for justice for one who has been victimized, though these crimes can often be very dark and / or committed against very vulnerable members of our society, such as children, or pets, or the mentally and physically disabled. Of all the manuscripts that cross my desk, it is the hardboileds to which I hold the highest standard of writing. When you go into this territory, the writing must be stellar, engaging, striking, and crisp; it's the writing that keeps you engaged when the plot becomes too much to handle emotionally.
6. SCREWBALL. Sigh. Here we get into the land of punning titles, which is at the top of my love/hate list (love 'em because the series can sell like hot cakes, hate 'em because they are often ridiculous or embarrassing). There are many people out there attempting to write screwball "humorous" mysteries, but very few who do it well. This is a sub-genre that just sets my teeth on edge, because I subscribe to the belief that humor is the natural result of a way with words, rather than a blatant attempt to be funny. I read reviews of absolutely horrid books in which reviewers go ga-ga, gushing about how much they love the characters, the setting, the wacky hijinks, and so forth, and I wonder if I have any right to be in my job, because my own feelings clearly do not match those of the book-buying public.
For a long time, I read the first couple of chapters of these books, admonishing myself to keep an open mind. Finally, a couple of years ago, I gave up. Our assistant now knows to pass these on to my wonderful colleague who is simply a stellar editor of such fare.
7. PET DETECTIVES. See #6. These manuscripts make me want to scream. I have read a few of the major series and just cannot see the appeal. This is ironic, I think, because my family hosts quite a menagerie, and as I write this our office cat is rubbing against my legs (I'm her favorite). I love her, and the guinea pig, fish, three dogs, and two cats at home, but I have no desire to see any of them solve crimes. Thus--the manuscripts go to my colleague who at least gives them a fair shake. Honestly, I don't know what to say about what makes a good pet detective manuscript vs. a bad pet detective manuscript, as I think they are all bad.