Monday, May 31, 2010

Pot Thief Tour 2010 - Day 18

NB: Because we are sometimes without internet in rural parts of New Mexico, I cannot always make daily posts. As you have noted, I have combined a few days. I may also send a back post on the same day as a new post. The signing tour has no plot, so the order hardly matters.

After my signing at COAS Bookstore in Las Cruces, we went to a birthday party for the granddaughter of Donaciano Gonzales who served me as Assistant to the President at NMSU. ‘Assistant to the President’ is academic speak for lobbyist. Donnie did a great job. The percentage of appropriation increase for NMSU was the highest of all state institutions each year of my presidency. But college presidents are notorious for boring their audiences by bragging about how well their institutions have done, so I will say no more about that topic.

Instead, I want to make a point about diversity. Donnie’s son Donald was married the day before my signing. At his granddaughter’s birthday party after the signing, we met three friends of the groom. One was Indian (not a Native American, but a person from India). One had the Scottish name Hammish but was Jewish, and the other was an Anglo of some variety. I also met one of Donnie’s long-terms friends named David Ulibarri, a Basque name. And Donnie’s grandson by his daughter Andrea has blond curly hair. Is this a great country or what?

Pot Thief Tour 2010 - Day 17

Today’s signing was at COAS Bookstore in Las Cruces, home of New Mexico State University. Since I served as president of NMSU back in the nineties, members of the faculty and staff from the State’s Land-Grant University came by to say hello. Kurt Anderson is head of the Sunspot Observatory just outside of Cloudcroft. Sunspot is the leading solar observatory in the world and part of the reason why NMSU has one of the best astronomy departments on the planet.

Kurt told me about an experiment they are conducting at Sunspot to verify Einstein’s theory of equivalence, a corollary of E=MC2. The theory of equivalence posits that the gravitational pull of an object is a function of its heat as well as its mass. This has never been proved. If Einstein’s theory is true, then the Sun’s gravitation force should be in part a function of its heat. The folks at Sunspot are trying to prove this by measuring the Sun’s effect on our moon. They have been measuring periodically the moon’s distance from the earth by bouncing a laser beam off objects left on the moon by astronauts. These measurements need to be extremely precise because the calculation of the effect of the heat part of the Sun’s pull on the moon shows that it would distort its orbit by less than an inch!

The experimenters also need to know how far they are from the center of the earth in order for the measurements to be useful. You may think that would be simple – just measure their altitude. But altitude is not a constant. Temperature, air masses, and even plate tectonics push the Sunspot Observatory several inches away from or closer to the center of the earth. Thus, they have to take simultaneous measurements of the altitude of the observatory and its distance from the moon.

They have been taking these measurements for a couple of years and will continue for several more in order to have enough data to support a finding, but the evidence so far seems to support Einstein’s hypothesis. Why are we not surprised by this? Maybe that’s why the next book in my series is The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein.

Kurt bought two copies of The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy. I signed one copy for him then asked how he wanted me to sign the second copy. “Sign it to Patsy Tombaugh,” he said.

I had no idea Patsy was still alive. Her husband, Clyde Tombaugh, was a faculty member at NMSU. He was also the discoverer of the planet Pluto and a number of other important things such as the fact that the red spot on Jupiter is a storm. I dedicated The Thief Who Studied Ptolemy to Clyde who died in 1997 at the age of 97. I was delighted to learn that Patsy is still alive and humbled and honored to sign a book for her.

Being a Panelist at Mayhem

I just returned from Mayhem in the Midlands in Omaha. Great mystery conference. One thing I've really learned to do after all these mystery cons is to be a good moderator and a good panelist.

I moderated a YA panel. Beforehand, I asked the panelists for questions and fortunately they send me lots because I know nothing about writing for that audience. I knew two of the men on the panel from previous Mayhems and fortunately met the other young man before the panel. I made sure that each person had equal time to speak to each questions--and cut off someone who was a bit on the long-winded side.

One of the panels I was on, had two superstars--the toastmistress and guest of honor as panelists. I knew the room was crowded because of them. When I did speak, I mainly gave one-liners and made people laugh.

I was also on a panel about religion in mystery. Because I'd taken the time to read books by the two authors I didn't know (and they were young and nervous), I was able to make comments about their books as well as mine. (William Ken Krueger attended this panel and was kind enough to tell me that I was a great panelist. Since he's one of my favorite authors, I appreciated his praise.)

The most fun panel wasn't really a panel at all, it was called a Conversation with Authors. Radine Nehring had prepared some great questions, and she, Nancy Pickard and I sat in a circle with the audience around us. That was lots of fun and I think everyone enjoyed it. I've read almost all of Radine's books and I'd purchased Nancy's latest and read it. Knowing how and what they both write helped a lot with the conversation.

I sold more books this year at this conference than ever before, so I must've done something right.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Low Budget Marketing Ideas

This article was originally posted on my site in 2006. However,I believe the points I made then remain valid today and are worth considering.

I began writing my first manuscript in 1996 and self-published the book in 1998. After the book was printed I learned there was another aspect of the writing business that needed to be addressed if I wanted to be a success: it’s called marketing. Due to my failure to research the business of writing ahead of time I was unprepared for that reality. So I found myself with a published book and absolutely no idea how to get it into the hands of readers. I had no marketing experience and a very limited budget to spend on promotion. But unless I was content to limit my book sales to family and friends, I had to find a way to get the word out; I had to become a marketer.

A Dose of Reality

I’ve heard it said that some people are gluttons for punishment. You can count me as being in that category eight years ago. Even when I became aware that I had to do something to sell my book, I didn’t research marketing methods. Instead, I decided on what seemed to be the easy way out: tell the local book stores about my new book and that I would be willing to do a signing at their facility. I assumed they would jump at the chance, order my books, and aggressively promote my appearance.

I was sure I was on the right track when I placed calls to the local Barnes & Noble and Borders to share the good news: Denny Griffin was willing to give them a chance to host a signing for his soon-to-be best seller. However, my confidence began to fade when my initial and follow-up calls weren’t returned. I next visited the stores in person. When I did I got another dose of reality. One of the managers took the time to explain to me that unknown authors with self-published, print on demand (POD) books weren’t exactly a hot commodity. On the contrary, the store held events for authors like me a couple of times a year. We had to appear in a group, provide our own books, and split the sales revenues with the store. If we wanted we could leave a few books on consignment after the event, but the store wouldn’t order or stock the books.

When I left that book store I was depressed to say the least. But their local author’s night was right around the corner and I had signed up to participate. I did two of these events at two different stores over the next couple of weeks, and the results were dismal. No promotion by the stores and only a couple of books sold. Immediately following these failures I was convinced that I should give up on writing. I probably would have quit if not for the intervention of my family. They told me not to make a quick decision, to let my emotions calm down and then evaluate the situation. I did, and concluded that although I had some things against me (unknown, self-published, and POD) I hadn’t exhausted my marketing options. In fact, I hadn’t even really explored them. It was time to roll to my sleeves and get to work.

Trial and Error

I want to say up front that I don’t believe marketing a book is a one size fits all proposition. We are all individuals with our own strengths and weaknesses. What works for me won’t necessarily be productive for someone else.

I began my concentration on marketing by visiting writing-related sites online. I monitored the message boards and continue to do so. I found that there were a number of authors who were, or had been, in the same position as I was. Many of them shared what they had done to get their book sales moving. Some of their ideas appealed to me while others didn’t. I tried several of the strategies that sounded promising and discarded the ones that weren’t a good fit. The things I ended up pursuing further included joining writers groups and seeking venues for events other than chain book stores.

Writers Groups

An online search produced the names of the writers groups in my area, a brief description of what they offered, and contact information. I eventually joined two groups; one of them meets weekly and the other gets together monthly. The total annual membership dues are $77.

These groups have been extremely beneficial to me in several ways. The weekly group allows members to read up to eight pages of their work followed by a critique by their fellow authors. I’ve learned a lot about writing during these sessions. The other group concentrates more on doing writing exercises and frequently has guest speakers. I’ve also come away from these meetings with a lot of knowledge.

From a marketing perspective, both of them provide excellent networking opportunities. I have made many, many contacts through my membership in these groups. Those contacts have resulted in one ghost writing job and numerous chances for free publicity. I highly recommend being a member of at least one writers group.

Libraries and Coffee Shops

I previously mentioned my experience with chain store book signings. I still do those events, but only when I appear alone and the store agrees to order the necessary books and to publicize my appearance. Before you write me off as being arrogant, please understand that I budget both my money and my time. I won’t waste either by doing events in which I’m in direct competition with several other authors for very few potential customers. I do supply my own books for events at some venues, but not at book stores.

One of the reasons I give book stores such a low priority is that I’ve found other outlets that work much better for me. One of them is my public library system. I live in Las Vegas, and the Las Vegas – Clark County Library District has several branches. I’ve done library events in the past that have given me exposure and credibility, such as appearing on panels and participating in reading and discussion groups. I have also discussed and signed my own books. I have four appearances scheduled starting in October in conjunction with my new book, The Battle for Las Vegas – The Law vs. the Mob. This book tells the inside story of the Tony Spilotro era in Vegas that was dramatized in the 1995 movie Casino. My program consists of playing the movie, followed by a Q&A session, and then a signing. I have been fortunate enough to get one of the contributors to the book, the former FBI case agent for the Spilotro investigations, to agree to appear with me. The library district is very excited about the presentation and so am I. As a result of the exposure I’ve received through the library I’ve been booked for speaking engagements before several business and literary groups.

I believe that a new or unknown author who ignores the potential offered by their library is making a mistake. And the price is right: it’s free.

Another venue I utilize is coffee shops. So far I’ve done events only at independently owned businesses. In fact, one of them has become my unofficial headquarters. They sell my books and host events on a regular basis.

I’ve found that the coffee houses I’ve dealt with are eager to have special events and will advertise. The atmosphere is generally relaxed and comfortable. As with libraries, this is a free venue you shouldn’t ignore.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Pot Thief Tour 2010 - Day 16

The Rio Grande is arguably the most storied river in the United States. The Mississippi is about 20% longer and drains a larger area, but the Rio Grande forms part of our border and plays a major role in the western and cowboy lore that forms an important part of American culture.

I’m an old cowhand

From the Rio Grande

But my legs aren’t bowed

And my skin ain’t tanned.

Those memorable lyrics by Johnny Mercer of Savannah, Georgia have been sung by, among countless others, Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, The Sons of the Pioneers, Johnnie Ray, Jack Teagarden, Patsy Montana, Frank Sinatra, and Harry Connick Jr. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, as their characters Lucy and Ethel, sang it in an episode of I Love Lucy. Of course ‘cowhand’ and ‘Rio Grande’ don’t rhyme, but even Spanish speakers out here call it the ‘Rio Grand.’

The great river begins in the Colorado Rockies and travels almost two thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico. It splits New Mexico in half, entering the state in the trackless wilderness just west of Ute Mountain. It then forms the Rio Grande Gorge, a breathtaking narrow canyon where the river at the bottom is designated as one of America’s wild and scenic rivers by the National Parks Service. The Gorge is home to world class Class V white water, steep pocketed rock climbing, and ancient petroglyphs.

The Rio Grande becomes a wider and tamer river when it leaves the mountains, and dams further south have rendered it docile. The largest of those dams in New Mexico is Elephant Butte which creates a reservoir forty miles long covering about 40,000 areas. Ironically, this man-made lake is next to the infamous Jornada del Muerto, so named by the Spanish conquistadors because of the lack of water.

Not far from the dam is the town of Engle, built in 1879 as a station on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. It became a shipping point for cattle and ore. The construction of Elephant Butte Dam (1911-16) swelled the town’s population to 500, but most of those left after the dam was completed. Travel east from Engle was later eliminated by the creation of White Sands Missile range. The Engle post office, opened in 1881, was closed in 1955.
Only six people live in Engle today, and only three or four original buildings still stand, including the old schoolhouse where church services continue to be held on the third Sunday of each month. A sing declares “Preaching, Gospel reading, and singing.”

Engle is the headquarters for the Armendariz Ranch, now owned by Ted Turner. Trains still pass through town, but they don’t stop.

So why did I come to this end-of-the-road town? Because it is where the Gruet family has the vineyards that yield the grapes that make Gruet Champagne, the favorite bubbly of Hubert Schuss and Yrs Truly.

Pot Thief Tour 2010 - Day 15

Today we visited the Resumidero Campground off Forest Road 93 in the Santa Fe National Forest. I remember from my days as a plumber in El Paso that sumidero is the Spanish word for drain. (I was the only native speaker of English among the fifteen employees of United Plumbing, so I quickly added plumbing terms to my Spanish vocabulary). I don’t know what adding‘re’ as a prefix does to sumidero, but Aggie Villanueva says it means sink hole.

Aggie lives in Regina (pronounced rre-hee -nah in New Mexico, and be sure to roll that first ‘r’), a collection of cabins and houses in the forest above Cuba. She shares her cabin with three dogs, and a mouse has taken up residency in her pick-up. All of them seem quite content. Aggie is an author and artist, attracted to New Mexico like so many others by the dry air, clean-scented forests, and magnificent vistas. I urge you to take a look at her fantastic photography at

Aggie was married at the Resumidero Campground. The marriage didn’t last, but her love for the area has endured, and she took us to see waterfalls, rock formations, beaver dams, and high alpine meadows in the Land of Enchantment. Our picnic on a Forest Service table was joined by a chipmunk who devoured two big leaves of romaine lettuce and several grapes. There were also birds, butterflies, and bees. In a break with tradition, there were no ants.

Tomorrow we head south for a signing in Las Cruces, but we have enough time for a stopover in Engle, a small village most people – even New Mexicans - have never heard of. I’ll tell you tomorrow why we want to go there.