Today we conclude our week-long interview with Grand Master Lawrence Block.
JA: Are your comfortable making public appearances?
LB: I have been. Yeah, I enjoy it. I like travel. Even book tour-type travel. It's exhausting, but it's supposed to be. If it's not, it means you're not doing it right!
JA: Is it more and more part of a writer's life to take control of the selling of one's self?
LB: I don't know if you can control it. You take a part in it. But it seems to be, it seems to be. The book tours are a fairly recent phenomena in American book publishing. Fifteen years ago, hardly anyone toured and the tours were all media oriented and confined to writers of non-fiction or extremely topical fiction that would get on various local shows. Frequently there were no bookstore appearances. The idea of bookstore driven tours with signings, or sending out fiction and first book writers in many instances lately, I don't know how productive that is. I know it can be enormously frustrating for the writer who shows up at a bookstore where no one has heard of him and the store has anywhere between zero and one copy of his book. I think there may be rather more touring going on now than makes sense. But I enjoy it. Doing too much of it this year, because I toured for A Long Line of Dead Men in November, and for Burglars Can't Be Choosers in February. And I'm going out again in June for The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart.
JA: Where are you going?
LB: Mostly the mid-West.
JA: Are your biggest sales in the mid-West? New York? The West Coast?
LB: New York. But, all over.
JA: Would you say publishing has changed radically from your early days?
LB: I'm sure it has, but I can't say how. I don't know that I had much sense of what was going on when I started out, so it's hard to tell how it's changed. There are fewer houses, but they're larger. Editors have less decision making power. Houses are run rather more by sales departments and less by editorial departments than they used to be. I don't know that any of these changes are good or bad.
JA: Surely the superstore has played a role?
LB: That's quite recent. It certainly is playing an enormous role. I don't know if it's affecting writers, but it's affecting independent book-sellers. It's unfortunate the way the smaller stores are getting caught in the crunch that way. On the other hand, it's hard to go into a brand new Barnes and Noble and say, "This is bad for American publishing," or "This is bad for American writers and readers."
JA: I think one of the problems with the superstores is that maybe new writers are on the shelves for three weeks, if they're lucky, and then they're remaindered or sent back. I think with smaller stores they would have longer shelf lives. But I don't know what the facts are.
LB: I don't know either. But they have a hard time getting into smaller stores, too. If a superstore carries a 120,000 titles, the smaller stores would carry a fraction of that. So I don't know if that's true. It has always been tough to be a first-book author. But it's always been tough to be an unpublished writer trying to get published. It's always been tough to aspire to a career in any of the arts -- and I think it's supposed to be tough. We say that it's more difficult now to break in, but I don't know if that's true. It's never been easy. And it seems to me that I remember hearing 30 years ago that it was tougher than it used to be! It's like Greenwich Village, for God's sake. When I first came here in the mid-1950s, people were saying, "It's nice here, but you should've seen it 10 years ago!"
JA: Mystery fandom has become so vocal and so active. The emergence of Murder Ink and Scene of the Crime and Foul Play bookstores can be directly attributed to fans, along with countless newsletters and mystery book bulletin boards on Internet and America On Line. Of course all of this has affected the market, but do you think it has affected the production of the work? For the writer?
LB: Has fandom affected me? I don't know. I'm not sure. I think the proliferation of all of this has been quite recent. For example, there was one conference for years, The Bouchercon, and only recently has there been an explosion of local ones. I think they're probably good for the biz, good for writers and all.
I think, though, there's a real danger for the writer in paying too much attention to all of that. Someone suggested that I subscribe to Dorothy L. on line, so I did. I subscribed to it for two days, and then unsubscribed. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but what did I need it for? I didn't want all that coming into my computer every day, and I realized it would be a real mistake to read it all. And this is not to deny the validity of anything that is said on it, I just think the writer should not be monitoring what is being said about him or anybody else too closely. One way to put it is that the worse disservice I could do to my readers is to try to give them what they want.
The hour grows late and the shadows lengthen. We finish our coffee and head for the street.
Kindly, he walks me to the Christopher Street subway station at Sheridan Square. Around me, the city night life shifts into gear. I ask one more question.
"The New York of Matt Scudder is such a dangerous place, the streets are mean. Do you feel safe here?"
He looks at the neighborhood streets. "Sure I feel safe. New York's no different. The world's a dangerous place."
And he smiled.