Sleuthfest is over. I’m back home.

But for three days, Deerfield Beach, Florida, was the center of the universe. The annual crime fiction writers conference, well-organized and sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, was held at the Hilton Hotel. All in all, it was a very positive experience for me. I made new friends, learned a lot, and made some important contacts in the business. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, however, I have to get a couple of minor things off my chest.

One, the chairs.

Some fast-talking salesman must’ve done a real number on the hotel in order to unload those chairs. They were without a doubt the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever had to sit on for any length of time. They were the official chairs of every panel, and also for the showing of Gone Baby Gone, which I skipped because I didn’t want to sit in one of them for two straight hours.

Two, the food.

Call me picky (and some certainly will), but the orange glop they put on the chicken at Friday’s lunch was inedible. And for that matter, so was the fish at Saturday’s lunch. What was the chef thinking?

Okay, enough of that. Back to the conference.

This was my first time at Sleuthfest, and I had been told that it’s one of the better crime fiction conferences out there. This one was no exception. You had the likes of heavyweights Dennis Lehane, SJ Rozan, and James W Hall turning up on multiple occasions throughout the conference, but even they were upstaged by one recurring subject at nearly every panel: the explosive rise of digital self-publishing.

Every single panel I attended, regardless of topic, eventually swerved into a discussion of self-pubbed e-books. A friend told me she had heard it talked about at every panel she attended except one. I mean, it was without question the hottest topic at the conference. Amanda Hocking, the wunderkind of the digital world who sold 450,000 e-books in January alone, was mentioned by name in no fewer than three panels I attended. She was also characterized in one other panel as a “little 22-year-old girl who paid cash for a house from her earnings on a 99-cent novel”.

This kind of backhand slap was typical of the panelists’ response to the digital maelstrom that was occurring right outside the doors of the Hilton. No one sounded any alarm bells, no one suggested that a serious revisiting of the New York business model was warranted…it was just incredible. They basically wrote the whole thing off, some even going so far as to say that these developments have provided more platforms for them to sell books.

I was reminded of the scene in Mad Men where Don Draper is on the train to work and he sees a magazine ad for Volkswagen, radically different from any ad that ever came before it, and which eventually snowballed into a mega-shift in popular culture. When he got to work, all his colleagues had seen it and were all putting it down in exactly the same manner as some of the Sleuthfest panelists dissed Amanda Hocking. Don finally said, “Yes, we may not like the ad, but we’ve just spent 15 minutes talking about it.”

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  1. Agreed, the traditional business model needs to take heed of what’s coming. On the other hand, I wish many of those who intend to go straight to digital–of which I am one–would do a little of their own research and not hijack conferences and websites.

    I was a frequent contributor to Crimespace, and still visit daily. Unfortunately, the quality of the discussions has sunk in recent months as all discussions are about e-books, and virtually every blog post is promotional. The breadth of topics is razor thin.

    Digital books would be a lot better if some of these folks spent more time writing them, and less talking about them.

  2. Dana–
    The conference wasn’t hijacked by the straight-to-digital crowd. I’m sorry if I conveyed that impression. In fact, most of the people there (and it was about 90% writers/10% readers) were either published traditionally or were looking for a traditional deal. And of course, virtually all the panelists were traditionalists.

    The thing was, the subject was just on everyone’s lips. And these people were the traditionalists. It was a “Nero fiddles while Rome burns” kind of scene.

  3. Jessica

    In another year the publishing landscape will be practically unrecognizable – much like the sea change that has occurred in the music industry. Gatekeepers beware – the hoi polloi are storming the citadel!

  4. Interesting that some folks dissed Amanda Hocking. I haven’t read anything she has written, but am aware of who she is from Konrath’s blog. Is it jealousy, envy or what. I hope Amanda does even better.

  5. I don’t think it’s jealously or envy, Steve, although I may be wrong. I believe it’s a deep denial that she and others like her represent a major threat.

  6. Zoey Smith

    Great post. I was at a writer’s conference in January and the three editors and three agents didn’t believe that Ebooks would take their place.

    But if you figure the percentage the agent gets, and what the publisher will pay you, you can make decent money selling your book.

    A friend told me that she earned more money off of one ebook than two traditionally published books of hers.

  7. Thanks for the clarification, Mike. We definitely agree on one thing: the editors and publishers who are wedded to the traditional model better wake up. No one can say what the new publishing environment will look like yet, as nothing is close to shaking out yet. One thing I think anyone who’s paying attention can safely say is, it ain’t gonna look like it did twenty years ago.

  8. Jeff Faria

    “It was a “Nero fiddles while Rome burns” kind of scene.”

    And that is in fact what I got from your (very intersting) account.

    One reason traditionally-published writers (and those who want to be so published) would dismiss ebooks (and brave little Amanda) is this: There’s a type of writer who does not want to be exposed to the harsh realities of the marketplace. They would much prefer a relatively ‘closed’ publishing market such as has traditionally existed. You’re either ‘in’ or you’re ‘out’, either a ‘real’ writer (regardless of your actual success) or a wannabe.

    As the Wizard of Oz said, you may not be the genuine article, but you have a certificate. Seeming (but not being) genuine is better than being (but not known as) genuine.

    Amanda disturbs them because they want her to be ‘out’. The dam is leaking.

  9. Dana–
    You’re so right. But 20 years from now? How about 2 years from now. I think things are changing at warp speed.

  10. Agree with everything you said, and I’m a former Random House, Doubleday, Ingram exec, now author….AGREE. ONLY wish you had gone into greater detail. Who said what? Who was good and who wasn’t? What exactly was your take-away? Come on, spill the beans! More! Encore!

  11. Mike Dennis

    Margaret Jean–I don’t want to get into personalities, but suffice it to say that virtually all of the traditionalists (ie, gatekeepers) pooh-poohed the phenomenon. At least, outwardly they did. I kind of got a creeping hunch that inwardly they feared it, but they were trumpeting the party line to keep everyone’s chin up.

  12. We are just a bit ahead of the next major curve which will be publishers approaching indie authors and having them turned down time and time again (opposite of the slush pile). Only then will they start to rethink things like the 25%/75% royalty split on ebooks. Both Penquin and Hachette books are reporting 8% for ebook sales so there is still a long way to go – but what they don’t realize is an indie doesn’t need to sell 100,000 books to make a living – most can live just fine on 1,000 books a month when they are pocketing all the profit.

  13. Mike Dennis

    Good point, Robin. The publishers still have a way to go, though, if Sleuthfest is any indication of current thinking in New York. What they haven’t yet brought themselves to admit is that indie authors can sell more books digitally (in many cases) than they–the publishers– can in print AND digital. And those percentages are only going to increase. The tide of history has started to flow and it can’t be stopped.

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