book reviews

Death Plays Poker, by Robin Spano, No. 2 in Clare Vengel Undercover novels, ECW Press, Oct. 2011, pp. 409.

A year ago, give or take only a few days, I reviewed the first book in Robin Spano’s Clare Vengel Undercover series, Dead Politician Society. The verdict in a nutshell: a fabulous cover design, a fun, engaging read, but wanted more from the wonderfully shameless protagonist, Clare.

Death Plays Poker (love the title and this cover is even better!) is the second book in the series, in which Clare returns as an undercover cop. This time she plays Tiffany, a trust-fund princess who’s signed up to play in a poker tournament during which the players keep dying, strangled by someone humorously labelled the Poker Choker.

Though Robin knows the game well (it’s one of her favourite pastimes!), Clare knows little, mainly what she’s read in books and watched on shows. She manages to play her way through, though, taking a few pointers from Mickey, one of the better players in the tournament. No doubt it’s Clare’s tenacity that keeps her going, because Tiffany, who wears pink, gets her nails done, hails cabs, and sports expensive clothes, couldn’t be any less like Clare, whose personality is more Lisbeth Salander than Nancy Drew, and whose passion (and skill), while she chose being a cop over owning her own garage, lies in fixing vehicles, particularly motorcycles, which she also loves to ride. Despite the difference, Clare manages to pull the wool over the eyes of most of the characters.

Like DPS, Death Plays Poker uses alternating points of view (there are 4) and short chapters (106!), sometimes only a page and a half in length. Together with Robin’s skilful planning, the technique, which also makes it somewhat difficult to pin down the peripheral characters, works well in preventing us from figuring out who the killer is, right to the very end.

I mentioned in the DPS review that Robin’s dialogue was very well done, and again, it was the first thing I noted for DPP: dialogue is excellent, very natural, funny, and compelling. I admired this throughout the novel. Effective dialogue can be difficult for authors to pull off—too often it’s stilted or contrived—and Robin certainly has no issue. It demonstrates her understanding as a writer in terms of letting her characters speak for themselves as well as letting herself write freely and have fun in doing so.

I also noted in DPS that the deaths seemed rather incidental, not taken very seriously, and about this novel, I felt the same way—that is to say, I didn’t grieve anyone’s death, nor, really, did the majority of the characters. Whereas this was a problem for me with the first book, I realize now that the deaths are not meant to be the focus; we’re not meant to linger on them. They’re all the same, death by strangling, and there aren’t any tells to speak of. Instead, to try and determine who the murderer is, we need to be concerned with the characters’ behaviour.  The lack of any significant reaction on the characters’ parts keeps us, as well as Clare and others, guessing, much like in the game of poker itself.

And here is where my review gets more interesting. I wrote six more sizeable paragraphs about this book, pretty much expressing my disappointment in Clare as an undercover cop. When I finished, I felt conflicted about posting. It had taken me six hours as it was to write what I had. I thought I’d written a fair review, but at the same time, I felt my aggressive points might be unfounded—perhaps I had misunderstood Robin’s intentions for the series, for this book in particular, and for Clare. I wondered if this were true because, as I’ve said, the writing is good. It’s a little unusual for good writing to be simultaneously disappointing. Also, it was unsettling that no one else had expressed what I did. What then, I thought, was I missing?

So I emailed Robin. I asked her: “What kind of book, what kind of series do you intend? What did you have in mind while writing? How do you see Clare? What kind of mystery did you set out to write?”

Her answer filled me with relief that I hadn’t posted the review before asking her, because it confirmed that I had indeed missed the mark. She actually intended everything I had had an issue with. She wrote back (without having seen my initial review):

All right, so with this book, with this series, my first goal is to entertain, to write a fun story where people want to turn the pages, want to spend time with the characters, and leave wanting to know more about Clare.

While it is in the mystery genre, it’s not typical because I’m not trying to portray the hero as strong, knowledgeable, or savvy, but rather as a young, flawed human who’s trying to hold her own, who’s trying to do her best, but whose personality keeps tripping her up. She makes enough of the connections to solve the case that she keeps her job. But (also not typical of the mystery genre) flukes count. I think they count in life, I think luck plays a massive role in where we end up. (I think hard work and the right mindset does, too, but so often in mysteries, it’s all about making sure the hero is the guy who knows what he’s doing.)

The arc of the series, for me, is about pushing Clare forward, sometimes against her will, into slowly becoming a strong, compassionate woman. She will get good at this job, she’ll get visibly better in each book, but she’s going to grow like a real human would—through trial and error. The chip on her shoulder will slowly erode, she’ll understand that it might make more sense to try to get along with authority instead of resist it for its own sake. … A lot of readers hear Clare’s language and watch her sleep around and drive a motorcycle and assume that makes her kickass. To me, she’s fragile and sweet, in an odd way. Her shell is tough precisely because she isn’t, and as the series moves forward, she’ll be moving toward a softer exterior and a stronger interior.

That said, my main goal with this series will remain to entertain. I want to keep writing fun, fast fiction, but the more depth I can get into the characters as I move along, the happier I’ll be.

Aha! So despite all the advertising and endorsements that plug Clare as some savvy, kick-ass cop, that’s not really what Robin has in mind. And my 541 words I’ve now deleted here, which were laden with questions and which accused Clare of being someone who seriously needed to prove herself as an undercover cop, were suddenly moot. I was, in fact, asking for Clare and the book to be something they were not intended to be, and that, in my opinion, is a major flaw in a reviewer. Never mind, then, how long it took me to forge those words. Delete, delete, delete.

In addition, Robin made an extremely important distinction for me between undercover cop and detective, which is more what I was expecting Clare to be, the person who solved the case rather than an informant:

The reason she’s an undercover cop and not a detective is precisely that—she’s not the one who’s supposed to solve the case; her role is to immerse herself and gather information that helps the detectives solve the case. The fact that she’s the heroine of the book compels me to have her make some of those “detection” connections anyway. But professionally, she can be completely successful in the role if all she does is pass information along to the higher authorities (i.e., she can keep her job, even get promoted).

The emails between Robin and me helped immensely, and I hope that when I read the next books in the series, I’ll go in with a deeper understanding of Clare. As it is, I feel I should probably read Death Plays Poker again.

And yet, I can’t totally change my tune. Yeah, I still want Clare to be a McG Charlie’s Angel kind of cop, and that’s not going to happen, but still, I never really felt any urgency on Clare’s part to help figure out who the murderer was in order to prevent more deaths. While it is true that she has some skill in blending in and getting the characters to trust her, in reading people and connecting with the suspects, I wasn’t sure she was progressing with the case, which is why I was surprised by the ending, why it seemed a little abrupt. Remember when your math teacher asked you to show how to got to your answer? It’s like that: the conclusion was a surprise because we weren’t really shown Clare’s hunches or her progress in figuring out who the Poker Choker was.

Also, I still, even after the clarification, want more evident development on Clare’s part, more proof of what Robin claims in terms of Clare’s progress in becoming that “strong, compassionate woman.” She must also progress as a professional. What makes Clare in DPP different from Clare in DPS? I’m not certain.

To be sure, I’m not asking for Clare to become Miss Marple: I totally realize this series is meant to be sexy and fun: the cover hints at it, as do the nicknamed murderer and the humour in general. And it is sexy and fun! But I am still asking for Clare to reflect the praise she receives from colleagues. There’s no doubt she can hold her own in a swearing contest or drink us under the table or fix a motorcycle blindfolded. I love these things about her, as many do. But none of that makes her a cop, and these books, while perhaps leaning more toward fiction than traditional mystery, nevertheless contain a case to be solved and she’s the protagonist. Until Clare shows me more what she can actually do with what skills she has and should be acquiring, until she truly at least begins to show her mettle, I’m not convinced by the praise she receives or by her advancements.

In essence, what I’m saying is this: the writing in Death Plays Poker is effective in terms of keeping us guessing “whodunit.” The characterization is good. The dialogue is superb. The short chapters make the book feel as though it’s moving at a nice pace—it was a breeze to read the 400-plus pages, which is more than I can say of Franzen—and the plot of DPP is well executed, though I want to see more character work in getting to the conclusion. In general, this novel does not fail! But I ask questions and I make demands because when an author writes well, you come to want more from her. With that, I look forward to seeing what Robin and Clare deliver in the third book. There is a significant change in store for Clare, and I’m curious to see how she handles both herself and her job.


I can’t neglect to mention the cool promotions that Robin and the crew at ECW Press dreamed up for this book. DPP online poker games, low-priced ebooks ($2.99!), a free deck of Death Plays Poker-themed playing cards in reward for an honest review…these are only a few of the awesome ways Death Plays Poker has been getting its name out there. If there’s anyone who knows how to promote a book, it’s Robin.

Special thank you to Robin, for her discussion and support, and to Jen Knoch at ECW Press, who sent me my finished copy for review.

other book stuff

The other day in my last LitBits post I mentioned that a bunch of us in the book world would be chatting about the future of publishing. James Patrick Bowler, a student in the journalism program at Loyalist College here in Belleville invited authors Tish Cohen, Robin Spano, John Degen, and Johnny Pigeau, as well as Lisa Shedden, a Chapters bookseller, Marie Clausén, managing editor and production director at the University of Ottawa Press, and me, freelance copyeditor, bookseller, and book blogger, to participate.

Here is the live-to-chat transcript (my apologies; I can’t seem to embed it). It’s lighthearted and funny and also serious and it gets a bit off track now and then. But it’s stimulating and interesting as well. It was hard to follow because the comments were flying fast, and the hour was far too short a time, really, to cover such a topic with so many people. Later, when I went back to read it, there was much more I wish I’d said. But that will likely come out here and there on this blog over time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.



other book stuff

I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and I miss them!

Here are a few literary tidbits that might interest you.

1. This one is simple: I want it. It’s the Recamier Reading Corner, and while it’s featured on other blogs, I’m linking to this one because the description is hilarious. I love when blogs use English as a second language. This piece of furniture has a more contemporary design than is usually my taste, especially since it’s not particularly cozy looking, but I love the concept. Throw on a king-sized pillow, a sheep skin and a faux-fur blanket or two, and it’s perfect. There should be four photos of the reading corner to look at.

2. I came across this piece, “Who Would Dare?” on March 22 on the New York Review of Books blog and it’s still circulating. It’s an enjoyable read by Spanish author Roberto Bolaño, and it begins: “The books I remember best are the ones I stole in Mexico City….” Tell me that doesn’t pull you in. It’s not long and it’s great writing. I’d like to read the book it comes from, called Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches (1998–2003), forthcoming from New Directions Publishing.

3. For those of you who enjoy intellectually stimulating talks, I introduce you to the beautiful and articulate Elif Shafak, a Turkish author who speaks on the storytelling, particularly the politics of fiction. While it’s obviously rehearsed, she, her glorious accent, and her words are captivating, and I was riveted for the entire 20 minutes. By the end I found myself wanting to stand and clap. I especially wholeheartedly agree, have always thought, that we need to get rid of the tiresome cliché “Write what you know.” (When I saw a publisher say this to Erica, an aspiring author on Being Erica, I angrily spat out “bullshit!!” much to C’s shock). But this is about much more than that. Do have a listen, especially if you write as well as read. It may change the way you think about international authors and fiction. (Thanks to my sis, Therese Neelands, for sending the link to me!)

4. Jen Knoch, associate editor at ECW Press (for whom I now happily copyedit and proofread!) and principal blogger and president of the Keepin’ It Real Book Club, and Erin Balser, also a blogger on KIRBC and an associate producer at CBC, are once again helping out the Toronto Public Library in their fun campaign Keep Toronto Reading. Readers submit video book recommendations to Jen and they will be posted all month on the KIRBC site to help spread the love of books and reading. So far Jen, Erin, and Terry Fallis have videos up on the KIRBC site. Tons more have submitted, authors and readers alike, and yours truly will be on there at some point as well. You too can submit if you like. Let me tell you, handselling a book in person is far easier than trying to make a video to do it. I have such a hard time being articulate and knowing what to say. But stay tuned: I recommend Torontonian author Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report. (Jen and Erin regularly do video book reviews together for their Booksin140 program.

5. I have a major thing for clocks (not digital ones, those are the devil’s handiwork, particularly when they come with an alarm and brightly lit displays you cannot dim but instead must turn to the wall to get any sleep). Did you know that the clock is one of the oldest human inventions? Interesting tidbit:

The word clock is derived ultimately (via Dutch, Northern French, and Medieval Latin) from the Celtic words clagan and clocca meaning “bell.” A silent instrument missing such a mechanism has traditionally been known as a timepiece. In general usage today a “clock” refers to any device for measuring and displaying the time. (Wikipedia)

If I could, I’d have traditional clocks everywhere—unique ones, preferably—in spite of the fact that I dislike watching the time. But for me there is nothing more soothing or comforting than a ticking clock. I love that mechanical sound. In fact, I’m sitting below my favourite one in the house right now, and it’s ticking slowly and methodically, not frantically, as though to slow time, a perfect sound for a personal library. So when  Shiver and Linger author Maggie Stiefvater tweeted these old-world bookish clocks today (if you go to the home page, here, have your sound on), of course I checked them out. And I am irrevocably smitten. I want. They so beautifully evoke that particular fairy-tale-ish, enchanted mood I hold dear (that’s not the right phrase. It’s a deeper feeling than that, one so hard to put my finger on because I can’t separate it from the mythical, folkloric atmosphere). Here is a link to The Hermitage, where the gorgeous Rima from Dartmoor in England blogs about her clocks. How could you not fall in love with her, the illustrations, and the magic summons: “Welcome Travellers…if your feet are weary, be cheered, for your road is nearing its end. Follow the sign to the Hermitage, a phantasmagoria of fancy, a museum of myth, realm of the ridiculous, and online home of Rima Staines, Illustrator, Painter, Maker of Things and Teller of Tales…” For Rima’s Etsy shops, here is The Hermitage and here, Once Upon A Clock (these links are different from the previous ones I gave you with the same names). When I live in England one day, I am going to visit her in person.I have a feeling she’s an elf.

6. Some exciting news: this Thursday, I’ll be participating as part of an online panel discussion called The Future of Publishing. Canadian authors Tish Cohen and Robin Spano, both of whom many of you already know, will be part of the panel as well. I’m not sure of all the details yet, but I’ll keep you posted. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

other book stuff

Author Robin Spano with her first book in the Clare Vengel Undercover series: Dead Politician Society, now offered as an ebook for Kobo and Amazon for $1.99!
Steph (aka Bella)

Steph and Robin don’t see eye to eye on ebooks. This conversation started on Twitter and continues, (because we were having so much fun) in a more fleshed-out form here.

ROBIN: Hey Steph, where do you stand on the ebook question? You’re about as book-loving a person as I think I’ve ever known.

STEPH: What an awesome compliment! I’ll never, ever have an e-reader. I am undecided, though, as to what’s more important: that we don’t take sales from those who’ve suffered because of ebooks, or that perhaps more people read.

ROBIN: Suffered? Really? I love what ebooks are doing for new writers. It used to be a huge disadvantage to be new and unknown. Unless you were Stephen King or Margaret Atwood, most stores would spend more time out of your book than carrying it—making it fairly impossible to get your work into the hands of each reader who wanted it. Suddenly, with online booksellers and ebooks, new writers’ work is nearly as accessible as the old established guys.

Haha. But I just realized what I said. You’re a bookseller. Ebooks and online booksellers have probably murdered the world of independent bookstores. What kind of changes have you seen at work?

STEPH: Had to chuckle when you remembered what I do because that’s where my answer is coming from, for sure, but I’ll answer that last question about the bookstore in a minute. First, I hear what you’re saying, and I understand about getting out there to more people, and being more affordable as well, especially when people are trying to be money conscious. If this is all about price, if more books will sell at cheaper rates, why would I argue? I want to spread good literature and help authors as much as the next booklover. I also want more people reading, preferably good books. I have no idea, but are authors and publishers making more money discounting books so much? If they sell at such cheap prices, there are bound to be cuts somewhere, I would think? Perhaps not. I assumed royalties as well as indie booksellers and publishers were suffering. Perhaps ebook sales are so high there is no loss for you or publishers. I don’t know. There are articles on this sort of thing all over the place but the wording always seems a bit misleading in them.

ROBIN: I think the theory is that as the ebook industry moves forward, the author will get a bigger piece of a smaller pie (double the royalty percentage of half the price = no change). The publisher can charge less because the production/distribution costs are minimal. At the moment, it’s all in chaos—everyone has a different deal with their publisher, and really the publishers’ costs haven’t gone down because they’re still more likely to lose money than make money on a book if they print any copies at all. That’s why it’s so important to ask these questions now, while the industry is reshaping itself to accommodate these new-fangled ebooks.

STEPH: So is the ebook industry moving forward? Is it truly experiencing raging success? Or will this be a trend that peters out as technology keeps developing or as people have issues with their e-readers? I haven’t heard much about how people actually like their machines, so maybe that’s not an issue. But I can’t stop thinking of the ECW Press fall launch you were at in Toronto, when Chris Eaton was trying to do his reading from his e-reader and it just wasn’t working out. It was hilarious!

ROBIN: Yeah, Chris was super funny—I admire his ability to wing it like that. We actually went on a date in university but it went really badly. We hadn’t spoken since then until we saw each other at that reading. Yeah, I actually think that as the software gets less restrictive and the kinks get worked out, ebooks will take a higher market share—not peter out at all. You know they’re at 8.7% of total book sales as of this month?

STEPH:  A date that went really badly…could there be some fodder for another story there? Too funny that you were both published by ECW!

Though you mentioned in an email that the 8.7% was up from 1.5% in the first quarter in 2009, it still seems kind of unimpressive to me, considering all the hype. Also makes me think that, yeah, probably ebooks haven’t made all that much difference to indies as much as discounted books at box stores and also changing values. But does that growth, which you and others are saying is major, indicate that price doesn’t really matter? And then, there is more to this debate than simply price. I believe, like others, that publishing and reading have both lost a great deal to ebooks in general. As one editor friend said to me a while ago, publishing used to be an elegant trade, but now the focus is really on the bottom line, which affects the quality and process of books. I argue that bookselling has also lost. It too was an elegant occupation, but how we run, what we carry, etc., are all now dictated by what it takes merely to survive.

So to answer your question about bookshops: yes, online shopping hasn’t helped indies all that much, especially if the books are so discounted. I don’t know to what degree we struggle because of ebooks, though. I’m not sure our community is all about e-readers. From my experience at Chapters, the public library, and now our indie, I’d say there’s not a huge population with them here, considering we’re predominantly a retired or shift-worker community.

So if not ebooks to a large extent, then what? Ebooks arose out of a need to up sales, I imagine, as well as increase exposure. So what was the root cause of the decline in book buying, the catalyst for cheaper books and increased online presence? Was it price? Was it that more people live online rather than go out into actual stores? Something was lost, and I am struggling to determine what it is. Perhaps it depends on the community, though since bookstores, and not only indies, are closing at alarming rates, I’m convinced there’s been a universal shift in priorities or values. Particularly for our store, it’s the presence of Chapters and discounted books in drugstores and grocery stores that have hurt us most, as well as our downtown, which is not vital.

ROBIN: I’ll admit I’m a bit of a capitalist. I see your point about elegance, but I don’t like to see progress stifled. I love independent bookstores—the way they smell, the way I feel inside them, the intelligent, book-loving staff who can chat literature with customers. These stores do a great thing for the book community. But instead of resisting the online revolution, maybe we could convince our government to help bookstores weather this storm while we navigate the new road together.

STEPH: I’d have no problem with that, and I admit my resistance is mostly personal, but I’ll admit to being super skeptical about convincing the government to fork out! For the arts? Ha! Maybe if we were an auto company? :) But yeah, grants would sure help!

ROBIN: I actually think it’s a great time to petition government for a bookstore leg-up program. A Conservative government is more likely than a Liberal one to help a business or an industry. Yeah, they’re less likely to help the individual artists—and they don’t want to make blanket donations to opera houses or theater companies. So I wouldn’t ask for a grant. But I think if you approached them with a solid business plan, maybe ask for a reduction in property taxes or employee taxes on behalf of the industry, I think they’d take notice. Politicians are people (ha ha, even though I killed a bunch in my book, there are several who I like in real life). They respond like anyone else does to a strong argument from someone who’s committed to making good things happen. Maybe don’t bring a bunch of screaming lobbyists and protesters—but you’re an intelligent, reasonable person. People like you can have real influence.

STEPH: Thank you! I’d like to think so. I’ll have to think on this more as to the approach and what to say. I’ll bring it up with my boss and my fellow indie friends. Since you’re a politics junkie, I’m trusting you on this!

ROBIN: I’ve also grown up with politicians in my family. Trust me: they are totally real people—funny and smart and compassionate, even. And I’m loving David Miller right now—the former Toronto mayor who inspired the plot about killing politicians [link to Robin’s youtube discussion with Miller at end of post]. He Tweeted to tell me he likes Clare—and he hopes she’ll make up with Kevin for the next book. But yeah—major tangent! The issue I’m having this week, the one that got us talking, is pricing. You know my publisher, ECW Press. They’re awesome people. But they’ve priced the ebook at $10.99, which to me seems so high. I know it’s standard for new releases, and I get it: they don’t want to devalue literature. But I think it’s prohibitively high—I don’t see someone with an e-reader clicking yes on that purchase when the paperback is $10.79 online.

STEPH:  If it’s an ebook they want, will they not buy it for an extra twenty cents? Saves them time they’d have to go to the store for the paper copy, shipping if they were buying the paper copy online, and space. But I hear what you’re saying: it’s an ebook: there’s no paper, no boards, no binding, nothing tangible, really. I think $10.99 is really cheap for a book these days, but that is almost the same as a typical mass market paper copy, so yeah, perhaps something like $7.50 or something would be better. That’s a great deal when compared to the paper copy. I think your price is too low; I don’t like that ebooks are often so cheap. It takes from the author and so many involved in production, even in that format. This is where it takes away from bookstores selling only the paper copies, as well. Returns cost money, too, if they don’t sell because people are buying the ebooks. Anyway. I just want all to get their due. Publishing, one of the most important industries, does not pay well. Authors, who contribute so much, aren’t paid well.

ROBIN: True, we’re all paid terribly. But that’s almost the point. Until I can tell my husband to retire, I don’t care if I make $5 or $5000 a year. The joy is in having my story connect with an audience. Hearing readers talk about Clare, I can almost see how it is for people with children—I could listen forever. So I want the book priced where readers will buy it, which my gut says is closer to $4.99.

But I see your point about production. Publishers aren’t laughing all the way to the bank at the moment. Even if it’s almost free to distribute each ebook, the publisher still has to pay for cover art, printing, and all the overhead at their office. So if an ebook is too cheap, the publisher might lose money on the print book and not make it back with electronic sales. The capitalist in me doesn’t like that very much either.

STEPH: So the answer is compromise… But I have to add: you’ll never be able to tell your hubby to retire if you’re making $5000 a year!

ROBIN: I know. Have you met him? He says he’s waiting for me to buy him an Aston Martin. He even knows what shade of blue he wants.

STEPH: Now there’s some encouragement! :) I know it’s about the love of writing and getting your book out there. I can totally appreciate that. No real author does it for the money. And you put so much into each book that you just want to make it as accessible as possible, which means using all the avenues of sale and perhaps highly discounting it. But when you or bookstores or publishers are losing money, or even reputation, I’m not so sure that method of exposure is the most effective.

ROBIN: Makes sense. And though Dead Politician Society is holding its own, I just can’t see it being valued that high as an ebook. $1.99 is too low— that’s just for the experiment [explained below]—but $4.99 strikes me as a happy medium—good value, a price people will actually pay if they want to read the book.

STEPH: I totally get saving money, as I said before, but there’s one thing even I, broke as we are, will pay full price for—books. To me, it’s worth it. I’m so tired of the grumblers, the cheapass comments on how expensive books are! I love telling people in the shop what goes into a book.

ROBIN: THAT is awesome. Because those “cheapass” people would gladly pay more for a case of beer.

STEPH: Exactly! I understand that it’s all about priorities. But then don’t expect the prices of things to reflect your personal preference for where you spend your cash. Books are not expensive for what they are. They are expensive for the budget you’ve decided based on your values. There are those who love paper copies who buy only hardcover, let alone pay full price for paperback, and I’m not talking only wealthy people. There are those who value books and would pay $30 for a long-awaited one while they wouldn’t pay $30 on an item of clothing! (Okay, that’s me.) I can’t change a person’s priorities, but I especially hate the comments if they’re buying a gift for a booklover. Then they seem selfish. This isn’t about them; it’s about the booklover, the recipient.

ROBIN: People are selfish. Instead of hating them—us—for it, I think our best bet is to work with that, or work around it. It’s like the devil you know, right? So if $4.99 is what people will pay, I think that’s what the ebook should cost.

STEPH: Yes, but you can’t lowball. Like with negotiating of any kind, try the higher price first. Not ridiculously high, but not low such that they agree immediately and have you wondering if you could have charged more. Of course they’ll pay $4.99 and $1.99, but those prices also lead me to question the value of the story or the status of the author. That’s just too cheap for a current title. As I said, I get discounting your books to get more sales and the name out there. But won’t Tweeting and Facebook and blogging and all the other social networking avenues we have already help that without skimping on price? Even a podcast, just once, can work amazing wonders to drive regular purchases (look at Terry Fallis’s success because of this!). And book trailers, and so on… I know you are using most of these, but maybe we just need more media push?

ROBIN: That’s the million dollar question, or maybe the $1.99 question. ECW is such a cool publisher that instead of telling me to shut up and go away like most publishers would, they’re actually running a challenge this week—making Dead Politician Society $1.99 at iBooks, Kindle, and Kobo.

And hey, coincidentally, ECW has given me the go-ahead to copy Terry Fallis and podcast the whole book, chapter by chapter. I even asked Terry if he’d mind being copied—I didn’t want him to feel like his originality was being devalued—and he’s all for it.

Anyway, the idea behind this challenge is that, if you and ECW are right, sales won’t jump dramatically this week – and I’ll concede that a lower price isn’t the way to get my book into the hands of more people. But if sales do jump, ECW Press is watching closely. They might conclude that a lower price does lead to better exposure.

STEPH: Yes, but THAT low?? That’s almost skewing the results before they happen!

ROBIN: Haha, you’d think. Except ECW has done this at least twice before with other books, and sales didn’t jump in the slightest. And you’re right that it’s not an exact science: selling just 5 times the normal volume won’t show anything. In a challenge this short, we’re looking for dramatic results, like 10 or 20 times the regular ebook sales.

STEPH: Ah, okay. Because yeah, there are so many other factors that could affect those sales, too. Other than price, I mean.

ROBIN: Yeah, because the book is getting a lot of extra attention from the blogosphere this week, so visibility is also a factor.

But as the first book in a series, I almost see Dead Politician Society as a loss-leader—an invitation into Clare’s world. I think this series is going to be cool, following Clare undercover to different weird and wild places, watching as she grows into a woman and becomes a better cop. All I’m really looking for is readers to come with her on that journey, at whatever price they think it’s worth. I love that it’s in libraries, circulating among strangers all over North America. One day, I hope to make a living from writing, which is a surprisingly lofty goal. I think the way to do that is to care less about short-term profit and more about reaching a wide audience.

STEPH: I can’t wait to meet Clare again in Death Plays Poker, and can I stick in here that if ECW doesn’t send me the ARC I’ll pay full price for it? :)

ROBIN: Aww! Okay, that just made my heart melt. But you see what I mean? That’s the payment I’m looking for at this point in my career. I figure that if enough people react like you to the first couple of books, there will be enough money down the road as the series grows more popular.

STEPH: I guess this really comes down to individuals and who makes up the majority. Unlike many, the way I won’t eat more just because it tastes good or is there in front of me, or is cheap (if we want to make this relevant), I also won’t buy more books because they’re cheaper. I go for whatever I want at the time, whatever format (hc or pb), whatever price. And I buy only what I want to keep.

ROBIN: I’m half and half. If I want to read a book, I’ll buy it at whatever price. But if it’s a quick read I’m grabbing for the airplane, and I’m tossing up between two choices, one of which is half the price, then yeah, I’ll probably grab the cheaper one if it looks just as good. Still, my argument isn’t that I want my ebook to be cheaper than other ebooks, it’s actually that I think an ebook is only worth about half what a paperback is worth.

STEPH: Yes, I agree: the ebook should be cheaper than the paper copy, assuming less money goes into it than into a paper copy. The readers aren’t getting the entire experience when the book is digital, and they know that.

I would love you make a living writing. (Hell, as much as I enjoy bookselling, I’d love to make my living writing!) But if you want to do that, I think it’s less about what you charge and more about making your name and showcasing your writing with your words (you’re a writer after all!)—in other words, not by cheapening your product. It’s been proven, you’ve seen it, that writers can sell, even if they’re hardcover, if there’s enough hype. You need a dream team behind you, comprised of ECW, friends, family, booksellers, libraries, and anyone else who wants to read a great mystery series. Because genre fiction, as left behind as it always seems to be, is huge in Canada. In my experience as a library worker and a bookseller, what people buy and borrow most isn’t literature, it’s fantasy and mystery, and of course popular fiction. Those people read voraciously, like no others I’ve seen!

ROBIN: I feel like I do have a dream team, but in a quirky indie way. ECW gives me latitude to try weird and wild things—like this week’s challenge—and they support each weird thing I try. Have you met Jack (the owner of ECW)? He’s one of the most interesting guys I’ve met: he actually told me proudly that his office is full of strong-willed free-thinkers who don’t always get along with authority, or each other. He empowers his staff the same way he empowers his writers to fight for what they believe in, even if their fight is with him.

STEPH: I know only a couple of the staff at ECW, and we’ve never actually met in person. But I hope to be proofreading for them come January! Hey! Maybe I’ll get to work on one of your books. Pick me! I’ve always had problems with authority!

ROBIN: Yeah! Proofread mine, and, um, stick in some content editing if you like. Your review of DPS is one of my favourites, because it made me learn as a writer. If I could have those eyes on my next book BEFORE it sees the light of day, I would be thrilled.

STEPH: Whoa, thanks, Robin. That really means a lot to me! Maybe ECW will hook us up some day. That would be cool. I’d be honoured.

Back to ebooks. I just had another thought: maybe this mostly comes down to your audience. Typically, mystery or genre fiction in general is mass market. So genre readers are used to paying lower prices. The big-name authors right now, like Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson, Charlaine Harris, and so on, do sell in hardcover, and series tend to help this because people can’t wait for the next one to come out. But generally what I’ve noticed is genre fiction readers buy tons of these mass markets and pass them on. They rarely keep them. Which makes me wonder if ebook buyers like cheap books because they don’t typically keep their books. They read them and then delete them. At least with a paper copy, you can leave it for someone else to read!

ROBIN: Hey, that’s genius. That actually might be the key point. Because this book is genre – it’s a fast, fun read that probably won’t change anyone’s world view, and it is the kind of book you’d pass on – maybe a lower ebook valuation is fair.

And maybe books like The Sentimentalists should have an ebook price that’s up on a par with its print price – it’s less likely to get passed around, and the person who buys it is buying it because they want to read that book, not just something in its genre.

STEPH: That touches on a whole other aspect: pricing according to author and type of book rather than pricing to sell. I often wonder about that with paper books; how do they decide what to price? What are all the many factors included in that decision?

The other thing is, and we kind of touched on this earlier, how do you know it’s the price and not the word of mouth to friends, family, tweeps, facebook acquaintances, and fans (tweeting, facebooking, blogging, etc.,) that are getting people to buy the book? So if the book sells awesomely at $1.99, is that because of advertising? If it doesn’t sell, does that mean there wasn’t enough or does that mean the price made people wary? There are so many factors as to why a book moves or doesn’t: type of book, cover design, name of author, etc. And, of course, what format the book is in. If it doesn’t sell well, does that mean that more people are into paper books still than ebooks? Conversely, if it does sell well, does that mean that your book is more one that suits the ebook format or that more people are buying ebooks than paper books? How on earth does one know without endless surveys?

ROBIN: Word of mouth is still—according to everyone’s surveys, including Bowker’s—the single biggest factor in book sales. And I wouldn’t keep the permanent price for the ebook at $1.99 for exactly that reason: it would make me wary as a shopper that the book was no good.

STEPH: At some point, you and I have to come to a conclusion, just for this discussion. I imagine the universal debate itself will be ongoing. For my part, although I know I’ll never have an e-reader, I’m not totally against ebooks, knowing that authors, like you, depend on them to reach more people, and that some people who don’t normally read are doing so now electronically at least (like your husband!). There are tons of people who prefer to be digital, to save space, to not own books, whatever. I think Stephen King kind of started this whole thing, and I know that if The Sentimentalists, having been difficult to acquire after the Giller win (I’m still waiting for my Gaspereau edition!), hadn’t been available on Kobo almost immediately, sales likely, sadly, would have been lost.

Curious to hear the result of your experiment, and how your approach might change for the second book. And here’s another factor that could help make the first in the series more attractive: a second book with a complementary cover! Genre readers love that!

ROBIN: Totally. I like the pink one they’re looking at, too…

STEPH: The pink one is my favourite! Let’s link to that so our readers can get excited, too. Death Plays Poker: A Clare Vengel Undercover Novel, number 2 in the series. Stay tuned!

Hey everyone, thanks for making it this far. Robin and I were pretty stoked to be having this chat, and we hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we did.

To read more of Robin’s ebook discussions, visit Chrisbookarama (where the comments below the guest post are excellent), and Daisy Chain Book Reviews.

Book one in the Clare Vengel Undercover series

ROBIN SPANO is a crime writer who wishes she lived inside the Charlie’s Angels TV show. As consolation for that being impossible, she writes a series where she sends a young female cop on cool undercover assignments places Robin would love to go if she wasn’t petrified of danger. She lives in Vancouver with her more practical husband, Keith. Also, she rides a motorcycle, just like Clare.

Robin’s Website
Twitter: @Robin_Spano
Clare’s Facebook Page
Book Trailer
Reading from Dead Politician Society
Meeting the Mayor (short verson)
Meeting the Mayor (longer version)

book reviews

Dead Politician Society by Robin Spano, ECW Press. $14.95, trade.

I feel as though it’s been forever since I posted a review, and that’s because it’s been taking me ages to finish a book these days. This has nothing to do with the book itself, I hasten to add, but rather the lack of time I’ve been able to carve out for reading.

In any case, I finished Canadian author Robin Spano’s book several days ago while brushing my teeth. When you’re busy but do love reading, a book can be found in your hand at the strangest times.

First in the Clare Vengel Undercover series (always exciting, a series!), Dead Politician Society (the title was thought up by Spano’s dad) introduces us to Vengel, a tough motorcycle-riding, mechanically-inclined, smoking, swearing, sexy twenty-two year-old rookie cop. Vengel’s just been assigned her first undercover case: the mayor has been murdered, and there’s a note from the Society of Political Utopia, a secret group of college students, claiming responsibility. Clare is to pose as one of the college students in the Poli Real World class in order to try and gather info about the society and prevent further planned murders.

The last mystery I read was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and although I went through an extensive Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Three Investigators, Agatha Christie, etc., phase as a young reader, I haven’t read much in the way of detective or mystery fiction in ages. I do still like it, but it’s not often what I pick up anymore. I say this with some regret yet excitement, because lately the genre’s precisely what I’ve been in the mood for, and when Robin suggested her publicist at ECW Press might send me a copy of her book for review, I was thrilled.

An initial note about the book itself, because that’s always my first impression. First, I absolutely love the cover design, even though the retro style is becoming a bit cliché already. Reminiscent of Nancy Drew and Perry Mason mysteries for me, it’s an attractive book, and the design saves it from looking too cheap because of its glossy cover and large format. It would have been more suitable and attractive to me had the cover been matte, like The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter, and better yet, smaller, even though it would have packed more pages. As a large format trade, it’s quite heavy and awkward and thus hard to wield (a bit tightly bound when open) while in bed or on the treadmill or brushing one’s teeth. Not typical reading positions, I grant you, but still. It’s not just about the story for me, but the entire reading experience.

While I’m not at all a politics buff, what attracted me to DPS was not only the mystery aspect but the promise of a strong and intelligent young female character full of snark and tough as nails, the foil to the stereotypical cocky male cop or even the young male rookie who turns out to be smarter than his superiors. Woohoo!

Vengel is indeed a character who says what’s on her mind, who can drink me under the table (wouldn’t take much at all, though!), and who tends to make me feel rather like a granny—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Yet it was the older Susannah, another student in the Poli World Class, who gave me more of what I was looking for, and I found myself wishing it was she in the lead role: less…feckless, I guess, and giving a stronger sense of narrow-eyed intelligence. Frankly, Clare kind of sucks as an undercover cop, and I wondered how it was she had been accepted on the force in the first place. She’s young, yes, and thus prone to irresponsible decisions, also not experienced, but usually there’s some kind of talent, something that smacks of prodigy or promise or both, and Vengel didn’t really deliver in either case.

But the book is not at all lost, even though Vengel is the protagonist. Driven by short, brisk chapters (sometimes only a page and a half long) and told from the alternating perspectives of Clare, Matthew (the promiscuous professor), Laura (the mayor’s ex), Jonathan (a poli sci student), and Annabel (an ambitious reporter), DPS moves along at a good clip, spinning us about while we try to guess who the murderer might be. While I liked all the different perspectives, there were many more characters than these and I found myself confused at times, struggling to remember who was who. At least one time, Annabel was called Anna (227), which didn’t help, but I think this might have been in error. At the same time, my confusion could also mainly have been caused by the fact that it was rare when I could sit down for long periods of time to read and become really absorbed in the story, until about halfway.

That said, a good sign was that when I wasn’t reading, I wanted to be. I thought about the book often and always wanted to pick it up again. Spano’s dialogue is excellent, natural, stimulating. I particularly liked Susannah’s voice and the BlackBerry exchanges between Annabel and Utopia Girl. The characters, once you become familiar with them, have distinctive personalities (well, Matthew is a tad milquetoast but you still do get a sense of him), and Spano’s ability to make a situation feel uncomfortable or tense, in particular, is admirable, especially since each scene is so short.

Also, author (and Spano’s mentor at the Humber School for Writers) Kim Moritsugu commented that DPS “skewers politics, politicians, and university poli-sci majors alike” and indeed the book does do this, much to my delight. I mentioned I’m not a politics buff, but even I recognized satire and statement, and often found myself agreeing.  The Toronto setting is another feature I really enjoyed about this novel, and Spano does a good job giving us a sense of the city. Even though I don’t live there, it’s always so thrilling to recognize places and other intrinsically Ontarian things I’ve experienced.

Yet in spite of what made it a page-turner, the story seemed only to skim the surface of what could have been a deeper book in terms of atmosphere and substance. This is the part I found difficult to express when explaining my thoughts to a friend, because at 325 pages (at least in my copy) the novel isn’t exactly short, and it’s large format, too, as I mentioned earlier. At the same time, in no way at all does it feel long. So whether my sense of lack was caused by the alternating POVs or short chapters or was simply a fault in the storytelling, I’m uncertain. Racing toward the climax is always exciting in a mystery, but this one left me feeling rather let down, anti-climactic, even with the twist at the end.

I also questioned the reaction of the Poli Real World class and others to the murders and suspects, which in my view were taken rather lightly. There was something unsettling about this, about the fact that the murders lacked any real tragedy or horror for anyone. It seemed too much like a game. Was it as though the story was being told rather than shown? As I said, hard to put my finger on it. I kept thinking that everyone was failing to grasp the gravity of what was happening, in terms of police investigation and the murders themselves. Ultimately, I’m not quite satisfied, then—not left with much to linger with.

Yet knowing that Vengel is to return, this time as an undercover poker player, which I think totally suits her and will be a promising setting since Spano herself is an avid poker player, I’m looking forward to reading more. I was disappointed when it seemed that Vengel had quit the undercover business at the end of the novel (she did acknowledge, at least, that she wasn’t great), and relieved when she decided to stay on, which tells me something—that is, although she wasn’t all that impressive this time around, I did like Vengel. I have hope that there will be more from her, that we’ll see character development and progress in the next book, and I look forward to the chance to read an author’s development as a writer as well. Mysteries are likely the hardest genre to write, and I constantly admired Spano’s ability as a rookie author to tackle the genre well. Her prose is compelling and shows great potential, and I’m definitely interested to see where that potential goes.