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The Mystery Of The Missing Mystery Writer

12 June 2018

From author/editor Jim Thomsen in 2009:

To me, it was a mystery worthy of, well, a mystery novel.

A Seattle mystery author publishes three novels. All are reviewed reasonably well; all sell reasonably well. She’s under contract to write two more. But that fourth book never materializes. In fact, the author disappears … and is never heard from again. As an author, anyway.

Fourteen years later, had the trail grown too cold for the truth to emerge?

I decided to find out.

And the solution I found to this mystery is, to many I’m sure, a much greater mystery:

I found a writer who simply didn’t want to be a writer any more.

What — or who — killed her ambition?

Here’s my investigator’s report.

. . . .

In the spring of 1991, I was the Ellensburg correspondent for the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper (central Washington cities, for those of you who don’t know the area).

I was also a voracious reader of mystery novels, in an era when Seattle-based mysteries were going through something of a golden era.

. . . .

And there was Janet L. Smith, the Seattle attorney whose 1990 debut novel, “Sea Of Troubles,” was a skillfully entertaining diversion. In fact, I bought that book at Jerrol’s Bookstore in Ellensburg, where, I learned shortly after, a caravan of six mystery authors would be making an afternoon stop. I don’t remember every name, but the tour included Sequim author Aaron Elkins, the author of several mysteries featuring anthropologist Gideon Oliver; children’s mystery author Willo Davis Roberts, and Emerson and Smith.

I happily flitted around Jerrol’s during the entire visit, schmoozing with as many of the authors as I could. (In fact, I wound up writing features on two, Emerson and Roberts, for the next day’s Herald-Republic.) The event was pretty sparsely attended, as far as I can recall, and I don’t think any of the six sold many books (other than the dozen or so I snapped up, of course). But everybody seemed to have a good time anyway, visiting with the few people who did drop by, and with each other.

I got Janet L. Smith to sign my copy of “Sea Of Troubles.”

. . . .

I got thinking about Janet a few months ago, when I was cleaning up my garage. I came across a box full of old paperbacks, and among them were Janet L. Smith’s three novels: “Sea Of Troubles,” (1990) with the author’s signature still there in faded ink on the inside page; “Practice To Deceive” (1993); and “A Vintage Murder” (1995).

I re-read each one. And I’ll say this: They’re not great, but they’re pretty good. They’re well-paced and well-plotted, authoritative on legal procedure, maybe a little light on character development and distinctive prose style. But I bought all three when they came out … and would have kept right on buying them if they had kept on coming out.

But, of course, they didn’t. And I set out to find out why.

Finding her wasn’t too difficult. A Google research revealed a Seattle law practice for Janet L. Smith. And, as big as Seattle is, I figured the odds of two Janet L. Smiths practicing law there were pretty long.

. . . .

We met Sept. 22 at a Starbucks on Aurora Avenue, not far from the Northgate-area office where she practices eldercare law. A smiling woman in her mid-fifties, Janet let me buy her a latte.

I jumped right in. So … what’s the deal? I asked. Why are you no longer a writer?

Janet smiled.

“When people me ask me that, I say, “Nobody asks someone why they didn’t write another Ph.D thesis.’”

That much fun, huh?

She then cautioned me, still smiling, against the assumption that she had failed.

Then she talked about introverts and extroverts. She was very much the latter, she said. Most authors don’t like being public figures, much preferring to hole up at home and write. That, Janet said, is not her.

“If I was doing writing 100 percent, without talking, I’d go stark raving out of my mind,” she said. But that, of course, is the discipline of novel writing, the one that doesn’t get talked about much. The reality is that writing a book is damned hard work, and requires a concentration that usually insists on isolation from all distraction. Some of us thrive on it. And some of us are like Janet.

Luckily, Janet didn’t have to worry about that, at first anyway, as she was juggling her part-time writing career with her legal work.

. . . .

[H]er fictional alter ego, Seattle attorney Annie MacPherson, solved complicated problems, too. And at the time Janet broke through, heroines like Annie MacPherson were just what the publishing industry was looking for. Mystery authors like Sue Grafton, Sharyn McCrumb and Sara Paretsky, with tough, sexy, self-sustaining heroines, were just completing their ascents into the sales stratosphere.

“I hit a moment in time where what I was selling was what they were looking for,” Janet said. “They wanted women protagonists, a strong regional flavor, nobody who was a cop or an FBI agent.”

That said, breaking in wasn’t a slam-dunk. Janet did what most aspiring authors did in the pre-Internet era, which was write dozens of letters to agents whose listings were found in the annual Writers Market reference books. “No luck,” she said.

. . . .

“I got encouraging rejection letters. That kept me going.”

And, at last, she broke through, with a small Bay Area press called Perseverance Press — an outfit so small, Janet said, that at the time it put out just one book a year. At the time, Janet was working in the state capital city of Olympia and recalls regularly visiting the small mystery bookshop there — Whodunit Books, which is still around — to babysit her book.

Then, mysterious good things happened. “Sea Of Troubles” got a positive review in The New York Times, even though it had never been submitted for one as far as Janet knew.

. . . .

That led to a new deal which saw her second Annie MacPherson book, “Practice To Deceive,” come out in hardcover as well as paperback. And led to her developing a public presence as an author. She attended the major mystery-writer conferences — Bouchercon, Malice Domestic and Left Coast Crime among them — and became active in the Sisters In Crime organization. She made friends among the Northwest writer community.

. . . .

That part was fun. The actual making-the-books part, not so much.

“For me,” she said, “the process of writing just isn’t fun.”

There were other factors, however, more beyond her control. After three books, her sales were steady but flat, trapping her in what she called “the comfortable midlist.” “Practice To Deceive” had done slightly better than “Sea Of Troubles,” and “A Vintage Murder” had done no worse than “Practice,” but neither represented the great leap forward that author and publisher both hoped for. That was being reflected in her publisher’s so-so support for the books; Janet’s regional tours to promote them were largely self-financed.

“Going from the midlist to something more probably wasn’t going to happen,” Janet said. “I probably wasn’t going to make that leap into Sue Grafton territory. My publisher didn’t see me having gold foil covers.” That’s the point, she said, where “they put you in a box and tell you where you belong.”

. . . .

And she’s left her days an author in the past, too. Well, mostly.

She laughed as she recalled a moment from earlier this year in which she caught her [law] practice’s office manager, during a slow day, reading one of her books — totally unaware that the author was her employer.

“I asked her what she was reading, and she was so embarrassed to be caught that she just said, ‘Oh, just some crap.’ I asked her who the author was, and she looked at the cover. It took her a moment to figure out that I was that Janet L. Smith.

‘I didn’t mean ‘crap!’” the office manager howled.

Janet teased her about it. “‘Not only are you reading on the job,” she recalled saying, “but you’re reading fluff!’ She had to tell everybody in the office about it.”

And that’s about the sum of her literary legacy, she said.

“It’s a trivia fact of my life,” she said. “Not much more than that.”

Link to the rest at Jim Thomsen and thanks to Dale for the tip.

PG says there are many ways in which an author may fail in the book business.

The OP describes a common reason for failure in the days prior to indie publishing – being categorized as “midlist”. Midlist books didn’t sell enough copies to support the physical bookstores, the distributor, the publisher and the author in the manner they desired to be supported.

An indie author in 2018 lives in a different world. Sales of ebooks in numbers that were formerly “midlist” can support an author and an author’s family, particularly when the author can release a book as soon as it is finished without the friction of dealing with various traditional publishing practices and processes.

Barnes & Noble may not have changed much, but Amazon understands that electrons on hard drives cost almost nothing, certainly way less than New York publicists and underpaid bookstore managers, so it needs very little money to support those hard drives and drop a few pennies into Jeff Bezos’ pocket from time to time.

Is there any dishonor in writing books that thousands of readers enjoy instead of books that millions of readers enjoy?

PG can’t remember when he last read a New York Times bestseller. He is not alone in appreciating books that fall well outside of mass market popularity.

Speculating on how those studying the history of books and authors will look back on the period beginning in the early part of the 21st century, PG suggests that this time will be regarded as the beginning of a golden age for books and authors because of indie publishing. Employment and income statistics will show a substantial increase in the number of full-time authors and their average incomes and the number of books sold. Millions of books will be written and read that never would have existed under the Ancien Régime.

Big Publishing, PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Self-Publishing

8 Comments to “The Mystery Of The Missing Mystery Writer”

  1. As she said, it wasn’t her primary calling. She wrote and moved on. Might she have written more if it wasn’t the battle to be published it was back then? We’ll never know.

    Today your ebook can be up on Amazon and other sites in a matter of hours – no rejection slips in sight.

  2. I think she was right to give up simply because of this quote:

    “For me,” she said, “the process of writing just isn’t fun.”

    Why try to continue as a trad published midlist author – or as an Indie – if you have another source of income and writing’s not a fun job? Of course, plenty of authors were pushed out of the profession even though they enjoyed the writing and these are the people one would like to see regain control of their backlist and start self publishing.

    • Yes, this. [nod] I got the impression that being stuck into a box stamped “midlist” was a minor factor, and maybe even just something she used to justify a decision she’d already made, or wanted to make.

      Bottom line, she didn’t enjoy the writing. That’s reason enough to quit doing it.

      Angie

  3. It’s funny that you talk about “making a living” because I was surprised to find out that, what I consider a modest income from my books, actually puts me toward the top end. Yay for me!

  4. I used to live in Ellensburg before the article writer.

    Jerrols Bookstore was still there a month ago. It’s really an indy campus bookstore with the usual regular books, textbooks, office and art supplies as well as some food. It’s been going about 50 years.

  5. I don’t think she failed at all. She wrote and got 3 books pubb’d, and then when things stopped working out for her, moved on. She characterized it as a trivial part of her life.

    More power to her.

  6. There are times when I look back at my career choices and think, I should have been a lawyer.

  7. Terrence OBrien

    Some people want to write lots of books and have writing be their primary occupation. Others make a very good living doing other things, and only write one or two books.

    There is no reason to presume a person who writes a successful book wants to do it again, or wants to earn their living doing it.

    In the past, the difficulty of negotiating the publishing business probably made the prospect of writing a book unattractive to many. But with KDP just a click away, I suspect a huge segment of the new supply will be from casual writers.

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