2013-09-12 / News

Amazon.com publishers fly local mystery writer to Washington state

By Ken Shane

Islander John Enright is expected to release his third book March 2014. His first novel, “Pago Pago Tango,” is a nominee for best paperback original by Deadly Pleasures mystery magazine. 
Courtesy/John Enright Islander John Enright is expected to release his third book March 2014. His first novel, “Pago Pago Tango,” is a nominee for best paperback original by Deadly Pleasures mystery magazine. Courtesy/John Enright Jamestown author John Enright recently took an all-expenses-paid trip to Seattle to attend a writers conference for authors who specialize in mysteries and thrillers.

The conference was sponsored by Thomas & Mercer, the publishing unit of Amazon.com that concentrates on the genre. Thomas & Mercer have published Enright’s first two novels, with a third planned for next year.

Enright, who is originally from Buffalo, N.Y, spent 26 years living in American Samoa. While in the South Pacific, he taught at American Samoa Community College and ran an environmental nongovernmental organization. He also served as a historic preservation officer. Enright and his wife, artist Connie Payne, returned from the Pacific and settled in Jamestown six years ago.

Enright’s first novel, “Pago Pago Tango,” was published last year by Thomas & Mercer. It was the first in a series set in American Samoa and features a local detective. The second novel in the series, “Fire Knife Dancing,” was published earlier this year. A third is planned for March 2014.

Several months ago, Enright received an email from Thomas & Mercer inviting him to the August conference. In the intervening time, he received further information about the event from the company. It had made all the travel arrangements for him. The attendees were all authors the company has published this year, about 50 in all.

According to Enright, the conference took place because Amazon.com prides itself on going in new directions and thinking long term. It also helps that the company is flush with cash and enjoys being flamboyant, he says. According to Enright, the publisher’s staff is young and competitive.

“One senior editor told me that at Amazon.com, they throw you in the deep end,” Enright said. “If you don’t drown, you can hang around.”

The conference got off to a good start for Enright when he was met at the airport in Seattle by a limousine and taken to the Westin Hotel. At the hotel, he was met by a portrait photographer and stylists who were there to take photos of each author. A cocktail party followed the photo session.

The next morning, attendees were taken on a tour of the Amazon.com campus in Seattle. They listened to presentations from senior people at Thomas & Mercer. In the afternoon there was a boat ride around Lake Washington that included a barbecue luncheon, followed by a banquet at the Chihuly Garden & Glass Museum that is located at the base of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle.

The next day was devoted to a variety of panel discussions. Enright sat on a panel with other writers called, “Setting: Time and Place Boundaries in Fiction.”

There were additional panels on writing, publishing, self-promotion and branding.

That evening the authors were divided into small groups and taken to some of the finest restaurants in the city. Enright and his group dined at an Argentinean steakhouse called El Gaucho.

To Enright’s delight, it was quite extravagant.

Enright said a lot of the authors at the conference were people who had been writing for a long time. As genre writers, they have learned not to expect much from publishers, so there was a certain amount of apprehension among the group at the outset, said Enright. No one was quite sure of Amazon.com’s motives in bringing them all together and showing them such a grand time.

According to Enright, as the conference progressed, attitudes began to loosen.

“A lot of them were quite suspicious about all of this,” Enright said. “For them it was quite bizarre. They weren’t used to being treated like this. I think they were wondering if they would have to do the dishes later.”

The publishers described the conference as an experiment. In the eyes of the authors who attended, Enright said it was a complete success.

However, Enright admits he is unsure how the company would quantify success.

“Genre writers do not expect to be treated as anything special,” Enright said. “Word will spread quickly in the industry. Also, I suppose each of us brought away ... a tip or two on how to better develop or market our product.”

That will work to Amazon’s eventual benefit, he added.

There are some developments in the publishing world that explain the treatment that Thomas & Mercer afford their authors. Traditional publishers have been abandoning their mystery and thriller lists in search for bombshell bestsellers. A number of the writers at the conference were “stolen” from other publishers because Thomas & Mercer was able to offer them a better deal.

There is also the fact that a mystery writer, Agatha Christie, is the best-selling author of all time. Her catalog still brings in $4 million per year in publishing income.

While he was in Seattle, Enright learned his first novel had been nominated for a prestigious Barry Award for best paperback original. The award was established by the staff of Deadly Pleasures mystery magazine. It will be presented at a conference of mystery writers in Albany, N.Y., on Sept. 19.

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