Catching Up with the Customers @JMmystery

Jeanne Matthews happily announced the arrival of a new historical mystery, Devil by the Tail, released in July 2021.  Jeanne has a yen for travel and a passion for mythology, which she works into her novels whenever she can.  Originally from Georgia, Jeanne lives in Washington State with her husband, a law professor, and a Norwich terrier named Jack Reacher.  Information about her books, including the Dinah Pelerin international series, can be found on her website.  

After a long absence from the real world, I flew to Chicago in September for the biggest little outdoor book fair in the Midwest, the 36th annual Printers Row Litfest.  The sun was shining, the streets were bustling with writers and readers, and the atmosphere was positively exhilarating.  After the long Covid hiatus, it felt like a reawakening.  The event is traditionally held in June, but the sponsors postponed in hopes of attracting larger, vaccinated and enthusiastic crowds by fall.  Attendance in the past has reached as high as 150,000.  I don’t think this year’s turnout was that high, but the people I saw and talked to were definitely enthusiastic.

Book publishing in Chicago dates back to at least 1839 and as the city grew, it became a mecca of book making.  Beginning in 1880, Chicago was the largest center of publishing west of New York City.  Millions of books flowed from the bookbinders and publishing houses that lined the streets along Printing House Row.  In addition to the dime novel and trade books, fiction of all kinds flourished and quality magazines and newspapers enhanced the city’s literary reputation.  In the 1990s, consolidation and technological changes ended the heyday of publishing, but the tang of history is in the air.  One can still imagine the whir of linotype machines and the smell of ink and glue.

My publisher D.X. Varos pitched his tent in the center of the action and a steady stream of booklovers flowed around us, many weighed down with armloads of books.  What a pleasure it was when readers stopped to browse the interesting array of titles on display at our table and chat about their reading interests.  How sweet it was when they lingered over my own book and decided they might be able to fit one more book into their shopping bag.  All this excitement and I managed a visit to the Chicago Art Institute, to boot.

Encouraged by the success of that trip, and the happy fact that I came home without Covid, I drove to Portland earlier this month to join D.X. Varos at the Pacific Northwest Book Association trade show.  The show is designed for booksellers to network with other booksellers and expose them to a wide variety of publishers and authors, with an emphasis on writers from the Northwest.  “Back in the Flow,” as the sponsors dubbed the show, required proof of vaccination and masks, and seating at various events was limited for safety.  Still and all, the general mood was festive and conversations brimmed with a spirit of optimism.

The bigger the publisher, the more elaborate the exhibit and the cooler the swag.  It was hard to compete with the likes of Simon & Schuster (now absorbed into Bertelsmann, Penguin, Random House).  They were definitely the elephant in the ballroom.  But there were plenty of medium-sized and small publishers on hand with a whole gallery of new titles to introduce and give away as samples to regional booksellers.

I enjoyed mingling with authors from other presses and signing free copies of Devil by the Tail for booksellers who, fingers crossed, will order the book for their mystery section.  Of course reading tastes differ and you can’t win over everyone with your riveting tale.  One bookseller glanced over the many diverse offerings at our table and gave the lot a disdainful sniff.  My publisher sought to engage her, reeling off the variety of novels and subject matter in his catalog.  Speculative fiction, fantasy/supernatural, historical and general fiction, young adult, LGBT fiction, sci-fi, mystery.  Surely she had customers who would find one or more of these genres to their liking.

The lady squinched her eyes, leaned across the table and hissed through her mask.  “Cats.”


“Do any of them have cats?”

On the spur of the moment, the publisher couldn’t recall the presence of a single cat.

The bookseller shook her head.  “Word to the wise.  Cats sell.”

She walked away and belatedly, it occurred to me that there’s a passing mention of a lost cat around about page 177 in my book.  He doesn’t appear again and his fate is left unresolved.  Not enough kitty in the plot to call the lady back and try to make a sale, but I did give him a name.  Tenero.  By the end of the story, business has picked up for the Garnick & Paschal Detective Agency and Quinn and Garnick no longer have time to search for lost cats.  Still it’s good to catch up with the customers and hear what it is they want.  I may reprise Tenero in the sequel.  He won’t talk or solve the murder, as happens in some cozies.  But the next time somebody asks me if there’s a cat, I can claim a “Hidden Paw” lurks somewhere between the covers.