Monday, November 24, 2008

Two New Movies Set In Spain

Though my focus for this blog is books, I must admit that I love historical movies. And for me, there's nothing better than a movie after that big Thanksgiving meal! Also, several months ago a reader of this blog asked me to post something film-related and I promised him I would. Movies often help us visualize the eras we read about, and bring a marvelous sense of immediacy to the past; while I still prefer to read, I must admit when a movie or TV series looks this good, I'm the first in line.

Two new historical films were released recently that I personally can't wait to see. Both are set in Spain during the reign of Philip II - an era that I'm planning to write about. I haven't located US release dates on either film yet, alas; but I did find their YouTube trailers, so enjoy!

La Conjura del Escorial (The Escorial Conspiracy)
Based on true events, this film is set during the Golden Age of Philip II's Spain, when an ambitious courtier and his noblewoman lover set off a dramatic and dangerous chain of events that resulted in the murder of Juan of Austria's secretary and the lovers' downfall. I'm hoping to write about the one-eyed Princess of Eboli, played here by Julia Ormond, so to me this looks like a marvelous film, with excellent costumes and wonderful ambiance to inspire my own visions.

El Greco
The life of the enigmatic Greek painter, also set in the era of Philip II. This film was directed by a Greek, who spent years passionately attached to the project until he managed to secure enough financing from Spain, Greece and Hungary. It follows the story of the painter from his youth in Crete to his forbidden love affair with Jimena de Cuevas and near-fatal clash with the Inquisition in Toledo. British stage actor Nick Ashdon captures the role of this indominitable talent, who is by far my favorite late-Renaissance painter.

(Click on the images to access the YouTube trailers).

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you! It's been a great year, and I thank you all for sharing your thoughts and time with me.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Look at Cover Art

My friend Sarah Johnson has a great post on her blog Reading the Past about cover art, featuring the trade edition and hardcover art of the same books. It's very interesting to see how publishers re-interpret books, and how, in most cases, the trade edition usually looks more appealing. Seeing as I'm getting a new cover for the trade of The Last Queen, and I'm a big cover art aficionado, I loved this post.
Check it out:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Get Thee to The Book Shop

If you’ve been following the news lately, no doubt you’ve heard about the terrible downturn in the economy. People are losing jobs; previously solid companies are crumbling; the stock market is creaking and plunging like an old ship; and fear runs rampant.

The publishing industry has been hit especially hard. All major houses are reporting declines in revenues and a near-standstill of sales of both new hard covers and backlist titles, unless of course you’re fortunate enough to have had your book anointed by Oprah or the best of your publisher’s publicity machinery churning ceaselessly behind you. PW Daily reported today that in the month of September: “Sales at bookstores, sporting goods stores and hobby stores fell a total of 1.6% in the month on an adjusted basis. “ For the entire retail segment, sales figures are at a record low. The CEO of Barnes & Noble sent out a memo warning booksellers to brace themselves for one of the worst holiday seasons in history and a high-level publishing executive predicted in a recent keynote address at an industry conference that the “worst is yet to come.”

For debut authors like me, it's dire news, indeed. THE LAST QUEEN came out only a month or so before the market crash hit. The verdict is still out on final sales, of course, it being too early in the book’s life to say; but I can say at times I felt as though I was pushing a hard-covered stone up a hill, not withstanding a brief stint on the Marin Independent Journal bestseller list.

Fortunately, the trade paperback will be published in May, 2009, and as a Random House Readers Group selection, the venues for marketing and publicity are more established.
It has been a sobering experience for me as a writer, discovering that for many of us, books have become a luxury item and many people eager to read a book in hard cover are instead now waiting for the paperback. The reasons are varied, anywhere from the fact that paperbacks are easier to carry to the preference for the format. But in the end, of course, it comes down to price. After all, there is quite a gap between $25.00 and $14.95, the average trade paperback price.

There was a time when the collector value of hard covers was all important; sadly, it seems that time, like so many other golden artifacts of the industry, is fast coming to its end. In the UK, the practice of releasing a new author into the market in hardcover is nearly extinct; it takes a sizeable advance and significant advance buzz to convince UK publishers otherwise. Many houses are implementing original trade paperback imprints and many of these imprints are proving that the public will still buy books— when the price is right.

In the US, however, hard covers still represent a better chance at reviews and publicity coverage by major sources like newspapers. The tide is slowly turning; but ask any author how they’d feel if they had to relinquish their hard cover deal for an original trade paperback one instead, and the shudder is usually palpable. It often comes down to simple economics: hardcover advances are usually higher.

It bears noting that publishers have hardly raised prices in over ten years. I have a hardcover I purchased in 1998 that was $21.99. My most recent purchase was $25.00. Given the cost of paper and shipping, as well as overall production costs that go into publishing a book these days, this is not a significant price increase to keep up with inflation. And a hardcover book is still cheaper than a night at the movies for two or even a decent dinner these days, plus it offers more hours of entertainment than either. Profit margins for publishers, too, remain surprisingly low for most books, given the discounts for booksellers and the antiquated returns system, which can condemn a title to oblivion before it’s even had a chance to find its audience.

I was therefore not surprised that during a recent dinner with some fellow author friends the dominant theme of the conversation was the horrifying state of publishing and our collective fear that together with the nation, our careers are plunging into an abyss. While writers tend to shy away from giving actual sales figures – a left-over from the genteel era in publishing, when discussing your numbers was almost as uncouth as discussing your advance— my friends were touting out their Bookscan and Point of Sale figures with the appalled shock of those who witness a terrible car crash on their commute home, know someone has perished in that twisted wreckage of smoking metal, and feel utterly helpless. It was both refreshing and devastating to experience such unadulterated candor - and hard on my wallet, as I immediately felt the need to hightail it to my nearest bookstore and purchase books as though I were about to be exiled to a desert island with nothing to read.

There are silver linings, to coin a cliché. The fabulous, entrepreneurial author and business woman MJ Rose of AuthorBuzz recently put together a blog ad campaign with 24 authors (including me) who grouped our dollars to gain more exposure and run rotating blog ads promoting reading and books as the perfect holiday gift. Likewise, my publisher Random House is running a similar campaign aimed at motivating consumers to buy books this Christmas. The truth is, a book is still less expensive than most luxury items and can bring its recipient days of pleasure. And books remain the mainstay of our civilization, proof that we are intelligent beings with the capacity to celebrate and explore our shared humanity. With mere paper and ink, entire worlds are shared; often, this world is created by one person who spends years laboring over his or her work to bring it before the public. That is the magic of the book.

We are fast becoming a society of quick fixes and disposable entertainment. We watch ourselves online and discard whatever ceases to please us. We’re bombarded more and more by novelty, compelled to choose the new-fangled over the tried and true. Yet now is the time to rally to our booksellers; to forego that DVD or perfume purchase and give someone we love a book, instead.

We’ll be a far poorer society, indeed, not just in terms of money, if we let our current crisis dictate the fate of the enduring love we have for books.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Last Queen in Spain

On November 12, The Last Queen was published in Spain as La Ultima Reina. Just by coincidence, I recieved my author's advance copy the same day, and I must say, it's gorgeous. It's published in hardcover, and it has a wonderful matte finish and spot-varnished gothic spiral design on the edges that isn't visible on the JPEG of the cover. The translation is also marvellous; to read it in Spanish is strange, almost as though these are not my words. Plus, it reads so much richer, the language being so evocative of Juana herself.
This is the fun part of being a writer!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Murder, Mayhem and Historical London: Two New Mysteries

Okay, enough lamenting the passage of hatred and onto better stuff. I've had the marvelous good fortune to read not one, ladies and gentlemen, but two excellent historical mysteries recently and I thought I'd pass on the good news.

In his fourth outing, hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake is up against a gruesome serial killer intent on bringing forth the prophecies of Revelation through a series of Biblical-inspired killings. Called in to attend to the bizarre case of a young boy imprisoned for madness and suspected of suffering from demonic possession, when Shardlake discovers the slain body of his best friend in a frozen fountain, he is once again caught between the machinations of the Tudor court, where Henry VIII has set his sights on a reluctant Catherine Parr, his own waning spirituality, and the brutality of existence in Tudor London. As always, Sansom paints a realistic portrait of an era where power and wealth are the ultimate prize and life is easily disposed of; his attention to detail conjures a time both vastly different and eerily reminiscent of our own, a world where religious fundamentalism threatens to uproot the foundations of reason and men struggle to come to terms with the meaning of justice and faith. Excellent!
(I read the UK edition of REVELATION, which is published by McMillan. The US edition - pictured here - will be released on 2/5/2009).

VEIL OF LIES by Jeri Westerson
In Ms Westerson's debut in a genre dubbed Medieval Noir, Crispin Guest, a former knight who has lost everything due to an ill-advised foray into treason and now struggles to make a living as a 'watcher', is hired by a wealthy, eccentric merchant to investigate the possibility that the merchant's nubile wife is an adulteress. What seems at first to be a mundane and quick way for Crispin to make some money quickly twists into a murder case with no obvious culprit or motive, and a frantic search for a holy relic that might possess supernatural powers. As Crispin finds himself falling unwittingly under the spell of the merchant's widow, he grapples with a cabal of sinister foes intent on retrieving the relic for themselves, even at the cost of innocent lives. Ms Westerson presents a vivid portrait of the chaos of medieval London during the rarely-explored reign of Richard II; the vagaries of fate that easily cast people into penury; and of how lies can mask the truth. Crispin is conflicted, flawed and devastatingly sexy; this is a noteworthy addition to the canon and I look forward to Crispin's next outing, to be published by St. Martin's Press in 2009.
(VEIL OF LIES was published on 10/28/08 and is now available in bookstores everywhere. See Jeri's recent guest post here on Historical Boys.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Once, Twice, Three Times A Faggot

A friend of mine sent this to me; his friend wrote it. It eloquently sums up how I, and many others, feel today:

I never went to the prom. I never went to the homecoming dance.
I never went to any school dances for the most part.
Save for one dance in high school in the cafeteria that was organized by the teachers, I never went to any. Honestly, even though I was invited, I never felt welcome.

That dance in the cafeteria, I thought it would be fun. It was horrible. While I was invited and while I went and while I even danced, briefly, I was uncomfortable. And I was laughed at. For dancing. For thinking it was okay to be there.

And while there were those who tried to make me feel comfortable and wanted me there and stood up for me when I was picked on, the reality was that I still felt I shouldn't be there.

Election Day 2008 feels like that dance to me.

Everyone is partying. Everyone is celebrating. I've been invited, welcomed, and supported. And yet, I feel like I've been kicked to the sidelines, watching everyone party, while being separated.

While I was campaigning during election day, I was called a 'faggot.' Not once, not twice, but three times. By differing guys in different trucks as they drove down the road past me in San Francisco. In San Francisco.

At the time, it just sort of seemed par of the course for the day. But now, upon reflection, I can't help but feel like no matter how much we advance our rights in general and no matter how much strength we think we might have in a city or a community, we are still easy targets. With the numerous fellow Americans voting to deny my equality here in California and around the country in other state propositions this year and over the last many decades, it just seems that no matter where we go or how far we climb, they're still laughing at us for even considering dancing at the party.

So here we are with the biggest celebration in decades. An historic win for the presidency and our friends throughout the country. And everyone is partying. Save me.

Oh, yes, I'm heartened that I've been invited and all my friends are telling me I'm welcome and supported. And I'm heartened that so many supporters were out there working for my right to be there. And I'm happy that everyone has their happiness and are enjoying dancing. But I feel like I'm sitting on one of the chairs by the wall of the high school gymnasium while the rest of my fellow students enjoy the party.

And so even though I'm here, I just can't dance today.