Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Telegraph talks about the future of Westerns

David Gritten has written a perceptive and informative article in the U.K. Telegram about the future of Westerns. It is titled, "Is it high noon for western films." 

Gritten doesn't think so. Neither do I. In fact, I believe Westerns are at the beginning of a rebirth. Here is an example of why I think this way. Google Elmore Leonard and the listings invariably reference only his crime novels. Western enthusiasts know he was one of the great Western authors, but apparently few in the media are aware of this fact. The Pacific Standard recently published a somewhat snarky article about how Elmore Leonard began his writing career pumping out cowboy stories, but transitioned to his award winning crime novels after demand dwindled for Western fiction. This line is repeated endlessly in articles eulogizing Leonard upon his recent death. His move from Westerns to crime was almost four decades ago. No one in the media seems to have noticed that more recently, bestselling crime novelist Robert B. Parker ended his memorable career by writing a highly successful Western series about hired guns Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. 

I could list more indicators of a resurgence in Westerns, but the bigger question is why supposed arbiters of popular culture are so intent on tamping down the Western every time a cowboy hat rises above the ridgeline? Why do they sound gleeful that The Lone Ranger flopped? (Actually, The Lone Ranger grossed $88 million in theaters, which would be respectable for a reasonably budgeted film.)

A simple answer is that most of the media critics live along the eastern seaboard and don’t relate to Westerns or even the vast wilderness that lies beyond the Hudson River.  But there must be more. Hollywood and publishing gatekeepers support the same stories and themes in fantasy and science fiction. It’s okay to wield a magic wand or a precious ring, but not a six-shooter? Outer space aliens can be killed with abandon, but not bad guys in black hats. I’m not sure what the answer is, but there seems to be a prevailing fear that the Western may once again become popular with the general public. If anyone has an answer as to why Westerns offend the elite, I would sure like to hear it.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Are Audio Books for Non-Readers?

Honest Westerns
I normally read three to four books simultaneously. When I tell people this, they immediately asked if they are fiction or nonfiction. I tell them the mix varies. Actually, that’s only two thirds true. I'm usually reading an e-book, listening to an audio book, and reading one or more print books at the same time. The print books are almost always nonfiction. The Kindle and audio formats vary depending on what strikes my fancy, but generally both formats are fiction. It can be a bit confusing, but when I switch mediums, I back up a bit and usually get right back into the story.

My audio habit drew my attention to a Wall Street Journal article about audio books.  The claim is that audio is experiencing an explosion in popularity, especially with the younger generation. This article describes some interesting new concepts in audio that can leverage a franchise to a whole new audience. Throw in big-time tie-in marketing and you can extend a successful property into a phenomenon. Don Katz, Audible's founder and CEO is quoted in the article as saying, "We're moving toward a media-agnostic consumer who doesn't think of the difference between textual and visual and auditory experience. It's the story, and it is there for you in the way you want it."

One Audible.Com development is a syncing feature between audio and e-books. Now, that hit me where I live. I could read/listen to one novel at a time. Read my Kindle with my morning coffee, and then listen to the audio format driving to the gym and on the elliptical. Life just got simpler … which is what new technology is supposed to do, but seldom accomplishes on the first try.

The Steve Dancy Tales are in large print, trade paperback, Kindle, and five are available in audio. For audio buffs, Books-in-Motion produced the first two books in audio format. Narrated by Rusty Nelson, a skillful actor, the books are available from Jim Tedder narrated Murder at Thumb Butte and The Return, and Joe Formichella read Jenny's Revenge.

Are audio books for non-readers? Sometimes. But audio books are also for readers who never want to be away from the story. Remember, “It's the story, and it is there for you in the way you want it."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Western Heresy

pulp fictionPulp fictionpulp fiction

As a kid I was not a big fan of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, or The Lone Ranger. Sure, I watched them, but they never had the pull of Josh Randall or Paladin. Even as a youngster, I preferred tarnished heroes. The protagonists in Wanted Dead or Alive and Have Gun Will Travel were grittier than the signing cowboys or a masked man that always shot the gun out of the villain’s hand. I liked that Paladin wore all black and Josh Randall never apologized for tracking down men for money. These were hard men with a strict code of honor. They might kill, but never without just cause.

steve dancy tales by james d. best
Wordslingers: An Epitaph for the Western
A new book brought these thoughts to mind. Wordslingers: An Epitaph for the Western by Will Murray is a comprehensive history of Western pulp fiction. I’m not a fan of Western pulps, but I’m a huge fan of Western pulp cover art. I collect pulp fiction Western books and magazines, and love to rummage around used bookstores so I can add to my collection. I’ve never read an entire pulp Western because the stories never seemed to live up to the promise of the cover art. I’ve probably missed something, so I’m going to ask for Murray’s book for Christmas. With back cover art like this, how can I resist?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Can the Bloody Benders Revive Western Film?

Western folklore
Bender General Store and Inn

In the early 1870s, the Bloody Benders were a family of serial killers on the Kansas prairie. The four members of the family could not be weirder. If they were a family. The only thing known for certain is that there were four of them and they killed over a dozen travelers that ate or stayed at their makeshift general store located along a popular trail to the West. One more thing is known, they escaped.

This is a fascinating story and now The Topeka Capital Journal reports that two Harvard graduates are making an independent film about this grotesque piece of Western lore. There may also be a Hollywood production about the Bloody Benders. I’m rooting for the indie film. 

When the resurgence occurs in Western film, it will come from solid storytelling. My money is on indie films because they can’t afford elaborate computer generated effects, so they have no choice but to concentrate on a great script. Western enthusiasts keep hoping that movies like Cowboys and Aliens or The Lone Ranger will rejuvenate the genre. Small films have a better chance.

Serial killers
Bender Knife

IMDB reports an estimated budget for Open Range of only $26 million, a pittance for a movie with two bankable stars. Dances with Wolves was only $19 million.  Quigley Down Under $20 million. And even the remake of 3:10 to Yuma was only $55 million. On the other hand, films with nine figure budgets have harmed the genre. Big losses sour Hollywood powers-that-be on Westerns and they’re too dumb to figure out they threw away their money on a lousy script because they believe CGI, fast cuts, and a pulsing soundtrack were the key to a blockbuster.

Good storytelling draws audiences into movie houses … and that’s the forte of low budget films. Since Hollywood is blockbuster obsessed, we’ll have to rely on indie films to have an enjoyable night at the movies with a box of hot, buttered popcorn.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Academic Nonsense about the American West

Looking for literary critiques of Western literature, I accidentally came across the article “Westerns” by Nicolas S. Witschi in Oxford Bibliographies. Witschi is Professor of English at Western Michigan University, where he teaches literature, cultural studies, and film. Sounds like some fun subjects. His website boosts, “My book Traces of Gold argues for reading the history of literary realism in the American West as a figurative engagement with the material, economic, and cultural value of natural resource industries.”

Wow! I was stopped by figurative engagement. In fact, I was stopped dead in my tracks as I stuggled to figure out what this showy sentence meant. Witschi was trying to convey a message, but instead of comprehending, I was Googling academic jargon. It reminded me of the line in Planes, Trains & Automobiles when the character Neal Page tells Del Griffith, "And by the way, you know, when you're telling these little stories? Here's a good idea - have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!"

The article reads no better. Witschi seems to recommend studying Western literature as a sort of anthropological investigation of American culture. Although, it's hard to tell with sentences like, “As for questions about ‘literary’ quality and complexity, recent critical methodologies have not only expanded the criteria for assessing such things to include artifacts of mass market or popular appeal; they have also brought to light, with the purpose of working against it, the very means by which discursive power functions to identify and separate.” That’s as clear as the night sky over Montana.

The breadth of Western literature is astounding. From James Fenimore Cooper to Larry McMurtry, authors have been writing compelling historical novels about the American frontier. I’ll accept negative academic criticism of the Western genre as soon as I read a piece that dismisses The Once and Future King by T. H. White as mythology that promotes conquest, vigilantism, and sexism. Instead of searching for tidbits that can be extrapolated into a doctoral thesis, perhaps Witschi’s literature and film students would benefit from reading Westerns to learn the art and craft of storytelling.

Friday, August 16, 2013


In a bygone era, milk was delivered fresh to the door in reusable bottles, ice cream trucks plied neighborhoods, Helms brought bakery goods to the curbside, and whether you wanted anything or not, you got a visit from an annoying Fuller Brush man. Another door-to-door phenomenon was a photographer with a pony in tow. Now, my mother would never pay for my picture sitting astride a guzzied up pony, but I followed this dude around the neighborhood to see which of my friends' parents were worthy of children.

Bestselling Western Writer
Yours truly
These were highly professional photographers. You can tell from these artfully framed portraits. The hat and chaps came with, but it was supply your own cap pistol. I had one of those, but a stingy mom. She tried to make up for her miserly ways by snapping my picture on the stoop with her Brownie. I loved her anyway.

Neighborhoods seemed a lot more important back then. I knew every kid within a couple years of my age. If mom wasn't home, I knew she was sipping coffee over gossip with one of her neighbors. We played in the street with no fear of a reckless driver, and went to the park unafraid of being bothered by strangers. All the parents walked together to the PTA meetings at our school, and to my knowledge, they never discovered we played marbles for keeps.

I thought those were the best of times until I learned to surf as a freshman in high school. Then my neighborhood became a street end in Hermosa Beach. Now those were the days, my friend.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

I Just Gave Away Over 300 Books

Western Fiction

Those of you who follow this blog probably know my wife and I are moving from Arizona to Nebraska. It's been over twenty years since we've moved and we forgot how much work it is. To keep moving costs down, we're giving away lots of stuff to the Salvation Army and Goodwill. Another possession we took a hard look at is books. They're heavy, thus expensive to move. We donated well over 300 books to a literacy group. After my blog post yesterday, you probably think we've gone hard-over for Kindle e-books. Nope. We still intend to move over a thousand books to the Great State of Nebraska.

Our current house has a library. It's our favorite room. It's filled with books, family memorabilia, and two over-stuffed chairs. For over thirty years we have bought books whenever we came into the vicinity of a bookstore, especially a used bookstore. My wife and I have different interests so our collection looks eclectic and we each have our favorite categories. When we prepared to move, we separated the house up and took different rooms, but not the library. In this sanctuary we had to go through the books together and each of us had an absolute veto power.

Except that it wasn't just the library. The shelving in that room could easily handle 800 books, but we outgrew it years ago. So when we had an entertainment center built in the family room, we added book shelves along an entire wall. Another 400 or so books. We outgrew this as well. I use a spare bedroom as a writing room and furnished the closet with cheap bookshelves. This collection was mostly nonfiction books I use for research or color in my novels. Before long, the shelves were full and books got stacked on the floor. My wife was perfectly okay with my mess ... as long as I kept the closet doors closed.

Western fiction
This would be easier
It's a wonder we found 300 books to donate to a charity. These discards were mostly fiction we knew we'd never read again or outdated nonfiction. (Okay, some were books we bought with good intentions, but never read.) I kept all of my early twentieth century Westerns and crime mysteries that I had bought for the cover art. My wife kept every cookbook. I kept all of my American history books and biographies. She kept all of her collectable books from some bygone era. Children's books? Nary a one hit the discard bin. Coffee table books? Unreadable narratives, with pretty pictures. Most of these heavy-weights went without a tear.

We pared our books by about a quarter. Before we started, I was sure at least half of them would go. Nothing goes as you expect, but I was enormously relived when this task was done. Then my wife said we needed to do the same with our DVD collection. Oh no. Chick flicks versus Westerns and films that go bang. I guess we're not done with the bickering and snide remarks.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Even diehards are turning to e-books

It’s fun to watch sales when a new book comes out. Even though the official release date is August 15th, The Return has been available since about the first of August. Exactly two thirds of the sales have been e-books. Fiction readers love e-books. Especially voracious readers. Printed books still hold the edge for nonfiction, but the trend is irreversible for fiction.

As this fourth novel in the Steve Dancy Tales matures in the marketplace, the numbers will skew even further in the direction of e-books. I know this from patterns of earlier books in the series. Why would this be? My guess is that ardent Steve Dancy fans buy early, including printed book enthusiasts. After the initial buying spurt, the general reading public must find and then buy the book. Discovery and sales are now weighted in the direction of e-books for several reasons.

First, e-book shoppers can shop anytime, anywhere. I’ve bought books in the security line at the airport, in the car waiting for my wife to complete an errand, in bed, traveling down the highway, and in that little room they stick while you wait for the doctor to finally appear. Online booksellers also have nifty ways to search for books by author, genre, or sales status. They suggest books based on your prior purchases. More important for discovery are digital samples. Without doubt, the best sales technique is word-of-mouth. Now, when someone hears about a book from a newspaper, TV show, radio program, or a friend, they can download a sample as a potential buy for later. This is huge. If the author is any good, the reader is hooked by the time they reach the buy button for the remainder of the book. Except for a few inept publishers, the e-book format is less expensive than the printed format. This makes the buy decision easier after discovery. It is also more convenient to return an e-book than it is to drive down to the local brick and motor store and argue with a clerk over whether the book looks too tattered for resale. All in all, e-books have the sales edge over the printed variety.

airline rules
All of the above, of course, is predicated on the popularity of e-readers. I’m on my fifth Kindle. When I flew with my first generation Kindle, no one paid me any mind, not even the flight attendant. Now every seat sports a device capable of displaying an e-book, and that includes those with private accommodations on the flight deck. 

Why are e-readers so popular? Try jamming a Ken Follett hardbound in your purse or briefcase. How about a half dozen books into your luggage for extended trip. When I toured Namibia, I preloaded my Kindle with African history books, travel guides, The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, and more than a few shoot-em-up Westerns. All those digital ones and zeros didn't add an ounce to my travel weight.

Then there's readability. A good quality hardbound or trade paperback may be easier on the eye, but the same cannot be said for a mass-market paperback. With higher resolution and the option of adjusting the light on the screen with some devices, e-readers are much more comfortable to read for extended periods.

Shop from anywhere, lower cost books, portability, less eye strain … no wonder e-readers are gaining in popularity. The Guardian reports that even Rick Gekoski, a rare book dealer has succumbed to the lures of the Kindle.  And for good reason. The bottom line is that if a fiction writer does his job, the reader will be lost in the story. The medium doesn't matter. Only what happens next.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Busy with important stuff

I haven't written too many posts lately because I've been busy with some really important stuff. My daughter and her kids have been visiting us in Pacific Beach. Yesterday, my granddaughter took her first surf lesson. Here's a video of her very first wave ever. She's stoked!

At the end of the hour and a half lesson, she was auditioning to be a Roxy Girl.

On the book front, The Return just received its first Amazon review. Take a gander. It's a good review, of course, or I wouldn't link to it here.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Jane Austen is finally in the money

I guess it would be more accurate to say Jane Austen is on the money. I’m proud of her since she didn’t make a fortune with her writing while she was alive. Starting in 2017, the author will be the image on the ubiquitous £10 note. If authors didn’t self-doubt enough, now they won’t receive full validation until their visage is in everyone’s wallet or pocketbook.

Pride and Prejudice Quote on note - "I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!"

Evidently, there was a hue and cry by Caroline Criado-Perez to have more women on British currency. To heck with that, what about authors being eulogized on the most important thing in many people’s lives? Ms. Austen is actually the third writer to grace a British note. William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens preceded her. And how many authors have been on United Sates Currency? None. That’s right, none. Politicians hog all the space. William McKinley has even graced the $500 bill. Now, I ask you, who has done more for Americans, William McKinley or Mark Twain?

Whoops, I just realized something. One of the top selling authors of all time is on American currency. His books were the number 2 bestseller for twenty-six years. (The Bible was number 1.) His writing made him one of the top 100 richest Americans in history. Every school kid can recite his words. It’s easy to forget that Benjamin Franklin was one of the great authors of all time and that there were few homes in colonial America without a copy of Poor Richard’s Almanac. In fact, Ben is not only on the $100 bill, it is popularly called a Franklin. So we do have a great writer on our money. Take that England.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

Are Romance Novels True Westerns?

sex in the westSeveral of my fellow writers lament that it’s almost impossible to break into Amazon high ranking for Westerns due to Romance Novels filling all the slots. Actually, many of the top slots are held by some great Westerns, like These is my Words, The Sisters Brothers, Lonesome Dove, The Son, and All The Pretty Horses, but it’s true that the remainder of the Top100 tend to be romance, 99 cent books, or Western writers of yesteryear.

sex in the west

Romance Westerns are popular, but they’re not new. Arguably, The Virginian was the first Romance Western. After all, the hero doesn't ride off into the sunset; he marries the schoolmarm and visits Vermont to meet her family. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valancemy favorite Western movie—is a romantic story in more ways than one. As for titillating tales of the West, they've been around for ages as well.

I don’t begrudge the popularity of Romance Westerns, but I have to admit I’m jealous of their sales. Maybe that’s why I slipped a romantic theme into my latest Steve Dancy tale, The Return

Actually, I didn't do it on purpose, it was Steve who insisted.

sex in the west

Friday, August 2, 2013

Steve Dancy in Love?

Sex in the Old West

Steve Dancy has had a rocky romantic life in the first three novels. His mother pushed him to marry a young lady who would enhance the family’s wealth and connections, but New York City socialites and socializing bored Steve. In defiance, he sold everything and followed Horace Greeley advice to “Go west, young man.” 

Steve assumed he would observe the frontier and write a great literary classic about the Wild West. He found enough adventure to fill several books and made a few male friends along the way. In his wanderings, he also encountered many different types of women, but Steve argued with every one of them. Needless to say, this was not the best way to strike up a relationship.

Things change in The Return.  Steve remains clumsy with the opposite sex, but even a dunderhead can be successful on occasion. I’d tell you what happens, but why ruin the suspense. You’ll just have to buy a copy and read for yourself.

father and daughter

As for me, I'm leaving the scorching heat of Arizona for Pacific Beach. I'll get in a little surfing between playing with my grandkids, who are flying in from Nebraska. You know, I think my granddaughter is the right age to start bogie boarding. This is gonna be fun.