The Draw of Los Angeles for Crime Fiction Writers

Image of downtown Los AngelesA friend asked me yesterday why I chose Los Angeles as the setting for Come What May, the novel I’m currently writing. “Why not Dallas,” she asked.

Frankly I sort of side-stepped the question by replying with something along the lines that I felt readers would find the story more interesting set in Los Angeles than in Dallas.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t asked a good question but more that I had hadn’t really thought about my decision enough to come up with a more intelligent answer.

One of the great pillars of wisdom when it comes to writing is “Write what you know.” So why use a city you’ve never lived in or even visited more than a few times as a setting for your novel? Doesn’t it make more sense to use a city you have more personal knowledge of?

I do believe I can be very effective using your own city as a novel setting. Robert B. Parker has long been one of my favorite crime fiction authors. I’ve read all 40 of his Spenser novels and Parker’s writing definitely has been a big influence on my own.

One of the things I really liked about the Spenser novels was that they were all principally set in Boston, a city that Parker was intimately familiar with as was very evident in his writing.

Admittedly, I did choose Los Angeles as the setting for my book without really giving it a lot of thought. After thinking about my friend’s question I think a part of my decision was motivated simply by the fact that ever since the days of Raymond Chandler, Los Angeles has featured prominently in crime fiction with countless numbers of crime novels set there.

That of course begs the question, why? Is there something about Los Angeles that causes the city to come to mind for those writing tales of murder and mayhem? Do Americans consider Los Angeles to be a particularly dangerous, crime-ridden place perhaps due to much-publicized crimes like the mysterious 1947 Elizabeth Short (The Black Dahlia) murder, the Manson murders, and the O.J. Simpson murder case?

Factually, Los Angeles does have significant crime but that isn’t surprising for a city with 3.8 million inhabitants. But the truth is Los Angeles isn’t really as dangerous a place as many people might think. In 2010 for example, the total number of murders in Los Angeles dropped below 300, the fewest number of homicides since 1967 when the United States was at war with Vietnam and when Elvis married Priscilla. The number of 297 murder victims was still a significant number of corpses of course, but keep in mind the population of the city in 2010 was almost 4 million people.

Breaking that number down a bit, the total number of 2010 Los Angeles murders translates into about 7.8 homicides per 100,000 residents. That number actually compared quite favorably with the numbers of major American cities with some of the lowest homicide rates in the country.

In fact, the 2010 murder rate in Los Angeles was lower than that of Dallas for the same year. In 2010 there were 148 homicides in Dallas which was actually a 43-year low. The population of Dallas in 2010 was roughly 1.2 million which works out to a homicide rate of about 12.3 per 100,000 residents, higher than that of Los Angeles which is something many people wouldn’t have guessed.

Regardless of what some people may think, Los Angeles is statistically no more crime-ridden than other major U.S. cities and it can be argued, a safer city than many. So at least in my view that doesn’t explain why so many authors use Los Angeles as the setting for their crime fiction novels. The explanation I think is found more in myth than reality.

Los Angeles simply has so much to offer a crime writer. There is the vast and varied landscape to use as backdrops. There is the Pacific Ocean, palm trees, film industry, mountains and hills, and the desert. There is the continued draw of Hollywood for the imagination. There is the L.A.P.D., the famous police department immortalized by popular television series like Dragnet and Adam 12, not to mention its thousands of unsolved cases for writers to draw inspiration from. Los Angeles is simply a fascinating city revered as much for its shady underbelly every bit as present today as in Chandler’s time as for its glitter and glamor.

Not to say that a compelling crime novel couldn’t be set in a city like Dallas, but in my opinion the imaginations of crime fiction enthusiasts are simply more readily stirred by a tale set in Los Angeles with its seductive blur of artifice and reality.

At the end of it, I think that explains why I chose Los Angeles as the setting for the Malone novels. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


On Book Pricing

Image of a kindle readerAssume that you are considering purchasing a novel in a genre you already really like but written by a new author you’ve never read. How much of a factor in your final decision would the cover price be?

Frankly one thing I dislike about self-publishing is having to set the cover prices of my books. For my upcoming detective novel, Come What May, I had to face that earlier than with my previous books.

For the first time ever I have made a book available for preorders. My primary book distributor recommended it and sold me on the idea on the basis that preorders enable more effective advance book marketing.

The eBook version of Come What May is now available for preorder at Barnes & and Kobo. It will also be available for preorder at Apple iBooks. Because the time frame for preorders differs at Amazon from the other outlets mentioned, it will likely be sometime in July before the book can be preordered there.

For the curious, you can see the listing for Come What May at Barnes & Noble here and at Kobo here.

If you have read this far and have assumed this post is going to be a pitch for you to preorder my book, you can relax now. I only mentioned the book being available for preorder as an introduction to the topic I actually want to discuss today, pricing an eBook. Who knows? You might find it interesting.

Setting the cover price for a book isn’t as simple or straightforward a decision as someone might assume who has never self-published a book. It’s isn’t just about price but value, two very different things. A great many books have been written on how to price an eBook. In fact if you Google a phrase like “how to price your eBook novel” the search will return about 192 million results.

Authors have different goals when they set out to write and publish a book. For the purposes of this post I’ll focus on just the two most common goals:

  1. To maximize income from book sales.
  2. To maximize the number of people who read the book.

Candidly, writing is one of those things I’d do whether I ever made any money from it or not. While I like money as much as the next person and making a little extra is always quite nice, I don’t for example depend on book royalties to put a roof over my head or food on the table. Suffice to say that earning royalties from book sales, while of course always welcome, is not my primary objective.

I’m definitely in the “to maximize the number of people who read the book” camp as far as my primary goal for this book. An author’s goal behind writing and publishing a book is one of the factors to be considered in pricing the book. Someone who hopes to derive substantial income from book sales, all other things being equal, is going to set a higher price for a book than someone like me who is seeking to build an audience, not just for this book but the ones that will come after since Come What May is the debut novel in a new series I have planned.

A self-published author can conceivably set a price for his or her eBook at anywhere between zero and infinity. I’ve seen eBooks with cover prices set as low as ninety-nine cents and as high as $75. Truthfully, I’ve never purchased an eBook with a price at either of those extremes. I suppose the reason is I’ve doubted that a quality book worth reading could be had as less than a dollar and can’t really imagine any eBook being worth $75.

I could of course give my book away for free in the hopes of maximizing the number of people who might download and read it. But setting the price at zero might very well gain fewer readers than putting a price on it which of course wouldn’t satisfy my goal. People in our culture often equate price, at least to some degree, with quality and value. Plenty of people might assume that a book being given away free is probably not very good and not worth their time to read. Many people do in fact consider just about anything offered to them free as having no value at all.

A good illustration of the preceding principle is a joke I heard in a comedy routine once. The comedian said he replaced his old refrigerator with a bigger, newer model. He placed his old refrigerator at the curb with a sign on it that read “working refrigerator free for hauling away.” He said the refrigerator remained at the curb for weeks. No one had shown the slightest interest in it.

The comedian said he wasn’t out to make any money on the old refrigerator, he just wanted to get it hauled away, hopefully by someone who could get some use out of it. So he got an idea. He replaced the original sign with one that read “working refrigerator $50.” He said that he woke up the following morning after changing the sign and looked out. The refrigerator was gone! Someone had stolen it during the night! Evidently someone decided the old refrigerator had some value after all.

I’d actually be perfectly happy to sell copies of my book for ninety-nine cents, if I could feel confident that more people would read it than if I set the price higher. That of course would satisfy my primary goal, maximizing the number of readers. But there is of course no way to predict how many people might buy and read the book if it was priced at ninety-nine cents in comparison to how many might buy and read it if I set the cover price a bit higher. As a first novel or at least in this case my first novel in a new genre, there is no historical pricing point data on which to base a decision about the cover price.

With this first detective/mystery novel I haven’t any reputation or credibility with my target audience. I lack a body of work on which readers might form opinions as to my competency as a writer and my skill as story teller. On the opposite end of the spectrum, consider my favorite crime fiction author. He has written 41 novels and in my opinion they are all uniformly good. He has lots of fans who enjoy reading his novels and his books carry the imprint of a well-known and respected publishing house. I think I paid $10.99 each for the electronic versions of his two most recent books and probably an average of $9.99 per eBook over the years I’ve been reading him. Obviously, I’m not going to command a price like that for my first crime fiction novel or even for the next several books in the series I’m beginning.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that there is a significant difference in the price of a hard cover book and the electronic version of the same book. That’s another factor in setting cover prices. Again using my favorite crime fiction author as an example, I paid $10.99 for the eBook version of his most recent novel but the list price for the hard cover edition on the date the book was released was $28.95. Part of that of course is the difference in production costs. There are substantial costs involved in printing and distributing a hard cover book while the costs involved in producing an electronic book are very modest in comparison. That however is only part of the reason behind the price difference.

If you think about, when you purchase an eBook you aren’t really purchasing a book at all because you never own it. Instead you’re purchasing a license that entitles you to download and read a book. You can sell an actual book or even donate it to the library when you’ve finished reading it. But until relatively recently you couldn’t even loan an eBook to a friend once you finished reading it much less resell one. Even though under some conditions you can loan electronic books to friends today, it still isn’t nearly as straightforward a proposition as simply handing your friend the copy of a book. That is the real reason for the significant price difference between physical books and virtual ones and also a factor is setting the cover price for an eBook.

What really keeps a self-published author up at night is hoping he or she won’t miss hitting the sweet spot when it comes to pricing his or her book. Price it too low and many people will assume it must be awful and not work reading. Most people won’t knowingly pay even a $1 for a book they think is bad. Price it too high and many people will be unwilling to buy and read it because they won’t believe the book has enough value to justify the price. A price that is too high might also price some potential readers out of the market simply because they don’t have unlimited disposable income to spend on books. The elusive best price then lies somewhere in between too low and too high.

As you can see now unless you already knew it before reading this post, setting the cover price for a book isn’t as simple as you might think at first blush. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of factors to consider. Along with selling a book you also must sell a buyer on the idea the book has a value and a value that is commensurate with the price. When reduced to the lowest common denominator, a book like most everything else consumers buy is really worth what someone is willing to pay for it. That’s the real value of the book from a purely economic perspective.

For any of my readers who may be considering reading Come What May, I do hope you will consider visiting my official author’s website, While there you can opt in to receive my free monthly newsletter by email if you wish. It’s not really a great commitment since if you choose to subscribe to the newsletter but change your mind later you can of course cancel at any time. I mention this because in connection with the release of my book in October, my newsletter subscribers will receive an exclusive special offer to purchase the eBook version of my novel at a price substantially below the cover price. There is also a contest in the works where some subscribers will win the chance to receive the eBook absolutely free.