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Thursday, February 19, 2004

A Marketing Challenge 

I recently finished Scott Phillips' new book COTTONWOOD. I'd been looking forward to reading this book since news started trickling in maybe a year or so ago on what the author of two of the most hardboiled novels published in the last few years, 2000's THE ICE HARVEST and its sequel, 2002's THE WALKAWAY, was working on: an historical western. But what excited me evidently had his publisher, Ballantine, in knots.

Why? Well, the answer lies in my recounting of Phillips' backlist. Ballantine (and his UK publisher, MacMillan/Picador) signed him up on the basis of his first two books, which were in the style of noiristes like James Crumley, Charles Willeford and Jim Thompson--amoral, fast paced, and a high body count. THE ICE HARVEST did especially well critically, garnering a slew of nominations (Edgar, Hammett, Anthony) and winning high profile fans like George Pelecanos and Dennis McMillan, who now publishes the limited-run first editions for his publishing house. So when Phillips announced his next book would be a Western set in Kansas in the last half of the 19th century, no doubt his publishers were, to say the least, unsure what to make of it.

What gained Phillips fans and critical acclaim was the quality of his writing; his books took pulp conventions and elevated them because of something extra in his writing style. But in the crime fiction world, there's a strong belief that a writer should stick to a similar course with each successive book. Sure, there's room for some change, and switching to a standalone after a few books is a yawningly familiar expectation by now. But substantial departures are a different story. Some of your favorite writers who got their contracts dropped? It was because they floated the idea of something radically different which their publishers didn't want to take, or their agents felt they couldn't sell. There's a sense that once an author builds his or her fan base, they can only expand outward from what's established, and not take flying leaps into alien or unfamiliar territory. Or if they do, then adopt a pseudonym or switch publishing houses or do something equally drastic.

But a funny thing happened with COTTONWOOD; so far it's gotten excellent reviews, some of the best ever for Phillips. And for damned good reason; no, it's not a hardboiled novel, and it may not even be crime fiction. But it's atmospheric, seedy, and full of great characters. We're catapulted into the point of view of saloon owner Bill Ogden, who has quite a liberal take on his marriage vows. He switches allegiances and betrays supposed friends, falls in love but runs away (albeit for good reason.) And once again, Phillips' writing was the biggest hook, was what kept me reading. His dialogue seems to be pitch-perfect, and he takes a real-life case of a family on a killing spree and spins a novel that scrutinizes the development of a small Kansas town into something bigger, but not necessarily better.

So yes, it's a departure, an unexpected surprise. But humor my perhaps-naive belief that a well-written and evocative book will find its audience, and that a writer--provided he delivers the goods--can stretch his ability to new and deeper levels. And while you're at it, say hello to Scott while he tours around the country to promote COTTONWOOD. We need more writers like him.

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