Sunday, November 1, 2009

Robert Fate: Making His Own Luck, Part 2

Robert Fate’s photo from his web site.

By Pat Browning

BABY SHARK’S JUGGLERS AT THE BORDER by Robert Fate, fourth in the series, is now in bookstores.

This time we get into Otis’s story, when his estranged wife, Dixie, is murdered. Despite gunfire and body count, an underlying theme in the Baby Shark books is love and loss. Dixie is a major character in JUGGLERS, even though we only know her through others. I can’t say more without giving away the plot, but this book has the best last line since “Nobody’s perfect,” Joe E. Brown’s famous parting shot in the movie “Some Like It Hot.”

In a letter to his “buds from the old days in Oklahoma,” Robert Fate (Bealmear) talks about his career, and the realities of publishing and promotion.

I have had some questions asked about the crime series that I write, how did I get the writing thing started? How hard was it to get published? How does it all work? ––that sort of stuff. So, here are some answers to some of the questions about what happened after I turned 70 and wrote a novel. Hit delete when you get bored.

I chose to use my middle name as a pen name, since (admit it) most can’t spell my last name and were never sure how to pronounce it. So, Robert Fate writes the books.

What were the odds that if I wrote a book I would ever get it published? Here is what Colin Cotterill, a writer I admire, had to say about getting published: “Go into a bookshop, any bookshop, and count the number of writers you've heard of. Subtract this from the estimated number of books in the store. Then multiply that number by 100,000, because that's the number of people out there who are trying to get published.

Granted, there's a large percentage that can't write to save their lives, but there are many thousands of great writers who can't get their work in front of a publisher.

So, not getting published isn't such a big deal. Write for yourself. Write for your friends. Put stuff on the Internet. But don't shoot yourself if you can't get published.”

BABY SHARK by Robert Fate
Book one in the Baby Shark series was published in September 2006. It was an Anthony Award finalist at Bouchercon 2007, and was optioned by the producer Brad Wyman in the spring of 2008 to become a motion picture. A screenplay adapted from the book is scheduled to be in production by mid-2010.

Book one took eighteen months to write. It got over sixty rejections before a small publishing house in Colorado picked it up. That publisher is Capital Crime Press. The way that happened was I met the senior editor at a social event in L.A., we hit if off, and he agreed to read the manuscript. He liked it. We struck a deal.

Some who rejected the book told me to give up writing, since I wasn’t going anywhere. It may have been good advice––the jury is still out.

My publisher told me recently that book one would go into a second edition by next spring. To give you some perspective. The largest number of books I have ever sold at a single bookstore signing is 84. I did that once. At a number of signings over the years, I’ve sold 50 to 60 books. However, it is also not uncommon for me to sell only 5 or 6 at a signing. I followed the author Michael Connelly at a bookstore where I was delighted to have sold 20 books.

A couple of hours before I got there, Michael signed 150. He signed at two other stores that day and sold an equal number of books at those venues, as well. The thriller writer Lee Child told me he sold a book every six minutes somewhere in the world. So, these are numbers to shoot for, but a lot of books have to get written and a lot of readers have to like reading you before that can happen. That is one reason it would have made more sense to start this effort at a younger age––ah, hindsight.

Baby Shark’s BEAUMONT BLUES --
Book two in the series was published May 2007. It was an Anthony Award finalist at Bouchercon 2008, and was given a Starred Review in Library Journal.

Here’s the scoop on the Anthony Award – it is given out yearly at Bouchercon, the largest fan-based mystery convention in the U.S. – several thousand mystery readers and a hundred or so mystery writers (some big names, too) attend these happy events. It is scary how seriously these readers take their mysteries. They can make or break a crime writer.

The convention moves from city to city, i.e., Indianapolis, Baltimore, Madison, Chicago, etc. Hundreds of titles are nominated, five are chosen as finalists in each of the different categories. Because I was totally a new guy, it was a stunner to even be considered, and an honor to be a finalist.

Here is what a starred review means – librarians and bookstore managers and owners are buried in book reviews, hundreds a month come at them––nonstop, month after month, so stars are a way for the reviewers to help the buyers choose the reviews to read.

The four big reviewers are Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal. They have reputations, cannot be bought, and are careful when they award stars because they know they influence purchases. This doesn’t mean other reviews are chopped liver––all reviews are important, but these four are the big kahunas. So, a starred review from Library Journal for book two was huge. Just to prove the point, Baby Shark’s library sales jumped after the review was released.

Here is that review –

Library Journal - Starred Review
“P.I. Kristin Van Dijk charges through her second entry (after Baby Shark) in this tremendously satisfying glimpse into the underside of 1950s Dallas/Ft. Worth. She and mentor-partner Otis Millett have been hired to find kidnapped teen oil-heiress Sherry Beasley, who needs to be kept safe until her upcoming 18th birthday. They retrieve her once, along with lots of cash, but free-spirit Sherry escapes almost immediately.

Unfortunately, crime boss Vahaska and his entourage of unsavory characters desperately want to find Sherry since she witnessed a double murder. Moving adeptly from pool halls into the ritziest hotel in Dallas, Otis and Kristin keep asking themselves whose money is in their safe and how it ended up in a remote farmhouse.

Mix in a few dead bodies and an attractive detective from the Dallas PD, and you've got one hot little crime story. Fate's witty dialog, colorful characters, and nonstop action make this pulp-style piece sparkle. Let's hope for more in this series. Highly recommended.”
—Teresa L. Jacobsen, Solano Co. Library, CA

It took less than a year to write Beaumont Blues (It got written while I was waiting for something to happen with book one) and by the time I was finished with it, book one was appearing on many top ten lists, real reviews were appearing on Amazon that hadn’t been written by my friends and relatives, and my publisher was happy with me.

A writer’s first book can often be a fluke, so the second book is important in establishing a readership. I was fortunate––it passed the test.

Now readers of the series were waiting for book three. It was tiny, tiny, tiny, but I had a readership. The names Baby Shark and Robert Fate were starting to be recognized among the fans of crime fiction. I had been writing novels for about four years at this point, and had been published for two years.

Book three in the series took a year to write, was published in May 2008, and received a Starred Review from Kirkus (a tough reviewer) – here’s how that went: The publisher phoned me from Colorado and said that Kirkus had reviewed High Plains. I was surprised the reviewer knew my books. I said I didn’t want to hear it, because Kirkus is often so hard on authors, especially new guys.

My publisher said, No, wait. It’s a starred review. Sure, I said, and since he is not above pulling a writer’s tail, I remained unconvinced. But he finally got me to listen and it was close to walking on air. A good Kirkus review is major news, especially for a nobody writer with a small readership.

A review from Kirkus with a star next to it is golden. It was after Kirkus that publishers in Japan and France got in touch concerning foreign sales possibilities. Nothing yet, but maybe, one of these days…

KIRKUS – Starred Review
“Baby Shark's in a sea of troubles involving bootleggers, racketeers, crooked politicians, a wounded partner, a cooling romance and hordes of hit men out to do her in.

Kristin Van Dijk and Otis Millett, partners in a Fort Worth private investigation agency, don't much like the gig because neither of them much likes their client Travis Horner. But when big Otis indicates that he has a reason for taking it on, Kristin, aka Baby Shark-a renowned pool hustler from a young age-stifles her protests.

Otis's reason, she soon learns, is gorgeous Savannah Smike, who might not be all there mentally but is fully present from the neck down. She hasn't exactly been kidnapped, Horner tells Otis while handing him a bag of ransom money, but the bad guys are keeping her in her underwear. It turns out, of course, that Horner is a lying scalawag and that Otis and Baby Shark have been set up. After Otis goes down with bullets in his chest, Baby Shark's outnumbered by a whole mess of murderers.

Not that there's ever any real doubt that this smart, tough, endlessly cool platinum blonde will be able to cope. Love her or hate her, everyone knows Baby Shark is lethal. A lively addition to a highly diverting series.”

The first two books in the series had garnered reviews from two of the four big reviewers.
So far so good.

And then Baby Shark got a boost up from an unexpected quarter. A well-known, award-winning, mid-level writer with a big time NY publisher surprised me by writing a letter of recommendation for book three to the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

She and her husband had read my books, and were fans. That author was Julia Spencer-Fleming. The complete letter is at if you’re crazy to see it all. Here’s a taste of it:

“High Plains Redemption is a hugely entertaining pulp-style masterpiece for today's reader. With bootlegging, billiards, Buicks and babes, this unique series is a blue-ribbon trip down memory lane. Fate is a unique storyteller. Who else would have penned a young, blonde, female protagonist in post-WWII Texas? Fate's style is modern, spare, propulsive, almost a screenplay. I loved the tough, oh-so-human heroine. My husband loved the twangy Badlands sensibility.”

A couple of other writers weighed in, so now the series was getting praise from other authors, my contemporaries –– well, maybe they aren’t as ancient as I am, but from a new direction anyway ––check your hat size, my wife wisely cautioned me.

And the truth was, I was still an invisible writer with a small (but growing) readership. “Who?” They say at Barnes & Noble. “We can order that for you.” Ah, to just be on the shelves––is that too much to ask?

Actually, they do show up now and again––a fellow in New Zealand who had read the series said the library in his town had put stars on the covers to signify the staff recommended them. Holy smokes! New Zealand!

Book four in the series was published in October 2009. It took a year to write, and has gotten early reviews from the two remaining ‘big four’ reviewers:

Publishers Weekly - Starred Review
“At the start of Fate's masterful fourth 1950s PI novel (after 2008's Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption)¸ Kristin Van Dijk, who's been tied up in a farmhouse by two silver thieves she was tracking, manages to free herself and take out a killer, later identified as a sociopathic felon, who a little earlier showed up and gunned down the two thieves, unaware of her presence. Meanwhile, word reaches Kristin's partner, Otis Millett, that his ex-wife, Dixie Logan, a former stripper known as the Dallas Firecracker, has been murdered.

Dixie's last job was at a bank in Mesquite, Texas that had been held up a few weeks before and her body was found with that of a man who may have been one of the robbers. Kristin, a hard-as-nails heroine who's completely credible, and Otis dedicate themselves to solving Dixie's murder and sorting out whether she colluded in the bank theft. The pages will speed by for readers who enjoy gritty crime tales with plenty of flying bullets.”

Booklist – Starred Review
“With her pool-hustling career gathering dust like the parched Texas border towns where she was raised, Baby Shark, aka Kristin Van Dijk, is now a full-time private eye. The year is 1958, and the case is personal. The estranged, ex-stripper wife of Baby Shark's partner, Otis Millett, has been murdered. But her’s will not be the only bullet-riddled corpse to dot these pages. The violence seems to be centered on a series of successful big money bank robberies and a lunatic mastermind with little interest in splitting the take.

Cutting a deal with Fort Worth police detective Carl Lynch, Baby Shark and Otis talk their way into participating in the investigation—as bait. But Baby Shark Van Dijk is bait that bites back, while Otis covers her play with guns blazing. Fate fills his novels with verisimilitude; we smell the unfiltered smokes while jukeboxes play old songs that somehow feel brand new.

With book four in this gritty series (following Baby Shark’s High Plains Redemption, 2008), Fate again jacks pulp fiction up a notch or three beyond the old Black Mask formulas. Hard-boiled just doesn’t get much better than Baby Shark spinning another .38-caliber tale. — Elliott Swanson”

So now I’m writing book five, a stand-alone (not in the Baby Shark series). It’s a contemporary noir, 3rd person with a male protagonist. I call it Kill The Gigolo. It will be published in the fall of 2010. I will be 75 (won’t we all) and wondering why I didn’t start this particular adventure much earlier. Well, anyway.

In the fall of 2011, book six (five in the BShark series) will be published unless my readership has gone from tiny to miniscule and my publisher no longer likes me. We’ll see.

So far, from year to year, the readership for the series has grown. Maybe, when the movie Baby Shark comes out, that will encourage sales even more.

Special Note: The first 3 of Robert Fate’s books are available on Kindle. And speaking of Kindle -- Amazon has announced that in November it will offer free software so that Kindle books can be downloaded as pdf files and read on PCs. One disadvantage is that you have to sit at your PC to read a book, but I’ve read several books recently as downloads. I’m surprised by how easy it is. – Pat Browning


jenny milchman said...

Many thanks, Robert, for sharing your whole story. As a writer who's been repped for years by terrific agents who have gotten equally terrific editors interested in my work (their editorial boards, not so much) I found it tremendously reassuring to read about the many ways a person can break in, and also how important that face to face connection can be. (Although hopefully not necessary since publishers just don't like it when I show up at their doors...kidding.) Anyway, great post, and interesting blog, which I will visit again.

My best,

Helen Ginger said...

I like Fate's Baby Shark series and have read (consumed) them all. This was a great post. It's fun to learn more about the author.

Straight From Hel

Jean Henry Mead said...

Great article, Pat. Thanks for the introduction to Fate's Baby
Shark books. I've got to read them.

Peg Brantley said...

Pat, wonderful post. These are among the books on my Wanna Read list.

Robert, thank you for being willing to play with us for a while. Keeping track of hat sizes and remaining aware of the holes in our socks are important things, even for those of us who haven't accomplished the things you have.

Anonymous said...

Jenny, Helen, Jean, Peg:

Bob's Oklahoma upbringing comes through in his down-to-earth approach to his writing career. What I find most amazing about him is that at age 74, he's looking ahead to books in 2010 and 2011, and still working on that backlist.

Why he's not on the best-seller list is beyond me, but he's one heck of a writer. And a heck of a nice guy to boot. (-:

Pat Browning

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks for sharing your inspiring story, Robert. And thanks for sending me High Plains Redemption. Loved it!

Peg Brantley said...

I find it darned inspiring that at 74 he's cruising, not on a ship, but in his life. His photo is intense and involved. I love it.

My husband turns 71 this month, and I couldn't be happier that he's doing the things he enjoys.

Like Robert, I wish I would've began my journey down this writing path a long time ago. But there's not a person on this earth that could get away with telling me it's too late.

Rob Walker said...

Hey Robert, thanks for posting with my good pal Pat; she is a go getter like yourself. You and I met briefly at B-Con, right there outside the hotel we were both staying at and you were kind enough to listen to all my moaning, bitching, and complaining about having to walk the distance to the host hotel, but at the time I did not know I had blood clots preparing to kill me. I just recall standing before a giant of a man and wondering what kind of genetics was behind you.
Enjoyed your post and have enjoyed watching your success story.

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks for posting this, Pat. I've heard of Robert, of course, but wasn't aware of his background. Baby Shark is on my TBR list, but like so many other things I haven't gotten to it yet. I agree with everything he says about getting out there and promoting if you want to be read.

Anonymous said...

I only wish every beginning writer could read Robert Fate's letter. New writers begin with stars (and/or dollar signs)in their eyes. Robert tells it like it is. To make a success -- depending on how you define success -- takes much more than good writing.

Robert's account of how he got his publisher just slays me. It seems almost accidental. But he was in the right place at the right time, and with the right attitude.

Pat Browning

Pat Browning

Robert Fate said...

Hey, you guys - Jenny, Helen, Jean, Peg, LJ, Rob, & Chester - Thank you for taking the time, making the effort to post a comment. I was flattered that Pat asked if she could post the letter that I'd written to some pals in Oklahoma - chance plays a big part in our lives, we all know that, but having friends who shout out for us narrows the luck - thank you Pat and thank you all for your kind words. My warmest best wishes and best of luck to you all - stay in touch, please, at
Bob Fate