Thursday, June 19, 2008

Featured Author -- DOUG M. CUMMINGS

Ex-cop turned award-winning cop-reporter turned crime novelist Doug M. Cummings is our Guest Author this month. You might say his life experiences have been building a foundation for his writing career. He started out, while still in college, in law enforcement. Afterward, he worked as a security consultant, and then spent twenty-five years as a television and radio reporter, during which he won multiple awards for his stories. Now he’s a full-time novelist who writes about a character who’s a television investigative reporter.

Booklist hailed his first novel Deader by the Lake as “Gasp-producing. A street smart and altogether satisfying debut.” His second in the series, Every Secret Crime, is now available for order and already getting great reviews.

In addition to writing and promoting his books, he shares his experience and expertise in his blog. If you write mystery or crime, his blog is worth bookmarking. Check out his post on how and why he uses violence.

You can leave comments or ask questions for Doug here on Straight From Hel. So, let’s get started. Welcome Doug!

DOUG: First of all, thanks for your kind invitation to appear on Straight from Hel. This blog tour is my first and I’m excited to be here.

HELEN: Congratulations on the publication of Every Secret Crime, the second in your Reno McCarthy series. Author Jeremiah Healy calls it, “An absolutely
enthralling crime novel.” Can you tell us about the book and about ways your background in law enforcement and news reporting helped or hindered your writing?

DOUG: Every Secret Crime is the second in a series about Chicago TV reporter Reno McCarthy and his not-really-a-sidekick, private detective and bounty hunter Sunny DeAngelis. In Crime, someone has killed the teenage son of a couple of celebrity lawyers. The case becomes a media circus because of who they are and the fact they live in a fashionable suburb of Chicago. When the local cops arrest the victim’s best friend, Reno sees the signs of a cover-up. He begins looking into the corrupt local power structure and discovers a link to an unsolved murder from many years in the past. As the murders mount, he needs Sunny’s help but . . . is she backing him up or working against him?

It was a fun book to write because I’ve had many of Reno’s experiences while covering stories. People often think cops and reporters are kindred spirits, sort of like what Ben Hecht illustrated in that wonderful movie The Front Page. The fact is, most cops dislike reporters and most reporters don’t trust cops. Having worked on both sides of the crime scene tape, I understand the problems the police face far better than most journalists. Reno does, too. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. The nose to nose conflict between reporters and cops in Every Secret Crime is very real, as are the threats made by the police. It happens every day. I’ve been there: many times cops threatened to arrest me or my colleagues just for showing up at a crime or disaster and asking questions. They didn’t want the aggravation. Once, a suburban officer at a murder scene (in my own neighborhood) pointed his gun at me and shouted at me to “Get outta here!” He didn’t know I’d been a cop and probably wouldn’t have cared. He’d just discovered a dead guy on the front lawn. I was a nosy reporter who was going to tell everybody about it. That was all that mattered. A TV photographer I worked with was arrested, handcuffed and put into a patrol car for shooting video of police at the scene of a possible drowning. When I politely pointed out that the officers had just made their city responsible for his $70,000 camera that was sitting on the ground unattended, it was like I’d spoken magic words. Presto! They released him.

My connections help. I have great cop buddies I can call if I need to have current information. But there are things about police procedure I know instinctively that some people might not find, even with the best research. There are emotions that people, who haven’t been in the business, or around it, can only imagine. The weird feeling in the stomach when you realize the lump of charred stuff in a car is/was actually the driver and that he burned up in the crash. Or when you see your first headless corpse. The joy of spending time around a robbery/murder victim who lay in a field in 100 degree weather for a couple of days before he was found. What it’s like to go through said corpse’s pockets. Or to gather his clothes and put them on the roof of the courthouse to air out so the smell doesn’t get into the building’s ventilation system. The incredible high of breaking a story before your competition even knows about it. Reno gets to experience that feeling in Every Secret Crime, in fact.

HELEN: I can see why your characters feel real in their emotions and actions. Your first book, Deader by the Lake, was published by iUniverse and the next book, Every Secret Crime, by Five Star. That’s a scenario a lot of writers would love to have play out in their careers. How did it happen for you?

DOUG: I’m blessed to have supportive friends who offered some great advice at the right time.

I was planning to self-publish Every Secret Crime the way I had Deader by the Lake. When Deader came out, bookstores had been skeptical but many agreed to hold signings and carry it nonetheless. By the time I was ready with Crime, the landscape had changed. Booksellers refused to order it. Many critics refused to review it. My goal is to have my books as talked about and as widely available as possible, including on bookstore shelves. I needed a traditional publisher.

At Bouchercon in ’06, friends like Barbara D'Amato, Julie Hyzy, Mike Black and Dave
Case encouraged me to approach Five Star. I told them I had a good book and that, if
they bought it, I’d promote the hell out of it. They kept up their part of the deal. So have I.

They kept up their part of the deal. So have I.

HELEN: Speaking of promoting your work, you not only have a Marketing and Events Coordinator, you have a well-known publicist. What made you decide to hire both and are you glad you did?

DOUG: I’m a hard-nosed marketer and want to do everything possible to create a buzz. At the bottom line, publishing is a business and one of the toughest and most competitive at that. My first book, Deader by the Lake came out in 2004. It did well, especially given that it was self-published. It got a starred review in Booklist, which also did a profile on me, and wonderful critical support (even outside my family!). But that was four years ago. Readers forget you. Every Secret Crime needed a boost and I figured hiring professionals to get the word out was the way to go.

At the same time, I’m a realist. With all of our economic woes, people may not want to spend twenty-five bucks on my book if that means not buying their favorite big-time author’s bestseller this year. I can’t control that. All I can do is try to make sure mystery and thriller readers know I’m out there with a book titled Every Secret Crime and that it sounds like a terrific story. If my publicists and events coordinator make that happen, hiring them was worth it.

HELEN: Even with a Marketing Coordinator and a publicist, a writer has to do a lot of his own marketing and promotion. Despite their help and your own experience as a reporter, what has surprised you, if it has, about the amount of time and effort you’ve had to put into promoting your books?

DOUG: There are endless opportunities out there for marketing and promotion. The Internet is amazing in that regard. I would never have thought I would have a movie-like trailer advertising my work. Or that I’d be writing a blog. Or appearing as a guest on someone else’s blog. Or spending four hours or more a day investigating web-sites and other places I might be able to generate sales. Book tours to brick and mortar stores and libraries are a wonderful ego boost (when people show up) and occasionally generate sales. Writers’ conferences are terrific for networking but, at least for me, haven’t translated into selling many books. I seldom even buy books at conferences anymore, preferring to do business either with my hometown, independent bookstore or online. Frankly, I think online is where it’s at. And that’s why I’m so excited about promoting my book here. I can tell you a bit about myself, answer your questions, suggest where you can go to buy it ( and with about four clicks of a mouse you can arrange to have it the next day.

There are also all the little tricks I’ve learned about marketing that keep me busy. Like having cool, eye catching bookmarks. They look like yellow crime scene tape but on heavier stock. I hand them out everywhere. Servers in restaurants. Bartenders. My barber (hey, he’s still a friend even though I don’t have much work for him anymore!), my pharmacist. I include my bookmark when I pay bills and pass them out anywhere I buy anything. I gave my bookmark to a guy at the camera store and sold eighteen books in the next half hour. An impromptu book signing! The most fun was when I gave the bookmark to the flight attendant on a trip to San Francisco. He asked if I had a copy of the book with me and, when I handed one over, he carried it with him up and down the aisle for the next half hour. He didn’t push it…just told people I was aboard when they asked him about it. An even dozen people asked me for bookmarks and two showed up at my next signing.

HELEN: What are you working on next and do you have plans for standalones or
a second series?

DOUG: My next book will continue Reno McCarthy’s saga and I have an idea for another in the series after that. I’d also like to try writing a police procedural, probably in third person.

HELEN: Thank you Doug! This was fun.

If you don’t find Doug M. Cummings’ books in your local bookstore, ask for them. Or you can order the Reno McCarthy series online. You can also watch his YouTube video for Every Secret Crime.

Thanks to Straight From Hel’s June featured author, Doug M. Cummings – law enforcement officer, anchor, news reporter, talk-show host and now a much-praised crime novelist. Feel free to leave a comment or question! And after you do that, drop by his blog and leave a comment there. If you do, you'll be entered into a drawing for one of these great T-shirts.

And remember to look for Every Secret Crime in your local bookstore.


  1. Doug - thanks for the great info. Did you look for a traditional publisher before you self-published? Did you hire an editor for your first book, or join a critique group, or some other method to determine it was ready for publication?

    What formal training, if any, did you have for beginning a writing career?

    Thanks, again!

  2. Hey Doug. Kenna's questions made me think of one that I should have asked in the interview. What kind of training have you had in marketing? Did you learn through your reporting days or are you learning now as you promote your books?

  3. Hi Kenna,
    Thanks for stopping by! You are in the running for a t-shirt by the way, so I hope you'll check in on my blog tomorrow and see if you are the lucky winner.
    To answer your questions, yes I did look for a traditional publisher for Deader by the Lake before I self-published. In fact,I hired and fired two agents who really didn't do much for me.
    I was attracted to self-publishing for a couple of reasons. One is the independence it affords and the other is the control...of everything from the artwork on the cover to the entire contents.
    I belonged to several critique groups and even took two- monthlong summer writing workshops at the University of Iowa back in the early eighties. But immediately prior to submitting for publication, I handed the book over to an editor and we spent several months working on it. She also edited Every Secret Crime.
    I suppose my formal training was all the writing classes I took in college and even an awful one-semester post-grad course from a terrible fiend of an instructor at the University of Chicago. She was a maniac who browbeat some students to tears. She called mystery and suspense "those awful drug store books" once too often so I waited til the last short story was due and killed her . . .on paper, of course. Only writing class I ever failed to pass. I remember she kept touting the work of a Chicago Police detective who she thought was just terrific. I met him many years later and he told me he hated every minute of class...and that the woman in the story he wrote was based on her. She never noticed!

  4. Helen...
    Thanks again for having me today.

    I really have had no formal marketing training. I produced and anchored a talk show when I first came to Chicago and when I interviewed a bunch of authors, I also got to look at their marketing packages. I got some ideas there and some others just seemed to come to the really cool bookmarks that are a piece of crime scene tape on one side and my book info on the other.
    I also know when to hand it over to the professionals which is why I hired a publicist for both books.

  5. Hey Doug & Helen - Great interview. What Doug was too modest to mention was that "Deader" did very well in bookstores and 100 people (me included) attended his launch signing at B&N. He sold a lot of books. His success was also the booksellers success so why they wouldn't want to support him again is a mystery. (Pun intended.) Same with the reviewers. They loved the first book - what made them think the second wouldn't be just as good?

    Ah, the publishing business. As a mystery writer myself, I am sympathetic with the obstacles Doug faced and the decisions he had to make.

    Every Secret Crime will continue Doug's winning ways, I'm sure.

  6. Doug! A hundred people at your launch signing? That's fabulous. You either had a ton of fans or a big family. I'm betting loyal fans.

    And thanks for telling us about the process leading up to the publication (editing, classes, etc.). I thought that was very interesting. And thanks to Kenna for thinking to ask that.

  7. Thanks, Doug! It's great to hear a success story. Publishing seems to be a tough business, particularly on the author.

    I wish you the best of luck into the future - though I don't think you'll need it!!

  8. have won a t-shirt. Please email me your preferred size (M,L,XL, 2XL)and address and I'll ship it out next week!

  9. appears YOU have also won an Every Secret Crime t-shirt!
    Please email me your preferred size (L,XL, 2XL) and address and I will ship it out next week!
    And thanks again for the visit!

  10. Nice interview, you two! Doug, are there more stops on this blog book tour? Give us a link to the schedule.


  11. Velda Brotherton6/21/2008 1:37 PM

    What an interesting interview. I was happy to see how Doug moved from self published to Five Star. We hear so many no-nos about beginning by self publishing, it's good to see a successful author start that way. Thanks for the tips as well.

  12. Thank you for the great information. Your side likes to me much, makes fun here reading.


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