Friday, November 18, 2011

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover

They say you can't just a book by its cover. Which is bunk. Just ask Joel Brown. Last year, right about this time, the Boston Globe scribbler and Port novelist was in Carriagetown, trying to score some of that fancy, super-nutritious and undoubtedly horribly expensive food for his dog Buffy. All his Port connections had gone dry. That's when he spied Bertram & Oliver, a book store that had just opened a couple of months before. Brown had just self-published "Mirror Ball Man," a  mystery set in a little seaside community very much like Newburyport and had a couple of copies with him, and when you self-publish, you also self-promote and you develop a thick skin. You learn that cold-calling bookstores is no worse than, well, stopping strangers on the street and asking them what it's like living in a city that's being overrun by bloodthirsty zombies, activated by a mysterious cell phone signal, like in "Cell," a Stephen King book based in real-life Malden — a fun, goofy assignment for the Globe that is responsible, in a way, for Brown's being able to come to terms with his secret desire: Writing fiction. So he swallowed hard and took the plunge, pitching to B&O owner Joanne Wimberly. She cooly assessed the cover, a picture of the Plum Island Lighthouse with a disco mirror ball shining from inside, and bottom-lined it: "Right cover, right price. I'll take six."

Brown told the story during his return visit to Bertram & Oliver this week, this time to light a promotional  fire under "Mermaid Blues," the second title in his Libertyport mystery series featuring Baxter McLean, a washed-up one-hit wonder trying to jump-start his music career, and another book with a cover worth judging favorably — this one with full-frontage mermaid nudity, not unlike the real-life sculpture that caused such a fuss in Newburyport a few years ago, and one that comes with a story: Brown had finished the book when he finally got around to starting to think about the cover. He wanted a mermaid. Not a problem in the Internet age. Just type "mermaid" in Google image search and you'll come up with 90 million hits. Literally. Problem is, you pretty much have two equally fishy choices: Copyrighted (and undoubtedly expensive) Disney schmaltz and, um, the other kind, with worn-out, used-up former cheerleaders who should be ashamed of themselves. There's little middle ground. He did find something eventually. You had to use your imagination to see it, though: It was a photograph of a mud-caked mermaid statue in Goa, India. He found the image on Flickr, which led to a link to the photographer's blog, which included a couple of postings/rants about how he's tired of getting cheated out of royalties by Internet thieves, which led to an email address and, ultimately, permission to use the image. For free. Woo-hoo!

The first book, he told the audience,  was about the clash of cultures in Libertyport — townies and yuppies and weirdo artists. The new one is about history and public self image, how a scrappy rough-and-tumble town becomes a Hallmark card that ignores the messy and inconvenient reality. And the next one? Yes, he's  working on it, not really talking much about it. When will it be out? In another year ... maybe. If this one sells. Will Baxter be back? Yeah, prolly, but his shelf life probably won't be as long as, say, Jessica Fletcher, the smarty-pants sleuth from Cabot Cove. Old Bax, whether he knows it or not, is probably nearing the end of his run. Says Brown, he'll either get the record deal he's looking for or drink himself to death by the fifth book. If there is a fifth book. Which depends on ....

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: "Mermaid Blues" can be purchased at most local bookstores or through

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