It’s getting so that you can barely push the stacked newspapers that line every room out of the way without hitting yet another article or interview with me.
I was just alerted that I’m in Examiner.com, and the Huffington Post. Two different topics – the former discussing my thoughts on the industry and self-publishing, and the latter on co-authoring with Clive Cussler.
This is getting silly now. I mean, really. I blush. Although that could be my blood pressure or cholesterol acting up. But that’s not the point. Don’t be haters.
Just a quick note as I head out the door to a meeting (code for happy hour).
A friend of mine just sent me a feature in The Times (UK) wherein that venerable paper discusses whose shirts I wear and what I think of the price of tea.
NEWS: An in-depth interview with yours truly on my process, how much tequila I can drink, and other pressing questions.
It’s actually an interesting take. I didn’t realize Barbara Cartland churned out books nearly as fast as I have. Learn something new every day.
For the record, I also never said that traditional publishers were elitist swine (certainly they’re no worse than me, which isn’t saying a lot). What I said was that I decided to go the indie route because I didn’t have the patience to wait years to see my books in print, and that it was part of the reality of traditional publishing.
A good piece. You can see it here:
A friend sent me a link today that highlights one of the recurring themes in my Assassin series, set in Mexico against a brutal backdrop of cartel violence: that the largest and most influential cartel in Mexico was receiving U.S. government support – a cartel responsible for butchering tens of thousands of people in Mexico alone. The article is a must read. It can be found here.
Business Insider reveals that an investigation by El Universal has established that the U.S. Government was supporting the largest cartel in Mexico, enabling it to traffic narcotics into the U.S. and receive weapons via the “Fast and Furious” program the DEA had in place. Weapons that were then used against other cartel members, innocent bystanders, and Mexican police.
NEWS: Amazon is featuring me on their Facebook page! Please check it out and like the page. Gracias!
UPDATE: I’ve received quite a few emails recently asking about my process. This blog from last year sums it up, for those who are interested.
If that sounds like something out of a fiction novel, it’s because it is. It is exactly the scenario I lay out in loving detail in King of Swords and its sequels, where the American government is in league with the cartels, providing weapons and money laundering while protecting their shipments into the U.S.
I could not make this up. Or rather, I did. Or thought I did. Although I suspected there was much truth to my speculations.
I’ve long believed that the only way the most wanted man in the world could roam around Mexico without being arrested was to have come to an arrangement with the Mexican government. I’ve also long believed that the cartels couldn’t function at the scale they do without the active support of the U.S. government – and it was probably just happenstance that I named the Sinaloa cartel as the one that was getting the support. I put those “fictional” accounts into my Assassin series, as well as in The Delphi Chronicle, where I lay out in some detail the “fictional” history of CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking from Honduras to Arkansas while everyone’s favorite former aw shucks President was governor.
Remember that these novels were written over two years ago.
I told a journalist recently, who asked where I came up with all my conspiracy plots, that my challenge wasn’t to come up with story ideas. It was to tame down reality so that readers would find the stories plausible. I said that in a joking tone. But I wasn’t really joking. Most folks suffer from normalization bias, wherein they ignore anything troubling about their situation, in favor of pretending that everything’s normal – fine and good. My novels upset many for that reason. Nobody wants reality intruding into their comfortable artificial construct bolstered by a compliant media that’s little more than a PR arm for the government these days.
When I heard about Fast and Furious (google it for the official spin), I instantly knew in my gut what was happening. So I incorporated it into my stories. Because my scenario was the only one that made sense to me, given what I know about the cartels, which is a lot.
Go read the Business Insider article. And then, if you haven’t read King of Swords and its sequels, do so. It’s frigging frightening how exact I got it. As in, literally, nailed it note for note.
As long as there is evil in the world trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist, I’ll have more than ample fodder for my novels. I expect to have a long career. More’s the pity.
Needless to say, I haven’t given up drinking yet.
Oh well. Probably all just a fluke. Move along. Nothing to see here.
I’ve been promising to unveil my big news for what seems like forever (November’s big news became December’s big news, and, well, here we are), and it’s finally time.
This week, oh nobody, just the Wall Street Journal, broke the story on page one.
NEWS: A new blog on how to be a prolific writer, at All That’s Written. Worth taking a look at if you’re an author.
The article itself is humbling in and of itself, but the news is also big: I’m co-authoring a novel with none other than the legendary Clive Cussler, appropriately monikered the “Grand Master of Adventure.” It will be the next installment in the bestselling Fargo series, and I’m excited by the opportunity to work with a master of the genre.
My name will be on the cover, along with his. I’m arguing to make it almost all me, in raised, neon red lettering, but it remains to be seen how persuasive I am. As always, please, those at home, no wagering.
Why is this news significant, other than because it will be published by a Big 5 publisher? Because an indie author has been selected by a household name to collaborate on a novel. As you might imagine, someone like Cussler can have whoever he likes – he has authors begging for the opportunity.
But for him to have teamed up with lil ol me…well, you get the point. It’s a watershed moment for indies, because there has long been this sentiment that the reason authors are indies is because they can’t cut the quality at the trad pub level, and so have to release their material themselves. This handily rebuts that belief.
The truth is that there are plenty of terrible indie releases. And there are plenty of great ones. Just as there are plenty of good and bad in any of the arts. But with authors like Hugh Howey, Colleen Hoover, and H.M. Ward scorching the charts, indies have clearly arrived, and the market’s embraced them - or at least, some of them.
I went the indie route because I’m impatient. I didn’t feel like waiting years to find an agent that would “get” my work, and then another year for a publisher to decide whether it fit in one of the slots they had for that season. Not to mention another year for it to actually reach readers. That just didn’t seem worth it to me. For others, it did, and I have no issue with their choice. I just didn’t see it as a productive use of my time.
When Amazon broke big with 70% royalties, I understood the game had changed. Now I could release books written the way I wanted to write them, on a schedule that worked for me, and I could keep most of the money, assuming I made any. After hearing about authors like Hocking and Locke breaking the bank and selling tons in this new paradigm, I decided to jump in. Now, 25 books in 30 months later, I feel like my decision was vindicated, not the least because I’m writing with one of the most successful authors in the world and having a ball in the process. If you’d told me years ago that I’d be writing with the author of Sahara and Raise The Titanic I would have laughed you out of the room. Now, not so much.
What a long, strange trip it’s been. 30 months of basically non-stop work on a crippling schedule of my own devising. Has it been worth it? Absolutely. No question. Will I keep it up? Not a chance. You can only run an engine in the red for so long, and it starts to come apart. 2014 will involve fewer Russell Blake releases and more attention to each, with forays into romance and NA as RE Blake (following my own counsel to brand different genre offerings differently so Russell Blake fans don’t mistakenly pick up an RE Blake “Lust on the Range” tome, or RE Blake readers don’t buy an Assassin or JET book and go, “Where’s the sex, and why is everyone getting killed?”) By branding each genre’s offering in an unmistakably distinct way with a different name, I hope to avoid that, and build a readership in other genres based on the merits of my stories. Only time will tell whether that’s deluded or brilliant.
The WSJ article is a must read. It’s a good capsule summary of some of the high points of my career, such as it is. I wish it had mentioned that I take considerable pride in the plot and prose, and not just the rate of release, but hey, everyone’s a critic. The only thing I dislike about it is that my privacy is now going to be harder to maintain, but I can always get plastic surgery or wear a fake nose or move to Ecuador or something. A sex change isn’t out of the question, either. Small price, I suppose.
For those who are new to my work, I’d suggest taking a look at JET, which is my most popular series. Pure escapist action adventure with a female protag battling for survival. Think Bourne crossed with Kill Bill seasoned with a little Bond, and you’re not far off.
David Vinjamuri is the talented author of Operator, one of my top reads of last year – and you have to know that I’m picky, especially when reading a genre I write in. I was struck by how well-edited and generally thought out that book was, and as I learned more about David’s journey, I thought his story would make an interesting blog, especially considering how much I harp on quality and consistency. David writes a column for Forbes.com, in addition to having a fascinating background in the intelligence field, and just released his sequel to Operator, titled Binder. He was kind enough to take out a few hours of his time to put up with me pestering him. The below represents the results of that interrogative.
Russell Blake: David, I enjoyed your first novel, Operator, a great deal. It was one of the better written indie novels of 2012. As I began stalking you, I discovered that you write for Forbes.com – what’s it like to write fiction while working for a pub like Forbes?
David Vinjamuri: I enjoy the combination. On my Forbes column I write about brands and increasingly about publishing. It’s completely grounded in reality and gives me a chance to make structured arguments. Writing thrillers is more about telling stories, which is the other thing I love.
RB: How did you get hooked up with Forbes?
DV: I traditionally published a marketing book called Accidental Branding in 2008. It got good exposure and I was invited to write articles for BrandWeek and Advertising Age as a result. Then my editor from AdAge moved to Forbes and invited me to become a contributor.
RB: So why sully yourself with writing action/adventure novels when you have a real career?
DV: It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was twelve. My first real job was working as an intelligence analyst at the State Department. I had an offer to join the CIA a couple years later but decided to go to grad school instead. I went to The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy and planned to return to government when I graduated but when I considered the size of my student loans I ended up in the private sector. I worked for Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, DoubleClick and others in marketing. But I always wanted to write thrillers. So when the opportunity to write a business book came along I was really thinking it was a sideways way to get into writing fiction.
RB: Interesting. I think your intel background shows in your writing – certainly in Operator. Let’s just say it had a certain veracity to it that’s often lacking in the genre. Now let’s move on to process. How do you come up with your ideas? And when you have one, how do you proceed from there?
DV: The four thrillers I’ve worked on (one finished but unpublished, Operator, Binder and the one I’m currently working on) all started with an idea for the opening scene. When I lived in DC, a girl I’d dated from my hometown killed herself with a gun. At her funeral a guy who’d been stalking her overseas showed up and claimed he was her fiancé. That became the jumping off point for Operator. For Binder, I imagined a scene from the sixties – a bunch of protestors pulled off a bus at night by men in hoods and beaten. One of the protestors goes missing but it turns out she was never on the bus. Then I think about what will create the central tension in the book and wind a story around that.
RB: Interesting, and a lot like how ideas like JET started out, with just the name and a rough concept of a killer chase sequence.
DV: Like minds…
RB: Let’s talk about craft. Are there specific things you focus on with each book? Do they change?
DV: Absolutely. With Operator, I was very focused on language and the kinesthetic issues. I have been a thriller reader since I was eight years old, but I also read a lot of literary novels. I was frustrated by some of the writing in mainstream thrillers. That’s part of what made me want to write thrillers. My other pet peeve with thrillers was the mechanics of the action sequences. I was a wrestler before college and I studied judo, aikido and tang soo do. I was also a weapons analyst at State. I really wanted to write something that wouldn’t make experts cringe.
With Binder, I had different issues. I wrote Operator as an origins story. Michael Herne, the main character ended up being a little aloof, probably more than I wanted. I also thought that my female characters were one-dimensional. So in Binder I was focused on making Herne more relatable and introducing some stronger women. I still think Nichols is too generic but she will return and I’ll make her more human. The second big issue with Binder was pacing. Operator was really trans-genre. It started as a mystery but ended as a thriller. I wanted to do the same thing with Binder, but I knew that some people got bogged down at the beginning of Operator. So I looked at serial novels all the way back to Dickens to understand how serials pull you from chapter to chapter. That also helped with plot. Twists and surprises are a great way to maintain tension.
For the next book I’m working more on character and on dialogue. Most of my writing before Operator was expository, so dialogue does not come naturally to me. I want to improve at writing characters that can be identified by their speech patterns alone.
RB: If you have this sense of forward movement, does that mean you’re dissatisfied with what you’ve already written?
DV: I always pick up an older book or article and say “how could I write that sentence?” I hope that I am developing as a writer. I have a very clear idea of the kind of writer I’d like to be. I’m not interested in rambling soliloquies or extended artful descriptions. I want to evoke images and feelings with the fewest number of words possible. I also want every single book I write to cause half my readers to miss a night of sleep. But I’m not there yet. I have more to learn. I like writing as an indie because I can bring an audience along with me as I grow.
RB: Do you outline or are you a pantser?
DV: I’m somewhere between the two. Before I start a book I’ve thought about it for a couple of months at least. I think of that inciting incident, the central tension, the characters and the layers of the story. But I don’t try to lay out the plot in detail. Since I’m writing in first person, I want to be authentically surprised by the direction that events turn. I spend a lot of time as I’m writing trying to figure out the next twist and plot turn. I am very detail-oriented.
RB: How many drafts do you do? And how do you know when it’s “done?”
DV: I did seven drafts of Operator but only three of Binder before it went to the editor. It goes to the editor when I can’t make it significantly better on my own.
RB: Let’s discuss editors, beta readers, proofreaders, etc. Do you use them, and if so, how? What’s your approach?
DV: After I’ve advanced the story as far as I can, a couple of friends with specific talents read the book. One holds the opposite political views I do and he helps me scrub bias from the books because they’re not meant to be political. Another reads just for relationships – she’s not a thriller reader and tells me honestly when something Michael or a female character does makes her cringe. Once I’ve done that it goes to a developmental editor. I get back a few pages of thoughts on pace, plot, characterization, dialogue, etc as well as margin notes, and I redraft. Then it goes to my Army contact (a Master Sergeant at Fort Bragg who runs the armory and is an instructor at the Special Warfare school) for technical review. Then the manuscript goes in for line editing and finally proofreading and formatting. The process is expensive and time-consuming but I am very sensitive about the quality critique of Indie authors. I obsess over my work and I like having total control. That doesn’t mean that mistakes don’t slip through, but I try my best.
RB: Operator was one of the cleanest self-pubbed books I’ve read, so your best is better than many. What’s your preferred writing environment like? Silent, or music? If so, what kind?
DV: It’s generally silent because I get into a zone and I forget to put on music. But I have a playlist which includes everything from Adele and One Republic to Johnny Cash, The Stones, Pitbull, blues and classical. I have eclectic tastes.
RB: How many hours a day do you write when you’re writing fiction? And how do you approach a novel? Immersion? Organized? Chaotic?
DV: Unfortunately I’m juggling a bunch of different things. I teach master’s degree students at NYU, train corporate marketers, write the column for Forbes, speak professionally and do some consulting. There’s very little predictable about my schedule. Some weeks I can spend two or three full days writing, other weeks I’m caught up with other stuff. Because I have two small children I try to do my work during business hours or late at night if I must, but I write better during the day.
RB: How many hours, total, would you guess you have into a first draft, and then any subsequent drafts?
DV: At least a thousand, possibly more. I’m afraid to count.
RB: What are you working on now?
DV: The next story in the Michael Herne saga. I’m determined to get it out in 2014.
RB: What counsel would you offer to other authors desirous of going down the indie path?
DV: The writing has to be its own reward. Every writer wants readers but even successful writers may have a period of years when there are very few of them. If you can’t find happiness in the process of writing, the road will be too steep and uncertain to succeed. That’s true for both traditional and indie writers. You also can’t assume that writing a good book will ensure that it sells. That’s marketing and it’s a completely different job. Unfortunately traditional publishers market very few titles actively, so this also applies to both kinds of writers. What’s different for indies is that you don’t have the benefit of a disinterested agent or acquisitions editor telling you “this is a good book” so you have to have the stubborn self-confidence of an entrepreneur to succeed.
RB: Any last words of advice?
DV: Things are changing fast. The most important thing for indie authors right now is to focus on craft and quality control. The more feedback you can get in the process – from editors to independent reviewers – the better chance you have to improve as a writer. I want to get better with every single book.
Last year I popped off with a bunch of predictions for 2013. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I wasn’t far off base. Because of overwhelming popular demand (and a lack of anything else to blog about) I’ve decided to do another prediction list. This time next year we can take a look and see how well I did.
Without further ado, here are my crystal ball WAGs:
1) The field will be more crowded than ever, and the big indie money will be in NA/Romance for the second year running. This one’s easy. If you look at last year’s hits, they were almost all in the NA/Romance genre. H.M. Ward sold 3 million books in 2013 after coming out of nowhere. Colleen Hoover had the #1 indie title on Amazon for sales. Bella Andre is so hot she wears asbestos underwear (when she wears anything at all). Melissa Foster is climbing the charts and doing incredibly well (she’ll be next year’s big hit, I believe, because she works the same insane rate I do). I can’t even keep up with all the authors making serious bank in that genre, and I expect it to continue.
2) Trad publishers will continue to fight price wars in an attempt to gut the indie biz, or at least compete for the growing readership that won’t pay more than $5 for an ebook. As they reprice big name backlists, expect to see it get ugly out there on pricing.
3) Select will be all but dead for anyone selling reasonable volume. While there will be exceptions, the Countdown feature appears to be a bomb, free’s been gutted, so there’s very little reason to be exclusive anymore and a lot of reasons not to be. It’s possible that the Zon will revamp Select and make it relevant again, but for now, it isn’t. I expect to see an exodus of smart indies from the program, leaving only the dim and the desperate in it. Sorry, Amazon, I love you like a Victoria’s Secret model, but something’s come between us on Select, so you either need to step up, or go home with that shit.
4) Perma-free will decline in impact. People will increasingly value their time more than the value of a free book, and will prefer to pay for something quality rather than sort through five hundred crap titles in the hopes of finding a nugget. That was back when it was all shiny and new. Now, and moving forward? Not so much. Perma-free will still work, but as with so many of the past’s effective strategies, the kryptonite’s power will fade fast as 2014 progresses.
5) Major pubs that are kingmakers and gatekeepers for indies will lose much of their efficacy over the next year. Which sucks, as they’re about the only thing that works anymore.
6) Quality will matter more than ever as the market matures and readers demand more professional work. The days of slapping your unedited screed up on Amazon with a cover you did while learning the basics of GIMP are over. Which couldn’t make me happier.
7) It will become way harder to sell books for indie authors. You can just leave this one pinned for the foreseeable future. Deal with it.
8) B&N won’t go out of business in 2014. But I call dibs on an 18 month demise. I just think it will take longer for them to fall over dead than many think.
9) 2014 will be the year Google starts making big noise in ebooks. And Apple will continue to take market share. The future will shape up, at least in the U.S., to be a battle between Amazon, Google and Apple. Kobo will be nipping at everyone’s heels, and Sony might as well turn off the lights.
10) Trad pub should do better deals with promising indies that have a good following, but probably won’t. And we’ll see more and more midlist trad pub authors move into the indie pond, making it even tougher for newbies to get a break. You won’t see many, or any, ‘paper only’ deals in 2014. And it will no longer be enough to shift 100K copies at .99 to get anyone’s attention. Those days are gone, never to return.
11) Every quarter will bring us breathless excitement about the possibly new big thing that will make the future brighter, but for the most part those will be false idols and, after a lot of hype, they’ll fall flat. Everyone will be trying to squeeze cash out of the indie pie, but few will truly add any value, so expect a lot of new ideas to crater after liftoff.
12) Trad publishers will continue to make plenty of money, and the smart ones will be streamlining their operations in preparation for a brutal 24-48 months of shakeup. Those that adapt will do well. Those that don’t will be roadkill.
In all of these scenarios the reader will be the winner. That’s the good news. The bad news is that competition will increase from all sides, so it will be increasingly hard for indies to make a decent living. Especially new ones. Having said that, there will be hundreds of indie authors that make six figures or more, and likely many more that make low-to-mid five figures, which will make it the best time to be an author in the history of the business. Except for 2013. And 2012. And 2011… If you see a trend there, it’s mostly a function of Amazon’s modifying their algos so it’s harder for indies to get visibility. 2012 marked an unprecedented time in the business, when careers were made, and any rube could put a title free through Select and then sell hundreds or thousands of copies on the bounce. That’s over. O-V-E-R. Sorry, but it is. It was great while it lasted, though, so can’t complain.
Here’s to an exciting and prosperous 2014, everyone. My December big news (formerly the news known as November’s) has pushed into January, but my hunch is by the middle of the month, all hell will break loose. So get some popcorn and prepare for the fun to begin. As always, no wagering.
That’s right, JET VI – Justice, the eagerly anticipated sequel in the bestselling JET series is now out – a day and a half earlier than planned!
I know, I know, you’re thinking about how the little ones’ eyes will light up when another graphically violent thriller romp hits their kindles. Better than a puppy, and way more gun battles! And now, just in time for last minute Xmas shopping!!! And if you couldn’t give a damn about the children, isn’t it about time you rewarded yourself for all the BS you’ve put up with this year? Go on. Buy it. You know it will make you richer and thinner, and add at least five years to your life.
I have to say I’m pleased with how this installment turned out. I was shooting for a more compressed timeline than my usual JET novels, and squeezed the entire thing into 36 hours of non-stop action. The result worked nicely, I think, and makes the story move along like a runaway train, which was the effect I was after.
Special thanks to my editing team for superhuman effort to get it done over the holidays: Stef, Dorothy, David, Pauline, and my beta readers. Without your tireless and unflagging support I’d be broke, living in a discarded refrigerator carton under an overpass, drinking rubbing alcohol and cough syrup. Or worse yet, be halfway through my Mr. Mittens trilogy.
The world is thankful for your efforts, as am I.
Hope everyone has a happy holiday. Stay away from clowns, no matter what the occasion, and buy loads of my crap for everyone you know. The planet will be a better place for it – all my novels are now green, as well as being perfect for the celiacs, lactose intolerant, peanut allergic, or whatever else might ail you among us. Making them the perfect thoughtful gift for everyone from Grandma to your newborn.
Here’s the cover reveal. Have a safe one.
The legendary Lawrence Block (who heretofore shall be referred to as simply, “The Legendary”) agreed to further sully his reputation by doing an interview with yours truly, having forgotten the furor, riots and lawsuits stemming from his last outing here. This glimpse into a literary icon’s process is fascinating, all the more so because, after more years as an author than I’ve been alive, he’s releasing his first self-published offering (hopefully not his last). Without further ado, let’s get to The Legendary and his latest triumph, The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons.
NEWS: BLACK Is The New Black just went live! Get it while it’s hot!
Russell Blake: Well, here you are again. You may not remember, but you were the subject of my very first Author Spotlight, just about two years ago.
Lawrence Block: How could I forget? That’s when my career took off. I figure I owe it all to you.
RB: And you’ve returned to express your gratitude. Very decent of you.
LB: To express my gratitude, and to let the Spotlight shine on The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. It’s the eleventh book about Bernie Rhodenbarr, burglar and bookseller, and the first in almost a decade. The on-sale date is December 25th—
RB: —which should be easy to remember.
LB: You’d think so, but why rely too heavily on memory? The canny reader can play it safe and pre-order the book now from Amazon.
RB: I’d ask you to tell us something about the book, but you’ve already done so. Still, a couple of points cry out for further attention. I understand you wrote the book on a cruise ship.
LB: Holland America’s MS Veendam, on a five-week cruise this summer. Round trip from Boston, sailing the North Atlantic and visiting ports in Newfoundland, Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, and, well, you get the idea. I’ve always tended to go away to work, sometimes to writers’ colonies, sometimes to a hotel room, and I like ocean travel, so I gave it a try.
RB: As an alternative to the retirement you’ve been nattering about in recent years.
LB: Well, I did honestly think I might be done writing novels. And the efforts I’d made seemed to confirm my suspicions, dying five or ten thousand words in. I didn’t intend to take up shuffleboard, I knew I’d be busy tending to my backlist and writing the occasional short story, but I feared I might not be up to the heavy lifting that a novel demands.
But I really wanted to do at least one more book, you know? So I decided to give myself optimal conditions—a cruise, all by myself (plus 1200 strangers, but let’s not count them). Food when I wanted it, ease, comfort. And internet access in the ship library—but not in my cabin, to spare me that particular diversion during my working hours.
RB: And you just sat there and wrote?
LB: I woke up every morning around five and went straight to work. A steward brought my breakfast around seven, and I paused long enough to eat it, then went back to work. I kept going until I made my daily quota, which was a minimum of 2000 words. I rarely did much more than that—until the last two days, when everything was coming together and it was easier to keep going than to stop.
RB: Did you ever leave the ship?
LB: If we were still in port when my day’s work was done, I generally went and had a look around. But the work always had priority, and I kept at it seven days a week. I may have been afraid that if I stopped I’d never get started again.
And, by God, it worked. I boarded the ship July 13, started writing the following morning, finished up August 15, and disembarked in Boston two days later.
RB: And you’re publishing it Christmas Day. Self-publishing it, to be specific, which is a murky pond you’ve been sticking a toe in for a couple of years now.
LB: I’ve been republishing backlist titles ever since Kindle made that possible. And two years ago I published an original, a collection of Matthew Scudder stories called The Night and the Music, which has done very well for me as an eBook and a HandsomeTradePaperback.
RB: That’s all one word? HandsomeTradePaperback?
LB: I think it ought to be, don’t you? But I’m taking a big step with The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. It’s one that any of several traditional publishers would have been eager to publish. I could have pocketed a substantial advance, and instead I chose to be out of pocket and do it all myself.
RB: A fair number of folks might question your sanity.
LB: Well, it’s always been questionable at best. I sat down with my agent, who had read the book and loved it. He told me the advance he thought he could get for it, and asked me if I thought I could sell enough $9.99 eBooks and $14.99 HandsomeTradePaperbacks to match that number.
RB: And you said—
LB: I said, “How the hell do I know?” Because even an educated guess is still a guess. But I didn’t think it was unrealistic. And what he especially appreciated was that if I published the book myself it would be mine forever. I wouldn’t have some guys in suits hanging on to the eRights like grim death, long after they’ve stopped selling printed books.
RB: Of course if you self-publish, he doesn’t get a commission.
LB: Yes, he does. He’s selling the book overseas, he’s making the audiobook deal—and he gets his commission on the book’s earnings irrespective of who publishes it. That’s been true ever since The Night and the Music, and it works for both of us.
But it was still a hard decision. Publishing it myself meant giving up store sales, for the most part. It meant a smaller sale to libraries. It meant some media wouldn’t review it. It meant there wouldn’t be a hardcover trade edition.
RB: You’re doing a deluxe hardcover limited edition, however (cover reveal below – second one).
LB: I am, and it should be quite beautiful, signed and numbered and limited to 1000 copies. It’s selling nicely, and we’ll wind up making money with it, in addition to supplying collectors with a really handsome volume.
Will I do as well overall publishing the book myself? Things look very good at this point, but the question’s still unanswerable. But, you know, that’s almost beside the point. Another consideration led to my decision.
RB: I bet you’re about to tell us what it was.
LB: How well you know me. It’s pretty simple: the desire to publish the book myself was largely responsible for my getting the book written in the first place. Once it was finished, and once it had turned out to be a better book than I’d dared to hope, how could I turn my back on the very impulse that had propelled me through it?
Look, if this venture falls short financially, I’ll regret the dollars I’ve lost. But I won’t lose sleep over them, and the regret won’t burrow very deep or last very long. But if I didn’t give it a shot, I’d regret that failure of nerve for the rest of my life.
I’ve come to believe that, when I face that kind of fork in the road, I’ll regret whatever choice I make. So it’s a question of which regret will be easier to live with. Once I looked at it that way, it was clear that self-publication was really the only way to go.
RB: And you’re not regretting it yet?
LB: Not for a second. I’ve been a professional writer for something like 55 years, and in all that time I’ve never been as busy as I am right now. And I’ve never had anywhere near as much fun.
And I don’t have to wait a year and a half for the damn thing to be out there! In my first Author Spotlight interview, I was whining about the fact that I’d finished Hit Me in November and it wouldn’t be coming out for fifteen months. I’m of an age whereat a prudent man doesn’t buy green bananas. You think I want to wait fifteen months for a book.
RB: So you evidently like it here on the dark side. Plan to dig in and stay awhile? Or is a return to retirement the next item on your agenda?
LB: I don’t seem to be very good at retirement. I’ve got a couple of books coming next year from a pair of very classy publishers—Subterranean Press will bring out Defender of the Innocent: The Casebook of Martin Ehrengraf, and Borderline, a pseudonymous work from 1962, is being resuscitated by Hard Case Crime. (A good thing, too, as it was barely suscitated in the first place.)
There’s a writing book of mine, Write For Your Life, that’s long out of print, although it’s been eVailable for a while now. But I found 25 copies of the original edition in a storage bin and put them on eBay last week, one to a customer, and they were all gone three hours after my newsletter went out. God knows how many I could have sold. So that suggests I really ought to do a print-on-demand edition, and I’ll get on that sometime after the first of the year.
RB: A HandsomeTradePaperback, I suppose?
LB: You bet. So there are all these things to bring out, including a new collection of reviews and essays and such, and that should be enough to keep me out of mischief. But I can’t get away from the fact that I’d like to write another novel, and I even have the sense of what it might be. It’s early days, it’ll be months before I’m ready to sit down and get to it, but sometime in the spring or summer I think I’ll find a way to do it.
RB: And will you publish it yourself?
LB: It does look that way, doesn’t it?
Limited Edition Hardcover
It’s here, just in time for the holidays! The third installment in the Black series, featuring our reluctant hero Artemus Black, PI of questionable skills and sobriety, immersed in the world of modeling, is now live. Inspired as much by Zoolander as by Vogue, BLACK Is The New Black is a fun romp that pokes fun at many of the treasured icons of the fashion world while Black stumbles through it in search of clues.
As with all the BLACK books, this one is vicious, funny, and fast-paced, with Black forced out of his comfortable routine in Los Angeles and compelled to travel to Mexico, Las Vegas, and Northern California in order to stop disaster from striking on the set of photo shoots he’s assigned with protecting.
The books are fast reads, and offer a tip of the hat and a wink at classics by authors like Dashiel Hammett and Elmore Leonard.
I’m happy with the way this one turned out, and have turned to plotting BLACK 4, which should be out in February, assuming my editors are still answering the phone after I loaded them up with BLACK 3 and JET VI, all before the holidays.
On other fronts, I’m only a week or two away from being able to break my exciting November news, which is now my exciting December news. There’s a method to my madness, which everyone will understand shortly, but in the mean time, in a day or two I’ll be running an Author Spotlight with living legend Lawrence Block, who is releasing his first self-published novel, The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons, on Christmas day. I’ve read it and it’s masterfully written, humorous, erudite, brilliantly plotted, and generally a must read for anyone who enjoys a good mystery or incredible character development. Santa could do worse than to deliver you a copy of the novel, of course, only after he’s delivered BLACK Is The New Black to your stocking, even if you haven’t been particularly good this year, which I’m not here to judge.
Here’s the cover again, for those keeping score at home.
Prices have never been lower. Even big name new releases are being deeply discounted for the holidays, creating an environment for many authors where it’s a choice between the new Grisham, or their novel – not a tough one for readers, really.
Every day there are more blogs and articles decrying the sorry state of affairs that was unleashed when the DOJ mandated an end to price fixing. The good news being that it’s never been a better time to be a reader, as content, and I mean quality content, is being blown out like bargain basement discards.
That’s not so good for publishers, whose margins will be hit, and is especially bad news for indie authors, for whom pricing was the preferred weapon in their limited arsenal.
And I think it’s awesome.
All of it. Why? Because any mook can sell on price. It’s the first thing beginning sales people learn: selling on price is the easiest thing in the world, presuming there’s any market at all for the product, and the discount’s meaningful.
When I first started eying self-publishing, it was 2010, and selling based on price was the rage. Amanda Hocking and John Locke were seeing 200, 300, 400K units shifted in a relatively short time, largely based on their .99 price.
But a funny thing happened by the time I decided to jump in mid-2011. Already, selling books at .99 wasn’t working as it had the prior year. There was an increasing perception that .99 equated to junk. And if you put your work in that pricing tier, you were basically declaring it to be sub-par crap to an increasingly skeptical audience. There were exceptions to this rule, but frankly, readers caught on pretty quick, and as the novelty of being able to buy a book for .99 wore off, so did the tactic as an effective marketing practice. By the end of 2011, .99 was deader than Elvis.
Then along came free. Amazon’s Select program enabled authors to give away their books for free for 5 days, in exchange for exclusivity. The floodgates of downloads opened as shoppers raced to get theirs. Imagine…being able to get as many books as you wanted, at NO COST!
Which also started waning within six months, as Amazon began neutering the algorithms and free runs no longer had the post-sales bounce they had in December, 2011. I should know. I used the Select freebies as well as anyone ever did – I was running a new promo about every 10 days or so, and with my growing backlist, I could do it without repeating myself and saturating a title’s market. I went from literally dismal sales to stellar in one year. Woohoo! I was a contendah!
And then a funny thing happened. The novelty of free started fading, and it yielded lower and lower results as readers figured out they’d downloaded enough books to last ten lifetimes – most of which they would never get around to reading. I know. I’ve got probably 150 titles on my kindle, aside from the maybe 40 I still have to read from authors who sent me work I committed to looking at – and which I’m about a year behind on, now, because I suck. Point being I’m not an outlier – everyone I talk to has the same kindle cloggage.
And so free stopped being very viable. Enter perma-free, wherein you put the first book in a series free, hoping to gain visibility, give the reader a taste of your work, and lure them into purchasing the rest of the series. Which worked brilliantly. Especially when coupled with an ad in Bookbub.
Only that’s so 2013. Just as 2012 was the year of free, and 2011 was the year of .99, and 2010 was the year of, “holy crap, books don’t cost $15 any more!”
Now we’re seeing the perma-free strategy being adopted by most prolific authors, thousands of titles to choose from, and so…it’s losing effectiveness.
Because as the market matures, readers are becoming more selective. They’ve grown to understand that their most valuable commodity isn’t a few bucks, or a few MB of memory space – it’s their time.
And when you finally realize that time’s precious, and that books aren’t fungible – some are much better than others – you don’t waste your time with anything that doesn’t resonate with you, and doesn’t have the traits you demand out of a book. For me, that means a distinctive voice, quality editing, a compelling story, and an overall professional package.
I’ve long resisted the notion that I should reduce prices in an attempt to gain visibility (aside from the occasional sale). At <$5 for my backlist, prices are already reasonable. I’ve heard arguments that I could attract more readers if I lowered my backlist to $3.99, or $2.99, or .99, but guess what? Been there, done that, and I don’t. Apparently those interested in reading my work don’t really care whether it’s .99 or $4.99, and frankly, they seem much more willing to read it sooner if they spend a few more bucks on it. For a reason: their time is far more valuable than a measly buck here or there. As is mine.
Don’t get me wrong. When I see a James Lee Burke drop in price, I buy it. I just picked up a James Rollins title (I’ve never read him, but have heard good things) for $3. I resisted doing the same with Grisham because, frankly, last couple of books weren’t my cuppa, even though the man can write. So I’m as price-sensitive as the next. But if I’m looking for something to read, I also don’t mind paying $10 for something good. It’s just not that big a deal. Just as I’m willing to pay $15 for a great burger if that’s what I’ve been craving. There’s an exchange of value, and I’m okay with it. My needs are met, and the money we’re talking ain’t going to change lives. Nobody’s going to go without heat this winter or starve because of an extra $5 spent on an ebook, at least not in my neck of the woods.
I believe that trying to gain visibility using price, except in a very narrow, time-limited promotional sense, is a fool’s errand moving into 2014. That’s over. Indies no longer have an advantage. Not when you can get Grisham for $2.99 if you’re nimble.
So now indies must compete, as I’ve been counseling everyone who will listen for the last two years, on quality. We must find our audience the old fashioned way: by writing compelling books that resonate with readers and are noteworthy enough so they want to tell their friends.
We’re in a maturing market, and with a mature market, comes hardship as well as opportunity. Every year, new authors hit big. Every year names we’ve never heard of are on the bestseller’s lists. Lately, I’ve been noticing that those who are doing well are those who work extremely hard, and put out a high volume of quality content. Not content that literature professors will be comparing to Golding 30 years from now, but rather, content that’s connecting with their target readers, and that’s good enough to make the grade. Authors like Bella Andre, Holly Ward, Elle Casey, Melissa Foster are hitting the lists, not due to some freak lottery win, but rather because they put in long hours writing and marketing, and put out books at very regular intervals – some, literally monthly. That’s heartening, because it tells me that work and talent can converge and improve the odds of success in a business that’s harder than hell to make it in.
Where do we go from here? Or maybe, more importantly, how should newbie authors, or authors who aren’t quite there yet, proceed? My counsel is the same as it was 30 months ago, when I began publishing: read quality authors, work your ass off, publish with regularity, develop your own voice and style that nobody can replicate, make yourself essential to your readership, and put quality ahead of all other concerns when creating your product – your books.
I believe that quality and hard work will be increasingly important differentiators as the market matures. Which is good for everyone, because in a meritocracy where the reader is the ultimate arbiter, authors must raise the bar and deliver real value, and so, ideally, the best will prosper. Those who can continually up their game will have a much better shot at a career than those hoping for a miraculous hit.
If you look at my strategy, now with 25 novels out by year end, it’s never been dependent upon scoring a home run. If it happens, cool. But my approach has always been one of base hits or doubles. No home runs required. And I eat my own cooking. I publish regularly, ensure the work’s as good as I can make it, invest in covers, pro editing, proofing and formatting, and hold my readership in high regard. They’re smart, discerning, and deserve a top flight outing every time.
I think that’s going to be the new paradigm. Gimmicks won’t carry the day anymore. It will come down to the writing, even in genre fiction.
Which is as it should be.