Sunday, September 25, 2011
1. After a solid career as relatively little known author you recreated yourself as J. Carson Black and went Indie. How did the name change come about and explain why it’s better sometimes to be an unknown author than to work on growing your past success.
Gary, I had seven books published by New York publishers. While it was wonderful to sell a book to a New York publisher, I was paid only $2500 for my first book. In fact, five of my books were in that range. The most I was ever paid by my publishers, Kensington and Dorchester, was $3500. That’s no way to make a living!
I worked hard to bring up my game, and wrote the first book in a crime fiction/thriller series called DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN. I approached my former editor, who had moved to a new house—New American Library. She loved the book and we signed a two-book deal. I’d already planned to change my name, and liked the name J. Carson Black, so that was what we went with. The secret here is this: by simply changing my name (and writing a better book), my two-book deal with NAL came to eighteen times the amount I made for my last sale to a publisher--a one-book deal with Dorchester.
Here’s why. Say Barnes & Noble orders 6 books for each store. Because of the way publishing has been structured, the publishers print more books than they can sell, so they expect to sell about half those books. Barnes & Noble sells 3 books. The following year, they order 3 books—half what they ordered last time. The publisher uses the orders to decide the print run, so now you’ve got only half the number of books you sold last year going into the stores. They’re not seen in as many places, and thus begins the downward spiral. There are authors who can buck the trend with the publisher’s help, but generally speaking, most authors’ sales go down. And now that author’s name and record are in the bookseller’s computer. No one wants to back a writer with dwindling sales, so the booksellers across the board will order fewer books by this writer. This is why authors are asked to change their names when they come up with something new and different.
When my agent went out with my new thriller, THE SHOP, I changed my name again. My agent took the book to the best editors and publishers on the highest level, and she was sure we’d get six figures for it. She must have submitted to 35 publishers—I’ve lost track—and no one picked it up. Early this year, having experienced the same downturn in our economy as the rest of the country, I was just hoping and praying to get a deal with Kensington again—even $2500 would help! They turned me down—a fortunate turn of events.
When we put the books up on amazon, I decided to stick with the pen name J. Carson Black for all my books. Some of my books say “J. CARSON BLACK Writing as Margaret Falk.”
2 .In the summer of 2010 you decided to put you backlisted work on Amazon as a Kindle book. Were there any fingernails left after you’d only sold three copies the first two months?
Pretty awful, isn’t it? My husband and publisher, Glenn McCreedy, got the rights back to all my books. He started putting them up on Amazon. To say I was skeptical is an understatement. I liked coming up with the covers, but after that I thought it was a fool’s errand. I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening with those books.
But Glenn is a patient man, and just kept putting up books. And I loved coming up with covers—the two of us work on this together, although he does the hard part in Photoshop.
3. Speaking of your husband, Glenn McCreedy, he runs Breakaway Media which, among other things, distributes your ebook. Do you two work well together?
Glenn and I understand each other. We both have a good eye for composition, and we study the market. We try to emulate the Big Six publishers by following what they’re doing—their latest offerings. Both of us decided to make the books look like big hardcovers to create a unified look---a brand people can recognize and be comfortable with. Since most of my books are in the mystery/crime fiction/thriller category, it’s not hard to present that unified front.
We like tossing around ideas. We try to think how best to present a book, and study other successful authors. We’re small and nimble enough to make decisions on the fly—to try different things---and if they don’t pan out, we go back to the tried and true. For a while we both thought we were geniuses, but I really do think amazon’s algorithms have more to do with our success than anything else. Write a good book, present it well, and keep it simple: a reader should know by looking at the cover what kind of book they’re buying.
I look at it this way: when the wave comes, you have to be paddling your surfboard in the right direction.
4. You’ve signed a three-book deal with Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer beginning with you book, “The Shop.” Was that a nerve-racking decision or was it a welcome sight?
I always wanted to get back in with the Big Six. When my agent said, “I’ve done all I can---there’s just no other place I can send the book,” I was deeply disappointed. I asked for her blessing to put THE SHOP up on Amazon, and she said, “Why not?” Three weeks later, the book took off. By the end of that month, everything had changed. I did not want to sell my books to a Big Six publisher. I began to remember the bad things about New York publishing—the diminishing returns, the smell of death surrounding an author whose second book doesn’t do as well as the first. The phone call that starts with, “You know how much I love your books, but…”
Still, I knew you can’t stay on top with any book forever. We have more books and I’m writing a fourth Laura Cardinal novel, but we knew there would be ebbs and flows. When I saw Thomas & Mercer buying up Konrath and Crouch, I thought: that’s something I’d really like to find out about. And then Barry Eisler came over. That was a major turning point for the industry. I emailed my agent and said, “Can we get with Thomas & Mercer?”
Think about it: Amazon is the elephant in the room. They have all that power, and they know how to market books. The whole distribution system the publishers had is coming apart at the seams, because Amazon has changed the way books are bought and sold. Amazon is a smart company. They know how many books by an author they sell, they know how to boost that up with their algorithms, and they’d devised the most powerful selling tool in the world: the also-boughts. When your book starts to appear in the also-boughts of other authors, you can be seen hundreds of thousands of times a day. They say that it takes the average person seven times of seeing a product before it even registers. Amazon provides a Hall of Mirrors for your books. At a certain point, if you’re lucky and your book is good, the algorithms take over and propel you up the best seller lists. Thomas & Mercer was the only publisher I wanted.
But at the same time, we wanted to keep the Laura Cardinal books and some of my other books.
5. Look into your crystal ball and tell us what the publishing world will look like in five years.
I’m not very good at that, but I’ll try. I think Amazon is going to dominate publishing for the next three to five years. They are out to bigfoot everybody else, and I’d rather be with them than against them.
This has been a wonderful time for authors, because so many good writers are finally getting a chance to sell directly to readers. I don’t know how long this will last, but it is a Golden Age of sorts. More and more midlist authors who found it impossible to build a career with the New York publishers are coming over to ebooks. And there are talented newcomers who couldn’t sell to New York, but really have the goods.
I don’t know how long this particular phase will last. It might be like the Gold Rush of the nineteenth century. The first adopters may be the ones who do the best. There will be changes—some big, some small---and it’s hard to tell where we’ll be five years from now. But I can’t help but think that Amazon will be running the show.
Monday, September 12, 2011
There's some validity to his comment. The perception of a cheap product is that's it's . . . well . . . cheap. Let's face it, if it sounds too good to be true, then it is—right? I mean if a stranger calls you at home and congratulates you for winning a free vacation you'd never entered to win, you hang up as quickly as possible—right? I do anyway. So it's understandable for readers to be suspicious.
Now it's hard to have a serious conversation about .99 cent e-books without bringing up John Locke. Just in the past year John decided to direct his focus on the publishing world and made no bones about the fact he wanted to be the most successful .99 cent author on the planet. Mission accomplished. It's easy to point fingers here, I mean if you live in a neighborhood of $250,000 homes and someone starts selling their investment houses on your street for $99,000—guess what? You now live in a $99,000 home.
But this isn't John's fault and he bears no responsibility for this situation. On the contrary, without John's success, hundreds of Indie authors would never get their books read without his rise to the top of the charts and subsequent media attention. It's not his fault we don't have his marketing skills. Remember, the guy was an extremely successful businessman before he ever laid eyes on the publishing world and set his goals.
So how do we break these preconceived notions? How do we convince readers to take a chance on an unproven commodity like a cheap e-book from an unknown author? Become a known author! That's right, you sell your books for .99 cents or $2.99 or $4.99 because you want to develop fans. There are hoards of readers out there just looking for new talent and when they find it, boy they'll latch on to you for life. You can't compete with James Patterson's name, but you can undercut his price to lure potential readers to your writing. And remember, the strongest marketing tool is word of mouth. People who do buy those inexpensive e-books will tell their friends about it and so on and so on.
Now here's the important part of this entire conversation: don't rush out there and throw garbage onto Amazon just because John Locke made millions selling these things and why can't you? If you're serious about developing a fan base, then write quality books, then write more quality books, then repeat. You may need to write 20 novels before you can make a nice little income from your sales, but it will be a result of your hard work and passion. And after all, isn't that why we began writing in the first place, because we had a passion to write? At least that's why I started and I think there's many of you out there who began the same way. Never lose sight of that fact.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
1- As an award-winning investigative journalist, you’ve seen the seedier side of the real world—what made you decide to write fiction? Was that always a desire for you?
When I was a little kid, my brother and I would make up and act out stories. Later, when I was in school, I remember being given an essay assignment: “What did you do on your summer vacation?” I started it the conventional way, but slowly turned it into a science-fiction fantasy in which I was kidnapped by a UFO. Fortunately, the teacher appreciated my creativity and gave me an “A.”
So yes, I’ve always loved to write—had to write—and I’ve wanted to write fiction since at least my teens. But I had no idea how to go about it. So instead, I pursued my interest in current events and politics and began a career writing about those topics. I wrote everything from investigative journalism to book and film reviews, essays, speeches, and opinion columns.
Still, my yearning to write fiction wouldn’t rest. Over the decades, I outlined a number of stories; but Life always somehow got in the way, and eventually I outgrew those stories before finishing them.
You know, Gary, it’s scary when you reach age 60 and there are still major “to do” items on your Bucket List. I felt that if I died without finishing and publishing a novel, my life would be a failure. So, after getting a brainstorm in November 2009, I decided to get on with it. Even though our financial circumstances were not ideal for setting aside time to write a novel, my dear wife understood and encouraged me.
I worked on HUNTER whenever I could, while continuing nonfiction contract work. It was by far the hardest writing assignment I’d ever tackled. But I vowed to myself that I would finish it by June 5, 2011—my 62nd birthday. Well, I completed the manuscript and printed out the final pages at 11 p.m. on June 4th—with one hour to spare. I can’t begin to describe to you how I felt as I put those final pages on the stack. I was a basket case for a week afterward.
2- While changing names or locations, of course, are there times when you’ve used pieces of real events in your fiction?
Absolutely. Certain well-known events over the past two decades play important roles in the personal history of the title character in HUNTER. This backstory is revealed about three-quarters of the way through the book: It’s part of the mystery about this man and what motivates him. Real-life events at the CIA also motivate the heroine, Annie Woods, who works there as a security investigator.
As for locations, the tale is centered in and around Washington, D.C. I live nearby and used to work downtown, so I’m familiar with many of the settings in the story. As for those places that I hadn’t or couldn’t visit in person, I found “Google Earth” to be invaluable—especially its “street view” feature. It allowed me to take “virtual” tours of those locales and add realistic descriptive details to the scenes.
3- In your novel, HUNTER, Dylan Hunter is not your typical protagonist. Tell me how you created him and how he’s different from other operatives?
You’re right, Gary—he’s not typical, and that was a deliberate choice. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to compete with great thriller writers like you, Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, or Lee Child by creating some clone. I knew that my hero had to be completely distinctive.
The idea for the Dylan Hunter character emerged from my background years ago as an investigative journalist writing “true crime” articles for Reader’s Digest. I was outraged by the leniency toward predators in our so-called “criminal justice system.” As I investigated and wrote articles exposing these practices, I befriended victims of thugs who had been freed by our “revolving-door” legal system. The faces of these crime victims haunted my dreams then, and ever since.
In a sense, I became a crusading journalistic avenger on their behalf. Dylan Hunter—an idealistic journalist at war with the corrupt legal system—is a cathartic fictional projection of my own fantasies of retribution.
As for how he is distinctive: First, Hunter is an intellectual tough guy. Yes, he’s hard as nails; but he’s also highly educated, witty, well-read, even philosophical. At core, Hunter is an idealist, a crusader for strict, absolute justice. He isn’t responding only to some immediate physical threat or narrow injustice, as most “lone-wolf” fictional heroes are. Instead, he takes on big, controversial issues and systemic injustices. And his enemies aren’t limited to the usual criminals and terrorists; they include some of the most politically powerful and intellectually influential people in society. Moreover, because he upholds absolutely merciless justice, Dylan Hunter also stands alone against much of the wider society, too.
Second, there’s this big mystery about his background and identity, as well as his motives. From the moment this guy appears in the story, it’s clear that there’s a lot about him that he’s hiding from everyone else. He’s living in lonely isolation, with only his pet cat for company. And he seems driven by goals that are not clear to the reader, or even to the woman who loves him. Who is Dylan Hunter? That question is a big part of the story’s suspense, as much as the dangers and perils he faces.
The result, I think, is a fast-paced, suspenseful vigilante thriller that also challenges the reader to rethink some of his core values and assumptions along the way. One reviewer described HUNTER as “a thinking man’s Death Wish.” Another described it as “Batman meets Jason Bourne.” I laughed when I read those reviews, but there’s a lot of truth in both analogies.
4- The response to “Hunter,” has been remarkable. Did you expect this kind of success? And what were your expectations?
Let me be completely frank with you, Gary: When I finished HUNTER, I had no idea whether it was any damned good at all. Honestly—not a clue. Sure, I’d written award-winning nonfiction for decades. But creating fresh characters, a serpentine plot, engaging dialogue, and imaginary settings from thin air, then weaving it all together into a compelling tale, involves skill sets entirely different from nonfiction writing.
So, when I stared at that stack of manuscript pages, I didn’t know whether I’d written something awful, great, or just mediocre. Only when my wife and then my “beta readers” came back with wildly enthusiastic responses did I dare begin to hope that I might have created something special.
The reader reviews at Amazon and Barnes & Noble have blown me away. As of this moment, there are 57 customer reviews on Amazon; 54 of them are “5 stars,” two are “4 stars”—all raves—and only one, from an anonymous reader, is negative. Based on those customer reviews, HUNTER is the #1 “Top Rated” novel in three Kindle categories: Thrillers, Romantic Suspense, and Spy Stories & Tales of Intrigue. It also is reader-ranked #2 among all Kindle “Mysteries and Thrillers,” and number #3 among all “Romance” novels.
I never expected that, not in a million years, and I’m grateful to my readers. They’ve made it possible for me to continue writing future Dylan Hunter adventures.
5- With the publishing world going digital, what do you see the industry looking like in 5 years?
Nobody can predict with certainty what publishing will look like in the future. But a few things seem clear.
The traditional publishing business model is circling the drain. That model focuses on publishers estimating future customer demand and delivering print books to retail outlets, which then return a large percentage of the unsold books back to publishers, or dump them at a loss onto remainder tables. This outmoded business model constitutes a colossal waste of capital and resources in the digital age. It’s a lousy deal for customers and for authors.
Customers increasingly prefer the convenience and lower cost of online book purchases, particularly ebooks. No print publisher or brick-and-mortar store, with their huge overheads, can possibly compete with the vast online inventory and almost-instant delivery available to somebody sitting in his easy chair or on a beach somewhere with a Kindle or Nook in his hands.
As retail outlets disappear and print press runs fall, ebooks constitute an ever-growing percentage of book sales; yet authors find that their publishers take the lion’s share of their ebook royalties. By self-publishing ebooks, though, we authors can cut out the middle men—publishers, bookstores, even agents—keeping most of our royalties and all of our rights. Amazon has pioneered this process, and I think the consequent decline of big publishers and chain bookstores is inevitable.
Still, I think print books do have a future, Gary, because many people still prefer them. But the production model likely will be “print on demand,” which many indie authors are adopting already. That option doesn’t require big publishing houses or bookstore outlets.
One thing for sure: More of us will become what I call “vigilante authors,” taking business matters into our own hands. We’ll assume full responsibility, not just as authors of books, but also for their publication and marketing. We’ll contract for the services we need, at costs far less than the royalty shares we now surrender to publishers, bookstores, and agents.
In short, I predict that five years from now, we’ll be enjoying the Golden Age of Authors. We’re already seeing its first glimmers right now.