Sunday, September 25, 2011
5 QUESTIONS FOR AUTHOR J. CARSON BLACK
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.