Things I Would Have Done Differently

By John Gilstrap

Before I begin, allow me a moment of Shameless Self Promotion: The Copper Bracelet—the serial novel created by International Thriller Writers (and to which I contributed a chapter) is the #1 Bestseller at Hooray!

The Killzone posts have been extraordinary this week, I think. Had I not been up to my eyeballs in day-job meetings and crises, I would have been commenting like crazy. Alas, I was unable to do so. On the positive side, I happen to have my very own posting day, and I thought I’d continue the theme (sort of) by discussing lessons I’ve learned from the perspective of what I would change about my own journey if granted the opportunity.

I’ve been way more fortunate than most in my writing career. My first published novel, Nathan’s Run, was anointed a Big Book by the publishing industry. The book was reviewed everywhere—mostly positively (starred reviews in PW, Kirkus and Library Journal)—and the sale itself generated the kind of buzz that brought a swarm of movie producers to fight over the film rights. It was very heady stuff at the time, yet because it was my first book, I had no idea how unique my experience was.

It was a little like showing up to the World Series as a spectator and leaving as MVP. Nothing—nothing—prepares you for that overnight success. I don’t regret a moment of it, but looking back on that experience versus where I am now in the pantheon of writers, there are a few things I would do differently if I could climb into my Way-Back machine and fine-tune the past.

In no particular order . . .

I would insist on a multi-book deal. I was in the driver’s seat in those days, and my agent at the time pressed hard for a one-book deal (hardcover only) with HarperCollins, and we auctioned off the paperback rights separately to Warner Books. I agreed, of course, because I didn’t know any better, but in retrospect, that was a mistake. It’s a strategy that is designed to squeeze the most money out of a publisher, but at the expense of any sense of loyalty. Everybody worked hard for my book to make money, but only I had a vested interest in my career.

Worse than that, I effectively had no editorial feedback as I wrote At All Costs as a spec project. It was like writing a first novel all over again, albeit with a pocketful of affirmation. Ultimately, the book sold to Warner Books and did reasonably well, but that was another one-book deal. After a dispute arose by no fault of my own regarding the movie rights for that book (and I beg those few who know the details not to share them in this forum), Warner chose not to publish me anymore.

So there I was, writing my third book on spec, without editorial help. Folks, that’s an exhausting way to advance a career. I pushed back against my agent, insisting on a multibook deal. (By way of full disclosure, I was orphaned midway through Even Steven and had two editors during Scott Free, so the multibook scenario is not without its own set of problems and risks.) When all was said and done, that agent and I parted company on good terms, in favor of my current agent, our own occasional contributor Anne Hawkins.

I would not trust the marketing and publicity departments. After the rock-star treatment I enjoyed during Nathan’s Run’s publishing cycle, I foolishly assumed that such was the rule for all books. I would write the novels, and the publisher would promote them. Wow, was that not true. By the time I caught on, way too many horses had already fled the barn.

I would network more and make myself shamelessly visible. Hey, I’m a party animal. I like people. I knew nothing about the writers conference circuit until after Nathan’s Run had been on the shelves for months. Thank you Harlan Coben to cluing me in. Long-timer Internet surfers will likely remember the heyday of AOL, back when you paid by the hour for access. During those days, AOL hosted the Writer’s Club, where hundreds of writers of all levels of success would gather and chat. (That’s where I first met John Ramsey Miller, in fact.) During one of those chats, Harlan told me about this thing called Bouchercon, and of all the other themed conferences. Who knew?

I hit the circuit pretty hard for At All Costs, but not so much for the succeeding two. By the time Six Minutes to Freedom came out—my nonfiction book—I figured that with the real star of the book still alive and on the speaker’s circuit, no one would be all that interested in hearing from the author. That was a mistake. I allowed myself to disappear from my fan base, and to lose touch with far too many friends. Never again.

As I write this blog entry, I realize that this is a topic that could ramble for thousands of words, so I’ll let it go here. What about you folks? Any hard-learned lessons that haven’t already been shared this week?


11 thoughts on “Things I Would Have Done Differently

  1. Great post.

    I’ve heard conflicting advice about multi-book deals. On the one hand you get the situation that you described, on the other you get a multi-book deal with an average advance that works out to not so much when you consider it’s for two books.

    Given my situation, it’s a problem that I wished I had.

    I liked the other parts of advice. Be visible – that’s absolutely the case. The only issue I have is where to be visible so that you reach the right audience.

    I love your books, and was hoping to meet up with you at Thrillerfest, but never found you. Hopefully this coming year.

  2. John, congrats on the success of the COPPER BRACELET. Revenues from the sale of publications like this help fund ITW and keep us from having to charge membership fees to our author members. Thanks for your creative contribution.

    To answer your question: What have I learned? For every writer who spends huge amounts of time touring and staying in the public eye, there’s another one that succeeds without ever leaving his house. Lots of great books never get published and lots of shitty ones do. Everyone I know, have ever known, or who I’ve passed on the highway is writing a book. Giving up is a guaranteed path to failure. Delete your favorite lines. Write for yourself first. Never write to make money. Very few writers make a living doing it. Networking is vital. Publishing is not fair. Read this blog often.

  3. IMO, NATHAN’S RUN deserved every bit of the attention it garnered–it was a great book.

    Thanks for sharing your lessons learned–hopefully it will help some of us avoid pitfalls along the path.

    Congrats on THE COPPER BRACELET!

  4. I wrote my first book thinking it would be a standalone, but my future agent agreed to take it–and me–on if I agreed to write 2 more synopses, for packaging as a series. I was thrilled to say yes, of course. By the time the first one was published I’d joined Sisters and Crime and MWA, and attended one conference, although I was also late to realize that a conference circuit exists. I’m not so sure about lessons learned, and I’m not even sure that the particular lessons I learned will apply in the future, because the industry is changing fairly rapidly, with uncertain implications for authors. I believe that a new publishing business model is slowly emerging, but we can’t see it clearly yet.

    I have to say that nothing that I’ve experienced with the first three books has really surprised me, but I’m sure there are some things I could do better, if I could go back in time.

  5. Oh, I just thought of one: I would have started writing much earlier in life. I wrote four YA detective novels under a pseudonym back in the 90’s, but other than that, didn’t focus on creative writing until after 2000. Big mistake.

  6. Congrats on Copper Bracelet, John!

    Oh, for my own personal way back machine…

    My first book was orphaned, and I had no idea at the time what the repercussions of that would be. I. also, was unaware of the conference circuit, or the way that marketing worked if you were not the big book (especially if the editor and champion of your book had left the building).

    I ended up leaving my first agent mainly because I felt that she, as the one with experience in the field, should have realized the ramifications of all this, and offered more guidance. I wasted much money and time on useless marketing efforts (never-and I mean never- send trinkets to booksellers).

    Three books in, I feel like I have a better grasp of things. It’s still largely a crap shoot, and Joe is right, above and beyond all else you have to just write the best book you can. But starting out with the right agent can, I think, make a tremendous difference. I jumped at the first person who liked the manuscript; in retrospect, probably a mistake.

    I like multi-book contracts, but only for 2-3 books. I don’t know if it behooves an author to get locked in for more than that. What if the second book breaks out, but you received a tiny advance for three more in that series? You’ll end up making money on the back end, but that can take years the way royalties work. And if a beloved editor leaves, or your status at the publishing house changes for some reason, you’re stuck in a contract and unable to make a change.

  7. Congrats on the Copper Bracelet, John!!

    Great post. You are right, this week had some good stuff. I was told by an agent’s assistant that for debut writers publishers are looking for a strong stand alone. She mentioned this because I revealed my novel is first in a series. The funny thing is that I originally had written it to be a stand alone, but when I heard pubs prefer a series then I added a couple pages and brainstormed for the next book. So what you are saying is very interesting. Also the fact I didn’t take into consideration would be that if you do sign for a multiple book deal you’ll have an editor.

    Thanks for sharing!

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