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 www.audible.com. 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?