Stay In The Fight

By John Gilstrap

A couple of weeks ago, Brother Bell posted Advice For the Demoralized Writer, and I confess it cut a bit close to the bone. I was the beneficiary of the crazy advances of the 1990s. The combined advances for my first two books (Nathan’s Run and At All Costs) weighed in at about $4 million, including the movies that were never made. For Books 3 & 4, the advances totaled about $150,000. None of them earned out.

I couldn’t give away Book #5. My career was declared dead, even though each of those books achieved critical acclaim and won some awards. Was it hard on the ego? Darn tootin’ it was. Mostly, it was embarrassing. My books and I were featured in People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Publisher’s Weekly, Larry King’s radio program and Liz Smith’s Hollywood column. Heady stuff for a safety engineer in Woodbridge, Virginia.

A huge share of the publicity surrounding the books focused on the eye-popping numbers. I had nothing to do with that publicity, of course, but imagine the angst and anger of journeyman authors who hadn’t earned nearly that kind of scratch over the entirety of their prolific careers. To this day, there is one household-name author who was famous then and still pretty famous today who will not speak to me. He never has. Not once.

When the books didn’t come close to earning out, the entire industry knew it, and more than a few of my fellow authors smirked through their expressions of sympathy and support. I got it then, I get it now. The most common advice I got was to write under pseudonym. Looking back, I believe that they believed that they were helping me deal with my loss.

Except, I hadn’t lost. Never thought I had.

Lessons From Safety Engineering.

At the time, a good bit of my Big Boy Job involved accident investigations. The nature of “energetic incidents” (aka unexpected explosions) is such that the hardware involved ends up looking little like it did before it blew up. Thus, most investigations started with what was left–what went right.

In the case of my mourned writing career, I knew that I could tell a good story that people enjoyed reading. I knew from fan mail that my characters were three-dimensional, and I knew from previous contracts that industry professionals thought I had potential.

I also was awash in empirical data that publishers were unwilling to roll the dice on my brand of family-focused dramatic thrillers. That doesn’t reflect the quality of the writing or the stories, but merely risk-based business analysis. As with every industry, bean counters make the final decisions.

I knew what worked and what didn’t, and I knew that I was going to make this writing gig work.

That’s worth repeating. I was going to make this writing gig work. Hard stop.

Now I had to engineer the way to do that.

Wise Advice From A Friend.

I’ve known Jeffery Deaver for many years–long before he became Jeffery Friggin’ Deaver, mega-selling author. For the better part of a decade, we had a standing date at a local bar every Thursday for dinner and drinks. (Now it’s virtual and we’ve moved it to every Wednesday.) I’d hit bottom just about the time when The Bone Collector was making him a household name, and I asked him one evening, “What are you doing right that I’m doing wrong?”

He answered without pause, “Last time I counted, I was sixteen books ahead of you.”

Yeah, okay. Fine. Perspective.

Then he went on to say, “You know you have to keep writing. Stopping isn’t an option.”

“What if I can’t sell anything?” I whined.

“Nobody says you have to do it fulltime.”

That one rocked me back. Money wasn’t the issue, but self esteem was. I realized that as wonderful and exciting as the publishing biz is, it’s fundamentally the entertainment business, and there is no more capricious industry in the world. When you look at the decisions they make–and the ones they don’t–you’d think that they threw darts at the wall.

I realized that I wasn’t suited to that, certainly not as my fulltime focus. I’m an engineer at heart. In 2004, I went back to a high-profile Big Boy Job and became a more prolific writer than ever before. (More on that below.)

Writers Write.

Here’s where I have to confess that serendipity plays a role in all our lives. The trick is to recognize a break when it arrives and to determine what to do with it.

Thanks to A Perfect Storm and Black Hawk Down, narrative nonfiction was taking off in the late nineties and early aughts. That was when I met Kurt Muse, a U.S. citizen imprisoned by Manuel Noriega and ultimately rescued by Delta Force. His story thrilled me. We agreed to collaborate on what became Six Minutes To Freedom, the book that I am probably most proud of. It’s nonfiction and a kick-ass thriller. (Serendipity again: As I write this, SixMin is on sale for $1.99 on Amazon.)

My agent at the time refused to present SixMin to publishers because of bullshit political bigotry so I fired her and took on the lovely and talented Anne Hawkins as my agent. Her first task was to tell me that no publishers wanted SixMin because I was not a journalist, and only journalists can write narrative nonfiction.

Once more, pardon my language. Bullshit.

Way back in the early days after Nathan’s Run had hit the shelves, I met a fellow named Steve Zacharius, who at the time was an executive with Kensington Publishing in New York, and he was a huge fan of my writing. His words to me were something to the effect of, “if you ever find yourself in need of a publisher, let me know.”

I let him know, and he bought the book–for very little money. I would share the number if it were not for the fact that Kurt is part of the deal, and that wouldn’t be right, under the circumstances.

Six Minutes To Freedom hit the stands in 2006. It didn’t do much business in stateside brick and mortar stores, but it caught fire on U.S military facilities around the world. That was a time when tens of thousands of military personnel were in harm’s way and needed stories of heroes and successful military operations. The book earned out its advance in three weeks. Twenty or so members of the U.S. Army’s First Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (“Delta Force”) attended the book party at my house. Among them were the delightful, funny and kind models for characters later to be named Jonathan Grave and Boxers.

The presumed corpse of my career took a giant breath. Its heart light started to glow again.

Nothing breeds success like success. I pitched the Jonathan Grave series to Kensington, and they took it on. Thirteen series books later, I am happy to report than every one of them has earned out its advance in the first year. When the rights to Nathan’s Run and At All Costs reverted to me, Kensington snapped them up. Remember that fifth novel I couldn’t give away? They bought that, too. It came out as Nick Of Time.

Books are products, and products trend.

Even though the sales figures for the Grave series trend up each year, I know (fear?) that every boom is counterbalanced by a bust. That’s why, when I was smacked with the idea of a cool post-apocalyptic tale, I pitched my Victoria Emerson series and signed a contract for Crimson Phoenix and Blue Fire (2022).

I’ve got a great idea for an occult detective series, too, but that one needs more development. Ditto my paradigm-changing Christmas series.

Failure cannot be inflicted.

I’ve made this point here before, but it bears repeating: When it comes to writing and publishing, ain’t none of us are victims. We are part of an industry that is desperate for new material, even if executives are not entirely sure what they’re looking for. Our job is to be different, exciting and persistent.

A couple of Sundays ago, when Brother Bell presented the story of the composite writer whose life was derailed and he turned to drink, I felt little sympathy. If a person chooses to quit any profession, he needs to be prepared to live with the consequences. If a publisher drops your books, you’ve been presented with a crossroads. You can choose to quit, or you can choose to adjust, but no one can force you to do either one. Most of the successful authors I know have been slapped around by the business. They’re successful because they stayed with it.

It doesn’t matter that others think that you’re out of the game. As long as you don’t give up, you’re still in the fight.

On the day you quit, understand that you will have declared your failure. No one will have inflicted it on you.


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

43 thoughts on “Stay In The Fight

  1. Great post, John! Widely shared. As I’ve told others dozens of times, if you’re a writer, THAT you write is what’s important. WHAT you write, not so much. And thanks for sharing the conversation between you and Deaver. Perfect.

  2. Great post, John

    “Our job is to be different, exciting and persistent.” And fighting to overcome adversity makes us stronger (like the characters we write), and in the end, successful.

    Thanks for sharing your story, and for the inspiration!

  3. I love your story, Brother Gilstrap. That it happened within the walls of the Forbidden City is extra impressive (today there is a little thing called indie publishing that is an option).

    Today’s post reminds me of an old boxing maxim: “Keep punching. You’ve always got a puncher’s chance.”

  4. It doesn’t matter that others think that you’re out of the game. As long as you don’t give up, you’re still in the fight.

    On the day you quit, understand that you will have declared your failure. No one will have inflicted that on you.

    Words for my wall.

  5. Good post–and I was thinking as I read your post–why would anyone want to give up? There are so many interesting things to write.

    Also learned something new. Had to look up the definition of “occult detective” fiction since I’d never heard of it before.

  6. I’m reminded of the famous Teddy Roosevelt quote about the glory going to the fighter in the ring, etc. I needed this post today. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Heartfelt and encouraging piece, John. Thanks for sharing a glimpse into your world. “Nothing breeds success like success.” My based-on-true-crime series (8 books so far) is gaining great traction inside the police circles. Good ole word of mouth – when officers get over their natural suspicion and hesitancy, they start spreading the word within the club and “successful” things begin to happen. Now, I have to get back to some writing. Enjoy your day!

  8. John, what does it mean for a book to “earn out”?
    (a) publisher’s “profit” on sales is greater than/equal to the advance–ie. what the publisher gets over and above variable costs per book (over and above printing, distribution, etc.)
    (b) royalties posted against author’s advance are greater than/equal to the advance?

    I’m thinking that if it’s (a), the book would earn out much more quickly, my understanding being that the royalties are a small fraction of total book sales.

    • An advance in publishing is a bit like a draw in sales, except it doesn’t ever have to be paid out. It’s an “advance against royalties.” In the simplest terms, if an author gets a $10,000 advance and earns earns a $2.00 royalty for each book sold, the first 5,000 books sold would pay back (“earn out”) the advance. After 5,000 sales, the author would start adding $2.00 to his bank account for every book sold. I explain it in detail in this video from my YouTube channel:

      • It’s always seemed to me that the picture is not quite so dark for publishers as “not earning out” the advance suggests. For example, maybe a $20 dollar book pays $2 per book royalty which “counts against” advance. But the publisher clears a lot more than $2 per book (over and above printing, distribution etc costs). So, in reality, the publisher can recoup the advance long before sales have “earned out” the advance, and they’re now making $$ toward their fixed/overhead costs.

        E.g.: The advance was $10K, the book sells for $20, and royalty is $2 per sale. Printing, distributing, variable marketing costs = $15. So publisher clears $5 per book. The author needs 5000 sales to earn out her advance, but the publisher has recouped the advance after 2000 sales (2000*$5).

        Does this make sense?

        • Not really. Not to me. It’s more than just printing a book. Most publishers operate on very thin margins. Office space, salaries, printing costs, marketing, travel, and, and, and . . .

  9. [Off topic]: is anyone else having trouble with KZB pages not refreshing properly?

    -When I go to in either Firefox or Safari it opens to yesterday’s page. If I open yesterday’s page, the “Next” link appears at the top and takes me to today’s post.

    -But then that doesn’t update. For example, none of today’s earlier replies would show until after I posted my reply about “earn out.”

    I’m trying to figure out if I’ve just got a setting wrong. It’s strange because none of the supposed “tricks” to force a “hard refresh” work, on either Firefox or Safari.

    • I’m having the same issue, as well. Lately I’ve been using the email link. On my iPad, it doesn’t show any comments, whereas on my MacBook Air, also in Safari, it does.

    • I’ve had that problem with Firefox recently. I switched to using Safari on my Mac and it works for me. It’s probably some setting on Firefox, but I haven’t taken time to track it down.

    • Yes, I’m having problems seeing comments most days as well. The way it has traditionally worked is that I would read the post, click refresh, and all the comments would pop in below. Lately, there are several days where no matter what I do the comments won’t show, or after several tries, will finally appear when I log in later. This is the 3rd time I’ve had my computer on today and on 3rd try I’m seeing these comments.

      There doesn’t appear to be a rhyme or reason to when it works/doesn’t work. I have no idea what to do to fix it. This has been the last couple of weeks, I think.

  10. Thanks for the reminder that we are in the Entertainment Industry and ‘there’s no more capricious an industry in the world’. Though I do have to say those early advances are breathtaking. On one hand, I wish I had been writing in the 1990s, on the other hand, Indie Publishing wasn’t invented yet and it really does suit me.

  11. Thanks for this great post, John. I’m at a writers conference now and I’ve met a few people who are discouraged because things aren’t going their way. I’m going to recommend this post (and blog) to everyone.

  12. Love your honesty, John. Perseverance always win in the end. 🙂 I didn’t realize you wrote a narrative nonfiction book. I’m working on my second. It’s rewarding work. I’ll have to check Six Minutes to Freedom. Hope you have an amazing day!

    • Writing SixMin was a rewarding experience, but I don’t see myself doing that level of research again. That’s *really* hard work!

  13. John, this is such an inspiring post! I have a very old friend who is discouraged in publishing at this very moment, I’ll be sharing this with him, as well as others. It applies to all writers, be they traditionally published, or self-published. Writers write is so true.

    I remind myself that the one thing we writers own is our own writing process and that we are always “in the game” as long as we are writing and putting our work at that.

    Thank you for the uplifting words!

  14. Wow! Strong words for the faint of heart, Mr. Gilstrap. Thanks for sharing your hard-won wisdom.

    I can use a bit of it every. single. day. 🙂

    For me-who has no back-list, no agent, no publisher, and precious few readers-this post reminds me of this: at the end of the day, it’s me sitting at my keyboard and “bleeding” as Hemingway said. I have stories to write, and I must get on with it, come hell or high water. The rest of it, if it comes my way, will be gravy.

    BTW, thanks for mentioning Six Minutes to Freedom again. Now in my library. 🙂

  15. Starting with great success and money is sometimes the fastest way to have a short career. You aren’t prepared for success, the money is a concrete block chained to your ankle as you teeter on the end of a pier because you have to earn it back in sales, and failure can make you and your ego torpedo any hope of moving forward. My role models have always moved forward and kept reinventing themselves.

    I have a friend who is on her fourth reinvention who just found out her very successful series is dead because the publisher is closing down its mystery section. Her publisher has released her backlist to her, and she’s busy self-pubbing them in preparation for the next book in the series.

    Keep moving forward if you have the energy to do it.

  16. “You can’t beat the person who never gives up.” – Babe Ruth

    John, you’re living proof of The Bambino’s wisdom. Thanks for sharing your history.

    Ups and downs are normal. Publishing is s a cyclical business–you just gotta keep writing until cycle that’s right for you comes around again.

  17. John, thank you for sharing your personal story. So glad you found your way again. One thing I’ve always believed: nothing ever stays the same, so embrace change and make the best of it. As you certainly have. I’ve not had a huge amount of success like you, but I’m still moving forward.

  18. John, thank you so much for this post. Our stories are similar in some ways and very different in others. Like you, I was strong out of the gate and was told by my publisher they would groom me to be the next Nora Roberts. Hardcover debut with my name in bigger letters than the title to signal to readers just who was coming. They had me write Book Club guidelines for the oversized TP that would follow. The money was jawdropping, especially for me at that time as a new widow with a baby to raise by myself. What I got was plagiarized in what I discovered is the dirty underside of publishing. My Big 5 publisher inexplicably didn’t pull the trigger on the UK rights. I had no idea why until 18 months later when a writer friend told me I needed to read Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes. It was my book. My story, characters, plot, almost identical title and whole scenes lifted. Put out by the London arm of my publisher. Truly galling was an interview Haynes gave in which she said the book came to her in a dream and gushed out of her in NANO. More like in an unmarked brown wrapper with my name erased from the top of that ms. I consulted the top literary attorneys in 212 who told me it goes on, nothing can be done because UK libel laws make it so hard to sue for plagiarism. I suddenly understood why I had gotten such a bad vibe from my own editorial team at the RWA awards that year. They knew something I didn’t know. I had been bought, sold and dumped. Her book got sold to the BBC and made into a TV movie. It hurt me. Bad. I went back to work F/T. We needed the money. Luckily, I got a job doing media relations and writing speeches for the chief of a large metropolitan police force. I loved it! And got to hang out with detectives in the busiest Homicide squad in the nation. I learned a lot. But I remained blocked. Couldn’t write. James Scott Bell’s recent blog was a turning point for me. First time I have told my story. And I think it moved something in me. I am drawing notes for a book, another thriller that only I can write ;). I never stopped being a writer but I did get hurt. I love this blog. And it has meant a lot to know similar things happened to other writers. Yup, only losers quit. But keeping a roof over our heads was the smart way to go for me. The baby just finished her sophomore year in college and I think I unblocked my writing voice with the help of this blog. For years, this blog was the only link I kept to the writer’s life of my dreams. And now I think it might have helped me find my way back. Thanks again to you and everyone at KillZone. Best wishes

    • That’s truly harrowing, Margaret. That sort of intellectual property theft happens all the time in Hollywood, but this is the first story I’ve heard involving the Big Five. And to cannibalize their own author!

      I’m thrilled to hear that you’re firing up the factory again, and honored that you might think that we Killzoners might have fueled the motor a little. Go for it!

  19. I get goosebumps reading this post, John.
    Anything else I say here will be extraneous…aside from, thanks for sharing!

  20. Thanks for the worthy read, John! I found it thought-worthy and encouraging. I particularly liked this quote: “We are part of an industry that is desperate for new material, even if they’re not entirely sure what they’re looking for. Our job is to be different, exciting and persistent.”

  21. A friend of mine taught me the maxim, “Declare victory and move on.” You don’t even have to provide a justification.

    I also like this one, which I think is from WWII shipyards: “The ones that float are ships; the ones that sink are submarines.”

    Anything to get your eyes off the rear-view mirror and onto the road ahead.

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