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.)
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.