The Pulp Writer’s Mindset

by James Scott Bell

JSB, Pulp Writer, and his Maltese friend

Back in 2012, when self-publishing was proving to be a legit way to make actual, long-term money, I had a choice to make. I was in a good spot. I’d completed a contract and was ready to go out to find another.

A year before, I’d dipped my toe in the indie waters by self-publishing a novella and a book of writing tips. At the end of that year I looked up and saw that I had an extra ten grand in my bank account. And I quietly, calmly contemplated this with the serene thought: ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?

Then came an event I wrote about in this space. I called it The Eisler Sanction. Barry Eisler, who along with his buddy Joe Konrath was a leading light in the burgeoning self-publishing movement, had just turned down half a mil (!) from his publisher to go indie.

So, with a completed thriller ready to go out, I had a sit-down with my agent and friend, Donald Maass. To his enormous credit, Don left the decision to me. (This was back in the days when agents were freaking out about self publishing, warning writers that their careers could be tarnished forever if they tried it and “failed.”)

I also spoke to some traditional writers who’d found success going indie.

One in particular represented the wild ride of that time. A year earlier he’d told me he was wary of self-pub. He was a moderately successful thriller writer, an award winner in fact, with nice mass market editions put out by his publisher, great covers and all that. Now he was saying he’d changed his mind and was going for it.

He’s been a very successful indie ever since.

Thus, I decided to take my novel, Don’t Leave Me, directly to market.

At the same time, I was a) writing new work, fast and furious; and b) getting the rights back to my traditional novels (almost all of which I have now).

Along the way I discovered that the kind of writer I truly was: a pulp writer!

My models were the great pulp-magazine writers of old. The guys who had to churn out marketable work during the Great Depression or they wouldn’t eat. Writers like Robert E. Howard, Erle Stanley Gardner, W. T. Ballard (who was a friend of my parents), Cornell Woolrich (the greatest suspense writer of all time), not to mention latter-day pulpsters like John D. MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, and Gil Brewer. This latter group moved into the exploding paperback originals market of the 1950s. All of them knew how to write fiction that made readers want more.

Isn’t that what every one of us wants out of this gig?

And while “pulp writer” was a pejorative back then (Mickey Spillane famously quipped, “Those big shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar”) it didn’t matter a whit to those writers, who kept turning out books that sold in the hundreds of thousands, even millions.

If you are writing books to entertain readers in the hopes of getting a fair financial return, you are a pulp writer in your soul.

You know who else is? A fellow named Lee Child. His story is well known. He was working in the TV biz in England when, as he says, “My boss said something to me one day that made it impossible for me to work for him any longer: ‘You’re fired.’”

He then sat down to write a book about a character that would sell to the American audience. Jack Reacher was born. Knowing that production is key, Child kept writing about this character, and his books sold in increasing numbers. When he submitted Persuader, his publisher decided this is our guy, and put their massive marketing muscle into the release. That’s how James Grant became the Lee Child we know today. True to the pulp mindset, he adopted his nom de plume after noting that successful thriller authors had short, snappy names…and that the letter C would shelve his books at the front of the thriller section in bookstores. Right next to B. Ha!

He also stuck to his series character.

Now, I love my stand alones, but I came across something Erle Stanley Gardner once said. He called a hit series character “the pulp writer’s insurance policy.” He tried out several in his early pulp days (like Sidney Zoom, master of disguise, and Speed Dash, a crime-solving “human fly”) until he hit it big with a fellow named Perry Mason.

I’d written a trilogy for Hachette featuring a lawyer named Ty Buchanan. These were good, my best work to date, so I was thrilled to get the rights back. Book #3 has, in my humble opinion, the most perfect ending I’ve ever written. So even though I get emails asking me to write another in the series, I am loathe to mess with that ending.

Thus, I needed another series character, which is how Mike Romeo was born.

Now I’m happily finishing Romeo #6, and intend to keep right on going.

With the pulp mindset, I also produce short stories. This brings in a little scratch via my Patreon community.

And I will never stop. Because I love being a pulp writer.

Which is, deep down, what you are, too.



Coincidentally, this post is brought to you by How to Write Pulp Fiction.

32 thoughts on “The Pulp Writer’s Mindset

  1. Thanks for sharing your success story, Jim, and particularly for mentioning the 1950s paperback originals market. For those who weren’t there…those revolving wire racks in drug stores and supermarkets seemed to feature dozens of new books every week, which meant that dozens left every week. If you saw something you liked, you had to buy it then and there because it might be gone the next time you looked. Was the market flooded? Yes. Kind of like it is now. The difference is that it is easier in this self-publishing world to stay “in print.”

    If I could sum up your post today, I would say, “Be not discouraged, but encouraged!”

    If I might ask…is that a Hollywood Hatters lid you’re sporting?

    Have a great week, Jim! Thanks again.

    • And those paperback covers, Joe! What an art form. Entice to buy…

      This particular chapeau I picked up at Goorin Bros. Hat Shop in Austin, TX. But I have been to Hollywood Hatters on Melrose a number of times. A wonderland of head covering.

      Glad to see you back, Joe. Ha!

  2. I used to get Nancy Drew books for my birthday. A friend got Hardy Boys. Our birthdays were a few days apart and our moms were good friends so we often had a joint party. He liked Nancy better. I liked Joe and Frank so we’d switch. We always had to switch back, but we got double the reading pleasure.

    I LOVE Jack Reacher! I’m reading two of them at the moment (1 audio for the car, 1 ebook for the couch). He almost never disappoints. So far there was only one where my eyes rolled so hard I’m surprised they didn’t get stuck forever. I call that one Preacher Reacher Lectures the Hoi Polloi and it ended up in the trash. But the rest are sublime.

    Good to know self-publishing is no longer the kiss of death it used to be (according to the publisher I used to work for). My independent spirit likes that plus my desire of getting paid more quickly.

    Mr. Bell, you are one who never disappoints. Thank you for being such a great teacher.

    Happy Sunday, y’all!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Cynthia.

      I’m in awe of Child…and guys like Gilstrap and John D. and Michael Connelly…who can keep a series going for such a long time. As for “preaching” some of the best writing in the Travis McGee books is when he goes off on a riff about something for a few paragraphs. It’s not something easily done and can come off clunky if one is not careful. I’ve got a couple of those sections in the new Romeo…we’ll see, upon editing, if they work!

      • I agree that some of the best writing in the Travis McGee books is spliced into the plot. It was TKZ that turned me on to John MacDonald’s writing, and I love the philosophizing. So glad I learned about him. I’m on the 4th McGee book now.

  3. Thanks, Jim, for your story and sharing your journey. Your posts on indie publishing over the past ten years are the biggest reason I decided to go indie. And I was one of those emailers who tried to convince you to write another Ty Buchanan. I think I even included a rough outline for book #4.

    I’m enjoying the Mike Romeo series, so I’m happy to hear that he will keep on rolling (and philosophizing).

    When you lay out the case the way you do, yes, I guess I am a pulp writer.

    Have a great remainder of the weekend!

  4. I was fortunate to have “known” Eisler and Konrath via conferences. In fact, I showed Konrath my then “top of the line” eBookwise which fascinated him. (I’d like to take credit for introducing him to ebooks and epublishing–not self publishing at that time; there were e-publishers springing up like mushrooms), but I doubt he’d even remember the incident.
    And, when my publisher remaindered my first book with them, Konrath and Eisler were touting this new publishing upstart–Amazon–so I figured I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t turning down contracts; I didn’t have an agent, so it was a no-brainer to test the self-publishing waters.
    I hit it big with a Nook deal, and enjoyed being part of the Golden Age of e-publishing. It’s harder to get noticed now, but at my age, there simply wouldn’t be time to go the traditional route, even if I had an offer.
    And, I think you could call most romance writers, especially those who write category romances which appeared in paperback on racks in the grocery stores, books that according to Debbie Macomber, have the “shelf life of cottage cheese” pulp writers as well.

    • Right, Terry. Romance writers are a great example. I mean, Nora Roberts. Amazing output! And there are so many others.

      You bring up a subtle point, too. There is definitely “ageism” in traditional publishing. It is, after all, a business, and they want to develop authors for the long term. The indie world cares not about age, only story. Which is how it should be.

  5. You had me at “pulp”!

    I constantly re-read your book, How To Write Pulp Fiction because I’d love nothing more than to be like the old pulp greats. As a reader, I love the old pulp fiction, too. Thanks for shouting out Gil Brewer. He’s one of my all-time favorites. His lean writing style is a thing of beauty and nobody did the sin-will-lead-to-ruination noir better!

    My favorite element of pulp, and I try to emulate it as a fledgling writer, is lean prose without any fluff. I avoid a lot of contemporary thrillers because they’re 90,000-120,000 words. Yikes. Give me 40,000-60,000 words to read any day of the week. No BS, all action.

    • Philip, you’re a brother from another mother. I applaud your entire comment. Esp. about Gil Brewer. And so many others from those days who aren’t as widely known as they should be (e.g., Charles Williams, Dan J. Marlowe).

      Carpe Typem.

  6. Gee, I never thought of it like that. You’re right. Thriller writers are pulp writers at heart. Thanks for an uplifting post, Jim. I enjoyed reading your personal story. Happy Sunday!

    • Thanks, Sue. Yeah, it’s really true. Even trad publishers think the pulp way. Lee Child was turning out a book a year…and then was asked to make it two! (This may be why he was quite ready to turn the franchise over to his brother, Andrew!)

  7. Jim, I enjoy all your posts, but your pulp writing ones are my favorites. Always inspiring, also and freeing, because of the pulp writer practical mindset. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about writing a cracking good read.

    I really enjoyed your account here of how you got into self-publishing. I made a tentative effort back in 2012, working on a lengthy serial (back when they were briefly a thing on Amazon), but had trouble with the structure, and with my own worry that I’d screw up.

    Your continued posts mentioning your self-publishing were one of the reasons I decided to go for it a few years later (after more workshopping, and thinking about trad pub). They encouraged me to take the plunge, and I’ve never looked back. (Now if I can only write faster 🙂

    What inspires me most about pulp writing is the idea that the story comes first, and it’s not about being perfect, or aiming at awards, but about giving the reader a great fictional ride to the best of your ability.

    Have a wonderful Sunday.

    • Hey, Dale, it’s nice to hear I’ve been of some help along the way. And there’s another thing about writing pulp (which is, as you say, all about a great fictional ride)…it’s fun! Nothing is more exciting to a scribe than getting caught up in a story and seeing it fulfilled on the page.

      Carpe Typem, Dale!

  8. I applaud your business savvy, James. You made the perfect decision for the time. Back then, traditional publishing’s pathetically low ebook royalty percentages should have given business-savvy authors pause, and agents who thought that such pathetic percentages were great should have sent authors screaming in the opposite direction. Authors like me who had pioneered the ebook market had been screaming warnings about both for over ten years, but almost no one listened. And, irony of ironies, we were the ones blamed for lowering ebook royalties although, at the time, mine ran from 50-75%.

    • It certainly was a heady time at the beginning, Marilynn, full of sound and fury. It was not without trepidation that I made “the move.” What tipped the scales for me were the following considerations:

      a) getting paid every month
      b) getting a book to market the moment I thought it ready
      c) the ability to choose what to write, and try new things via short form

      These have proven rock-solid over the past ten years.

  9. Jim, Your posts on self-publishing and your book “How to Make a Living as a Writer” convinced me that Indie was the path forward. My first novel was traditionally published, but I decided to self-publish the second one.

    I have an excellent editor (actually two editors) and a wonderful cover designer. My beta readers are hones with their feedback. I like having the control that goes along with self-rubbing. I also like the fact that I take responsibility for the quality of the work. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’m happy where I am now. Thank you!

    Can’t wait for Mike Romeo #6. One of my favorite characters.

    • Speaking of Romeo, Kay, this reminds me that one of the things we lack as indies is deadlines. Yes, we can set them for ourselves, but they are so easy to let whoosh by. I’m a little mad at myself right now on that score. But I will bounce back!

    • Correction: I typed “self-pubbing.” It was “auto-corrected” in my comment!! Hilarious.

      Also, those beta readers are honest.

      I have to be more careful.

      • Took “self-rubbing” to be a very clever and deliberate play on words. If one has an itch, only the owner knows how to scratch it best.
        What is your secret? Why don’t my auto-corrects turn out that way. Mine are always asinine or embarrassing.

  10. How To Write Pulp Fiction is sitting on my desk this very moment among other reference works as I struggle to learn my craft at the age of 72.. What you will find interesting James is that a published person who shall remain nameless spanked me pretty hard for saying it was a good learning tool among others, to the extent that we no longer speak. I hope she’s reading this.

  11. “write fiction that made readers want more.”

    Truer words never spoken, Mr. Bell. And right on the series character. I’m coming up on starting book #14 in my Cutter’s Code romantic suspense series, and it’s still going strong. (Cutter, btw, is a dog…)

    And yes, yes, yes, more Mike Romeo please!!! He’s one of the few characters I’ve encountered that make me want to tell the writer “Write faster!”

  12. Thank you! I was a little overwhelmed today when I read your post. While I’m still overwhelmed with 2 books due this week, I feel much more encouraged. Not sure if I have How To Write Pulp Fiction downloaded yet, but if I don’t, I will. I have all your other books, but just in case…

    Thanks for what you and the others here at TKZ do to encourage writers.

  13. Good motivation for me. Producing everyday is the goal. Love the serial characters. No bad characters. Spider-Man and Bat-Man still going strong.

  14. I really like the perspective Mr. Bell. Been thinking hard on this over the last day and it’s been inspiring–might need to change up my direction a bit.

    Thank you,


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