Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell

So here we are at the end of another Kill Zone year. (We’ll be taking our traditional two-week break starting tomorrow.) It’s been an amazing run for this blog, which began way back in August of 2008. I’m in awe of my colleagues, both present and emeriti, for the depth of their wisdom and generosity of spirit toward the writing community.

Emeriti, by the way, is the Latin plural of emeritus.

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Reminds me of my favorite Latin joke. Or I should say, only Latin joke.

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

And Caesar says, “If I wanted a double I would have asked for it!”

Speaking of which, 2017 was a year a lot of people ordered doubles. I seriously think we need to take a collective breath and, for a couple of weeks at least, imbibe the true spirit of this season: family, friends, generosity and gratitude.

And just plain old relaxation! So kick back and watch a couple holiday movies (Miracle on 34th Street and the 1951 Christmas Carol are always at the top of my list, though I would remind everyone that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas movies, too!)

Don’t stress about things you can’t control (this is the wisdom of the Stoics, and what says holiday fun more than the Stoics?) As Epictetus (b. 50, d. 135) so succinctly put it, “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Changes in technology, Amazon algorithms, the size of advances … these are beyond the power of our will. Ditto the shrinking of slots in traditional publishing catalogues, the number of bookstores that are still open, and bestseller lists (unless, of course, one takes the nefarious road of buying one’s way onto the NYT list, in which case the power of will has been corrupted by the siren song of list-lust. Don’t go there).

Nor can we stuff a stopper in the flood of system gamers, sock puppets, nasty reviewers, and inveterate haters—except to the extent that we adamantly refuse to become one of them.

What is within our power?

Our writing, of course. Our dedication to it. Our determination. Our discipline.

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

This is still the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Remember, just ten short years ago there was only one way to get published and into bookstores. The walls of the Forbidden City were formidable indeed.

Then came the Kindle, just in time for Christmas 2007, and suddenly there was another way to get published and into the largest bookstore in the world (with your cover facing out, no less!)

During those heady first years of digital disruption, a few pioneering scribes jumped in and showed massive ebook sales at the 99¢ price point. This got the attention of writers inside (and formerly inside) the Forbidden City, and ushered in a “gold-rush” phase when good and productive writers began to make really serious money going directly to Amazon.

At the same time, traditional publishing began to stagger around like a boxer who gets clocked just before the bell rings to end the round. Many predicted that by 2013 or ’14, the whole traditional industry would be kissing canvas.

Instead, we have entered a new equilibrium where the wild highs in the indie world are leveling off, and the disruptive lows in the traditional world are bottoming out (as one trad insider put it to me, “Flat is the new up.”)

But change, albeit more slowly, continues. Thus, what both of these worlds demand are a new set of business practices. I’ve tried to provide these for the indie writer. I’m not sure who the Bigs are listening to, but I suspect they need more Sun Tzu than Peter Drucker these days.

However, here is one bottom-line truth that applies across the board and will always be apt: What wins out in the end, and perhaps the only thing that does, is quality plus time, which I define as steady fiction production providing a swath of readers with satisfying emotional experiences. This holds true for any genre. You can figure out and strive to do the things that create reader satisfaction.

And what are those things? They are matters of craft. The more you are conversant with the tools and techniques of fiction, the better your quality control. It’s like that inspirational quote from a college basketball player some years ago. During an interview he said, “I can go to my left or to my right. I’m completely amphibious.”

Writer, you have to be amphibious to make it in the swirling ocean and on the rocky shores of the book world today. So my end-of-the-year suggestion is this: Invest in your writing self. Spend a certain amount of money on writing-related improvement, like books and workshops. Go to a good conference and network with other writers. If you’re starting to realize a little income from your writing, set aside a portion of it for this type of ongoing investment.

And do take advantage of one of the best free writing resources around—Kill Zone! Traipse through our library and archives. Subscribe to our feed so you don’t miss a day. Leave comments! We love the writing conversation.

We’re on this journey together, so keep in mind something the great Stoic philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Let’s take it in 2018!

Blessings on you this holiday season, from all of us at TKZ to all of you.

The End?

Okay, here’s the obligatory 2014 recap.

All in all, it was a pretty disturbing year that furnished plenty of story ideas for thriller writers but didn’t offer many happy endings. Russia restarted the Cold War. A murderous militia took over half of Iraq, then started beheading Americans and Britons. An equally scary band of terrorists in Nigeria kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls, most of whom are still missing. Elsewhere in Africa, the Ebola virus killed seven thousand people.

A Malaysia Airlines jet vanished over the Indian Ocean, and no one knows why. The murky circumstances are unlikely to be cleared up anytime soon, because the plane’s remains are lost amid the seabed. Unbelievably, a second jet from the same airline was shot down over Ukraine just four months later, killing almost 300 people. They’re victims of the war Russia instigated, most likely murdered by a surface-to-air missile smuggled to the Ukrainian separatists.

There were lots of disturbing incidents right here in the U.S. too. The police killed an unarmed black man in Staten Island for the crime of selling loose cigarettes. An emotionally unstable Cleveland cop shot a 12-year-old boy wielding a pellet gun. That victim was also black. Just a few days ago, after the Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the police officer who put Eric Garner in a chokehold, I heard a crowd marching past our apartment building. I ran downstairs with my daughter and we joined the procession (see photo above). My daughter was amazed when the protesters started chanting, “Black lives matter.” She couldn’t believe that this needed to be said. That we have to be reminded of one another’s humanity.

But here’s the most frightening quote of the year, from a recent story in the New York Times about the efforts to slow global warming: “Even with a deal to stop the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists warn, the world will become increasingly unpleasant. Without a deal, they say, the world could eventually become uninhabitable for humans.”

Yikes. We’re in deep trouble. And what am I doing about it? I’m writing fanciful tales of imagined apocalypses, stories aimed at entertaining readers for a few hours and distracting them from the real apocalypse that’s bearing down on us all.

Okay, okay. Let me try to think of something positive. The U.S. struck a deal with China to curb carbon emissions. The experts say it’s too little, too late, but it’s a start. Now we just have to get India and Brazil on board. And about two hundred other assorted countries.

Oh, who am I kidding? The future looks bleak.

I’ve flown over North Dakota at night. You can see the boundaries of the national parks from 30,000 feet, because they’re the only places where the gas fires aren’t burning.

But there’s always hope, right? This is the season of hope, so I should say something hopeful. I sincerely hope that our species finds the collective wisdom and will to avert this impending extinction event. And what gives me the most hope is humanity’s resourcefulness. Consider this: we just landed a spacecraft on a freakin’ comet! Compared with that feat, switching from fossil fuels to sustainable energy should be a cinch.

People become especially resourceful when they realize they’re in danger. That’s one of the reasons why I read and write thrillers: I like to see people rise above their limitations and overcome fearsome challenges. And we need to do the same thing in real life. We need to wake up and see the danger.


What’s in a List?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week Publisher’s Weekly reported that the New York Times was going to revamp its bestseller lists (see article here) to include reporting on niche markets including travel, humor, family, relationships and animals as well as (on a rotating basis) other niche lists such as Politics, Manga, Graphic Novels, Food and Fitness. 

Now, I’m just as happy as the next person to see books I love listed on bestseller lists – but isn’t this all going a little too far?  I mean already have to read Facebook posts from authors about hitting every conceivable niche bestseller list for that day or hour on Amazon but now I have to puzzle over what it means to be a NYT bestselling animal book (which is, I assume, by topic  rather than author – though I suspect my collie Hamish would love to be on this list!). 

Isn’t our obsession with term ‘bestseller’ getting to the point where it is no longer meaningful?

Apart from the obvious kudos, I’m starting to wonder what many of these lists actually mean (especially since many don’t necessarily reflect what you think they reflect). The NYT list, for instance, has a fairly secretive methodology based on weekly sales from a sampling from selected retail outlets. Although this methodology been the subject of controversy, nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that the NYT list is pretty influential!  The mantle of ‘New York Times Bestseller’ is a much coveted title – even though many of us aren’t exactly sure what it means. 

As I said before, I love seeing books from authors I admire on bestseller lists and I admit I can be influenced by said lists in terms of deciding which book to purchase. But I am getting a little jaded by these lists too – and the thought of having niche lists for topics such as fitness and family, seems too much. I would be far more interested in seeing a list that breaks down mystery, romance, science fiction genres – but even then it could get so niche market driven that that the list becomes less meaningful to me as a reader (though we could have as much fun as this Melville House blog post in coming up with our own possible lists)

So what about for you? What do you think about niche bestseller lists like the ones the NYT are proposing? Does it make sense to you?  Does the NYT bestseller list even resonate with you any more? Or do you think in the age of indie publishing, that Amazon or Nook sales matter more? 

As a reader, how much influence do bestseller lists have? As a writer I’m assuming, like me, you would have no qualms appearing on any of them…

Judging a Book by its Cover

by Michelle Gagnon

There was an interesting piece in last week’s New York Times on the transition back to so-called “gilded covers.” It confirmed a theory that I’ve had for a few years now. Despite the gloomy predictions of prognosticators, I don’t believe that hardcover novels are facing extinction. For one thing, libraries will always need hardier books to loan out. However, I do think that as eReaders become increasingly prevalent, hardcovers print runs will be dramatically reduced. Not phased out entirely, but the vast majority of books will be released in trade paperback form. The hardcovers that are produced will predominantly be special limited editions. More care will go into cover design and production, from the paper quality to the font to the dust jackets. And chances are that the price will increase as a result, since you’ll be paying for something a bit more special.

Currently, hardcover novel sales are being hit hard. As of September, hardcover sales had declined 25% for the year. Meanwhile, eBook sales rose 161%. Total eBook sales are forecast to reach $10 billion dollars by 2016, and thus far Kindle sales have outpaced Amazon’s rosiest predictions for the Christmas season. Mass Market paperbacks are being phased out more rapidly than anticipated, and many publishers are switching even consistently bestselling novelists to trade paperback rather than hardcover releases.

And let’s be honest– hardcover book sales should be dwindling. Now, before all you fans of “real” books, who extol, “the weight of it in my hands, the smell of ink on paper” jump all over me, hear me out.

Recently I was standing in my father’s library, poring over his collection. He’s always been an avid reader, and he has a stunning collection of leather bound books. Books that are truly works of art, and an experience to read. Books with soft vellum paper and calfskin bindings; books that really do have a special smell and feel to them.

Compare that to my collection of hardcovers. The vast majority of them don’t merit the same level of adulation. The truth is, most are just as mass-produced as MMPs. They’re heavy, cumbersome, printed on relatively cheap paper with cardboard covers and a dust jacket. Honestly, few are dramatically nicer than a trade paperback. By and large, those books don’t look stunning lined up on my shelf.
So given a choice, why would I spent $20-30 for a book that, content-wise, I can enjoy on my Kindle for half that price?
I would, however, pay a bit more for something that was special.

Publishers are finally coming around to that realization. The NY Times piece discusses recent hardcover releases that included special touches. Haruki Murakami’s latest novel 1Q84 features a “translucent jacket with the arresting gaze of a woman peering through.” Based on the book’s impressive sales so far, which has been the reverse of most books, (95,000 hardcover as opposed to a mere 28,000 in eBooks), investing in exquisite covers can help print sales.

The irony of this for me is that for the first time next year, my books will start appearing in hardcover form. Given the current sales climate, I’m nervous about shifting formats at this stage. However, I do think that we have an amazing cover, and hopefully the rest of the production quality will match up to it.

What comes after #1?

By Joe Moore

There is a title sought after by all writers, fiction and non-fiction. Having it behind your name means you’ve made it, you’ve reached the highest level of skill in the publishing industry. It adds legitimacy and validation to your claim to be a writer, and it’s prestigious and honored by all. You get to place it after your name when, for example, you make a public comment and are quoted or you contribute a blurb to a fellow author. It’s a badge to be worn with pride. And once you’ve achieved it, you keep it for life.

It’s the title: New York Times bestselling author.

Sure, there are other bestselling lists. But none has that crystal clear ring of authority and accomplishment like the NYT list.

For those who have garnered that title, congratulations. Quite a few have made it onto the list. For everyone else, keep trying by writing the best book you can. Who knows, someday your name might be there, too.

But there’s actually one more level of achievement to that title, one very few manage to obtain. It’s the most prestigious of all.

#1 New York Times bestselling author.

There’s nothing higher. There’s no better. I’ve never seen a writer claim to have been #6 New York Times bestselling author. Being #1 is like being the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sure all those other generals and admirals are members of the Joint Chiefs. But there’s only one Chairman. And there’s only one #1 on the NYT list.

I was chatting with a few fellow authors the other day and a couple of hypothetical questions came up. If you become a #1 New York Times bestselling author, what would you try to do next? Go for a Nobel? Maybe a Pulitzer? Oprah Book Club? If your next book also reached #1, would it be considered better than the first one? What if it only got to #20 or didn’t make the list at all. Would that mean that it was not as good? Or that you’ve failed somehow?

In answering the questions, we all agreed that as writers we would still keep writing. That’s a given. But in our minds and in our hearts, what would be that next sought-after goal? One author suggested he would write his next book under a pseudonym and try to achieve the #1 status again. Another stated that after achieving that title, nothing else mattered in the area of prestige.

So lets have some fun in a non-scientific survey. If you became a #1 New York Times bestselling author, what would you strive or hope for next? How would you top being #1?

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
The Phoenix Apostles demands to be read in one sitting. – James Rollins

Survivor II: Writer’s Island

By Kathryn Lilley

I love being ahead of the curve.

Last week I blogged about the fact that we authors need to make our own book videos to stay alive in the new-millenium publishing paradigm.

Well today, our friend Neil Plakcy
alerted us to the fact that the New York Times ran an article about the same subject…yesterday.


Yes folks, some authors are paying big bucks to have a Book Trailer(R) made. But meanwhile there’s something else happening over at YouTube that is much more interesting. Authors are making multiple-channel videos to communicate with their reading audience. The multi-video concept is simple. It’s not a question of, “Make one video, sell many books.” It’s make many videos. To sell to one audience.

See the difference?

You see, in the YouTube world, videos are the equivalent of the author’s writing blog. Over here at The Kill Zone, we post a blog made of words. Over at YouTube, millions of people are posting videos about their lives. And they watch other video “blogs”, and they’re looking for fresh content every day.

That’s what we writers do. We provide content.

We simply have to learn how to master the unfamiliar visual platform to communicate with our readers.

Some of the most successful authors are already doing it. Hop over to YouTube and search on Dean Koontz or Meg Cabot, and a gazillion videos will pop up. And they’re certainly not all formal book videos. They’re interviews, goofy riffs, appearances, and what-have-you’s. They’re the author’s dialogues with his or her readers.

The question is, I know–does all that video-traffic sell books? Can’t say. I know in my case, I’ve posted my own (home-made, very humble) book video, and I’m running some meta-data reports on YouTube “impressions” and “click-through” data, trying to find the answer to that question. If I find out, I’ll let you know. And as soon as the second draft for my next book is turned in on 2/15, I’m going to start making lots more videos and posting them. I’ll be thinking of videos as a logical extension of blogging. And because I can barely hold the camera steady, you can be sure that my videos will be very goofy.

Once I started thinking of book videos as blogs instead of formal book trailers, it all began to make sense. And YouTube is totally set up for video blogs. You even get your own “Channel.”

And here’s the bottom line: The big-buck authors are already over there, making video-merry. You should check it out.

And a question for you: Do you YouTube?