So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

By John Gilstrap

I tell my students in writing classes that you know it’s time to stop writing when you’ve run out of things to say. It seems reasonable that what applies to fiction should likewise apply to blogging, and thus, this is my final post as an active duty Killzoner. It’s been close to three years, which means something along the lines of 150 Friday posts, and, frankly, I worry that I have begun to repeat myself. Y’all deserve better than that.

As one of the founding members of this corner of cyberspace, I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished, and I value each of the friendships I’ve developed over that time, both real and virtual. I feel as though I’ve come to know our regular posters, and I hope that we continue to communicate. To reach out directly, please feel free to email me at I really do answer every email I get, though sometimes I’m admittedly a little slow.

If you’ve got some spare time, I hope you’ll make a chance to visit and join my mailing list. I don’t send out a lot of newsletters, but when I do, I work hard to make them short, relevant and interesting. Also, I encourage everyone to “like” my Facebook page, When I get the urge to write a blog-like essay, that’s where I’ll be posting it. And, of course, there’s my Twitter account, @johngilstrap; but I must confess that the usefulness of Twitter continues to elude me. (That semicolon was for you, Mr. Bell.)

I should point out that I’m really not going anywhere. I’ll continue to be a regular visitor to TKZ, and I’m sure I’ll be adding a few cents-worths from time to time.

It’s been a privilege, folks. For those of you who write, keep writing.  Never lose sight of the dream and remember my mantra that failure can never be inflicted upon another person. It has to be declared by oneself.

And for heaven’s sake, keep reading.

Title Trauma

By John Gilstrap

I have a hard time with titles.  To date, of the nine books I’ve published, only three bear the titles I proposed.  Here’s the history:

Mine: Nathan!
Title: Nathan’s Run

Mine: Most Wanted
Title: At All Costs

Mine: Even Steven
Title: Even Steven

Mine: Scott Free
Title: Scott Free

Mine: Six Minutes to Freedom
Title: Six Minutes to Freedom

Mine: Grave Danger
Title: No Mercy

I confess that after No Mercy, I stopped trying.  My working titles became Grave 2, Grave 3 and Grave 4.  My editor came up with Hostage Zero, Threat Warning and Damage Control.  I love them all, but I’ve come to embrace my limitations.  And typically, the title is just about the last element of the book to be written.

When Damage Control hits the shelves in June, though, it will contain the first chapter of the book that will come out in 2013–the one I have been writing under the title, Grave 5.  That’s a little under-inspiring, so we had to scramble to come up with a title earlier than we usually do.  Since the book deals with some issues regarding the first lady, I thought I had a winner: First Traitor.

Everyone was excited until we said it out loud, and we realized that the title would be heard as First Rater.  That’s bad for radio interviews.

In the end, we decided on High Treason.  I love the title and I am utterly shocked that it hasn’t already been used for a big thriller.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand about titles: It’s more important for them to be compelling and cool that it is for them to apply directly to the story.  The clearest example of this in my writing is Hostage Zero, which actually means nothing, but sounds very cool.  The title has done its job when a reader picks up the book and reads the back cover and thumbs through the first chapter.  That’s where the buying decision is made.

What do y’all think?  I know writers who can’t write unless they’ve got the title nailed down.  I also know writers to fight for the title of their choice, even though their choices are often not very commercial.

How do you deal with titles?

A Whole New World

by John Gilstrap

Michelle had a schedule conflict, so she asked me to switch blogging duties with her this week. She’ll be posting tomorrow in my spot, but we should be back to normal next week–or to whatever masquerades as normal among Killzoners.

I am amazed and grateful and totally baffled at the thing that keeps on keeping on with my eBook sales. As I write this post on Wednesday evening, No Mercy continues to hold the #4 slot in Kindle sales, while Hostage Zero holds the #17 slot. That’s nine days in the top five and top fifty, respectively–much higher cotton than I have seen in a very long while. Making the deal even sweeter, I received an email yesterday from the folks from Books On Board, the world’s largest independent eBook retailer, informing me that Hostage Zero is the #3 bestseller there. That’s all wonderful. I even got a brief mention in the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s where it gets confusing: On, the sales rankings for the print version of my books seem to be going the wrong way. Mind you, I have no idea how any of the rankings translate into real sales, but as I write this, the Hostage Zero sales ranking is well into five figures, while the print version of No Mercy sits at 2,896. (FYI, 2,896 in total sales means, according to the site, that it’s #72 in Books>Literature & Fiction>Genre Fiction>Action & Adventure. How’s that for splitting hairs four times?)

My point is that there seems to be a disconnect between print popularity and eBook popularity on I have no idea why, but I suspect that the mean demographic of the eBook buyer/reader is significantly different than that of the hardcopy counterpart. I think that the marketing model between the two camps is entirely different. For example, among eBook community (of which I am an enthusiastic member), word of mouth buzz–the Holy Grail of book sales–is many times more efficient. You hear a rave review of a book that sounds interesting, and you have it in your hands with a couple of clicks of a mouse. Combine the buzz with a price point that allows readers to buy two eBook thrillers by a new-to-them author for less than the price of a single eBook by a franchise author, and a runaway critical mass is easier to achieve. From there, the author and publisher pray that the momentum becomes self-sustaining.

If my suspicions are correct that the marketing models between print and eBooks are dramatically different, I think it’s clear that the difference is one-way–that eBook readers are aware of what print readers are reading, but not necessarily the other way around. When you look at the Kindle Top 100, the vast majority of titles are bestsellers in their own right in the bricks-and-mortar world, and became eBook bestsellers as a matter of transferred momentum. Problem is, it’s difficult for that momentum to transfer the other way.

Think about it. In my recent travels, I was disappointed to discover that Hostage Zero and No Mercy were both absent from every airport bookstore I visited. The spaces where they might have been stocked were filled instead with the paperback versions of the hardcovers that occupied the same spots a year ago–and then, only if the hardcover predecessor made The List. Given the price per square foot of retail space, it makes sense that airport bookstores would dedicate real estate only to the surest sales. In order to ride the momentum of a runaway eBook, those stores would have to order new stock and take a new risk in an economic environment that punishes risk takers. Extrapolate that logic out to drug stores and grocery stores and all the other retail locations that used to be outlets for paperbacks, and I think it’s clear that the mass market original is a format on life support.

On the flip side, though, I think the market for $25 hardcovers is likewise pretty bleak. It’s the price, not the format. As it is, bestsellers are discounted down to $15 or less in the Big Box stores, a number that is feasible only because non-bestsellers are still sold at full price to offset the lost revenue. The print side of publishing seems to be creating a retail environment where bestseller prices are unsustainable, cheaper options are difficult to obtain, and full-price hardcovers will have an ever-shrinking market consisting only of people who are willing to shell out five times more than they need to for the same entertainment.

It’s a whole new world indeed. What do you all think? When you look into your personal crystal ball, what does the publishing world look like five years from now?

#1 Paid in Kindle Books

by John Gilstrap

A couple of weeks ago, I posted our marketing strategy for Hostage Zero which included a limited time free giveaway of the ebook version of No Mercy in all e-formats. In principle, it seemed like a good idea: We’d let people have a risk-free peek at the first book in the series, and with luck, they’d have whetted appetities for the second installment.

Well, apparently the strategy worked. Within hours, No Mercy shot to #1 on the free-book Kindle list, where it stayed for its entire free-book run. The attention brought some very hot reviews to the No Mercy page, and sparked some favorable cyber word-of-mouth. That’s all good, but free is free. Then a funny thing happened.

When the free-book status expired on July 5, No Mercy stayed at the #1 slot, only this time in the PAID Kindle Store, outselling Stieg Larsson’s Tattoo series books. I told myself it must be an anomaly. After a couple of hours, I figured it would slip off the list. Only it didn’t. The book stayed at #1 for over two days. As I write this, 4:37 on July 8, it’s still at #3 in the Kindle Store.

It gets better. Hostage Zero–my new release–is currently at #61 and climbing (falling?) in the Kindle Store. Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol is #62.

All of this is very cool, but I have no idea what it means in the larger sense. Hopefully, the trend will contine and my books will become one of those word-of-mouth sensations that sets the world on fire; but it’s also possible that this is a brief flash–fun for a while, but ultimately not a big deal.

It’s not at all clear to me whether the ups and downs of the ebook market has any effect on the paper-book market. When a Kindle reader calls her Luddite Aunt Betty to say that she just read this amazing book, Aunt Betty will need to be able to find that book in the local bookstore in order to share the experience. I venture to guess that No Mercy will be a hard find this far after its initial publication. Can a runaway ebook prompt a bricks-and-mortar bookseller to restock a title? I guess we’ll see.

Hell, I don’t even know how much I make off the sale of an ebook.

Whatever this is that is happening, though, is very, very exciting.

Unlimited Free Book Giveaway

By John Gilstrap

Once a year, in late June, I embark on a post of shameless self-promotion. This would be that post for 2010.

Hostage Zero, the latest entry in the Jonathan Grave thriller series launches next Thursday, and I am pumped about it. Fueled by a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, which was kind enough to put on Hostage Zero’s product page, and excellent advance reviews from other publications, this feels to me like it could do some real business. Let’s all take a moment to cross our fingers on that one.

Good reviews help, but it takes more than that to really get people to take notice of a book. It takes promotion, advertising, and word-of-mouth sales. I don’t mean to presume, but I hope I can count on y’all to help with that last one. C’mon, it’s an investment of $6.99. How can you go wrong?

My publisher, Pinnacle/Kensington, is really stepping up to the plate with this one. From June 29 through July 5, in an effort to build the buzz for Hostage Zero, they are giving away free e-books of No Mercy through Kindle, Sony E-Reader, B&N’s Nook and Kobo. That’s free, folks; as in, you know, FREE! Gratis. No charge. That’s a free copy of the book that is one of five nominees for ITW’s Thriller Award. How cool is that?

The real marketing push for Hostage Zero begins July 6, when the co-op money kicks in to get great placement in Borders, Walden and Books-A-Million. There’s talk of other placements, but they’re not yet firm. You should see a fairly significant online ad presence, as well.

So, the boat’s in the water, and everyone is pulling on an oar. Will Hostage Zero become a bestseller? Lord, I hope so; but then every author hopes so. That’s the really scary part of this business. Think of the hubris. Each of us believes that out of the thousands and thousands of titles that are published every year—out of the hundreds that are published in our own genre alone—this one product of our imagination will somehow break through all the noise and find a breakout audience. Who do we think we are?

On the other hand, it always happens to someone; why not us? Why not me?

Jonathan “Digger” Grave is an old-fashioned kind of hero, whose sense of right and wrong does not necessarily factor in the prevailing laws of the land. If your loved ones are kidnapped, Digger will move heaven and earth to bring them back, and he won’t mind sending people to heaven or hell if they get in his way. A former Unit operator, he is a gentle philanthropist who is intensely loyal to his friends and lethal to his enemies. He is, if I may say so myself in the spirit of shameless self-promotion, a lot of fun.

And starting next Tuesday, for only one week, you can download No Mercy for free. I like to think this is an easy decision. What do you say?

My Fumble Recovery

By John Gilstrap

A couple of months ago, I ran into a longtime friend I hadn’t seen in years, and he asked me why I’d stopped writing. The last book of mine that he’d read was Scott Free, which came out in 2003. When I told him that I’d written two books since then, he expressed shock and asked why I hadn’t told him.

In the pantheon of really good questions, that one shoots right to the top. I thought I had told him. I mean, I’m on Facebook, right? And I tweet and I’ve got a website. I spent a lot of money on publicity and advertising for No Mercy. How could he not know? Even as I type those words, I realize how impossibly naïve I sound.

When At All Costs was published in 1998, my wife and I developed a comprehensive mailing list of 1,500 people. This included everyone from family to old high school classmates I hadn’t spoken to in years. It even included my wife’s old classmates. We entered all of the data into a mailing list program, and we mailed a ton of postcards announcing the birth of the book. Hands down, At All Costs was my bestselling book.

Running into this longtime buddy was my wake-up call to how thoroughly my publicity efforts have deteriorated. When I really looked, it’s obvious where I dropped the ball.

In retrospect, I made a couple of critical errors. First, it was a mistake to use a mailing list program instead of a simple Excel spreadsheet. After a series of computer upgrades, the mailing list became unreadable. We failed to collect email addresses at all, but given that it was 1998 and email was not the ubiquitous presence that it is today, I cut myself a break there. Finally, we had no way to keep track of people as they moved. If you don’t actively farm your mailing list, it becomes useless with astonishing speed.

My biggest mistake along these lines came in 2004 with the publication of Six Minutes to Freedom, my nonfiction collaboration on the rescue of Kurt Muse from a Panamanian prison. I talked myself into ceding the lion’s share of promotion to Kurt himself, figuring that people would rather hear from the coauthor who actually lived the story than the guy who merely put it in writing. I neglected to consider that my fans are my fans, not Kurt’s.

As a practical matter, then, until No Mercy was released last summer, fans of my work thought I’d disappeared for six years. And publishing years are like dog years. Never again.

A week ago, I sent my first email newsletter. Even though I’ve lost most of my old snail mail list, I’ve captured lots and lots of email addresses over the years, and I’m letting everybody know what’s going on in my writing life. I haven’t yet decided how often the newsletter will come out, but I’m pledging two things: 1) that I won’t release one unless I have something to say; and 2) it will never be longer than a single page.

I’ve been resistant to such emails in the past primarily because of the hassle of keeping the mailing list current. Who needs the agony of removing people who unsubscribe, or culling the addresses that are no longer valid? Even adding individual subscribers is ultimately time consuming.

Well, wouldn’t you know? There are websites that do all of that for you. I found one that is extraordinarily affordable. Of the 1,200 addresses in my initial email list, 200 turned out to be bad, and the program eliminated them. Twenty or so have asked to be removed from the list, and the program handled that, too. Thirty-five people have clicked the link to subscribe, which means that they’ve either visited my website or clicked the newsletter link to see a sample and subscribe.

Best of all, I’ve received emails from several dozen people who were unaware that I was still writing books. Of course, that didn’t touch the number of people who wrote to tell me about the typo in the first news item. Hey, at least they’re reading.

I’m sure there are a number of sites that do this sort of thing, but I’ll be happy to share this particular site with anyone who drops me an email.

So what about you? How do you keep in touch with your long-time fans? Do you like author newsletters, or are they annoying pains in the hindquarters? (I can go either way on that one.) Let us hear from you.

You Can’t Stand on a Broken Leg

By John Gilstrap

No movie and few books have ever gotten a structure fire right. The movie Ladder 49 was on television the other day, and like all similar movies before it—from Backdraft to Firehouse Dog—the producers created a smokeless, heatless fire that defies the laws of physics and chemistry. You can’t stand in a real structure fire. That “heat always rises” lesson you learned in high school makes standing very uncomfortable. It’s a good way to singe your ears. Visibility is zero. Truthfully, a real structure fire is not at all photogenic, which is why, of course, they film them the way they do.

But authors should know better. We don’t have to worry about lighting and lenses; we get to portray all the senses. We really have no excuse for getting it wrong.

Most movies don’t get bullet wounds right, either. In movies, they make holes that are way too big and they do far too little damage. Based on my fifteen years of fire and rescue service experience, the best movie bullet wounds—hands down—are in Saving Private Ryan. That scene where they’re treating the medic is spot-on perfect. By the way, that clichéd notion of the good guy getting shot in the shoulder and walking away is complete hooey. Take a look at the anatomy of the shoulder joint and point to me the possible path for a bullet that would not be devastating.

I read a book fairly recently where our hero broke his leg in a fall and continued to fight. (“It’s only broken,” he said.) Uh-huh. How did the author think for a moment that a person can stand on a broken leg? The point, I think, was that the character could suck up the pain. Okay, that’s fine. But if you break the bone that is part of the scaffold that keeps you standing, how the hell are you supposed to walk away and fight some more?

These are the kinds of esoteric details that make me crazy—stuff that is so easily researched, but for which some authors don’t take the time. These are the kinds of technical mistakes that eject me right out of a book.

And at this point in my diatribe, I must confess that I am a practitioner—not of laziness, but of inaccuracy. In this case, intentional inaccuracy. In the opening scene of No Mercy, Jonathan Grave crashes into a house to rescue a good guy from the clutches on two bad guys. He orders them to freeze, and then he spends a short paragraph negotiating with a bad guy to drop his weapon. I’ve heard from several of my buddies who crash doors for a living that this scene makes them crazy. The rule in the real world of tactical entries is very simple: See guy with gun, kill guy with gun.

But here was my dilemma as I wrote the scene: Since this is literally the first chapter of the first book in a series that stars a character that readers don’t yet know, I thought that the average reader would find the real-life approach to be off-putting. More like an assassination than a rescue. So I made a conscious decision to sacrifice reality for character development. I still think it was the right decision, even if it did bother a few experts.

How about you folks? Have you writers intentionally done things the “wrong way” for the sake of a better story? Are you readers forgiving of such things?

“What’s Your Book About?” and Other Impossible Questions

By John Gilstrap

No Mercy is now arriving in stores, and the publicity push has begun. This morning, I awoke at zero-dark-early to be bright eyed and clear-voiced for my 7:15 live radio interview for the New York market. According to the notes from my publicist, the interview was to last between 10 and 12 minutes. It in fact lasted two. Was it something I said? Something I didn’t say?

Perhaps it was because guest host Rob was sitting in for regular host Frank. Or, maybe I’m just not as fleet of tongue on the radio as I thought I was.

But I do good crowd. Two days ago, I killed at the library event I did in Oakton, Virginia, near my home—and no, the audience wasn’t stacked with friends and relatives. I was really on. They laughed when they were supposed to, they asked engaging questions, and then they applauded enthusiastically at the end. I enjoy public speaking, and at the risk of sounding immodest, I’m pretty good at it.

I’m thinking, though, that maybe I’m not so good with radio. In fact, the more I ruminate, the more I’m convinced that my discomfort has a lot to do with the cold start. You sit on the phone, listening to the end of the lead-in commercial, and then you hear something like, “We have thriller author John Gilstrap on the phone with us now . . .” In a live speech, this is the moment when you check your fly one last time, square your shoulders and wait for the applause to bring you on. On the radio, all you get to do is take a last breath.

“. . . Good morning, John. Thanks for coming on the show.”

“Good morning to you Tom. Thanks for having me.”

“So tell us about No Mercy.”

Cue the stammer. A year ago, I worked my ass off to get the manuscript in at fewer than 500 pages. Now, on live radio, I’ve got just a few seconds to introduce a character and a plot and a theme, all without the thoughtful pauses that work so well on stage. Ideally, you mention the title a couple of times, and if you can make it happen, you mention your website. All this without sounding like the Sham-Wow guy: “No Mercy is the best gol-durned book you’ll ever read, Tom. That’s 1-800-NO MERCY. Operators are standing by.” [Note to self: I should have gotten an 800 number. Damn.]

In my version of a perfect media world, all interviews would be more about the author and the story behind the story than about the book itself. Think about it: the host can sum up the plot in his introduction just by reading the jacket notes. Then, how cool would it be to get a question like, “No Mercy sounds like an exciting read. Does this sort of freelance hostage rescue contractor actually exist?” That opens all kinds of avenues to be explored. In my world, an interview would really be a conversation in front of a few thousand eavesdroppers.

In my perfect media world, no one would ever say to a guest, “So, tell me about yourself.” It’s a great question if the point of an interview is to get a job, but outside of that milieu, I think it’s lazy hosting. Again, they need only take a glance at the jacket notes. It sounds stupid for me to mention that I’m a safety engineer and a former firefighter because it’s a non-sequitur in the middle of a discussion about books. But if the host mentions it and then asks, “How does someone with that background come to writing books about hostage rescuers?” then we’ve again got fodder for a good conversation.

But we don’t live in a perfect world, and I’ve got a bunch more of this coming—in some cases complete with television cameras.

Give me a hand, folks. How do you handle this? How do you handle the impossible questions? How do you manage a bad interview? What are the elements of the very best interviews you’ve done?

The Amazon Obligation

John Gilstrap

A couple of weeks ago, I received a box of 15 really beautiful Advance Readers Copies (ARCS—bound uncorrected page proofs) for the upcoming No Mercy (July 7, 2009). The question is what to do with them?

I have a couple for the local B&N and Borders stores to stir up a buzz among the sales staff. It’s truly a sad state of affairs that no independent bookstores that I know of continue to live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. (I don’t count Politics and Prose or Olsson’s because they don’t as a rule stock genre fiction.) So, what to do with these extra books?

Sure, there’s always family and friends, but to tell you the truth, I’ve always looked at them more as guaranteed buyers than give-away recipients. Call them the most reliable of reliable customers. Then I thought: I can put them to work.

Here’s my new rule. If I give you an ARC, you are a) still obligated to buy at least one copy of the actual book; and b) additionally obligated to post a review on I don’t even mandate that it be a positive review (though who could think negative thoughts about my masterpiece?). They just have to post something. So far, everyone has agreed.

This brings up a larger question. As consumers of books ourselves, don’t we have an obligation to post reviews on the books we read? Don’t we sort of owe that to our fellow trench fighters? It seems to me that we do.

I confess that I rarely post reviews under my own name. I’m just not comfortable doing that, particularly in the case of books I don’t care for. Okay, I don’t usually post a review at all if I don’t like a book. As the old saying goes, if you can’t say something nice . . . Well, you know.

So, what are your thoughts? As book review pages continue to disappear, and paper gets edged out by electrons, do we book fans owe populist reviews to our most admired (or most loathed) authors?

PBO Prejudice

By John Gilstrap

“The only bad news is that it will be published as a paperback original.” That’s what my agent told me when she called a year ago to reveal the otherwise wonderful news about my new contract with Pinnacle to launch the Jonathan Grave thriller series. (No Mercy arrives in bookstores on July 7.) My previous agent once told me that it is better not to be published at all than to be published as a paperback original.

The paperback stigma undeniably exists. Several people in my day-job office have complimented the stunning cover for No Mercy only then to offer condolences on the soft cover. “Maybe next time,” one of them said. This from people who religiously wait for the paperback reprints of their favorite authors’ novels to be released before they buy.

More evidence: At hardcover signings, fans occasionally ask sheepishly if I would be willing to sign my books in paperback. That they would think even to ask the question is troubling. That some authors in fact do refuse to sign paperback reprints is infuriating.

No Mercy is my sixth book, yet my first PBO. In the eyes of many, many hardcover authors who sell a fraction of the books I sell, this is clear evidence that my career is moving backward. I fight the urge to explain that it’s a strategic move that will make Jonathan Grave available not just in bookstores, but also in grocery stores and Wal-Marts and airports and corner bodegas because there’s no way to articulate the strategy without sounding defensive.

Here it is for the record and from the author’s mouth: I’m thrilled (albeit a little nervous) to be launching the Jonathan Grave series in mass market paperback. With a terrific cover (which it has) and terrific placement (B&N took a big position in the book), it makes sense to me that people will more readily lay down $6.99 to take a chance on a new character than they would $25.99. A good product that costs less should resonate at least as well as a good product that costs four times as much. Right? Granted, nothing in this business actually makes sense, but it sure seems reasonable to me.

Will the book be reviewed? Lord I hope so. (David J. Montgomery, listen up: Not only are there ARCs, but the ARCs are gorgeous!) It won’t be reviewed in the prestigious dailies of course because, well, they don’t review paperbacks. Publishers Weekly—THE trade magazine of the industry—may deign to review it, but only as one of a couple of mass market paperbacks. I don’t think they even did that until a few years ago.

That leaves me dependent upon online outlets, newsletters and word of mouth to get the word out about my book. There, too, I think the stigma thrives. A completely unscientific survey leads me to believe that even on—the ultimate in populist literary criticism—PBOs get way less attention than their hardcover or reprint brethren.

Here’s the harm, then, in ITW’s decision to eliminate the PBO category from awards consideration: They deprived five books and their authors of their deserved high profile. It’s worse, in fact, than Michelle pointed out in her terrific post yesterday. Out of ten nominations between two categories (Best Novel and Best First Novel), not one was a mass market paperback original.

(By way of full disclosure, when I wrote a see-I-told-you-so email to the powers that be at ITW, I was told unofficially that the no-PBO experiment had been deemed a failure and that the decision would be reversed.)

Looking to the future, I think the debate should sidestep the question of whether PBO prejudice is real or even justifiable. It is real, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The operative question is what are we going to do about it? What is, needn’t be.

So how do we start changing things?