Monday, December 19, 2011

The giveaway gambit

If this sounds like a mystery story, it is. What does it profit a man if he gives away his ebook? One of the "benefits" in Amazon's new KDP Select program is to give an author five promotion days in the 90-day sign-up period, to offer his book for free.

Now this is a generous offer from Amazon, which puts its vast customer base and sophisticated selling software at the disposal of an author and gets nothing in return for processing the sales on those days.

What does the author get from it? Exposure. The biggest challenge the self-published author faces is readers finding out the book exists. Offering it for free brings it to the attention of those trolling precisely for these free books and catapults your book to the top of the free Kindle bestselling lists.

It's common for new businesses to offer freebies to attract customers. Of course, they can then sell the same good or service to repeat customers. Since I don't have a second Kindle out there, I can't benefit from a repeat customer, at least not directly.

My hope is that whatever percentage of those potential readers who download my book actually read it, some of them will talk about it with their friends, recommend it, maybe even give it as a gift. Everyone says word of mouth is the path to success with indie books and it seems to getting your book into the hands of hundreds of readers is good way to prime that pump.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ebook quandary for publishing

A newly formed literary agency, Hannigan Salky Getzler, had a very nice reception here in Washington to mark their launch. The three young agents -- Carrie Hannigan, Jesseca Salky and Joshua Getzler -- worked together at Russell & Volkening. They parted ways, amicably, with this old line agency because, as they put it, they want to find new ways to help authors in an industry experiencing a seismic shift.

It is probably very tough for agents these days, given how skittish and narrow the mainstream publishers have become. The role played by good agents -- identifying and grooming new authors, placing them with just the right editor, and following their career through successive books -- has become much more challenging in an industry dominated by bottom-line thinking and copycat bestsellers.

Having lunch today with authors who are recently published with mainstream publishers reminded me that they have a hard road to hoe, as well. One of them actually just had his book named as a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year, but he still bemoans the fact that his books get no placement in the bookstores. Another is trying to navigate the treacherous shoals of negotiating a new book contract with very little leverage.

One quandary that emerged clearly from discussions at the reception and at lunch is the ebook. What should be the price of an ebook? Publishers want to set it at $15, a challenge in the era of the 99-cent indie Kindle. But the writer with the $15 retail price still only gets $2.25, about the same as I get with my $2.99 price. Amazon's 30% is much bigger and the publisher gets a big, big slice for doing...nothing. No printing and warehousing, no marketing or sales. Ebooks are simply a pricey ancillary to publishing a print version.

Except that now publishers are offering an ebook only option. This may come with a small advance, but they want to charge the full publisher retail price even when they are not spending money on a print version.

This is not fair and can't last but it is part of the turmoil that agents and authors who work with the legacy publishing houses must deal with. One alternative that is becoming more popular is for agencies to function as quasi-publishers and manage the independent ebook publication for their authors.

 Let's see what happens when a couple of million more Kindles are sold this holiday season.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The self-indulgent writer

Where does writing what you know or the art of the telling detail become self-indulgence? Sometimes, it's obvious. The whisky drinker who slips in a reference to his favorite single malt, the car aficionado who lovingly reels off the model and year of the hero's vehicle, the movie fan who references a film or (worse!) describes a character by comparing him to an actor.

I've been convinced for a while that an author whose main character smokes is himself a smoker or former smoker. For instance, I've just started reading Eleven Days by Donald Harstad, who is a former cop, and his first-person hero, a cop, describes himself as a "heavy smoker." This may be an important element of characterization or even plot, but it seems at first blush to be a self-indulgent expression of defiance ("you gotta problem with that, this is the way cops are").

Sometimes an author seems to be indulging in a personal fantasy. In The Essene Conspiracy, S. Eric  Wachtel is a bit too meticulous chronicling his hero's high-living lifestyle, reflecting either, one is tempted to think, his own fantasy or even his own fantasy-come-true. In The Sound of Blood, Lawrence DeMaria endows the female antagonist, Alana Loeb, with almost superhuman qualities of sexiness and cleverness, stretching the reader's suspension of disbelief.

It is not a coincidence, I think, that it's easier to find examples of self-indulgence in self-published books. Part of an editor's job is to ruthlessly cut and trim the author's self-indulgent flights of fancy. This was my experience with Gold, where Dick Marek callously cut out some of my slips, and in The Grand Mirage, where Jerry Gross marked whole passages for elimination (it was always my choice, but I generally followed his recommendations).

When it's not possible to get that kind of editing -- and that may be as true today for mainstream publishing as well as self-publishing -- it is up to the writer to exercise some self-discipline and rigorously ask himself whether certain details are necessary to plot or characterization. The line is not always clear, but the writer who crosses that line is detracting from his own effort to immerse the reader in this fictional world with these often jarring and irrelevant references.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Does size matter?

One of the questions about ebooks is how long should they be? Often the product description specifies that this ebook is a "full length" novel and gives the equivalent in page numbers. This leads one to believe that other ebooks may not be as long as your traditional printed book.

Is that important? Has length historically been determined by the constraints of printing and commercialization which don't really apply in ebooks?

There's no question that a printed work of 90 pages, traditionally called a novella, can be satisfying to read. But are we conditioned to believe that the development of plot and character that unfolds in 300 pages is the norm?

Authors had an incentive before to write long because it took nearly a year to get a book in print. But now authors can publish their own works in intervals of months, or even weeks. There are no physical or commercial constraints on length.

Why don't ebooks automatically give the print page equivalent? It would seem that is easy enough to program. Apparently you can't go by file size because formatting and compression will give wildly different numbers of kilobytes. For instance, Castle Cape, an ebook I'm currently reading, is supposed to have 370 pages in print, but the ebook file size is given as 495 KB. My book, The Grand Mirage, at 304 pages in print, has a file size of  834 KB.

As a freelance journalist, I'm accustomed to thinking of length in terms of words. Mirage is a little over 80,000 words, whereas my earlier thriller, Gold, weighed in at 72,000 after I had it scanned and converted to Word for re-issue. My friend Jim Bruno said he is aiming for 90,000 words in his new Cuba thriller.

There is a certain discipline to writing long. It forces the author to elaborate with descriptions, to step back and slow down the pace of the plot, adding details to characterization and richness to the overall narrative. It would be easy to slap a bare-bones novel into e-print, charge 99 cents for it, and caveat emptor, but a more finished product might be more satisfying for both author and reader.

In any case, I think in principle I will shoot for the 70,000 to 80,000-word range, longer if the spirit moves me, perhaps shorter if the book feels done.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Q&A on writing

Several of the questions in a recent interview I had with Norm Goldman at Bookpleasures touched on writing techniques. Here are some of the excerpts (see the full interview here):

Norm: What was your creative process like when creating your most recent novel, The Grand Mirage?
Darrell: I first came across the intriguing story of the Baghdad Railway in a history of Deutsche Bank, which I covered as journalist. It seemed to be a fabulous adventure in an exotic world. I found that I had assembled whole bookshelves of works about the history of the Middle East and wanted to recreate a world that has vanished in history but lurks in our subconscious. Then it became a challenge to scour contemporary journals and letters for all the telling details of this world, while the amazing resources of the Internet produced numerous images to help visualize it. ...

Norm: What do you believe is required for a character to be believable and how did you create Richard Leighton, 9th Baron Leighton in The Grand Mirage?
Darrell: Making up a British lord is a particular challenge because everyone of them has been painstakingly recorded and you find that many of the good names have been taken. I wanted the hero to be an aristocrat so that he would have the intellectual and financial resources to be a true gentleman adventurer and able to play his role as an unofficial spy for the government. After that, like all characters, he had to be someone the reader cares for. It's important to delve into his emotions, explore his backstory, show his thinking. At the same time, in an historical novel like this one, you want to avoid anachronism. So, for instance, Leighton does not condemn British imperialism -- he is part of it -- though his love of the Orient leads him to have some doubts.

Norm: Did you know the end of The Grand Mirage at the beginning?
Darrell: What I have found both with this book and my earlier thriller, Gold, is that you start out with a vague idea of the arc of the plot, put your characters to work and see just where they take you. So while I knew generally where things would end up, I didn't anticipate all the twists and turns until they actually developed in the writing. This is one of the wonderful things about creating a work of fiction. ...

Norm: Do you believe you have already found “your voice” or is that something one is always searching for?
Darrell: I'm not sure I'm looking for "a" voice. I'm happy with the voice in both my novels, but I don't think it is the same. There may be some common sensibilities, but the voice of a contemporary financial thriller -- the style, the language, the pace -- is different from that in an historical thriller like The Grand Mirage. At some point, I may want to write a police procedural that would have yet again another style and voice. ...

Norm: Do you have any suggestions to help our readers become a better writers? If so, what are they?
Darrell: I think it's important to pay attention to the role of language in writing. Plot, characterization, often research are all important, but the writer should revel in the language itself, play with it, use it as a vital part of the overall package. One of my favorite writers at the moment, Simon Mawer, says a writer should be like a sculptor working in the marble of language, shaping it to portray the reality we see.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Publishing myth

I never really understood why book publishers need nine to twelve months to get a book into print. They act as though it's such a careful and meticulous process that anything less would result in an inferior product. The idea is that by the time the book finally does see the light of day it has been proofed, and checked and is ready for prime time.

So I was quite surprised when I was proofing the scan of my 1989 novel, Gold, so that I can reissue it when Penguin gets around to reverting the rights to me, to find that there were more typos in the original version that needed correcting than there were from the scanning. On the one hand, scanning has clearly improved, and the service I used, Blue Leaf, must have up-to-date equipment. But the fact that there were more than a dozen typos in the original was really kind of shocking. I don't know whether my book got a particularly sloppy copy edit and proofing (and of course I got a copy of the uncorrected proof myself for review) or whether it is easier in fact to spot errors on the screen because of the wiggly red lines under misspelled words.

In any case, I'd like to think there are fewer errors than that in the novel I self-published last month, The Grand Mirage, which got two proofings from two separate pairs of eyes and still got out in a month.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The art of fiction

I tracked down a copy of Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham, in the UK, because this novel I'd never heard of before is one of the first early spy thrillers to add to my prewar thriller list. To my surprise, Maugham had a pleasant little preface with some wisdom about writing fiction.

"Fact is a poor story-teller," he says, and life needs the creative artifice of the writer to become interesting:
For it is quite unnecessary to treat as axiomatic the assertion that fiction should imitate life. It is merely a literary theory like another. There is in fact a second theory that is just as plausible, and this is that fiction should use life merely as raw material which it arranges in ingenious patterns....The method of which I speak is that which chooses from life what is curious, telling and dramatic; it does not seek to copy life, but keeps to it closely enough not to shock the reader into disbelief; it leaves out this and changes that; it makes a formal decoration out of such of the facts as it has found convenient to deal with and presents a picture, the result of artifice, which, because it represents the author's temperament, is to a certain extent a portrait of himself, but which is designed to excite, interest and absorb the reader.
Maugham pokes fun at those writers who simply want to slavishly imitate life and present it as a whole to the reader. "They give you the materials for a dish and expect you to do the cooking yourself," he says. This may work for a Chekov short story, but longer pieces need the supporting "skeleton" of plot. Fiction as art needs a beginning, middle, and end. A story needs a climax.
There is nothing wrong in a climax, it is a very natural demand of a reader; it is only wrong if it does not follow naturally from the circumstances that have gone before. It is purely an affectation to elude it because in life as a general rule things tail off quite ineffectively.
For this reason, Maugham believes the artful short stories of Guy de Maupassant will outlast those of Chekov, and in any case longer stories need more structure.

This aesthetic battle has mostly been won, and certainly in genre fiction no one would dispute what Maugham is saying. His remarks are by way of introduction to a novel based on his own work in intelligence, which he confesses "is on the whole extremely monotonous." Most of it, he says, "is uncommonly useless." It is up to the writer to make a story out of this raw material. And that is a useful reminder for all of us.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The trouble with Harry

The trouble with Harry in Hitchcock's dark comedy is that he's dead. But that may be the only place he's dead, because he seems to be alive and well in literature.

Even leaving aside Harry Potter, there's an amazing number of characters in novels named Harry, considering how few you meet in real life. I'm not sure I've met a live Harry since the 1950s, when my Dad worked for Harry McKee. (One Internet source tells me it currently ranks 656th among masculine first names in the U.S.)

Several books I've read recently feature Harry as the hero. Jim Bruno's fine thriller, Tribe, features Harry Brennan. Bruno clearly references Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character, to the point you can almost hear the actor growling the dialogue in the book. (Casting him in real life would involve some time travel since Bruno's character is a good deal younger than Eastwood is now.)

Another recent e-book, The Essene Conspiracy by Erich Wachtel, had Harry McClure as the hero and Wachtel clearly intends to build a series on this character. Harry seems to work particularly well with Irish surnames. Dirty Harry's last name is Callahan.

But not necessarily. One of my favorite authors, Robert Goddard, has written at least three books with Harry Barnett as the main character. And Michael Connelly's long-running series features Harry Bosch.

I'm giving this a lot of thought right now because I need a new name for the hero of my work in progress. It is a contemporary political thriller starring an American journalist based in Berlin. I started it some time ago and am just now getting back to it.

I think part of the appeal of Harry is that it has an old-fashioned masculine allure, like Frank or Max. Authors don't usually like the John, Jim, Bob, Dan, Bill and Doug you encounter so often in real life, especially if you are going to refer to him routinely by his first name. It may be the very rarity of Harry in real life that makes it appealing in fiction. Other less common first names -- like Mark, Carl, Phil, and so forth -- don't necessarily have that biting masculine quality you want in a thriller hero.

So some authors really venture outside the box. John Locke's hero is Donovan Creed, which I think works really well. Donovan is for me a singer from the 1960s who just uses a single name. Locke hardens the slightly effeminate ring of Donovan with the sharp-edged surname of Creed -- a guy you can really believe in.

Right now the best I can come up with is Sam Riley. Sam of course is in the Harry, Frank, Max category of tough-guy names -- e.g. Sam Spade. So I'll work with that name for a while and see how it goes.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Growing up a writer

I've somehow had the idea that I was unique in wanting to write my first novel when I was 9, but of course I wasn't. I'm discovering now through all this social networking that many authors have a similar story.

William Potter, for instance, who runs the great Independent Authors Network, says he wrote his first novel at 11. David Wisehart, who conducts the very nice Kindle Author Interviews, tells how he even bound together his typescript pages into a kind of book.

My novel never got finished, or bound. It was written in longhand on some my Dad's yellow legal pads. I did try to tape together my own comic book. My other passion was drawing so that comic books were ideal. I drew panels -- in the size they appear in print! -- and joined the pages with Scotch tape. It's hard work and they never got to be too long.

So here we all are, grown up, and still pasting together our own books. And it's still fun!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Franchise or die?

It seems the pressure to create a franchise is just as great for indies, if not greater, as it is for those published by mainstream houses. John Locke, who wrote the book on indie marketing, seems to take it as a given and his Twitter account is in the name of his franchise character, Donovan Creed.

When I sold my first novel to Dutton, the editor, Dick Marek, asked me if I was willing to write similar novels if he bought this one, and of course I replied I was. To build a brand name for an author, it's necessary to stick to a particular genre, the narrower, the better. It's one step further, then, to create a franchise, a series where the same main character and ancillary characters appear every time in an endless stream to satisfy readers who have come to expect this, and nothing else, from the author.

Rex Stout, for instance, wrote 77 novels and stories featuring Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin and the whole cast of characters and readers never got tired of him. The other side of that coin, however, is that no one had any interest in reading any of Stout's books that did not feature Nero Wolfe.

It clearly is a way to get mega-sales. Think of Janet Evanovich with Stephanie Plum and all the mystery writers, of Daniel Silva with Gabriel Allon and all the thriller writers, and I presume it's true for paranormal, fantasy and other genres as well.

It is, in fact, one of the ways to distinguish literary fiction from genre fiction. Literary writers have a different set of characters, different locations and so on for each novel. Their "brand" may include a certain voice, or tone, or themes, but the characters and plots will vary.

Can an indie aspire to be "literary" in this sense, attracting a fan base just on the basis of the quality of their writing? Probably, though it is much harder.

It depends in the end on what you want out of writing and self-publishing. If you want sales, it's going to be much easier to get there with a franchise or at least a narrowly focused brand. If you are writing for the art, self-publishing gives you the freedom to indulge that, but it would be a fluke to get volume sales.

I've branded by self-publishing imprint Barnaby Woods Books as "Suspense Fiction." I would like to establish Lord Leighton from The Grand Mirage as a franchise. But these books require considerable research and it will be hard to get one out more often than once a year. To keep busy writing while doing some of this research it would make sense to produce some other books. I have a good start on a contemporary political thriller -- a different sub-genre than the historical thriller. I want to re-issue Gold, the financial thriller I sold to Dutton. I've started at least two different Vatican thrillers. I've also talked to my brother, a retired police officer, about collaborating under a pen name with a series of police procedurals.

So a somewhat fuzzy brand, but hopefully consistent enough in quality and intelligence to appeal to a core audience of readers who enjoy a variety of suspense fiction, as well as in each instance to aficionados of each sub-genre.

So I guess I would answer the question yes and no. I envisage a couple of franchises within a wider brand that would include one-off thrillers of various sorts. But who knows, the liberating influence of digital publishing may inspire me to write other kinds of books as well -- humor, literary, even nonfiction, why not?

Friday, October 14, 2011

On being a book publisher

Apparently I've been waiting to be a book publisher all my life. Self-publishing has liberated me as a writer -- I can now tackle all those unfinished projects with renewed enthusiasm -- but it has also opened the door to a new creative activity that so far at least I'm enjoying.

It was fun to look for the images for the cover of The Grand Mirage (and big thanks again to Pedernales Publishing for putting them together in such a brilliant fashion), to write the product description and back cover, to decide on distribution, and now to undertake the marketing through social networking, book party, blogging.

It is in itself a creative process. I was involved earlier this year in setting up and launching a personal finance publication for the iPad. That, too, involved a lot of creativity and working with real pros in getting cover designs, layout, stories and putting the whole package together. Unfortunately, the unproven business model proved unsustainable and the publication quickly folded. But this creative phase was great.

The next project for my self-publishing imprint, Barnaby Woods Books, is to reissue my financial thriller, Gold. I've asked the original publisher, Dutton, for a letter of reversion of rights (the book has been out of print quite a while) and that evidently will take some time, but in the meantime I already like thinking about the new cover, the foreword to the second edition, the product description.

I'm sure self-publishing will have its own set of frustrations, as the weeks go by and sales fail to reach any sort of volume. But right now it's fun to have a good-looking book available in print and e-book for those hardy readers to find.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Social networking for writers

It's already conventional wisdom that social networking is the secret to sales of self-published books, particularly ebooks. As John Locke, the phenomenally successful ebook author, says repeatedly, however, the emphasis needs to be on social. The author needs to establish a real connection to potential readers and not simply beat them over the head with a Buy-My-Book club.

Twitter has been a total revelation to me. I first opened my Twitter account back in 2008 because my niece Amy was really into it, and even came to the Obama inauguration with a group of her Twitter-friends from Wichita. But I didn't get it, or maybe it hadn't evolved to the point it has now. It's not (no longer) about tweeting, hey, I just had a great slurpee (though some people still enjoy that). It is rather a bona fide way to share things with a vast and seemingly endless Twitter-sphere of real people.

That is the greatest thing. To see all these people out there, full of personality, thoughts, views, and open to sharing that in this environment. It seems to be that Twitter is far and away the most open and flexible social networking vehicle. It's fast and furious and sucks you in. It can become a bit intense, but you just have to take a deep breath and go with the flow.

When I first joined, I set up a Tweetdeck so that I could "manage" my 35 followings. That seems kind of silly in retrospect. I saw someone the other day with 125,000 followers. It's not about managing. It's about a river of information, links, hashtags, comments, jokes that you dip your toe into during the day and throw in your bucket of thoughts from time to time.

Does it sell books? Not sure. Locke's experience is that if you show something of yourself, if you provide help or advice or information to people that they need, it's a kind of pull marketing. They become interested in you and your books, and chances are they will buy them and like them.

What's clear, though, is that in the meantime it's a lot of fun. In my case, I'm immersed in a world of writers and readers tweeting about books and writing. I do look at the books of some of these people. Sometimes they are not to my taste -- not a judgment on whether they are well or badly written (Locke says writing doesn't have to be good, just effective) -- because many of these people will find their own audience. But I have also found some very excellent reading and one book that just astonishes me. I would never have seen this book in the NY Times Book Review or on a shelf at Politics & Prose, but I would much rather read it than the 10th installment of Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series (don't get me wrong, Silva's a very good writer, but even he must be tired of limping along through 10 books with the same characters, action, etc.).

The other thing about all this twittering and tweeting is that it's the ideal medium for writers. It is writing! It's a very real form of social interaction that writers sitting alone at home in front of their computers can indulge in.

I've also been expanding my connections in LinkedIn, joining some of the groups there. It seems to me it has become more flexible, a bit more vibrant than it has been in the past.

Facebook baffles me. They keep changing their interface and I have no idea how to find new friends or groups to interact with. I just joined Google+ -- the circles are kind of cool -- so we'll see how that develops.

For the moment, though, Twitter is one stop shopping for me. My blogs get tweeted immediately and my tweets go automatically onto my LinkedIn and Facebook pages. It's a brave new world.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


It's a golden age for writers, this digital era, and blogging is one of the best examples of it. I resisted blogging for quite a while because I write for a living and I couldn't see the point of writing for free for an audience that may never materialize. I just didn't get it.

But finally the light went on. I realized that although I love writing I don't often get to write about what I'm most passionate about. I'm a business and economics journalist and I love the storytelling involved in writing journalism, but finance is not a passion for me. So I started a book blog, Cogito Ergo Sum, and then a food blog, You Are What You Eat. Books and food are two things I am passionate about. I didn't much care if anyone followed or read these blogs. They really were for me weblogs, journals for my own amusement that allowed me to express things about books I read and food I liked.

When I decided, crazily, to accompany my brother on Biking Across Kansas, I started another blog, BAKpedal, to chronicle my training for this 500-mile bike ride across the state, and then for BAK itself.

When I finally decided to take the plunge and self-publish my historical thriller, The Grand Mirage, which had been languishing on publisher slush piles for too long, I knew I needed to accompany it with a blog/website. Blogger has enough flexibility that you can create a blog that looks a lot like a website, buy a custom domain name, and be in business for just $10. So I launched Barnaby Woods Books, a website for the self-publishing imprint I created.

Publishing my book liberated me from the blocks that had kept me from writing and made me enthusiastic about churning out some more fiction. Because I wanted to keep Barnaby Woods Books focused on The Grand Mirage and other books that will come along, I started this blog, Barnaby Woods Blog, to write about writing.

Then I thought there should be a blog for The Grand Mirage itself, but what can you blog about a novel that takes place in 1910? Well, aside from just the pure entertainment value, one of the reasons you read an historical novel is to get a perspective on the past that helps you understand the present. I think this particular era and the setting for my novel actually does have a lot to say about the present, so I'm experimenting with blog postings that fit the description, "The Middle East Then and Now." I think in fact it could become a fairly robust blog.

Too many blogs? Maybe. But why not try it? That's one of the beauties of blogging, too.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


When I first got an agent in 1982 I wanted to write a novel, but the agent, London-based June Hall, recommended starting with nonfiction because it was easier to sell. So my first book was Debt Shock: The Full Story of the World Credit Crisis, chronicling the debt crises in Latin American and Eastern Europe in the early 1980s.

Several people said, wow, it reads like a novel -- you should have written a novel. So I wrote a financial thriller, Gold, using a fraud in the gold market as the catalyst for a financial meltdown (a scenario that is remarkably relevant today!). The hero was a financial journalist who tries to save the world. Why not?

I went back to nonfiction for my next book. I was quite taken with Joel Garreau's The Nine Nations of North America, where he describes the U.S., Canada and Mexico not as three countries, or 50 states, but as nine big regions with their own cultural and economic trends. I wanted to apply this to Europe, though obviously it couldn't be called the Nine Nations of Europe, since there are 32 nations in Europe. So this book became The New Superregions of Europe.

It was a labor of love and a lot of fun to research. The thesis was that the fall of the Iron Curtain, removing an artificial ideological divide of Europe, and economic integration through the European Union together were allowing large historic regions, often determined by geography, to reemerge across national borders. There was a Baltic region, a Western Mediterranean region, an Alpine region, and so on.

The same questions of territory, nationhood and culture were behind a new political thriller I started. It was a novel that would include German ambitions to reclaim East Prussia and other areas that became part of Poland after World War II. The hero once again was a journalist who figures out what's afoot and tries to stop it.

The working title was Reich and I got a good third of the way through it. But then came 9/11 and because the plot entailed a terrorist threat against Washington, I decided to put it aside. That's when I embarked on the historical thriller that became The Grand Mirage, which has just been published.

It was frustrating not to find a publisher for Mirage in such a difficult market for fiction. Several friends were having success with their nonfiction book projects, but this time I was determined to stick with fiction. Then came the miracle of digital publishing and The Grand Mirage has seen the light of day. Now I can go back to Reich and finish it, and return to a number of other false starts from my lost decade.

Monday, October 3, 2011


The classic arc for a newly published books is months of waiting until the pub date set by the publisher, a flurry of activity at that time with book shipments, author appearances, and a smattering of reviews -- and then the book drops into the sinkhole of obscurity, often as though it never existed.

It may live on in libraries, college syllabuses, even a backlist for a while. It may get a second bump when the paperback version comes out. But eventually -- we're talking months, not years -- the publisher will tire of inventorying it and will remainder it or just pulp it, offering to sell the author as many copies as he or she will buy at bargain basement prices. A book will then be out of print, though somewhat more accessible now because the Internet market in used books.

The arc of a self-published book, I think, is radically different. It starts in the sinkhole of obscurity and must climb out of it. It can be a slow and painful process. The good news is there is no rush. You are not going to remainder your book and declare it out of print.

But it is tempting to follow the model established by the classic book publication. Omigod, my pub date is here. Must get reviews (reviewers don't like books that aren't newly published, why, really?). Must have events, book parties. Must make the most of my 15 minutes of not fame, but just notice in the glow of a new publication.

Every self-publishing success story I've heard, however, is a tale of patient promotion by word of mouth, slowly discovering and building an audience or fan base. One self-published friend has been at it for four or five years. He now has three titles out and is starting to see some significant sales -- not of his latest book necessarily -- but of the first two released years ago but slowly finding readers.

I've just been dipping into some writers' forums and the common complaint is why do I have to spend so much time on marketing? It distracts from writing. The good news, again, is that you can spend as much time as you like, depending on how fast you want this process to go. But I think no matter how intensely you pursue it, or how hectic you get, it will simply take time for news of a self-published book to percolate through the various networking vehicles that now exist.

I'm discovering, happily, books that were published months or years ago. I don't have to worry whether they were published last month or last year, whether they're about to go into paperback or are available as remainders. I can buy them or not and read them at my leisure.

All this is a long lecture to myself to be patient about building a market for The Grand Mirage. It took a long time to get here, and it will certainly take a long time to get to the next step.

Friday, September 30, 2011


I've always thought journalism is one of the best professions because it is a living seminar on how the world works. You get to talk to people about the most interesting thing in their lives and then move on to the next most interesting thing and leave them to the more boring part of their lives.

But the other great aspect, and what drew me to the profession as an aspiring writer, is that as a journalist you are always telling stories. Whether it's a short news agency piece or a 7,000-word magazine article, there has to be a narrative to keep readers interested. They are called "stories" for a reason. It is the difference between journalism and other kinds of writing -- academic, legal, reference -- which are only concerned with conveying information.

I've done a lot of in-the-weeds business and financial reporting, delving into topics like asset-based lending and factoring that sound truly boring. And yet, these people have a story to tell, too. If you hit the right chord, they are passionate about what they are doing and you as a reporter can convey some of that passion by telling their story in a compelling fashion.

I've gotten into editorial management and into the matrixed environment of a Web portal, and these experiences have been interesting and rewarding in their own way, but I'm happy right now to be freelancing as a writer and editor, telling and shaping stories for readers. And now, thanks to the liberating possibilities of digital publishing, I can get back to the wonderful avocation of telling stories in fictional narratives.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Writers experience a lot of rejection. In fact, an author can experience rejection at every level of producing a book, a kind of mirror image to my little peroration on when a book becomes a book. Like so many circles of hell, these levels of rejection just keep on going.

The first rejections come in search of an agent, a hurdle that has become almost insurmountable for many aspiring writers. Agents as a rule are too fearful of their reputations with editors at the publishing houses to take risks. Plus, since it's something of a closed shop, there are too few agents and they are overwhelmed with manuscripts.

Even with an agent, the next level of rejection is right there -- editors reject your manuscript on the basis of the 50 pages you send them. It would be nice to think they read all 50 pages, but it's not too likely.

Suppose you're luckier than 99% of aspiring novelists and you get past both these hurdles, there is a whole new set of rejections waiting for you. The publisher's marketing team can reject your book for a promotion budget, the sales team can reject it as part of their pitch and Barnes & Noble can reject it because it's on the ropes and wants only authors who have proven successful. The remaining few independent bookstores and other chains can reject you.

Reviewers, rapidly dwindling in number, can reject your book for review. Even a bad review is much better publicity than no review -- at least readers know your book exists and can reject the reviewer's opinion.

And, sadly, readers can reject you. They are busy -- so many books, so little time and so forth. They never heard of you, and how good could you be if you're not in the paper or on the radio.

I had a friend who published a book of fiction and worked very hard on a novel she couldn't sell. After several publishers rejected it, she fired her agent, but eventually just gave up. "I couldn't take any more rejection," she said.

Perhaps this rejection is "deserved." There are undoubtedly some books that don't belong in print and are pretty much of a waste of time for anybody. But there are too many stories of books that turn out to be bestsellers going through their own saga of rejection not to have the feeling that it is mostly just the luck of the draw as to which books get published and end up on the bestseller lists.

My new book, The Grand Mirage, has had its share of rejection already, and self-publishing it may just set it up for more. But I think it's a good book. I enjoy reading it and I'm hopeful that through digital publishing I will find other readers who agree with me.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A good editor

As I read more self-published e-books and blog about them I find myself almost invariably saying "a good editor" would have done this and that. Certainly in two books I read recently, The Essene Conspiracy and Petroplague, the novels could have been much better with the judicious intervention of a skilled editor.

Eric Wachtel needed substantial work in Essene showing and not telling, trimming out excessive detail, fleshing out characterization, keeping the plot on track -- a challenge for a good editor, but worth the effort since the author had a good idea, a fair plot and basic narrative skill.

Amy Rogers needed some trimming, especially in the opening chapter, and some help giving her essentially very good book a professional spit and polish.

It was in re-reading The Grand Mirage in proofs, however, that I appreciated once again what a skillful job Jerry Gross had done in his line edit. He X-ed out whole passages, trimmed adjectives, sharpened focus, drew attention to gaps, asked questions. I had reasonably good editors in my three previously published books -- and Dick Marek was equally outstanding with Gold -- but Jerry brought a real publishing house quality to my book.

This didn't come cheap because Jerry knows the value of his work. I was willing to pay the price because I wanted to have the best product to put forward to agents and publishers.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to a writers' conference -- which I haven't done very often and you're about to see why -- and had some pompous agent warn people off using "independent editors" or "book doctors." He had just finished saying authors need to make sure their manuscript is as finished as possible -- we're talking about fiction here -- before submitting even to agents like himself.

So I went up afterwards to ask him what he had against independent editors. "Well," he said, "you don't know whose work you're getting when an author uses a book doctor."

WTF?? Like you ever know whose work you're getting. And what does it matter? In a world where there is open speculation that Truman Capote, not Harper Lee, wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and Walker Percy, not John Kennedy O'Toole, wrote Confederacy of Dunces, or even that the Earl of Oxford, not William Shakespeare, wrote all those plays, what does it really matter at the end of the day?

"But, but," I said, "Jerry Gross edited my manuscript and I thought it was a good idea." Jerry was speaking at the same conference as this dufus. "Oh, I didn't mean somebody like Jerry Gross," he said quickly. "Jerry's a real pro." What he meant were those unscrupulous quickie publishers who offer to publish your work for free but want a big fee for "editing." Not exactly what he said.

Chalk it up to the schizophrenia that marks the publishing world today, even though this was a couple of years ago. It seemed to me then and now that engaging a good editor to go over your manuscript is just another good boost to get over the hurdle of finding a legacy publisher. In the new era of digital publishing, it can be an important component in bringing a truly readable book to the public.

I don't know if I'll be able to afford Jerry for my next novel. It probably depends on whether I can make any money self-publishing Mirage. But I know that Mirage is a much better book for his involvement, and that he will improve any text he lays his hands on.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Publish on demand

POD, of course, stands for print on demand, but the digital publishing technology means that any author now has the right to publish his own books -- he can indeed demand to be published.

Since the advent of printed books, authors have been at the mercy of technologies that make them dependent on others. Even before the mechanization of printing presses, the laborious process of typesetting meant that it was never economical to print a single copy of a work. Now, while the machinery to produce a bound, printed book still requires a big capital investment, it is available to an author at an affordable price because the typesetting itself is digital, and in fact, essentially performed by the author. The threshold for e-book publishing is much lower again.

It doesn't take a genius to see how revolutionary this is. The legacy book publishers -- this is what we must call them now -- will continue to hold sway for a while yet and may survive in some form. Those authors who have successfully jumped the hurdle to mainstream publishing have a vested interest in defending it, even though some of them have begun to realize that they don't have to divert part of their earnings to maintaining the huge overhead of the publishing houses.

Still, you have the example of the International Thriller Writers, launched by established authors to "help" newcomers. Curiously and amazingly, however, they still want to limit membership and promotion to authors published by "certified" publishers, keeping the unwashed masses of self-published authors at bay. Though apparently they are reconsidering their membership criteria, it seems to be a slow reaction for a genre that is particularly well-suited for self-publishing.

I had jumped that hurdle and had three books published by mainstream houses. However, this does not always work in your favor for later submissions. Whereas an unpublished author can enjoy the benefit of the doubt, a published author has a telltale record. It's not exactly three strikes and you're out, but if sales of three previous books have not been compelling, it could tilt the balance against getting a fourth chance.

I muddied the mix further by not sticking to the same genre. A key facet of publishing today is the brand-naming and franchising of authors. So you have the somewhat ridiculous spectacle of books still coming out under Clive Cussler's name when someone else is doing the writing. But it works, the books still sell. But I was all over the ball park -- publishing first a nonfiction book on economics, then a financial thriller, then another nonfiction book that defies easy categorization but is nothing like the previous two. So what niche can you put Darrell Delamaide into?

Now comes an historical thriller that really has nothing in common with the previous three books. Except that I wanted to write it. I know this book is at least as good as much of the stuff that is coming out from mainstream publishers (yes, yes, every rejected author knows that), and better than a lot of it. But, among other things, I'm not keeping my "brand name" in sharp focus.

Self-publishing is not immune to this phenomenon, of course. The most successful indies are the ones who build a fan base for a certain genre and then feed their fans as rapidly as possible. But at least now the author has the possibility of trying to connect with an audience for any book he or she wants to write. Now an author can publish on demand.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A book is a book is a book

When I was waiting for Doubleday and Dutton to finally publish my books -- nine months seemed so long! -- I'd ask myself when does a book become a book.

Is it when you finish the manuscript, or when you sell it? Is it when you turn in the revisions, or when the first galleys come out, or the first bound proofs? Or is it only when the book itself comes out in all its hardback glory? Or is really only when bookstores put it on the shelf -- or in the window! -- or when a newspaper publishes a review?

You could say a book becomes a book only when it's in a reader's hands. The point of a book, after all, is to communicate something, and there's no communication until it's received.

That may be true, but I gotta say, when I ripped open the UPS package today and took out the proofs for my new book, The Grand Mirage, I thought -- now this is a book! After so many years of working on it, seeing the book in print -- inky print on paper -- is a big, big moment.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

My Road to Self-Publishing

When I sold my first novel to E.P. Dutton in 1988 for a substantial advance, I thought I had it made as a writer. Richard Marek, the editor who bought it and also the chief executive of Dutton, had been Robert Ludlum’s first editor and the one question he had for me before he made the offer was whether I’d be willing to write other similar novels.

Uh, sure. It had been my ambition from age 10 to be a writer and I went into journalism to further that goal. When I first signed up with my agent, June Hall, in London, she suggested pitching a nonfiction book first, since they are so much easier to sell, even though my goal all along had been to write fiction.

So in 1982 she got me in to see Lord Weidenfeld in his home on the Embankment and he bought UK rights (he wanted global but June wanted to make separate sales) to my nonfiction book on the debt crisis on the basis of a 10-minute pitch, without a word being written and not even an outline. We subsequently sold U.S. rights to Doubleday (Phil Pochoda) and Canadian rights to Lester & Orpen, Dennys (Louise Dennys).
The dream continued and Debt Shock, as it became, got a full-page review in the New York Times Book Review when it was published in 1984.

Those were the days. Dick Marek bought my novel, a financial thriller entitled Gold, on the basis of five chapters and a synopsis. He worked on it himself and had a number of very helpful suggestions on plot, characters, writing – a great editor. However, virtually the day in 1989 my novel was published, Penguin shut down Dutton, firing all the editors, including Marek, and keeping it only as an imprint. My book was orphaned without any support.

Working full time as a journalist, it turned out, was not necessarily conducive to writing books, so my next proposal came in 1992 for an ambitious labor of love – a book about post-Communist Europe based on Joel Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America. This book became The New Superregions of Europe and Dutton, which had the option to buy my next book, exercised the option and published it in 1994.

A number of things kept me from writing another book for a while – changing jobs, a move back to the U.S. after 20 years in Europe, divorce, parents’ illness and death. Then came 9/11, which prompted me to abandon a political thriller I had been working that included a terrorist attack on Washington. Just didn’t have the stomach for it (though Vince Flynn and a number of other thriller writers have had great success with that plot).

I returned to an idea then that had caught my attention in the years I spent covering Deutsche Bank – the building of the Baghdad Railway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Deutsche Bank played a major role in financing the railroad from Constantinople to Baghdad because the Kaiser was very interested in completing a land link to the Indian Ocean (in Germany the project was generally referred to as the Berlin-Baghdad Railway). The British, concerned about a threat to their overseas empire in the subcontinent, were not keen on the project and it became a pawn in the Great Power maneuvering over the ailing Ottoman Empire.

Great stuff for an historical thriller, I thought, and I worked on it for years, making a British peer who was an accomplished Orientalist and a sometime agent for the British Foreign Office the protagonist of what I hoped would become a series set in the Middle East just prior to and during World War I.

I thought it would be a great field for adventure, intrigue and a chance to revisit a Middle East that has vanished but is the stuff of legend that lies deeply embedded in the subconscious of us Westerners. When I finished the novel, I found an agent, Mel Parker, who was equally enthusiastic about it. Mel had been a longtime editor in chief of the Book of the Month Club and was used to having his finger on the pulse of what people would buy. He was confident he could sell the book.

Alas, it was not to be. A publishing market rocked by evolving technologies and then the financial crisis was floundering and making it particularly difficult to sell fiction. The consolidation of the industry, the focus on the bottom line, the disappearance of midlist authors had transformed a cottage industry into a manufacturer and franchiser of bestsellers. Editors no longer edited, they acquired, and they acquired books that were similar to books that had just been successful, until by some fluke a Da Vinci Code comes along and changes the paradigm for what is considered successful.

Mel worked hard at it but we eventually had to accept there was not a market for the book in the New York publishing world.

In the meantime, technology continued to evolve. The Internet, social networking, smart phones destroyed the role of gatekeepers in media, hitting newspapers, magazines and eventually book publishing. For books, print on demand became an initial liberator, transforming the tainted world of vanity publishing into something more credible. POD became possible because Amazon brought the corner bookstore into everybody’s home.

It is, however, the ascendancy of the e-book in the past couple of years that is truly transforming the world of books. Amazon’s Kindle was revolutionary, and then the iPad definitively tipped the balance, not only because of its own massive sales but because it increased the acceptability of other e-readers. Now, it is said, sales of e-books exceed sales of print books.

Friends and colleagues of mine were reporting new success in finding an audience for their unpublished books. Whereas even a few years ago, the paradigm for self-publishing was to order up a hundred POD copies of your book and pack them in your trunk to make the rounds of bookstores for signings, the new paradigm now is to sell your book in digital format for $3 and promote it through Facebook, Amazon and other powerful social networking tools.

Publishing houses may continue to have a role in manufacturing bestsellers. Increasingly, they will seek their new acquisitions among the growing stream of self-published books.

It has taken me some time to accept all this. I was spoiled by earlier successes into thinking that my road was what I continued to think of as the “high road.” But traditional publishing is about to be blown away. There is no high road or low road, just a broad digital highway that allows readers to find the books they are interested in and writers to find their audience. I found a great packager to design my POD and e-book and my historical thriller about the building of the Baghdad Railway, The Grand Mirage, will be published, under my imprint of Barnaby Woods Books, in October.