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.