Monday, June 10, 2013

What I Learned About Writing By Writing, Part 7

The last several years have shown that no matter how long you've been at it, no matter how many books you've published, no matter how much praise (or not) you've received for your work, making a living as a writer is always a struggle. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not in the upper echelon of successful authors who always land on the New York Times Best-seller list. However, I've managed to stay in business by capitalizing on my strengths, moving forward, and watching for those wonderful doors that appear every now and then. I still believe in walking through those portals--or at least knocking on them--to see what's on the other side.

In 2006, I signed up with Agent #6, Peter Miller--actually he calls himself a "literary manager"--and I've been with him ever since. Of all my agents, I've been with him the longest. My career has been a series of original novels that readers and critics seemed to like, but the public never catapulted to big sales. No "Big Six" publisher has ever published one of my original thrillers, believe it or not, so I've gone with smaller presses. One of those is now out of business. My tie-in work, however, is always published by a Big Six publisher, and that's the area where I've made most of my income. Besides tie-in work, Peter has found ghost-writing jobs for me that has kept me in curry. For a while I had an Italian publisher that promoted the heck out of me in that country--where I became slightly popular--and I made several trips there for book tours and such--but then that publisher recently went out of business, too. I had a couple of near-calls in Hollywood earlier in the last decade, when two of my original thrillers were optioned, but nothing ever happened. 

Recently, though, the Black Stiletto series--my new endeavor on which I've spent six years--is making the rounds in Hollywood and is in development as a television's in the "fingers-crossed" stage at this point.

The words "platform" and "brand" bubbled to the forefront at writers' conferences in the past several years. Authors had to think about their work and career in terms of branding themselves and establishing an identifiable platform through which they could market their books. Fashioning a platform that works is more difficult than it sounds. For example, in '08 and '09, I wrote a couple books that I called "rock 'n' roll thrillers," featuring a detective who operated in the music industry. A Hard Day's Death and Dark Side of the Morgue were humorous, tongue-in-cheek thrillers with lots of in-joke references to rock music. They were fun and readers liked them--one was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original P.I. Novel--but unfortunately they were published by the small publisher that went out of business. So they didn't sell. Bummer. So that "platform" didn't work (but, hey, folks, the titles are still available as e-books and are also collected with a rare short story in an anthology called The Rock 'n' Roll Detective's Greatest Hits!). So I went back to the drawing board and tried something new... the Black Stiletto... and maybe that's going to stick. The jury's still out.

What has really turned things around is the e-book revolution. Back at the beginning of the Millennium, you'll recall, I took a chance and went with a new publisher that was experimenting with e-books and print-on-demand. Ten-eleven years ago it didn't work. Today, that's where the future of publishing lies. All of my backlist titles are available for Amazon Kindle--including my James Bond novels--and I've sold more e-books than I ever did with print. When Amazon put the first Black Stiletto book on the "Deal of the Day," it shot to the top-ten Kindle best-seller list for several days.

Social media has become the main promotional tool for authors. Facebook is a god-send. Authors these days must not only know how to write a good book, but they need to be able to market themselves. Publishers don't do it for you. I spend nearly as much time on promotion and marketing as I do writing. Now there are too many social media sites, and authors must pick and choose which ones work best for them.

I've explored several other doors that have popped up in front of me. I got a chance to teach film history and other film-related courses at a junior college, so I grabbed it and enjoy doing that one day a week--mostly because it's fun and it's a topic I love. I've teamed up with Daily Herald (Chicago) film critic Dann Gire and formed "Dann & Raymond's Movie Club" seven years ago; we perform live shows every month at area libraries for growing audiences--we've become quite popular. I dip my toe into theatre again every now and then--I'll be directing something this fall in Chicago. I continue my music--I've given three solo piano concerts in the past year, and I play here and there and at my synagogue with a klezmer band.

And I keep writing. At this time, I'm nearly finished penning the fifth and final Black Stiletto novel. After that's done, we'll see...there could be another original thriller, or maybe some tie-in work or work-for-hire, or who knows what else on the horizon.

WHAT I LEARNED:  The e-book revolution has turned out to be a good thing. Authors need to know how it works and how to market their books in this new and exciting medium. That said, I've learned that if you want Hollywood to take you seriously, you also need to be published in print (although I know of a few exceptions!). I've also learned that Hollywood is very fickle and indecisive and cheap. Gone are the days of receiving a lot of money for an option unless you're a big name or the book is a best-seller that every studio wants.

I still rely on my Theatre degree--more and more I realize it wasn't a waste! I still use what I learned back in college in everything I do.

I taught myself how to write a novel by writing a novel, and then writing another one, and then another one. It's important to know that every writer has his/her own method of doing it and that there's no right or wrong way to write. A lot of the so-called "rules" can be broken. One story I like came from my friend Lee Child, who questioned the notion that some critics/editors/readers criticize a manuscript by saying, "You must show, not tell," which Lee says is B.S. "We're storytellers, not storyshowers," he says. Folks, authors TELL a story, not SHOW it! That's one of those silly rules you always hear that frankly makes no sense.

I've learned to live with disappointments and try my best to keep looking for doors to open. I'm confident that if "the writing thing doesn't work out" that another one of those doors will open unexpectedly--it's always happened in the past and will again. The main thing is to stay positive, don't compare yourself to other authors, take criticism with a grain of salt, and keep looking for and opening doors to go through.

You never know what's on the other side.

Monday, June 3, 2013

What I Learned About Writing By Writing, Part 6

The James Bond gig ended at the end of 2002. I'd "had my six." :)

What to do next? It had been an exciting but turbulent seven years in Bondage but I really wanted to write my own original novels. Peter Janson-Smith had served as my literary agent during the Bond years (he was Agent #3), but he handled only the Bond work. So the first order of business was finding a new agent. At that time, agents were still a necessary element of being a published author.

I quickly found that even though I had established myself in a major way as the latest Bond author, I was still starting over from scratch. The Bond credentials easily got my foot in the doors of agents and publishers, but that history also served, in a way, to pigeonhole me. For the first several years after the Bond gig, editors compared any work I did to the type of books the Bonds were and seemed to have blinders on regarding anything else I attempted. 

Agent #4 appeared and solicited me (it was kind of nice having it go the other way) so I signed up. He immediately tried to sell the second original thriller I had written, a piece entitled Face Blind. The first original thriller, Evil Hours, had actually been written during the Bond years and I had tried to sell it myself. No New York publisher was interested; however, a company experimenting in e-books and a website featuring serial novels (remember, this was the years 2000-2001, prior to the real advent of e-books as a phenomenon) approached me for material. I sold them Evil Hours, which was published as an e-book, print book, and serial novel. And then the company quickly went out of business! Luckily, I was able to retrieve the rights.

Well, no one was interested in Face Blind either, but another publisher--based in the UK--was experimenting with Print-On-Demand books as well as e-books. That was a very new concept and Agent #4 convinced me that this was a way of the future and we should do that. So both Face Blind and Evil Hours (slightly revised) were published in this manner. Needless to say, it was too early in the world of publishing for POD and e-books to be successful. They had no visibility and went nowhere.

Agent #4 and I parted ways after two years. It hadn't worked out, although there were no bad feelings. However, around the same time (it was 2004 by then), one of those magical, unexpected career-doors opened for me. The editor who had worked on my Bond books at Penguin/Putnam called and offered me the job of creating two tie-in thrillers based on the very popular videogame Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell. It had been a while since I'd been involved in the gaming industry, and while I knew of the game, I'd never played it. It was work-for-hire, and the money was good, so I accepted. There was one hitch--I had to use a pseodonym... "David Michaels"... which was created by the publisher and Clancy's agent (who happened to be the Hollywood powerhouse, Michael Ovitz). The reason for this was because the publisher wanted to do an entire line of Clancy tie-ins written by several authors, but the marketing strategy was that they would appear to be written by the same person (there have since been, I think, four "David Michaels's"). I accepted the job and wanted a new agent to broker the deal.

By then I had written my third original thriller, Sweetie's Diamonds, so through a friend's referral, I spoke to a reputable agent and said, "Here's a sweet deal--if you promise to sell Sweetie's Diamonds, you can take the 15% of the Clancy profits, which were darned good." We signed up. So, for the next two years, I was "David Michaels" and published two NY Times Top Ten best-selling books (my first to hit the list); ironically, though, they weren't under my real name. But the kicker was that Agent #5 did nothing with Sweetie's Diamonds. When all was said and done, that relationship ended after the Clancy gig (I moved on after the two books).

I ended up selling Sweetie's Diamonds myself to a small publisher after a pitch session at the "Love is Murder" writers conference that is held annually in the Chicago area. By then I was rather desperate to have one of my originals published properly and went with the first entity that expressed interest. It turned out all right, but small publishers can only do so much in marketing and sales.

It was time for a new agent, someone who could really help me establish a Raymond Benson "brand" and "platform," and I'll talk about those two vital concepts in Part 7.

WHAT I LEARNED:  My work as the Bond author established me as a reliable "tie-in writer," which opened a new series of doors that provided me with paying gigs. I learned to nurture that skill in order to get bread-and-butter work. But as for my original work, I learned to be wary of new technology and publishing models until they were tried and proven. I jumped on the e-book and Print-On-Demand wagon way too early and before these methods were considered acceptable. Secondly, I learned that a relationship with a literary agent is like a marriage. You both have to bring something to the table and there must be mutual respect and common goals. You have to find the right "fit." Too many authors sign with the first agent who will accept them, and this can often be a mistake. Thirdly, be careful when signing with a small publisher. There are pros and cons. On the one hand, sure, you're published and have a book to show for it. On the other hand, as one friend of mine put it, "It can be detrimental to be under-published." I now believe my actions at that time were tantamount to a step backwards, considering where I had been in my career. 

To be continued...