Ten Harsh Truths I Learned Writing a Moderately Successful Series For A Small Press
Potter’s Field, the fifth and final Ash McKenna book—which started with New Yorked in 2015—is available today in hardcover and eBook. It is real weird to be at the end of this journey. Writing a series is tough. Not just on writers, but on publishers, and even on readers. But I had an idea to tell the origin story of a private detective and Polis took a chance on me and I will be forever grateful for that.
Next up: One more book with Polis. Take-Out and Other Tales of Culinary Crime will hit in January, and collect the short stories I’ve been writing that carry a shared theme of food and noir (think warring food trucks, a bagel maker defending his storefront, a restaurant scam…)
Then, The Warehouse in summer 2019. A book I was afraid to write for a very long time, because I thought I wasn’t a good enough writer, but it sold in a pre-empt to Crown at Random House, has currently sold in 19 countries outside the US, and has been optioned for film by Ron Howard.
Which is pretty different than the experience I’ve had thus far.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I got a nice bit of coverage and attention working with a small press, but the best thing I got was a place to cut my teeth and learn. I learned a lot. Some of which I wanted to share here.
Writing a series is hard… on readers
As hard as it is for me to remember what was in the first book when I’m writing the fifth book… it’s really hard to ask readers to invest in roughly 375,000 cumulative words of story. There are people I know and love deeply who tell me they haven’t even started reading the first! And to that I say—as long as you bought it, I’m good. It bummed me out a little in the beginning, how I thought everyone I ever interacted with would pick up the books the moment they dropped, and then I slowly learned something I already kinda knew: books are competing with a lot of other forms of media that are easier and more immediate. You can watch a movie while you check your e-mail. You can drive while you listen to an album. If you’re reading a book, you’re doing pretty much that and nothing else for hours on end. It’s a lot to ask. And when people do read, when they follow your character through all five books—damn is it a privilege.
Some stuff will remain out of reach
Selling audio rights on the Ash books was a battle. I never got a sliver of interest on foreign. And I signed a shopping agreement to a production company, from which I got a free lunch and nothing else. Plus, as good as Polis was at muscling into the big kid scrum (trade reviews, stock in bookstores and libraries, a few big press hits), there’s still some stuff that remained out of reach. For example: those lists of the year’s best books? Ever notice how they’re generally made up of the same five to ten books that just so happened to have huge marketing budgets? This isn’t a ding on their quality—many of those books are very good. But when Publishers Weekly named The Woman from Prague one of the best books of the summer, I felt like I hit the lottery. That doesn’t happen a lot with smaller presses.
Readers need to be able to root for you (and your character)
Real talk time: there are authors I just straight up don’t want to read because of how overwhelmingly negative they are online. I get that things are tough all over, and I get that social media is a good place to vent, but, woo. Reel it back in a bit. I’ve fallen for this trap and I’m trying to be more thoughtful about it—there’s a difference between brutal honesty and just straight-up brutality. Some more real talk: I know a lot of folks writing tough guy characters who are assholes for the sake of being assholes—because their bad decisions create problems that keep a book going, rather than actually moving the plot forward. The most important thing to me about Ash was that he had to be someone you felt bad for and wanted to succeed. He may have had a smart mouth and a hard fist and do dumb things, but it was important that people understood why, and could believe it, and wanted him to be better. If your series is dragging, maybe it’s because your character is a drag.
Invest in your future… but don’t max out your credit cards
I tell this to people constantly (since my office is in a bookstore and I see it first-hand): doing a signing does not guarantee people will show up. Stores don’t have built-in audiences that show up to every event. They’re relying on you to pull people in, or for the buzz around your book to be big enough to attract a crowd. I did some touring for my books, and it was hit or miss. At Poisoned Pen in Arizona, not a lot of people came out. At Murder by the Book in Houston, there were 20-something people in the audience and I didn’t know any of them. It’s about showing up, being a good sport, charming the booksellers, signing copies for mail orders—they remember you, and if they liked your book they hand-sell you, and if they run out of copies, maybe they order more. I wasn’t getting a lot of financial support for the tour (which is fine, it’s a small press, I wasn’t expecting to get my tour comped), and I was very fortunate to be able to afford to travel (though I started off this year with a bit more credit card debt that I would have liked). I know travel is out of reach for a lot of folks so I want to say, too, that it’s not going to make or break you. Good news is you can write a lot of your touring expenses off on your taxes. Cha-ching!
Conferences are a lot of fun and you should do them
I am a big believer in community, and the way spending time around like-minded people can recharge your creative batteries. Conferences are a great way to connect with fellow authors, as well as network—I laid the groundwork for a gig co-writing a novella with James Patterson while sitting at the bar of a Sheraton in Raleigh, NC, for Bouchercon. Again, I know there are financial impediments to attending conferences, and those suck, but if you can swing it, they are very good. I was nervous before attending my first one and I’m glad I got over it. And before each new conference I tend to hem and haw a bit before I book my tickets, and afterward I’m always thankful I did.
You have to give stuff up
People constantly ask me how I write so much. Because that first novel, you have your whole life, but once you're writing your second, it's a job and you have a deadline. The truth is: my wife was a huge help, and gave me space to work. And sometimes I felt like I was approaching a dangerous level of burnout. Sometimes I didn't want to work and I forced myself to! But also, you have to give stuff up. I used to watch baseball and football. Not so much anymore. Can't spare the time. I am way more likely to give up on TV shows and books now that I used to be—if something is not grabbing me in an immediate way, I can't spare the time. I'd rather get my work done.
Fuck social media
Seriously. Fuck social media. I do it because I feel like I have to, and in a lot of ways, I do—it’s good to be able to connect with readers, and network with people, and sometimes just remind folks you have a book out. Plus I like promoting the books I’m reading. But I’ve been ramping down my social media use (without making big announcements about it because *eye roll*) because I think I’m better off focusing on the work. Social media isn’t the work. It’s the water cooler where you go and gossip about what’s happening in the office. And that’s not the worst thing! Sometimes you need that. But the longer you spend there, the less time you’ve got your ass in the seat, doing what really matters. I know we hear a lot about “brand building,” but you can’t build a brand without a product. If all you are is a brand with nothing behind it, then you’re basically a Kardashian. I don’t want this to sound like too much of a lecture—if you want to spend all day on Twitter, fine, cool, you do you!—but keep in mind how much work you’re not getting done.
The more you learn the more you realize you don’t know
I started a craft column over at my website. I’ve been wanting to do one for a while now but I figured, who the fuck am I to be giving anyone advice? With The Warehouse deal, combined with eight years working for a publisher, I figure I might have learned enough to impart some wisdom. That said, there’s still a lot I don’t know, and to pretend like I have all this figured out would be really dishonest. The Warehouse may have done banging business but when I sent it to my agent I thought it was unpublishable. So I try to include a shaker of salt with anything I tell people. And yet I still marvel at people with no real track record who will tell you how things are. It’s borderline dangerous, and to that I say: don’t listen to me just because I’m saying stuff, and don’t listen to anyone else unless they’ve got a real, proven track record. Do the research. There is so much information out there, just on the web. There are a lot of ideas I had about the industry when my first book came out that I realize were very foolish. Always, always consider your source. Even if your source is me.
The problem might be (and probably is) you
I alluded to this in the previous point, but—I had a lot of ideas how things were and weren’t when I started out. And sometimes when things wouldn’t go my way, I would find someone to blame. Like “the market” or “readers” or “gutless editors” or whatever. I still hear the refrain that big publishers don’t like good or dark or difficult books. Which is about as far from the truth as you can get. The thing is, publishers want good books. Full stop. And just because you wrote a book doesn’t mean it’s ready for the majors. I expected New Yorked to be a major, big press book, but now I can look back and say it wasn’t—it was a nice jumping off point for my career, but it was not a Big Five book. I was still finding my way. Not to say publishing is always fair, or everyone has your best interest in mind. I say again, because someone will definitely jump down on my throat for harshing their pity party: not everything in publishing is fair, and not everyone has your best interest in mind. I know. But if I ever hear the word “gatekeeper” again, I am going to… do something extreme. It’s late and I can’t think of a clever thing to say. But trust me, it’ll be nuts! So don’t say it!
Don’t make so many bookmarks… and don’t make business cards at all
I put in a big order for bookmarks years ago and I still have them. They are all over the fucking house. I keep them in my work bag in case I need to hand them out and find I rarely, rarely need to hand them out. Though they’re better than business cards, because what are we, fucking accountants?
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