Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ron Morgans' Kill Chase, and the little matter of building a career in the digital age

As the heading suggests, this post is going to be partly a review of Ron Morgans' thriller Kill Chase, and partly a short disquisition upon the art of building a career as a thriller writer (if you really feel you must) in the digital age.

Ron Morgans is a former Fleet Street picture editor -- there's lots more about him on his own web site -- and, presumably following retirement, he did what he'd always fancied doing, namely write a thriller.

As thrillers go, Kill Chase is perfectly competent. If you found it on the shelf in the crime/thriller section of your local library, took it home and read it, you probably wouldn't notice that it wasn't published by one of the top firms.

In fact, it's self-published through To which we will return in a moment. But first, it's only fair and reasonable to say a few words about the book.

Borrowing heavily from the blurb, here's a quick summary of the plot. Henrietta Fox is a paparazzo who takes a piccy of the Prime Minister's pregnant mistress with another man; the mistress gets murdered and the killer comes after the lovely Henrietta.

Christian Boyd is an ex-Royal Protection Officer living in Spain. When someone threatens to off the Queen, he is called back to duty.

And so on. The 'kill chase' takes our hero and heroine from Belgravia to Beverley Hills, Barcelona, and Jerusalem, and finally we end with blood staining the sands of Palestinian Gaza.

Now this is all good thriller-type stuff, as you can see. The question is, how well is it done?

The answer to that is, tolerably well. It's a neat professional job. Ron has not worked on the tabloids all those years for nothing. There are thirty-eight chapters in 250 pages, with short paragraphs and short sentences. He knows how to use viewpoint, which a lot of writers don't.

Should you wish to read the book yourself, it's available either direct from Lulu or via other online bookstores such as Barnes and Noble.

I don't know for sure, though I dare say Ron would tell us if we asked, whether he tried to get this book published through orthodox routes. He may well have approached a few agents or publishers. However, a retired picture editor, even an eminent one, is not quite the type of person that agents and publishers are looking for. What they really want is a more mainstream journalist, someone thirty years younger, who will look really cool (especially if female) on Richard and Judy's sofa.

In any event, it would have surprised me if, in the present market, Ron had succeeded in getting this done by one of the big firms. And whether he tried to go that route or not, Ron eventually went for self-publishing through Lulu.

Now. Let us pause here and consider the situation of a youngish person, male or female, but probably male in this genre, who fancies a career as a thriller writer. He looks around, and, if he's a Brit, he notes the success of people such as Jack Higgins and Ken Follett. They've had long careers, written many books, made lots of money, had films made, they've got fame if they want it, anonymity if they don't. And our young, ambitious writer fancies a bit of that.

I have argued elsewhere, notably in The Truth about Writing and On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, that such dreams are usually no more than dreams, and that the wise, mature individual will not pursue them, because that way lies deep and painful frustration if not actual madness.

But I will allow, in principle, that there is a rational way to at least make a reasonable stab at building such a career. And here's why, and here's how I think it needs to be approached in the digital age.

If you look at the careers of the two British thriller writers whom I mentioned above (and others, such as John Le Carre), you will see that they all started to write thirty or forty years ago. And they all produced a number of run-of-the-mill, fairly ordinary sort of books, before they hit the big time.

Let's start with Jack Higgins. We'll take the Wikipedia entry for starters, though there is masses more information elsewhere on the web. This makes it clear that Jack Higgins is one of many pseudonyms used by a man whose real name is Harry Patterson. Says Wikipedia: 'Patterson's early novels, written under his own name as well as under the pseudonyms James Graham, Martin Fallon, and Hugh Marlow, are brisk, competent, but essentially forgettable thrillers.' With which I would not disagree.

Patterson started writing in 1959 and it wasn't until 1975, and (by my count) his thirty-fifth book, that he produced a 'breakthrough novel' called The Eagle Has Landed. Even then, an agent once told me, Collins in the UK saw it as just another Jack Higgins book, until the Americans started getting all excited and everything took off big time.

Then there's Ken Follett. Wikpedia also has a useful article on him. We learn that, beginning in 1974, he published 'a series of competent but undistinguished paperback originals written under various pseudonyms.' It was not until his twelfth book that he made any real impact. This book is usually known by the title Eye of the Needle, but it was originally published in England as Storm Island.

The moral of all this is painfully obvious. Obvious that is, to anyone except a modern publisher. The moral is that, to become an internationally successful thriller writer you need time, practice, and experience. If you were writing anywhere between fifty and perhaps twenty years ago, you could get that time and experience, with a bit of luck.

You would begin, as everyone does, by writing a fairly run-of-the-mill book. Naturally you would think it was absolutely fantastic, because that is in the nature of writers, but other people would see it as promising as best. And in the days when there was a library market, British publishers (I can't speak for elsewhere) would have taken you on. At first they wouldn't make any money, and neither would you. But gradually you would begin to get a few reviews in provincial papers, perhaps the odd mention in a broadsheet, and ultimately -- just possibly, perhaps, maybe -- you might write a book which everyone could get genuinely excited about. Instead of trotting out the old pre-publication bullshit.

But those days, in the publishing world, are gone. There isn't any library market to sustain a young writer. And the friendly old publisher, puffing his pipe, who understood that these things take time, has been replaced by a thrusting young somebody who is under pressure from his multinational conglomerate to come up with a big hit now. And preferably sooner.

And we all know what this leads to. It leads to run-of-the-mill books being published as if they were fantastic. Which they ain't. It would be invidious to give examples, but, at the risk of being thought vindictive, I'll give one anyway: The Righteous Men, by Sam Bourne.

I've had my say about The Righteous Men, here in this blog, many a time. Notably on 20 July this year. I haven't read the book, but I think it's fair to say that objective critics who have regard it as ordinary at best. And who can be surprised by that? It is, I venture to suggest, well nigh impossible to write an absolutely cracking thriller straight out of the box. It just doesn't happen, and it does no one any good -- most of all the readers -- to pretend that it's possible.

OK, so where does that leave our young man who wants to be the new Higgins/Follett?

I suggest that it leaves him with one clear and unambiguous strategy, which could be followed, and possibly successfully, if only our young man has the good sense to recognise his own limitations and to find within himself enormous amounts of patience and energy.

The strategy is this. You write a thriller, and you publish it yourself, through Lulu, or some similar outlet. You devote a certain amount of time to publicising it, but you have sufficient strength of character, and sufficient background knowledge, to understand that this time it ain't going to happen. Or the next, either, if it comes to that.

And you repeat that pattern perhaps half a dozen times. With each book you accumulate some halfway decent reviews, a bit of notice here and there. And, above all, you hone your skills. And then -- maybe -- you might just be in a position, after five years or so, to write a book which will seriously interest an agent and a publisher, and which might, perhaps, set you on the road to success.

But of course the strategy might not work. And you really need to be prepared for that too. And the really, really difficult bit is not pretending that you don't care -- anyone can pretend.

The really difficult bit is being mature enough that you genuinely do not care. Because you did it for the fun of the thing anyway, and not because you had any unrealistic and foolish illusions about the way in which modern publishing works. Or doesn't work, as the case may be.


Anonymous said...

Bravo! This is a topic upon which His Grumpiness speaks with irreplaceable candor and insight. Too many writers wrongly dismiss Lulu and other avenues of self publishing as "vanity publishing," when in fact the the entire publishing industry, POD included, is changing 180 degrees from where it used to be. If writers would pay heed they would have a chance, but they remain stuck in the same old, tired belief systems of those, ahem, "in the know."

Your advice for new writers (and, frankly, "old" writers) is on target. To lift a quote from Elberry/Murdoch on your previous entry, "It's easier to publish garbage if you're known, than genius if you're unknown."

Anonymous said...

This is possibly the best post I have ever read in any blog ever on the topic of the difficulties facing the young genre writer.

My father is a midlist SF writer and academic and only started to have anything like a career when the number of novels he'd written approached the late 40s or early 50s (I really don't remember).

Unfortunately in today's world he didn't sell as was required and now finds securing a publisher impossible in the mainstream and challenging elsewhere. He'd never even have got a foot in the door had he been born 30 years after he was.

Anonymous said...

Publishing today is lethal. IF you're lucky enough to get that shot, the foot in the door, with the first book, and the first book isn't an all-out smash, you won't get another chance.
Publishers have the sales figures at their fingertips. If you haven't earned out, you're not getting a new contract. Forget growth and potential. They want return on investment.
Could be because publishing is now a marketers' game rather than a pursuit of intellectual quality.
Solution: write a new book under a pseudonym and start all over again.
Sucks, but that's about the best you can do.

Anonymous said...

Just an excellent post Michael!
Every writer must now more than ever consider the publishing options that are available.

Hemmingway was taught and constantly tutored by his editor and those days are gone. Writers with even a sprinkling of talent will need to seek alternatives to the perception of what was.

Anonymous said...

Please understand that this is not a rhetorical question.

'With each book you accumulate some halfway decent reviews' (GOB)

Tell me, how does an unknown get any reviews? (Those with connnections are in an entirely different position, and are not entitled to use their experience in evidence.)

Yet again, I stress that the question is not rhetorical. So please don't anyone treat it as such.

Anonymous said...

Susan. If you buy it from the Lulu link it cost 8 pounds. Don´t ask me why Amazon, etc charge such a mark up. Not my doing and I don´t get any more from them.

Gareth Young said...

This is a most articulate and well thought out point of view, and frankly a very encouraging one. However, I echo and amplify Iain's question.

To get review on lulu, people must buy your book. For it to make a difference, several must. With their rapidly growing unknown list, I don't know how this happens.

So I wonder if lulu ever becomes mature enough for there credible purchasers of unknown material to exist in sufficient numbers that they will post reviews that make a difference. I guess the push back is that this is precisely how the old world used to work. But isn't that the problem? Surely transience is encouraged even more on the web?

GOB's logic is beautiful, and I want to believe - I have a number of unpublished books (see e.g. - but I'm just not sure...

Anonymous said...

I have thought about this post, and while intriguing, wonder if the march of technology renders this future unlikely. Today's genre filters are becomeing ever more sophisticated, and it is not a big leap to think of them maturing into electronic online reviewers.

In this future world, success would be dictated by the ability of the new writer to ape existing successful books. This is not a world for which I want to be writing!

Maria said...

I liked this post. Very well thought out.

As to the question of where to get it reviewed--just like the regular publishers, self-published have to send out "Arcs" or some sort of book copy to reviewers--There are quite a few websites these days that review self-published books. They aren't the New York Times, but, I think these days you have to have to focus on the avenues that are available. Because of the internet there are more places to get reviewed.

One of my favorite self-pub reviewers is the pod-dy mouth website. I think there's a link from GOB page if I'm not mistaken.

Anonymous said...

A masterful review, Michael.

As to the massive differential in price between lulu (the publishers)via (author) Ron Morgans website and other outlets, I see that the title lists on both Bertram and Gardner wholesale lists at £17.50 (pod - firm sale) : the answer probably is in the supply terms offered by lulu to the regular wholesale trade.

Perhaps somebody from lulu will contact GOB and explain.

Elberry said...

Aye, there it is. GOB was quite right to emphasise the role of chance in whether an author is published or not. Having slowly read Neal Stephenson's 'Quicksilver' over the last month, i'm amazed it was published, but there it is. On the other hand there are probably dozens of great novels - of all genres - in desk drawers, having been rejected by every belly-patting agent in London.

Once upon a time i thought, having written a readable novel, it'd be published and i'd get some moolah, and the chance to write more. Now i just write for the pleasure it gives me. i have maybe half a dozen appreciative readers. How many did Milton have for 'Paradise Lost' in his lifetime? Or Dante for his Comedy? Probably not too many.

Perhaps paradoxically, i feel my writing is better now that i write for myself rather than some hypothetical audience. i edit stringently, but need make no concessions to some marketing fool. i hope that if i write anything of lasting value, it will somehow survive, and maybe be more widely read, after my pie-related demise. It seems best to write for the sake of the writing itself, and not waste energy on the lottery of publication.

Anonymous said...

I return to the fray. To the terror, perhaps, of the populace.

My previous comment lacked detail, so let me expand a little. First of all, bear in mind that the subject of our discussion is thrillers -- although it might as well be novels in general. Specialised works, catering to a well-defined niche market, are entirely different. And when I talk of an unknown getting reviews, what I have in mind is an unknown, rejected by mainstream publishers, getting reviews in prestigious outlets such as national newspapers.

There are those who say that reviews aren't nearly as important as some writers think. But the essential point is this: unless you have at least tens (and preferably hundreds) of thousands to spend on a marketing campaign, without such reviews nobody is even going to know that your book exists.

I'm with Zen Pen (above). Lulu now has a very long list indeed, and I just don't see how the best can be made to stand out. Everybody knows that Lulu books have not been independently screened, and that, consequently, almost all of them -- particularly works of fiction -- are going to be garbage. Apologies to those who take a sentimental attitude to the Great Unpublished, but if you don't believe me, try a few Lulu novels at random. There's plenty of sample material available, for which you don't have to pay a penny.

To move on. Susan Hill has said something interesting:

'If an unknown writer tries to sell a self-published thriller he is going to find life tough but it can be done.'

Well, Susan Hill is a fine writer, several of whose works I have read. But can she back this assertion up with examples? What bothers me is this: she has said elsewhere (sorry, can't face chasing up the reference) that, in order to have a book accepted by a mainstream publisher, all that is required is to write one that is good enough.

But this leads inevitably to the conclusion that a self-published thriller (presumably rejected by all mainstream houses) simply isn't good enough. So how could it be made to sell?

My position remains that a genuine unknown-and-unconnected, unless possessed of extraordinary luck in addition to rare talent, is not going to get a novel published anyway -- leastways not by a publisher who can make anything happen -- and that to give such a one any encouragement is simply irresponsible. Of course, for those like Elberry (above), who are happy to write for themselves, there isn't a problem. But a real unknown seeking a mainstream publisher for a work of fiction is chasing shadows.

Maria said...

I think I read somewhere that the NYT won't do reviews of self-pubbed. They already barely do enough with the ones they do. So back to my earlier point--I don't think you are going to get reviews at the majors-instead you focus on the other outlets building your brand elsewhere until you're noticed.

Or you could try bribes. That might work. :>)

Blogaulaire said...

GOB This post wraps up counselling and analysis of the book industry in a very readable packet, thanks.

anon: You are in the mainstream of thought with the remark 'Could be because publishing is now a marketers' game rather than a pursuit of intellectual quality.' But did any of the rest of us carry that one to another conclusion: that the 'self-published writer' is also facing the same marketing game, like it or no?

On the Canada side of the pond, we have been served up with news that it is the distributors who keep the wheels greased - control distribution and you are the keystone for what the public reads.

Sadly, one big distributor tied in with small presses on the Pacific West Coast (of both the US and Canada) has just gone belly up. I blogged what little is known at this time about the fallout of Chaper 11 bancruptcy for publishers involved with AMS.

So if an author explores the self-publishing avenue, finds a few reviewers, I seriously wonder whether they should then sign with a distributor who takes a huge chunk of the book's jacket price. In this market driven business, maybe we should advice writers' coops to explore self distribution direct to bookstores (any stores).

Anonymous said...

I'm so late to this discussion but I'd like to address the question of how a self-published writer gets reviewed.

Basically, you won't get reviewed. Accept that and perhaps you have a chance to be deflected to action to make the impossible possible.

The only thing, in my experience, one has to make sure of if one wants to get reviewed is NOT to tell them it's self-published. If you tell them you did it yourself, that you have no third-party 'expert' providing the official seal of approval then forget it. You are a self-regarding sad-sack and all you'll do is provide a butt for jokes made by people who earn a hundred quid to read a muckle great book then write about it. If they wanted to review a self-published book they'd write their own and be done with all the criticism.

You have to move the fiction up a dimension and place the book itself into your 'created world'.

I've no doubt that Michael is right. The only hope you have (outside of offering top-notch blowjobs; and even then...) is to keep writing what Susan Hill might describe as 'good' books (because, while publishers publish mountains of shit every year they will not publish your shit).

Many of the most popular writers alive today just kept writing and writing and writing until they finally got a break.

Alternately, start young, be beautiful, go on a writing course where former students made good (and it must be relatively recent).

There's a guy up here in Glasgow who got a few quid to review my novel for the Big Issue. He didn't read it. He misquoted the back cover. He 'sussed' it was a vanity job and he took his sixty quid and tried to make a monkey of me. His editor backed him up "It's only a short review..." (So reviewers do not even have to skim a novel for a short review.)

But what is interesting about this character is that he took the 'sure' road with his own writing. He went after a famous writer and offered to let that writer shit all over him for a few years. He became an 'unpaid' secretary. The lure of a biography of his master must have been enough to slip a novel under the table.

Lo and behold he got his own publishing deal. He was on the right creative writing course, he made the right contacts and he did whatever was necessary to get published.

Anyone who thinks all they have to do is write a good book is completely deranged. This is what you're up against.

Are you a football manager? Do you have giant tits? Would you eat testicles on telly? Are you willing to have anyone and their cronies stick whatever they wish into your large colon?

Or have you a soul?

If you have a soul your task will be very difficult.

But never tell anyone you're self-published when you're trying to get reviewed.

Remember, it's the editor who decides what gets reviewed. So ideally you should send off something that looks like a galley rather than a real book, I'm told, although I never did that and I got a lot of reviews (with a couple still to come; two years after (self) publication).

I believe it's best if you call them on the phone and ask for a review. Again, this strategy meant that a couple of likely lads at The Telegraph got to laugh out loud at me because I live in Scotland and was thus unable to administer the required smack in the puss (yet). And I had to hear any number of quite astonishingly cruel comments. (In fact, right here, one of the posters wrote screeds about how I had lied about my reviews and it was only recently that he publicly apologized; after much damage was done.) Being self-published is a bit like being a smoker or a herion addict. The world gets to niggrafy you without a second thought.

Calling around to try to get your book reviewed is about a notch above sucking a publisher's cock (in terms of how it makes you feel; although I'm only guessing) so make sure you're mentally stable enough to take the kind of insults that will certainly be hurled at you by the majority of 'journalists' who actually speak to you. (They do 'find out' about you but you must not 'give it away'.)

One more point; aim high. While the reviewers themselves are often a big pain in the arse I found editors at the TLS the Guardian and other publications one might assume to be 'difficult' were extremely friendly. I called, they said send it in, I called again and they told me when it was getting reviewed. (I called as a small publisher flogging a novel.)

My local rag; The Glasgow Herald, and many shitty little magazines acted like they thought they were the New Yorker. They are part of a clique up here, and determined to keep my novel in failure for as long as they can (although they would simply laugh at such a suggestion).

But even if you get reviewed, as Michael points out, you'll probably have to write five or six more before lightning strikes (even with one of Ms Hill's 'good' books).

Things will change but only for the worse. The idea that the new age of technology will offer new opportunities is a fairy tale. Publishers will go on applying their own 'tastes' (for what else can they do?) and you will be invisible.

It is the art of becoming visible that counts; not whether you can write or not. I've never heard a single human say they enjoyed the da Vinci Code. Peter Kaye was selling 80,000 copies a week of his biography.

You have no chance against the hind-quarter metal plating strategies of the big publishers and it's too hard for a small publisher to make money from you (outside of sellng to a big publisher).

But you should still do it. I wrote a novel that some people think is marvellous. Others think it's crap. The ratio is about 2 marvellous to one
shitty and two in the middle. If a publisher scaled that it would make (at least) decent profits.

But why would they? Why risk maybe twenty grand on an unknown because your aunty Marge likes it when you could risk a million on someone's tits and if it fails you'll get a better job anyway because you've functioned at 'that level'?

People who work at large publishing houses are like people who work in any office. If you are seen to do the right thing and fail, well at least you tried. If you throw money at some nobody and it fails you're just reckless.

Small publshers have to survive and you don't survive by backing million-to-one shots.

Lie. Do what novelists do best. Lie and you have a chance; albeit a very small chance.

Sermon over.

Anonymous said...

Good grief! This is both so heartening and disillusioning, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Does it really boil down to:
“Write a lot, but it will be meaningless. Or not.”


Anonymous said...

Once more unto the breach . . .

Francis Ellen is rather cleverer than he lets on. Not only did he present himself as a real publisher (and back up his review copies with phone calls) but he gave reviewers a story, namely that The Samplist –- a cracking read, and reviewed here by the GOB –- is the first novel ever to include music performed by characters in the book.

That anyone hoping to sell a book dare not admit to being a self-publisher, I take for granted. When I tried it, I too pretended to be a new publisher. But all I did was to send review copies (forty in all) to what I thought likely outlets. I didn't have the nerve to phone anybody, and I didn't have a story to sell.

Now you'll just have to take my word for it that my book looks real –- you can't tell by its appearance, inside or out, that it isn't. But it's a non-genre novel by an unknown writer, brought out by an unknown publisher. It was never going to get any reviews (I lacked Francis Ellen’s chutzpah), and the more fool me for not realising it. Of course, it may be that reviewers tried it and thought it worthless, but you wouldn't expect me to believe that, would you?

Sadly, Francis Ellen is right in saying that 'Things will change but only for the worse.' I would suggest that anyone who doubts this might have a glance at The Bookseller. This is where publishers advertise their wares to the retailers, and they are always careful to emphasise just how big their marketing budget is, because they know that this is what will impress the buyers. To take just a couple of examples at random, in December 2004 Time Warner advertised the work of Mark Billingham thus: 'A £400,000 spend will take Mark Billingham to the very top in 2005'; and around the same time, the (ghosted) autobiography of Robbie Fowler, a has-been footballer, was advertised as being backed by a £300,000 campaign. Unless he or she is hugely wealthy, the self-publisher cannot compete.

Did you know that more than 100,000 new books are published every year in the UK? In 2000 –- I don’t have the figure for 2006 –- some 2,000 of these were novels. To quote John Sutherland in The Guardian, ‘Only a few hundred can get reviewed at all; only a few score get multiple reviews; only a handful get lead reviews. To achieve visibility for a new novel you need a big advertising budget and a lot of expensive pre-publication promotion. "Hype", in a word.’

I repeat, the average self-publisher hasn’t a prayer.

When you hear of the sensational success of some self-published novel, you would do well to dig a little deeper, and see if you can find out how this came about. There will be a story there, of which the quality of the work will not be the crucial part –- a story of incredible luck, an extremely rich author, or, just possibly, a brilliant self-promoter.

And finally. I note that Susan Hill has not yet taken up my invitation to give examples in support of her contention that an unknown self-publisher really can succeed with a thriller. I’m not saying she can’t, but I’d genuinely like to know. The invitation stands.

Unknown said...

Yet another one to come out and say: that was pretty amazing, Michael. 2007 is barely crawling yet, but I doubt I'll read something as insightful as this for the rest of the year.

I would like, however, to take matters a bit further. Once the one-in-a-million experienced thriller author happens to write a really good book, does he need publishers? If he's done his homework - blogging, networking and all those fancy new words - should he really cry with joy at the sight of a publisher who wants to take 85% of the profits away from him?

Sure, publishers have the upper hand when it comes to heavy marketing. But most writers will probably be better off if they keep doing what they've been doing. If you've written a good enough book and been a lucky enough person to make yourself visible, and comments above mine make it seem pretty hard to do so, then I say the hell with the blood-sucking middlemen. Even though I intend to be one.

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