earlemerson.com Mysteries, thrillers, home of PI Thomas Black

Interview with the Author — part II

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Top of Mount Si, 4167′, mid December 2013, facing Seattle which is fogged in.

You’ve just brought out Monica’s Sister in trade paper? How was that process and what are your thoughts on it?

Originally I was planning to write more Thomas Black mysteries for e-format only, but there were a lot of complaints about the book not being available in paper, so I backtracked and told people the paper version would come out in time for the holidays, which it did.

Was the process difficult?

Having already put older books on Kindle, Nook and Kobo e-readers, I thought it would be simple, but it turned out to be harder than I thought. There was a lot of tinkering with the format and going over proofs. And then, after reformatting it multiple times, we had to proofread it again. I’m not very good at proofing my own stuff but I had help. At any rate, it’s out in paper now so people are happy.

Are they selling better in paper than in e-book format?

It’s too early to tell. I’ve done virtually no promotion aside from a post on my website, so it will be a gradual process of discovery for readers, which is not the best way to sell books, or anything else. Books are sold best when they’re put right in somebody’s face. That’s why the top ten racks in supermarkets, airports and in the front of bookstores work. There they are. Ten of them. Choose one. For years Adams News Service—now defunct— was splashing my paperbacks all around the Northwest in Fred Meyers, Safeway, Sea-Tac airport and other places and they sold very well. Now, due to changing economies, monopolies, greed of the big corporations, the Internet, you name it, most of those paperback pockets no longer exist. Paperback sales for all writers all across the country have plummeted. But now we have the e-book.

What are your thoughts on e-books?

In 1920 New York City had 50,000 cars but they also still had 20,000 horses on the streets. I think we’re in a comparable place now with paper and e-books. I know this sounds like I’m a traitor to my own industry, but I very much like e-books. I like being able to carry around three hundred books in little package. I like changing the font size at will. I like the fact that they’re flat and I can read them while I’m eating; I don’t have to hold the page open with one hand. I like the little light built into the cover which means I can read late into the night without keeping my wife awake. Most of all, I like the accessibility. I finish reading one book by an author I admire and I can have the next book inside of thirty seconds. Books have never ever been this accessible. And prices for e-books are still coming down.
I also like the ability to get my novels out there without a publisher. I’ve always had good relations with my publishers and Ballantine treated me very well for a lot of years, but there’s something freeing about being able to do the whole thing on my own, on my own timetable, collecting royalties without the money trickling through two or three sets of hands before I see it. On the downside, there are no advances on royalties, there are no major reviews and there’s nobody doing marketing for me, but right now I can live with all that in exchange for a larger slice of a much smaller pie.

But with e-readers you don’t have any books on your shelves. You can’t hold them in your hand, smell them, pass them out to friends.

All true, but people said the same thing about horses but these days nobody seems to mind the fact that the roads aren’t covered in road apples. I’ve never been much of a book hoarder or a collector, so that doesn’t bother me, although I know there are people who swear they’ll never read an e-book. I was in a similar mindset . . . until I borrowed one and tried it. But then, I was quick to adopt the computer for writing, abandoning my typewriter. There are still some authors writing on typewriters.

There are a lot of e-books on the Net for $.99. There are also long lists of free books. How do you establish your pricing and what about some of these new e-book author millionaires?

To begin with, for every e-book millionaire there are a thousand, maybe five thousand authors who’ve put a book out there and made five or ten sales and then given up.
I don’t know if you’re asking me to lower the price on my own books, but I did a fair amount of experimenting with pricing when I first began placing the Thomas Black backlist on the e-platforms and, within reason, it didn’t seem to make any difference what the prices were, as long as they were under five dollars. I have one title at $.99 and it is not my bestselling title, not even close. I am, however, thinking about making one of the early Thomas Blacks free. There are a lot of free lists out there and this might expose my writing to more readers.
One thing that’s changed from the old days. My hardcovers usually sold for full cover price, while the New York Times bestseller list would be in the front of the store for about 40% less than list price. Any reader coming into the store who didn’t know what they wanted, would immediately be attracted to a cheaper price and the popularity factor of buying a “bestseller.” It seemed like an unfair advantage.
Since the publishers set my prices, there wasn’t anything I could do about the price gap. Now that I’m my own publisher, I can set the price the way I want. My goal is to keep prices as inexpensive as I can manage and always less than anything on the New York Times bestseller list. I am not, however, planning to work for free.
As far as the new author millionaires who’ve made it big on the Net, I’ve read a few of them and so far have not been impressed. I’d like to say that in the end, the writing will out, but I’ve been around long enough to know good writing alone won’t get you very far. In fact, most readers don’t give a hoot for good writing. Most readers will read a sloppy, non-thinking author again and again — if you put the books in front of them. I’m trying to put out thoughtful, carefully crafted books that resonate on more than one level, books you can’t put down, and which stick with you after you’re finished. I may not always succeed, but that’s what I’m working toward.

You think that will propel you onto the bestseller lists?

Absolutely not. In fact, you can make a cogent argument that you should dumb down your writing in order to make it digestible for the largest reading population possible.

But you don’t dumb down your writing?

Not consciously. It may be dumb, but not because I’m aiming for that effect. I simply write the type of books I like to read.

And do you succeed?

Not always. But I always give it a good shot. In the past four years I’ve thrown out two rather massive novels. Sometimes the project just does not jell in the way you thought it would.

Why Thomas Black? Why not reprise some of the characters in one of your six stand-alone firefighting thrillers?

That’s a good question and one for which I don’t have an easy answer. All I can say is that Thomas Black is the character readers ask about more often than any other. Also, it had been a long time since I’d written about Black and if I was ever going to do it, the time was now. A lot of readers have a fondness for Black that I haven’t been able to generate for other characters I’ve placed in my novels. Part of that is he’s featured in my longest running series and people become attached to a series character. Oddly enough, so does the author . . . become attached to a series character. It was great fun to come back and write more Thomas Blacks after a ten year hiatus.

What was that like?

I had a challenge with aging my characters. In the first books, The Rainy City and others, Thomas Black is somewhere in his indeterminate thirties, Kathy a bit younger. But now, almost fifteen years have passed since the last book. The question in my mind was, do I put Thomas into his mid-forties where he would actually be by now or, do I skip ahead fifteen years and leave him the same age, hope nobody notices. After all in the first books he resided in a world without cell phone technology where, when he made a series of phone calls on the road, he needed to find a phone booth and a pocketful of quarters. Even though it makes little sense realistically when you read the books straight through in order, I left Thomas in his mid-thirties, Kathy a bit younger, while I aged the world around him, gave him cell phone technology, modern computers, the Internet. It is really awesome to think about how much the world has evolved in the past twenty years.

Wasn’t it hard to bring Black and Kathy back to life?

I thought it was going to be, but once I got started it was the most natural thing in the world. I really like these two characters and right now feel I can go on writing about them for a long time. The hardest aspect of diving back into their world was capturing Black’s dark and sometimes irrelevant humor. He has something of the idiot about him, which endears him to Kathy, and sometimes endears him to the reader.

So where did the idiot part of Thomas come from?

I’ll give you two guesses. Actually, I have to tone down the idiocy to make it believable, which exemplifies what has always been the big problem with fiction. It has to be believable. I find myself frequently forced to tone down real-life stories I’m putting in fiction because the details of what really happened are simply not believable.

What’s up next?

Two Miles of Darkness is the working title of the 14th Thomas Black. I’m working on it right now and I’m really jazzed about it. I think it’s turning out terrific.

We’ll look forward to that. When is it due out?

Right now I’m thinking early summer for the e-book version, pre-Thanksgiving for the paper issue.

And after that, what?

More Thomas Blacks for certain. Perhaps a fictional series about guns and the gun culture set in a slightly modified America. Also, I have a family memoir I’ve been thinking about fooling around with. We had a rather helter-skelter upbringing and it ended in tragedy for some members of my family. I’m interested in exploring that.

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7 Thoughts on “Interview with the Author — part II

  1. E-books vs Books. It is nice to have options. I used to hate the idea of electronic books.
    But then my mother is nearly blind and the only way she can read a book is with her electronic gadget. Then received a Nook at a gift. I don’t use too much for e-book as I do for watching Netflix. However I like the idea of being able to have a ton of reading material on a slim device. Still I love just having books to read then put up on my selves or share with friends.

    • The biggest change with e-books and which I haven’t mentioned, is that they can be much less expensive. Amazon charges me six or seven cents for delivery of each e-book you order from them. Paper and handling costs, of course, are zero. I’m about to make one of my earlier books free. Impossible with paper. In the end, cost will out and they’ll take over in a way we cannot even imagine. Still, I’m like you. More than half of all the books I read now are paper, usually from the library.

  2. Richard Clark on 29 December, 2013 at 4:38 pm said:

    However he publishes I ail read him!

  3. Marianne Henderson on 29 December, 2013 at 4:41 pm said:

    Santa brought me a Kindle Christmas ’12 & I’ve read 400+ books on it since then, a year ago. Being a 1 handed/1 legged cripple, the Kindle makes my reading so much easier than trying to hold a book open. I love reading because via books I can go places & do things (in my imagination) that I can’t begin to do in reality any more since an uninsured, illegal alien changed my life 23+ years ago. I love the Thomas Black books (I was pleased to see my favorite vacation place in my former able bodied life, The Sandpiper, mentioned in one of them!) but also EXTREMELY enjoyed the 2 firefighter novels, knowing you were writing based on personal experiences.

  4. Michele Layacan on 30 December, 2013 at 1:09 pm said:

    Happy Holidays Earl! Probably a half dozen times or so in the past year I have found new authors to read by downloading a book they had listed for free! If I liked the book enough then I would see what else they had and ended up buying several books! If you list a Thomas Black for free make it the first one with previews of the next books in the series. I’m willing to bet that you would have a great response! Just an idea from my experience!

  5. Gracie on 30 March, 2014 at 8:23 am said:

    I am an avid real book reader. I recently picked up a copy of your Black Series. Loved it. My problem is I like to read series and in order. Even with my new ereader I know I will always keep paperback on my shelves. Don’t rule out giving someone a chance to read your stuff in all mediums. Thanks

    • admin on 30 March, 2014 at 6:08 pm said:

      The Thomas Black novels are not all in print at this time, although all but one are available in e-book form on Kindle and Nook. This is not my doing and I’m working towards rectifying the situation. All new books from me will be in both paper and e-book form, as was Monica’s Sister, although I took a while to get the paper version out. In the not-to-distant future I hope to have everything available again in paper. Don’t know when.

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