A Beginning and An Ending

This week Thomas & Mercer, the mystery and thriller imprint of Amazon Publishing, is bringing out a re-edited version of my thriller A Fine and Dangerous Season. My heart is pounding against my ribcage with excitement. Does this mean more sales than ever? Does this mean I will become an author who can replace a day job’s earnings with royalties? Well, we’ll find out. But I figure at what may be a turning point, it’s also time to look back. How did I get here anyway?

Unlike so many writing friends, I never had my heart set on being an author. In fact, I never had my heart set on any one career. Before writing my first book, I worked on Capitol Hill as counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee (see photo on left — that’s me on the bottom right with Vice President Mondale et al.), ran for Congress, joined a high tech company, and then gave up a sabbatical to jump to a small networking start-up. At the  latter I loved my boss and co-workers, but after five years or so, I was feeling a little stale when I came across a course on mystery writing at UC Berkeley Extension and signed up. Margaret Lucke was a terrific teacher and gave me the impetus to start writing that first novel. However, after six months, I was still restless at my day job. So, I did what anyone in Silicon Valley would do – I started a company. No boredom there. It was years of 80-hour weeks while my half-done manuscript moldered in a desk drawer. Then the company began to get some traction, and I had a little free time. So out came the manuscript. I wrote for an hour weekdays starting at 5AM and, by packing a spare battery or two, I could rap on my keyboard for the six hours of cross-country airplane flights.

Once completed, I sent Dot Dead to agents. Lots of encouraging words, but only one word mattered – “yes” – and I didn’t hear that one from the first few dozen agents I queried. Finally, a former investment banker just starting a literary agency called and signed me up. Then it was her turn to circulate the manuscript, to publishers this time. Again the encouraging words without a contract. After around six months, though, came three yesses in the same week. We went with Midnight Ink, a prolific publisher of mysteries. A year-and-a-half after we signed
the contract, the book was out. Oh, rapture! I was an author. At Book Expo America, Margery Flax and company rounded up potential readers, and I signed dozens of copies (at left). While signing at the Midnight Ink booth during that BEA, I found myself next to a couple who had written a how-to book on tantric sex. “It really works,” the female co-author assured me.

What next? The company I had started was sold and then sold again. I decided to give this writing biz a fling and started writing full-time. Midnight Ink brought out Smasher, which made it onto a national mystery bestseller list and was even optioned for film. However, it didn’t exactly make it on to the NY Times bestseller list. Have you heard the joke about the difference between a mystery and a thriller? An extra digit in the advance. So I drew on my experience in Washington and wrote a thriller. My new agent sent it to the big deal publishers. Shades of the past. Lots of compliments but no “yes.” Well, I really am a Silicon Valley guy and it was time to try something new. I published Drop By Drop as an ebook only. And the experiment worked. I sold more copies and made more money than I had with either Midnight Ink book, but still not enough to replace what I’d been earning in my day job. Time to try again. Sitting in a café around the corner from my house, I wrote another thriller called A Fine and Dangerous Season set against the background of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

After I’d finished, I went to a New Year’s Party, and the host asked if I would consider going back to a Silicon Valley job. For something different and exciting, said I. She passed the word along and a few months later, I found myself at a genetics company even though I could barely spell “DNA.” It was a thrill to be there working with doctors and researchers trying to cure cancer and other genetic diseases, but then the company was sold last March and I decided to give this writer business another try.

In the meantime, A Fine and Dangerous Season made it to #8 on Barnesandnoble.com and #34 on Amazon.com. I finished a draft of a manuscript called Temple Mount – not surprisingly a thriller set in Jerusalem. I needed something extra to boost it up to. So I tried Kickstarter, which provides a platform to crowd-source funding for creative projects. With it I would raise money to print books, do marketing, throw a launch party, and more. But most important I would gather up a cadre of fans and friends who would become advocates of the book. Well, it worked. We raised $18K from around 200 supporters. Over 50 people paid $80 or more to have a shot at editing the book. A high school friend made over 3500 comments and suggestions. Instead of relying on a publisher, we had 200 people ready to stand behind the book. (You can see the video and site we used here.)

Ah, man plans and God laughs. In September I received an email from Amazon Publishing. They were impressed with how A Fine and Dangerous Season had been doing and wanted to bring it out under their Thomas & Mercer imprint. They spelled out the marketing resources Amazon would put behind the book and I was in – pending a check with the backers of Temple Mount. I wrote to them with the news and asked if we could postpone publication of Temple Mount since it made no sense publishing the two books on top of each other. I offered to refund anyone’s pledge. I was overwhelmed with the good wishes I received. I really did have 200 supporters who were invested in the success of my writing career. That felt pretty good.
So that brings us to now. Six weeks after signing a contract with Amazon Publishing, a re-edited version of A Fine and Dangerous Season is out as an e-book and for the first time, as a paper-and-ink “real” book. The hiatus between contract and signing on Fine and Dangerous was six weeks as compared to the 16 months for Dot Dead.

Enough looking back. Right now I can’t wait to see how A Fine and Dangerous Season does as a publication of Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer.

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