Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Interview with James Rollins

I haven't blogged in a week, due to attending BEA, and now that I'm back I have three things I need to blog about immediately.

First, many of you may have heard about my friend Barry Eisler signing with Amazon for his next Rain book. Barry and I did another 10k word dialog about that, and some other publishing stuff. I'll post it complete tomorrow, but if you can't wait, Barry has already posted the entire conversation on his blog (he couldn't wait either.)

Second, I have a book coming out today. it's called Timecaster, and my publisher is charging $7.99 for the paperback, and $7.99 for the ebook (ugh.) It's a sci-fi thriller filled with humor, sex, over-the-top violence, and Harry McGlade. The hero is Jack Daniels's grandson. I love this book, and so will my fans. It's easily the craziest thing I've ever written, and loads of fun.

This fall, I'll release the sequel myself for $2.99. I'm also working with Brilliance Audio to release both books as audiobooks for extremely low prices. Stay tuned.

Finally, my friend James Rollins has released a 99 cent short story on Kindle. When a big NYT bestseller starts releasing inexpensive ebooks, it is time to ask questions.

Joe: It's great that you're putting out a 99 cent short story. Why did you do it through your publisher, rather than solo?

Jim: I initially was going to self-publish this story. And I naively thought that my publishing house would have no problem… heck, it’s only a short story. But when my agent approached them about this, they were adamant that I must not do that. And while I certainly could have refused, I also had to respect the fact that HarperCollins had done a great deal to brand my name out in the marketplace, and I couldn’t blithely ignore that, nor trample roughshod over their wishes.

We did come to a compromise, though—moving this story into the gray world between self-publishing and legacy publishing. William Morrow (my house at Harper) and I are co-publishing this book, which means we split all royalties beyond the cost of this book’s production. I’m personally curious to see how this all plays out in the marketplace. Yes, I’m losing half my royalties, but Harper has deeper pockets and more marketing connections to hopefully help get his story some attention. Plus they are more personally invested to use this story as a vehicle to promote this summer’s book (The Devil Colony).

As you well know, it’s a new world out there in publishing. Paradigms are shifting all over the map. So this co-pub deal is yet another experiment, a possible compromise between the old world and the new. But is it the best of both worlds or the worst? Only time will tell.

Joe: I'm a big fan of your Sigma novels, so it's great to read a short featuring those characters. How does writing a short story vs. a novel differ?

Jim: A couple of years ago, I wrote a Sigma short story, titled Kowalski’s in Love It appeared in an anthology edited by James Patterson and explained how Kowalski (who first appeared in Ice Hunt) became an adopted team member of Sigma. I found that a short story is a great vehicle for filling in “gaps” in the Sigma universe. And that’s how this story came about. In this summer’s book, The Devil Colony, the mysterious assassin Seichan arrives on Gray’s doorstep with a package of information. The Skeleton Key explains how she acquired that bit of intelligence.

I also wanted to write this story for those readers who have never read a Sigma novel. So I crafted this thriller so it could be enjoyed by anyone new to the series. Confined to one character and restricted to a self-contained adventure, I hoped this story could serve as a “sampler” for any reader interested in the series but too daunted by a full novel.

As to writing a short story versus a novel, they are definitely two different vehicles in which to tell a tale. While both vehicles need a beginning, middle, and end, a short story requires writing very tightly, sticking to one character and really getting into their head, under their skin. Seichan has always been a bit mysterious. The Skeleton Key gave me a chance to reveal more about her.

Joe: How do you like writing in a shorter format?

Jim: It was a daunting task. I think my mind is too wired to think of “story” in a longer format. To restrict this tale to one character, one setting, one goal was a challenge. I wanted this story to “feel” like a full Sigma international thriller. So I did my best to make Paris come to life as a character. I threaded in a bit of its mysterious history, added a smidgen of strange science, and crafted a larger danger looming over the more intimate threat. I hope this story captures the essence of a Sigma novel in a tight, little package.

Joe: You're also releasing one of your previous novels, Black Order, today as an ebook for $1.99. Your idea, or your publishers?

Jim: It was theirs… and I have to give them credit. It think it’s a great program. They did it last year with Map of Bones, and it was a resounding success and introduced a slew of new readers to my books. And in this new ebook world, this is another area of consternation and confusion: how to price an ebook?

I see that this is still unsettled in the self-publishing world. There seems to be two camps. Price a new novel at $2.99. This seems to work well when an author has the cushion of several books. But I see another school of thought at setting the price point at $4.99. This seems to be the course with authors with their first book or with only a limited backlist.

As to the $1.99, this is purely a promotional price to encourage someone to sample a new author. I believe it’s not so much done to move volume and make money, as it is a loss leader to draw in new readers.

Again I’m curious where this “price point” issue will settle in the marketplace. As I’m sure you are, too.

Joe: You write in your author’s note that the apocalyptic cult, the Order of the Solar Temple, really existed. How did you stumble across this in your research, and what made you decide to feature it in a short story?

Jim: I wish I could say there was some mysterious connection, but it was basically Google. I researched various cults operating around Paris and stumbled upon the Order of the Solar Temple, which believes the Knights Templar are still alive and well and manipulating history. This cult’s suicidal and apocalyptic stance was perfectly suited for the story I wanted to tell.

Joe: What kind of research or travel did you do for The Skeleton Key? Have you visited the catacombs of Paris?

Jim: I did visit those catacombs. As an avid caver myself, I longed to explore beyond the boundaries of the tourist areas. Those catacombs delve beneath half of Paris, encompassing two hundred miles of tunnels and caverns. While I couldn’t go there myself, I learned of amateur explorers who secretly venture into those unmapped sections of the catacombs (they call themselves cataphiles). This story allowed me to become one of them for a short while—and I wanted to take my readers along with me.

Joe: What did you find most interesting or surprising to learn as you mapped out the plot to The Skeleton Key?

Jim: I think it was how fragile those catacombs are. A cave-in back in 1961 swallowed up an entire Parisian neighborhood, killing scores of people. And even today, sections of those tunnels collapse every year, damaging parts of the city—which, of course, made the writer in me wonder: what if something MUCH worse happened?

Joe: The Skeleton Key follows the adventures of Seichan alone, as she is separated from the rest of Sigma Force. Why did you decide to feature Seichan’s point of view?

Jim: I always wanted to feature her in a solo adventure. Being a loner, she was perfectly suited for her own tale. This vehicle also offered me the opportunity to explore more about her, while allowing new readers an entry point into the series. Plus her story allowed me to fill in a “gap” in the backstory to The Devil Colony.

Joe: Do you have a favorite Sigma Force character, one whose point of view you especially enjoy writing?

Jim: I enjoy writing them all. Each has their own unique flare: Gray’s intensity, Kowalski’s humor, Monk’s good nature, Seichan’s internal conflict, Painter’s craftiness. They are like an extended family, and I enjoy visiting with each one of them.

Joe: Without giving away any secrets, will Seichan—and the answers she finds in The Skeleton Key—have a major part to play in the upcoming Sigma Force novel The Devil Colony?

Jim: Indeed. What she discovers in Paris is vital to the plot of the The Devil Colony. It will begin to expose the true identity behind the shadowy organization called The Guild. And trust me, there are some MAJOR surprises coming up in this next book.

Joe: Do you plan to write more Sigma Force short stories?

Jim: In one word: yes. To tell more would ruin the fun.

Joe: Will you ever self-publish?

Jim: Yes. I have some non-Sigma Force short stories that I’m planning on releasing as fundraisers for the Humane Society of America. When it comes to such a cause, I’m not willing to split royalties. Plus I’m starting a new cause to help animals at risk called “Sigma to the Rescue.”

Joe: Where do you see the future of the industry heading?

Jim: I think we only have to look at the music industry to fathom that answer. Publishers will need to adjust, evolve, and transform to survive. If they don’t, the industry is in trouble. As it is, I think we’re heading into a further round of consolidation and winnowing of houses. Will there still be physical books out there? Sure. But the writing is on the wall as a majority of sales move from books to ebooks.

Joe: How are your ebook sales compared to your print sales? Percentages?

Jim: As The Devil Colony is the first new book from me in two years, I can’t personally attest to where the market is at the moment. In just those two years, the publishing world has drastically changed. I did hear from a New York Times bestselling author that the sales of his newest book are split about 70% ebooks and 30% hardbacks. That’s a new world indeed.

Joe: How did you react to Barry Eisler's decision to decline the contract St. Martin's offered and sign with Amazon?

Jim: Barry must have balls of steel (or maybe even admantium). Someone had to strike out first. I know every published author on the planet is watching to see what happens. And I’m no exception. My prediction: he’ll do fantastic. Then again, I’m prejudiced: I love Barry and his books.

Joe: Wouldn't you like to live in a world without deadlines and appearances?

Jim: Of what fantasy world do you speak? What is this mythic landscape? Okay, I get your point, but I think self-publishing has its own headaches. And to be honest, I need deadlines. I’m a deadline sort of writer. If left on my own, having to set and stick to my own deadlines, I’d probably still be a veterinarian.

And while book tours are often hard, I also like meeting readers. Yes, I facebook and tweet. But there’s something about meeting people in person. When you get the right mix of people—all likeminded readers—in a one room, sometimes it’s magical.

Joe: What's next for you?

Jim: I’m working on my third Jake Ransom novel (of my kid’s series), while researching and putting the final touches to the next Sigma novel. Speaking of deadlines…I’d better get back to writing. Otherwise, all this talk of publishing—self or otherwise—is moot, because ultimately if you want to be a writer you have to write. Of course, nowadays that’s the easy part.

Joe sez: The Skeleton Key is classic Rollins, and well worth the 99 cents. If you haven't checked out Black Order for $1.99, that's another great read and a steal.

Both were released today, and both rankings are dropping quickly. Kudos to his publisher for understanding that you sell more ebooks for low prices.

Which naturally makes me wonder why Morrow is releasing Jim's latest, The Devil Colony, for $14.99 on Kindle. Ouch. I can already see the dozens of one-star reviews from annoyed fans who won't pay that much, which is unfair to Jim, and to the book. Plus, guess who is going to be pirated like crazy?

Note to Morrow: The way to fight piracy is with cost and convenience. High cost encourages piracy. No one will pirate The Skeleton Key, or those that do wouldn't have bought it anyway. With The Devil Colony, fans who otherwise would have bought it will become pirates, due to your pricing.

Windowing is useless in a digital world. Ebooks are forever, and there is no longer a shelf life, so we shouldn't be forced to pay a higher premium for things just to experience them sooner.

Buy a hardcover for $25 on the release day, or wait a year for the $7.99 paperback. That's always been unfair, in my opinion, but you are getting a better, higher quality version with the hardcover.

But with ebooks? $14.99 now, or wait a year and it'll go down to $8.99 for the same exact version? Or wait a few years and it will go on sale for $1.99?

There are only two reasons for pricing so high. 1. To encourage and protect hardcover sales. 2. To make as much money as possible before the industry collapses.

Ebooks have zero costs to print and ship. They shouldn't be $14.99. And The Devil Colony should be a #1 Ebook bestseller. Perhaps it will be. But it would be one for much longer at a more reasonable price.

Jim will make $2.23 on each $14.99 ebook sold. I make $2.04 on each $2.99 ebook sold, which is why all of my ebooks are outselling his, even though he's a much bigger author than I am.

Now he's getting big advances, and his house is taking care of all the uploading and marketing. If I had a chance to switch careers with him I'd be tempted. Except for the book touring. Meeting fans and booksellers is a noble, worthwhile thing, but travel is exhausting and cuts into my writing time, and I make my money by writing, not by jetting around the world.

If ebooks are really outselling hardcovers by that large a margin, I have to wonder how long it will be before bestselling authors begin to realize that even with large advances, they're losing money long term...