Friday, September 30, 2011

Drink the Kool-Aid

Yesterday, an agent blogged about a speech she recently gave to Sisters in Crime. Some of the advice was fine. Some was archaic (no, writers don't need to attend conventions or volunteer for anything), but this was just downright awful:

"Do NOT drink the kool-aid on E-publishing. It's too early to be making sweeping statements about any of it. We're all learning this as we go and the right answer to almost everything is "we'll see what happens."

I threw up a little in my mouth when I read that. It's terrible advice, especially coming from someone who should have writers' best interests at heart.

Here are some sweeping statements I'll make, which can be verified:

1. Ebooks sales are going up, paper sales are going down. This trend WILL continue. This means that you need to worry less about who handles your paper rights, and more about who handles your erights.

If you handle your own erights, you keep 70% of the list price (that you set.)

If you let a publisher handle your erights, you get 17.5% of the list price (which they set.)

2. There isn't much a publisher can do for you that you can't do for yourself (or hire someone to do.) In other words, paying a publisher 52.5% to create cover art and do some editing is crazy.

3. More and more self-pubbed authors are doing well. And more and more legacy pubbed authors are trying self-pubbed. On this blog I've had dozens of guest posts, and listed hundreds of authors by name, who are making good money. Some are getting rich. None of them would be making bupkis if they didn't drink the Kool-Aid.

4. Bookstores are closing. The only thing a publisher could do for you, that you can't do yourself, is get your book into bookstores. But with paper sales down, and ebook sales rising, getting into a bookstore shouldn't be the priority.

5. Every day you don't self-publish is a day you aren't making money. This is a tough concept to wrap your mind around. We're used to thinking in analog terms. With paper, there's a release date, then sales eventually trickle down to nothing, until the book is out of print.

But ebooks are forever. There can be a big surge in sales when a book is released, but I've also seen books that surge regularly, like waves in the ocean. Lulls and peaks, over and over. Sometimes it tapers off, but then something happens and it gets new life.

When a book has the potential to not only make money, but to sell better than it did yesterday, it no longer has a lifespan. Which raises the question:

If you have a book that will sell forever, do you want to start earning money today, or next month?

If you wait a month, you won't make-up the month you lost. That month you lost will be income that you never earned.

I can't think of a single advantage to waiting around. Even if you really, really want a legacy deal, I know lots of authors who self-pubbed and then got legacy offers.

Barry Eisler also had some thoughts on this, which he offered as comments to a previous blog post. I'm going to post them here, too, with a few interpolated thoughts:

Barry: "Do NOT drink the kool-aid on E-publishing." What does this mean, other than that the declarant thinks in cliches?

Joe: I think it means, "If you do something without me, I don't get my 15%."

Barry: Then she said, "It's too early to be making sweeping statements about any of it."

Isn't that itself a sweeping statement?

Never mind. As with the Kool-Aid reference, these sorts of massively vague pronouncements are difficult to address because, as articulated, they're fundamentally meaningless. But if you think about it for a second or two, just why would it be too early to come to various conclusions about the nature, trajectory, and speed of the revolution we're seeing in publishing? We have a lot of data, after all, to which we can apply logic while extrapolating from experience. Isn't analyzing broad industry trends, and trying to understand, extrapolate from, and exploit them, exactly what smart businesspeople ought to be doing? If you have to decide -- today -- between a legacy deal and self-publishing, should you just stick your head in the sand and your ass in the air?

Joe: I think it means, "I'm worried about the future, and my livelihood, so I'm not going to think too hard about it."

Barry: Next she said, "We're all learning this as we go…"

Well, no, there are clearly many people who are *not* learning as they go, or learning at all, for that matter. The rest learn different lessons and at different rates. The different lessons people are learning -- that is, the different conclusions people are coming to as experience continues to accrue and as data continues to come in -- are interesting and potentially valuable for anyone who thinks understanding today where the industry will be tomorrow is useful thing to do.

Joe: I've been learning this as I go. And while learning, I've made several hundred thousand dollars. Because I wasn't waiting around to see what happened. I was taking control of my career, experimenting, trying new things, sharing what I've learned with others.

Scores of writers who read my blog also gave it a shot. Some became very successful. Because they tried, rather than waited around.

Barry: Next she said, "...and the right answer to almost everything is 'we'll see what happens.'"

Absolutely! If something that looks like a tiger pops out of the underbrush and is hurtling toward you, it's best not to make sweeping statements. Better to learn as we go and just see what happens. Running for a tree would be foolish.

Same thing in intelligence work. Who really can say where Pakistani nukes are stored, or how soon China might be able to deploy a blue water navy, or who are the true power brokers in Russia? Better to just sit back and see what happens.

And isn't the same inevitably true in business? If you're in the horse and buggy business and you hear about a thing called a car, or if you're in the the candlelight business and you hear about a thing called an electric light, or if you're in the eight-track cassette business and you hear about a thing called a CD, or if you're in the paper book business and you hear about a thing called Kindle, you should absolutely avoid trying to understand -- let alone exploit! -- any of it, and should instead sit back and just see what happens. In fact, sitting back and seeing what happens is the one common denominator of profitable businesses and successful businesspeople. Amazon, for example, became a a hundred-billion-dollar company by doing little else but going along and seeing what happens, while legacy publishers are dying precisely because they've always ruthlessly examined, prepared for, shaped, and exploited industry, technological, and cultural trends.

Joe: "Daddy, those lights are coming straight for us!"

"Don't move! Just remain standing in the middle of the street, and we'll wait and see if they run us over or not."

Barry: "Drinking the Kool-Aid" means "to become an unquestioning believer in some ideology, or to accept an argument or philosophy wholeheartedly or blindly without critical examination." Who's really doing that here? And the phrase is derived from the Jonestown massacre, where cult members followed one another into a massive group suicide. Again, not a bad metaphor for following "advice" like Janet's, which consists of nothing but cliches, sloppy thinking, and bromides.

It's one thing to be not very good at making predictions yourself, and Janet's track record is not the best:!/trow125/status/51355244587794433

But to advise that everyone else refrain from trying to understand where the industry is going and how we might profit from how it's changing? That's just irresponsible.

Joe: Barry, I meant to ask you about that above tweet. Now that The Detachment has launched, do you regret working with Amazon and not taking that $250k St. Martins deal?

Barry: Let me put it this way. Amazon sold more digital copies of the Detachment as preorders than Ballantine sold digital copies of my previous book, Inside Out, ever. After that -- that is, apart from and in addition to all those preorders -- the book surged to #6 in the Kindle Store, stayed in the Kindle Top 20 for over a week, and currently (two weeks in) is at #57. Yesterday it was at #3 in the UK Kindle Store. The paper version doesn't even come out for another two weeks, and they're planning another big push then. I've earned more money from this book in two weeks than I've earned from some of my titles to date -- and I've had eight previous novels published, starting in 2002.

Joe: The money you've been earning since The Detachment was released makes the money I've been earning on Kindle look paltry.

You hear that, NY Publishing Industry? You thought Barry was silly, turning down a Big 6 contract. In two weeks, he's made more money than he did with any of you.

You hear that, name brand authors? You want to know who to sign your next contract with? It's Amazon.

Barry: And that's just The Detachment. Sales of my backlist have surged, too. Since April, my short story, Paris Is A Bitch, has been earning me about $1000 per month. This month it's going to be more than three times that -- as of today, it's sold 1677 copies in September, at about two dollars profit per unit. Sales of my other short story, The Lost Coast, are up, too, though I did drop the price of that one to 99 cents, which obviously affects the experiment. But even sales of my legacy-published works are significantly up -- at one point, my first book, Rain Fall, was at #146 in the Kindle Store, which is insane for a book that's coming up on ten years old. The other Rain books are all up significantly, too, though not as much as they should be, because Putnam insists on pricing them at $7.99, the same as the paperback. If I had control of those books, I'd repackage them, drop the price to $2.99… and I can't even imagine how many I would have sold in conjunction with The Detachment.

Joe: Golly, why doesn't Putnam do that itself? It's leaving a ton of money on the table.

Barry: Heh. You know why. Legacy publishers aren't primarily interested in maximizing profits from digital titles. They're primarily interested in preserving the position of paper and retarding the growth of digital. To that end, they price digital books artificially high and hold back the digital release until the paper one is ready. And that hold-back, by the way, for the reasons you discuss above, costs the writer a ton of money -- the money she would have been earning if the digital book had been made available earlier.

Let me preempt the response I know is coming from the Reidian antediluvian naysayers out there: "But you didn't self-publish The Detachment, Amazon published it! So all this success, all these massive sales, none of it counts!"

If that's what you think, read the section on either/or and other erroneous thinking in Joe's and my free ebook, Be The Monkey. My goal isn't to make any one of my titles a success. It's to make *all* my titles, collectively, the greatest possible success. As I've said many times, I think my best strategy in that regard is a mix of self-publishing and Amazon publishing-- not an either/or approach. And I think my experience so far suggests I'm right.

Since walking away from the St. Martin's offer, I've self-published two short stories, I've self-published a political essay, and I've self-published (with you) a short book on the changing landscape of the publishing industry. And I've published a new novel with Amazon. What I haven't done -- what's conspicuously absent from my business strategy over the last six months -- is a new work with a legacy publisher. And I'm doing far better than I ever have before. Maybe that's a coincidence. Maybe it's all just dumb luck. Maybe I would be doing even better if I'd gone with the legacy deal (though we wouldn't know yet, because if I had gone the legacy route, The Detachment wouldn't have been released until spring 2012).

Or maybe there are some principles in my experience that are worth pondering, and that might be applied by others who don't believe business is best conducted by just waiting to see what happens.

Joe: I look back on the past few years, and all the bad decisions made by legacy publishers, along with agents who think they're working for those publishers rather than for their authors, and I keep wondering at what point they're going to realize they aren't in a Jacuzzi, enjoying a luxurious soak, but actually in a stew being boiled alive.

High ebook prices, low ebook royalties, windowing, poor formatting and conversions, the agency model, retroactive erights grabs, DRM--each of these are bad decisions on their own, but add them all together and it's one huge crock pot of fail that they're now marinating in.

But we authors have more opportunities for success than ever before.

Legacy publishing is a vestigial organ. And it's about to be cut off.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Konrath's Ebook Predictions from 2009.

I wrote the following blog post in 2009, a list of ebook predictions.

I'll put my recent updates in bold:

1. Ebook readers will be available in stores for less than $99.I believe this is the magic price point, and the ability for consumers to purchase their device at their favorite department store will finally allow this tech to enter the mainstream.

As of today, the Amazon Kindle is now available for $79. The new Amazon Kindle Touch is $99. Kobo has been $99 for several months.

I expect B&N to drop Nook prices sometime soon.

Also, ereaders are now available in stores, Best Buy, Staples, Target, and many others.

2. Amazon will adopt Epub standard format. I've blogged about formats before, and how proprietary formatting is preventing worldwide acceptance of ebooks. The closest to a universal format is Epub, and once there are millions of non-Kindle ereadersout there, Amazon will want a piece of the pie and offer different formats.

They haven't done this yet. But they are releasing titles without DRM. Now that Amazon has launched several paper imprints, and B&N has refused to carry those paper books unless they can also sell the ebooks, it will be interesting to see how this gets resolved.

3. Ebook readers will improve. Well, no duh. All tech improves as time goes on. But I'm talking about the look and feel of the device, not just what it can do. As advanced as ebook readers are, they still look low tech. Compare this to the iPhone or iPodTouch. These devices look, and feel, 21st century. Some ereadermanufacturer will come up with a device that just looks right (the Nook comes close) and it will sell like crazy.

Amazon Kindle Fire tablet just announced, for $199.

4. Ebooks will go multimedia. The potential for ebooks to change the way a book is experienced has not been explored yet. Author annotation, interviews, video, audio, extras, music, deleted chapters, short stories--these are all benefits that could be added to content at no cost.

Not quite. There are a few companies doing some innovative things, but nothing that has caught on in a big way. Yet.

5. A third party etailer will rise to prominence. Currently, people buy most of their ebooks online at Amazon. But someone with deep pockets will launch a big website and begin to gobble upmarketshare. My guess is this site will be the first to begin offering the out-of-print backlists of published authors. Public domain isn't the key to success. Copyrighted work that is only available used is the key to success, because ebooks can make these vetted, professional books available again. It's a gigantic, viable, untapped market.

Smashwords and Kobo are doing very well. I just launched my own ebook store.

As for the copyrighted work I mentioned, Amazon is buying many out of print backlists from name authors, including Ed McBain and Max Allan Collins. Al's book just hit #1 on Kindle.

6. Estributors will become common. Where there are writers, there are folks who help writers and take a percentage of their income. Agents currently hold this position. But it won't be long until some smart folks realize they can make money being a liaisonbetween the writer and the ebook world, and offer services that include editing, formatting, uploading, and cover art, so the only thing the writer has to do is write.

I'm working with my agent in an estributor capacity. We'll see how it goes.

7. Print publishers will get savvy. Some major publisher is going to realize they can make more money selling ebooks for under $3 than selling them for $15, and they'll give it a try and be successful. Others will follow suit.

In the past two weeks, I've seen no fewer than eight Big 6 titles crack the Kindle Top 10 by selling them for $.99 to $2.99. Once they hit it, they jack up the price back to normal and the sales fall off. But they're learning...

8. Ebook bestsellers will emerge. As more reviewing sites and blogs dedicated to ebooks rise up, word-of-mouth will propel some independent ebooks author to bestseller status. It's inevitable, and both the print publishers and Hollywood will take notice.

Amanda Hocking and John Locke, anyone? I wrote this prior to their successes. I've also sold a movie option on an ebook.

9. Print books will be packaged with an ebook version. Perhaps it will come on a CD or an SD card. Perhaps it will come with a code so the ebook can be downloaded for free. But some smart publisher is going to include the ebook with the print version. A really smart publisher would also include a download for the audiobook version with the package. Then folks wouldn't mind paying $25 for a hardcover, if it came with those downloads.

I talked about this when I spoke at the Google Unbound Conference a few years ago. I've heard rumors of it happening, but nothing concrete yet. BTW, that blog about the conference is from January 2007. This is one of the things I said:

"On the subway today, I counted 7 people with PDAs, Blackberrys, and Palms, and two more with mp3 players. People need their media so much they're taking it with them when they leave their desks. Only three people on that train were reading newspapers. What does that say about the future of print media?"

All the major publishers were there, listening to my speech. None of them listened to me.

10. Exclusivity. If an author is big enough, they are available everywhere: Amazon, Nook, Shortcovers, iTunes, Sony, etc. But someone is going to sign an author exclusively, so their book is only available in one etailer location, to lure people to their device and website.

Barry Eisler. Boy, he did make the right choice signing with Amazon.

11. I'll continue to pay my mortgage with ebook sales. I've been self-publishing ebooks on Kindle since April, and every month since I've earned enough to make my monthly house payment. I'm also going to release a novel exclusively as an ebook in 2010, as a long-term experiment, to see if I can earn more in five years than I could on my previous print deals. This is the beginning of a very long tail, and writers really do need to think about how much their ebook rights are worth over the course of their lifetime and beyond. Because that's how long this technology will be around.

I've earned more in the last eight months than I did on all eight of my previous print deals, combined, since 2003. And this holiday season looks to be even better than last year.

So I got 8, maybe 8.5 out of 11 right.

So what do I see for the future?

1. Publishing houses closing. Maybe it will be bankruptcy or maybe their parent company will just shut the doors. These houses once controlled paper, and because of that they could control authors. Now paper is a subsidiary right (something I wrote about last year, before ebooks were actually outselling paper) and authors can do better on their own.

No lock on distribution + authors now having choices + readers unwilling to pay $12.99 for an ebook = game over.

2. Interactive multimedia. I've been talking about this for over four years. Vook and Hybrid Books are only the beginning. One day enhanced ebooks will be the norm.

3. Ads in ebooks. This is something else I've been talking about for years. The $79 Kindle is ad-supported. As ebooks drop in price (or become free) authors will supplement their income by selling ad space and taking corporate sponsors.

4. Ereaders under $49. It'll happened quicker than the drop to $99 took.

5. People abandoning paper. I've already gotten rid of several hundred paper books, replacing them with ebooks. Watch as more and more people do the same thing, just like they dumped their vinyl and VHS. Thrift shops, Goodwill, the Salvation Army, will stop taking book donations because they already have too many.

6. Global market. Ebooks will be worldwide. Smart authors will work with translators (or smart estributors will have translators on payroll) to exploit these new avenues, which had been closed off to all but the luckiest authors. And even then, foreign deals were notoriously small, and hardly ever earned out. Watch for self-published authors becoming international bestsellers.

7. Bookstores, book fairs, writing conferences, and writers organizations will have to change, or perish. As paper popularity fades, and self-pubbing ebooks becomes more prevalent, there will be fewer and fewer people who gather around paper books.

Companies like Autography will allow readers to get personalized autographs on their ebooks. Add some video-conferencing, and no one will even need to attend another genre convention.

Conferences that sucker authors into paying $500 for a chance to pitch to a Big 6 editor will disappear.

Used bookstores will do well in the beginning, due to all the people dumping their collections, but eventually won't be able to give books away.

All the professional writing organizations will have to admit self-pubbed authors, or their ranks will thin.

8. Pottermore is just the beginning. Watch as more and more authors lure their fans to their websites, without any need of a publisher.

9. We'll see a lot of new stuff from old writers. All writers have shelf novels, or ideas that they couldn't pursue because their publishers wouldn't allow it. There are no longer any barriers to ideas, and we're done with all that bullshit about buy-in and sell-through. The fate of books will be decided by readers, not by a handful of people in a room looking at prior sales figures.

10. Libraries. There are tens of thousands of libraries in the US alone. I currently have 30 ebook titles available. If I sell one copy of each of my ebooks to every library, I've made over a million dollars--and many libraries will buy multiple copies. When Canada, the UK, Australia, and eventually the world get in on the library thing, it's going to be gigantic.

11. I won't continue to pay my mortgage with my ebook sales.

That's because I'm paying off my house with my ebook money. :)

What about you folks? Any predictions for the future?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ebooks A La Carte

Last month, I did a blog post with Blake Crouch about the future of ebook sales. In that blog, we talked about the only two parties needed for a transaction: the author, and the reader. Everyone else (agent, publisher, retailer) is a middleman, taking a percentage.

But if a writer already has loyal fans willing to seek him out, why should the middleman get a cut? Couldn't the author and the reader complete a transaction (the reader buying the book) where the writer receives all of the profit?

Enter A few months back, they made an ebook store for Barry Eisler. I loved this idea, and loved how they implemented it. But Eisler only has three ebook titles for sale, and while it is cool that he offers readers different formats to choose from (epub, Kindle, and pdfs) I read ebooks on several different devices and it seems silly to have to buy the same book multiple times to get the various formats.

So I asked the team at xuni if they could make an ebook store for me, with a few tweaks. When readers buy an ebook from my store, they get four DRM-free formats (epub, Kindle, pdf, doc) in a single download. Also, it made perfect sense that I should sell ebooks by some of my peers (Eisler and Crouch as of this writing) and offer them the same 70% royalty rate as other retailers do.

A few days ago, my ebook store went live. So now I'm able to sell directly to customers, and cut out the middle man.

On a $2.99 ebook sold through a retailer, I earn about $2.04.

In my ebook store, I earn $2.79.

On a $0.99 sold through a retailer, I earn $0.35.

In my ebook store, I earn $0.89.

I've heard about other ways to sell ebooks directly, but they involve either paying a monthly fee, or a percentage of each sale. Going through xuni, I paid a flat fee, and now my ebooks can earn money forever. As I add ebooks to my oeuvre, xuni can add them to my ebook store for a tiny additional cost.

If you have fans, it makes sense to offer those fans easy access to your titles. If they like you enough to visit your website, give them the option of buying your books directly from you. (I also have a paper store, for those who want autographed editions.)

This is passive income that earns forever. Once it is set up, it becomes a 24 hour worldwide store. You'll need a Paypal account set up for micropayments (xuni helps with that) and a three figure initial investment, and you're set.

Also, Maddee and Ryan at xuni were fast, responsive, easy to work with, and extremely nice. I highly recommend them, and this service.

Contact xuni HERE, or in my sidebar.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Guest Post by Rick Mofina

I've known Rick Mofina for years, before he began to sell like crazy. I remember three years ago, walking through a grocery store and seeing one of his paperbacks in the checkout isle, alongside a Stephen King and a Janet Evanovich, and I thought, "Wow! He made it!"

But even though Rick has sold gazillions of books, he's still dipping his toes into the self-publishing pool. Here's a guest post by him about his journey:

Fear and Loathing on the Publishing Trail – Confessions of an Uneasy Midlister, by Rick Mofina

Thanks to Joe for inviting me to tell my story.

Chances are you’ve never heard of me.

This month I am officially self-publishing my first eBook, Dangerous Women & Desperate Men, a collection of four stories.

It’s a milestone for me.

I’ve written 12 thrillers through legacy publishers and I now have about 2 million books in print in some 20 countries. Yet, this month with my first effort to self-publish an eBook I feel like I’m starting over.

I wrote my first story when I was about ten years old, in neat, cursive handwriting, and from that point on I never stopped writing.

It became my joy and my affliction. By the time I was 14, I had discovered The Writer magazine and read it as though it were a new found holy book. In high school I was the only boy in my typing class. After school, I used the old manual Olympias to type my stories and snail mail them off to magazines. I waited weeks and months for responses and collected a suitcase full of rejection. By the time I was 15, I had my first sale, a short story to a small magazine in New Jersey for $60.00.

That was a milestone.

I had become a professional. Part-time. I still had to go to school.

When I was 18, I wrote my first novel, a horrible monster that must remain in darkness. But I never stopped writing – and reading everyone -- through factory work, university, [among the courses I’d studied: Religious Responses to Death, Existential Literature and American Detective Fiction then later I was on the crime beat]. Then came marriage, kids my job as a reporter and now my fulltime day job as a communications advisor.

But the need to write is in my DNA.

I had written stories, plays and novels. By the time I was forty, and after so much trial, error, study, practicing and polishing, I had, between shifts on the crime desk, completed what I believed was a decent novel. I sought an agent. After a year, I got one in New York.

“I think I can place your book,” she’d said after reading my mss.

After another year and much hard work she’d called to say she’d sold my book to a New York publisher. I was ecstatic.

“Can I get a new car, or get my brakes fixed?” I’d asked her.

“You can get your brakes fixed,” she’d said.

I was still ecstatic.

That book, IF ANGELS FALL, a crime thriller, set in California, was published in 2000, as a paperback original. It felt magical in my hands, I was a published author. I thought everything would change.

It did.

Since my first published book and through to my 12th, I’ve learned about the world of commercial fiction, agents, publishers, editors, production, deadlines, cover art, jacket copy, permissions, blurbs, distribution, cycles, wholesalers, retailers, placement, co-opting, shelf-space, velocity, royalties, reserves, promotion, book signings, conferences, readings, panels, booksellers and store managers.

I’ve had movie options, foreign sales, audio sales and digital sales. I’ve yet to make the New York Times list, or USA Today. I’ve never been reviewed by either, but I’ve had starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal. I have readers around the world and my work has been acclaimed several times – most recently, my book The Panic Zone was nominated for a SHAMUS by the Private Eye Writers of America.

I am honored, privileged and damned lucky to be published.

It’s been said here many times and I agree: no one owes you anything. I am as blue-collar as the protagonists in my books. My old man, as the song goes, got his back into his living. I believe in paying your dues.

That’s just me.

Since I’ve been published this is my routine: I rise around 3:45-4:00 a.m. Head to the keyboard and read over chapters and make notes. Then on my 50-minute bus commute to my fulltime day job. I use those notes to advance my story. I do the same on the 50-minute commute home. I work on those notes at bedtime and repeat the process at the crack of dark. On weekends I turn those notes into chapters. I write in hotels, at airports and on airplanes.

The craft and product are paramount.

I put everything I’ve got into my work. My readers get the absolute best I can give because without them, a story never lives. I go to conferences on my own dime because as a midlister you take nothing for granted. You do all you can to hang on to the pursuit in which you’ve invested much of your life.

That’s why I’ve decided to publish my own eBook.

That, and the fact we are in the midst of a revolution.

When they first emerged, I scoffed at eBooks. Those things will never catch on, I thought. This from the guy who vowed never to stop writing books in long hand and typing them on an IBM electric typewriter.

My typewriter is mothballed. I am now on my sixth PC.

At book conferences, in the tribal camps of authors, Joe Konrath, and other prophets, would tell us what they saw on the publishing horizon.

It made me uneasy.

At the same time, authors I knew were losing publishing contracts.

Then along came kindle and things changed fast.

Some of us embrace change. Some fear it. Still some, like Joe, learn to surf. A light went on for me in 2009, at a conference in Indianapolis. A reader showed me her kindle. I’d never seen one before. Then she showed the book she was reading on it: VENGEANCE ROAD, one of mine produced by my legacy publisher.

It was another milestone.

Day by day on my bus commute to my day job I began spotting more people using eReaders. Then last Christmas as we all know, sales of eReaders and eBooks exploded. Since then we’ve all read the jaw-dropping statistics, witnessed the e-author success stories, and heard the fury of an industry in the throes of a shift in its evolution.

So what does it all mean for writers?

Simple: the path to the reader, and to success or failure, however you personally define it, has been accelerated to the point of being instant.

Some argue that it is a threat to the quality of storytelling.

I disagree.

What we’re seeing is a leveling of the publishing playing field. Those who are born storytellers, those who have the talent, discipline and pride of craftsmanship, now have a better than ever chance to find an audience. They get an opportunity that was, until now, denied them.

That’s exciting.

Allow me to digress a bit. That eBooks are a game changer was driven home to me recently.

Yes, I came up through legacy publishing and my relationship with my legacy publisher is very good. But my recent experience solidified the power of traditional publisher support when married to the power of eBooks.

You might find little new in this example, but I think it is a valid one.

My thriller Six Seconds was released in the UK in 2009 in paperback and e-format. The book has sold well around the world and in the UK. Both the paperback and e-version achieved fairly good Amazon UK rankings before sales slipped as they usually do months after release.

A few weeks ago my British publisher informed me that Six Seconds was a candidate for a brief online free-eBook promo through Expedia and iTunes in the UK. All I had to do was temporarily waive e-royalty claims.

I did, hoping the book might get some renewed attention.

Boy did it.

For about five days Six Seconds held the #1 Amazon UK ranking for all free eBooks. I was amazed. I noticed that my other books, those still fully priced on Amazon UK, also started selling. I was getting new and positive reviews and emails from new readers. Without my legacy publisher I never would have had the opportunity to participate in that promotion. Six Seconds was running in the slow lane until the power of online promotion of eBooks happened.

When the promo ended, I thought Six Seconds would plummet on Amazon UK but it didn’t. It fell but rebounded to the top 50 for some time afterward. Paperback sales climbed a bit too.

Yes, not every author gets a break like that.

I don’t feel I deserved it. As Joe would say, I got lucky, very lucky.

This UK thing happened coincidentally when I was in the process of releasing my first self-published eBook, Dangerous Women & Desperate Men. It affirmed my plan to learn to swim in the rising tide of change concerning eBooks.

Prior to that, what had been on my mind was the fact that I had a number of good stories, acclaimed stories that I wanted to offer readers. Most of the stories had been published, but I still owned all rights to them and wanted to get them in the hands of readers.

If ever there was a time for me to try to self publish an eBook this was it. But I knew nothing about the process. Zero. What I learned, I learned through Joe, other authors and reading. After thinking things through, I developed a plan and decided to make a financial investment.

In laying out my plan for you, here comes the BSP.

I selected four of my short stories for an anthology titled, Dangerous Women & Desperate Men, with the theme of ordinary people on the brink. Each are also available separately for 99 cents each.

With the first story, “Blood Red Rings,” I wanted to partner the reader for one night with seasoned cop Frank Harper. After 24 years of putting his life on the line, Harper sees it all tick down to one defining moment. “Blood Red Rings,” first appeared in Crimespree Magazine where Jon, Ruth and Jennifer Jordan have opened the door of their revered publication to short crime fiction.

The second story, “Lightning Rider,” is the study of a damaged woman determined to achieve what she believes she is owed. The reader meets Jessie Scout, a twenty-six-year-old woman who had endured a life steeped in pain and goes to Las Vegas, a city of risk, not to gamble, but to collect. “Lightning Rider” first appeared in Murder in Vegas, edited by Michael Connelly. It also won Canada's top literary prize for crime fiction, the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story, presented by the Crime Writers of Canada. It is also featured in Deadly Bride and 21 of the Year's Finest Crime and Mystery Stories, Edited by Ed Gorman & Martin H. Greenberg.

In the third story, “Three Bullets To Queensland,” we meet Ike Decker, a loss recovery agent, for the armored car industry. His dream is to leave the U.S. for Australia but the only thing in his way to realizing it is Paco Sanchez and $1.2 million in stolen cash.

The last piece is, “As Long As We Both Shall.” It features Liz Dalton, a hard-working middle-aged woman. When her world was coming apart she fought back with a shocking vengeance. This story is presented in the format of transcript, much like a court document. The story first appeared in Blood on the Holly, an anthology of Christmas mysteries edited by Caro Soles and published in 2007 by Baskerville Books. “As Long As We Both Shall Live,” was named a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story.

With this collection I wanted readers to step into the lives of everyday people as they battle extraordinary circumstances.

My publishing plan was to offer each story individually as eBook for 99 cents, and all four together for $2.99 in the collection that includes an introduction and added features, such as the stories behind some of my legacy eBooks.

For the formatting and posting on Kindle, Smashwords etc., I approached Donna Carrick with of Toronto.

Then I approached a friend, John Holt at to do the covers. I sketched my concepts and John made them a beautiful reality. For promotion, I wanted to use social media to the best of my ability, which is not much.

I also set aside several hundred dollars for advertising, chiefly for one small ad that appeared with the bestsellers list in the September 25th print edition of the Los Angeles Times.

My total investment will be around $1,300.00.

A roll of the dice but I believe in these stories.

Like my books, I’ve thrown everything I have into them. They’re good stories that, until now, were essentially sitting on my hard drive.

Thanks to the revolution they can be in readers’ hands in minutes, at least that’s the aim of the $1,300.00 plan.

If it works, I’ll do it again and keep doing it.

I owe it to the kid who used to sit alone in typing class after school hammering away on an Olympia manual typewriter and snailing off stories dreaming of the day they’d find readers.

Joe sez: First of all, apologies to Rick because I told him I'd post this yesterday, but time got away from me. I'm currently on a deadline for Timecaster 2 and have been putting in long hours and forgetting things I promised people. (Why do I still have deadlines? I'll blog about that soon...)

Second, the first thing that struck me reading this post was, "He sold 2 million books and he still has a day job?!?" I was able to write fulltime having sold only 500,000 paper books. So either Rick loves his day job, or he's not getting paid as much as he should.

Third, Rick approached me after he'd already bought the ad in the Times. Had he approached me prior to that, I would have tried to talk him out of it. I've always found ads for books to be a big waste of money. Hopefully Rick will chime in on the comments here and tell us if it was worth it.

Fourth, good for him for being proactive and trying this out. He did this the smart way: releasing the shorts for 99 cents each, bundling them all for $2.99, getting quality covers and formatting, having punchy, concise cover copy.

Shorts (and collections) don't sell as well as novels. Four other authors and I just confirmed this in a talk on Fearnet. So this isn't a perfect way for Rick to test the ebook waters, because a novel would sell better. I notice Rick some of Rick legacy pubbed books don't have ebook editions. If he's got the rights, he needs to get those live. If he doesn't have the rights, both he and his publisher are losing money.

Rick is a great writer, and a great guy. I encourage everyone reading to try out his collection (or, if you're cheap, one of his 99 cent shorts.) If you like thrillers, you'll love them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Pie

I hear a lot of talk about the ebook market getting glutted with too many ebooks. Some say the pie is finite (the pie being the amount of money being spent on ebooks) and as more and more ebooks are published, authors will get a smaller slice and earn less and less.

This is so very bullshit I'm not sure where to begin.

First of all, there are billions of paper books on planet earth right now, but there was never any talk about being too many, or worries the paper market was saturated. What a ludicrous concept.

Author: Do you want put publish my new book?

Publisher: I'm sorry, but there are already too many books. We can't print anymore.

Silly, ain't it?

Second, the pie isn't finite. I've heard repeatedly that people who get ereaders read more and buy more than they did with paper. Even if another person was never born, and even if another ereader was never sold, there is still a huge, untapped market for authors.

For the sake of argument, let's say I've reached 10% of those who have ereaders. I've still got a long way before I saturate the market.

But the market is growing. Fast.

When I started self-pubbing on Kindle in 2009, there were 700,000 ebooks available. Now there are over a million. So there have been about 150k added each year.

There are a lot more than 150,000 Kindles, Nooks, Sony Readers, Kobos, and iPads sold per year. So the ereader market is actually growing faster than ebooks are being published. I would guess there are more ereaders than there are ebook titles, many times over.

The pie is getting bigger. In fact, it is growing faster than new content is being uploaded. That means more and more people are going to be looking for ebooks.

Here's a nonsense representation of what I'm talking about. Keep in mind I suck at math, and my figures aren't accurate. I'm pulling these numbers out of my ass, but I'm doing so to prove a point.

Let's say ebook titles grow by 150k a year, and ereader sales grow by 5 million a year.

In 2011, let's say there are 5 million ereaders, and 1 million ebook titles.

In 2021 there will be 50 million ereaders, and 2.5 million ebook titles.

In 2031 there will be 100 million ereaders, and 4 million ebook titles.

Get the picture? The market is expanding faster than the content is.

On first glance, this doesn't appear to be beneficial to the author. Look at it from a reader's point of view. I'm a Kindle owner. Right now, I have 1 million ebooks to choose from. In 2031, I'll have 4 million ebooks to choose from. One one hand, this is good for Joe the reader, because I have more choices. On the other hand, this seems bad for Joe the author, because of all the competition.

Which begs the follow-up argument I see a lot: "With all of those ebooks available, it will be impossible to find anything, and authors will get lost."

Doesn't the same apply to paper books? Or websites? Or music? Yet people still find things they like. The imdb now has over 1.7 million titles, yet people still can find movies and TV shows to watch.

As long as websites like Amazon make browsing easy, the cream has the potential to rise to the top. You don't have to be a monster bestseller. A hardcore niche group of 10,000 fans can support a writer quite easily. Write two ebooks per year at $2.99, and three shorts at 99 cents, and you're making $50k a year.

But ebooks don't stop selling after a year. They sell forever. And good books will eventually find more than just 10,000 readers. And every new book you write will find new readers along with old fans.

Going back to the 2031 figures, an author will have a much better chance of finding those career-sustaining 10,000 readers when there are 100 million ereaders out there.

In other words, as every day goes by, authors only have to appeal to a smaller percentage of the ereading population.

Which means we won't need to be bestsellers in order to make the same amount of money we're now making by being bestsellers.

Confused? Think of it like this.

Let's call my current slice of the pie 10%, meaning I've sold to 10% of the ereading public--about 500,000 ebooks (out of 5 million potential customers). In 2031, assuming my readership stays flat, I'll earn the same as I am now with a .005% slice of the pie. (500,000 ebooks out of 100 million potential customers.)

Now these numbers assume that I'm only selling one ebook per consumer, not multiple ebooks. If I have fans who buy multiple ebooks, I need fewer fans to make the same amount of money.

These numbers also assume I won't grow my fanbase, or write anymore ebooks. By 2031, I'll have at least forty more novels completed, plus dozens of shorts and novellas.

Of course, a lot of things can happen between now and 2031, and I may be wildly off base on a lot of this. But the fact remains that the pie isn't getting smaller. If you keep writing, and keep self-publishing, chances are you'll eventually find your audience. And you won't have to be in the Kindle Top 100 in order to make a nice living.

And for those not there, remember that cream rises. If you made cream, and it hasn't risen yet: make more cream.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Dead Man Walking

I'm trying to figure out all of the anger and animosity that seems to occur when I talk about ebooks, or the end of bookstores or paper book events or publishers, or self-publishing. I even hear this anger when my name is mentioned.

Yes, apparently the mere uttering of my name incenses some people.

I shake my head at this behavior. For years, I've told people the sky is falling. Because, indeed, the sky is falling. Some listened. Some ignored. Some got angry. Some denied. Some blamed me for it.

I was discussing this with my friend, Henry Perez (author of Killing Red, a #1 Kindle Bestseller, and Floaters, which I co-wrote) and he said something that was so spot-on, so perfect, that I've got to repeat it.

"It's like you're telling children that Santa Claus has cancer."

What a terrific analogy.

People have a lot of affection and good feelings tied in with the publishing world and all it entails. They like paper books, and bookstores, and events. Authors once struggled mightily to land an agent and a Big 6 book deal. There are dreams at stake here. Dreams, and fond memories, and hope.

And I'm shouting to the world that it is all going to end soon.

While anger may be a natural emotion when someone tells you something you love is going away, it certainly isn't a productive one. A much better way to approach the issue is with reason.

To wit: I like Santa Claus, because he brings me toys. If he dies, he won't bring me toys anymore. Perhaps I need to figure out how to get toys without Santa, since he won't be around for long.

That's been my message from the get go. Times are changing. Change with them.

Some have taken this message to mean I'm elated Santa is dying. I have no feelings for Santa one way or the other. I am elated that I figured out how to get toys without Santa. But that doesn't mean I'll be dancing on Santa's grave (even though he did give me coal a few times.) Nor do I have a vested interest in Santa dying. Right now, Santa is still alive, and I'm co-existing with him perfectly fine.

But I am right that Santa is dying. And I am right to say we need to figure out how to live without him.

The business is changing. Lamenting it, getting upset, blaming the messenger (me), or otherwise doing anything other than learing how to thrive is a big waste of energy.

I find it interesting that the changes in this industry seem to mirror DABDA, the stages of death.

Depending on who you are, you might be:

Denying there is a problem.

Angry at the unfairness of it all.

Bargaining for a bit more time.

Depressed it will all soon end.

Accepted it and moved on.

These stages seem to apply more to those who have either been involved in the publishing industry, or have been trying for a while to break into the publishing industry. Some newbies who self-pub skip straight to acceptance, because they have no other base of experience.

But I've encountered a lot of folks mired in the various stages. Writers who are depressed they can't get deals anymore. The Big 6 acting silly--their agency model was nothing more than a bargaining attempt. Agents denying there is a problem at all.

And a lot of anger.

Newsflash: it ain't my fault Santa is dying. I'm just trying to show there is life after Santa.

You can deny it. Be angry about it. Bargain with it. Get depressed about it.

I, and all of my blog posts, will still be here to learn from when you accept it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Detachment by Barry Eisler

Joe: Barry, good to have you here with an excerpt from The Detachment on the day it goes on sale.

Barry: My pleasure, Joe, and thanks for having me.

Joe: All right, first of all, you know from the Amazon review I did with Blake Crouch and from the edits I gave you how much I loved this book. I think it's your best yet, which is saying something. Hyper-realistic action and story; great political backdrop; completely badass characters doing scary and sometimes weirdly hilarious things. What I want to ask you about here, though, is the process. This was the book that kicked off our online conversation about the state of the publishing industry, which became the book Be The Monkey. You were going to self-publish it, and then Amazon approached you and you went with Amazon, instead. What has that been like compared to your experience with legacy publishers?

Barry: My experience with Amazon has been uniformly excellent. They presented this to me as a hybrid deal, which from my perspective was perfect: the kind of digital split, control over packaging and pricing, and time-to-market I wanted with digital, combined with Amazon's marketing muscle.

Joe: Did you have an editor at Amazon?

Barry: No, Amazon counted on me to hire my own editorial team. And although it sounds like that must have been very different from what I've experienced with my previous, legacy publishers, it really wasn't so different. I've always relied on my wife, literary agent Laura Rennert, to be my first line of editorial defense, and she's a superb editor. Plus I'm fortunate in having a group of family and friends, you among them, who are also top-notch editors. In addition, I now have a business manager, Lara Perkins, who's one of the best editors I've ever worked with. So what I turned in to Amazon was a fully, professionally edited book.

Joe: But how can you get a real editor if you're not with a New York publisher?

Barry: Heh. This is one of those zombie memes that eventually will die from repeated collisions with reality. Look, there are some excellent editors at the New York houses, and it's be
en my good fortune to have worked with three of them. But there are plenty of bad ones, too, and the main thing is that a New York house is not the only place where you can find a good editor.

Joe: Especially as the New York houses lay off staff.

Barry. Yes. There's going to be more and more talent available freelance. Anyway, with some initiative and perhaps some trial and error, you can find a great editor on your own. I'm hardly the only author to have done so.

Joe: What about the other aspects? Copyediting, proofreading?

Barry: Again, I outsourced everything, just like New York publishers do.

Joe: What do you mean?

Barry: Heh. I like your Columbo routine.

Joe: I've been working on it just for you.

Barry: What I mean is, legacy publishers already outsource almost every aspect of the publishing business. Most likely the person who copyedited your last legacy-published manuscript was a freelancer. Likewise proofreading. Likewise cover design. Legacy publishers outsource all of it. So if anyone doubts that these functions are separable from legacy publishers, legacy publishers have been kind in already proving otherwise.

Joe: What about the cover? How did you take care of that?

Barry: The cover for The Detachment was done by the awesomely talented Jeroen Ten Berge. I don't think it's a coincidence that the best covers I've ever had are all for my self-published, and now my Amazon-published, works. Check out The Lost Coast, Paris Is A Bitch, The Ass Is a Poor Receptacle For The Head, and Be The Monkey. Then look at what my erstwhile French publisher saddled me with. Coincidence? I think not.

Joe: How about the marketing?

Barry: They have a comprehensive plan to reach Amazon customers and to reach outside Amazon that's the best I've ever seen. They're just gearing up, and already the book has been as high as #60 in the Kindle store. That was back in July, then it dropped off some, and as of the night before publication, it was at #103 and climbing again. So far they've taken as many preorders as my previous publisher sold digital copies of my previous book in its entirety, and the book isn't even out yet. They know what they're doing and they do it well.

Joe: Any other differences or similarities?

Barry: I don't have to tell you, working with Amazon has been a breath of fresh air. They're smart, fun, creative people, they love to do new things and take risks. They listen to their authors and they know how to execute. Just a completely different philosophy and approach from what constitutes the quasi-monopolisitic culture of legacy publishing, built on treating their providers and their customers extremely well. We should talk more about our experiences with Amazon once they launch the new Konrath/Crouch masterpiece, Stirred. Which, as you know from the feedback I gave you on the manuscript, is fantastic. And by "fantastic," I mean horrifying and hilarious, over-the-top, badass serial killer suspense.

Joe: Thanks for that, and yes, another dialogue would be fun. In the meantime, here's the excerpt from The Detachment, available today exclusively from the Amazon Kindle Store (and in paper in bookstores everywhere on October 18). You can read other chapters, and Q&A with Barry on other topics, at the following blogs:

Chapter 1 - Truthout: The Politics of The Detachment

Chapter 2 – A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing: The book’s unusual path to publication

Chapter 3 – Buzz, Balls & Hype: The book’s image system

Chapter 4 – Jungle Red Writers: Combining the series worlds of Rain and Treven

* * * * *

Chapter 5

I had nearly reached Ogawamachi subway station, where I would catch a train and examine the items I’d taken from the two dead men, when one of their phones vibrated. I stopped and checked the readout—just a number, no name.

I looked around at the bustling street scene, cars crawling, pedestrians hurrying past me, the sky dark now, the area lit only by streetlights and headlights and storefronts. I pressed the “receive call” key, held the unit to my ear, and listened.

A low voice, almost a whisper, said in American-accented English, “I know who you are. Don’t worry, I won’t say your name on an open line. You took the phones you’re carrying from the two men I was with. It’s okay. I know they don’t need phones anymore.”

The natural question was, Who is this? I ignored it because of its likely futility, in favor of something more relevant.

“What do you want?”

“To meet you. I have a message from a fan.”

“Tell me over the phone.”

“No. If this is going to work, we’ll need to establish our bona fides.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“My partner and me.”

“Two messengers?”

“There were four originally, but yes.”

I paused, thinking about the video camera, trying to get my mind around what the hell this could be about. The evening was still sultry and I realized my shirt was soaked with sweat.

“Look,” the voice said, “I wasn’t any more enamored of the two guys you just met than you were. If I had been, I wouldn’t have encouraged them to get so close. I sent them inside twice. I knew you’d see them.”

I wondered whether that was bullshit. But the timing of the call and the calm confidence of the voice suggested I was talking to someone who’d foreseen this, even planned it.

“It’s up to you,” the voice said. “But I have something you’ll want. A unit that was receiving from the two you’re carrying now. Take your time examining them, you’ll see I’m telling the truth. Then, if you want the one I’m holding, we can meet.”

I considered proposing a creative rectal use for the unit he claimed to be carrying, but decided against it. The calculus was the same as for the two giants. I could face this now, tonight, or I could spend the rest of my days wondering who was after me, what they wanted, how far they were willing to go. And let whoever it was answer my questions at a time and in a manner of their choosing, not mine.

“Where are you right now?” I asked.

“If you’re still on foot, we can’t be more than a half mile apart.”

“There’s a coffee shop near the subway station I came out of. I’m assuming you were somewhere behind the two who followed me out?”

“That’s right.”

“You passed it ten seconds after you hit the street. Big yellow sign, distinctive frontage. On the right coming around from the station.”

I clicked off and pulled the batteries from the phones and the video cameras. The timing wasn’t great—if they’d been behind me the whole time, they were closer to Saboru than I was. I would have preferred to get there first and watch from the street. But there would have been disadvantages in proposing someplace farther away, too. First, I would have had to give explicit rather than oblique instructions over the phone. Second, they would have had more to time to set something up, if that’s what this was about. Overall, I judged my chances best if I could keep them on a short clock.

It took me less than ten minutes to get back to Saboru. I made two circuits, the first wide, the second passing directly in front. Sepia lights glowed in the windows but the bamboo plantings made it impossible to see inside. I stood at the dim corner of the street for a moment, looking left and right, considering. The cicadas had gone temporarily quiet, and the only sound was of the suzumushi—bell crickets—Saboru’s centenarian proprietor keeps in a cage by the entrance because he finds their evening music pleasing. I saw no Caucasians and nothing seemed out of place. My guess was, whoever had called me was already inside.

I walked over and went in, my gaze sweeping the softly lit interior. A young hostess offered to seat me and I told her as I continued to check tables no thank you, I expected my friends were already here. The ground floor was about half-filled with an ordinary assortment of after-work sarariman types and loafing college students. There was a quiet background murmur of conversation mixed with J-pop music emanating from speakers affixed to the corners of the low ceiling. No foreigners, nothing out of place. I took the wooden stairs to the second floor. Again, nothing. Then to the basement, squatting as I descended the stairs to get a view of what I was up against before I’d gone all the way down.

I spotted them immediately, in a corner booth, their backs to the brick wall, both big and fit-looking. One, in his thirties, with blond hair and a strong jaw, quintessentially American; the other, about a decade older, with shorter, dark hair and darker skin, harder to place. I wondered which had spoken to me and for some reason sensed it was the darker one. There was something dangerous-looking about him, an explosive quality I could feel from across the room even though he was sitting perfectly still. Their hands were open, resting on the pitted wooden table. A good sign, or at least the absence of a bad one. They kept still and watched me, their steady gaze the only indication there was any connection between us.

I kept moving, sweeping the cave-like room with my eyes, confirming there was no one else here who looked like he didn’t belong. There was another table open in the opposite corner. I inclined my head toward it to indicate they should follow, walked over, and stood by the bench with my back to the wall. I didn’t want to sit in the spot they had chosen, or to offer them a view of the stairs while I was denied it. And I wanted to have a chance to see them head to toe, to watch how they moved, as they had just done me.

They got up and walked slowly over, no sudden movements, keeping their hands clearly visible. We all sat down wordlessly and watched each other for a moment. A waitress came by and handed us menus, which were in Japanese. The darker guy glanced at his, then looked at me with the trace of a smile. “What do you recommend?”

I’d been right: the same quiet, raspy voice I’d heard on the phone. “I hear the house coffee is good,” I said.

He glanced at the blond guy, who shrugged. Their demeanors intrigued me. The blond guy seemed on edge, as he ought to have been, as indeed I was. The dark guy, on the other hand, was incongruously relaxed, and seemed almost to be enjoying himself.

I ordered three coffees and three waters and the waitress moved off. I nodded at the dark guy. “What do I call you?”


I turned my head to the other guy, who said, “Treven.”

“All right, Larison and Treven. What do you want?” The more on-point question, of course, would have been, Who do you want me to kill? But it didn’t matter which route we took. We’d arrive at the same destination.

“We were sent just to find you,” Larison said. “The one who wants something from you is Colonel Horton. Scott Horton.”

The name was familiar, but for a moment, I couldn’t place it. Then I remembered something from Reagan-era Afghanistan, a time that felt to me now, when I considered it at all, so remote it could have been someone else’s life. The CIA had recruited former soldiers like me to train and equip the Mujahadeen who were fighting the Soviets, and though deniability had been imperative, there were a few active-duty military in theater, too, to liaise with the irregulars. There had been a young Special Forces noncom everyone called Hort, whom we’d teased because, despite his obvious capability and courage, he was black, and so an absurd choice for a covert role in Afghanistan. He assured us, though, that this was the point: if he was captured, Uncle Sam wanted to be able to say to the Russians, You think we’d be stupid enough to send a black soldier to blend in Afghanistan? Must have been a freelancer, a black Muslim answering the call of jihad. See how your wars are radicalizing people? What a shame.

I said, “This guy cut his teeth in Afghanistan?”

Larison nodded. “Training the Muj, yeah.”

“White guy?”

“No. Black.”

“Does he go by a nickname?”


Sounded like a match. He must have received a commission somewhere along the way and then never left the military. I estimated that today he’d be about fifty. “And he’s a colonel now,” I said, more musing than asking a question.

“Head of the ISA,” Treven said.

I nodded, impressed. It was a long way from deniable cannon fodder to the head of the Intelligence Support Activity, the U.S. military’s most formidable unit of covert killers.

“And you?” I asked, looking at Larison, then Treven. “ISA?”

Treven nodded. He didn’t seem entirely happy about the fact, or maybe he was just uncomfortable acknowledging an affiliation he would ordinarily reflexively deny.

Larison said, “Once upon a time. These days, I just consult.”

“Pay’s better?”

Larison smiled. “You tell me.”

“The pay’s okay,” I said. “Healthcare’s not so great.”

Treven glanced at Larison—a little impatiently, I thought. Maybe the kind of guy who liked to get right down to business. He didn’t understand this was business. Larison and I were trying to feel each other out.

“And the other two?” I said.

“Contractors,” Larison said. “One of the Blackwater-type successors. I can’t keep track.”

I glanced at Treven, then back to Larison. “So, ISA, a consultant, contractors… That’s a fairly eclectic gang you’ve got there.”

“We didn’t ask for the contractors,” Larison said, turning his palms up slightly from the table in a what can you do gesture. “That was Hort. I guess you could say he… overstaffed this thing.”

“And you downsized it.”

He dipped his head slightly as though in respect or appreciation. “You and I both.”

He seemed determined to let me know there were no hard feelings about the two dead giants—indeed, to acknowledge he’d deliberately sacrificed them. And now he was implying some distance between himself and Horton, too, and implying some commonality between himself and me. I wasn’t sure why.

“What’s Horton’s interest?” I asked.

“We don’t know the particulars,” Treven said. “All he told us was, he’s rebuilding, and he wants to make you an offer.”

“Rebuilding what?”

“I don’t know. Something about an operation you took down, run by a guy named Jim Hilger.”

Hilger. I didn’t show it, but I was surprised to hear the name. In all the times we’d crossed paths, first in Hong Kong, where he was brokering the sale of radiologically-tipped missiles and nuclear materiel, and then in Holland, where he’d been running an op to blow up the port in Rotterdam and drive up the price of oil, his affiliations had never been entirely clear to me. The last time I’d run into him was in Amsterdam, which was the last time he ran into anyone. If Horton had been involved with the late Jim Hilger, whatever he wanted was apt to be hazardous.

“What do you know about Hilger?” I asked.

Treven shook his head. “No more than I just told you.”

Larison said, “I’ve heard of him.”

“Who did he work for? Was he government? Corporate?”

Larison laughed. “You really think there’s a difference?”

Treven frowned just the tiniest amount, and I sensed Larison’s comment made him uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure why. Well, neither was going to tell me more. And, given Hilger’s current condition, I supposed it didn’t matter anyway.

“Anything else?” I said.

Treven said, “Yeah. This thing Hort’s trying to rebuild is going to include a former Marine sniper named Dox, who you’re supposed to know.”

I didn’t respond. I hadn’t seen Dox in a while, but we were in touch and I knew he was still living in Bali. He didn’t need work, but this would probably interest him anyway. It wasn’t a question of money with Dox. He just liked to be in the thick of it.

A part of my mind whispered, And you? I ignored it.

Larison said, “You might want to contact Dox yourself. If you don’t, we have to, and what’s the point of getting more contractors killed?”

Again, I was intrigued by his hint that he didn’t mind what happened to the contractor elements of his team.

The waitress returned with our order and left. Larison took a sip of coffee and nodded appreciatively. Treven didn’t touch his.

I drained my water glass and looked at them. “What does Horton have on you two?”

Neither of them responded. Well, he had something. And now they had something on me.

But then Larison surprised me. He said, “The video recorder is in my pocket. Mind if I reach for it?”

The question was appropriate. In a situation like this one, with someone like me, you want to keep your hands visible. Especially once you’ve established that you’re too smart to reach for something suddenly. The only reasonable inference would be that you’re going for a weapon, and the inference would lead to an unfriendly response.

I gestured that he should feel free. He stood and slowly extracted from his front pocket a unit like the two I’d taken from the giants. He placed it in the center of the table and sat back down. Then he glanced at Treven, who repeated the move, producing an identical unit.

I made no move to pick up the recorders. I’d expected the intent of the initial offer was only to get me to meet them, but now they seemed actually to be following through on it. Give up leverage for free? If they’d been clumsy civilians, maybe I could have read it as a naïve attempt to beget goodwill with goodwill. But neither of these guys was naïve. On the contrary, both of them had the quiet, weighty aura of men who’ve repeatedly killed and survived, an experience that tends to extinguish belief in the power of goodwill, along with most other such happy indulgences.

“There are no copies,” Larison said. “We don’t have anything on you. You want us to get lost, we’ll walk out of here right now. But the next team Hort sends, they won’t give you the video. They’ll use it.”

Probably he was lying about the copies, but I would never know for sure until someone tried to use them against me, and that would happen only if friendlier tactics proved useless. So Larison could be expected to try something relatively subtle to begin with. And so far he’d handled it deftly, I had to admit. You never want to present extortion as a threat: doing so just needlessly engages the subject’s ego and creates unhelpful resistance. Instead, you want to present the threat as though it has nothing to do with you, as though in fact you’re on the subject’s side. Maybe that explained the hints about a gap between Horton and them. It would have been a good way to help me persuade myself that my problem wasn’t with these two, but with someone else. If he was ruthless enough, and I sensed he was, he might even have sacrificed the two giants for the same end.

“Look,” Larison said, “no one can just disappear anymore. Everyone is findable. It’s a condition of modern life. You want total security? You have to disconnect. Live off the grid, remotely, no contact with the outside world. But if you like cities, and judo, and jazz, and coffee houses, and culture, all of which is part of your file, you don’t have a chance if someone like Hort is determined to find you. The only way is to make it so the people who are looking for you, stop looking for you.”

“How do you do that?” I asked, my tone casual.

He took another sip of coffee. “You wait for the right opportunity.”

“Or you make one,” I suggested.

He nodded. “Or you make one. And I’ll tell you one other thing. If you decide to accept Hort’s offer, whatever it is? Charge him for it. Charge him a lot. He can afford it.”

He sounded unhappy as he said the words, even acrimonious, and if I hadn’t picked up earlier on some kind of rift, I couldn’t miss it now. Whatever Horton was up to, I decided it must be important to him, if it was generating animosity in someone as seemingly formidable as Larison.

No one said anything after that. Larison obviously knew when it was time to shut up and let the prospect close the deal with himself, and Treven was smart enough to follow the older man’s lead.

We sipped our coffee in silence. Either this was an impressive piece of theater that included two dead extras, or what they were telling me, and what they were hinting at, was largely true. Horton wanted to make Dox and me an offer, most likely one we couldn’t refuse. He’d made similar offers already to Treven and Larison, who were unhappy about it and looking for an alliance or some other way out, but were also smart enough to keep those particular cards concealed for now. As for copies of the evening’s home video, for now there was no way to know. And for the moment, it didn’t really matter.

For the third time that night, I saw no advantage in waiting. I finished my coffee and took the video units from the table.

“How do I contact Horton?” I said.