My brother Michael is a painter. He lives in Laguna Beach and, for years, maintained a house in Mexico, until it got too crazy down there. He works every day, just as I do. He thinks constantly about how to get better, just as I do. He experiments endlessly with his technique, just as I do. And any time a new subject occurs to him, he just sits down and executes it.
Just as I don't -- at least, until now.
As a painter, Mike sells his work directly to people who like paintings. I sell my work to an intermediary, a gatekeeper, a publisher -- a corporate entity in a risky business that has its own ideas about what people do and don't want to read. Publishers certainly know what they want to buy and what they don't want to buy - and the only thing they want to buy from me (if anything) is a thriller. For my entire 25 years as a writer, I've effectively been pigeonholed. I can't put up the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to buy, design, print, and distribute my own books, so that means the publishers -- with the best will in the world -- essentially define what I can and can't write.
And now, if I choose to, I can write anything I want without considering the restrictions of the publishing industry and sell it direct to people who might want to read it. Why?
About eight weeks ago, as an experiment, I decided to offer e-book editions of two private-eye mysteries I wrote in the 1990s that had been out of print for so long that the rights had reverted to me. Much to my surprise, they sold - and I mean, in significant numbers. Sure, they only cost a reader $2.99 each, but I make a flat 70% of that; if I sell a thousand or more copies a month, I'm making some actual money.
There are four more books in that series, which features an over-educated Los Angeles P.I, named Simeon Grist. The third goes up in 2-3 days, and the fourth will follow in a week or two. Then there's another series, featuring a burglar named Junior Bender who works as a private eye for crooks. If you live in a dreary little stucco box in Panorama City and someone steals $500,000 in already-stolen emeralds out of your house, you're not going to go to the cops; you go to Junior. My agent tried to sell this series for a couple of years while I simply continued to write them because they were so much fun. We got offers, but the sense was that comic mysteries weren't hot, and none of the offers was good enough. So I'm putting them up on my own.
By the end of the year, what with one thing and another, I'll have nine or ten e-books online, probably all priced at $2.99. That's very cool for me, because if they sell in the quantities in which the Simeon Grist books are selling, it'll be a very substantial boost to my income. But what's coolest is that I CAN WRITE ANYTHING I WANT and not have to give a moment's thought to a publisher's "list" or the conventional marketing wisdom of the moment. Whatever it is; I'll write it, have a cover designed, and put it out there, and people can decide for themselves whether they like it.
I need to make it clear here that I'm not knocking publishers. I actually love publishers; I'm deeply grateful and somewhat amazed that major publishers have agreed to print and distribute ten books I nursed into being, and publishers have paid my way, or part of my way, for years. But publishing is a precarious enterprise; all books are expensive to produce and most of them fail. It's inevitable that the marketing potential of a book is a major factor in the decision whether to publish it.
Nor am I in any way saying that the books I published weren't the best books I could write, or that they weren't books I wanted to write. I wanted deeply to write all of them. The point is, there were lots of books I didn't write because I knew I couldn't get them to readers.
At the moment, in addition to the next Poke Rafferty thriller, which will be conventionally published, I'm writing two books I don't even plan to try to sell through the usual channels: they'll go direct to readers. I have a list of a dozen more I want to write. It feels as though I've been cooped up in a small room for years and the walls suddenly fell down. There's space to swing my arms. I don't have to reject exciting ideas because they're not ideas I can sell.
This is a big deal for writers. Yes, the e-book market will probably be flooded with unpublishable junk -- I may even write some of it. Yes, it imperils bookstores, and I love bookstores. But this is the first time in modern history that a writer can put his or her work out to a global audience for a few hundred bucks in startup costs. This is the beginning of a revolution. Everyone in the industry is focused on it as an economic revolution, but I think it's primarily a creative revolution.
Writers are now as free as painters to speak directly to the people who might be interested in their work. We might even make enough money at it to write full-time, which for most writers is a succinct definition of paradise. Nobody knows how this market will shake out, but right now it's capitalism at its most primitive: put it out and see whether anyone likes it.
It's been some time since I could be even charitably described as a spring chicken, but this literally makes me feel twenty years younger. Just me and the reader, whoever he or she is. Instead of tossing those ideas, write them and sink or swim on my own. At $2.99 a pop.