Terry Irving is a journalist and an American four-time Emmy award-winning writer and TV producer. His novel, Courier, is a motorcycle thriller in which the protagonist realises people are trying to kill him and he doesn’t know why. It has had some vicissitudes in its publishing history. Terry met at The Slaughterhouse here we talked about his move to self-publishing and promoting the novel.
Tell us about the struggle to stay alive in the Exhibit A mess.
Let me take you all the way back to the beginning. I’d written a book, “Courier,” and found an agent, and then got a series of lousy but time-consuming jobs which took me completely away from the whole thing. Then, as usual, I was fired again (the problem with being a grumpy old man) and I rewrote the book for the sixth time.
Then I went ahead and began the process of self-publishing the book—as much for the experience as anything else. I certainly didn’t expect to make any money; I’d already published a couple of tiny books to a resounding silence. Finally, in January 2012, everything was complete and my finger was literally on the button (or key) to put “Courier” on the Amazon site. (Actually, it was on the site but only I could see it—I did buy 3 copies of that first edition. I think they’re lost—they’d be collectors’ copies.)
Just then, my agent emailed that some crazy Brit was going to take the book with him on vacation and would get back to me. After I got over my fit of jealous rage that the bastard could take a vacation and I couldn’t, I put the Amazon Createspace edition on permanent Hold. Well, the crazy Brit, a genuinely wonderful guy named Emlyn Rees, came back from Vacation and wrote me an email that I still have framed and mounted on my wall—right above the computer—for those days that I feel blue.
It starts out with “I genuinely love this novel.”
Yeah, Emlyn had me at “hello.”
So, I canned the self-published version (although I did like the self-designed cover)
So, everyone negotiated happily for a long period. I basically went along with whatever they offered but the niceties have to be maintained. Finally, I got a contract for two books with an option on a third with Emlyn’s Exhibit A Crime Fiction division of Angry Robot Books. Exhibit A seemed happy:
Then I almost had a heart attack. Courier wouldn’t be published for 18 months! I completed the sequel “Warrior” by September 2013 and then found out it wouldn’t be published for another 18 months! What were they doing over there? Using out of work monks to handwrite each copy?
On the other hand, I received my first royalty advance check. That was a pleasant feeling.
OK, it was one/twentieth of what I needed to live on for a year, but it was pretty cool all the same.
OK, I eventually calmed down and began to breath again. While I waiting for my big “launch,” I wrote a paranormal thriller, ghost-wrote a right wing thriller about overthrowing a liberal president, and developed a massive social media machine.
So we get close to the Big Launch. I had a long distance phone call from England where they told me they weren’t going to do any marketing for the book (why couldn’t they have saved the money on the call and bought an ad somewhere?) Emlyn—sensing doom I suspect—left for the warm sun (?) of Brighton Beach and was replaced by a new editor who was… personality challenged, let’s say. A perfectly nice guy but not warm and encouraging.
So on May 1, 2014, I had my Big Launch. Despite the fact that I was dropping $2500 a month into a PR agency that everyone else just loved, I was getting no marketing, no real media—just online stuff in Fantasy Romance and YA websites—and no speaking events. They did send me a long list of how many people had refused to speak to me each month which did wonders for my ego.
I held the Book Launch in the parking lot of the biggest local motorcycle dealer.
I scrambled around and found a book convention to attend. I didn’t even know that book conventions existed. The one I found was just down the street and I didn’t notice that the name “Malice Domestic” meant that this was for “cozies.” These are murder mysteries without violence but often with recipes for fudge or crewel patterns included. And there is alway a dog and a cat. Let’s just say that I stood out a bit.
I did get a chance to speak for 15 minutes in a small room. Of the five people who showed up, two asked where the author who had been originally booked was speaking., I said, very nicely, that they could wander off—I wouldn’t mind—and then I talked about “Love in the Land of Motorcycles,” a short speech I’d made up when they’d requested a subject for my big debut. I wish I had a recording of that—wow, that’s a real leap.
My book leapt onto the market and I put that massive social media machine into gear. Sadly, once my relatives and the people I’d worked with over the years had bought their copies, sales dropped off.
Off a cliff, really.
That’s when I realized that my social media monster was mostly made up of other aspiring authors who were no more likely to buy my book than I was to buy theirs. At least I’d gotten rid of most of the 12,000 zombies I’d populated my Twitter feed with at first.
Then my wife and I went to my first Big Event. Thrillerfest—the annual meeting of Thriller Writers in New York City. It was glittering, it was opulent and it was all on credit cards.
On June 7, there was single note posted on the Exhibit A website:
News about Exhibit A
As you will be aware, Angry Robot Books has a history of innovation and we continue to go from strength to strength. We’re constantly trying out new concepts and new ideas, and we continue to publish popular and award-winning books. Our YA imprint Strange Chemistry and our crime/mystery imprint Exhibit A have – due mainly to market saturation – unfortunately been unable to carve out their own niches with as much success.
We have therefore made the difficult decision to discontinue Strange Chemistry and Exhibit A, effective immediately, and no further titles will be published from these two imprints.
The core Angry Robot imprint is robust, however, and we plan to increase our output from 2 books a month, to 3. We have no plans to cancel any titles other than those of Strange Chemistry and Exhibit A.
A day or two later, I had my big moment in the sun at Thrillerfest—the ITW Debut Writer’s Breakfast. 60 seconds to make it or break it with the whole world watching. As usual, I hadn’t prepared anything, but I stood up and said something like:
“This story, my story, is a story of hubris—like the Greek plays—where overweening pride brings the hero down. I thought I would write a book and be a hero. It took 8 weeks to write the book. 8 months find an agent. 3 years to find a publisher. 18 months before the damn thing hit the market. That was on May First. On June 7th, my publisher shut down. So (I held up Courier) I’d really appreciate it if you talked to your agents and publishers about what a great book this is. OK?”
The woman who was writing this up for Book Week or something said the book didn’t seem that bad so I guess I wasn’t really all that clear.
Now, I’ve worked in tech startups and been in charge of two of them when they dropped off the agonizing edge of the cliff and went directly into bankruptcy. Yes, I was a babe in the woods but eventually even a sweet idiot like me begins to see patterns. One was intended to drive down the price of the parent stock so that the bankers who’d bought the company could drive everyone out before beginning to enforce their patents. The other was a 3 Billion dollar division whose sole existence was to raise the price of the parent company before an upcoming sale. The second the sale went through, every dime we spent was money wasted (because the price was already set, you see) and we were laid off almost before they could finish telling us that no one would be laid off.
So I was a wee bit suspicious about this deal and I wasn’t buying that Exhibit A and Strange Chemistry were both going down because we authors hadn’t “carved out our own niche.” Of course, when you looked at the trade papers, it turned out that the Grandparent company had a CEO who was also the Editor-in-Chief. To me, that pretty well meant that no one else in the company had a clue about books. Guess what? The day before this big announcement from Angry Robot, their owners had announced a “reassessment” of the company. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the CEO/EIC going off to a job at Random House.
I can see the meeting so clearly, the suits are all around the table with quivering jowls. They know they have to sell this turkey before it begins to smell—after all it’s a company built on “tea cards” of British Uniforms of the Boer War and Polish Fighting Aces of World War 2, combined with an insane English company that produces slaughter-thrillers with more gore per page than most big city medical examiners combined with science fiction (actually pretty good stuff, but I’m not in the mood to admit it right now). So they have to sell off Angry Robot.
But wait. Angry Robot has these two messy little imprints that haven’t “carved a market niche.” Well, they clearly have to go before it goes on the block. You want a nice, neat package when you go to put yourself on the market for a quick sale.
The meeting breaks up in happy smiles and general back-slapping. Everything is now fine. They’ll pull the rug out from under those poor schmucks who were writing for Exhibit A and Strange Chemistry and we can even make it look like it’s their fault. Who cares about these guys?
So, this grave crisis affects absolutely no one at the parent or grandparent company. Angry Robot is purchased by September by some guy who wants to combine it with holistic, wellness publishing. Unless they’re bringing back leeches and bloodletting, I can’t see how that synergy is going to work but what do I know? Apparently, they also went bankrupt but I only know that from the trades. They certainly didn’t act bankrupt.
When Neal Stephenson invented cyberspace, he referred to it as a “mutually-agreed hallucination” (OK that might have been William Gibson who wrote that but it’s not really important). The hallucination in this case was that either Exhibit A or Strange Chemistry had ever existed—much less been closed. My contract was with Angry Robot, I was paid by Angry Robot. People kept telling me that I didn’t have a publisher and I would respond that that wasn’t what my contract said. I talked to a lawyer and he pointed out that Exhibit A had no legal existence whatsoever. However, everyone appeared to have mutually-agreed that Exhibit A did exist and so could cease to exist.
One of the great examples of this was an email I received in November that pointed out that I hadn’t had a publisher since July. I responded that SOMEONE was still selling paperback copies of Courier all over the world. Perhaps we should find out who that mysterious company was and make sure we got a cut of whatever royalties might be coming in.
Other authors tended to sink into despair or, in one case, have to be restrained from flying to England and putting C-4 to the entire High Street operation. The scary thing is that’s he’s superbly skilled in that sort of thing.
I mean, in reality, not just in books.
Moving on. It would take weeks for anyone to find anyone home at the offices of Angry Robot, my non-publisher. There were rumors that they were in bankruptcy (which would have put the rights to all books into permanent limbo) and verbal guarantees that all our rights had been reverted. I jumped ugly all over my agent (who truly didn’t deserve it) and got a letter in September that gave me all my rights back albeit with the puzzling note that “normally, it would take six months to make the reversion but we’ll move yours up.”
My calendar skills aren’t all that great but June to December sounds a lot like six months to me. What am I missing?
Well, let’s not worry about that. What the letter did say was that they would continue to sell the electronic version of Courier until December 31st and the paperback version until December 31st or whenever the existing stock ran out.
Imagine my surprise when I returned from a (useless) trip to Bouchercon on November 18 and found that the ebooks were missing from Amazon, B&N, and I could only imagine all the other online outlets. No notice. No “so sorry, we need the 24 bytes of space it’s taking up in the computer.” No nuttin.
That was the 18th. I had a brand new cover (looks different, doesn’t it?) and a really bad version of the text up on Amazon Direct Publishing by the 20th. (I’d already gotten permission from the artist to keep using the cute biker on the cover.) I made up a name for the Publisher—The immortal Sean Lynch (Wounded Prey) had referred to all the Exhibit A writers as a gang of ronin so the name was obvious—Ronin Robot Press. A quick Google of the name appeared to indicate that no one else owned the name or the website. In another two days, I had managed to proof every damn letter of the text (never try to OCR pdf files and expect it to work), learn how to create a .mobi file so I could tell how it looked, worked out the fairly difficult Amazon Previewer system, and even designed a new Icon for my new company.
We got the new version up quickly enough that the 32 reviews on Amazon didn’t disappear into the ether. On the other hand, Amazon had decided that this was a “new” release and placed us 50th in Hot and New Kindle releases.
I mean, I wasn’t going to correct them.
Then Nick Wale, the “Amazon Whisperer” in England that I hired to run online ads sprang into action. Finally, we had our hands on the controls at Amazon [insert evil cackle] and so we went to town. He changed all the Keywords, dropped the price, and then threw Courier into an Amazon Free Promotion (which has to be the most counter-intuitive action in the universe—give books away to increase your sales? What?) I went back to my social media buddies (I am desperately trying to be human with everyone, it’s more fun and strangely works better) and begged them to get everyone they knew to “buy” my free book. In an amazing case of serendipity, Burke Allen, a PR guy I’d just hired in Virginia finished reading the book on Sunday and was so inspired that he shot a press release across the wires that was picked up everywhere. Well, by motorcycle magazines, free Kindle giveaway blogs, and community magazines.
Right out of the start on Day One, Courier the Kindle had gone from the—who knows, after
Oddly, paperback sales kicked up as well and headed for the 10,000 mark, which was effectively as high as it’s ever been since the launch in May.
And this is a tweet from late that night
3,090 people downloaded Courier on the first day! And it didn’t stop.
By the end of the promotion on Saturday the 28th, I was still just holding on in the Top 100 Free and 6,919 people had downloaded copies of Courier, I had 7 new invitations to speak, and a regular opinion column on a local online paper.
Do you think Marshall McLuhan was right when he wrote, ‘The medium is the message?’
I’d be more likely to go with the adage, “Freedom of the press goes to the guy who owns one.”
You’re the head of Angry Robot, how do you go about making it into a good business?
You know, I don’t have any animus towards the CEO of Angry Robot. They are a tiny publisher who has managed to stay alive being bounced from corporate parent to corporate parent. They appear to do a good job of finding new science fiction and splatter-gore authors (and some very respectable ones have moved over) and they market with an ironic flair that matches their market. Just staying alive in today’s publishing world requires some amazingly fancy footwork.
As I’ve explained, the authors at Exhibit A got caught between one vine and another (that’s a Tarzan reference.) If Exhibit A had lasted another six months, it would probably have been even or making a profit. Several of the authors were selling well and one or two had movie options. I have the feeling that the CEO was feeling the chill of sharks on the back of his neck for the past year because I didn’t think that enough attention was being paid.
The only thing I thought was unfair (and far too many of the other authors bought it hook, line, and sinker) was the implication that we had failed to make our mark and so were being cut off. I can understand why a corporation looking for a quick sale isn’t going to say “Jeez, we’ve got these two new units that are losing money so we’re going to scrape them off and make our balance sheet go in the black” but to blame the authors for failing with their first or second books and no marketing support is a bit harsh.
What else is on the cards for you this year?
One of the essential aspects of a television producer’s psychological makeup is a dogged refusal to give up. When I was training younger producers at MSNBC, they were doing a remote production with a satellite truck and I got a call about 15 minutes before air with the panicked news that the generator on the truck was belching smoke and “you’d better have the backup tapes ready.”
I said, “The next person who utters the word ‘tapes’ is fired. You have a problem, fix it. You’re in a major city, do you think that’s the only satellite uplink in town? Get on the phones and start calling.” then I hung up.
We had to switch on one camera for a bit at the top of the show but they had another satellite truck and an optical line feed by ten after the hour.
It’s a state of mind at the network level. You don’t just have second options, you have third, fourth and fifth options. I know producers who have booked entire facilities (or put them on first right of refusal) just in case a major transmitter AND it’s backup went down, I’ve seen those big airconditioner trucks from Dulles Airport brought in and piped into an overheating tech trailer through the local volunteer fire company’s air hoses. I was on the team as ABC came into South Africa only days before Nelson’s Mandela’s release and watched secretaries direct multi-camera setups, translation being done by someone listening to an earpiece and speaking into a microphone that was fitted neatly into the cleavage of the reporter who had been using it only a moment before, and new video editors being brought in to replace the ones that had literally gone up in smoke.
I know of producers who have jumped out of helicopters that couldn’t quite land, scrambled through moving freight trains, or run into traffic, stopped a car, and jumped in with “I’ll give you $50 bucks to get me to WWWW Television.”
Actually, that last one was me. Several times.
So, I get depressed and down and outright grumpy. I have days when i simply go to bed and sleep through the blackness. But hell, I’m clinically depressed, I’d have days like that even if I was the next Tom Clancy. The next day, I get up and start to type again.
Right now, I’m trying to work out how I’m going to keep the paperback edition of “Courier” available after New Year’s Day. One option is to buy out the remainder from Random House, the US distributor, ship them over to Amazon and sell them through Amazon Fulfillment. Or I could go to IngramSpark and get a Print-on-Demand deal so that any supplier, from the individual bookstore to the chains—well, Barnes and Noble anyway—can simply order books and get them in the same shipping time as if they were already printed and in the warehouse.
Of course, I do have other freelancers that I’ve worked with and I guess I could go all the way and become a publisher.
The point is, it’s very difficult to find something that I really and truly give up on. I’ve written 25,000 words in one 18 hour stretch (rewriting on deadline but still…) I’ve completed TV packages with the complexity of any 3 month magazine piece in less than 12 hours (used to specialize in it, actually.) i’ve written obituary scripts for people I’ve never met and made them sound warm and real. I’ve worked the floor at Comdex (an old computer exposition that used to be important) and demonstrated a complete online education network that didn’t exist and where none of the 18 programs on the network ran longer than a minute—short attention spans, remember?
I suppose more importantly than anything else, in September of 1984 when I was 32, I put one kid into college with no loans, bought a house in the most expensive county in the US, and my wife had a baby. I’ve lived without money and paid for both private school and college for both kids. And every creditor was paid—eventually.
I’m learning a whole lot about the book business and I’ll work out some way to survive. My problem is that I know I need to learn a LOT more about writing and all of this takes time away from that essential task. I know I’m not as good as a lot of writers and, well, I want to be that good. That’s more important than all the rest of this stuff.
Thank you Terry for a perceptive and comprehensive interview.