Hi, WD community! Today we’re sharing a guest post from J.E. Fishman, a former editor and literary agent turned author. He has penned Dynamite: A Concise History of the NYPD Bomb Squad and the novels Primacy, Cadaver Blues, and The Dark Pool. His Bomb Squad NYC series of police thrillers launches this month with A Danger to Himself and Others, Death March, and The Long Black Hand. In September comes Blast from the Past. He divides his time between Chadds Ford, PA, and New York City.
Today he shares a somewhat unconventional decision to publish four—yes, four—books in less than a year. Here he is:
This is the story of how I decided to publish four novels in six months. It begins with a general principle, which is that writing in any form—and certainly storytelling—is a means of communication. I have never subscribed to the belief that writers write solely for themselves.
Even Emily Dickenson, so reclusive that she rarely left her room, sent poems off to be published (although only a dozen or so appeared in print during her lifetime). This proves to me that she must have imagined a reader out there somewhere on the other side of the window for the 1,800 unpublished poems that she also wrote. Shyness couldn’t stop her voice from crying out through the tip of her pen. She wanted to be heard.
It is the same for all who write successfully, I think. (By success, I mean creating what we set out to create, not necessarily raking in the bucks.) We deeply desire to give voice to something within us, and we want someone out there to read our stories. How do we accomplish these twin goals?
As anyone knows who’s attempted to write, while stories still reside solely in our heads, they contain a kind of perfection that we rarely manage to preserve when we attempt to express them in print. And it’s the same with our efforts to bring them out into the light of day. In the perfect world, we can write whatever we want whenever we want to write it, and readers yearn for every word we produce. In the real world, we operate with constraints and may never get discovered.
As a novelist, I think it pays to be aware of the three aspects of the storyteller’s endeavor. First, every story begins with something that interests the author. Second, if storytelling is a form of communication, we must take account of the reader. Finally, an increasingly disrupted marketplace challenges us to find our audience — or, more to the point, to induce them to find us.
Sometimes I feel as if I have a new story idea every day. These stories might float up to me unbidden while I’m driving in the car or dozing off on the couch. But most of the time something instigates them. It could be an item in the news or another work of art or an experience I had. I’ll think, “That would make a great story,” and then I’ll mull over how I might go about telling it.
And then, most of the time, I don’t write that story. I could plead limitations of time — life intervening or some other writing project currently claiming my efforts — but the real reason most of these stories don’t happen is that they’re not ripe. Their day may come, but not yet. Some story ideas marinate this way for years.
Once in a while, however, a story idea comes along that I personally find so compelling I can’t get it out of my head. So it was with my new series, Bomb Squad NYC.
Five years ago, my wife, my daughter and I left the New York area for the Brandywine Valley outside Wilmington, Delaware, not far from Philadelphia. We left, but we didn’t leave with both feet, as we decided to buy a smaller house and throw in for an apartment in Manhattan’s West Village, which we visit with some regularity.
We love going to the theater in New York, seeing independent films, window shopping, and the whole foodie scene. Admittedly, we’re pretty spoiled, although the apartment is a petite one-bedroom, and when we’re all in town my daughter sleeps on a pull-out couch.
To the occasional visitor, New York must appear to be an overwhelming agglomeration, but it’s really a collection of distinct neighborhoods, each with its own personality and its quirks. The West Village has become known for its restaurants and access to the Hudson River park, but one of its less remarked-upon features resides in a pair of nondescript garages at the rear of the local police precinct.
When we walked past those closed garage doors we noticed painted shields upon them indicating the headquarters of the NYPD Bomb Squad. One summer evening, as we returned from dinner, we found the doors open wide with a number of cops (all detectives, I’ve since learned) hanging out with a dog in front of the response trucks. We had a nice chat, and they showed us the robots they use. I learned that this wasn’t any old bomb squad, it was the Bomb Squad — the one that strives to keep all of the city safe from explosive devices.
As we walked away from the garage that night, heading for our apartment, it hit me: These guys deserve their own series. Not, I hasten to add, because they’re heroes — although they are. But because, from my perspective as a novelist, their existence carries with it a motherlode of storytelling material that has largely remained untapped.
Lots of bombs go off in thrillers and other novels, of course, but the bomb guys typically get only subplots, if any acknowledgment at all. Few novelists have attempted to crawl inside their heads. I wanted to explore not only what these guys do—which can be highly technical—but how they think, the challenges they face, how they experience life.
For many months I couldn’t get the NYPD Bomb Squad out of my head (news flash: I still can’t!), and the more I thought about it, the more compelling the material looked to me. I decided to pursue the subject with all the vigor I could bring to it.
I began this series the only way a writer can ever begin anything: with an interest in the subject matter. But then, if writing is primarily a means of communication, how would I connect to the reader? It soon occurred to me that these novels should take the form of thrillers.
The ticking time bomb is the essence of suspense. (Remember Alfred Hitchcock’s explanation: “Four people are sitting around a table talking about baseball or whatever you like. Five minutes of it. Very dull. Suddenly, a bomb goes off. Blows the people to smithereens. What does the audience have? Ten seconds of shock. Now take the same scene and tell the audience there is a bomb under that table and it will go off in five minutes. The whole emotion of the audience is totally different … Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital. Because they’re saying to you, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Stop talking about baseball. There’s a bomb under there.’”) But it needn’t be an actual time bomb. In some sense any bomb that has not yet detonated is a time bomb. As Hitchcock suggested, the fact that a bomb might soon go off at any moment engages the audience’s attention. Therefore, I concluded, these books called for the thriller genre.
I also concluded pretty quickly that the novels should have a “police procedural” element to them, which is to say that they should give readers a level of technical detail about police work that goes beyond what they’d get from less immersive sources. But here I faced a daunting challenge. I didn’t know any cops, let alone bomb technicians, and I could hardly spend my research time standing on the street and waiting for those garage doors to open again.
Fortunately, by pursuing the proverbial six degrees of separation (the details are a story for another day—but it only required three degrees, to be honest), I eventually hooked up with the commander of the very squad I wanted to write about, Lieutenant Mark Torre. Mark already had some experience providing feedback to novelists, among them Patricia Cornwell. We met and hit it off, and he agreed to act as my technical consultant for the entire series, giving me insights and a degree of accuracy that I was unlikely to achieve any other way.
With my novels roughly using the storytelling conventions of thrillers, and with Mark looking over my shoulder, I set about plotting and writing the first book, A Danger to Himself and Others.
The more I learned about the real world and about my characters, the more ideas I had for other stories and plot points. Using an ensemble cast, I could see a whole series stretching before me. I’d write two more, however, before rushing into print, because a final consideration remained: How best to bring this series to the public.
We all know that book publishing faces forces of massive disruption. Online sales … ebooks … the power of Amazon … publishers consolidating … bookstores closing … the rise of indie publishing … All of these factors can be summed up thusly: It’s easier to get your work out there than ever before, but harder than ever before for a given work to get noticed.
Depending upon personality, one might take the changing landscape as an exciting challenge or a soul-crushing obstacle. I look at it this way: A writer’s gotta write and—eventually—a writer’s gotta publish. It’s just what we do.
In that context, it’s worth noting that we’ve sort of been here before. Mark Twain is reputed to have said (he probably didn’t really say it, but never mind), “History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.” When it comes to publishing, ebooks are relatively new, but disruptive technology isn’t.
Perhaps one can hark back to what the monks thought of Gutenberg’s printing press, but I have something much more contemporary in mind. The publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin, among others, has observed that there are many parallels between the introduction of mass market paperbacks and ebooks.
Without rehashing the entire history of mass market paperback publishing, let’s acknowledge three important elements that impacted the market then and are doing so again: (1) new means of distribution; (2) discount pricing; and (3) binge consumption.
First, neither the distributors of mass market paperbacks nor those of ebooks were content to distribute through old channels. In both instances they realized that new customers could be found for books outside the bookstore. In the case of mass market, that meant newsstands, drugstores, and grocery stores. In the case of ebooks, it meant cyberspace.
Second, technological advances allowed both of these media to set price points well below the price of a hardcover. In fact, the sweet spots of original mass market and current ebook pricing share a ratio. They both correlate closely to approximately 10 or 15 percent of the price of a hardcover book.
Third, as prices drop and novels become more accessible, the average reader can consume with more intensity.
It’s interesting to see all of the press lately about “binge” watching of television series, because binge consumption of genre fiction has been around since the advent of so-called dime novels and continued through the introduction of mass market paperbacks. I distinctly recall my wife discovering mystery writer John D. MacDonald in the ’80s and almost immediately purchasing every Travis McGee mass market paperback she could find. (In those days she had to comb multiple bookstores.) She wouldn’t have behaved the same way for books priced ten times higher.
But many authors who made a name for themselves via mass market publishing encouraged binge reading from the early days. Consider that MacDonald published four Travis McGee novels in 1964 alone. Ed McBain, whose 87th Precinct series is something of a model for my own, published 54 of those books in 50 years, but 13 in the first five.
Yet by the standards of a few other novelists, those guys were slackers. Louis L’Amour, the legendary writer of westerns, published 100 novels in 37 years. The great science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov published 506 books in 32 years. When I was at Doubleday, just managing Isaac was nearly a full-time job for one of my colleagues.
To take another example, romance author Nora Roberts has published more than 200 books in 31 years and is still going strong. The British mystery author John Creasey, writing under several different pseudonyms, published 600 novels in 41 years.
And in a career spanning 75 years, Barbara Cartland, the mother of all romance writers, published 722 novels. Think of it. That’s almost ten novels a year. In 1983 she published 23 novels!
Does that sound like madness? In a sense, of course it is. But my subject today isn’t what kind of mind it requires to be so so! so!! prolific. It is simply to say that this stream of material made great business sense in the mass-market-paperback age, and it makes great business sense at the dawn of the ebook age.
All of the authors mentioned above wrote genre fiction, and all of them wrote at least a few series. That’s not a coincidence.
Reading novels is an investment not so much of money but of time. Through their buying habits genre readers have told us that they’re more inclined to purchase the books in a series that’s well established. (If the series is working, sales build over time.) But these days, when so many things compete for an audience’s attention, how many opportunities does an author get to establish that series? The answer is: not many.
The triumph of mass market houses in the last century, combined with the rise of mall bookstores and superstore chains, led to the mass marketization of hardcover fiction, whereby authors like Sue Grafton, Lee Child, and John Grisham—to name but a few—could make their names with a single book and subsequently release one title a year to great fanfare.
But if ebooks are the new mass market paperbacks—and I think they are—we’re in a time when newer writers will have to resurrect the old mass market approach to establishing their brand. It isn’t easy, and I won’t be catching up to John Creasey anytime soon. But four books in six months makes a start.