M. William Phelps was first featured in WD for his true crime debut, Perfect Poison. He now has 600,000 copies of his books in print, including seven other titles in the genre, most recently I’ll Be Watching You, for which he won the 2008 New England Book Festival Award. In 2008, he released double ventures into the historical genre: Failures of the Presidents: Our Leaders’ Worst Decisions from the Dred Scott Case to Watergate to the Bay of Pigs to Iraq (co-authored with Thomas J. Craughwell) and Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy. He has also published several best-selling history “Shorts” through Amazon.com. Visit mwilliamphelps.com.
Is there anything you did to build your author platform before your debut of Perfect Poison that played a part in building the recognizable name in the genre that you are today?
This is a great question. I spared no expense in promoting that first book. I literally spent months (before my publication date) working on marketing materials, pitch letters, cold calling producers from radio and TV, pitching myself and the book, writing to editors of newspapers and magazines, Internet sites, etc., sending out no fewer than 100 media packages in the hopes of landing five or six key spots the week the book came out. I did very well. I was able to get the book into several major newspapers and ended up on about 30 radio shows and 10 TV shows.
What is the No. 1 thing you recommend other writers do to best demonstrate to agents and editors that they’ll be capable partners in marketing themselves and their work?
The best thing new writers can do is to spend the time (and money) it takes to develop and write a competent marketing plan (which should be no fewer than five to eight pages of your proposal), describing exactly what you will do for the book, your expertise in your particular genre/subject, your connections in radio or TV, your desire to be relentless in pursing promotional opportunities. Marketing is where the book business is at today: If your book idea is not marketable to large audiences, forget it.
This is why it’s so hard to sell a history book right now. Editors want “brand” names; household names history readers recognize immediately. The obscure history story/subject isn’t selling right now. With true crime, there’s a fine line. Editors don’t want to see those over-exposed, grossly high-profile cases Nancy Grace and the rest of the cable TV talking heads dissect night after night. Nor do they want to see cases they’ve never heard of.
Keep in mind, too, that each book builds on the next. I try to stick to female murderers with my true-crime stories, simply because that is what I am known for.
Publishing today is all about marketing. The worst thing a new writer can say in his proposal is, “I cannot wait to get out there on the author book tour.” That’s the pipe dream. The reality is, a new author needs to stipulate to editors that he is willing to knock on doors and send out promotional/media kits (which he has written and printed and paid for himself) and promote his book without the help of a publicist (or promise to hire his own publicist). Every editor I know has commended me for my ability to promote my career and my books. You are your biggest champion.
If you think a publisher is going spend money promoting you and your book, you’re kidding yourself. Publicists at publishing houses are reserved for bestselling authors. Publicity budgets the same. New authors—unless you’ve signed a huge contract—will get absolutely no promotional help from their publishers. This isn’t a slap to publishers; they publish so many books every month they couldn’t possibly give TLC to each one.
And lastly, do not promise things in your proposals that you will not follow through with; be a person of your word.
To what do you attribute your success?
Very, very hard work. Discipline. Thick skin. The ability to take rejection, learn from it and allow it to make you a better writer. So many people will give up on their dream because a few people told them they weren’t good enough. In book publishing—at least in the beginning—you need to set your focus on what you want to do, and do not allow anyone to stop you from achieving that goal.
I notice you’ve switched publishers. How did that come about?
I haven’t switched publishers. I am still under contact with Kensington Publishing Corp. I have, though, added [a few] more. An author friend once told me to write for as many different publishers as I could. It made a lot of sense to me. That eggs in one basket thing.
I’m a fairly prolific writer, meaning that I spend 12–14 hours every day, about five hours on each of my weekend days, working. Why not broaden my market and potential with other publishers? Some publishers are better at publishing certain books than others. You have to know this as an author. It kind of gives you an edge in the marketplace.
What have you learned about the publishing industry that you wish you’d known going in?
I wish that I’d not had the misconception that every editor and agent is some sort of evil tyrant looking to reject everything you send. They are in the business of buying writing that they can sell. Period. Editors are extremely humble people if you think about it. They make writers look better than they are and take no credit for it.
The types of books you write seem like they would be all consuming. How do you prevent from becoming too involved in you work?
I view the process of reporting, investigating, researching and writing as part of a bigger experience to get the exclusive aspects of the story out to the public. My sister-in-law, five months pregnant, was murdered by a serial killer years ago. So I am in touch with a certain characteristic of the people I write about. It allows me to stand in their shoes.
Have you learned that close relationships with sources are an asset or a hindrance to your work?
Close relationships—on a professional level—are always good. They certainly help. I have kept in contact with some of the people I have written about. These people put a substantial amount of trust in me to tell their stories. I owe it to them and myself to stay in touch after the fact.
Early in your career you researched an entire book on the NYPD that became unmarketable after 9/11. Have you had any other experiences where you spent a substantial amount of time on a project that didn’t pan out? How do you recover from these setbacks?
Yes, I have researched projects for months, flown to various parts of the country for interviews and documents, only to abandon the project for one reason or another. This is why I am constantly working on no fewer than three projects at one time: one nearing completion; one in the development stage; and one that is somewhere in the middle of all that. We need to look at each hurdle as a means to push us closer to where we want to be. Setbacks should drive us.
When did you feel like you’d “made it” as a writer?
I have to be honest. I am not saying this because of this interview. But, when I was chosen for the ‘First Success’ article in Writer’s Digest, I felt a sense of redemption and honor like that of which I had never felt before. Suddenly, all those rejections over the years were wiped away once again.
Let me tell you why. As a new writer, out there in the publishing world all alone (no agent, no teacher, no muse of any sort), getting rejected on a daily basis for close to five years, without publishing anything, I read Writer’s Digest every month as a textbook on how to break into the business. I believed in the articles and what writers had to say. I am a man of goals. Meaning, I set goals and work toward reaching them. I am very driven in that way. As my life revolved around rejection and a continuation of trying to get better and learn from every rejection, I set the ‘First Success’ column as a dream, a goal. I remember vividly telling my then agent, Jim Cypher, at one time, after finally breaking through the door and signing with him, that one of my goals had always been to be featured in that column. To me, that would be ‘making it,’ all at once vindicating and redemptive. Jim called me one day and said, ‘Guess what …’ I hung up the phone with had tears in my eyes. This sounds entirely cheesy and corny, I know. But it is the truth. I was so honored and humbled and, well, happy.
How do you choose subject matter for your books?
Whatever I am passionate about. Passion drives me. If you’re not passionate about your subject, you won’t be able to do a good enough job. For the crime books, I need to find the right mixture of people my readers expect. From there, the crime has to have certain elements. After that, I need to know that I will continue to be inspired by the story and people to spend the next year with it. If not, I move on.
With history, I look for untold stories that the market will buy; stories I feel are extraordinary. Not good, not great, but remarkable.
Do Nathan Hale and Failures of the Presidents indicate a new direction for you?
I will never abandon true-crime. I have two careers—history and crime—and I am moving towards a third: I am in the middle of editing and rewriting (under the direction of my editor, Michaela Hamilton) my first thriller. It is the debut book in a series set in Boston. Detective Jake Sundance Cooper is on the trail of a sadistic, brutal serial killer and, at the same time, dealing with a Catholic past steeped in doubt and a reluctance to ‘believe,’ while battling several quirky character hang-ups. I love writing and researching history; but, to be honest here, it’s hard to feed a family and just write history. My next history book, tentatively titled Devil in the House of Hope, merges both of my careers: crime and history.
What are you currently writing?
I just signed for several more true-crime books with the idea that the true-crime will work well with my thrillers. I am also working on a history proposal—a biography-slash-narrative account set during the signing of the Declaration [of Independence]—and I am researching a book that will focus on ten saints and their role in changing the social world in which they lived. Devil in the House of Hope is just about finished. It will be published during the spring or summer of 2010 (Lyons Press).
What are your future writing plans?
I want to continue establishing myself as a nonfiction book author—not just a true-crime author. I’m a journalist. I research and write nonfiction books. True crime is a passion. History is a passion. My goal is to reach large audiences with my books. I am also immersed deeply in creating the most unique fictional detective out there in the world of crime fiction. I find the intricacies of writing fiction fascinating and challenging. To create something new is not easy. I don’t want to write the next run-of-the-mill thriller. There are far too many throwaway thrillers on the market right now. I want to create a fresh series, something new and exciting. Think Harlan Coben meets Robert Parker meets Gogol. I’ve managed to bring the questions of faith that plague us all into my fiction. I feel that, to some extent, I have succeeded in using my ten years of true-crime reporting as a base for bringing a gritty reality to the fiction no other thriller writer can.