While many authors struggle to find time to write, for David Baldacci it’s more of a struggle to find time to do something other than write—and an unwelcome one at that, as there’s clearly nothing he’d rather be doing.
Since splashing onto the scene with the 1996 Presidential thriller Absolute Power (swiftly snatched up by Hollywood for a feature film starring Clint Eastwood), he’s written 30 novels for adults and five for young readers. Although he’s primarily known for his action-packed suspense, including six bestselling character-driven series—featuring secret agent Shaw, D.C. conspirators The Camel Club, Secret Service-turned-PIs King and Maxwell, Army special agent John Puller, government assassin Will Robie, and his latest, Amos Decker, a man with total recall of his life who debuted in this year’s Memory Man—he’s also penned a wide range of well-received stand-alones, among them the family drama One Summer, the Appalachian historical Wish You Well (the indie film adaptation, which Baldacci wrote and coproduced, was released this summer) and the holiday tale The Christmas Train. As for his latest departure, the Vega Jane middle-grade fantasy trilogy, Book 1, The Finisher, is already in development with Sony Columbia even as Book 2, The Keeper, just hit shelves in September.
Screenwriting notwithstanding (he’s also at work on an original TV series, as well as one based on John Puller and another on his police thriller True Blue), the November release of his fourth Will Robie title, The Guilty, will mark 36 books in 19 years—and over 110 million copies in print.
A former lawyer, Baldacci still attacks his writing career as if preparing for a high-stakes defense. His typical day currently involves a few hours of work on his second Decker thriller, another few hours drafting Book 3 of Vega Jane, and another few hours on a screenplay. “During the course of the day I might work on three or four different projects, but only when I run out of gas on one do I move on to another,” Baldacci says. “I write until my tank is empty each day. I don’t count words or pages or whatever—that seems like an artificial goal for me.”
Clearly it’s a big tank, powering an energy-efficient engine with a lot of horsepower. And while he now has an office staff helping with the day-to-day admin that comes with such success (maintaining his website and responding to the hundreds of reader letters he gets every week), he still rolls up his shirtsleeves for causes he believes in, serving on the Mark Twain House & Museum board of trustees (where he is the benefactor of the $25,000 Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award), cofounding, with his wife, Michelle, the Wish You Well Foundation to foster and promote family literacy, and advocating on behalf of authors during last year’s much-publicized dispute between Amazon and his publisher Hachette.
The November/December 2015 Writer’s Digestfeatures our full-length interview with Baldacci on his latest projects, what he’s learned about both the craft and the business of writing through his long and profitable career, and why perseverance and passion are paramount. Here, in these outtakes we didn’t have space to print, he talks more about the rush of writing Chapter 1, the implications of Amazon’s absolute power, and more.
Are there parts of the process that are more enjoyable than they used to be?
I love beginning the next project, where I’m really excited about what I want to do and you get to the point where, OK, I’ve thought about it enough in my head where I can at least start it. Writing that first chapter is just such a sheer joy, because all of a sudden after all this time in your head you’re finally seeing something tangible appear, something visceral on the page. And it may not be exactly how you want it to be, and you go back over it and over it and over it again—I tend to look at that first chapter a million times trying to do it exactly right—but I love just seeing how it flows out on the page after a long time thinking about stuff.
And at the end, when the manuscript is done, before I send it off to anybody, I print the whole thing out and I get my pens and I go over to my editing desk and I just bloody the pages. I tell people—I know younger people will look at me and go, What the hell are you talking about? when I say this—that I think better in cursive. [Laughs.] I know they don’t teach cursive anymore in schools, but I grew up reading biographies of other writers and I would love seeing their manuscript pages. And whether they wrote in pencil or typewriter, you see their edited pages and you see the carets and the slashes and the deletions and the additions, and, God, I love that stuff. I love to look at pages like that. And that’s what I do with mine—because for me, that’s where this sword that you still have in the hot metal, that’s when you pull it out and refine it down to that fantastically sharp point during the editing process. That’s when the mud dries out and becomes something really beautiful. And for me it’s pens and cursive and my brain and just cutting and moving and slashing and adding. I love that part of it.
You spoke out in the interest of authors as a whole during the Amazon/Hachette dispute. You've also expressed a concern about trends in digital publishing, deep book discounting and royalty structures damaging authors' abilities to make a profit. What do you think newer authors should be most wary of as they enter into today's publishing climate? And what would be your best advice for people starting their careers at this point?
The first thing I would tell them is that no one on earth is going to care more about your career than you. Not your agent, not your publisher, not retailers, not friends in the industry. At the end of the day, you need to take responsibility for your own career. And I know it’s kind of hard when you’ve got your first book published and you’re so excited and giddy that you’re like, I’ll let other people take care of the other stuff, the royalties and all that—I’m just so excited, there’s my book on the shelf! But at the end of the day, everything matters.
As a lawyer I never wanted to see people taken advantage of. And people would come to me and want me to represent them because they had been taken advantage of. And I had been out there talking with other authors and telling them what I think is fair, and that royalty rates that were sort of made in the 1700s really probably aren’t that fair anymore. You need to be your best advocate. You need to understand the financial side of the business because if you don’t, then you by default are going to be taken advantage of by people who do pay attention to those details.
I’ve had a great relationship with my various publishers around the world, but at the same time, when I negotiate, I negotiate hard, and I negotiate fairly as well. I’ve always thought that a young writer coming up needs to take the time to understand how the industry works. You know: what a royalty statement means, how it’s designed (because let me tell you, they’re very difficult to read), the overall structure of the deal.
I’ve always maintained that no publisher should make more money off of a book than the writer who created the book does. Even with the fact that, you know, they have overhead and all that stuff, they publish thousands of books a year. But this is mine. This is the only one I’m going to do, or the only two I’m going to do, for the whole year. So I’m the content creator. And I think this applies to the retail side as well and to the Amazons of the world.
The movie industry figured this out a long time ago: We are the kings because we create content. Who wants content? Everybody. That’s why you have 5,000 television channels and everyone’s clamoring for content, because there aren’t enough content providers.
Well, in the book world, we the writers should be king of the hill, because we provide the content. Kindles, Nooks, e-readers are great devices if you have something to read on them. If you don’t, they’re just like this mechanical thing that’s in your bag. You don’t buy a Kindle because you’re like, This is just a beautiful device, I like looking at it! You want to turn it on and read a book written by me or somebody else. So I think writers need to lead from a position of strength that we are a special commodity, we create the content, and people need to be fair to us. But young writers need to understand that just because people should be fair to you, does not mean that people will be fair to you. We got a good dose of that, even veteran writers, with this thing with Hachette and Amazon last year that was just painful to everyone. And the industry really can’t survive too many more of those episodes I don’t think.
On the plus side, there are opportunities for self-publishing now in a way that gives you a platform that was never available before—but even with that, the caveat is, if it looks too good to be true, it often is. So I would be wary about that as well.
And you never want to get in a position that—you know, I tell young writers that you might have a company that takes you on, but to them you’re just a commodity to be used. So let’s say they want to bundle a bunch of books together in order to sell more washing machines. So they’re going to give your book along with 10 others away free if somebody buys a washing machine. And they’ll give you a penny each time a book is sold. Now, does that devalue your contribution? Does that make you something you never intended to be? Probably so. That’s also how the publishing world works these days. Even though more opportunities present themselves, there are a lot more challenges out there and you’re sort of venturing into terrain that is not necessarily something you’re going to know a lot about, because you really do have to dig into the details. Before you sign a deal like that, you have to understand, what could be the myriad consequences that flow from that deal that may be something totally unrecognizable to you, and actually repugnant to you. You have to think about that.
So, put on your business hat and your writing hat. You have to have both these days. If you don’t, trust me, things aren’t going to end well.
As an established author, are you happy with the way things ended up with Amazon and Hachette? Are there things you still worry about?
At the end of the day, Amazon is a very important player. They’re a $100 billion corporation now, and it’s gotten to the point where, they started out as Amazon books, but they’re just Amazon now. So the book business in total I can’t imagine is anywhere near a majority of their revenue. So, How important will books be to them in the future? will dictate how they feel like they want to use books.
I’ve always thought that readers don’t see the whole picture. I have been inundated with people calling me all sorts of names—“How can you charge $12.99 or $14.99 or $9.99 for an e-book when it’s free to make? It doesn’t cost anything to make!” And I’m like, “Well, I like to get paid, since I created it!” [Laughs.] … Try to go to the theater and say, you guys are digitized now, so you save a lot of money on film, and I want to watch the next Tom Cruise movie, but it’s $10.99? I’ll give you $5.99. See if you get into the theater, right? What they don’t understand … as popular as ebooks have become, the overall revenue package still has to support print books, and audio books, and large print books, and you have to do marketing, and PR, and editing. And there are various segments of the publishing industry and revenue pots that have been decimated by ebooks. You’ve made a lot more money on ebooks, but mass market sales are probably down like 90 percent from what they were. And ebooks have made up for some of that but not all. I think people assume that ebooks are just this enormous goldmine that keeps on giving, but it’s just one piece, and it’s impacted positively in some ways but absolutely negatively in other ways.
You have a foundation dedicated to adult literacy. Do you feel writers in particular should have a vested interest in supporting this cause?
Absolutely. Even if you’re just simply self-interested, because obviously the more readers there are, the more people that can buy books. But if you’re interested in a better country, more tolerant, open, progressive, forward thinking, then we have to have a well-read population. You can look at study after study after study. And poverty and literacy go hand in hand. And secondly, how can you participate as a citizen in a democracy if you can’t read and process information? Having worked in Washington, D.C., if you don’t take the time to make up your own mind, you don’t have the tools in order to do that, trust me, there are legions of really well-paid people who tell you exactly what you need to think. And they’ll do it in a very enticing way. And then we all become lemmings, marching off the cliff. I’ve always thought that people should think for themselves. And to read and to think, for me, is the same verb.
To read our full interview with David Baldacci, check out the November/December 2015 Writer’s Digest now.