Barry Eisler: Now Playing on Team Indie

Amy Edelman:  So…I love the story you told Joe (that’s being tweeted all over the universe) about how your daughter saying you should self-publish.  Could you talk a little more about that?  I mean…how the heck does your daughter know about self-pubbing (my 13 year old can recite the lyrics to every Eminem song…but books?  Nothing!)

Barry Eisler:  This is what happens when a little girl grows up with a father who’s a novelist and a mother who’s a literary agent and children’s book author… she thinks it’s normal to talk about the publishing industry at dinner!  The truth is, what prompted her was that I was complaining about my publisher, not just discussing my next move, which made her comment even more relevant for me:  my publisher had turned out to be a disappointment; why couldn’t I do better on my own?  That was a revelatory moment for me because I realized that more and more writers were going to be asking the “why not self-publish?” question of themselves, and more and more would be answering it yes.

AHE:  Tell us about yourself…when you started writing, how you got an agent, your book deals (in general) and publishers to-date.

BE: I’ve always been writing something:  short stories as a kid, a newspaper column in law school, intelligence reports when I was with the government, business plans when I was with technology companies.  And lots of contracts when I was a lawyer.  But my first attempt at a novel started in 1993, when I was living in Tokyo.  I should back up here and add that I have a long-standing interest in what I like to think of as “forbidden knowledge:”  methods of unarmed killing, lock picking, breaking and entry, spy stuff, and other things that the government wants only a few select individuals to know.

When I was a kid I read a biography of Harry Houdini, and in the book a cop was quoted as saying, “It’s fortunate that Houdini never turned to a life a crime, because if he had he would have been difficult to catch and impossible to hold.”  I remember thinking how cool it was that this man knew things people weren’t supposed to know, things that gave him special power.  Anyway, since then I’ve amassed a small and unusual library on some of the foregoing and on other esoteric subjects, I spent three years in the CIA, I got into a variety of martial arts…

And then I moved to Tokyo to train in judo.  I think all the other stuff must have been building up in my mind like dry tinder, waiting for the spark which life in Tokyo came to provide.  Because while I was there commuting to work one morning, a vivid image came to me of two men following another man down Dogenzaka street in Shibuya.  I still don’t know where the image came from, but I started thinking about it.  Who are these men?  Why are they following that other guy?  Then answers started to come:  They’re assassins.  They’re going to kill him.  But these answers just let to more questions:  why are they going to kill him?  What did he do?  Who do they work for?  It felt like a story, somehow, so I started writing, and that was the birth of my series character, assassin John Rain, and my first book, “Rain Fall”.

Fifty rejections later, I found an agent willing to represent me, spent a lot of time rewriting, and then, about eight years after I first put pen to paper, the offers started coming in.

AHE:  When did the current notion of “self publishing” cross your radar?  It sounds like you and Joe [JA Konrath] have been friends for awhile…was it through him? What were your first thoughts about?

BE:  Well, self-publishing has been around as long as legacy publishing, maybe even longer, so the concept wasn’t unfamiliar to me.  But it’s increasing attractiveness, in terms of both profitability and control, has become increasingly apparent to me over the course of the last year or so, in large part because Joe and I are good friends and I’m a regular reader of his blog.  If you’re used to thinking in terms of contracts and advances, it takes a little while to get your head around the concept of forever, which is how long you keep making money in digital.

AHE:  I know you were very specific with Joe–in terms of percentages and such–about why you decided to give up a very nice advance to go indie (read the blog post here).  Can you crystallize some of that?

BE: I just answered a similar question for The Daily Beast (only because their email arrived just ahead of yours!), so maybe the best thing is to link to that article?

AHE:  What did you like most about trad pubbing?  What do you think you’ll you miss the most?

BE:  The main thing for me is writing for a living.  Beyond that, I’m reasonably agnostic and will try to dispassionately analyze ceding creative control over packaging, not to mention control over key decisions like pricing and timing, has never been comfortable for me.  It might be okay if I thought my publishers were making all the right decisions, but when your publisher is doing something you think is stupid and that’s costing you money — something like, say, saddling your book with a closeup of an olive green garage door, or writing a bio that treats your date and place of birth as a key selling point, or misunderstanding the concepts of automatic resonance and acquired resonance, or otherwise blowing the book’s packaging — it can be pretty maddening (at least it can be for me).

AHE:  Do you think there’s a reason to have you books both trad and indie pubbed (like HP Mallory is doing)?

BE:  Well, paper is still 80% of the market, so of course it’s good to be sold in paper.  It’s just a question of what you have to give up to make it happen.  The high-level question for me is, do I make more money in the long run with a legacy partner or through self-publishing?  But if there’s a way to derive the advantages of going it alone digitally and still bring in a paper partner, I think that makes a lot of sense, and for as long as paper is a viable distribution system, you’ll see new players emerging to help writers distribute their work in paper.

AHE:  Do you have a game plan for this venture?  Or are you just going to write as much as possible and see what happens (I particularly liked when you and Joe discussed how–with self-pubbing–a writer can actually make more money actually writing!  Perhaps discuss that?).

BE: I have a pretty strong online presence through FacebookTwitter, and my blog, Heart of the Matter, plus a big mailing list, and I’ll certainly leverage all that.  And I’ll be talking to several indie booksellers who’ve been good to me over the years about how we can get a paper version of “The Detachment” into their stores and maybe arrange for signings.  But overall, one of the things that excites me most about self-publishing is that the highest-value use of my time in promoting the books will be found in writing more of them.  So my overall game plan is to publish two or three more short stories en route to the Father’s Day release of “The Detachment”.

AHE:  How do you see the new world of indie and eBooks?  Are there still brick and mortar bookstores?  Are they B&N or indies?

BE:  I think the closure of so many chains is an opportunity for the indies that have survived until now.  But paper is going be increasingly displaced by digital, and this dynamic will continue to make it hard on all bookstores.  POD machines like the Espresso could dramatically lower the costs of getting paper books onto retail shelves, though, and if that happens, and bookstore margins go up, we could see a renaissance for booksellers.  Let’s hope.

Thanks again, Barry!  And on behalf on indie authors everywhere, welcome to the team!

1 reply
  1. Brenda Wallace
    Brenda Wallace says:

    It’s always encouraging for me to see how long it took for Eisler to become an overnight success. I’m still working on that. I’m looking forward to reading a new Rain book. I have every Eisler book, even the new short story.


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