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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Interview with Barry Eisler (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

I was introduced to Barry Eisler when I picked up his debut novel, Rain Fall, back in 2003. Rain Fall introduced a half-Japanese, half-American assassin called John Rain and was well-received. Over the next few years, Mr. Eisler wrote five more John Rain thrillers before taking a break to write a couple of books focused more on the American political spectrum. Earlier this year, the author made headlines with his decision to self-publish his work. In the following interview, Barry Eisler expounds on his decision, discusses his new John Rain book, talks about moral & political ambiguities; and much more...

Q: Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To begin with, could you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Barry: Well, I’ve had a variety of interesting jobs—a covert position with the CIA; attorney in an international law firm; in-house counsel at the Osaka headquarters of Panasonic; executive with a technology startup. These days, I write full time, and that’s the best of the bunch.

Q: Earlier this year, you created a huge buzz around the publishing world when you turned down a $500,000 book contract with St. Martin’s Press in favor of self-publishing. Could you explain the reasoning behind this decision?

Barry: Well, as you say, I had a $500,000, two-book offer, from St. Martin’s Press. And the tendency is to focus on that big, seductive number. But to understand what the number really represents, you have to break it down. Start by taking out your agent’s commission: your $500,000 is now $425,000. Then divide that $425,000 over the anticipated life of the contract, which is three years (execution, first hardback publication, second hardback publication, second paperback publication). That’s about $142,000 a year. This is a more realistic way of looking at that $500,000.

But there’s more. Some people have mistakenly argued that, for my move to make financial sense, I would have to earn $142,000 a year for three years. But this is one time when you don’t want to be comparing apples to apples. Because the question isn’t whether I could make $425,000 in three years in self-publishing; the question is what happens regardless of when I hit that number. What happens whenever I hit that point is that I’ll have “beaten” the contract, and then I’ll go on beating it for the rest of my life. If I don’t earn out the legacy contract, the only money I’ll ever see from it is $142,000 per year for three years. Even if I do earn out, I’ll only see 14.9% of each digital sale thereafter. But once I beat the contract in digital, even if it takes longer than three years, I go on earning 70% of each digital sale forever thereafter. And, as my friend Joe Konrath likes to point out, forever is a long time.

My previous publisher, Ballantine, managed to sell about 10,000 combined digital copies of my last two books at a $9.99 price point (a price point that was earning me $1.49 per unit sold, BTW) in the latest three-month period for which I have data. Call that 5000 of each book for three months, so 1,667 of each book per month. If I cut the Ballantine price in half and still only moved 1,667 units a month, at a $3.50 per unit royalty ($4.99 x 70% = $3.50), that’s about $5,833 per month. But unlike paper books and digital sold at paper prices, low-priced digital books sell steadily, so it seemed to me that I could make about $70,000 per year, per book on my own. Assuming nothing changes and digital doesn’t keep growing (and that would be crazy—Charles Cummings’ critically acclaimed spy thriller The Trinity Six sold three times as many digital copies as hardback in its first week), I figured I should be able to make $140,000 a year for the two books I could have sold in a $425,000 legacy deal, instead. $70,000 for the first year, then $140,000 for each year thereafter, when I’ll be selling two books instead of just one. So if I’m right about all this, and I’m pretty sure I am, I should be able to beat the contract about halfway through the fourth year. And again, all of that ignores the continued growth of digital, the way low-priced digital books reinforce sales of other such books, etc.

To develop some data to go with the theory, in February I self-published a short story, The Lost Coast, and then in April another one, Paris Is A Bitch, the first featuring of one my series characters, a very nasty piece of work named Larison, and the second featuring my assassin John Rain and his Mossad lover, Delilah. I priced them at $2.99, which is a premium price for a short story, just to see how my writing would do in the new environment and even with the handicap of a relatively high price. Each has earned me about a thousand dollars a month since I published them—not bad so far, and I intend to write more.

There was a lot more to think about, too.  Estimates of how much I could reasonably expect my paper sales to grow (they were growing through the first six books, then declined dramatically for the two I did with Ballantine, though still putting me on the extended NYT list). Estimates of how much more digital I could sell on my own (at a much higher per unit royalty, of course), and what not having a legacy partner would cost me in paper sales. Etc. All of which might sound like a lot to some writers, but from my first book back in 2002, I’ve always believed the writer has to be an entrepreneur and CEO, too, with all that entails. A few days of careful thought and examination can make or save you a hell of a lot of money, so I think it would be foolish not to invest that time.

In the end, though, the book I decided to self-publish, The Detachment, will be published by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. When Amazon heard about my decision, they approached me with a very interesting deal, something that offers the best of the legacy and indie worlds. For more on that decision, I recommend a book I wrote with Joe Konrath, Be The Monkey:  A Conversation About The New World Of Publishing. It’s a free digital download, but whatever you do, don’t click on the monkey frog video links.

Q: After your Thomas & Mercer announcment, Tobias S. Buckell made the following tweet/comment: So Eisler isn’t really going it alone, he exchanged one corporate master for another. Better terms, apparently, but not a revolution as such!” What are your thoughts on signing with Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint?

Barry: I don’t know why Tobias would think anyone is my master. I imagine he’s projecting, but that’s just a guess because I don’t know him. From my standpoint, my publishers work for me—I hire them to help market and distribute my books.

As for the rest, when I announced I was turning down the SMP offer to self-publish The Detachment, I was very clear about my reasons: (1) a dramatically better digital royalty split; (2) control over pricing and packaging; and (3) the ability to publish the book immediately without slaving the digital release to the paper. As it happens, Amazon offered me all those things, plus Amazon’s retail and distribution marketing muscle, too. As a pragmatic businessman, why would I turn that down? It was a better means to achieve my objectives.

For me, publishing is a business, not an ideology. But I’ve discovered this isn’t true for everyone, and for people for whom self-publishing isn’t a means toward other ends, but rather an end in itself, my decision to work with Amazon is troubling. For me, it’s just sensible business strategy.

Q: In your last few books, you’ve explored a number of subjects—torture, Guantanamo Bay, governmental power imbalances, privacy rights etc.—that are highly relevant with current events. Is there a certain statement you’re trying to share regarding these issues?

Barry: I’d put it this way.

Since the end of the Cold War, there’s been much discussion in the thriller world about whether the thriller, at least the contemporary version, is still a viable form. Despite then Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey’s admonition that “We have slain a mighty dragon, but now find ourselves in a jungle filled with snakes,” villains seemed scarce during the “peace dividend” years of the Clinton administration. Nine-eleven and the explosion of al Qaeda in the popular consciousness, of course, changed all that, and Islamic fundamentalism provided a new treasure trove of contemporary villains and plotlines.

For thriller writers interested in realism, though, the familiar “Islamic Terrorist Villain” plotline has a serious shortcoming:  terrorism, of whatever stripe, poses far less danger to America than does America’s own overreaction to the fear of terrorism. To put it another way, America has a significantly greater capacity for national suicide than any non-state actor has for national murder. If thrillers are built on large-scale danger, therefore, and if a thriller novelist wants to convincingly portray the largest dangers possible, the novelist has to grapple not so much with the possibility of a terror attack, as with the reality of the massive, unaccountable national security state that has metastasized in response to that possibility.

This is of course a challenge, because unaccountable bureaucracies—what Hannah Arendt called “Rule by Nobody”—make for less obvious villains than do lone, bearded zealots seeking to destroy the Great Satan, etc., etc. The trick, I think, is to create an antagonist who is part of the ruling power structure but who also maintains an outsider’s perspective—who personifies and animates an entity that, destructive and oppressive though it is, is itself is too large and cumbersome to ever really be sentient. This is Colonel Horton, probably the most ambiguous villain I’ve ever created (and therefore probably the most compelling).

And thus, The Detachment: a small team of lone wolf, deniable irregulars, each with ambiguous motives and conflicting loyalties, pitted against the relentless, pervasive, grinding force of an American national security state gone mad. It’s real, it’s timely, and it’s built on an unnervingly possible premise. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Q: Do you ever worry that speaking out about such incendiary topics as torture and Guantanamo Bay might affect your book sales?

Barry: People who refuse to speak out against violations of the Constitution and our laws, and against policies that erode our liberty and undermine our security, in order to sell a few more books or for other monetary gain, are so craven I wonder how they can live with themselves.

Q: While watching the movie Freakonomics, I noticed that you made an appearance in the film. How did this come about?

Barry: I was in touch a little with Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning writer, producer, and director of Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi To The Dark Side, through my previous book, Inside Out. Alex knew I was living in Tokyo and asked if I might have a few thoughts for the sumo section of the film which his production partner was filming in Tokyo. I said of course, and that’s how it happened—it was a lot of fun.

Q: In regards to the movie and your books, you talk about the dual concepts of honne and tatemae. Could you explain what these terms mean and how they relate to our day-to-day life?

Barry: Loosely speaking, honne means the real truth; tatemae is the appearance of truth. Both are important; neither is valid or invalid. But problems arise when a gap opens up between them. For example, if you’re a politician, what is more important to you: fighting crime, or that voters believe you’re fighting crime? When the former leads to the latter, there is harmony. But when a path opens to the latter that doesn’t involve the former, problems arise.

Most politicians care only about tatemae, and about honne only insofar as it serves tatamae. Voters ought to be aware of this dynamic.

Q: What is the main source of inspiration for your writing?

Barry: Probably the headlines! America is bleeding out from self-inflicted wounds, and what’s bad for America is good for thriller writers. Politicians give us unlimited source material we could never make up on our own—because no one would believe it.  Hell, people don’t believe it anyway, and it’s happening to them in their own lives.

Q: The title of your blog is “The Heart of the Matter”, which is also the title of one of Graham Greene’s most famous novels. Has Graham Green always been inspirational for you?

Barry: Yes. The Quiet American especially. Moral ambiguity makes for an interesting story.

Q: You recently released a communications manifesto for the Democratic Party. How did this come about? Will you be releasing more such pieces in the future?

Barry: Ah, The Ass Is A Poor Receptacle For The Head: Why Democrats Suck At Communication, And How They Could Improve. Something I had to get out of my system, but it won’t do much good. Most Democrats suck less by accident and more on purpose. When talking to voters, they blame the mean Republican boogeyman for all their failings; when talking to corporate donors, they wink and nod. The result is votes from dupes and money from the corporations the politicians serve. I could give party elders the best advice in the world (and The Ass’s advice is quite good), but they’ll never listen as long as Progressive voters will vote for Obama literally no matter what his policies because of how scary Michele Bachmann is. Why would Obama or any politician ever listen to you if he knows you’re going to vote for him no matter what?

Q: Nearly four years ago you wrote an excellent article about utilizing Myspace as a Business tool. Has this perspective changed any because of newer social media websites like Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads?

Barry: My perspective is much the same. For commercial purposes, I think a strong online presence is important. I can see that just from how high my short story sales pop when I announce them on FacebookTwitter, and my blog. The main thing is to use social media to build relationships, not to sell books. If you offer people value—entertainment, information—you’ll build relationships, and the sales will follow naturally. If you just try to sell, people will flee screaming in horror.

But I think digital self-publishing has shifted the value of an author’s time back to writing. I think the best marketing use of an author’s time lies in writing more stories. Not that social media and advertising aren’t useful; they certainly are. But nothing is as effective in selling a book as writing and publishing a new one.

Q: On a comical note, I was surprised to see your name crop up in the Jack Daniels books by J.A. Konrath. How does it feel to be a part of the Jack Daniels universe?

Barry: It feels… dirty. In a great way.

Q: In your Mistakes section, you encourage readers to point out any errors that were missed in your books, so you can have them corrected in future editions. What’s the silliest & most serious mistake you’ve ever made?

Barry: Silliest was probably a mistake I made about latex gloves. Most serious was probably putting Dox on a plane with a potential pneumothorax, which apparently could have killed him.

Q: What are you writing next?

Barry: Next up is a Dox short story, a Delilah short story, and probably a Rain prequel novel. A lot to look forward to. :)

Q: So far you’ve just written thriller novels. Have you ever thought about writing a book in a different genre like fantasy or science fiction? Conversely, what’s the one idea you’ve alway wanted to write, but couldn’t due to time constraints or other factors?

Barry: I just write what comes to me, and if a fantasy or sci-fi idea felt appealing enough, I’d certainly try to tackle it. There’s nothing I want to write but haven’t; it’s just a question of the problem of one book at a time.

Q: What are some of your hobbies?

Barry: I write about politics and language at my syndicated blog Heart of the Matter, and work out, and, when I’m very lucky, get to take a quiet walk at night.

And there’s nothing like a good book and a fine single-malt Scotch.

Q: Lastly, how do you feel about your growth as a writer and what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

Barry: Writing is a craft, which means the more you practice, the better you get—and I love that. My legacy? I hope memorable characters, great stories, and a few eyes I’ve opened about what’s really happening in post-9/11 America.


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