Michael Preescott was one of 15 self-published authors in 2011 to crack the top 150 on USA Today's Bestselling Books List. And what a story lies behind his rise to ebook riches.
Q: Good evenin', Michael. You've been an inspiration to me and many other veterans of the traditional publishing wars. I've read that you'd published eight novels and had good reviews.
A: Twenty novels, actually, though the first five were horror books that I published under another name. Then there were six books that I published under the name Brian Harper, and nine that I published as Michael Prescott.
Q: You were also represented by a high-powered agent.
A: Jane Dystel.
Q: Top drawer. So, what led you to choose to go indie?
A: It wasn't exactly a decision, inasmuch as I didn't have any choice! The last two novels I tried to sell to traditional publishers were rejected across the board. I think Riptide was turned down by 25 publishers. It just wasn't a good time to try to sell a novel. The publishing business was in disarray and contracts were few and far between. I decided to self-publish Riptide simply because I wanted to get the book into print, and there was no other way to do it. It was simply a vanity publishing move. I didn't have any expectations for the book's commercial success and, in fact, it didn't enjoy much success for the first year that it was available.
Q: How long did it take for your work to catch on?
A: I self-published Riptide in the summer of 2010 and followed up with another couple of books from my backlist in the months afterward. Sales started to pick up significantly in the late spring or early summer of 2011.
Q: Why? Did you have a master marketing plan or did you just carry on with the writing and trust that the readers would come?
A: There was no master marketing plan at first. But at a certain point, a friend of mine named J. Carson Black, who writes excellent thrillers and was also going the indie route, suggested to me that I could have a lot more success if I lowered the price of my books to $0.99 and promoted them on Amazon.com's discussion boards. That's the procedure she was following and it was paying off very nicely for her. After I started doing that, the sales took off.
Q: You're almost unique in your non-reliance on Twitter, and your use of Facebook is sparing. What can you tell us about that?
A: I've tried Twitter, but I can't get the hang of it. I really don't like promoting myself all that much. I find it kind of distasteful. I do send out a mass email whenever I put out a new book, and I announce the book on Facebook and on my author website, and in the past I promoted it on Amazon discussion boards. There's nothing wrong with self-promotion, but as long as my books can sell without my having to do too much of it, that's the way I like it.
Q: How many books have you published as ebook originals?
A: There have only been two. The rest were backlist titles whose rights had reverted to me, and which I then republished in ebook editions. Or, in the case of Grave of Angels, the book was original but it was put out by Thomas & Mercer, a division of Amazon Publishing. The two self-published books are Riptide and a comedy novella called Die Stupid. I had high hopes for Die Stupid, but readers absolutely hated it, so to protect my "brand" I took my name off and substituted a moronic pseudonym, Owen Fusterbuster. I've gotten a handful of emails from people who thought the book was hilarious, so there are a few of them out there. A very few.
Q: Have you found an average production time per book?
A: It typically takes me about a year to write a full-length novel. In terms of getting it ready for ebook publication, it's simply a matter of proofreading the book, preparing a cover, formatting it, and uploading it. Maybe a month.
Q: Can you give us some idea of what a Prescott Wannabe might hope to achieve in downloads/sales?
A: I'm up around 1.2 million units sold. Not counting Die Stupid, I've put out 16 books, so it averages out to about 75,000 copies per book. The $0.99editions sold many more copies than the $2.99 or higher-priced books. But I don't know if there's any way to estimate sales. It's all a matter of whether or not your stuff happens to catch on.
Q: You've written in numerous genres. Is there a common ground, something that makes a book a Michael Prescott novel?
A: Over the years I've proceeded by trial and error to develop the kind of book I'm most comfortable with--a book that feels like it's in my wheelhouse, so to speak. These days, a typical Michael Prescott novel features a female protagonist who has a job that can plausibly put her in danger. She goes up against a male antagonist. There are woman in jeopardy situations, one or two big plot twists, and usually a very compressed time frame--the whole thing might take place over 24 to 36 hours. That seems to be what works for me. When I write male protagonists, they have a tendency to be a bit stiff. The one or two times I've tried to write a female villain, it usually comes off kind of campy. So I like the female protagonist going up against the male villain. And the fact that the majority of people who read fiction are women makes it an intelligent commercial move, as well.
Q: Any training in the classics? You're also unique in your fondness for literary references: the makeup of Roman actors in 'the last decadent days of Empire'...'the bodily wisdom that the ancient Greeks called thumos'...'Cupid coupling with Psyche in the dark'...etc.
A: I don't have formal training in the classics, but around the time I was in my late twenties, I decided to fill in gaps in my education by reading classic literature on my own. For a long time I was particularly drawn to books about the ancient world, especially Greece and Rome. So naturally some details from all that reading will work their way into my books. I also developed an interest in mythology, which was reflected most strongly in my book Comes the Dark, which is filled with references to ancient myths.
Q: Also, you're not shy around sophisticated diction: luminaria...frisson of mutual excitement...
A: Years ago I read an interview with Sidney Sheldon, who said his aim was to write a book that would not require the reader to stop and think. He would go through the manuscript and if he came across a word that might perplex the reader, he would substitute a simpler word. He was basically admitting that he wrote down to his audience. I was pretty young when I read that interview, but I remember thinking that wasn't the way I would do it. In some of my books, particularly Comes the Dark, I probably went overboard in using esoteric vocabulary. I've toned it down since then, because it can seem like you're showing off.
Q: I think about wit vs. humor when I read your work. Riptide is a ripsnorting Jack the Ripper novel--as bloody in spots as they come. Yet enormous wit's at play in how the engine of the book is made and how the mystery runs its course. Do you play chess with your readers--or is the game more devilish?
A: I don't know if it rises to the level of chess. Probably more like checkers! As I mentioned earlier, I try to put in one or two big plot twists. For the twist to work, it has to be unexpected, yet it has to seem natural and even inevitable once it's been revealed. A good deal of thought goes into working those things out, but I think that's probably true of anybody who works in the thriller or mystery genre.
Q: Would I lose money if I bet that you like Ira Levin's trickeries?
A: You would win, though it's been a long time since I read him. His early books, A Kiss Before Dying and Rosemary's Baby, are taut, brilliantly plotted, and highly original. I don't think he ever quite rose to that level again, but most of his books are entertaining.
Q: What are the wildest things you've ever done on and off the page?
A: I don't know if it's exactly wild, but back in 1997 I moved three times in six months--from Tuscon to Phoenix, from Phoenix to Orange County, California, and from Orange County back to Tuscon. It was a very confusing time for me, probably an early midlife crisis. Otherwise I've led a pretty sedate life, which is a euphemism for saying that I'm pretty boring. I think many writers are like Walter Mitty, the James Thurber character who had a mundane daily existence but a hyperactive fantasy life. As for the wild stuff that I've done in my writing, I'm a little amazed by the sheer amount of gore in my horror novels and even in Shiver, which was the first non-horror novel I wrote. When I screened an advance copy of the movie version of Shiver last year, I was sort of aghast at the violence and gore, even though they were simply following my book.
Q: Is there anything about your work that readers still fail to 'get'?
A: People who don't like my books usually complain that they aren't realistic enough. That's fair, but the truth is, I'm not trying that hard to be realistic in the sense of mirroring everyday life. There are some excellent writers who can do that, like Joseph Wambaugh. My attitude is more in line with Alfred Hitchcock, who said, "Some films are slices of life; mine are slices of cake." I like larger-than-life characters and situations, as long as they don't get too over-the-top. But everyone draws that line in a different place. For me, Dan Brown's novels are a little too far-fetched, but he has millions of fans.
Q: Can we talk about the Great Taboo, the thing most agents will deny? I mean age discrimination against the Midlist Monster. To the best of my knowledge, no agent's ever stated that no one over thirty need apply. But a short while back, one NYC agency stated outright that they only represented first-time authors. And a well-known female agent stated that she didn't care to represent published pros, preferring young pups who'd grow into Good Dogs. Do you agree that age may be an issue?
A: It may be. It's entirely possible that agents and publishers would prefer to go with someone new, rather than someone who's had opportunities to break through and hasn't succeeded. I'm not even sure that's unfair. You see the same thing with actors, singers, TV personalities, etc. Let's face it, the entertainment business can be rough, but that's what you signed up for. One thing I did find aggravating was this notion that you're either a paperback guy or a hardcover guy. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, because they keep publishing you in paperback, and then when you demand hardcover, they say, "But all your books are paperbacks." But all this is becoming irrelevant in the age of ebooks and self-publishing, anyway.
Q: If your books had to come with a warning, what do you think that should be?
A: Harmful if swallowed whole.