THE BLOG

Zombie Detectives and the Changing Face of Publishing

07/16/2013 05:31 pm ET | Updated Sep 15, 2013
  • Phil Simon Speaker, Author, Advisor, President of Motion Publishing

If you're one of the most successful authors in the business, you shouldn't have anything to lose sleep over. Right?

Kevin J. Anderson has published over 120 novels, more than fifty of which have been national or international bestsellers. He is widely known for his original novels as well as his popular work for Star Wars, Dune, X-Files, Star Trek, and Batman and Superman. He just published an innovative (and New York Times bestselling) steampunk fantasy, Clockwork Angels, as a companion novel to the concept album by Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Rush. (Kevin and I talked about that book on HuffPo when it was released.) As of now, twenty-three million copies of Anderson's novels are in print in thirty different languages.

"And there I was two years ago, lying awake all night long, staring at the ceiling and wondering about the future of publishing. What was going to happen to my career?" Anderson says. "A titanic change was occurring in my industry--and not gradually. I keep up with the business, and I had read enough insider articles that I could see it coming. During that sleepless night, I spent hours thinking, 'I'm almost fifty. I've been a professional novelist--making a living at it--for a quarter of a century. I'm unemployable if I can't write fiction.'"

Before dawn, Anderson had made up his mind that if a tsunami was coming, he wanted to get ahead of the wave, rather than be swept away by the undertow. "Fortunately, I had just signed a couple of multi-book contracts with my primary publishers, and that work was going to last me for a few years. I had time to adapt . . . but I couldn't be complacent."

Even casual outside observers have noticed the dramatic shift in publishing: Borders closed down all its bookstores, Barnes & Noble profits are significantly down, and most dramatic of all, the surge of e-book popularity has radically changed the business model. With Kindles, Kobos, Nooks, iPads, tablets, and smartphones becoming ubiquitous, everybody has an e-reader and everybody wants content.

"We've known for decades this was going to happen," Anderson says, "but because e-books took so long to catch on, I don't think publishers were ready for the sudden explosion. When it took off, it took off."

Deeply entrenched in traditional ways of selling books, the major publishers are trying to study the changes and develop ways to respond to the new paradigm, but technology may be changing faster than the normally sedate speed of publishing. Like the music industry before them, there is a tremendous sea change under way.

Historically, the big publishers have not been swift to respond to major changes. Anderson recalls that he wrote his first four novels on a word processor, but publishers could not accept his computer diskettes and text files; instead, those novels were re-keyed and typeset by hand. Only years later did they catch up with available technology.

With great changes come great opportunities.

Many authors like Anderson have an extensive backlist of earlier titles, published in the 1980s and 1990s, which have fallen out of print. Reissues aren't economically feasible through the traditional publishing-and-distribution process.

Since Anderson has the rights back to these older novels, and his millions of fans still want to read them, he and his wife--bestselling author Rebecca Moesta--formed their own publishing company, WordFire Press to reissue his old novels, first in e-book format and then in print versions. Anderson and Moesta both have decades of experience in publishing, not just as writers but also as editors, graphic designers, publicists, and inspirational speakers.

"My first novel was Resurrection, Inc., published in 1988 by Signet Books. I got a standard first-novel advance, and the book came out to critical acclaim, was nominated for an award or two, and eventually went out of print without quite earning back its advance. It just sat gathering dust for more than a decade, not earning me a penny.

"Then WordFire Press reissued the novel, put it up for sale in Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and all other e-book formats. We also produced a printed edition that can be ordered online or through any bookstore, and we sell hard copies at our public appearances." The surprise? "Without any advertising or promotion on our part, our editions of Resurrection, Inc. have already earned us significantly more than my original book advance."

Anderson and Moesta reissued most of their backlist, and then expanded their operations to include reprints of eight unavailable titles from science fiction icon Frank Herbert (Dune), as well as those of Herbert's son Brian--himself a bestselling author--and novels by other author associates. WordFire Press just acquired the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning political novelist Alan Drury (Advise and Consent) and will be reissuing those as well.

"We've got about eighty titles available so far, and we're just scratching the surface. There are dozens more in the pipeline, not just reprints, but some original works, too." Anderson laughs. "And I'm still writing four or five new novels a year for my traditional publishers."

WordFire will be publishing the first collection by up-and-coming writer Brad R. Torgersen, a nominee for the Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell Awards. "Most of my short fiction has been published in magazines," says Torgersen. "My first novel [forthcoming from Baen Books] isn't out yet, but I do have a fair number of fans and followers who ask me if I have those stories in a compilation."

But why not go with a traditional press, instead of Anderson's home-grown entity?

"It's about the net present value of money," Torgersen says. "And it's also about satisfying an immediate request by consumers. I could of course take the traditional route: sending the collection around to one press after another, until it finds a home. Depending on how quickly it gets accepted--if it gets accepted--I could be looking at months or years of submissions, then additional months working out the contract details, and then the book likely wouldn't be published for another year or more after all that. With WordFire Press--the new technology and techniques Kevin and Rebecca use--I can have printed copies in hand a month after I deliver my manuscript, and be selling and signing books."

The pace and terms of traditional publishing were reasons why the Allen Drury estate approached WordFire about Advise and Consent. "They had received a small offer from a prestigious university press offering a tiny royalty percentage--only 20% of the net e-book income! Now, keep in mind that once a publisher puts up the electronic file for sale, there's no maintenance, no printing, no stock, no material cost, no warehousing. Also, for a reprint of a classic novel, there's no development or editing involved, either--and this university press wanted to keep four times as much money as they were paying the creator of the work? That doesn't sound very equitable. At WordFire we pay our authors 75% of net e-book income.

"Just as significant, the university press said it would take a minimum of eighteen months before they could release the book. That's an awful lot of time for a straight reprint. WordFire can have it scanned, proofed, formatted for e-books, designed and formatted for print, a cover produced, and up for sale in a month. So, by having us do it, the Drury estate will be earning money on the novel a year and a half before the university press could have put a single copy on the bookshelves." He shakes his head. "It's a whole new world out there."

But what does that have to do with zombie detectives, and Anderson's own writing career?

"Even with the indie publishing work, I keep writing books for the major publishers--more Dune novels with Brian Herbert, and our original Hellhole trilogy, as well as my science fiction epic The Saga of Shadows, all for Tor Books. But when I sold a humorous urban fantasy series to Kensington Books featuring Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I., I did a lot of thinking about how I could make that series work in the new publishing universe. After that sleepless night, I decided to try . . . everything."

Anderson points out that with the pace of business speeding up, fans of the humorous noir series--about a zombie detective who solves crimes for werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and the occasional human--simply didn't want to wait a year or two between installments. So, he leveraged one of his signature skills: he writes very quickly.

"If readers like a series, they want to read the next one as soon as possible. I discussed the book-release schedule with Kensington, and I agreed to write the first three novels at full-speed, which they would then publish in a rapid-fire fashion. Death Warmed Over came out in print and e-book form in September 2012, Unnatural Acts in January 2013, and Hair Raising in May 2013."

But even that was not enough, so Anderson wrote two standalone Dan Shamble short stories, which were released as original e-stories in between the novels. The first, "Stakeout at the Vampire Circus," was published by Kensington and the second, "Road Kill," came out directly from WordFire Press.

RoadKill

Anderson had an ulterior motive in writing "Road Kill." The audiobook audience has exploded in recent years, and all three Dan Shamble novels came out as unabridged recordings from Brilliance, read by popular narrator Phil Gigante. Since truckers like to listen to audiobooks, Anderson discussed the story idea with his Brilliance editor and then tailored "Road Kill" specifically to the truck-driver audience. (He also had two of his fans, both big-rig drivers, help him with the story.) Brilliance released the story as a standalone download audio, and WordFire did the e-story edition for promotional purposes, giving it away widely for free, as a premium in contests, or to reward the members of his international fan club.

And speaking of international, could Dan Shamble become a worldwide zombie detective? "That's another thing we did differently," says Anderson. "Kensington bought the rights for the U.S. and Canada, but the rest of the world remained open. While Kensington produced Death Warmed Over, advertising the book, sending out cover flats, getting early reviews, we were scouting for a UK publisher. Since I was doing so much promotion for Dan Shamble through my own channels, I didn't want all my international fans left hanging. I waited as long as I could, and my agent pressed numerous British publishers--but when the clock ran out, we did it ourselves at WordFire."

Anderson commissioned new covers from comics artist Jeff Herndon, and now all three novels plus the two short stories are available in English worldwide. Hair Raising went up for international sale two weeks ago.

The Dan Shamble series has just been optioned by actress and producer Marisol Nichols (24, GCB, The Gates) for development as a TV series with Paradigm and Impression Entertainment. Kensington recently bought the fourth novel in the series, Slimy Underbelly, and Anderson will be writing another Dan Shamble short story or two in the interim. He donated "Road Kill" for its first print publication to a benefit anthology for horror writer Rick Hautala, who recently passed away.

"It's an all-of-the-above approach," Anderson says. "With Dan Shamble, I wanted to cover the bases, to reach any audience segment we could identify. I worked closely with Kensington Books and Brilliance Audio--and Rebecca and I pulled off a few miracles of our own. It's no longer good enough to put a book out in the stores and hope it takes off."

Anderson doesn't lose any more sleep at night, because the future is bright, even if it's fundamentally different from what he expected two years ago.

"I still have insomnia sometimes, mainly because I'm excited about all the projects we're working on. The audience is so much broader than it used to be, and there are so many ways an author can identify and reach them," Anderson says. "I'm still writing my big books for traditional publishers, and I don't foresee that changing anytime soon, but we're also juggling a million other things. Rebecca and I don't have time for sleepless nights," he says. "We're going to need our rest."