I got to know Doug Borton back when I was editing Mystery Scene. He was a young writer of horror in his first incarnation and a good one but he’d come of age just when the horror boom was fizzling out.
He began using the name “Brian Harper” to write much more ambitious suspense thrillers. They were damned fine books. Finally he ended up as “Michael Prescott” where he had a good run of very well done suspense novels exploring many different and exciting themes.
We’d kept in vague touch over the years. The only thing I knew about him was that he kept on providing superior entertainment and appeared to be doing well in the trench warfare business of publishing.
Then I got a letter from him telling me that not only would his own publisher not buy his new book, no other publisher would, either. Some months later I heard that he’d quit writing.
Several years went by and then one day, Googling for another writer, I ran across a piece about Doug that contained the following:
“Changes in the publishing industry made it hard for me to get a print deal after FINAL SINS. Ebooks, however, are more than taking up the slack. In 2010, I self-published RIPTIDE as an ebook and a print-on-demand paperback. This was followed by new ebook editions of most of my backlist titles. Sales have far exceeded my expectations, and by the summer of 2012 I had sold about 1.1 million ebooks, hitting the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists.”
Gorman What was the novel that suddenly ended your otherwise smooth ride as a suspense writer? What was the criticism of it?
Prescott There wasn't any one particular title that was responsible. It was just a gradual falloff in sales. I don't think it had much to do with the books themselves. As for criticism, I don't think the last few books were noticed by anyone, so nobody had any reason to criticize them!
The problem was that I was seen exclusively as a mass-market paperback guy, and during that period the mass-market paperback end of the industry was severely contracting. It became almost impossible to sell a paperback, so everybody started trying to get into hardcover instead, but there just weren't enough openings. And since publishing houses were laying off their staffs and shutting down some of their imprints, editors were reluctant to approve a book unless it looked like a surefire breakout hit. Everybody was looking for the next Da Vinci Code, which wasn't the kind of thing I could offer.
G How long did it take for you to realize that making a living at writing was no longer possible?
P Probably a couple of years. I wrote Riptide and couldn't get it published. Then I wrote another book called Grave of Angels, and got a new agent to handle it. But that one didn't sell either. That was when I realized my career had petered out. It didn't come as a total surprise. After all, the sales had been declining for years, and I’d always assumed I would run out of luck eventually. That's show business.
G Did you have an agent for most of your first successful run? What was his/her response to you suddenly not being able to sell your book?
P For most of my career, I was handled by Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. She did a good job for me and got me published consistently, up until Riptide. After that, I switched agents simply because I felt I had to try something new. But it really wasn't Jane's fault, and the new agent couldn't do anything either.
G I imagine you had some depressing times. Was there a period when you didn’t do much at all?
P It was a little depressing, but I was kind of burned out at that point anyway, so I can't say I was too upset about it. As I'm sure you know, writing a whole lot of books does take something out of you. Sometimes you feel the need to take a break. In this case, the break was forced on me by circumstances, but I didn't mind too much. I did very little fiction writing for a year or two, but I kept busy with other things. I have a blog that focuses on evidence for life after death, and I kept working on that - it’s kind of a strange obsession, but it does help to keep the ups and downs of life in perspective!
G You’ve said that you found a way to make a living outside of writing. Would you tell us what it was?
P I started trading options. Mostly I would sell covered calls with fairly short expiration dates. I've always been interested in investing, and I’d built up a decent portfolio, though I took a big hit in the 2008-2009 crash. By the time I started trading options, the market was on its way back up, so it was pretty easy to make money. It wasn’t day-trading, because the volume of trades was never that high, and I didn’t do anything on margin. I followed a fairly conservative strategy that worked well at the time. I enjoyed it, too. In some ways I liked it better than writing - strangely enough, I found it less stressful! But I did feel a little bit frustrated at having no creative outlet.
G When did you become aware of ebooks? What was your first reaction to them?
P I was aware of ebooks early on, because my book Stealing Faces, the second Michael Prescott title, was put out in a Rocket Ebook edition back around 2001. The Rocket Ebook was a neat little device that was kind of bulky by the standards of today's ebook reading devices, but very ergonomically designed. I liked it a lot. It retailed for about $350. I read a whole lot of public domain classics on that thing – books I downloaded from Project Gutenberg. Just as it was starting to become popular, the company was taken over by the people who put out TV Guide, and they completely screwed things up. They made the device less functional without lowering its cost. They got rid of many of the online resources. Basically they wanted you to choose from only a select number of bestselling titles available at their website, and they made it impossible for you to upload your own documents, such as Project Gutenberg books. In short, they were idiots, and they killed off the device, which was a shame.
Even so, I always figured that sooner or later ebooks would catch on and traditional publishers would be caught flat-footed, because historically they have been very slow to adapt to new technology. And I have to say I looked forward to that day, because I really don't think the traditional publishers ever treated most of their writers very well. Today you see people like Stephen King bemoaning the decline of traditional publishing, but Stephen King was always treated as a superstar by his publisher, for obvious reasons. Midlist authors never got that kind of treatment. When you consider that the author might garner only 8% of the sales price of the book, with the other 92% split between the publisher and the retailer, you have to figure that something was not quite right. And after I‘d spent twenty years with Penguin, I got no acknowledgement of any kind when they stopped publishing me – not so much as a goodbye note. Things like that make you realize how disposable you always were in the eyes of the higher-ups . I don’t mean the editors, I mean the upper management.
So I was hopeful that ebooks would eventually shake things up. But I didn't expect it to happen as soon as it did. As a matter of fact, when I put out my first self-published book, Riptide, I originally intended to do it only as a print-on-demand paperback. The ebook edition was an afterthought. And yet, after a slow start, the ebook ended up selling many times more copies than the paperback.
G Did your ebook career begin with Amazon?
P Yes, Riptide was put out as a Kindle ebook, and later in a Nook edition also. Some time afterward I did a two-book deal with Thomas & Mercer, a division of Amazon Publishing, for Grave of Angels and a backlist title, The Shadow Hunter. They did a good job for me, and I liked working with them, but I found I preferred self-publishing.
G Publisher’s Weekly said that you began making around two hundred thousand dollars a year. Did you write any of the editors who’d bounced your book with the good news? You know—friends like to share. ☺
P No, I'm not even sure who the editors were. And I can't really blame them for passing on both Riptide and Grave of Angels. As I said, they were worried about their own jobs. And by then, the process had become so convoluted that two or three editors had to agree on any acquisition. This was pretty much a guaranteed deal killer, because it's almost impossible to get two or three editors to agree on anything! I don't think the editors themselves were any happier with the situation than the authors were. Many of them ended up having to work exclusively on vampire erotica, which was one of the few genres still being published in mass-market paperback. I doubt that this was exactly a dream assignment for the average English Lit major who had imagined developing the next Philip Roth or J.D. Salinger, or at least the next Ken Follett.
G There are many books and blogs that offer all kinds of advice for making significant money with ebooks. Yet more and more established writers are saying that their ebook income is faltering. What’s your take on the army of midlist traditional writers trying to survive on ebooks?
P My earnings have gone down, but I’m still doing better than I did in traditional publishing. 2012 was my best year, because sales were still quite high and I had raised my prices from $0.99 to $2.99 per book. That greatly increased the royalties. Now sales are tailing off a bit, which I’d expected.
I think it's just a matter of increased competition. When I got into ebooks in 2011, the field was wide open, and I was probably one of the few writers with some kind of traditional publishing credibility who had a large backlist available at only $0.99 per title. That gave me a leg up on a lot of other people. Now everybody is getting into ebooks, and I’m not so unusual anymore. And the $0.99 price point is no longer that effective. Too many junky ebooks, like 35-page “novels” and poorly formatted collections of blog posts, have been published at that price.
But you can still find ways to move your product. There are services like BookBub that will promote your book for a fee. Advertising on Facebook can be effective. And you never know what's going to take off. I recently put out an old backlist title called Shatter, originally published back around 1995. I didn't expect it to do anything special, but it sold like crazy. I have no idea why. I didn't do anything in particular to promote it. Sometimes these things just catch on. Your best bet is just to go along for the ride and see what happens.