Warren, you have been a part of the literary scene for nearly half a century. At the age of 84, you are one of the elder statesmen for the publishing industry. Where do you see the book industry heading? As I have been predicting ever since I first digitalized all my work more than a dozen years ago, and as I said when I introduced the SONY reader in 2007, as the first stand-alone reader at the Las Vegas Electronics Show, the publishing business will morph massively to cyberspace and considerably shrink the number of stores selling printed books, all of which has come true. What I did not foresee was the number of self-published books that would hit the marketplace and offer hard competition for traditionally published books.
What is coming long-term, in my view, is a massive number of fiction books available on the Net, where it will be a challenge for any writer of fiction to be discoverable. Even major stars in fiction will find that they will have to work doubly hard to keep their brand in the eye of the reading public. Many will eventually lose their luster. The traditional publishers will not spend the marketing and advertising money to create new branded authors, although they are hoping, by publishing their first novels, to test the waters for their future brands. There will be many flash-in-the-pan authors who will not warrant future investment in their careers. Indeed, authors of non-genre fiction like myself will be better off investing in their own branding, especially in today’s marketplace of fading print stores. Being discoverable as an author will not cut it without finding ways to penetrate the reading marketplace. This will grow more and more expensive as competition accelerates. There will be many frustrated novelists with hopes and dreams of fame and fortune.
You have tried traditional publishing, Amazon exclusives, and self-publishing. Which method works best? The publishing method that works best is the one where the marketing is intense and repetitive. Traditional publishers cannot afford it. Amazon, too, will hope that their various methods of discoverability will work for its authors. The joker in the deck of course will be the mystery of “going viral”. In the end it is always word of mouth that will boost readership. For the non-genre author who dreams of being the next Hemingway, Faulkner or Fitzgerald, the stakes are higher than ever. The literary filters that brought their works to the general public are disappearing and what is taking their place is too scattershot, too numerous, too diffused. Information is too massive. Opinions do not have the same power as they had when media and information was limited. Indeed, the best shot an author might have of being publicized and discovered is if his novel is adapted to a mega-hit movie. My conclusion is that the only real hope today for an author is if he takes the reins of his own career and attempts to find a marketing solution to attract readers. For a totally unknown author the best outcome will be the satisfaction of becoming a novelist, a small following among friends and relatives and a hands-on approach with signings in the locality in which the author lives. Beyond that, he or she will have to trust to luck and the prospect of spending a great deal of money for marketing.
How would you describe your body of work? This is a tricky question. I write about love, erotic love, father and children love, grandparents and grandchildren love, love between siblings, and the vast gulf between aspirations and fulfillment and how it frustrates people who dream but cannot come to terms with the failure of their dreams. In The Serpent’s Bite, the female character becomes a monster out of frustration over her failed obsession to become a movie star, a direct slap at the celebrity culture. I have always been interested in power and coping with its loss. A number of my books do not end happily e.g. The War of the Roses, The Serpent’s Bite. In Hollywood I have been dubbed a “relationship writer,” whatever that means. Actually, many of my books end with a coming-to-terms with life’s adversity, and reaching a kind of philosophic calm, accepting life with all its problems, unfairness and cruelty. My focus is the human condition in all its joys and failures. Many of my books, including my mystery series, are written from a female point of view. I am in awe of the strength of women in general and many of my books show these strengths as well as their weaknesses. In The Serpent’s Bite I believe I have created a monstrous female character who gets her just reward at the end.
Over 50,000 books are published weekly in America. What does one need to do to stick out and get discovered? They need to do exactly what I am doing: Banging the drum as loud as I can. It is hard for today’s author to get heard and discovered amid enormous competition, less shelf space, short promotional span, and an avalanche of competition on the internet. I am setting the standard for such an approach but the outlay of money will do nothing unless there is a substantial backlist that might benefit the author. In my case the overspending on The Serpent’s Bite is designed to attract readers to my 32-book backlist. Nevertheless I trust to luck that the book will find its audience. In my opinion, it will be the harbinger example of what’s to come in establishing the non-genre writer’s career.
But discoverability is merely the opening gun. If word of mouth does not kick in all the promotion in the world will make no difference. Also, when you talk of 50,000 books, you are generalizing. Non-genre fiction is between a quarter and a third of all books on the Net. I write non-genre fiction, which further reduces the fiction numbers. Genre writers have the advantage especially if they are “factory” books, meaning books turned out by Patterson, Cussler and numerous romance novelists. These writers don’t write their own books anymore. They supervise their branded names and make enormous sums of money. Romance fiction is churned out by thousands of writers and follow strict formulas based on the needs and preferences of their readers. Sorry, that is not my goal or my interest. For me, the joy is in the work, which is everything. If a reader gets into my mindset and becomes a faithful reader what more can I ask? When all is said and done the novel is a one-on-one communication system. I have been lucky as hell making it a career. But then, one must consider that I did suffer through endless rejections of my work until I was 45 years old, when I was finally able to interest publishers. I immediately quit my business interests to concentrate on my writing career exclusively with single-minded devotion.
What advice would you offer a struggling writer? I can only give advice to a “real” writer who puts his work above all other forms of activity. For him or her, the issue is not necessarily making a living but it is in the artistry, satisfaction and joy of the process. I do not agree with Samuel Johnson about only writing for money. A real writer writes because of his artistic need above all.
Warren, you’ve been married for over 60 years to the same woman. How did you come to write a book like The War of the Roses, which is not only about divorce, but the nastiest breakup of all time? It is the work of the imagination. Writing novels is creating a parallel world out of one’s observations, experience, insight and imagination. It is very difficult for people who do not write fiction to understand. Most people are literal minded and have no understanding of how the subconscious works. Some believe that these characters are created by literally basing them on real people going through these experiences. Not really. They are amalgamations of the writer’s conscious and subconscious world. Sets and props to indicate locales, just like the movies, and provide the backgrounds, but the characters are created out of whole cloth within the writer’s imagination and are as real to the writer as the people he meets in his daily life.
One of the reasons you are publishing new books at a torrid pace is that you want to establish your legacy, your authorial voice. You released five new books simultaneously in an Amazon exclusive last year. Now you are self-publishing a new book this fall with plans to release two new books per year over the next 4-5 years. Are people amazed at how prolific you are? I guess it does surprise people, but if you write seven days a week for most of the year, your output is rather startling. When the input stops, I stop. As Lewis Carrol said, to paraphrase, “Start from the beginning and go on until the end, then stop.” That is my mantra. When it ends, I will stop.
You already have over two million words in print. How much of writing comes naturally to you vs. it being a labor? Do you edit much or do you stick with your first draft? The secret of writing is rewriting. I rewrite constantly, over and over again until I am reasonably satisfied. I usually can’t tell if I got it right until I’ve written one hundred pages or so. It is at that point that I either abandon the book or slog on.
Everyone has hopes and dreams. In your new book, The Serpent’s Bite, it appears that if unchecked, one’s ego or lust for success and fame can threaten people and those around them. Is everyone searching for their victory, even if at the expense of others? Not everyone. But the thirst for recognition is a powerful motivator, e.g. Facebook. For many people, the thirst for the unattainable is a destructive force for human nature. We are now deeply immersed in a celebrity culture and the uncelebrated yearn for the transient ego satisfactions of being “known by many” and “celebrated”. On top of the charts is the person who longs to be a movie star and how this longing and obsessive pursuit totally destroys one’s moral sense. In the case of the woman in my book, she will do anything it takes, including the murder of her father and brother to achieve what she believes is her ultimate goal. She is the epitome of evil. Another character in the book, the illegal Mexican wrangler, will also do anything to better his position. These characters illustrate the dangers of desperation. It is not easy to find the balance required to come to grips with compromising one’s goals and ambitions and reaching some personal truce, the so called “philosophic calm.”
The Serpent’s Bite takes its title as a play on the famous William Shakespeare quote that was uttered by King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” Your book reveals two children who believe they deserve more from a dad who has offered love, guidance, and millions of dollars. How hard is it to cut off a child? As a parent, I believe that there is no greater, more obsessive love than for one’s progeny. As a committed father the protective role for one’s children is built into the human condition. A child who grows up without a father is missing a decisive link in his upbringing. A father who dismisses or ignores his progeny is depriving his offspring of something profoundly important. It is, of course, a two-way street, as King Lear and millions of others have discovered. A child who disrespects or dismisses his parents is also missing out on a profound relationship. I am a father who would never, under any circumstances abandon his children.
The Serpent’s Bite deals with the taboo subject of incest. Though you show the dangers associated with it you also scripted several erotic sexual scenes that, if you forgot for the moment are between brother and sister, stimulate the reader, leaving one just as conflicted as the characters. Do you expect people to be repulsed or engaged by this? Both. Incest is a recognized and much publicized aberration. There are numerous novels written with incestuous characters and thousands of porno sites that offer the subject for erotic stimulants. In today’s world few things are taboo. Google “incest” or “novels about incest” to see what I mean. But of all the taboos incest is still looked upon as the worst of all, hence my use of it to illustrate Courtney’s evil character. In my opinion it is not only legitimate to discuss but it is probably widely practiced. In the context of my novel it is just one manifestation of Courtney’s dysfunction.
Your books don’t seem to have happy endings. Is that contradictory to what most people expect or want? Maybe so, but some of the greatest books ever written have not had happy endings. Life, itself, does not have a happy ending. I can cite hundreds of books with no happy endings that have stood the test of time e.g. Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, etc. Actually a number of my books end happily, Random Hearts for example, Twilight Child, for another.
If nothing else, does The Serpent’s Bite, War of the Roses, and your other books have the reader feeling better about their lives as a result of seeing these reckless, violent, and angry characters play out lives of destruction and division? Yes, people see them as cautionary tales. I cannot tell you how many people have come up to me to say that The War of the Roses changed their lives by informing people it is better to compromise about material things in a divorce than let it get out of hand.