Mar. 3, 2011

Good News, Bad News, Great News

Over the last few weeks, the manuscript for Defending Jacob has begun making the rounds and the initial response has been, well, ecstatic. Inside Random House, the editors, publicists, sales reps and all the rest have been very enthusiastic. So have buyers representing all the major sales channels: Amazon, B&N, Borders, Costco and Sam’s Club, the wholesalers who place books in supermarkets and airports. We even have our first couple of blurbs, glowing endorsements from Lisa Gardner and — brace yourself — Nicholas Sparks. Yes, that Nicholas Sparks. I am so excited to have Sparks’s endorsement. He very, very rarely blurbs, and as a “crime writer” looking to broaden my audience, I can’t imagine a better key to the Promised Land. (I don’t think I’m free to share these blurbs yet because they’re still in draft form. When I have the final text, I’ll post them here. Hell, I’ll plaster them everywhere.)

As for scheduling, the book is technically a spring 2012 title, but is currently scheduled for release in December 2011. There is still some debate about whether December is the best timing, so the publication date is likely to be pushed back a bit.

But Defending Jacob is off to a roaring start. That’s the good news.

Now the bad news. The buzz inside Random House has been so positive that my editor was anxious to see the next book right away. I know: editors pursuing authors, begging for books to buy — it’s Bizarro World.

There was just one small problem: I didn’t have anything to show her. Since December I have been working on a book about Boston’s old red-light district, the Combat Zone. This is a pet project of mine that I’ve been nursing along for years. I last set it aside in fall of 2007, when I began work on Defending Jacob. But I still hadn’t written any scenes. So I did the best I could. I cobbled together a memo summarizing the idea, the characters, the rudiments of the plot, and sent it off to my editor, confident she would snap it up. Because, you know, this is Bizarro World, where editors buy everything.

She didn’t. “Someday,” the editor said, “you’ll be so popular, we’ll have to print your laundry list. But for now, this is not the right book for you.” She explained — convincingly — that what people have been responding to so strongly in Defending Jacob is the relatability of the characters, the idea of an ordinary family plunged into a desperate, morally fraught situation. To follow that up with a book about an underworld of pimps and hookers and throat-slitters would scare off all the new readers who might be attracted to my books by Defending Jacob.

If that sounds mercenary and calculating — and hypocritical, since I’ve preached here over and over about the futility of trying to anticipate what readers want — understand that I would have fought for my Combat Zone project if it meant anything to me. But the truth is, when my editor advised against it, what I felt was not disappointment but relief. I have been living with the idea too long. The project has grown stale. The prospect of writing it felt like drudgery. Under those conditions, the project could not have worked anyway. Flaubert said that “hard writing makes easy reading,” but that isn’t always true. More often, writing that feels labored in the making is equally a chore to read. And in these days of web-crippled attention spans, you have to grab readers by the throat and pin them to their chairs. A labored, mediocre book just won’t do.

So the Combat Zone project is on hold for a while, probably a long while. If you’ve been looking forward to that book, take heart: the project is not dead, exactly, just cryogenically frozen. That, alas, is the bad news. (Yes, yes, even the bad news is pretty good. It’s been that kind of week.)

And the great news?

Well, the Combat Zone book was killed on a Friday afternoon at five. My editor said, “I need the next concept by Monday. Do you have any other ideas?” My cock-sure response: “Of course! Lots!” What the little voice in my head was saying: “Holy shit! I’m screwed! My family will have to live in a van down by the river!”

But I came up with a new concept, and based on little more than a one-sentence description, three days after killing the Combat Zone project, Random House offered a two-book deal and, effectively, a long-term home. I won’t say a permanent home because there is no such thing in publishing these days. Long-term security just isn’t out there. But I am really thrilled to be with my current publisher for the long haul. Tuesday I was in New York to meet some of the people at my little corner of Random House, and they are all such smart, talented, book-crazy people. I am blessed to have them. It is fashionable to predict that all the old-line publishers are doomed, that ebooks make the entire legacy structure of traditional publishing irrelevant and unsustainably expensive — all those books sitting in warehouses, all those returns, all those editors swanning about in expensive Manhattan offices. And who knows? Maybe it’s true. It might all collapse, especially if established authors begin publishing electronically direct to the public via Amazon and iBooks and so on, depriving the publishing houses of their cash cows. But as readers let’s not celebrate too soon, because pure ebooks are likely to be a shoddier product, unvetted by gatekeepers, unimproved by nurturing editors, unpackaged by professional designers and promoters.

I don’t want to share the idea for Book 4 just yet. It is always a mistake to talk about an unwritten book. The thing will morph and struggle so much as I wrestle it into existence that I couldn’t accurately describe it now anyway. Let’s wait awhile. But there will be a Book 4 and a Book 5, and I have a wonderful publishing team in place to bring them out the right way — and that is a huge relief. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep at night, without worrying about that van down by the river.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’m a writer. I’ll always lie awake worrying about that van down by the river.

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