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1, 2011 (not copyrighted) We are living in a world that is changing, quite literally, at the speed of light. There used to be a newsstand on every corner; today there’s a Verizon Wireless store on every corner. If Johannes Gutenberg could see how widely the published word is disseminated today, I believe he would be overjoyed. Are you? Or are you simply overwhelmed? I know that some of you are far more sophisticated at dealing with this brave new world than I am. And my guess is that others of you are struggling to keep up. Where is all this going? How will all of us in the publishing industry be affected? Here’s a hint in the February 25 edition of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, as reported by your president Cathy Jett: “Borders Group is eliminating 200 of its 642 U.S. superstores as part of its attempt to restructure under Chapter 11 in bankruptcy court… The bookstore chain is heavily in debt and lagged behind Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble in jumping on the e-book reader bandwagon.” But before we talk further about the publishing industry today, and in the future, I want to take you into the past for a bit, so that you’ll be better able to understand some of the decisions that Marilyn and I recently made. It was back in the geological era known as the Olympia Portable Typewriter Age when I was scraping out a living as a full-time freelance writer, mostly for small business publications. One day my phone rang. The caller was a PI, a private investigator who wanted to write a book about his career of nabbing adulterous spouses. He knew he needed to work with a professional writer, so he called me. He said he had been quite impressed with the lyrical tone of my prose in publications such as The Whirlpool Dealers’ Magazine, Fence Industry and the Foreman’s Letter. Well, not really. He called me because I was the only writer listed in the Washington, D.C. Yellow Pages. We put together a book proposal and, at that point, I knew that I needed to find an agent to sell the project to a publisher. I’d been doing some networking and had made friends with a more established writer who had lived in Europe for a time and had written several successful books about the Danish resistance in World War II. He referred me to his New York agent, a man with the patrician name of Julian Bach. Julian got us a book contract. We wrote Caught in the Act. It sold at least 150 copies worldwide and I returned to magazine writing. About a year later my phone rang. The caller was Julian Bach. He said he had a young man in his office who needed a co-author for a book project. He wanted the two of us to chat for a few minutes and see if we might want to work together. The young man got on the phone and we began to talk. His name was Billy Hayes and he outlined his story for me. It seems that Billy had tried to smuggle a supply of hashish onto a plane at the Istanbul International Airport, and he had miscalculated the consequences. In America, he figured he would have gotten a rather small sentence, perhaps even probation. But a Turkish court sentenced him to death, which it later commuted to thirty years.
That still sounded like death to Billy, and after five years and several aborted attempts he managed to escape from the Turkish prison and make his way across the border into Greece. Greek officials, no friends of the Turks, allowed him to return to America, and publishers were after him to write a book. Billy and I conversed easily, and we knew that we would make a good team for the project. That settled, Julian got back on the phone. He said, “Now I know that you have the credentials to write this book. You wrote several books on the Danish resistance when you lived in Europe, right?” I told Julian that he must be thinking of a different person, but by then it was too late. Billy and I were now partners. The book was called Midnight Express. It became a New York Times bestseller and an Academy Award-winning motion picture. And my phone began to ring frequently. Not long after that I married another freelance writer, and Marilyn and I have been soul mates and co-authors ever since. Together we entered a new geological era called the IBM Selectric Age. We signed as clients with Mel Berger of the William Morris Agency. Mel was and is one of the very best known and most successful literary agents in the entire world. We wrote several books during this time. Perhaps the most noteworthy was Saved, the story of the wreck of the Italian luxury liner the Andrea Doria. By the mid 1980s we had entered the Trash 80 Age. The TRS-80 was one of the very first word processing computers for home use. The initials stood for The Radio Shack. The computer was quite large and snail-paced compared to today’s technology, and it quickly earned its nickname as the Trash 80. We were just getting used to this new form of composition when the phone rang and a voice that we now knew well said, “Hi, it’s Mel!” It seems that some years earlier an American woman named Betty married an Iranian-born Dr. Mahmoody, who went by the nickname Moody. They settled in Michigan and had a daughter named Mahtob. After a time Dr. Mahmoody took Betty and Mahtob to Iran for what he told them would be a short visit with his family. Once there, he informed Betty that she and Mahtob were never going back home to America. After years of emotional and sometimes physical agony, Betty and Mahtob escaped across the mountains of northwest Iran in a snowstorm during the dead of winter. Publishers wanted her story. She signed with the William Morris Agency and told them she wanted to work with the people who had written Midnight Express. Not Without My Daughter hit the New York Times bestseller list and became a major motion picture starring Sally Field. But what many people don’t know is that the book was an international publishing phenomenon, especially throughout Europe. One year it was the number one bestselling book in Germany. That same year we were told that it had become the number one bestselling book in France—ever. And our phone never stopped ringing. A crazy decade followed during which we spun out one book after another. One of our personal favorites was Freefall, the story of an Air Canada flight that ran out of fuel at 41,000 feet. The entire book covered 29 minutes of terror in the skies, but it had a happy and incredible ending. It became a television movie starring William Devane. And the hits just kept coming, folks. There was Cop Hunter, about undercover New York detective Vinnie Murano whose job was to ferret out police corruption. Victor
Six was the story of Dave Christian, the most highly decorated Army veteran of the Vietnam War. The Senator, an expose of Ted Kennedy’s clandestine cocaine use, also hit the New York Times list. One of our favorite persons to work with was Friar Mariano Gagnon, a Franciscan missionary to the Ashaninka indians of Peru. When they were caught in the midst of a turf war between the cocaine growers and the murderous Shining Path revolutionaries, this feisty priest taught the indians how to fight back. That book was called Warriors in Eden. Throughout it all we continued to upgrade to new computers and new word processing programs. We entered the Internet Age. And Mel kept calling. We were working on a book called Torn from My Heart, the story of a Belgian woman whose husband kidnapped their three children and hid them away in a community of Hassidic Jews in New Jersey. The pace was frantic. The deadline was near. I remember saying to Marilyn “This is killing me. I need a break. I’ve got to have a break!” And then… In Brentwood, California, on the night of June 12, 1994, the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were found in front of Nicole’s house. Nicole’s throat was slashed. Ron was killed with a vicious knife thrust to the abdomen. Most everyone knows the story. Nicole’s ex-husband, former Heisman Trophy winner and star NFL running back O.J. Simpson, was arrested and charged with the murders. Much time passed in legal wrangling and then after a lengthy farce of a trial, O.J. was found not guilty. The Goldman family, devastated by the verdict and consumed with grief, did the only thing they could do. They filed a civil lawsuit, charging O.J. with the wrongful death of their son and brother. And our phone rang. And a voice said, “Hi, it’s Mel.” We worked with Fred, Patti and Kim Goldman for about a year, and throughout the course of the civil trial. They are good people and they were very conscientious in helping us put their story into words. But it was a disturbing and depressing tale, and once again we were placed under heavy deadline pressure. That was a dark year. His Name is Ron became our twentieth book and our fourth New York Times bestseller, and we were spent. Mel continued to call to discuss possible new projects. We found reasons to turn them down. Please don’t misunderstand. We felt blessed and grateful to have achieved whatever level of success we had. We took an extended break. Some years passed. We realized that we had been stifling our own personalities by continually submerging ourselves into other people’s stories. So we decided it was time to create our own stories. By now we had entered into the eBook Age and Marilyn created the character of Luke Wilde, a former Marine Corps sniper who is a private detective in Richmond. He has an office in a small strip mall on West Broad Street. Luke’s a free spirit. A Marine sergeant once asked him if he had a problem with authority. “Not if I’m the authority,” he said. Luke describes himself as the kind of guy who likes to dot his T’s and cross his I’s. In other words, he plays the game of life by his own rules. We gave him a sidekick, Dagmar McNeil, who’s 60 years old, nearly 6 foot tall and weighs in at about 180 pounds. She owns a microbrewery down in Hanover County,
but she wants to launch a second career as a PI and she is constantly poking her considerable self into Luke’s business. Marilyn and I like to laugh our way through life, and we laughed our way through writing Luke Rules. We’ve got a cast of colorful characters and a puzzling and intriguing plot. Everything came together for us on this one. We knew we had crafted a tale that was special and unique to us. We sent it off to Mel. He called and said, “It’s marvelous. You had me laughing all the way and you kept me guessing to the very end.” He started pitching it to publishers. Mel found an editor who was extremely enthusiastic about the book. He was days away from offering us a publishing contract when he came up with the brilliant idea to team us with a famous country-and-western singer so that he could publish OUR book under HER byline. We declined. That’s when we decided to play by our own rules. We copyrighted Luke Rules and flung it up into cyberspace. We put it on Kindle and Nook and Google ebooks. You can download it onto almost any reading device you wish. And, almost as an afterthought, we published it as a print-on-demand quality paperback from Amazon.com. The cost of all this was prohibitive. We spent…give me a second here… approximately nothing to publish Luke Rules. And guess what we got in return? A relaxing sense of creativity and freedom. You see, in the traditional world of big-book publishing things run at a frantic pace, and the keyword here is inventory. It costs money for a publisher to print books, to store them and, to ship them. It costs money for a bookstore to carry the inventory. And then it costs the publisher more money when the bookstore returns unsold copies. What does this mean for an author? It generally means that if a book does not do well in the first few days or weeks that it is in the store, the publisher is likely to cut his or her losses. No more publicity. No more print runs. The book fades into the sunset, and is destined for the remainder tables. But you see, a new copy of Luke Rules doesn’t exist until someone clicks a mouse or touches a pad. Amazon will print a single copy of the quality paperback and ship it off to you. Or you can download to an e-reader at, yes, the speed of light. But there is no inventory. And there are no remainders. And there is no hurry. All of this gives the published word a new sort of immortality. Luke Rules will be available for as long as Marilyn and I choose to keep it out there in cyberspace. It was actually back in the Trash 80 Age when we began to hear predictions that paper publishing would eventually give way to electronic publishing. Those predictions were often pooh-poohed. People would say, “Yes, but I really want to be able to hold a book in my hand.” This is a Kindle, folks. See, I can hold it in my hand. Let’s go to another piece from the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star from March 19, a few weeks ago. It’s a report by Howard Owen on the possible closing of JosephBeth Booksellers, right across the street from us at Spotsylvania Towne Centre. Cathy Jett also contributed to the piece. At the very end of the report the writers detonated an ebomb of epic proportions: “In January, Amazon announced that it was selling more Kindle books than paperbacks.”
The handwriting is on everyone’s Facebook wall. Go into Panera Bread or Starbucks or, heck, even Burger King has wi-fi these days. Way off to the west of us in Churchville, Virginia, near the West Virginia border, there’s a barbecue joint called T-Bone Tooter. They have wi-fi, too. In case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t make up that name. But you don’t have to take my word for it, because you can follow T-Bone Tooter on Facebook. Go into any of these places and look around. You may see one or two people holding onto a book. But I guarantee you they’ll be way outnumbered by the people with laptops, Ipods, Ipads and e-readers of all manner of brands and sizes. Nobody can stuff this genie back into the lamp. For all of us in the publishing industry, life has changed forever. I believe each of us has only two choices. We can be overjoyed. Or we can be overwhelmed. As a former Marine, Luke uses a lot of military jargon. His advice on all of this would be: monitor and adjust. We all believe that information is power, don’t we? We’ve all got to pay attention to what’s going on out there. We need to stay informed about this brave new world. And then react to it as best we can. Nobody knows what will be the next big development. Oh, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs probably have a better idea than we do, but nobody really knows. I mean, who among us could have predicted a few years ago that the man who created Facebook would be Time Magazine’s Person of the Year? So here’s where Marilyn and I are with all of this now. We’re about at the halfway point in writing the second Luke Wilde adventure, called Torch. When it’s done it we will shoot it up there into cyberspace alongside Luke Rules. Then we’ll get busy on the third book in the series. We’re having way too much fun to stop. We hope that you enjoy Luke Rules every bit as much as we enjoyed writing it. http://www.williamandmarilynhoffer.com
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