5 On: Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler

In this 5 On interview with author Barry Eisler (@BarryEisler): the pros and cons (where they exist) of legacy, Amazon, and self-publishing; notes on research and editing; selling book rights; and more.


Barry Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, then worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan, earning his black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center along the way. Eisler’s bestselling thrillers have won the Barry Award and the Gumshoe Award for best thriller of the year, have been included in numerous “best of” lists, and have been translated into nearly twenty languages. Eisler lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and, when he’s not writing novels, he blogs about torture, civil liberties, and the rule of law.

5 on Writing

CHRIS JANE: When you started writing A Clean Kill in Tokyo (previously Rain Fall), you didn’t really know how to construct a book, you’ve said, but you had a talent for writing. How/when did you first become aware of that talent (did you enjoy writing essays in high school? work on short stories in your spare time?), and what were some of your earliest creative writing projects?

BARRY EISLER: I’ve always enjoyed writing, starting with short stories about vampires and werewolves when I was a kid (fortunately, these are no longer extant). But I don’t think I conceived of it at the time as a talent—more just something I enjoyed. In retrospect, I wish I’d recognized sooner that this thing I enjoyed and seemed to be good at was in fact a kind of talent—I might have gravitated to a career in writing instead of spending time in intelligence, law, and business, none of which was as fulfilling a fit for me.

Though I guess that unplanned, meandering path has led to a pretty good place.

If only one of your existing works of fiction and one of nonfiction were allowed to remain while the rest of your writing was destroyed forever, what would you save?

Whoa, you are a cruel interviewer!

For nonfiction, it’s a little easier, with two blog posts I particularly enjoyed writing. First, “The Definition of Insanity,” about the neurotic devotion to war that characterizes a certain class of deranged former intelligence officer along with our Very Serious press corps; second, “It’s Just a Leak,” which reads almost like a short story and exposes some of the government’s propaganda techniques (in this case, describing an undersea oil eruption as a “leak”).

Well, okay, I’m also kind of fond of my essay, “The Ass Is a Poor Receptacle for the Head: Why Democrats Suck at Communication and How They Could Improve.” But even if any top Democrats decided to read that one, it’s a safe bet they lack the motivation or capacity to absorb any of its lessons. So I guess the essay’s destruction wouldn’t be too much of a tragic loss.

 photo graveyard.jpgBut the books and short stories—that would really be painful. I guess I’d save Graveyard of Memories, because it’s the John Rain origin story and explains so much of who and what he became. Plus it’s a beautiful love story.

But man, that is such a Sophie’s Choice question!

How do you stay informed about government agency techniques, technology, tactics, etc., as more and more time passes between the three years you worked for the CIA and each new novel you write?

It’s mostly from obsessive reading. But I do like to take courses from time to time to keep my knowledge up to date and my skills sharp. There are some great ones out there; for anyone who’s curious, a while back I wrote an article on a bunch of them for Black Belt magazine, including a grid-down survival course and a course on escape and evasion.

What in your first draft will receive the heaviest editing, and what do you have an easier time getting right the first time?

It’s strange—this is the first time I’ve ever really thought about this one. My manuscripts don’t typically need a ton of editing—not because I’m getting anything particularly right the first time, but because I edit and revise myself continually while writing, so by the time I write “The End,” the result is in pretty good shape.

Different people have different philosophies about how much polish is ideal before submitting a manuscript to an editor. My own approach is this: yes, your editor is your advocate (hopefully); yes, your editor might be your friend; yes, in various ways your fortunes and your editor’s fortunes are entwined. But more than anything else, your editor is your customer—the person to whom you are selling your product, which happens to be the publishing rights to your story. Why would you ever want to show your customer your product until you’re as confident as reasonably possible that the product is a complete knockout?

And if we’re talking about self-publishing, the points above all apply mutatis mutandis (sorry, I couldn’t help it, I mostly eschew Latinisms, but that one I love) to your readers.

Human trafficking is the subject of the novel you’re currently working on. What is the ultimate goal of the book, and what kind of research gets you as close as you can be to the real, intimate experience—psychological, emotional, physical—of the victims and to the motivations of the traffickers?

The ultimate goal: Well, as for every story I write, more than anything else I’m looking to entertain. Because if the story doesn’t at least also work as entertainment, it won’t succeed as anything else, either. And if there’s no real entertainment aspect to the exercise, I’ll happily write a blog post, instead.

Research: My research method generally involves three steps. First, Internet knowledge. Internet knowledge gets a bad rap, but the rap is built on the misuse of Internet knowledge, not on any shortcoming intrinsic to Internet knowledge itself. Properly used, Internet knowledge should provide a better understanding of what you know and what you don’t know; what questions you need to ask and where and how you can set about answering them; and overall a kind of foundation you can start to build on. For all this, the Internet is an incredibly useful tool. The most common problem with Internet knowledge is that people can confuse it with expertise, and it’s this conflation that has led to the bad rap. Internet knowledge is a tool, and like any tool, it’s good for some things and bad for others. Use it properly, for the right purpose, and you can get great results.

Once the Internet knowledge part is largely in place, I do more focused research, typically involving books, visits to the places I’m writing about, and interviews with experts. You can think of this deeper, more interactive research as the structure getting built on the Internet knowledge foundation.

Then there’s one more critical step. Once the manuscript is written, I show it, or select portions, to experts so they can help me fine-tune whatever I’ve written based on my research. This is akin to painting or polishing the structure, and for me always results in a few final changes I’m typically glad I got to make before publication.

It’s a pretty good approach, I think, but no system is perfect—and for anyone who wants to see the glitches that have slipped through despite my efforts, there’s the Mistakes page of my website. My readers enjoy it, and it helps keep me honest.

More specifically with regard to the new novel and trafficking, I’ve spent time with a lot of relevant websites; read a number of books; interviewed several experts; attended a conference of law enforcement professionals, prosecutors, and NGOs; and traveled to Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, where my character’s journey begins. And to all the knowledge I develop along the way, I apply my imagination as described above as best as I know how.

5 on Publishing

An author recently wrote this on Facebook: “I’ve had 3–4 significant filmmakers ask for a free option (12–18 months) on the rights to [my novel].… What I get offered all the time is $0 for a limited time option, and then $X for the rights if it makes it into production.”

What was your experience with the options on Rain Fall (produced in 2009), financially speaking (if you’re comfortable sharing numbers, I’ll take them, but what I really mean is, were you pleased with the initial offer in any of the cases? did you have to negotiate? etc.), and what advice would you give authors regarding adaptations of their work into film? For example, what should they reasonably expect as payment for their work, or, conversely, what should they be willing to forfeit for the unique opportunity for exposure?

The first thing to note is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. It may be that for some writers and some circumstances, a free or low-money short-term option could make sense. But as a general rule, given that my business is built on the sale of intellectual property rights, it’s hard for me to imagine tying up those rights with anyone on no more than the hope of future payment. Anyone who’s serious about using your rights to make a movie or TV show should have the connections and wherewithal to come up with the necessary money. Anyone who can’t should be suspect. I’ve done four film and TV deals over the years, and they’ve all been for real money.

But that doesn’t mean the initial offer was for real money. In my experience it’s not uncommon for people to come in with low-ball offers. (You can’t blame them; who wants to pay more than necessary?) When this has happened to me, I’ve generally responded with some version of, “You can’t be serious.” At which point, the ones who aren’t serious stop wasting my time, and the ones who are serious start acting accordingly.

As for what payment makes sense, that depends on a lot of factors and I don’t think there’s really any general guideline. Coming up with a sensible number and other terms is something a good agent and/or lawyer can be a huge help with.

I’ll sometimes see self-publishing presented as a panacea for the everywriter, as it is to some extent in a 2011 online chat you had with author J. A. Konrath that includes the following exchange:

Barry Eisler: “[P]ublishers look at authors as needing publishers more than publishers need authors.”

Joe Konrath: “That’s changed.”

But has it?

I guess it depends to some extent on the definition of need, and the extent to which need translates into real power.

Here’s what I mean. It’s always been true that publishers needed authors. If authors stopped selling publishers publishing rights, it’s hard to see how publishers would survive. Maybe they could scrape by selling previously acquired and public domain works, but that would involve radical restructuring.

And it’s also true that authors needed publishers. Because in a paper world, pretty much the only cost-effective way to reach a mass market of readers was with a distribution partner—AKA a publisher.

Digital has altered this equation. Publishers still need authors to the same extent they always have. But authors no longer need publishers at all. That’s not to say that having a publishing partner can’t be potentially useful to an author—even potentially tremendously useful. But even tremendously useful isn’t the same as need. When you need something from someone, you have no choice. When you have no choice, you have no power. So the shift from “publishers are necessary” to “publishers are potentially useful” strikes me as pretty significant and important to understand. At a minimum, the change seems upsetting enough to various establishment publishing types to induce some strange and petulant behavior.

 photo clean kill.jpgPart II: It may be that writers don’t need publishers, because they can, technically, publish themselves on one (or all) of the available self-publishing platforms. But a Bowker estimate puts the number of self-published books in 2013 at nearly half a million. You may have a small percentage of self-published authors who break out with readers, but you can just as easily find authors who were picked up by publishers who would never have sold an equal number of books on their own without the help of a brand and professional support. Had you not first been published traditionally (had you instead self-published—and would you have?), how confident are you that your novels would have sold as many copies as they did initially, or that John Rain would have appeared on screen?

Right. It’s true that before the advent of digital books and self-publishing, an author needed a publisher to reach a mass market of readers, whereas today, it’s empirically proven that authors can reach a mass market with no publishing partner at all. Which again means that if the question is, “Do authors still need publishers?” the answer is demonstrably no.

But what follows for authors shouldn’t be, “Hah, I told you so!” It should instead be, “Okay, it’s good to know I don’t need a publisher anymore. But can a publisher still be useful to me? Can a publisher offer value at an acceptable price?”

Here too, the answer is an obvious yes. There are countless examples of authors, even new authors, who are profiting from relationships with legacy publishers and with Amazon Publishing.

To break it down just a little further, if you’re talking about brick-and-mortar distribution, then it’s fair to say authors still need publishers. If you’re talking about online distribution, then it’s fair to say authors don’t need publishers.

I think the area where publishers can continue to be most useful (not necessary, but useful) is in discoverability. In the paper era, the first-order problem for authors was distribution, and paper distribution required a publishing partner. In the digital era, the distribution problem has been solved, and the new first-order problem is discoverability.

So authors who expect to sell mostly paper books through brick-and-mortar stores still need a distribution partner—that is, a legacy publisher. But for authors who expect to sell mostly digital books through online stores, your distribution problem is solved, and what you should be focusing on is whether a publishing partner can offer value in helping get your books discovered.

To oversimplify a little: what a primarily paper/brick-and-mortar author needs is a distribution partner; what a primarily digital/online author might want is a marketing partner.

Given that the legacy industry is built on foundation of paper distribution, it makes sense that paper distribution is what legacy is good at (marketing, not so much). And given that Amazon has never needed to get its wares into other stores (Amazon is of course its own store), it makes sense that Amazon is strong on marketing and not as effective at relationships with third-party retail channels. Understanding these relative strengths and weaknesses can help authors make good choices for themselves.

In the end it comes down to asking, “What’s the best route for me?” Ten years ago, this question would have been incoherent. There was only one route to the mass market—a traditional publisher, and probably a component of the Big Five (then the Big Six, or however many members the organization used to be composed of). Today, you have to ask, “Do I try to go the legacy route? Do I self-publish? Or do I try to go with Amazon Publishing?”

This is a big decision involving a lot of factors, and would probably go beyond the scope of this discussion. But for anyone trying to choose the best route, here’s a post I did with novelist J. A. Konrath a couple years ago that I think provides a good framework: “Publishing Is a Lottery/Publishing Is a Carney Game.”

As for what I’d do differently, well, I sold the rights to my first book in 2001, when even the Kindle was still six years away. So going the legacy route at the time wasn’t just a good choice; it was the only choice. Again, today the landscape is different. And while it’s true that my first publisher, Penguin Putnam, did a number of things well and unquestionably helped build my audience, at the risk of immodesty I’ll point out that I did a few things myself that might have contributed to whatever success I’ve had, including visiting 350 bookstores one summer; a five- or six-conference-a-year promotion schedule; innovative and aggressive use of social and other media; and a number of other items I could enumerate, not least of which were the books themselves. I mention all this because establishment publishing peddles a lot of propaganda, and one of the things they want authors to believe is that we could never have gotten anywhere without them. Maybe not—or maybe we’d have gotten farther if they were a bit more proficient with what are supposed to be their core competencies. It’s hard to say for sure, though it’s undeniably true that (a) there are innumerable successful authors who have never had, and therefore were not built by, a legacy publisher; and therefore that (b) a legacy publisher is one possible means by which an author can build a platform, but empirically not the only one. It’s important not to assume that one possible way of doing something is the only possible way of doing it—a misapprehension like that can cause you to overlook a lot of promising possibilities.

As for my various sales of film and television rights, my publishers have never had anything to do with it. I imagine other authors have different experiences, but my four sales were all serendipity: someone in Hollywood hearing about my books or becoming a fan and then asking me, “Who’s your agent?” Though in fairness, you could argue that no one would ever have heard of my books if my publishers hadn’t published them, and given that we’re talking about the early 2000s, that would be a fair point. But today, I think it’s safe to say that what’s going to attract Hollywood attention isn’t who publishes you, but how big is your audience. To argue otherwise would be a bit silly. Can you imagine a Hollywood executive saying, “I don’t care what sales were, was the book published by the New York Big Five?” Or, conversely: “I don’t care that the thing has sold millions of copies and has thousands of 4.5-star-average customer reviews; if the book wasn’t published by the Big Five, who’ll want to see the movie?”

By the way, another bit of establishment publishing propaganda is the notion that the publisher is losing money until the author earns out. This bit of bullshit is intended to make authors feel guilty and beholden about their advances. But it isn’t true, and here’s a quick logic experiment to prove it:

Imagine a scenario in which the author receives a 99 percent royalty. The author would earn out her advance very quickly, right? But the publisher would make almost no money and remain in the red long after the earn-out.

Conversely, imagine a scenario in which the author receives a 1 percent royalty. The author would probably never earn out the advance, but the publisher would quickly recoup its investment and make bank after that.

And in fact, superstar authors typically receive advances so large they’re designed not to be earned out, but function instead as a de facto higher-than-normal digital royalty rate (the technique is a way of evading the digital royalty “most favored customer” clauses that are common in publishing contracts). And even though these huge advances never earn out, the publisher still makes money.

So while there might be some loose correlation between the author earning out and the publisher making money, the notion that they’re one and the same is false and misleading. Publishers typically start to make money on a book before the author earns out, and even if the author never earns out at all.

Obviously, this is something the Guardians and Curators of Rich Literary Culture and Nurturers of Talent™ would rather we not know.

Many writers still fantasize about being picked up by one of the Big Five, but should they, when authors are leaving legacy publishers for self-publishing only to then leave self-publishing behind when approached by an Amazon imprint? Comparing publishing with Amazon imprint Thomas & Mercer to your experience with legacy publishers, what does Amazon currently offer that the others don’t, and what recent positive changes have you seen in legacy publishing?

That’s a big question! Yes, a lot of authors are experimenting with the new choices we have, and it’s useful to understand that an author doesn’t have to be X or Y or Z, but can be a hybrid of two or more, going one route with one book, and a different route with another.

The high-level differences I see in the three different routes would be:

  • Legacy offers the lowest digital royalty rate (typically 17.5 percent); Amazon typically offers twice that (35 percent); self-publishing typically offers the highest of all (70 percent).
  • Legacy is strongest in brick-and-mortar distribution; Amazon is weaker but improving as indie bookstores realize they can work with Amazon to the advantage of everyone; self-publishing offers few opportunities for brick-and-mortar distribution.
  • Legacy offers a writer the least ability to make business decisions (price, timing, packaging, etc.); Amazon is a much more collaborative experience; self-publishing means the writer is completely in charge.
  • Legacy as a lottery offers the highest potential rewards (ask J. K. Rowling or James Patterson); so far, Amazon and self-publishing offer smaller ultimate jackpots. But remember, in determining which lottery is for you, you have to know not just the ultimate payout, but the odds of winning, the risks of playing, the range of prizes, and the cost of a ticket! Anyone who tries to get you to enter a lottery by talking about no more than the size of the jackpot is conning you. More here.
  • Legacy offers the slowest time to market (typically at least a year from acquisition, often much longer, though occasionally shorter, especially in established relationships); Amazon is typically faster (a matter of months); self-publishing is immediate (as Clay Shirky put it, “Publishing is a button”).

There’s a ton more on this topic, and for anyone who wants to dive deeper, I recommend an online conversation I did with J. A. Konrath on the topic, which is now a free, downloadable book: Be the Monkey. Also, the Resources for Indie Writers page of my website. And to get the most accurate idea possible of where the most money is being made by new authors, you have to follow Author Earnings—the most transparent and comprehensive analysis (and clear presentation) I know of about what’s really going on in the book business.

Are the steps a writer would take to lure Amazon any different from those they would take to attract a legacy publisher? (Setting aside “First write a good book.”)

Not that I know of. It probably wouldn’t hurt to have a reputation for innovation and risk-taking, which culturally would be a good fit with Amazon. And it’s probably helpful to have the kind of book that’s particularly strong in digital (for example, thrillers and romances).

Beyond that, either way, first write a good book!

As knowledgeable as you are about the business of publishing and as committed as you are to seeing authors treated fairly (even reasonably) by their publishers, have you ever considered starting your own imprint and taking submissions?

On those not infrequent occasions when some of my previous publishers were making me crazy with their ineptitude on things like cover design, the bio, and various marketing issues, sure, I used to think about this kind of thing a lot, and even discussed it with some writer friends. But since getting into self-publishing, where I’m in charge of everything, and publishing with Amazon, which has been a really squared-away and collaborative partner, the urge has died down. Becoming a publisher for anyone but myself would be a huge amount of work, and I’m sure it would eat heavily into my current writing schedule (and into my political blogging, which is already a pretty serious habit). So to the extent I think anything I’ve learned the hard way might be useful to other writers, I tend to try to help in discussions like this one, by writing articles on why the Authors Guild and Authors United are such a pernicious joke, and other such activities.

Beyond which, self-publishing and Amazon Publishing have introduced the first real competition the New York Big Five has ever seen. This moribund, hidebound, incestuous industry badly needed a shakeup, and the good news is, it’s getting one! Compared to all that, I doubt any imprint of mine would add very much.

Thank you, Barry.

Posted in Author Q&A and tagged , , , , , , .
Kristen Tsetsi

Kristen Tsetsi

Kristen Tsetsi is the author of The Age of the Child, which imagines a Citizen Amendment ban on all forms of birth control–and the ban’s consequences. She has been an adjunct English professor, a daily news reporter and feature writer, a cab driver, an instructor of expressive writing, play writing, and screenwriting, and editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut with one husband, three cats, and one dog.

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5 Comments on "5 On: Barry Eisler"

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[…] Author Barry Eisler on the pros and cons of legacy, Amazon, and self-publishing; research and editing; selling book rights; and more.  […]

Frances Caballo

What a great interview. Unfortunately, when I was at the San Francisco Writers Conference a year or more ago I didn’t have the chance to hear him speak. I regret that now. I admire him for pursuing self-publishing even though as an accomplished writer he could surely go a different route. Kudos to Barry for that!

Phyllis T. Smith
My first book is a historical novel (not a historical romance) published with Amazon Publishing. Looking at how other comparable books have done with big 5 publishers, I absolutely believe I went with the best possible choice. I worked with terrific editors.The promotion was outstanding.The sales, mostly in e-books, far surpassed my expectations. My second novel came out this month–also with Amazon–and I’m happy with how things have gone so far. This is a great option for authors and may get even better if Amazon opens its own brick-and-mortar stores. (My new book is currently on display in the new… Read more »
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[…] Author Barry Eisler on the pros and cons of legacy, Amazon, and self-publishing; research and editing; selling book rights; and more.  […]

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