New York Times bestselling author C.J. Lyons has been described as “a master within the genre” and has sold huge numbers of books such as the Hart & Drake series and the Lucy Guardino FBI thrillers. Here, she talks about her approach to writing and her thoughts on the future of the publishing industry.
Imagine you’ve been put in charge of one of the big US publishers. You’ve got a free hand to implement changes. On your first day, what’s the first thing you’d do?
Wow, there are so many things, but to pick one: The first thing I’d do is change standard publishing contracts to licensing agreements.
In three years after publication, if the publisher hasn’t made the advance back on the book, the author has the option to buy back the rights by paying the difference in the advance and the amount the book has made. If the advance has been made, the author simply asks for the rights back or renegotiates an extension with the publisher.
It becomes a win / win for everyone. The publisher is guaranteed their money back rather than having 80% of books not sell through their advances. The author is guaranteed that the publisher will focus their efforts on the book because they know they only have a limited time to make their money.
Both will want it to succeed – if it does, they can continue that partnership, if not, they can cut their losses.
By forcing everyone to have a stake in a book’s success you foster collaboration rather than competition. Innovation. Being pro-active rather than reactive. All things the industry needs to survive.
Do you remember the very first story you ever wrote?
Yes, I do! Gosh, it’s so embarrassing, the stories I wrote when I was a kid… they all seemed to involve young girls and their horses saving the day during important historical events.
The first series (yes, I was writing series even back then!) featured a blind girl (and her horse) wandering through the Civil War while searching for her father and spying for the Union Army. The first writing contest I ever won (and the most money I’ve ever won from any contest, lol!) was when I was twelve, for a story called the “Red-headed Rebel” about a girl (and her horse) saving the day during the American Revolution and featured an actual ancestor of mine, Captain Daniel Schneider.
How would you describe your books to someone who’s never read any of them?
When I first started out and had to pitch my stories to agents and editors, it was quite difficult to explain them since they are such a mix of thriller pacing, suspense, and the emotions / relationships / growth / romance you find in women’s fiction, yet they aren’t a pure fit for any one genre.
So I created my own: Thrillers with Heart. They’re less about the car chases and explosions and more about the people, exploring the grey areas between the black and white of good and evil.
Are there any authors who inspire you?
Too many to count! Lisa Gardner, who has been a mentor and friend for years, amazes me by how she pushes the limits of both the genre and writing craft with each new book she comes out with. John Green who seemingly effortlessly taps into deep, heartfelt emotions of teens without making them feel clichéd or maudlin. Ray Bradbury (my first true love as a reader and writer) for his ability to evoke emotion with every word…sheer poetry! Tana French who builds suspense despite not much really happening in her plots, or so it seems—yet, so very much is happening beneath the surface.
I could go on and on, but those are the ones whose books happen to be on the shelf in front of this chair – if I moved to another corner of the room, I’d be giving you an entirely different list, lol!
Your Hart & Drake and Shadow Ops books were recently featured in a 99 cent promotion at Amazon, and shot up the bestseller lists. Was it your idea to run the promotion, and did it meet your expectations?
No, I had nothing to do with it – Amazon has editorial boards that pick and choose which books/authors to feature. I was flattered that they chose my books and stunned and amazed at the reader response! In one day I sold over 100,000 books. Despite the titles returning to full price the next day, 5 of my books remained in the Top 10 at Amazon for a week and 7 of them in the Top 100 for almost a month.
What can I say? This is a true Renaissance for readers and writers alike! Kudos to Amazon for seeing that and helping both readers and writers connect via their marketing strategies. It’s a win/win situation for everyone.
As a medical professional, how much importance do you place on accurate research for novels? Do you ever bend the truth in order to increase the drama?
I do think research is very important. But, if I had to stick to the mundane facts and make everything the way it is the real world, my readers would fall asleep as most of my characters would be stuck spending 80% of a book filling out paperwork!
I do a lot of research for my books – 99% of which never makes it into the actual story. Most of it is about building characters, getting their personalities right, understanding what makes them tick, why they do what they do, what choice they would make in a given circumstance. To me, that is the only factual information that MUST be accurate because it influences the characters who drive the plot with every action they take, every decision they make.
If a reader chides me for some inaccuracy such as using the term “cordite” to describe the smell of gunpowder, it’s not that I don’t know the right term (I do) but that my character wouldn’t say “I smell freshly fired gunpowder residue” but rather that particular character at that moment would say “I smell cordite.”
It’s all about the character. If I have to bend reality to suit their needs, I do. As a writer, my job is to pull the reader into a world I build that they feel is real, at least during the time they spend there (and if I do my job really, really well, they continue to think and believe in that world long after they close the book). If I fail to do that, it means I haven’t done my job well.
Sometimes, even doing the research and getting everything “right” doesn’t please every reader. I’ve had a few readers tell me my female FBI protagonist Lucy Guardino “could never” leave the ER after being stitched up to go chase the bad guy—despite the fact that I was an ER doctor and sent people on their way all the time after a wound like that! Plus, this is a character that FBI agents and police officers praise and send me fan mail congratulating me for being the writer “who finally gets it right.”
What’s interesting to me, though, is that those same readers have no problem at all believing James Bond or Dirk Pitt or Jack Reacher surviving being shot and blown up and knocked unconscious before going on to save the day…So am I failing to create a world they believe in? Or am I making it so realistic that the slightest slip destroys the delicate mental bond forged between reader and writer? Or is it because most of my protagonists are women and some readers just “don’t buy” a woman having the same capacity to focus on their mission as their male counterparts?
All of which tells me it might be more valuable to spend more time focusing on what’s right for my readers and less time worrying about what’s “right” in the real world.
Do you worry about Amazon gaining a monopoly in the ebook world?
No. Not at all. I worry about traditional publishers not waking up to the ways they could be using Amazon to their advantage.
Amazon is a distributor (well, okay, they’re dipping a toe into publishing, but for the majority of books, they act as a distributor) who can help get your books into the hands of eager readers with the least amount of friction. Why wouldn’t you want to use them and take advantage of their resources? Why wouldn’t you use every book/author page they supply you with as prime real estate to reach your readers? Why wouldn’t you use every download (sample chapters or the actual book) to expand that reach?
I don’t have the answers. All I know is that publishers are missing opportunities because they’re blinded by the thought of Amazon wanting control. Yet, these same publishers bend over backwards to please other distributors such as Walmart, Barnes and Noble, etc. I’ve been asked by my NYC publishers to change book covers to appease these markets, to alter my release dates, to change a book from hardcover to paperback…Publishers don’t think twice about totally altering their plan (and impacting the author’s career) to please these partners, so why are they ignoring the opportunities Amazon provides?
How involved are you in things like marketing and cover design?
For my indy books, I make every decision. Hey, former ER doc here, control freak is in my nature, lol!
For my NYC published books, I weigh in constantly. Sometimes they listen, most times they do what they’ve always done – for them, it’s often more comfortable to go with the “tried and true.”
That’s a luxury I can’t afford with my indy books. There’s no such thing as business as usual in an industry changing as fast as publishing. I try to stay nimble, I ask tons of questions, I try new things and make tons of mistakes, and keep learning. So far it’s been a lot of fun—but then again, I am a control freak, it might not be the right path for everyone.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out with their first book?
If they’re just starting to write their first book, my advice is to ignore all the rules and advice and simply write their heart out. Have fun! Pour it all on to the page, don’t hold back or fear that someone else might read it. Be selfish. Write this book for you, you, you!
BUT, if you’ve finished writing a book, you need to understand that most published authors didn’t sell their first book. Or their second or third. For most traditionally published authors it’s the fourth or fifth book that is good enough to compete with NYT bestsellers and attract an offer from a publisher.
That’s half a million words they’ve written and rewritten and edited and revised and polished!
It’s amazingly quick and easy to publish a book nowadays. But I caution you. Don’t. At least not right away. If you’re thinking of publishing and building a career as a writer, you need a clear vision beyond one book.
What’s your next book going to be about? How about the one after that? Are you reaching out to the same readers (business folks call this building your platform)? How are you going to keep them coming back for more? What about your books will so delight and excite them that they’ll tell their friends about them?
Who are you recruiting to be on your team? An agent? A traditional publisher? If you’re going indy it might be a group of editors (I use three on every book) and graphic designers, maybe formatters and web gurus.
Yes, that first book is for you, you, you. But as soon as you decide to publish it, you’re making the leap from artist to businessperson. Your focus must switch from being all about you to being all about your readers. Look before you leap and grab a parachute while you’re at it!
Finally, what’s next? Do you have anything new coming out in 2012?
My New York Times bestselling indy novel, Blind Faith, is being re-released in paperback and ebook July 31st by St Martins Press in the US and by Little, Brown as an ebook in the UK. It features a new ending as requested by readers and my editor who all fell in love with a secondary character and wanted him to have a second chance, so I’m quite excited to see what the response to that will be.
In the fall I’ll be launching the third Lucy Guardino FBI Thriller, Kill Zone. The last book in the Lucy series, Blood Stained, was a dark, psychological suspense, and fans just gobbled it up, begging for more. Kill Zone will be more thriller than suspense (the entire story takes place in one night) but with tons of twists and turns in the lives of the characters, including Morgan, the teenaged psychopath my readers asked me to bring back.
Then, hopefully in time for the holidays, will be the third in the Shadow Ops series, Edge of Shadows. This is Rose and Billy’s story and is another book written because readers demanded it. Following it will be the release of Black Sheep, a FBI Thriller featuring a character from Blind Faith, in January, 2013.
And after all that, I might just take my first vacation in seven years!
As a pediatric ER doctor, New York Times and USA Today Bestseller CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge Thrillers with Heart.
CJ has been called a “master within the genre” (Pittsburgh Magazine) and her work has been praised as “breathtakingly fast-paced” and “riveting” (Publishers Weekly) with “characters with beating hearts and three dimensions” (Newsday).