By Julie Kramer
David Baldacci is best known for his high-stakes political thrillers, but the #1 New York Times bestselling author has also had a busy year as the editor of this year’s acclaimed ITW anthology, FaceOff, and as one of the highest-profile writers caught in the Amazon/Hachette negotiating feud.
So what does he do to relax? He sketches.
We’ll show you samples of his art, hear his take on changes in the publishing world, and learn more about his upcoming release, THE ESCAPE, in which military investigator John Puller hunts for America’s most wanted criminal—his own brother—who has escaped from prison after being convicted of treason.
How much of your success as an author do you think you owe to your Washington D.C. settings and the public’s mistrust of the government?
I certainly have been influenced by the political world in D.C. It’s the only city in the country that can declare war and raise your federal income tax!
When it comes to international intrigue, the geography and players in political hot spots change rapidly—the Ukraine, ISIS, and so on. Your thrillers are often topical. Do you ever worry your storyline will be out of date on your release day?
That’s the risk you run. You finish the novel and the next day a headline is in the newspaper that is basically your entire plot line. I’ve never had that happen. I’ve been ahead of the curve a few times, but it could always cut the other way. I’m just one guy with an imagination pitted against nearly seven billion people jostling each other over the width of a single planet. Odds-wise I have no chance.
When you first introduced us to Army Special Agent John Puller and his brother, Robert, in ZERO DAY, did you already have elements for THE ESCAPE in the back of your mind?
I knew that Robert Puller’s story would be revealed one day. I wasn’t sure how when I was writing book one or even book two. But the story eventually came to me.
What research did you do for THE ESCAPE? Tour any prisons?
I’ve visited military bases in the past. I jumped off parachute towers, did the sniper ranges, performed the rollover Humvee training, and threw myself into the Army’s functional fitness regimen. Needless to say, I came out of that feeling way too old. As a lawyer I also went to prisons. An attorney at my old law firm represented Clayton Lonetree—the Marine guard accused of espionage at the US Embassy in Moscow—in appealing his conviction. While I wasn’t directly involved in the case, I learned a fair amount about the military justice system.
Your first novel, ABSOLUTE POWER, was published in 1996. Eighteen years later, you have 110 million books in print. What do you think is the biggest change you’ve seen in the publishing business?
Digital printing, and cutthroat discounting to the point where the notions of actual profits are fleeting.
What’s your take on the Amazon/Hachette ebook pricing dispute? Why do you think it’s become a polarizing point between writers?
It’s hurting everyone. Books are not toasters and no one person or company should be able to say what all books should cost. The system could be a lot fairer to authors than it is. Publishers are not completely innocent in this either. Standard royalty rates haven’t changed in a long time. When people talk about ebooks being so cheap to produce they forget that the biggest contributor to the process was the person who wrote it. Musicians suffered through this very same thing, but while music sales are down musicians can go out on the road and make a bajillion dollars doing a concert tour. I’m pretty sure that writers do not have that option. J. K. Rowling may be able to sell out an arena but the rest of us not so much. And what no one talks about is while ebook sales have gone through the roof, mass-market sales have been eviscerated, and hardcover sales have taken a hammering. For publishers that’s millions of dollars in revenue that’s just gone and it’s not coming back. There is no way ebook revenue can make up for that.
I always believed that Amazon could compete not simply on price but service because they excel at service and convenience. People are willing to pay more for that because customer service at most places stinks. But they chose to be the lowest in price and the best in service, which is very costly. But what they forgot about was making money. And they seem to think that no one else along the chain needs to make a profit either. Because if they want ebooks priced at $9.99 and they want half that revenue that leaves a publisher of a book that actually retails for $28.00 with about $5.00 gross per book or 82% off the list price. (Show me a company that discounts its product 82% and I’ll show you a company no longer in business.) With that amount they have to pay me, cover all of their own costs and, yes, and make a profit. I well know the math. It can’t be done. We’ve all helped Amazon get to where they are. And Amazon helped us get to where we are. We should be working together to make the industry stronger, not fighting with each other, which will make the entire industry less robust.
It’s all maddening and confusing and has turned the entire industry upside down. If you do make it all about price, then we might as well just be making toasters.
With five series and numerous stand-alone novels, which of your protagonists generates the most fun fan mail for you? What have you written that’s generated the most hate mail?
King and Maxwell and the Camel Club are series I really have fun with. Puller and Robert are great too, but a bit more serious. I’ve gotten hate mail and death threats usually associated with something I’ve written about guns, our involvement in Vietnam, the Middle East, or my stance that coal mining actually is dangerous, though some folks adamantly disagree.
Have you ever had a death threat you took seriously?
Only one. I sent it to friends in law enforcement.
The plots of your novels ooze conspiracy. Which of the popular real-life conspiracy theories do you find the most intriguing? JFK? Roswell? Princess Diana? Global warming?
If you define a conspiracy as more than one person acting in concert to further an agenda they believe in, then pretty much everything we do in the public or private sector is a conspiracy. People of like mind want to congregate to gain power, in many different forms. Humans have been doing that pretty much from day one. We can’t help ourselves. Right now we are in the middle of the most power hungry, financial blank check, deadly partisan atmosphere I’ve ever experienced. It’s like I’m seeing 1984 and V for Vendetta happen right before my eyes. Compared to all that, JFK, Princess Di, and Roswell are pretty mild.
Besides being a compelling storyteller, the word is that you draw as well. What do you like to sketch? Do you yearn to see the words “Illustrated by David Baldacci” on a book cover? Could you email us a sketch to share with our readers?
A few sketches are attached. But recall that I never said I was a good sketch artist. My brother is the real artist in the family.
Are you happier as an author than as an attorney?
ITW’s most recent anthology—edited by you—has been the biggest hit of all ITW’s collections, landing on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. Why do you think it resonated with readers?
First and foremost because of the quality of the writing in the anthology. Combined with that was the fact that all of these extraordinary writers have large, established fan bases. Lastly, and this was no small thing, the concept was fresh and original. Favorite thriller characters squaring off in pairs in a single story. It really had “crowd-pleaser” written all over it.
David Baldacci published his first novel, Absolute Power, in 1996. A major motion picture adaptation followed, with Clint Eastwood as its director and star. In total, David has published 28 novels; all have been national and international bestsellers, and several have been adapted for film and television. His novels have been translated into more than 45 languages and sold in more than 80 countries; over 110 million copies are in print worldwide. David has also published four novels for children. He has received numerous accolades for his writing; most recently, he was inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame and received the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award.
A lifelong Virginian, David received his Bachelor’s degree in political science from Virginia Commonwealth University and his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, after which he practiced law in Washington, D.C.
While David is involved with several philanthropic organizations, his greatest efforts are dedicated to his family’s Wish You Well Foundation®. Established by David and his wife, Michelle, the Wish You Well Foundation supports family and adult literacy in the United States by fostering and promoting the development and expansion of literacy and educational programs. In 2008 the Foundation partnered with Feeding America to launch Feeding Body & Mind, a program to address the connection between literacy, poverty and hunger. Through Feeding Body & Mind, more than 1 million new and gently used books have been collected and distributed through food banks to families in need.
David and his family live in Virginia. To learn more, please visit his website.