David Morrell is the author of First Blood, the award-winning novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a PhD in American literature from Penn State and was a professor in the English Department at the University of Iowa.
His numerous New York Times bestsellers include the classic spy trilogy that begins with The Brotherhood of the Rose, the basis for the only television miniseries to premier after a Super Bowl. The other books in the trilogy are The Fraternity of the Stone and The League of Night and Fog.
An Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, Morrell is the recipient of three Bram Stoker awards and the prestigious Thriller Master award from the International Thriller Writers organization.
Here, he shares advice on building a successful writing and publishing career.
How did you begin your writing career?
I had a troubled childhood. My father died in combat. My mother had to put me in an orphanage. When she remarried, it turned out my stepfather didn’t like children. My mother and father argued a lot. Afraid, I slept under my bed, telling stories to myself in which I rescued people. When I was a teenager, the television series Route 66 spoke to me. Its two characters drove across the United States in search of America and themselves. In my imagination I became those characters. Then, in a big leap, I wanted to be the writer who’d created the stories. His name was Stirling Silliphant. I wrote a letter to him. He wrote back, encouraging me. I followed his advice.
Are you with the same agent you started out with?
I went to graduate school at Penn State. For the first time, I met a professional writer: Philip Klass, whose pen name was William Tenn. He’d been an influential science fiction author during the Golden Age of the genre in the 1950s. He read my stories and agreed to work with me. That’s when I began writing First Blood. Klass’s agent was Henry Morrison, who accepted me as a client. Henry and I worked together for 34 years until his projects with the Robert Ludlum estate occupied an increasing amount of his time. In 2004, I switched to Dystel, Goderich & Bourret Literary Management and have remained there ever since.
Other than your agent, have you put together an outside team (marketing, social media, PR, etc.)? Do you recommend doing that?
A marketing and social media team would be wonderful, freeing an immense amount of time that’s required for self-promotion. But most authors can’t afford it. In my own case, even though I’ve been fortunate in my career, I do a lot of social marketing on my own, partly because I prefer to be hands-on. For special tasks, I hire help. But for things like day-to-day Facebook and Twitter, I do the posting.
What amount of time per week do you spend on social media?
At least an hour a day.
Have you written multiple series/genres? Has it been successful? Tell us anything you found beneficial in renewing your audience/reaching a new one.
I’ve written in numerous genres: outdoor action (First Blood), espionage (The Brotherhood of the Rose), non-supernatural horror (Creepers), Westerns (Last Reveille), and Victorian mystery/thrillers (Murder as a Fine Art), to name some of them. It’s in my nature to try new things. But these days, a “brand” is what editors look for, and switching genres might not be practical. For me, trying new things turned out to be what identifies my career. As for writing a series versus standalones, I wrote a few series (based on The Brotherhood of the Rose, The Protector, Creepers, and Murder as a Fine Art), but three books in each series were the most I wanted to write. As I mentioned, it’s in my nature to move on (like the characters in Route 66). The risk with a series is that by Book Three, readers get the idea. There are as many failed series as successful ones. On the other hand, many series have had a successful long run. My advice is always to write only what we’re passionate about.
Have you ever explored self-publishing?
In 2009, at the start of the e-book phenomenon, I was one of the first authors to embrace e-books as a new delivery mechanism. I was also one of the first to release a brand-new novel (The Naked Edge) as a self-published e-book, just to see how the process would work. At the time, this was considered so unusual that the Los Angeles Times featured me in a front-page article about the changing publishing world. Since then, I self-published as e-books several titles whose rights reverted to me. I also self-published as e-books several short stories and essays. I prefer the traditional publishing process, but some topics aren’t for that market.
What’s the one decision or change you’ve made that’s been most pivotal to your current career?
I take a long view and don’t follow trends. One of my mantras is, “Don’t chase the market. You’ll always see its backside.” Before I start something, I write a long answer to the following question: “Why is this project worth a year of my life?”
What’s the one thing you wish you had known starting out that you know now?
When I started, there weren’t any writers conferences, as opposed to now when there seems to be one a month. I didn’t have access to the abundance of professional information that’s available at them. Because I write in several genres, I was thrilled to discover the World Fantasy Convention. Then the Horror Writers Association evolved from that, and I went to HWA conferences. Then I learned about Mystery Writers of America and its regional groups. Eventually, Gayle Lynds and I co-founded the International Thriller Writers organization. I’m currently a board member of Western Writers of America.
What’s the one biggest fallacy about being a writer/the publishing industry you wish would go away?
Some new writers are under the impression that the publishing world is the same as it was 20 and 30 years ago. During the reign of paperbacks and big-box bookstores, it wasn’t unusual to have a print run of a half million copies. Back then, a successful book could sell 30,000 copies in a single week. Now, with combined print, e-book, and audio versions, for some books 30,000 copies (total sales) are considered good for a starting author. The industry has contracted (largely in response to the competition of television binge-watching with its more than 500 scripted series), and there’s much less chance for the kind of super-success that many new writers hope for. Look at the New York Times bestseller list. You’ll see the same rotating list of familiar names. It’s difficult to achieve the level of marketing that makes readers pay attention to new authors, especially when the publicity/marketing departments of publishers don’t have the staff they used to have.
If you’re a self-published author, you’re in competition with the more than 600,000 e-books that are released each year. It amazes me that the e-book and video-streaming revolutions all happened since 2009 and 2013. So many rapid changes. When I teach writing, I tell my students that the only reason to write is because they don’t have a choice, that they’re compelled to do it. People who want to become writers solely because they think it’s a practical way to win the lottery are probably not going to be happy.
What’s your next book?
My most recent publication is a story collection, BEFORE I WAKE. Currently, I’m accumulating pages on two novels, each of which interests me for different reasons. I’m so passionate about each that I keep switching back and forth, unable to choose between them.