Career Pursuit: An Interview with Rob Hart
Rob Hart is the author of THE WAREHOUSE, which has sold in more than 20 languages and been optioned for film by Ron Howard. He also wrote the Ash McKenna series, the short story collection Take-Out, and co-wrote Scott Free with James Patterson.
Hart is the former publisher for MysteriousPress.com and the current class director at LitReactor. He has also worked as a political reporter, the communications director for a politician, and a commissioner for the city of New York.
How did you begin your writing career?
I nearly failed out of art school in my first semester! I’d gotten into a conservatory and realized shortly afterward it wasn’t for me. I knew one day I wanted to write a book, but I changed my major to journalism, thinking I need something to make money until my fiction career takes off. Which, if hearing that makes you want to ignore the rest of this, I don’t blame you.
Are you with the same agent you started out with?
No. My first agent I met at a conference, through our shared association with the website LitReactor. She asked me to send her some stuff and we hit it off. She repped me on the first four Ash McKenna books, which were published by Polis. But around the time I was working on the fourth she decided she didn’t want to be an agent anymore. For the fifth and final Ash book, I did the contract myself—at that point it was boilerplate, based on the previous four books. But I spent about a year without an agent and was also at a point where I knew I was ending the series, and I was thinking What comes next?
Then out of the blue I got a note from Josh Getzler, who had been out of the agenting game for a while, but was getting back in and building a list. He heard I was free and wanted to get a beer. Before we met, he asked if I had anything I was working on. So I sent him the first 16,000 words of THE WAREHOUSE, knowing it was a big swing, and very different than anything I’d written before. But it’s all I had. We get to the bar and we sit down and he’s like, “When do I get the rest?” I walked him through the story, and what I wanted for my career, and we were really simpatico. He said he wanted to rep me, and I guess the smart thing to do would have been to take the night to think about it. But I had a good feeling and I shook his hand on the spot and I’m glad I did. Dude changed my life.
Other than your agent (if applicable) have you put together an outside team? (Marketing, social media, PR, etc.) Do you recommend doing that (yes/no, why)?
At various times I’ve hired out for design work—basic stuff, like bookmarks (which are an incredible waste of money but that’s another discussion). I do believe strongly in hiring professionals for that kind of thing, rather than putting together something that looks janky. For the fourth Ash book, The Woman from Prague, I hired an outside publicist. The Ash books had been doing well, and Polis wanted to bump me up from paperback to hardcover. So I figured—let’s see if we can’t get more eyes on this.
I’m glad I did it, but that comes with an important caveat. There’s no real one-to-one exchange. An outside publicity team probably isn’t going to earn you out, especially on a book from a smaller press. They will get your name out there and help you sell more books, and I think they’re a good long-term investment for your career. But, especially for smaller presses, there are certain doors (like major media hits) that are just really hard to open. If you can afford it and you’re focused on the long term, sure, do it. If it’s something where you have to skip some meals to afford—don’t.
What amount of time per week do you spend on social media?
Too much! Social media is a fun way to goof off and connect with people. It’s a terrible way to sell books! An agent I know said this, and it’s very true: A hundred thousand followers is not a hundred thousand sales. I see people on the #writingcommunity hashtag begging each other for followers to artificially boost their counts… but why? To what end? It doesn’t do anything. I do think it’s worthwhile to cultivate a personality and engage with people. I’ve definitely connected with readers, with fellow authors, with writing gigs. But a Twitter account is not book marketing, and tweeting the buy link to your book might sell a copy, maybe, if the stars align and you catch someone looking to burn off a gift card. Social media is the kind of thing where I think you should do it if you enjoy it, but if it feels like a chore, it’s not going to help.
Have you written multiple series/genres? Has it been successful? Tell us anything you found beneficial in renewing your audience/reaching a new one.
My first five books were in the noir/hard boiled/gritty crime fiction universe, but they started to flirt with other genres (like The Woman from Prague, my take on a spy thriller). But all those books were in a wheelhouse. Then I did Scott Free with James Patterson. I learned a lot from his edits, and that got my name out to a more mainstream audience. And then came THE WAREHOUSE. Despite the sheer size of the deal, it left me in this weird luminal space, where it’s sort of sci-fi, but also a thriller, and in my head it’s a crime novel. It’s speculative, and some people call it satire, even though I don’t think it is. That can be a struggle sometimes, because I feel like I’ve got my feet into two different streams, rather than standing squarely in one.
In terms of what I found beneficial? My marketing team at Penguin Random House, which is pretty much like the SEAL Team Six of publishing. So it’s not really actionable advice for anyone who doesn’t have that. Personally I’ve tried to pursue venues outside the usual suspects (I’ve written for a lot of crime sites but right now I’m pitching an interview with a fantasy author to a SFF site). Dovetailing off that, I’ve been making friends with more people in the SFF/speculative circles—authors I knew, but now we can do things together because we’re writing in similar genres (me and Chuck Wendig have made a fun team lately, as his book, Wanderers, is about a pandemic, and THE WAREHOUSE is about small businesses being wiped out and a company that’s cornered the market on home delivery, dominating the economy… fiction!).
Have you ever explored self-publishing?
Way back in like 2013 or 2014 I self-published a novella. It was more an experiment than anything else—I wanted to learn about the process, and since it was a novella there was a slim chance of it getting picked up anywhere. So I did that and it was fun. I’ve since taken it down and might find something else to do with it at some point. In a general sense, I am not against self-publishing. As long as you go into it with the right expectations, cool. I am against the zealots who twist people’s expectations as a way to sell their brand. Yes, there are people who make hundreds of thousands from self-publishing—they’re often people who can churn out a book every three months and are really good at SEO and metadata. For most people, the ceiling is going to be something like 50 copies. And even that might be generous. As for me, I would self-publish again, but it would probably be a super niche or weird project that I thought could not get a lift anywhere else.
What’s the one decision or change you’ve made that’s been most pivotal to your current career?
I dreamed bigger. Yes, I pushed myself hard on THE WAREHOUSE, and I had the benefit of having worked my voice and process out over five books. But the truth is: the books I was writing—small-scale gritty PI novels—were never going to hit the mainstream. They were weird and violent and not what sells to a wider audience. I wanted that wider audience, and knew a character like Ash wasn’t going to get me there, so I challenged myself to write something that was different, but still reflective of my voice and my goals.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known starting out that you know now?
When I wrote New Yorked, we went out pretty wide with it. And we got rejected widely. Those rejections are hard to hear. “We love this book! But…” How can you love it and not want to publish it? But publishing is not a meritocracy, it’s a business. New Yorked was, in no way, shape, or form, a Big Five book. Which I didn’t know then. Of course I had stars in my eyes, like I was going to net a six-figure hardcover debut. But instead I got four figures from a mid-level press. I’m grateful for that, and I actually think it’s a solid place to start out, so you can work your way up while learning the process and finding your voice. Back then? Yeah, it was hard to take.
New Yorked got published to the level at which it was written. And I think we build totems, especially amongst the noir/hard boiled/gritty crime fiction crew. About gatekeepers and how publishers don’t want dark books and how our rejection comes down to personal vendettas. Time to say a quiet part out loud: I know writers who’ve cultivated personalities as punk rock truth tellers who’ve been banned for being too real, or for being unrecognized journeymen just waiting for the gatekeepers to finally notice them… and that’s usually not the case. Rather, I hear from agents and editors that these folks seem very nice and appear to work very hard, but the writing just isn’t there.
The writing has to be there. Yes, there are some brilliant writers out there who’ve gotten bad hand after bad hand after bad hand. And that sucks. But more often than not, a lot of writers are published—or not published—to the level they’re writing at. It took me a little while to learn that, but it’s the most important lesson I’ve learned.
What’s the one biggest fallacy about being a writer/the publishing industry you wish would go away?
I feel like there’s this assumption that, if you make it to the big leagues, you have to sacrifice or stifle your voice. And that hasn’t been my experience. When I was writing Scott Free with Patterson, I had an idea for the ending which was pretty dark… and then my buddy Todd Robinson added a little twist that made it even darker. I hesitated on pitching it because I was like: no way will he go for this. But he did, and that’s the ending of the book.
Same thing on THE WAREHOUSE. My editor didn’t do any major surgery—it was mostly cosmetic cuts, moving a few things around, deepening some stuff here and there. But again, on the ending… he pushed me to make it hit harder. And the resulting idea had way more impact than what I had originally conceived.
On one hand, I think it’s a defense mechanism, implying that a big book deal means you sold out. It’s easier to believe that only the most sanitized, boring, cotton candy books make it to the front table of Barnes & Noble… but that’s where Gone Girl was. Hell, I spent 368 pages criticizing Amazon’s business model—we almost went to auction and it sold in a pre-empt.
I’m not saying some authors don’t get their work stepped on—it happens at every level—but it’s not a requirement to participate in the Big Five ecosystem.
What’s your next book?
Paradox Hotel, which is coming out… at some point? We sold it on a pitch and I’m still writing it so I don’t have a pub date, which I think is to my benefit right now. Thanks to the current pandemic, I’ll have the book done sooner than I expected, and since nothing is set in stone, I figure that’ll allow us to be nimble. Plus I need to have it done soon for other reasons I can’t say juuuuust yet (wink)… But, to me it’s an even bigger swing than THE WAREHOUSE. It’s about the house detective in a hotel for time travelers, trying to solve a crime while things happen out of order and her sanity slips away. It’s about the way billionaires are happy to let the world burn as long as they get their cut. And it’s also a queer romance and has dinosaurs. So. I’m stretching some muscles on this one.
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