I appeared on the TV show Press:Here this morning talking about ebooks and my checkered past. Scott McGrew of NBC, Mike Krey of Investor's Business Daily, and Jon Swartz of USA Today were my interlocutors. What do you think?
(Photo credit: Palo Alto Historical Association)
I grew up in a lazy college town surrounded by orchards. Two-thirds of the country’s apricots were grown right there in “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.” We didn’t lock our doors. Teenagers would stick their thumbs out on the main drag and get rides to school. The local university was informally referred to as “The Farm.”
Do you know what? I’m still there. I live only eight houses away from my parents’ old place. Two of my kids graduated from the same high school I did and I have one about to be a sophomore and one who should show up there as a freshman in two years. But almost everything has changed in a single generation.
When I went to Palo Alto High, I was friends with the daughter of the school custodian. I’ll bet anything that no children of a school custodian live in the Palo Alto of today. Like schoolteachers, fire fighters, or police officers, they just couldn’t afford it. When my parents moved to Palo Alto, they bought their first house for $29,500. Now Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has bought a house in town for $7 million. (Thank goodness, I bought a house here long ago.)
(photo from Wikipedia--one of Facebook's former buildings)
What happened? Somehow my hometown of Palo Alto became ground zero for world technology. Orchards filled with cherries and apricots have been replaced by tilt-up buildings filled with software engineers and MBAs. The Valley of Heart’s Delight has been transmogrified into Silicon Valley. Facebook is headquartered in town as is the world’s largest technology company, Hewlett-Packard. Google’s closer to my place than either, just over the city limits in Mountain View. Venture capital firms, trendy restaurants, and startups have pushed out the hardware stores, supermarkets, and bookstores in downtown Palo Alto that catered to local residents. In addition to Mark Zuckerberg, another high tech icon, Steve Jobs, lives here. Stanford University is now known throughout the world. San Francisco has become a place where Gen Y high tech employees eat, sleep, and cavort on the weekends while spending the week commuting down 101 to Palo Alto and other Valley cities. (Does that make San Francisco a suburb?)
It’s weird. I saw an article that mentioned three cities driving the world economy – New York, Shanghai, and Palo Alto. Wow! One of those cities has 23 million, one eight million, and one 60 thousand. Palo Alto now represents the high tech world in the same way Hollywood does show business.
I left Palo Alto to go to college and stayed away for 13 years. But I couldn’t resist the siren call of my hometown. And now I love having my kids go to the same high school I did, but wish they could have what I had in those simpler times.
(photo from Wikipedia--Palo Alto High)
But if push came to shove, I would not change a thing. Here in Palo Alto I’ve had the rush of working day and night to do my bit to make an Internet software company successful. I love the drive, the excitement, the people, and the opportunity it gives to build something. The Silicon Valley city-state of Palo Alto has even provided a rich vein of ore to mine in mysteries and thrillers. Plenty of crime fiction novels are set in New York, LA, and Washington, but few here. And why not here? Silicon Valley is where board members of the world’s largest high tech company hire private eyes to spy on each other. Where CEOs buy cocaine for their employees and are sentenced to prison for backdating stock options. We have as much ambition, greed, wealth, and criminal impulses as anywhere. Take that Wall Street, Hollywood, and Capitol Hill!
And yet, in a mental archeological dig, I am still reminded of the way Palo Alto used to be. My best friend from those days (and now) lives down the block, and I run into my high school girlfriend every couple of months. Beneath a thin mask that adds only a few character lines, their faces look pretty much the same. Sometimes one of my kids brings a book home from the school library, and I’ll see the name of one of my classmates scrawled inside the cover. When I consult with my lawyer, I remember sitting in the high school bleachers with a bunch of other elementary school friends and rooting for him, the best high school halfback we’d ever seen. That old Palo Alto is a ghost town occupying the same space as the high tech icon of today. I count myself lucky to live in both.
Zelda Shluker of Hadassah Magazine, the largest circulation Jewish periodical in North America, did a summer "round-up of new thrills and chills" and included an insightful review of Drop By Drop. It's interesting though, that as perceptive as the review might be, there's no good quote that can be pulled out of it. Please let me know what you think of the review.
When Sam Rockman’s pregnant wife, Rachel, is killed in a terrorist explosion at San Francisco airport, his life and psyche are upended: He leaves his position as a professor of history at Stanford to become staff director to a senior member on the Intelligence Committee. The usually liberal Rockman is so angry he is ready to support a bill that will let the C.I.A. and the military operate inside the United States against terrorists.
But the administration is trigger-happy. After hazardous material is found in a Florida highway crash—the administration says the trail leads to a Russian source by way of Sudan—the president has bombers and cruise missiles ready to attack Sudan. There is a strong movement afoot to repeal the 22nd amendment, to allow the tough anti-terror president to run for a third term.
The plot of Drop By Drop is not inherently Jewish, but Sam is, and you are reminded of this throughout; when the president, who invites Sam (who becomes a target of a killer) to head the national anti-terrorism effort, worries that having so many Jews on his staff will trigger paranoia “out there.” Though Sam believes Judaism is less about that you think and more about what you do, his desperate search for tikkun olam is part of learning how to live with his grief.
Now that I’ve been writing full-time for about four years, friends and relatives are finally getting used to the idea. I’ve impressed upon them that writing a novel does indeed count as work. They have learned not to refer to my time in the software world as “back when you were working.” And maybe out of fear of being a defendant in a wrongful death action brought by my heirs, they no longer ask if I am enjoying “retirement.” That vein that starts throbbing on my forehead gives them a warning that an apoplectic fit cannot be far away. In fact, many of those friends tell me something like, “Actually, I’ve read your latest book and it’s pretty good.” I don’t know if I should be insulted by the tone of surprise, but I’ve decided to just go with it and say “thank you.”
Well, I can’t leave well enough alone. I’m screwing the whole thing up. I’ve gone and taken on a day job. Why would I do something like that? I cannot say that writing novels has been quite as lucrative as working in software, but it’s not just the money. (I can’t say money plays no role at all. It was Dr. Johnson who said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”) For my entire post-college life I’ve just gotten that itch to try something new every four, five, or six years. And happy as I was spending my days in my neighborhood café rapping out the stories of Ian and Rowena and Sam and Cecilia, I still am excited to be started something new. Leaving aside a few flings like my six months as a gambler at the race track, I figure this newest incarnation is my fifth.
I’ve overcome the shame of admitting that I went to law school. Even worse, I went intending to become a corporate lawyer. A summer job at a Wall Street firm cured me of that folly, and I decided instead to do my bit in saving the world. (Another folly.) I pounded the hallways of the Capitol in Washington and was hired as the junior of three lawyers on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Before the end of my first year, the other two had left. I was 27 years old and the senior lawyer on the committee overseeing the government’s secret intelligence activities. Holy s**t! (I mined that experience in my latest book, Drop By Drop.) Then I got a little too big for my britches and went home to Palo Alto to run for Congress. My experience running for elective office was like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. No matter how much fun the ride was, what I remember is the landing. Splat – like an overripe tomato hitting a concrete floor! So ended my life in politics and career #1.
Next I landed at ROLM Corporation in Silicon Valley, where Ken Oshman, a brilliant and demanding executive who’d been CEO of the company from his 20s, took a chance on me. I was there when we introduced the first successful corporate voicemail systems. After we sold the company to IBM, I stuck with high tech, but eventually found myself in a company where I loved my colleagues, my boss, and the product, but I was still getting a little bored. So I did what you do in Silicon Valley under such circumstances. I left my job and started a company. That was the end of career #2 as a high tech employee and the beginning of #3 as an entrepreneur.
After six years of 70 hour weeks, we sold the company. Part of closing the deal was promising to stick around for awhile. Once my indentured servitude had lapsed though, I left and started casting around for my next move. I thought about starting another company, but an old Japanese proverb kept running through my head: “Every person should walk to the top of Mount Fuji, but only a fool does it twice.”
And so ended my third career and the start of #4 as a novelist. I love writing. When I walk into my neighborhood café, the staff turns down the music and brings me my pot of green tea. I put on noise-canceling headphones and pretty soon I’ve made the jump to another world where I have adventures as another person – one braver, smarter, and more attractive to women than I am. I’ve written five manuscripts. Midnight Ink published Dot Dead and Smasher. Drop By Drop has just come out as an ebook original – which is going great. I have delivered two more manuscripts to my agent. Writing is a great gig. But still, dammit, I found myself needing to scratch that itch to try something new.
I knew I didn’t want to do the same thing again. Whenever I thought about it, a picture of Mt. Fuji would pop into my brain.
At a New Year’s party at the beginning of the year, I mentioned to a friend that I was feeling that itch to try something new. She said something to a friend of hers, who in turn said something to her husband. And the upshot of all that? I’ve just started a job at a genetic sequencing company. What the heck is that? Well, it turns out that humans have 21,000 genes that are written in something like computer code. It cost over a billion dollars to sequence all of a human’s genes in the Human Genome Project that finished up in 2003. The company I’m at now does it for less than one hundred thousandth as much. Why does it matter? Sometimes when one or more of those genes run amok, cancer results. Anomalies in other genes can lead to a predisposition for heart disease or Alzheimer’s. Researchers are figuring all this out. In the not distant future, it will possible to take medication targeting our own specific genetic make-up (or genome). We’ll find out if we have a predisposition for diabetes or cancer and have the option to change our diet and exercise patterns accordingly. I participated in Silicon Valley’s Internet revolution. This was a chance to participate in the personalized medicine revolution that is definitely coming! Could not say no!
It turns out to be harder to leave career #4 behind than my first three. On the job only for a week and I already have ideas for thrillers set in the world of DNA sequencing and research. Yes, I am starting another career, but without abandoning the old one. I am still an author.
San Jose Mercury News Columnist Mike Cassidy and I sat down in my living room to discuss ebooks and my writing career. Over on the left is the online version of his story that ran on the front page of last Friday's business section. (Click here to read.) The headline hints at a peculiar phenomenon. I fled high tech to get into novel-writing. Now by publishing Drop By Drop as an ebook, I find myself living in a mash-up of the software and authorial worlds.
BTW, did you know The Merc trails only The New York Times and LA Times in circulation among big city dailies? (Click here.)
Over on that great site, The Rap Sheet, I discuss the story behind the story of my ebook original, Drop By Drop. Here's an excerpt:
The Intelligence Committee had just been made permanent based on the recommendation of the Church Committee, which had deemed the CIA a “rogue elephant.” I started as the junior of three lawyers on the committee staff. Before the end of my first year, the other two had left. I was 27 years old and suddenly the senior attorney on the committee overseeing the government’s secret intelligence activities. Holy shit!
Click here to read the whole story if you'd like.
As I wrote in my last posting here, I’m doing some diversification of my literary portfolio. My agent in New York has a manuscript he’s circulating to publishers. He even has another in his back pocket. So I held back a third manuscript and have decided to publish it as an ebook original. Drop By Drop draws heavily on the four years I spent in Washington working as the counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Once I decided to go down the ebook route, all those housekeeping chores the publisher had done on my first two books became my responsibility. So I figured out how to copyright the manuscript, obtain an ISBN number, and more.
Then there’s coming up with a cover. I didn’t have much to do with the cover on my first two books. The publisher asked for ideas for a cover for Dot Dead. I said any cover was okay with me except for a woman dead in a bed. Guess what showed up on the cover? (See left. Over time, it did grow on me.) When the publisher came up with a preliminary cover for Smasher, I was delighted to be asked for comments. I took the request seriously and showed it to a few trusted booksellers and relayed their suggestions back to the publisher. No changes were made.
With Drop By Drop I was on my own for the cover. I found a designer and told him what I had in mind. I took the first draft of the cover and posted it up on Facebook for comments. It turns out my friends, especially Shelly, know what they’re talking about. This time suggestions were taken into account, and we discarded a tricolor cover and ended up with the one on the left.
Over the weekend I uploaded the text of Drop by Drop onto Amazon (click here) and Smashwords (click here). Smashwords in turn makes certain the ebook goes into the catalogs of Apple’s iBookstore and Barnesandnoble.com.
Sure am curious to see how all this goes. I'll keep you in the loop.
Remember when you used to write "e-mail" with a hyphen? Then it got so ubiquitous that you dropped the hyphen and typed "email." Well, I remember when you inserted that hyphen in ebooks, too, but now it just looks old-fashioned, like you haven't gotten aboard the train before it left the station. The NY Times is running ebook bestseller lists. My compadre Barry Eisler eschewed a $500K advance for paper-and-pulp books to go the ebook publishing route. And I'll bet it can't be long before Mystery Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers add a best ebook original category to their awards to go with the best paperback original.
I live in Silicon Valley and have been on the cutting edge on some things like cloud computing and the Luddite fringe on others like smartphones. I guess on ebooks I'll be somewhere in between.
My agent is currently circulating a manuscript of mine for paper and ink publication. I have the rights to e-publish one of my books now on bookstore shelves in trade paper (Smasher), and I have another manuscript sitting on my hard drive. It's called Drop by Drop after this quotation by Aeschylus: “And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart....” In Drop I draw upon my experience as counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee overseeing spying and other covert activities conducted by US intelligence agencies. I loved writing the novel and friends who have read it have been nudging me, so I want to get it out there for others to read.
Paul Levine gave me advice on where to go to get the manuscripts formatted for Amazon and B&N and to get covers for them. (The one on the left is just a mock-up I did myself.) But here's what I don't know, where I'm lost. When Smasher came out in paper, I went to BEA and signed books, and then visited bookstores and signed even more. The publisher sent out galleys to newspapers and magazines, which followed up with reviews. I was interviewed by print reporters and even on TV. But how do you do all that with an ebook? How do you send reviewers a copy? (It probably doesn't matter since they won't review an ebook original anyway.) I can't go to bookstores, for signings -- there's nothing to sign.
I had a great set of blurbs for Smasher, but what about blurbs for an ebook original? Is there even room for one to be legible on the front cover? (There is no back cover.) Is it uncool to ask for a blurb that would just be used on the Amazon, B&N, and Smashword download sites?
So I have to come up with a new launch strategy, don't I? I guess I can tweet and blog to my heart's content. But beyond that, how do I get the word out there? I'd be grateful for any ideas you have or experiences you've learned from. Thanks so much.
I'll let you know when the books are available for download and how it goes in a future posting.