With Nelson DeMille, Bestselling author of 20 novels, including six on The New York Times’ Best Sellers list
Nelson DeMille has authored 20 novels of which six were #1 on The New York Times’ Best Sellers list. His novel, The General’s Daughter, was made into a major motion picture starring John Travolta and Madeleine Stowe and two others have been made into TV series starring Don Johnson and Aidan Quinn. Nelson is a combat-decorated U.S. Army veteran and lives in Long Island with his family.
Steve starts the conversation by asking Nelson how he got started writing his first published book, The Sniper, in 1974. Nelson says he wrote that on the side as a paperback original that sold for $1.25 in those days, which did not pay him enough to quit his day job! Then, in 1978, he got a break when he met Bernie Guise, a well-known publisher who was a mentor to young authors, and who gave Nelson a $30,000 advance—a princely sum in the 1970s—for his next book, By the Rivers of Babylon, which were Reader’s Digest and Book of the Month Club selections transporting Nelson DeMille from relative poverty to relative comfort.
Move To New York
Nelson attributes his success to being in New York where, through connections, he met Bernie Guise. Even today, his advice to serious aspiring writers is to move to New York for networking opportunities in the book business that can help them and their books get noticed.
After the success of his first published book, Nelson DeMille says he became a little self-conscious and was afflicted by the second-book syndrome which is the difficulty of being able to equal or top the first one. He overcame this by making believe that each of his subsequent novels was his first.
Get A Good Agent Or A Good Lawyer
Next, Nelson says it’s important to have an agent or a literary lawyer who understands the publishing business because publishers and editors want to talk to agents, not to authors.
Publishing In The Digital Age
Steve asks Nelson DeMille how the digital age of eBooks and self-publishing has changed the book-writing business. Nelson says publishers now want authors to have a social media presence and a loyal fan base that follows them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
There’s also a lot more competition for a reader’s time in a fragmented market influenced by the Internet, smartphones, and peer reviews. As a result, books today do not sell 12 to 15 million copies as they used to; sales now are a function of the size of the author’s fan base across different media channels, so it’s a lot tougher, unless you have a breakout hit like the Harry Potter series.
That said, Nelson still writes his books in long-hand on a paper pad with a pencil because he never learned to type!
In closing, Steve moves on to Nelson DeMille’s latest book, The Cuban Affair, which takes place, not surprisingly, in Cuba where Nelson went to research and develop the book. He says he thought he knew Cuba fairly well before he went because of what he had read and seen in the news and had heard from his Cuban-American friends. But once he physically stepped into the country, he discovered it was very different from his earlier, sight-unseen perceptions compelling him to re-write some of his previously written content. He wanted to reflect the reality of Cuba as he experienced it, boots on the ground.
Finally, Steve refers listeners to his own website and social media accounts to learn more about his interview with Nelson DeMille and The Cuban Affair.
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Steve Pomeranz: Nelson DeMille is the New York Times bestselling author of 20 novels, 6 of which were number one New York Times bestsellers. His novel, The General’s Daughter, was made into a major motion picture starring John Travolta and Madeleine Stowe, and two others have been made into TV series starring Don Johnson and Aidan Quinn.
Nelson DeMille is a combat-decorated US Army veteran. He lives in Long Island with his family. Nelson DeMille, it’s really an honor. Welcome to the show.
Nelson DeMille: Thank you, Steve.
Steve Pomeranz: Before we get started, I just want to tell you a quick story about my own personal introduction to your books. My daughter is currently 28. She’s healthy and everything is wonderful. But back a while ago when she was five years old, she contracted a disease and she spent about two years in the hospital, in and out of different hospitals and the like. And I remember asking a friend, “Hey, I need a book. Can you recommend something?” (It was early on in her treatment.) And he gave me your book, and I want to publicly thank you for helping me through those challenging times. I’ve read them all.
Nelson DeMille: Well, thank you. We can all get lost in books, that’s the magic of books.
Steve Pomeranz: It sure is. Hey, I want to talk about your latest book, The Cuban Affair. But before we do, I want to talk about the publishing industry and the business side of being an author. Your very first book was The Sniper in 1974. That was your first published book. Did you start out writing as a sideline or was it a serious effort right off the bat?
Nelson DeMille: Well, that’s a good question. It was kind of a sideline. Those early books—and we like to forget about them—were all kind of paperback originals. And I think they sold for $1.25 in those days. And I did not quit the day job; I was not making any money with these.
But in 1978, I got a break. That’s due to a man named Bernie Guise, who had published Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of The Dolls. And he had published some early William Peter Blatty books before The Exorcist. And he was kind of a mentor to young authors, and I was young then. And they gave me a fantastic advance of maybe $30,000, which was a lot of money in the 1970s. And he had an idea for a book called, By the Rivers of Babylon, and that was my first hardcover. And that was the Book of the Month Club main selection, a Reader’s Digest book, and sold in foreign translation rights. So, I went from relative poverty to relative comfort.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I want to find out about that. How did you meet Bernie Geist? How did that come together?
Nelson DeMille: Well, yeah, that’s a good question because I say to writers, aspiring writers, if you want to write, think about moving to New York.
We know that you can do this from Dubuque, and we know that you can do it from any place in the country or in the world. But only because I lived in New York because I know people in the business. I didn’t know many, but one leads to another, to another. And like I say, I was doing this part-time. And somebody just introduced me to Bernie, and it was at a cocktail party thing and going to author events. If you were a painter in the 1920s, you’re going to live in Paris. And I always say to people, if you really want to be a writer, if you’re serious about novels, you need to live in New York because that’s where you’re going to find people who can help you. A lot of this business is personal. It’s a small business, not as big as people think it is. Publishing is kind of collegial; it’s one of the last businesses, I think, that’s not cutthroat. And people are looking to help. And it was a fortuitous break, but it would have happened anyway, one way or the other because I was in that world, as a paperback writer.
Steve Pomeranz: So getting in the world is incredibly important. Now what did he do, did he ask to see your work? Or did he just talk to you about it?
How did he know you had any talent?
Nelson DeMille: Well, that was it. I had done these paperback originals, and somebody I know gave them to him. And he read them and said, this man’s got talent. And he’s wasting his time on paperback originals, and we’re going to make him a star.
Steve Pomeranz: So, it changed your life. 1978, By the Rivers of Babylon, was your first major novel, as you said. And how did your life change?
Nelson DeMille: Well, my life changed by $400,000 actually [LAUGH].
Steve Pomeranz: [LAUGH] Okay, that’s one way.
Nelson DeMille: If the taxes…which were very high in those days…
I did have an agent at that point. But I was still very comfortable. It changed my life. The most important thing is that it allowed me the freedom to quit the day job and to concentrate on writing. I had to do that. That’s why Bernie offered the advance. It was sort of patron of the arts, and I was able to live on that money while I wrote the book.
Steve Pomeranz: Did it change the way you wrote? I mean, you wrote these other six novels, these paperback novels, then you had this hit. And did something crystallize in your mind, “This is a formula that I need to continue?” Or was there any change there?
Nelson DeMille: Well, in the business, they talk about the second book syndrome, which is your first book—and this really was my first book in terms of hardcover and mass distribution—you get self-conscious a little bit. You say, my God, they paid me a fortune for this one. What do I do for my second act? And the second book syndrome is not a good thing. It’s usually the writer becomes self-conscious or writing stuff that gets stilted and he’s trying to be too literary. I just kind of took a deep breath and came up with an idea. The name of the book was Cathedral. It was about the Irish Republican Army taking over St. Patrick’s Cathedral and kidnapping the cardinal on St. Patrick’s Day during the parade, which is this huge event in New York City. It was a great idea, and I approached it as though I was writing my first novel. Best way to avoid the second novel syndrome is to make believe each one is your first, I guess.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, I learned a lot about the inside of a church by reading that book. All of the different sections of the church, the apse and all of that. I didn’t know any of that stuff. So, I do remember that now that you’ve mentioned it. So, you wrote your second book and did you have a main character at that point? Because I know that you’ve used four or more main characters during your career. I have questions about what makes you change a character and the like. But when did you first start to develop your first major character?
Nelson DeMille: Well, all my original books, and you’re familiar with them, they’re all standalone. I never meant to create a character, a continuing series. I read the series, other authors, and they’re good. But this wasn’t me. I wanted to do something different every time. But back in the, I guess it was the early 90s, I wrote a book called Plum Island with a character, John Corey.
Steve Pomeranz: I loved that book.
Nelson DeMille: Thank you, and that was a huge bestseller. And this John Corey character is a very politically incorrect crazy NYPD detective. And it was about to be a standalone. And you read it, and you see that it’s a standalone. But the reader reaction was so incredible, plus it was like 16 weeks on the bestseller list. My agent and my publisher urged me to do a second book, which was not really a sequel per se, but a book that’s going to continue this character. So, there are now seven John Corey books. That’s my main guy who pays the rent for me. But for this one, I didn’t really want to continue with John Corey. I also switched publishers after 35 years. Publisher wanted something new, which I thought was very brave of them because when they signed me on, I thought they were signing me on for John Corey, but actually, they were signing me on for Nelson DeMille. So they said, “We got John Corey. And quite frankly, some of your continuing characters in your other series are getting a little on in years and kind of ready for Social Security. Let’s create a 35-year-old.” I don’t even know a 35-year-old, but I figured, okay, I can do this. So, that’s why I created this guy Mack McCormick for The Cuban Affair, my new book.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I want to talk about The Cuban Affair, but I still have some more questions about the business end of things.
By the way, I’m talking with Nelson DeMille. Nelson is a New York Times bestselling author of 20 novels, 6 of those novels were major motion pictures, TV series have been made out, he’s a real legend.
And you’ve been writing for 43 years now. At what point did you get an agent? A lot of people say, “I need an agent in order to succeed.” Which comes first, do you think?
Nelson DeMille: You do need an agent, there’s no doubt about it. If you don’t have an agent, you have to have a good lawyer who understands.
And there are literary lawyers out there, and you need to prove yourself. When I started, it was an easier business. A lot of writers started with paperback originals. All writers now want to go right to hardcover, and publishers are kind of okay with this. But I entered this business in the ‘70s, when writing paperback originals was okay, an okay thing to do.
You hone your craft. And it was the paperback originals that came to the attention of an agent, who in turn took me to Bernie Guise, who became my mentor. So, you have to get something published with your name on it. And no matter how you do that, there’s a lot of ways to go about it.
Once you’ve published, it’s sort of like you’ve been knighted. Somebody has approved, a publisher has actually put time and effort and wasted a lot of trees and paper to get you between covers. Once you’ve done that once, then you’re, at least, some of the doors open to you. And if you have an agent, you’re certainly golden because the publishers and the editors want to talk to agents. They don’t want to talk to authors.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, yeah.
Nelson DeMille: And I don’t blame them.
Steve Pomeranz: So when you finally get published, you exist.
Nelson DeMille: Exactly, you’re no longer invisible. You’re a real person, right? Exactly.
Steve Pomeranz: So the publishing world has changed dramatically in these last four decades that you’ve been writing. You mentioned what it was like in the early years. Let’s just come right to the present time. We’ve got eBooks, we’ve got self-publishing as a major category. If you were out there today with your first books, tell me what you think it would be like and what you might do with all your current experience in order to succeed.
Nelson DeMille: Yeah, well, that’s something I think about myself. I’ve kind of evolved with the business. I am, more than most authors I know, business savvy. And maybe because I, for a while, was a business major in college before I switched to liberal arts, but I kind of understand how the business works now. And now when you write, no matter how big an author you are—my new publisher, for instance, Simon & Schuster, asked me before we signed on how was my social media.
They want you to bring something to the table. And what you’ve got to bring to the table is not only a fan base but a loyal fan base that follows you on Twitter or Facebook, Instagram, that type of thing. And I had that kind of in place when I went to the new publisher and that was to sweeten the deal. You need to be able to self-promote. In the old days, you’d just turn yourself over to the publisher. They’d send you on a book tour, and everything was in their hands. And now they’re thrilled if you have your own publicist. And I sometimes hire a publicist for myself. So, it’s changed. There’s a lot of competition out there for reader’s time—there’s TV, there’s everything, there’s Internet. So, the market has become more and more fragmented. In the old days, back in the ‘70s, when a book like The Godfather—I always use these three examples—The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Jaws. These books sold like 12, 14, 15 million paperbacks, when paperbacks were big in those days. It was a common cultural experience for the country. Everybody read it. People will read the same book two or three times. But I mean, the book has got a pass-on factor.
So if you say you sold 15 million, maybe 30 million Americans read it. The market is much more fragmented now. And you’re trying to grab a piece of that market. And you want your fan base to be loyal. And so you know you’re in competition, and you’ve got to follow your fan base, but at the same time, don’t try to chase your fans. They’re going to have to chase you. It’s a much more complex arrangement than it had been in the ‘60s and 70s. Then with the rise of the big box bookstores that helped everyone, but now you have Amazon and you can buy books online and you can buy eBooks. So, things have changed. We used to depend on walk-in traffic for the holiday season to sell books. Now it’s Amazon, eBooks, and also Amazon buying them online, physical books online. There are no real seasons anymore. That’s changed a little bit too, so.
Steve Pomeranz: I wonder if you can have a situation where 15 million books are sold. You can have a tremendously successful book, but it’s so fragmented, the industry is so fragmented that I wonder if you could even reach anywhere near that number.
Nelson DeMille: Yeah, very few people do. I mean, Dan Brown did with the Da Vinci Code. And there’ve been a few others, and, of course, you have JK Rowling’s books, the Harry Potter books.
Steve Pomeranz: Of course, of course.
Nelson DeMille: But there are exceptions now. And a lot of the books that are the really huge best sellers are children’s books. That may be a common cultural experience for the kids, but for adults, no, not so much anymore.
Steve Pomeranz: Interesting, you still write your books in longhand, right on legal pads? What’s up with that?
Nelson DeMille: I can’t type. [LAUGH]
Nelson DeMille: I learned how to write with a pencil when I was in the second grade, and it worked.
Steve Pomeranz: I don’t know, how much erasing do you do?
Nelson DeMille: I tried no erasing, only just cross-out, I just-
Steve Pomeranz: Are you drawing arrows? Things like that, moving-
Nelson DeMille: Yes, exactly. I draw arrows and I do cross-outs. I’d make marginal notes, all the things I can’t do on a computer. And I give it to my poor, long-suffering assistant and she inputs them into the computer. And then I can play with it on a computer, but I refuse to type a manuscript from beginning to end.
Steve Pomeranz: Let’s talk about The Cuban Affair. So it obviously takes place in Cuba. You described the main character for a moment there. But you went over to Cuba to research this book and develop it. What did you find there that you didn’t expect to find? And I know I read something where you said you didn’t realize the sense of the place until you actually got back to the States and started writing. Tell us a little bit about that.
Nelson DeMille: Yeah, and I had that kind of same experience in one of my early books that you may have read, The Charm School, which is set in the Soviet Union. I went to the Soviet Union in ‘87 at the time of Chernobyl, at the time of really high tension between the two countries. I grew up in the Cold War era. I read every Cold War book probably known to man, so for fun, not for research. So, I thought I understood the Soviet Union and all. And when I got to Moscow, it just was totally different. And I had the same experience when I went to Havana.
I mean, we all think we know Cuba. It’s been in the news and so close to us physically. I know a lot of Cuban-Americans here in New York, and I also know some in Miami. So, you think, well, I know this place. But once you step into the country, the whole thing changes. And I’d written about a third of the book before I went. I had to go back, and I had the same experience with The Charm School with the Soviet Union. I had to go back and really put the stuff in there that you can only get with boots on the ground. All the armchair research and the Internet research and even interviewing Cuban Americans didn’t give me that kind of sense of place that I found when I stepped into Havana. I stepped off the plane into 90-degree heat in October. And I looked around me and I said, “I don’t know this place at all.” And I think anybody who does that kind of field research will probably say the same thing.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, Nelson DeMille, we are unfortunately out of time. For my listeners, if you want to hear this interview again, and you want to get these and many more informative interviews straight to your inbox, don’t forget to subscribe to our weekly update at Stevepomeranz.com.
We are, of course, as Nelson DeMille is, on Twitter and all of the social media. Come to Stevepomeranz.com to hear this interview again. And actually, we have transcriptions of it and summaries as well. Nelson DeMille, I wish we had another 30 minutes, but I do appreciate you taking the time to tell us about your life. Thank you so much. Good luck with the book.
Nelson DeMille: Thanks, Steve.