10 Questions with Richard Phillips
My guest today is Mr. Richard Phillips, author of an excellent thriller, ONCE DEAD, which came out yesterday. Please scroll down to enjoy his interview, where we talk among others about the RHO AGENDA trilogy, his experience with self-publishing and his switch to traditional publishing.
1. Mr. Phillips, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. ONCE DEAD, your newest novel, came out on August 19. Tell us a bit more about this book.
I am very excited about this first of three Rho Agenda prequel novels. Although there are several subplots that play out over three books, unlike my Rho Agenda trilogy, each of these novels is a complete story in itself.
In ONCE DEAD, readers learn that Jack Gregory revived on a Calcutta death-bed, sharing his mind with a dark entity that has previously inhabited some of history’s most notorious killers. One year later, plagued by terrible compulsions, Jack is no longer the man he once was. As he struggles to regain self-control, Jack reluctantly agrees to help the NSA’s Janet Price as she attempts to prevent a nuclear attack on the United States.
2. Who is Jack Gregory, and how did you come up with his character?
In THE SECOND SHIP, the first novel in my RHO AGENDA trilogy, Jack Gregory enters the story about a quarter of the way through. In that trilogy, he becomes such an important and mysterious character that I was asked to write three prequel novels that reveal how Jack becomes the man we encounter in the RHO AGENDA.
Because of the young age of the three protagonists in THE SECOND SHIP and due to the fact that they had gotten themselves in such bad trouble that it was destined to destroy their ultra-comfortable lives, I needed a character with the toughness and world-experience to help them survive the maelstrom they had unleashed. I created Jack Gregory to fill that need.
Deeply scarred by his near-death experience in Calcutta and plagued by dark desires, Jack struggles to understand what is happening to him. Either his deathbed experience was a hallucination and its lingering side-effects mean he is crazy, or he revived sharing his mind with an alien mind parasite. Jack finds himself amped up, with the same old desires and hates, just much hotter than before. And if he doesn’t get a handle on it, this new adrenaline addiction is going to get him killed for good.
3. How is ONCE DEAD different from other thrillers in the genre?
The primary difference between ONCE DEAD and other thrillers is the conflicted nature of the main character, Jack ‘The Ripper’ Gregory. Prior to this book, he was the same type of character found in most other thrillers. But having been pronounced dead on a Calcutta operating table, he revives a changed man, sharing his mind with an alien entity that amplifies its host’s emotions and stalks his dreams.
What makes a hero? For Jack Gregory it’s a serial killer’s soul.
4. What kind of research did you do for this book?
ONCE DEAD is primarily set in Germany, Austria, Poland, and Khazakhstan. During my years as a U.S. army officer, I lived and travelled extensively in the region and I drew upon that experience, along with web searches, to fill in the details. The most detailed research I had to do for the book was about the Baikonur Cosmodrome. That setting is used throughout the novel and is the principal setting for the climax so I needed to be familiar with the layout of the Baikonur Control Center and launch-pads, as well as the entire Proton Rocket launch procedures and trajectories.
5. What is your greatest satisfaction as a writer? What is your greatest disappointment?
I just want to tell stories that provide readers with entertaining diversions from the worries of day-to-day life. My satisfaction comes from creating the characters that populate these stories and in discovering what they do when confronted with all that the plot and subplots throw at them. Very often they surprise me.
My greatest disappointment occurred several years ago when I was trying to launch my writing career. It’s an old story that I’ll discuss this in more detail in my answer to question 7.
6. Why do you write?
I’ve always had a love for reading and for story-telling. I write for the same reason I was writing before I made a penny. I like telling an exciting story. It’s a lot of work making everything come together but that’s where the satisfaction lies.
7. What are your thoughts on the latest publishing industry developments, mainly the rise of the self-publishing?
I originally self-published the first two novels of my Rho Agenda trilogy, so I will begin with my experiences there. Two years ago, I gave a talk to the Arizona Authors Association about the daunting path independent authors face in trying to bring their work to a broad readership and why I believe self-publishing for the Amazon kindle offers the first significant break from that rat-race.
When I finished writing The Second Ship, my first Rho Agenda Novel, I encountered the typical obstacles independent authors face. You can’t get your books in bookstores, other than a few local stores, without a major traditional publisher. You can’t get a major publisher without an agent with a working relationship with that publisher. When you try to get an agent, your manuscript is buried in tens of thousands of other submissions to that agency. You might get lucky in this process and have a great agent read your work and like it, but most likely you’ll never make it past the electronic trash receptacle.
After beating my head against that wall, I decided to try self-publishing on the kindle, publishing The Second Ship and Immune for the eBook reader. At first, I sold only a few copies per month, but that continued to rise and as it did, something happened that I believe is due to the advantages only publishing for the Amazon Kindle offers authors, a categorization system that helps people find works by new authors. My books began to break into the top 100 bestsellers in a couple of the sub categories under science fiction, specifically the techno-thriller and high-tech sci-fi categories. When that happened, a lot more people started finding my novels and they continued to rise in those best seller lists.
As The Second Ship and Immune broke into the top ten in those sci-fi subcategories, they also broke into the top one hundred best sellers in the larger Science Fiction category for the kindle, followed by an appearance in the top 100 best sellers in Science Fiction on all of Amazon. Once again, this brought a lot of new readers, such that in January of 2011 I found myself with the #1 and #2 bestsellers in the broader Science Fiction and Fantasy category on Amazon.com.
With the draft of my third book in The Rho Agenda trilogy complete in February of 2011, I had a difficult decision to make. Should I continue to utilize the approach that had been so successful or should I try again for an agent with big connections to the publishing industry? There are costs with making that change: I would have to give up control of the publishing schedule, I would have to take a much smaller percentage of royalties than the 70 percent Amazon pays kindle direct publishers like myself, and I would have to pay a percentage of those royalties to my agent. On the plus side, the traditional arrangement offered me much broader distribution channels, a world-class editing staff, some of whom had New York Times bestsellers of their own, and a world-class marketing platform. After weighing my options, I selected the traditional route to have a chance at bringing my novels to a much larger international market and elected to sign on with a well-known literary agency, Janklow & Nesbit, who were now interested in representing me.
Then the waiting game began as my agent pitched the trilogy to multiple publishing houses, reaching agreement in principle with 47 North and then waiting again as the attorneys worked out the fine details of the agreement. This culminated with me signing with 47 North in March 2012, granting them the rights to publish the entire Rho Agenda trilogy in print, eBook, and audiobook formats in the U.S. and internationally. For me, the unique marketing advantages and support that 47North offered were the key factors in my decision to publish with them instead of with a big five publisher and it was the reason I signed a follow-on deal to publish the three Jack Gregory – Rho Agenda prequel novels with 47North. I’ve been very happy with both the relationship and, more importantly, the results that this partnership has produced.
Is there a successful publishing path an independent author can take, other than relying solely on luck? I believe there is. Even though I self-published in multiple eBook formats, publishing for the kindle was by far the most successful. There are reasons why Amazon’s system works far better for independent authors.
#1 Amazon pays its kindle self-published authors a royalty of 70 percent and the author retains all rights to their works!
#2 Amazon has a great system for allowing readers to find your eBooks, a system of categories and subcategories plus the biggest eBook marketplace in the world. You may not be on any Barnes & Noble bookshelves but your work is on the shelf in the biggest bookstore in the world.
#3 It doesn’t cost you anything. Authors just set up a kindle direct publishing account and enter some bank account information to let Amazon make direct deposits and you get paid two months after the month in which the sales occur. You can track all your sales through Amazon’s online reports.
#4 It’s easy. You can follow the online instructions for converting a Word document. Upload it. Then use the available tools to preview how the book looks as an eBook. Set your pricing, publish, and a couple of days later it shows up as available. People worry about making mistakes, but don’t. If you need to update something or change your pricing, you can do that at any time. (NOTE: That doesn’t mean you don’t need to use the best editor you can afford before publication.)
#5 Through the free Kindle App, kindle books are available for almost every mobile or computing device.
If you’ve written a work of fiction or non-fiction, I encourage you to take the plunge and self-publish your work for the Amazon Kindle.
8. What are your favorite pastimes?
Happy to be writing full time, I live in Phoenix with my lovely wife of 33 years, Carol, where we periodically threaten to record a sub-100 round of golf. It has taught me that some threats should be taken more seriously than others.
9. What are your writing habits? Outlines or not?
I have to admit that I am a seat of the pants writer, yes a pantser who loves to look around the next corner and discover what’s there. That said, I do plan out the three act structure of each novel at the beginning of the process. Before I begin to write, I have to know the major plot points, the major turning points, and the climactic events. It isn’t a complete outline but it provides the framework. I also flesh out each of my major characters, their personality types, and the goals and desires that will drive them into conflict.
I always try to learn something at the start of every new writing project. As such, I’ve attended the fabulous Robert McKee’s story seminar multiple times, have stayed at Bob Mayer’s place in Knoxville, Tennessee to participate in his Write on the River seminar, and I’m a big fan of how succinctly K.M. Weiland distills the writing process in her books, STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL and OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL.
Once I’m done with the research and planning phase, I start a spreadsheet that tracks my daily starting words, ending words, words written, and words per day needed to reach my estimated ending word-count. After that, I may write zero words on a given day, but my spreadsheet doesn’t lie when it comes to pointing out the havoc those zero or low word-count days inflict on my schedule.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
I’ve delivered the draft of the second of three books in my Jack Gregory series, BANE’S DOMINION, and it is scheduled for release in January of 2015. In it, the ex-CIA assassin, Jack Gregory, has been hired for a singular mission: to journey to South America and rescue an imprisoned shaman. Beloved by the struggling masses and feared by the ruling elite, shaman Tupac Inti is destined to unite Bolivia’s indigenous people and bring down the corrupt government. But Jack isn’t the only one trying to track down the shaman. For only Tupac knows the location of the immeasurably powerful Sun Staff, and both the National Security Agency and neo-Nazis are hot on his trail…and neither group plans to let him live. Right now I’m working on KILLER ANGEL, the third and final book of the Jack Gregory-Rho Agenda prequels and plan to deliver the draft to my publisher by the start of October.