Monday, August 26, 2013

Coming Back to Life

I always liked to talk books with Tom when he worked at Murder Ink® on the Upper West Side, the best mystery bookstore in the City, Tom the most knowledgeable Mystery Man in the City. Then he went and wrote six well-published Thriller/Mysteries in his spare time. He has another six, he explains, ready to go.

Robert Knightly

This is a story with a moral. It’s the story of a writer, well-known and respected, who fell by the wayside for several years before being granted a surprising reprieve. Once upon a time, he was a bookseller at a famous mystery bookstore, and he wrote six novels in six years that were published to general acclaim. He had many fans and admirers, and even Hollywood came calling, making a film of one of his works and optioning two others. Then, at the height of his popularity, this writer did something peculiar: he stopped. He didn’t stop writing, mind you; he merely stopped publishing. Why he did that, and what happened to turn his fortunes around, are the subjects of the tale.

I happen to know a great deal about it, because the writer in question was I. My last published novel, Scavenger, appeared in 2000, and since then many changes have taken place—in my life and in the publishing industry.

First, my life. You’ve heard of the “one-two punch” that sends a boxer to the canvas? Well, I received five punches in a row, and I was staggered. I worked for two years on a really ambitious thriller to follow Scavenger, but I picked the wrong subject, the then-unknown abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. I knew about it beforehand, from an investigative reporter friend who was working on the story in Connecticut long before it became public knowledge. I handed the manuscript to my agent just as the worldwide headlines arrived. Oops! My prophetic thriller was instantly Yesterday’s News, and no one would touch it. Two years down the drain. (First punch.) I lost my mother in 2003 and my sister a year later (second and third punches), and for a while I wasn’t able to write anything. In 2006, Murder Ink®, the bookstore where I worked for many years, closed its doors forever, so I was suddenly unemployed. (Four.) Then I parted ways with my agent of fifteen years. (Down for the count.)

I spent the next three years sitting around my Greenwich Village apartment in a bathrobe. I continued to write novel after novel, a grand total of four, but I didn’t show them to anyone. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself.

Then something wonderful happened. S. J. Rozan, my writer friend who lives near me, yanked me out of my house one day and dragged me, kicking and screaming, to a meeting of her writing group. I’d always sworn to eschew any sort of reading/commenting group situation, so this was the last thing I needed--or so I thought. But once I got there and saw how these people worked, how they helped and encouraged one another, I was hooked. I liked their company, but if I wanted to join them, I’d have to bring samples of my own work-in-progress. So I started writing in earnest again, and soon I was writing a new novel, A Penny For The Hangman. We met every two weeks, and I got involved in their work as well as my own. Next thing you know, I had a completed manuscript, and the group told me that it was time for me to go out and find a new agent.

I was lucky; I found one immediately. She knew my work and liked A Penny For The Hangman, so she took me on and began sending it around. But I’d been away for a long time, and I was unaware of the dramatic changes in our industry. Everyone I ever worked with was gone, and the new, young editors at the reconfigured publishing houses (now known as the “Big Six”) had never heard of me. Fact: A writer in his fifties who hasn’t published in years is actually in a worse position than a new kid starting out with a clean slate. Who knew?

The manuscript made the rounds for two years and racked up an impressive number of rejections from editors who obviously didn’t even look at it. And why should they? It isn’t just the industry that’s different—the really seismic change of the last decade is in the book-buying public. My thriller doesn’t have teenage vampires or shape shifters or ultra-right-wing Special Ops agents, and there isn’t a single “shade of grey” in sight, let alone fifty. What on earth was I thinking?!! I was out of step with the new reality, and I was beginning to despair, bracing myself to slink off to the sidelines once more.

Then, a few weeks ago, my agent informed me that Alibi, a new Random House line of electronic-only books, was interested in acquiring the rights. Somebody actually wanted it! But I soon learned that these “e-book only” imprints have come under a lot of fire, and with good reason. For starters, there’s no book—merely a concatenation of electronic impulses that you download to a reading device. How the hell do you bind that in Moroccan leather or autograph it in bookstores? And while they offered national advertising and the cachet of a major house, they also offered co-op contracts(!) and no advances(!!). I would never agree to those terms, so where did I fit into this?

Did I mention my new agent? And my writer friends? These two life-saving entities came to my rescue. My agent went to work, hammering out a “classic” deal with Random House, and my writer friends encouraged me to take a chance, to step out into the void where no writer has gone before. E-books are uncharted territory, they told me, the new frontier in publishing, and somebody has to be Neil Armstrong! And while you’re at it, they added, start a website (I did) and a blog (ditto) and bring back all your out-of-print titles as ebooks (double ditto). Thanks to them, I’m published again, and it feels like I’m coming back to life. Which is exactly what I’m doing.

The moral of the story: Writers need one another, and we need agents. We’re entering a brave new world of publishing, and—thanks to my agent and my writer friends—I’m in the first launch. I don’t know what I’m about to discover, but the view from here is lovely.

If you’re in my predicament, learn from my experience. Take chances. Get out of the bathrobe, get out of the house. Join a writing group. Find a good agent. And always be willing to help your fellow writers, because they’re always willing to help you.

Tom Savage

Tom Savage is the author of four suspense novels: Precipice, Valentine, The Inheritance, and Scavenger. He also wrote two detective novels under the name T. J. Phillips, Dance of the Mongoose and Woman in the Dark. His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and anthologies edited by Lawrence Block, Harlan Coben, and Michael Connelly. His bestselling novel, Valentine, was made into a Warner Bros. film. Raised in the Virgin Islands, he lives in New York City, where he worked for many years at Murder Ink, the world’s first mystery bookstore. His new novel, A Penny For The Hangman, will be published by Random House Alibi in 2014.


  1. Wonderful news, Tom ! You were also such a great asset to our planning group of the Mentor Committee at MWA-NY a few years back... Hope to see your name on the NYT Bestseller List soon! Thelma

  2. I loved "The Inheritance" and pressed it on people I thought were smart enough to get the joke. You are a clever devil. I wish you all the best with your career.

  3. Tom, welcome to Crime Writer's Chronicle and back to the world of mystery writers. A writer friend told me decades ago that I needed to hang around with working writers. He introduced me to MWA. There I met the same Robert Knightly who presented you to us today. Bob and I started a writing group. He introduced me to my first agent--the one who broke me into print. We both had our first novels published in 2009 and appeared together on many lists of writers with first novels. Writing buddies are essential! We are glad to have you as one of ours.

  4. Thank you, ladies. I love your site! I was originally just going to guest-blog about the new e-lines at the big publishing houses, but seeing your setup here inspired me to talk about how a gang of writer friends helped to get me back in business. I really like the fact that 6 of you banded together in this; that is really cool. Thanks for having me over!