There is not much ground that prolific author, editor and teacher Neil Plakcy hasn’t covered in his career. Mysteries with humans, mysteries with dogs, romance, short stories, comedy and even erotica – he’s written them all. I recently sat down with the two-time Lamda Literary Award finalist to talk about the pros and cons of being a hybrid-publishing author, the challenges facing LGBTQ writers and the impact of free e-books on the literary market.
Open Mic: Tell me a little bit about the new book, “Survival is a Dying Art.“
Plakcy: Let me backtrack for just a minute to talk about where my protagonist Angus Green comes from. I wrote a male-male romance set in South Beach, and there was a crime in the background where my protagonist was approached by the FBI. The younger of the two FBI agents was Angus Green, a young cute redhead who is very kind and gentle for an FBI guy. Later on, I was writing a young adult book set in Miami and I needed an FBI agent so I popped him in in a minor supporting role. Angus was hanging around in the back of my mind saying, ‘I’m an interesting character and I’d like my own book.’ Then I was fortunate enough to attend the FBI Citizens Academy, a program the FBI runs at their regional offices all around the country. Then I said it’s time for Angus to actually have that book of his own.
Open Mic: How was the process from there?
Plakcy: It was very interesting. I submitted online to Alibi, which is a mystery imprint of Random House. I got a wonderful three-page, single-spaced rejection letter from the editor telling me what he loved about the book and where he thought the flaws were. So I immediately sat down and wrote another draft addressing all of his questions. I sent it back, but the only address I had was his email from submissions at Alibi. I didn’t hear anything for three months. I finally got somebody who said he had left the company and they were not interested in the book.
One of my critique partners tracked down that editor who had been so kind to me. He had now moved to Diversion Books, an imprint started by a couple of agents out of New York. I wrote immediately to that editor and he ended up giving me a three-book contract. And then along the way he quit and went off to write his own book. I published the second book with Diversion as well, but then they decided they weren’t going to do any more fiction and returned the rights of the first two books and cancelled the contract for book three. So here I was with two books already published in the series and the third one finished. I immediately hired an editor that I had used in the past and I put it out myself [it debuted on September 1st] because I don’t need a publisher at this point. I’ve gotten good reviews and some notice in Publishers Weekly, so now I am perfectly capable of picking the ball up and running with it myself.
Open Mic: The publishing industry has changed a lot over the last 20 years. What is your take on the state of the industry now?
Plakcy: I think the big issue in the publishing world today is discoverability. How does an author get his or her book out there and get people to find it? In the past, agents were the first level of gatekeepers, and they were not going to take you on unless they felt like they could make money from your book. The second level of gatekeeper was the publishers, and they felt the same way. But with the rise of the e-publishing business and small electronic publishers, the cost of entry is much lower.
I have worked with a number of small e-publishers, they might hire a cover artist directly, but the developmental editor, the copy editor and the proofreader are all getting paid out of the royalty stream. Correspondingly, because the publisher has so little money in the game they can aim to more niche markets. You’re interested in a lesbian romance with pirates in outer space? There’s a publisher who will take that book. It will be a fairly small market, but because of the economics the publishers can make money. That said, several of the publishers I have worked with have gone out of business because their infrastructure was a little too heavy or they just felt like it has become so much work for so little reward.
Open Mic: How do all the free books available out there play into that?
Plakcy: I’m not going to complain about all the free books out there because I’ve done promotions where I’ve given away the first in a series hoping that brings in readers to the rest of the series. I pick up a lot of free books myself and if I like something I’ll go on and buy the next book. But so many of the free books are crap. Discerning readers eventually come to realize they don’t want to download a book just because it’s free and then read the first fifty pages and see it isn’t well edited or well written. Things like head-hopping from one character’s point of view to another, the kind of things that a good editor might pick up. So I think we’re in a transition period.
It’s a tough market right now because there’s so much stuff out there for free and the gatekeepers have changed. The gatekeepers are now people like you: bloggers and reviewers. There are a number of highly regarded mystery reviewers out there, and if you can get one of them to give your book a good review people follow them and you can build your audience that way. But to me it’s about discoverability through that vast tsunami of books that are published every year.
Open Mic: With all that, are things better or worse for writers now than they were 10 years ago?
Plakcy: The Authors Guild is doing a survey right now of author salaries, and I was kind of stunned when I looked at how much money I made 10 years ago versus this year. I see the money come into my checking account and my PayPal account and so on, and I’m constantly putting out new books but my income from writing has gone down substantially over the last five or six years. At that point, it was really the debut of some of these small electronic publishers. There were people putting out good books, but not very many of them. So readers were grabbing whatever they could and discovering new authors right and left and buying more and more of those authors.
I think the answer is that things are down now. I was really fortunate in my first self-published book was a cozy mystery with a golden retriever on the cover. Amazon is really good at selling books that are like other books that you have bought. There were not a whole lot of cozy mysteries with dogs at the time. Cats were really the real costars and so when I came out with the first book, “In Dog We Trust,” it started to sell.
Open Mic: So you are a hybrid writer then?
Plakcy: Yes, and at this point I look at what a publisher can bring to the table. I can hire a great editor, I can hire a great cover designer, I can reach out to publicity, I can write guest blogs, I can do this, I can do that. What’s a publisher going to do for me for their 50 percent of the royalties? I went with Diversion because they were a New York publisher and they had the credentials to do printed advance review copies and send them out to the Big Four review publications like Publishers Weekly. I said I’m launching a new series and I really want that credential, I want it to come from a recognized publisher. I thought that would help me launch the series, and had they continued I would have continued with them. But that’s really what somebody’s got to bring to the table for me today. Otherwise I’m just going to self-publish because I’ve got enough of a name that I have a faithful readership, and now people are still discovering me here and there.
Open Mic: What part of the business most authors really don’t understand?
Plakcy: One of the sad things is that authors think “oh I’m going to get a deal with Simon and Schuster or Random House and then they’re going to sell my book for me.” And the truth is no, they’re not going to do anything. There’s a cartoon that’s been circling around on Facebook of the publisher who says we would love to publish your book, do nothing to promote it, and then watch it die within a month. And that’s often what happens. So as the author you need your own mailing list. You need a blog or Facebook presence. You need a way for people to find you. If somebody hears about me somewhere they’re going to want to look at my blog, look at my website, see what it is I publish, see capsule descriptions, to look at the covers. You need to have all that in place.
Open Mic: You also do the “Golden Retriever” mysteries. Did you ever consider having the dog be the voice for the stories, i.e. the way Spencer Quinn (a.k.a. Peter Abrahams) and Garth Stein have done so successfully?
Plakcy: No, because that would be a little too cutesy for me. Spencer Quinn, to his credit, carries it off really well. He has developed Chet as a real character, which I think is a real challenge, but too many of the things that I’ve seen where the dog or the cat narrates are kind of too cute.
Open Mic: There seems to be an overload of books featuring dogs and dog-human relationships right now. Are we maybe oversaturated with that?
Plakcy: It’s interesting because books about individual dogs, like the story of a dog or a person’s relationship with his dog, are really selling. I just finished reading Dave Barry’s new book (Lessons From Lucy), which is lessons he learned from his dog as he gets older, and people like Dean Koontz and other authors from other genres have written a book about them and their dog. So those kinds of books are still selling really well. I don’t think we’ll ever get enough heart-warming stories, so I think there is a lot of room for more dog books.
Open Mic: You write in several genres. What do you consider to be your main specialty?
Plakcy: That’s a really interesting question. In the Honolulu Homicide mysteries I wrote about an openly gay homicide detective, in each book he goes through another step of the coming out process so he’s constantly getting to know himself better to be able to be a more authentic version of himself. That’s the theme that I’ve found going through all the books, whether it’s a mystery or romance or thriller. It’s about growing into the person you need to be and finding your true self.
Open Mic: A friend of mine wrote a book about the challenges faced by women, writers of color and writers in the LGBTQ community. How has your experience been as a writer with LGBTQ themes and characters?
Plakcy: I can speak to that in a couple different ways. Many years ago I went to the Key West Literary Seminar, where they bring in really high level authors and scholars on a particular topic. That years it was “Literature in the Age of AIDS,” and so there were a bunch of different people writing about AIDS from different angles. Quite a number of them were gay males, and the story I learned there was that gay books were primarily published by gay men who had achieved a position of power enough in their publishing firm that they could say I will do these five books that will make money if you let me do this one book that I feel so motivated by. So this particular group had made its way up the ranks and they were responsible for many of the gay books that we saw in bookstores years ago.
When I wrote my first mystery in the Hawaii series I sent it off to a couple of different agents in New York, and I had one agent – who was a lesbian – who loved the book. She sent it off to a half a dozen publishers and they all rejected it for one reason or another, and then she sent it back to me and said that was all the publishers that would even consider this book. In essence, “you’re done with this, go on and write something else.” And I think that really was the state of the publishing industry then – there were a limited number of editors and publishers who would consider that kind of a book. Then years later I met someone from one of those publishers that had rejected me and was told they had just hired someone just to do gay genre books; romance, mystery, horror, science fiction, whatever. I think it is still the rare book that is going to reach a mainstream audience, but there is a market out there. But you still need to be a good writer and you need a good bit of luck too.
Open Mic: My same friend also does erotica, but under a pen name. You don’t use one for any of your genres. Why not?
Plakcy: Number one, I actually think the market for print erotica is drying up because there is so much available online. I started with erotica first and I did indeed publish under a pseudonym first because I was working in construction management then and I was not out and I didn’t want people to connect me with these porn stories, but then gradually now I’ve reclaimed all of them under my own name. My first published book was Mahu which was the gay mystery and I put it out under my name because I wanted to have a book under my name.
Readers are smart enough to say “I really love the golden retriever mysteries, but just because I love him as a writer doesn’t mean I want to go read the sexy bodyguard romances.” By the same token I am getting some crossover. There has also been some real backlash in the last couple years over straight women using male pseudonyms to publish male-male romance and lying to their audience about who they are. I’m not picking a side in that issue. I’m just trying to be authentic in my own life and do everything under my own name.
Open Mic: Which do you start with: plot or characters?
Plakcy: Because I have so many series going I start with characters. What am I going to put my characters through next? Or I wait for the character to start talking to me and saying they want their own book.
Open Mic: Do you outline your books or are you more seat of the pants?
Plakcy: I’m sort of in the middle of there. I tend to work on plot points so I know where the story starts and I know what the first plot point is going to be about a third of the way through. Then as I’m writing I’m hoping desperately that I’ll figure out what the second plot point is and I write myself towards that and then toward the conclusion. I tend to write multiple drafts so what often happens to me is I run out of steam like 150 pages in. I’m just not really sure what’s going to happen next. I haven’t thought it through well enough and I have this other book that I need to go back and revise because I’ve got to get it ready for publication, etc. So I tend to write a draft of something, put it aside, then come back to it three months or six months later and write another draft. If the second draft is good then I’ll send it to my editor, get it back from her, do a third full draft and then let it sit again for a little while and then run through it again for a polish. I’ve always got five or six works in progress.
Open Mic: Do you write every day?
Open Mic: Do you have a daily word or page target?
Plakcy: No, it’s usually a time. I go to Starbucks on my way to work and I try to do at least an hour. Right now I’m on fire with this book because a new character kind of stepped on stage and brought it all together for me, so I’m writing 10 pages a day, which is a lot for me. Often I start out looking over what I wrote the day before. I’ll polish it, I’ll get back into the voice, I’ll write another couple pages, and then maybe I’ll run into a problem with research and need to focus there for a bit.
Open Mic: All writers face rejection. How do you handle it?
Plakcy: I’ve been fortunate the last five or 10 years in that I haven’t experienced a lot of rejection. If somebody rejects you by saying your manuscript isn’t for us, that means I obviously didn’t do my homework or due diligence well enough to submit to a publisher that this was right for that book. In general the rejections I’ve gotten say here’s what we think is wrong or here’s what we think isn’t working. Then I can say okay, I’m just going to go back and make these changes and make it a better book based on the feedback that I’ve gotten.
Open Mic: I like to offer up this imaginary scenario where I can put you together with one of any one of the following three people for a conversation. Which one you would choose and why. The options are Cesar Millan the famous dog trainer, Lady Gaga, and Donald Trump. Of those three who would you pick to spend some time and have a conversation with?
Plakcy: That’s interesting because maybe four or five years ago I might have said Donald Trump. He went to the University of Pennsylvania, as I did. He was a real estate developer and I worked in real estate development and I knew of Donald Trump as long ago as the early 80’s when I was living in Manhattan. But I am going to have to go with Cesar Millan because I’ve seen his show, I’ve read his book, I admire what he does and I would love to get some help on getting my dogs to behave better. Lady Gaga would be a fun person to hang out with, but I’m all about the dogs and if I could meet Cesar Millan he could help me, you know, get these dogs from trying to knock me over when they see another dog they want to play with, and that would be awesome.