This was my third Thrillerfest and as in previous years, I was amongst my tribe!
I also heard several other authors say the same thing, “I couldn’t find my people anywhere else, but here, I feel at home.” Here are some of my highlights from this year and you can also check out my 2012 and 2014 articles for past event tips.
Writers are weird, that’s true of any genre.
But ITW and ThrillerFest are my kind of weird – authors who talk about body count, weaponry, explosions, sex and the supernatural alongside the business of selling multi-millions of books.
If you check #thrillerfest15 on Twitter, you’ll find a whole load of pics and tweets from the event. I also did a reader focused post for #BritCrime with some author tidbits, but here are some of the things that have stood out for me as an author in the last few days.
One of the reasons I come to ThrillerFest is to learn from authors who have been writing for decades, many of them since before I was born. I am on the bottom rung of the writer’s journey (or maybe the second rung!) and at ThrillerFest I learn from those who remember the early days of this path and are now some of the biggest names in the book world.
I’m also ambitious and ambition is something that many authors, especially in the UK, shy away from as something unacceptable for artists.
But at ThrillerFest every year, I meet authors who are unafraid to state massive ambition, both in artistic and financial terms.
On this trip I met Clive Cussler, whose Dirk Pitt character was definitely an influence on my own Morgan Sierra in the ARKANE series. Clive was asked why he co-writes and he said, “Because the money is so good, and if [James] Patterson can do it, so can I.” I love the honesty of that from a writer who has blazed the action adventure trail, but also still appreciates cash!
“Think big.” Blake Crouch
I’ve read Blake Crouch’s indie horror novels and he has co-written with JA Konrath so is well known in indie circles. But when my Dad recommended the Wayward Pines books to me last year, I knew Blake had gone mainstream.
The books are amazing and have recently been adapted into a TV show. Blake spoke of his 10 year journey through different forms of publishing and about how thinking bigger changed his writing career.
He suggested writing stories and characters that resonate across large audiences if you want to have a big hit, rather than writing in a tiny, dark niche like horror. Write what you love, for sure, but consider going wider if you want a massive hit.
“I discovered an ambitious streak.” Charlaine Harris
Charlaine is absolutely charming and funny, the kind of woman that you want to hang out with just to hear her laugh. In an interview with Karin Slaughter, she explained that she had been midlist for years and then with her first Sookie Stackhouse book, she discovered an ambitious streak.
It was wonderful to hear those words from such a gentlewoman, in the Southern sense of the word. She made her agent persist with submissions even after so many rejections, and the Sookie books went on to sell multi-millions of copies and become the beloved TV show, True Blood.
“I’m the CEO of a multi-million dollar publishing company … I have a business plan and I make a new one every year.” Lilliana Hart.
I heard Liliana speak at London Book Fair 2014 and she’s definitely one of the indie authors and business women I admire most.
She’s also ambitious and as well as her expanding number of books, she has recently announced SilverHart Author Resources and SWAT Academy, for authors who want to learn more about law enforcement, as well as SilverHart Publishing. Created by Liliana and her husband, the lovely Chief of Police Scott Silverii, you can find out more here.
Liliana also mentioned that iBooks is the largest market for her books, and she’ll be coming on the podcast to talk about that later this year.
Writing and publishing tidbits
I went to lots of panels and heard lots of authors speak. Here are some of the lines that stood out.
“The story is what hooks the reader, not the beauty of the writing. Become a better storyteller.” Lilliana Hart.
“I’m a factory.” RL Stine on writing 2000 words every day. Stine has sold over 400 million books! He also writes extensive outlines of every book so an editor will approve them before writing.
“I’m an entertainer. The reader has to get their money’s worth.” Clive Cussler.
David Morrell (First Blood/Rambo, Inspector of the Dead) writes 5 pages a day. He talked about how self doubt still plagues him on every book after more than 40 years writing.
Sandra Brown writes for 4-5 hours per day and goes to a separate office away from her house.
Peter James and Greg Iles talked about how covers rejected by bigger name authors get handed down to the lesser known. It’s common in the publishing industry (and not something I had heard before!)
“It’s the small connections on the journey that validate our dreams.” Greg Iles talks about getting a fan letter from Stephen King, surely every thriller authors fantasy!
“Authors employ publishers, they exist to serve readers and authors.” Greg Iles
“Care about getting 70% royalty, not about hitting a list.” Lilliana Hart
On the importance of one liners/taglines for breakout success.
Mark Billingham credits the strapline for his first book, Sleepyhead, as the thing that helped him break out. He doesn’t want you alive. He doesn’t want you dead. He wants you somewhere in between.
Simon Toyne was also signing advance copies of his next book and said the same thing. His tagline for Solomon Creed is “His past is unknown. His future unwritten.”
I also heard this same advice at Frankfurt Book Fair last year from A.G.Riddle whose book Departure was also on show at ThrillerFest. Riddle has sold over 1m books as an indie and now has a load of book deals so I take his advice seriously!
Departure has also been optioned for a movie deal and can be explained by “A plane takes off and lands in the future.” I’m going to dig deeper into taglines so expect a podcast on how to craft one soon!
On being indie at a pro writer convention
ITW is one of the few writer’s organisations that judges authors on the quality of their writing and their sales figures, rather than who publishes them.
I’m a Member of ITW as a professional indie author and they are open to submissions from others who professionally self-publish too. Check the application process here if you write thrillers (the definition of which is pretty inclusive!).
I’ve never felt judged by members of ITW at ThrillerFest for the way I choose to publish. In fact, I met a lot of people this year who listen to my podcast and who read this blog, as well as authors who are indie or hybrid.
I was also on a panel about gender in thrillers alongside traditionally published authors and moderated by Heather Graham, author of over 150 novels which have sold over 75 million copies, who will be the ThrillerMaster in 2016. To be on the program alongside such an amazing author shows true egalitarianism in the organization!
To further illustrate the equality of ITW, CJ Lyons won the Best eBook Original Award for Hard Fall, a Lucy Guardino FBI thriller, which she self-published, although she also has books with large publishers so she’s definitely a hybrid author. The fact that it was self-published wasn’t mentioned. Layton Green was also nominated for his indie book, The Metaxy Project.
Indie superstar Liliana Hart was on a panel about sex in thrillers alongside Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood), Lee Child (Jack Reacher) and other traditionally published authors and again, the way she publishes was not mentioned. It really doesn’t matter here.
But there was a specific indie panel and the room was packed.
Jon Land, who is now a hybrid author himself, moderated a great discussion during CareerFest, demonstrating that the indie option is now considered a valid choice for authors.
Lilliana Hart talked about how many people told her it would be the kiss of death to self-publish a few years ago. Now she’s sold over 3 million books without a publisher, she has proved them wrong, but it has been difficult along the way. There will always be levels of snobbery about indies, but also about romantic suspense books. In fact, there’s snobbery about any kind of genre fiction amongst the literary community, so it’s something every author faces at some level.
“Write consistently good books and you will make it.” Lilliana Hart
Dan Slater from Amazon KDP has a calm manner which is always wonderful to watch on these panels. He’s often goaded but never cracks and is always professional.
He explained that from the Amazon perspective, they know that readers buy books based on the author name and not the publisher, so building your own author brand and following is the critical thing, however you are published.
When asked about the Amazon review policy change as well as the KDP Select payment per page, Dan said that there will always be more change and authors themselves are driving much of the innovation.
“The worst thing for you to do is stagnate. Keep innovating!” Dan Slater, Amazon KDP
“It’s about you and the readers. No one else matters. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.” Liliana Hart
It’s been amazing as ever, but I’ve also had a conflicting time at ThrillerFest this year. On the one hand, Liliana Hart represents what I want to achieve as an indie in terms of success in pleasing readers and in growing a multi-million dollar business on her own terms.
But author of the Sanctus trilogy, Simon Toyne, and I also spent a lot of time recording big name authors sharing their journey and their tips for success for an ITW promo video (which I will share when it's available!)
When I listened to David Morrell, Steve Berry and Karin Slaughter talk about their journey, when I heard Mark Billingham and Lee Child talk about film and TV deals, when I met Clive Cussler – I was reminded of the opportunities of the traditional publishing industry and my teenage-fangirl-reader-self wanted to be part of it again.
I also got my first email from a reader asking when the hard cover versions of my books will be available and at the moment, hard covers are not something I am considering for my self-published books.
What’s fantastic about ITW is that both indie and traditional options are valid, and they’re not mutually exclusive anymore.
I’ll continue to build my indie career, but I’m also pitching my agent with some ideas for a new series in the next month or so.
I feel incredibly lucky to be an author at this fantastic time when the internet gives us so many options. And I’ll be back at ThrillerFest in New York next year to learn some more. Perhaps I’ll see you there!
Karen Inglis says
Inspiring post, Jo, whatever one’s own genre! (The tagline thing is so true/ interesting.)
And fantastic that this festival is clearly so agnostic regards traditional/indie….
Joanna Penn says
Onwards indeed Karen – the years pass and we’re still here 🙂
Jaye Rothman says
I attended Thrillerfest for the first time. As a novice thriller espionage author I found the author panels interesting and informative. However, I found established authors unhelpful and only interested in promoting their own books. When I attempted to give a business card and asked if they would like a copy of my book to read, I was informed ” I’m too busy” or “I get asked all the time.”
I understand that there’s a lot of competition out there, but a little kindness doesn’t hurt anyone.
Joanna Penn says
I would respectfully give you some advice if that’s OK.
Nobody wants another book to read – everyone is inundated with books to read – books their editors want them to blurb as well as reading for pleasure. I would also refuse a book and frequently do.
Offering people books is not the way to make friends at Thrillerfest (or any convention) and that’s really the point. Making friends and making connections. I play a little game – how long can I go WITHOUT mentioning my book. When I talk to people, I ask about THEIR books or talk about the panel we were just in, or ask where they live and make conversation and find common ground. If it’s a big name author, I buy one of their books, get an autograph and get a pic with them and put it on social media. Next year I do the same, until they start recognizing me as a fan and a regular, someone who is supportive and useful. I’ve spent hours with authors helping them with marketing – and only later have asked for them to possibly look at my book. But it’s always after becoming more than a casual acquaintance. Yes, this can take years – but that’s OK, because I’m in this for the long term and I love to be useful.
I hope that is helpful for you – it’s critical for networking – always focus on THEM, not you. All the best.
Fantastic advice, Joanna! Thanks so much for sharing. I’m so happy Jaye brought up this question. This is a topic I’ve never thought much about – I don’t attend conferences (yet).
Great to hear that building relationships with authors ahead of us on the curve is a years-long marathon, not a sprint. Knowing how you’ve approached this is really inspiring and informative. Thanks!!
Joanna Penn says
Glad you found it useful Alexandra 🙂 I think relationship building of any kind takes times. Luckily we’re in this for the long haul!
Sarah Hindmarsh says
I find the best thing to do other than focusing on another author’s books is to find something else that constitutes common ground. For example I recently scored an interview for my blog with Bali Rai, who is a multi-award winning children’s author, by tapping in to our shared passion for encouraging children to read and write. He gave me a lot of his time and some very thoughtful answers because I offered to help promote something he is passionate about. His books got a short plug as well but the majority of the post was about encouraging children from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds to read. Hopefully we will now also keep in touch on this topic.
Natalie K. says
Looks like you had fun, Joanna. I really want to go someday—maybe we’ll see each other there in a couple of years! 😀
Jen Talty says
So sad that I missed meeting you in person! I was there for just Friday. Bob and I will be there next year!
Cyd Madsen says
It’s lovely to see you had such a good time at ThrillerFest and connected with your tribe. But it does seem as if you’ve run into the same kick in the head I’ve been dealing with lately. After accomplishing more than I ever expected with my writing, I’m able to see other goals and wants that have been laying in wait, and they’re not likely to come from indie publishing. To have written such a complex, compelling, and seemingly organically unique character like Inspector Morse, as Colin Dexter has, and not only have my books sold to film and TV, but to draw an actor of John Thaw’s stature to play the part…wow. And to have that character live on in spin-off series, to me that is the ultimate act of creation. It’s what drives me now, and I don’t think there are any maps on how to do it. The mindset of you’ve either got that ability or you don’t takes over. It’s quite a crossroads, isn’t it? Off to watch Endeavor Morse yet again and pout 🙂 Thanks for sharing your adventures.
Joanna Penn says
I think we’ve clearly seen that the hybrid option is definitely the way to go for some projects. I agree with Orna Ross and the Alliance of Independent Authors that ‘indie’ is a mindset, more about how you see your writing career as being in your control, about being the CEO of your writing business. And if it is better to get a traditional deal for some projects, then not a problem 🙂 It’s certainly something I’m aiming for at some point, but I’m very happy doing things the way I am right now. All the best for your new project 🙂
Valerie Willman says
I love conferences. I go to two a year. One in the Spring and one in the Summer. I love the networking and despite not liking the talking to strangers part (and the small talk–Yuck!), I always leave charged and inspired for months to come. I’m glad you enjoyed yourself. 🙂
Tom LaCosta says
Great post. I have been dabbling with Thrillers lately, reading more of them and outlining several. This post was really inspirational. Maybe I’ll see you at the next ThrillerFest?
Joanna Penn says
I’ll be there 🙂
Jaye Rothman says
Thanks very much for your advice. Now I understand the etiquette of author conferences. Because of the cost and the travelling involved, ( I live in New Zealand), Thrillerfest was a one off for me. I’ve been going through all the notes I took, and some fantastic advice was given. I know I must write more books, at least another 4, write everyday, and never give up. I was pleased to see that Amazon are getting behind you with your new book. Best of luck. I hope you sell thousands..
M. Talmage Moorehead says
Great post! Thank you. And thanks for being so open, insightful and optimistic. Your broad perspective helps me a great deal, and after listening to an interview you gave (to Chandler Bolt), I can see that you are honest and trustworthy, as well as inspirational. Over the years I’ve discovered that it’s quite rare to find someone on the internet who is both a successful expert and an honest person. This was especially true in the field of trading financial markets, a hobby I gave up years ago. Fortunately, I’ve found that people drawn to writing fiction often value integrity and enjoy helping others. I look forward to learning more from you.
Tiffany Sunday says
Thank you for sharing the lessons you learned at the conference and how the lines between being an indie author and traditional author continue to blur. The information is invaluable to newbie authors, like myself. I learn something new every time I read your blog or listen to your podcast!
William Cook says
Hi Joanne – great post as usual with lots of interesting tidbits to feast on 🙂 Quick question – you mentioned joining the ITW as a Professional member – how do you get approval to join as an indie if you aren’t published with a commercial publishing house? Are you an Associate or an Active member? I’d love to join but as I’m primarily indie now and not published anymore by a commercial publishing house (for my thriller title/s) :/
Joanna Penn says
Hi William, I am a full Member and applied with all my sales evidence. If you demonstrate that you’re a professional author with demonstrated sales, they will let you in as a Member 🙂
Francois Houle says
Your journey is so inspiring and thank you for sharing it. I’m a thriller fan but not a thriller writer (I just couldn’t write such a story). I’m what I consider Mainstream fiction (Jodi Picoult, Lisa Genova, Richard Paul Evans are some authors that I see in that category, authors who write dramatic character-based stories) and as far as I know, there aren’t any conferences or groups for us. I find it funny that Mainstream is never mentioned as a genre (I don’t see myself fitting in Literary Fiction but on Amazon, Kobo, Smashword I had to list my novel in that section but don’t feel it’s quite right). The conferences you attend seem like a lot of fun with plenty of learning opportunities. I wish you continued success.