An Interview with Robert Dugoni, author of “My Sister’s Grave.”
If you’ve haven’t heard of My Sister’s Grave, you haven’t been paying attention to the fiction world in a while. The book was a recent top-1o New York Times Bestseller, currently the #1 legal thriller on Amazon, has (as of this writing) 6,437 reviews on Amazon, and is basically all over the place – bookstore windows and shelves, Amazon mailers, in people’s laps at Starbucks..
This is as big as it gets, from an author who has been there before. And it isn’t Robert Dugoni’s first visit to the NY Times bestseller list, either, though his enthusiasm and humble joy (as seen on his Facebook page) is as infectious as a first-timer.
I was fortunate to make his acquaintance last year, when a mutual friend suggested I reach out for a blurb for my new novel, “Deadly Faux.” He read the book – like many at that level, he doesn’t blurb just anything, he has to really love it – and it turned out well for me. He did love it, and his blurb is a shining endorsement that I treasure.
I invited Bob to do this interview, and he didn’t hesitate. He’s a class act, in addition to being a wise and accomplished author with lots to share with us.
LB: Let’s start with the explosive breakout success of your latest novel, “My Sister’s Grave.” All of your books have been well reviewed and have achieved commercial success… so how do you explain this particular book? What’s different about it, if anything, and was that a strategic decision on your part, or an escalation in craft? Or was it, as much as anything (because you were a stellar novelist before, and it’s hard to take “stellar” to an even higher qualitative level) market timing or some escalation of your publisher’s promotion or distribution effort?
RD: I think it was a combination of things. As a writer, you’re always trying to get better and I do believe I am a better writer than I was when I wrote The Jury Master. I also deliberately moved away from a straight legal thriller to a police procedural, which has a wider audience in the mystery/thriller genre.
Second, the subject matter of My Sister’s Grave seems to have touched an emotional place in many people. I receive at least one email a day from someone who is a relative of a victim of violent crime. The relationship between the two sisters, in particular, is powerful to many people who have read the book.
Third, my publisher, Thomas & Mercer, has done an outstanding job getting this book into as many readers’ hands as possible. Even three months out they continue to find ways to promote the book and get it into new stores. The more people who’ve read it, the more they’ve talked about it. The more they talk about it, the more others read it. This was truly a partnership and for that I am very grateful.
LB: Some cynics say – and I’ve said this myself – that some bestsellers are ordained as much as they earn the tag. Which means, sometimes an author’s earlier work is every bit as good as the book that suddenly makes them a Very Big Deal. Do you agree, or am I (having achieved critical success but nothing close to this) simply a cynic after all?
RD: I agree that there are a lot of talented writers out there writing very good books who aren’t being promoted enough, or correctly, and so are not being read widely. I say all the time that best seller doesn’t necessarily mean best written. Sometimes a book just touches people and the word of mouth spreads. Sometimes the publisher promotes the heck out of a good book and sales become great. With the success of My Sister’s Grave, a whole new audience has found my earlier novels and readers are really enjoying them. They’re the same books I wrote years ago, but now they’re being more widely read. A third factor is pricing. In this day and age, a book price can be the difference between 500 people reading it and 500,000. I’ve learned that there are many people on fixed incomes who love to read 10 books a week and can’t afford to pay even $7.99 for a paperback, so they’re selective.
LB: Dennis Lehane (an example of the above) attributes the ignition of Mystic River to a killer review in People Magazine, among other venues. What is the role of reviews in the bestseller phenomenon, and did reviews have a role in yours?
RD: I definitely think that reviews in a major publication can do wonders for a book. The Jury Master took off after a killer review in the Seattle Times and then Parade Magazine. But honestly, after 9 novels and a non-fiction book, I’m convinced it is word of mouth. When readers start talking about your book they sell it for you in a way that no advertisement or review could.
LB: Were you surprised by the breakout success of MSG, and when/how did you know it was in full swing?
RD: I honestly believed I’d written a strong novel. I knew the relationship between the sisters would be powerful, but no, I didn’t expect this type of runaway success. I don’t think anyone really can. I was amazed when we hit 1,000 reviews and I’m amazed we’ve hit 6,000. The moment I knew things were really happening was when I realized that 95% of the reviews on all the review sites were 4 and 5 stars. I knew that meant there were a lot of people who were going to turn to family and friends and say, “You should read this book.”
LB: You released a short story (The Academy) two months before the November ’14 release of My Sisters’s Grave, and then a non-fiction biography (The Cyanide Canary, with Joseph Hilldorfer) a month after, as well as a couple of other titles (which I assume were republished titles). Was the timing of these releases a strategy tactic relative to the latter?
RD: I have a terrific agent and she was able to secure the rights back to two novels, Murder One and The Conviction and the non-fiction book, The Cyanide Canary. We were aware of the significant promotional campaign T&M planned for My Sister’s Grave and made the business decision to re-release those books at the same time hoping people who liked My Sister’s Grave would want to read them. The Academy was originally going to be part of a novel, but my agent liked it so much she thought it might be strong as a short story. I didn’t want to charge readers for a short story. Readers have been very loyal to me and my intent was to give away The Academy for free. It was not intended as a gimmick to get people to buy My Sister’s Grave. You don’t have to read it to understand My Sister’s Grave. They are separate and complete stories.
LB: You aren’t new to the NY Times bestseller list… how is the experience this time around compared to the first?
RD: This time was a surprise to everyone. The NY Times has been reluctant, as I understand it, to include Amazon sales. So this meant the book was selling widely. The other anomaly was that the book came out in November but hit the list in February. That meant that it started to really take off, people were talking about it. For an author that was incredibly satisfying and pleasing. We popped the cork on a bottle of champagne at the house to celebrate that first Friday when we got the news and the next two weeks weren’t bad either.
LB: How does a “republishing” event even happen? For me, rights to my first four novels were returned to me (after eight years) by Penguin-Putnam, and my agent landed a deal at Turner Publishing to republish them as trade paperbacks. What was your experience and path toward your new/current publisher?
RD: When we got the rights back to my three books, Thomas & Mercer was terrific about guiding us on how best to get them out to the public. We decided to republish them myself through the Kindle Direct Program. My agent has an agent in her office who is a whiz at this stuff, and she worked quickly to get the books re-packaged and up on the kindle site with strong placement. The sales have been incredibly strong and that has really been special to me to know so many more readers are reading those novels.
LB: You are publishing with Thomas and Mercer, an Amazon company that also releases in traditional bookstores. T&M is widely held as a response to new digital markets, and they’re taking on name authors (like you) who were previously published by so-called “Big 5” houses. How did you end up there, and what’s the experience like compared to the old days?
RD: When my agent was shopping My Sister’s Grave, Thomas & Mercer invited me to lunch. Frankly, they blew me away. The energy at the table was incredible. They had a game plan already in place on how to sell not only My Sister’s Grave, but also a game plan for sequels and thoughts on how to sell my backlist. I found them to be incredibly smart and pro-active.
I had good experiences with my other publishers. I’ve met some terrific people. If anything, I think Thomas & Mercer is more involved and always looking for a way to keep selling my book, even months after publication. The promotions are incredible. I just learned my book will be in 600 Sam’s Stores and 1500 Wall Mart’s starting in March. Another marketing campaign is going to start in April. The book will be released in Germany in April and in Italy later in the year. They work hard to make a book successful. The editing process is also intense. We work together back in forth over a month to get a completed manuscript. Finally, the author team never fails to make sure everything is going well, that I’m happy with how things are progressing. They seek my input on titles and covers and when we hit sales benchmarks they’re quick to congratulate me with a gift. Feels like a home, frankly.
LB: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? And – I gotta ask – the worst?
RD: The best writing advice I’ve received is writer’s write. It’s a job and you have to take it seriously. There are a lot of reasons not to write. You have to find the reasons to sit in a chair on a beautiful day and go to work.
More and more I think the worst advice is “show don’t tell”. I know this will be controversial, but the problem is people don’t understand what that means. It is impossible not to tell in a 400 page novel. Of course you have to do some telling. The show relates to the essence of the character. I see so many writers stringing out long metaphors and similes because they don’t believe they can simply say, “He was six feet tall.” All that does is cause an excess of words and strained descriptions.
LB: You were kind enough to provide a blurb for my recent novel, Deadly Faux. Bestselling authors don’t do this lightly, they have to really like a book before putting their name on it… which is why I was/am so excited to have your very enthusiastic endorsement. How many blurb requests do you get, and what gets your attention to spend the time, which is significant? What do you do in the sad event that you don’t really like the book?
RD: I loved Deadly Faux. That was an easy blurb for me because the protagonist was engaging and the plot was intricate and the writing was superb. It was my kind of novel.
I get asked to blurb quite a bit now. The problem is I just don’t have enough time to do them all. I won’t blurb a book unless I’ve read it all the way through. It’s important that I’m honest. I have had to say no a couple of times. I just explain to the writer that not every book is for every reader. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a good book, it just wasn’t right for me. I had one guy not take it very well. Even though I’d blurbed his prior book favorably, and he used it in marketing, he decided to go on Goodreads and “get even” by giving me two stars for My Sister’s Grave. I had a good laugh about it. No good deed goes unpunished, right?
LB: You have a new novel releasing in September, a sequel to My Sister’s Closet (thus, establishing The Tracy Crosswhite series), entitled, Her Last Breath. Based on that timing, it appears this was the plan all along, correct? Or was the new book rushed into the schedule based on the success of Sister’s?
RD: I knew I wanted to do at least three books in the Crosswhite series and Thomas & Mercer was open to that. Now that MSG has done so well, there might be more. I won’t rush a book. I write fast, but I am a really slow editor. I’m by no means a wordsmith and I’ll never win a Pulitzer for my writing. I have to really work hard at it and work hard at the editing so I don’t make embarrassing mistakes.
LB: Any parting shots for writers who want a piece of this kind of action (including the well over 6000 Amazon reviews you’ve scored for MSG as of this writing)?
RD: Write what you’re passionate about and write to your theme. If you’re book is about obsession then make sure you’re hitting it at the climax and at the resolution. When I wrote My Sister’s Grave I very much kept in mind what a homicide detective told me. “We can help a family find justice. We can’t help them find closure. People have to find that on their own. Some never do.” Powerful stuff. It was in my mind the entire time I wrote My Sister’s Grave.
Many thanks to Robert Dugoni for joining us here. Check out My Sister’s Grave, you’ll have a great read and you’ll learn a lot about what craft looks like in the hands of a real pro.
Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed and New York Times–bestselling author of the David Sloane series: The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction. Murder One was a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for literary excellence.
Dugoni is also the author of the bestselling standalone novel Damage Control, and his nonfiction exposé, The Cyanide Canary, was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year selection. Dugoni’s books have been likened to Scott Turow and Nelson DeMille, and he has been hailed as “the undisputed king of the legal thriller” by The Providence Journal.
Visit his website at www.robertdugoni.com, and follow him on Twitter @robertdugoni and at www.facebook.com/AuthorRobertDugoni.