Publish or Perish the Thought…

February 18th, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

Recently here, I’ve bemoaned the perils of having three books published almost simultaneously by three different publishers. Some of you might be thinking, “Oh boo hoo hoo – poor him, having all that success.”

That’s an understandable reaction. But this imperfect storm really does present me with a shaky future (as if my impending 72nd birthday didn’t make my future shaky enough). The threat is that one, or even all three, may under-perform.

Aside from this, I have noted some troubling things going on in the publishing of fiction (non-fiction, too, but my emphasis is chiefly fiction of course) that have already had a negative impact on many writers. Till now, I’ve been lucky. For a non-household name in the pop fiction field, I have had a long run. Many writers, touted as the next big thing, have fallen by the wayside while I traversed the road to Perdition with Quarry, Nate Heller, Ms. Tree, the Borne girls, and a good number of others.

Barb and I have always done a certain amount of promo ourselves. Most publishers have traditionally had a PR staff (or at least a staffer) who we could call upon for support. We assembled a list of reviewers over the years (a once proud thirty or so, now dwindled to a dozen, with the passing of so many print venues) that could be shared with PR reps, who would see that copies of the latest novel were sent out. Meanwhile, these promo folks took care of getting advance copies or finished books to the trades and often many newspapers and other publications around the country known to do reviews of mysteries.

Of my current publishers – no names will be mentioned – two still have a PR person assigned to me, and the help is much as before, and much appreciated. In the case of something special – like the 100th birthday of Mickey Spillane – that help gets ramped up. In the case of several other publishers, no PR person is available to me at all.

I have been told the approach to marketing, on one of my new books, will be “holistic.” This reminds me of George Carlin when he said, “Real chocolatey goodness! Know what that means? No fucking chocolate!” An editor at that same publisher told me flat-out that – beyond sending copies of the trade publications (Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal), publicity was my responsibility, a “D.I.Y.” effort.

Much of this comes down to utilizing social media. Now, while I do this weekly update/blog here, and also post it on my two Facebook pages, I have chosen (thus far) not to use Twitter or Instagram or whatever other platform has come along since I began writing this piece. I am, after all, a man in his early seventies who has a land line. I use my cell phone to keep track of my e-mails, do simple Internet searches (“Davenport Iowa movie times”), and…what else, there’s something…oh yes, make and receive phone calls. I text rarely and with great difficulty.

I don’t use any apps. I live in Iowa. Do you really think anyone my age in Iowa knows how to use an app? Just in case you don’t get the reference, I will share (briefly) our experience at the local Democratic Caucus, when the debacle it was to become was only a twinkle in the Iowa Democratic Party’s twitching eye.

The woman running things – a volunteer, bless her heart – spent the early part of the evening reading aloud instructions in the wrong order, and laughing hysterically about how badly she was screwing things up. As things got worse, this nice woman (not being sarcastic), who was a retired school teacher, began to attempt to regain order by counting, very loud, “One..two…three…!” to the rowdy class before her.


Let’s not depend on a soon-to-be-72-year-old author (from Iowa) to use apps, shall we?

Yet a number of my publishers want me to expand my social media footprint. I am supposed to write entertaining, pithy Tweets. I am supposed to provide photos of my food and pets and now and then a book of mine on Instagram. And my son Nathan and I, teeth gritted, are exploring doing some of that.

But am I crazy to think that I should be spending my time and creative energy writing my fiction?

In certain areas of fiction writing, writers are given modest advances and then essentially required (if they want another contract) to spend those advances on promotion – going to each other’s signings (how this works without flying around the country I can’t tell you), attending numerous conventions (which does require flying or in some cases driving around the country), and endlessly interacting with readers (and other writers) on social media. Not only is this time-consuming, it turns professional writers – these writers are pros by definition, since they are receiving advances and sometimes royalties – into amateurs.

Like any real professional writer, I need the bulk of my income to…how shall I put this?…live on.

This began with the romance writers and the very positive practice of writers groups. For decades I taught at a writers conference and interacted with romance writers (had several romance novels dedicated to me, which took some explaining to the novelists’ husbands and my wife) and that included their writers groups. From these groups in my area, and the support and help the writers gave each other, came any number of published novels. Obviously, the same is true all around the country.

But a downside, which in my opinion some publishers take advantage of, is the maintaining of an amateur approach by requiring those writers to sink or swim largely based upon the willingness of those writers to plow their hard-earned advances into promo.

The romance writers have taken a hit lately. Romantic Times, once a powerful newsstand magazine, has recently ceased its annual convention and its web site is shutting down, too. This seems to flow at least in part from a controversy having to do with a romance writer attacking another romance writer’s perceived racial, sexist and other biases. Sides were drawn in the controversy and attacks and apologies began to fly. Whether writers should be criticizing each other in this manner is a topic worth discussion, but I won’t get into that here.

Still, it points out that concerns related to political correctness now hover over publishing in a very real way. I recently had an editor I respect label something of mine as “dated” in its “hardboiled” approach. Now, “dated” in that context is code for two things: first, the content may not be in step with politically correct attitudes; and second, I am an old white male. It’s also worth noting that you don’t hear an editor use the term “hardboiled” in any fashion but a negative one. I never use the term myself. When an editor likes that sort of thing, it’s “noir.” You know what “hardboiled” is? It’s a dated term, in the right and proper sense of the word “dated.”

These are, as I perceive them, realities in the world of fiction writing and publishing these days. I point them out not to try to change them – we’re past that, I’m afraid – but to explain to those of you who are kind enough to like my work why I have spent so much time worrying about having three books out at the same time.

How I am doing my best to promote my work in this climate?

For some time, I have accepted very, very few “friend” requests on Facebook. This was back when I checked my “feed” frequently. But a good two years ago, I curtailed that because I was disgusted by the amount of political blather. I also couldn’t keep my mouth shut (hard as that might be to imagine) and wound up damaging longstanding, real friendships. So lately I’ve been accepting “friend” requests if I can tell that the individuals making those requests have a real interest in things I care about…non-political things. Accepting these friends is a part of trying to expand my footprint.

A few days ago Barb and I sent out two big boxes of books to, first, winners in our last book giveaway here; and, second, to reviewers, with a letter explaining that having three novels out at the same time was not my idea. Some of these reviewers I’ve never sent to before. To get Girl Can’t Help It into the hands of potentially friendly reviewers, I spent a day searching Google to locate every positive review (including mixed ones) for Girl Most Likely and offered those reviewers/bloggers a copy.

Beyond this, Nate and I will be exploring using Instagram. Maybe Twitter too, but that puts my stomach and my head in a competition over which hurts the most.

And I want to say, to any publishers or editors who might be reading this, that I understand they are struggling to stay afloat, too. These are tough times in publishing, and have been for a while.

But here’s the thing: I came to this planet to write, not to Tweet.

* * *

I know what you’re all looking for – another book with Max Allan Collins content to buy!

Well, you’re in luck, because this is a good one – the new Mystery Writers of America anthology, Deadly Anniversaries. My story, “Amazing Grace,” is based on a real incident from my childhood, which Barb suggested I use when an assignment in this thematic anthology came my way.

I think “Amazing Grace” might be my best short story. I am pleased to say that Publisher’s Weekly singled it out in their rave review, giving me lead position in a book filled with work by Grand Master mystery writers:

“Anniversaries of all kinds are the source of mayhem for the 19 stories in this entertaining all-original anthology from MWA grand masters Muller and Pronzini. Wedding anniversaries feature prominently, as in Max Allan Collins’s diverting ‘Amazing Grace, ’in which a 50th anniversary cake becomes the catalyst for murder.”

* * *

Barb and I are listening to Dan John Miller’s reading of Girl Can’t Help It in the car (he’s not in the car with us – we’re using CD’s). We’re about half-way through. He is doing his usual masterful job, making the book come alive, and making me look (sound) good.

Dan has also performed Do No Harm, meaning he’s narrated every Heller to date. We are really looking forward to that. He is fantastic.

* * *

Finally, my pal Paul Bishop (I’m tempted to say “pard”) includes the forthcoming Caleb York novel, Hot Lead, Cold Justice, on the premiere episode of his podcast (with Richard Prosch), Six-Gun Justice. These guys do a great job.


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10 Responses to “Publish or Perish the Thought…”

  1. Sean Kelly says:

    Another book of MAC – to my local bookseller I must go! One of these days, I will finally unpack all the books and get my MAC shelves back in order. (I just got all the boxes into the room and now I have to actually open them and make stacks.)

    As a former PR guy (for the Navy), if there is anything I can do to assist on that front. Please let me know.

    And on the topic of “dated,” I’d venture to sat the publishing industry is a bit gunshy since the recent “American Dirt” kerfuffle. That and all the other representation issues surrounding popular culture make it a challenging time for all, but hopefully a rising tide for all as well.

  2. Glen Davis says:

    I was wondering if you went to the caucus this year.

  3. Michael R. says:

    Dear Mr.Collins,

    I seriously doubt that Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, or Jim Thompson could get published today if they were all just starting out. What do you think about that, sir?

    Thank you for a great column.


  4. Mike Doran says:

    Greetings, MAC and Barb:

    Since I will soon be joining you in septuagenerity – septuageneticism – oh screw it, being 70 –
    – Not enjoying the experience at all.

    Your world of publishing is succumbing to the pseudo-sciences that tell you why what you do won’t succeed in the “current marketplace” (or whatever they’re calling it this week).
    I’ll make the educated guess that the PR types who are calling you “dated” are likely Nate’s age or younger (Nate himself excluded; he had the benefit of a classical upbringing).
    My tech knowledge is limited – very limited: One working telephone, on my kitchen wall with a rotary dial yet.
    And of course, this Demon Machine I’m using right now, which averages one spectacular (and expensive) breakdown a year.
    No Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram – all Technoslavian to me.
    And if your Robocall wants me to “press 1 for this, and 2 for that …”, my rotary dial phone cannot comply – dead end.
    (And what in the Sweet Football Association is an “APP”, anyway?)

    The Caucuses (Cauci? Caucae? Cockeye?):
    Well, here in Illinois, we’ve got an old-style Primary, with touch screens, pamphleteers, I VOTED stickers, and all that fun stuff.
    Yeah, I vote in Primaries; I missed one once, and that was the year that the LaRouchies sneaked onto the Democratic ticket and forced Adlai III out of the Governorship – but that’s another story …
    Next month, I go to a middle-school gym (is that a Federal regulation?) to do my Civic Duty, Part I (Part II will come soon enough in November; then it’s time off until the 2024 Election cycle starts – about 48 hours after this one gets called).

    And you guys don’t even get to C&S until mid-May – I don’t know if I can hold out that long …
    (Hoping, of course, that you two can … )
    Should we all have stayed the course, I will have a draywagon full of your New Stuff for your endorsements.

    Now to pre-order the various books, and the Long Wait to follow …

  5. I truly think in this case “dated” is code for Old White Male Author. And “hardboiled” is the default to a negative editorial position, and “noir” is the default to a positive editorial position.

    As for whether Hammett, Chandler, Spillane or Thompson could be published today, that is hard to answer — as pros, they would probably reflect their time, and do fine in any marketplace. Hammett and Chandler (and then Spillane) defined the genre. I would James M. Cain to that core key list. But if you mean, with their attitudes and belief systems, could they navigate these “woke” waters? Not hardly.

  6. Brian Drake says:


    You’re not alone in having trouble with apps, Twitter, Instagram, etc. I’m in my mid 40s, working with a small publisher that thankfully does a lot of Amazon and Facebook ads for me, and I can’t make heads or tails out of social media, either. Instagram is for girls showing their backsides–nobody is looking for books there. Twitter is an outlet for people to expose their mental illness to the world; it’s where brain cells go to die if you attempt to read anything posted. Nobody is looking for books there either, and if they are, you’re drowning in a sea of self-published author tweets (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and I can’t believe they are generating any attention.

    Publishing in this day and age is a tough road for all of us to navigate, either because of out content (my publisher is an old white male who refuses to conform so I have a lot of freedom and my readers seem happy), or because we need to do more work than ever to get our books in front of people who have a crap ton of more entertainment choices at their fingertips. If I find a solution, I’ll give you a tip. Until then we assault the citadel the best way we can.

  7. Dominic M. Paulo says:

    I am really in fear that I will see the end of physical books, newspapers (my local store only carries 2 or 3 copies of the newspaper I read-if I get to the store past noon I am out of luck!!) and magazines in my lifetime-I was carrying a library book the other day through my house and my step son who is 21 looked at me like I had 2 heads-he couldn’t understand why I just didn’t read books on a tablet or phone-sometimes progress and technological advancement is not a good thing!!!

  8. Brian, thanks for your thoughts and encouragement. I have been fortunate to have a long, uninterrupted run for a lot of years. My hope is to keep going as long as I can (i.e., as long as I have my marbles).

    Dominic, I still run into plenty of readers who like and read physical books…but also a lot who read almost exclusively e-books. I’ve sold a lot of e-books for Thomas & Mercer, but have never used a Kindle myself.

  9. Sean Kelly says:

    Seeing all the Facebook notes about Nick Cuti’s illness, it made me wonder what input he had into the Michael Mauser/Ms.Tree crossover book. Can you give us the story of what went into the creation of the book?

  10. Ann de Vries says:

    I was introduced to your books when I received the book “You Can’t Stop Me” when it was a Kindle promotional offering. I loved it and promptly looked to see what else you had available. I tried some more of your books and, unfortunately, I loved them. I say unfortunately because feeding my addiction costs money. I am now the happier but poorer owner of seventy-eight of your books. These include anthologies to which you have contributed, as well as the ‘Barbara Allan’ books. I have mixed feelings about the BA books, but I unreservedly love your other works. So don’t forget female readers when you are promoting your books.

    My husband and I love reading and we love paper books. However, aging eyes convinced us to go over to the dark side and we now use both iPads and Samsung tablets, as well as our smart phones with Kindle apps for reading. The Kindle app allows us to choose fonts, letter size, line spacing, light intensity and light or dark combinations for backgrounds and letter colours of white or black. As well, some books go from text to speech. I sound like a shill for ebooks, but they are amazing. I have even heard some people with arthritis or other conditions that make it difficult to hold books or turn pages, say that when tablets with an app are set on a stand, the touchscreen makes reading possible and pain free.

    Anyway, I thoroughly enjoy your books and they provide me with a lot of reading pleasure. Thank you.