“Steven Womack,” I say. “And I know what you mean. I like him too.”
In fact, Harry James Denton is the reason my own Nashville private detective is a former homicide detective and not a journalist. Because Harry was a journalist, and I thought Steve had done that about as well as it could be done. Every book in that series either won or was short-listed for a major award.
To say I was (and am) a huge fan of his work would be an understatement. Once, when my husband and I were at the local Barnes & Noble, I saw Steve sitting behind a pile of books. The store was slow, and there was no one at his table. “I’d love to meet him,” I told Mike, “but I already have all his books, and I can’t afford to buy another copy right now.”
“Go over and talk to him,” Mike said. “Tell him how much you like his books.”
I gave my hero a longing look. “He probably hears that all day long. I bet he’s tired of it.”
My husband was wiser than I was. I didn’t go, and of course, now I know Steve would have loved it if I had. A few years later, Steve and I were on a panel together, and I told that story. We laugh about it now.
On March 31st, Steve reissued the first three books in the Harry James Denton series under his own imprint, Spearhead Press. I spoke with him recently, and as he explains, he’s been working on bringing Dead Folks’ Blues, Torch Town Boogie and Way Past Dead back to readers for a couple of years.
He agreed to answer a few questions for all of you Crimereaders out there.
Why did you decide to reissue these books under your own imprint? How did all this come about?
It was a series of factors, and while I don’t mean to go into my college professor lecture mode here, a lot of it goes back almost fifteen years, to when the publishing business really began to change. In the late 90s forward, it became almost impossible to make a living as a midlist writer. Over a period of years, the mass-market paperback—which is how most of us genre midlist guys made a living—dwindled to a much smaller market share. The number of book distributors in this country dropped by about 95 percent and the mainstream New York traditional publishers began to gobble each other up. Now there only five majors left, six if you count Kensington. So the opportunities for writers who weren’t New York Times best-sellers (or promising new voices) to actually make a living became quite rare.
I was lucky because I have a teaching job to fall back on, but for about eight years I didn’t sell anything. Then I collaborated on a book that no one would take but a small, fourth-tier publisher. That book went nowhere. After that, I spent two years working on a proposal that I felt was the strongest commercial book I’d ever done and I couldn’t even get my agent interested in it. She begrudgingly sent it to a half-dozen editors, the last of whom sat on it for almost eight months before turning it down with a four-line email.
I admit it: I was pissed. More importantly, I finally saw the handwriting on the wall. The mainstream, commercial publishing business has always been about the numbers, which is something a lot of younger writers don’t get. I certainly didn’t early on. But now more than ever, if you don’t get the sales, then all the mystery awards, prize nominations, and reviews don’t mean shit in terms of making a living in this game. I’ve got an Edgar, a Shamus and a New York Times Notable Book and I couldn’t sell crack cocaine in a New York publishing house.
So you’ve given up on traditional publishing?
I sent my agent an email and told her I could fail this spectacularly without her help, thank you very much. I severed our professional relationship, turned my back and walked away. But you never say never. If an editor at a New York house came to me and wanted to work together, then of course I’d talk. But my days of jumping up and down while wagging my tail and barking like a rescue dog at a pet adoption fair, going pick me pick me, are over.
The other huge change in the publishing business has been the digital revolution and the invention of EBooks. When Amazon created the Kindle early in the 21st century, that was the equivalent of Gutenberg inventing movable type in the middle of the 15th century. I don’t think people have even yet gotten their heads completely around it. It has literally turned the world of writing and publishing upside down. Now, literally anyone can be a publisher. It’s easier than ever to get books out to readers. As a result, there are more books being published than ever, which of course also means it’s harder than ever to get discovered, build a readership, and make any money.
It’s still a tough mother of a game…
There’s a learning curve, but it’s doable. I had a leg up because I spent almost a decade early in my career working in publishing. I worked in the art department, not the editorial side. I was a typesetter and a paste-up artist and curiously enough, there are real similarities between traditional typesetting and book design and modern digital publishing. It also helped that I took a course in web design. I’m no designer; I wouldn’t know good design if it ran up behind me and bit me on the ass. But I can handle the formatting and the coding.
I actually started Spearhead Press almost four years ago. We published two books by my writer-wife, Shalynn Ford Womack. We published them as Kindle editions and as POD trade paperbacks. They were pretty nice books, if I do say so myself. They did okay and we learned a lot. Then I published a nonfiction chapbook/rant a year-and-a-half ago called Why Politics Sucks. It didn’t sell much, but again, it was another big chunk of the learning curve.
Then I got the rights back to the six Harry James Denton novels and my three Jack Lynch novels, which were set in New Orleans. They’re all in line to come out under the Spearhead Press imprint.
We’ve ramped everything up. I hired a fabulous cover designer and have a regular freelance copyeditor/proofreader. I’m going to publish my own out-of-print, rights-reverted stuff first and then assess how much more I can do. I’d love to publish other writers, but that’s a ways off.
Your first novel, Murphy’s Fault, was published over twenty-five years ago. Do you still have the passion for writing that you did then?
Okay, you got me. I’m an old guy. But I love the process of writing as much as I ever did and I still have goals, dreams, hopes and aspirations. I try to remember that the weird part of being a writer is that the writing tries to feed your soul while the business simultaneously tries to kill it.
Sometimes I feel like a failure because I haven’t achieved the level of success that I hoped for early in my career. Then I try and remember that I did publish a dozen books or so in five languages, won a couple of awards, all while having a family and a twenty-five year teaching career. And the game’s not over…
Not even close. I don’t think you realize what an inspiration you’ve been to other writers, or how much your readers love Harry. So, can you give us the scoop on what’s next for Harry James Denton?
I loved writing those books and the only reason I quit was because I tried to move the series to another publisher when the market was just beginning to tighten up. But people seem really happy to see him back—I sold a couple of copies in Australia the first weekend—and I hope he finds a whole new readership. I’m working on Chain of Fools right now, with Murder Manual and Dirty Money next in the queue.
After that, I’m going to bring Harry back and write a new Harry James Denton novel. I’m in the brainstorming phase now and while I don’t have it completely together, I will say that we’ll pick up Harry about fifteen years after we last saw him. He’s older, a little bit wiser, a whole lot more successful, but with the same quirky aspects that seemed to draw readers to him in the first place…