Jersey Heat

My next book: The Great Gatsby

You’d have to have colossal stones to name your book after a famous one like The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Great Gatsby. Technically, you could. While authors can copyright the content of their books, they can’t prevent someone from using their exact title, a title that is like theirs or close to theirs. Hence the rip-offs you’re seeing right now that are capitalizing on the success of 50 Shades of Grey.

How important is to an author to choose a book title that is highly original? I guess, these days, it’s becoming more and more important. The more distinctive the title, the more likely that an online search will turn up that book and that book alone. Recently my book Jersey Heat got its first review. I was excited to see that it was a four-star review:

Not the most descriptive review, but still nice. Only thing is, my book isn’t about the city streets. It’s about corruption and endangered wildlife in a small town in rural New Jersey. Judging from the previous reviews this reviewer has left, I’m pretty sure he or she meant to review this sexy-looking book, which is also entitled Jersey Heat. 

It’s easy to screw this up on Amazon, I guess. You type in the name of the book you just read, intending to give it a review. A bunch of candidate books pop up in your search. You click one without thinking carefully, and you—what?—scroll past the cover art that doesn’t match the product you bought, but then leave a review for that product anyway?

This sort of thing makes me want to resolve to come up with better, more distinctive titles. It’s a particularly sore point with me because I’ve always had trouble dreaming up good titles. When I had to come up with magazine headlines back in the day, I was terrible at it. And I think I’ve brought some of that awkwardness into my fiction writing. Jersey Heat is an okay title, but heat is an overused word in the crime genre, especially crime film dramas. Ideally, going forward, I’ll more carefully research whether a title has been used—and how—before I commit to it.

As much as I’d like to turn over a new leaf, I think I’m going to have to live with my decisions for a while. One of my indie titles is called The Mesmerist. It’s the story of a charismatic madman who’s killing people in an alt-1970s New York. Here’s the cover:

Yet I fully expect readers who like my book to leave reviews for these products instead:

Going open kimono...

A couple of my writer friends have asked me recently how my ebook sales are doing. Rather than hem and haw, I thought I’d post the figures. For the sake of simplicity I’m going to just deal with the Kindle sales figures since sales on the other outlets are pretty insignificant at this point. 

In 2011, I earned about $70 on my ebook sales. Not monthly. Not weekly. That’s the whole thing. $70 from May 2011, when I uploaded my first book, to the end of Dec. 2011.

Thus far in 2012, with a total of three books for sale, I’ve earned about $122. I’m still a long way from paying off my costs—of covers, editing, copyrights—but I could care less. My monthly figures look like this…

To explain my shorthand here: SS is code for the title of my book The Scientist & the Sociopath, JH is Jersey Heat, and M is The Mesmerist.

I suppose you could say that there is some improvement here but honestly I don’t think I’m selling enough to make any sweeping statements like that. I thought I’d share some of the 6-week sales data as well, so you can get a sense of the sales frequency. (Click to embiggen.)

I’m not being coy about showing the dollar amounts. Both of these shots amount to about $54-$55.

By far my best-selling self-pubbed book is The Scientist & the Sociopath, probably because it’s really discoverable in the sparsely populated ghetto of nonfiction science collections, readers and anthologies.

My novels have fared less well. For three whole months I didn’t have a single sale of my novel Jersey Heat, then sales seemed to start up again in August. My other novel, The Mesmerist, is also doing better; no clue why.

I do know that Amazon was sending emails touting my most recent trad-pub book (Stuff Every American Should Know) beginning in June, so maybe that had something to do with the uptick in sales. I’ve also gotten smarter about using keywords. I have blogged more frequently on a more accessible platform. And I did a lot of publicity for Stuff in June/July.

For the sake of comparison, here’s how my Bookscan numbers look for the last year. Bear in mind that Bookscan only tracks traditionally published books, and only at certain retailers.

One of the things you can see from this graph is that my trad-pub sales tend to spike twice a year—around Christmas and around Fourth of July. That makes sense, since sales of everything on the planet go up when Americans start shopping for Christmas, and since one of my books is pegged to Fourth of July. Two of my others are also history titles with a patriotic U.S. slant, so I expect that sales of those books will continue to spike midyear. My history titles do exceptionally well at museum and historic site gift shops, but since Bookscan doesn’t track those bookstores, those sales are not reflected here. They are nothing to sneeze at.

So where does that leave us? Yes, the bulk of my royalty income is still coming from trad-pub sales. But just because my self-pubbed sales are truly unremarkable doesn’t mean I’m not excited about them. A book like The Scientist & the Sociopath represents years of writing for science magazines. Until the world of ebooks came along, those articles, once run, would never again see the light of day. Now they’re earning income.  Unless you’ve had an experience with newspaper and magazine journalism you cannot appreciate what a revolution that is.

I have no idea where my fiction will lead. Maybe it’ll lead nowhere. It’s been a long time since I’ve written fiction on a regular basis. I might very well suck. I only know that 20 or so years ago I made a decision to focus on journalism because I was just too timorous about my ability to write compelling fiction. That decision cost me time I’ll never get back. This is my chance to do the thing I believe I was meant to do: tell stories. I can’t give up this soon.

So I continue to be optimistic. I have a book of short stories coming later this year, and a third novel. I know I could be doing more to promote but I prefer to focus on writing and getting at least one series launched before doing much more promotion than I am doing. I am truly enjoying getting to know some of my fellow indie authors; they’ve offered advice, wisdom and camaraderie that I have found strangely lacking in the trad-pub world.

2011: A Year in Review

Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D'Agnese, displayed in store window of Malaprop's Bookstore, Asheville, NC

A buddy of mine is fond of saying, “I’m fascinated by the passage of time and the aging process.” Um, me too. I especially like looking at my calendar and desk diary at the end of the year to see what I actually accomplished in the year just ended. I just did that today and 2011 frankly amazes me.

In the last 12 months, I...

  • self-pubbed two books (Scientist and the Sociopath; Jersey Heat)

  • had another book released traditionally

  • was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal for the very first time

  • got a starred review in School Library Journal

  • wrote a “Bible” for a TV show based on a book I hadn’t yet written and watched as it was actually bought

  • wrote a proposal for a ghost-writing project and sold it for six figures

  • wrote one book proposal that went nowhere

  • “conferenced” with a half dozen potential ghost-writing clients about projects that went nowhere

  • contracted, wrote, and shipped a short history book that will be out in spring

  • wrote a children’s picture book that’s making the rounds

  • recorded a hilarious podcast for a presentation we did for International Freelancers Day

  • gave 7 talks at various bookstores, historic sites, and conferences in the U.S.

  • did my first TV appearance

  • did more than 30 radio interviews

  • did one school visit

  • did more than a dozen Skype visits with classrooms for my children’s book

  • wrote, finished, and submitted to our publisher on a “Big Think” book with a collaborator overseas

  • made numerous out-of-state trips with my wife to help her interview sources and do research for her upcoming history title

  • visited Monticello for the first time ever and signed our books in their bookstore

  • taught myself how to format an ebook (ongoing)

  • conceived a new fiction book series

  • conducted weeks of interviews with a co-author whose memoir I’m ghosting

  • wrote and created a hilarious book trailer

  • made some wonderful new friends in the world of self-publishing

  • donated books to the troops

  • had our books featured in two major catalogs and the holiday gift list of a major city magazine

  • mentored a high-schooler who wrote a children’s book

  • wrote a novel that I’ll self-pub this spring

  • saw some Broadway shows

  • saw a ton of movies

  • lost an uncle

  • Facebooked, Tweeted, blogged, Google-plussed

  • discovered many new fascinating writers who blog

  • ran a local group for freelancers

  • hugged and drank with local booksellers

  • threw a couple of parties

  • wondered where the year went

  • wondered why I never have enough time to do the important things.

Professionally, the biggest change this year was jumping into the world of self-publishing. Despite all the good things I experienced this year in the world of traditional publishing, I am more excited every time I sell even one copy of my indie-pubbed ebook. The future is there, and I hope to do more books this way in 2012.

Part of my and my wife’s success with traditional book sales is that we’ve always been willing to hop in the car and drive somewhere to give talks, meet booksellers, and do conferences. We firmly believe that this one-on-one contact is important and ultimately helps us. But there’s no denying that it’s exhausting, and we’re hoping to reduce the number of trips we do in 2012 and focus more on writing.

Self-publishing has the potential to increase earnings and allow us to build relationships with readers directly, without having to hope they stop by at the next signing.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!

What's Been Going On Around Here

Jersey Heat, novel by Joseph D'Agnese

Here’s quick rundown of what’s been happening around the Web with respect to my various projects...


My interview with cover artist Jeroen ten Berge and my new novel, Jersey Heat, got a dandy mention on Man-Eating Bookworm, a blog run by a gent named Peter Andrew Leonard. I’ve been following Bookworm for a little while now. Leonard’s taste runs from mysteries and thrillers to horror and graphic novels. I’m always frankly dazzled by how good-looking his site is.

 Another writer I enjoy and admire, Lee Goldberg, flagged the interview. Goldberg is the mind behind the Monk novels, based on the TV show of the same name. I’ve always enjoyed his other books, such as The Dead Man series, The Jury series, and his stand-alone about surviving the big one in LA, The Walk. His book Watch Me Die is on my reader right now, and I hope to get to it soon.

Mystery novelist Joseph Valentinetti asked me to contribute a Q&A post about Jersey Heat to his site. It’ll be up in a few weeks. Here’s a preview.


This book, about the men who signed the U.S. Constitution, will be out in only 24 days! You can pre-order now from any of the bookstores on this page.

For the last two years we’ve been shooting footage of all the historic sites we visit to promote this book series. You can catch a glimpse of three of the South Carolina films in this post I recently did for our publisher, Quirk Books.


We’re giving away 5 books in a giveaway on Goodreads. Enter soon. The deadline’s Sept. 12!

We donated a bunch of books for the annual Freelancer’s Union auction.

We got a mention in this article on Media Bistro. (Subscription required.)

We’re busy right now compiling our video seminar for the upcoming International Freelancer’s Day. It’s September 23, so don’t miss it!


Just did a Q&A interview with Media Darlings about my children’s picture book, about the life of the medieval mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci. The interview is here.


* No, I am NOT the author of this horrifying new novel. It’s the bastard brainchild of Stuart Connelly, who I’ll interview in a few days. HAVEN HOUSE is a featured excerpt in the JERSEY HEAT ebook, and it’s out this week. You can grab it at Amazon and Smashwords. If you want to scare yourself, snag a free sample and read the first chapter.

Q&A: Jeroen ten Berge

“The cover of your book looks amazing!” people tell me. And I absolutely agree. The compliments I’ve been hearing lately refer to the two books I recently published. The striking covers were designed by the talented Jeroen ten Berge, a Dutch-born designer who lives and works in New Zealand.

Portrait of Jeroen ten Berge

Lately, every time I read about a hot new indie title—whether self-published by a name author or an up-and-coming newbie—the man behind the cover art is Jeroen.

I’ve been obsessed with illustration since I was a kid. In my career, I’ve been lucky to work with children’s book illustrators and magazine illustrators, but this is the first time I’ve personally hired and teamed up with a cover artist to bring my work to life. I thought I’d take some time to ask Jeroen all the little questions I’ve been shy about asking during the few months we’ve been working together.

He graciously consented. Here’s our interview, along with links to some recent cover art by the man himself.

How do you describe the work you do? Are you a designer, an illustrator, or what? (It might help if you tell us what your training/background is.)

I consider myself a designer first. However, illustration is a skill I almost always use to assist me in creating the design I have in mind. In some cases an illustration becomes the key element of a design. Your book The Scientist & The Sociopath is an example, but the Serial-series covers I created for Blake Crouch and Joe Konrath are also illustrations, as is Suzanne Tyrpak’s Vestal Virgin cover. I also use stock photography, sometimes my own. Several of the covers I designed for Marcus Sakey feature my photos, as do several of Blake’s covers. 

I guess I was fortunate to have studied graphic and typographic design at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague in the early- to mid-1980s. There was a strong focus on teaching the principles of design and typography, taught by people such as Gerrit Noordzij, one of the greatest type designers of his generation. There was, however, equal attention paid to illustration and photography. The philosophy was very much, "Why ask someone else to make an illustration or photograph for your design if you can do it yourself?"  In retrospect I can see that graduating the year before Apple MacIntosh was introduced to the Netherlands helped as well. Knowing how lead type works, and why there are certain rules of design helps me on a daily basis. That said, I have worked on an Apple for more than 20 years now, and would consider a career change if I had to go back designing old school.

Everywhere I look these days, I see your name and your work. I unhesitatingly tell people that you are probably the best designer of indie book covers on the planet. Do you have any problem with that designation?

If that is your truth — so be it, I’m flattered. However, I’m sure there will be many people who beg to differ, who prefer someone else’s work. I would never use the designation myself, or even consider the thought. Like most people working in the arts, everything I do is accompanied with doubt. Is it good or is it crap? Will the client like the cover, or think it is shit?

What other types of design work do you do and how important is the indie book business to your overall workload?

Before entering the book design world about three or four years ago, I designed logos, corporate identities, websites, wayfinding, and packaging. I still do, but designing covers has become something I’m very passionate about. It is hard to say what the balance is today. A year ago I would have said 80/20 in favour of the other stuff. Today it is probably 40/60 in favour of book covers. Who knows what it’ll be next year?

About how many covers do you create a year? Is that part of your business growing?

I don’t know — I haven’t counted. I can tell you that about a year ago I worked with about 7 or 8 authors, today it is over 40. So yes, that part of my business is growing.

Soup to nuts, how does a cover come to be? How long does the process take, and do the steps you take vary from cover to cover?

It depends. I usually receive a manuscript, sometimes accompanied by a synopsis. I read it, take in account additional information offered by the author and I think. And think, and doodle. And sometimes research. I think until I have an idea, or several, then edit, and usually only then start to actually design. Almost always I create one cover and present that to the author. I don’t do comps and send a bunch of ideas to the author. It creates confusion. It does, however, mean that I occasionally present a design that doesn’t work for the author. Which means that I then go back and present a new and different idea, taking in account the author’s feedback. Important to me is that the author receives a cover he or she feels completely happy with, and is proud to share with his or her audience.

What kind of software or other tools do you use to make a cover come to life?

Illustrator, Photoshop, and Indesign are my software, plus the thousands of typefaces I have bought over the past decades. My hardware are a MacBook Pro, two iMacs, and my beloved MontBlanc Meisterstück (which I bought twenty years ago as retail therapy after a particularly frustrating meeting with a client) for writing notes. I also use Steadtler Ergosoft and Omnichrom 108-3 Aquarell pencils for doodling and sketching in Moleskine drawing notebooks. I’m a sucker for nice stuff.

You told me once how ideas for covers pop into your head as a quick flash of insight or inspiration. Can you tell us what that process is like?

Annoying — because it never stops. I sometimes even design in my dreams. I’m not kidding. It is bloody annoying, especially for family and friends. We can have a lively conversation, and I see or hear or smell something that triggers a synapse in my brain and off it goes. I have to leave the party to write the idea down, or make a quick sketch, otherwise I might forget it. It drove my wife bonkers, but she’s used to it now.

Do you read all the books for which you design, or is it enough to simply get a feel for the concept from the author?

I read almost all the books I design covers for, or at least enough to get a feel for the story, its tone and style. Occasionally the author supplies a summary or synopsis of the book, which allows me to skip reading the book itself. I’ve probably read over 80 novels so far this year. I’m not a fast reader, so reading is expensive. Thankfully sometimes an idea can be triggered by a paragraph in the author’s email, talking about the manuscript. Then I only read enough to confirm my idea truly fits. 

It seems like you do mostly mystery, thriller, horror book covers. Are these your favorite genres?

Not necessarily. It is the quality of the writing, combined with great storytelling that makes me tick. One of my favourite authors is Ron Rash, who writes amazing stories set in the Appalachians. I love his style, the dire realism of his work, the love he has for nature and how he describes his characters, their relationships, the choices they make and how it affects them. I’ve read all his work except for Serena, of which I read the first two chapters only. I’m saving the rest for the perfect moment, whenever that may be. For my own pleasure I designed nine covers last year, for some of his short stories. After awhile I found the courage to send them to him, hoping I could sway him to publish his work as ebooks, featuring my covers. He said he found the illustrations wonderful, and referred me to his agent. Sadly it ended there. Rash did give me permission to show the covers on my website — I haven’t done so yet.

So are we unlikely to see a cover by you for a sci-fi or fantasy ebook featuring some kind of Hobbit-like creature in the near future?

I usually say I won’t design covers for books that are about scarcely clad guys toting oversized shining swords conversing with dragons — not my cup of tea. That said, someone I already work with sent me the first snippet of a novel that is very much fantasy, and immediately the ideas started bouncing. So watch this space…

We first met when I asked you to do a cover for my nonfiction science book. You said you were intrigued because you actually have an interest in all kinds of nonfiction books as well. Can you tell us about some of your recent favorite NF reads? 

I’ve always been interested in human behaviour. What is it that makes us do what we do, and why? Do we have any control over our destiny, is there such a thing as fate? Why do people fall under the spell of others — and would I? Right now I’m trying to read The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which is about unpredictable and improbable events, and once they have happened how we then try to explain it, rationalize it, attempting to make it appear less random, more predictable. Which Taleb explains is pointless, I think. Another one is Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchins’ autobiography. But I’m afraid both are too demanding right now. I guess I should book myself some long flights for those two books.

What also interests me greatly is how talented people utilise their artistic creativity to con people. Especially where it concerns the fine art scene. One of my favourite non-fiction books is Clifford Irving’s FAKE! The story of Elmyr De Hory, The Greatest Art-Forger of Our Time, published in 1969. Anyone remotely interested in fine art, the art of collecting fine art, and the gullibility and greed of people should read it. Also fantastic, and more recent, is Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. 

Can you name some up-and-coming self-pubbed authors whom you think have great promise?

I think Blake Crouch will become one of the greatest thriller writers of his generation, if he isn’t already. J.E. Medrick has the potential to become a household name — her Icarus Helix series totally rocks. Roy Finch’s The Emperor of Glitter Gulch is an amazing and brutal debut. Steven Konkoly’s The Jakarta Pandemic, if you like a terrific novel about society unraveling after an event; Suzanne Tyrpak’s Vestal Virgin, if you are into the genre currently dominated by Robert Harris. Ania Ahlborn’s debut Seed is a terrific horror yarn, as is Robert Swartwood’s The Dishonored Dead, but for totally different reason — best zombie book I have ever read. And Saffina DesforgesSugar & Spice will more than satisfy anyone who loves a psycho-sexual thriller. There are more – should I continue?

Are you pleased with your increasing work in book covers? Is there ever such a thing as too much work for a freelancer?

Yes, I am — very much so. With designing ebook and print-on-demand covers I have found something that combines my love for reading, collecting books, and design. I have never been very ambitious, but having found this niche — and enjoying it immensely, I now want to build a large and diverse body of work. This is only the beginning.

What the heck are you doing living in New Zealand, and can you get us all a good deal on some sauvignon blanc?

That is a very long story I may tell you in person someday, while enjoying a bottle of that great sauvignon blanc or pinot noir growing in my back yard.

Thank you, very much, Jeroen, and here's hoping we'll meet in person someday.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!

New Novel: Jersey Heat

Jersey Heat, novel by Joseph D'Agnese

Today marks the debut of my new book, Jersey Heat, a mystery/thriller that takes place in and around a fictional town in New Jersey.

I’m really excited about this book, because, while it’s not the first novel I’ve ever written, it’s the first I’ve shared with the public. The book’s available today via Amazon and B&N for the ridiculous price of $2.99. Over the next few days, it will slowly migrate to most other venues, such as Kobo, Smashwords, etc.

There are some really neat bonuses that come with the digital version, which I’ll describe briefly. First, the book features a gorgeous cover by artist/designer Jeroen ten Berge. In a few days I’ll be running an interview with Jeroen.

The book includes a free preview of Haven House, a new horror novel by Stuart Connelly. It’s a horror story with a twist: a mix of The Lottery, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Shining all wrapped into one. I dare you to stop after reading the first horrifying chapter.

Lastly, I’m offering a freebie with this ebook. Your purchase entitles you to a free copy of The Scientist & the Sociopath, a collection of my best nonfiction science stories, from magazines such as Discover, Wired, and Seed. All you have to do is send me proof that you’ve bought Jersey Heat, and I’ll mail you a coupon good for Scientist.

Here’s the pitch for Jersey Heat:

It’s a hazy, hot, and humid summer in New Jersey, circa 1993.

No mobile phones.

No Internet.

No Caller ID.

No DVDs.

No terrorists.

And the environment isn’t cool.

Luke Mulcek calls himself a businessman. He’s actually a thug in a suit, a former Brooklyn kid, ex-boxer, and mechanic who made good. Luke’s got an in at the water company in a dinky town, where he’s concocted a $200 million land deal to build condos on the reservoir. Ramming the plan through the town’s planning board is the tricky part. Shadow Lakes isn’t Brooklyn, and even before page one Mulcek has decided to cut through the red tape the way he would have done in the old neighborhood. 

With payoffs, threats, blackmail — and murder.

A retired cop and a young slacker are all that stand between Mulcek and his violent grasp at the good life.

Mulcek’s undoing — and the key to this environmental thriller — is a creature from the skies, bred by nature to be the ultimate killing machine.

The strength of this book lies in its voices: Cops, thugs, Brits, gigolos, ghetto kids, scientists and lawyers all come to life in a world that feels part Elmore Leonard, part Carl Hiassen, and 100 percent New Jersey.

Note: Both Jersey Heat and Haven House are intended for mature readers. Both feature scenes of sexuality, violence and strong dialogue.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!