Blustery fall winds whip the scarves of sidewalkers outside Think Coffee, in Union Square South. A popular spot for caffeine-sucking writers, the din of computer keyboards and java shop chatter has driven me outside with my latte and rugelach. I’m prepared with my digital recorder and strategic questions, waiting for the funnyman, Richard Hine, to arrive. In the meantime, I people-watch and eavesdrop on the conversation next to me.
Hine’s charming British accent reaches me before he does. He approaches with his hand thrust out in a friendly invitation to shake it. A marketing guru who’s spent the majority of his adult life representing such illustrious titles as Time, Adweek, and the Wall Street Journal, Hine made his foray into novel-writing last month with his debut title, Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch. He’s eager to meet me, as conveyed by his crooked smile.
I’m admittedly intrigued. Published by Amazon’s new imprint, Amazon Encore, Russell Wiley is a mash-up of Office Space and Glengarry Glen Ross in a swift 291 pages of chuckle-worthy prose. While Encore has some folks a bit nervous, wondering if perhaps this new growth isn’t a harbinger of publishing disaster, I’ve decided to give Hine a chance to explain it—how it came to be, and how he came to be part of it. He grabs a black coffee and sits down next to me.
Sarah Gerard (Rail): You have a background in marketing. What was it like writing Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch, a novel?
Richard Hine: Well, I always wanted to be a novelist and I detoured as a way of making money into advertising and marketing. I began as a copywriter, and I think I was intimidated for a long time by reading novels that were too good.
I was in my late teens [when] I first started telling people, “I want to write a novel.” And then I got sidetracked by life. I did write a lot of short stories, and flash fiction, and other short pieces along the way. Starting in the early ’90s, I was trying to get back into fiction writing. But I think when I was working the whole time, and working for these media companies that are now fictionalizing, as well, the idea of writing the novel—having the time, the head space to do it—was just a little impossible for me, so I ended up writing it after I had quit. I took some scribblings that I had, and tried to create something from those.
Rail: You worked, when you were in marketing, mostly in print media: Time, the Wall Street Journal, AdWeek, and others. Is that why you chose to set your novel at a failing newspaper?
Hine: I think so. The bulk of my career was in [big, corporate] office buildings with a lot of very intelligent people working for these very powerful, iconic brands. The people who are working there are very passionate, but they also have a tendency to fight a lot.
These very intelligent people being told, “You have to represent Time magazine,” creates something very different than being told, “You have to represent Coca Cola.” Everyone can agree that Coca Cola is a sugary, fizzy, refreshing drink that makes people smile. But what is Time magazine? To a housewife in Ohio, or a car dealer in Texas, or a professional in Seattle, Time may be something completely different and to the people who work at Time magazine, it’s completely different.
Rail: Did you choose to make the newspaper a failing one because that’s what you consider to be the trajectory of print media?
Hine: Well, I think the age of newspapers is definitely disappearing. When I started at the Wall Street Journal, the challenge was to convert the 20-year-old college graduate to subscribe to the journal because the 40-year-old was a solid subscriber. Then, by the time I left in 2006, it was a desperate attempt to cling to the 40-year-old who is now on the Internet, on mobile devices, on Facebook, and all these other things. The challenge of getting young professionals to read the Wall Street Journal had morphed into, “Let’s not lose too many of the older readers before they die.”
It’s the industry I know best, and it’s kind of in this transition mode. I wanted to try and create some kind of document of that, especially in the character of Russell Wiley, who is someone who remembers the good times and longs for things the way they used to be, which is the story of most people who work in print media—they haven’t adapted well enough to the new media age, and they haven’t let go of the past enough to really decide what they should be doing.
Rail: Tell me about publishing with Amazon’s new imprint, Amazon Encore.
Hine: In 2009, I entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. That was the second year they did this and they had about 6,500 entries. I reached the top 100.
They have a cutoff point: The first 2,000 go through based on the pitch, then they cut it down to 500 based on Amazon Vine reviews, and then they cut it down to 100 based on Publishers Weekly reviews of the full manuscripts, and then Penguin’s editors and Amazon cut it down to the top three. And then the rest of us pack up and go home.
When they announced the top 100, I was still in it, and then when they announced the top three, which Penguin had chosen, I was eliminated. I guess, now, at least in Amazon’s eyes, I was actually in the top eight or nine, because they picked up about five or six of the other semifinalists and they added them to their Encore list.
They announced Encore last year as this new imprint that would be self-published, taking the bestselling, best reviewed self-published books and giving them a proper path to publication, and proper marketing. I think that, still, the majority of the Encore books are done that way, but in the spring they started to do original manuscripts. They did two or three, I think, in the spring, and another batch of two or three now in the fall, of which mine is one.
I’m not opposed to self-publishing, but it’s not the route that I took. After the contest in 2009, they did a questionnaire for the entrants, and one of my suggestions was actually to do Amazon Encore. I said to them, “You have the biggest virtual slush pile in the world. It’s been screened by Vine reviewers, by Publishers Weekly, by Penguin’s editors, and by reviewers who are posting on the site during the contest. Of all the people who want to publish novels in the world—and I think there were 22 countries represented—this is the best virtual slush pile of novels that’s going.”
Rail: What kind of support have you gotten from Amazon in terms of editing, marketing, P.R., and distribution?
Hine: With Amazon, the initial appeal was that they were going to be great Internet marketers and [they were] going to know how to present my book to the customers who’ve bought a similar book. If you bought Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, I hope Amazon will send you an e-mail about my book.
They’re also getting distribution in Borders and Barnes & Noble, physically in the stores. My deal is for global distribution [and] I just did a Q&A with Booktopia in Australia, so I’m very happy that my book is out of the gate, around the world, in English, in a nice-looking edition. Amazon is great in that regard.
We’re getting ready to do this crowdsourced book launch multimedia promotion contest. This contest now has people all over the world competing to create book trailers and creative work to support my book launch, which is great, and it’s the first time this has been done for the book industry. The contest resonates with some of the plot elements of the book. The fact that it’s set in this world where consumer-generated media journalism is exploding—well, the contest kind of replicates that creative environment of the novel.
Rail: Your wife, Amanda Fillipacchi, is herself a successful novelist. What is it like living with another writer?
Hine: I probably wouldn’t have completed or gone about getting this novel published on the timeline I did after I quit my job at the Wall Street Journal if not for her. I really kind of set my mind to write this novel with her encouragement, her pushing, and her advice. We’re not really a couple who are competing to produce, or to do anything but support the other person. She’s very enthusiastic about my writing and also in terms of productivity. We try to support each other in writing as much as in other areas of work and life.
Rail: Are you working on another novel right now?
Hine: I have a lot of work put into a second novel that I’m hoping to finish soon. It’s very different.
Rail: Why should somebody read Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch?
Hine: I think the number one reason to read it is to have fun. One of the themes of the book is that life should be fun, so if you read it and don’t like it, put it down and go on to something else.
But I think, really, what I’ve tried to do is capture the nature of how the Internet is changing the world: the media business, and personal relationships. I’ve [also] tried to look at the question of: Can you win love back when love is gone? I think that’s something that everyone can relate to.