The sometimes perilous business of spy thrillers
Executive Producer Howard Gordon and Director of Photography Chris Manly on location
May 4th, 2012
02:34 PM ET

The sometimes perilous business of spy thrillers

by Suzanne Kelly

Selling a spy novel these days can be a killer.

While there is undoubtedly an appetite for fast-paced, heart-thumping thrills in print, it seems that a combination of shrinking shelf space and authors who publish books seemingly forever are making the competition stiff.

"Dead authors and old authors never leave the marketplace anymore," says a New York-based literary agent who asked not to be identified because the thriller community is so small and tightly knit. "They are taking up the shelf space and the challenge is, if you're a new writer without a platform, is how to get a number of books taken that is gonna challenge the weekly onslaught of already-established writers."

Some hugely successful authors such as James Patterson and Tom Clancy have started working with less-established writers, which means they can crank out more books under their already-proven brand identities. Such trends have seen other authors long departed, including Robert Ludlum and Ian Fleming, continue to be published, even in death.

"Every time an author hires someone to write books with him, every time he does that, he's taking up a slot that might have been for a new writer," says the agent, who adds there is also a flip side: Those lucky few, the less-experienced authors, can garner attention they may not have been able to get otherwise.

Howard Gordon, who established his ability to thrill with TV hits like Fox's "24" and Showtime's new hit spy drama "Homeland" (which has even drawn praise from President Obama), says the market can be rough. His second novel, "Hard Target," just isn't getting the buzz he hoped it would.

"It's much different than the world of terrorism on television," says Gordon, who has just finished writing initial scripts for the second season of "Homeland" along with his production partner, Alex Gansa. "On a bad night, you can reach 5 million people in TV, and I'm struggling to sell copies in the thousands."

Other authors have found that the appetite for spy novels isn't what it was in the three to five years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, which some believe fueled the demand for spy stories about stopping terrorists in their tracks.

Former New York Times investigative reporter Alex Berenson spent some time working in Iraq as a journalist in the years after the war began and what he saw inspired him to take a shot at writing the perfect thriller. His latest book, "The Shadow Patrol," features his recurring main character, John Wells, who is not only a terrorist hunter, but a Muslim as well. It's an interesting twist in a world struggling to cope with stereotypes and misunderstandings of religion versus terrorism.

"I think it has gotten harder to get people interested in thrillers that are specifically focused on Muslim terrorism and the war on terror," Berenson says. "There is an audience for that, but I do think that people have grown disenchanted with both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Berenson has a couple more books on his new contract with Putnam, but says that after that, he may retire his leading character.

Gordon says he'd like to write another book, but it won't be at the same breakneck pace at which he wrote his last one, while juggling his time between two TV shows (he is also the executive producer of "Awake" on NBC). It may be even harder for him to find the time if "Homeland" continues to be such a hit.

If only every aspiring thriller writer had such problems.

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Evil Socialist

    America has a voracious appetite for style over substance.

    May 6, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  2. Ike_the_Cat

    The spy thriller has two difficulties: it's really actually antiquated (we're not as interested in a war against destitute, roaming criminals as we are fighting an equally matched and seemingly powerful monolithic world force like the old USSR), and the collective ADD of American audiences makes an author who drones for twenty pages about minutia largely unrelated to the story's forward momentum an enemy to the reader's entertainment. People lugged al 8,000 pages of your average Tom Clancy novel around to show they read such a massive tome and advertise more of a sense of self-disciplined knowledge-seeking than entertainment. Slowing down to read more than an article or digest a flashy, one hour adventure is about all the reading appetite can tolerate. Unless writers start writing with the notion that they're high-paced story-tellers instead of artistes, they'll make in-roads back to the collective consciousness. Otherwise, start writing graphic novels or television.

    May 5, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  3. MaggieMcDuh

    What was supposed to interest me in this blog? The title looked like it might be about the research process for writing a spy novel. Instead I find a couple of guys complaining that Tom Clancy's ghost writers are better than they are so they're forced to write for tv. Be grateful you got published and shut up, but mostly just shut up. I for one will not be reading or watching your material.

    May 5, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Reply
  4. Prometheus

    I watch and enjoy BOTH "Homeland" and "Awake"...I certainly hope he continues to devote his full attention to those shows.

    May 5, 2012 at 1:20 am | Reply

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