Jake Needham’s first novel, The Big Mango, broke into the expat market at a time when detective genre and most books covering Thailand focused heavily on the Red Light District and clichéd burnt out expats and their jaded bar girlfriends.
That was over decade ago. And he’s not intent on slowing down.
I first met the American crime writer on Twitter, where he offered to send me a few of his Jack Shepherd books, because “you’re a nice guy.” I was in a seedy bar in Jakarta, saying I was reading one of his books. I got a few hoots out of him. I’ve since read all his books on Kindle. We kept in contact. He was gracious enough to grant an exclusive interview for The Far Side.
You had only a few hundred followers when you first started twitter..A lot has changed in the last few years. Now your account has over 50 000 followers.
Actually, I think it’s more like 42,000 or maybe 43,000, but who’s counting? I’ve never really given all that much thought to Twitter. I follow people and people usually follow me back so the numbers build up over time. Happily, I do seem to meet a lot of new readers through Twitter.
There’s hardly a day when I don’t get at least a few tweets asking me which book to read first or from people telling me how interesting my titles sound and that they are going to start reading them. It’s a heck of a lot better than hanging around bookstores and trying to get people to buy books because I’m there to sign them.
It seems you have really adapted well with the new technologies and the social media platforms. At first, how did you feel about it? Was it your publisher Cavendish who persuaded you to go ebooks?
No, I only licensed print rights to Marshall Cavendish. They had never had any involvement at all with my e-book editions. I have always retained those rights personally and all my e-books have been issued worldwide through a family company in Hong Kong.
What are the advantages of publishing on Amazon?
Kindle Direct Publishing is the most technologically advanced, writer-friendly e-book platform in existence. There’s really no debate about that.
You said that for some of your books, you have gone alone, and published them yourself online. While the hard copies are distributed or looked after by your publisher. Why is that?
All of my print editions have been published by Marshall Cavendish, along with limited editions of specific titles from a few other publishers. And all of my e-book editions have come from our family company. Print editions are a much more complex logistical proposition than e-books.
First of all, the production process has a lot of moving parts, then there all the shipping and warehousing and billing. Those issues need a whole company to deal with them.
With the new platform of publishing and ebooks, it seems that your writing is being appreciated by a larger audience than say back in the late 90’s when access to your books wasn’t so prominent. I see that recently, in Singapore, after the publication of your first Inspector Tay series, its hard to find hard copy of your books there. As a matter of interest, is it still possible to pick up The Big Mango at the airport in Singapore, or was that slashed also by the silent censors?
For nearly fifteen years you’ve been able to find print copies of a lot of my titles in bookstores around Asia and fairly often in Europe or the UK, but that won’t be the case for much longer. I have ended my publishing deal with Marshall Cavendish and all of their licenses to produce print editions expire in September. The print editions simply aren’t worth the trouble that goes into them. When you have a worldwide readership the distribution is just too spotty. I now sell 25 or 30 copies in e-book format for every print copy I sell so I didn’t even bothered to license the print rights to THE UMBRELLA MAN and there’s never been a print edition of that title at all.
In your Letters to Asia, you not only generate a lot of hype about your books, which writers must do, but you also express a lot of your personal opinions. The piece on the “Surviving Silly Season in Thailand”, Songkran, was quite funny. Another post, The death of a young American in Singapore , was the parallels of The Ambassador’s wife, and the recent death of an American, who seemed to get caught up in corporate espionage.
As you wrote, ” A couple of dozen people emailed me copies of the FT piece because of some truly spooky parallels between the Shane Todd case and a novel I first published more than five years ago about the death of another American in Singapore, THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE.” The Singaporean police just called it suicide. You offered to send out free copies of that book to every Singaporean, since they don’t stock your books on the island state. That day, you said you had over 1500 hits on your blog.
In a recent interview of a Singapore publication, they drew parallels with your first Tay book and the American who died mysteriously in the island state. Some might say that your writing is prescient?
You don’t really have to be particularly prescient to imagine the sorts of things that can happen in a place like Singapore. I’ve already written two books set in that peculiar little country, and I have enough material right now for a couple more even if they never let me back in again. Come to think of it, being barred from Singapore is something like being forbidden to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
What kind of negative responses did you get for a World of Trouble, or positive, for that matter? It was always going to be a controversial book.
I’m happy to say the Bangkok Post gave A WORLD OF TROUBLE a terrific review. “Needham has an insider’s knowledge of Thailand that may make some people here uncomfortable, but A WORLD OF TROUBLE is one terrific novel.” I couldn’t ask for more than that.
Do you think A World of Trouble got a bigger rebuke that both The Ambassador’s Wife, and The Umbrella Man did in Singapore?
It wasn’t very well stocked in Thailand, but then my books never have been. Asia Books is the only real book distributor there and they’ve held a grudge for fifteen years that I left their little publishing company after they published the first edition of THE BIG MANGO. Of course, Asia Books gave up the publishing business altogether ten years ago, but they’ve kept the grudge going anyway. Grudges are the stuff of life for Thais. Other than that, I never had any blowback at all in Thailand over A WORLD OF TROUBLE.
And I shouldn’t have. It’s a novel. I made up the plot. Just because the book has its roots in some things that are true, doesn’t turn it into a political statement. The publisher told me that some assistant to Thaksin ordered some copies, but I have no idea whether Thaksin ever read it. If he did, I hope he enjoyed it.
Your writing differs to other writers of the Realm. It’s almost that you take the “I don”t moralize ” ground. I suppose that’s a hall mark of any sensitive writer, let the reader decide what is right. Now that you have a hard core following, do you think that through a consensus from your readers, that you will now continue writing crime novels set in Asia?
I have two pretty popular series going — the Jack Shepherd books and the Inspector Tay books — and while I’d really like to at least think about doing some other things, my readers are pretty vocal in demanding new titles for both those series. If I can mange to do a new Shepherd and a new Tay every year, that’s a pretty good year’s work right there. I’m not sure there’s going to be time left to do anything else.
Did that change with the verification of the phenomenal voting with downloads of your books during the Amazon promotions. At one stage you were number one for downloads in the UK and the USA?
Happily, my e-books have done very well on Amazon. I did have a #1 on Amazon UK last spring, THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE, but it only made it to #2 in the US. Overall, I’m selling 4000 to 6000 e-books a month just on Amazon alone these days, most of them in the US. Not bad for somebody who writes books American publishers have always insisted no one in America wants to read…
You did say in a recent interview, that with e-books, “the gatekeeper largely goes away. The book business is business is never going to be the same again. And thank God for that.” Could you explain the recent success of The Ambassador’s Wife, that reached number 1 on Amazon’s thriller list?
Honestly, I really can’t. I have noticed that my e-book sales have built steadily over the last couple of years. I guess people who like my books have told other people about them through social media and blog postings and things like that, and that’s why sales have built steadily. There’s really nothing new in that. We used to call it word of mouth. Its still pretty much the same thing, but without actual mouths being involved anymore.
The point I was making in that interview you quoted was that with e-books the relationship is directly between writers and readers. There’s nobody in between telling writers what kinds of stuff we have to write or telling readers what you have to read. Actually, I’m a pretty good example of that. I sell a lot of books in the US and have a lot of readers there.
Yet, year after year, American publishers used to tell me that Americans won’t buy novels set in Asia because Americans have no interest in Asia. Yet, once they were exposed to them in the form of e-books, tens of thousands of Americans started buying my books. Regardless of that, however, my print editions have still never been available in the US. Why? Because American publishers continue to insist that Americans have no interest in novels set in Asia. Go figure, huh?
How will your latest Jack Shephard novel be different to the other ones you have written? I noticed that you have given the public a peek preview of your cover, is there a chance of getting a preview of a few words here?
I’m not quite ready to say anything specific about it yet. Maybe in another month. Or two.
The covers of all your books have been redone. I understand the same designer who does John Le Carre covers, did it for you. Was it hard to say good bye to the old covers?
I’ve had some pretty good designers, that’s true. Yes, Stuart Bache who designs for both Stephen King and John LeCarre in the UK did my Inspector Tay covers, but my Jack Shepherd covers were done by a South African designer. I’m really happy with the covers for both series. I think each series now has covers that very well reflect the differing tones of the books.