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Vincent Zandri Shares His Evil Plan to Take Over the Writing World

book Ice Islands by author Humphrey Hawksley

With over 125 novels and novellas under his belt, New York Times, USA Today, and ITW Thriller Award-winning author Vincent Zandri knows how to captivate his readers with thrilling and exciting stories. However, it’s his bold personality, combined with his “100 percent or Nothing” approach to life, that his fans and colleagues truly appreciate.

In this interview, Zandri shares his writing journey, which began with the traditional agent-guided path. He later found success in self-publishing and, most recently, launched direct web sales and digital marketing. An avid skier, Zandri has skillfully navigated the publishing business world just as he attacks the double-black diamond slopes. However, in the end, it is all about the writing that Zandri has mastered.

If you’d like to experience first-hand Zandri’s approach to writing, publishing and life, follow his YouTube channel, “A Writers Life!” You won’t be disappointed.

Vincent Zandri

What was your initial writing journey like? What led you to write your first stories and get your first novel published?

The journey started right when I got out of college in the late 80s and realized how much I hated the working life. Or should I say, the 9-5 routine, with the two-week vacation per year, work a half day on Saturdays, take Sunday off whether you like it or not, kind of life. I had always been fascinated with writers and writing and was a big reader. It was pretty liberating to read what I wanted to read once I got out of college.

I read all the Hemingway I could get my hands on, and I also fell in love with his adventurous, world-traveling lifestyle. On an extended ski trip to Aspen, I read Baker’s famous biography on him and a whole bunch of others. Not knowing how to become a professional writer, I used Hemingway as a blueprint.

I started as a sports stringer for the Times Union Newspaper at 25, then went on to freelance for magazines and other newspapers. Then, I tried my hand at my first short stories and got them published in some good literary magazines. At the same time, I was also reading a lot of hard-boiled writers like Robert B. Parker and Andrew Vacchs. When a girlfriend of mine turned me on to Jim Crumley, I knew precisely the path I wanted to take. I wanted to be a hard-boiled mystery writer, and I wanted to do it for a living so I could travel and have adventures.

When I was in writing school at Vermont College, I wrote the first 40 pages of my first novel, The Innocent, for my creative thesis. My advisor at the time made me edit a whole bunch of words from it before it was accepted. As soon as I graduated, I put those words back in, and my then-agent, Jimmy Vines, sold the book nine months later to Delacorte in a two-book deal for $230,000. It was a big deal at the time. I’ve been a full-time professional ever since, despite the ups and downs and the divorces.

How did you decide to pursue self-publishing versus the traditional agent-publisher path?

The short answer is money. Keep in mind that I’m a hybrid author. That means I still publish traditionally, but not nearly as much as I used to. I have an agent, Chip MacGregor, who’s done a ton of deals for me (I believe he’s one of the top deal makers in the business). Our most recent deal was a three-book audio deal with Tantor Media in December. But I’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars in advances with him and other agents like Jimmy Vines (who is now a professional magician, I kid you not). However, the problem with traditional publishing is that you rarely earn out your advance. I’ve had some books that have earned out, but the royalties you receive afterward are paltry once the agent takes his cut and the publisher takes the motherload. And I’ve sold a lot of books—1.25 million at last count.

That said, I knew that if I wanted to survive as a full-time fiction writer, I needed to start my own publishing company, Bear Media, LLC, with which I would get paid once per month. Bear Media has allowed me not only to publish what I want and when I want but also to have all the money go to me. So, too, does all the IP that my children and their children will inherit. I’m also not forced to stick to any particular word count, structure, or plot line. I can do whatever my writing heart desires.

In fact, many of the books I write or have written under Bear Media, like my Meta Man series or my Chase Baker Action Adventure series, which has sold tens of thousands of units, would never be considered by a traditional publisher. They mix genres and take way too many chances that the Yale graduates editing inside the Bertelsmann Building would ever tolerate. Also, some tropes don’t quite fit in with today’s woke culture. I’ll just leave it at that.

On the other hand, I enjoy a terrific relationship with some traditionally based and agent-oriented independent publishers like Down & Out Books and Polis Books. These operations aren’t entirely bothered that I’m so prolific; therefore, they are willing to take more chances with a big-time producer like me. I can pretty much just call them and tell them I have a new novel for their list, and they will schedule it. No questions asked. Not that they’re pushovers. If they don’t like something, they’re going to reject it. But they are much more author-centric (not sure that’s a word) than most publishers out there who stare at spreadsheets more than they do an author’s work.

I put out a tremendous amount of work. I’m essentially a pulp fiction writer like that you would have found in the 1930s through the 1960s. I write at least a full novel per month, plus one novella per month and perhaps a short story or two mixed in. This drives the traditional publishers batshit crazy. I’m quite literally breaking the rules when I publish all that material not only with Down & Out Books but with my Bear Media business. This week alone, I had two new, full-length novel releases: Quietly Into the Night and Young Chase Baker and the Well of the Souls. Plus, I contribute at least two episodes a day to Kindle Vella and I freelance, which means I write one 1000-word article per day. I also host “The Writer’s Life” YouTube channel. I produce one video per day. Or I try anyway.

I work seven days per week even when I’m traveling three months out of the year because, to me, this isn’t work. I’m 58 years old, and while most people my age might be starting to contemplate retirement in four or five years, I don’t contemplate it at all. There will be no retirement for me. If I don’t buy it on one of my adventures in the jungle or the desert, I’ll go out with my boots on at my laptop.

What advice do you have for writers exploring self-publishing?

I would suggest trying to get published traditionally first. That means finding a reputable agent who’s interested in your words and your voice. Why, as a non-traditionalist, do I say this? Because these days, anybody can be a writer. There are no gatekeepers anymore, which is both a blessing and a curse. Too many would-be writers are self-publishing absolute garbage. We need to keep in mind that publishing should have nothing to do with equity. It must be based on a meritocracy, which only makes sense since the crème should rise to the top.

It took me 15 years before I jumped into the indie/self-publishing world on a part-time basis, and that was after I’d worked as a freelancer for newspapers, magazines, literary magazines, and, of course, major publishers. In all these cases, I collected hundreds of rejections. Being rejected is crucial to the overall publishing experience. It’s how we learn and grow as writers. Also, it’s how we develop a thick skin. It separates the men from the boys in that, while many will give up after being rejected so often, a small few (of which I include myself) will persevere and adjust their approach to writing and publishing accordingly. In a word, you work harder and smarter (okay, that’s two words, but you get it).

As much as I love it and appreciate its potential financial benefits, self-publishing is easy. Maybe too easy. Anyone can do it. That’s a good thing for a prolific writer like me who has not only been trained at an MFA in Writing school but who has also gone through the rigors of the traditional system. At present, I’ve published with Delacorte, Dell, Thomas & Mercer, Polis Books, Oceanview Publishing, Down & Out Books, Tantor Media and Blackstone Audio, plus I’ve been published in Italy, Russia, Japan, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.

I’ve had several agents (I was even with the William Morris Agency for a while), and I’ve worked with a couple dozen developmental editors at the top of their game. I’ve also been awarded the ITW Thriller Award and the PWA Shamus Award, been a finalist for the Derringer Award, and won a few more minor awards both for my fiction and my journalism. I’ve attracted Hollywood attention, appearing on Bloomberg Financial News and the Fox News Network, and have been the subject of a major piece by the New York Times. I’ve hit the New York Times, the USA Today, and the Amazon Overall Number One Amazon bestseller list several times over. Okay, so I’m telling you all this not to blow my horn but to prove that publishing is based on the meritocracy I just spoke about. Anything less and publishing will die a quick death. You only have to look as far as the current federal government for proof of that.

All this said I’ve never taken the notion of self-publishing/indie publishing lightly for the simple fact that some people should not be publishing their words. This might sound crass, but they are not good enough, or at the very least, they haven’t put in their 10,000 hours of training. They don’t know rejection. They don’t know what perseverance is and staying up all night in the pool of your own sweat, staring at the ceiling, wondering if your agent is going to sell your new novel or if you are going to have to look for work just to keep the lights on.

As for me, I hire only the best editors who tell me when my work isn’t up to snuff. These days, I also apply new AI editing tools like Grammarly. Soon, I’ll be using AI for my audiobooks. At this point, however, as a 25-year full-time fiction and writing veteran, I can write clean copy the first time around, and I’m able to bring a book to market far faster than a traditional publisher could ever hope to in their wildest dreams.

I know this answer is a little long-winded, but I hope it answers your question about newbies going straight to self-publishing without earning their stripes first.

What was the most important skill you learned during your MFA experience?

Don’t go to MFA school. Haha. That sounds flippant but it’s true. Back in the mid-90s (I was Vermont College Class of ’97), writing school was a necessary evil. 1997 was the year the internet exploded to life which meant the 21’st century was essentially upon us. However, as writers, we were still stuck in the 20th century and would remain as such for at least another decade or more.

That said, the best a writer could hope for…and the professors stressed this to no end in writing school…was to maybe publish a single book every few years, perhaps with a small or university press, and along with that, maybe publish a short story or two per year in a literary magazine. Maybe you could do some freelance writing for magazines. But this was a creative fiction writing program, so that was the focus.

If you were really lucky, you were able to land a creative writing teaching job at a college or post-graduate institution. But to do that, you needed the MFA in Writing degree. I fully expected to follow the path of the writing teacher who published a book now and again, as well as some short stories. I anticipated working on the same book for maybe two or three years, rewriting and rewriting and polishing and polishing until my unique voice was completely erased from the thing. What would result would be dull and entirely deserving of a university literary press. Maybe I’d sell 500 copies and win an award for it.

Getting a major deal with a major publisher wasn’t even spoken about, much less in the cards for anyone. But by the time I entered my fourth semester, I knew full well that I no longer wanted to be a writing teacher. I wanted to write a mystery series or two and some thrillers. I wanted to write them fast like the pulp writers of yesteryear. I wanted to travel and see the world, and that meant getting a major deal for very good money. I wasn’t shy about talking about my goals, either.

Vermont College would offer a kind of mixer every other night with beers and other drinks so the students and faculty could let off some steam together. I recall that during one of these events, I opened my trap about fully intending to “entertain my readers.” Talk about a room going completely silent. It was like you could hear a typewriter key drop. Finally, one of the professors spoke up. “If you wish to entertain your readers, you’re in the wrong place,” she said. I realized then I had struck a nerve.

I also realized that writing school was a scam. It was a place where people paid $40,000+ to feel like a real writer for two years. I also knew no one earned a living with an MFA in Writing degree. You earned a living the old-fashioned way by putting in 10,000 hours of hard writing work until you mastered your craft and became able to write good, clean copy the first time around.

It wasn’t until I graduated and nailed my first major contract that someone in the know told me that 99.5 percent of MFA in Writing graduates would never write another creative word in their lives after graduation. Most of them would go on to pursue other careers. I’m proud to announce that I have never had to work another job in my life. Nor have I had to teach a single class.

Anything else you would like to share with our readers?

As I said, if you want to be a full-time writer, you need to put in your 10,000 hours of writing complete crap before you finally break through the barrier and begin to write good, clean, exciting copy the first time around. That means a single, tight, first and final draft that’s chuck full of your unique voice.

Travel: I’m gone three or more months out of the year. I spent a lot of that time in Italy, but I also spent a lot of time in uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous places like the West African bush country, Egypt during the revolution or even Chornobyl, which I visited just months before the war broke out. I’ve been to Moscow when I worked for the RT News Service, and I’ve been to Kathmandu, where I climbed parts of Machu Picchu. I’ve broken my foot in the Amazon jungle and had my fingers bloodied by piranhas. I’ve walked the rice patties in Cambodia and fired a Jeep-mounted .30 cal in Vietnam. I’ve seen the place where Jesus was scourged in Jerusalem during His passion and last April; I spent a month four-wheeling from Istanbul to close to the Syrian border and back again. All of these adventures have gotten into my books one way or another, especially my Chase Baker series.

Live simply: Don’t complicate your life with a big house, a new car every year, and a country club. Leave that stuff for the rich lawyers and doctors. But if you wish to be a full-time writer, you’re going to have to get used to not getting a regular paycheck. You don’t have to live cheaply, but the less stuff you have to worry about, the better.

Relationships: Arguably, my writing has cost me a couple of marriages and more than one or two relationships. It’s a selfish, lonely occupation, but it’s the best occupation in the world. To me, it’s not even a real job, which means I’ll never retire or quit. So, my advice for young people is to either marry another writer or don’t get married at all. Live with someone if you want, but inevitably, you’ll get, “You’re writing is more important than me.”


Why do I Pursue Indie Publishing Over Traditional Publishing?



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