Zibby is joined by #1 New York Times bestselling author Dean Koontz to talk about his latest two novels, Quicksilver and The Big Dark Sky. The two discuss why Dean decided to leave his publisher (as well as why he doesn’t think the publishing industry should continue to vilify Amazon) and what many imprints misunderstand about their readers. Dean also shares why he likes to challenge himself more at this stage of his career than he did before, his deep fascination with coincidences, and which projects he is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dean. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Quicksilver, which is already out, and The Big Dark Sky, coming out in July.

Dean Koontz: Thank you for having me here.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. You’ve sold three hundred and fifty million copies of your books. That’s the most insane amount of books I have ever heard of anybody selling. How do you sit down each time and then try to come up with something totally different and not feel overwhelmed by the success of the past? Maybe I’m making this up and you don’t feel overwhelmed at all.

Dean: First of all, we say five hundred million now.

Zibby: Five hundred million, oh, my gosh. I’m sorry.

Dean: Let’s not underplay this.

Zibby: You might even say half a billion. That’s crazy.

Dean: It’s always a challenge when you sit down with it. You’re always afraid you’re not going to have anything to write, at least initially. I usually have an idea in my head. Sometimes that’s the one I start with. Then another idea comes along in a day or two. It captures me. I just have to write it. The older I get, now that I’m 185, I find out that if it isn’t something that seems almost impossible to pull off, then I’m not interested in it. It has to be more difficult, not less. That’s strange because when I was very young and starting out, I thought there’s only so many tricks you have to learn. Once you learn them, every book will get easier. I found that wasn’t true. They get harder and harder. The more difficult they get, the more fun it becomes to write them because it’s a challenge. It’s always kind of inspirational to think you could fall flat on your face and make an idiot of yourself. Therefore, you strive not to do that.

Zibby: I love that, fiction as a way to just not make a fool of yourself. That’s great. Quicksilver starts with the backstory of Quinn Quicksilver, QQ to his friends, or something like that. He had been left on the road and then deposited at an orphanage. We come back later in his life and find out what the scene had really looked like to the three men who found him, which was very interesting and not what I was expecting when they relived that situation either. Tell me more about this book and what it really meant to you and what made it such a big challenge that got you very excited about it.

Dean: First of all, anytime you tell a book in a first-person voice, you have to create a unique voice for that character. Otherwise, why do it? I wanted Quinn Quicksilver to be very funny and very naïve. I’ve done that before in a character named Odd Thomas. I didn’t want it to be so like Odd Thomas you thought it was an Odd Thomas novel. There was a challenge in that. I also wanted it to be a novel about free will and why the world is the way it is, why evil exists, and why the world could not exist as a free place if there was no evil. In other words, how do you explain to a reader who may be very upset with the world we’re living in, and for good reason, why it is that way? If it was not that way, if there wasn’t evil, if there wasn’t setbacks in our lives, we would be creatures without freedom because we would have no choice to make. We’d be robots. How do you get that through in story and talk about that in a serious way without boring the butt off everybody or offending anybody? Quinn’s story was a way to approach that with a lot of humor but also suspense and danger and all those elements that make us want to turn the pages of a novel. It started for me with just that image of a little baby in a bassinet sitting in the middle of a desert highway early in the morning and found by three people on the way to work. I didn’t even know what the book was about when that image came into my head. It was so irresistible that I had to do something with it.

Zibby: Wow. Then from there, we move on to Montana for your next book, The Big Dark Sky. What was your flash of lightning for this book?

Dean: I’ve long been fascinated with what Jung called synchronicity, so coincidences in life that are so amazing, they seem to be more than coincidence. What Jung eventually came up with as a psychologist was that coincidences aren’t coincidences. Our lives are full of them. We dismiss them as coincidences. We dismiss them so much that we only recognize them when they’re extreme. I mention a number of real coincidences in the book, one of which was a church in Oklahoma back in the — I’m forgetting now whether it was the fifties or the sixties. They’d had choir practice for fifteen years every Sunday at the same hour. No one had ever been late. Then this one Sunday, all fifteen choir members were late, each for a different reason. One took a nap and overslept. One of them got a migraine headache. One of them had a car break down. Nobody got there on time. The nearest anyone did was a woman who was about five minutes late. Two minutes after they should’ve all been there, the church blew up in a gas explosion. There’s a coincidence that makes you stop and think. I’ve been collecting these most of my life because I find them fascinating. I’d always thought there is a novel in this.

My first thought for decades was the novel would be the reverse of The Bridge Over San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder in which he has a character try to explain why this bridge in the 1600s fails and these people fall to their death. What about these people? Why these people? He needs to find that there’s meaning in this. What he ends up finding is there is no meaning. I thought maybe it would be more interesting to say, now that we understand quantum mechanics and that there really do not seem to be any coincidences in the world — quantum mechanics show how you how integrated everything is. The butterfly effect is one thing that most people know, the idea that if a flock of butterflies, with its wings, disturbs the air, it affects the weather in Chicago, maybe in an infinitesimal way. Also, everything affects everything else in ways that are very mysterious and strange. By the time I got to write this, I thought, no, it’s more a book about how C.G. Jung and his theories actually are supported by quantum mechanics. There would be this whole cast of characters who seem to come together by coincidence. When you get to the very end, it almost could not have worked out any other way. It was a challenge to write that because it was one of those books you could look like an idiot. I’ve looked like an idiot many times in my life, so it would have been just one more. It’s always worth the risk.

Zibby: Very interesting. I’m going to look at all the coincidences in my life with a new eye at this point. You’ve been writing, as you said, for, maybe not 108 or whatever you joked about, but for many years. I’m curious as to the changes you’ve seen in the publishing industry and where we are now and then your decision to be published by an Amazon publishing company.

Dean: It has been radical change in publishing. Many times, I think it’s been publishers shooting themselves in the foot. I can remember when I was hearing from my publisher almost gleefully that they were going to destroy the mass market paperback business because the price point was too low, eight or ten dollars for a mass market. Profit on that was not as high as they wished. There were going to shift everybody into sixteen-dollar trade paperbacks. My first thought was, no, you’re not. You’re not going to get millions and millions, tens of millions of people who are buying mass market to pay twice as much. You’re not even going to get half of them to do that. As a consequence, you’re losing all of that display space. You used to go in supermarkets, drugstores, everywhere you went there’d be those paperbacks, which were actual little posters that sucked you in that got you to do impulse buying and find new writers. It’s not the same to look at those little tiny postage stamp things on a screen as it is to see those real books in real outlets, but there was success in that. It pretty much destroyed the mass market retail industry in the hopes that it would lead to this more profitable trade paperback. We went from five hundred distributors of mass market paperbacks to five over a period of years. That really has hurt writers. It’s hurt the publishing business. It’s harder to launch a writer now. E-books have made up for some of that, but only for maybe twenty percent of them. Unfortunately, now all writers, new and older, have to live with that.

I’ve also seen changes in which a lot of what’s driven what publishers want to promote is what’s chosen by book clubs run by celebrities or run by network television or whatever. There’s a sameness in all that that only appeals to a certain variety of readers, a certain wedge of readers. It leaves out a lot of people who want something else. I think that’s had a negative effect. Yes, the writers fortunate enough to get chosen in that do extremely well. I once noted that if they’re not chosen by that book club again, they don’t have a best-seller, generally speaking. They may have one more, and then that’s it. That means the readers weren’t that enamored of the book or they would’ve stayed with that writer book after book. As a consequence, these changes and a number of others have been profoundly effective on the business. At one point, I was at that point of age — I’m sure age had something to do with it. My publisher probably said, well, what’s he got in him anymore? Three more books? Four more books? Five more books? As a consequence, I saw promotion and publicity, all that just disappear. I still owed a couple books. I said to my agents — I didn’t have agents for fourteen years. Then I got agents a few years ago. I said to them, “Look, we’ve got to try something new. Let me pay back my publisher for the two books I haven’t delivered yet. Let’s go out there and see what interest there is and what another publisher might do to promote.” We went out. We got eight or nine offers. All but one of them was from traditional American publishers. There were offers as good as the one at Penguin from Amazon. They were a lot.

One thing that mattered to me was, what is your marketing plan? Some of the US publishers didn’t even bother to give a marketing plan. The biggest other marketing plan was two pages. When Amazon’s offer came in, which was as good as the couple of others that were at the top, it came with a thirty-some-page marketing plan. It was a brilliant marketing plan. I looked at that. I said, okay, now here’s the downside. Amazon sales are not counted for a best-seller list even though Amazon sells sixty percent of all books sold in the country. You’re not going to be on best-seller lists anymore. What’s more important? We get into this to communicate, to reach out to people. I never got into it thinking it would become as big as it did. As a consequence, I said, I want to reach as many people as I can reach. It looks like Amazon, Thomas & Mercer, would be much better at doing that. They have been. It was eye-opening. It was very strange to a lot of people that I stepped out. Amazon, Thomas & Mercer, is doing very well-produced books. Their hardcover books are better made than the hardcover books of mine that were being made by my former publisher. They’re prettier. They have decorative end papers. They do a little design for part breaks. They have designs on the boards of the books. That all went away in New York publishing a long time ago. As a book collector, I’m happy. As a writer, I’m happy. It’s kind of strange to be at this point in my career, but I’m so glad I found this safe harbor.

Zibby: Very interesting. I have a memoir coming out. I did go with Amazon myself, Little A, which is a fiction and memoir imprint of Amazon Publishing. It’s been a very interesting conversation, especially with the bookstores. It’s not just the best-seller list, but some indie bookstores also don’t want to carry Amazon Publishing books, which I keep saying to the owners is just shooting themselves in the foot because if someone comes in to buy my book, you’re not going to have it. Then they’re going to go buy it from Amazon. Why don’t they just carry it?

Dean: There’s a hatred of Amazon sometimes in the business that’s irrational. I understand it because they came out of nowhere, essentially, for most and became dominant in the book business. If you’re in the book business, it seems to me you want to stop and think, why? Why did that happen? It wouldn’t happen if we were competing in the right way. There isn’t a lot of self-analysis, I’m afraid. I have a lot of friends in the independent book business because I sold a lot of books through them. I find it sad but understandable. They feel they’re dealing with a competitor. I’ve even known some of them would handle a Barnes & Noble book that Barnes & Noble published, even though it’s a competitor, but they wouldn’t handle an Amazon book. Some do. We have a number of independents that carry my new books. Everything changes.

I had to make that change or watch my career, which had been more successful than I ever imagined, just be sort of winnowed away, and beyond my control. I didn’t like that. I was working as hard as ever. I believed in what I was doing. I needed to be somewhere that they shared that sentiment. I’ve found in that team at Thomas & Mercer, the most creative, efficient, enthusiastic group of people I could have hoped to have found. It makes a difference when you’re with people who think what you’re doing matters to them. They want to get it out there. It’s that simple. You have to, as a writer, try to find that place. A lot of writers are too afraid to do it because they think there’ll be no going back. Maybe there isn’t. I don’t know. If this fails, I might be persona non grata in most publishing. That’s very sad because with other publishers and with especially a lot of bookstores, we had a lot of success together. We still could if attitudes would change, but I can’t change attitudes more than I could do by just writing my books.

Zibby: Interesting. I’ve also started my own publishing company. We have books coming out starting in January. It was sort of based on the premise of changing things up from the way things had been done before. Marketing is a huge, if not the biggest thing, aside from uniting authors together, that we’re doing because of the way it’s been done historically. If you were going to start your own firm right now, what would you do to make a difference?

Dean: Wow. Thank god I don’t have to start my own firm at 185. There’s things, if I had been younger and thought about doing this, but right now, it has to do with marketing. It has to do with understanding the audience. I think this is the biggest thing I would do. One thing that I learned over the years — I’m not saying this to make angry anyone in publishing, but there is a nearly complete lack of understanding of who the audience is. They publish for a wedge of the audience. They publish a lot of things with a kind of contempt. They shouldn’t do that. Lately, they don’t even publish for that audience very much. They’ve narrowed it and narrowed it and narrowed it. As a consequence, where they used to, even with a certain contempt, publish for ninety percent of the public, I think that they now publish for thirty-five percent of the public. You can’t do that. You can’t be classist about it. You can’t have contempt for other tastes. I’m not even talking political or anything. I’m just talking other tastes. That, I’ve noticed over the years, is a big deal in publishing. I think the thing that the successful publisher asks is, who is that audience? I never had, until very late in my career, could never persuade a publisher to do marketing research to find out who read my books. For many years, my publishers told me eighty percent of my readership was male. I knew that wasn’t true because, two things. We were getting thousands of letters a year from readers. About sixty percent of them were from women. When I would do book signings, sixty to seventy percent of the people who would stand in line for five hours to get their book signed were women. I could never make my publishers focus on that in marketing and publicity because it was their idea that what I wrote, only men read or largely men read.

Without understanding who your market is and then having certain contempt for it so that you winnow down and not publishing to those aspects, I don’t know how you go on in business. If I were starting now, that would be what I’d want to do. What am I publishing? Who are the readers for this? I don’t care what jobs they have, what political opinions they have. I don’t care anything about them except, what do they like to read? Let’s make sure we give it to them. That doesn’t mean writing down to an audience. I’ve found that, by my mail and everything — not to drone on at you, but I was also told that my vocabulary was too big, my ideas were too complex in my stories to get a mass audience. Well, we got one anyway because the public is smarter, more aware, and more interested in challenging stories than is often thought. Diminishing them, they know it when they’re sold stuff that diminishes. They buy it in fewer numbers. That diminishes them. I think we’ve seen that with what’s happened in book sales over my lifetime.

Zibby: Very interesting. Truly, truly interesting. Thank you for that. I know that wasn’t what you were prepared to necessarily talk about, but I’m interested. I appreciate it. What is your next book? How long does it take you to write each of these books?

Dean: I work at my desk sixty, seventy hours a week. I’m almost doing double duty here. Sometimes even longer at the end of a book. I’ve got a couple books in inventory that I think are among the best things I’ve done. One of them’s called The House at the End of the World, which is very scary but very emotional and deals with loss and grief and how you overcome that. It’s also a page-turner because that is necessary. Then I just delivered a book called After Death, which is a pretty daunting title. We’ll see whether the publisher wants to stay with that. I had great fun writing that. It was quite a challenge. I don’t want to say what it’s about. It’s about something people have been anticipating for thirty years, going to happen. There’s great hope about what it will mean. I’ve been thinking about it for those thirty years and thought, it isn’t going to be anything like what those who are dreaming of it think. What is it going to be like? That’s sort of what this book is about. Again, it’s highly emotional, personal with a lot of action in it. Now I’ve got two big books in work. I never do that. I’ve been gravitating back and forth because I don’t know which I like the most. I think I’ve pretty much decided which one to go with. I’ve never been here. I’ve got The Big Dark Sky, The House at the End of the World, After Death, three books in inventory. I’ve never had more than one in inventory. The reason for that is I’m dealing with people so enthusiastic and creative in the publishing company that it inspires you. It gets you to want to write more and better. That’s all you can hope for.

Zibby: Wow, that’s wonderful. What do you do when you’re not writing?

Dean: Sleep. Drink a good red wine so I can sleep. I read, spend time with my wife and my dog and friends. We’re not travelers. I don’t have a lot of hobbies anymore. I collect books. I used to collect a lot of antiques, antique sculptures, art deco items. I don’t have any room to put any more of them, so I’ve sort of stopped collecting. We just relax. I find the older I get, the more time that’s important is time with friends or time with my wife and my dog and just being able to have a little time to breathe. That’s as good as it gets.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you so much. This has been really interesting. I really respect all your opinions a lot. You have such a unique vantage point on the industry. I’m really grateful you shared it with me. Thank you. I’m excited for all your books. Very cool.

Dean: Good luck with your enterprise. I hope it works.

Zibby: Thank you. We’ll see. Take care.

Dean: Take care. Bye-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


THE BIG DARK SKY by Dean Koontz

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts