Revered Writer Becomes Merchant

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Lawrence Block photographed by Amy Reichel.
Lawrence Block is sitting in the back of a cozy Greenwich Village bar sharing a plate of crunchy french fries and talking about how, at age 75, he is helping to expand the publishing industry and reinvigorate his own career with the latest entry in the ever-popular Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery series.

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons is Block’s 11th novel featuring the signature exploits of his urbane gentleman thief. However, unlike virtually every one of his prior literary efforts involving a cavalcade of indelible characters, including, of course, complicated private investigator Matthew Scudder, Block’s latest is completely self-published.

“It’s very exciting,” the award-winning crime writer says. “I welcomed the interview today because I’m really glad to get away from the computer. I’ve never been so busy. There’s tons of stuff to do. Self-publishing is labor-intensive.”

The impetus behind Block’s decision to self-publish Rhodenbarr’s latest adventure actually stretches all the way back to 1985 when, with the help of a friend at Arbor House, he decided to run off 5,000 copies of a book he produced to coincide with a writing seminar he was conducting at the time. It turned out to be lots of fun, and the New York City–based author ended up selling every copy of the book.

Block's decadeslong writing career continues to attract dedicated legions of fans who are drawn to his astonishing ability to create truly authentic and multifaceted characters  across a broad literary spectrum. There are vast differences between Bernie Rhodenbarr's ever-ready wit and rapierlike rejoinders and Matthew Scudder's two-fistedness and hard-as-nails demeanor. Both, however, command a loyalty that few others in the literary universe of crime and punishment can hope to match. One world is a timeless milieu that suggests the high-minded and purposeful exchanges found in the pages of classic Sherlock Holmes, while the other smacks of the all-too-mortal grit and flawed reality that exist in the heart of everyday life. Each somehow manages to successfully build upon, and even deepen, succeeding entries while also maintaining the magical continuity of lives actually lived. 

The author is recognized as a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master and the recipient of a host of other literary awards.

“[Self-publishing] has been in the heads of most of the writers that I’ve been around,” Block says. They “would sit drinking the evening away saying, ‘Why can’t we publish our own stuff? Aren’t we tired of watching publishers fuck everything up for us?’ "

The advent of e-books allowed Block to start uploading his work electronically. And a couple of years ago, he decided to put out a collection of Scudder short stories on his own in e-book and paperback form. Both continue to sell well.

Then, the Grand Master thought he might be through penning novels. Self-publishing helped bring him back.

"In addition to the urge a writer always has to do more, I wanted to see what it would be like to publish an A-list book of mine from start to finish that way," Block says.

Last summer, Block booked himself on a five-week cruise in the North Atlantic and at the end of it, had an engrossing new Bernie Rhodenbarr story to sell. Nevertheless, disembarking with a fresh novel on deck, Block wasn’t totally sure what he was going to do with it.

"There was enormous pressure—not in terms of anybody leaning on me—but just the thought that here I had this book that I knew Mulholland would be happy to publish, that HarperCollins would be happy to publish. I knew that there were publishers out there, and they would even hand me a substantial advance," Block says. "I could just hand it over and be done with it. And that was tempting."

To ultimately decide whether to self-publish Bernie Rhodenbarr's latest travails, Block relied on a savvy mechanism he's employed many times in the pastblock cover when faced with tough decisions.

"You just presuppose that whatever you do, you’re going to regret it and try to pick which you’d rather regret," Block says. "And I figured if I published it myself and didn’t do that well with it, I’d regret that a little. But if I didn’t publish it myself, I’d spend the rest of my life regretting it because it was the impulse to self-publish that got the book written in the first place."

Now, with his zest for publishing replenished, and The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons being hailed as one of the strongest entries in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series, Block thinks that it may even be time once again to visit his favorite private investigator Matthew Scudder.

"I was on Craig Ferguson," Block says. "And he always tries to get me to agree to write another book. He likes Scudder. I found myself increasingly receptive to the notion. I also had this conscious thought that, 'Gee, I’m having so much fun right now, I really better write another book because I don’t know if I’ll get to do this again.’ "

Had Block gone the route of traditional book publishing, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons might be out in the late fall of 2014—but more likely in 2015. Too long to wait for Block. This way, the book completed in mid-August was available to readers by Christmas Day, 2013.

"I’ve reached the age where I am no longer advised to buy green bananas," Block says. "I don’t want to sit around waiting a year and a half for something to come out. For years I thought I was an artist—now I find out I’m a merchant. Who knew?”

Indeed, in "the old days," Block and his comrades needed only concern themselves with things like plot, theme and character development. Now, the self-professed "contrary son of a bitch" finds himself responsible for everything right down to the color of the next book's jacket.

"You wouldn't believe how many dark greens there are," he laughs.

Joe Maniscalco is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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