After publishing 10 suspense novels, two of them bestsellers turned into Hollywood movies, Joseph Finder had what most writers would sell their souls for: brand-name author status; a seven-figure, multibook deal with a major publisher; a list of his previous works aggressively marketed by his publisher; and a loyal readership for virtually anything he wrote.
Then, two years ago, in a plot twist befitting one of Finder’s didn’t-see-that-coming thrillers, he made an abrupt change. After his last novel, “Buried Secrets,” failed to make the bestseller list, the Boston-based author bought out his contract with a seven-figure check, left his longtime publisher and agent, and wrote his next novel without a signed deal in place.
He took an additional risk by not publishing anything for nearly three years, an eternity in the life of a popular thriller writer. His goal was to remake his brand, and aim at a larger audience.
“It was the bravest thing I ever did, and I’m not a brave person,” Finder, 55, said about cutting ties with St. Martins, then writing his next novel on spec.
Finder’s new novel, “Suspicion,” debuted this week, and all signs are that his gamble paid off. “Suspicion” was eventually bought by Dutton, with whom he signed a lucrative three-book contract last year.
He makes it clear that he bears no ill will toward St. Martins, and that any disagreement between the two parties was not over money.
“If not for them, I would not be a New York Times best-seller, period,” Finder said at his Back Bay office. “We just disagreed. They wanted me to be the CEO of Suspense. And I felt that was too constricting.”
Publishers “always look for market distinctions,” he added. However, notwithstanding his success with novels like “Paranoia,” “Company Man,” and “Killer Instinct,” all set in a world of corporate intrigue, he felt he was missing potential readers.
According to his own market research, female readers represent about 70 percent of the book-buying public interested in fiction of any kind. Many have commented to Finder personally, he says, that while they might buy a novel marketed as a “corporate thriller” for their husband, they would not pick one up themselves.
“Branding is a two-edged sword, a way of creating trust in a product,” he said. ‘The ‘CEO of the corporate thriller,’ though, does not describe what I do. I do ordinary-guy thrillers, regular people in extraordinary circumstances. There’s nothing corporate about ‘Suspicion.’”
According to Little Brown publisher and industry veteran Reagan Arthur, it’s not unheard of for an author of Finder’s stature to change publishers in an effort to be marketed differently. Romance novelists and thriller writers are the most likely to do so, she added.
“Changing your agent and publisher is a more dramatic approach, though,” Arthur said. It’s also unusual for an author to buy out such a lucrative contract before it’s completed, she noted.
“As a publisher,” Arthur said, “you hope an author comes to you and says, ‘I want you to think of me in this light.’ And that you work things out and decide not to break up. But there can be cases” when that does happen, she acknowledged.
Set mostly in and around Boston, “Suspicion” has received blurb-worthy notices from trade publications like Publishers Weekly, which calls it a “lean, crisp thriller — a zipping Jaguar of a ride,” and Kirkus Reviews, which describes it as “smartly put together.”
The book’s protagonist is, as Finder suggests, an ordinary guy thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Danny Goodwin, a single father and freelance writer struggling with money woes, lives in a Back Bay apartment with his teenage daughter, Abby, who attends a private school near the city. When Abby befriends a wealthy fund manager’s daughter, Goodwin gets an unexpected gift from the girl’s father: a large sum of cash to help Goodwin pay off his debts and keep Abby in school so the girls’ friendship can continue. But the gift comes with some serious strings attached.
Accepting the money throws Goodwin into a nightmarish web of Mexican drug cartels, Drug Enforcement Agency operatives, and other threats to his freedom and safety. The novel contains scenes of graphic violence that may upset some readers, despite being integral to Finder’s plotting and, as he puts it, “reflecting reality, the stuff you can find on YouTube.”
Finder’s obsession with technical details is on display, too, as he delves into subjects like money laundering, cellphone technology, and back-country skiing. If readers see parallels between Goodwin and his creator, they should.
“I didn’t need to research what it’s like being a writer, or having a kid in private school,” said Finder, whose daughter Emma graduated from the Winsor School and is now a college sophomore. “Or struggling with financial issues, for that matter,” he added, having needed to borrow funds himself to buy out his obligation to St. Martins.
Other plot devices, like how the DEA recruits informants and the legal consequences of becoming an agency mole, required more extensive research, says Finder.
The second of five siblings, Finder (rhymes with hinder) belongs to a family of high achievers. His older sister Susan is a leading expert on Chinese law. His other sister, Lisa, is a university research librarian. Brothers Jonathan and Henry are, respectively, a renowned pediatric pulmonologist and New Yorker magazine editorial director.
Their parents worked in the Philippines and Afghanistan, setting up learning centers for English as a Second Language, when their kids were young. Finder spoke Farsi early on, before his parents settled in Albany, N.Y., where his father taught at State University of New York Albany.
By 13, Finder was plowing through James Bond novels. He graduated from Yale, where he majored in Russian studies, where he’d become hooked on suspense authors like Ken Follet and Robert Ludlum — and was convinced he could play in their league, too. He later picked up a masters degree from the Harvard Russian Research Center and turned down a recruitment pitch by the Central Intelligence Agency, figuring real spy work was actually pretty boring.
His first book, published in 1983, was a nonfiction work titled “Red Carpet: The Connection Between the Kremlin and America’s Most Powerful Businessmen.”
“It was controversial,” he recalled in his book-lined studio, a short walk from his Back Bay home, where he writes six days a week. “Slammed in the Times by [reviewer John Kenneth] Galbraith and pigeonholed as pro-Reagan, which was not what I’d intended.”
Oil magnate Armand Hammer threatened a libel suit, although he never followed through. “It was stressful, though,” conceded Finder, who next turned to writing fiction.
His commercial breakthrough came with “Paranoia,” his fifth thriller, published in 2004. It made several bestseller lists and became a major motion picture starring Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford. Another novel, “High Crimes” (1998), hit the big screen costarring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd.
Besides thrillers, Finder pens articles on international affairs, maintains a lively, interactive website (joefinder.com), and belongs to several prominent organizations, among them the International Thriller Writers Association and PEN New England.
In his two most recent novels, “Vanished” (2009) and “Buried Secrets” (2011), Finder introduced his first recurring character: Nick Heller, a “private spy” who specializes in unraveling conspiracies. Finder has written part of a third Heller novel but may not finish it, he says, before issuing another stand-alone novel or two.
Popular thrillers don’t always impress book critics, he admitted. And he’s as thin-skinned as the next best-selling writer when negative reviews roll in.
“There are smart bad reviews and dumb ones,” Finder said. “Dumb ones are written by people who don’t like thrillers. That agenda may be fine for the writer, but it doesn’t make for a great review.”
The smart ones point out flaws that an author knows are there, he says. It’s happened to him, and he can live with those critiques. Exacting revenge in print can be a wasted effort, though, as Finder found out years ago. Upset by a poor review, he named one of the villains in his next novel after him.
People pay good money to have characters named after them in popular novels, Finder noted. “I could have made $5,000 for charity,” he sighed, “rather than giving this to some guy who’d just trashed my book.”