Robert Dugoni has told the story many times.
It’s a story worth telling.
When the New York Times bestselling author was in seventh grade, he was assigned a class speech on slavery and chose the point of view of an abolitionist. He spoke before his classmates about how demoralizing and abhorrent slavery was. When he finished, no one clapped. They all just stared at him, and so did his teacher, Sister Kathleen.
Dugoni was anxious. Was it really that bad? Standing alone before them, he felt embarrassed. Then Sister Kathleen pulled him from the classroom with no explanation. Now he was really in trouble. She told him to stand right there, outside his classroom in the hallway. She entered the classroom next door as he stood alone wondering what went wrong. Finally, she returned.
She told young Bobby, she wanted him to give his speech to the other seventh grade class.
“I loved the moment,” Dugoni says. “I realized I could move people with words. That is the moment I decided I wanted to be a writer.”
And what a writer he has become. Like most bestselling authors, he has weathered the ups and downs of the industry, being dropped by one publisher, then picked up by the next, leaving one publisher for a better deal with another. But for the past decade, he has been at the top of the publishing world. Not only a number one bestselling author, but the all-time bestselling author for Thomas & Mercer, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. And that means he’s become a bestselling author without the help of independent bookstores, most of whom refuse to stock anything published by Amazon Publishing.
So how did he travel from seventh grade orator to one of the biggest selling authors in the country today?
After graduating from Stanford University with a journalism degree, he worked for the Los Angeles Times, a destination most journalism students would give their eye teeth for, especially Dugoni, who wanted so badly to write.
One of his favorite stories was about a kid who pulled a man from a burning gas station. Dugoni learned the man and the youngster had already been taken to the hospital with smoke inhalation and burns. He raced back to the newsroom to write the story and tried to reach the kid at the hospital. He couldn’t get through. His city editor heard about the story. Not wanting to rely on a rookie for such a good tale, he told Dugoni to give his notes to Jack, a more seasoned journalist. When the editor was out of earshot, Jack turned to the young rookie and told him, “never give up a story.” So Dugoni continued to work on deadline. But he still hadn’t reached the boy. With his eye on the clock, he kept dialing the phone (it was a while ago) while writing the story. The deadline was almost upon him when he finally got through to the youngster.
“He gave the greatest quotes,” Dugoni says.
He quickly finished his interview and began inserting quotes, rewriting, and polishing his lead. Deadline had arrived. He could see the city editor out of the corner of his eye approaching when Dugoni pressed send on his computer.
The next day his story appeared on the front page of the Metro Section and Robert Dugoni finally had some cred with his editors. So much so, he was assigned to write Sunday features for the newspaper. In less than a year, the sibling of a slew of overachievers—the one out of ten who consumed books by the dozen—had landed a plum assignment at the most prestigious newspaper on the West Coast.
But it wasn’t enough.
Dugoni says he got cold feet. He needed to live up to higher expectations his mother had instilled in him at an earlier age, a part of his DNA. So, he quit journalism, went to law school, “and hated it.” Even so, he was driven, and he practiced law for thirteen years in San Francisco. But the urge to write never left him. So, finally in 1999, the feeling was so strong, he quit the firm. With the support of his wife Cristina, also an attorney, they moved to Seattle where he could write full-time and practice law a couple of days a week.
He was working on three different novels at once—including one he called The Jury Master—and as he describes it, “failing miserably.” He received 48 rejections from agents until Clyde Taylor at the Curtis Brown Agency, asked to read his manuscript.
“It wanders too much,” he told Dugoni.
The part-time attorney worked on it for another 3-4 months until Taylor was satisfied.
“It’s ready to go out (to publishers),” he told Dugoni. “But don’t call me. I’ll call you.”
Not being familiar with the publishing business and thinking these things must take time, Dugoni took him at his word. He waited. Months passed. Finally, he received a card in the mail from his literary agency saying something about “In Celebration.” He called Taylor’s administrative assistant, Mandy, who told him Taylor had died three months earlier. She said the manuscript had never been sent out, and “nobody does the boy books that Clyde did.”
Dugoni was on his own again without an agent.
During this time, he’d been at a party where he met Environmental Protection Agency Special Agent Joseph Hilldorfer, who told him about a fascinating case. Scott Dominguez, who worked at a fertilizer plant in Utah, was found unconscious one morning, suffering from toxic exposure to cyanide in a tank that was supposed to contain only water and mud. Hilldorfer had investigated the case for years trying to uncover what really happened. Together, the two decided to write a nonfiction spec manuscript, which read like a detective novel. They called it The Cyanide Canary.
Upon completion, Dugoni again had to find an agent. A friend recommended the Jane Rotrosen Agency. So Dugoni went to New York City on a hot summer day and found the agency’s office in a townhouse on 51st Street in Manhattan. Jane Rotrosen had red hair, blue eyes, and a smoker’s gravelly voice. But most important, she had The Cyanide Canary in her sites. Her associate, Meg Ruley, took him on as a client.
Rotosen told him, “We’re going to make a lot of money together, kid.”
Well, not exactly. The Cyanide Canary won critical acclaim but not readers. The Washington Post called it one of the best books of the year. But publisher, Simon & Schuster, did little to promote it.
Two years of Dugoni’s life had been swallowed up by the manuscript. He knew he’d written a good book, but the meager royalties didn’t pay the bills. Down, but not discouraged, Dugoni went back to his roots—the three novel manuscripts he had set aside.
Ruley asked to read his fiction and got his thriller manuscripts in front of Jamie Raab, at Hachette and he became part of the Grand Central Publishing imprint, home to such thriller masters as Sandra Brown, Harlan Coben, Scott Turow and David Baldacci. Raab said she’d take two of Dugoni’s three manuscripts.
His first published novel would be The Jury Master, Dugoni’s story about San Francisco’s top trial lawyer, David Sloan, who didn’t even have a jury trial in the novel. Instead, Sloan gets ensnarled in a case that affects him personally and reaches into the White House.
Dugoni and his family were heading out the door for a pizza one evening just as a box of hardback copies arrived prior to the book’s release. He paused to open the box and pull out a copy to admire his hardcover dream.
His young son, Joe, noticed. “Wait Dad. You’ve been waiting a long time for this. This is important. We should celebrate this.”
Dugoni looked at this son. “You know, you’re right,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
“You get so wrapped up in the process,” Dugoni says, “every once in a while, you have to stop yourself and say, ‘wait a minute. This is an accomplishment. You need to celebrate this. You need to celebrate these moments in life.’ It was an eight-year-old who had to remind me of that.”
And then the totally unexpected happened. It became a New York Times bestseller, selling more than 100,000 copies.
“They marketed the hell out of it,” Dugoni says. This was back in the day when authors actually did book tours. The first leg of his tour took him to a Chicago bookstore where he was told John Grisham had two people show up for his first book signing. So, Dugoni’s goal was three.
He got one.
Feeling sorry for him, his handler asked Dugoni, “You like cigars and red wine?” He took the rookie novelist to a cigar bar, where the escort had his own locker. They grabbed two and some drinks and settled in.
“We gotta make this a literary thing, right?” his handler said. So, he took Dugoni down a hallway lined with photos and stopped at one of Gregorio Fuentes, the inspiration for Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. The evening was saved.
Another time he was in Houston and sitting under a “Welcome Serena Williams” banner ready to autograph books. She had been there earlier in the day. He sold nothing.
And in a suburb of Los Angeles where all the houses appeared empty, he arrived at a bookstore in a shopping center where nearly all the stores were empty too. On the door of the bookstore was a sign with Dugoni’s face announcing his signing that day.
He went inside and found a clerk and told him who he was. “Is that tonight?” the store clerk asked. Oh boy. Not a good sign. He sold no books. Dugoni might have been a bestselling author, but he was still an unknown.
“It’s a really humbling experience.”
His book signing tour, even though he had a bestseller, helped keep his ego in check. “I come from a big family,” he says. “There’s ten of us. I have brothers and sisters who are doctors. I lived with them, and I saw what they went through to be successful. I was just telling stories. My brothers and sisters were not going to let me get a big head.”
Success, unfortunately, didn’t last long. His second book sold, but not as well. Simon & Schuster saw something in Dugoni and dangled a lot of money in front of him for his David Sloan stories. Hachette declined to match it.
Dugoni took the money. Almost immediately, he had regrets and asked Hachette if he could return, but they had already filled his position in their literary roster.
“I made a mistake. I chose the money over a publishing house that wanted to build my career systematically. I did not have a good experience.”
Within a couple of years, Dugoni was out at Simon & Schuster. He wonders now what would have happened had he stayed with Hachette.
And then lightning struck back home in Seattle. Amazon called and asked if he would consider publishing under the Thomas & Mercer imprint. They talked about him starting a new series. He agreed. His next protagonist would be a woman, Tracy Crosswhite. He discussed the idea with Barbara Peters, owner of The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. They sat in her backyard and plotted it out. Soon after, he became Thomas & Mercer’s biggest seller, as did his first Tracy Crosswhite novel, My Sister’s Grave. It has sold nearly 2 million copies.
So, what made the difference between his two series—from 100,000 copies to 2 million?
He read Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir on Craft and took heart. Literally. He also sat on a panel at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference with Diana Gabaldon. She explained when she writes, she waits for her characters to talk to her.
“So, I thought, what do I have to lose?” Dugoni says. He began, he says, writing from the heart. It made all the difference. “I thought I was going to wait for my characters to speak to me. Sam Hell was the first one who did. I wrote him raw, unfiltered, and honest. When I was done, I was really proud of the product.”
Surprisingly, he wrote The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell long before he began the Tracy Crosswhite series, yet it was nearly a decade, 2018, before it was published to critical acclaim. It was his biggest seller ever with more than 22,000 Amazon reviews. You read that right. 22,000 reviews.
Despite his extraordinary success with Thomas & Mercer, Dugoni has kept it all in perspective and really hasn’t changed that much over the years. It’s a long way from seventh grade and a classroom staring at you in awe. But that revelation, that feeling he could move people with his words, inspires him to this day.
The Jury Master
I want to be a writer: 12 years old, 7th grade
Experience: Student journalist, Stanford, L.A. Times reporter, attorney
Writing Time: 8 years
Agents Contacted: 48
Agent Responses: 3
Agent Search: Five years
Time to Sell Novel: Weeks
First Novel Agent: Meg Ruley
First Novel Editor: Jamie Raab
First Novel Publisher: Hachette
Inspiration: John Grisham. Patty Dugoni, his mom, who handed him the classics when he was in seventh grade.
Advice to Writers: Learn the craft.
Like this? Read the chapters on Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritsen, Steve Berry, David Morrell, Gayle Lynds, Scott Turow, Lawrence Block, Randy Wayne White, Walter Mosley, Tom Straw. Michael Koryta, Harlan Coben, Jenny Milchman, James Grady, and David Corbett.