Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Thomas: I write big adventure thrillers. But it was the late bard of teen angst, John Hughes, who convinced me to write creatively for a living.
My plan was to first become a journalist like Hemingway in far-flung conflict zones and find my inspiration there. Hughes told me l didn’t need to roam the globe to find material to start writing screenplays like him; I already had it in me. This was on the set of “The Breakfast Club,” which was based on my high school. I had just started freshman year at Northwestern and mistakenly considered his films to be nothing more than thinly disguised documentaries of teen life on Chicago’s North Shore. I wasn’t impressed and failed to appreciate Hugh’s enormous talents. A year later, at a screening for another one of his movies, I introduced him to my new girlfriend (now my wife). He looked at her and then at me, like I was crazy: “You still want to be a foreign correspondent?”
Well, I did. I began reporting for NBC affiliates in Washington, D.C., as an on-air correspondent while completing a master’s degree. I remember wrapping my report on the President’s State of the Union Address when a friend in government asked me if I wanted to see what’s really under the U.S. Capitol. Yes, I did. And no, you can’t. Not anymore. Nobody can. But those tunnels—some older than the republic and still uncharted—sparked my imagination and, ultimately, my Atlantis series of novels. And that’s when I finally heeded the Bard’s call and pivoted away from my pursuit of journalism to writing novels.
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Thomas: After D.C., I spent a couple of years in telcom in Chicago. The corporate vision—right out of a Bond villain’s Master Plan, critics might argue— was to deregulate the $200B industry and ultimately allow AT&T to do exactly what it is doing right now, years later, in its acquisition of Time-Warner: own the content it carries on its distribution platforms. It all seemed dry to me, but the experience fueled the paranoia that brands my conspiracy thrillers.
I would wake up at 4:30 a.m. every morning, write for a couple of hours, and then walk through the bitter cold to my office 32 stories above the Merc. Soon I had completed a World War II thriller and signed with my first lit agent, the legendary Julian Bach at IMG. He couldn’t sell it to publishers, but Fox thought it might make a good TV mini-series.
So I quit my corporate life at age 25 and moved out to LA with my wife, who continued in journalism. She joined the foreign desk at the LA Times while I wrote screenplays. The TV mini-series never happened, but my first original screenplay, an action fantasy, caught the eye of director James Cameron. Out of that I got my first Hollywood agent and offers to rewrite a couple of studio pics. Despite Variety’s description of my “big buck spec scripts,” there were no big sales for me. And I just didn’t have the heart for the craft of writing screenplays like I did for writing fiction, let alone revising other people’s visions. (There’s a perverse incentive in Hollywood union contracts that in order to get an onscreen credit you need to rewrite more than 50 percent of a script, however good it may already be, which should explain a lot to you about the movies you see.) I felt more fulfilled writing my own stuff in the form of novels that could always be adapted for film and TV later on. But what novel to write? The WWII novel took me three years to write, versus a few months for a script, and I wasn’t sure I was quite ready to take that risky kind of plunge again, especially with a baby on the way.
One day I was sitting in my doctor’s office in Beverly Hills, reading an article about Antarctica in National Geographic, when my agent called. He told me that Warner Bros. had a book for me to adapt about “ruins.” At least that’s what I thought he said. It was then that I put together “ruins” and “Antarctica” in my head. It sounded interesting and said I’d look at the book. Turned out the book wasn’t about ruins at all, it was about “runes,” the mystery alphabet of the Norse Viking and Teutonic medieval world. I passed on the project and instead got to work on my new novel about the discovery of ancient ruins two miles beneath the ice of Antarctica—Raising Atlantis.
Finding a lit agent wasn’t a problem for me like many writers. I had some of the best in LA and New York in the big agencies like IMG, ICM, and Writers House. The problem was that they couldn’t sell my first novel Raising Atlantis. It went out multiple times and was soundly rejected. Studios stumbled over the mega budget for the movie, and publishers didn’t know how to market its genre mix.
Everybody said it was time for me to start writing something else. Raising Atlantis had sunk like a stone to the bottom of the Ocean of Rejection, buried forever. It was dead, dead, dead.
But I wasn’t quite ready to give up on it yet. Encouraged by marketing guru Seth Godin, I created a companion website to the novel called the Atlantis Mapping Project. AMP attracted more than 2M unique monthly visitors, and its weekly emails were among the “most-forwarded emails” in America. Against the advice of my agents, I decided to go ahead publish the novel myself on Amazon as an eBook. This was a very unusual move in 2002, five years before Kindle arrived on the scene. So if Raising Atlantis wasn’t already dead, I was pounding the final nail in its coffin.
Thanks largely to my built-in web audience, however, Raising Atlantis debuted at No. 1 on Amazon. (Back then there were only two book categories: Fiction and Non-Fiction. The Non-Fiction bestseller was Freakanomics). A year later, Raising Atlantis was still on top for Fiction, behind only The Da Vinci Code and ahead of Dan Brown’s three other titles. I called my agent in New York and asked him what he thought of all this. He thought it was worth taking my book out again; thanks to Amazon, publishers now knew how to market it. This time, there was a bidding war. Simon & Schuster, which had turned it down three times before, ended up publishing Raising Atlantis in print. It became a New York Times and international bestseller, spawning sequels and successive contracts for more books—including that first World War II thriller.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Thomas: They know their strengths and understand that what they’re capable of doing may be different than what they want to do. It takes guts to work with what you’re good at rather do what you’d love to do—or what others think you or your company should do.
In the same way, effective leaders know what their staff can do and deploy accordingly. They know that Morgan is the right person for this assignment, not Zach, and vice-versa. St. Peter (Drucker) uses General George Marshall as an example. Marshall wanted to command D-Day operations for the invasion of Europe during WWII. But President Roosevelt knew General Eisenhower was the operations guy the Allies needed. Marshall was the strategy. Thanks to effective leadership of all three men, Europe was rebuilt from the ashes of war.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Thomas: Too many consultants and self-help gurus start with what you want versus what you can do — and do well. When you know who you are, you know what to do. A champion downhill skier, for example, skies. And when you know what to do, you know where you belong. If skiing is what you do, you don’t hang out in Nevada. You go where it’s snowing. Same is true for your company and product or service.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Thomas: The late ad legend Jack Trout gave me a piece of advice when we first talked about my marketing ideas for Raising Atlantis: To become a bestselling author, you need to be a bestselling author. At the time, I thought it was a complete load of B.S. But eventually I figured it out. You have to build on any strength or traction or leadership position you may have in some market niche, no matter how small, and position yourself or your company from there.
For example, I was No. 1 in ebooks and audiobooks before I was a bestseller in print as well. The late Vince Flynn, author of thrillers like American Assassin, was No. 1 in his hometown of Minneapolis before becoming a national bestselling author. Finally, Amazon’s algorithms often wait until you top some obscure sub-sub-sub-category in sales or number of reviews before it makes your title or product visible to the larger category across its store. Keep narrowing the marketplace to the micro-category where you can be No. 1. It doesn’t have to be sales, it could be some other attribute that the market values. But something.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Thomas: Be kind to others. Too many CEOs give their money and thoughtful attention to great causes but still turn out to lack character. Nobody’s perfect, and achievements in philanthropy ought to be recognized and not taken away. But we’ve all heard of business and nonprofit leaders who are feted as saints in public but in private treat others poorly, especially underlings.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Thomas: Reading and writing, of course. Anything involving movement and outdoor nature, like running and skiing. It’s when you’re away and not thinking about your business or book that great ideas and solutions inevitably pop up. I sometimes play and compose music on my keyboard. And I used to collect coins. I was amazed at how one little oddity could make penny worth millions. It taught me that being generic may help with “quality control” and scale, but it rarely stirs the heart.