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21.05.2013Six Business Lessons, According to Spenser

The world is full of possibility.


Kevin Coupe, Forbes.com

The death of author Robert B. Parker in 2010 brought with it an unusual business challenge.  The novelist, who wrote almost 70 books, the majority of them about his iconic Boston private eye, Spenser (no first name ever has been used), was a best-seller machine.  Not on the scale of, say, Dan Brown or John Grisham.  But two or three times a year, virtually every year, Parker could be counted on to publish a novel, which would spend a number of weeks on the New York Times best seller list.  The books led to a TV series, “Spenser For Hire,” back in the eighties, and there had been rumbling about a revival.

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In other words, Spenser was a cash cow.  He also was a character with a long history, devoted fans, and a real hunger in the marketplace for more of his adventures.  How to pass the torch?

The problem, it seems to me, is not unlike that experienced by a lot of businesses when the founder steps down or passes away.  Like when Tim Cook took over for Steve Jobs at Apple.  Or Steve Ballmer replaced Bill Gates at Microsoft.  Just imagine what will happen when Warren Buffett’s successor takes over at Berkshire Hathaway, or Phil Knight decides to retire from Nike.  In some ways, it may not matter how strong or seamless the succession plan is.  Cultural tumult of some degree is almost inevitable, because founders and formidable ex-CEOs cast a long shadow. 

I like to look for business examples in unusual places, and so I decided to turn to the new author of the Spenser novels, Ace Atkins, to talk about the business of writing and how he defines his responsibilities as the keeper of the flame.  As has been well documented elsewhere, the Parker estate auditioned a number of writers for the role, asking them each to write 50 pages of a Spenser novel;  Atkins won the contest going away.  The symmetries are good for both sides:  Atkins was intimately familiar with the series, having been a reader and fan for years.  He’s also an accomplished novelist in his own right;  in addition to writing the Spenser novels, he’s also working on his own series of mysteries.  (The latest, “The Broken Places,” comes out at the end of the month.)   And, there’s his name:  Robert B. Parker’s nickname for much of his life was “Ace.”

I sat down with Atkins as he engaged in a time-honored tradition – the book tour.  He was in New York City, promoting the second Spenser book he has written – entitled “Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland” – and we met at the Trump SoHo, where the publisher was putting him up.  I told him when we met that the digs were pretty cool, that my publisher hadn’t done this for me when my book came out.  He laughed.  “Don’t kid yourself,” he said.  “When my first books came out, the publisher wouldn’t have gotten me a room at the Holiday Inn.”  But he’s in the Spenser business now, and the economics are different.  And he’s grateful.

On the face of it, Atkins could not be much more physically different from Parker.  Whereas Parker was not a tall man, he was heavily muscled, had a thick, dark crewcut, a mustache, and eyes that seemed to see the humor in pretty much everything;  when I interviewed him, back in 1985, there was a bemused Irish intensity about him that filled a room.  Atkins, on the other hand, is more than six feet tall, with graying, receding hair cut short, and a friendly Southern vibe that reflects his Alabama roots and current Mississippi residence.  He is built like and moves with the easy grace of the former collegiate football player that he is – dressed on the day I met him in a brown sports jacket, pressed jeans, boots and a light blue Ball & Buck Hunter’s shirt, with a reinforced shoulder for shooting. 

But there’s one thing the two men share – a fondness for beer (which can been seen in Spenser’s drink of choice).  When I chatted with Parker in 1985 and Atkins in 2013, it was over a cold beer.  Which seemed appropriate.  Not to mention totally cool.  (I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I have been a fan and dedicated reader of Robert B. Parker’s novels for more than three decades.  And I love what Atkins has done with the franchise.  Interviewing Parker, and now Atkins, is my definition of geek heaven.)

And so, business rules for the business leader who follows a legend or founder, compliments of Spenser and Ace Atkins… 

It helps to be a consumer of the product, not just a hired gun.  “I come to it not just as as working writer, but also as a fan, an ardent, diehard, crazy Spenser fan,” Atkins said. “and I’m just trying to write that next book that Bob Parker would have written.”  That’s important – any business leader needs to have a sense of historical perspective, not to mention people with institutional memories, because they can help one seek out the successes as well as remember the mistakes.

Atkins said, “With Spenser, there definitely are decisions that I make that are not based on what I would do, but what would Robert Parker do? And I think about that all the time … There are certain turns of phrases that are very specifically Spenser, a certain language.  That’s what I wanted to capture.  It’s not necessarily just trying to keep the style of Robert Parker, but it’s just trying to keep true to the character of Spenser.  That’s my job … to make it as flawless a transition as possible.  That keeps the publisher happy, it keeps the family happy, and it keeps me happy.” 

While core values are important, don’t be afraid to make changes when changes are called for.   Atkins said he’s not interested in writing a series that is static, that he wants to ‘change things up” where and when he can.

That means both going backward and moving forward – at the same time.  Going backward means borrowing more from the style of books that Parker wrote in the 1990s;  in the latter years of his life, Parker prided himself on a kind of relentless minimalism that Atkins probably realized would not allow him to grow the series both commercially and artistically. 

“Longtime fans, they saw how spare (the books had) gotten, but there was no need for introduction,” Atkins said.”It was like having a conversation with an old friend … and no reference point was needed.  I think Mr. Parker was very aware of that.  He knew that his fan base did not need any sort of build up or explanation of who these people were.  But I went back to the earlier books, the ones that I think about a lot, like “Playmates,” and “Paper Doll” … (the books of that era) had a little bit more texture and a little bit more description and not too much, but a little bit more color and detail.”

As for going forward, it meant acknowledging the passage of time.  Atkins says that when we first met Spenser, in 1974′s ‘The Godwulf Manuscript,” he already had some miles on him, being in his late thirties.  That would make him close to 80 right now…hardly an optimal age to be sleuthing, much less getting involved in fights.  At one point. Parker decided to simply slow down the aging process for Spenser … but Atkins plans to allow to pick up again.  At least, a little  bit. 

“As the writer, I’d like to see them age a bit,” he said.  “And I’d like to do something that maybe Bob was never really able to do, which is to age him and let him have some extra wear on him.  I think it makes him a more endearing character.”

Remember that, as Mark Twain once said, sacred cows sometimes make the best hamburger … it is important to grow the business in line with your new perspectives.   There may be nothing so sacrosanct in the Spenser novels as the hero’s relationship with Hawk, the African-American enforcer who often comes to Spenser’s aid, sometimes works the wrong side of the law, but who shares with Spenser a basic code – say what you’ll do and do what you say.  When the series began, their conversation was replete with race-oriented repartee … but that’s changing in the Atkins books. 

“Not to make the series politically correct or not to change the dynamics,” Atkins says, “but I think that when Spenser and Hawk were buddies back in 1974, in Boston, where you had all the racial strife going on … there was an edge to it that does not exist anymore in 2013.  So some of the jokes between the two about the black and white, it doesn’t have the same edge that it would’ve had 30 years ago because some of those issues are no longer with us.  But I think the essence of that relationship – their friendship, their code of honor, the way they bust each other’s balls, that’s always still there.  The racial dynamic was one of the least important parts of their relationship.  It was more about them being fighters, and being professionals in a very violent world.”

The customer is more important than your own ego.  The work is more important than self-gratification.   “My goal in continuing to write Spenser was to keep the same high quality and standards that Bob Parker had set, and keep the readers engaged,” Atkins says.  “The interesting thing about this franchise is that it was never a reboot, it never was starting from scratch … there never was a lull in the Spenser series.  That was unlike what they did with the Ian Fleming estate … this was something where we wanted to get it out immediately so there was no lull in terms of production.  So, a year after ‘Sixkill’ (the last book written by Parker), ‘Lullaby’ came out.  A year after ‘Lullaby,’ ‘Wonderland’ comes out.  I work for the estate.” 

Keep perspective.  Always.  Atkins says that he’s engaged with social media, using it to communicate frequently with fans.  And the Parker estate has nurtured the relationship with Spenser fan base, as well as with people who loved Parker’s other books, by using Facebook as a way of developing a two-way conversation, something that Parker never really did.

But, Atkins says, there are limits.  “I can have fun with that stuff, but I don’t ever let it overshadow my work.  And I have seen writers who have become so involved in their self-promotion that they forget that their main job is writing that next book.  My main thing right now is writing that third Spenser.”

Momentum is critical.  Atkins is writing a pilot for that new Spenser TV series that, if picked up, will air on cable without some of the content restrictions that limited where the earlier TV incarnation, “Spenser For Hire,” could go.  There’s no way to know if the project will catch on, and Parker had a notable hate-hate relationship with Hollywood for much of his life.  But Atkins knows that he just has to keep writing, keep working, and help keep the Parker family business thriving.

But, he says, “I love it.  It’s Spenser.  Who wouldn’t?  It’s Spenser and Hawk.   It’s a joy.” 

Which may be the most important characteristic for any business leader who replaces an icon.  It may be work.  But it helps when the work is fueled by a kind of authentic passion.

Because when passion and work collide, that’s when, as Robert B. Parker might’ve said, the world is full of possibility.


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