In January 1981, the Arizona Republic published a feature on Joseph Rosenberger.
Cranking Out Volumes Of Violence
A Mesa Author Finishes A New Series Book Every Other Month, Using A Formula That Has Sold Five Million Copies
By Robert Barrett
Joseph Rosenberger sat back, sipped his coffee and said, "When I kill people I make charts. The minute a guy is dead I get out my pencil and write dead on his name so I don't kill him twice."This article offers a gold mine of quotes from Rosenberger about writing and the early years of his career. (Several years ago, Joe Kenney posted information on Rosenberger (and a photo) at Glorious Trash (here, here, here).)
Rosenberger does all of his killing on paper. He is the author of the Death Merchant series. The paperbacks, published by Pinnacle, have sold more than five million copies. Rosenberger is working on the 44th Death Merchant book. [DM #44, Island Of The Damned, was published in April 1981]
"One time I killed off a KGB agent in chapter two and there he is again with blazing machine pistols in chapter ten and I had to kill him all over again," Rosenberger said, laughing. "I didn't catch it, the editors didn't catch it and one fellow wrote and said, 'I enjoy your books and buy every one of them, but don't you think you should be more careful?' Well, when I get a letter I answer them all because I don't get that many. I wrote and said, 'Yeah, I pulled a boo-boo. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, I appreciate it.'
"So now the minute a guy's dead, I get out my pencil and write DEAD so I don't kill him twice."
The pencil gets a good workout because large numbers of characters die in each book. The books are a spy series with Richard Camillion, the Death Merchant, as the hero. The shooting usually begins in the first chapter and continues until the end of the book, about 190 pages later.
"The Death Merchant takes on jobs only of the highest major importance, they have to be earth shaking," Rosenberger said. "Like one time the Russian KGB was going to plant a bomb between Florida and Cuba and cause an earthquake."
As with many series books, critics don't even consider the Death Merchant. They say the plots are predictable. They are formula books. The formula label doesn't bother Rosenberger.
Rosenberger, who lives in Mesa, said, "The formula book, the reader knows what to expect. I've tried to change the Death Merchant, give it more character, but no. It would be unwise to do so. But what happens with a series? A certain amount of readers will buy it, they're hooked, they like it. Others will look at it, the first book, and think it stinks. It happens to any writer.
"A formula book is what is predictable and it has to be successful in sales. It's the same with television or in movies. People say there's nothing on television, it stinks. Those people are wrong, they're a small minority. What sells on television is what people like, that's why it's there.
"It's the same with books. Publishers publish, it's a business. The name of the game is money, like any other business. Publishers give readers what sells. So a formula book is any series book where the basic concept succeeds."
Pinnacle is the largest publisher of action-adventure series and the series books are popular. Aside from the Death Merchant, most paperback racks offer other series: the Destroyer, the Executioner, the Penetrator or Blade, to name a few. But when Rosenberger wrote the first Death Merchant in 1971, he didn't intend for it to be a series.
"I wrote it as a single-shot deal," he said. "I got a call from the president of Bee-line books (now Pinnacle), David Zentner. They needed some action-adventure, would I send some? That more or less gave me the impetus to do it. They said they'd give me two grand (as an advance against royalties) and I said good enough. Now the money is far greater. But the first book went in, it went over and I've been doing it ever since."
Rosenberger does it to the tune of a book every other month, six books a year. It is a demanding schedule that keeps him working seven days a week. He said he doesn't mind; it's easier now than it has been in the past.
Rosenberger was born in Du Quoin, Illinois, in 1925. It's a small town about 90 miles southeast of St. Louis. He said he was a good student but hated school. His father died when he was 15, so he never finished high school.
"I took a job answering a phone in a cab stand," Rosenberger said. "Remember, this was quite a few years ago and everything was wide open. They had gambling and prostitution. It was a small town and they had two solid blocks of prostitutes. They didn't walk the streets, they stayed in their section of town. They weren't allowed on Main Street on Sunday mornings so the good people that patronized them didn't have to see them on their way to church.
"I quit the cab stand and became a stick man in dice games. I also had punch boards. You have a board so high," he said, holding his hands about a foot apart, "and for twenty-five cents you take a punch. You can win up to fifty bucks. I made a good living."
Rosenberger gave up the dice games and moved to St. Louis. He got a job as a security guard at the Century Electric Company. He also started writing.
"I knew a photographer and he liked a poet by the name of Edgar Guest," Rosenberger said. "I thought Edgar Guest smelled to high heaven. I said, if I couldn't do better than that, I'd quit. He told me to try it if I was so good, and I did and I got two dollars for the poem."
He laughed. "This is way back, I'm almost fifty-six now. Back then if you got five dollars a day it would be like twenty-five or thirty dollars a day now. I sold it to a little religious magazine, the St. Anthony Messenger. I sent in another one and got two dollars. So I'm sending them in and I get two dollars here, two dollars there, five dollars from there. So I sent out a hundred poems more and nothing but rejection slips." He shook his head. "I said, man, there's something going on here. I started buying books on writing, the actual merchandise, and started learning them."
That led to his first big sale of an article called Agnosticism Versus Science to the St. Anthony Messenger. It paid him $75. For the next nine years, Rosenberger sent out stories and articles to different publications.
"The guard job gave me time to write," Rosenberger said. "I'd make a round, it takes an hour. There were four formulas for confession stories. A girl from the country goes to the city, she does wrong, she pays for it. A girl from the city falls for another man, she honestly loves him but it's not right, she has to pay for it." He paused and smiled. "I forget the other two. But I'd grind this stuff out. I was making a hundred thirty-five a week as a guard and some weeks, I'd make more money from the confession stories."
It was the heyday of the men's magazines, too, and he also wrote for True, Argosy, Stag, Saga, For Men Only and many others. He also wrote for occult magazines such as Fate.
"I sold an article, 'What Happened to Oliver Lurch' to Fate," he said. "I made it all up in ten minutes. I got sixty dollars for it. Here's Oliver Lurch and it's Christmas Eve. I decided it was eighteen ninety-five and poor Oliver goes out to get a bucket of water. Inside, they hear a scream. 'It's got me, it's got me, it's pulling me up into the sky.' That gives the impression of UFOs. They go out there and there's footprints but no Oliver Lurch.
"They keep reprinting that thing," he said and laughed. "So help me, I still get letters from all over the country wanting to know more about Oliver Lurch. Finally Fate asked me about it and I said I made it up. They wanted another story and said they'd give me two hundred dollars for it.
So I made up an article about how the world could flip-flop due to ice at the polar caps, which is a lot of crap."
In the 1960s, Rosenberger quit his guard job and worked full time doing stories for the magazines. "The men's magazines paid you to travel hack then, I don't know about now," he said. "Everything's gone to pot since then. I worked through an agent in New York City. He formed up the deals for me.
"I remember one time I was sent to Mississippi during the peace marches and I got off the train and there's two guys built like this," he spread his hands wide, "and as tall as this," he almost touched the ceiling. "This guy says, 'Y'all from the north? Y'all a reporter?' I said I was and he said, 'Y'all better get back on that train or y'all might be found stomped to death.' Well, I-all got back on that train and then I got mad. I got off in the next town, gave the cab driver twenty dollars, went back, did the interview with somebody there and got the hell out of there. That was really the beginning of my going on the road."
He spent the next eight or nine years traveling for the magazines, doing stories for them until Penthouse came onto the scene and everyone turned to sex to sell magazines.
"That wasn't my style," Rosenberger said. He turned to writing action paper-hacks and did fairly well for a few years. He created the Kung fu series after the TV show was popular. (It had no connection with the TV series; the characters were different.) The series died. He also created the Murder Master, another series. This was a black man patterned after the Executioner series. It, too, failed to catch on. Then he created the Death Merchant.
"It's an odd thing," Rosenberger said. "I work seven days a week and I don't work seven days a week. I'm a night person. Until I've had a cup of coffee and two cigarettes and it's noon, I'm in some kind of limbo. I start getting with it about four, then I'll eat at six and then around nine I go back and keep going until maybe three in the morning. It all depends, but I produce about six to ten pages a day. It depends on the scene. Action scenes go fast, scenes with dialogue take longer. But I'll tell you something else. Writing is a two-way street. Good editors help. When you have to turn out a book every other month, you get so close to it you miss the obvious."
Many writers feel they haven't succeeded until they've sold a book to a hardcover publisher. John D. MacDonald, who writes the Travis McGee series, published in paperback for many years but it wasn't until he began to publish hardbound that he received critical attention.
"I've thought of trying hardbound but I don't have the time," Rosenberger said. "Hardcover books, some of them aren't worth a hoot as far as sales are concerned. But the hardcover books that do sell, ah, here comes the paperback rights. Then you're talking about a lot of money.
"But Pinnacle is a very good company. Years ago I gave Pinnacle my word that I would continue to write the Death Merchant until it was no longer profitable. I said I wouldn't try to take it (Death Merchant) to another company. In fact, I couldn't. There's an iron-clad option there that if I refuse to do it or can't do it, they're allowed to bring in another writer. But the series is successful. Wait a minute."
Rosenberger went into the back of the house and came out a few moments later with a stack of books. They were copies of the Death Merchant printed in Greek, Swedish and Spanish.
"I'm not going to stop that," he said. "You see, I love to write and writing, to me, is a business, but I haven't lost track of it as an art form. There's no such thing as a writer who can say I know all there is about writing. That's stupidity. Once you think you know all there is to know about how to write, you're on your way down. There's no iron-clad rules how to do it. To me, it's the most fascinating thing in the world. I mean it, if I couldn't write, I would just as soon drop dead."
Rosenberger went back to his den to start his work. His typewriter is surrounded by bookshelves crammed with books. Most of them are reference books about weapons and radios. He takes pride that his books are accurate when it comes to hardware used by the characters.
"I don't know how long I'll do the Death Merchant series," he said as he sat down. "I'll do it as long as it is profitable. The way things look now it might go on for years and years or it could stop next year. I could write other things. I have an agent and he has turned down nine different series for me. He says he can sell them, but I just don't have the time."
He looked down at the half-finished page in the typewriter. He had left the Death Merchant in the middle of a gun battle with the Russians.
"Only one thing really worries me," Rosenberger said and grinned. "Those damned old dirty Russians. They're the bad guys. If we ever make peace with them I'll go broke."
From what I know, he appears to be telling the truth throughout, unlike in other articles in which he claims to have been a private detective or taught karate, etc.
It's true that Rosenberger did not finish high school. During the 1960s, he was called to testify in an obscenity trial concerning an "adult book" he had written. He told the court the Ph.D. after his name on the book's cover was bullshit and that he had dropped out after the eighth grade.
I believe he did work as a security guard. I have seen very little evidence of his years as a magazine writer, but it's logical he would have been in that field at that time and perhaps the evidence is simply not online. (If anyone has any old men's magazines with his by-line (or a similar last name such as Rosenfeld, let me know.)
Rosenberger worked at a grueling pace for a long time, publishing either five or six books a year for seven consecutive years (1976-1982), before scaling back to four titles per year. In 1974, a whopping 10 books, in three series, were published: Four Death Merchants (7-10), four Kung Fu: Maces (2-5, and two Murder Masters (2-3)!