Not many science fiction writers get to go from doing the actual science to writing about it, but author Douglas E. Richards has had the pleasure of doing just that. He’s was the director of Biotech licensing of Bristol-Myers Squibb before moving into an executive position at Biotech companies in San Diego. Now, he’s the author of over ten sci-fi novels for adults, teens, and kids.
How did he make that switch? Douglas talked to The Mission Daily about tech, his jump from science to writing, and why he’s actually really looking forward to the future.
Some people will that, when it comes being “left-brained” or “right-brained”, they’ve always leaned to one side. But Douglas was in the tech landscape for a long time, and he felt right at home. “Biotech experience was fascinating. I was responsible for doing multimillion dollar deals between Biotech and pharmaceutical companies and I did it on both sides. I really got to learn about a bunch of technologies and kind of leading edges. The Pharma companies tried to licensing the next exciting big thing. But it’s just amazing to me how things have advanced.” And things have advanced a lot. “I mean, it’s just been remarkable. And that’s what’s happening to the world technologically. It’s just the rate of change is exponential and even that the export is increasing. Back in the primitive days that I did my work, in the early eighties, DNA sequencing, which is something I did for my project. I wanted to sequence a couple hundred base pair of virus and it would take days and you’d get this little light box where you have this a film that you painstakingly got to happen and then you put it on this light box and you read off the DNA sequence by hand. I mean, you just look at the different lines in the photo on the light box and you say, Okay, A-G-C-C-T that you’d be kind of reading off and writing off the DNA sequence. And they can do billions of base pairs in a day. And what’s amazing to me, and I’ve written this in a lot of the notes to my novels because sometimes I think I’m going too far. I tried to have realistic science in my novels.”
His switch from science to writing wasn’t an easy one, but his passion kept him going, even when the facts seemed against him. “I had written a book called Wired while I was in Biotech. And it was kind of a Biotech thriller. I mean it had genetic engineering and the premise of that one is you can genetic engineer so that you could achieve attain superintelligence like ridiculous levels of intelligence, but it turns you into kind of a sociopath at the same time, kind of a bad combination. I had a high top agent, but at the end it’s just getting harder and harder to get things published if you’re not Stephen King. It’s just unknown authors right now. I mean, with Amazon and Kindle, traditional publishers are having a heck of a time. It’s just really hard to break in. So anyway, I missed out. And that was my dream. I quit Biotech for a number of years to pursue my dream of writing. After years of working with an agent and almost getting a major publisher, I gave up and went back to Biotech. And then, in 2010, I was reading about Kindle and I mean, it was already around for a while, but I really wasn’t paying attention. And one guy said that he had put his novel and Kindle and had gone viral and then Simon and Schuster made an offer coincidentally enough, and published it mainstream. And I thought, well I should just put it online, I’ve got this manuscript gathering dust and like 10 people in all the world have read it, if I put it online, maybe another ten people could read it. I killed myself to write it, wouldn’t it be fun if ten people read it?”
We don’t want to spoil the ending, but… a few more than ten people ended up reading it. “I put it online. I mean, I did no marketing. I did nothing. I was just hoping for a few more people and it went viral. And a couple months later was selling 60,000-80,000 copies a month and made the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists – and was on there for five weeks. And I actually printed out the New York Times and have it framed where it’s one below The Help, which is a famous book on the New York Times Bestseller.”
This success gave Douglas the push he needed to give publishing another chance. “I quit Biotech again and decided to do it full time. But it was kind of ironic because I had already given up. I had totally after years and years of trying to break in, I’d given up, I decided this dream has never going to happen. I’m never going to be an author. And then it just went viral and I did nothing. It just was kind of magical. I was able to quit my job and since over a million people have read my books, it’s been kind of fun, even I went to traditional publishing also. With my third novel, I got a nice hardcover deal with Tor Books and experienced that world too.”
So, what’s ahead? Despite the seemingly dark and dreary landscape painted by the news, Douglas is hopeful. “I wrote a novel called Seeker. That they had an alien probe, advanced alien probe, interstellar probe landing in the middle of the Amazon jungle. And everybody says, “I want to see what this technology is about.” I mean, it must have a super advanced technology and whatever country can get ahold of this probe and learn this technology might have a huge advantage. Every country on earth basically sends teens into the Amazon to try to retrieve this thing. And because it’s the Amazon, just because you have a bigger army doesn’t really help you. The Amazon is really rough terrain. But in the end of that, I had a conversation where I was talking about the case for optimism and that got such great feedback from my fans. There’s a bunch of books coming out now that really open my eyes because I tended to be pessimistic about where we’re headed. Our potential for self-destruction and what I learned by reading these books and what I’ve put into some of these novels because I think it’s so important is that, as a society worldwide, people tend to think things are worse than ever right now. That we’re worse than ever. And it’s just the opposite.”
To hear more from Douglas, check out the full podcast here.