The conventional wisdom isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous
I delivered the Keynote Address at “Of Dark and Stormy Nights” on June 12, 2004 in Schaumberg, Illinois. Of Dark and Stormy Nights was a workshop sponsored by the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America; Jeanne Dams organized the event.
When Jeanne asked me to do this keynote address, she said that I needed to talk about publishing and I needed to be positive. Positive? About publishing? This is such a crazy business and it’s easy to be discouraged, to fall into the cynicism that’s all too prevalent out there. I am a pretty optimistic person, and despite everything that’s wrong with this industry — and there’s plenty wrong — I do believe in it. Because in addition to being a reviewer, an editor, a publisher and a bookseller, I’m first and foremost a reader. As readers, we all know why this business is so rewarding — there’s nothing like the moment when we fall in love with a book. It’s what we hope for every time we open a book. It’s everything that leads up to that moment that’s the problem.
It took me a few weeks of thinking about it before I decided to accept Jeanne’s invitation, a few weeks to figure out whether I had something useful to say here. I hope this morning not so much to give you specific advice, but to suggest that you think about this business in a way that might be a little different from the way others tell you to look at it.
There’s a lot of conventional wisdom you hear about publishing, a lot of things that everyone says with confidence are true about this business. I believe that the conventional wisdom isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous. If we truly believe and act on most of what we think we know about the business, we’ll be led astray — publishers will do a lousy job and writers’ careers will be ruined.
Ruined careers aren’t what you want to hear about today. You’re at the beginning of your career, and this morning you’re in a good place. You’ll leave here this evening full of ideas and practical suggestions that will help you improve your manuscripts and your chances of success.
The business, however, may remain a mystery to you. Don’t fret — it’s still a mystery to me, and I’ve been doing this for a long while now. I don’t know that anyone understands everything that’s going on in publishing today. There’s so much happening, and there’s so little serious discussion — beyond endless variations on a conventional wisdom that I’ve already suggested to you is suspect — well, it’s a bad combination.
What I’m going do to this morning is talk about a few specific ideas about publishing and about writing, and how they relate to the mystery genre. Now I understand that our genre isn’t necessarily representative of publishing as a whole — for one thing, our genre actually respects the value of rational thought. All I care about are mysteries — I’ve devoted my life to the promotion of this genre, through my newsletter, my bookstore, the reference books that I’ve edited and the other books I’ve also published. Because you’re here this morning, I expect that mysteries are what you care about too.
I’ll give you the bottom line first, and as I rattle off these points, I expect you’ll see how your experience as mystery readers serves you well.
- Don’t accept “obvious” explanations, especially when “everyone” agrees they’re true. Think for yourself.
- This is a business, and it’s not a bad thing that this is a business.
- Stay true to your vision. Like the detective who gathers suspects to single out the least likely as the true killer, know how to persuade others to accept your vision.
That’s my message. Now let’s talk about how these points apply to specific cases.
The author of an unpublished 280,000 word vampire novel confidently declares on his website that “we all know that every book published out there doesn’t become a best seller. In fact, 90% of all books published LOSE money for the publisher.” Do we ALL know this? Shawn Coyne, former editor at Doubleday, St. Martin’s and Dell and one of the principles in the new company Rugged Land, says that it’s 60% of books that lose money. Sometimes a more moderate voice will say something to the effect of three out of ten lose money, four break even and three make money — still not a great percentage if only three of ten books are making a real contribution to the bottom line. Whatever actual numbers you use, the conventional wisdom consensus is that — as Denise Little puts it in a thoroughly detailed discussion of money that you can find on the website of the Science Fiction Writers of America: “Publishers lose their shirts on first books and many mid-list books.” What we’re all led to believe is that publishers make their money on blockbusters.
Do publishers lose money on most of what they do? Especially in the context of mysteries, I just don’t believe it. H.L. Mencken wrote that murder mysteries were one of four kinds of books that seldom lost money — and if you’re wondering about his judgment, the other three kinds he cited were “novels in which the heroine was forcibly overcome by the hero, books on the occult and spiritualism, and books about Abraham Lincoln.”
The two main reasons I don’t believe mysteries lose money are kind of obvious when you stop to think about it. For one thing, many houses have published mysteries literally for decades. Doubleday’s Crime Club lasted from 1928 to 1991, releasing new titles every month like clockwork in its standardized program. It’s ridiculous to think that Doubleday would keep the program going for so long if they were losing money on these titles. You can imagine a year or two or five of losses, but after some number of decades, you have to think they’re actually doing ok. Maybe they only sold 3000 copies of each of these titles. Still, it’s my bet that they were profitable. We see indirect support for this supposition in Jason Epstein’s book BOOK BUSINESS, which in part describes his experience as a Doubleday editor in the 1950s — more on what Epstein says in a moment.
Lest you think that Doubleday is an isolated example, we can also point to similar publishing programs at Scribner’s and Penguin that also lasted for decades, or to St. Martin’s Press, a company that is built on a model devised by former CEO Tom McCormack, a model of publishing lots of small books, publishing them on a shoestring with small print runs … strict contracts and cheap covers.” McCormack “found he could make money on print runs of 3,000 — 5,000.” If St. Martin’s can make money at 3,000 copies, why do others claim that they can’t?
But wait, you say, there’s making money and there’s making enough money. I’ll come back to this, but for now, let’s stop and realize that we’ve gone from 60% or 90% of all titles losing money to wondering whether they’re making enough money in three easy paragraphs.
The second main reason that I believe most books make money lies in how publishers account for their costs. This is a little more technical than we need to be at this hour of the morning, so I’ll touch on this only briefly. It’s my contention that publishers unfairly allocate overhead costs in a way that makes midlist “unprofitable” and bestsellers “profitable.” You could call this cooking the books, but they’re doing it openly and systematically and legally, in a way that not enough people question. Overhead is, of course, a legitimate expense. What you do with it, I believe, says more about your intentions than it does about the profitability of individual titles. I’ll leave this point here, but I encourage you to investigate further on your own — take a look at the Denise Little piece at sfwa.org and see if you can find the same hole in her discussion that I see.
Does it matter if publishers think they’re losing money on the books they publish? Does conventional wisdom really matter? I think it does, and I think it matters a lot. Because what’s happened is that the notion that a book might lose money gets turned into a license to lose money. That’s the real problem. Once you adopt this attitude, there’s no reason to do anything to support a title because money will be lost anyway.
No wonder the economics of publishing are so messed up. In fact, this attitude gets carried to ridiculous extremes, which you see in some publishers’ disdain for anything that actually does make money. These books aren’t valued for themselves — they’re valued only because in the screwed up way publishers do their accounting, they produce revenue that supports the books that publishers really want to do.
In fact, it’s sometimes hard to believe the way publishers talk about books that do make money. In Epstein’s BOOK BUSINESS, he writes — and this is a direct quote, I couldn’t make something like this up – “Doubleday’s publishing division was devoted to commercial ephemera aimed at unsophisticated readers.” This is the Doubleday Crime Club he’s talking about, publishers at times of the likes of Ruth Rendell, Philip Macdonald, Cornell Woolrich, Leslie Charteris, Charlotte MacLeod, Barbara Paul, Georgette Heyer, Manning Coles and this year’s winner of the Edgar Award, Ian Rankin. And those “unsophisticated readers” he’s talking about? He means you.
The situation is so bad that an editor at Publisher’s Weekly felt compelled to caution the industry about its tendency to “accord genre and commercial fiction second-class status.” Jeff Zaleski believes “It’s significant that many publishing professionals, when asked what they read, cite ‘literature’ rather than commercial or genre fiction.” He adds “it’s incumbent upon us, as it is upon professionals within any industry, to understand through personal experience our top-selling products.” Well, duh!
Let’s recap. Publishers have turned the conventional wisdom about books losing money into a license to lose money. In any event, it’s probably true that they don’t really lose money on most mysteries they publish, even the ones with a 3,000 to 5,000 copy print run. And your taste isn’t sophisticated enough for publishers, who don’t chose to read the stuff they sell the most of.
How are we supposed to deal with this mess?
First, let me talk about one of the ways that publishers are dealing with it — badly. Mostly, what publishers are doing is looking for the next blockbuster, “breakout” book is a term that you hear a lot, a term that goes along with the insulting critical term “transcending the genre” — as if this genre needs to be transcended.
Sometimes “breakout” is the right way to look at a book. But not every book is a breakout, and not every author needs to be broken out. Now I have nothing against selling lots of copies of a book, when it’s possible. I think it’s wonderful that the book business has changed in the last twenty years to allow top-selling books to sell so darn many copies. Twenty years ago, could a novel — any novel – have sold 5.7 million copies — one for every 51 people in the US – in a little more than a year? No. Twenty years ago, this business wasn’t set up to get that many copies of a book into that many hands. While this is probably more DAVINCI CODE than this world really needs, it’s good to know that such a thing is possible.
Where the business gets fouled up is in how is goes about trying to create blockbusters, in what publishers perceive is necessary to create a bestseller. Mostly, the approach boils down to “throw money at the problem.” They basically do this for one reason, so that the house can turn around and brag about how much money it’s spending. We’re supposed to be impressed that Putnam paid Jilliane Hoffman a seven-figure advance for her first novel, that they planned a $300,000 marketing budget and announced a 250,000 copy first printing. So impressed that as a bookseller, I’ll be compelled to stock lots of copies and that you as a reader will be compelled to buy it.
On the back cover of the advance reading copy of Hoffman’s RETRIBUTION, there are more words describing the marketing than there are describing the book itself — a lot more – and the few words devoted to describing the story are generic clichés. When Hoffman herself talked about the book at the Dearborn Library last fall, it was the money and the movie deal that she described. Readers — and we are all readers first — don’t relate to your advance. We relate to your book. In pitching this book on the basis of dollars and print-run, all Putnam does is bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s comment about people who know “the price of everything but the value of nothing.” That’s Wilde’s definition of a cynic, and it seems especially apt for a business with Jason Epstein’s attitude.
Three months into the book’s release, Nielsen’s Bookscan, which claims to cover 70% of the market, said that RETRIBUTION sold 16,000 copies. If the percentage is right and you do the math, you end up with total sales of 22,860. Under the circumstances, that’s pitiful. Personally, I’ve sold one copy.
Numbers this bad echo those reported by an essayist published under the pseudonym Jane Austen Doe, who described her writing career in detail in March on salon.com in an essay entitled “Confessions of a Semi-Successful author.” Semi-successful? She received a $150,000 advance for her first novel, a book that netted combined hardcover/paperback sales of 10,000 copies — $15 per book, an outrageously bad result. I commend this essay to your attention as a perfect example of how writers should not approach the business. She can’t get published anymore nor — given what she describes in her own essay — should she.
It’s often said that bean counters are ruining publishing, that the bottom line mentality has undermined everything that used to be good about the business. This is another one of those nuggets of conventional wisdom that’s hard to take seriously, in the face of examples such as Hoffman, the salon.com scribe and many others. This is ruined career territory. Maybe it’ll work out for Hoffman. Her publisher, Carol Baron professes optimism, saying that she’s “building a franchise,” and you like to believe that’s true.
But anyone remember Douglas Kennedy? Hyperion’s 1997 Publication of THE BIG PICTURE, Kennedy’s first novel to be published in the US, was accompanied by what was described at the time as “the largest ever marketing campaign launched by a publisher.” Hyperion published BIG PICTURE in paperback in 1998 along with a second novel by Kennedy, THE JOB. Today, both THE BIG PICTURE and THE JOB are out of print in the US in both hardcover and paperback. What did all that marketing money buy? Used copies of the two books go for a penny — literally a penny — on Amazon.com. That says something not just about the supply — way too much — but also about demand — way too little.
Any counter worth his or her beans wouldn’t have let this happen, and especially wouldn’t let this happen over and over again. You can’t blame stuff like this on accountants; the blame properly belongs on an editor’s desk and on a system that encourages this behavior and on writers who still don’t understand the issues. Jane Austen Doe concludes: “I count among the losses my conviction that mixing love and art and business is a risk worth taking.” Go look at what she wrote. The fact is that to the extent that she and her agent and her writing friends ever thought about business, it was only with disdain.
An especially interesting example of counting beans is in that interview with Rugged Land editor and publisher Shawn Coyne. After saying what I cited above — that 60% of titles lose money — Coyne goes on to add that “I kept thinking that the ideal situation for a publisher would be to find an editor with a better profitability batting average than .400…. As an editor with an interest in business, I kept very meticulous records of my own publishing track record. I published quite a number of books, over 250 titles in my career. So, I calculated my batting average and found that in my core genres–crime fiction, military non-fiction, sports non-fiction and fiction, narrative non-fiction adventure–I batted about .860. That is 86% of my titles were profitable.” If it’s true that Coyne batted .860, then he raises an obvious question — why aren’t others in his league?
The publishing of books is a business, and businesses are and should be motivated by money. What’s the alternative? Rich patrons? Charitable contributions? Writers don’t expect to write for free, and they shouldn’t expect their publishers to publish for free, nor should writers and publishers expect booksellers to stock and sell books for free. Wanting writers and publishers and booksellers to make a profit isn’t just a nice idea. Without a profit, writers, publishers and booksellers can’t continue to pursue either the art of creating the mystery story or the commerce of putting books in readers’ hands. Shawn Coyne’s comment — that the ideal is an editor who bats better than .400 — stands in marked contrast to the approach of a Jason Epstein, who divides the business into “serious” publishing with no concern for profit versus the marketing of commercial ephemera. Who do you want as your publisher?
Good business practices aren’t just a necessary evil. In fact, they’re not evil at all. We should embrace the business, and take advantage of the perspective that business professionals can offer. We often hear of writers whose books didn’t earn out their advances, even though they sold through their print run, and who then weren’t able to secure new contracts for their subsequent books. There’s something wrong with this picture — publisher prints x number of copies of a book, sells every one and yet blames the author for failing to cover the advance. You don’t have to be an accountant to know that this is wrong. But perhaps an accountant can get a publishing company to avoid making the same mistake again. Perhaps a statistician or an economist can help a publisher analyze sales history and demand to pick a better number. Perhaps a marketing consultant can help target a campaign more effectively. Perhaps sales professionals can work with publishers on how to close a sale, and especially how to avoid overselling and creating excessive returns. None of this is possible when you reject the idea that publishing is a business. None of this makes sense unless you plan for your book to be profitable.
Let me say one other thing about business practices. A good business knows that there’s a difference between marketing and selling. Both are necessary. Good marketing certainly makes the job of selling easier. But marketing doesn’t replace selling, something that you as writers need to understand just as much as publishers need to be reminded.
Putnam brags of a $300,000 marketing budget for Hoffman’s RETRIBUTION, but the real question is “how are they selling the book?” There was a point in March when I had five copies of the advance reading copy of Ridley Pearson’s new Lou Boldt novel, THE BODY OF DAVID HAYES — plus an offer from a publicist that Pearson himself hired of cool point of sale materials. But no one at Hyperion ever called to say “can I take your order?”
Why is it important for you to know about this? As writers, you might be thinking “this is my publisher’s responsibility so it’s not my problem.” Well, it is your problem. If your book doesn’t sell, your publisher isn’t out of business, YOU are out of business.
So what can you do? Think for yourself. Be creative. Ask for advice and help — and ask for help from people who are in the business of marketing and selling. Then take charge. I’ll give you one recent example that after all my years in the business surprised even me. Julia Spencer-Fleming learned that some of the mystery booksellers whom she’d encountered were not getting catalogs from her publisher — you’d be surprised by how often that happens. Julia took charge. She wormed a supply of catalogs out of the company and sent them to her own bookseller mailing list. Problem solved, and solved in a way that’s going to make a bookseller like this likable author even more.
Any new writer faces a skeptical marketplace. The newcomer who isn’t prepared to get out there and hustle shouldn’t even step up to the plate. I’m not going to pretend this is easy, and I’m not going to offer any advice that will lead to an instant Jilliane Hoffman-style million-dollar payoff. That would be a lot like a financial planner telling you to secure your retirement by buying lottery tickets and hoping for a jackpot. It’s not impossible, but it’s not likely either. Let’s talk about what’s likely, and what’s possible.
I do believe that there’s a path to success in this industry and in this genre in particular, and I believe it’s actually rather simple when you stop to think about it.
The first part of the process is recognizing the power and the appeal of the genre. There are two parts to this — the creative and the commercial. I’m not going to go into the creative side much — there are others here today who know a whole lot more about the art and craft of the mystery story than I do. But I will say that it’s vital you understand that in this genre, readers have legitimate expectations that you have to approach with respect. Take time to learn what readers like. You read yourself, so you know what you like. Get out there are listen to what other readers are saying. Join a mystery discussion group — not as a writer, but as a reader – and just listen. I defy anyone to hang out with these mystery fans and walk away thinking that they’re unsophisticated readers looking for commercial ephemera. In fact, when faced with market-driven books, they see right through them — even the books they may say they like.
When you listen to how readers talk about books they love, you’ll learn not only what they’re looking for but you’ll also learn how to appeal to them. A practical thing you learn from readers is that they really want to start series from the beginning. Why does that matter? It means that when you look at a potential publisher, you need to look at how they publish series, whether they keep series in print, intact from book one. And if they don’t, you need to figure out what you’re going to do when your fourth book in series is published and your publisher lets book one go out of print. Be ready — have a plan.
The commercial implications of being a part of this genre ghetto are a challenge. In education, critics decry the tyranny of low expectations, condemning inner city kids to under-resourced ghetto schools. This comparison isn’t a great one — because the stakes are of course so much higher when you’re talking about real kids — but the dynamics of being in a publishing ghetto are similar. It’s said, for example, that mysteries can only sell so many copies, and that at some point the label “mystery” holds a writer back. That’s another one of those conventional wisdom nuggets that’s ridiculous. After Shakespeare, Agatha Christie is reported to be the world’s bestselling author of all time, having sold more than a billion books in English and another billion in another 45 languages (as of 2003). I don’t think that the label of “mystery writer” has hurt Christie much.
The main reason that “mysteries” don’t sell more than a certain level is that publishers define anything above that level as something other than mystery. I remember stock-checking Tony Hillerman titles in the store I worked in in Boston in the late 1980s and early 1990s, using a category order form that his publisher had provided. I was in the order form’s mystery section, working through the list and being confused until I discovered that his two most recent books — the books that catapulted Hillerman onto the bestsellers lists — were not mysteries. Harper had put these two bestselling titles into the fiction section of its order form. Same author, same series, same packaging, different categories.
Has anything changed since 1990? Not really. Today, Tony Hillerman’s books — all but two that are mysteriously missing, probably by mistake rather than by design – are listed in the mystery section of the current HarperCollins Trade Backlist order form. But what does it say on the spines of the books? “Fiction.” The same is true of books by most all of our genre’s bestselling writers.
The Agatha Christies we have in the store are, incidentally, labeled “mystery” on their spines.
If mystery is a ghetto, then I suggest to you that what you need to do is to know your ghetto, embrace and support the community, and make sure that you sell like hell in the community.
The chain stores and the discount stores and Amazon and barnesandnoble.com will do a lot to help you after you’ve started to get established. Those retailers are going to help you move from a base level of sales in this genre — the 2,000 to 4,000 copies that any credible new hardcover that’s well-published, well-promoted and well-distributed will normally net (mostly to libraries) — to the next level.
Who helps you get started? There’s a remarkable infrastructure out there that supports the genre. This conference is just the tip of the iceberg. Periodicals like my own Drood Review, but also Mystery News and Mystery Scene and Deadly Pleasures and the Mystery Readers Journal are eager to discover new writers and to share the enthusiasm of discovery with their readers.
And this community’s booksellers — the independent booksellers whose stores specialize in the mystery but also the dedicated mystery lovers at general independents — go out of their way to sell new writers. Independents don’t make their livings off selling John Grisham. Our bread and butter is selling the next John Grisham.
Here, too, there are some things you can do. The first is to order your priorities. Make marketing to the mystery periodicals and selling to independent booksellers your first priority, not an afterthought. If we thrive on discovering what’s new, make sure that we have an opportunity to discover you when you are new.
The second thing is to make sure that you support the community. That tyranny of low expectations for mysteries is a real problem. You can try running away from it — and a number of writers do try this strategy. Or you can try to fight the expectations. There is one thing that I find striking about the book business in the last couple of decades. I mentioned earlier that the business has changed in a way that allows the top titles to sell many more copies than before. The odd thing is that sales for the average category mystery title haven’t changed much — 20 years ago, 2,000 to 4,000 in hardcover. Today, 2,000 to 4,000 in hardcover. If we’re all supposed to be more productive and efficient, with all the new tools — especially the internet — at our disposal, then what’s the problem?
I think it’s mostly a matter of attitude. Jason Epstein decries the loss of independent booksellers who might sell the kinds of books that he wants to publish, but he doesn’t say anything about publishers’ policies that have helped drive independents out of business. We need to reject that kind of thinking, and vote with our own dollars.
What we need to do in this genre is make sure that we support the institutions — the periodicals and the booksellers — who support the genre. Because what we want is for all mysteries to sell more copies. We want a rising tide that lifts all boats. Strengthening the bookstores that believe in the genre — and who need your help more than they will admit — is a vital part of building the genre and its reach.
We all — publishers, booksellers, writers — need to have a serious conversation about how the category mystery series writer can make a living from his or her writing — something I believe should be possible. But publishers aren’t interested. You can’t have that conversation when the less-than-credible “unprofitable” is where publishers start. We need to make them start with a fresh point of view.
The Tony Hillerman example is, in fact, instructive, because his career illustrates what I think is the right way to hit the big time and the way to expand the popularity of the genre. In 1969, Hillerman’s agent read what was to become his first novel, THE BLESSING WAY. His agent wasn’t happy, telling him: “it’s neither a mainstream novel nor a mystery. Reviewers won’t know what to say about it. Booksellers won’t know which shelf it goes on. Publishers won’t know where to list it in their catalogs” — little did she know that thirty years into publishing him, Harper still has that problem. The agent’s final bit of advice: she recommended quote “getting rid of the Indian stuff” unquote. In his autobiography, in his understated way, Hillerman says “today that sounds like bad advice.”
Of course we know how things worked out. Nowadays, Hillerman is one of our genre’s top-selling writers. He got there by sticking to his guns. He kept the Indian stuff — Hillerman writes that “it seemed to me that the only worthwhile part of my manuscript was the Navajo Nation and its culture” — and he found a sympathetic editor. The book was published in 1970. Hillerman’s work was well regarded from the start — THE BLESSING WAY was an Edgar Award nominee for best first novel. And reviewers managed to figure out what to say about it. Independent booksellers sold a lot of his books. Part of why I remember stock-checking Hillerman so well is that I had to do it so often. But he wasn’t a big commercial success, i.e. he didn’t hit the New York Times bestseller list, until A THIEF OF TIME, his ninth Navajo novel, in 1988.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. That was the 1970s and the 1980s — no publisher today will let a writer go for nine books before he hits the list. Publishers are too impatient, that’s the conventional wisdom. There are a few different answers to this.
The first is the theoretical one — if publishers would only learn the value of the midlist book, if they saw each mystery as something more than ephemera and if they valued books that aren’t breakouts, then maybe they’d be more willing to publish five, six, eight books by a writer without making the New York Times list. Maybe they’d be more willing to keep a writer’s backlist in print. Maybe they’d really see working with each writer — not just the Jilliane Hoffmans — as “building a franchise.”
The second answer is — how else are you going to make the list? I’ve talked about the throwing money at the problem approach, the notion that a publisher can spend a few hundred thousand dollars and bully its way onto the list for a new writer. It’s not impossible for a publisher to do this, but the success rate is so bad and the cost of making the list is so high that you have to wonder if there’s any chance the publisher will make money on these books, other than perhaps through the sale of subsidiary rights — a can of worms that I’m not going to get into here today, in part because I know practically nothing about this and in part because I believe that the sale of rights distracts publishers from putting actual books into the hands of real readers — and it’s books and readers that I care about.
The third answer is the reality check answer. Things weren’t necessarily wonderful back in the late 1980s and they’re not all bad now. I vividly remember the example of a paperback book published in May 1989 that was out of stock indefinitely in July — two months later. When I asked the sales rep what happened, his response — and I’m quoting — is “it sold too fast.” When I asked whether the company planned a reprint, he said no. The book is still out of print — used copies go for a premium online. Think again about supply and demand.
At the same time, let’s remember that even now, writers do find success through building an audience over time, from book to book. Look at the some of the writers who are bestsellers in our genre now. In each case, it took several books for them to make the bestseller lists. And in each case, their careers began in the 1990s, a time when publishers weren’t supposed to be patient enough to wait several books: Minette Walters, whose first novel was published in 1992. Michael Connelly, whose first novel was published in 1993. Janet Evanovich, whose first Stephanie Plum novel was published in 1995. Dennis Lehane, 1997, Kathy Reichs, 1998. And let’s not forget Dan Brown — DAVINCI CODE is his fourth novel.
You can rack up a pretty good batting average hitting singles every time you step up to the plate. Major league teams value someone who can get on base every time at bat. Publishers should too. Hit a single with your first book. Maybe hit a double the next time, and advance a runner. If and when you finally do hit a home run, you score all your runners — that’s what really puts you ahead. Dan Brown has five slots on this week’s New York Times bestseller lists. DAVINCI CODE isn’t just a solo homer, it’s a grand slam.
It’s true that publishers are impatient, but then who isn’t? Aren’t you? What publishers need to see are signs of life — real signs that readers are responding to a writer’s vision. That’s why it’s so important that you do your homework — that you understand what readers like, that you understand how to appeal to readers, that you know the difference between pandering to readers and respecting them, that you know how to put books into readers hands.
And you need to know who your allies are. How will independent booksellers help you? When Minette Walters and Michael Connelly and Janet Evanovich and Dennis Lehane and Kathy Reichs each published their first mystery novels, each was nominated for the Dilys Award given by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association to the book we “most enjoyed selling” — not just among first novels but among all titles we sold in their respective years. IMBA nominated these writers at the beginning of their careers not because we were impressed with marketing budgets — for some of these folks, the marketing budgets were nonexistent — or for promotional gimmicks or even for great presentation. Walters’ ICE HOUSE is a drab US first edition, and its flap copy — I kid you not — starts out “If Edgar Allan Poe had collaborated with Jane Austen to write a good British cozy….” Huh?
What we really learn, from these examples is that the way to be successful is to stay true to your vision. I get asked all the time what I think the hot trends are in this genre, usually by writers or publishers or other booksellers (especially booksellers who don’t specialize in mysteries) who all are hoping to find a bandwagon to jump on — as if I have any insight into what’s hot. I hate the question and I always try to resist answering, especially because the real answer is one that no one asking the question will believe. What’s hot in this genre? Good books. Jason Epstein and I agree on little, but we do agree that at some point and at some level, this is still a business where what succeeds is what’s good.
It doesn’t matter if cat mysteries are hot right now or medieval mysteries or thrillers with biblical roots. The surest way to get burned in this business is trying to chase today’s trend. By the time your book comes out, you’ll be too late. That’s a bit of conventional wisdom about this business that I do believe in. If only publishers would act as if they believed it too.
Riding someone else’s wave is a pointless exercise anyway. What you need to do is find your own “Indian stuff.” It may be the least likely idea out there — it probably IS the least likely idea out there. But that doesn’t matter.
Fifteen months ago, no one would have guessed that Dan Brown would sell nearly six million copies of the second novel in his series about a Harvard symbologist. Did any of us know even know what a symbologist did? A couple of years ago, the Columbia University Press imported a trio of odd-looking trade paperbacks, gentle, well-mannered novels about a hefty woman in Botswana named Precious who decides to open a detective agency. Would you have guessed that these books and the two that have followed so far would hit The New York Times bestseller list?
You know what, you might not have guessed it from a description. But once you opened the books and fell into Alexander McCall Smith’s world, you probably did know.
Because when you have a concept you believe in, readers know. When your characters are real, when your writing is assured, readers know. When your publisher does a good job of packaging and presenting your book, readers will find it. When you do everything that readers expect in a mystery and still surprise them, or when you do exactly what they expect but do it with grace and conviction, readers will respond. No, that’s too weak a way of saying it. That’s when you’ll steal readers’ hearts.
(Not part of the original talk, but something I want to emphasize.)
The sales rep who handles Hyperion for my store is a good guy, someone I’ve worked with for years and who has helped us out above and beyond the call of duty. But like most sales reps who call on small independent stores, he’s terribly overworked. If this means that a store like mine ends up often ordering late and receiving books late (as was the case with the Ridley Pearson this spring), I am nevertheless grateful for whatever help this rep — and each of the others who call on my store — is able to offer. These beleaguered sales folk don’t deserve the blame for the problems that small stores face in dealing with the big publishing companies; the issues are more structural and fundamental.
Shawn Coyne gave his take on the profitability of publishing in an interview on the Absolute Write website: http://www.absolutewrite.com/novels/shawn_coyne.htm
Denise Little’s discussion of money is on the website of the Science Fiction Writers of America: http://sfwa.org/bulletin/articles/profit-motive.html
As you see, I don’t agree with much of what Jason Epstein says in his book, BOOK BUSINESS (W.W. Norton, 2002, ISBN: 0-393-32234-3).
What I say about St. Martin’s Press is widely “known” but it’s hard to find attribution. I found a report of one person’s observations of the company. It’s by Erica Irving at and it’s located at: http://www.publishers.asn.au/awards.cfm?doc_id=25. (Click on Irving’s name in the middle of the page.)
Jeff Zaleski’s admonition to the industry, “The Need to Read Stephen King,” was published in Publisher’s Weekly’s October 27, 2003 issue.
The numbers on Jilliane Hoffman are reported by Paul Colford in The New York Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/business/story/178185p-154958c.html
Jane Austen Doe’s “Confessions of a Semi-Successful Author” is on salon.com. To read this piece, you’ll need to either subscribe to salon.com or see an ad to get a free day pass: http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2004/03/22/midlist/index_np.html
The quotes from Tony Hillerman are taken from his autobiography, SELDOM DISAPPOINTED (Perennial, 2002, ISBN: 0-06-050586-9)