May 16, 2007
Here, let’s get this list right up at the top, we’ll get back to it in a moment:
“D is for Deadbeat” by Sue Grafton--#4
“Pale Kings and Princes” by Robert B. Parker--#14
“Sunset Express” by Robert Crais--#6
“Glitz” by Elmore Leonard--#19
“Silent Partner” by Jonathan Kellerman--#4
Okay. Now, a gentleman writer friend of mine who shall remain nameless has suggested that if you promote like crazy and get good distribution from your publisher, by your fifth book you will make it onto the New York Times Best Seller List.
On the one hand, I think that statement is complete and total bullshit. On the other hand, well… I think it’s complete and total bullshit. If he makes it on the NYTBSL by summer 2008, which is when I think his 5th book comes out, I will gladly buy him a drink and congratulate him, and maybe he will. I think that kind of thinking is pie-in-the-sky at best and at worse can be debilitating folly, but hey, whatever gets you up and out of bed in the morning.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this either, but I think there are thousands of novelists and nonfiction book writers who would not agree with the statement and whose careers have proved it.
So, Mark, what’s that list about up there?
Ah. There are five bestselling authors up there. I’ve sort of given up on Elmore Leonard, but I’m still an avid reader and buyer in hardcover of the other four. The books listed there are the first books I read by those authors. I didn’t care for “D is for Deadbeat”—still don’t—but I adore Sue Grafton. I didn’t much care for “Pale Kings and Princes” but I tried Parker later and I’ve read pretty much all his books. “Sunset Express” was a great book and made me an instant Robert Crais fan, but it’s not like I’d ever heard of the guy before that. And “Glitz” by Elmore Leonard was his 19th book for god sakes, we live in the same state and I’d never heard of the guy. Of course, “Glitz” was Leonard’s “breakout” novel and I can’t help but wonder if he’d started his writing career in today’s publishing environment any publisher would have waited around for him to take off.
I’m probably not a typical reader any more—I’m a published novelist, for years a book reviewer, and publishers and publicists still send me books to read, so I’m more likely to read a book by someone I’ve never heard of before than I used to. But 15 or 20 years ago? Not likely. My finances were different, for one, and I wasn’t coughing up $20 bucks for an unknown, and sometimes had to think twice about $4.95 (those book prices seem a bit quaint now, don’t they?).
My point, if you haven’t figured this out yet, is that writers and novelists have to keep it in their head that they’re running a marathon, not a sprint. We built readerships a book at a time, hopefully building up momentum, reaching a certain kind of critical mass over the course of 4 or 5 or 10 books—if our publishers will be patient. It’s not an industry currently known for that, and when we talk about MI they haven’t even been in business that long, so who knows? Only time will tell, I suppose.
So, we build our readers book by book, taking up more space on the bookstore shelves, creating a backlist, building a readership. Marketing 101 says most people need to hear a product’s name at least 6 times before they act on it. In bookselling, as my list suggests, that may not mean a specific book, but hearing the author’s name in connection with the book. Maybe we all need to write THAT above our desks, boys and girls: THE BOOK ISN’T THE PRODUCT, THE AUTHOR IS. After all, anybody ever hear of or read a thriller by Dan Brown before he published “The Da Vinci Code”? Me neither. So if we hang in there and keep doing what we’re doing, there’s hope for us yet.
I really wouldn’t mind seeing:
THE SERPENT’S KISS by Mark Terry #1 New York Times Bestseller