Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Patience, Grasshopper

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

Mark Terry


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Sobering post and right on target, Mark. It is definitely a marathon, but one that is cut short by many publishers who dump authors after only 2-3 books. Most authors don't quit the race, they are yanked from it. It's like we're running with alligators snapping at our heels.

BTW - I would also love to see The Serpent's Kiss at #1 on the NYTBSL, with one of my books right below it. I won't be greedy, you can be #1.

Mark Terry said...

That would be quite a sight, wouldn't it?

I just had this vision of the top 15 books on the fiction list being all MI authors.

Well, your lips to God's ears, and all that.

Eric Mayer said...

Mary and are hoping people will pick up on out 7th book! I think we realize it was a mistake going with a "double" name. Too hard to remember. Readers do also recall series books by characters though. I mentioned this blog to Mary and said, "I read some Robert B. Parker at the urging of friends years ago but they didn't hook me like the Travis McGee books." I realized I'd reflexively referred to Travis McGee rather than author John D. MacDonald.

Mark Terry said...

I wonder how John D. felt, after publishing tons and tons of novels that he would be most known for Travis McGree.

And Eric, I hope you'll end up on that list with #7.

Joe Moore said...

Thanks for delivering a realistic commentary of the marathon we're all running. It begs the question, are we running to or from something?

So many would-be writers never hear the word "business" in the phrase: publishing business.

Mark Combes said...

As I told a friend recently, "Being an author is the world's worst get-rich-quick scheme."

You better be a novelist because you love to write or you will find this profession unbearably frustrating. It's frustrating enough....

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

BTW, I mentioned today's Inkspot post on my blog today, along with a pic of Mark.

Mark Terry said...

Thanks Sue (well, I think. Adding the photo...)

Anonymous said...

In the end, we can only write our books. Sure, promotional efforts are probably a good idea, I think -- I know I'm doing them myself: visiting bookstores and meeting staff, leaving cards, sample copies, going to conferences, etc.

But I have yet to see a single piece of hard data suggesting that anything an author does besides actually write the book itself nets any meaningful sales. Do blogs sell books? Who knows, really? Do events sell books? Who knows, really? Do reviews sell books? Who knows, really? Does Amazon matter? Are chain stores killing books or keeping them alive? Ask ten people and you'll get a host of opinions, but it'll all be anecdotal and impressionistic. No one really KNOWS what works and what doesn't.

Except I think I know what doesn't work, and it's the thing that gets done the most. I think the publishing industry in general suffers from too much timidity. As a business model, the whole "promote the hell out of a few pre-ordained biggies and leave the rest of the catalog to fend for itself" approach of the typical publisher strikes me as self-defeating. Publishers act like they're taking risks when they publish new authors, but usually it's a low-risk/low-return approach. "We spend a couple dollars and hope we get a couple dollars back." No wonder so many books go nowhere. No one knows they even exist. They never get a chance to stand or fall on their merits.

So authors are stuck with hoping that they get noticed by the right people at the right time -- something they have little or no control over. In terms of risk/reward, most authors would be much smarter to buy a PowerBall ticket each week than write a book.

So obviously it's only reasonable that we write because we want to. Not because we have much hope of making a living doing it. For me, I'll keep writing no matter what happens -- it's what I do -- but I know any success I have will be largely random chance.

Mark Terry said...

"But I have yet to see a single piece of hard data suggesting that anything an author does besides actually write the book itself nets any meaningful sales."

Dear Anonymous,
Bingo! In my "dayjob" I'm a freelance writer and I often write for publications aimed at podiatrists and physicians. I typically write practice management articles along the lines of "6 Ways to Market Your Practice" or "7 Ways to Become More Efficient" or "5 Piece of Office Equipment You Need to..." sorts of things.

What does EVERY SINGLE marketing person say? If you can't track what works, you're probably wasting your time. If you can't track what works, you can't tell what works.

And I have yet to really see any way to solve this from the writer's perspective.

Borders revolutionized bookselling 15 to 20 years back by using computers to track sales, so they could figure out which books were selling and where. That way if a book or author sold well in a particular region, they could reinforce their sales forces, etc. in those regions and try to expand the sales.

Publishers, puzzlingly, seem to have responded by killing regional distribution and cutting back on sales staffs in general.

Puzzling covers so much of the publishing business that I sometimes think it should just be called the puzzling business.