A few weeks ago, I read a galley written by someone I respect, a novelist whose first three published thrillers were all top-notch page-turners. These books were more than exciting – they were also moving, with themes that touched on the meaning of family. He received big advances, sold movie rights, and had terrific reviews.
But his sales weren’t stellar. And I’m sure he’s wondering what he did wrong. The answer is: HE did absolutely nothing wrong. He did his job and wrote a great book. But the stars just didn’t align.
He’s not the only writer in his position. This business is insanely unpredictable. I’ve read so many really terrific books that SHOULD have hit the bestseller lists. TRACE EVIDENCE by Elizabeth Becka, for instance, should have done better than it did. Written by a criminalist, it had all the forensic details and all the tension of a Cornwell novel. But it didn’t hit the lists.
Why not? Why do so many really, really good novels fail to achieve bestsellerdom? What does it take?
Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that terrific reviews aren’t enough. I’m the queen of the bad review — after all, my first novel, HARVEST, got what I consider to be the all-time worst Publishers Weekly review ever printed: “will excite only readers who move their lips.” Can you get any worse than that? To top it off, I also got the worst-ever review ever printed in PEOPLE MAGAZINE. HARVEST had a so-so cover (a syringe). And it was tarred with that label “written by a former romance author.”
Then it went on to hit the New York Times bestseller list.
While in Dublin last week, I had the pleasure of meeting a young Irish writer whose first book, a noir crime thriller, had stellar reviews. It sold poorly. He’s struggling to find a publisher for a second book. When I started to express my sympathy for how hard the biz is, he quickly countered with, “I have no right to complain. I love what I’m doing. Writers who complain about writing should try working as a garbage collector instead. We are blessed in comparison.”
All I could do was stare at him in wonder and admiration. I want him to succeed. I want him to be a bestseller. Just because he’s so completely lacking in bitterness. Because he’s — well, damn it — he’s NICE. A quality we don’t see enough of in this business.
But I’ve come to the conclusion that niceness isn’t enough. Bitterness doesn’t do it either, nor does being a nasty cutthroat.
What it comes down to is plain old good luck.
Yes, there are some things you as a writer can do to help along your success. You have to write a good book. Then you make sure you hook up with a great agent. (For those of you who are interested, I have the BEST agent — Meg Ruley of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.) You insist on a great cover and a great title. You make yourself available for media. You plow into the publicity circuit with a can-do attitude.
You try to be NICE to people. (Did I mention this already? How important it is to show a little old-fashioned respect and cooperation?)
But then something else takes over, something that’s totally out of your control. You get sprinkled with some fairy dust. You can’t ask for it. The fairies have to decide you’re the chosen one. Your book release is scheduled during a week when no blockbusters are out. Or Oprah reads it on vacation. Or the zeitgeist is just quivering for a book of your subject matter. Or your name is Dan Brown.
Whatever the reasons, the fairies have decided you are THE ONE. Your book hits the bestseller list while other equally well written books don’t. Are you better than them? Maybe.
But what you really are is a whole lot luckier.
I write this now, despite my recent Edgar nomination, despite my recent great showings on the UK and Germany betseller lists. I’m fully aware that with a little twist of fate, and some bad timing, I’d be struggling to sell my next book. I’m here because I got sprinkled with fairy dust.
And there are great writers out there, deserving writers, whom the fairies just haven’t yet discovered.
In the meantime, it behooves all of us — successful and not yet successful — to remember Tess’s rule. Be nice to each other. It can’t hurt.
In that vein, I want to direct you all to a guy who’s not just nice, he’s also savvy and if you’re a writer, you should have his site on your radar. JA Konrath (JAKonrath.com) has a writing blog that I visit every single day because he’s so — well, commonsensical. He makes me think of a big friendly puppy who just bounds out at you, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. Check him out.