Sometimes It Takes Fairy Dust

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.

Bookselling Across The Pond

I’ve just gotten home from my UK book tour. It’s only five a.m. and I should be sleeping, but instead I’m sitting here blogging because … well, because jet lag is hell. This was my third trip across the pond, and as always, I came away with some fascinating tidbits of information. Well, I find them fascinating, since I’m a junkie for gossip about the publishing biz.

This trip reinforces what I’ve felt for some time — that book tours outside the U.S. really do make a difference in sales. US book tours have, at most, a modest effect because our country is so vast. Even if you attract a lot of publicity, say, in Detroit, and manage to bump up your sales in that metropolitan area, it’s still only a riipple in the overall market. For an author to reach every market in the US, she has to land national TV and radio media — or she has to go on the road for months.

Maybe even YEARS.

So forget writing the next book. And pack a big suitcase.

But in a country like the UK, book tours are far more efficient. Radio stations across the country can be linked up via the same studio in BBC London. There are tons of bookshops concentrated in downtown London, and I think I did about 10 drop-in signings in a single day.

I was startled by the extent of discounting in the UK. In all the bookshops, you’ll find “3 for 2” paperback displays. You can buy three of the titles for the price of two. In the US, bookshops generally sell brand new paperback titles at cover price, and only in the warehouse clubs will you find paperbacks discounted deeply.

Even more startling were the new hardcovers selling at half price. (In the US, the deepest discount I’ve ever seen, in warehouse clubs, is 40%, which gives the clubs just a sliver of a profit.) Even Patricia Cornwell’s latest title, which you’d think would sell well even at list price, was being offered in the UK at 50% off. How on earth can a bookstore make any profit off those sales?

The answer: they can’t. They just break even. The deep discounting, I was told, is a way for stores to get customers in the door. You lure them in with a half-price Cornwell, and hope they stay to buy other books. But in this desperate bid to attract foot traffic, UK bookshops may be setting off their own death spiral, because now customers EXPECT a 50% discount on all hardcovers. They think it’s normal to pay half-price for a hardcover, and will balk when a book is sold at list price.

If you’re an author, this means that there’s no way to get your book on a UK bestseller list unless the bookshops offer your book at a deep, deep discount.

Like the US, the UK is seeing a growing market share of book sales going out of grocery stores and non-traditional outlets. About a third of my American hardcover sales, I’ve found, have gone out of warehouse clubs such as Costco and Sam’s. In the UK, I discovered that almost 40% of BODY DOUBLE’s paperback sales and 20% of VANISH’s hardcover sales went out through Tesco’s, a UK national grocery store chain. Not surprising, really, when you think of the convenience; everyone needs to shop for groceries. Why not throw a book in the cart at the same time?

After dealing with US publishing numbers, the UK numbers may seem small. The week I was there, the number one bestselling paperback title (by Sophie Kinsella) sold 32,000 copies. BODY DOUBLE sold about 23,000 copies and it hit #4 on the London Times bestseller list. The number one hardcover (by Conn Iggulden) sold about 4700 copies. VANISH sold 3700 copies — and, amazingly, hit #2 on the London Times list!

Small numbers, but very, very sweet.

Aside from business, what else did I do? Well, you KNEW I was going to talk about food. In Glasgow, I tasted haggis for the very first time. For years, I’ve wanted to try this traditional Scottish dish, made of minced sheep’s innards and oatmeal, traditionally cooked in a sheep’s bladder. What better place to give it a try than in Scotland? Although I must tell you that I was warned off it by quite a few people, who wrinkled their noses and asked why on earth I’d want to even go near a haggis. One Scotsman advised me to “drink a few whiskeys” before I gave it a taste.

I chose a restaurant called Stravaigin in Glasgow, because I’d learned that the chef had won the “best haggis in Scotland” award, in a competition with 600 other chefs. After all the warnings that I’d hate the stuff, I cautiously ordered only the appetizer portion. What came out were three little mounds. One was the “neeps” (mashed turnips), one was mashed potatoes. The mound of haggis was black and almost granular, with a dusting of oatmeal. With some trepidation, I scooped some onto my fork.

It was utterly delicious. The reputation of haggis has indeed been sullied; this is one fine dish, and I’d order it again in a second. Next time I attend a Robert Burns night, I will stand up and recite the “ode to a haggis” with complete conviction.

I cleaned up that plate in no time, and started in on the most flavorful lamb chops I’ve ever tasted.

The restaurant again: Stravaigin, in Glasgow.

Edgar Amazement

This evening, after a bad day of writing (translation: everything that I set down on paper stank) I turned on my computer to check my email. And discovered message after message with the subject line: “Congratulations.” They were emails from my wonderful fellow writers sending me best wishes on my Edgar Award nomination for “Best Novel.”

I was so flabbergasted that I didn’t believe it at first. Then I opened an official email from the Mystery Writers of America and discovered – yes, it’s true. VANISH has been nominated.

It’s my very first time.

Now a confession: to be nominated has been my dream for as long as I can remember. No matter how many books I sell, or how big my advances, the one thing that has driven me, since childhood, is the hunger for respect. To have people care what I have to say. Maybe it’s the fact I grew up a minority. Maybe it’s the fact that I heard a few too many racial epithets while a child. It left me with a lifelong need to prove myself.

Just a few days ago, during a radio show in the UK, the interviewer asked me, “What drives you to keep writing?” And I answered, in a startling moment of honesty: “To be accepted. To be acknowledged.”

The truth is, though, that one can never feel fully accepted. Those of us who feel like outsiders will always feel this way. All I have to do is visit a few blogsites tonight and I find someone posting “WTF is Tess Gerritsen doing on the Edgars nominee list? Her book doesn’t belong there!”

Even now, I still feel I’m on the outside, looking in at a marvelous party that I’ll never be invited to join.

But for the moment, I’m thrilled. I’ve had my gin and tonic, and I even poured myself an extra glass of wine with dinner. I’m letting myself feel, just for tonight, that I’ve been invited to the party. Not the outsider, not the Chink, not the girl who was never white enough, never from the right social class.

Tonight, I’m okay.

No Blogging for a Few Weeks

No blogging for a few weeks, as I’ll be traveling in the UK on book tour. As always, my biggest pleasure in travel is the food, and I’ve already managed to snag a few recommendations for Chinese restaurants in London. Plus I hope to revisit a few favorite Indian restaurants as well.Oh, and I plan to sell books!

And if you haven’t already, don’t forget to vote in my cover design contest. Pass it on!

VOTE! VOTE! VOTE!

My cover contest page is up, with all 38 entries, and here’s your chance to choose your favorite cover design and decide the winner! (http://www.tessgerritsen.com/contestvote.cfm)

We authors always love to whine about how bad our covers are, but when you ask as to come up with a better design, most of us are clueless. So I thought, just for fun, I’d throw it out to my readers, because I know there are tons of truly creative people out there. I wanted to see what people outside of the publishing biz could create.

I have to say, I’m amazed by how polished some of these designs are.

Thanks so much for all your entries. The voting page will be up for a month, and I hope everyone who drops by my site will swing by to cast their three votes. Choose the covers that would most likely induce YOU to pick up the book.

As I’ve watched the entries come in over the past two months or so, I’ve come to a new appreciation for how challenging this task is. There’s more than just “concept” — there’s also execution. The ability to choose the right photographic image, to integrate it into a whole, to choose the right font, to balance the elements. You want to catch the eye without repelling, to appeal and entice. This takes a very special talent — one, I confess, I don’t possess.

This has been so much fun, I think I’ll repeat it next year.

Don’t Ask Me What Happens Next. I’m Just The Author.

I’m getting mentally psyched up for my upcoming UK book tour for VANISH, and trying to anticipate the questions I’ll be asked by interviewers. There’s always the inevitable one, of course: “Where did you get the idea for this book?”

But very few interviewers follow it up with the next logical question: “How did you get from THAT idea to THIS book?”

Because that’s where the hard part of being a writer comes in.

As I’ve said before, the story for VANISH was launched because of a news article I’d read about a woman “corpse” waking up in the morgue. That was all I had to start with. No other plot elements, no sense of what comes next. Just a reawakened corpse. Other writers might have taken it in completely different directions. Maybe the “corpse” gets up and flees into the night. Or she has amnesia and must recover her lost past. Or she’s a covert ops agent who’s been discovered and now must complete her mission on the run.

I had no idea who this “dead” person was. The only idea I had, as I wrote the book, was that this character would keep us off balance. That she’d confuse us, and make us switch our loyalties. Repeatedly.

That’s all I had. I wanted to be surprised. So I set out to surprise myself.

First, she wakes up in a body bag. (She starts off as a victim. Or is she?)

She goes bonkers, kills a security guard, and takes hostages in a hospital. (Okay, now she’s a villain!)

In the course of the hostage crisis, she starts raving about wild conspiracies. (Oh. She’s just nuts.)

In a final shoot-out, she’s killed in the melee — and an autopsy reveals that she was clearly executed by federal agents. (So WHAT is she? A villain? A victim? Or just a crazy woman?)

I didn’t know the answer until I finished writing the book. This seems to astound a lot of people, who assume that a complex thriller must be plotted out ahead of time, in intricate detail, or the pieces won’t fit together. That I am somehow coldly systematic about my writing, producing slick copy ready for Hollywood.

Lord, I wish I DID work that way.

To watch me create is to see someone lost in the wilderness, wandering this way and that, getting mired in quicksand, falling off an occasional cliff. I didn’t know where I was going. The only plan I had was to follow this strange and enchanting and dangerous woman Olena and discover who — and what — she really was. This is not a slick way to write. This is plotting by gut instinct. It’s a method designed to turn your hair gray.

But it’s the only way I know how to do it.

The Secret Life of a Bestselling Author

For some reason, a lot of people seem to think that once you hit the bestseller lists your life changes. You drink a lot of champagne, eat a lot of caviar, go to a lot of fancy schmancy parties with publishing bigwigs. I’m here to tell the truth.

Tonight, I ate ramen for dinner.

Yes, I’ve hit the NYT list. But tonight, I’m home alone because my hubby is off traveling and my darling son is off with his girlfriend. It’s one of those nights I treasure, a night when I get to do exactly what I want to do, eat exactly what I want to eat.

And so I ate ramen. You know, one of those little Top-Ramen packages (roast chicken flavor). And I popped in my much-loved DVD of “The Fellowship of the Ring”. And it’s been a great night.

“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf. Mountains!”

I hear Bilbo say. What a great line. The Lord of the Rings is full of great lines that suddenly take on new and moving significance when you’re all alone on the couch, sipping a gin and tonic, free to shed tears in front of a TV screen with no one else watching. I’m sure there are some of you who think, “My god, she’s just a dweeb”. I’ve watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy about a dozen times. I’ve watched Galaxy Quest more times than that. I suppose I should be bragging about all the sophisticated foreign language films I’ve watched lately, but I will freely admit that when I’m under stress, I reach for my beloved Tolkien.

When I was in medical school, at the end of a long day of slicing open cadavers, the one thing that saved my sanity was reading Tolkien. Again and again and again. No one else in my medical school would admit to that addiction. It’s only now, when I finfally feel secure in my own sense of self-worth (and it’s taken a long time, folks, to get to this point) that I feel confident enough to admit the fact that I’m just an older, female version of those teenaged boys you see in the video game parlors.

It wasn’t so long ago that I used to go to Star Trek conventions. Dressed in costume. Wearing Vulcan ears.

I suspect this is why there aren’t all that many bestselling authors blogging. They have better sense than to admit that they wear rubber ears in public.

After years of feeling like a misfit, I’ve realized that the world is full of other misfits, all of us identifying with Hobbits — the little guys whom no one else respects. And who quietly end up changing the course of history.

A Tribute to Ramona

I am in tears as I write this.

I woke up this morning to heartbreaking news. Radio host Art Bell’s beloved wife Ramona has died of an asthma attack. In their fifteen years of marriage, Art and Ramona had not been apart for a single day. That’s how devoted they were to each other.

Now, I have never actually met Art Bell, but I feel I know him, after having been on his show (Coast to Coast AM) three times, and having been in on-air conversation with him for nine hours. In nine hours, you get to know a person. Even if it’s live and on the air. Here’s what I gleaned about Art: He’s open-minded. He’s insanely curious. He’s funny, and he’s warm, and yes, he’s a bit “out there”. He’s exactly the kind of guy I’d want to have at my dinner table, the kind of guy I’d love to split a bottle of wine with as we sit in a hot tub and stare at the stars and consider the possibility of extraterrestrials on earth.

In short, I think of Art as a friend. As a fellow “questioner” in this universe.

So I’m just devastated that his wonderful Ramona is gone.

I got the chance to speak to Ramona months ago, when she got on the phone to say hello to me and to tell me how much she liked my books. She was a Filipina, and so we “connected” in that way that non-white Americans manage to connect, having the shared experience of knowing what it’s like to be different in a majority-white culture. I only wish that I’d had the chance to meet her.

I know there are people who think of Art Bell as an eccentric, maybe even a bit of a weirdo, the way people think of me as a weirdo. That’s okay. We are people who always want to look around corners, who always want to see behind the curtain. Art is that kind of guy, and we NEED more people like him.

I want you to know this about the man: he loved his wife. I can’t think of any higher tribute.

That’s all you need to know about him. He loved his wife. It’s enough to know we should all care about him.

Attack of the ‘Bots, and Other Website Issues

If anyone’s checking in on my guestbook, you’ll notice an alarming number of entries with no message, no name, just a referring website. According to my webmeister, I’m being attacked by internet ‘bots who’ve noticed the enormous number of hits my site garnered a few weeks ago after the Art Bell show (35,000 in one day) and decided to start electronically spamming my guestbook. In defense, we’ll soon be asking you to prove you’re a human (and not just a computer) before you sign the guestboook.

A lot of you have been anxiously awaiting the voting page for the cover design contest. I promise it’ll be up before long! Again, there were some website problems, but I think we’ll have those under control soon.

And finally, if you happen to subscribe to Apple’s iTunes (downloadable on your iPods), check out their directory for my first Podcast! I’ve recorded a short segment about the background for VANISH — and cases of real corpses coming back to life!