Barely able to take a breath…

I just spent five days on the road in New England, dropping into bookstores and appearing at events at some fabulous independents including Books Etc. in Falmouth, Jabberwocky in Newburyport, and Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA.  Now I’m home just long enough to do some laundry and re-pack for the next leg of the tour.

But I had to post here the amazing news I got on Wednesday night.  If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, then you know the significance of Wednesday night.  That’s when my agent called to tell me that THE MEPHISTO CLUB is debuting on the New York Times bestseller list at … number three! 

This is my highest landing ever, and I didn’t anticipate it.  Because — I’ll be honest here — the sales figures I saw during that first week on sale didn’t scream “top-five bestseller.”  There’s a lesson to be learned here.  It’s not just your raw sales.  It’s your sales relative to everyone else’s sales, and during that first week, it appears that overall sales suffered a bit from a drop in bookstore traffic.  Maybe the weather was too nice.  Maybe it’s just a normal post-Labor Day slump.  But it wasn’t a great week for selling books.

Whatever the explanation for my great news, I’ll happily take “Number three bestseller”!

Again, I’ll be off and running for the next week, so probably won’t be able to blog or answer email.  But I’ll try!

on the road

I’ll be traveling for the next few days on book tour.  More posts when I get home!

Interview in Maine Sunday Telegram

About evil… and me!

Interview here.

Would you like a signed bookplate?

If you or any reader you know would like signed bookplates, bookmarks, and a printed reader’s guide to Mephisto Club, send a self-addressed stamped business-sized envelope to:

Tess Gerritsen, PO Box G, Camden, ME  04843

I’ll be on the road a lot over the next few weeks, but I’ll try to mail out the book plates as quickly as I can!  

Have you ever seen evil in someone’s eyes?

(I posted this over at my Amazon.com plog. And usually I hate to double-post the same text, but I really am hoping to hear from a member of the Sons of Jared, and maybe this will draw them out to talk to me.)

Now that I’m book tour, I’ve been talking to a number of people about THE MEPHISTO CLUB, and about Biblical legends of demons who walk among us. I’m meeting a number of people who have disturbing stories to tell me, people who actually believe they’ve encountered such creatures.

One man, a hairdresser, told me about the woman client whose hair he was cutting. He had never met her before, and she seemed like a perfectly ordinary, pleasant woman. Then she said something that made him focus on her face. As he looked into her eyes, he felt a sudden, soul-shattering chill. He saw something else, something not human, staring back at him. “I instantly backed away,” he said. He had to excuse himself and go into a back room, where he stood shaking and on the verge of tears. It took him some moments before he could bring himself to go back out and finish cutting the woman’s hair. She paid her bill and walked out. He never saw her again.

This happened several years ago. He has never had another experience like it since. But as he told me the story, he was once again shaking, once again frightened. What, exactly, did he see in that woman’s eyes? He still doesn’t know.

His experience isn’t unique. Other people have told me similar stories, of looking into another person’s eyes — usually strangers they’ve never met before — and recognizing something dark and powerful, something that truly, deeply frightened them.

I’m sure this is not new in human history. In the era before Christ, other people must have experienced the same chill, the same sense of fear. They too believed they glimpsed something that was not quite human staring from another person’s eyes. Could this be what sparked the legends of the Nephilim?

If you have a similar story to tell, I’d like to hear it.

And if you are a member of the Sons of Jared, I want to hear from you too. You need not tell me your name.

How many copies sold to get on “the list”?

In a comment on one of my blogposts, Struggler wondered how many copies would I have to sell to be happy?  (The truth: NEVER will I sell enough to be happy!)  But that leads to another, more concrete question: “How many copies do you need to sell to get on the NYT bestseller list?”

It’s a hard question, because the answer is: it depends.  It depends on which time of year you come out, and who the competition is.  If you’re released in October, for instance, you’re up against the really big releases, and you have to sell a lot more to be able to place on the list.  If you’re released in January, it will take far fewer copies to be a NYT bestseller.  My only experience is in the months of August and September, so that’s all I can really talk about.  And even then, I’m not completely sure about the real numbers, because I only get reports on a small segment of the market — mainly, the big chains and some of the wholesale clubs.  Of course, you can also go by Bookscan numbers, but I don’t always have access to those.  It depends on whether someone’s generous enough to slip those numbers to me.

 But here’s what I know.

When the hardcover of BODY DOUBLE came out, it was released the week of 8/17/04.  It debuted the first week on the NYT list at #12.  It debuted on the Wall Street Journal List at #11 with a sales index of 14.  It had the great fortune of getting one row on the B&N stepladder display (along with three other titles) during the very first week, which meant it had a really good first week in B&N, which skews the numbers somewhat.  Bookscan reported about 14,000 copies sold that first week.  This includes the major chain bookstores, the wholesale clubs, and Target.  It does NOT include Walmart or many distributors or sales to the library market (which can add another 10,000 copies.)  Bookscan is said to report about 65% of the hardcover market.  If we accept the 65% number, then the real sales would be around 21,000.  So that’s what it took to get to #12 on the NYT list, the week of 8/17/04.  It says nothing about any other week.  It’s just good for that week, in 2004.

Ironically, I sold about the same number of copies of THE SINNER during its first week in hardcover the year before, yet that title debuted at #4 on the NYT list.  Which is a good illustration of how selling  the same number of copies can land you at wildly different places on the list.

So there’s no definite number of sales that will guarantee a slot on the list.  In October, you may need to sell 25,000 copies to get on the list.  In January, maybe only 10,000 copies in a week will do it.  What you really want to see is growth — a steady increase in sales from title to title.  But so many things can interfere with that, from world events to a bad cover to a blockbuster title coming out at the same time.

This is the part that most frustrates me — and fascinates me.  I love to mull over the numbers.  But I also fret and stew when the numbers don’t grow the way I want them to.  I wish we writers could just write the books and not worry about how they’re selling.  We didn’t get into this to be business people.  For the most part, we’re NOT good business people.  We just want to tell stories.  Yet the market forces us to pay attention to these things, and that skews the whole creative process.  Instead of writing with an artist’s sensibility, we have to write with sales and marketing in mind.  Publishers aren’t patrons of the arts; they’re business people, which forces us to be business people.

And that just gets in the way of the storytelling.

THE MEPHISTO CLUB now on sale!

I’m a bundle of nerves.  Like an actress with opening night jitters, I’m anxious to see how MEPHISTO CLUB does on this most important of weeks.  Velocity of sales determines your placement on the bestseller list, and a book’s success relies on having a lot of people buy the book during the very first week.  So my fingers are crossed.  Time to uncork the wine bottle and take some calming breaths. 

Yep, it’s true. I’m lurid.

There are some authors who never feel the sting of an ugly review.  Throughout their careers, they enjoy the unstinting and unfailing praise of critics who gush: “The best crime writer in the country today!” or “Yet another masterpiece!”  They are the darlings who have never heard a harsh word from the literary kingmakers.

I am not one of those writers.

I was reminded of this when I read Marilyn Stasio’s review of THE MEPHISTO CLUB this morning, a review so awful that I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.  She complains that I’ve always skated close to the edges of horror with my icky, bloody plots about fiends who harvest organs and murder pregnant women.  She dismisses me as “a lurid writer to begin with.”  And this time, she says, I’ve gone over the top.  WAY over the top. 

Once upon a time, a review like this would have sent me diving under the covers.  I wouldn’t have had the stomach to talk about it.  It’s like having a death in the family — everyone knows about it, but they don’t dare bring up the subject for fear you’ll start sobbing hysterically.  

Man, am I way over that.  Because I’ve gone through this before.  Many, many times before.  I, my friends, am the queen of bad reviews.

Every so often, when I’ve indulged in a few too many glasses of wine among my fellow writers, I’ll suggest that we have a few laughs by reciting our worst reviews.  I’ll throw out a few of mine, and wait for someone else to recite theirs.  Invariably, I’m met with stunned silence.  I don’t think it’s because they’re reluctant to share.  I think it’s because none of them can come close to the bad reviews I’ve gotten through the years.  I’ve been dismissed as a talentless hack by some of the most influential names in the business.

The ironic thing is, the books that garnered the worst reviews and stirred up the most violent responses were the very same books that significantly advanced my career.

My very first thriller, HARVEST, was called a “terminally bad read” by the late J.D. Reed, a People Magazine reviewer who was praised for his infallible literary instincts.  In Mr. Reed’s highly esteemed literary opinion, my career was dead on arrival, and he probably assumed that the world would never have to endure another Tess Gerritsen novel.  (Much less ten more of them.)

The infallible Mr. Reed must have thought the world had turned upside down when HARVEST hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Then there was Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post, who declared VANISH a worthless read and said that no male reader in his right mind would want to read about a lactating detective.  Case closed.

Mr. Anderson must have gnashed his teeth when VANISH was nominated for the Edgar and Macavity Awards.

So Ms. Stasio’s nasty review is actually a very good sign for the success of THE MEPHISTO CLUB.  And I think it’s not such a bad thing to be called “lurid”, if you consider the alternative: colorless and dry and boring.

“Boring,” thank god, is the one critique that’s never been leveled at me.

While I admit to some pretty thin skin, I’ve also learned to accept the fact that reviewers sometimes get malicious, for reasons that escape me.  And I say this not just as a writer on the receiving end, but also as an uninvolved observer.  I have a friend — a published novelist herself — who sometimes reviews books for various major publications.  She is a very sweet, very personable woman who knows what it’s like to get a bad review.  I’ve always liked her, and could not imagine her being cruel to anyone.  One of the books she reviewed a few years ago was written by a mega-bestselling, much-beloved author of women’s sagas.  I myself had read that book.  I adored that book.  It entranced me, it made me cry, and by the end of it, I wished that I had written that book.  When I found out that my friend had written a review of it, I was curious to find out what she thought of it.

I was shocked.  My sweet, generous, kind friend had turned into the literary equivalent of Freddie Kruger, slashing away at the novel with such cruelty that I could not believe we had read the same book.  She likened it to a repulsive piece of garbage littering the road.  There was nothing — NOTHING — in that book that deserved such abuse.  Maybe it wasn’t a genre my friend liked.  Maybe it was a little sentimental.  But those should have raised nothing more than a few quibbles, and not the outlandish hatred I saw in that review.

May I add that these two women did not know each other.  There was nothing personal between them.

I have never asked my friend why she wrote the review.  I just didn’t have the stomach to talk about it.  But ever since then, I’ve wondered about the reasons for it.  One of the reasons, I suspect, is that the author is far, far more successful than my friend will ever be.  Jealousy must be a factor:  “I can’t sell as many books as you can, but darn it, I can still cut you down to size, bitch.”  Or something to that effect.

I also suspect that reviewers save their nastiest, cruelest reviews for the authors whom they believe can take them, the authors whose careers are solid enough that a bad review won’t hurt their sales.  No one wants to kick the underdog.  But everyone loves to swat at the high flyers.

So for those of you who are unlucky enough to get a really awful review — maybe you’re actually the lucky ones.  Maybe it’s an occasion to celebrate.  I know you’re sick to your stomach.  I know you feel like hiding in a closet.  Don’t do that.  Take it as a sign of success.

And keep writing those deliciously lurid novels.  Because damn it, somebody must be buying them.

VANISH will be #8 on the NYT list

Today’s Wednesday.  Those of you who are in the publishing biz probably know the significance of Wednesdays.  It’s the day when the New York Times releases its bestseller lists.  This afternoon, around six p.m., I got the call from my literary agent: VANISH will debut on the September 17 fiction paperback list at #8.  I’m delighted, of course.

Mostly what I am is relieved.  Crazy, isn’t it?  Instead of letting out a celebratory whoop, I just sort of collapsed on the couch with a sigh of “thank god I’m not an abject failure after all.”  

I also got some numbers reported to me, along with the list, and I’m struck by a few interesting things.  First, the utter invincibility of Nora Roberts!  She has two new novels on the bestseller list this week!  And the numbers she sells are staggering.  Her #1 bestselling title, MORRIGAN’S CROSS, sold almost four times as many copies this week as did VANISH.  Her sales far outstripped the #2 bestseller, THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER.  Another thing I’m struck by is how small a percentage of paperback sales is captured by the Bookscan numbers.  Bookscan, in case you’re not familiar with it, tracks book sales in a number of retail outlets.  But the numbers reported don’t include Sam’s Club, Walmart, or mass merchandisers such as Anderson, Hudson, Safeway, etc.

When I look at the breakdown for which companies ordered my paperbacks, nearly 3/4 of the books were shipped to mass merchandisers.  Not bookstores.  Which makes me think that over 3/4 of paperback sales may not be showing up on Bookscan.

What’s also interesting is that titles by Debbie Macomber (#4 on the list) and Vince Flynn (#5 on the list), which showed stellar sales this week, had debuted last week in the bottom third of the Times list.  I’m seeing this happening more and more often, that authors who I know are selling well aren’t popping onto the list, or very high on the list, until two weeks into their sales cycle.  What’s happening here?  Is it a distribution problem?  Instead of a good crisp laydown, are merchants slow in putting the books on display, thus screwing up their first week’s sales?

Finally, I’m struck once again by the domination of female authors on this list.  Of the bestselling 15 titles, 10 of them were written by women.  And most of the titles are what I’d call “women’s fiction.”

Which convinces me that I made a good choice in requesting a re-design of the VANISH package in paperback, changing it to a sexier, more seductive image that would appeal to women.  You just never know when your instincts are right, or when an idea will bomb in the marketplace.  I think this time, my instincts were right.

Do you have to be smart to write fiction?

Recently I was asked to contribute my thoughts about this topic, for an upcoming book about creativity and intelligence.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is no, you don’t have to be smart – not if by “smart”, you’re referring to the sort of intelligence that’s usually measured by IQ tests.  I know a number of doctors and engineers.   These are classicaly “smart” people — the straight-A crowd who dazzled their classmates in college and graduate school.  They’d probably ace a Mensa qualifying exam.  They excel in logic, they’re up on current events, and they know all the nuances of grammar.  They know how to spell.  Every so often, one of them will write a novel, and beg that I take a peek at their first chapter.

Most of these people can’t write worth beans.

What is about writing fiction that’s beyond these brilliant people?  How does it happen that a high-school drop-out can write a bestselling novel, while a PhD can’t even write an interesting query letter?

If anything, it’s been my impression that people who are highly educated in the sciences have a disadvantage when it comes to fiction.  It’s so ingrained in scientists to think objectively, to come to logical conclusions.  But real life — and human beings — are not logical.  And what we writers must do is create characters who seem like real people, with all their imperfections, all their inconsistencies and craziness.  People who don’t always compute.  In order to do that, you have to be a little bit illogical yourself.  You have to hear the voices of people who don’t exist, and know instinctively what unexpected things these non-existent people will do next.

Most important, you have to FEEL what they’re feeling, channel their emotions.  Feel the same stab of betrayal, the same giddiness of falling in love, that your make-believe people experience.  To do this requires a different kind of smartness, something that’s not measured on those IQ tests.  Some people might call this “emotional intelligence”, the ability to connect with the feelings of other human beings, to understand what’s going on in their heads.  Whatever it is, it’s an instinct one absolutely has to have to be a powerful writer.

And it’s not something they teach you in school.  It’s not something you can read in textbooks.  I think you’re born with it.  Or maybe you learn it from your parents and your siblings, by watching them scream and cry and throw tantrums at the dinner table. 

Maybe it’s that same understanding that makes some people talented actors.  I think that a good novelist must also be a bit of an actor.  Maybe the writer’s too shy to ever get up on a stage.  But in the privacy of his office, a novelist will suffer all the joys and agonies of his characters.  He’ll say aloud the dialogue and dribble tears on the page.  I know that people seldom use the word “actor” and “intelligent” in the same sentence.  But by golly, a good actor will have special insights into his fellow human beings that most rocket scientists simply won’t have.

Finally, there’s the fact that some people are just born boring.  No matter how smart they are, how accomplished in their particular fields, they just don’t know how to tell a good story.  Most of us know someone whom you dread sitting next to at a family gathering.  Someone who, within a few minutes, has you ready to scream from boredom.  

What they lack is a sense of the dramatic.  They don’t know what other people find interesting: conflict, crisis, fear, anger.  They think that it’s just as interesting to talk about what they had for breakfast this morning, and how it gave them heartburn, and have you heard the latest about that antacid?

Can someone who lacks a sense of the dramatic ever become a good storyteller?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think it can be taught, either.  Writing workshops may teach them how to get their manuscript looking neat and how to submit it to agents and editors, but it can’t give them the insight to understand that “John finds spiritual growth” is a boring plot while “mary fights to get her husband back” is a lot more interesting.