Number one in the UK!

Yesterday I got the call from my UK editor: last week, the paperback edition of VANISH was the number one bestselling book in the United Kingdom.  And THE MEPHISTO CLUB was the number two bestselling hardcover novel. 

So how did it happen?  How did Transworld (my publisher there) manage to pull off the astonishing feat of taking an American novelist handicapped by pitifully poor sales to a number one bestselling author in the span of only six books? 

 I like to think the actual books had something to do with it.  In the end, of course, the books have to stand on their own, without the hype and the advertising money.  And then there’s a certain amount of luck involved.  But savvy publishing is absolutely necessary as well, the sort of publishing that only happens when you have an editor who believes in your books, and a publishing team that feels personally invested in the books’ success.  What Transworld did for me isn’t going to be successful for every author.  But watching them work was an education in what great publishing is all about.

First, it started with an enthusiastic and inspiring editor.  Selina Walker has gained a reputation in the UK as being the queen of crime publishing.  When she loves a book, she fights for it tooth and nail.  She gets the whole company rooting for it.  She was the one who acquired THE SURGEON.  Despite my horrible sales record with four earlier titles, she decided she could build me as a crime writer.  She sent the manuscript around to everyone at Transworld to build enthusiasm.  Then they got to work, starting with:

— Packaging.  They gave THE SURGEON a stark white cover unlike anything I’ve ever had before.  To be honest, I didn’t understand it.   It didn’t speak to me.  But it seemed to speak to the UK audience.  While the hardcover didn’t hit any lists, it did sell reasonably well — enough to give Transworld hope that my UK career was not, in fact, dead as a doornail. 

— Advertising.  Not only were there ads in trade publications, they also printed up a ton of chapter teasers, which were distributed throughout coffee shops in the UK.  When you went in for your cappucino, and you needed something short to read while you drank your coffee, you could pick up one of these little booklets and read the first chapter of THE SURGEON.

— Book tour.  I didn’t visit the UK until the hardcover release of THE APPRENTICE.  And when I did, I have to admit it was somewhat discouraging.  I was still an unknown.  I remember sitting in a bookstore next to another crime writer, and a customer gushed to the other writer about how great her books were.  Then  he looked at me and said with a shrug, “sorry, I have no idea who you are.”  Out of sheer pity he bought a paperback of THE SURGEON, but I knew he wasn’t going to read it.  I was a nobody.  At that moment I knew I had a long, long way to go.  I soldiered on.  I felt privileged to be interviewed on BBC Radio.  I was ecstatic when I saw transit ads for my books.  While THE APPRENTICE hardcover didn’t hit the top-ten list,  THE SURGEON, in paperback, hit #6 on the London Times bestseller list. 

In 2005, I returned to the UK to tour for the hardcover of BODY DOUBLE.  Once again, there were interviews on BBC, transit ads, and this time an absolutely spellbinding cover design, featuring a woman’s face.  Perhaps most important of all, I was taken around to lunches and dinners with key buyers for the major chains.  By now, we were beginning to see the results of the repeated book tours.  BODY DOUBLE hit #4 on the hardcover bestseller list, and THE SINNER peaked at #9 on the paperback list.

2006 brought yet another UK book tour, for the VANISH hardcover.  By now, Transworld’s commitment to me was really starting to pay off.  While I wasn’t getting as many radio interviews (due to my repeated earlier visits to the UK), I was getting more review attention.  I was getting widespread distribution.  The large bookstore chains, WH Smith and Waterstones, were featuring me in displays.  I was picked up by the Tesco’s supermarket chain.  The result:  VANISH hit the hardcover bestseller list at a startling #2, and the paperback of BODY DOUBLE was #4.

Finally, we come to this year.  At last, I’m no longer feeling like a total unknown — although I don’t yet have the rabid following that other crime writers there do.  Over the years, Transworld had singlemindedly plowed the way for my success, and they don’t let up this time.  I’m featured in a BOOKSELLER (a trade publication) article.  I’m asked to write a feature article about a true-crime case from my childhood, and it appears in the UK Telegraph the same week THE MEPHISTO CLUB goes on sale.  The package design, once again, is stunning.  In fact, they just keep getting better and better.  Again, there are transit ads and plenty of review attention and many bookstores feature MEPHISTO CLUB and the VANISH paperback at the front of their stores.

And now, I’m the number-one bestselling author.  Well, for one week at least.

The lesson to be learned here is this: great publishing can indeed build an author into a top bestseller.  It requires a publisher’s commitment, and the investment of time and money.  It doesn’t happen overnight; sometimes it takes six books (as it did for me).  There may be bumps along the way — a book that doesn’t quite perform as well as an earlier one, for instance.  Wise publishers know these bumps aren’t unusual, and will stick with an author they believe in.

The sad fact is, many publishers don’t take the long-term view.  One poorly selling book may make them drop an author from their stable.  Or they give an author one or two books to “make it” and if their sales don’t immediately take off, they dump the author.  Corporate America, unfortunately, has taken this craze for short-term benefits to an extreme.  You see it in our auto manufacturers, who years ago couldn’t be bothered with revolutionizing fuel economy, and now find themselves struggling to play catch-up with Japanese auto-makers.  They want to produce a bestselling car now, not look ahead to ten years down the line.

But we’re talking about books here, not cars.  And we’re talking about readers, who sometimes take years to discover an author.  I wish every publisher was as patient as Transworld.  I wish they were all as committed to an author’s long-term success.  I think many editors want to be — if only corporate management would let them.

As an author, I have to admit that it’s pretty scary to realize how much is out of our hands.  We can write great books, and do it quickly and reliably, but the marketplace is unforgiving.  A few poor sellers, and your career starts into a death spiral.  Which is what happened to me in the UK with my first four books.  After GRAVITY, I couldn’t even find a publisher there.

The fact I’ve been reborn just goes to show that even a dead career can be resurrected. 

in honor of Barbara Seranella

please visit this page.

And become an organ donor.

off again

After only two nights at home, I’m on the road again.  I’m leaving for Florida and “Bookmania“.  So much to blog about, and so little time!

Re-entry!

750+ emails.  That’s how many I found waiting for me when I got home last night from the UK. Of course many of them are spam, but still.  That’s a load of email to answer, and I’ve spent most of today trying to whittle down the list.

My book tour in the UK was a blast.  It reminded me yet again that my publisher there, Transworld, is one of the best in the world.  It’s a small enough house so that it feels like a close-knit family, and everyone, from editorial to publicity to sales, seems to have a personal stake in the success of every title they publish.  These aren’t just bean-counters; these people love books. 

For the first three days of my tour, I traveled to Birmingham, then to Manchester, and then to Cambridge.  That’s a lot of driving, but much of it was through beautiful countryside.  I was pleased that each event had a pretty good turnout — around 40 to 60 people.  I’ve discovered that UK crowds tend to be a lot shyer about asking questions.  In the US, people aren’t afraid to raise their hands.  As an author, I really hope for those questions, because they often remind me of things I’d forgotten to say.  Or they open up other interesting subjects that aren’t part of my planned talk. 

My trip also reminded me of how important non-bookstore outlets are for book sales in the UK.  Even before my books officially went on sale in the bookstores, both THE MEPHISTO CLUB and VANISH had already gone on sale in grocery/supermarket chains, and just on the basis of those supermarket sales alone, both books hit the London Times top-ten bestseller lists (MEPHISTO CLUB AT #2 and VANISH at #4) their very first week.  The lesson here?  If your book isn’t picked up by Tesco’s stores, it has almost no chance of making it onto the bestseller lists.

I also encountered the deep discounting that bookstores must resort to, to be competitive.   Nowhere in the U.S. do you find 50% discounts on brand-new bestsellers.  In the UK, readers expect them.   Yet it means that bookstores can’t make a profit on the very titles they know they’ll sell a lot of.  Many independents, for instance, lost money on Harry Potter sales, because they were discounting so deeply that they slashed away all their profits and more.  Such deep discounting is great for authors, since we get our royalty no matter what, and it means a lot more people buy our books.  But surely the stores suffer.

Touring in the UK is so much more civilized than in the U.S.  First, you always get the weekends off, since no stores host weekend events.  The distances traveled are shorter, so there isn’t the rush to get to yet another airport in the morning, the way there is here at home.  My US tours sometimes seem to be marathon endurance races.  Up at five AM for the airport.  Roll into bed exhausted at 10 PM.  Repeat the next day, and the next, and the next, until you’re too tired to see straight.  

In the UK, they love their business lunches.  And they actually drink wine and eat dessert at lunch.  I can’t remember the last time I saw that happen in New York, where everyone’s watching their weight and no one orders wine at lunch — because they all have to rush back to their desks.  In so many ways, UK publishing seems like what publishing used to be: a genteel and civilized profession, just as much about the books as it is about making money. 

This was supposed to be a really quick blog — all those emails are still awaiting me — so for now I’ll leave you with a link to a terrific article about how to end your novel.  I’ve got lots more to post about later! 

Two-year anniversary

This month marks the two-year anniversary since I started this blog, back in 2005.  In two years, I’ve written 139 posts, which works out to an average of an entry every five days.   With all the weeks I’ve spent on the road, I think that’s pretty good.  When I began the blog, I wasn’t really sure what I’d write about.  As it turned out, I’ve never been at a loss for topics — my only problem has been finding the time to do it.  I also wasn’t quite clear about why I should blog.  Since then, I’ve realized that this blog isn’t about self-promotion.  It’s not about selling more books or getting my name out there or making people like me.

It’s about catharsis.

Like most writers, I lead a pretty isolated life for most of the year.  There are times when I get riled up about the business, or I learn some interesting publishing gossip, or I get asked a question about the writing process.  And I want to talk to someone about it.  Or I want to rant.  Or I want to dish.

So I talk to you.  And I thank you all for listening. I don’t know if this sells any books, but it does make me feel better.  You are all, collectively, my therapists.

Now I’m giving you all a little vacation from playing psychiatrist.   I have to leave for London and will be traveling for the next two weeks.  First I have a book tour in the UK, promoting The Mephisto Club.  (My UK readers can find my booksigning schedule on my “Author events” link.)  Then I’ll be off to Florida for Bookmania on Hutchinson Island.  I’ll blog all about it when I get back.

In the meantime, you might want to check out this cool contest from the International Thriller Writers:

“It’s a thriller lover’s dream – the chance to win autographed copies of 150 novels by some of the biggest and best thriller authors in the business. That’s right, 150 thrillers, signed by the authors.

Imagine receiving signed books by Joseph Finder, Tess Gerritsen, John Lescroart, Gayle Lynds, and David Baldacci for free. Then multiply that by thirty, because they represent only five of the 150 books you will receive if you’re the winner in the International Thriller Writer’s “150 Thrillers” contest.

The best part? Just by entering you’ll begin receiving the free ITW newsletter, a monthly email newsletter that contains loads of information about upcoming thriller novels, thriller authors and thriller news.

Once you’ve subscribed, you’re entered. The winner will be picked randomly from all entrants, and will receive 150 books from some of the top thriller novelists writing today. Three runner-up entrants will each receive a copy of the 2006 Thriller Anthology, edited by James Patterson. But really, everyone who signs up to receive the ITW newsletter is a winner.”

“But I don’t know anything interesting” — Part 2

Or maybe you know way too much.

In the comments section earlier, Daisy wrote: 

“I’m a biologist (okay, research associate at a biotech company, but that’s a lot of words for “what do you do”) and I have never managed to write a decent story in a scientific setting because I keep getting hung up on the details and the need to explain what everything is.”

Her problem is not unique.  As I’ve mentioned before, I teach an annual course for doctors who want to become novelists, and one of the most common problems they have is “explainitis.”  They know too much and they want to tell you everything.  So they do. 

Readers don’t WANT to know the intricacies of the Krebs cycle.  They don’t want to know the biochemistry of digitalis.  They just want to know how these things affect the character they love.  Yes, you have to include enough detail to make the setting and the story accurate.  You have to use enough jargon to make your character sound like he really is a doctor or a biochemist.  But in the end, it’s not the technical stuff that will be interesting.

It’s the characters.

I find that aspiring novelists who are highly educated or intensely cerebral have trouble understanding what makes popular culture tick.  They’re good at writing elegant phrases that have no emotional content.  They think that anything else smacks of melodrama, and good heavens, that’s like watching that horrid Jerry Springer!

Well, imagine this.  You’re sitting in Starbucks, and the couple at the table to your left is having a deep discussion about the merits of Proust.  And the couple on your right is arguing about the affair that one of them is having.  Which couple would you listen to?

There’s a reason Jerry Springer was so popular.

No matter how unusual your occupation, no matter how much you know about quarks and ion propulsion and string theory, if your novel isn’t at heart about people and their conflicts with each other, then it’s not going to hold our attention.  Yeah, string theory may be interesting — but how does it affect the lives of John and Jane Doe? 

A lot of us don’t have what could be called “interesting” jobs.  Some of us have downright boring jobs.  But we do know what it’s like to grow up, to argue with our parents, to fall in love, to care about a cause that’s bigger than ourselves.  We know what it’s like to lose someone. 

We know what it’s like to be human.

And really, that’s all you need to know to write a book.

The Digested Review

Section: Features Pages

Length:   113 words

Title: “Mr. Bigshot’s Latest Bestseller” by John Q. Bigshot

Reviewer: Greene W. Envy

Body:

I’m jealous.

I’m so much more talented than author John Q. Bigshot.  Yet he’s famous and making scads of money writing novels, and here I am, a far more brilliant writer, forced to review yet another horrid bestseller for my newspaper.  Why does the world read Michael Crichton and Thomas Harris and Stephen King and all the other talentless mega-authors?  Why do so many idiot readers love them? 

Why hasn’t the publishing world discovered me, instead? 

Until they do, I’ll just have to write these scathing reviews.  And aren’t I fabulous at it?  Is there anyone else who can sneer so convincingly?   

I’m jealous.

And I have a small penis, too.

 ————————

Writing is a profession in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none. 

                                          –Jules Renard

(with hat tip to Linda McCabe)

“But I don’t know anything interesting.”

Every so often, I’ll get a letter from an aspiring novelist and it’ll go something like this:  “I want to write mysteries, but I’m not in the medical field, and I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t know anything about police work.  I’m just a (teacher/housewife/salesclerk) so I don’t know what I’d write about.”

Well, let me tell you about my own life.

For years, I had two careers.  By day I was a doctor.  But in the evening, I’d clear off the dinner table and take out my typewriter and I’d turn into a novelist.  Did I write medical thrillers?  Nope.  I wrote love stories.  I wrote about spies and cops and newspaper reporters.  I wrote about Vietnam vets and English gentlemen and cat burglars.  Oh yeah, I did write about a doctor here and there, but that was the exception.

Mostly, I wrote about other professions.  Professions that I thought were a lot more interesting than mine. 

What? you may ask.  Medicine’s fascinating!  It’s life and death!  But the truth is, when it’s your job, you forget that outsiders find it fascinating.  You just go to work every morning, do a few physicals, maybe save a life here and there, and then you go home and cook dinner.  Ho hum.  Any profession, when it’s yours, starts to feel ordinary.

I remember hearing an account of a space shuttle landing.  The President was there, along with his Secret Service entourage, to greet the returning astronauts.  After all the formalities were over, the astronauts crowded around the Secret Service guys because they wanted to know all about their exciting jobs protecting the President.  And the Secret Service guys were anxious to hear about the astronauts’ far more exciting jobs in space.  Each group  thought the OTHER GUYS had the more interesting life.

That’s the way it is with doctors, too. We think that lawyers live in exciting John Grisham novels while we’re stuck in hospitals poking our fingers into unsavory orifices. 

It wasn’t until I finally got around to writing my first medical thriller, HARVEST, that I realized my job might actually be interesting to other people.  My literary agent gave me a tip that I’ve since taken to heart:  “Readers want to know secrets.  They want to know what only you can tell them.  The things doctors don’t want outsiders to know, the lurid tales from behind the OR doors.  You may think these details are all boring, but others will be fascinated.”

She was partly right.  People are fascinated by the details — but only some of them.   I don’t think they really want to hear about the drudgery of medical charting or the phone calls to insurance companies.  What they care about are details that have inherent drama to them.

And that’s my job as a novelist — to separate the dry details from the really cool details.  The real challenge, as Elmore Leonard once said, is to leave out the boring stuff.

When I include technical details, I find a way to make them interesting.  If it’s necessary to the plot, then you have to find a way to spark a reader’s interest.  In GRAVITY, for instance, I have a section about the way an astronaut prepares for a space walk.  It’s important stuff, because the reader needs to understand that you don’t just suit up and pop out of the spacecraft — you have to camp out for hours in a special room while your body adjusts to a lower air pressure.  And then, when you do leave the spacecraft, you have to make sure all your safety backups are working.  The way I approach such potentially boring details is to tell the reader what happens when things go wrong — and believe me, a death in space is not a pleasant thing to contemplate.  Suddenly that emergency tether becomes very, very important to remember.  And a lot more interesting.

But what if you’re not a doctor or a cop?  What if you’re, say, a waiter or a dishwasher in a restaurant?  Then I suggest you pick up a copy of one of Anthony Bourdain’s books.  Start with Kitchen Confidential.  Tell me if he doesn’t make the restaurant business a wacky, utterly fascinating universe.  What if you’re a schoolteacher?  Think about all the interesting things you’ve discovered about teenagers.  Taxi drivers and airline mechanics and petroleum engineers all know secrets we’d love to know about.  Once I met a geologist who really wanted to write a murder mystery, but he complained that he didn’t know anything about police work.

Who needs cop expertise? I told him.  You’re a geologist!  There’s got to be a geolgoical mystery that you alone can come up with.  Surely you can find something interesting about shale!

Perhaps you really can’t find anything about your job that’s interesting.  Or maybe you’re a lawyer and you hate, just hate your job.  Are you still forced to write about what you know?

Absolutely not.  Then you should write about what you want to know.

After writing four medical thrillers, I was tired of the genre.  I have a lot of other interests, archaeology and history among them.  And every book has been about a subject that I was fascinated by.  In THE SINNER, it was leprosy and nuns.  In MEPHISTO CLUB, it was about the ancient lore of demons.  In THE SURGEON, I explored the history of human sacrifice.  The point is, I couldn’t write the books unless I myself was delving into something that interested me.

If your subject matter isn’t exciting to you, that boredom is going to show through in the book.

Yes, the chances are, you do know something interesting.  Or maybe there’s some subject you’d love to explore.  Throw yourself into it, no matter how obscure it may be.  Learn hieroglyphics.  Read up on tree rings.  If you find these subjects exciting, the chances are, you can make them exciting in a novel as well.

Just leave out the boring stuff.

 

boys and girls are different

I know you’re all thinking: “Well, duh.”  But I’m not talking about anatomy; I’m talking about our taste in entertainment.  This profound difference poses a challenge to writers.

I was reminded about the differences between men’s and women’s entertainment choices last night, when my extended family got together on New Year’s Eve to watch the DVD of the latest version of “Pride and Prejudice”, starring Keira Knightly.  We women hung on every meaningful glance between Lizzie and Mr. Darcy, delighted in every tart exchange, every romantic revelation.  When the movie ended, the women sighed, “wasn’t that wonderful?”

My husband shrugged and said, “Not my kind of movie.” 

“Pride and Prejudice” seems to be the defining line in what separates men and women.  (By this I mean heterosexual men; I know a number of gay men who love Jane Austen.)  All my women friends have seen this movie several times, but they can only go with their girlfriends. 

Their husbands refuse to go.  I mean absolutely, positively, refuse to go.

Just as they absolutely, positively refuse to read a romance novel.

As a thriller writer, I want my books to appeal to both sexes, but I find that sometimes it’s impossible.  Men will hate a book that women love, and vice versa.  And they’ll let me know it.

When I wrote VANISH, I wanted to show how motherhood changes Jane.  She’s more than just a stereotypical tough woman cop; she’s a human being who’s spent the past two books in a state of pregnancy, and now something’s about to happen that will change her life.  That’s how it was for me, when I had my first son.  It was the most momentous thing to happen to me — to ever happen to me.  It wasn’t a piece of cake, that motherhood bit.  I was a doctor.  Damn it, I knew how to save lives.  Yet when they handed me my baby, I felt like a klutz.  In VANISH, Jane finally gives birth, and of course I knew I had to write about how it affects her.  If it didn’t affect her, if she wasn’t changed by the experience, then she’d be nothing but a piece of heartless cardboard. 

Many of my male readers just didn’t connect with that book.  The most scathing review I got, in the Washington Post, was from a man who hated the “girly stuff.”   Men don’t want to know about newborns; they want to get back to the crimes.  They don’t want boring stuff about Jane’s life.  It’s just not important to them, they tell me.

But the women who write tell me how much they loved reading about Jane’s struggles.  “I identify with her!  I remember my problems as a new mother, and the fact she has no idea how to breast feed makes her so real to me!”

In THE MEPHISTO CLUB, there’s a subplot about Maura’s romantic entanglement with Father Brophy.  Of all the reader mail I received in the past few years, the number one subject from my women readers was about that romance.  They wanted to see the characters fall in love.  Would I please think about letting Maura and Daniel get together? they begged me.

No man asked me for that.

Then there was GRAVITY.  Almost all my fan mail about that book was from men, because they loved the technical details about spaceflight.  Most women didn’t pick up the book. 

I have to plead guilty myself, to being something of a girly reader.  For the longest time I didn’t pick up Harlan Coben’s early books because they were about a sports agent, and I don’t give a hoot about sports.  The first thing I do when I buy a newspaper is throw out the sports section.  Only after I met Harlan did I finally read a Myron Bolitar book and discovered it wasn’t really about sports at all, and I loved it.  I suspect this is why Harlan didn’t really break out as a bestselling writer until he left the sports agent character behind.  Most women, like me, just aren’t big sports fans.

So what’s a writer to do?  How do we make both sexes happy?

Sometimes we just can’t.  Every book will get criticized for one thing or another.  I know I’ll continue to get letters from men who don’t care about romance elements.  And I’ll get letters from women who complain about the gore. 

My experience with GRAVITY taught me an important lesson about sales, though.  Men loved that book, women didn’t.  Of all my thrillers, GRAVITY sold the fewest copies.  That book, as much as I loved it, was a career set-back for me.  I discovered that when you lose your women readers, you’re in big, big trouble.  When it comes to overall book sales, it’s women readers who buy most of the novels. 

You can’t afford to lose the ladies.