Hell and Time Warner

I’m online only sporadically now, and getting only partial email service, thanks to the fact my internet service is out yet again and the wait to talk on the phone to someone in the service department at Time-Warner takes about TWO FREAKING HOURS.  A few weeks ago, there was a strip on the comics page (I think it was “Adam”) where the kids cry hysterically because their dad is abandoning them for the day — to wait endlessly on the phone for a service rep.  Is this what America’s come to?  A nation of frustrated consumers, unable to get anyone to attend to their needs?  Do American businesses think this is a good model?   

Hello, India?  Please send over some tech support.  Bcause I’ll pay what it takes just to talk to someone who knows what he’s doing.

 

Some interesting publishing numbers

While surfing around publishing sites, I came across some interesting numbers.  Don’t know how accurate they are.  But they do make you think.  And fret.

First number:(from the website “Making Light”)

 “172,000 books published last year” is neither reliable nor pertinent if you’re talking about bookstore shelf space. “All books published” includes books you’ll never see in a bookstore at all, like manuals for operating and maintaining equipment, industry trade guides, and family genealogies.

Even if you limit the number to “trade books”—i.e., books that get bookstore distribution—the number is hard to pin down. A lot of university press and regional press titles get distributed to a handful of bookstores. Are they trade books? Those authors and those publishers would say yes, and I can’t see any good reason to contradict them, at least not to their faces. Still, there’s a big difference between books offered for sale at a handful of bookstores, and books offered for sale at bookstores everywhere.

If you’re talking about new titles that would come through a large urban bookstore in a single year, one rough but reliable estimate I’ve been given (by a source that declined to be named) is that it’s about 10,000 titles.

So if your book is released by a mainstream publisher, your competition in the bookstores is only 9.999 other titles. Not 171,999. 

And the second number concerns writer incomes (in the UK):

“Most book manuscripts end up unwanted and unread on publishers’ and agents’ slush piles, and the majority of those that do make it into print sell fewer than 1,000 copies. So while there are a small number of writers making a decent living, something like 80% of published authors earn less than £10,000 per year. “

Takes some of the glamor out of the profession a bit, doesn’t it?

Mephisto Club paperback goes on sale

This week, the paperback edition of THE MEPHISTO CLUB goes on sale in both the U.S. and the U.K.  If you haven’t read it yet, I hope this is the week you pick up a copy.  The first two weeks on sale are critical to a book’s success — if the book doesn’t do well during those initial weeks, it’s cleared away pretty quick, to make room for books that do sell well.  And the sales die a quick death.

Once again, we’ve had a change in the cover design between hardcover and paperback.  The U.S. hardcover looked like this:

mephisto hc

I thought it was very striking and effective, but a bit … literary.  While it would have made a very nice paperback cover, my publisher and I agreed that it might not play as well to the paperback audience.  So Ballantine came up with this cover instead:

mephisto paperback

The bright yellow is eye-catching, and the girl silhouetted under the archway gives you a clue that the book’s got some medieval themes to it. 

Here’s my UK cover – a completely different take on the story, but just as effective.  And hypnotically eye-catching.  I love this one as well:

mephisto uk

It’s the first time I’ve come out simultaneously in the U.S. and the U.K.  I’m curious how the books will do in two different markets, with two different covers.

It’s not always about the writing

donkeys

Some writers have cats.  Some writers have parrots.  Here are my babies, Spock and Scotty.  They’re year-old mini-donkeys, and they’ve managed to live up to every donkey stereotype you’ve ever heard about.  They’re cautious, they’re stubborn, yet they’re intensely curious.  If you whip out anything electronic, they’ll come right up and crowd close to get a good look and a good sniff.  They love electronics.

But they’re also intent on self-preservation.  It took us four attempts just to coax them out of their nice safe corral into the open world for a walk.  It then took three attempts to coax them into a horse carrier.  If there’s a garden hose lying on the ground, they won’t step over it.  If there’s a puddle of water, they’ll come to a screeching halt and refuse to go any further.  They have such a strong instinct for survival, they have to think long and hard before doing anything that might endanger them.

That’s how it is with some writers.  (Did I say this entry wasn’t about writing?  I guess I lied.)

Some writers play it safe with their careers.  They find success in one genre, so they stick with it for book after book.  Maybe they even keep writing the same story, with only a few variations.  And that’s okay.  It may even be the smart thing to do.  Donkeys, after all, are known for being experts in self-preservation.  No wonder they manage to survive in the harshest of environments.

Other writers take chances.  They’ll be safe in the niche of one genre and then do something unexpected and daring.  Their risk may take them to new and exciting places — or it may start the downslide of their careers.  I can think of several writers this has happened to.  One achieved bestselling success writing contemporary foreign thrillers.  Then he wrote a terrific historical thriller that garnered lousy sales.  He hasn’t had a bestseller since.

Another bestselling thriller writer, caught up in the pain of a terrible personal tragedy, chose to write about that tragedy in a nonfiction book.  Ever since, the writer’s had a hard time reclaiming a spot on the bestseller list.

In retrospect, these were disastrous career moves for the writers.  But they were risks they felt compelled to take, and I admire them for it.  There isn’t enough risk-taking among writers.  We’re too often talked out of it because it makes our sales unpredictable and it confuses our readers.  We seldom get praised for it; in fact critics often tend to be harsher on veteran writers who try something completely different.

Yet some plucky writers will continue to take those risks.  Some of them will come galloping eagerly out of the corral.  Some of them will trip and break a leg.  But others will discover that even the risk of a broken leg is worth stepping out of that safe and familiar place that has started to feel just a little too confining.

Successful writers have no right to complain

I’m taking a few hits on the blogosphere from people who say that I shouldn’t be airing my frustrations online.  They find it unseemly for me to mention bad reviews or nasty reader letters because successful writers should be immune to having our feelings hurt.  We should be above it all.  We should gaze down, untouched and bemused, like the gods on Mount Olympus, chuckling at the idiocies of mere mortals.

But I’ve been trying to tell you the truth: that no writer, no matter how successful she is, is ever above it all.  That’s the point of this blog: to tell you what infuriates writers at every level, whether they’ve sold their first book or they’re on to their twentieth.  To tell you that some frustrations never go away.  This is what it means to be a writer. If you think that getting your first book published or signing a 5-book deal or hitting the bestseller list means you’ve lost your right to experience doubts, insecurities, or any other normal human emotions, then I suggest you go away. You don’t want to read this blog.

When I started this blog a few years ago, I thought it might be useful as a promotional tool.  I’d been reading the blogs of other writers, and was often inspired to pick up their books, so I thought: why not give it a whirl myself? I might sell a few books.

But over time my blog stopped being about promotion and became instead a writer’s confessional. If I got frustrated, I blogged.  If I got angry, I blogged.  If something funny or stupid happened in the writing or publishing world, I blogged.  

And then I discovered that writers everywhere were tuning in.  They’d email me to say that yes, they were frustrated by the same things.  They were struggling with the same issues.  Some of these writers are new to the biz, and some are multi-published New York Times bestsellers.  My public whining, unseemly as it may be, turns out to be a group whine. We writers are engaged in a wonderful, demanding, maddening profession, and most of us don’t ever want to give it up.  Yet it’s an insecure profession.  It requires us to sit down at our desks and create something out of nothing.  It makes us send our precious babies out into the big world where they’re not always treated kindly.  

I suspect that writers in general are a sensitive lot.  We have to be sensitive, just to write convincingly about human beings.  How can you write about emotions if you yourself don’t have any?  But many of us are also thin-skinned and prone to self-doubt, no matter how we try to deny it. 

If you’re not a writer, try to imagine what it’s like to have your work subjected to public scrutiny and criticism. Imagine that it took you a year to complete that work.  Imagine that anyone in the world can now write something nasty about your latest effort, and those comments are viewable online by the whole world.  Imagine that your project manager decides to let you go because, despite the fact he and the rest of the company think you did a great job, the company lost money on you.

And then imagine that for all that heartache, you got paid under $10,000 for a year’s worth of work.  Yep, that’s what many authors get paid.

Writers love their jobs.  But sometimes, they deserve to whine.

Manuscript to pub date — how long?

I received this query from a reader:

 “How long does it take from a finished draft to publishing?  Let’s say the author has found a publishing house already… how long does it take to edit, print, and deliver to booksellers, to do whatever is necessary for the book to go on sale?”

Good question.  The answer is:  it varies.

My very first novel, CALL AFTER MIDNIGH (1987, from Harlequin), was in bookstores about seven months after it was accepted.  I thought at the time that that was a pretty short turnaround.

Since then, I’ve come to realize it wasn’t all that unusual.

Ideally, as an author, you want it to take longer, and I’ll tell you why.  It takes time to put a book into production.  There are line edits (where the editor guides you through substantive revisions), there are copyedits (where a different editor makes certain everything is grammatically and factually correct), and there are galley edits (where you check for typos.)  Then publicity needs time to get the galleys out for reviews.  It takes time to develop in-house enthusiasm.  It takes time to get the galley to what are called “big mouths” — influential voices who can help build buzz for the book.  In an ideal world, you’d get at least a year to get through all those steps.  If you’re a new author, you want at least a year, because that’s what you need to generate advance praise and word of mouth.

But that’s an ideal world.  In the real world of publishing, you often get a lot less.

I’ve discovered that publishers don’t always take that time.  Some books are accepted and shoved out the door in as little as two months.  You heard me right.  The manuscript comes in, and two months later, the finished books are shipped out to the stores.  If you have only two months, you get little time for advance reviews or word of mouth.  You have what’s known as an instantaneous book.  This happens most frequently when it’s a nonfiction, current event book that is time sensitive.  Say, a book about a true crime or celebrity who’s now in the news.  I’ve heard that it’s possible to get a book out in even less time than two months — only a few weeks.

But even in fiction, it happens.  And when it does, you can bet the author is an already established bestselling author, what’s called a “payroll author” whose book is certain to earn back big bucks and help the publisher balance its budget for the year.  I’ve heard of famous authors under deadline who have to fax in their latest pages, which then go straight from editorial and into production.  Within weeks of the final pages coming in, the book is printed and shipped.  This is called “crashing” a book — getting it whipped into shape and into stores in no time flat.  It means everyone’s under pressure, from the author to the editor to the copy editor to the production team.  It means there’s no time for real marketing efforts.  It means there’s scarcely any chance to stir pre-pub excitement.  Why on earth would a publisher do this?

Because the author is already considered a reliable bestseller, and pre-pub pushes don’t matter. 

I’ve had the experience of having my book “crashed.”  I’d prefer a good year of pre-pub.  I like having the time for in-house enthusiasm to grow, for marketing efforts to mature.  That takes time.  But in business, time is money, and when a publisher delays the publication of a book, it means a year goes by when they see no return from that author. 

Publishing is a business. We writers think we’re artists, but we’re creating a product much like toothpaste or laundry soap.  We want loving attention bestowed on our books,  but sometimes we — and our publishers – don’t have that luxury.

 

What inspires us?

 Sometimes it’s a character that pops into our heads.  Sometimes it’s a news story about a shocking crime, or it’s an incident we hear from a friend.  I’m often asked where I get my inspiration from, and I have to admit I’m an idea slut — I’ll take ’em wherever I can get ’em.

But sometimes, books are launched by the sheer hunger to know more about a subject, by the drama of something so significant in the course of human events that you just want to bring it to the page. 

Here’s what inspired THE BONE GARDEN.  (It’s a somewhat shorter version of what’s posted on the BONE GARDEN website  page.)  It was a piece I wrote specifically for booksellers, but I thought that my readers (and bookclub participants) might be interested in getting a peek at the true horror stories behind the book:

————————

It was an era of filthy knives and infected hospital wards, an age when doctors committed gruesome atrocities — all in the name of healing.  Although I’m a doctor myself, I was not well acquainted with this dark and tragic history of medicine.  But several years ago, while preparing for a speech about Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, I discovered that the author’s mother had died of “childbed fever,” which was rampant in maternity wards during her time.  Curious about the disease, I delved deeper into the subject of childbed fever. 
            What I learned horrified me.
            In the early 1800’s, a pregnant woman admitted to a hospital’s lying-in ward knew there was a good chance she might not survive the experience.  Childbirth alone was a risky and frightening prospect, but even if a woman delivered safely, the danger was not yet over.  Soon after giving birth, the new mother might develop fever, chills, and a foul uterine discharge.  Bacterial gases would cause her abdomen to swell until her belly was taut as a drum and the pain was so excruciating that just stroking her skin elicited shrieks.  For days she might linger in agony, vomiting and shaking, her bed sheets soaked with sweat, until circulatory collapse at last led to death.  During epidemics of childbed fever, women died so quickly that coffin-makers couldn’t keep up with the corpses, and victims had to be crammed two to a casket.  In some hospitals, 25% of all new mothers died. 
            The most disturbing fact of all: The disease was unwittingly spread by doctors.
            Scientific articles written during the early 1800’s reflect the primitive state of medicine at a time when the standard treatment for almost every illness was to slit open the patient’s vein and bleed her.  Ignorant of the existence of microbes, a doctor might rush straight from the autopsy room to the lying-in ward without washing his hands.  Working his way down the row of beds, he’d examine patient after patient with his bare hands, spreading contagion – and death — through the wards.  Most doctors refused to believe that they themselves might be responsible for so many deaths.  They were gentlemen, and gentlemen did not have unclean hands! Instead they blamed the epidemics on “bad air” or weak constitutions or even “the ladies’ wounded modesty”. Only an enlightened few realized that the fault lay with the doctors.
             In America, it was a brilliant young doctor named Oliver Wendell Holmes who first realized how the contagion was spread.  In 1834, at the young age of only 34, he wrote a scientific paper urging his fellow physicians to wash their hands.  Today his recommendation seems obvious, but in Holmes’s day, it was revolutionary.  In the decade that followed, some of the most distinguished doctors attacked Holmes and his theories.  They were outraged that any such contagion could be blamed on physicians.
            I began to wonder how, with so many experts arrayed against him, Holmes had arrived at his startling conclusions.  What inspired his theories?  Had there been a particular case, a particular incident that made him suddenly realize infection was transmissible? 
            In my search for the answer, I explored a nightmarish era in medicine.  I read of medical students who secretly dug up half-rotten cadavers to study anatomy.  I read of autopsy rooms that stank so badly students desperately puffed on cigars to hide the smells.  I read accounts of battlefield amputations performed on fully conscious and screaming patients.  Consider this how-to guide for thigh amputations, published in a 1809 surgical textbook written by Dr. Samuel Cooper — a book which was still in use during the Civil War:
            “The patient is to be placed on a firm table, with his back properly supported by pillows. Assistants are to hold his hands and keep him from moving too much during the operation. The ankle of the wound limb is to be fastened, by means of a garter, to the nearest leg of the table…An assistant, firmly grasping the thigh with both hands, is to draw upward the skin and muscles while the surgeon makes a circular incision, as quickly as possible, through the integuments, down to the muscles…”


             Or consider this matter-of-fact set of instructions on how to amputate a leg below the knee:
             “The leg being properly held, the integuments should next be drawn upward by an assistant, while the surgeon, with one quick stroke of the knife, must divide the skin completely round the limb. Some recommend the operator to stand on the inside of the leg, in order to be able to saw both bones at once.”


             In any such surgery performed on a conscious patient, speed was of the essence, and a skilled surgeon could complete a simple amputation in less than ten minutes.  If the fully awake and shrieking patient survived this horrifying ordeal, there were other dangers ahead, including gangrene and lockjaw, which Dr. Cooper so dispassionately describes:
             “A stiffness is first experienced about the back of the neck.  The muscles of the lower jaw next become hard… At length, the patient cannot open his mouth at all.  All the muscles of the neck, back, and indeed of the whole body, become successively affected with the most rigid spasm.  The limbs are stiff and immovable, and the muscles of respiration, being prevented from performing their office, the patient dies.”


             To be a doctor in Holmes’s time was to see death and pestilence at every turn.  This is the era in which THE BONE GARDEN is set, a grim world where a twisted killer is at large, butchering the very people who are trained to heal.  It’s a world where the horrors committed by the killer known as the West End Reaper are matched by the gruesome horrors of the operating room.
            While THE BONE GARDEN is a crime thriller, it’s also a journey into a frightening time when doctors killed as many patients as they cured, and when brilliant men like Oliver Wendell Holmes were just beginning to understand contagion.  I wanted to give my readers an inspiring look at the first glimmerings of microbial theory.  When you read THE BONE GARDEN, I hope you’re more than merely entertained; I hope you’ll also be enlightened by this glimpse at one of the brilliant men who changed the face of modern medicine.

Critic speaks. Writer crumbles.

For the past week, I’ve thought about giving it up.  Quitting the writing biz and taking up, oh, winemaking instead.  I’m serious about this.  I’ve been depressed and whining to my husband that I’ve lost my writer’s instincts and no longer know what the hell I’m doing.  I question my ability to ever write another book.  Most of all, I’m tired of pouring my heart and soul into a story, just to have it ripped to shreds by complete strangers. 

The reason for my angst is this: BONE GARDEN got a lousy review from Publishers Weekly. 

I tried to cheer myself up by remembering that back in 1996, PW said my debut novel HARVEST would surprise “only readers who move their lips.”  In other words, I’m the writer that only a moron could appreciate.  Through the years, P.W. has gone on to call my books formulaic and disappointing.  Yet through all those bad reviews, my sales and readership continued to grow, which must have infuriated the literary geniuses who hate me over at P.W. 

This time though their review really hurt, because I believed so strongly in THE BONE GARDEN.  I love this book.  The fact that PW didn’t love it made me question my own judgment.  It made me lose all confidence in my writing.  It made me decide that, as much as I love telling stories, I would be emotionally happier and healthier just writing books for my own pleasure, and never letting them see the light of day. 

Then today, in one of those weirdly typical twists in the publishing biz, everything changed.  I’ve just heard that THE BONE GARDEN got a rare and much-coveted starred review from Kirkus:

“Readers with delicate stomachs may find Gerritsen’s graphic descriptions of corpse dissection hard to take, but the story, which digs up a dark Boston of times long past, entices readers to keep turning pages long after their bedtimes.”

Kirkus loves the book.  Maybe I’m not washed up.

I guess I won’t be retiring after all.

stealth authors

Stephen King was recently mistaken for a vandal when he was spotted signing copies of his own book in an Australian bookstore.  Only when the bookseller saw his signature did she realize it had been the author himself who’d been in her store.

King was only doing what I (and every other author in the universe) feel compelled to do, even while on vacation: drop into local bookstores and check out how many copies of my books are on the shelves.  I also want to autograph them, because I know readers love signed copies, but too often I leave them unsigned. And you know why?

Because then I’d have to snag a bookseller and ask for permission to do so.  You have no idea how much energy is involved just trying to get the attention of harried clerks.  Then the reaction is often a weary sigh and a “Let me find the manager.”  You may think booksellers would be delighted to see an author in their store, but reality is much less glamorous, and sometimes downright discouraging.  I’ve blogged about my experiences in Honolulu bookshops, where I was allowed to sign only a few copies, and they made it clear they thought they were doing me a favor.  Sometimes I’ve had to produce I.D. to prove who I was.  A lot of the time I’m greeted with a shrug and a “yeah, whatever.”

As a result, I’ve often had the urge to be sneaky about the whole thing and just sign the books, slap an “autographed” sticker on the cover, and slink out of the store without talking to anyone.  Much more efficient that way, right? 

But you could get into trouble, as King almost did, being mistaken for a vandal.  I remember talking to one bookseller who was livid at an author when he did a sneak signing.  She caught him back among the shelves, signing and stickering his own books, and she confronted him.  He proved to her satisfaction that he was indeed the author, and you’d think she’d be thrilled.  But no, she was outraged that he’d sign books without asking for permission first, and as a result, she said, “I will never have that man in my store for a formal signing!  Never!  He did it without asking me first!”

Boy, talk about being territorial.

Aside from not pissing off the booksellers, the real reason to approach them is that they could be your best allies.  Yes, I know that many of them don’t give a hoot that you’re an author.  Many of them would rather you’d just go away and not bother them.  But there are always a few who are thrilled you’re there and will tell their customers “guess what, those are signed copies!”  And that alone makes it worth having to endure the occasional “yeah, whatever” greeting.

 

Naked and vulnerable

I recently received this email from an author who’s just had her first book published:

“This is an unnerving time for me.  Reviews (some positive, some negative, some mixed) and reader and bookseller comments are coming at me on all sides.  All of this conspires to create a sense of vulnerability.  Just navigating it tends to make one thin-skinned.”

Oh honey, I know just what you mean.

Non-writers probably think that having your book go on sale means you bask in glory while rave reviews pour in and adoring fans greet you at every bookstore.  They think it’s all champagne and triumph. 

What it really feels like is a nervous breakdown.

The anticipation of your book’s release is so much better.  In the months before reality cruelly whaps you in the face, you can still daydream about starred reviews and bestseller lists and excited calls from your editor informing you that your sales are through the roof.  I’ve experienced that high with every one of my books, those heady weeks when all things are possible, when you love being a writer because the work is done and now you can sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Then the daydreams start to crack and crumble away.  Maybe it starts with a bad review in PW.  (And I’ve had more than a few of those.)  Then some cranky anonymous reader posts a one-star review on Amazon.  Hey, it’s fun to throw stones at naked and vulnerable authors, because they can’t fight back.  They just curl up into little balls and whimper. Then you hear from your editor that “it’s just a slow week in all the bookstores” or “maybe we should have gone with a different cover”.  Or even worse, she stops calling you at all, because she just doesn’t want to talk to a suicidal author. 

Oh yes, I know what all this is like because I’ve been there, done that.  And no, it never gets easier to take.  All it gets is more predictable.  I allow myself the happy daydreams, but I know full well that the chances are they’ll come to nothing and I’ll end up on book tour lying depressed on some hotel bed, staring up at the ceiling and wondering if there isn’t some other occupation I could be successful at because the writing thing is clearly not working out.  It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out or you’re 12 books into your career, you will probably experience this gnawing, existential doubt about your ability as a writer.   And it’s no wonder you’re feeling this way, because there are too many critics eager to tell you your writing sucks. 

And maybe for a day or a week or, God forbid, for the rest of your life, you believe them.

Whenever I hear complaints about “arrogant authors”, I’m surprised because I don’t know how any author could still be arrogant after having one’s ego repeatedly ripped to shreds by the critics and the marketplace.  Perhaps the arrogant authors are young literary darlings who’ve heard only praise.  The rest of us know it’s a rough and tumble out there, and no matter how many battle scars we may have, the thrust of the critic’s sword still hurts. 

If you’re a new author, this probably isn’t very encouraging to hear. But it’s got to be a comfort knowing that you’re not the only depressed writer staring at the ceiling.