September 11 and the impact on publishing

A recent New York Times article explored how September 11 affected newcomers to the fashion industry. Some designers, about to debut their work, found that opportunity lost forever. Some had to give up their dreams.

It made me wonder if there was a similar effect on writers. When the sell-in for your next book is determined by how many copies your last book sold, when a publisher invests in a book launch that never happens because of a national tragedy, does that author get a second chance?

First, my memories of 9/11. My book The Surgeon was released August 21, 2001, and I was still on book tour, scheduled to depart Seattle the morning of 9/11. I was up early to catch my flight and just happened to have the TV on while I packed, so even before I left for the airport, I knew what was unfolding. By the time I arrived at the airport, all flights were grounded, and I ended up stranded in Seattle for a whole week. It was a sad, turbulent time to be so far from home. I remember dropping in at bookstores during that week and finding many of them deserted. No one seemed to be shopping. No one wanted to read. We were all glued to TV sets, watching history unfold.

I also remember that that week, there was no bestseller list published in the Wall Street Journal. I seem to remember that the NYT didn’t publish a bestseller list that week, either, although I may be wrong about that. The publishing world came to a halt. So did book tours, book shipments, and author TV and radio interviews. If your book was scheduled to debut that week, you were out of luck. Unless your name was Jack Welch, who still managed to dredge up some publicity, but only because of the irony of the big-shot CEO with the unfortunate pub date.

But I wonder about authors who aren’t Jack Welch. The hopefuls who were looking forward to their first release. Whose publicists had lined up hard-won TV appearances. Or the authors whose books didn’t arrive in stores that week, or the week after, and who forever lost their co-op placement on the front tables. What happened to them? Did their careers ever get a second chance? Did their poor sales that month mean their next books were doomed?

I’d like to hear from those authors whose books went on sale September, 2001. How did you cope? Do you think there was lasting damage to your career?

2 replies
  1. Rhonda Lane
    Rhonda Lane says:

    I’m surprised no one has posted because I know of three works shelved or abandoned right after 9/11. One of them is mine.

    I’d been working on the first novel in a planned series about a US Secret Service agent. The first book featured an incident with anonymous tourists taking the public tour of the White House. Then, 9/11 happened, and the White House closed to tourists, especially the public tours for which anyone could line up to tour the State Floor.

    I didn’t give up at first, even though I knew from history that once the White House tightens up, it stays tight to a certain extent. I thumped on that story for a couple of years. Waited to see how the Service’s switch to from Treasury to Homeland Security would work out. Saw that groups, especially school and military groups, could tour the White House if they presented IDs and Social Security numbers. Fiddled with another series I wanted to write, which I called my Plan B story.

    Still, no matter what I did, I couldn’t get around the fact that I needed that line of anonymous tourists in the first book for the story to work. So, I switched to the story I’d been fiddling with and have been working on it and other smaller projects ever since.

    I often think about that original story. Part of me would like to dive back in, especially after the eighty bajillion craft classes I’ve taken since then. Part of me also wonders if I didn’t get so over-my-head in that story that I realized I wasn’t at a skill level yet to do it justice.

    Still, all roads lead to the fact that the plot needs anonymous tourists in the White House. Now I’m so deep into that Plan B story, a traditional mystery with a journalist protagonist, that I need to finish it and get it out there.

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