Many aspiring novelists think: “if only I can sellÂ aÂ book, I’d have it made!Â That’s all I need to do, sell this one book!”Â I’m afraid it’s not that easy.Â Selling a book is just the first step in your career as a writer.Â Look at all the first-time novelists who later vanished from the publishing world.Â They discovered a very painful truth: to make a career in this field, you’ll have to do a lot more than just sell one book.
Some years ago, an acquaintance of mine was flying high when his thriller novel was published.Â It was a great book, one of those sneaky, snaky plots that just wrap around you and squeeze you tighter and tighter like a boa constrictor.Â It got terrific reviews in the U.S., and it hit #1 on the London Times bestseller list.Â I think it may also have hit the extended NYT list.Â After that book’s success, his agent and his editors were panting for the next book.Â They waited and waited for it, because they knew they could now build on his name.
Three years later, I caught up with him and asked him how his writing was going.Â “I just can’t get the second book finished,” he confessed.Â “Everyone’s waiting for it, but I haven’t been able to deliver.”Â By the time he finally did finish it, his editors had lost their enthusiasm.Â Even worse, his readers had forgotten about him.Â The new book sank, unnoticed.Â Since then, his career has pretty much been on life support.
In the meantime, I’d written two more books, and my own sales were starting to climb.Â
The lesson here is thatÂ to survive in this business takes more than just one sale, and more than luck.Â It takes dedication and flexibility and just sheer stubbornness.Â Â Here’s whatÂ I’ve learned after 20 years as a writer:
1. Write quickly, and deliver on time.Â In the past 20 years, I’veÂ hadÂ 19 books published.Â Granted,Â my first nine books wereÂ romance novels, only 300 manuscript pages long, but the point is, I didn’t let a lot of time pass between books.Â Â If you haven’t had a new book out in more than two years, your career is going to suffer.Â Readers forget you.Â Editors realize they can’t count on you.Â Â And forget about branding; if no one can even remember your name, how are they going to remember your brand?
2. Be prepared to switch genres.Â If the books you’re writing aren’t finding an audience, maybe it’s time to write a different kind of book.Â In my case, I first movedÂ from romance to thrillers.Â I loved writing romance, but I just couldn’t write fast enough to make a living at it.Â Writing for Harlequin was fun and satisfying, and I loved the genre, but when each book was only earning out around $12,000, I knew I’d never send my kids to college on my earnings as a writer.Â As it turned out, I had a great idea for a medical thriller (HARVEST), which was my debut novel on the New York Times list.
But four books later, I could see that my medical thriller sales were flat, and even starting to decline.Â Â By then I had a crime thriller in mind, one that I couldn’t wait to write.Â Â With THE SURGEON, I launched the Jane Rizzoli series.Â And my sales have increased since then.
Will I switch directions yetÂ again someday?Â There’s always that chance.Â Never say never.
3.Â Be prepared toÂ switch publishers.Â No matter how much you love your editor, there are times when you just have to say goodbye and move on to a new house.Â Sometimes publishers lose their fire in the belly and just stop pushing your books as hard as they could.Â Or their marketing goes stale.Â Â A new house may greet you with such fresh energy and enthusiasm that they can give your career a real boost.Â
4. Write consistently good books.Â This may be the hardest thing of all.Â Â And let’s be realistic — no one can write a great book every single time.Â Every author is allowed a few dogs here and there, especially when he’s also trying to stick to a schedule ofÂ a book a year.Â Writing aÂ great first book is easy, because you have all the time and leisure to perfect it.Â But try keeping that same level of quality when you’re on book nine or ten.Â Â Readers will forgive youÂ one or twoÂ stumbles, but three disappointing reads is about all the chances they’ll give you.
Authors who manage to stay consistently goodÂ are publishing goldmines.Â There aren’t many who can do this, and the sadÂ fact is, they are underappreciated.Â The critics adore the hot first-time writer.Â What these critics fail to understand is that it’s the old reliables who are the truly remarkable artists.
5. Don’tÂ keep writing the same book.Â Â I know that there are editors out there who’ll disagree with me.Â Many of them will say, “Hey, your last serial killer novel was a huge bestseller!Â Keep doing them!”Â And maybe your second and third serial killer books will do as well or even better.Â But eventually your audience is going to get tired of your act.Â Even worse, you’ll get tired of it, and that boredom is going to show through in your writing.Â So find something new and fresh to write about with every single novel.Â Maybe you have the same series character, but with every new book, give him something startling, something that pushes the boundaries of the genre.Â You may find you suddenly pick up a whole new set of readers.
6. Remember that publishing is international.Â Don’t neglect your foreign markets.Â If your publisher isn’t doing a good job selling your foreign rights, then try to retain those rights on your next contract and have your agent sell them.Â I have been astonished by howÂ much my foreign sales have grown in the past five years.Â Even if your American sales are lackluster, you may sell enough books in Germany to earn a tidy living.Â There areÂ a number ofÂ American authors who get no respect in the U.S. and are adored overseas.Â There’s no rule that says you have toÂ earn your living in dollars.Â Euros pay the bills, too!