How the biz can drive you crazy

Every so often I come across an article about the publishing business that makes me want to stand up and shout, “Yes! At last someone tells it like it really is!” That’s the reaction I had when I recently came across a piece published in the December ’08 issue of Romance Writers Report. “The Tao of Publishing — Why Publishing is Making You Crazy and What You Can Do About it” was written by literary agent Steven Axelrod and writer Julie Anne Long. I know many people don’t receive Romance Writers Report (you automatically get it if you belong to Romance Writers of America) so you may not have access to the article. I wish I could post it here in its entirety, but that would be copyright infringement. So I’ll just try to summarize it — and tell you why I think it’s such a brilliant piece of analysis.

UPDATE: the article is now posted online here.

The article cites a study by a sociology professor who discovered that because humans need to connect socially with each other, we are sometimes attracted to things simply because other people like them. “We need common experiences — indeed we seek them out… One consequence of this is that if we really like things simply because other people like them, predicting which cultural products will succeed commercially (and which will fail) becomes impossible.” Regardless of the actual quality of the product, people tend to like what other people like. Popularity leads to even bigger popularity. “This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still.”

Which explains why “some wonderful books failed to find an audience and why some second-rate books succeeded.”

And this can drive publishing professionals crazy, because no matter how good a book may be, no matter how much effort a publisher puts behind that book, it can still fail. Success involves many random factors that are completely out of our control.

“Too many times I”ve seen authors undertake expensive and time-consuming promotions that come to naught,” Axelrod writes. “Their justification for doing it is, well, author X did this and she hit the New York Times list. But as we now know, the odds are even that random factors were at play. We have no way of knowing if the promotion really did contribute to author X’s success or if it had nothing to do with author X’s success at all.”

Axelrod goes on to say: “I believe that the overwhelming majority of highly successful writers were anything but. It took these writers years to succeed, and when it happened, it was frequently under a different name or in a different genre from where they started. Believe in yourself, but remember that randomness plays a large role in your career as well.”

What he says is absolutely true of my own career. I was no overnight success. I started off writing in the romance genre, but after nine books, I could see that my career was stuck at a plateau. All my manuscripts were being published, and I had no problems landing contracts, but I’d never be able to send my kids to college on the income. Only after I switched genres and started writing thrillers did I hit the bestseller lists.

Even then, the randomness of the industry flummoxed me. The books I considered my best (and the ones the critics liked as well) weren’t the ones with the strongest sales. Over the years, I’ve watched my sales seesaw, and I can’t explain why some books did well, and others didn’t. Occasionally the explanation seemed obvious. LIFE SUPPORT, for instance, was published the same week that UPS went on strike, and it took weeks for the books to arrive in the stores — by which time LIFE SUPPORT was already considered an “old” release, and never got its full co-op displays. A pretty rational explanation for why it didn’t hit the hardcover bestseller list, right? Its poor sales seemed to be a logical consequence of an unfortunate — and unpredictable– event.

So how do I explain the success of THE SURGEON? It went on sale just before September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of that national trauma, my book tour was canceled, bookstore traffic went dead, and everyone predicted that the sales of high-tension thriller novels would suffer. The public will instead want sweet romance novels, pop psychologists predicted. No one will want to read stories with bloody crimes.

Yet THE SURGEON went on to garner stronger sales than any of my previous titles. Even with the power of world events working against it.

I’ve watched the sales patterns of twelve of my thrillers now. Some of the releases have had full-court media campaigns, with full-page NYT ads. Most of the time I went on book tour. Occasionally, I didn’t. Some books were well-reviewed; some were not. Some books had long pre-pub times, others were rushed into production. Some books gave me a gut feeling that “this one’s going to be huge.” Others didn’t. Was I able to predict which ones would be more successful?

Nope. I couldn’t. And I’ve given up trying to.

In the article, Julie Long writes: “Going through the machinations of trying to predict or control our success does make us feel as though we’re getting somewhere, and gives us that critical illusion of control. (But) the harder we try to make sense of things, the further from the truth we’ll actually get. And again, that way lies craziness.”

Oh, how well do I understand that craziness. I’ve flogged myself with thoughts of, “if only the book had been released a week earlier! If only we’d gone for a blue instead of an orange cover! If only I’d hired an outside publicist! If only, if only, if only…” I’ve tried to explain my bad sales and good sales in terms of marketing strategies I can control. But I’ve come to understand that Action X does not necessarily lead to Result X. All I can do is write the best book I’m capable of and trust my publisher to do its job right.

After that, the book either sinks or swims. And there’s not a hell of a lot I can do to change it.

As Julie Anne Long writes, “We all want to know what works, and do that. The truth is, we can’t ever know for certain what works… Self-promotion, in fact, is another one of those things that make us feel like we can actively control or influence our success. In many ways, it’s more of a ritual than anything that can really impact the velocity of our career growth.”

That ritual can end up obsessing us and taking away precious time away from our writing. It makes us check our Amazon rankings far too often. It compels us to sign every copy of our book in every store within a 500-mile radius. It makes us accept speaking engagements we don’t really feel like agreeing to. It ends up controlling our lives, and draining the joy that made us take up writing in the first place.

It’s taken me over two decades to mellow and adopt the more zenlike attitude that this article advocates. If I’d read it ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready to accept the advice. But since then, I’ve come to understand it on my own. And I recognize its wisdom.

I hope others will, too.

21 replies
  1. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    That’s so weird about the Life Support/The Surgeon novels because I LOVED Life Support and felt it deserved a higher status than The Surgeon. I love The Surgeon, also, of course, but I just loved Life Support for an altogether different reason. But what you seem to tell us is just write until we’ve just about given up hope and then it will likely happen for us haha. Happy Holidays Dr. G!

    BOOKLOVER says:

    I read something in a similar vein recently —- stating that people want to go with a winner, so a politician who is leading in the polls will pick up a percentage of votes on that basis alone.

    I wondered if a best seller from the 1930s would be a comfort read now so I googled and found Ann Vickers by Sinclair Lewis. I’m enjoying it but I don’t know if it’s for the same reasons as people did in the 1930s.

  3. gabriel
    gabriel says:

    Tess, Thank you for continuing to post relavent, thought provoking articles. Not that I don’t enjoy the lighter, personal posts, but I continue to check back for those similar to today’s. I enjoy the analytical reasoning and appreciate that you provide your distinct opinion.

  4. Christine
    Christine says:

    I love it when you make this type of entry Tess. Thank you. It made me remember when I got my new car. I was so proud of it, and was worried it would get damaged in big parking lots, so I would park at the outer edges where nobody else parked. I would come back and find one or two cars flanking me. Talk about the pack instinct.

  5. DasV
    DasV says:

    Interesting regarding ‘success’, assuming ‘success’ has something to do with sales. A note on this from Fe Fi FOE Comes, which I own:
    ‘He talked to Vera before about the intellectual market place. It was a myth, he told her, that publishers, recording studios, art galleries, even architectural firms were always looking for innovation and genius. The whole point was to lock up the market … promote authors and artists already under contract to produce more work. Such musicians, designers, and writers were known commodities … multimillion-dollar conglomerates were not generally interested in taking chances … betting on originality. They were managed by committee. Hence the sameness of most everything one read, watched, listened to, lived in, flew in, drove, or wore.
    True originality occasionally made its way into the market place, but it was the exception and not the rule. Moreover, art, innovation, and talent were common traits of humanity. Many people could act a part perfectly, sing with exceptional control and range, paint and sculpt beautifully, write lucid and entertaining fiction and non-fiction, sketch out a functional dwelling that fit into its environment, and essentially do anything that the famous could do.
    There was no profit in that though; the market had to have a limited number of talented performers in order to maximize revenue … hence the ‘star’ system in so many categories of human endeavor.’

  6. therese
    therese says:

    Yes, Tess Gerritsen tells it like it is.

    I have the RWR, read “The Tao of Publishing”, and will read it again because it is awesome. You’ve given a great summary with stellar insights from your own career. This is why I love RWA, authors share. We aren’t isolated or operate in a void.

    I enjoy hearing details from your past and how they are a reverse mirror to mine. You got serious about your writing when you left your “career” to raise your boys. I got serious about my writing, when my girls were in grade school and I returned to my “career”. Not good timing on my part! LOL!

    Then you began seeing “success” when you changed from genre romances to medical thrillers. Now I’ve been told, by switching from romances to memoir, has helped find my “voice”.

    I’ve reached my own personal ZEN with the publishing world. All I can do is my best, and share what I’ve written. The rest is up to the readers, whether they are publishers or consumers. My personal theme is, “the future is yet to be written and I intend to write it.”

    I know success every time one of my girls walks through the door, I savor success every day when I roll out of bed, stand up and walk. It’s a good day.

    The publishing world, in my opinion, operates in the fourth dimension, TIME. They buy what appeals to them today, what they feel readers will want next year, that the author wrote, last year. It’s a wild paradox and requires a release of control.

    So those of us that deal with words and wander the marshes of ideas, can only work through to present our best, and hope – with an Audacious spirit – while we live life.

    Twenty years to get the message Tess? Congratulations! May we all spend so little time! Learn Hieroglyphs, grow blueberries and treasure your donkeys. The book you wrote ten years ago, may be what readers want next year. And you’ve already done the work, so all you have to do is, re-read what you wrote.

    “Taking each moment as it comes doesn’t diminish joy, either. It deepens it.”

    “Enjoy the ride.”
    And – from me – thanks for sharing!

  7. M.J.
    M.J. says:

    I can’t read the article as I’m not a member but so have a question.

    Since no one can buy a book if they don’t know its even out and available does this article really suggest authors should not get involved in marketing but leave it all to chance?

    If that’s true its very misleading.

    While an author cannot make him or herself a bestseller, authors can and do get involved and greatly improve their sales and recognition in the marketplace.

    In fact if that’s what the article is saying I’d like to introduce the writers of that article to thousand of authors who’ve done just the opposite including James Patterson, Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich just to name the first few who come to mind who invested hugely in their own marketing and promotion and openly claim they never would have gotten there if they hadn’t.

    Tess, can you explain more what it actually says about this?

  8. Tess
    Tess says:

    sorry if I made it seem as if the article is saying that success is completely disconnected from publicity efforts. What it says is that perhaps 50% of a book’s success is unrelated to whatever an author and publisher may do for the book. It doesn’t say that one shouldn’t put in the maximum effort; it says that you shouldn’t go crazy when those efforts come to naught, because so much is out of our control.

    The point of the article is to not drive ourselves crazy trying to assign logic to marketing efforts. Because too often, there’s no discernible logic at all.

  9. JMH
    JMH says:

    Successful pulishing seems to come down to a very simple formula: (1) Do people know that your book exists? (2) Is is something they want? (3) Is is available?

    The point that lots of people are programed to want to experience what other people are experiencing is most likely a valid one. A book may be something they want, or are willing to take a look at, for no other reason than other people are reading it. That effect seems to fit into category “2” above. The author has no control over this effect.

    The author does, however, have considerable control over “1” via marketing and promotion. The author also has considerable control over “2” via writing a good book in the first place (although, as you say, quality does not necessarily mean quantity).

    The smart author will concentrate on where he/she can actually have a realistic possibility of a tangible effect, even if there is no guarantee that those efforts will result in success.

  10. DasV
    DasV says:

    The point really is whether you wish to be a writer or a salesman. If sales are the measure of success then Hitler with Mein Kampf and Mao Zedong with The Little Red Book are among the most successful writers of all time. The Market is simply an average of exchanges by average people; it has nothing to do with any intrinsic value of the goods exchanged. Britney Spears outsells Rachmaninoff; this doesn’t mean Britney’s musical acumen is superior, it’s simply a function of the availability, promotion, and mind-set of the average buyer. Many ‘top selling’ artists are opted by vendors to produce products which appeal to the mass-market mindset. Many authors (and other artists) have complained greatly about this; breakthrough novels such as Koontz’s The House of Thunder and Watchers, Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Glory Road, Starship Troopers, Tess’s Gravity, many others have been proceeded or followed by work which is much more formula oriented. In other words either they write for the market, at the direction of the publishers/editors, become successful then write what they want, or they write what they want then garner a promising sale and then write in accordance with direction. Movies of their books are mostly horror stories … ask F. Paul Wilson how he feels about the movie of The Keep; yet he took the money. The same for Watchers, done four times and ALL disasters. It’s also important to remember that wealth and fame are fleeting, while intellectual properties are not … your book will/may survive you. In this sense the Market is superfluous; write a good story which is something you want to say; if you feel you’ve accomplished that then publish it. Worry about who will read it, money and glory afterwards; but not too much, it’s really not the point of writing.

  11. Tess
    Tess says:

    While it’s true that writing “for the money” has a disreputable sound to it, it’s also true that if authors can’t sell their books and land repeated contracts, they’re not going to be able survive as writers. It’s a tough balance to achieve, being able to write what satisfies you artistically, while still being able to pay the bills.

  12. Joe Moore
    Joe Moore says:

    Although self-promotion should be an important function of a writer’s routine, I tend to wonder how foreign language versions of books can wind up on bestseller lists in countries that the author has never set foot in? It leads me to believe that the marketing expertise of the publisher is much more critical that anything writers can do on their own.

  13. DasV
    DasV says:

    I don’t think writing ‘for the money’ is in any way disreputable. Many many people make their living writing in one way or another … it’s a common means of communication across almost every field. Creative writing … I mean fiction here … is an exclusive domain of an artist, unless they are writing strictly by formula. My son loves Scooby Do; I have pointed out to him that it is simply different versions of the same story. Scary place, ghosts, ghosts turn out to be ‘bad people’, and are taken away. (Same thing could be said about a zillion SitComs of course) Nevertheless he likes Scooby Do, it’s very popular, and the writers make a good living. But it isn’t breakthrough fiction. As Hess said, “I gave up much happiness to keep my freedom.” Steppenwolfe. In this sense the writer who does not have a mainstream publisher/contract has a distinct advantage; they can write what they want and the long long odds are that it’s not going to become mainstream regardless of its merit. The question is what price such freedom? I think given human nature, most of us would opt for the fame and money, and compromise our integrity just that little bit to keep it. As a non-fiction writer for years, I know I have taken much direction … in order to keep the checks coming.

  14. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Well you always have your medical license/expertise to fall back on. Not all first-time authors have that luxury.

  15. therese
    therese says:

    What the article states is: regardless of how much money/time/effort you spend watching sales statistics – only 50% of it may be valid, depending on the parameters of that particular statistic.

    Also, no matter how much money/time/effort you spend on promoting your books, only 50% of it may work/reach readers/increase sales.

    There are many random events in the publishing world that influence the sale of books and success of an authors career.

    The overview intent of the article by two publishing professionals is this: Focusing on lists or new marketing techniques can be defeating if used as a “self-worth-o-meter” or considered a yellow-brick road to the top of a “Best-Seller List”. The energy and time of a writer/author is best served by releasing the importance of lists, numbers, marketing – and INSTEAD most of this energy should be funneled into writing the NEXT best book the author can write.

    An author’s intent should be not overly directed at the current market – but the connection to the potential audience. As many of us know, Tess has stressed over the numbers many times. However she has also focused on writing the next best book she can write, with intent to connect to and entertain her readers. Which is the best thing an author can do, and truly, the only thing about publishing an author can control.

    Write the next-best book. Check in with your gut that what you are writing fulfills you. If not, experiment until that passionate intent, to connect to readers, returns.

    Though the article is not available to post, here are some of the references quoted in the article.

    Your Money & Your Brain by Jame Zweig

    The Drunkard’s Walk: (How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Miodinow

    How Real is Real? by Paul Watzlawick

  16. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    We all live by the “coulda, shoulda, woulda” rule. Another big brain freeze is “what if…….” We all take a chance in everyting that we do. In the case of your Life Support sales numbers, “what if…” UPS did not go on strike? I agree that no one wanted to read stories with bloody crimes after 9/11, but The Surgeon’s sales took off. You see, Tess. It’s not what we know, it’s who we know. We want romance, we read romance. We want blood and gore, we read blood and gore. But we cant predict what will happen outside of the realm of a book being published (UPS strike, 9/11, or whatever).
    I took a chance on reading Harvest when it came out and look where I am now. A co-president of one of tthe biggest Tess Gerritsen fan clubs on Long Island. I followed the “coulda, shoulda woulda” concept. But I followed that up with the “could, should, would” concept and boy am I ever glad that I did.
    I agree with Therese above when she wrote: “Taking each moment as it comes doesn’t diminish joy, either. It deepens it.”
    Right on, Therese! We take each moment as it comes. We may not like the outcomes, but it’s our own choices which govern them. Whether it be for the money or just for the publicity, or a combination of the two, I feel that the popularity of a book rests solely on the imaginative mind of the author. Tess, thank you for taking that first chance. Not everyone can be a Nora Roberts, or a Danielle Steele, but just being able to associate the name Tess Gerritsen with those famous authors, you must have done something right. Tess, we salute you!!!!

  17. april
    april says:

    It’s funny because a lot of authors that I read have websites, message boards and/or blogs. I’ve been fortunate to read a lot of galleys or advance copies in exchange of putting the word out that a book is coming out or writing a review. It seems to be a new push in terms of marketing. Not that word of mouth is going to work, but it is powerful.

    I think an article likes that helps an author justify why his/her book may not succeed while another does. I’ve read amazing authors that just disappeared after no continuing contract was awarded, and we’ve all seen authors with whom we did not fall in love gain high praise and honor.

    If we’re talking about how we got a hold of our first Tess Gerritsen book, I actually got mine from the trash essentially. A bookstore tossed Harvest and there were 1-2 copies lying around the back room. It was a stripped book, but the bookstore always just put them in the back instead of destroying. So, I read it. I later bought the book and all of them since then (and the backlist except for the romances so far).

  18. Julie Anne Long
    Julie Anne Long says:

    Hi Tess! RWR Editor Katherine Adey alerted us to your blog, and I wanted to pop in to say we’re thrilled with the response to it so far, and so glad it made you stand up and shout “Yes!” LOL. I also wanted to give you and your readers a direct link to my blog, where I’ve posted the articles in their entirety:

    It’s interesting: the articles are based on a presentation Steve and I gave at the RWA conference this year, and we decided to write them in part because the audience response was both very gratifying and a bit suprising —everyone in the room (published and unpublished authors) seemed to gain something slightly different from it, and for the rest of the conference presentation attendees approached me and thanked me discussing these things in a big-picture context. And each person had a very specific, personal reason for why they found the presentation helpful. It touches on a lot of things we seldom discuss in a big-picture context, in large part because it’s so difficult to *see* the big picture at all until you’ve been in the industry for years—as you said in your last paragraph, it takes years of career survival to reach a place of relative philosophical comfort. You can probably imagine how *I* came to write in in the first place. LOL. It emerged in part from a series of conversations Steve and I have had over the course of my career—and even the best, most experienced agent (of which he is certainly one) can tell you certain things until they’re blue in the face. Real learning often requires experiencing things for yourself.

    Anyway—thanks for blogging about it! Anyone should feel free to visit my blog to chat more about the article.

    P.S. One of my most devoted readers discovered my first book stripped—in a dumpster, too. 😉 She read it, loved it, discussed it on an E-Bay book forum and I ended up with hundreds of new readers as result. It’s one of my favorite stories. LOL. You never, ever know in this biz.

  19. Tess
    Tess says:

    Julie Anne,
    thank you SO much for posting the article in its entirety and making it available for everyone to read. I think it’s a revelatory piece, and it touched on all the things that I’ve picked up through the years, but couldn’t quite put into words. I have a feeling that many who read it may not recognize how valuable it is until they’ve been in the business awhile.

  20. wy82331
    wy82331 says:

    Hello Tess,
    I think we all sort of stick with what we know best, afraid to step into the different, the dark, etc. A writer usually has their own little world , so to speak, a place where success has been proven. Many are afraid to jump across that line and venture into a new area. Will they like it?
    Will it flop. Well, wasn’t that the same sort of feelings on your first book?
    Just like readers mostly stay with the authors which they have read and like. Feel comfortable with the story lines of the author. We wait for the next book release. Maybe we have a dozen or so ” favorite” authors and grab each new release. I am happy that I jumped across that line and read one of your books. Now, I grab each new release. I don’t know how many are like me, but I don’t venture too far away from my favorites.
    Life is short. Sometimes we loose sight of that. Grow your blueberries, walk in the sun, taste each day, but please write us all a new book when you can.

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