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. 

18 replies
  1. wendy roberts
    wendy roberts says:

    CONGRATULATIONS!!

    I hope publishers take note of your post. It’s so true that readers take a while to discover a new author. I am just so grateful Penguin chose to resurrect my own career.

  2. PJ Parrish
    PJ Parrish says:

    Tess,
    Having just snagged my first UK contract, this gives me hope. I read this blog entry right after reading a story in the British newspaper, The Guardian, which said women crime writers are flourishing in the UK market right now. To quote: “Over half of all novels in the genre are written by women, and their books are most popular with a female audience — which is useful for the authors, since women read considerably more books than men. Last year, a survey in Woman & Home magazine bolstered the notion that women nowadays prefer blood and guts to hearts and flowers. Half of the respondents said that the crime thriller was their favourite fiction genre, with science fiction and romance the least popular.”

  3. Therese Fowler
    Therese Fowler says:

    Wow, how enlightening, and how encouraging to know things like this CAN happen.

    My UK release is five months off, but it’s almost a relief that, given the tough UK market, I’m debuting in paperback and as the premiere title for the new AVON imprint. I’ll be in Tesco, so there’s actually a good chance I’ll be read!

    Thanks for sharing this info; I’ve learned so much useful stuff here.

  4. firelight
    firelight says:

    Congrats! By the way, your publisher didn’t do all the hard work. You write great books and did a lot of promotional work that many other authors balk at. I live in the UK but haven’t seen a single bit of the promotion you mentioned – I neither watch BBC nor drink coffee! – and yet I know about your books because I see them in the library and I read your blog. Thrillers aren’t really my thing, but I made an exception for you because your blog is interesting and it made me curious about your books. So give yourself a pat on the back – you earned your success!

  5. spyscribbler
    spyscribbler says:

    If it weren’t true (story about Michael), I’d say great story. But it is true, so it’s definitely disturbing.

    Congratulations on your success! Writing a book is solitary, but making a book successful is sure a team effort!

  6. JMH
    JMH says:

    Tess, congrats! It’s always exciting to hit a new highwater mark. My book, Shadow Laws, is now carried in 100 OCLC library systems, as of today. That’s nothing compared to a bestselling author, who gets in about 1500 systems. But still, for me, its a new highwater mark and it put a smile on my face. Not as big as the smile you have on yours, but still . . . Best, Jim.

  7. Cara
    Cara says:

    Could you keep me on the edge of my seat any more with a short story? This was a great sample of your talent and I’m sure it must have drawn even more readers to your books.

    GO TESS!

  8. mikaela_l
    mikaela_l says:

    Congrats, Tess!

    I totally agree with your post. That dedicated publishing house helps a writer’s career.

  9. struggler
    struggler says:

    Sorry I missed you when you were over here in England recently Tess, sounds a lame excuse but none of the venues was remotely near me. I have noticed though that some of the copies of Mephisto Club and Vanish you signed are already appearing on eBay ‘unread’ and ‘brand new’ which is a bit sad in my view. But can I say that among the leading crime/thriller writers you are without doubt one of the leaders and firmly established in the mindset of regular British buyers of the genre. I can tell this from my own ‘research’ because I have created nearly 40 Listmanias on Amazon, almost every single one dedicated to a single writer and your own data reads as follows: Last updated: 18/10/2006 Read: 969 times Rated: 70 out of 70 helpful. Only one other writer has achieved a higher ‘rating’ and he’s only beating you by 2 votes as I write these words. Hardly scientific I know, but you’re way, way ahead of such luminaries as Harlan Coben, James Patterson, Kathy Reichs, Karin Slaughter and Jeffery Deaver – not surprising to me when I think of the quality of your most recent works (notably VANISH) compared to most of those others mentioned. It’s clear to me that, at least in the UK, your brand is on the rise and whatever Rizzoli No.7 turns out to be it will most likely be your biggest seller to date this side of the pond. Best wishes.

  10. CarrieM
    CarrieM says:

    Amazing. I very often only read a book based on a review from a person that knows me well–flashy covers do not sell me, nor does advertising that beats me over the head. I am more likely to run screaming the other way with that. However–count me in as part of what must be your growing “rabid following” here in the States! My mother came across two of your novels while she was on winter break, couldn’t put them down, passed them on to me–they are keepers! Congrats on the growing sales, and I am wishing you continued luck! I can’t wait to see what comes next for Dr. Isles and Det. Rizzoli… And while I am here, any chance of more with “The Mephisto Club?” (What a concept!!!!)

  11. zoeku
    zoeku says:

    You deserve every success over here!
    I brought Vanish after seeing an advert whilst I was sat on a train returning to university from home and was so engroused that I read the whole book from cover to cover in four hours! It being 3pm, I went back to the book shop and brought The Surgeon and Body Double – and had finished both by 1am having had a break after The Surgeon to make dinner!

    You are brilliant, I can’t wait for the next book, I’ve gotten my mother hooked now too!

  12. struggler
    struggler says:

    I would guess that VANISH totals 85000 words (maybe more) so to read the whole book in four hours works out at better than 350 words per minute. That’s faster than me, for sure…..

  13. Ali M
    Ali M says:

    I’m from Ireland, and am so glad your work got published over here. I’m guessing we get the same editions as in the UK. I must admit I’d never heard of you until I saw one of your books on special offer, and being the poor student that I am, I splurged! Presentation is important and your book covers are stunning with the white background which caught my eye, but it is the synopsis at the back which sells a book to me. I enjoyed Harvest so much I went out the next day and bought four more and devoured them. Now to save up to aquire the rest!! 🙂
    I was wondering if you plan to come to Ireland? How your sellings here are?
    Also as a huge fan of Jonathan & Faye Kellerman, Agatha Christie, James Patterson, Michael Connelly and co, I have to say your works are now my favourite. Anyway I hope you continue to enjoy the popularity because heaven knows you’re gifted.

  14. zoeku
    zoeku says:

    FAO – Struggler

    Its possible because of the way I’ve been taught to read, or adapted my reading style through revising for exams/checking answers etc…

    Plus at the age of 8 I had the reading ability of a 16 year old, coupled with when I am reading I shut out everything – I even missed the fire alarm going off and got told off by my halls manager – allowing me to read v.quickly

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply