one book is not a career

Many aspiring novelists think: “if only I can sell a book, I’d have it made!  That’s all I need to do, sell this one book!”  I’m afraid it’s not that easy.  Selling a book is just the first step in your career as a writer.  Look at all the first-time novelists who later vanished from the publishing world.  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.  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.  It got terrific reviews in the U.S., and it hit #1 on the London Times bestseller list.  I think it may also have hit the extended NYT list.  After that book’s success, his agent and his editors were panting for the next book.  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.  “I just can’t get the second book finished,” he confessed.  “Everyone’s waiting for it, but I haven’t been able to deliver.”  By the time he finally did finish it, his editors had lost their enthusiasm.  Even worse, his readers had forgotten about him.  The new book sank, unnoticed.  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. 

The lesson here is that to survive in this business takes more than just one sale, and more than luck.  It takes dedication and flexibility and just sheer stubbornness.  Here’s what I’ve learned after 20 years as a writer:

1. Write quickly, and deliver on time.  In the past 20 years, I’ve had 19 books published.  Granted, my first nine books were romance novels, only 300 manuscript pages long, but the point is, I didn’t let a lot of time pass between books.  If you haven’t had a new book out in more than two years, your career is going to suffer.  Readers forget you.  Editors realize they can’t count on you.   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.  If the books you’re writing aren’t finding an audience, maybe it’s time to write a different kind of book.  In my case, I first moved from romance to thrillers.  I loved writing romance, but I just couldn’t write fast enough to make a living at it.  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.  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.  By then I had a crime thriller in mind, one that I couldn’t wait to write.  With THE SURGEON, I launched the Jane Rizzoli series.  And my sales have increased since then.

Will I switch directions yet again someday?  There’s always that chance.  Never say never.

3. Be prepared to switch publishers.  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.  Sometimes publishers lose their fire in the belly and just stop pushing your books as hard as they could.  Or their marketing goes stale.  A new house may greet you with such fresh energy and enthusiasm that they can give your career a real boost. 

4. Write consistently good books.  This may be the hardest thing of all.  And let’s be realistic — no one can write a great book every single time.  Every author is allowed a few dogs here and there, especially when he’s also trying to stick to a schedule of a book a year.  Writing a great first book is easy, because you have all the time and leisure to perfect it.  But try keeping that same level of quality when you’re on book nine or ten.  Readers will forgive you one or two stumbles, but three disappointing reads is about all the chances they’ll give you.

Authors who manage to stay consistently good are publishing goldmines.  There aren’t many who can do this, and the sad fact is, they are underappreciated.  The critics adore the hot first-time writer.  What these critics fail to understand is that it’s the old reliables who are the truly remarkable artists.

5. Don’t keep writing the same book.  I know that there are editors out there who’ll disagree with me.  Many of them will say, “Hey, your last serial killer novel was a huge bestseller!  Keep doing them!”  And maybe your second and third serial killer books will do as well or even better.  But eventually your audience is going to get tired of your act.  Even worse, you’ll get tired of it, and that boredom is going to show through in your writing.  So find something new and fresh to write about with every single novel.  Maybe you have the same series character, but with every new book, give him something startling, something that pushes the boundaries of the genre.  You may find you suddenly pick up a whole new set of readers.

6. Remember that publishing is international.  Don’t neglect your foreign markets.  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.  I have been astonished by how much my foreign sales have grown in the past five years.  Even if your American sales are lackluster, you may sell enough books in Germany to earn a tidy living.  There are a number of American authors who get no respect in the U.S. and are adored overseas.  There’s no rule that says you have to earn your living in dollars.  Euros pay the bills, too!


17 replies
  1. Irina
    Irina says:

    Tess, I just love, love, love reading your blog! It is always filled with valuable information on writing and publishing. You are open and honest about it.
    When are you planning on coming to Los Angeles? It would’ve been nice meeting you in person!

  2. Regina
    Regina says:

    Hello, Tess:

    Forgive me for neglecting your book (The Mephisto Club). To be quite frankly, after reading Vanish, I was anxious to see what is going to happen next after Vanish series. When I found out the book of The Mephisto Club was coming out and thought, what kind of name is this? then again, i told myself never judge the cover, judge what is going on inside the book. Since school started during the fall semester, i wanted to finish the book so badly but had to set aside for the semester.. i was just picking it up and read where I stopped. I honestly am glad that I didn’t give up reading your books. I was reading your blog and you were right. Its always good to switch the audience or stir up some ideas to attract more audience and readers for your book.

    I just admire that you actually kept the characters and thats something I enjoy reading and would definitely look into more of your romance book. I did have one of your romance book but since then, your medical thriller kept popping up and i set aside the romance novel books to read your medical thriller books.

    Is there any more book you are currently writing and sure hope that Dr. O’Donnell will be the next victim. She is getting on Jane and Maura’s nerves. As for Daniel/Maura- will there be any spark between them? I know Daniel is a priest but come on.. those two seems to be a great match. (smiling).. Hope to hear from you more.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  3. ZanyMom
    ZanyMom says:

    I’m a huge thriller/suspense fan and just discovered your books. Love them! I was just reading an agent’s blog, and she says she’s sick to death of serial killer novels, because they’ve all been done to death, and a lot of killers are flat and cartoonish.

    Do you think there is still a market for this? I read a lot of novels that have serial killers in them, but the authors are well established. Thoughts?

  4. Tess
    Tess says:

    I think there’s still room for serial killer novels. The challenge is to make your book fresh and unique. I personally am tired of the genre, and I’m not all that interested in reading many more of them.

  5. racyli
    racyli says:

    Thanks for the advice! As a soon-to-be published writer, I’ve been trying to figure out just how quickly I need to be writing in order to keep brand momentum rolling. I’m just going to have to write faster!

  6. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    Hahahaha! Tess, I love that! “Every author is allowed a few dogs here and there…” Could I borrow your dogs and a sled? I had a “hairy” ride to the office today!!! (It’s snowing outside and we’ve already got 6 inches last night and today. Tt’s the second time this winter and VERY unusual for us!)

  7. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    ‘serial killer”like many other phrases has become a buzzword(s)-when that happens the concept becomes obscure

  8. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    When you boil it down, really everything has been “done.” Horror, fantasy (I mean really, how many more dragons/LOTR/Harry Potters can there be? (not bashing the Potter cuz I love em)) thriller, adventure, sci-fi, etc. It’s basically all been done, I want to see some new and completely uncategorical writing never before seen in the literary world. I love to read, but Dr. G is right, we readers get tired of the same ole stale tale. Anyway, that’s my rant for the evening, my 20th birthday is tomorrow! Happy New Years everyone!

  9. struggler
    struggler says:

    Tess, it’s been said a zillion times but here’s one more: Thank you, thank you, thank you for your indispensible advice here on your blog. There can’t be a bigger writer than you who interacts with (and cares for) her readers so much. You deserve every success and we’re all sure you’ll get even more of it. Happy 2007!

  10. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    GerritsenFever: Happy Birthday! Have a great one!

    Joe: I-40’s closed from Albuquerque to Amarillo and I’m thanking my lucky stars the grocery shopping was done yesterday and I made some of my flat bread and helped Dad make a big batch of pinto bean and ham soup.

    Struggler: You hit the nail right on the head. Tess is not only a great writer but a great person as well! And let’s all make it a resolution to help her keep her success by buying her books. It won’t be an altruistic task by any means because we know we love her books.

    Feliz Ano Nuevo, everyone!

  11. nay3187
    nay3187 says:

    Hi Tess. First off I just want to say that ‘The Mephisto Club” absolutely blew me away. I just couldn’t put it down. I’ve read all your other thriller novels and a few of your older books too, and I must say that Mephisto is probably one of the best books I’ve read in my short 19 years of life. It was different from anything I have ever read. I loved the way you put so much real history into it. I only wish that the downfall of Dominic was longer (only so I wouldn’t have had to finish it so soon. Lol) Woowho for having O’Donnel killed, and double Woowho for having Maura there to see it go down. Loved it.

    Anyways to the point….

    I was reading the comments left for this post and noticed in one of your replies you said you were getting sick of the serial killing genre. Will this have any effect on your own books?

  12. Tess
    Tess says:

    you asked: when does one know to switch genres? In my case, it really wasn’t a matter of “the market’s headed elsewhere and so should I.” Rather, it just so happened that I got tired of what I was doing and decided to try something new. And most of the time, that impulse has been a good thing.

    There was, however, one time when it was a mistake, sales-wise. When I wrote GRAVITY, the market wasn’t all that interested. My sales really plunged for that book. But I don’t regret writing it, because I’ll always look back on it as my best book. You can’t predict the market. The best you can do is write the book you want to write.

    I also found I’ve had to go against the advice of people I trusted. When I proposed THE SURGEON, I was warned that since I was known as a medical thriller writer, I’d lose my audience by doing a crime novel. I did it anyway. I’m glad I followed my creative impulses and didn’t let anyone talk me out of it.

  13. Steve Clackson
    Steve Clackson says:

    Thanks so much Tess. Happy Healthy New Year!
    I am backing off blogging for awhile as I am starting my next novel but I will be stopping by my favorites as yours most certainly is! all my best Steve

  14. Robert
    Robert says:

    …Even if your American sales are lackluster, you may sell enough books in Germany to earn a tidy living….

    Hi Tess,
    I’m German. I have read a lot of your novels. I used them for improving my English. You can buy your books here very easily as originals or translated into German.
    I would also like to say that I don’t know any other medical-thriller writer who could beat you. So, carry on with your good work!

  15. TerriBrisbin
    TerriBrisbin says:

    Tess —

    This column was great! In my experience working with writers trying to get published, I try to warn that there is so much more they’ll need to do after they sell that first book. It comes as such a shock to some that one book doesn’t guarantee them anything!

    I’d read a stat somewhere that said that more than 60% of all writers who sell a first book never sell a second. Scary, huh?

    Your point about writing another book once you finish one is also well-taken. At least if a writer is seeking any kind of commercial career success.

    Happy New Year to you and yours!


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