What I’ve learned from two decades in the business

This month marks a milestone for me.  Twenty years ago, my first novel, CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, was published by Harlequin Intrigue.  Back then, Intrigue released only two books a month, and I vividly recall the moment I walked into Waldenbooks and saw my book displayed on the romance rack beside the other November Intrigue title, Jasmine Cresswell’s CHASE THE PAST.  For a long time I just stared at it, amazed that I was finally a published author. 

Over the past twenty years, I’ve had twenty books published.  My career has been a see-saw ride, and there’ve been times when I thought my career was, if not dead, then headed for oblivion.  My first nine books were paperback romantic thrillers, eight published by Harlequin, one by Harper.  None of them earned out more than $12,000 in their first printings.  Since I’m a slow writer, and couldn’t turn out a book any faster than every eight months, I knew I’d never get rich as a writer.  But I loved what I was doing, so I stayed with it.  I was — and still am — proud of every book I’ve ever written.  I don’t care if certain readers spit on my romance novels.  I don’t care if the mystery purists consider them dreck.  I still think they’re good reads, each and every one of them.

Then I got the idea for my tenth novel, a medical thriller that was radically different from the romantic thrillers I’d been writing up till then.  I’d also signed up with a new literary agent named Meg Ruley, who was wildly enthusiastic about my partial manuscript for HARVEST, and she managed to snare a substantial book contract with Pocket Books.  In 1996, the hardcover edition of HARVEST managed to pop onto the New York Times bestseller list for one week, at #13.

I thought my career was all set.  Little did I know.

For the next three books, I watched my sales flatten out and even decline, although I did manage to hit the list again with the paperback of BLOODSTREAM.  By the time GRAVITY was released, it was clear that my sales were in a downward spiral.  Despite publisher enthusiasm and rave reviews, GRAVITY could not find an audience among women readers.  That doomed it in the marketplace.  And once your sales start to slip, the pre-orders for your next book, and your next, begin to plummet.  Just as depressing were my foreign sales, which had been so bad that I was having trouble finding anyone to publish me in the UK.

I took off a year to re-group.  I wrote my next book entirely on spec, without a contract.  This time, I was writing just for myself.  By then I’d been pegged by the industry as a “medical thriller author,” and once you’ve been categorized, you’re trapped.  No one wants you to change.  But I longed to do something completely different, to get out of that genre cage and write a truly frightening crime story that would keep me awake at night.

By the time THE SURGEON was published in 2001 by Ballantine, two years had gone by since I’d released a book.  I was writing in a new genre, I’d been out of sight for two years, and my last book had sold poorly.  Everything seemed to bode ill.  But Ballantine managed a miracle.  With a great cover and amazing in-house support, my fourteenth novel THE SURGEON hit #13 on the New York Times list its very first week out.  

Then September 11 happened. 

And yet, that autumn, THE SURGEON kept selling.  In the midst of tragedy and chaos, readers seemed to crave stories about good vs. evil, stories that offered emotional catharsis. 

Since THE SURGEON, my six subsequent books have all been New York Times bestsellers.  And in both the UK and Germany, where my sales had once been moribund, I recently hit #1.

So what have these two decades taught me?

SUCCESS TAKES TIME

I didn’t hit the bestseller list until book #10.  I didn’t start to sell consistently well until book #14.  When I hear new authors complain that they haven’t found success after two or three books, I can only shake my head at their impatience.  It may take another seven books.  Even then, it doesn’t mean the media’s going to pay any attention to you.  Oprah isn’t beating on my door, either. 

Bestselling romance author Linda Howard recently wrote a terrific column about her career, and she revealed that it wasn’t until her 25th book that she hit the bestseller list.  Twenty five books!  How many writers have the patience and fortitude to wait that long for success? 

I hear bitterness in the voices of so many new authors who haven’t yet achieved bestsellerdom.  Bitterness gets you nowhere.  What you need to do is roll up your sleeves and write the next book.  And the next.  And maybe twenty more.

GREAT BOOKS SOMETIMES GET IGNORED.  LOUSY BOOKS SOMETIMES HIT BESTSELLER LISTS.

Life — and publishing — can be unfair.  I’ve read many a wonderful book that never found its audience because of bad timing, bad luck, or bad publishing.  The opposite is also true — that laughably bad books can go on to sell like gangbusters.  For that, I blame a reading public that tends to behave like mindless sheep.  But that’s the subject of another blog.

NOBODY REALLY KNOWS WHAT MAKES A BESTSELLER

I’ve gotten good advice and bad advice over the years. I’ve been told that medical thrillers were my brand and I shouldn’t deviate.  I’ve been told that writing a series character would make my books “smaller.”  I’ve been told that mysteries were dead, romantic thrillers were dead, and religious thrillers would never sell.  Sometimes I’ve heeded the advice, sometimes I’ve ignored it.  The point is, you have to use your own judgment — because you know just as much as anyone else.  Whether you realize it or not.

—————–

And now, another snapshot of my traveling books, this time from Vojtech in Prague:

prague 500

 

 

32 replies
  1. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    for someone who frequently admits to self doubt it seems that for you it is a motivating factor to excel-you’ve succeeded in two difficult fields-self doubt may be a positive thing as long as it doesn’t paralyze you

  2. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    I have a friend who once said to me something along the lines of “I should just write a Chicklit book and make a million dollars.” I told her to go for it. 🙂

    It’s absolutely terrifying to think about the industry. So terryifying, in fact, that I have to force myself not to think about it when I write! How can I have thoughts of the thousands of other books being published every month while trying to develop my main character (or something along that line)? I couldn’t. I’ll worry about it when I get to it. Finish the book first, that’s the main priority!

    I’m glad that you didn’t let yourself be “type”casted into a genre… I find that I have ideas for many different genres, and can’t imagine letting one go because it didn’t line up with my last book. Plus, it makes you a more interesting read.

    Do you ever have an interest in going to a totally different genre? Say horror, or literary, or childrens? I remember you mentioning a YA Mephisto Club series, yeah? Anything else you want to try?

  3. SandraRuttan
    SandraRuttan says:

    As someone recently put it to me, self doubt is the part that makes you put pressure on yourself to constantly do better. It’s the extreme self confidence that results in crap as people rest on their laurels.

  4. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    Happy anniversary. Wow! 20 years. It’s great that you had a variety of genres to write about, from romance to medical thrillers. Something for everyone.
    Who can really tell which type of book will sell? When you have a following such as yours, the subject matter really shouldn’t make any difference. The readers buy the author who wrote the book. If the author establishes him/herself as a proficient writer, and enables the reader to delve into a book and dare not put it down, then that writer has been given the utmost of compliments. “What a book! Can’t wait for the next one!”
    Keep on doing what you do best, Tess. You may slow down a bit, but your books speak for themselves.
    Abe
    (oh, by the way, I haven’t heard or used the word “dreck” in a long time. Good usage.)

  5. struggler
    struggler says:

    Happy 20th anniversary Tess – but I thought CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT (1987) was your third novel? According to various sources, your first was ADVENTURE’S MISTRESS in 1985, followed by LOVE’S MASQUERADE in 1986.

    Thanks also for the reassurance. I haven’t had so much as one book published so at one book a year I reckon I could be 75 before I make a breakthrough…..oh well, it’s the journey, not the destination!

  6. joeschreiber1
    joeschreiber1 says:

    Bravo, Tess. This is exactly why I read your blog — this kind of clarity and perspective on the industry is all too rare, on the internet or elsewhere.

    Meanwhile, I’m printing this post and hanging it over my desk.

  7. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    …I’ve read many a wonderful book that never found its audience because of bad timing, bad luck, or bad publishing. The opposite is also true — that laughably bad books can go on to sell like gangbusters…

    …The point is, you have to use your own judgment — because you know just as much as anyone else. Whether you realize it or not.

    Very true.

    So let’s not make The List the touchstone for success. We write because we’re writers, because we feel compelled to tell a story in a way it has never been told before. If said story sells a bunch, great. If not…well, there’s no better satisfaction than starting with a vision and seeing it come to life in front of your own eyes and maybe a few others.

    That’s success as a writer, IMHO.

  8. Tess
    Tess says:

    Thanks for all the nice comments! And Jude, you’re right. The mark of success is that we’re doing exactly what we want to do!

    Struggler, I guess I should have clarified it as “Twenty years as a nationaly published writer.” Because I did write three books before CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT. But they were taken on by a very small publisher who then went out of business before they could be distributed. So they don’t count.

  9. WJS
    WJS says:

    Terry,

    LOL I noticed that after two blogs about your actual name, people are still calling you, Tess or didn’t know yet.

    I must congratulates you on your two decades, twenty years, seventy-three hundred days, one hundred seventy-five and two hundreds hours, ten millions and five hundred twelve thousands minutes, and 630,720,000 seconds of your journey to success! ^_^ Heheee.

    It is interesting that I found your book at your worst time of the journey, Gravity. Since being exposed to your blog for over a year now, I am more interested in hearing what you have to say here than reading one of your books, because I value and truly enjoy your insights of life.

    Have a splendid day, Terry!

    -Josh Simpson

  10. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    I agree with BernardL from above….
    THANKS for the peeks behind the curtains of the world of publishing that you provide.

    These bits of info you give those of us who strive to be published are inspiring and more often then not- eye opening!

  11. Mary Duncan
    Mary Duncan says:

    Tess,

    The sheep factor is a big problem. It’s like all those reality shows on TV. Do people really lead such nondescript lives as to resort to watching some celebrity chew out their kids in public, or peek behind the scenes of some worn out rock star? The collective really needs to get an individual identity. It makes you wonder what publishers think the public does want. It’s all so dictated, pushed on by marketing gurus with too much money. Can you say Donald Trump?

    Anyway, I’m glad you have persevered through the good, bad and ugly. I have enjoyed your books and look forward to reading many more in the future. It gives me hope that my own books will someday reach the top, so long as I stay tenacious. Oh, and write well!

  12. Darcy McKenna
    Darcy McKenna says:

    Thanks for the honesty in this blog. It’s good to know that everyone (mostly) has paid their dues to get where they are today. As a new author with two books out, it’s nice to know it’s possible to make it with a lot of perserverance, patience and some good writing.

    Darcy

  13. shailstock
    shailstock says:

    Thank Tess for posting this. I needed to read it right now because I’m one of those people wondering when success will come. My career is in the downward spiral. I recently had a discussion with my agent and think that maybe it’s time I regrouped too.

    Shirley

  14. FarrahRochon
    FarrahRochon says:

    A great perspective, Tess. People usually don’t realize how many years of writing it sometimes takes to become an “overnight success.” Congrats on twenty years in the business!

    Farrah

  15. margaret
    margaret says:

    I’ve been eagerly awaiting this blogpost!
    As previously mentioned, I’m one reader who first discovered you by picking up CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, as well as Jasmine’s Intrigue.
    Congratulations on 2 decades of writing success! Nobody deserves it more.

    Margaret (class of 1988!)

  16. IServeTheCats
    IServeTheCats says:

    I’m glad you didn’t give up, or give in, or whatever. Fact of the matter is, I picked up The Sinner in an airport on my way to a vacation in Rome. I figured I’d read a chapter or two on the plane, then stick it in my bag. Instead, I spent several hours reading on the balcony of my hotel room. I couldn’t put it down. Since then, I have collected all of the books in the series and displayed them prominently on my “favorites” shelf.

    I look forward to whatever you want to write. To me, you are like a singer. Your voice is what calls to me. Not your genre.

  17. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    we interact with you as tess-terry seems more appropriate for people who you know outside your writer’s persona-so it’ll be tess for me

  18. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Tess,

    wow, 20 years already! I can’t even begin to imagine what a wonderful but also at times very frustrating journey that must have been. I’m only 5 years in the business and ready to get hospitalized into a mental hospital. 😀 My deepest respect!

    Michelle

  19. terri
    terri says:

    Terry or Tess, either you join the club or not. But you’ll always remain as our Best Writer of all times… You’re right, success takes time. We must have strong foundations in all that we do, only then can success prevail. There are no shortcuts, Mum used to remind me everytime i wanted the easy way out.

  20. Cece
    Cece says:

    When I hear new authors complain that they haven’t found success after two or three books, I can only shake my head at their impatience.

    Maybe it’s because new authors aren’t given much beyond two or three books to carve out a piece of the market pie? I’m NOT disagreeing with you…just throwing out some food for thought. 😀

    And of course, the happiest of anniversaries!

  21. Kayris
    Kayris says:

    Happy twentieth anniversary! I had no idea you had so many novels to your name, so now I will have to read them all!

    I’d love to have ONE published work to my name, but the industry is so difficult to break into and aspiring writers like myself have no idea how to get a foot in the door. So we spend countless hours blogging for free instead.

    It’s refreshing to read that even a seasoned author has moments of stress and self doubt. That’s only a bad thing if it beats you down instead of being a tool to be the best writer you can be.

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