This month marks a milestone for me.Â Twenty years ago, my first novel, CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, was published by Harlequin Intrigue.Â 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 NovemberÂ Intrigue title,Â Jasmine Cresswell’s CHASE THE PAST.Â For a long time I just stared at it, amazed that I was finallyÂ a published author.Â
OverÂ the pastÂ twenty years, I’ve had twenty books published.Â Â My career hasÂ been a see-saw ride, and there’ve been times when I thought my career was, if not dead, then headed for oblivion.Â My first nine books were paperback romantic thrillers, eight published by Harlequin, one by Harper.Â None of them earned out more than $12,000 in their first printings.Â 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.Â But I loved what I was doing, so I stayed with it.Â I was — and still am — proud of every book I’ve ever written.Â I don’t care if certain readers spit on my romance novels.Â I don’t care if the mystery purists consider them dreck.Â Â 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.Â 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.Â 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 wasÂ all set.Â 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.Â By the time GRAVITY was released, it was clear that my sales were in a downward spiral.Â Despite publisher enthusiasm and rave reviews, GRAVITY could not find an audience among women readers.Â That doomed it in the marketplace.Â And once your sales start to slip, the pre-orders for your next book, and your next, begin to plummet.Â 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 toÂ re-group.Â I wrote my next book entirely on spec, without a contract.Â This time,Â I was writing just for myself.Â By then I’d been pegged by the industry as a “medical thriller author,” and once you’ve been categorized, you’re trapped.Â No one wants you to change. Â 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.Â I was writing in a new genre, I’d been out of sight for two years, and my last book had sold poorly.Â Everything seemed to bode ill.Â But Ballantine managed a miracle.Â 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.Â Â
Then September 11 happened.Â
And yet, that autumn, THE SURGEON kept selling.Â Â In the midst of tragedy and chaos, readers seemed to craveÂ stories about good vs. evil,Â storiesÂ that offered emotional catharsis.Â
Since THE SURGEON, my six subsequent books have allÂ been New York Times bestsellers.Â Â And in bothÂ the UK and Germany, whereÂ my sales had once beenÂ moribund, I recently hit #1.
So what have these two decades taught me?
SUCCESS TAKES TIME
I didn’t hit the bestsellerÂ list until book #10.Â I didn’t start to sell consistently well until book #14.Â 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.Â It may take another seven books.Â Even then, it doesn’t mean the media’s going to pay any attention to you.Â Oprah isn’t beating on my door, either.Â
Bestselling romance author Linda Howard recently wrote a terrific columnÂ about her career, and she revealed that it wasn’t until her 25th book that she hit the bestseller list.Â Twenty five books!Â How many writers have the patience and fortitude to wait that long for success?Â
I hear bitterness in the voices ofÂ so many new authorsÂ who haven’t yet achieved bestsellerdom.Â Bitterness gets you nowhere.Â What you need to do is roll up your sleeves and write the next book.Â And the next.Â And maybe twenty more.
GREAT BOOKS SOMETIMES GET IGNORED.Â LOUSY BOOKS SOMETIMES HIT BESTSELLER LISTS.
Life — and publishing — can be unfair.Â I’ve read many a wonderful book that never found its audience because of bad timing, bad luck, or bad publishing.Â The opposite is also true — that laughably bad books can go on to sell like gangbusters.Â For that, I blameÂ a reading public that tends to behave like mindless sheep.Â 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.Â I’ve been told that writing a series character would makeÂ my books “smaller.”Â I’ve been told that mysteries were dead, romantic thrillers were dead, and religious thrillers would never sell.Â Sometimes I’ve heeded the advice, sometimes I’ve ignored it.Â The point is, you have to use your own judgment — because you know just as much as anyone else.Â Whether you realize it or not.
And now, another snapshot of my traveling books, this time from Vojtech in Prague: