I’ve been hearing from a number of writers who were left depressed by my recent post about publishers’ major marketing campaigns.Â They’re anxious because they doubt their debut books will receive that kind of exalted treatment, and what chance does their book have against a title that has $250,000 in advertising behind it?
So this blog entry is for allÂ those anxious writers.Â It’s about howÂ a slow build may actually be better for your overall success.Â It’s aboutÂ the downside of having a publisher hype your debut novel — and how it can destroy your career.
What?Â Â How could having a publisher throw money behind your book possibly be a BAD thing?Â
Most of the time, of course,Â it isn’t a bad thing.Â It’s a great thing to haveÂ splashy ads and a bigÂ tour and to see your book plasteredÂ overÂ front display tables from sea to shining sea.Â Â ButÂ one of the advantages to having been in this business for 20 years, as I have, is that you gain some perspective.Â You see the natural cycle of things.Â You watch the successes and disasters of other authors and you learn to take every ounce of hype with a huge grain of salt.
Now, to avoid embarrasing anyone, I’m not going to name names.Â But again and again, I’ve seen publishers throw tons of money behind debut authors, introducing them as “the female Stephen King!” or “the next LaVyrle Spencer!”Â or “the next Nicholas Sparks!” Â (These areÂ examples of actual hypeÂ used for three actual authors.)Â Press releases touted million-dollar deals, editors gushed thatÂ everyone in the publishing house “adored” theseÂ books, and booksellers ordered stacks and stacks of copies.Â The books come out to great fanfare… and then sank without a trace.Â
And those authors were never heard from again.Â Â Oh, maybe theyÂ managed to write second books, and maybe they were decent books.Â But onceÂ a publishing house gets badly burned,Â it’s going to shy away from ever throwing moneyÂ behind that author again.Â Â That authorÂ isÂ in a far worse position thanÂ the un-hyped author whose first book sells similar numbers, butÂ has a terrific sell-through.Â Because the author with the great sell-through is declared a “success story”, someoneÂ who can be built to the next level.Â
Once, over breakfast, an editor told me how delighted she was with the success of one of her titles.Â It started offÂ with a modest print-run, but then it went back to print four times.Â It ended up selling about 20,000 copies overall, and everyone at the publishing house was ecstatic about this author’s fabulous success.Â Meanwhile,Â anotherÂ author’s title, which similarly sold 20,000 copies, was considered an embarrassing failure because the print run was over 100,000.
Guess which author got a second contractÂ from the editor?Â Â Guess which author was never heard from again?Â Yet bothÂ hadÂ soldÂ the same number of copies.
I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t going to name names because I didn’t want to embarrass anyone.Â So I’ll just embarrass myself by using my own experience in the UKÂ as an example. Â
Back in 1996, my first thriller HARVESTÂ was published.Â In the U.S. it did splendidly and hit the list.Â In the UK, though, it simply didn’t sell.Â This was after the UK paid a lot of money for it andÂ gave it a great big push.Â Maybe medical thrillers just don’t do well there; maybe the public didn’t like the premise or the cover.Â Whatever the reason, HARVEST was a complete failure in the UK.Â My UK publisher held the rights to the next book, but by the time LIFE SUPPORT came out,Â the publisher was so disenchanted with me theyÂ gave it no push at all.Â Of course it died in England.Â You couldn’t GIVE that book away.Â
The publisher declined to sign me to another contract.
My next two books, BLOODSTREAM and GRAVITY, released byÂ a different publisher, scarcely got any support and they too sank in the UK.
By that point, I’m pretty much dead meat in England.Â No publisher wants a proven failed author — even if that author is successful in the U.S.Â There were doubts that any house in the UK would even take my next book, THE SURGEON.Â
Then a certain editor named Selina Walker at Transworld read the manuscript and became its champion.Â Those of you familiar with the UK book biz know that Selina Walker is legendaryÂ in the world ofÂ crime fiction.Â If she likes a book, she gets behind it with the ferocity of a mother lioness.Â She took a chance on this failed author, acquired THE SURGEON, and got to work rebuilding my name in England.
Three books later, with THE SINNER,Â I was a London Times bestseller.Â My most recent release there, VANISH, hit #2 on their hardcover bestseller list.Â Ironically enough, LIFE SUPPORT was recently re-released in the UK, and this timeÂ it’s actually hitting bestseller lists — nine years after it was considered a miserable failure.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have come back from the dead in the UK — but it’s all due to one determined editor who took a chance on me.Â Not everyone has the benefit of a fairy godmother like Selina Walker.Â The chances are, if she hadn’t liked THE SURGEON, I’d nowÂ be unpublished in the UK.Â I’d be another one of those “Whatever happened to …?” authors who got an initial big push, only to sell disappointing numbers.
So yes, there is a downside to being over-hyped.Â I believe that the most enduring careers are built gradually but steadily.Â You don’t want to take off like a rocket only to crash and burn.Â You want to see your numbers grow, so that by the time you’re on your fifth or sixth book, you’ve got a devoted readership behind you who will talk upÂ your backlist to their friends.Â A loyal reader is far better than the casual reader who just picks upÂ your book because of mediaÂ hype.Â The loyal reader will forgive you the occasional dud, because she knows you’ve done better.Â The casual reader will read that dud and never pick up another one of your books.
In the end, hype is just hype.Â Â But it doesn’t make a career.
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