Whatever happened to … ?

I’ve been hearing from a number of writers who were left depressed by my recent post about publishers’ major marketing campaigns.  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 all those anxious writers.  It’s about how a slow build may actually be better for your overall success.  It’s about the downside of having a publisher hype your debut novel — and how it can destroy your career.

What?  How could having a publisher throw money behind your book possibly be a BAD thing? 

Most of the time, of course, it isn’t a bad thing.  It’s a great thing to have splashy ads and a big tour and to see your book plastered over front display tables from sea to shining sea.  But one of the advantages to having been in this business for 20 years, as I have, is that you gain some perspective.  You see the natural cycle of things.  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.  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!”  or “the next Nicholas Sparks!”  (These are examples of actual hype used for three actual authors.)  Press releases touted million-dollar deals, editors gushed that everyone in the publishing house “adored” these books, and booksellers ordered stacks and stacks of copies.  The books come out to great fanfare… and then sank without a trace. 

And those authors were never heard from again.  Oh, maybe they managed to write second books, and maybe they were decent books.  But once a publishing house gets badly burned, it’s going to shy away from ever throwing money behind that author again.  That author is in a far worse position than the un-hyped author whose first book sells similar numbers, but has a terrific sell-through.  Because the author with the great sell-through is declared a “success story”, someone who can be built to the next level. 

Once, over breakfast, an editor told me how delighted she was with the success of one of her titles.  It started off with a modest print-run, but then it went back to print four times.  It ended up selling about 20,000 copies overall, and everyone at the publishing house was ecstatic about this author’s fabulous success.  Meanwhile, another 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 contract from the editor?  Guess which author was never heard from again?  Yet both had sold the same number of copies.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t going to name names because I didn’t want to embarrass anyone.  So I’ll just embarrass myself by using my own experience in the UK as an example.  

Back in 1996, my first thriller HARVEST was published.  In the U.S. it did splendidly and hit the list.  In the UK, though, it simply didn’t sell.  This was after the UK paid a lot of money for it and gave it a great big push.  Maybe medical thrillers just don’t do well there; maybe the public didn’t like the premise or the cover.  Whatever the reason, HARVEST was a complete failure in the UK.  My UK publisher held the rights to the next book, but by the time LIFE SUPPORT came out, the publisher was so disenchanted with me they gave it no push at all.  Of course it died in England.  You couldn’t GIVE that book away. 

The publisher declined to sign me to another contract.

My next two books, BLOODSTREAM and GRAVITY, released by 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.  No publisher wants a proven failed author — even if that author is successful in the U.S.  There were doubts that any house in the UK would even take my next book, THE SURGEON. 

Then a certain editor named Selina Walker at Transworld read the manuscript and became its champion.  Those of you familiar with the UK book biz know that Selina Walker is legendary in the world of crime fiction.  If she likes a book, she gets behind it with the ferocity of a mother lioness.  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, I was a London Times bestseller.  My most recent release there, VANISH, hit #2 on their hardcover bestseller list.  Ironically enough, LIFE SUPPORT was recently re-released in the UK, and this time 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.  Not everyone has the benefit of a fairy godmother like Selina Walker.  The chances are, if she hadn’t liked THE SURGEON, I’d now be unpublished in the UK.  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.  I believe that the most enduring careers are built gradually but steadily.  You don’t want to take off like a rocket only to crash and burn.  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 up your backlist to their friends.  A loyal reader is far better than the casual reader who just picks up your book because of media hype.  The loyal reader will forgive you the occasional dud, because she knows you’ve done better.  The casual reader will read that dud and never pick up another one of your books.

In the end, hype is just hype.  But it doesn’t make a career.



15 replies
  1. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    tess-i found out about some of my favorite authors by word of mouth,or maybe a review in the Atlantic Monthly(not exactly NYT exposure)-i first found out about you at my local library,where your books are very popular and are frequently seen on the front bookcase,even the older ones.even a non-writer can learn something from this column-i now know that embarrass is spelled with 2 r’s-boy am i embarrassed!

  2. kbritain
    kbritain says:

    Hi Tess — Thanks so much for your blogs. I’ve loved them from the beginning — they are very much an insider’s view of the “biz.” I have to say it’s quite easy to get a glum view of publishing these days. Overall, sales in many genres are down (though apparently historicals are hot right now), the mid-list seems to be disappearing, and there is much competition from other types of entertainment. Not to mention the distraction of world news. I guess that makes a publicity push more important, yet, I am of the mind that “slow and steady wins the race.” The business side of publishing can be frustrating, and it just goes to show that you have to love what you’re doing, and believe in it, to survive!! There is much more that could be said, but I’m already rambling. Thanks for the blog.


  3. Nonny
    Nonny says:


    I’ve known several aspiring writers over the years who’ve talked about wanting to have major publisher backing for their debut — and not to mention the six figure advance.

    That’s a pretty big gamble for a publisher to make on a new author — and if your book doesn’t live up to financial expectations (and there’s a whole slew of reasons why it might not that have nothing to do with the overall quality of the book), you’re pretty well and truly screwed. At that point, you pretty well have to use a pseud to publish again, and I think even that depends if another publisher will want to take a chance when the prior book was a colossal failure (in their eyes).

    Thanks for posting this. It’s something a lot of writers don’t know about, and it’s very important. Cause it can backfire just as easily as it can help.

  4. M.J.
    M.J. says:

    Tess that’s a great post – full of wisdon and truth. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, since I keep saying this all over the blogsphere and at conferences- but Tess is right on and the goal of a writer should be to be published well and stay alive so his/her audience keeps building toward big sellerdom. The 1% of books that get that big huge push don’t always pan out in the end. Like Tess I know more authors who are bestsellers who got there one book at a time over 5 or 10 years than who go there first time out and stayed there.

    Plus. There is so much an author can do to help and push the book regardless of the publisher’s push. I write about it constantly at my blog so hop on over if you want to keep abreast of what you can do as an author to stay in the game.


  5. PJ Parrish
    PJ Parrish says:

    Amen, Tess.
    I can’t count the number of times I have told folks this same thing. What’s amazing to me is the number of PUBLISHED writers who bemoan fact they haven’t broke out after two, three or five books! I mean…come on!

    Laura Lippman was talking about this very same subject at our Florida MWA meeting last week, saying, to paraphrase: you have make money for your publisher, consistently produce good work and stick around long enough until your readers find you in enough numbers to create a career.

    George Balanchine used to tell his dancers trying to master his choreography that “slower was faster.” Meaning, if you accelerate too quickly, you can cripple yourself for the long haul.

    Or as my agent told me early on: Pigs get fat but hogs get slaughtered.

  6. sara hantz
    sara hantz says:

    Tess, this is a great post and so helpful to me at this point in my writing career, as I’m desperate for everything to happen quickly. I will learn to be patient… if it kills me!

  7. Angelle
    Angelle says:


    This is a fantastic post. Thank you for keeping things in perspective for many aspiring writers dreaming of that six-figure advance money. 🙂

  8. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    In “Apocalypse Now” Robert Duvall’s character makes a joke about taking one’s time-it can’t be repeated here because it’s kind of raunchy-but if you’ve seen the film,you know the one i mean,and it makes the point pretty well.

  9. Jaye Patrick
    Jaye Patrick says:

    Your post reiterates what a lot of authors, editors and publishers are constantly telling newbies. But… I’m sure a lot of your loyal readers have followed your books since your, er – sorry to bring this up again – Harlequin days. Tami Hoag and Lisa Gardner are two other authors who walked the same path.

    But that makes the point: All three have been constantly producing quality work. A career in writing isn’t a short term prospect; it’s learning the craft, from school to publication. It’s following the markets, like a stock broker. It’s putting in long hours of research, pre-writing, world-building, then writing, editing, re-working, re-writing and submitting. Then, of course, there’s the praying it sells – but you’re already working on the next novel.

    It’s not for the faint hearted, and to be disturbed by the lack of dollars in advertising, well, a writer these days has to manage that as well; by having a blog, for example, by being out there for fans.

    Nope. Writing isn’t for the short term, but it’s a lot of fun, too.

  10. margaret
    margaret says:

    Our household is always thrilled when your name/titles pop up on the London Times’ bestseller list. And now we know the backstory…
    Thanks for sharing it. Your commentary is both inspiring and provides a real-world picture of this crazy biz.

  11. Craig
    Craig says:

    Hi Tess!!

    This is a bit off topic but I think it’s important. There is a very nice write-up of you with an attractive color photo on page 2 of the August 2006 issue of Book Pages. You received an entire column that not only announces the release date of The Mephisto Club but also gives your website, “. . .she keeps one of the best author blogs on the Web and updates it regularly.”


    Craig, Oklahoma City

  12. Nalini Singh
    Nalini Singh says:

    Tess, thank you for that post. I think you’re one of the most honest bloggers out there in terms of your willingness to share knowledge. It’s very much appreciated.

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