But I Want Success Now!

When I was a writer aspiring to be published, I went to a book signing here in Seattle where number one bestselling author Lee Child was making an appearance. As I stepped up to get his autograph, I mentioned that I had finished three books and was struggling to find a publisher. He told me, “Remember, it only takes ten years to become an overnight success.”

At the time I thought he was just being kind to a newbie, giving me encouragement that I would someday reach my goal. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was a published author and knew Lee a little better that I ran into him at Bouchercon and reminded him of what he’d said. I told him that I understood he hadn’t been pandering to me, and Lee nodded in agreement. Although he won awards early in his career, it took him eight books before he made an appearance on the NY Times list, and several more years before he became LEE CHILD, brand name author.

I think the Internet has only accelerated our skewed expectation that you should become a huge success as soon as you type “The End” on your first manuscript. Writers focus on promoting their first novel to a fault. I see that mistake frequently when I go to writers’ conferences and spot an author pitching agents the same book they’ve brought three years in a row. I see it with authors flogging their one and only book on social media over and over in the hope that it will take off.

Our excessive exposure to the one-in-a-million shots only exacerbates the problem. We see someone like E.L. James, Kathryn Stockett, or Stephenie Meyer reach a massive audience with their first novels and think that will happen for us. It does happen, about once a year out of the over 200,000 books published, but we don’t often read about the back stories behind other authors who toiled in relative obscurity for years before hitting the big time.

Everyone knows mega-selling author Dean Koontz. He’s been producing work for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t on the bestseller lists, but many don’t realize the dues he paid to get there. Before he published Whispers, his big breakout hit, he wrote thirty-eight novels in twelve years. During that time he was making a living, but he wasn’t a household name like he is now.

The ranks of the current bestseller lists are filled with similar stories. It took twelve years and eight novels for Steve Berry just to find a publisher. Dan Brown published his first three books to little fanfare, and then The DaVinci Code turned them into bestsellers.

Tess Gerritsen wrote nine novels over nine years before she released her first NY Times bestseller, Harvest. Lisa Gardner wrote twelve books over seven years before reaching the next level with The Perfect Husband. Janet Evanovich wrote at least twelve novels before hitting it big with Stephanie Plum in One for the Money. In the self-publishing realm, romance author Bella Andre wrote two series over seven years without much notice and then began self-publishing, after which she became a regular on the bestseller list.

These stories of determination and persistence are the rule, not the exception. While it’s possible to land on that one killer premise from the get-go, building an audience, working on the craft, and developing your voice seems to be the steadier path to ultimate writing success.

I often think of a story from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They write about a ceramics teacher who, on the first day of class, divided the students into two sections: one half would be graded on the perfection of a single pot, while the other half would be graded on the weight of their output—an A for fifty pounds, B for forty pounds, and so on. At the end of the semester, the results for the quality vs. quantity test were remarkable. The students being graded on poundage had thrown pots that were of significantly superior quality than the ones by the students who had studied and ached about how to create that one perfect pot. Practice ultimately made the “quantity” students produce better quality as well.

I believe being an author is the same. Thinking about writing doesn’t make you better, writing does. And if you have a large body of work, it’s much more likely a publisher or readers will discover your writing.

So don’t perseverate on perfecting that one novel. If you want to make writing a career, your publisher and readers are going to want many more books. Sit down at your computer and throw those pots. When you’re a success and looking in the rear-view mirror ten years from now, you’ll wonder how it went by so quickly.

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See Me, Touch Me, Feel Me


Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits. I was doing the former on the Thursday last, wondering how I was going to fill my Saturday space, when my UPS delivery man (one of God’s truly good people) provided me with the answer. It came in an over-sized black padded envelope, and didn’t feel quite like a book, even though it bore a return address from the fine folks at HarperCollins. I was able to open it after a bit of struggle and the deployment of a knife, scissors, and a flamethrower (in that order). Demonspawn, our family cat, immediately appropriated the envelope, and was last seen attempting to contact his darkworld masters through the closed end; I took possession of the contents. These consisted of an oversized milk carton and a mass market paperback titled “and she was” by Alison Gaylin. The milk carton is a four-sided advertisement for the book.  My initial reaction was, “What the fu-heck is this?” My second was, “This is pretty cool.” I have been described as easily amused, and hard to impress. This little bit of advertising slight-of-hand, worthy of Donald Draper, managed to do both.
The conventional wisdom is that you’ve got to get out on social networks, groom and cultivate your website,  and make friends with a fourteen year old to show you how to use Twitter if you want your book to have a chance of getting noticed, let alone of selling copies.  And it’s probably true. But this milk carton as marketing tool is retro thinking out of the box. “and she was” concerns a missing child, and indeed, there is a picture of the child on one side of the carton. The other sides contain blurbs from Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Lee Child, and Lisa Gardner; an essay from Ms. Gaylin about Hyperthymestic Syndrome, an element which figures prominently in the book; and some bullet-point marketing information with a photo of the book cover.  
Expensive marketing? Sure. But. The milk carton is our new kitchen table centerpiece. Unlike Facebook and websites and Twitter and the like one can pick it up and touch it and be reminded of the fact that the book is out there and for sale and there’s a copy of it sitting nearby, waiting to be read.  No one has asked me to review the book, but of course this is what the whole package is all about. And the premise certainly looks intriguing. Hyperthymestic Syndrome involves the ability of a person so afflicted to remember, in full, any given day of their life, with all five senses. If I had learned of the book via e-mail there is a 50-50 chance I would have read it. Send me a milk carton, and I’m your loving baby boy.  I’m going to read “and she was” and I’m going to review it.
Am I old-fashioned? Or is there a marketing genius at HarperCollins who is taking us back to the future? If we all are using Facebook and Twitter and e-mail blasts to hawk our wares, are we making their particular needles stand out? Or are we all busily building a brand new huge haystack in cyberspace? And does it mean that to really, really make your book stand out, it is going to take more money than ever  to do so?
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See Me, Touch Me, Feel Me


Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits. I was doing the former on the Thursday last, wondering how I was going to fill my Saturday space, when my UPS delivery man (one of God’s truly good people) provided me with the answer. It came in an over-sized black padded envelope, and didn’t feel quite like a book, even though it bore a return address from the fine folks at HarperCollins. I was able to open it after a bit of struggle and the deployment of a knife, scissors, and a flamethrower (in that order). Demonspawn, our family cat, immediately appropriated the envelope, and was last seen attempting to contact his darkworld masters through the closed end; I took possession of the contents. These consisted of an oversized milk carton and a mass market paperback titled “and she was” by Alison Gaylin. The milk carton is a four-sided advertisement for the book.  My initial reaction was, “What the fu-heck is this?” My second was, “This is pretty cool.” I have been described as easily amused, and hard to impress. This little bit of advertising slight-of-hand, worthy of Donald Draper, managed to do both.
The conventional wisdom is that you’ve got to get out on social networks, groom and cultivate your website,  and make friends with a fourteen year old to show you how to use Twitter if you want your book to have a chance of getting noticed, let alone of selling copies.  And it’s probably true. But this milk carton as marketing tool is retro thinking out of the box. “and she was” concerns a missing child, and indeed, there is a picture of the child on one side of the carton. The other sides contain blurbs from Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Lee Child, and Lisa Gardner; an essay from Ms. Gaylin about Hyperthymestic Syndrome, an element which figures prominently in the book; and some bullet-point marketing information with a photo of the book cover.  
Expensive marketing? Sure. But. The milk carton is our new kitchen table centerpiece. Unlike Facebook and websites and Twitter and the like one can pick it up and touch it and be reminded of the fact that the book is out there and for sale and there’s a copy of it sitting nearby, waiting to be read.  No one has asked me to review the book, but of course this is what the whole package is all about. And the premise certainly looks intriguing. Hyperthymestic Syndrome involves the ability of a person so afflicted to remember, in full, any given day of their life, with all five senses. If I had learned of the book via e-mail there is a 50-50 chance I would have read it. Send me a milk carton, and I’m your loving baby boy.  I’m going to read “and she was” and I’m going to review it.
Am I old-fashioned? Or is there a marketing genius at HarperCollins who is taking us back to the future? If we all are using Facebook and Twitter and e-mail blasts to hawk our wares, are we making their particular needles stand out? Or are we all busily building a brand new huge haystack in cyberspace? And does it mean that to really, really make your book stand out, it is going to take more money than ever  to do so?
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