By M.J. Rose

I think the single most difficult and yet liberating moment I had in publishing was when I found out that ultimately my success depended not on me or the reader, not on my talent or the responsiveness of the audience, but on the vagaries of the publishing industry.

That truth was provided to me by a friend -- who happens to be a very good agent -- one day over lunch.  He simply said: no matter what you do for your book, you can’t make yourself a bestseller.

And he was right. Only a publishing house can get behind a book to the extent that must exist for a book to take off and become a bestseller. And it takes the whole house – from your editor all the way up to the publisher – to anoint your book and say – this is it! – this is the one of the two or five or ten books this year that we are going to give “it” to – it being “the push” onto the list.

And when “it” happens – you know it. “It” authors don’t wonder if enough is being done for their books, don’t wait for phone calls that never come telling them what the print run is or if they are getting two weeks of co-op or not. 

There are over 8000 novels published by traditional publishers a year. So what can the 7500 of us who aren’t already bestsellers or who are not going to be anointed this year do?

That’s where the issue really is, isn’t it?

Julia Spencer-Flemming is a great example – she’d written 6 novels and won almost every mystery suspense award there was to win before her 7th novel turned out to be the right book at the right time and landed her on the coveted New York Times Bestseller list.

But had she been a failure before? F*ck no.

What’s the difference between Julia and the hundreds – or probably thousands – of writers who published their first novel the same year she did but are no longer writing at all? (Some of whom are just as talented as Julia and will never be heard from again.)

The difference is “staying alive." She fought to stay alive and did what it takes and won.

Yes, it’s great to be a bestseller and it certainly is an admirable goal. But the truth is 99% of authors won’t even have a chance at that golden ring if they don’t stay alive long enough to write the book that the publisher is going to get behind and anoint.

There are the occasional meteoritic rises to success. Every year, of the 10000+ novelists who get published, there will be five debuts that make the list because they were anointed and the system worked.

Those five aren’t worth analyzing. They are the lottery winners – the five with just the right book and just the right agent at just the right time to just the right publisher who has just the right line up with just the right foresight to make it happen.

The list of authors to pay attention to and learn from are the other 99% on the bestseller list who got there after 5, 7, 10, or 18 books. Jodi Picoult became a bestseller with her 8th. Janet Evanovitch with the her 18th. Carol O’Connell, who is one of my favorite writers, made it with her 10th.

It’s a rare author who gets anointed right off the bat.

Your goal can’t be to make yourself a bestseller – because as my friend told me at lunch and as Lee Child also said – you can’t do that yourself, and all you’ll do is eat yourself up with aggravation.

But you can help by writing better and better books. You can become educated about marketing and promotion and do something to help your career. I can list hundreds of authors who are still in the game because they’ve embraced the realities of the marketplace.

The bottom line is, if you want to keep writing you’re going to have to work with your publisher to find out where you stand and then do as much as you can to stay alive.

And to do that, you have to accept to some degree that – and I say it so often it should be tattooed to my forehead – no one can buy a book they don’t know exists.

You don’t have to help your book. We are authors, not publishers or marketers. We got in this to write, not to spend our advances on marketing.

But this is the business we’re in. Publishers don’t have the time or money or ability to treat every book equally. So no matter what you choose to do – at least choose.

Choose to help yourself and your book and figure out how to do it on your terms. Twitter? Facebook? Yes? No? Hire someone with part of your advance? Or leave it up to luck? Just choose.

And who knows, maybe book number 8, or 18, will be the one.  Either way, at least you will know you made a choice, and you won't have to live with the regret that you didn't do all you could to stay alive.


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Comment by Mary Kennedy Eastham on June 4, 2011 at 1:02pm

I took MJ Roses' onlline Buzz Your Book class a few summers back and it has made all the difference in the

world for me. I went with a small Indie publisher for my first book, The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget, and I did most/all the promoting myself. The publisher put me on the right sites of course, Amazon/Borders/B &N, but I made myself known as a published writer to as many people as I could by blogging, commenting on writer's sites, having articles written about me and the book, so I could get reviews, sell my book and hopefully get some Buzz for myself! I've sold over 5,000 copies of this small, beautiful book myself and I'm hoping to finish my second book, a novel, Night Surfing, this summer. 


MJ Rose made me believe I really could be a published writer. And now I am!!!


Mary Kennedy Eastham

Comment by Carleen on June 1, 2011 at 2:36pm

It's a fine line. Like so much of the book biz, there are shades of gray that tend to get lost in all the online chats and forums. I wish more people knew the difference between marketing to sell as many as they can, to do all that was within their power to do, and spinning their wheels trying to make the NYT bestsellers list. Yes, it's true the author needs to promote her book. But there are some things the author cannot do without the publisher. The print run for example. Even if the author works her ass off and sells out her print run(s), the publisher might continue to print one small run after another. The book will be a success in the publisher's eyes and may move the author a bit up the food chain the next time. That's great! But one small print run after another will not net you glowing national attention. Those numbers are much bigger than what most of us can do on our own. 


Comment by Jina Bacarr on June 1, 2011 at 2:28pm

Excellent advice! Stayin' alive is the name of the game.

Comment by Meghan Ciana Doidge on June 1, 2011 at 2:25pm
Great article - thank you for sharing!  Makes complete sense to focus on the writing - it is so easy to get derailed with the pitching and the marketing.
Comment by Shary Hover Folkmann on June 1, 2011 at 8:07am
Thanks for the reminder about what we control and what we don't.  Marketing is important, but writing the book is essential.
Comment by Janet Ference on June 1, 2011 at 2:33am

Well said.


Comment by Komal Mansoor on May 13, 2011 at 7:38am
Very nice article.

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