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.