Mark Terry

Monday, November 24, 2008


November 24, 2008
Are bestselling authors ambitious? Or did they just get lucky, write a great book, it took off and the rest, as they say, is history?

For a couple years I wrote profiles of authors for the book section of The Oakland Press. I interviewed a number of bestselling authors--John Sandford, Sue Grafton, Randy Wayne White, Barry Eisler, to name-drop a few of the more prominent.

In recent years I've been writing profiles for the ITW Report, interviewing authors like Gayle Lynds, David Morrell, Steve Coonts, etc, as well as many others of lesser fame.

Fairly early on, while interviewing John Sandford and Sue Grafton, it occurred to me that I had always assumed novelists weren't terribly competitive, that they did their thing, and that was that. But interviewing those two, in particular, made me realize that they believed that staying at the top of their field took more than just writing a good book. Grafton, in particularly, as pleasant an interview as it was, seemed pretty willing to do whatever was needed to get her book to the top of the list. One senses she'd be pretty willing to gut anyone in her way, probably with an apologetic smile on her face as she did it.

Sandford, to me, didn't come off as competitive, so much, as calculating. We talked about story ideas and he was telling me about one for a standalone about bioterrorism he had (or more specifically agricultural bioterrorism), but he couldn't think of a way to write it so it would be commercial. And if you've read some of his notes on his website regarding a few of his books, you'll see that sometimes he writes a novel in a way that interests him, turns it into his editor, who then says something along the lines of, "Well, I didn't love it as much as I hoped to." And Sandford will go back to the drawing board and rewrite the whole damned thing to make sure it works in the marketplace.

I'm probably going to come off as pretentious and even boring here, but I think it's a mistake to think that you'll write a great novel and it'll be picked up for bushels of bucks and you can keep on being the laid-back, mellow, non-ambitious person you've always been. My sense of the publishing industry isn't that it's a bell-shaped curve with literary novels on the left that don't sell any copies, a huge number in the middle that sells a decent amount, and bestsellers on the far right.

My sense of the publishing industry is that it resembles a long, low plateau that curves to the nearly vertical. On the nearly vertical cliff face are bestsellers, and frankly, each week, there are really only 10 or 15 spots on the most important bestseller lists and bestselling authors are clawing and kicking to stay there.

That isn't to say that bestselling authors aren't friendly and generous to their peers and to less successful writers. In my experience, they are. But I think it's a mistake to think they don't view each other as competitors.

There's a wonderful sequence in Stephen King's "Bag of Bones" where bestselling author Mike Noonan is having a phone conversation with his agent, who is telling him the bookselling buzz about various authors.

"Looks crowded," he said, meaning the fall lists, meaning specifically the fiction half of the fall lists. "And there are some surprise additions. Dean Koontz--"

"I thought he usually published in January," I said.

"He does, but Debra hears this one may be delayed. He wants to add a section, or something. Also there's a Harold Robbins, The Predators--"

"Big deal."

"Robbins still has his fans, Mike, still has his fans. As you yourself have pointed out on more than one occasion, fiction writers have a long arc."


...."There may be as many as five other writers that we didn't expect publishing next fall: Ken's supposed to be his best since Eye of the Needle...Belva Plain...John Jakes..."

"None of those guys play tennis on my court," I said, although I knew that was not exactly Harold's point; Harold's point was that there are only fifteen slots on the Times list.

"How about Jean Auel, finally publishing the next of her sex-among-the-cave-people epics?"

I sat up. "Jean Auel? Really?"

"Well...not a hundred per cent, but it looks good. Last but not least is a new Mary Higgins Clark. I know what tennis court she plays on, and so do you."

If I'd gotten that sort of news six or seven years earlier, when I'd felt I had a great deal more to protect, I would have been frothing; Mary Higgins Clark did play on the same court, shared exactly the same audience, and so far our publishing schedules had been arranged to keep us out of each other's way...which was to my benefit rather than hers, let me assure you. Going nose to nose, she would cream me...."

* * *

Well, who knows? Maybe it's easy and there's no pressure? I mean, if someone hands you a check for a million bucks or so and says, if your book doesn't sell 500,000 copies in hardcover--in the first 6 weeks--we might not publish you again, would that make you feel a little stressed?

Maybe not.

So what do you think? Are successful novelists ambitious?

Are you?

Mark Terry


Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

Are successful novelists ambitious?

Have you ever known any truly successful person who truly lacked ambition?

You gotta do two things to become successful: make something of quality, even if it's a ditch, and let people know.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Kath Calarco said...

I'm thinking all novelists are ambitious on a daily basis. Speaking for myself, coughing up new pages is an accomplishment. And I believe a writer needs a strong sense of ambition if they're looking to see publication.

P.S. I'm never gonna write in Sue Grafton's genre - I like my guts just where they are, thank you very much. :)

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

If someone gave me a check for a million bucks I would be stressed only until it cleared, then I'd be set for life. No stress.

I reckon that ambition is not sufficient to succeed at writing but necessary. Stephen is probably right. Successful people are always ambitious to some degree at least.

Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, there is enormous competition in the publishing industry. We compete to get books published. We compete to sell them when they are published.I certainly don't enjoy the competition part which is probably a bad trait to have.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Hey, I love this post. And I totally admire that about Grafton. I don't think most bestselling authors are accidental Cinderella stories.

This was part of why I'm doing things like I'm doing them. I've ALWAYS thought publishing was insanely competitive, and that writers were. And it is crazy ass pressure.

And nobody wants to just publish and stay at the bottom of the midlist. Nobody. Everybody wants to climb higher and have more and more sales.

So the second you enter this game, you're in it. And once you're in it, it's nonstop pressure to perform, lest you lose your publisher and your career.

And I'm just not playing the game that way. I'm going to play in my kiddie pool until I build a decent platform. If I never do that, then I don't have to enter the race and pull my hair out, and go insane for something that would never be anyway.

If I can do that, then I have an edge when I enter the "real game."

So in one word, yes . . . I am competitive.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

You don't tug on superman's cape; you don't spit into the wind; you don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger, and you don't mess around with Mary Higgins Clark.

Something like that. I love Bag of Bones.

I'm sure King writes from experience, so a lot of authors probably do feel pressure to consistently reach a certain notch on the list.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, but I got tired of typing.

What struck me most about that section--and was pretty much echoed by an interview I did with bestselling author Vince Flynn--was just how much calculation goes into placement and timing for bestsellers to assure they get onto those lists. Flynn, if I remember correctly, had been really concerned about being released at the same time as both a John Grisham and a Mitch Albom, but it worked out well for him (5000 copies sold by Borders in the first day, if I remember accurately).

Of course, for the rest of us schmucks, one suspects the publishers look at their yearly calendars and say, "Oh, there's a spot open in April. Stick 'im in there."

1:27 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Totally! Ohmigosh, my royalties are going up each quarter, but I've dropped to #3 or #4 right now. It bugs me.

I seriously want everyone to have awesome sales, and it's not that I want better sales than them, I swear to God and promise with my whole heart. It's just that I want to have the most.

I don't think I've ever written anything without thinking about the audience for it and how they will connect with it. I'm the calculating type, definitely.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

I just got into something and this competitive streak came out in me. Every time I recognize it I'm thinking what a horrible person I am, and then I remember the person who stabbed me in the back until I got transferred. No one liked her, everyone told me she was lying about me to the boss, but I shrugged my shoulders figuring he was intelligent enough to know this. He wasn't.

4:52 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I've been thinking about this a lot: ambition and how far it will take you.

No real conclusions yet, though I do believe 1. have it in me 2. haven't been living up to my own ambition.

11:19 AM  
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