Category Archives: Tess Gerritsen

Do your looks matter as an author?

by Tess Gerritsen

Recently I received the following question from a writer:

My debut novel will be coming out soon from a major publisher and I’m traveling to New York to meet my editor for the very first time.  Here is where I get worried.  How much will my looks factor in with regard to how marketable my book is considered to be?  My book is fiction; I know I don’t need a platform in the way that non-fic does.  I also know that novelists aren’t likely to be put on TV, so TV-looks shouldn’t be necessary, right? 

I’m clean, healthy, strong, and I have a pretty face.  I’m also overweight and nearly forty.  No matter how nicely I dress and how subtly and gracefully I do my makeup, I am, at heart, frumpy.  Should I be concerned how this may affect my editor’s view of me as a writer to promote?

I would like to answer that one’s looks don’t matter one iota, but then I wouldn’t be entirely honest.  Because, I’m sorry to say, studies seem to show that looks do make a difference when it comes to one’s career.  Attractive (and tall) people are more likely to be popular, to earn more money, and to be promoted more quickly at their jobs.  It’s one of those unfortunate facts of life, and even though we may rail at the unfairness of it, there seems to be little we can do to change it.  Like books, human beings are too often judged by their covers.  The short guy and the homely gal have to work far, far harder to prove their competence — even if they’re rocket scientists. 

So to a certain extent, the writer’s concerns are grounded in reality.  When we see that some gorgeous author is being well-promoted, we have a sneaking suspicion — perhaps well-founded — that she got all that attention because of her looks.  I remember seeing photos of Sebastian Junger (THE PERFECT STORM) being plastered all over magazines, and thinking that no matter how good (or bad) his book might be, he was one darn good-looking man.  A bookseller told me that the line of women who showed up at Junger’s booksigning stretched around the block.  "I’m sure they came in because of that photo," she said, pointing to the giant bookstore poster featuring Junger’s drop-dead handsome face.  "Because I’m damn sure most of them couldn’t care less about meteorology."

But gorgeous authors, like gorgeous people in general, are the exception.  The vast majority of writers are simply average looking.  When I attend writers’ conferences, and I look around the people gathered at the cocktail parties, I don’t see Hollywood-level glamor.  I see gray hair and bald heads.  I see faces that have never been touched by a plastic surgeon.  And I see a lot of people who could stand to lose a few pounds.  (When you’re parked in a chair eight hours a day, and the refrigerator is just a short walk down the hallway, weight gain is an occupational hazard.)  Yet many of those average-looking people are powerhouse authors.  Check out the photos of authors who are regulars on the New York Times bestseller list.  Very few of them would turn your head if you saw them on the street.  And some of them are downright homely.  Never forget that V.C. Andrews became a mega-bestselling horror author despite the fact she was chronically ill and bedridden for her entire career. 

Good looks never hurt, of course.  If you’re a debut author, being gorgeous may get you a bit more attention from visual media like TV and glamor mags– you know, those shallow folks who care more about eye candy than gravitas.  But after the first book, your looks become less and less relevant, because something far more important takes center stage: the quality of your writing — and your sales.  If your books (and sales) suck, no publisher cares how gorgeous you are.

Which is why we writers are lucky to be in this profession.  It’s one of the few jobs in which one is allowed to grow old without consequences, as long as we can turn out a quality product.  Aging actresses find their roles drying up.  Businessmen who turn 65 find themselves shoved aside by energetic young up-and-comers.  But we writers can potentially keep writing books into our eighties.  Our readers won’t care, as long as they keep loving our stories.  We can even hide ourselves from the public if we so choose, as VC Andrews did all those years ago.  Or we can slap a decades-old author photo on our book jackets and remain eternally ageless, as Dear Abby did for decades. 

So here, in the end, is how I answered that writer’s question.  I told her to give herself a little lift in spirits with a new haircut and a nice new outfit.  Beyond that, I told her not to obsess over her looks and instead focus on writing a really terrific second book.  Because that’s all the editor really cares about: whether a writer can turn out a great next book, and a next, and a next.  Editors want an author with the potential for a long career.  They want an author who’s reliable and pleasant.  They want an author who can write.

No matter what she looks like.

   

How book tours have changed over the years

by Tess Gerritsen

I am just about to wrap up my national book tour for THE KEEPSAKE.  It’s my twelfth book tour.  Over the years, I’ve noticed a number of changes in the book tour scene, some of them specific to my own career.  But other changes reflect what’s happening to novelists across the country.

And some of those changes are discouraging.

In 1996, my first hardcover thriller, HARVEST was published. My publisher planned a substantial marketing effort, including quirky giveaways (a little igloo cooler, to go along with the theme of harvested organs), a ton of advance galleys, and a national book tour.  Being a debut author has its definite advantages: you have no prior bad sales figures to live down, you’re a fresh face on the scene, and advance publicity about a major book deal always stirs curiosity.  (Landing a major book deal, however, is a double-edged sword because it also seems to bring out the nasty side of reviewers.  "He got paid how much?  Hell, I could write a better book!" seems to be the all-too-common response when a debut author gets a big advance.  I’ve seen that backlash happen to many authors, which may be why some now choose to play coy with the size of their advances.) 

As the new thriller gal on the block, I did get attention.  An AP reporter wrote a nationally syndicated article about the M.D. who switched careers.  Reviews (good and bad) came in from multiple newspapers.  Bookstore chains, not having any prior sales numbers to judge by, ordered substantial quantities of HARVEST.  I set off on my first book tour with fantasies of speaking to huge crowds.

Which of course never materialized.  In store after store, I would often sit completely alone at the signing table with only an embarassed bookseller to keep me company.  Occasionally, a half-dozen people would turn up, and I’d be ecstatic.  The best events, I generally found, were in independent bookstores — places like Poisoned Pen or Mysterious Galaxy, with loyal customers who make it a point to show up at author signings, even when they’ve never heard of the author.  Discouraging as some of the poorly attended events were, however, I knew that a tour surely had to make a difference.  My media escorts would drive me around to local bookstores and distributors’ warehouses to sign stock.  At every airport I landed in, I’d sign whatever was in the airport shop.  Even though most booksellers had never heard of me, they all seemed happy to have me sign their copies.  And there seemed to be a lot of copies out there.

While I was on the road, HARVEST hit the New York Times bestseller list.

For the next eleven books, my routine was pretty much another year, another book tour.  I got to be an old hand at trudging through airports, now wheeling only a carry-on.  I learned to carry "Signed by Author" stickers in my purse so I could label the airport copies.  For radio interviews, I learned to distill my plot down to only a sentence or two, and focus instead on the interesting nonfiction aspects behind the stories.  II started seeing larger crowds at signings and I’d recognize repeat customers.  But even as my  sales were growing, the tours themselves were getting less bang for the effort.

The media was harder to get.  Even if I had some cool new nonfiction hook (corpses who wake up in morgues in VANISH.  Or the how-to of shrinking human heads in THE KEEPSAKE) the TV and radio spots weren’t there as they used to be.  I’m not the only novelist who faces this dwindling of interest; it seems to be a problem for all of us.  The publisher pays to fly you into a new town, puts you up in a hotel, all to speak at a bookstore where you end up selling maybe thirty hardcovers.   Without any TV or radio or print coverage, does that make economic sense?

Another discouraging trend is that bookstores now seem to be ordering stock "just in time."  Although my sales have grown over the past decade, I simply don’t see the tall stacks of copies that stores used to bring in to last them through Christmas.  So drop-in signings make less and less sense, considering the price of gas and the time it takes to drive from store to store.  My media escorts tell me that they’re doing fewer drop-ins with all their authors because of this.

And I’ve pretty much stopped doing drop-ins at airport stores.  I don’t know if it’s because of distributor consolidation, with more centralized management, but it’s now just about impossible to get approval to sign airport copies.  The clerks are terrified of losing their jobs and they won’t let an author touch the books until they get approval from some manager.  I told one clerk that the books would sell much faster with an autograph sticker, and he said, "We had an hour-long argument with Kitty Kelly over this just last week.  She wanted to sign her books, and we wouldn’t let her do it, either." 

If Kitty Kelly couldn’t manage to persuade him, I sure wasn’t going to try.

Finally, there’s the ever-worsening hassle of airline travel.  When I started going on tours, I don’t recall having to suffer through cancelled or delayed flights.  Nowadays, when I manage to get to my destination on time, or even on the same day, I consider it a miracle.  Since they don’t feed you on planes, you arrive at a hotel late at night, starving, after room service has shut down.  Forcing you to binge on potato ships from the mini-bar.  And since airline reservations for book tour are sometimes made close to the travel date, you end up too often flying cross-country while wedged in the middle seat.

Airline travel has become such a nightmare that one thriller author recently chartered a private jet to fly her to all her midwest stops.  (It had to be on her own dime, because I can’t imagine a publisher ever paying for that.)  That’s an extravagance that I (an old Yankee) would never consider, but I understand completely why an author might resort to it.

Are these difficulties leading to fewer book tours?  In some parts of the country, media escorts tell me that their tours are down 50%, even 75% since last year.  Perhaps publishers are re-thinking the economics of tours.  Perhaps authors are finding tours to be a costly distraction from their writing. 

While I acknowledge that their value-to-cost ratio seems to be diminishing, I still believe that book tours are important to building your readership.  I also happen to love doing them.  I love meeting readers and visiting stores across the country. 

I just don’t know how much longer it will make sense.   

 

   

Can a bad review end your career?

by Tess Gerritsen

Yes.

I realize that’s a pretty blunt answer, and many of you will disagree with me on this. Nobody reads reviews anyway, you’ll argue. Bad reviews come with the territory, and authors survive them all the time. Or you’ll observe (accurately) that I’m famously hypersensitive to lousy reviews and I endow them with more power than they really have.

So let me explain why I think one bad review can, indeed, end your career as a published author.

There’s one time in particular when an author is particularly vulnerable to the effects of a devastating review, and that’s when you are a debut author. An editor who takes on a first-time novelist is taking a risk on someone who’s untried in the marketplace. The editor hopes, of course, that the debut novel will be wildly successful, or at a minimum, earn back its advance And to increase the chances of its success, this editor will talk up the book to the sales force. As the pub date approaches, she hopes that in-house enthusiasm for the book builds, because that enthusiasm gets transferred to booksellers, who will be convinced to increase their orders. Hefty orders mean more exposure, better displays, and of course better sales. Imagine you are that debut author, and your novel “FIRST TIME OUT” has been bought with a generous advance. Imagine that the publishing house is telling you this is going to be an important book. Imagine that they have decided to give it a big push, with major ads and an author tour.

Then imagine that your first review appears in Publishers Weekly, and they pronounce it a disaster. They call your publisher a house of idiots for buying it.

Now your editor looks like a dope. The enthusiasm at your publishing house suddenly deflates like a popped balloon. Everyone there feels a bit embarrassed, not just for you, but for themselves. The big bookstore orders don’t come in. Costco and Walmart take a pass on it. Even before your book goes on sale, it already feels like a big failure and an expensive mistake.

Those promised ads never materialize. And even though they do send you on book tour, every time you meet a bookseller, you just know they’re looking at you and thinking, “oh, so you’re the author whom PW called illiterate.” And you feel like such a loser.

That scenario is just what I faced when my first hardcover, HARVEST, was published. About a week before the book was released, a review appeared in PW. If you want to see how bad it was, check it out over on Amazon or BN.com. According to PW, HARVEST was so awful, it would be appreciated only by “readers who move their lips”. I vividly recall the depressing phone conversation I had with my agent after that review came out. And one thing she said stuck in my mind: “we’re lucky this review came in so late. The bookstores have already placed their orders.”

But what if the review had come in two months earlier? What if Costco and Target and all the myriad other book merchants had taken a pass on HARVEST? I’m almost certain that HARVEST never would have hit the New York Times bestseller list (which it did, at #13.) And even though many good reviews followed, the damage would already have been done. The book would have died, and orders for the next book (LIFE SUPPORT) would have been even worse. And that could have been the end of my career as a thriller novelist.

Debut authors in particular are exquisitely vulnerable to bad reviews. But what about the seasoned veteran, the writer who’s already established himself as a bestseller? Bad reviews don’t affect our careers, right?

Wrong. They can. But for entirely different reasons.

I recall hearing about the time Stephen King got a PW review that was so brutal, so nasty, that it almost made him stop writing entirely. Lucky for his readers, he got over the hurt and resumed writing, but I understand why he might contemplate calling it quits on his own career.

Because I had the same experience just last year.

After writing six books in the Jane Rizzoli series, I wanted to devote myself to a project that I truly, deeply, cared about. THE BONE GARDEN was an historical novel about childbed fever, the dawn of microbial theory, and the contributions of a real-life medical hero named Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. I had dreamed of writing this book for years. I spent months researching medical history, grave robbers, and the state of medical education in the 1830’s. I read reams of old Boston newspapers, immersed myself in the contemporary fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and pored over old surgical textbooks. I thought the book was one of my best ever, and I waited for the first reviews to come in, hoping that the critics would agree.

The review that came in from Booklist was one of the worst in my entire 21-year career. The reviewer ridiculed the book and called my writing incompetent. And in the weirdest criticism of all, he said he saw no reason for Oliver Wendell Holmes to even be in the book, because he had no role there. He missed entirely the theme of childbed fever and medical history — the very reason I wrote the book.

Although many good reviews followed, the damage was done. I had to finish writing the next book in order to satisfy my contract, but looking back now, I don’t know how I managed to do it. I wrote in a cloud of depression. I couldn’t focus. I didn’t see the point of continuing in a job that just invited brutal and very public humiliation. I thought about how much easier my life would be if I just quit.

That’s right, quit.

Practically speaking, I could have managed it. I’m thrifty by nature, I abhor shopping, and I’ve saved up enough money over the years to retire right now. I imagined liberating myself from the yearly cycle of sales anxiety and nasty reviews. I imagined writing only for myself — stories that I’d put in a drawer, never to be seen until after I’m dead and buried. I imagined the relief of never having to hear another critic sneer that my books stink.

It took me over a year to finally get back my equilibrium. The good reviews for THE KEEPSAKE has helped. So has the passage of time. But I was close, so very close, to just closing up shop and saying “I’m done. I’m retiring.”

All because of a bad review.

I know that it’s a wimpy excuse — “I’m quitting because my feelings were hurt by a mean reviewer.” But the process of writing relies so much on our state of mind. On how confident we feel, how excited we are about a story, and how sure we are that people will like the result. When you’re depressed, you can’t write. When you feel like a failure, you can’t write. And when you are already preemptively cringing from the next public humiliation, the writing suffers.

Sometimes it never recovers.

The librarian’s guide to hosting an author visit

by Tess Gerritsen

I love talking to groups in libraries, and I think other authors do as well. Some of my biggest audiences have been in libraries, where I don’t have to talk over the extraneous noise of cappuccino machines and clattering dishes and bookstore customers loudly asking where the SAT guides are. Library patrons love books, and they actually want to hear what you have to say. From an author’s point of view, there’s only one negative to doing a library talk: the precious time it takes away from your writing and your life. You can only fit a limited number of speaking engagements into your schedule, and you need to be choosy about which offers to accept. Authors need time at their desks and they need time with their families. They can’t spend all year driving around to speaking gigs. I try to limit my library gigs to only one a month, and only if it fits easily into my schedule.

If you’re a librarian, and you want to tempt authors to visit your library, here are some guidelines to making your invitation more attractive. And remember, authors speak to other authors, and if one has had a terrific experience at your library, chances are, she’s going to spread the word around.

OFFER A SPEAKING FEE. While this is always a big plus, it’s not absolutely necessary. Some authors are willing to speak if you’ll just reimburse them for transportation and overnight costs. We all know that libraries have limited budgets, and often I’ll waive any fees when the library I visit is particularly small. Or I’ll return the fee to the library as a donation. Please keep in mind, though, that many authors really, really need the money and it’s unreasonable to ask an author to come speak to your group if she has to do it on her own dime. She’s already donating her time for free. Offering a speaking fee may be the incentive she needs to accept.

PROVIDE TRANSPORTATION. If your library is within easy driving distance to the author’s home, then this doesn’t present a problem. But if the author has to come in from out of state, she’ll need her air travel reimbursed. And once the author lands in your town, how’s she going to get to the library? How’s she going to get to the hotel you’ve reserved for her? Make sure there’s a driver to take her where she needs to go. And offer to take her to dinner — the other librarians on staff may enjoy joining the party too!

PUBLICIZE. You want the author to be greeted with a huge turnout. You also want to use her visit as a way to attract new patrons to your library. So send out press releases. Call up your local newspaper and tell the features editor that there’s a hot author coming to town, and maybe they’d want to cover the story. Put up signs in your library announcing the visit, and mention the upcoming visit to every patron who checks out a book similar to the visiting author’s. If the crowd turnout is big, the author will happily recommend your library to other authors.

INTRODUCE THE AUTHOR TO THE AUDIENCE. It’s always nice to be preceded by a glowing introduction letting the audience know a bit about my career.

SELL BOOKS!!! It’s amazing to me how many librarians don’t seem to understand that this is the primary reason an author goes on the road to talk to readers. She wants to sell books. Selling books is how she makes a living, and if there are no books available for readers to buy at the event, then the author may feel her visit was wasted. DON’T ASSUME THE AUTHOR WILL BRING HER OWN BOOKS. Most well-known authors do not keep a supply of their own books, and if the author has a long list of titles, you can’t expect her to lug around multiples copies of her twelve backlist titles. Besides, we authors want the sales to show up on bookstore ledgers; we don’t want to be handling cash and receipts. So you must, must, must arrange for your local bookstore to come in and sell books during the event. Ask the author to provide a list of her available titles so the bookstore has plenty of time to order in copies. Make sure there are enough copies so that every patron who wants to buy one will have a chance to. (And remind the store that any unsold books can be returned to the distributor.) Provide time after the author talk for a book signing.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A HUGE LIBRARY — TAKE A CHANCE AND INVITE AN AUTHOR. I personally love to talk to libraries in small towns, libraries that seldom see authors. I find that in small towns, the audiences tend to be larger and more enthusiastic. I’ve been considering doing a driving tour to small libraries around the country. I’d love to be able to see states I’ve never visited — West Virginia and Louisiana, for instance. I just have to set aside the time to do it one of these days.

Most librarians do a great job of hosting author events, but for those who seldom see an author visit their library, it helps to know what authors need and expect. A little advance work can make the visit a success — and attract many more authors.

How many books do you have in you?

by Tess Gerritsen

Today, my new Jane Rizzoli thriller, THE KEEPSAKE, goes on sale.

It’s my twenty-first published novel.  You’d think that after going through this twenty-one times, the publication of a new book would feel routine to me now.  But no, watching a new book hit the stands is every bit as exciting and scary as it’s always been.  I find myself doing the same obsessive things I did with my last five books.  I check my Amazon index every hour, thereby guaranteeing lithium-league mood swings.  I Google myself several times a day, looking for new reviews.  I slip into bookstores unannounced to see if the books have arrived, and where they’re displayed.  Every Wednesday evening (when the New York Times bestseller list is announced) I wait by the phone, hands sweating.  I know this behavior is unhealthy.  I know that obsessing won’t make the books sell faster.  I know that this is wasted effort and it’s sapping my energy.

I wonder how many more years I’ll be doing this, and how many more books I’ll write before I kick the bucket.

It’s a morbid question, but every writer has probably asked it: What will my obituary say about my writing career?  "Prolific author of fifty bestsellers"?  or: "Was working on her second novel"?  Life itself is full of too many variables, so you just don’t know.  You could get hit by a truck tomorrow, ending your budding career at age thirty.  Or you could keep on turning out a book a year until you’re ninety nine and you finally get that Mystery Writers of America award, if only because you’re the oldest guy in the room.

Or (and this is one of my nightmares) you’ll find the quality of your work slowly deteriorating as you endure ever-crueler reviews, until suddenly it’s announced that you’re suffering from Alzheimers.  And suddenly everyone is nice to you again.

A baby girl is born with only so many eggs in her ovaries.  That’s it, that’s all she gets.  Throughout her lifetime, she will not make any new eggs.  Once she grows into womanhood and reaches menopause, all her eggs are used up, and her childbearing days are over.  She simply cannot produce any more babies.

Do authors have a similar limit?  Is there such a thing as artistic menopause?  Is there a point in life when a writer finally sets down his pen and says, "That’s it.  All my ideas are used up.  I have no more books left inside me"?

I know I haven’t reached that point yet, because I can still feel those future books lined up in my imagination, like eggs waiting their turn to gestate.  But I also know that I’m not a prolific writer like Isaac Asimov or Georges Simenon or Nora Roberts, who together have written enough books to fill a library.  I’m capable of writing, at most, one book a year.  If I keep up that schedule of one book a year, until the demographics predict I’ll keel over from old age, I could theoretically produce another thirty books.

Thirty more books to write!  So far I’ve only written a measly twenty-one.  Which means I haven’t yet reached the halfway point in my lifetime oeuvre.

Egads, I’d better get back to work.

Book Trailers — Benefits you may not have thought of

by Tess Gerritsen

I’ve heard that book trailers are worthless as marketing tools.  I’ve heard they confuse viewers, who don’t understand that the trailer is for a book, not a movie.  That trailers tend to look amateurish because authors don’t know what they’re doing, and actually hurt the author’s efforts.  Nobody watches them, nobody knows where to view them, and nobody cares.  Plus, they’re expensive.

I’d heard all these arguments against book trailers, but I commissioned one anyway — and boy, was it a lot of fun.

Last winter, I contacted Maine Media Workshops, the local film school here in midcoast Maine, because I thought it might be an interesting project for the students, and an interesting marketing experiment for me.  I’d pay for all the production expenses and the students would get a chance to work on a short film based on my upcoming book, THE KEEPSAKE.  The film school faculty loved the idea, but the project fell through the cracks and was forgotten.

Then about three months ago, two young men connected with the school contacted me.  Jonathan and Ryan wanted to make the film.  I knew Jonathan, because he’d gone to the local high school with my son.  I loved the idea of working with such youthful talent.  They were excited about the project, brimming with energy and ideas.  It seemed like a win-win situation for everyone.

The book wasn’t in galley form for them to read yet, so I had to describe the plot and the atmosphere I wanted.  "Think of THE MUMMY," I said.  I wanted something scary and shadowy, something like all the horror films I’d grown up with and loved so much.  I handed them my Egyptology books and a book about shrunken heads.  Ryan looked at the photos and freaked out.  He was so disturbed by the images that he couldn’t even stand to look at them, but he was game to forge ahead.

The first thing they needed from me was a shooting script.  Since the trailer could run no longer than two minutes, I kept the script to a page and a half, with narrator’s copy and suggested images.  They got to work hiring actors.  Since I was footing the bill, I had to approve every purchase.  The guys sent me to a website that sells horror movie props.  That’s when it was my turn to freak out, as I perused offerings of realistic-looking rubber corpses in various stages of decay and dismemberment.  I spent about $600 on shrunken heads, a mummy, and a rotting corpse.

Meantime, the guys were busy building a mummy’s sarcophagus out of drywall, and they reserved an autopsy suite for the shoot.

During the two days of filming, unfortunately, I had to be out of town.  I’m sorry I missed the fun, because I heard that they used an unoccupied house that happens to be for sale.  Overnight, they left the shrunken heads hanging in the basement, not knowing that the house was scheduled to be shown the next day to prospective buyers.

The realtor reported that there was a lot of screaming.  But the buyers put in an offer on the house anyway.  (Maybe everyone trying to sell a house should hang shrunken heads in the basement.)

A few weeks later, the trailer was finished.  Jonathan and Ryan made two versions, one for my U.S. release, and another for my UK release.

Will it sell enough books to justify the cost?  I don’t know.  As I said, it’s an experiment, and it’s just one more way to get your name out there to the world.  It’s been on YouTube and on my website for about a week now, and so far we’ve gotten 2800 hits. 

Some critics of book trailers point out that anyone who views your trailer probably already knows about your book, and viewing the trailer isn’t going to change their mind about buying it.  Those who don’t know your name won’t ever go looking for the trailer.   

I think these are valid points.  However, I’ve discovered one great reason to make trailers — a reason I hadn’t even considered until now.  It’s a great device for selling foreign rights to your books.  My publisher plans to show the trailer at the Frankfurt Book Fair.  And my foreign rights agent is sharing the trailer with foreign language publishers, because she feels it’s a valuable sales tool.  And I’ll tell you why.

Foreign publishers don’t have enough English-speaking personnel to read every single book published in English.  Instead, what happens is that the first few chapters of an American novel might be translated into, say, Russian — and if those chapters interest the Russian publisher, they may ask to see more of the translated text, or they may make an offer.  But this is clearly a labor-intensive process.

A book trailer can speed up that decision making process.  Within a minute or two, it can translate the essence of the plot for even a non-English-speaking viewer, the way horror films used to engage my Chinese immigrant mom.  They can put your book front and center as something they’ll take a closer look at. 

Will the trailer actually make domestic consumers buy books?  I have no idea.  As I said, it’s an experiment.  And I loved working with young, local filmmakers who are just starting out in their film careers.

Plus, I’ve now got a collection of rubber corpses in my garage.

If you want to see the finished book trailer, hop on over to YouTube to take a look:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_hVyZ7xHbM

“Should I Fire My Agent?”

by Tess Gerritsen

Recently, several different writers seeking my advice have asked me this very question. It’s a question that makes me squirm, because there’s no easy answer.It’s like being asked, “Should I divorce my wife?” The wrong advice could be disastrous. And the problems these writers told me about weren’t clear cut enough for me to comfortably give a firm answer one way or the other.
They complained that the agent wasn’t selling their work fast enough. Or the agent wasn’t communicating often enough. Or the agent no longer sounded enthusiastic about the manuscript. These writers were growing more and more uneasy with the relationship, but they didn’t know if things were bad enough yet to call it quits.

The indecision was driving them crazy, and they wanted me to tell them what to do.

Which of course I can’t, because I’m not in their shoes. But I can tell them my experiences with agents during my career.

I’ve been published for twenty-one years, and I’m on my third literary agent. I think that’s probably about average for a veteran author, although I have no firm data on that; it’s just what I hear from talking to other authors.

My first agent came highly recommended to me by an editor. He had a big name in the business, and I was overjoyed when he took me on as a client. He sold my first book (to Harlequin) and I assumed we’d have a long and happy association. The book was published, had good reviews, and I sat back and waited for sales figures.

And waited and waited.

A year and a half went by. I received no royalty checks or royalty statements. I was a meek and extremely naïve young author, so I assumed this was simply business as usual. I wanted to know what was happening, but I was terrified of offending this high-powered agent, so I was hesitant to even call him and ask him point-blank what was happening. Instead I wrote a polite letter or two (this was before the age of email), asking him how the book was selling. His replies were something along the lines of, “there are no royalties because the book didn’t sell all that well.”

Finally, at a conference, I met another Harlequin author whose book had come out the same month mine did, and she said that she’d already received several royalty statements and checks. Even if I wasn’t receiving checks, she said, I should be getting royalty statements.

It was now two years since my book had come out and at last I was starting to get suspicious. You probably think I sound terribly dense, but at the time I didn’t know any other writers. There was no online network, no easy way to ask for advice. And the last thing I wanted to do was challenge my agent because I was afraid of losing him. I was like an abused wife in a bad marriage, desperate to stay married, unwilling to even admit that I was being abused.

Finally, I got up the courage to call Harlequin directly and ask if they had, just by chance, issued any royalty statements. Oh yes, they said. And they’d sent my agent two thousand dollars in royalty checks as well – money that my agent had been pocketing for two years.

When confronted with the facts, my agent told me that there’d simply been a clerical error in his office – that for two years, his staff had sent my royalty statements and checks to another client with a similar name. Ha ha, what a careless mistake, but these things happen. At last, he mailed me the money he owed me.

That’s when I fired him. But it had taken me two years to do it, two years of agonizing over my decision. Only later did I learn that this same agent did the same thing to a far more prominent, internationally bestselling author – to the tune of millions of dollars. So as a victim, I was in good company.

For a few years, I went unagented. Since I was still writing romance for Harlequin, I was able to sell my next few books directly to the publisher, without having to pay a commission to any agent. The arrangement made sense, as long as I kept writing category romance. But as the years went by, my aspirations grew. I wanted to write bigger books, mainstream books, and I knew I needed an agent to make that move.

So I signed on with Agent #2.

She was prompt and professional, and we had a good working relationship. But her health was a problem, and within a few years, she retired. Before she left the business, she recommended a number of agents whom she admired and she suggested I query them.

That’s how I ended up with Agent #3, who has been my agent for thirteen years and has guided me and helped build my career into what it is today.

Every writer’s career runs along its own individual trajectory, but I think there are a few lessons one can take away from my own experiences with agents.

The first lesson is obvious: fiscal dishonesty is an immediate firing offense. If you have proof that your agent is fooling around with the books, or withholding money, you must end the relationship. This decision is an easy one.

Lack of communication is another one that ranks high on my list of unacceptability. If you must call or write repeatedly before your agent responds, then something is seriously wrong. I’m not talking about the weeks when she’s on vacation or in the hospital; I’m talking about times when she’s in the office and simply avoiding you for days on end. This is not the kind of agent you can work with.

Dishonesty about submission information would also be a reason to fire an agent. If she refuses to tell you where she’s sent the manuscript, if at all, then how do you know if she’s doing her job? How do you know if she’s gotten offers and turned them down? Agents need to be frank with you about the progress they’ve made with selling or not selling your manuscript. If she’s not circulating your work, if it’s just sitting on her desk, then what’s the point of having her as your agent?

Finally, there’s the matter of enthusiasm. Sometimes, an agent may take on a client with great excitement, and then fail to sell the manuscript. Over time, she may lose faith in the story, or in the client. And that loss of faith may come through in her voice when you talk to her. This might be remedied if you then deliver a second manuscript that’s terrific – and get her excited again. Or her disillusionment may grow to the point where she’s just going through the motions of sending out the book. Or she starts to hunt for ways to gently tell you she no longer wants to represent you. This break-up is one of the hard decisions, because there’s nothing inherently wrong between you. It’s like a marriage between two people who have simply drifted apart, and it may take months or years for it to finally end.

And yet, end it probably will. Whether sooner or later is the question.

Now, I’ve written this entirely from the writer’s perspective. I’m sure agents have their own stories to tell about nightmarish writers or difficult breakups. I do hope they’ll write me with their stories (yes, anonymously if you’d like). I’d love to hear an agent’s point of view on this topic.

When your book turns into a brussels sprout

Ever since I turned in my latest manuscript, I’ve been spending a lot of time weeding my vegetable garden.  As I work in the hot sun, a tune keeps playing in my heat-addled brain, a tune I can’t seem to shake.  It’s the song "Plant a Radish" from the off-Broadway musical "The Fantasticks," and it’s sung by two fathers who bemoan the fact that parents never know exactly how their children will turn out.  So they extol the virtues of growing vegetables instead, because when you plant a radish, you know that you’ll get a radish:

Plant a carrot, get a carrot,

Not a Brussels sprout.

That’s why I love vegetables,

You know what they’re about!

Life is merry, if it’s very

Vegetarian!

A man who plants a garden

Is a very happy man!

(Lyrics by Tome Jones, composer Harvey Schmidt)

This song has special meaning for me, not only because I’m a gardener and a parent, but also because I’m a novelist, and every single story I’ve ever started has morphed, in some way, into that proverbial Brussels sprout, the vegetable I never thought I’d planted.

It’s a result of poor planning — or in my case, no planning whatsoever.  That’s because I don’t plot out my books ahead of time.  And that leads to surprises.

Occasionallly, I teach at writing workshops, and one of the first lessons I tell my students is this: not everyone’s a planner.  Not every writer can map out every plot twist of his novel in advance.  If you are a planner, then good for you.  I envy you.

If you can’t do it that way, if you’re the sort who just dives into the story and sees where it takes you, that’s okay too.  It can be a chaotic, frustrating way to write a book.  You’ll waste precious time backtracking to fix things. You’ll probably have writer’s block somewhere in the middle, because you don’t know where the story goes next.  You’ll suffer through multiple drafts, and you’ll feel like ditching the accursed plot many times.  This probably makes writing a book sound like an ordeal, and it can be.  But it’s also an adventure that will take you to unexpected and startling destinations.

The book I just finished writing, THE KEEPSAKE (in the UK, its title will be KEEPING THE DEAD) got its start several years ago, after I’d listened to a series of lectures by Egyptologist Bob Brier, about the ancient Egyptian technique of mummification.  Brier had actually made a modern mummy (yes, a volunteer donated his remains for that purpose) and the result was startlingly similar to the mummies of ancient Egypt.  How incredibly cool, I thought.

And then the novelist’s mind kicked in, and I wondered how I could turn this information into a thriller.

The idea sat and percolated for a few years.  I just didn’t know what the plot would be.  I wanted to incorporate my love of archaeology and the dusty creepiness of old museums.  Since it would be part of my Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles series, it had to take place in Boston.  And since I’m a doctor, I wanted medicine and science to be a vital part of the story, too.

All I knew about the plot was this: it would kick off in the diagnostic imaging department of a Boston hospital, where an "ancient" mummy is undergoing a CT scan.  A shocking surprise is revealed — the mummy has a bullet in her leg.  She is, in fact, a modern murder victim who’s been preserved using ancient techniques, by a killer with obscure archaeological knowledge. 

Enter Jane Rizzoli.

And that’s all I knew about the plot.  My proposal synopsis contained a bunch of nonspecific plot details to convince my editor I knew where I was going with the book.  But the truth is, I didn’t know.  I never do.  I just started writing and waited to see where the story would take me.

It took me down a number of blind alleys.  I wrote about a hundred pages that later got discarded.  I wasted endless weeks chasing plot threads that petered out.  I introduced half a dozen characters who were later excised and will never be used.  The killer kept changing identities.  The motives repeatedly changed as well.  Characters clamored for me to "go this way," or "no, you numbskull author, go that way!"  Surprises piled up, twists that I never could have planned out ahead of time because they popped up on the spur of the moment, right as I reached that point in the story.

In the midst of the chaos, something began to take shape, something I couldn’t see until I finished the first draft.  Something that surprised me.

If I had charted out the plot ahead of time, would it have resulted in the same book? No.  Would it have been a better — or a worse — book?  I don’t know.

I do know that it’s the only way I’ve been able to write a book.  Using this crazy, anxiety-ridden technique, I’ve produced twenty-one novels (counting my romantic thriller novels) and now I’m too old a dog to learn any new tricks.  I’ve just learned to live with the unpredictability of every new book.

Thank heavens I have a garden.  At least there’s something in my life that is utterly, unalterably predictable.

Weeds.

Is the thriller in trouble?

 Normally I’m an optimistic person, but a recent conversation with a publishing professional worries me, and it has to do with the future of fiction sales in general, and of thrillers in particular.

 “In the U.S.,” she said, “thrillers are dying.”

 That startled me. I’ve long observed that thrillers dominate bestseller lists, far outselling mystery novels. (And I’ll let you provide your own definition of mystery vs. thriller.) Checking out the most recent New York Times hardcover bestseller list, I see that eight of the top fifteen slots are taken up by thrillers. So why on earth would this professional think the genre is in trouble, when thrillers so obviously rule the bestseller list?

 “Look at the names on that bestseller list,” she pointed out. “Do you see any new names? Any author you haven’t seen there many times before?”

 That’s where she had me. Among the names I see on the latest list are Patterson, Evanovich, Cussler, Deaver, Koontz… are you seeing the picture here? Hardly any new names are getting onto the list. The old reliables are there, month after month, year after year, but new authors are having a tougher time than ever.

 And that was her point. 

 Now, this may simply be a perennial complaint, and I’m sure that every generation of writers moans that there’s no room for new voices. But this woman has been in publishing for decades, and she feels this is the worst market for new writers that she’s seen. Editors find it harder than ever to launch massive sales campaigns for debut thriller writers because there’ve been so many recent flops. In the past few years, I can think of a dozen thrillers, written by either debut or previously mid-list authors, that were given huge pushes because of white-hot in-house enthusiasm and terrific pre-pub buzz. These efforts were expensive. They included author tours and ad campaigns and loads of review coverage. I had the chance to read the galleys of a number of them, and I believed that several of them were sure-fire hits. The books, for the most part, were well-reviewed and well-distributed. They got acres of display space at Barnes and Noble and Borders. Then the books got out into the marketplace.

 And they died. Or they had okay, but not stellar, sales.

 For the author, the aftermath can be painful. He simply has to suck it up, finish the next book, and hope that he’ll get one more chance at making the list in paperback, or with his next hardcover release. But too often, you only get one chance at the golden ring, and if you’ve had a well-advertised flop, your reputation as a failure – and your poor sales figures — could follow you to your grave.

 These recent flops have made publishers cautious about taking on new authors. Conversely, it’s increased the value of the old reliables, the authors who manage to hit the list with every book. Those big names may be expensive to keep in the stable, but after you’ve lost a bundle launching a few debut flops, a publisher re-appreciates the sure-fire names. 

 And there’s only a limited number of them.

 So what’s a struggling author to do? An author who isn’t yet a big name, and whose sales are only middling?

 Bestsellerdom is not forever out of your reach, because there’s an alternative way to be a hugely successful author, even if you never sell another book on U.S. soil. And that’s to sell like gangbusters everywhere else.

 A few months ago, in Publishers Weekly, there was a pie chart showing worldwide profits, over time, of Bertelsmann publishing. What leaped out at me was the fact U.S. sales are a dwindling percentage of their profits, while sales in other countries make up more and more of their profits. Foreign sales seem to be pretty healthy. American sales seem more and more anemic.

 When I travel to other countries, I see a vast array of bestselling books written by Americans, including names that are only midlist in the U.S. These authors may be considered unknowns at home, but overseas, they’re huge. And they’re making fine incomes – even better lately, since those sales in Euros translate to more and more dollars on your royalty statement. 

 The foreign markets, at least, seem to be doing fine. But in the U.S, we have a problem.

 Should thriller writers be worried about the current book market? Yes. As should novelists of any genre. We should all be worried that U.S. book sales are flat and that kids are staring at computers and TVs instead of books. We should be worried that the digital age may mean an end to effective copyright protection. We should be worried that we’re the equivalent of buggy whip manufacturers.

 But all we can do is keep writing.

I wouldn’t want to be married to me

Tess Gerritsen


Let us sing in praise of the author’s spouse.


Mine has certainly had a rough time of it lately while I struggled to meet my deadline. For the past few months I didn’t take a single day off. Several times a night, I’d awaken sweating and sick with dread, certain that my manuscript was doomed and my talent was spent. I holed up sixteen hours a day in my office, emerging only for dinner, and then I’d make only half-hearted attempts at conversation because my mind was still on my characters. I turned down concerts, party invitations, sailing trips, and walks in the woods, forcing my spouse to do everything solo. The book was sucking the life out of me. Exhausted by sleepless nights, I made slow progress on the book. And slow progress on the book gave me sleepless nights. 


But last week, everything changed. I finally turned in the manuscript and my editor loved it.


For the first time in months, I’m sleeping all night. Suddenly I’m hot to party, to shop, to dine out, to travel. It’s as if a mood switch has been flipped. Or I’ve just swallowed a handful of the world’s best uppers. I’m a whole new glorious me.


My husband takes it in stride.


A writer’s year is punctuated by these wild manic-depressive mood swings. I know my own pattern so well that, a year ahead of time, I can mark out on the calendar when I’ll be my happy self, and when I’ll begin the annual and perfectly predictable descent into insanity. I’ve learned not to schedule anything at all during the three months prior to a deadline. I’ve learned that the best part of the year is right after my manuscript has been accepted, but before the first (sometimes painful) reviews start dribbling in. 


Which adds up to maybe three or four really good months out of the year. 


But once the reviews come in, once the book goes on sale and the promotional cycle begins, life around the Gerritsen household starts to get tense again.


And once again, my husband takes it in stride.


He and I have gone through this cycle so many times that he knows what to expect. But it doesn’t make it any easier to take. Recently, we had dinner with another writer and her non-writing spouse, and her husband admitted that in their household, too, things get really hairy around deadline time. These stresses affect every writer, and every writer’s spouse.


Yet so many writers I know have solid, enduring marriages. That surprises me, because I can’t imagine we writers are easy to live with. Maybe we just chose our spouses well. Maybe we got lucky. 


Or maybe we’re just incredibly exciting, sexy, creative beings…


For four months out of the year.

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