by Tess Gerritsen
On the heels of Joe Konrath's excellent blogpost about authors who are no longer being published, I've been thinking about the issue of survival. Like Joe, I can think of quite a few novelists who first appeared in print about the same time I made my debut, but who have since vanished from the publishing landscape. Not that we need to hear any more doom and gloom in these worrisome times, but Joe is right in pointing out that novel-writing is a precarious way to make a living. Even if you are one of the lucky writers who manages to land a publishing contract with a fat advance, there's no guarantee that your editor will offer you a second contract. Maybe your first book is a dud in the marketplace. Maybe your editor gets fired or your publisher goes belly-up. Maybe no one, anywhere, wants to see any more mysteries featuring crime-solving gerbils.
A few unpublished years later, you'll be yet another unfortunate author about whom people ask, "Whatever happened to…?"
There's not a lot we writers can do about ailing publishers or the changing tastes of the public. Even wonderful books can and do flop. Poor timing, an ugly cover, or plain old bad luck can doom a book's release. When all the stars line up against you, you might simply admit defeat and give up the dream of a writing career.
Or you might roll up your sleeves and look for ways to survive. If your last book sold poorly, you could change your pen name to escape that bad sales history. You might look for a new literary agent. You might adopt a different storytelling voice.
Or you might change genres entirely.
I have some experience in this last strategy. My first books were romantic suspense novels, most of them published by Harlequin Intrigue. The editorial guidelines suggested a balance of fifty percent romance and fifty percent suspense, with at least one love scene somewhere around the middle of the book. Foul language was to be avoided, as was overly graphic violence and disturbing topics. My audience was probably 99% female, and as romance readers, they expected happy endings. It's a fun genre to read, but writing those love scenes was an ordeal for me, generating piles of crumpled pages. Writers who denigrate the romance genre should try writing a four-page sex scene, without any purple prose, that manages to be both erotic and deeply emotional. It's the most challenging writing you'll ever do. It makes writing murder scenes seem like a piece of cake.
After writing nine romances, I decided it was time to switch genres. I wanted to be published in hardcover, and I wanted a chance at the bestseller list. I also wanted to pay for my kids' college tuitions. By then it was clear to me that I was a thriller writer at heart, and the thriller market was booming. But changing genres involved more than just tinkering with a familiar recipe, more than just ladling on a bit more gore and cutting out the sex scenes. I wanted to completely remake my career.
To do that, I had to toss out every rule I'd come to accept as a romance author. I had to approach plotting in an entirely different way. In a romance, the primary relationship is between the hero and heroine. In a thriller, it's between the hero and the villain.
As I wrote HARVEST, I was tempted again and again to revert back to my comfortable romance writer mode. It felt strange and even scary not to include a love story. Would my readers feel cheated? Would they be bored with the medical and forensic details? Would they be disturbed by the violence? And what about my bittersweet ending — was that going to get me into trouble? I questioned my choices every step of the way and felt like a newbie struggling to write her very first book. But I had to make HARVEST demonstrate a new phase in my career — which is how the story ended up bloodier and more disturbingly graphic than even I had planned.
Abruptly switching genres worked for my career, but that doesn't mean this is the way every writer should do it. I've attracted a new audience of thriller readers, but I probably lost some of my romance audience along the way, readers who like thrillers but feel a book without a love story is missing something. That romance audience is a huge one, and no writer wants to lose them.
Which is why so many romance authors breaking into the thriller market do it with romantic thrillers. They never quite abandon their romance roots — or their romance audience. Some of them, like Nora Roberts and Sandra Brown, are wildly successful. But straddling both romance and suspense can annoy thriller purists, and if they discover you once wrote romance, they'll let you know it. If you change genres, you might also want to change your pen name, just to avoid confusing readers. I often wish I'd done that; it might have spared me a lot of angry reader emails.
The most important thing you must do, if you hope to survive in this business, is to never stop writing. Change your pen name, change your genre. Keep searching for that special character, that special voice, that will make your next story stand out above the otheres. You might have to write ten or twenty books before you finally discover your niche in the market.
But you'll never find it if you stop writing.