by Tess Gerritsen
For the past six months, I've been doing something that conventional publishing wisdom says could cause my career to crash. I've avoided any and all work on my next book. Which is not to say that I've stopped writing entirely. I've contributed a chapter for a serial novel. I've also written a piece for International Thriller Writers' upcoming anthology. I've been blogging, both here and on my own site. I also went on a very long book tour. But as for working on my next novel, the work that actually pays the bills?
I haven't produced a single word.
What this means is that next year, I won't have a new hardcover on the stands. There'll be the paperback release of THE KEEPSAKE, but without a new hardcover, there'll be no book tour and none of the promotional hullaballoo that comes with having a new title on the stands. If you ask most publishing professionals, this gap in my annual release schedule is a Very Bad Thing for an author's career. They'll tell you: "If you go away for more than a year, readers will forget you exist. They'll move on to another author, and you'll never get them back. You must not let a year go by without a new book. Better yet, write two books — no, four books — a year! And while you're at it, make them all masterpieces!"
I've tried to follow that advice. Over the past twenty-one years, I've produced twenty-one books (counting my romances.) I'm not fast enough to turn out more than a book a year, but with the exception of the year 2000, I've managed to stick to an annual release schedule. And yes, I've watched my readership build and my "real estate" grow in bookstores, as my titles took up more and more shelf space.
But as the years went by, my promotional travel took more and more weeks away from my writing. I wasn't just touring in the U.S.; I was promoting my titles abroad as well. I love touring, but meeting my deadlines became a stomach-churning ordeal. I began turning in my manuscripts closer and closer to their on-sale dates, which meant that the books had to be "crashed" into publication, leaving little time for reviews or advance word of mouth. My biggest pleasure is travel, but even when I managed to carve out a few weeks for a vacation trip, I'd spend it fretting over my next deadline. My whole existence, from the moment I woke up till the moment I dropped to sleep, was dominated by the publishing cycle.
Then my dad died. And my mom, living alone in California, started going blind. As I scrambled to finish writing THE KEEPSAKE, I was fielding ever-more-urgent calls from her to take care of things!
That's when I called a halt to the madness. I needed to step off the publishing treadmill — not just for my family, but also for my own well-being. I turned in my manuscript, cleared off my desk, and let my agent know that I wanted to take a sabbatical. I didn't want to even talk about a new contract. I could take the time off, couldn't I? I could write a book at my leisure, and sell it only after it was completed, couldn't I? It would mean no more contracted deadlines, just the old pleasure of storytelling at my own pace. Maybe the next book would take eighteen months. Maybe it'd take a leisurely two or even three years. With all that extra time, I could write a bigger, fatter novel. University professors are allowed sabbaticals every seven years, and here I'd gone for twenty-one years without one. Why not insist on time off? How bad could it be for my career?
That, it turns out, is an unanswerable question. No doubt there are writers who dropped out of the publishing cycle for a few years who never came back. But there's also Sue Grafton, who took a year off from her mystery series, and came roaring back onto the bestseller lists when she resumed writing. There's Diana Gabaldon, whose sprawling stories take more than a year to write, and whose readership only seems to grow with each new installment. Ken Follett turns out books every few years. So did Michael Crichton. I have my own example to point to. After my book GRAVITY came out in 1999, it took another two years before my next book, THE SURGEON, was released. And my sales for THE SURGEON far exceeded my sales for GRAVITY. Clearly, taking a year off does not always mean your sales will suffer.
It may also be the best thing an exhausted writer can do for her career. It gives her the chance to rest and get back her writing mojo. It gives her the time to pursue the interests and passions she's put off for far too long. It allows her to refill the creative well with all the quirky facts and anecdotes that will end up enriching future stories.
After six months of not writing, I'm already feeling the benefits of that time away. I didn't spend it lolling around the house. I used it to do what needed to be done. I packed up my mom's belongings and moved her out of her California home, to Maine. I've found a place for her in a retirement home three miles away from me. I've gotten her financial affairs in order, connected her with numerous medical specialists, and driven her to countless medical appointments. In short, I've "taken care of things," and both she and I are now sleeping easier at night.
I've also indulged in the interests that I put off for far too long. I started learning how to read hieroglyphs, and took the trip to Egypt that I'd been dreaming about. I caught up on my back issues of Biblical Archaeology and National Geographic. I walked three miles in the state park every day.
I bought four new pairs of shoes.
Now the old creative juices are flowing again, and the next Rizzoli and Isles story is already materializing in my head. In preparation, I've placed a box of new pens and a stack of blank paper on my desk. I'm actually looking forward to writing this book, and I'm ready to jump back into the publishing cycle.
The wonderful part is this: my publisher understands. After I finished THE KEEPSAKE, I didn't even want to talk about renewing my contract. I wasn't trying to be coy; I was just too exhausted to think about future deadlines. Once it became clear to them that what I really wanted was nothing more than a six-month break, we could start talking about a deal.
I've just signed a new three-book contract. The first manuscript isn't due until December '09.
A six-month sabbatical was exactly what I needed at this point in my life. Will a year without a new release hurt my sales? I don't know. But speaking as a reader, I don't see why it should. When I find an author I love, I'm patient enough to wait two or three years for her next book. A wait of more than five years, though, may well cool my ardor. That's enough of a delay to make me forget what made her last book, and her characters, so compelling. I believe that a five-year gap is indeed a career killer.
But two years? I don't think so, especially if the next book is well worth the wait. You'll lose far more readers if you keep turning out book after book, right on schedule, in a series that grows ever more stale and mediocre.
I'm curious to hear what other readers think. How many years are you willing to wait for an author's next book? At what point do you lose interest in a continuing character?
And for the writers: how close are you to exhaustion? How would your publisher — and your agent — react if you wanted to take a sabbatical?