By P.J. Parrish
hit me the other day – as I was watching that cheesy old Clint Eastwood movie
“The Eiger Sanction” – that publishing is all about mountain climbing. And we are all on different parts of the
mountain, hanging on by our Lee’s Press-Ons, digging for whatever footholds we
can find on what seems like an increasingly icy slope.
with me here, I used up all the good metaphors on the just-finished book).
I’ve never climbed a real mountain, but a friend who has tells me that you need
stamina, skills and guts. I’d like to add something – ingenuity.
know those of you who are just starting out don’t want to hear this, but here
goes: It is damn hard to get published. But it is even harder these days to stay published.
think it’s easy to climb Mount Everest? Wait until you have to camp on it.
you’re first trying to get published, it’s like you’re standing at the bottom
of this towering mountain. It all looks so intimidating but still exciting and
you’re dizzy with the possibilities.
damn, it’s perilous. One false move, and you can have what my climber friend
calls a “zipper fall.” This is a fall of such length and velocity that the
climber’s protective devices are ripped from the rock in rapid succession. AKA:
Your publisher went bankrupt, your agent disappeared into the witness
protection program, your C-drive crashed, and the manuscript you’ve been
working on for ten years, “The Rembrandt Rubic” just came out with Dan Brown’s
name on it.
most us who are climbing the mountain will experience something less dramatic.
We will simply hit a plateau and find ourselves stranded on some cold, windy
tor. Maybe this has already happened to you.
it is because, after climbing for so long, you’ve just run out of gas in the
ever-thinning air. You might have starred reviews in PW and window display in
Black Orchid. You snagged an award or two. Hell, even Kirkus likes you. But you
just can’t seem to get any higher. You are stuck on Midlist Mountain.
do you do? Two choices: Sit there and freeze your ass off or find a way to
reinvent yourself and get moving again.
been thinking a lot about the extremes authors go to to survive these days. I
am involved in the Mystery Writer of America’s mentor program and have been
trying to help a writer who was on a fast track, lost her footing and went into
a free fall. Her first novel was named to PW’s Best Books of the Year list, she
had great reviews and name-in-lights promises from her Big Name Publisher. They
gave her a huge print run. You can guess what happened: her sell-through was
abysmal because, let’s face it, not a lot of readers are going to shell out $25
for an unknown. And now, her name is “poison” because whenever the buyer at
B&N punches it into a computer, the bad numbers come up.
of this was her fault. I read the book and it’s terrific. But her publisher, by
overprinting a debut, set her up for failure. So now she is trying to climb
back out of the crevasse.
how does she get around this numbers game? She could take a page from some of
the strategies other authors are using to keep ascending the mountain:
1. THE DEBUT REDUX: So you’ve got four
or five books out there and you’re doing okay. But your sherpa agent says he’s
taken you as high as he can. The new attack: You come up with a new name and go
out as a “first-time” author. Your name isn’t in any bookstore computer, so you
have a blank slate. Take the case of Lisa Unger. The author of the April
release “Beautiful Lies” got starred reviews in PW and Booklist, the latter
saying: “An outstanding debut…Unless readers scan the biographical
information first, they will never guess that Unger is a first novelist.” Well,
she’s not. Lisa Unger is Lisa Miscione, who wrote five fine books featuring New
York crime writer Lydia Strong. Do I begrudge the author this strategy? Hell
no. Lisa Unger nee Miscione is now a New York Times bestseller. She’s not
sitting on her butt in the cold anymore, folks.
2. THE NOM DE GUERRE: Many authors have
gone this route, starting a new series under a new pen name. Reed Farrel
Coleman, whose “The James Deans” has been shortlisted for the Edgar, Macavity
and Shamus this year, has a new book coming out this October called “Hose
Monkey” written under the name Tony Spinosa. It’s third-person POV to his usual
first, and he calls it “grittier, sexier, harder edge.”
tells me, “I did it under a pen name just to create some buzz and some
separation from the Moe Prager books. It’s kind of a lark. However, there are legitimate reasons to do series
under a pen name. I think publishers are almost more comfortable with a blank
slate than they are with numbers that might be okay but below
expectations. It’s easier for
publishers to sell unknowns to Borders and Barnes and Noble. By using a pen
name, you take history out of the equation. Do I wish things were different? Of course, but wishing never counted
for anything in this world.”
3. THE PAPERBACK TRAIL. This strategy
is suddenly hot in New York, with publishers taking their hardcover midlisters
“back” to PBO in the hopes of
generating the higher numbers needed to grow a mass market audience. This is
mostly being used with titles by promising — but not yet blockbuster —
I have several friends traversing this route up the mountain. When Paul
Levine wanted to get back into the novel-writing biz after a stint in Hollywood
(writing mostly "JAG") he found “the publishing industry wasn’t
exactly kicking down my door.” Despite the fact he had eight critically acclaimed
crime novels behind him, he had to sell his new comic courtroom novel “Solomon
vs Lord” on spec. When his editor at Bantam, Kate Miciak, suggested that the
best way to build an audience quickly was in mass market with books published
six or seven months apart, Paul wasn’t happy.
wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear,” he says. “All seven of my Jake Lassiter
novels and one stand-alone were published in hardcover. But I put my ego under
wraps and agreed to a four-book deal with all the paperbacks to be ‘Super Releases’
and Bantam doing ample promotion.”
happy with the results. "Solomon vs. Lord" (Oct. 2005) did well; "The Deep Blue Alibi"
(Feb. 2006) showed growth; and the outlook seems bright for "Kill All the
Lawyers" (Sept. 2006). Paul says it’s an exhausting schedule, “especially
because I also wrote a pilot for CBS last winter. Now, I’m working on the
fourth book of the Solomon series and, if all goes well, looking forward to
moving into hardcover with the next contract."
And apparently, there’s no loss in quality: “Solomon vs. Lord" is
nominated for both the 2006 Macavity award and the Thurber Humor Award.
example of HC to PBO success: Jim Swain, author of the popular series featuring
casino-crime expert Tony Valentine. With great hardcover reviews and a solid
base of loyal readers already in hand, Jim recently agreed to a book deal that
would make most authors slit their wrists. He is writing two $6.99 paperbacks
that will be released five weeks apart.
"I know a hundred great writers in this field," he told the
Wall Street Journal recently. "The key is reaching readers. You need them
to try you at least once. All the advertising in the world won’t accomplish
anything if a person won’t pick the books up."
Swain’s switch work? Here are some numbers: 150,000 copies of both his PBOs
"Deadman’s Poker" and "Deadman’s Bluff" in print. His
earlier hardcovers have sold 30,000 to 35,000.
know what Paul and Jim are talking about when they mention the ego thing. My
own 1999 debut “Dark of the Moon” came out in hardcover. But then a veep took
over who had made her chops in breaking out authors in mass market. So back to
the paperback ghetto I went.
I was upset about less prestige and fewer reviews. (But you’d be surprised how
many PBOs DO get reviewed). But I got a tradeoff payoff. My press runs have
steadily increased over seven books. The books are now in outlets like Costco
and Walmart, which are, sad but true, now essential to bestseller success. We
have made the lists of USA Today and even the extended New York Times.
I still yearn for hardcover? You betcha. But I ask myself one question every
day: Would I rather have 25,000 chances to win a new reader or 250,000? Forced
to choose, would I rather be reviewed in the New York Times or be on its
answer is simple. In these tough times, I want to make a living doing what I
love to do, and that’s tell stories. And I want those stories to find readers.
climber friend says there’s a slang term called “scuzzing.” It means to gain a
hold on the rock with body parts other than the hands or feet, however tenuous
or aesthetically displeasing.
So here I am, bivouacked with my buds on paperback hill. Some might call
it scuzzing. I call it surviving.
P.J. Parrish is the author of the
critically acclaimed Louis Kincaid series. Her books have been nominated for an
Edgar and three Anthonys. She just received her fourth Shamus nomination this
Thanks for sharing PJ. Great insights and this explains a lot of puzzling trends. Should be interesting to see what happens to many of the newer authors who have been given huge advances with the hopes of success. If they don’t hit their goals, it will be hard for them to stay in print. Seems better to start out a bit smaller in print run, and money, get the reviews, and build in the old fashioned way. But people want instant gratification. Hard to do with so many choices in entertainment these days, and also the demise of the independent booksellers who hand sell the unknowns.
Thanks, PJ. Your information was extremely helpful. How do I get the Montee sisters for a mentor? 🙂
Thanks, PJ. I know from experience what being a “debut author” can do. And props to Lisa Miscione for getting it done.
I agree (although my ego takes the hit) that original paperback is where it’s at to build audience. Who wouldn’t want to be in Costco?
This is a perilous situation–very slippery—and any of us could fall at any moment. Our best chance is to build a reliable audience. Unfortunately, that takes time, but it’s better than being a one-hit wonder. And strangely enough, after painstakingly building that audience, authors are sometimes asked to jog over to another name that will finally make them! Crazy, crazy business!
A slippery slope, indeed. Paul Levine’s books are terrific and highly recommended and he’s a great guy as well, so I hope it works out for him.
I’ve wondered from time to time if the publishing industry wouldn’t be better off essentially abandoning the hardcover book in favor of paperback originals, due largely to the price. I don’t buy many hardcovers any more because I’m a book reviewer and I get more books shipped to me than I can possibly read, let alone review, but during one of my lag periods where I didn’t review, I still had to choose which books were important enough for me to read in hardcover. $24.95, or the creeping $25.95, $26.95, $27.95… and even with discounts at the chains for bestsellers, at some point unless you’re really loaded, you have to say, hey, $25 is a lot of money compared to $6.99. I can wait. There are plenty of other books out there I can pick up for less. And I’m a book freak!
I noticed Tess Gerritsen had a recent blog post about the bigger paperbacks (not trades, but that squirrelly new mass market size that doesn’t fit on the shelves at bookstores) and how the price has been $9.95, which I agree is starting to edge out of the impulse buy price range for books. Although it might be consumer training–it’s okay to buy a music album (assuming you don’t download, in which case it’s still about $10 per album), or a movie DVD for $14 or $19, and god forbid if you’ve got kids buying video games, $40 or $50 for news games, but still think a paperback book at $9.95 is expensive.
My next book, The Devil’s Pitchfork, will be out in trade paperback at $13.95, which hopefully will be considered moderately affordable. Compared to my first book, Catfish Guru, which went out at $17.95 for trade paperback, which was only one of many, many nails in its coffin, its publisher being the primary slammer on that particular lid…
The point being, I guess, that PBO sounds pretty damned good overall.
Damn, Kris! This is one fantastic essay! I only wish I’d known all of this when I started out. A great wake up call for every writer!
Thanks so much for being a guest-and I hope you’ll come back again. Hell, I’ll make sure you do!
Sorry I arrived at this party so late. Great words of wisdom, Kris. As a trade PBO writer mystery writer myself, I’ve had to learn the pros and cons of different formats.And yes, many outlets are now reviewing PBOs, so that shouldn’t be such a concern.