The Red ChhurchThe HarvestThe ManorThe HomeThe Farm
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Midlist Adventures
By Scott Nicholson

Nearly four years ago, I sold my first novel The Red Church and spent the year leading up to its publication writing a monthly column series following the book’s path through the publication process. The "Virgin in the Church" articles were well-received, and I still get emails about them from time to time. I hope new writers find the information useful, and I plan to leave the series posted on my site at www.hauntedcomputer.com for at least a few more years. I believed everything I wrote at the time, but after four novels I’ve learned that I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did.

I’ll admit, I was a bit starry-eyed, but I also tempered my joy with a hard edge of realism. I’d learned enough about the book business to see publication as the first step on a long road. At my level as a midlist writer of paperback originals, there would be no Publisher’s Weekly ads, no major newspaper coverage, no beefy promotional budget. The Red Church could get out on the bookstore shelves, take up space for a few months, then sink beneath the avalanche of new titles. It actually did better than that, and sold at least well enough to retain store presence for a couple of years, and seems to still be on the shelves at one or two of the major chains. The book was an alternate selection of the Mystery Guild, and the Doubleday book clubs sold maybe 8,000 to 10,000 hardcover copies. It also received a second printing in paperback and earned out its advance within a year, so I get a royalty check every six months for as long as the book stays afloat.

When The Harvest came out, I wasn’t sure I wanted to match the level of promotion I’d invested in the first book. For one thing, I had more writing obligations. For another, spending all day driving to a bookstore, then sitting there trying to sell a handful of books, was not the most efficient way to make money and didn’t fit my nature as a recluse. While I still believe there are benefits to book signings, and plan to do a half-dozen or so for each of my releases, I no longer subscribe to a full-scale blitz of every store within driving distance. I actually did less promotion, had fewer reviews, and generated less press coverage. Its best Amazon ranking measured in the tens of thousands, while The Red Church was ranked below 3,000 for several months upon release. I also don’t think The Harvest was as polished as my debut. Yet the book sold as many copies in three months as The Red Church did in a year, nearly earning out its advance in that period.

I suspect the publisher’s increasing the initial print run had a lot to do with strong store orders. The Red Church was sold on a one-book deal, while The Harvest was the first of a two-book contract. The publisher’s investment gave it incentive to promote and sell more of my books. I haven’t received a royalty statement for The Manor, which was released in September, but from secondhand reports I’d guess the book had much better distribution than the first two, particularly in Canada. Before The Manor was released, I agreed to a new three-book contract, further ramping up the publisher’s need to build my name.

I marked The Manor’s release with a handful of store signings. One thing that had changed in the last couple of years was the reluctance of major chains to hold signings. Some have done away with resource managers altogether, and other stores view a live author as nothing but an inconvenience. The Internet has offered ways to connect with readers from the comfort of the office, and I still do numerous radio interviews. Regional newspapers usually cover my books, so I can focus on building a core audience here at home while word-of-mouth trickles out across the rest of North America.

Some writers get cynical after a few books, feeling publishers are out of touch and don’t want to do anything to promote their writers. I’ve always tried to look at my career from my publisher’s point of view. When you release about 600 new books a year, you don’t have time to worry about each one of them, only the most expensive and the best positioned. Realistically, most of the mass market titles are disposable, and the goal is to turn a small profit on each instead of gambling the house on a handful of high-profile titles. I see this practice as a benefit for writers, because it assures new voices a chance to break in, and those veterans who manage to speak to a dedicated audience will get more opportunities to stay in the game.

I’ve also learned that, to a large extent, bestsellers are made and not born. The Da Vinci Code looked like a word-of-mouth bestseller that rose on a spontaneous groundswell. Yet its publisher printed 10,000 advance review copies, which is more than the entire print run of the average hardcover novel, then made sure every bookstore rep, reviewer, and entertainment editor had a copy. The simple formula I’ve discovered is that higher advance equals bigger print run equals more promotion and a bigger push by the marketing department. If one of my subsequent books lags in any of those areas, then it will be time to rethink my career and maybe reinvent myself in a new genre under a pen name. I don’t plan to let that happen, though.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that hard writing makes for easy selling. My publisher purged a number of writers from its horror list, yet kept me and two or three others. A number of new horror writers are getting a shot there. I’m sure in a couple of years a few of those will move up while others are jettisoned. Marketplace Darwinism. If you connect with people, they’ll stick with you.

With my fourth novel The Home coming out in August 2005, I feel like I’ve established a career foundation. I still have a long way to go to reach that inner circle of writers who can count on an audience and that next book deal. I’ve rid myself of all illusions of being a surprise bestseller. I’ve now come to suspect that it takes at least 20 years of hard work to become an overnight success.

(Scott Nicholson is the author of four novels, a story collection, three screenplays, and over 40 short stories. His website at www.hauntedcomputer.com contains news, writing advice, and interviews. Copyright 2005)

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