When I was an unpublished novelist, struggling to break through, to find an agent, to find a publisher willing to pay me for the privilege of seeing my work on a store bookshelf, I thought the biggest day of my writing life would be the day of my first sale. And it was. The day my agent called to tell me that my first novel had been bought by Ballantine Books (an imprint of publishing giant Random House) I cried like an infant. I held it together while my agent gave me the news, but the moment we hung up I lost it. Then I called those close to me and cried with them, too. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I had been writing since I was eleven, and by then I was thirty, and that seemed like a really long time to me. Other writers have waited longer, some shorter. But for me it was basically my whole life, and it was an emotional day.
The impact of that day carried long and far. In every way I became a happier guy, a more confident guy. I was no longer living a life of quiet desperation. I had made my mark. I was going to be published. In hardcover. I mean, give me a fucking break, right?
But in the end, I’m nothing if not a realist, and after the high wore off I realized there were still hurdles awaiting me. Because if you want to publish your work, you don’t want to stop after a two-book deal, right? If you want to keep publishing, you have to sell enough copies to make it worth the publisher’s time. And to be honest my first novel didn’t make that big a splash. It’s hard to know why. Maybe it wasn’t good enough. Maybe the story idea made it seem like one kind of a book, but the content appealed to a different kind of reader. If I told you it was about a guy who volunteers for a scientific experiment gone awry, you might think of Michael Crichton. But the book is anything but Crichton. He’s a great writer of science thrillers, but Rift is more about an existential dilemma. The people who like it the most don’t read very many science thrillers. But how else do you market a book with a plot like that?
Same for book 2. The God Particle is a story about a businessman, a particle physicist, and a news anchor. It’s about the search for meaning in a confusing universe, both scientifically and spiritually. The plot sounds like hard science fiction, but in reality the book appealed to some sci-fi readers but not all. It turned off some of those sci-fi people because it was too much about characters and relationships. Which is exactly what I intended. I love sci-fi, but I never wanted to be solely a sci-fi writer myself.
Anyway, after a couple of years of mediocre sales it’s easy to become disillusioned. You wonder if maybe you’re writing for too small an audience. You expect, when you sell your first novel, that yours will be a life of book signings and media appearances and the like. Pub parties. Endless hours in front of your computer, churning out beloved novels. You write a third novel, try hard to do something different, unique, but you’re not sure if it’s unique or a discordant mess. Is it your most ambitious work or bile taking the form of words?
Today I did a local TV interview. There were a couple of authors and me. Ryan Jones and Jonathan Neff. They were very nice, and when one of them asked which agency I was with, and I told him, he remarked, “That’s a very powerful agency. How in the hell did you land them?”
It’s easy to forget that your agency reps one of the most popular novels of all time. That your agent is very successful and loves your work. That your editor is currently watching one of his authors climb into the top six on the NY Times hardcover bestseller list (and happens to also love your work.)
It’s easy to forget that you’re living your dream, even if it’s not (yet) exactly how you imagined it.
And there are all kind of bestseller lists, by the way. You have to start somewhere. In 2005, my two novels spent some time on the eBook bestseller lists. eBooks sell at a small fraction of traditional books, but they still compete with each other in the same way. And for a short time, both my novels performed well among national competition. Here are two (not-Photoshopped) screenshots I took. They don’t mean much, but they make me happy. Not because I think success means being a bestselling author, but because they give me hope that someday I might not have to worry whether the next book is going to be picked up or not.
Have a great weekend,