Yesterday I got the call from my UK editor: last week, the paperback edition of VANISH was the number one bestselling book in the United Kingdom.Â Â And THE MEPHISTO CLUB was the number two bestselling hardcover novel.Â
So how did it happen?Â How did Transworld (my publisher there)Â manage to pull off the astonishing feat of taking an American novelistÂ handicapped by pitifully poor salesÂ toÂ aÂ number one bestselling authorÂ in the span of only six books?Â
Â I like to think the actual books had something to do with it.Â In the end,Â of course,Â the books have to stand on their own, without the hype and the advertising money.Â And then there’s a certain amount of luck involved.Â ButÂ savvy publishing is absolutely necessary as well, the sort of publishing that only happens when you have an editor who believes in your books, and a publishing team that feels personally invested in the books’Â success.Â What Transworld did for me isn’t going to be successful for every author.Â But watching them work was an educationÂ in what great publishing is all about.
First, it started with an enthusiastic and inspiring editor.Â Selina Walker has gainedÂ a reputation in the UK as being the queen of crime publishing.Â When she loves a book, she fights for it tooth and nail.Â She gets the whole company rooting for it.Â She was the one who acquired THE SURGEON.Â Â Despite my horrible sales record with four earlier titles, she decided she could build me as a crime writer.Â She sent the manuscript around to everyone at Transworld to build enthusiasm.Â Then they got to work, starting with:
— Packaging.Â They gave THE SURGEON a stark white cover unlike anything I’ve ever had before.Â To be honest, I didn’t understand it.Â Â It didn’t speak to me.Â But it seemed to speak to the UK audience.Â While the hardcover didn’t hit any lists, it did sell reasonably well — enough to give Transworld hope that my UK career was not, in fact, dead as a doornail.Â
— Advertising.Â Not only were there ads in trade publications, they also printed up a ton of chapter teasers, which were distributed throughout coffee shops in the UK.Â When you went in for your cappucino, and you needed something short to read while you drank your coffee, you could pick up one of these little booklets and read the first chapter of THE SURGEON.
— Book tour.Â I didn’t visit the UK until the hardcover release of THE APPRENTICE.Â And when I did, I have to admit it was somewhat discouraging.Â I was still an unknown.Â I remember sitting in a bookstore next to another crime writer, and a customer gushed to the other writer about how great her books were.Â ThenÂ he looked at me and said with a shrug, “sorry, I have no idea who you are.”Â Out of sheer pity he bought a paperback of THE SURGEON,Â but I knew he wasn’t going to read it.Â I was a nobody. Â At that moment I knew I had a long, long way to go.Â I soldiered on.Â I felt privileged to be interviewed on BBC Radio.Â I was ecstatic when I saw transit ads for my books.Â While THE APPRENTICE hardcover didn’t hit the top-ten list,Â THE SURGEON, in paperback,Â hit #6 on the London Times bestseller list.Â
In 2005, I returned to the UK to tourÂ for the hardcover of BODY DOUBLE.Â Once again, there were interviews on BBC,Â transit ads, andÂ this time an absolutely spellbinding cover design, featuring a woman’s face.Â Perhaps most important of all, I wasÂ taken around to lunches and dinners with key buyers for the major chains.Â By now, we were beginning to see the results of the repeated book tours.Â BODY DOUBLE hit #4 on the hardcover bestseller list, and THE SINNERÂ peaked at #9 on the paperback list.
2006 brought yet another UK book tour, forÂ the VANISHÂ hardcover.Â By now, Transworld’s commitment to me was really starting to pay off.Â While I wasn’t getting as many radio interviews (due to my repeated earlier visits to the UK), I was getting more review attention.Â I was getting widespread distribution.Â The large bookstore chains, WH Smith and Waterstones, were featuring me in displays.Â Â I was picked up by the Tesco’s supermarket chain.Â The result:Â VANISH hit the hardcover bestseller list at a startling #2, and the paperback of BODY DOUBLE was #4.
Finally, we come to this year.Â At last, I’m no longer feeling like a totalÂ unknown — although I don’t yet have the rabid following that other crime writers there do.Â Over the years, Transworld had singlemindedly plowed the way for my success, and they don’t let up this time.Â Â I’m featured inÂ a BOOKSELLER (a trade publication) article.Â I’m asked to write a feature article about a true-crime case from my childhood, and it appears in the UK Telegraph the sameÂ week THE MEPHISTO CLUB goes on sale.Â The package design, once again, is stunning.Â In fact, they just keep gettingÂ better and better.Â Again, there are transit ads and plenty of review attention andÂ many bookstores feature MEPHISTO CLUB and the VANISH paperback at the front of their stores.
And now, I’m the number-one bestselling author.Â Well, for one week at least.
The lesson to be learned here is this: great publishingÂ can indeedÂ build an author into a top bestseller.Â Â It requires a publisher’s commitment, and the investment of time and money.Â It doesn’t happen overnight; sometimes it takes six books (as it did for me).Â There may be bumps along the way — a book that doesn’t quite perform as well asÂ an earlier one, for instance.Â WiseÂ publishersÂ know these bumps aren’t unusual, and will stick withÂ an author they believe in.
The sad fact is, many publishers don’t take the long-term view.Â One poorly selling book may make them drop an author from their stable.Â Or they give an author one or two books to “make it” and if their sales don’t immediatelyÂ take off, they dump the author.Â Corporate America, unfortunately, has taken this craze for short-termÂ benefits to an extreme.Â You see it in our auto manufacturers,Â who years ago couldn’t be bothered with revolutionizing fuel economy, and now find themselves struggling to play catch-up with Japanese auto-makers.Â They wantÂ toÂ produce aÂ bestselling car now, notÂ look ahead to ten years down the line.
But we’re talking about books here, not cars.Â And we’re talking about readers, who sometimes take years to discover an author.Â I wish every publisher was as patient as Transworld.Â I wish they were all as committed to an author’s long-term success.Â I think many editors want to be — if only corporate management would let them.
As an author, I have to admit that it’s pretty scary to realize how much is out of our hands.Â We can write great books, and do it quickly and reliably,Â but the marketplace is unforgiving.Â A few poor sellers, andÂ your career starts into a death spiral.Â Which is what happened to me in the UK with my first four books.Â After GRAVITY, I couldn’t even find a publisher there.
The fact I’ve been reborn just goes to show that even a dead career can be resurrected.Â