Scratching my head over bestseller lists

In the UK, it’s easy.  There’s one list, and it’s based on hard numbers compiled by Nielson Bookscan, a computerized tracking system that records the majority of actual sales.  There’s no fudging of numbers, no weighing of literary vs. non-literary.  Numbers rule.

Here in the U.S., bestseller lists are mysterious things, compiled using a combination of real numbers and voodoo magic.  Some lists include young adult fiction, and others restrict it to only adult fiction.  Finally, there’s the USA Today list, which includes all books, in every format.  So not only do the lists compile their numbers differently, they also may include different combinations of books.

The first week’s position of THE BONE GARDEN on various lists is a good illustration of how variable these lists can be.  Here’s the rundown for the book’s first five days on sale:

Bookscan: #4 (adult fiction hardcover.  Method is equivalent to UK’s Bookscan; covers about 65% of actual sales.)

Publishers Weekly: #4 (adult fiction hardcover)

USA Today: #40.  (#5 adult fiction hardcover)

Wall Street Journal: #13 (list includes young adult fiction)

New York Times: #10 (adult fiction hardcover)

As you can see, the numbers are all over the place.  The one list everyone really cares about is the New York Times — and yet, I suspect it’s the least accurate in terms of raw numbers actually sold since it gives extra weight to literary books sold in independent stores. 

This second week, my book goes onto Co-op in Barnes and Noble, so it will be interesting to see the effect of co-op on sales there.  In the past, it’s been my observation that co-op increases sales by at least a third, but I based that estimate on the drop in sales after my books went off co-op.  This year, I’ll be able to see the effect the other way around. 

Home for a laundry break

I’m home for two days to deal with the bane of the traveling author’s life: dirty laundry.  But then it’s back on the road next week.

Book tour is a great way for authors to get an up-close look at how your book is selling (or not selling), and inevitably there are frustrations galore.  Publishers probably think authors whine and exaggerate when they complain about books not being displayed where they should be, but we’re the ones out there on the front lines, and we can spot the problems that our publishers in NYC can’t see. 

Take, for instance, the problems with co-op compliance.  I’ve blogged about this before.  When a book is on “co-op” it means the publisher has paid money for the books to be displayed at the front of the store.  This is the most powerful marketing tool a publisher can buy, but sometimes they don’t get their money’s worth.  Sometimes bookstores don’t put the books where they should.  On every single book tour I’ve been on (and I’m on my 11th one this year) I’ve seen numerous instances of noncompliance, and it drives me crazy.  I’ve heard industry estimates that the non-compliance rate is as high as 40%. 

Imagine paying for a dozen ears of corn, and only getting eight in your bag.  Yeah, you’d feel cheated, wouldn’t you?

This tour has been no different.  Last Tuesday, co-op for BONE GARDEN was supposed to start in Barnes and Noble.  The first three days, I visited four stores in three cities.  The book was at front-of-store in only one of those four stores.  When I inquired about their placement, the clerks were very friendly and quick to correct the situation, and they admitted that BONE GARDEN had somehow slipped through the cracks. 

By Friday, things were looking much better.  Every Barnes and Noble I visited that day in the Boston area had the book in the correct place.  It just took a little longer — four days — than it should have.

I’m curious about what other authors are experiencing.  Is anyone else seeing the same problems with co-op compliance?

Off on book tour

I’ll be on the road for the next few days on book tour, and hope I’ll be able to meet readers at my various signings.  First stop will be on Tuesday evening 9/25 at Baileys Crossroads, VA, at Borders Books and Music.  Then on Wednesday 9/26, it’s on to Atlanta, where I’ll appear at the Margaret Mitchell House at 6 PM.  On 9/27, at 7 PM, I’ll be at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

What can you expect if you come to my signing?  A lot of gory stories.  I don’t like to read from my books, but I do like to talk about how the story came about.  So I’ll be talking about the state of medicine in 1830, from what it was like to be a medical student (and how do you dig up a body?) to how amputations were done in that era before anesthesia.  People with weak stomachs are forewarned.

And I just want to shout out a huge thanks to my reader, Darijana in Virginia, who emailed me about an incorrect posting on the Borders website.  Because of her sharp eyes, a booksigning disaster at Baileys Crossroads was averted!

More posts when I get home again. 

Things authors can’t control.

I’ve heard from half a dozen people so far that, as of Friday, THE BONE GARDEN had not yet arrived in their local bookstores.  The book was supposed to go on sale Tuesday, three days earlier.  Other readers have told me that in their stores, the books had arrived but were still in the back room, and only when the customer requested it did a clerk finally unpack them and pull them out.  Which means there are probably  dozens, if not hundreds of stores that will report no sales of my book for the first week — a vital week in a book’s release — and this could well be significant when it comes to tallying up the bestseller list. 

It’s frustrating for me to walk into a store and see that other books with on-sale dates the same week are on prominent display right in the front, while my book is nowhere to be seen.  Ironically enough, a book I blurbed is on display everywhere — while my own book remains hidden.   

Years ago, the same week that LIFE SUPPORT was released in hardcover, UPS went on strike.  Thousands of my books got stuck in warehouses, undelivered.  It dribbled into stores over the month that followed, and didn’t even make it into stores where I was doing signings. 

So this, in comparison, is a relatively minor aggravation. 

I’ve grown resigned to this situation, as it’s happened so often before, and I’ve learned to accept the inevitable.  The only thing I can control is what goes into the book.  After that, it’s in the publisher’s and the bookseller’s hands.

You can get agitated about this sort of thing only so many times, and then you learn to give up and let whatever happens, happen.  Over the years, I’ve fumed and fretted over situations like these.  This time around, it feels so familiar and so unchangeable that I’m just going to let the fates take their course.  I don’t expect a great first-week’s sales, so I just have to hope that THE BONE GARDEN will keep selling in the weeks to come.


On self-publishing. Again.

Even a lot of brave men dare not wade into this subject, so I guess that just makes me a fool for doing it.  But the topic of self-publishing flared up in the comments section for my last blog entry, and I still have things to say about it.  I know the brickbats are going to come flying, as they always do when it comes to this subject.  Still, here goes.  Aspiring writers can either accept my wisdom, or they can cover their eyes and stop reading right here and now.  And please, save the nasty emails. 

First, a few preliminary comments:

1.  If you have to pay to see your novel in print, then it’s self-published.  End of definition.

2. My remarks below are restricted to NOVELS.  I do agree that there’s sometimes a legitimate role for self-publishing if you’ve written a non-fiction or advice book.

Whenever this subject gets addressed on any traditionally published author’s blog, the self-published novelists come storming in with their charges that the “system” is rigged against them, that everyone wants to see them fail because they’re bravely beating at the doors of traditional publishing.  And they’re partly right.  The system is rigged against them.  Reviewers won’t review their books.  Authors will seldom blurb their books. Worst of all, most bookstores won’t sell their books.  You’ll probably never see your self-published novel in Barnes and Noble or Borders because those chain stores will stock only returnable books.  If the copies don’t sell, B&N wants to be able to return them to the publisher for credit.  If they can’t get credit back, they won’t stock the book.  Self-published books, for the most part, don’t come with guaranteed returnability.  So for the bookstores, it’s a simple business decision, and it has nothing to do with suppressing free speech or being nasty to self-published novelists.

So yes, I agree that the system isn’t your friend if you’re self-published.  But the system isn’t particularly friendly to traditionally published authors either.  Most books don’t get reviewed.  Many books, even from major publishers, aren’t carried in chain bookstores.  There’s limited shelf space and we’re all competing for it, so don’t assume that just because you get a book deal from Random House or Simon & Schuster that you’re going to be in every bookstore in America.  But at least you’ll have a fighting chance, and that’s the best a new author can hope for.

Self-published authors don’t get that fighting chance.  Most of them can’t even get their books in the door.  They have signed up for a lesson in frustration and of course they feel rejected and angry, so they want to blame the “system”.  They should really be blaming those self-publishing companies who prey on their hopes and dreams, companies that lure them in with promises of fame and success and then take their money.

But are these authors angry at the self-publishing companies who’ve victimized them?  No.  Instead, they’re angry at whoever points out the truth.

Years ago, whenever I’d visit my mom in California, I noticed that her house was filling up with magazines she never read and vitamins she never took and various products that she never even unpacked from their boxes.  When I asked her about them, she’d turn evasive and say she might need them someday.  Then one day I picked up her mail and was shocked by the deluge of sweepstakes entries.  “Win $100,000!  Enter today!”  They all promised her a chance at a big jackpot, if only she’d enter their contests.  And it might help her chances to win if she subscribed to their magazine or ordered their useless product.  So over the years, my mom had been spending thousands of dollars every year to enter those contests.  Soon every scam company in the world knew my mom was a sucker, and the contest mailings poured into her mailbox in ever greater numbers.  She kept entering.  She kept sending money — I have no idea how much she eventually was cheated out of, but it had to be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

I told her she was being conned, that she had to stop sending those thieves any more money.  I told her the chances of her actually winning anything was infinitesimal, and she’d be better off investing that cash.  Do you think she was grateful for my advice?  Hell no, she was pissed at me.  She told me I was trying to stop her from winning her dream jackpot. I was trying to destroy her hopes of getting rich.  She didn’t want to hear my advice, and I couldn’t convince her to stop sending in those checks.  In every other way, she was perfectly competent to manage her affairs, so there was nothing I could do except watch, helplessly, as my mom spent a fortune so that she could become rich.

It wasn’t until years later, after I’d sent her news article after news article about elder scams, that she finally came to agree that I was right.  Now she no longer enters sweepstakes contests.  But because of her dreams of easy riches, she frittered away a lot of money.  Instead, if she’d been patient and saved that money and taken the time to understand how to invest it, she’d now have as much as those contests promised her.  But that was too much trouble.  That took too much planning, too much effort.  She wanted to do it the easy way, and she got burned for it.

And when I tried to save her from herself, she directed her anger at me. 

The point of this story is that the bearers of truth seldom get any credit.  And those who could benefit from the truth are seldom grateful. 

Yes, the system is rigged against the self-published. So why would you choose to seek out the precise path that will throw up the most obstacles your way?

Here’s my advice.  If your novel doesn’t sell the traditional way, maybe there’s a good reason, a reason you just can’t see because you’re too close to the project.  You need to let it go and move on to another story. Write another book.  And another one. If you’re really a writer, you’ll do that anyway, because you can’t help yourself from telling stories.  Don’t get sucked into thinking there’s a short cut to publication.  There really isn’t.  Sometimes it takes years, sometimes decades.  Sometimes it never happens at all.

A traditional publishing contract is what the industry understands and values.  You can earn success the hard way, by writing a publishable book and walking in the front door.  Or you can do it the even harder way, by trying to pry your way in through the back door. 

The difference is all in how you’ll be greeted.

Why do we blurb?

Boy, I go out of town for a day, and come back to find a lively discussion burning up my comments section.  Thanks, all, for providing me with the topic for this entry.  First, I want to clear up some confusion about what we’re talking about.  Today’s post is NOT about authors reading unsold manuscripts (that’s a whole different subject, for a different blogpost.)  Today’s post is about “blurbing” manuscripts that have already been sold to a publisher, and are awaiting release.  A comment was made that too many established authors selfishly refuse to help newbies and won’t blurb manuscripts.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Pick up a copy of any debut author’s novel, and the chances are, you’ll find blurbs written by another author.  Right now, on the stands, there’s a book called HEARTSICK by Chelsea Cain, with a blurb by me on it.  Months ago, when I received the galley for that book, I didn’t know a thing about the author.  I’d never met her.  But I gave her a blurb.    I didn’t get anything in return for it; I did it because I wanted to help out.  In years past, I’ve given blurbs to authors who were early in their careers and relative unknowns at the time: Kathy Reichs, Karin Slaughter, M.J. Rose, and Lisa Gardner.  They’ve since gone on to stardom. 

Last month, my husband and I took a four-day vacation to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary.  We had a nice hotel on the beach.  It was supposed to be a romantic getaway with great meals and champagne and sightseeing.  What did I end up doing?  I read three galleys, written by people I’d never met.  I ended up blurbing two of them.

What was my reward for that?  Nothing, except some nice thank-you emails in return.  And a good feeling that I’d helped some authors out.

I receive, or am offered, about a galley a week.  That’s roughly 50 galleys a year.  I’m not a speed reader, so it takes me five hours, I’d say, to read a galley in its entirety.  If I were to read every single galley that’s given to me, that would be 250 hours a year of galley reading.  That’s SIX full work weeks!  Six weeks when I could be working on my own manuscript, or taking a walk, or for heaven’s sake, going on my 30th wedding anniversary and focusing entirely on my poor husband. There is no way I can keep up with that, nor should I be expected to.  I do as much as I think I’m able to, and believe me, there’s no payback in it for me except that nice feeling of helping someone out.  So why do I do it?

Because I’m trying to pay it forward.

Back when my first thriller was published, I received blurbs from some well-established names.  James Patterson, John Nance, Michael Palmer, Tami Hoag, and Philip Margolin all gave me blurbs.  For later books, I received blurbs from Iris Johnasen and Stephen King, For my UK editions, the wonderful Harlan Coben gave me a blurb.  They didn’t have to do it.  They got nothing out of it, except thank-you notes from me.  (And I’m not even sure the notes all got to them.)  But they did it because they were generous people, and I’m forever grateful to them.

Nowadays, I don’t receive blurbs for my own books.  You’ll notice that most established authors have no blurbs at all on their books, because they don’t need them.  So no, it’s not established authors giving each other blurbs.  It’s established authors giving blurbs to newbie authors.  The benefit is all one-way.  And sometimes, you get bitten for it.  Once I gave a blurb to a relative unknown.  And a few years later, that author wrote a lousy review of one of my books for a newspaper. 

There ARE downsides to blurbing books, beyond the time taken away from our own writing and our own families.  If you blurb too many books, you get ridiculed for being a blurb-slut.  I remember seeing a newspaper columnist accuse blurb-happy authors of doing it to see their names in print.  If you blurb a lousy book, and a reader buys that book because of your blurb, you’ll hear back from that reader, who’ll blame you for making her waste twenty five bucks.  On an earlier blogpost, I mentioned an unhappy reader who hated my romance novel, and wrote an angry letter to someone who’d once blurbed me — a letter that generous author certainly didn’t need.

I can’t blurb every book I get.  And I feel I have a responsibility to my readers to NOT give a blurb for a book I don’t like.  Newbie authors think established authors owe them a blurb.  Sorry, folks, but NOBODY owes you five hours and fake enthusiasm.  Most of the time when I don’t give a blurb, it’s because I just didn’t have the time to read the book.  I have the best of intentions, and will sometimes invite people to send a galley, but then it gets lost in the towering stack by my bed.  It doesn’t mean I didn’t like the book.  It just means I couldn’t get to it.

Sometimes, though, I do read a galley and I’m sorely disappointed by it.  Should I give a blurb anyway?  If I don’t, am I a selfish bitch?  Well, think of an analogy in the business world.  You’re an employer, asked to write a recommendation letter for an employee you fired for incompetence.  If you write that letter, you’ve put your reputation on the line.  Everyone who’s later disappointed in that employee is going to think you’re an idiot or a liar.  You try to do a favor to the employee, but instead, you end up having your judgment or your integrity questioned.

We all want to be liked.  Most writers are generous people, who try to do favors and expect nothing in return.  It’s not a heartless system.  It’s just that we have too few free hours and we get too many books sent to us.  I’ve left so many galleys unread, and have a stack so big, that now I’ve been forced to get very picky about which ones I’ll invite.  Because to take delivery of a galley, and then not blurb it, for whatever reason, leads to yet more negative feelings directed at me.

And all because I tried to be nice.


“Can I give you my manuscript?”

I had a great signing last night at my hometown bookstore, the Owl & Turtle.  Friends and family showed up, the bookstore graciously set out lovely platters of cheese and crackers, and I was reminded again why I live in this great town.  But I came home feeling badly about a dilemma that arose during the evening. It’s a dilemma that comes up again and again, and usually I deal with it the same way almost every other writer deals with it.

This time, though, it felt wrong.  And I regret it.

A young woman came to buy my book, and it turned out she went to school with my son.  She’s been working on a writing career and has written a book, but she’s not having much luck getting it published.  She brought the manuscript last night, hoping to give it to me.  I gave her my automatic answer: “I’m sorry, I can’t take it.”  Which is what I always say.  I’m offered scores of manuscripts at booksignings, and I just can’t accept them because I’d be overwhelmed by having to read them all.  Also, there’s the nagging legal issue of reading unpublished material that might be similar to something I just happen to be working on.  And then I’d get into trouble when my own book comes out and it looks like I copied someone else’s work. 

So my general rule is that I don’t even take a peek at unpublished work.

The young lady was very disappointed, of course.  It was busy with a line of customers, so I didn’t have a chance to give her advice on agents or submissions.  I could have done at least that, especially since she’s my son’s classmate.  And since she lives right here in town.  I regret not taking the time to talk more with her.

There are times when we have to break our own rules, and I wish I had last night.  So Brittany, if you’re reading this, email me.  Let’s talk. 


My book goes on sale today. I’m depressed.

This may be another one of those blog posts that I come to regret, but what the heck.  It’s my blog and I’ll be honest if I want to.

I’m suffering from post-partum depression.  That’s the best way I can describe it.  After spending a year to write THE BONE GARDEN, after months of anticipation and hopefulness, it comes down to this moment of truth.  Or, if you will, this week of truth.  Whatever happens this first week pretty much determines whether the book is a flop or a failure.  And I wish I could crawl into a cave and not come out until next year.

It probably sounds crazy to non-writers when I tell them that what should be a time of triumph — “Hey, my book’s finally in the stores!” — turns out instead to be the time of year when I’m most anxious and depressed.  Doesn’t make sense, does it?  I don’t know if other writers feel this way, but I suspect I’m not the only one. 

Don’t get me wrong — I love meeting readers and talking about the book.  But the promotional and business side of writing is not the reason I became a writer in the first place.  I’m a writer because I love to tell stories.  Now I have to get out there and be a saleswoman, in what seems like an ever more difficult market.  I lie awake in bed, anxious about all the things that will go wrong.  They always do.  There’ll be stores that never got the book,  reviewers who hate the book, and booksignings where no one shows up.

Then there’ll be the sales figures dribbling in day by day, reminding me that yes, this is actually a business, and that someone’s keeping track of whether I’m performing adequately.

The worst insult any reviewer can throw at a writer is to say about her book: “The author obviously didn’t care and just wrote it for the money.”  Maybe there are writers who actually don’t care, but I don’t know any.  Every writer I know, bestseller or not, cares deeply about his book and how it does in the marketplace.  Even though this is my 11th thriller, I still can’t adopt a Zen attitude about its release, although I’m trying. 

In a perfect world, I’d just write the books and let someone else do the selling.  Instead I have to go out and beg people to buy the book, and I’m not a natural saleswoman.  I’m really a natural hermit.  


Probably the best article ever written about me

I blush at the attention.  You know, some things I never get used to — and that includes seeing my own photograph in a newspaper.  But this article was in-depth and nicely written, and I can’t resist posting it here.  Bob Keyes made me so comfortable that I even revealed my age (!) which, as I get older, I’m more and more reluctant to do. 

And to think that when I was in my twenties, I thought that women who hid their ages were pitiful.

Oh those readers and their letters!

I am not alone.

I’ve been hearing from a number of writers about the strange, alarming, or infuriating letters they get from readers.  Most of these writers are wise enough to ignore the missives and never comment publicly about them.  But they were happy to tell me about them, and it seems I’m in very good company.  The letters seem to run along similar themes:


Here’s a gem of a letter received by a bestselling thriller author:

“I picked up this book to kill a little time on a long flight. I found it to be vile, disgusting, and have to question a mind that can conjure up this type of literary pornography. I suggest you seek mental help. Also, the covers should come with a warning.”

Another writer got this one:

“I have never heard so much poor, pitiful, dirty language… that is not the way the people I know talk, and I find it annoying.”

J.A. Konrath wrote: “There was a lady who said Rusty Nail was irredeemable and disgusting, and that my publishers were worse than OJ and should be ashamed for printing such filth.”

And another writer shares this one:

“I got a letter from a woman who objected to her 14 year old daughter reading one of my paranormals and who then went on to say that my publisher must surely have forced me to write certain scenes, including, she said, the one on page 272 which she felt was pornographic. I, of course, am not responsible for her daughter’s reading material, but I couldn’t help wondering whether this woman just got lucky and opened a random page to 272, or whether she read the whole book.”

(I suspect she probably went hunting just for those naughty and irresistable sex scenes.)


Joe Konrath writes: “there was a reader who complained about a satirical short story I wrote, because the ending implied a dog would be euthanized. She called me an animal hater.”

Elaine Cunningham told me about a writer friend who “actually fielded death threats when he killed off a much-loved character. Unfortunately, his young daughter saw one of these letters and was understandably shaken.”

And yes, these sorts of letters are so common that every writer knows that if you kill the cat/dog/kid in the story, you’d better be prepared for the nasty letters that will surely follow.



Yep, we’ve all gotten those.  I’ve been scolded by organ bank officials, by hunters, by the parents of foreign adoptees, by liberals, by conservatives.  And they all say I’ve insulted them.  I’ve received letters from laboratory technicians furious that one of my fictional killers was a lab tech.  Just a stray turn of a phrase can set someone off.  Witness what this writer experienced:

“I had a sentence that was in the lines of “and he/she spoke to me like I was retarded.” I have received two emails from people saying that I was being rude and unfair to retarded people. One woman told me she had a brother who was retarded and he was a wonderful person and I had insulted him. This was all based on one half a sentence.”

She goes on to say:

“I have decided not to get into a pissing contest with pissed off readers. It’s not worth it, especially since 99% of all reader emails I receive are positive. BUT are we just supposed to take it from upset readers and acquantainces and friends? I have had friends (now ex friends) tell me a few days after my book comes out why they hate the book. I mean it’s like coming to your house and looking at your newborn baby and saying “your baby is ugly.”

Ouch, that hurts when your own friends and family insult you.

Finally, there’s my favorite category of all:


All women writers seem to have a story or two about these:

“I was at a signing with some other writers once and a man handed the writer next to me a photograph of his penis and said he’d really like to get together with her.”

“An editor once told me of an author who frequently gets invited to three-somes and more-somes when she attends conventions. Her books include such things, so some readers make assumptions.”

And finally, there’s the author who kept getting fan letters from a man who signed himself “Leaky Meat.”  Years later, she actually met the fellow at a convention, and he turned out to be a delightfully normal married guy.  Who called himself “leaky meat.”

I guess you just never know.