Do reviews sell books?

Last Thursday, the following review of THE BONE GARDEN ran in USA Today:

The discovery of bones in the backyard of a rundown home in rural Massachusetts kicks off this 11th mystery by best-selling author and physician Tess Gerritsen. Just-divorced Julia Hamill searches for the identity of the woman whose century-old remains are found on her property. Gerritsen uses the mystery surrounding the unidentified woman to spin a parallel story that takes place in 19th-century Boston. It centers on a series of grisly murders set against the antiquated medical practices — bleeding patients, unhygienic hospital practices and the stealing of corpses for medical school autopsies — and the cultural prejudices of the time. Lively dialogue and a pitch-perfect narrative make for a highly engrossing novel.

When it ran, my book had been on sale for six weeks, and my sales index (which, yes, I do check way too frequently) had been inching up inexorably toward the 600’s.   But the day that USA Today review appeared, my sales index promptly dropped into the 300’s, where it hovered for a day before again deteriorating toward the 600’s.

I know the temporary improvement in the sales index probably represented only a dozen or so extra sales.  Still, is the only way I have to judge the immediate effect of a review or an advertisement.  USA Today has one of the biggest newspaper circulations in the country.  Granted, the review only appeared in their Mystery Roundup, but still it had great exposure, and could potentially have been seen by a lot of eyes.

Unfortunately, the effect was temporary. One day, and the effect was gone.

After a month on sale, something else has to take over to make a book keep selling, and that’s word of mouth. 

(More blogging after I get home from Germany next week!)


Off on the road again

I’ll be gone for awhile, on the road this week in Massachusetts and NH.  Next weekend, I’ll be appearing at the Maine Literary Festival  (  and then I’ll be traveling to Germany and Switzerland, where I’ll be apearing in Zurich, Munich, Berlin, Hannover and Hamburg on book tour.  I trust everyone will behave themselves while I’m gone.

Are anxious writers more successful?

I am my father’s daughter.

I’m reminded of that as I read the comments and emails that have resulted from my last blogpost about how I stress out on Wednesday afternoons, waiting for the latest New York Times bestseller list.  Why can’t I just relax and enjoy my success?  Why can’t I count my blessings?  Why can’t I pause and look around in satisfaction and say, “Okay, I’ve made it”?

I think of my dad, who died earlier this year.  Let me tell you about my dad.  He worked two jobs for most of his life, and accumulated enough money for a very comfortable retirement.  He had no debts, he owned his own home, and he probably could have sat back and taken it easy. Instead, he continued to work like a dog until Alzheimers crippled him.  Why?

Because all his life, he never felt secure, and was continually terrified that he’d lose it all.

I used to think that maybe it was because he came from a generation that was too close to the Depression.  But there’s also a cultural — perhaps even a genetic – component to his obsession with security.  And I think I’ve inherited it.

My dad was the son of Chinese immigrants, and he had good reason to never feel entirely secure.  He’d watched Japanese-Americans herded off to internment camps during WWII, and many of them lost all that they’d worked for and saved over the years.  My dad also understood the value of hard work and practicality, and so when he came home after serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, he threw himself into work, both as a restaurant chef, and as a contract estimator with an aircraft company.  He never stopped feeling he could lose it all.  He always believed that you couldn’t trust anyone else to take care of you, that you, and only you, were responsible for your own future.

I know several people like him.  A friend of mine is a songwriter and performer, one of the most successful songwriters ever in the U.S.  He started off middle class, worked his way to the top by performing in bars, and now he’s made a fortune.  Whenever we get together, we talk about how much we have in common — both of us from middle-class roots, both of us obsessed by our work, both of us amazed by how far we’ve gotten.  But neither of us will ever feel entirely secure. We’re both terrified we could lose it all overnight.  And so we keep striving and obsessing over our work.

Anxiety, I’m convinced, is a large part of success.  The strange thing is, I’m not an anxious person in every other aspect of my life.  I fall asleep on plane flights and in dentists’ chairs.  I happily travel to bizarre places.  I accept most of life’s frustrations with a resigned sigh.  But when it comes to my writing career, I can be as high-strung as a racehorse.

I once read an article written by a literary agent who represents some of the biggest names in publishing, and she said that her most successful clients all seem to have one thing in common: they’re insecure.  They don’t quite believe they’ve really made it.  They believe their bestselling status could vanish overnight.  In some ways, they’re probably right; success in publishing is frighteningly ephemeral.  But a lot of their fear is unfounded.  Even though they’ve made fortunes and they’re household names, they focus on their careers with the anxiety of the hungry new author.

And that may be exactly what made them successes in the first place — that neurotic need for security and for acceptance. 

It won’t matter how successful everyone else thinks I may be. I’ll always be trying to write a better book, and achieve better sales.  It’s a form of insanity, perhaps, but an insanity that other writers seem to suffer from.

And weirdly enough, it may also be the reason I got to where I am today.


Still hanging in there

THE BONE GARDEN has managed to stay on the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists for a fourth straight week, which led me to celebrate with a few glasses of sparkling Cava and a marathon session of making Chinese potstickers.  While rolling out the dough and stuffing the little dumplings, I got to thinking about how success can simply breed more anxiety — for me, anyway.  No longer is it just about writing a good book, which is all that should really matter.  But now it’s also about how high you get on the list, how long you can stay there, and is your publishing team happy with your book’s performance?  (And if they aren’t happy, what did I, the author, do wrong?)

The pressure has made me dread Wednesdays.

Wednesday evening is when the New York Times Bestseller list is released.  Around 5 PM, I’ll start to watch the phone, waiting for it to ring.  Hoping for good news, but always bracing myself to be disappointed.  Needless to say, very little writing gets done on Wednesdays since I tend to spend it doing mindless yet comforting tasks.  Ironing is very therapeutic.  I get a long of ironing done on Wednesdays.  (The rest of the year, forget it.  It’s wrinkled clothes for me.)  Then the phone rings and my agent or editor breaks the news with the long-awaited number.  If it’s in the top-15, it’s a hurray.  If not, it’s a long sigh and my cue to move on and start focusing on the next book. 

Because, in about a year from now, we get to do it all over again. 


Authors: Your book tour tip of the day

It’s surprising how many authors don’t know this handy bit of info, something I learned about a decade ago.  If you ever wonder how many of your books were stocked in your local Borders bookstore, just flip over a copy and look at the Borders barcode sticker on the back.  Here’s an example, which I’m copying from the back of THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan, which I recently bought from Borders:

BORDERS  $13.95

EGAN JENNI 8793900   7#

Fiction/Lit  2214

D5A 4196690    83007

There are some mysterious numbers there, but you only need to focus on two of them:

The 7# tells you how many copies came in that particular shipment.

The 83007 tells you the date the copies came in. 

These are really useful numbers to know.  Store clerks are reluctant to tell you how many copies of your book they’ve sold.  (In fact, I’ve heard that they’re forbidden to give out that information to authors.)  But they will happily tell you how many copies they have in their store at the moment.  By looking at the sticker, you’ll know how many copies the store brought in, so you’ll be able to calculate how many they’ve sold.

If your book has been selling well, the store will re-order more copies, so you may find different stickers on copies that came in later shipments.  Let’s say you find some books with 7# on 8/30/07 and others with  5# on 9/15/07.  This is really good news.  It means that two separate shipments came in, and the store got a total of 12.  If there are only four left in the store, you know they’ve sold at least 8 copies.

The store may have sold even more than that.  If all the books in a particular shipment sold out, you won’t find any of those stickered copies left in the store.

Important note: This tip is only good for the Borders chain.  Barnes and Noble doesn’t use this sticker system.

And another tip: check out Jennifer Weiner’s terrific blog.  She’s up-front and rightfully annoyed at the New York Times and the “literary” establishment.  I’m with her!

With apologies to Steve Nash

Okay, so it seems I wasn’t the only one who was unfamiliar with his name.  But now I know who he is, and the more I learn about him, the nicer a guy he seems to be.  And the two lessons to be learned are:

1. I really should pay more attention to sports.

2. “Famous people” are only famous to those who’ve heard of their accomplishments.

I’d never heard of Steve Nash, and I’m certain he’s never heard of me.  The sports world is huge compared to the book world.  The vast majority of writers — even bestselling writers — can slip through airports and hotels in complete anonymity.  Maybe Stephen King or JK Rowling couldn’t do it, but the rest of us can comfortably live our lives as complete unknowns, which is actually a good thing.  (Except when you’re in a bookstore and you want people to know your name, darn it!)

But poor Steve Nash probably can’t walk through an airport or go out to a restaurant without someone wanting his autograph, or some photographer trying to catch him with spinach in his teeth. 

Now I too know who he is, so he’s really got to behave himself.

 And … oops, almost forgot to post this!  A photo of reader Linda McCabe with my book in Hotel Dieu, in one of my favorite cities, Paris!


I am exhausted

I got home this afternoon, after a 5-day trip to Phoenix and Detroit, and although I got plenty of sleep during my travels, I still came home weary.  Book tour takes a toll on a body that’s more than physical; there’s the emotional battering as well, as you slog from airport to airport, feeling as if you’re trying to sell buggy whips to a country that couldn’t care less what you have to peddle.  Still, there were some memorable moments on the trip.

In Scottsdale, while checking in at the retro-chic Valley Ho Hotel, I was bewildered by all the party planners and stage and sound crews, obviously getting ready for a huge celebration.  All over the lobby, there were signs welcoming guests to the “Steve Nash” celebrity roast.  Soon TV cameras were rolling and gorgeous women in spike heels and evening dresses began strolling in, accompanied by 7-foot men.  (The towering guys should have been the tip-off.)  Even then, I had no idea what all the hubbub was all about.  So I finally asked someone, “Who the heck is Steve Nash?” 

Okay, is there anyone else as ignorant as I am?  Please raise your hands.  Because I hate to think that I’m the only one who’d never heard of Steve Nash.

On Friday night, I appeared with Twist Phelan at the Poisoned Pen bookstore, and was delighted by the crowd who showed up.  I was even more delighted with the crowd that turned out for the charity luncheon the next day — but then, I have a feeling they were really there to see James Patterson, who appeared alongside me and Harley Jane Kozak. 

 I have a confession to make about James Patterson.  I owe him my career.  Years ago, when my first thriller HARVEST was published, Patterson gave me the most amazing blurb.  Up till now, I’d never met him, and when I finally spotted my chance to approach, I went up to shake his hand and thanked him for his generosity.  He smiled and said yes, he remembered HARVEST.  And he said something along the lines of, “aren’t we lucky, doing what we do?” 

Then I was off to Detroit and the book and author luncheon, where I shared the podium with Jane Hamilton, Ursula Hegi, Lorna Lanvik, and Rabbi Harold Kushner.  We faced an audience of 1200.  The best part was getting the chance to listen to the other authors.  The ladies had me laughing.  Rabbi Kushner moved me to tears.  You couldn’t ask for a better line-up of speakers.

But now I’m home, facing a stuffed in-box of emails and wondering if going on tour really makes a difference.  I do enjoy it, but I have to admit that I get depressed, trudging through bookstores and seeing all those other competing titles stacked up next to mine. 

Writers and secret identities

I’m going to tell you a secret.  Well, it’s not really a secret because I’ve never tried to hide it, but one of my dear readers recently emailed me, expressing some hurt that I haven’t been completely honest with him about my real name.  And it got me thinking about how, yes, some readers (especially the wonderful ones who regularly post comments here) might feel miffed that I’ve not been completely open about who I am.  So now it’s time to tell you.

My real name isn’t Tess, but Terry.

I never really meant “Tess” as a secret identity.  I took on the name way back when my first romance novel, CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, was about to be published.  Since “Terry” was considered a masculine spelling, my editor was concerned that readers might think the author was a man — and romance readers want books written by women.  My name caused some confusion in the hospitals too, because when I showed up on the wards, the nurses confessed they were expecting a “blonde Scandinavian guy” — Terry Gerritsen not sounding in the least bit Chinese or female.  So to make sure my readers knew I was female, I feminized my name to “Tess,” and went on to write nine romances under that name.

When I moved into thriller-writing, I wanted to bring my romance fans along for the ride.  Which meant keeping the name I’d established for myself.  So “Tess” has remained my nom de plume ever since.  It also turned out to be a handy way of knowing whether a communication was personal or professional.  If a phone call or letter came addressed to “Tess”, I’d know it was about business.  If it came addressed to “Terry,” it was personal.

I’ve had this double identity for twenty years now, and I’ve forgotten who knows me by which name.  So whenever I get emails, I never know how to sign off.  Tess or Terry?  To avoid confusion, my default is to sign it as Tess.  And now my acquaintances and neighbors are completely flummoxed about how to address me.  The truth is, I’ll answer to either name.  So if you know me as Terry, and I answer as Tess, believe me, I’m not trying to hide a thing.  I’m just confused.

(I’d make a lousy spy.)

This whole Tess/Terry thing got me thinking about writers’ pseudonyms in general, and why writers would want to adopt a fake name.  And I can think of plenty of reasons for a nom de plume.  It’s always a surprise to me when I’ve known a writer for years, and then suddenly discover she’s got another identity.  Often, we’ll just come right out and tell each other.  Other times, I learn it through a mutual friend or agent.  Either way, I can almost always understand immediately why she’d choose to change her name.  And here are some of the reasons:

Your real name is too long, too hard to spell, or too ethnic.  

Yes, these are valid reasons why a writer might want to change her name.  A long name means you’re forced to have it appear in smaller print on the book cover, when you want it to be as visible as possible. A hard-to-spell name means readers will have a difficult time looking you up on Amazon, or in a bookstore computer.  My own name, for instance, is a killer to spell.  It looks deceptively easy, but there are a lot of different ways to misspell Gerritsen.  (Gerritson.  Garretson.  Geritsen.  Gerriston.  Gerristen, etc.)  I won’t name names, but I know at least half a dozen writers who had to shorten their names or “anglicize” them for the American market.

The odd thing is, in foreign markets, you may also want to anglicize your name.  David Baldacci, for instance, was asked by his Italian publisher to change his name to something less Italian.  My Dutch publisher asked me to change my name to something less Dutch.  It seems that local writers, abroad at least, get no respect from their own countries.

You want to hide your gender

If you’re a man writing romance novels, you’ll probably want a woman’s name.  (And yes, there are male romance-writers.)  If you’re a woman trying to appeal across gender lines, you may want to adopt first initials only.  JK Rowling and PD James are prime examples.  Right now, I’m toying with the idea of writing a young adult series featuring the Mephisto Club, and I’m wondering if it should be written under the name “T.T. Gerritsen,” so that boys will pick it up. 

You hate your real name

One writer I know in the UK hates her real name so much that she didn’t want it on any book cover.  In fact, when I let slip the fact I knew her real name, she was quite annoyed — much to my surprise, as I think her real name is gorgeous.  

You want to protect your professional life

Let’s face it, novel writing is not always considered a “respectable” profession, and some writers who also maintain jobs in academic circles feel the need to write under fake names.  A doctor may want to keep his patients from knowing he’s writing gory medical thrillers.  A journalist may want to avoid ridicule for those racy romance novels she writes.  An award-winning writer friend of mine keeps her writing career secret because she doesn’t want her academic colleagues to know she’s exaggerating the goings-on of their profession a bit, for the sake of a good plot. 

You write in more than one genre 

A writer who writes both science fiction as well as traditional mysteries may well adopt different pen names for each genre.  Nora Roberts, for instance, took on the name J.D. Robb for her “In death” futuristic novels.  Readers don’t always cross genres, and you don’t want to confuse or disappoint them by writing such different books under the same name.

You want to hide a prior poor sales record

This may be the one of the most commor reasons for an author to suddenly switch names.  If your books have a bad track record, the bookstore chains know it.  In their computers, your name is forever linked to poor sales, and no matter how great your next book is, the stores are not going to order it in large quantities based on your earlier sales.  Sometimes, the only way to escape the curse of a bad-selling book is to change your name and start off fresh (on bookstore computers, anyway.)  If you later become incredibly successful with your new name, your old books may be re-released with your new author name on them.

Those are just a few reasons I can think of.  I’m sure there are others. 

Now, a few links of interest:

A recent interview by Wordsmith’s Books, plus my blogpost on their website.

And today’s review in the Maine Sunday Telegram of THE BONE GARDEN, in which critic John Robinson focuses on the true and bloody medical history behind the book.

Major misprint in MEPHISTO CLUB

Three different readers have emailed me about a major printing blooper in the paperback edition of THE MEPHISTO CLUB.  The copies they bought were missing pages 21 – 53.  In their place, instead, was a section from a Perry O’Shaughnessy novel.  That’s three whole chapters of my story they’re missing, and those chapters contain vital clues to the mystery.

Oy vey.

Several years ago, I bought a J.A. Jance novel, and about halfway through, suddenly found I was reading a different book.  There were clues I never got to read, so the mystery didn’t make any sense after that.  I know how frustrating it is when that happens to a reader, and I apologize on behalf of my publisher for this printing goof.

If you got a defective version of MEPHISTO CLUB, email me.  And I promise I’ll email you the missing three chapters.  These things do happen in publishing.  I’m just annoyed that it happened to my readers.  (And, I assume to Perry O’Shaughnessy’s readers as well!)

Back on the road

With a suitcase of freshly laundered clothes, I’m heading out for the next leg of my book tour.  More when I get back.