What I Learned From a Bestselling Novelist

withsusanwiggs2.jpgLast weekend during my impromptu Puget Sound writers retreat (I wrote 32 pages!) I spoke to New York Times bestselling novelist Susan Wiggs at a book event. That I’d met her once before and that we have at least one mutual friend went a long way toward alleviating my tendency to clam up in the presence of novelists of stature. It also helped that she is down-to-earth and friendly.

Ms. Wiggs was a font of information about what life can be like in the publishing big leagues.

For example, did you know that…


portludlow3a.jpg1. …publishng contracts can include bonuses for landing on the NYT bestseller list? Or that it behooves us to negotiate favorable reversion rights so that we can regain ownership of our out-of-print novels? This is especially true should our books gain a fan-base. On the other hand, once we become bestsellers all our old publishers will rush to reprint those older novels anyhow — money in the bank for everyone involved.

2. …there is a smoke-and-mirrors aspect to the business that publishers readily exploit for the greater bottom-line? Here are a few examples: Designing the cover art with the novelist’s name bigger and bolder than the title to lend it that “bestseller” look even though the novelist hasn’t attained that status (yet). Or, negotiating favorable positioning inside one of the major chains (in custom risers in the front of the store; you’ve seen them) for an entire first print run — which in essence also gives the novel a “bestseller” appearance.

portludlow5a.jpg3. …many novelists at Ms. Wigg’s level incorporate themselves? Recently, a friend told me that National Book Award winner Denis Johnson recently inc’d himself. My impression is that becoming a limited liability this or that (jargon unknown to me) is pretty standard. And it makes sense, too, for tax and personal liability reasons.

4. …steadily increasing sales over many books is often preferable for a long-lived publishing career than the bidding-war-big-bucks first novel? Second-novel syndrome in which the second novel can’t hope to compare to the phenomonal first has sunk many a novelist.

5. …at the bestseller-dom level, the novelist and publisher may engage in a collaborative roundtable to generate story ideas? These brainstorming sessions include the marketing department, which may have veto power because there’s so much at stake. Call it a symbiotic relationsip: publisher committing to marketing and publicity bucks (which land novelists on the bestseller lists when all is said and done) and in return author commiting to one or two novels a year to keep the momentum going.

portludlowbaldeagle2.jpgNumber five fascinated me, especially when Ms. Wiggs mentioned that she still gets rejected (at the idea level not at the written-manuscript level).

Besides rejection, Ms. Wiggs still faces her writing group with potentially crappy drafts and expects the truth from them; still gets red-lined by her editors; still battles with story ideas that don’t necessarily pan out in the writing.

She’s still a novelist writing one sentence at a time like the rest of us. And, she works hard. She mentioned that she’d be reading page proofs (a tedious task) after dinner on Saturday night and before breakfast the next morning. I forgot to ask her whether she ever gets an entire weekend away from her characters…

0 comments on “What I Learned From a Bestselling Novelist

  • So much for my 15 pages in a weekend. I thought I was the man.

    This is looking like war. (Winner buys drinks.) (I say that because you’ll probably win.)

  • Your words on cover strategy with the author’s name in print larger than the book title answered a question for me. While perusing bookstores, I tend to pick up such books. Now I know why.


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