Monday, November 13, 2006

Some Books ARE Successful

Since I'm a little tired of the incessant number of "this book didn't earn out its huge advance" and "the author's second book didn't do as well as the first" articles, I want to acknowledge the books that exceeded expectations. Books whose authors received either a modest advance, relatively meager publicity, or faced major obstacles in their career or writing, yet found adoring readers despite the odds.

There are certainly a few famous cases.

1969: After receiving a $5,000 advance, Mario Puzo publishes THE GODFATHER, which becomes a cultural tentpole in every sense of the word.

1973: An English teacher named Stephen King, at the time scraping by on $6,400 a year, sells a horror novel titled CARRIE to Doubleday for $2,500. A few months later, Doubleday sells paperback rights for $400,000. King later becomes mildly successful.

1991: After his first novel, A TIME TO KILL, was rejected by every major publisher in the country (it received a 5,000 copy print run from Wynwood Pressin 1988), a Mississippi lawyer named John Grisham publishes THE FIRM, which goes on to become the 7th bestselling novel of the year, eventually selling over 12,000,000 copies in hardcover and paperback combined.

1998: A broke, divorced and struggling screenwriter/novelist named Rex Pickett writes a novel called SIDEWAYS about a broke, divorced, struggling novelist. Pickett options the film rights and sells book rights for a combined $17,500. Acclaimed director Alexander Payne then directs an Oscar-nominated film based on Pickett's book. Pickett sells his next novel for much more than $17,500.

2002: Alice Sebold, whose first book, a memoir called LUCKY, sold fewer than 11,000 copies, releases a book called THE LOVELY BONES (for which she reportedly received between $25,000 and $35,000), which goes on to nearly 3,000,000 copies in hardcover.

2004: Matthew Sharpe's THE SLEEPING FATHER, which was rejected by over 20 publishers before selling to Soft Skull Press for a reported $1,000, becomes a surprise "Today Show" selection and a glowing NYT review and sells over 20,000 copies.

There are many more terrific success stories, of course, and many wonderful stories from authors whose names aren't "Grisham," "King" or "Puzo." You don't have to sell a million copies to have a success story.

So I'd like to open up the comment boards for the best "rags to riches" or even "rags to slightly better rags" stories from authors and readers. I want to focus on the little books that could, the nearly forgotten books that did, and the authors who succeeded in the face of adversity, apathy, and a brutal marketplace. Of course success can be defined on many levels, not just from a novel hitting the bestseller list, but even an author finding a passionate publisher for his/her work after many years of hard work.

So what are some success stories you've heard?

16 Comments:

Blogger Paul said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Graham said...

Well, duh. A mired-in-the-midlist writer publishes a SHOCKING! fictional expose of Vatican duplicity and sells eleventy billion copies. Dan Brown is an inspiration to us all.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Sarah Weinman said...

As I recall, HE'S NOT THAT INTO YOU didn't get a big advance, and it became a cultural phenomenon pretty quick. Kim Edwards' THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER became a bestseller in paperback but I don't think the advance was all that high. George Pelecanos's first advance was something like $2500. Ian Rankin was almost dropped by Orion before BLACK AND BLUE broke him out and made him Crime Writer King in the UK.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Agent Kristin said...

Well over a year ago, an agent friend of mine Deidre Knight sold a "little" book called 90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN for under $10,000 advance.

First print run was something like 600 copies.

Today, there are 1.3 million copies in print and and the title is #9 on the NYT Bestseller list.

Don Piper, the author, is going to be on the Today show tomorrow (Nov. 14) as well.

All from very humble beginnings.

8:04 PM  
Blogger Bryon Quertermous said...

Even more than one book that was more successful than planned are authors who have made successful career out of slowly building an audience. I think Laura Lippman and Harlan Coben are two great examples of this. Both started off in paperback originals and now are quite successful. Also, if I recall right, Mystic River was not expected to be a success.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Allison said...

Mary Higgins Clark was a young widow with five children who had to go back to work after being a SAHM. She was a copy writer at a radio station, I believe. She got up very early every morning and wrote before having to get the kids up for school and going to work. Her book was rejected by virtually every agent and publisher in the business, but eventually she sold WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN? and the rest is history. I have no idea what she was paid for that first book.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

I don't have any stories. But I wanted to say, good on you. I know the odds are long, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Maybe one day, I'll be able to call myself a published author.

I take that back. I WILL be a published author one day. This is not an option. Some day, some unsuspecting publisher will buy my novel, and I will be able to meet Anne Rice... and tell her what a twit she is. ;)

Oh, wait, I do know of a success story.

JK Rowling. She wrote most of the book in cafes, and couldn't even afford nursery care for her daughter. She sold the first HP book for 3,000 pounds, after being rejected by several publishers.

You know the rest.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Agent Kristin said...

I have to pipe in here and say you can't really include JKR in the humble beginnings list. Maybe the UK deal wasn't for much but the US sale was huge, over 100,000k and that's what really started the momentum for that book. US publishers went nuts in the bidding for the first HP.

(And to put this in perspective, NO middle grade or YA novel had ever gone for more than 100,000k advance in the U.S. Arthur Levine staked his career on that book and obviously won.)

I know this history because one of my authors is with the editor who was the underbidder in that auction for the first HP book. Now that would be a hard loss to swallow. Big smile.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Ali Karim said...

Good points guys -

The thing is that there is a delicate balance between Skill as a writer and Luck - I consider fate, luck or whatever you want to call it - far more important than we would like to admit in public

Ali

11:31 AM  
Blogger HighVoltage said...

Flags Of Our Fathers was rejected by 27 publishers before becoming a bestseller and a movie.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Maureen McGowan said...

Emily Giffin's SOMETHING BORROWED didn't get a huge advance, I don't think. Not compared to how it (and her subsequent books) sold, anyway. The deal was reported as a "nice deal for two books" on Publishers Marketplace. The film rights, 3 years later were reported as a major deal...

12:57 AM  
Blogger alicia said...

I took a writing class with Matthew Sharpe at New College of Florida, and he is just fantastic -- great teacher, wonderful person, and with the best seersucker pants.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Dee said...

I'll comment on my fellow Harlequin Romance category novelists - yes those books your grandmother has in her attic.

Just a few names that started "small" and made it "big"...Linda Howard, Jayne Ann Krentz, Debbie Macomber and who is that other one... oh yeah... Nora Roberts.

Category Writer

12:34 PM  
Blogger Debra said...

Madeline L'Engles A Wrinkle In Time went to 101 editors before it was published.

Louis L'Amour was rejected 349 times.

Dr. Seuss was rejected 27 times and Gone With the Wind was rejected 25 times.

I like to think about these stories when my agent calls with another nice rejection.

(And yes, I do mean nice. If the flavor you are selling is mint choc chip and everyone wants strawberry this week, well that's just the way it goes. There's no reason to get upset over it. At some point we'll find one who says hey, that's my favorite flavor.)

Thanks, Jason! You gave me a smile today. :)

11:24 PM  
Blogger Simon Haynes said...

My SF/Humour novel was rejected by several publishers back in 2000 (niche genre, they said) so I self-published in 2001.
Four years later I was offered a three book contract covering that book and two more I'd written in the same series.
In 2005 the first book was a nationwide SF bestseller for three weeks after launch here in Australia, and it just underwent a second printing 12 months later. The second is doing just fine, and the third comes out in five weeks.
Now, that's hardly 'big' but it's not bad going after such humble beginnings.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Deborah said...

Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER just about never made it past the publicity department; her editor championed for it and it was finally published and shelved in the Romance section,though word is, those in the know expected it to flop. It didn't. Diana worked tirelessly to promote her first novel while writing the second while working full time and raising three young children with her husband's help. She didn't give up her full-time job until she'd finished her third book and through word of mouth and a continually growing fan base, it hit the best-seller list. To get there, she strolled into book stores to sign copies whenever she was in a new city, she graciously accepted requests for her attendance at writer's conferences and book signings, and offered and continues to offer writing advice and moral support to not-yet-published writers on the Compuserve Writer's forum. She climbed to the top of the list because first, she writes damn fine stories, and second, because she worked hard. Every day. Good writing gets one nowhere if one isn't prepared to work hard and believe in one's self. Kudos Diana. You are my inspiration.

6:30 PM  

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