Staying Alive: How to Thrive in the Publishing Industry

Staying alive, staying alive, ah, ha, ha, staying alive. Here, Jenny Milchman explains how to not just survive, but thrive in the publishing industry.
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Staying alive, staying alive, ah, ha, ha, staying alive. Here, Jenny Milchman explains how to not just survive, but thrive in the publishing industry.

There are two main trajectories for success in this biz. It usually bugs me when people claim that there are two kinds of X or Y, because we live in a world where there are a bajillion varieties of everything, and for any list of strategies I compile, someone could probably add another. But when it comes to writing, I always return to two paths that describe some of the biggest success stories in the industry.

The Phenom vs. the Slow Build

One is what I call the “phenom” book. Most of you have probably read, or at least heard of these. Christina Baker Kline’s finely wrought Orphan Train and Sara Gruen’s beautifully realized Water for Elephants hit a cultural or historical zeitgeist. One had a twist that got people talking: William Landay’s Defending Jacob. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize. E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey…well, you know. In recent years, two had the word girl in the title, initiating a string of “girl” books that had differing degrees of success.

There’s no single element that integrates these megahits, which is inherent to the very concept of a phenom. Our understanding of what made them succeed arises only in hindsight, and that is just guesswork really. A phenom book isn’t predictable. Anything could become one, and anything, despite expectations to the contrary, could fail to become one. They are the black swans of the book world.

The other path to blockbuster success can be termed the “slow build.” It’s the series that breaks out after four, eight, even eleven installments—Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett, respectively.

It’s the author who creates a brand by writing one after another of the same-but-different kind of book until an appetite has been whetted: Jodi Picoult’s unique blend of human drama combined with ripped-from-the-headlines issues, Liane Moriarty’s excavation of the ordinary life that readers come to realize is actually quite extraordinary.

This trajectory is more predictable than the phenom—the author who writes a certain character or type of story, and can continue to do so, similarly enough to satisfy the taste for it, while at the same time keeping things fresh, can have a reasonable hope of reaching success once enough books are out there.

Since you can’t count on any book becoming a phenom, then the slow build seems the more reliable path to pursue. (As if anything in publishing can be deemed reliable!) However, there are obstacles along this path too, and being aware of them is the surest way to avoid them.

The slow build requires a runway; one or two titles won’t do it. Authors whose series are dropped by their publishers too soon are in a tough spot. If a new publisher won’t pick up the existing series—which most are loathe to do—then the author loses the foundation that was laid. Some writers in this position choose to continue by self-publishing so that early fans don’t have to give up on a character they were coming to like. By taking control of your own publishing, you can reach the volume of titles required to have a chance at breakout success.

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The slow build path doesn’t apply only to series, though. Writers who are creating something novel and new can hope to incite in readers a taste for their unique brand-to-be. Since we all do something original with our work, any writer can try for the slow build path to success. Here’s what you do.

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How to Achieve Slow-Build Success in the Publishing Industry

First, identify what’s special about your books. What is the reason you do this in the first place, the thing that makes you love writing (or continue to write despite not loving it)? What quality in your work hasn’t been seen in quite this way before? Then, give some thought to how you can create a similar thing anew with each subsequent release. Mind, you’re not trying to write to a formula—even one of your own invention. You’re attempting to drill down to what lets you tell a story no one else could, to clarify the element that takes you from that-could-be-interesting to sit-down-and-pour-out-your-soul. That key element can become your brand.

A runway is still required to produce a succession of books, but unlike with a series, the same-but-different model gives the writer the advantage of being able to change publishing houses while growing his or her brand.

My first three novels were all published by Ballantine/Penguin Random House. They typified the same-but-different model: psychological thrillers set in a fictional town with secondary characters in one book playing bigger roles in the next and vice versa, the life of the town rippling outward as my list of titles grew.

Then, unexpectedly, my editor was let go. Suddenly, I was on submission again, a place I’d never hoped to be.

Many writers get stuck behind roadblocks that crop up along the road to publishing success. They get dropped by a house, orphaned by an editor, their agent leaves the business. One particularly sad outcome is that any of the above can thwart the slow build approach to success.

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In my case, my agent was able to lead me to a publisher that seems an even better fit. Having a devoted agent who really knows your work and your goals is one key component of achieving slow build success: you need someone with you for the long haul, because publishing is nothing if not a long haul.

Five-decade publishing legend and father of Rambo, David Morrell, attributes his success in part to having “shifted approaches before I was typecast. I’ve written in many genres and never wrote more than three books in any series. Instead I followed my interests and tried to evolve.” Morrell represents a blend of phenom and slow build. His debut novel, First Blood, birthed the iconic Rambo, while his recent Victorian era mystery trilogy is an altogether different literary animal, proving Morrell’s ability to reinvent himself and stay relevant.

New York Times bestselling author and creator of the Reacher franchise, Lee Child, speaks to the slow build truism when he says of publishing success: “The fundamental issue is unchanging—can you hang in there until you get discovered? You used to have longer, and now you have shorter, but the key is always to write a great book—one that somehow convinces readers and publishers that there are more to come.”

In order to achieve slow build success, it’s worth understanding how it works. Two concepts apply, the first being straightforward multiplication. When a writer has several books out, readers who discover one of them will often go out and buy the others, turning one sale into many.

The other relevant concept is a bit more abstract. Malcom Gladwell applies the term “tipping point” to the idea that at a certain level, things aren’t additive or even multiplicative anymore. Instead they explode exponentially. There comes a time when a writer has enough books on shelves and in cyberspace, when his or her name has come up enough times in reviews and articles, when he or she has done a sufficient number of appearances at conferences or events, that he or she becomes known and is suddenly everywhere. This is the overnight sensation who was a decade or more in the making.

That writer can be you.

You just have to stay alive.

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Jenny Milchman is the USA Today bestselling and Mary Higgins Clark award-winning author of four psychological thrillers, including the forthcoming Wicked River.

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