IDOL TALK: After a Bestseller, What Are the Odds of Future Success?

Editors and agents constantly tell writers to include plenty of conflict in their novels.  For some authors, it’s easy. They lived it.

“My career has been one disaster followed by a victory, followed by a disaster. I think that’s true of most writers,” says Gayle Lynds, one of the most popular spy novelists in the world. Gayle fought sexism her entire career as a writer—whether in the newsroom at the Arizona Republic, or with a book editor who told her women don’t write spy novels. And for Gayle, it wasn’t just men putting roadblocks in her path.

But in the end, one woman put Gayle over the top. Her first novel, Masquerade, was published in hardback and did well, but it wasn’t flying off the shelves. Then Phyllis Grann at Berkley Paperbacks read it and loved it. At a marketing meeting she held Masquerade up and waved it before the assemblage proclaiming, “See this book? It’s a great book. We’re going to make it a bestseller.”

And she did.

Masquerade arrived on the New York Times bestseller list at number seventeen and Gayle has made it one of her favorite stops ever since.

Scott Turow, considered the father of the modern legal thriller and famed for his gripping novel Presumed Innocent, struggled for years on a project that went nowhere. Prior to his fame and fortune, he spent four years on a novel about a rent strike in a Chicago filled with fraud and a secret landowner.

“The main problem, I worked on it for too long,” he says. It was 1972 and Richard Nixon had just been elected president. “The message was America was not having more of this hippy shit,” he says. “That’s what my novel was basically about . . . but the public was sick of the rebellion thing.”

Or take Lee Child. Way back when, when he was still Jim Grant, he worked for the BBC as a producer. He was also the union shop steward, which put him in the crosshairs of management. He was eventually fired and needed to make some money fast to feed his family. He’d been thinking for some time about writing a novel, so he sat down with a legal pad and pencils and Jack Reacher was born.

Year’s later after he was rich and famous, he ran into his old BBC boss at a museum opening in London. While Child was gratified to know he had accomplished so much—more than his former boss who had fired him ever would—the Brit kept a stiff upper lip and a smile his face. Who says you can’t get no satisfaction?

The lesson here, Lynds says, is in book publishing there is the “What have you done for me lately?” culture among publishers. It’s a fickle business. Writers must constantly be hammering their keyboards on their next book to make a living because there are no guarantees of future success in book publishing.