The Power of Persistence
We’ve all been there. The excitement for our newly finished book. The praises from our first readers feeding our enthusiasm. The news story of the latest up-and-coming novelist to hit it big. This is it. The moment all your hard work has been building toward: the release of your break-out book, the one that makes you a household name and changes your career forever.
Only it doesn’t. It takes forever to finally find a publisher. And once it does, despite the marketing team’s enthusiasm and a slew of five-star Amazon reviews, your first royalty check won’t cover a nice vacation, much less support your family long-term. While big-name authors rake in millions for churning out formulaic sequels and overseeing an army of heavy-lifting co-authors, your labor of love is barely noticed in the ever-growing sea of books readers have to choose from.
So what do you do? All your high expectations have been dashed against the unforgiving shores of a tough market and you’re reeling from the aftermath. Do you give up, frustrated with “rigged marketplace” or a modern readership who doesn’t appreciate true talent? Or do you press on?
We live in simultaneously the best and worst time for new or up-and-coming authors. If you want to get your book published, it’s phenomenal, as there have never been more opportunities to get your book into the hands of readers. However, if you foresaw getting a million-dollar advance for your debut novel, chances are you’re going to be disappointed. The big houses tend to be much more risk-averse to non-proven entities without huge sales records under their belts. Like the big movie studios, the traditional houses have largely become tentpole businesses, focusing on the perennial bestselling authors who bring in the vast majority of the publishers’ revenue. No one is surprised when Brad Thor’s or James Patterson’s latest book hits #1 on the NYT bestsellers list. Authors like that are proven entities, and publishers know that, despite seven-figure advances and massive marketing budgets, those releases will more than recoup their return on investment.
Whether you aspire to become a tentpole author yourself or just to make a good living writing fulltime, the answer is the same: learn, grow, and persist.
I had big hopes for my debut novel, From the Ashes. At first, I was sure I would land a deal with a big publishing house. I pitched to agents at Thrillerfest 2009 and 2010 and received a number of favorable responses, but none of them panned out. In 2011, an author friend of mine introduced me to his publisher, who had released his debut to mega sales (including three weeks in the Kindle Top 10 which led to international rights being sold in eight countries). When From the Ashes released, I anticipated similar results, but some crucial elements in the market had changed, and my sales, though solid, came nowhere near the bestsellerdom of my friend.
Similarly, The Danite Prophecy, which was initially written as the sequel to From the Ashes, was ready to be published by my current publisher. But when a number of first readers, including some bestselling authors, recommended I pitch this one to bigger publishers instead, I became enamored of the dreams of bestsellerdom again. This could be my breakout hit, they all said, so I rewrote the book as the first in a new series and landed the top agent I had unsuccessfully pitched to years back. But it didn’t take. Most editors loved it, but I was a risk, an unproven entity. To this day, The Danite Prophecy, the book that was going to be my big breakout, remains unpublished, nearly four years after its completion.
My current publisher used to helm a major New York house, working with and developing talents that are now household names. But unlike the one-strike-and-you’re-out mentality of many big houses these days, he takes the longview approach, building a brand, a readership, and a career over a number of books. My agent, who has been working in the industry since the ‘80s, offered similarly sage advice for my expectations of an advance big enough to quit my day job with. Just as most CEOs started at a low rung on the ladder, most authors don’t strike sales gold on their first release these days. They got to where they are through hard work, determination, and continually striving to improve.
Nearly two years after its release, From the Ashes became a #1 Amazon category bestseller, beating out hit releases by tentpole authors like Nelson DeMille and Steve Berry in the Historical Thriller category. It was nearly two years after its initial release, but it happened. And then, a few months later, it climbed the charts to hit #1 again. And then, a few weeks before my second published book, The Dubai Betrayal, released, From the Ashes finally became a national bestseller, hitting #3 on the overall Nook bestseller list. Beating out, well, everyone, except John Sandford and Christine Feehan, perennial New York Times bestselling authors whose new books had just released the day before. This more than four years after From the Ashes first hit store shelves.
I still believe I will someday have my big breakout book, one that changes my writing career forever. I believe that a big New York house will buy The Danite Prophecy and its sequels. And I believe one day I will be a tentpole author, able to fully dedicate my professional life to writing the best books I can, complete with expensive and resource-intensive research trips. It may not come with the next book or the one after that, but that’s okay. This is a marathon, striving to build a lasting career and brand. And that takes focus, determination, and realistic pacing expectations.
Persistence and a longview approach are crucial to achieving the success you’re dreaming of. Your new book may not become the overnight blockbuster you’re sure it could be, but every minor success can lay the seeds of greatness if you don’t allow yourself to get disillusioned. A dedication to improving your craft, writing with passion that draws in readers, and a determination to keep growing your audience through increasingly compelling stories will ensure that, when the right opportunity for your newest book to become the breakout career-maker you’ve always dreamed, you’ll be ready. And so will I.
Jeremy Burns lived and worked in Dubai for two years, conduct- ing first-hand research in many of the locations featured in The Dubai Betrayal and immersing himself in a variety of Middle Eastern cultures. His first book, From the Ashes, introduced Wayne Wilkins and is a two-time #1 category bestseller on Ama- zon, with more than 95,000 total ebook copies downloaded to date. A seasoned traveler who has explored more than twenty countries across four continents, he lives in Florida with his wife and two dogs, where he is working on his next book.