Saturday, December 22, 2007
My Overnight Success
The question took me aback. I had no idea how to answer, but I was struck by how drastically perception can differ from reality.
I’ve read about rock musicians who play free gigs for years in dingy bars – paying their dues -- before they get the one big break that attracts national attention. Suddenly, the artist is an ‘overnight success.’ No one has heard of him before, so even though he has been toiling for years, people just assume he appeared out of nowhere, a fully-formed rock star, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears . . . well, the tree doesn’t exist until we notice it. Thinking about my own ‘overnight success,’ I remembered one of the first book signings I ever did, ten years ago, when Big Red Tequila first came out. I was invited to Waldenbooks in a shopping mall in Concord, California. They set up a table at the front of the store. They allotted two hours. I sat there in my coat and tie and watched people pass by, steering clear of me like I was an insurance salesman. I gave directions to Sears. I explained several times that I wasn’t an employee at the bookstore and I didn’t know where the self-help section was. I signed a napkin for a couple of teenaged boys who thought the title “Big Red Tequila” sounded slightly naughty because it had to do with alcohol. I sold no books.
I remember the first book discussion group I did in Oakland. Two people showed up. And after that, a seemingly endless string of events for my mystery series – lots of empty chairs, apologetic booksellers, forced smiles. “Oh, it doesn’t matter if no one shows up!” I’d tell myself over and over. “It’s the signed stock and the publicity that counts!” Well . . . maybe. But I still felt like I was trying to fill a reservoir with an eye-dropper.
Most writers have stories like this. We dread the room full of empty chairs. I still have a deeply ingrained fear that no one will show up whenever I do an event. I am constantly amazed when I walk into a bookstore and there are actually people waiting for me.
When the Lightning Thief first came out, two years ago, I was a basket case. I had a feeling in my gut that this book was my big chance. And I also had a feeling that the big chance was slipping away. My family and I went out to the Bay Area to visit our old stomping ground, and I kept looking for signs that the Lightning Thief was making a big splash, getting some publicity, getting displayed prominently. No such luck. We stopped by several bookstores to sign stock. There was no stock. I did an event at one store (unfortunately, the day after the latest Harry Potter release) and the bleary-eyed bookseller’s only comment about Lightning Thief was, “Oh, it hasn’t gotten much coverage, has it?” One family showed up to hear me talk about my book. Two parents. One kid. I went back to the hotel room and curled into fetal position, thinking, “Well, that’s it. Nobody likes Percy Jackson.” My wife still teases me about that trip. She says, “If I could only go back in time and show you what was going to happen.” Still, at the time, I felt hopeless. It was another six months of constant touring and school visits before the Lightning Thief started gaining any traction at all. The Bluebonnet list from the Texas Library Association was the series’ first big break. Then it began showing up on other state lists, and word started getting around. Even after that, things were slow. I remember when Sea of Monsters came out, a year later, I was still having anxious conversations with my editor and agent, wondering what I could do to improve sales. Were we missing something? Was I wrong to think the series would connect with kids? It took almost two years before I really felt like things were turning around.
What made the difference? It’s hard to say, but it was a combination of factors. Most importantly, word-of-mouth. The series grew from the ground up, with one kid recommending the book to his or her friends. Booksellers and teachers and librarians started talking. I toured and did school visits relentlessly. The Sea of Monsters got on the Scholastic Book Club video, which was no small thing. The state reading lists started kicking in. And suddenly, just before the Titan’s Curse was released, the series seemed to reach critical mass and sales exploded.
But boy, it was a long time coming. I felt like I was clawing my way up a pit, tooth and nail. Am I complaining? Of course not. I’m just marveling at how uncertain I felt for so long. Nothing about the series’ success seemed inevitable. Even after I got the ‘ultimate break’ of being published for the first time, it was another eight years of writing while teaching full-time before I could go full-time as a writer, and two years more before I really felt like I was going to succeed. And still, who knows what will happen six months or a year from now? There are no guarantees.
As with any high-profile job, writing is judged by the exceptions in the field, not the average. When the general public hears the word ‘author,’ they think J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, James Patterson. They hear ‘basketball player,’ they think of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan. It’s an easy jump to think that all authors are like J.K. Rowling, and every basketball player is Michael Jordan. In fact, 99% of authors have never and will never experience anything like the success of the top 1%. Most writers, even if they manage to get published, never quit their day jobs. Most will never get on the bestseller list nor have their books made into a movie, just as most basketball players will never play in the NBA, and even those lucky few who do will never make the money of a superstar. Judging other books by the Harry Potter series is sort of like saying, “Well, that guy won the Powerball lottery, therefore everyone who plays should win the Powerball lottery.” That doesn’t mean we can’t dream. If a kid wants to aim at being a pro ball player, that’s awesome. If a writer wants to become the next ______ (fill-in-the-blank author), that’s fantastic, but it’s good to approach that ambition with your eyes open. It will most likely be a long, hard road with no guarantee that success will come. Exceptions are rare, which is why they get so much attention. For every well-known author you can think of, there are a thousand more struggling in the purgatory known as the “midlist,” and tens of thousands who are still trying to get published. And even those well-known authors probably struggled a lot longer and harder than you realize to get where they are.
I’m not saying this to gripe, or gloat, or whine. I’m just trying to provide some context, so when I tell you how grateful I am for the success of the books, and how lucky I feel, you’ll understand where I’m coming from. People ask me what I think about getting so much attention, and how it’s changed my life. It really hasn’t. I’m the same guy who sat in Waldenbooks for two hours, giving directions and smiling vacantly at a stream of shoppers who were trying to ignore me. I’m the same guy who stared at countless rooms full of empty chairs in countless bookstores for ten years. I am still amazed every time I get a crowd at an event. I take nothing for granted.
But you can’t really explain something like that in the middle of an event. It’s too hard to put into words without people thinking that I’m bragging or complaining. So the next time someone asks me, “How does it feel to be an overnight success?” I plan on smiling politely and saying, “It feels great.”