Sometimes I like to go back in time and re-read my blog posts from many years ago. This one, originally published in 2007, made me feel especially grateful. Back then, the Percy Jackson series wasn't even finished yet. The Titan's Curse had just come out. I was starting to feel like an actual bestselling author, but I had no idea what was in store for the future. Now, my books are exponentially more successful, and I'm exponentially more thankful for the good fortune I've had. But this blog post still resonates. Getting to where I am was an incredible amount of work, and I still take nothing for granted. I *still* worry that no one will show up when I do an event. I'm re-posting this because it might provide some perspective, and maybe some hope, for other struggling writers out there. Believe it or not, I've been where you are, and I know how it feels!
My Overnight Success
At a recent event, someone asked me, “How does it feel to be an 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.
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.
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
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
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.”