Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A Note in a Bottle Dropped in the Gulf Stream

From the messy desk of Paul Levine

Can we agree that this statement from James B. Stewart in The New York Times is inalterably true?

"A publishing contract is hardly a guarantee of critical or commercial success."

Mr. Stewart writes of the puzzling case of J.K. Rowling, who originally published her latest novel, "The Cuckoo's Calling" under the nom de plume "Robert Galbraith," where it was promptly ignored by critics and readers.  Then, Ms. Rowling's camp unveiled the truth and the book soared to the top of the lists, along with a string of glowing reviews.

Mr. Stewart poses this question:

"But if the book is as good as critics are now saying it is, why didn't it sell more copies before, especially since the rise of online publishing has supposedly made it easier than ever for first-time authors?"

Oh, give me a break!

As Mr. Stewart himself points out in "Long Odds for Authors Newly Published," it's never been easy getting your book noticed.  Not then, not now.   If your book is traditionally published, "much depends on how a new manuscript is treated by the publisher."  Will marketing and publicity dollars be put behind the endeavor?  For the overwhelming majority of debut authors, the answer was and remains "no." 

There are exceptions.  Mr. Stewart points to Grove Atlantic's gargantuan efforts at marketing Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain," which went on to sell 11 million copies and win the National Book Award.

But by and large, first time novelists are essentially on their own in the marketplace.  What about self-publishing?  We're all familiar with those precious few for whom lightning has struck.  But for most, a self-published book has about the same chance of being a best-seller as a note in a bottle dropped in the Gulf Stream.

I've been fortunate in my life in many ways.  For the past 25 years, after giving up a partnership in a law firm, I've paid all my bills as a writer, both of novels and for a few short hectic years, in network television. 

Now, the world of traditional publishing has been turned upside down.  I've bought my backlist from my old publisher and created my own personal publishing company.  That part of the business -- designing covers, marketing, social media, publicity -- takes roughly as much time as the writing.  Meaning...don't do it unless you're willing to cut your writing time in half.

Whether you're published by Simon & Schuster or your Uncle Simon, these words ring true from the Times' article:

"A publisher can only do so much.  A book's fate is ultimately in the hands of the book gods."


Now, for a bit of that personal marketing I referred to, I have a brand new Facebook Author Page.  Within the next couple weeks, I'll be posting an excerpt from "State vs. Lassiter," to be published in paperback and ebook on October 1.  So please visit and "like" the page.


We're back from Boulder, CO where we had a summer rental.  Here's a shot of Marcia checking our mailbox for news from home.  Really.

Paul Levine


  1. from Jacqueline

    Oh how true, Paul. I remember reading an article in a British newspaper years ago (maybe it was when I was working on my first novel), and the writer touched upon his various friends who were getting quite nice advances for their work. He went up and down all the things that contribute to a book's success, and then said, "You can have all that, but at the end of the day, you've got to write a very good book." Which is why we go through all that revision and all that angst and have the question looming over us when the book goes to print - "Is this the best I could have done?" Or maybe that's just me. And for the self-published, being the author, publisher, publicist and talker-upper is a hard job for one person. But if it's what you love to do - well, heck, it's worth it. In fact, even if you're with a "traditional" publisher, it seems the only thing you don't do is print the book, because for most authors, much of the rest is up to you.

  2. James O. Born9/03/2013 5:03 PM

    I read quirky science fiction novels that are difficult to even describe yet I know they are good. None of them sell anything close to a bestseller.

    I really do like your page.

    Good post Paul.

  3. Nobody should write a book thinking they'll make money. The odds are against you, even if it's a well written book.

  4. Great post for me as a person simply interested in how the industry works.

    Thanks for your always, always great words.