I've been to many writers conferences where I've heard audience members ask the speaker how they became a New York Times best-selling author or achieved other publishing success. The answers have pretty much been the same: write as best you can, and don't give up. I think their answers are vague because, frankly, they don't even know how it happened to them...
My first book was published in 1984. So I have more than 26 years of experience - some firsthand and some watching other authors from the sidelines. I've seen authors who wrote horribly and ended up on bestseller lists. I've seen others who are remarkably talented give up because they were unable to find a publisher or agent. I've seen many others ebb and flow.
My own publishing success has been a roller coaster. Although I always wanted to be a writer, I found myself on the ground floor of the personal computer industry in the late 1970's. By the early 1980's, I began writing articles for computer magazines such as PC Magazine, inCider (an early Apple magazine), PC World and others. I received a letter in the mail (this was long before the Internet, email and text messages) from a publisher who said he'd read one of my articles and wanted me to write a book on creating databases. I thought he was representing a vanity press and I threw the letter away.
By the time the third letter arrived, I was curious. So I called him and I have to admit, I wasn't that friendly - I was ready to tell him to stop sending me letters. But in the course of our conversation, I realized that he was calling from a major publisher of textbooks. And THEY were wanting to pay ME.
I jumped right on that bandwagon and my first book sold tens of thousands of copies, even though computer books have a notoriously short shelf-life. That book was Creating the Perfect Database and it was used as a college textbook. I followed it with The Dynamics of WordPerfect when WordPerfect was the Number One word processing software for DOS. This was obviously pre-Windows. By the time the second book was released, the success of my writing made it possible for me to start my first computer company, McClelland Enterprises, Inc. By the time the third book, The Dynamics of Reflex, was released, my computer business was in full swing - and another computer company would follow soon after.
But my goal had always been to write suspense. And though I was now a publishing success - without a single personal appearance, book signing, or media appearance - I wasn't satisfied. I wanted to write novels.
When I contacted my editor, I found that publishers have their niches. And while he was wonderful at publishing textbooks, he didn't have a clue what to tell me about publishing a novel - except it was "different."
I fell into writing my first publishable novel 16 years after my first non-fiction was published.
I had continued in the computer business (which, let's admit, was extremely lucrative), primarily working with government agencies. But one day, I received a call from a trucking company, who proceeded to tell me they wanted me to write a program to hide their kickbacks.
To make a very long story short, I became a government informant, passing information to the FBI and helping to provide data that would eventually be used to assist the government investigations. And some time later, I was still a bit traumatized by that incident. In doing some soul searching and trying to make lemonade out of lemons, I came to the conclusion that I'd always wanted to be a writer. And they say "write what you know" so I did. I wrote my first suspense/thriller called Kickback. Though it was based on my own experience, the main character had more chutzpah than I would ever have. In fact, she was a lot of things I wished I was: athletic, daredevil, afraid of nothing.
It took two years to write it but another two years to find a publisher. I started with the big NY publishers, received those rejections pretty quickly, and worked my way down to the medium-sized publishers. By the time Kickback was published, I'd amassed more than 70 rejections.
But the success of Kickback was enough for me to decide I wanted to a writer. I learned quickly that getting a novel published was a lot different from textbooks. Novels required a lot more publicity - book signings, media attention, talks. By the following year when The China Conspiracy was released, I'd learned how to do television shows, radio interviews, newspaper interviews, book talks, participation in panels, the whole gamut.
But three years would elapse before my third suspense would be published (due to a move and other personal commitments), and by the time Ricochet was released (2006), the publishing industry was a different animal... More on that in a future blog.
One thing I learned from this process and from watching others: every author's path to success is unique. And that's why they can rarely tell you how to get to the top. Once it happens and the author looks back, they often have a difficult time figuring out how THEY got there.