By Jennifer S. Wilkov, host of the “Your Book Is Your Hook!” Show on WomensRadio
As authors and writers, we’re always learning about resources and industry tools that we can use to improve our book project performance and the enjoyment of our writing and marketing experiences. Today let’s talk about how time and again humble beginnings lead to great best-selling writing careers for authors.
If you have been writing for a while and sometimes get the feeling like you may never make it as a writer, think again and keep working at it. In the holiday spirit of Thanksgiving and to shed some perspective on this, I’d like to share three stories of authors you will probably recognize who had their own humble beginnings before they had a rock star writing career.
Let’s start with this week’s author guest on the show who these days is one of America’s most wildly popular and beloved women’s fiction authors. But that’s not where she began her career.
Debbie Macomber is dyslexic and didn’t learn to read until she was in the fifth grade. Her dyslexia did not deter the young mother of four from pursuing a lifelong dream of becoming published. She started by writing articles for magazines at her kitchen table on a typewriter after her family had finished breakfast. When she got one of her first checks for one of her articles published in a women’s magazine, she was encouraged and so was her husband. Debbie didn’t get a book published during her first five years as a writer.
Then, she celebrated her first sale in 1982 when Silhouette Books acquired her manuscript, Heartsong. The book became the first category romance ever to be reviewed by Publishers Weekly. She was soon featured in Newsweek—and demand for her books quickly exceeded her wildest dreams. Now Debbie maintains a list of more than 130,000 readers, with whom she regularly corresponds.
Today, with more than 130 million copies of her books in print, Debbie Macomber is one of the world’s most popular authors.
A regular resident on the bestseller lists, two of her novels have scored the #1 slot on the New York Times, USA Today and Publishers Weekly lists the first week on sale. She is the first-ever recipient of the“readers’ choice” Quill Award for Romance Fiction for 44 Cranberry Point, the fourth book in her highly popular Cedar Cove series. Debbie has also been honored with a RITA® for her 2005 holiday hardcover, The Christmas Basket; an RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award and is a multiple winner of both the Holt Medallion and the B. Dalton Award. In July 2010, the Romance Writers of America presented Debbie with its prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.
Debbie has also written and been published with a cookbook, a children’s book and three non-fiction inspirational books. Her novel, Mrs. Miracle, was broadcast in 2009 as a made-for-TV movie by Hallmark Channel and was Hallmark Channel’s top-watched movie of the year. Call Me Mrs. Miracle, her new book released for the holiday season this year, will be broadcast on Saturday, November 27, 2010, also by Hallmark Channel as a made-for-TV movie.
Not bad for a woman who is dyslexic and didn’t learn to read until she was in the fifth grade.
Now we’ll turn our attention to Nicholas Sparks who was born in Omaha, Nebraska. After receiving a full track scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, he got injured during his freshman year in college after breaking the Notre Dame record in the 4 x 800 relay (at the Drake relays — a record that still stands). He spent the summer icing his Achilles tendon and moping around the house until his mother said, “Don’t just pout, do something.” When Nicholas, sulking, asked “What?” – his mother replied, “I don’t know. Write a book.” He looked at her and said, “Okay.”
Eight weeks later, he was the proud author of his first novel — “The Passing,” a book that was never published. In 1989, he wrote his second novel, “The Royal Murders.” It’s in his attic, together with countless rejection slips, alongside his first novel. He decided to concentrate on another career. In addition to being rejected from law school, Nicholas appraised real estate, bought and restored houses, waited tables, sold dental products by phone and finally started his own business (manufacturing orthopedic products). He then proceeded to run up thirty- thousand dollars in credit-card debt. After two and a half long, long years, he broke even.
During this time, he wrote yet another book, Wokini with Billy Mills, a long-time friend and Olympic Gold Medalist. It was published by Feather Publishing, a small outfit in Sacramento. It did well regionally (sales of about 50,000 copies) and was picked up by Random House in 1994. The success, Sparks confesses, was primarily due to the name recognition of Billy Mills. (Newer editions have been published by Hay House Books.)
In early 1992, he sold his business and looked around for something to do. He became a pharmaceutical salesman. In May 1994, he decided to give writing another shot. He decided to give himself three chances — three more novels — and if none of those was published, he’d be able to accept that he wasn’t meant to be a writer.
He wrote The Notebook over a six-month period, from June of 1994 until January of 1995, writing in the evenings from nine until midnight, and working one day on the weekends. In July 1995, he started soliciting agents. He found one and the book was presented to publishers in October 1995. At the time, he was earning about $40,000 a year.
Warner Books bought the rights for $1,000,000.
Film rights to the novel were sold later that week to New Line Cinema and foreign rights were sold (eventually into more than 45 languages). The novel was also made a Main Selection of the Literary Guild.
In October 1996, the book launched with 56 events in over 45 cities crammed into three months. It was the longest book tour in Warner Books’s history — one of the longest ever, period — but it was important for Sparks to do, despite the fact that only one person showed up in Miami and one person showed up in San Francisco for events in those cities. The Notebook steadily grew in popularity through word-of-mouth. It ended up spending 56 weeks on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list, and another 54 weeks on the paperback list. It was only the third novel in the previous thirty years that had lasted over a year on the hardcover list, and the only novel to last over a year on both hardcover and paperback lists, until J.K. Rowling came along with Harry Potter. To this point, it has sold over 10,000,000 copies worldwide.
Fast forward to September 2010 when his 16th novel was released. Talk about a career best-selling author!
Finally, let’s look at the humble beginnings of Dan Brown, a New Hampshire native, who taught English and creative writing at Phillips Exeter Academy until 1998 when he became a full time writer and his first novel, Digital Fortress, was published. That first book was followed by Angels and Demons in 2001 and Deception Point in 2002.
But it wasn’t until his fourth novel that Dan Brown’s career as a writer and best-selling author took off. In fact, his first three novels were virtually unknown until he broke out with the runaway hit, The Da Vinci Code, that went on to sell more than 25 million copies in 44 languages and was made into a feature film starring Tom Hanks. Time magazine in its 2005 article, “The Novel That Ate The World,” stated that during the two years prior to its article, one of the very few books to sell more copies than The Da Vinci Code was the Bible.
As reported in Slate.com’s article “The Dan Brown Code” dated March 22, 2006, by Bryan Curtis and SILive.com’s article “Dan Brown Returns With the ‘Lost Symbol’ dated September 15th, 2009 by James Yates and others, Brown resolved to become a writer when he read Sidney Sheldon’s The Doomsday Conspiracy while vacationing in Tahiti. After reading Sheldon’s book which he found swift and merciless, he began to suspect that maybe he could write a ‘thriller’ of this type one day. He’d read almost no commercial fiction at all since the Hardy Boys as a child. After his first two novels, his sales were poor and by 2001 he was in the same rut as so many authors — handling his own publicity and even selling books out of his car, a process that would now require a convoy of trucks.
Brown changed agents, changed publishers (from Simon & Schuster to Doubleday, a Random House imprint), changed his luck and then – he changed the industry.
He wrote the outline for The Da Vinci Code in a laundry room, himself planted in a lawn chair and his manuscript balanced on an ironing board. It was published in March 2003 and was an immediate hit that remained on best-seller lists for more than three years.
So you see, my fellow writers, don’t give up. A career of writing begins and ends with your decision to keep writing. Imagine if Debbie let the dyslexia beat her or if Nicholas gave up after he got rejection slip after rejection slip for his second novel or if Dan Brown decided to stop writing after his first two novels weren’t selling well. If he hadn’t sat down in that laundry room and written The Da Vinci Code, well, the history of the book publishing industry just wouldn’t be the same, now would it?
Keep writing. Keep the faith. It will happen to you. All you have to do is keep doing it.
After all, you can’t use your book as your hook – until you have a book.
For more information on this Education Corner topic and others, please refer to www.YourBookIsYourHook.com/blog for more articles and resources to help you with your books.