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Behind the Fiction, Past
A Fiction Column
By Brian Hill & Dee Power

A Tale of Two Authors

         It is mid-December; the holiday shopping rush is accelerating toward a typically frantic climax. At this large chain bookstore in an upscale mall, the aisles are so crammed with merchandise that it is difficult for the huge throng of customers to navigate from one end of the store to another. These are the wisest of all shoppers, because as we all know, books make the most wonderful presents. In the high traffic areas, you notice that a select few titles are prominently displayed in their own racks, others in three-foot high pyramidal stacks. You wonder: can the store really sell fifty or one hundred copies of this one single book during the holiday season, given that more than 150,000 books are available in the store?

    The answer is, certainly. These are the latest books from the bestselling authors, the literary elite, those writers whose names are as powerful, and magnetic, a brand to the book buying public as the golden arches are to those tired, hungry shoppers seeking respite in the form of a hamburger and fries in another part of the mall.

    In one of these busy bookstore aisles, you notice someone who doesn’t appear to be shopping: this person is just staring at one of the bestselling titles featured in its own display: “Murder in the Foul Mist” by Charlene Charttopper. There is unmistakable joy on her face, mixed with great satisfaction. She is the author of the book. And it is her first bestseller, the first big success after years of effort, three previous books, and a gritty struggle to get her first book published at all.

     But Charlene has left all that behind. Ahead is acclaim, notoriety, the chance at a tremendous income, and enduring celebrity status. And unlike other celebrities who seem so disposable or interchangeable, authors never lose the glow of their literary success, even if it was achieved decades earlier. They get to wear the gold medal of “bestselling author” around their necks for the rest of their lives.

   Let’s lift a mental glass of champagne and toast her triumph. What this author did is an astounding achievement. Go ahead, walk up and congratulate her. Bestselling authors have an unjustified reputation for shyness and eccentricity. It’s all a pose. They aren’t graduates of verbal magicians’ school. They are mainly people who got up every morning, went to the word processor and persevered, while the other would-be authors wandered off and got back to their real, paying, jobs. Authors want to be recognized for their achievement; they want you to tell them, “Your book was fabulous!!!” We’ll wager that author Charlene has a fancy pen in her pocket, the one reserved for autographs. And don’t forget while you’re getting up the courage to ask her to sign the copy you just bought, she’s sold another 2,000 copies worldwide and earned 5% on the retail price. Five years ago, she was a waitress in coffee house near the university.

     Now through the front door of the bookstore comes another author. He followed exactly the same path as Charlene: he studied, honed his craft, sweat blood onto the blank pages, faced rejection after rejection until that unforgettable day when the letter arrived from the publisher—“We are proud to be publishing your book.” And for the time being we’ll ignore the painful months of editing that followed before the book went to the printer. Our second author looks excited, expectant. He knows his book, “Foul Murder In The Mist,” has been shipped to retailers and is available for sale this holiday season. His heart is beating wildly as he looks for the aisle where his title should be on the shelves. He bumps into you as he rushes toward it; he doesn’t mean to be rude, he’s just manic. Dreams that come true are sometimes the most dangerous.

     But his hopes are quickly crushed. He finds his book is there but the store has ordered just one, single copy. It sits on the shelf like a lonesome puppy at the pound, with little hope of adoption. And even the most motivated readers would have to go on a virtual scavenger hunt in the store to find it, particularly when there are blinding, colorful stacks of the bestselling authors’ titles luring them at the edge of every aisle.

     Is there hope for our novice novelist, a chance that he too can achieve the success of Charlene Charttopper?

     Yes. Nicholas Sparks penned several novels before “The Notebook” was published. Stephen King’s “Carrie” was the fifth novel he’d written. James Patterson’s first mystery was turned down by 31 publishers (and later won an Edgar Award). Mary Higgins Clark’s first story took six years and 41 rejection slips before it was finally published. Her first novel was, as she puts it, “a commercial disaster.” Her second, “Where Are the Children?” was a bestseller. Janet Evanovich’s first three attempts were, in her own words “sucky un-sellable manuscripts.”

    This year while you’re holiday shopping and on your way to the checkout stand with loads of books in your cart, consider seeking out a new author, one whose name you’re not familiar with, an author with just a book or two on the shelf. Give yourself the gift of discovering a new favorite and you might also be discovering the next bestseller.

© A Tale of Two Authors
By Brian Hill and Dee Power
Copyright 2003 all rights reserved worldwide

2003 Past Columns

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