How does an author stay on top?
October 28, 2012 | Written by Chip MacGregor
Someone wrote to say, “A while back, you blogged about the lack of staying power authors have in today’s market. In your opinion, how do novelists like James Patterson, Karen Kingsbury, and Debbie Macomber stay on top?”
Publishing has always suffered from the “what’s new” syndrome. Every generation (which, in our culture, means every 3-to-7 years) needs it’s own voices — its own rock stars, its own TV shows, its own authors. So names will come and go. Take a look at who did big publishing deals 6 or 7 years ago, and you’ll find names you’ve never heard of. And yet… at the same time, the market has a tendency to fall in love with some people. James Patterson may not write the best books of all time, but he’s been around for 15 years, and he never has anything sell less than 100,000 copies. John Grisham has routinely been on the bestseller lists with his novels. Karen Kingsbury hits readers’ emotions with every book, and that drives her work to the bestseller lists.
I would argue that most successful authors share several characteristics: They know their own writing voice, and it’s a voice that appeals to a wide audience. (I’ve talked on this blog about “voice” quite a bit. I think it’s the #1 reason an author succeeds or fails.) They deliver a consistently good story that carries the reader along (even though successful authors may get hammered for poor craft, their stories are always interesting). There is almost always a protagonist I want to root for, and I’m generally drawn into the story emotionally. I usually get to know the inner life of the characters, not just the outer life. There is easy-to-understand conflict. And there’s generally some sort of transcendent theme to the book — reading it offers an emotional or educational experience, not just a way to spend a couple hours. When readers approach one of these authors’ books, those readers know what to expect.
There’s been a lot of discussion about “branding” among authors. But the best authors establish their brand through their words. Reading them is satisfying, because you know what the author will deliver. So to answer your question, I think all of those authors you mention have clear brands, and deliver on that promise to their readers. Readers of women’s gentle romances like Debbie Macomber, and when you pick up her new book, you know what to expect. That’s where “staying power” comes from.