creative writing community, craft and inspiration
“How to become a bestseller?” It’s the second question on every writer’s mind, right after “How do I get published in the first place?”
No matter how many optimistic articles one reads, there’s no magic formula. According to TWC guest speaker Christina Baker Kline, when it happens, it will probably be the last thing you, your editor or agent will expect.
Christina’s novel, Orphan Train, is currently #8 on The New York Times Bestseller List where it’s been climbing for several months. It’s her fifth novel and tenth book, and her history as a writer has been the classic story of struggle, minor moments of success, unrealistic hopes and practical decisions, and continuous dedication to her craft and career.
“It was like getting struck by lightning. It will probably never happen to me again,” she said. “I’ve been very much a working writer.”
Christina shared that she’s sustained her writing by working as an editor during college and beyond, as a college professor and, in her early life, at too many odd jobs to count.
Her first novel was published not long after grad school and was, as she called it, a “minor success.” That led her to the mistaken idea that she could make a living just writing, until finally her agent said she should probably get a job.
“Now,” Christina acknowledged, “I think that was totally right. I’m not in this for the money.”
And probably a good thing. Her career has been a series of bounces from minor success to disappointment to a regional bestseller; and then to a book that sold half as much as the previous one. It was understandable that her agent and editor had modest expectations for her next book, Orphan Train.
The novel tells the story of a friendship between a seventeen-year-old girl who is aging out of foster care and a 91-year-old woman with a secret past as a rider on one of the trains that brought hundreds of orphaned children to the Midwest and an uncertain fate.
“What made Orphan Train different?” we were all curious to know.
“For me, it was about claiming ambition. That meant having a bigger canvas. This is a big story, with big questions about identity and history. I had to feel that I could tackle subjects outside my own experience. Books that catch the public imagination usually do tell big stories.”
Another thing that has seemed to make a difference is that Orphan Train was published as a paperback original, meaning that it didn’t come out in hardcover first, as most literary fiction does.
“Paperbacks are big with book clubs which are critical to driving sales. People are much more likely to routinely buy paperbacks. And paperbacks let people buy multiples because they simply cost less.” All this practicality aside, Christina still wonders what would’ve happened if Orphan Train was released in hardcover.
“Maybe they’ll release a collector’s edition,” suggested TWC Director Judith Lindbergh.
In fact, in a recent article in Forbes, Christina made a good case for just such an approach. “In my ideal world, my next novel would have a first printing of, say, 2,500 hardcovers for reviewers, libraries, collectors, and autograph hounds. And simultaneously, or six weeks later, the book would be available in paperback.” Not a bad idea in this quickly changing world of publishing.
As far as writerly advice, Christina had plenty. “Everyone always asks me about MFA programs. I think that an MFA is probably only worth doing if you get funding, or if you have a nest egg. Otherwise you get buried trying to pay back loans and write simultaneously.”
On finding an agent: “Finish a novel completely before sending it out. Put it through multiple drafts; you only get one shot…. Making personal connections in queries helps. Go to conferences where you can meet agents and editors in person…. Look in the acknowledgements of books you like that are similar to yours to find an agent or editor who might like your work…. In fact, the agent I started out with was, like me, young and inexperienced. She wasn’t a big name. We kind of grew up together. Confining your search to A-list agents and editors can limit you. Everybody has to start somewhere, and young and hungry may be a better option for you than established and jaded.”
On the self-publishing question, she referred to an article she’d brought to share, Can Authors Make Money Selling Books. “This article gives you really specific numbers. Publishing is always a gamble, but self-publishing is even worse. You hear a lot of success stories, but the reality is that 75% of self-published authors made under $500.”
About a writers community: “It’s very useful to have community of other authors to ask questions and get help on everything from ‘What do I post about?’ to ‘How do I find an agent?’ It’s also useful for building an online following and collaborating on promotion, talks and panels, etc.”
About publicity and social media: “Marketing yourself can be incredibly daunting. Make sure you have a community of readers. Success is always an amalgamation of publicity techniques.” On her author website, she has a 90-second video created by her publisher that’s been an “amazing sales tool”. She said her Amazon Author Page makes it very easy to upload and promote her events. And she actively maintains a Facebook author page and some other social media, though she’s less fond of Twitter. “I still can’t quite figure it out,” she laughed.
The bottom line: “Author marketing is incredibly important, but it can only go so far. Now Orphan Train seems to have its own momentum. But generally, editors and publishers fade out of an author’s life if they’re not making money.”
Even with Orphan Train’s "breakout book" success, Christina is realistic. “I have to be honest with myself about my writing and success rates. With every book, I don’t hope for fame. I hope to be able to continue writing and publishing. My goal is that, and respect from other writers.”