Yesterday morning when I opened my eyes, I wondered, “What will the blog be about this week?” Then, while drinking my first cup of coffee, I opened my email and found the following blog comment from someone named Amy Conner:
JA Jance! Where have you been all of my adult life????????? One of my residents (who is in his late 90s) introduced me to you this past Christmas. Almost 5 months later, I am now on my last JP Beaumont book!!! I haven’t read like this since I was a teenager! We scour the thrift stores for your books since some of them are hard to find in the libraries. My siblings loved looking for them for my stocking at Christmas. Thank you so much for the hours of pleasure you have brought me with my puppy sitting right next to me. I can’t wait to finish this last book and then head on to a new series from you!!
The answer to Amy’s question is this: For the last forty years I’ve had my nose to the grindstone and shoulder to the wheel, writing one book after another. I’m not the least bit offended that she scours thrift shops for missing titles. Secondhand bookstores continue to be an important part of the book business. Actually, early on in my career, I visited a St. Vincent de Paul shop where all paperbacks were sold for a quarter each. Mine were priced at a dollar. Seeing the difference in price made me feel like a star.
When my agent was negotiating the sale of my first book, Until Proven Guilty, we had a choice to make. One avenue was to go with a hardback contract where the initial print run would most likely be 5000 copies with a projected sell through of half that. The other option was to go with a paperback house where the initial print run would be around 30,000.
In the early eighties, my daughter was a Brownie who earned her way to Girl Scout Camp three years in a row by selling 1000 boxes of cookies a year. The first year by the last day of selling, we were down to only two kinds of cookies—the short breads of lemon creams. During the process of earning my CLU designation in the life insurance business, I had learned about the law of large numbers, and it turns out a thousand boxes of bookies was a large enough number for a valid study. We analyzed the sales history. Thin Mints were clearly the hands-down favorite, so for the next two years, we ordered 500 boxes of those with smaller numbers for the other varieties with Lemon Creams coming in dead last. And for the next two years, on the last day of the sale, we still had a complete selection.
Suddenly I was a fan of the law of large numbers and applied that to the book biz. The possibility of having 15,000 paperback readers seemed like a better bet than having 2500 hardback readers, so we went with the offer from Avon Books, and I stuck with them for years. When Avon was sold to HarperCollins, I went along for the ride, and I’ve been with them ever since—with the exception of the Ali Reynolds books which are published under the auspices of Simon and Schuster.
I started out my writing career with a number of two-book contracts with tiny advances from a paperback house. Initially I wrote two books a year for Avon, and the low advances meant I was working for far less than minimum wage. Fortunately for me and my kids, Bill had come into our lives and was happy to be our blended-family’s primary breadwinner. A couple of years into the process, some of the old hands in Seattle’s literary world took Bill and me to the publishing business’s woodshed, as it were, where they told us that original paperback mysteries had a ninety-day shelf life and what I needed to do was ditch those low-priced two-book contracts from Avon and go with another house that would pay “real” advance money.
Bill and I talked it over. We decided it made sense to stay where I was and gradually up the value of those initial advances, and that’s exactly what I did. Those small advances were paid off in relatively short order. At this point I receive more in royalties from those original paperbacks every six months than I was paid in those initial advances.
The guys who were passing out sage advice back then decided to take it themselves. They took their book contracts off to other houses where they received larger initial advances, but a funny thing happened after that. Their earlier books, their backlist titles, disappeared. With no new books on the horizon, their original publishers had no real interest in keeping their backlists in print. I’m happy to report that thirty-seven years later, Until Proven Guilty is still in print in paperback, e-book, and audio editions. According to my calculations, that’s approximately 148 ninety-day shelf lives later. I call that a win-win!
In case you’re wondering about how that happened—here’s the secret. My devoted fans have a tendency to tell other people about my books, just like that ninety-year old guy who told Amy about me last Christmas and turned her into a fan. For years people have told me that reading my books is like eating Fritos because you can’t read just one, That’s certainly turned out to be the case with Amy, and I’m hoping the next time she sees that resident of hers in person, she’ll tell him I said thank you.