Paperback Writer

Harlan Coben’s work ethic, gift for plot twists, obsession with sales numbers, and careful brand management have made him a blockbuster novelist who earns millions of dollars per book. What it takes to succeed as a thriller writer—even when the literary establishment doesn’t acknowledge your existence

Until I met Harlan Coben, I was only vaguely familiar with his name. It was one of dozens I would see on the short paperbacks that line the shelves of airport news shops. I had an even fuzzier recollection that when Bill Clinton was recovering from quadruple-bypass surgery, in 2004, he was photographed holding a copy of Coben’s novel No Second Chance. My introduction to Coben occurred in October 2005, when he and I were among some 150 authors featured at a book fair in New York’s Bryant Park. I was a last-minute addition to the schedule—my publisher was able to get me a slot because another writer canceled—and was thrilled that despite my book’s small print run, about 30 people attended my reading. After I finished, however, I realized that most of them were not there for me but had come early to secure themselves seats to hear Coben, the next writer on the bill.

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Later, the two of us were assigned to share a table where we could autograph our books. The queue for Coben stretched 40 people down the concrete footpath and never seemed to let up. Men and women asked him to pose with them for photos. They presented him with stacks of his novels to sign. As for me, I signed something like eight or nine copies of my book (and that’s including one for my in-laws and multiple copies for my wife’s friend). The contrast was dispiriting.

There was no point in pretending I had something else to do, so I watched Coben work. He’s 6 foot 4 and imposingly built (he played power forward for the Amherst College basketball team), almost completely bald, and charismatic in a self-effacing, deracinated-son-of-the-Borscht-Belt manner. When a reader asked how long it takes him to write a book, he said it’s always nine months. “I compare it to childbirth,” he said. “The best part is the idea—wink-wink.”

Over the last 17 years, Coben, who is 45, has published 16 crime novels, the most recent seven of which have made TheNew York Times’s best-seller list. The first hardcover print run of The Woods, which came out in April, was for 258,000 copies in the United States alone, and the book went into a second printing even before it debuted at No. 2 on the Times list. All but his first two books are still in print, and his backlist sells about 1 million paperbacks in the United States each year. Including his worldwide figures, he sells about 2.7 million books a year.

His novels have been translated into 37 languages, including Thai, Hebrew, and Arabic. In France, his books sell as many as 400,000 copies each, and a French studio recently made Tell No One, his breakout book, into a movie (Ne Le Dis à Personne). That book came out in the third week of April 2001, and every year since, Coben’s publisher has staked out that same week to introduce a new Coben work. “The best thing about his sales record is each of those books has outsold the previous one,” Brian Tart, the president of Dutton Books, Coben’s current publisher, told me. “He is that rare best-selling author who’s still on the rise.”

As I sat disconsolately alongside Coben at the book fair, I might have derived some comfort in resenting him for his fan club, except that—big surprise—he also turned out to be an absolute mensch: When he noticed how few people were approaching the table for me, he leaned in to offer an unpatronizing pep talk in the form of a story about the time he gave a reading in front of only two people for his first book. “And they weren’t even there for me—they were there to see the other writer I was reading with,” he said. Afterward, he’d attempted to commiserate with his fellow author, but the man wouldn’t have any of it. “He said to me, ‘Are you kidding? This is the happiest day of my life. I get to write books for a living—I’m living my dream.’”

Coben gave me some pointers for the book-promotion circuit. “Nothing’s more boring than listening to somebody read, so I just do shtick and talk about how I write,” he said. Also: “If you’re signing a book to somebody and they ask you to date it, tell them, ‘I don’t date—my wife won’t let me.’ That goes over well.” When the signing hour was over, we bought copies of each other’s books (this was my idea). He inscribed his: “To Eric, Good Luck! Enjoy it, dude—It’s a dream come true!”

Yet for all his success and self-confidence, Coben is poignantly aware that the stuff he writes doesn’t register with those in the business of treating books as literature; to them, he might as well not exist. One doesn’t exactly expect to see a mass-market writer like Coben on the advisory board of The Paris Review, but I was surprised when he told me ruefully that he’d never been reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review—not even a capsule review by the crime-fiction columnist Marilyn Stasio. (He does, however, have a fan in Janet Maslin, a weekday book critic at the paper who considers Coben one of the thriller genre’s better writers and has reviewed four of his books to date, raving about two of them.)

His ambivalence about his status—which sometimes surfaces as proud, oblivious populism but also suggests something like envy—seems to work in his favor: It probably does much to fuel his productivity. When we passed a tent where Frank McCourt, whose first book, Angela’s Ashes, had won a Pulitzer in 1997, was reading from his new book, Teacher Man, Coben took note of the crowd—much bigger than the gathering he’d attracted—and shrugged.

“How long do you think it’s been since Frank McCourt published his last book—five years? Six?” he joked. “What the hell does that guy do all day?”

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Eric Konigsberg is a reporter for The New York Times and the author of Blood Relation (2005).

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