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

When I finally picked up the novel Coben had signed for me, it really was a struggle to put it down. My wife and I were in India on vacation, and I read The Innocent for four hours on a bus in the evening, holding the book closer and closer to my face as the sun went down. When jet lag had me stirring at 3:30 a.m., I ran down to the hotel lobby and finished the book before breakfast.

The plot concerned Matt Hunter, a young, happily married paralegal who received a video on his cell phone of his wife, in a wig, in a hotel room with a strange man. (And she said she was going out of town on business!) The story’s myriad elements—strippers, gangsters, FBI agents, a homicide case involving a dead nun (whose breast implants cleverly raised a whole bunch of questions with answers that proved to be intricately connected to Matt’s central dilemma)—seemed divergent until the last 30 or so pages, when Coben introduced a bunch of other unexpected and multidirectional turns to resolve the many strands with engineer-like control.

Matt had a skeleton in his closet: When he was a student at Bowdoin, he’d gotten dragged into a fight with a bunch of drunk UMass students and accidentally (he’s pretty sure it was an accident) killed one of them. He’d since put his life back together, after four years of hard time, and this personal history provided emotional ballast to the complicated yarn that followed. Was he really innocent? Would his old transgression be forever catching up to him in ways that weren’t fair? Does everybody have a dark secret stowed away somewhere?

Coben didn’t dwell on these questions too much, and when he did, it amounted to tin-eared philosophizing. He didn’t make me feel for the characters, who didn’t offer a lot in the way of interiority. Most of what they revealed about themselves came by way of dialogue, which was snappy enough (it wouldn’t pass the read-aloud test, but on the page it’s functional). Yet I was thoroughly engrossed. The narration—which turned on a long series of switchbacks and kept moving and shifting, moving and shifting, alternating points of view with each short chapter—had a hypnotic effect.

“I set the reader up and then I start twisting,” Coben explained later. (He sometimes uses the verb twist without an object, as in, “I might’ve twisted too much in Just One Look.”)

When I got home from vacation, I plowed through another of his books, and then another. Even though I’d never been a big reader of mysteries or thrillers, with Coben I had to know how each book was going to end, and I relished getting there. It made reading feel kind of like watching a movie, or even a basketball game when one is deeply invested in the outcome. There was action every minute, and so much momentum carrying the story forward that until I finished it, I was in a sort of twitchy agony if I got stuck doing anything else.

Of the 50 books that Nielsen BookScan, a sales-tracking service, identified as the biggest sellers of 2006, 15 were thriller, crime, or horror novels. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, is one of the biggest-selling novels of all time, with 75 million copies in print. James Patterson has written 14 consecutive No. 1 best sellers since 2003, and has sold 130 million books worldwide. Mary Higgins Clark has published 25 best sellers since 1975, and has sold 80 million books in the United States alone.

Coben is among the generation of writers who have come to prominence in the last five or 10 years and can be counted on to debut in the top half of the Times list. Others include Janet Evanovich, Michael Connelly, Daniel Silva, David Baldacci, Vince Flynn, Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen, Brad Meltzer, and Lee Child. When a house issues a new book by any of the above, it expects—with optimism, in some cases—to sell more than 300,000 copies in hardcover and 1 million or so in paperback. (To put this in some perspective, even the biggest successes in so-called literary fiction barely enter this realm. It’s taken seven years and a Pulitzer Prize for Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay to sell around 800,000 copies—probably less than 90,000 in hardcover—in the United States, extrapolating from BookScan’s figures. Even buoyed by widespread critical acclaim and a special movie-tie-in edition, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated may not have sold half a million copies after five years in print.)

The authors who reach Coben’s level tend to do so on the strength of a single trademarkable characteristic. “If you want to break somebody out, you need to package them in a way that lets everybody know they do one thing and it’s different than anybody else,” says Phyllis Grann of Doubleday, who is responsible for making Tom Clancy and Patricia Cornwell household names, and who, as the president and CEO of Penguin-Putnam, oversaw Dutton’s signing of Coben (Dutton is an imprint of Penguin-Putnam). “It’s very much a matter of branding an author.”

Clancy broke out by dint of his mastery of technical military detail; Scott Turow brought a new level of legal nuance to the courtroom thriller; Robert Ludlum’s plots presented readers with more nesting dolls than they’d ever before encountered in a single volume; and James Lee Burke’s growing popularity may be the result of his crime-solving protagonist’s bouts with depression (and membership in AA). Patterson combines classic mystery traits with police-procedural elements and serial-killer villains for a hybrid effect, and the young-adult-book quality of his prose—chapters tend to be three pages long—along with his tremendous output have made him the most strongly branded author around.

Though Coben’s protagonists are male, they’re husbands and fathers, and the crimes they’re unwittingly called upon to solve involve not so much intrigue as middle-class desperation. In Promise Me, for instance, a murder and a kidnapping hinge on a man’s desire to secure his son’s admission to Dartmouth. “Harlan writes about families in jeopardy,” Grann says, “and Dutton’s success in branding him has to do with the fact that there aren’t many people doing that as well as he does.” In this, Coben has staked out territory similar to Mary Higgins Clark’s.

Coben’s career can be divided into two distinct phases: the early period (1995 to 2000), when he wrote a series of mysteries, and the years since, during which he’s written seven books, typically classified as thrillers. (The crime-fiction category can be divided into several subgenres, but for many in the book business the primary distinction is between mysteries and thrillers. Few give the same answer when asked to pinpoint the difference, but the most common response is that in a mystery, the plot is dominated by the uncovering or solving of a crime; in a thriller, the crime itself is what drives the action.) People tend to focus on the formal difference between Coben’s mystery and thriller periods: His mysteries share the same private eye, Coben’s alter ego, Myron Bolitar; his thrillers—with the exception of Promise Me, in which Myron returns—have all been stand-alones involving whipsawed, regular-guy protagonists who only happen to be uncovering a crime as a way of saving their own lives, or protecting a loved one. But the more significant difference between the two groups of books has to do with emotional territory. It wasn’t until his first thriller, Tell No One, that Coben hit upon the thematic touchstone of the domestic space imperiled.

The books from Coben’s early period are essentially violent comedies. Myron Bolitar has an intriguing profile for a PI: He’s a sports agent (and former college-basketball star) who just happens to solve crimes on the side and, for some reason, still lives with his parents. The intended audience for these books is the same audience that likes, say, SportsCenter and Dave Barry columns, and can recite dialogue from Fletch movies, or for that matter anything with Chevy Chase. By contrast, Coben’s later books are all set in suburban New Jersey and read as if they’re aimed at viewers of the Lifetime Network. Coben estimates that his readership today skews slightly more female than male.

Lisa Erbach Vance, Coben’s agent at the Aaron Priest Literary Agency, describes her client’s shift from mystery to thriller as an attempt to broaden his appeal. “We had talked about taking away some of the funny-just-for-funny things, certain things that can just earmark a book as belonging to a category,” she says. “Myron is that wisecracking sports agent. That’s who you know him as. But writing a stand-alone means writing a quote-unquote ‘bigger’ book. There are certain people who will read thrillers but won’t read mysteries.”

When Vance began reading the manuscript of Tell No One, in 2000, she sensed immediately that it would reach a larger audience. “It had a universal quality,” she told me. “It was a story about a husband who believed his wife had been murdered, and he’s still haunted by her—he’s never been able to move on, and he’ll put his life at risk on this slim, crazy hope when he gets an e-mail that makes him think she could still be alive,” she said. “That Myron tone didn’t lend itself to this. All Harlan’s books—his later books—they’re about husbands and wives, parents and children, a family member hiding a secret, what you don’t know about those closest to you.”

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