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

Coben says that ginning up the idea for a novel constitutes the heavy lifting. “The actual writing time is a lot shorter than the thinking time,” he told me. “I don’t do too many notes. I keep it mostly in my head. I usually start writing a new book around January, and it’s due October 1.”

He spends the first three months on his couch, searching for an idea—“looking for that Homer Simpson, ‘Woo-hoo!’ moment”—and always breaks for a month or two come April, when he has to travel to promote the book he wrote the previous year. After he writes the first few pages, he e-mails them to Dutton’s offices, where they’re read by his editor (of late, Ben Sevier); the chief publicist, Lisa Johnson; and Brian Tart, the president of the house.

Coben says his main objective when he’s on the couch is to come up with the criminal event that will frame a book. “I settle on the crime ahead of time, but the other character stuff—will Myron and Win [his sidekick] stay friends, for example—I’ll decide what happens as I go along. I’ll usually have an idea by the time I’m started for an early twist, but the rest of the twists come as I’m writing.”

He keeps a notebook on the couch with him, yet one wonders how many hours a day are actually spent in contemplation, as it’s difficult to imagine him devoting significant time to any activity that doesn’t yield immediate and tangible results. Everything about Coben’s work habits—he writes with his BlackBerry turned on, he writes in coffee shops and the local library—suggests that he makes his writing time fit the rest of his life, rather than the other way around. (He says that he and his wife, Anne, a pediatrician at Columbia Presbyterian’s children’s hospital, share parenting duties—they have four young children—“pretty much 50-50.”) “Guilt is the thing that really drives me,” he says. “Every day that I’m not writing I hear a mother’s voice in my head: ‘Why aren’t you writing that book?’ People ask what my hobbies are. I don’t have hobbies. I don’t, because when I’m doing anything else, I feel like I’m supposed to be writing.”

Nevertheless, he manages to fall behind his schedule every year, and he makes up for lost time by cranking out most of a book in a matter of weeks. “This year I think I’m more behind than I’ve ever been,” he told me in May of last year. At the time, he had written about 60 pages of The Woods, which had an October deadline. “But the fact is, if the book is 400 pages long, I’m rarely past page 250 with one month left. At the end I’ll write as many as 150 pages in a week, as many as 50 in a day. I’ll break to take the kids to school or whatever, and that last day might be more or less a 96-hour day with a bunch of all-nighters. Everybody in the house kind of picks up on it. My wife knows it’s that day or two out of the year. Basically, there’s no stopping me.”

From there, the manuscript goes nearly straight to press. “I don’t really need much editing,” he says. Mitch Hoffman, Coben’s editor at Dutton until this year, told me: “My job was to reflect back to Harlan the experience I was having at each moment. He knows what he wants readers to be experiencing at various points along the way—in terms of character, story, pacing, and emotional punch. So I would be sort of his test audience.”

The roots of Coben’s work ethic seem to lie not in perfectionism, or in a relationship with an inner muse, but in his determination to rise to the top of the heap. “When I was just starting out, I hated signing in local malls, because no one was there,” he says. “It made me write so hard. I didn’t want to be there anymore. The same thing at Bouchercon”—a convention for crime novelists, their publishers, and their fans. “All the writers there were so bitter. I didn’t like being in that boat. I would just go home and write”—he curled his fists and appeared to press down, almost as though he had an imaginary jackhammer in front of him—“so much harder and harder.”

Coben has been writing books all of his adult life, though for most of his 20s he spent his business hours running his grandfather’s travel agency, which specialized in group tours. Growing up, it didn’t occur to him that books—reading or writing them—were his great love. “It’s not like you could look back and say about me, ‘He always had his nose in a book as a kid,’” he says. He does, however, recall the exhilaration of plowing through William Goldman’s Marathon Man as a formative moment. “That was my first experience with a book where I just had to keep turning the page and turning the page.”

When I asked Coben to name his biggest literary influences, he said, “I’m not a student of the crime-fiction genre. Myron’s early stuff is definitely a descendant of Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker. I read Parker’s Spenser series in college. When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he’s an influence, and the rest of us lie about it. My favorite writer is Philip Roth. I like Tom Perrotta,” the author of Election and Little Children.

Coben’s father was a lawyer, and his family lived in Livingston, New Jersey, a town that often features in his books. “We weren’t that well off; we were the poor Jews in Livingston,” he says. He majored in political science at Amherst, where he also met his wife. Both were four-year letter earners in basketball (she’s 5 foot 10).

During his freshman year, he happened to share a corridor with two other future novelists, David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello (whose book Big If was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award). “David Foster Wallace was in an introduction-to-poli-sci class I took my freshman year, and I remember the first paper of the term,” Coben recalls. “I thought I’d done pretty well, but I got a B-minus on it; David got an A-plus. So I asked him, ‘Could I take a look at yours, you know, to see what you did that I didn’t?’ He said sure. And when I read it, it was like the most brilliant thing I’d ever read. I thought, ‘Uh-oh,’ because I just assumed everybody else at Amherst was as smart as he was.”

The summer before Coben’s senior year, his grandfather had hired him to lead a group of adults on a trip to Spain, and that fall he began writing a humorous novel based on the experience. He finished the book after he graduated, and when it failed to find a publisher, he started another.

Coben wrote in the early morning and sometimes at night. “I never bought the excuse of not having time to write,” he says. “If you really want to do it, you’re either going to find those hours or eventually decide not to be a writer.” He saved money by living in his parents’ basement from 1984 to 1988 (which might explain why Myron Bolitar lives with his parents through six novels), then bought a condominium and got married before he finally sold his first book, a sports mystery titled Play Dead. Though he hadn’t found an agent, he sent his manuscript to a college acquaintance, who was working as an editor at British-American Publishing, a small imprint owned by Simon & Schuster. The house paid Coben an advance of $2,000, then gave him a few hundred dollars more than that for his already-written second novel, a mystery called Miracle Cure.

“I never thought I wasn’t going to earn a living as a writer,” Coben says. “I figured at some point I’d get a break. Every book I wrote, I got better.”

Neither of his first two books reached a large audience—the print run of each was fewer than 4,000 copies—but his advances and sales on the Bolitar books, which followed, gradually grew. He got a two-book advance of $10,000 for Deal Breaker (print run: 15,000) and a second Bolitar novel. He worked with, then left, two agents while writing the first four Bolitar books, which had been published as bargain-priced paperback originals; but he shopped around the idea for the fifth, One False Move, and landed with his current agent, Vance.

“A little fan base was already building by then,” Vance says. “When you’re published in original mass market”—those airport-shop-sized paperbacks—“your chances of getting reviewed are slim. But he was always very good at putting himself out there. In the publishing community, editors knew who he was. He’d go to award things and writers’ events. Sometimes I think that personal connection really makes a difference.”

Coben was supposed to deliver his eighth Bolitar novel to Bantam, but then he came up with the idea for Tell No One, his first stand-alone thriller. Bantam offered $175,000 to keep him from going elsewhere, and $275,000 for whatever he wrote next. By the time Tell No One came out, it was clear Bantam had gotten two bargains. Tell No One landed on the Times best-seller list for two weeks—Coben credits this partly to an aggressive newspaper ad campaign and partly to Book Sense, the consortium of independent bookstores, which recommended it in its monthly newsletter—and Gone for Good was on the list for four weeks. “But with No Second Chance”—the next book—“I really signed for serious money,” he said.

The advances since then have all been solidly in seven figures, Coben says, “and if you add up all the foreign rights, those maybe equal the American money.” A publishing executive who has been involved in the sale of some of Coben’s books estimates that Coben earns at least $3 million to $4 million per book, when foreign rights are factored in. Though there are a handful of fiction writers who make more, it’s a staggering amount of money for a novelist. Coben lives with his wife and family in an impressive Victorian house in Ridgewood, New Jersey, but he doesn’t have lavish tastes or a desire to express himself through his purchasing power. “I’d never had money growing up, and it’s never been that important to me, except maybe to take our kids on a nice vacation or something like that,” he says. It’s sales qua sales—his statistical record—that motivates Coben, rather than the money his sales bring in.

“Writing my first book,” he told me, “I think in hindsight I went into it saying, ‘It’s gonna sell.’ I was earning enough to scrape by sometime around a book or two before Tell No One. I moved up from $50,000 to $75,000, then $150,000 for each book. I had never thought I would be doing anything else. I had enough encouragement. I’m very proud that nobody gave me a leg up. It wasn’t like my dad knew somebody. It was all a wonderful struggle, in hindsight. I knew my books were better than what they were selling.”

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