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

To travel with Coben on a book tour is to see just how foreign his orbit is from the typical novelist’s. The distinctions aren’t just matters of scale, though there’s that too—what with a 16-city tour of engagements for Promise Me (with signings at branches of Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s Wholesale Club) and day-long press junkets in England and France (with one newspaper reporter after another shuttling into a hotel suite for 45 minutes of interview time with the author). The differences have more to do with how much effort goes into managing Coben’s commercial results, how much scorekeeping he himself participates in, and, in a more general sense, how involved he is in the maintaining of his brand.

I met up with him in Scottsdale, Arizona, on the first Monday in May of last year, when Promise Me had been out for six days. To Coben, the precise date was important, because it meant that the book was still in its first week since publication. He had an hour or so to kill before his speaking engagement, so he dropped by a Bookstar branch (owned by Barnes & Noble) to sign its stock. As soon as he walked in, he rolled back his head wearily. “Here we go,” he said, clearly annoyed but trying to be good-natured.

What was the matter? Coben had noticed immediately that none of the tall, open-tiered display shelves in the front of the store—known in the retail business as “stepladders”—were stocked with Promise Me. Instead, they were lined with copies of James Patterson’s Beach Road; Coben’s new book sat in neat stacks on the adjacent tables. Both display spaces—the stepladders and the tables—are prime real estate, and publishers pay Borders and Barnes & Noble anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000, depending on the length of time and time of year, to have a book there (the arrangement is known as “co-op placement”). Still, a greater order of books from the store is required to get a stepladder—and Coben said that Promise Me was supposed to be occupying one right here.

“Dutton got me the stepladders for one week, and then I’m on tables for another month,” he said. “The week is Tuesday to Tuesday. Technically, they’re not supposed to be taking me down from the stepladder until they open for business on Tuesday.”

He repeated this to a store clerk, who said the branch would be restocking that night. Soon another clerk appeared with a hand truck stacked with copies of Promise Me for him to sign. That didn’t do much to appease Coben, who reasoned that if the store was restocking, it must have run low on the book early—which meant an error of anticipation on the part of the supplying agency.

Another clerk, evidently thrilled to see Coben, showed him a copy of Barnes & Noble’s in-house best-seller list. For the week that had ended the day before, Promise Me was No. 1. Over the coming week, in fact, the book would debut at the top of a slew of best-seller lists—Borders, BookScan, Publishers Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today—all of which compile data in slightly different ways. About the only list Coben hadn’t topped was that of The New York Times, which had Promise Me as No. 2, behind Mary Higgins Clark’s Two Little Girls in Blue.

Although it was his highest charting yet in The Times, Coben was disappointed, because it meant he’d have to wait another year—and write another book—for a chance to hit No. 1. But why, I asked, didn’t he think Promise Me could rise a slot in the coming week? “James Patterson has a new book out,” he said, referring to the book that had displaced his on the stepladder. “This was my week.” (In April of this year, The Woods also debuted at No. 2, behind The Children of Húrin, the posthumously reconstructed “last” novel of J. R .R. Tolkien. “We weren’t even aware we were coming out when the Tolkien book was,” Lisa Johnson, Coben’s publicist, told me. “That’s a tough one to beat—but we can still say Harlan sold the most of any living fiction author last week.”)

Coben was less concerned about losing out on sales—he knows he’s receiving his fair share of those—than he was about losing out on the recording of sales. The next day, he walked into a Sam’s Club in Las Vegas to sign books, and immediately noticed that the fine print on the price stickers affixed to Promise Me said “Harlan, Coben.”

“It probably means the books are SKU’d wrong,” Coben said, referring to the Stock Keeping Unit identifier tag and imagining the potential for a tabulation crisis. “Suppose it shows up as Sam Club’s chain sells zero of mine nationwide, because the book’s registered under somebody named ‘Coben Harlan.’ The computer doesn’t know the difference. That zero gets reported to the best-seller lists, and then I’m dead meat.” He got on his BlackBerry to report the problem to his publisher.

There is something to Harlan Coben’s demeanor that leads a person to observe that he isn’t merely comfortable with his success but actually endowed with it. He approaches being a novelist the way a businessman or a lawyer—or for that matter an athlete—approaches his craft: as a series of finite and solvable problems. Success is very much a destination, in other words, rather than a journey. Coben often brings up his high-achiever friends, but he doesn’t seem to be dropping names (they’re not famous like Madonna-famous) so much as pointing out that having friends—like professional basketball and baseball players, and the rock-guitar hero Nils Lofgren—who kick a lot of ass, like he does, is simply a significant component of his life.

He met most of these friends because they were fans of his books. One of them is Bryant Gumbel, who had him on The Early Show as a guest in 2001 and whose opinion he seems to value more than any professional critic’s. “Bryant sends me a long e-mail when each book comes out, telling me what was good about it and what was bad about it,” Coben told me the first time we had lunch, in New York. “He and I instant-message each other once a day.” (That BlackBerry again: Coben fired off a quick note to Gumbel, and when there was no immediate reply, said, “He’s probably out golfing right now.”)

After Promise Me came out, Coben got a note from Bill Clinton, who declared it Coben’s best book yet. Tom Daschle, Coben says, was the first elected official to read his books. He too became a friend, and he had Coben and his family out to South Dakota for a week the summer before last. “I also have Republican fans,” Coben was quick to point out. “I’ve been on Steve Forbes’s yacht, the Highlander. He’s an amazing reader. We see him a couple of times a year. In his Forbes magazine column, he’s done a write-up on every book of mine since Tell No One.”

Last May, at the invitation of Senator Harry Reid of Nevada—another admiring reader—Coben was hired to address the U.S. Senate’s Democratic members at a retreat in Philadelphia. “I tried to be inspirational, firing them up about the good they can and should be doing,” Coben told me when I was with him on his book tour. We were in Arizona, in the coffee shop of a Marriott in Scottsdale, where he was about to head out to a reading. “I asked them to do a couple of things. It took a lot of hubris. I asked them once a week to close their door and read slowly, aloud to themselves, the list of the names of the war dead,” he went on. “And I said, ‘Think about the boy who shoveled your walk.’ ”

Coben stopped talking. “Hey, there’s Harry right now!” he said, pointing to the TV above the counter. Reid was on CNN. “I won’t see him tomorrow in Las Vegas, because they’re in session,” Coben said. “He was actually bummed.”

As it turned out, the friendship still served Coben well in Las Vegas. When we arrived at our hotel, the Luxor, the check-in line looked as if it would take 45 minutes. Coben e-mailed Reid’s office, and it took about a minute for a secretary to call the hotel and arrange for a VIP check-in and a room upgrade.

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