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
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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?”

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.”

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.”

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.

In Las Vegas, I asked Coben how he felt about being invisible to the world represented by The New York Times Book Review, and about the parallel-universe status that so much crime fiction, including his books, has. At first he was au fait about it, but then got worked up. “If I asked you to name five great books that survived 100 years that don’t have a crime in them, you couldn’t,” he said. “Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo.”

He thought for a moment about what he’d just said. “Successful people don’t need to put down mass-market books as a whole,” he said at last. “Who classified these things? Those in the crime-fiction world who worry about this are failed writers. Who am I to whine about it? I get lots of e-mails from people who say I’m the only writer they read. Those readers are fine with me. I want them all. David Foster Wallace is one of the most intelligent writers in the world, and I remember him one time telling me, ‘You know how to end a book. I never know how to end a book.’ He’s never looked down on me.”

In Promise Me, a former girlfriend of Myron’s, a writer named Jessica Culver, reappears in his life. She’s about to marry another man, and Myron regrets having let her go. Crestfallen, he reads her engagement announcement in the paper, which notes that she’s been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner and the National Book Award, the sort of prizes Coben’s books aren’t likely to ever be in the running for.

The long-standing commercial success of genre fiction (crime and romance) has inspired debate about whether anything in the form constitutes literature—and has at times left a chip on the shoulder of those writers, like Stephen King and John Grisham, who write blockbusters that are received ambiguously (at best) by the books-as- literature crowd. In 1944, during the heyday of his hard-boiled Philip Marlowe stories, Raymond Chandler published an essay in The Atlantic, “The Simple Art of Murder,” making his case for crime fiction in part by acknowledging that it was indeed formulaic (i.e., not “literary”). Good crime fiction, he explained, separated itself from bad crime fiction not by having an original idea or a clever conceit but by being well executed:

The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average—or only slightly above average—detective story does … And the strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is really not very different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a shade grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious. But it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way.

Last year, The Harvard Business Review published an analysis of the marketing of James Patterson suggesting that the sameness of an author’s books actually contributes to commercial appeal. “Brands are nothing more than trust,” Patterson was quoted as saying. “I trust I’m going to pick this up and I’m not going to be able to put it down. There will be tension. And pace. And some kind of human identification, not just with the heroes but also with the villains.”

Some readers, of course, like variety, just as there are other readers who prefer to stick with whatever’s working for them. And there are degrees of sameness: A reader who desires consistency might read only James Patterson, or he might read everything by Richard Ford, and then move on to Chang-Rae Lee, then go back to Updike’s Rabbit novels, and from there to Revolutionary Road and The Ice Storm. But if branding is the goal, publishers improve their odds by going after the readers whose tastes are the most static. There’s no point in arguing against this as a business model: Given the economies of scale, branded thriller writers beat highbrow novelists in a landslide. It’s book publishing as product management.

The Coben books that I’ve most enjoyed, The Innocent and Tell No One, are among his later works, but I think I prefer them primarily because they were two of the first that I read. It’s not that I really consider them any better than his other stand-alones, or better than the Myron Bolitar novels—there’s no such thing as “lesser Coben.” But with every subsequent book, I sped closer to the conclusion that each volume was the same, just with different particulars to the setup and different twists in the plot: A woman’s husband is kidnapped, and both of them turn out to be hiding secrets. A reconstructive plastic surgeon’s daughter is kidnapped, and figures from his past, including an old girlfriend, reenter his life. A man whose brother disappeared 11 years earlier learns conclusively from a photograph, seen just after his mother’s funeral, that his brother is still alive. Myron Bolitar is hired to track down a female professional golfer’s kidnapped son and stumbles upon treacherous secrets in the golfer’s family history. And so on.

A few days after I would finish one Coben book—and I continued to find them eminently readable—I couldn’t recall much about the story, or about the men and women who’d populated it.

When we sat down for lunch in the coffee shop of the Luxor, I began to wonder whether even Coben didn’t sometimes find his characters forgettable. I had offered the recollection that Olivia, one of the protagonists of The Innocent, had spent some time in Nevada—a component of her past on which the plot hinges—and he drew a blank. “Really?” he said.

Olivia, I said. From his last book.

“Oh, right. I thought maybe you were talking about somebody you knew.”

The night before, in Scottsdale, Coben’s book-signing event had been held at the Poisoned Pen, one of the largest crime-and-mystery bookstores in America, and the store’s owner, Barbara Peters, began the evening with a Q&A. When she asked Coben about the sources of his inspiration, he cocked his head and said that something always comes, because he has no choice.

“It’s not like I’m an artist,” he said. “If this book doesn’t do well, and I say to my publisher, ‘I want the freedom to do what I want,’ well, they might say, ‘We want the freedom to take back some of this money.’” (Though Coben makes clear that his publisher has never given him anything but complete freedom.) At another bookstore talk, Coben made fun of “the kind of writer who says”—here, he adopted a mopey zombie’s voice—“‘I only write for myself; I don’t care who reads it.’ That’s like saying, ‘I only talk to myself; I don’t care who’s listening.’”

In Scottsdale, Coben defended his approach as a matter of antielitist ethics. “I come from a background where people worked,” he said. “The plumber doesn’t wake up and say, ‘Oh, I can’t do pipes today.’”

“But some writers, as I hear them talk about their work, say they would like to have more time on their books,” said Peters, the Poisoned Pen’s owner, trying to give Coben the chance to say that, diligence and constancy aside, sometimes the creative process is not entirely predictable. She said that Dennis Lehane had once told an audience at the store that, after the success of Mystic River, his publisher had let him tear up his contract and start fresh, “because they wanted to give him whatever he wanted so they didn’t lose him.”

Lehane, she recalled, made no requests for bonus money or special marketing efforts, but asked for more time instead. “He said, ‘What I really want is an extra year, because I’m not happy rushing this book out without more time to think,’” Peters said. Apparently, he’d been forced to get an earlier book finished in time for Father’s Day and had never been happy with it. “Do you ever feel that way?” Peters asked Coben.

“No,” Coben said slowly. “I’ve toured with Dennis, and we know each other well. But Dennis and I don’t do the same thing. He’s somebody who comes out with a book every two years or so.” He said he sees more time not so much as an opportunity to improve a book but as an excuse not to finish. “My first book was due October 1, and by spectacular coincidence, I finished it on September 30,” he said.

It isn’t that Coben has gone out of his way to have the most commercial success he can. That’s been completely on his way, the most natural path he could have taken. “There’s no calculation: I can’t write what a lesser writer writes or what a better writer writes,” he said later. “This is what I write.”

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