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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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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