Chip MacGregor

October 28, 2012

How does an author stay on top?


Someone wrote to say, “A while back, you blogged about the lack of staying power authors have in today’s market. In your opinion, how do novelists like James Patterson, Karen Kingsbury, and Debbie Macomber stay on top?”

Publishing has always suffered from the “what’s new” syndrome. Every generation (which, in our culture, means every 3-to-7 years) needs it’s own voices — its own rock stars, its own TV shows, its own authors. So names will come and go. Take a look at who did big publishing deals 6 or 7 years ago, and you’ll find names you’ve never heard of. And yet… at the same time, the market has a tendency to fall in love with some people. James Patterson may not write the best books of all time, but he’s been around for 15 years, and he never has anything sell less than 100,000 copies. John Grisham has routinely been on the bestseller lists with his novels. Karen Kingsbury hits readers’ emotions with every book, and that drives her work to the bestseller lists.

I would argue that most successful authors share several characteristics: They know their own writing voice, and it’s a voice that appeals to a wide audience. (I’ve talked on this blog about “voice” quite a bit. I think it’s the #1 reason an author succeeds or fails.) They deliver a consistently good story that carries the reader along (even though successful authors may get hammered for poor craft, their stories are always interesting). There is almost always a protagonist I want to root for, and I’m generally drawn into the story emotionally. I usually get to know the inner life of the characters, not just the outer life. There is easy-to-understand conflict. And there’s generally some sort of transcendent theme to the book — reading it offers an emotional or educational experience, not just a way to spend a couple hours. When readers approach one of these authors’ books, those readers know what to expect.

There’s been a lot of discussion about “branding” among authors. But the best authors establish their brand through their words. Reading them is satisfying, because you know what the author will deliver. So to answer your question, I think all of those authors you mention have clear brands, and deliver on that promise to their readers. Readers of women’s gentle romances like Debbie Macomber, and when you pick up her new book, you know what to expect. That’s where “staying power” comes from.



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  • Cindy Valenti Scinto says:

    This is an oxymoron, if I may. 8^) So much is taught on platform, branding, social networking, Facebook, Twitter, this, that, and everything else. It’s dizzying. I refuse to expand my staying power reach anymore. I’m only one person and can’t do it.

    So what you said here is opposite advice, but so very true. This gives me hope. (Okay, here comes the emotional response. tehetehetehe) I can concentrate on writing and getting my books out and spend less time scurrying from site to site to blast my stuff. Although we have to include marketing as authors, and can’t hide in our writing caves, maybe a bit less of the staying-on-top syndrome will give way to better, more personal writing.

    Wow, a ‘novel’ idea, Chip. 8^)

  • Mindy Starns Clark says:

    What a great post, Chip! I was gritting my teeth before I read your answer, afraid of what you were going to say. But voice? Consistency? Transcendence? In this era of info overload, how wonderful to hear that these are the things that still matter most when it comes to staying power. I totally agree.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Absolutely they matter, Mindy. (And always nice to hear from a fellow bestselling author!) I think “great voice” still trumps “cool social media stuff.” Thanks for participating in the conversation!

  • Becky Doughty says:

    I’ve just had an epiphany because of this post. I’ve been trying to figure out how to brand myself (without using a glowing-hot iron straight out of the campfire), and you just summed it up in four words.

    Knowing what to expect.

    I used to think that was a bad thing, that I should keep ’em guessing, on their toes, baited breath, etc., but really, when all is said and done, my readers need to KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT from my books.

    I know – still a little ethereal, but it certainly changes my filter.


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