The Moment You Hit the New York Times List

by Jeff Abbott on July 17, 2011


So last Wednesday was a wild day.

We knew that the New York Times bestseller lists come out on early Wednesday evening. With the press that Adrenaline had gotten, and the Good Morning America, Amazon Best Books of the Month, and Today Show mentions, I wondered if I had a chance to hit the list. (The list runs to 35 titles, with 16-35 known as the ‘extended’ list.) Being in Dallas for a second signing, I knew the list would come out between 5-5:30 Central Time.

I try not to worry overmuch about things I cannot control. In publishing I can worry about exactly one thing: the quality of the book. That is the only thing I truly control. So, I told myself not to worry. Easier said than done.

My wife wisely suggested we take a break from all the publicity stuff. We were staying with my parents, so they kept the kids (and took them out for their first In-n-Out Burger experience, a separate epic) and my wife and I went to the Dallas Museum of Art, which is a truly terrific museum. This famous glass mosaic mural, Genesis, at the museum accurately reflects my mental state that morning:

But once inside, I found the art museum calming. I write commercial fiction, I don’t always think of myself as an artist, but the museum is full of wonderful pottery and masks and paintings that serve a purpose beyond beauty.  For a couple of hours I totally forgot about the list, and Adrenaline, and that I have the third Sam Capra novel due soon. My wife is an extremely smart person. I even saw a painting of a writer being struck by inspiration, and I didn’t think of the list, looming.

We were about to enter the last exhibit we wanted to see when I decided I’d check my email. There was a note from my editor, saying he had some “good sales info” to share with me and to let me know a good time to call me. My wife was looking forward to seeing this last exhibit and so I stuffed the phone back into my pocket and wandered with her past the sculptures and paintings, thinking: can’t be, it’s way too soon.

When we were done I told her he’d emailed, she said call him back right now. We went outside the museum and I called, leaving him a voicemail that he could call me back.

My wife said, “You sound way too calm.”

We got in the car (she drove, so I could take the call if he called back). My editor called back within ten minutes. Adrenaline was at #25 on Barnes & Noble’s hardcover fiction list, and at #27 on BookScan’s list (BookScan is a service that tracks sales from a large number of physical and online accounts). He had figures on the first reporting period for the book (it came out officially on Friday, July 1st, as opposed to the typical Tuesday). So the opening day sales (say on Kindle, or my first book signing) wouldn’t apply to this most recent week, as the reporting period is Sunday to the following Sunday.

The way the Times calculates their list is a secret, much like the Coke formula, and so my editor refused to speculate as to what my shot was of making the list. He said “I’ve seen the list surprise people in both good and bad ways.” A couple of friends who have hit this list confirmed this. Everyone told me, you’ve gotten good news today, the book is selling well even if you don’t make the list.

I might make it; I might not.

We ate Tex-Mex food for lunch (and we were both kind of quiet), signed stock at the wonderful new A Real Bookstore in Fairview, and went back to my parents’ house. I hadn’t told my kids, or my folks, that Wednesday was List Day. They would have only worried about it, and despite my mantra of not worrying about what you can’t control, I worried. I checked my phone constantly for emails, and I usually mock people who cannot put their phones away. I have hit bestseller lists before, USA TODAY (which is one single list that includes every kind of book together), and lists in the UK, Germany, France, Ireland, Portugal, and so on. If I didn’t hit it, I didn’t hit it, I told myself, I still had books to write.

I took a power nap. I got up. I checked the phone. Nothing.

5:00 came. No news.

We headed to Irving, one of Dallas’s largest suburbs. It’s about an hour drive in the maze of Dallas traffic. My stepdad has one of those three seating rows SUVs, so he and my mom are in the front; my wife and I are in the middle; my sons are in the back seat. According to my wife, I was a seething bundle of nerves. I thought I was projecting an air of calm but apparently not. I sat quietly, with my phone in my hand.

5:30. No news. The time is passed. I was sure then I hadn’t made it, and I told myself that it’s okay. Life goes on, more books to write. I tried to do a search on my iPhone for the list, but I only got last week’s list. The traffic was a long snaking snarl as we approached Irving, and we went past a guy stuck on the side of the road (the heat index is 110) with two flat tires, phone pressed to his ear calling a tow truck, and I thought: He’s having a much worse day than I am, keep this in perspective. I tried not to think of how many books I’ve written, what hitting the list would mean for the start of a new series, how much effort Grand Central put into promoting the book: print ads, television ads, online marketing, this tour.

I realized I did not establish with my editor if he would call me whether I made it or not. I couldn’t remember if the list is dated for the Sunday it runs in the Times or the Wednesday it comes out, so I started typing in a new Google search.

Suddenly the phone rang.

I said a very calm “Hello, this is Jeff” and my editor said, after his hello, “You are on the New York Times bestseller list”.

I didn’t scream or jump (I’m in a car). I yelled to my family that I’ve made the list (thoroughly surprising my parents). My wife, who has her camera in her lap, started recording the moment.

My wife also started crying (not sobbing, very happy tears of joy). She is my constant encouragement, my rock: this is her win, too. The boys, not quite knowing what it means but knowing if I’m whooping it’s a license to whoop, well, whooped.

My editor told me I’m at #23. Higher than B&N, higher than BookScan. He is so pleased. We talked for another couple of minutes, I told him we’re all in the car en route to a signing, he told me to enjoy this moment in time. I called and emailed a couple of friends and family members. My wife kept telling me how proud she was of me. I felt vast relief, and then I just felt stunned. I’ve been in this business a while. I knew hitting the list might not ever happen for me. There have been a couple of times I’ve wondered if my career would move forward. Now I’m just trying to enjoy the moment. My mom started crying, too. She was the one who listened to my second grade teacher who said, “Get him a Big Chief tablet and a Husky pencil and tell him to write these stories down.”

We arrived at the evening’s event, at the Irving Main Library. The librarians have me set up in their biggest room, with wonderful full-color posters of all the books, and the local bookstore is there to sell Adrenaline. We got a very good crowd, over 50 people. Three of my high school friends arrived, so did one of my favorite high school teachers. In high school I wrote a 500-page manuscript, really awful. These folks knew me then, and know me now, and the whole moment just seemed surreal.

When I started my talk I told them that I’ve gotten great news on the way here and they’re the first group I get to share it with. They cheered loudly, clapping. Libraries were so important to me as a kid and I’m really, really glad that I am at a library event for this special night.

But during the talk, I noticed my wife, who was in the back of the room with one of the librarians, kept glancing out the open door to the lobby. Well, I thought, she’s heard this talk before, but still. She had a look on her face that looked like a cross between horror and nausea, and I thought: um, I must be bombing, but the audience seems to like it. The wife can be a very candid critic.

After signing and chatting with the audience, we left, and my wife explained to me that she witnessed an arrest in the lobby, while I was talking. She was told (while I was signing books, still thinking she’d thought I’d given my worst talk ever) that unfortunately a woman had allegedly not taken her medications and started lobbing books at the staff. The arrest was done very quietly, even though it was mere feet away from my event, and most of the audience didn’t realize what was happening. (I hope the lady is doing better and compliments to the police and library staff for how they handled the situation.) Okay, an arrest at a signing, my first. I’m sure there could be no further drama this evening.

After the drama, the comedy. The metro Dallas area is a quiltwork of dry and wet spots where liquor can or cannot be sold.  We were headed along a stretch of highway I recognized as being close to where my stepfather’s company had a warehouse. I thought we’d stop at some upscale wine shop when we get closer to home. My stepfather took the exit unexpectedly and screeched up to an establishment known as “Sonny’s House of Beverages”:

Now I do not wish to impugn the good name of this business; I remember years ago, buying beer here with my stepdad before we’d head up to my parents’ lake place for the weekend. It’s like a convenience store that sells nothing but liquor, with some, er, interesting characters usually in the parking lot.  You can get good cold beer at Sonny’s House of Beverages. Good chilled Champagne, I was not optimistic.

My stepfather said, “they’ll have it”. My wife and my mom looked at him like “they will?” I really wasn’t wanting the finest bubbly of Croatia for tonight but there we were, and I thought, “This is adding texture to the story.” Typical writer. I suspected I was the first New York Times bestselling author to celebrate his new status at Sonny’s House of Beverages.

I knelt before the small chilled wine cooler and shoved my hand past the Asti Spumante and the sparkling versions of Two Buck Chuck and WAY in the back I saw the Moet & Chandon label.  It was the most expensive bottle in the cooler and so I grabbed it (it’s the Times, people!) I wondered how long this bottle waited patiently to be chosen, and we headed home. Oh, Sonny’s, I will never forget you.

At home, my wife toasted me, I toasted my family, we toasted all the folks at Grand Central and my friends who have supported me and all the readers who got me here today. And I toast you all again: THANK YOU.

The day was done. I was bone tired. The next day we planned to drive back to Austin and I needed to get back to work on the third Sam Capra novel.

Everything is the same. But everything is a little different, too.

    { 8 comments… read them below or add one }

    Jamie Thompson July 17, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Hooray Jeff!!!! All of your friends are so proud of you. Congratulations on this major milestone in your writing career. Next goal: the Top Ten! Woot!

    Marjorie of Connecticut July 17, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Congratulation. What a great story. And don’t forget the radio ads that feature Harlan Coben and Charlaine Harris extoling your virtues. They helped, too, I bet.

    JT Ellison July 17, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    *wipes tears*

    From one who knows just how hard you work, I was over the moon at your news. Hearing the whole story-well, there is something really special about hitting the list for the first time, but to be in the car with your whole family to witness you getting the call-that’s priceless.

    You done good!

    class factotum July 17, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    We are so happy for you! Chris and I are at Pete and Julie’s and we are raising a glass in your honor. We are all so happy for you! Pete is reading “Adrenaline” on his kindle as we speak. Well, not really – but in the evening before he goes to bed.

    Guy July 17, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Congratulations. The only surprise is that it took you so long. You are now officially a rock star.


    M.J. Rose July 18, 2011 at 8:46 am

    I’m sitting here crying… congrats… I am so so happy for you Jeff.

    Tasha Alexander July 18, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Really just couldn’t be happier for you. You so deserve this!

    And it’s wonderful to get to join in the celebration, even virtually! :)

    Mark Adam Miller July 27, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    I am ironically without words, but so full of excitement for your well-earned and well-deserved success Jeff.

    May the wind be at your back and the seas kind to you, fine sir.

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