The Harry Potter books are an oddity in the book world. Not just because they sell so well, but because of how they sell – or rather, when. Each book has a strangely limited shelf life. Rowling’s newest title might sell three-quarters of a million copies in 24 hours, but then, well, it’s pretty much over. Sales fall off the map. Each of her books is the Best-Selling Book Evar!, but only for a week. Every other week, every other day, the best-selling author in the world is Nora Roberts.
Some of that is sheer logistics. Backlist is what truly powers an author’s career. Rowling has seven books. As I write this, Nora has more than 175 titles in print, and the gods alone know how many reprints. The real estate she occupies in terms of shelf space is truly extraordinary. There are so many reissues, repackages and omnibus editions of her work that her publishers brand each previously unpublished title with a stylized ‘NR’, so her legions of readers will know what’s actually new.
Which still gives readers lots to choose from. Roberts usually has five or six new titles each year. That number used to be higher, seven, eight, even nine, but in the late nineties, Nora stopped writing category romances (‘category’ is an industry term for line novels, like those of Mills & Boon, Harlequin, and Silhouette). Nora was, in fact, one of the primary reasons for the success of Silhouette Books, which began as a category imprint of Simon & Schuster. After the bloody publishing house wars of the mid-eighties, Harlequin emerged triumphant, but kept all the Silhouette lines as a separate imprint within their romance empire. Roberts continued to write for Silhouette throughout, even as she branched off into writing more mainstream titles for Bantam. Eventually, she moved to Putnam where, in the words of my Putnam rep, “she finally found an editor who could keep up with her”.
The story of Nora’s start is well known in romance circles, and loved with fairy-tale familiarity. It’s also vintage Nora. At the time, Roberts was a young single mother with two small (and energetic) sons. Trapped indoors by a blizzard that kept school cancelled for days, her only respite was the writing break she allowed herself in the afternoons. The boys were told not to interrupt unless there was fire or blood. Practicality, humour and hard work: these are some of the reasons Roberts is such a huge success. It took a few tries and several manuscripts, but in 1981, Irish Thoroughbred was published by Silhouette, and a publishing legend was born.
Sounds melodramatic, eh? ‘Legend’. But it’s true. In the publishing world, Nora Roberts is Babe Ruth and Wayne Gretzky combined. She has won every award in the field multiple times. She has had more books on the New York Times list than any other author, in the number one spot, no less. She was a founding member of the Romance Writers of America, and the first person inducted into the Romance Writers Hall of Fame. Last year alone, four of her books were made into movies for the Lifetime Channel, and earlier this year, on Time Magazine’s list of the top 100 Artists and Entertainers, Nora was #7.
Her stratospheric career has not been entirely free from strife. Janet Dailey, herself a successful romance novelist, inexplicably plagiarized one of Roberts’ novels. Nora sued and won. But she didn’t dwell, and she wasn’t vindictive. She donated the settlement to a literacy foundation, and moved on.
The wellspring of Nora’s creativity is grounded by a work ethic of pure steel. Her book tour schedules read like a Spartan death march: TV spot at 6am, radio at 7, warehouse by 8 to sign a thousand copies of the new hardcover, then off to the bookstore for noon… and it goes on like that for weeks. But tours aside, she doesn’t live the jet-set lifestyle. Her family is her centre. And besides, she always more stories to tell. Well-grounded, well-liked by her collegues, and well-loved by her fans: that’s Nora Roberts.
Chris Szego thinks the world would be a better place if more authors acted like Nora while on tour.