There are various bruising anecdotes about William Kent Krueger’s career arc as a novelist that will ring true to many a struggling writer: the early rejections by literary agents (there were 36); the paucity of crowds on those first bookstore appearances (where, he recounted, it wasn’t unusual for the audience to consist of “the bookseller and the bookseller’s cat”); the dreaded label as a midlist author. Though not necessarily a household name, Krueger is very much a success in the eyes of his longtime publisher, Atria. He’s just released his 20th novel with the Simon & Schuster imprint, This Tender Land (which debuted at #6 on PW’s hardcover frontlist fiction bestseller list), and, according to the publisher, more than two million copies of his books are in print. His story is an example of what publishers claim they want to do but find it increasingly hard to accomplish: grow an author.
In today’s industry, there are myriad reasons most authors don’t stay with a single publisher. Authors often claim they lack the support of their publishers. The publishers frequently cite a lack of patience from their authors. Regardless of where the blame lies, it can be a vicious cycle, especially for authors who believe that a contract with a major publisher is a guaranteed pathway to some level of literary—and financial—success.
For Krueger, certain things have undoubtedly stood him in good stead. Predominantly a mystery writer (the bulk of his work is built around an 18-book series featuring former PI Cork O’Connor), he has reliably produced one book per year (with very few exceptions) since selling his debut, Iron Lake, in the mid-1990s. He’s also developed a strong backlist that has helped him, as well as Atria. (Authors without extensive backlists often find their financial well-being dependent on the performance of their latest books, which can prove grim if the titles don’t perform.)
Beyond developing a backlist, Krueger, according to his team at S&S, stands out for being both patient and consistent. His longtime publicist at Atria, David Brown, called him a “steady Eddie,” while his current editor, Peter Borland, echoed that sentiment.
“Kent has always been someone people have had total faith in,” Borland said. “He has been growing book on book. And the conversation here was always, ‘What can we do to keep that growth going and make this next book even bigger than the one we had before?’ ” Borland added that Krueger always seemed to have a “larger plan with his career: he’s not someone who’s written one novel and felt it was do or die.”
Krueger’s sales climb has also been, well, steady. With the exception of his first standalone literary novel, 2013’s Ordinary Grace, he has been slowly building book by book. (Ordinary Grace shipped, and sold, significantly more than his series titles, but more on that later.)
For Krueger’s debut, 1998’s Iron Lake, Atria said its initial print run was 5,550 copies. The imprint reported having shipped more than 375,000 copies (across all formats, including digital) of the title to date. The in-print numbers for the past four Cork O’Connor books range between approximately 45,000 and 55,000 copies each (with the titles that have been on the market longer reaching higher digits—see “Kreuger’s Recent In-Print Numbers,” p. 14). But, in the beginning, it was not so apparent Krueger would reach these heights.
Iron Lake was acquired in a bidding war, which resulted in a two-book deal with Atria. Though Krueger had just witnessed editors competing for his work, he didn’t grumble when he wound up spending a hefty portion of his advance on that first tour. (It’s quite common for authors to pay for their own book tours.) The crowds were sparse, but Krueger said he relished the opportunity to meet booksellers. The experience began a tradition: Krueger has toured widely for every book he’s published, and his team at S&S said the connections he’s made with booksellers, especially independent ones, have been key to his success.
Now touring for This Tender Land, Krueger estimated that he draws an average of 100–200 people in the Midwest. (He lives in St. Paul, Minn., and much of his work is set in the region.) Elsewhere in the country, he said he can reliably bring in crowds of 40–70.
By Krueger’s second tour, Atria began pitching in, agreeing to foot half of the bill for his travels. It was on his third or fourth tour, he said, that he started to see a shift in his drawing power. He also recognized that stops at mystery-focused bookstores, as well as regular appearances at mystery events (such as Bouchercon and Thrillercon), were quickly paying off.
“When I began to tour, I hit a lot of mystery bookshops, as we had a lot of them back then,” Krueger noted. “I developed a pretty significant following within that community thanks to those stops. Breaking out to the larger reading audience has been more of a steady uphill climb.”
Krueger decided early on that he was committed to making a living as a novelist. After signing his second contract with Atria, for a single novel, he broached the prospect with his wife, an attorney, and they decided it was the moment to try and make his dream a reality. “I’d estimate that for five years after that, we were just scratching by,” he said. “We weren’t poor, but we had to budget and watch our expenses.”
Though Krueger’s team at Atria had a hard time putting a finger on when they felt he became a bona fide success, the author started to sense a difference around his seventh or eighth novel. At that point, he said, Atria began investing more in his promotions. He also felt a power shift within the imprint. “My editor began to have more authority in the publishing house and was able to champion me in a more significant way.”
Another turning point in Krueger’s career is unquestionably the publication of his first standalone literary novel, Ordinary Grace. (He published a standalone mystery with Atria, The Devil’s Bed, in 2003.) Recounting the backstory of Ordinary Grace—it has shipped more than 600,000 copies across all formats, according to Atria, making it Krueger’s most successful book to date—Krueger revealed that it was the only time he briefly considered leaving S&S.
When Krueger initially proposed the novel, he explained, his editor was unsupportive. That indifference left him feeling that he “would be willing to go somewhere else.” In the end, his editor fell in love with the book, and Atria ultimately “backed it.”
Having a lauded mystery author produce a literary standalone, which drew strong reviews, proved an inspired move. Both Borland and Brown said that Ordinary Grace opened Krueger up to an entirely new readership. The book’s appeal to nongenre readers stoked its sales; it also brought more readers to the Cork O’Connor series. Even more significantly, perhaps, was the book club appeal of a nongenre standalone; part of what catapulted Ordinary Grace to its success has been its adoption by book clubs and community reading programs.
The book’s positive effect on Krueger’s career even inspired Brown in his dealings with other authors. Brown encouraged John Lescroart, a thriller writer, to pen a literary standalone (which resulted in 2017’s Fatal) after seeing the impact of Ordinary Grace on Krueger’s following.
For Brown, there are lessons other authors can take from Krueger’s rise. One is about the importance of being patient. Another has to do with starting close to home. “What I saw [Krueger] do is a model of success: become a celebrity locally and build out from there.”
Krueger feels he’s reaching yet another level with This Tender Land: Atria has shipped 44,694 copies and, for the first time in his career, a book of his was named the Indie Next #1 Pick (for the month of September). It’s an accolade he doesn’t take lightly, in part because it’s been such a long time coming. And it speaks to the advice he gives writers just launching their careers. If they ask, Krueger will say, “This takes time, and perseverance is the name of the game.”
Krueger’s Recent In-Print Numbers
Desolation Mountain (2018)
Total in print: 49K
Sulfur Springs (2017)
Total in print: 52K
Manitou Canyon (2016)
Total in print: 53K
Windigo Island (2015)
Total in print: 57K
Ordinary Grace (2013)
Total in print: 352K