If you’ve ever browsed the book section in Target or the aisles of Barnes and Noble, you’ve likely come across a novel or two written by Elin Hilderbrand, whose 17 books are all set on her home island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts.
A best-selling author, Hilderbrand publishes a book at the beginning of each summer (and in the last few years, one winter-themed novel in October). This year’s “Here’s To Us” was published on June 14, and already ranks #14 in women’s fiction on Amazon. She’s also ranked #44 overall in Amazon’s author rank — ahead of JRR Tolkien and Liane Moriarty. Last year’s summer instalment, “The Rumour,” sold over 400,000 copies.
But Hilderbrand wasn’t an overnight success. The first four books she wrote flopped miserably (then retroactively sold thousands and thousands of copies — more on that in a bit).
“Everyone thinks that when you get a book published, everyone is going to read it,” she said, laughing. “But the very first thing you learn is that getting a book published is one thing and selling a book is another.”
We interviewed Hilderbrand on her success, her failures, and what it takes to be a best-selling author.
Caroline Moss: “The Beach Club” was your first book. Where did that begin? Take us back.
Elin Hilderbrand: At the time I started “The Beach Club,” I was a grad student at University of Iowa Writers Workshop — the old, esteemed, best writing club in the country. Everyone who wants to be a writing student wants to go there. I got in. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there because I had been offered more money at the University of Michigan, but I decided to go with the “name” so I went to Iowa. I was, of course, totally miserable.
It was so cutthroat. It could be so nasty. I mean, we all workshopped each other and people were just merciless. And we were all competing for the same fellowship money. I was stuck in the middle of the country, away from any water [Hilderbrand grew up and lives on Nantucket], and look, I was sort of an east coast elitist, and I was away from the food, and the culture, and the museums — and there’s none of that in Iowa. I was totally miserable!
Almost as a therapy, or a defence mechanism, I started writing a novel about Nantucket. It was set at a fictionalized beach club and hotel, based on the place where my ex-husband — well, he was my husband then — the place where he worked, and still works, called Cliffside Beach Club.
None of the stories in “The Beach Club” are true, and if I told you the real stories you’d be totally scandalized. Real life does not make interesting fiction, because it doesn’t make any narrative sense. It was very important for me that my story made sense.
In my last workshop I met an agent who was sitting in [on the class]. At the end of the class he said, “so which one of you lives in Nantucket?” and I said, “me” and he said, “come see me after class,” and so I did. Turned out he had grown up summers on Nantucket in a very fancy house on Main Street. He told me when I was done with the book to send it to him. I did. He said he wanted to represent me and make me tons of money.
At the time there were, like, twelve publishing houses in New York City and eleven of them said no, except St. Martin’s Press, who took a bite. I was given $5,000 [as an advance]. I was like, “is that a lot? I can’t quit my job.” But my agent said we should take it and so we did. The book was published in the summer of 2000.
Moss: What was that like for you? You attend the prestigious writing school, you write the book, you get the book deal. What were your expectations vs. the reality after “The Beach Club” came out?
Hilderbrand: Everyone thinks that when you get a book published, everyone is going to read it. The very first thing you learn is that getting a book published is one thing and selling a book is another.
“The Beach Club” was picked up by People Magazine as “beach book of the week.” We had only had 2,500 copies of the book printed, and after that, all of them sold out. It was the era before the eBook. Amazon was a place to buy hardback books!
I ended up getting another 2-book deal to write “Nantucket Nights” and “Summer People.” This time, there was no People Magazine. “Nantucket Nights” didn’t sell as well. “Summer People”? Well, that sold even worse. Yet, I managed to get another 2-book deal for “The Blue Bistro” and “The Love Season.” “The Blue Bistro” is my favourite book of all time; my favourite that I’ve ever written … and it sold 4,000 copies. It was awful. I was so devastated. Devastated, devastated.
With “The Love Season” about to come out I made the decision to spend $10,000 I didn’t have on a publicist. Again, People Magazine gave it a shout out and four stars. Again, we ran out of books — still no eBooks in 2006. At this point, I am super frustrated, and writing my sixth book, “Barefoot.” My agent finally calls me and is like, “ok, let’s switch houses.” But honestly, I felt like I had Stockholm Syndrome. I didn’t want to leave, but he convinced me.
We sent “Barefoot” to ten publishing houses, went to New York City for two days, met with everyone, and everyone wanted to buy it! Little Brown Hachette turned “Barefoot,” and all of the books that came after, into hits. They made me a bestseller. That’s what publishing is supposed to look like — you write one book and you become a New York Times bestseller.
Moss: And you wrote five books before you got a big hit.
Hilderbrand: Yep! Nobody knew who I was! The summer of 2010, “Silver Girl” came out, and I am at my son’s baseball came and my agent calls me and goes, “you’re not gonna f*cking believe this but ‘The Blue Bistro’ just hit the New York Times bestseller list.”
It turns out that in an interview I had mentioned “The Blue Bistro” was my favourite and thanks to the success of “Silver Girl,” the sales for “Blue Bistro” totally shot up … six years after it came out.
Moss: What’s it like to try to convince someone to let you write a new book when your previous work totally bombed?
Hilderbrand: “The Beach Club” sold about 16,000 copies; a good showing for a first novel. Then they gave me the contract for the next two books. The whole time I’m emailing them, calling, saying “Look, I’m not happy with the way you’re publishing these!” I wanted ads, I wanted tours, and they wouldn’t do it. I wanted better covers — the covers were awful — they wouldn’t do it. But then they’d call me and say, “ok, we want to give you another book deal!”
When I finally went to New York to meet with other publishers before publishing “Barefoot,” I realised the publishing industry understands there are people out there who have written five books who have talent but have also been under published. Savvy publishers will come across a breakout book and say “let’s take this right now.”
Ivan Held at Penguin once told me I’d never earn out my half-million-dollar advance on “Barefoot,” and every time I see him I’m like, “you made a big mistake buddy!” But look, it’s a gamble! Little Brown took a chance and saw I had a very consistent product that I would keep going with. Every book from “Barefoot” has grown. I sold 400,000 copies of “The Rumour” [in 2015]. It’s been an experience. And now, with eBooks, nearly two thirds of my sales [come from digital sales.]
Moss: How do you feel about being a woman’s fiction writer, publishing what people call “beach reads”?
Hilderbrand: I thought, well, coming out of Iowa, you know, Iowa is super literary, and everyone was writing short stories. I was writing them, too. But I was a happier and more positive writer than the people at Iowa. And look: I wanted to sell books! What does it matter! What does it matter if you’ve written a great literary tome and no one is going to read it? You know? I wanted to write what I wanted to write.
[My books are] a better beach read. I don’t care who you are — it is a better beach read. It is a better quality. When I find myself reading books, I want to read good, interesting books that move along. I don’t have time to decode your precious words! I want to care about the characters and I want the plot to intrigue me and move me along. Yes, my books are set at the beach. But the quality of the characters and the drama and the situations are better.
Moss: What’s your process?
Hilderbrand: You have to start with scenes. You have to dramatize. You have to — and you’ll hear this a lot — show and not tell. When I start a book, I dive right in and start writing scenes. First, I write four pages about who the character is and what makes them tick and what makes them who they are. Right now I am writing “The Identicals,” about twins who live on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The one on the Vineyard is a mess. The one on Nantucket is less visibly a mess, but still a mess. They switch places and try on each other’s lives. I am still in the process of finding out who they are, how they act, what their particular histories are … I am constantly going back and rereading [those four pages], and adding, and changing.
I spend five or six hours a day writing. If I don’t have time, I don’t have time, and I don’t beat myself up. I take five weeks in St. John’s in the spring and I work eight hours a day. When I have my kids I can maybe get an hour in. I abandon the idea that it has to be quiet and that you have to be at your desk…that’s ridiculous.
I’d never get anything done.
Moss: And what’s life like right now, as you’re ramping up for another book release?
Hilderbrand: I work on two deadlines a year. Winter Storms is done and right now I am only working on the Vineyard book, which means things are pretty relaxed until next month when I start travelling for “Here’s to Us” [Editor’s Note: This interview took place in mid-May.]
So you know I’m trying to get a lot of composing done, but I do not have any strict and fast rules about how much I have to get done each day or I would fail. I do it when I can … I do it when I can do it.
Moss: You said you create scenes. Do you map out a book and fill it in?
Hilderbrand: No. Never. No. Sometimes when I write I’ll have a couple of key scenes in mind, major plot ideas I’ll write in the margins. Remember, you wanna have these two people meet. Or I’ll write it in my phone or in my notes. But I go with the flow. Everything unfolds, and if I have to fix it later I’ll revise it later.
Moss: Did you ever have a book that started out way differently and turned into something else?
Hilderbrand: “The Rumour” I rewrote start to finish. It was the most dramatic. I can’t really explain why. My editor is super smart and she was like, you need to start over and have the same characters and the same situations only everything is happening in present time.
Moss: I always wonder about the relationship between editor and writer. This is your book, this is your baby. You’re obviously married to your ideas and your characters and then an editor comes in and says “No” —
Hilderbrand: Oh I cried. I did cry. I was hysterical. But I knew she was right, and that was right when I was so very very sick; I had breast cancer and then I had this horrible complication from breast cancer, and so I’m trying, and I’m sick, and now I have to rewrite the f*cking book, but she was right, I knew she was right, and it was almost a relief to have someone tell me how to fix it. She’s always that way. She always has the answer. A lot of times, I don’t wanna hear it, but she’s always right. She’s always right. She has never been wrong. She’s not gonna be wrong. She’s always right, so I just listen to her and do what she says.
Moss: I had no idea that you had struggled through several books before having a hit. What can you tell women who have great ideas and want to write?
Hilderbrand: The number one, well, my personality type is suited for this. I’m super disciplined. The first thing I do every day is I get up and I run 8 miles. I do it every day, no matter the weather, because? Why? It’s a discipline.
If I get up and do something difficult that I don’t want to do — and it sucks every day and I don’t wanna go — every single day I go, because it’s a discipline I carry with me and it goes to my writing and my reading … so when I write, it doesn’t matter if I am inspired, it doesn’t matter if it’s noisy, it doesn’t matter if I’m on an aeroplane, or sitting in the bleachers at a baseball game. So it’s discipline and then it’s persistence as far as, you just have to keep doing it, and keep doing it. There’s nothing more disheartening than twelve people turning down your book and then saying, “but I’d love to see something else from you!” And you’re saying to yourself, this is my baby, but I love this, and my advice to you is: Write. Something. Else.
I also encourage people to use their unique perspective. My favourite books, ultimately, are ones that take on topics I know nothing about, or locales or situations that I could have never dreamed up because people have difference experience. In the way that I have used Nantucket, other people have used other places and other professions and I love getting inside glimpses into a world that I know nothing about.
Moss: So write what you know?
Hilderbrand: Especially if you know something everyone else doesn’t know.
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