Bestsellers Who Tried to Reinvent Themselves

People sometimes forget that writing is a job. We can all picture the cozy office where the writer works diligently at his or her latest project, the bookshelves, the glasses perched studiously on their nose, the expression of intense concentration. But while it might seem like writing a book is the sort of thing you do in your spare time or your retirement, the bestsellers of the world definitely approach it as a job. They work very hard on their craft, and they pay attention to the marketplace, because if they don’t write books that sell, they don’t earn a living.

Which is partly the reason why so many writers stick to what they do well and what sells. Still, incredible success gives you the wiggle room to spread your wings and experiment a little; unlike musicians or even film stars whose failures can haunt them and even end careers, a bestselling novelist who dips into another genre and fails to sell as well can usually simply go back to their core fanbase and recover pretty easily, making literary career experiments some of the safest around. As a result, plenty of bestselling authors have dabbled in genres that are complete reinventions of their usual fare—often with surprising success. The following six writers have sold millions of copies of books in one genre, but tried (or are trying) to expand into a whole new field—to reinvent themselves.

Known For: Horror. Reinvention: Literary Gentleman.

Chances are if you ask someone about Stephen King they will still talk about horror. Horror is where King made his bones, after all, and where he still finds most of his success in terms of sales. From Carrie to End of Watch, his stories still tend towards the macabre, the fantastic, and the dark.

King has managed to transform his reputation and perception, however, into a sort of modern-day Dickens, a master of the fictional form who can write just about anything. Many of his horror novels aren’t actually supernatural, or only have superficial horror elements, relying more on psychological aspects to create unease and dread. And he’s worked extensively in a variety of other genres, from The Body’s literary coming-of-age story to the high fantasy of Eyes of the Dragon to the hardboiled detective story of The Colorado Kid.

King’s prolific work habits serve him well here, as he’s able to publish so many books his failed experiments are quickly replaced with more successful books, making those experiments a lot less risky than they would be for less successful writers. And it’s worked: While King will always be associated with horror, he’s equally associated with a variety of other genres now, ensuring that his legacy will be as one of the most flexible and capable writers of the current era.

Known For: Thrillers About Serial Killers and the Like. Reinvention: Children’s and Young Adult Stories

Patterson is more or less the reigning king of the bestseller lists. His literary empire puts out several books a year, some written solely by Patterson, some co-authored with other accomplished writers. They all quickly hit the bestseller lists and are not infrequently adapted into films. When you say “like a James Patterson book” you mean a taught, tense thriller with a high body count, some perversions, and a cynical view of the world around you. The Alex Cross novels are Patterson’s biggest hit, and at least three people die in each of those books, usually in terrifying ways.

Yet Patterson is also a big proponent of getting kids to read, and he decided a few years ago that the best way to do that was to write books they might want to crack open, and so he has reinvented himself as a children’s book writer as well as a Young Adult author. With book series such as the I Funny books, the Witch and Wizard Series, the Middle School Series, and plenty of others, Patterson has transformed himself into a dual-threat (triple-threat if you count his numerous non-fiction works). The non-thriller work doesn’t sell quite as spectacularly as his adult stuff, so you’d be forgiven for being unaware of his double life, but he’s certainly pulled the trick off.

Known For: Conservative Political Books. Reinvention: Children’s History Author.

Everyone knows Rush Limbaugh, the velvet-voiced radio host and personality who has been espousing conservative political views for decades. Still one of the highest-rated radio hosts in the country, Limbaugh seems somewhat disconnected from current conservative politics in the age of Donald Trump and his star has dimmed slightly. It’s good to remember that twenty years ago he was a bestselling author with his books The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So. When people think of Limbaugh, they inevitably think of these books and his radio show.

Unless you’re a kid, in which case you might think of Limbaugh as the guy who writes these wacky time-travel history books.

That’s right, time-travel history books, starring Rush Revere as a teacher who takes his students on magical trips into the past to observe and interact with the greatest moments in our country’s history. Naturally, Limbaugh presents these moments with a conservative spin, and he’s come under criticism for trying to politicize children’s education. His readers don’t seem to care; the books are consistent best-sellers, and Limbaugh has even won the coveted Author of the Year award at the Children's Choice Book Awards for his Rush Revere books.




Known For: Them There Twilight Novels. Reinvention: Thrillers.

Meyer will forever be known as the author who seemed to single-handedly kick off the Young Adult Vampire phenomenon. While Twilight Fever seems to be slowly fading from the land, there’s no doubt you’ve heard of Meyer and her sparkling inventions; after years of obsessive Internet postings, four film adaptations, and endless discussion, Twilight and its characters are embedded in our culture. Twilight was even the original inspiration for another pop culture phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey, which began life as a work of fan fiction set in the Twilight universe.

Meyer seems determined to move on and do something different, however, as her latest bestseller, The Chemist is a straight-up thriller. There are no vampires, werewolves, or aliens. No magic, or teen romances. The story centers on a brilliant chemist named Alex, on the run from shadowy government forces and living a paranoid, desperate existence. When she gets an offer to come in from the cold, she isn’t sure if she can believe it—and a nicely tense story takes off, more in the vein of Lee Child than, well, Stephenie Meyer.

Known For: The Ultimate Legal Thrillers. Reinvention: Children’s Author.

Grisham is one of the most successful writers of all time, and has pretty much carved out the legal thriller genre all for himself. Play a word-association game with someone and shout out “legal thriller.” We guarantee you they will shout “John Grisham!” back.

But Grisham has been trying to break out of his kingdom for years now. He’s published occasional one-off non-thrillers, like the classic Skipping Christmas or his baseball novel Calico Joe with some success—though his books often have to have the phrase “a non-legal thriller” on the cover for clarity.

Grisham has put most of his recent efforts into a middle-grade series about Theodore Boone. The books are thrillers, but with toned-down violence designed to appeal to kids and gain approval from parents. Luckily, that doesn’t mean the books are dull—quite the contrary.

Known For: James Bond. Reinvention: Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang.

Fleming lived quite a life. After attending Eton, he entered World War II and served as a spy, learning a craft that would inspire his creative efforts later in life. He decided one day while on vacation to write a spy novel, and so he did, banging out 2,000 words a day and emerging two months later with the rough draft for Casino Royale, the first James Bond thriller. He wrote eleven more novels and two short story collections about the spy. If his health had held out he likely would have written more; unfortunately, his heart gave out in 1964 at the age of just 56, right after he’d finished the rough draft of his final Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun.

Fleming told a bedtime story to his son Caspar for years, a wholly original story he’d made up and embellished over the years about a magical car. After suffering a heart attack in 1961, Fleming found himself resting and recovering, at loose ends. A friend suggested he take the time to have some fun and write down the old bedtime story, and Fleming did so, joking with his publisher that he was working for them even on the edge of death.

The resulting book was the classic Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, published shortly after his death. After the 1968 film adaptation, the book has remained a constant bestseller, and hints at the sort of career Fleming might have had as a children’s book author had he lived just a little bit longer.

Everyone Has Goals

Even the successful have unfulfilled dreams, sometimes. These five bestselling authors tried reinvention to varying degrees of success—and in some cases it remains to be seen how successful they’ll be.