Danuta Kean explains what makes a book a success
Saturday August 4, 2001
Imagine you're a bestselling author. How do you see yourself? A chick-lit star, posing for Hello! with celebrity friends at your glamorous book launch? Propping up the bar in Soho House, an ageing lit-lad making ironic observations to the arm-candy at your side? Whatever the fantasy, it is doubtful it involves days spent developing repetitive-strain industry in a book warehouse as you sign 1,000 books an hour, or weeks schlepping round the provincial bookshops of Britain meeting booksellers more interested in the famous footballer scheduled for a signing after you.
It is unlikely, too, that your fantasy involves your publisher passing up to £10,000 to chain booksellers and supermarkets so that they will consider displaying your book at the front of their branches. Or paying a chain £6,000 to choose your book as a Read of the Week, or shelling out £25,000 to guarantee its appearance in Christmas catalogues.
Most of the books in bestseller lists were propelled there by at least some money changing hands at retailers' head offices, and by writers working hard to promote themselves. We may have quaint fantasies about authors, but publishers labour under the same demands for profits as workers in any other business. Besides, with upwards of 120,000 new titles published every year, authors need all the help they can get to ensure their book ends up on the shelves of readers - as opposed to those of remainder bookshops.
Of course, there are books that make it without the aid of expensive marketing and publicity campaigns, but they are rare and becoming rarer. Even legendary word-of-mouth successes, such as Captain Corelli's Mandolin, received a hand up the charts from carefully orchestrated promotions. In Louis de Bernières's case, this involved careful thought about the cover, pre-publication proof copies being sent to opinion-formers, trade-press advertising and an extensive publicity tour.
This does not mean that the book is secondary to the splash made by the publisher. "The whole bestseller thing is 70% the book and 30% marketing. It is a very collaborative process," says Victoria Routledge, a former editor at Headline. Now a bestselling novelist herself, she is busy promoting her third book, ... And for Starters, published this week.
That 30% of marketing includes in-house promotion. It is easy to spot publishers' lead titles before they appear in catalogues or on the sides of buses: the giveaway is what's known as the "in-house buzz". Without that, a book will not be a bestseller. "If you can make it work in-house big-time, you can make it work outside big-time," says Geoff Duffield, group marketing director at Orion, which publishes the biggest-selling author in the UK, Maeve Binchy. Duffield recalls the buzz at HarperCollins when the manuscript for Arundhati Roy's Booker-winner The God of Small Things came up for auction. "There was such energy in-house about that book when it came along. Immediately everyone read it, we felt that we were going to get this book whatever it took." It took a £150,000 advance, which led to blanket press coverage and enabled publicists to promote Roy to journalists when the book was published.
It also gave the trade early warning that the high advance would be matched by an equally impressive marketing budget: in-house buzz means that an author's book will receive support from sales, publicity and marketing departments. The energy generated by this buzz is aimed directly at key people in the trade, particularly book-buyers in major chains, who are wooed with corporate hospitality ranging from intimate dinners with authors to day trips. Recently buyers, including some from WHSmith, Books Etc and Waterstone's, were treated to a "Generation Game Day" hosted by Pan Macmillan, during which they played spin the plate and ice the cake under the gaze of Bruce Forsyth, whose autobiography Macmillan publishes this autumn. Faber took a group of booksellers to Damien Hirst's studio to meet the artist and Gordon Burn; their book On the Way to Work is published in October.
There is a temptation for would-be authors to think they can follow some formula to be a bestseller. But any literary agent will tell you that the notorious slush-pile of unsolicited manuscripts cluttering up a corner of the office is rich in novels mistakenly inspired by a scan along the bestseller shelves. Forget it, says agent Carole Blake of Blake Friedman. "If a writer sets out to fill a gap in the market they are in danger of writing something that'll hold no one, but if they have something they feel totally passionate about, then they stand some chance of being a bestseller."
If there is a key to bestselling success, it is that authors should be original and engage readers' emotions. Some might dismiss this after looking at the flood of me-too titles that follow in the wake of an original success, such as the hundreds of narrative non-fiction books published after Dava Sobel's Longitude, but what publishers are looking for are original voices.
Take crime fiction: the novels by Morse creator Colin Dexter and the much darker works of Ian Rankin both sell vast numbers in a very crowded market. Alan Samson, editorial director at Little, Brown, says publishers look for "star quality". That's what he found in crime writer Patricia Cornwell. "When we signed her up 20 years ago, the model for female crime writers was Sara Paretsky, but this author wrote about a woman doing ghastly things - it was really innovative."
Readers want to be engaged on an emotional level, be it by the suffering of Dave Pelzer's misery-fest memoirs, starting with A Child Called It, or through humour, as with McCarthy's Bar, by comedian and broadcaster Pete McCarthy, which knocked Pelzer off the number-one spot. It was a point driven home to McCarthy over lunch with publishers. "They said that if you can make people laugh out loud when they read your book, it will sell in large numbers, because few people can do that."
But fulfilling that brief was not enough in itself to take McCarthy's Bar to number one. Strong word-of-mouth was created through a clutch of good reviews and, most importantly, an author tour that took McCarthy from Cleethorpes to Tasmania, performing his act to small audiences in bookshops. He admits he found it depressing at first, but was quickly cheered when the 50 customers present would buy 80 copies of the book.
It is a rule that the authors who work hard as part of the publishing team are the most successful. This usually means going out on the road twice a year, doing author events and local and regional media to promote the hardback and paperback publication of their books. This is how Iain Banks, Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper and Maeve Binchy built up their huge - and loyal - fan bases.
That is the kind of hard work that pays for the mansion and the membership of Soho House, or makes you famous enough for Hello! to take an interest. As Carole Blake says: "Authors who want to have a career need to be professional about it. It is a business these days, and you do it a massive disservice as a writer if you don't take it seriously."
• Danuta Kean is news editor of The Bookseller.
8 years ago