How to Write a Bestseller
(The Times, 17th April 2010)
A friend once told me in a conspiratorial tone, handing me a manuscript: “Read this. It’s so bad that it could actually be very good. It could be a bestseller.” Since I started working in publishing, I have heard that magic word pronounced by a host of publishers, agents, writers, scouts, publicists, sales reps and booksellers, as if a number-one title could be conjured up by using some readily available formula. Sadly, there is much evidence to the contrary, as demonstrated by the pitiful state of publishers’ balance sheets. So what is it that does make a bestseller?
Paying six- or seven-figure advances, the method of choice of large publishing conglomerates, doesn’t seem to guarantee success. The inadequacies of this model have been exposed in a much-commented-upon article that appeared in the New York Times last year, which claimed that seven out of ten big-budget books do not earn back their advances but become, at best, prestigious loss-leaders.
Publishing what is fashionable, or trying to copy themes and ingredients of a best-selling title, is also far from foolproof. The minute the Twilight novels swept the top four spots of the UK chart, a flock of commissioning editors duly started looking around for the next Stephenie Meyer, saturating the market with hundreds of second- and third-rate imitations which barely registered on Nielsen BookScan.
Looking abroad for inspiration is another possibility, but what works in one country rarely works in another. Many observers were bemused when Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey stormed to number six in the Swedish charts in May 2009, or when Stefan Zweig’s novella Journey into the Past climbed to number ten in France in February 2009. Out of the thousands of foreign bestsellers only a handful are able to translate their sales ranking into another language. Everyone in this country remembers Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Patrick Süskind’s Perfume and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, for example, but books such as Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones or Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers, the fourth-highest-grossing title in Europe last year, failed to reach best-selling status in the English-speaking world.
The truth is that it is hard to predict what readers will like, and that publishing is ultimately a very subjective business, relying on the personal taste of a few individuals who, more often than not, get it terribly wrong.
Personally, I have a fatalistic vision of publishing: I believe that a bestseller is the right book published at the right time by the right people. One of the publishers who turned down Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy recently confessed to me that he still has confidence crises and sleepless nights about his fateful error of judgement. But I told him that he should not kick himself: maybe the book, if published by his company at that particular time, would have sold only a few hundred copies and joined the ranks of millions of other titles that vanish soon after they are published.
It is surprising that someone, almost fifteen years on, should lose sleep over a missed opportunity, but this is perhaps symptomatic of what is a very British obsession, namely sales – possibly a residue of the Victorian-industrialist mentality, or perhaps a consequence our own capitalist society. Otherwise, why is it that readers here assume that what sells a lot must also be good? And why are book-trade awards usually given to celebrity authors and publishers who exemplify commercial success? Dan Brown’s novels may have sold millions of copies worldwide, but what is their literary value or their impact on our culture?
As a small literary independent, my belief and secret motivation is that books can be quietly successful in mysterious and often unforeseen ways: a single copy of one title can transform the life of its reader and even – forgive me the hyperbole – change the course of human history. And the losers of today may be tomorrow’s winners. Jane Austen had to finance the printing of some of her novels, which achieved only average sales during her lifetime. Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti, perhaps the most important volume of modern Italian poetry, sold a handful of copies by the time of the author’s death. Many twentieth-century masterpieces, such as The Master and Margarita or The Leopard, were only published or recognized posthumously, while most best-selling titles of the past are now justly forgotten. This is why I think publishers should take the long view and continue to publish only what they are passionate about, trying to resist fashion and the urge to be populist.
Well before I entered the book business, I completed a long poem in which I lamented that “for reprobates that publish all that counts / is something to attract ‘the much-too-many’ / to swarm like flies around a pot of honey…” Now, more than ten years later, I have written and published, under my own imprint Alma Books, a novel about the folly, the excesses and the sheer desperation I have witnessed in my career as a bookseller, translator, writer, editor and publisher. The book, entitled Bestseller, revolves around the figures of an unpublished writer who’s prepared to do anything to fulfil his obsessive dream of literary stardom and an ageing old-school publisher who is sacked from his own company by a sharkish financial consultant. (Don’t worry: despite this inauspicious premise, there’s enough blood and sex to keep the action going.)
Some people may question my integrity as a publisher, and others may wonder how comfortable I am being both the author and the publisher of my own novel. In my defence, I can say that I know quite a few publishers and editors, both in this country and abroad, who have written works of fiction and non-fiction, and that – whatever my talent – I am only the latest in a long tradition of authors turned publishers and publishers turned authors. Samuel Richardson, for example, the author of monumental eighteenth-century bestsellers such as Pamela, Clarissa and The History of Sir Charles Grandison, was also a leading printer and publisher. One can easily imagine him driving his employees crazy with late corrections after his books had already been typeset and signed off to the press. Charles Dickens worked as an editor of journals for most of his life, even at the height of his success as a novelist, and Fyodor Dostoevsky founded and ran two literary journals with his brother Mikhail, Time and Epoch, before running out of money and going back to writing full-time. Not far from our Alma Books offices in Richmond, Virginia and Leonard Woolf set up, from the basement of their house on Paradise Road, the Hogarth Press, which over the years published – originally using a handpress – a number of important European classics in translation, as well as ground-breaking contemporary works such as The Waste Land and most of the couple’s own creations. These included Virginia’s debut collection of modernist stories, Monday or Tuesday, a book she might have found difficult to place with a mainstream publisher. Being able to publish her own work, setting it letter by letter and line by line, she could experiment more boldly and develop her style free from any editorial pressure or deadline.
Others, however, felt they could not reconcile creative freedom with the daily grind of a publishing job. Christopher Potter, who left his position as Publisher and Managing Director of Fourth Estate in 2005 to become a full-time writer (his latest book, You Are Here, will be out in paperback next month), says that his only regret is that it took him twenty years to turn his back on publishing. “I was determined not to become the complaining author of my publishing nightmares, but I have failed. I’ve just given in to the fact that all writers are neurotic.”
T.S. Eliot, another illustrious writer-publisher, once quipped, “Some editors are failed writers – but so are most writers.” Indeed, most of the authors I have met are always aspiring to more success, fame and money – always aiming for the Big Book, for the number-one spot, for the bestseller. Having written the last word of my novel and watched the ink dry on the paper, I am happy to take a back seat and turn my ear to the comforting wisdom of the ancients, who said: “Habent sua fata libelli” – books have their own destinies.