Why do some books hit the headlines, others sink under waves of hype and hysteria? Out of about 34,000 general books published each year, only a few will be given the push they need. Kate Figes describes the vital six weeks that can spell the difference between oblivion and success
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
NO ONE could have predicted that a book by an unknown author about three generations of Chinese women would sell nearly two million copies in paperback, and remain in the bestseller list for more than two years. No amount of publisher's hype or extravagant marketing could have manufactured the success of Wild Swans. It is an exceptionally good book, but with some 34,000 new fiction and general non-fiction books published in Britain each year, it could easily have sunk with little review coverage and sales of no more than a few hundred beneath the tide of expensively hyped fiction and celebrity autobiographies.

Publishing is a dodgy business riddled with contradictions. Each new book is, in marketing terms, an entirely new product which has to be packaged and presented to bookshops and the reading public in an individual, innovative and interesting way. A thriller has to look like a thriller, yet somehow be distinguished as better than the rest. In any genre, a good cover can make a huge difference to a book which is unlikely to sell more than a few thousand copies. William Boyd's short stories, published in May, sold way beyond the publishers' expectations because, according to the experience of many booksellers, its spectacularly clear and attractive cover made it stand out.

Publishing starts with the passion of one person. An editor acts like a futures broker, gambling a company's money on a "property" which excites him or her; there is, of course, absolutely no guarantee that other people will want to read it too. "When I know something is special, I get quite breathless," says Clare Alexander, publishing director of Viking. "The feeling's not in the gut but on the back of my neck: my hair almost stands on end. If I know that something is going on there, then maybe others will too. You can't quantify that feeling, yet we have to do financial appraisals on every book."

"The first thing I do is to make damn sure that three or four key scouts in London know about the book," says Dan Franklin, publisher at Jonathan Cape. "You get them going because they talk to everybody. The next thing is to get everyone here at Random House excited about it. I photocopied White Merc With Fins 25 times as soon as I'd bought the book because you have to get everybody in the office saying it's great, even editors in other divisions."

A different marketing plan is drawn up for each book, depending on how many copies the publisher aims to sell, and how they propose to manage it. A book with a promotable author, such as Peter Ackroyd's Blake, will depend heavily on review coverage and interviews, but if the aim is to sell 100,000 copies of a paperback a publisher needs to spend money on top of such free publicity. Publishers consult the big bookshop chains on covers, and send them early proof copies, months in advance. The standard run of proof copies for literary editors, magazines and key book-buyers is roughly 100, but if they want to bombard people, particularly with an unknown author, they will print 600. "With a new author, you have to decide whether you're going to build them slowly, by word-of-mouth and reviews," says Minna Fry, marketing director of Macmillan, "or whether you're going to explode a new talent on to the scene." Publishers may also devise poster campaigns, organise window displays or court bookshop chain managers by wining and dining them; they rack their brains for an original stunt that suits the book. Gimmicks help to get a book noticed - Peter Chippendale's novel Mink arrived on literary editors' desks wrapped in fake-fur - but the image has to be appropriate, or it runs the risk of backfiring.

Meanwhile, the commissioning editor has to keep a grip on the project. "Every decision is painfully arrived at, with arguments over the format, price and cover," says Clare Alexander, "and unless someone has an original conception of what this thing is, of why it is special, then it starts to slip away from you." With such large numbers of books churned out of the publishing houses each year, editors and sales staff are on a treadmill and cannot treat each book with equal enthusiasm, however much they pretend to. Publishers have a tiny window of only six to eight weeks in which to establish a book's reputation, before it is dismissed by the media as no longer topical and swept off the bookshop shelves in order to make way for the next batch of titles, and before the publishers themselves have to move on to the next campaign.

Timing can be all-important: a good first novel without the necessary "buzz" behind it doesn't stand a chance of being reviewed if it is published in the same fortnight as a large number of books by established authors. It will also get swamped in the bookshops by expensive display material lavished on less worthy books.

The most important thing, though, is to get the book read by the people handling it. Sales managers who like a book will sell it with greater enthusiasm; journalists and literary editors can tell when a publicist means what she's saying. Fry felt so enthusiastic about Gitta Sereny's biography of Albert Speer that she printed 30,000 copies of the first chapter in a pamphlet and asked staff to leave one wherever they went, from people's loos to doctors' surgeries. If booksellers and people in the media hear a book recommended several times from different sources they are likely to do more than just glance at the cover when the early copy arrives. When Waterstone's ran a promotion for The Alienist by Caleb Carr, they sold twice as many copies of the book at the Old Brompton Road branch in London in the week after the promotion as they had done in the whole of the previous month, because one staff member had read and loved it.

Even though the window of opportunity is so small, a book occasionally gets a second lease of life, with dramatically different results. Robert James Waller's British publishers thought the title The Bridges of Madison County too American, so they first published it with the crashingly dull title of Love in Black and White. It sank without trace, even though it had reduced men at the Reed publishing empire to tears. As sales, publicity and public enthusiasm for the book in the States increased steadily, Heinemann rectified their mistakes by republishing the book with the American title and by using the story of their gaffe to market the book afresh. Their insert in The Bookseller read "We thought we'd got it right but we got it wrong"; Simon Hoggart wrote about the book in the Observer, the Daily Mail serialised it and the ball began to roll, with sales reaching 600,000 long before the arrival of the film.

Publicity and marketing come into play at the end of the publishing process, and sometimes have to mount a rescue operation: "If the book's not as good as the editor thought it would be, the jacket's awful and the sell- in to the shops hasn't been good then it's up to publicity and marketing to try to get it right," says Minna Fry.

Word-of-mouth among the public is equally important when the books are in the shops, and, even with a book that has had plenty of media coverage, it can cut both ways. "[Naomi Campbell's novel] Swan sold for two weeks and that was the end of it," says Martin Lee, marketing director of the Waterstone's chain. "You can market a book by throwing money at it, but only until the word is out." It is reassuring to learn that taste does play a part in all this.

There are now so many new books each month that only those categorised as "leads" and liable to respond to strenuous publicity and marketing spends will get a push. "There are very few books on any list that a publisher is able to give enough time to," says Nick McDowell of Orion, "probably only six titles or so. The trick is in identifying something odd or genuinely different about the book and bringing it to the public's attention." Those books which are not categorised as "leads" fall into the "mid-list", where a book has to survive on its own merits or face sudden death. Without those books, we would not have had such interesting and surprising bestsellers as Will Hutton's The State We're In. Hutton, a political columnist, had been contracted to write a book for years and when it finally arrived, Cape's expectations of sales were so low they initially printed just 3,500 copies. The State We're In shifted 36,000 copies at pounds 16.99, sending it into the non-fiction bestseller list for months.

Even Wild Swans and A Brief History of Time were not categorised as leads at first. The only bookshop to do a window for A Brief History on publication was Waterstone's in Aberdeen. The first printing of Wild Swans was 3,000 copies, and while the hardback got good review coverage, it was only a year later, after publication of the paperback, that the book became widely known when the charismatic Jung Chang gave talks around the country. These two, like many mid-list books, were only pushed when they had found their own audience.

More esoteric books can also prove unlikely bestsellers. One such is Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock, which put forward the bizarre theory that monuments of the ancient world such as the pyramids and the Sphinx were built by a race of superbeings who lived 15,000 years ago. In spite of a damning review in the Daily Telegraph, the book was in the non-fiction bestseller lists from April until mid September, again at pounds 16.99 a shot.

What the lists consistently show is that people want good storytelling in fiction and a reliable source of information in general non-fiction. They also like reading about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. People still trust and respect the authority of The Book above all other forms of information, and it is up to publishers to sniff out books which will feed our thirst for knowledge and our hunger for storytelling. But as the divide between leads and mid-list grows wider, with resources concentrated increasingly on the books which publishers know will make money, the eclectic, eccentric and original may get lost. The Horse Whisperer was marketed as a bestseller long before anyone outside the book trade had read it, because the publishers paid such a fortune for it that they needed to make it work. While it isn't a disappointing read, how can less newsworthy but equally good books possibly compete with that kind of a build-up ?

Martin Lee of Waterstone's believes that good books will eventually find their readership. "It would be a nonsense if every book got the same amount of coverage, but there are so many good books which deserve more than they're getting that in the end you have to put some faith in the fact that the intrinsic quality of the book will shine through - it may take time, but a good book will out."

The trouble is that most books have so little time in which to be discovered, and every publisher grieves over the books they have loved and lost because nobody noticed them. "I'm looking at one right now," Clare Alexander said. "These Same Long Bones by Gwendolyn M Parker, an exquisite literary novel about a black middle-class community in America and its fear of whites. We published it in January and it got no reviews at all and we sold 700 copies. Then people say, 'Look, this is a disaster, Clare, are you sure that you want to do it in paperback?' Maybe if we'd done everything differently it still wouldn't have worked, but if this author does something even more wonderful in the future then we'll be glad to have it and that will mean that I wasn't mad to publish it in the first place."

She isn't mad. These Same Long Bones is a glorious novel. Will somebody out there please read it before it goes out of print?

8 Kate Figes is the author of Because of her Sex: The Myth of Equality for Women in Britain, Macmillan pounds 6.99