A campaign for global domination is afoot, following months of planning, and executed with almost military precision. And by this weekend it will almost certainly have achieved its aim: to claim the top spot in every English-language book chart in the world. The campaign? The launch, at midnight last Tuesday, of The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown's much-anticipated follow-up to the global megasmash The Da Vinci Code.
It is a perfect example of "event publishing", in which the usually fusty world of books swaps its cheap-white-wine approach to launches for the kind of splashy glamour and media clamour usually associated with Hollywood blockbusters.
Security surrounding the novel is as much a part of the hype as the drip feed of information, handled in the UK by Alison Barrow, the publicity director at Transworld, part of Brown's global publisher Random House. Before its launch, only four of her colleagues had read the new novel, while email communications were heavily encrypted and retailers were forced to sign sales embargoes that exacted a heavy penalty if they were broken. It's enough to make The Da Vinci Code's hero, Robert Langdon, proud.
Though Barrow says the secrecy is all aimed at preventing hackers and bloggers from spoiling the fun, she admits that it helps to create a buzz. "Speculation and building a sense of anticipation are an integral part of the enjoyment for Dan's millions of fans," she says of a campaign that is claimed to be the biggest ever for a book in the UK.
We've been here before, of course. If the name is big enough, event publishing is the best way to avoid bad reviews – which, if The Da Vinci Code is anything to go by, are a given for The Lost Symbol. They also give a book water-cooler cachet: you have to read it to join the conversation.
Midnight launches and media embargoes of eye-watering severity follow a template created for novels starring Harry Potter and Hannibal Lecter. The brouhaha surrounding these books begins with a slow reveal of information designed to entice rather than inform, and ends with late-night parties in bookshops aided by ample amounts of Polyjuice Potion, chianti or communion wine. And it works: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final instalment in JK Rowling's series, sold a record-breaking 2.65 million copies on its first day of sale in 2007.
"If you were to distil these campaigns down to one word, that word would be anticipation," says Colin Midson, the publicity director at Rowling's publisher, Bloomsbury. But, as with any anticipation, the fulfilment can come as a mixed blessing. For Bloomsbury, the end of Harry's adventures coincided with a drop in its share price, which more than halved the company's value from £285m to £134m. The City may understand success, but it does not understand publishing, and too often reads the success of one book as a recipe for guaranteed profits.
For books that go massive, a pleasing aspect for publishers is dealing with supermarkets. "Books like that give you greater negotiating ability when dealing with the retailers," says Jenny Todd, the sales and marketing director at Canongate, which publishes Philip Pullman's controversial event book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, next Easter. "Retailers are obsessed with missing out on market share," she adds, of how the clamour gives publishers rare clout. "In the week that a book like that goes to number one, anyone without good market share will have to explain to their bosses what happened."
Canongate previously enjoyed stratospheric success with Yann Martel's Man Booker-winner Life of Pi and, last year, Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father, both of which sold in the millions. As the company is privately owned, its head, Jamie Byng, is able to plough the money back into the business, investing in expansion and new staff.
The biggest problem raised by event books is managing the news agenda: a job made harder by the internet. The PR agency Colman Getty manages publicity for the Man Booker Prize as well as for JK Rowling, and last year had a leather-clad blonde and a cohort of marines speed down the Thames to deliver to a bookshop the first copies of Sebastian Faulks' James Bond novel, Devil May Care. The photo opportunity made the News at Ten and the front page of almost every newspaper.
The Bond launch, like Brown's, was global, which raises previously unseen turf wars between their publishers. "There are these issues around what time a book launches and who gets first dibs," explains Dotti Irving, Colman Getty's chief executive. "Is a book launched at midnight in the UK or midnight in the US? Do you stagger the launches around the world over 24 hours, or have them launch at exactly the same moment with a tea party in the US and breakfast in Hong Kong?"
It's not just that leaks can spoil the story and destroy a book's news value. They have an economic impact. If a book makes the News at Ten, it will bring into bookshops customers who rarely buy a book. And although only a very foolish publisher would launch a children's book in the same week as Harry Potter or a thriller to coincide with The Lost Symbol, there is strong evidence that queuing punters do buy other books once they get in front of the displays, says Jeremy Neate of Nielsen BookScan, which monitors sales through the tills.
"In July 2005, when Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince appeared, the book market was running at sales of £23m a week," he explains. "It then jumped to £41.3m, of which Harry represented £15m, which suggests that sales of other books didn't suffer. The same sort of pattern is true of the last Harry Potter." Given that the UK book market shrank for the first time last year, it is a pattern everyone in the book trade will hope to see repeated.
But Neate issues a warning: at its height, Dan Brown fever resulted in the reclusive author's entire backlist taking the top spots in the books charts. Which means that, by the time you read this, we won't just have been defeated by Brown's publicity machine; we will be sick of it too.
The hit list
'Life of Pi' by Yann Martel
In 2003 the Booker-winning title accounted for 45 per cent of Canongate's turnover, but the publisher couldn't rest on Pi's success. Happily, it has just announced record profits for 2008, thanks partly to two more surprise bestsellers it bought in 2007 by a then barely known author, Barack Obama.
'Harry Potter' by JK Rowling
With worldwide book sales of more than 400 million, the Harry Potter brand is worth $4bn. But, once lauded for getting kids to read, the Bloomsbury marketing machine has come in for some stick – and reached its nadir when heavies at a launch apparently "manhandled" the literary editor of The Independent. Bloomsbury's profits fell by a third in 2008, the first post-Potter year.
'Devil May Care' by Sebastian Faulks
The fastest-selling hard-back novel in Penguin's history, the 36th Bond book sold 44,093 copies in four days. But Faulks says he won't write another. "Once funny, twice silly, three times a slap," he said, quoting "nanny's popular saying".
'The Lost Symbol' by Dan Brown
When its 15 September publication date was announced, much of the fiction due this month (just before the Booker deadline) was rushed out ahead of it. The Lost Symbol is already Amazon's number-one seller on pre-orders alone.Reuse content