How to bake yourself a bestseller

Jeffrey's getting it at long last, Nigella's always had it - what is that crucial promotional X-Factor that turns a good book into a blockbuster? Danuta Kean argues that there's one very simple rule that authors flout at their peril

What is the X-factor that turns a book into a bestseller? They don't just happen by chance. Publishers pour their efforts into marketing and publicising a book in a way that will make it stand out from the 200,000 others published every year. Booksellers are wined and dined and critics courted to get the buzz going long before the book appears. At the centre of their efforts is the author, who nowadays has to put as much work into selling themselves as they did into writing their book.

So what do this elite bunch have in common? It's simple. Rankin, McCall Smith and Binchy are famously nice to all they meet, as are Joanna Trollope and Jacqueline Wilson. They are prepared to wait until the last fan's copy of their latest book is signed, and to visit libraries, schools and book festivals in the back of beyond to talk to tiny audiences of enthusiastic readers who will spread the word about them. The result is huge loyalty among booksellers and librarians who are willing to push their work.

That doesn't mean the book itself doesn't matter. According to publisher Alan Samson of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, quality comes across in the manuscript. With 3,000 landing on his desk every year the thrill of finding a gem among the slush pile is tangible. "You know on the first page," he admits. It is not plot or character that grabs his attention - it is something more subtle. "It's the voice. It happened with Paul Torday's Salmon Fishing in Yemen, out next year. Sure, the title is arresting, but it has a really authentic voice that makes you turn the page." Samson has worked in the industry for 30 years and published, among others, Anita Shreve and Valerie Martin's 2003 Orange Prize winner Property. "I'm not saying that a book is lost if it doesn't grab you on page one, but when I think back to the ones that stand out, they did get you straight away."

As the producer of Richard & Judy and the brains behind the couple's phenomenally successful reading group, Amanda Ross is arguably the most powerful woman in UK publishing today, and publishers submit hundreds of manuscripts to her. She has a clear criterion for what works: "It's got to grip people. It isn't necessarily that it is plot driven. It is something engaging that enriches your experience in some way."

Authors picked for the programme feature in a short film and discussion. It is typical of how writers are increasingly central to the marketing of their work if their shelf life is to last beyond a two-week promotion in W H Smith.

Publishing is a small world. Gossip spreads faster than meningitis in a youth camp. Talk to any industry insider and they will be able to rattle off a list of authors infamous for everything from grabbing women's breasts to hissy fits designed to intimidate the poor saps promoting them. Over the years, I have heard stories of authors who have demanded that their publicist go score drugs for them, had tantrums with booksellers or dressed down literary critics in crowded rooms. In this business, get a reputation for being difficult and you risk cutting short your career.

Last year I told a well-known young author that I had enjoyed her last book (it had received some vicious reviews). "Well, bully for you," she snapped. The encounter left a very bad taste in my mouth. Next day I told an author friend about it. Within days I had heard enough about this author's gracelessness to fill a book. Suddenly her increasingly bad press and rivals' mealy-mouthed attitudes towards her made sense.

"There are a handful of authors who are notorious and whose sales have never amounted to the promise of their first book," says one anonymous publisher. "It isn't a coincidence. You don't want to push someone's book when they are nasty."

But a little grace goes a long way. Even the receptionists at Random House big up Nigella Lawson, thanks to the tasty treats she brings them when visiting the building. Booksellers bend over backward for Maeve Binchy. After an extensive tour the Irish writer writes to each bookshop to thank them for their help.

It is a lesson Jeffrey Archer finally seems to have learned. For years, trade tittle-tattle about Archer's attitude was far from flattering, but that seems to have changed on his latest tour of Australia. The peer launched a charm offensive with booksellers and journalists that produced positive press and book sales.

Years in publishing before she turned writer taught Kate Mosse that authors must recognise they are a part of a team. "Publishers have to work really hard to sell your book in a very over-crowded market, and you should expect to work hard too," she says. She worked harder publicising Labyrinth than she did for her previous novels, writing articles for newspapers, appearing on radio and being willing to turn up at the tiniest event. It left no time to work on her next book. "I said to someone the other day that I haven't really written anything for months, and they said, 'What do you mean? You've been writing articles for the last six months to publicise the book.'"

Her willingness to answer every journalist's call and schlep around the country has paid huge dividends. It is why, despite an early set-back when publicity planned for Labyrinth's July launch was pushed out of newspapers by the 7 July bombings, the hardback still went to number one.

It also laid strong foundations for the book's endorsement by Richard & Judy, and explains why it was the first of their choices to go straight to number one since Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea in 2004.

The X Factor is not an arcane mystery; it is sheer professionalism and the willingness to get out there and, horror of horrors, be nice to people. It is a lesson a few of Mosse's peers should learn too.

The London Book Fair seminar, 'The X-Factor: promoting the unpromotable in a sea of celebrity titles' takes place in the Orange Theatre, ExCel, E16 at 3.45pm on Mon 6 March. See page 28 for more details about the LBF

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy