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

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?