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
Sunday 26 February 2006
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
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