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

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
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.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines