What makes mass best sellers? Don't ask - nobody will tell

May 10, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Over many years, from time to time, I have asked publishing-house editors how huge best sellers happen, what distinguishes an immensely successful item of commodity fiction - thrillers, romances, light historical fiction and the like - from an unsuccessful one. The respondents have searched for answers. But their explanations - beyond fairly obvious observations like "brand loyalty" to established authors and occasional coincidences with public events - haven't been instructive.

Now comes an effort by a writer with a lifetime in publishing seeking answers with elaborate interviews of 23 novelists with records of vast sales. His book is entertaining and ambitious - but I come out of it with little new insight into the megabook phenomenon.

It is "Bestsellers: Top Writers Tell How," by Richard Joseph (Summerdale/Seven Hills, 286 pages, $25.95). Joseph is British, but that does not seem to skew his quest from American verities by much - especially since a major proportion of U.S. best seller lists are occupied by British writers.

The interviews were done over 10 years. All the authors write fiction, broken down into three categories: "general," "sex, sagas and romance" and "adventure." General includes such writers as James Michener, Paul Erdman and James Herriot. The other categories are obvious to anyone who reads on airplanes or beaches.

Joseph declares that as of 1997 the 23 together had sold more than 1 billion books. In his analysis, he did not delve into product research, technical market analysis or other trade devices. Instead, he relied entirely on authors - no small number of whom, not surprisingly, come off more as business executives than as literateurs.

One, Joseph Wambaugh - who wrote his first three successful cop books while still serving as a policeman - put it well: "The publishing game is old-fashioned, and marketing is years behind the times. No one takes a great deal of trouble to find out why people read books, why they buy certain books."

Out of necessity

Jeffrey Archer, whose thrillers have made him a multimillionaire, was the only one of the 23 who set out to make money by writing. He was bankrupt from irresponsible investing, needed a way out, liked to tell stories, and set about doing a novel with no direction or as much as a self-help manual. He was out of debt in 19 months. His "Kane and Abel" alone has sold far more than 20 million copies.

The simple truth, Joseph leads his readers to assume, is that there are no formulas, no disciplines, no road maps. That though writing is hard work, the practice is infinitely varied. Writers make books; the market makes best sellers.

A few conclusions suggest characteristics that should be fairly obvious to anyone: a commanding desire to get published, combined with intense self-discipline. Write every day or almost every day. Take and keep and organize notes, especially on familiar personal experience and personalities.

Timing can be vital - resonance with public fads, concerns, anxieties. For example: Maryland's own Tom Clancy's almost uncanny exploration of the decay of Soviet war power, Archer's anatomies of international high-finance plots. Most of the writers say they read a great deal. Most had to harbor a willingness to absorb hundreds of rejection slips, dozens of refusals from publishers and agents.

But thirst for fame and fortune are not the prime motivations cited by these authors. The majority insisted they began writing solely because they wanted to write, not because they expected to make money at it.

Barbara Cartland, who wrote a total of more than 650 books, and sold something like 700 million copies, is said to be the highest selling writer in the world. Interviewed in her 80s, she still was writing 6,000 to 7,000 words a day and keeping five secretaries busy full time, among other chores handling and answering 50,000 letters a year.

Asked for advice for hopeful writers, she replied: "My dear, there are far too many authors today and too many titles. My advice to any aspiring author is, don't."

Work, work, work

Many of the writers had a certainty that they would write some time in their adolescence. Virtually every one of them rejected writing schools and how-to-do-it books as useless. Clancy is no more assertive than the others: "I've never read any books on how to write. ... The only way to learn to write is to write, and keep doing it until you get it damn right."

On timing and attention, there is nothing like unanimity: James Herriot, author of all those wondrous English veterinarian books, of which more than 60 million copies have been sold, insisted to Joseph that minimizing the chore is the core secret of writing effectively: "I have never written for more than half an hour in my life. ... And to be truthful, I hate writing. I wouldn't like the idea of writing all day at all."

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