Friday, July 20, 2007

The birth of bestsellers 3

Also in today's blog
The Boy Who Loved Books

Continuing his chapter "Bestsellers – Born or Made?", George Greenfield writes
"Which brings us on to the third way in which a novel may become a bestseller – by 'hype'. In a later chapter 'The Crunch', I suggest that the British agent who felt he had a big bestseller in the making would probably take the script, or a detailed treatment and a few specimen chapters, to auction in New York before repeating the process in London. Arthur Hugh Clough was a prophet as well as a poet when he wrote, 'But westward look, the land is bright!'"

Greenfield continues, "The 'hypable' novel is usually by a newcomer (or an experienced author working under a pen-name). The reason is simple. Publishing nowadays deals in 'futures', rather like the Stock Exchange. The new is exciting; it has no track record to quantify hope. Publishers know from long and hard experience that it is virtually impossible to shift a novelist who has brought out six or more novels above the sales record he has established in the trade. However much advertising or publicity is devoted to his new book, the sharp edge of the battle is at the point where the representative goes into a bookshop soliciting orders. He may well say – and indeed believe – that 'this is X's best novel by far' but the seasoned bookseller will usually shrug and reply, 'I've heard that one before. Let's see, I took half a dozen of the last one – put me down for another six this time.' It is so much easier to wax lyrical when there are no previous results to measure the book against.' "

"The novel to be hyped often turns out to be aimed at women readers, who provide some 60 per cent of the general readership…It usually includes some esoteric (more than erotic) sex passages. Recent examples are Destiny by Sally Beauman and Shirley Conran's Lace."

"This third method of entry into bestsellerdom is the only one that supports Mr Sutherland's contention that bestsellers are 'made', not 'born'. Claud Cockburn, who in 1972 published a book with an almost identical title, Bestseller, took the opposite view. His book concentrated on novels published between the turn of the century and the outbreak of war in 1939."

The rest of the chapter, and indeed the whole book, is well worth reading if your public library has it, or you can find a second-hand copy.

The 'Mr Sutherland' referred to is now Professor John Sutherland whose memoir, The Boy Who Loved Books, was hardbacked by John Murray last month.

Details of his books about bestsellers are to be found at this page at Amazon UK.

There was a long comment on yesterday's blog by Kit Berry, creator of Stonewylde, but she didn't give a link to her website. Worth a look if you enjoy fantasy.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The birth of bestsellers 2

Also in today's blog
An undiscovered [by me] Paul Scott novel

Here, extracted from George Greenfield's Scribblers for Bread [Hodder & Stoughton 1989], is the second part of his theory on how bestsellers happen.

"The second way is the gradual approach. The author in question usually starts more than moderately well and turns out to have a steady, sometimes prolific output where each succeeding novel fares that much better than its predecessors. Examples would include Paul Scott, Dick Francis, P D James, Ruth Rendell and Wilbur Smith. In each case it took perhaps ten to twenty novels, often published at yearly intervals, for the respective author to break into the charmed circle of top-selling novelists, although Heinemann did print and sell 20,000 copies of Wilbur Smith's very first novel. Both Dick Francis and P D James benefited through a latish breakthrough in the United States, which reflected back favourably on their British status. In all the popular arts – films, television, the novel – America since the war has had a far greater influence on European sales than we often care to admit. Unless the subject matter is highly arcane, a bestselling American novel will almost certainly hit the British bestseller lists, whereas many bestselling British novels will get nowhere in the States."

Can it really be almost 30 years since Paul Scott died? On his page at Wikipedia, I read "Scott published his first novel Johnny Sahib in 1952 (after seventeen rejections) to modest success. He continued to write and published a novel every year or so until deciding in 1960 to try to survive as a full time author."

It's interesting that even in the early Fifties, when publishing was still "an occupation for gentlemen" and publishers and literary agents were not inundated with book proposals to the extent they are today, he had so many rejections.

Looking for Johnny Sahib at Amazon UK, I came across a Scott novel I hadn't heard of, Six Days in Marapore paperbacked by the University of Chicago Press in 2005.

There's an interesting piece "Paul Scott as a Postimperial Author" by Jacqueline Banerjee, Ph.D here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The birth of bestsellers 1

In May this year I wrote "In 1989 Hodder & Stoughton published George Greenfield's Scribblers For Bread which I bought in hardback for £15.00 and last night started re-reading."

That blog ended "More about Scribblers later." But, as so often happens, other things intervened.

I've forgotten how much of Greenfield's excellent book I re-read then. Yesterday, before a solitary lunch – Mr Bookworm having decided to take advantage of the contrary-to-forecast blue sky and take a packed lunch on his coastal walk - I spotted it on our main bookshelves and, opening it at random, came across Greenfield's analysis of bestsellers. He believed they arose in one of three ways.

1. "There is the 'thunderclap' way – the book that makes a loud bang out of a clear blue sky. It is usually a first novel or a second or third novel by a virtually unknown author. Examples are The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean, James Jones's From Here to Eternity, Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal and John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Almost without exception, novelists who take the public fancy by storm in this way continue throughout their careers – or at least for a considerable time – to attract a large band of loyal readers."

It's interesting that all Greenfield's examples of thunderclap authors are men. Were there no thunderclap books by women during his long overview of the publishing scene? Surely there must have been? Yet no names spring to mind.

Tomorrow I'll write about the other two ways he felt bestsellers arose, and perhaps I'll have remembered some feminine thunderclap titles.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Never too late to try something new

A few days ago this dropped into my Inbox.

Elaine has left a new comment on your post "The Red Wheelbarrow bookshop in Paris":

"I am a huge Trollope fan and the Palliser/Political novels are quite magnificent. Try The Way we Live Now to discover a truly Maxwellian figure alive and kicking all those years ago. Nothing changes, nothing new under the sun"

I clicked on the name Elaine which led me to a blog called Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover by "A commuting book and opera-aholic personal assistant living in the oldest recorded town in the UK, Colchester."

Almost immediately I realised I had been to this blog before, lured there by a book called The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower. But what I had not discovered on that first visit was that the owner of this blog has a remarkable mother.

This link should take you to a photograph of her, in a garden in Bath with Elaine's sister.

Elaine writes, "My mother has just celebrated her 95th birthday and is amazingly fit and well and going strong. I think the main reason for this is she keeps her mind alive and alert. She lives in a warden controlled block and though she is the oldest inhabitant there, she has twice as much get up and go as most of them and I really believe this is because she does not spend her entire day watching tv which an awful lot of residents seem to do. She will not switch it on until the evening and only then if there is something she wants to watch."

"Mum took up water colour painting at the age of 90 when the local council had a brilliant idea of taking on an instructor to visit care homes. She simply loves it and finds it very relaxing and spends hours with her paint brushes and paints. The initiative did not last of course, with the council cutting costs so this went by the board, but she still continues to paint on her own. She is also a great reader and dismisses most of the books that she calls 'old ladies books' as rubbish…"

Earlier this year, I had to visit a residential home for elderly people and was disturbed by fact that most of the residents were not watching TV, reading newspapers or books, or chatting. They were sitting in the public rooms in a state of inertia which seemed to confirm the rumours that the staff at some old folks' homes give their charges soporifics.

For the rest of that day I was troubled by what I had seen, and appalled by the thought that, one day in the future, I might find myself in a similar establishment. Then the demands of a busy working life pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A unique correspondence coming in September

On Friday I complained about the physical weight of the book I'd been reading in bed.

Over the weekend I switched to a 217-page Hamish Hamilton hardback bought for £12.50 in 1986 : A Talent to Annoy : Essays, Journalism and Reviews 1929-1968 by Nancy Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley. [The word Journalism on the dust jacket is replaced by Articles on the title page.]

The blurb begins –

" 'Hell would be a more suitable place for you than Ireland,' wrote an Irish correspondent when Nancy Mitford's article on that country appeared in the Sunday Times. Such violent reactions to her journalism were not uncommon; a piece describing a visit to Rome was solemnly burnt by an Italian countess in front of her friends and an article branding Marie-Antoinette as a traitor who richly deserved her fate led more than one Parisian to cut Nancy dead…[her] idiosyncratic point of view, her sense of the comic and her lack of pomposity make this collection of articles as fresh, funny and enjoyable as when they first appeared in print."

I agree, but many of the writers I encounter in online forums would not. Today political correctness is rife.

Six years ago, in the Telegraph, Oliver Poole wrote : "…the publishers Fourth Estate, are paying £200,000 for the right to print the 500 letters, which are kept at Chatsworth House, the home of the youngest Mitford sister, Deborah, who married the 11th Duke of Devonshire. The family was known as the "mad, mad Mitfords", taken from the headline of a 1930s newspaper story that recounted some of the sisters' exploits which scandalised society."

Gill Coleridge, the literary agent for the collection, said that 500 letters between the sisters would be issued in a one-volume edition. It had taken her five years to persuade the family to allow them to be made public. She said: "I think they realise that this is an important historic archive and that it is time it was opened up to a wider audience."

Finally coming out in September, the book's title is The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, daughter-in-law of the third Mitford sister, Diana Mosley. In October there will be a reception and an illustrated hour-long lecture by Charlotte Mosley in the theatre at Chatsworth. How I should love to attend, but I don't think it will be possible. Tickets £10 per person, or £17.50 for two.

The book is described thus –

"The never-before published letters of the legendary Mitford sisters, alive with wit, affection, tragedy and gossip: a charismatic history of the century's signal events played out in the lives of a controversial and uniquely gifted family. Spanning the twentieth century, these magically vivid letters between the legendary Mitford sisters constitute not just a superb social and historical chronicle (what other family counted among its friends Hitler and the Queen, Cecil Beaton and President Kennedy, Evelyn Waugh and Givenchy?); they also give an intimate portrait of the stormy but enduring relationship between six beautiful and gifted women who emerged from the same stock, incarnated the same indomitable spirit, yet carved out starkly different roles and identities for themselves. Nancy, the scalding wit who transferred her family life into bestselling novels; Pamela, who craved nothing more than a quiet country life; Diana, the fascist jailed with her husband, Oswald Mosley, during WWII; Unity, an attempted suicide, obsessed with Hitler; Jessica, the runaway communist and fighter for social change; and Deborah, the genial socialite who found herself Duchess of Devonshire. Writing to one another to confide, commiserate, tease, rage and gossip, the sisters wrote above all to amuse. A correspondence of this scope is rare, for it to be penned by six such born storytellers makes it unique."