Publishing is a gloriously uncertain trade. Bestsellers cannot be manufactured, while low-key titles often achieve success through word of mouthby Jason Cowley / January 14, 2007 / Leave a comment
A kind of magic
At the Frankfurt international book fair, Pete Ayrton, who runs the London-based independent publisher Serpent’s Tail, is invariably asked the same question: have you got anything dark and edgy this year? Ayrton has a taste for writing from outside the mainstream, and has published some of the strangest and most challenging books of recent times. Yet this former academic philosopher is not merely a literary extremist: he has a fine eye for new talent (he published Michel Houellebecq’s first novel, Whatever).
His greatest success remains Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was turned down by more than 25 publishers before being picked up by Serpent’s Tail. Now this novel—Shriver’s seventh—about a mother’s struggles to understand a dysfunctional son who, as a teenager, carries out a high school spree killing, has sold more than 400,000 copies, having won the 2005 Orange prize for women’s fiction.
Writers like to complain that publishers don’t do enough to promote their books. The truth is that there are far too many writers and far too many new books competing for our attention (206,000 new titles were published in Britain in 2005). Clearly, choices have to be made on what to promote, which means most books are published without any promotional support at all, hence the gloom of most authors. But here’s the fun: although publishers may try to manufacture bestsellers—through advertising, marketing and buying display space at the front of shops—they can never be sure which of their titles will succeed; not even large advances and aggressive marketing can guarantee high sales. Most publishers I know speak only of the glorious uncertainty of the business. And the improbable success of the much-rejected We Need to Talk about Kevin merely reaffirms their sense of fatalism while also revitalising their hope. This could have been one of our books!
The first Harry Potter book, the novels of Dan Brown, Lynne Truss’s elegant punctuation primer Eats, Shoots and Leaves: these global bestsellers were all bought for modest advances and without great expectations of success (the British advance for The Da Vinci Code is reported to have been £12,000 as opposed to, say, the £300,000 4th Estate paid for Gautam Malkani’s debut Londonstani, one of the literary disappointments of 2006). And yet something happened: a kind of alchemy. Early readers began to recommend these books to friends and family who,…