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, in turn, made their own recommendations. Word spread. Preferences circulated. A tipping point was reached.
This is what every publisher is searching for: the quietly published book that gathers its own peculiar momentum to become a word of mouth success. My favourite recent example of one such book is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which was published in the autumn of 2005 to respectful reviews and not much else. It certainly did not have the support of Waterstone’s and, at that stage, you wouldn’t have found it in many bookshops. Then something happened: people began to chatter about the book; it was among the most chosen titles in the 2005 books of the year lists and is still being recommended this year.
The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir, a love letter to a dead husband (John Gregory Dunne), a portrait of a remarkable marriage, and a mother’s lament. It is also a book about consciousness and how exactly we choose to remember. Dunne, like Didion, was a writer, working in the same forms as her—the novel, the long journalistic dispatch, the screenplay—but theirs was a relationship without rivalry, as Didion tells it. On the night of his death from a heart attack, Dunne had just returned home with his wife from the Beth Israel hospital in New York, where their only daughter, Quintana, recently married, was in intensive care suffering from pneumonia and septic shock (she later died). Didion is tormented by the suddenness of the death of her husband of 40 years and the illness of her daughter: the peculiar meaninglessness of it all.
What Didion means by “magical thinking” is, I think, the suspension of disbelief that can accompany bereavement. She knows, rationally, that her husband is dead, but she does not want to believe it; she does not want to let him go. It’s no surprise to me that, after a slow start, The Year of Magical Thinking has found the many readers it deserves; a stage play is due on Broadway next spring, adapted by Didion from her book and directed by David Hare. If a book is good enough, it will, in the end, find its readership, no matter how quietly it was published. There is no such thing, in the republic of letters, as an undiscovered masterpiece.
When is a recluse not a recluse?
Word reaches me that Thomas Pynchon, whose new thousand-page novel Against the Day (see Erik Tarloff’s review) is dominating conversation in the blogosphere, is furious with the Guardian, which recently published an early extract from the book. Pynchon, one of the most secretive of all American writers, objected to the Guardian calling him a recluse on its front page and publishing an old photograph of him, one of the few that exists in the public domain. In irritation, Pynchon, who never gives interviews or poses for photographers, refused to take money from the Guardian, and asked for his fee to be paid to a charity for journalists. “My belief,” he once said, “is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists… meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.'” So now we know.