When I was in London at the London School of Economics (LSE) Space for Thought Literary Festival to speak last year, I also had the opportunity to attend some of the other talks and panel discussions one of which was titled “The Making of Bestsellers”, a panel discussion which made me slightly sad, but was an education all writers need.
The panel included Andrew Franklin, the managing director of Profile Books, an independent publisher in the United Kingdom, and author John Thompson. Thompson has written a book titled Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century and what Thompson had to say I found the most interesting. His book approaches the study of the trade publishing industry (books sold for the mass reading public) as if he is an anthropologist studying an unknown tribe. Though everyone is aware that trade publishing is currently in flux because of new technologies such as ebooks, Franklin argues the change in the industry began some time ago.
His book focuses on the English language trade market in America and the United Kingdom. From his research he uncovered three key factors which have changed the way trade publishing operates. First was the establishment of big bookstore chains and later Amazon. Second was the rise of the super agents in the 1990s, agents that no longer acted as an intermediary between author and publisher but instead work ruthlessly in the author’s interests. And the last change was the consolidation of publishing houses under big mega publishing companies.
Once these things were in place publishers were suddenly under immense pressure from every side. The mega publishing companies wanted an increase in their profits. The agents wanted larger and larger advances for their authors. And the bookstore chains demanded deeper and deeper discounts.
In this pressure cooker, according to Thompson, was born “the big book”. “The big book” is a hoped for bestseller, and often times because it is so hoped for, with so many people with a vested interest in its success, it is made into a bestseller. He gave the example of the book The Last Lecture by an unknown academic who was dying of cancer. His agent managed to sell a proposal for the book for an advance of $6.75 million (USD).
Thompson cited three things that made such an event possible. The author had given a lecture as part of a symposium of last lectures and had been invited on a famous American morning show and on Oprah. His lecture was put on YouTube and watched by millions of viewers. By doing this, he had a ready readership, a platform from which to start.
Another important aspect in the making of a “big book” is the building of a web of collective belief. A few key people, big people in the industry, respected agents for example, must give the book some attention. This calls the attention of other people and soon a large group of important industry insiders have decided the book is important, if it is or not is not that important, it has been decided that it is important.
The last thing the book needs to be a “big book” is a comparable title. The book needs to be able to be compared to a best seller already published.
So the publisher of The Last Lecture paid out a massive advance for the book and then they began the process of having it defined as a “big book”. When it finally hit the shelves it was a best seller, selling more than 14 million copies. They made their advance back and then some and all the actors applying pressure on the publisher were happy.
Quite disheartening though I must say, the publisher on the panel did his best to disregard Thompson’s theories on the industry, explaining that good books from unknowns with no platform still get published and go on to do very well; that things are not as jaded as Thompson was making it seem.
We can only hope.
(Note: This first appeared in my column, It's All Write in The Voice Newspaper, 4 March 2011)