Well. 2 of them are easy, from the outside looking in…
Method 1: Accidentally encapsulate the cultural zeitgeist which began defining a generation yesterday at 2.43pm
Who knew that young adults, for instance, wanted a world of complete fantasy where your undead boyfriend is constantly resisting the urge to kill you, before Twilight came along?
Method 2: Be controversial
This is easy. The biggest bestseller right now in Spain is a book which tells women to get married and be submissive to their husbands. And who wins? Well. The more people disagree with it… the more $$$$$$. Ta!
Method 3: Work really, really hard for a number of years, growing your sales painfully slowly, until you reach the tipping point where sales beget greater sales, thereby achieving the success people assume happened overnight
Oh. Okay. Not so easy, then.
This is about the story of the bestseller. Not the stories within, but the stories of how novels got to be bestsellers in the first place. We’re very familiar with some of them – John Grisham selling his independently-published The Client from his car; J.K. Rowling writing in greasy spoons with a crying baby, getting rejected by at least 12 different publishers, and then having a first print run of only 500; E.L. James’ fan-fiction going viral online. But what of the less sensational stories? What about the slow burners?
The story of success has become as fictional as the books themselves. The first 2 ways of writing a bestseller are already newsworthy, and easy to sell. However, there is no story in telling the media that you are method number 3; that you plodded along for aeons, before someone somewhere heard of you, and your sales ticked up slowly, and more slowly still, until you finally hit the bestseller list. (Unless your house was about to be repossessed when you hit the bestseller list, in which case, there’s your angle! Aren’t you lucky!)
It is far more interesting to make something up
Like how your book got published, that traumatic/poverty-stricken period which prompted you to write it, how long it took to write, or how long you’ve been writing in the first place.
I always think of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls when I’m writing, because her first book was written in just THREE WEEKS. 3 weeks?? Seriously? Who writes an entire novel in 3 weeks? Meaning if I started now, I’d have my opus maximus by the early hours of 2014?!
But just what had she written in that time? The first draft, perhaps? And how long did it take to be edited? Rewritten? And edited again?
Ms O’Brien will pardon me if I’m talking through my arse in the event that she did, indeed, churn out a fully-fledged modern classic in less than a month. But the vast majority don’t do that.
The vast majority of authors re-draft their novels between 3 and 10 times before they get a traditional publishing deal, if they’re lucky. Then, they will be made to do even more re-writes, and publicise both themselves and their novels, before the book comes out, oh, say, 12-18 months after they sign their contract.
If they stay lucky, their publishers will then promote their books. Otherwise, and is often the case, they will organise their own book signings, do their own pleading with shops and distributors to stock their books, and spend more time than is healthy on social media doing dubious promotional activity which may or may not turn readers away from them forever.
In the event that they then become successful, they will duly give interviews with newspapers and radio presenters, talking about their overnight success, and how it’s changed their lives. (First royalty cheques for €127.40 will do that.)
So, Could I Get To The Point, Please?
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with embellishing your journey, or inflating your success story. Because there isn’t. When you’re starting out, both traditional and self-publishing is largely about how you sell yourself, not your novel.
You can get mass media coverage if you or your book has a story about how you got there. And there has to be an angle in how you sell yourself, for people in method 3. If the truth isn’t interesting, you have to be smart about what you say. Who cares, as long as you’re getting talked about? And perhaps you’ll end up with Method 4: Clever and effective self-marketing.
News angles are not just for Christmas, they are also for journalists, hungry for stories – so go forth and give generously.
So – authors – do you have a story about your story? Or have you heard of any bestselling books becoming successful in other ways? Please share!