The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Writers are forever being told what to write by people who would find it hard to string together a coherent sentence. Take Publisher A. Urged on by his accountants, he decides to cut some deadwood from his list. Out go the slow-sellers. From now on, Publisher A wants bestsellers only. The marketing people think they know what the public wants to buy, at least in general terms. And the bookseller would tell you that the average reader wants something to pass time, which means larger than life characters in exotic locations with plenty of action, spiced with sex, intrigue, corruption, treachery, betrayal, and yet more sex. Besides, a mega-seller should have a catchy cover and a memorable title. And this is the recipe marketing hands over to Publisher A.

On paper, this looks great because we have been told that there is a nexus between sexual candour and sales. Now all he wants is a writer. But few writers can write to order and those who do, invariably fail to live up to their publisher’s expectations.

For instance, book buyers looking for sex, violence and hard information could turn to Arthur Hailey (Hotel, Airport), whose characters discuss problems of hotel management while committing adultery, before being beaten up. Hailey was a mega-seller in his time but you can be sure he did not have a publisher’s blueprint in front of him. Like others who became big, he wrote what he wanted to write.

At some expense, the publisher learns that there is no sure-fire guarantee of success. The policy of buying talent (quite often with huge advances) could pay dividends but need not always. Look at the piles of remainder books that have failed to connect with the popular imagination. The truth is hard to take. Beyond a few generalizations, nobody really knows what makes a bestseller. Not even authors.

All the same, what are these generalizations' First, most popular books reflect the author’s voice — that odd blend of personality, observation and style; they are strong on drama and story-telling, and generally optimistic in tone.

Style is an essential element, though not the only element, of the narrative. Novels are made of words, and the way the author orders and chooses his language determines whether the stories manage to persuade. As a critic put it, “without knowing it, [successful authors] have hit upon the contemporary chemical combination of illusion and disillusion which makes the book sell well.” If this “chemical combination” calls for eliminating academic correctness, so be it. What matters is that the language be efficient, or suited to its task, which is to infuse the stories with the illusion of real life.

Thus bestsellers aren’t predictable. Also it is unrealistic to expect a succession of bestsellers from the same author. It can happen, but it may not. It would be interesting to see if Arundhati Roy, whose The God of Small Things sold an incredible 100,000 copies in hardback in India, will be able to beat her own record.

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