The story goes like this: There was a woman in Edinburgh, poor, recently divorced with a small daughter and without a job. She spent most of her days sitting in a coffee shop and pouring her energy into writing about the adventure of a young orphaned boy who was a wizard. Fast forward a few years. She is now richer than the Queen of England herself, thanks to the popularity of the young boy. Her name is J K Rowling and the young boy is Harry Potter.
Now, the question worth the entire fortune of J K Rowling is: What makes Harry Potter a bestseller? Its literary qualities? Harold Bloom and his friends would just smirk. (British critic Bloom once wrote a long article complaining Rowling of having no literary talent.) Never mind. Harry Potter is raking moolah anyway.
So, what makes Harry Potter tick, or a Paulo Coelho, or a Stephen Covey? What makes them bestsellers? Before that, another important question, what’s a bestseller?
Bestsellers are books that sell well, books that are still read despite all the TV soaps, movies, video games and what not demanding our time and energy, and most importantly, books that are pirated and sold on the pavements, of course, cheaply than the printed price.
For books to sell well we need a market. The market demands the kind of books to be printed and sold, and, sometimes books are promoted in such a way that they create their market.
Let’s take an example. I’m a big fan of Harry Potter myself. But Potter’s popularity surprises me. Why not Bartimaeus (of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy) is as popular as Potter? Or Robert Jordan books (of The Wheel of Time series fame)? Rowling was at the right place at the right time.
For reasons good or bad, Potter kept making news (the latest being Lord Voldemort is Britain’s most-loved villain), and that saw a rise in the sale. Poor Robert Jordan!
Another person who was at the right place at the right time was Arundhati Roy. At the time when the West was all eager to read about India, she gave the readers an exotic India complete with family feuds and sexual fantasies. The book won the Booker Prize and, The God of Small Things was a bestseller.
One writer, one book bestsellers are not rare. Two names that come to mind immediately are Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird).
But there’s no foolproof theory of a bestseller. There are few some time-tested clues, however. Here’s some.
Create controversy. Ask Salman Rushdie how? Midnight’s Children was a masterpiece, but Rushdie was far from a bestseller till Satanic Verses happened. Overnight, Rushdie was selling like hotcakes. Or, probably write something completely outrageous, like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Write pop-spirituality. Sometimes back Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist was a rage. Why? Oh, the book can change your life. Really! Go, check it out yourself. Read the book. Make Coelho a rich man.
Teach how to win friends. Dale Carnegie is an eponymous bestseller. Stephen Covey is another (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Covey’s strategy is surely effective. The recent star is Robin Sharma (The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari) who teaches you the tricks of buying a Ferrari before you turn into a monk and sold it. (Oh, I forgot to mention our very own Deepak Chopra, Dr Atkins diet tips and Sanjeev Kapoor’s Khana Khazana).
Tell stories of rich and powerful, which an average reader can only dream about but never experience. And tell the story in such a way that demands minimum use of the brain.
Finally, sex sells. From Nancy Friday to Shobha De to Tarun Tejpal (Alchemy of Love) will agree with you. Even someone like Upamanyu Chaterjee had to resort to sex to sell his book Weight Loss.
But the best solution is to get an obscene sum of advance for your book. Indian authors seem to be very good at that. Vikram Seth received 1.3 million pounds for Two Lives. Now, the news of big advance is Vikram Chandra who reportedly received 1 million pound for his latest tome Sacred Games. What made the publishers pay such a big sum? Please read the book.
But there are some oddball bestsellers too. Ayn Rand is one of them. She is too philosophical to be sold on pavements. But you can pick her books from any pavement. And who’s interested in a heavy-duty science book like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It seems people are.
Another story. J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) was not doing very well until the day John Lennon was shot dead on December 8, 1980. It was reported that the deranged killer was carrying a copy of Salinger’s book. Soon a public euphoria began to know what was there in Salinger and the book was a bestseller.