Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Most Popular Book on the Planet

Hi everyone,

Lost Symbol mania is upon us and a good deal of chatter has been about the incredible discounted prices at which Dan Brown's book is selling. I don't know what the situation is in the US, but over here you can pick up the book at your supermarket for £4.99. My agent, Jonny Geller, was interviewed by The Bookseller and was quoted as saying: "If the most popular book on earth is a fiver, what does it tell the punter? Books are worthless. Retailers are just throwing away their industry."

Deep discounts are a fact of life for authors these days. If you want to be sold next to tinned cans of spaghetti and frozen TV dinners - and we all beg for the opportunity, believe me - you and your publisher have to settle for a diminished retail price in the hope of big sales and upping your name recognition. But it is rather amazing to think that the UK book industry has so far given away approximately £6.3 million in margin on a guaranteed bestseller.

The Lost Symbol was five years in the making and I found Brown's admission that he was paralysed by fear when he started writing the novel rather touching. He admitted to becoming very "self-aware" and said, "Instead of writing 'This is what the character does' you say, 'Wait, millions of people are going to read this. It's like a tennis player who thinks too hard about a stroke - you're temporarily crippled.' Well, the crutches certainly went flying. Lost Symbol is predicted to be the biggest selling hardback in the UK this year - possibly, if it can overtake Harry Potter, this decade.

The whole Lost Symbol adventure has been good fun, of course. Brown's novel is sold in the UK by Transworld, my own publisher, and there was much intrigue in the run-up to its publication. Before its release only four people inhouse had the privilege of reading the manuscript and in order to keep the content secret, passwords and encryptions were used on internal and external communications. (I tried my best to winkle some info from one of those in the know, but without success).   The title, "Lost Symbol" was chosen for its blandness so that imitators and parasites wouldn't be able to launch comparable books beforehand. The booksellers also fed the frenzy with odd opening hours and speed readers racing through the text so the stores could get their reviews out first. One independent bookseller - probably in desperation at not being able to match the deep discounts of the chains - offered customers a slice of cake in the shape of the White House. This is an innovative bookstore - when Thomas Harris published Hannibal, they served their customers fava beans and Chianti.

And then there is all that delicious sneering and mud-throwing from other authors with Philip Pullman leading the pack and calling Brown's writing "flat, stunted and ugly". Professional reviewers here in the UK have generally not been kind either. The New York Times, on the other hand, has been quite positive even as it castigates the author for using "so many italics that even brilliant experts wind up sounding like teenaged girls." But in the end, of course, it is the readers that matter, not the reviewers. As long as his fans are not disappointed, Mr. Brown will have done his job.

But why is this book the most popular book on the planet? Why is Dan Brown the number one bestselling author in modern hisory, with the exception of J.K Rowling?

There have always been books that manage to spark our imagination, or that touch something deep inside of us. Usually we fall in love with a book because we find the characters irresistible. Gone with the Wind is often described as pulp fiction but if it is, it is amazing pulp fiction and the characters will survive long after more intellectually challenging novels, written in more elegant language have been forgotten. Brown's characters are not usually singled out for praise and though I find Robert Langdon - Brown's hero - pleasant enough and rather dig his Harris Tweed jacket -- the professor does not rock my boat in the same way Rhett Butler does. So if it isn't his characters that hook the readers, is it the controversy that surrounds Mr. Brown's books? Many readers were scandalised by his premise of Mary Magdalene being the mother of Christ's child. But Philip Pullman's theological theories are equally as controversial or more so: his next book will be titled "The Good Man, Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ". Pullman's novels have sold 15,000 000 copies - pretty fantastic numbers to be sure - but The Da Vinci Code alone sold more than 80 000 000. Of course, Brown's books are usually praised for the relentless momentum of the narrative and the way in which he laces his story with historical details and puzzles. I too, admire him for his page-turning abilities - getting the reader to ask 'What's next' is one of the toughest things to pull off in thriller writing. But there are many other fine writers out there who can spin a pretty breathless yarn, but their books don't break the record for total lifetime sales for adult hardback fiction in the first thirty-six hours of publication.

So what is it then? Do tell. You guys are the experts - the readers buying the book -- so let me in on the secret, please?   What is it you love about his work? How many of you have ordered his book in advance? How many of you would be happy to buy Lost Symbol at full retail price? Or are you one of the disillusioned who refer to 15 September as "Brown Out Day" and "Beigeocalypse"?

Onto something else! On 13 November I will be speaking at The Richmond Literature Festival and I am shaking in my boots! I do quite a bit of public speaking but this event is a decided step up for me. People who attend the Richmond Festival are usually interested in serious literature, not commercial fiction and some of the other writers who have agreed to speak that week will be Martin Amis, Tibor Fischer, Steven Berkoff and A.S. Byatt. Very intimidating. So any of you who can make it, please do come to my talk and support me! I'd love to see you there. Here are the details:

Thanks! Hope you are all having fun and not suffering too much from the post Summer blues...
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