How to write a bestseller
Why do badly written books become bestsellers? It’s a question that banged against my consciousness as I tried to read 50 Shades of Grey, E L James’s unintentionally hilarious erotic fanfic tribute to Twilight. An ebook, it has become a self-publishing phenomenon, earning the British author an eye-watering advance from a traditional publishing house.
With lines like ‘My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves’ and dialogue as excruciating as ‘Anastasia, you are going to unman me’ it’s as erotically charged as a Stannah stairlift. Ms James must be feeling like the luckiest author on the planet.
Even publishers agree. As trad houses scrambled over one another to throw money at Ms James, I had lunch with one who confessed: ‘None of us can believe how badly written it is, I mean really badly written, but the money being offered is getting ridiculous, we have to look at it,’
Even the plot, he whispered over our confit de canard, was predictable. Heroine Anastasia Steele, is a 21-year-old-never-had-a- boyfriend (but doesn’t look like Ann Widdicombe) graduate. She forms an oh so predictable sado-masochistic liaison with Christian Grey, who is the kind of off-the-peg billionaire even Mills & Boon would blush to publish.
Of course, that Ms James is not the first author to strike it lucky in a market where unpublished rivals are told to sweat over every word, then write a perfect cover letter and synopsis so that they stand out from the pile of slush washing through agents’ doors. She has successfully bypassed that route by, it seems to me, piggybacking onto the fan base of Twilight – how Mormon Stephanie Meyers feels about this remains to be seen.
But there are plenty of traditionally published megasellers that rival authors – published and rejected – must read and weep because the prose – including the plotting – is so poor.
Take Dan Brown, no please, take Dan Brown. As author and journalist Chas Newkey-Burden pointed out to me on Twitter, you know it’s going to be hard-going when you find the word ‘renowned’ in the first paragraph. Or take James Patterson, whose thrillers are pumped out at an industrial scale by a team of writers who work like apprentices to Renaissance painters, though without the same artistry.
Among a myriad of zedlebrities depositing ghostwritten novels on an already over-crowded market we have Katie Price. I had to read one of her ‘novels’ – Crystal – for a competition. By the time I finished throwing it against the wall of my office I needed to redecorate. It left me feeling her fans were being short-changed by characters as deep as nail varnish and a simplistic plot with the allure of a photo love story without any pictures.
And let’s not forget Twilight, which in its odd way spawned 50 Shades, a fact that may explain why Ms James’s readership are unperturbed by the writing. I am sure you have your own nominations for the How Did They Get off The Slush Pile? Award.
With zedlebs the allure for publishers is easily explained: they are brand extensions to add to the perfume, shoes, clothing and other lines of tat marketed at fans. Though personally I have never understood the desire to smell like a celebrity, I can see that these products – and make no mistake, in this market books are products – sell for the same reasons Brut for Men did an eon ago (my earliest olfactory memories are seared by the not so Great Smell of Brut). Market something heavily enough, endorse it with a ‘name’ and shop shelves empty.
What is more perplexing is that authors whose execrable prose rivals well-written page turners clean up before receiving substantial advances for equally dire future work. Of course these advances are guarantors of success for the sheer reason that no publisher wants egg on his face, so everything is done to keep copies of the next book out of the hands of critics and to create an ‘event’. These force the public to buy blind on the day of publication. Who needs word-of-mouth when you can get News at Ten?
The breakout books by these authors had no sizable advances – Dan Brown received less than £5,000 from Transworld for The Da Vinci Code – a guarantor of little or no marketing. Yet, according to sales data monitoring agency Bookscan, it has sold over four million copies in the UK alone, turning it into the biggest selling book of the past 10 years.
Entertainment value is often cited as the reason these books do well. They are plot driven page-turners with short, sharp chapters that draw readers in. But I am not talking about literary versus commercial. I am talking straight-down-the line commercial, and there are plenty of better written rivals that fail to sell in the same quantities.
I think 50 Shades hints at why certain books catch on whatever the quality of the writing. The explanation is thematic. Overwhelmingly reactionary, they tap into contemporary anxieties about our lives in a way publishers fail to predict (if they did they’d be paying more in the first place).
The Da Vinci Code hit the spot as distrust of global organisations and big government reached new levels of paranoia; Twilight tapped into teen angst about sex and the increasingly sexualised environment into which teenage girls mature; on some level 50 Shades taps into discomfort about the role of women and their relationship to power in the same way that the rise of work by the new feministas does. As a feminist, I find the popularity of books like 50 Shades deeply disturbing as they represent a resurrection of the Madonna/ Whore archetypes of Freud, archetypes, which the overwhelmingly female fan base indicates, many women buy into.
What unites these and far better written global phenomena, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary and the Harry Potter series, is they hark back to traditional worlds. Whether stratified according to ability and class (Harry Potter in his boarding school) or gender – the idea that a woman’s ultimate role is wife or girlfriend (Bridget was doing this one long before 50 Shades’ Ana) – they inhabit a traditional universe.
More general trends in publishing reflect this tendency too – how else explain the sweep all before it success of historical fiction? These are worlds where women know their place: even if they strain against the bodice, they cannot escape it without help from the patriarchy.
Even memoirs like Jennifer Worth’s Call The Midwife, which topped the charts long before Miranda Hart donned a nurse’s uniform, hark back to a traditional world. Furthermore, by concentrating on childbirth, they emphasise the most traditional role of all for women, that of mother and carer.
What is behind these phenomena is not deliberately misogynistic, but I do believe they offer a disturbing insight into wider attitudes towards women. They seem to say, ‘Try as hard as you like, sister, you’ll still be either a Madonna or a whore.’ That they are predominantly bought by women concerns me as much as it perplexes me. Maybe conscious or otherwise, the fantasy of readers is that they will be thought Madonnas, even if they act like ‘whores’? Whatever the answer to that question, what they definitely tell me is that if you want to write a bestseller: forget the writing, remember tradition. That is what you need to tap into.
© Danuta Kean 2012