Thursday, 1 February 2007
The new sure fire best sellers
In The Telegraph, John Sutherland opinions who will lead the new generation of sure fire bestsellers.
Too many novels are published for the same reason that lottery tickets are bought: no publisher knows ahead of time what the winners will be. Unlike the big finger, however, there are ways in which publishers shorten the odds. Advertising is one. Buying prime display spots in bookshops another. A third is investing in writers with a proven track record. This last is surest; but costly. A publisher will emerge from the auction with more leech bites than Stallone in Rambo II.
As regards fiction blockbusters, the picture changed drastically in America in 1986. This, as trade historians note, was 'the year in which hardbacks began to sell like mass market paperbacks'. Million-copy first print runs of novels, retailing at hardcover price, became routine. There emerged over the next decade a corps of novelists who, it seemed, could always hit the top-10 bull's-eye and were capable of hitting it every year. Stephen King, Danielle Steel and Tom Clancy. Engrave their names in schlock.
They represented a range of brands: King meant, principally, gothic. Steel meant melodrama. Clancy was neo-con male-action technothriller. Between 1986 and 1996 this trio turned out 37 titles, all of which made the New York Times top-10 annual lists, representing combined first-year sales of 50 million or more.
In the early 1990s they were joined by two other sure fire performers. John Grisham's legal thrillers had the added value of adapting well into movies which rang box office tills as consistently as those in book stores. James Patterson did a more conventional kind of crime novel. So prolific is he that he does not, it is said, write bestsellers – he 'sheds' them, like dandruff. Bestselling dandruff.
What made these novelists so valuable was the regularity of their output. Thomas Harris and Dan Brown have been hugely successful but the creator of Hannibal needs as much as a decade to hatch his black eggs. And Brown seems strangely disinclined to follow-up on The Da Vinci Code; obliging his publishers to exhume whiskery early works to fill the vacuum.
The high-producing hard core of the 1980s and 1990s is now old guard. King, Clancy, Patterson and Steel are, each of them, 60 this year. John Grisham, the junior member, is not far behind. And as writers age, so do their constituencies – the grim reaper and the austerities of the pensioners' budget eat into sales receipts. Recruiting a younger cohort is tricky.
Assuming that the four 60-somethings (at least) are headed for the rocking chair, who can take their place? Who, that is, can produce blockbusters, year in year out, like widgets? Contenders include Patricia D. Cornwell, Michael Connelly and, a rank outsider, the Florida novelist Tim Dorsey. The one I would back though is a relatively new arrival who seems to me to have a sharper narrative talent than any of the above.
James Siegel (like Patterson, interestingly) has a first career as a high-flying Madison Avenue advertising executive. Out of the blue he decided he'd like to write novels. With his left hand he's turned out four thrillers in the last five years. He hit the bestselling groove with Derailed (2003), Detour (2005), and Deceit (2006). The 'De-' prefix is now his hallmark (every advertiser knows, you need a hook for your product).
Siegel's speciality is taking everyday domestic, middle-class scenarios which, out of the blue, turn very black. In Derailed an advertising man (on Siegel's daily Long Island line) gets horribly entangled with a beautiful fellow commuter. In Detour a couple (the husband is an insurance risk assessor) adopt a baby, with nightmarish consequences. In Deceit, Siegel moves his setting from New York to the West Coast where a reporter, covering a routine story, uncovers a lot more.
Siegel's talent is for kick-you-in-the-knee surprise. He writes novels which continuously jolt the reader with some wholly unanticipated twist, turn, or revelation. He also, as the movie Derailed indicates, adapts smoothly to the screen. His chances of making it to the golden nucleus of bestsellerdom? Better than a lottery ticket. De-finitely.