Fun_People Archive
21 Mar
Creating a Best-Seller

Date: Thu, 21 Mar 96 13:38:20 -0800
From: Peter Langston <psl>
To: Fun_People
Subject: Creating a Best-Seller

From: Walter Brasch <brasch@PLANETX.BLOOMU.EDU>

                             Creating a Best-Seller
                                 by Walt Brasch
      Nothing is more pathetic than an author sitting at a card table
surrounded by unsold copies of his latest book while watching humanity pass
him by in front of a book store in a crowded mall.
      For several weeks, I have been pathetic.
      Potential readers turn their eyes away, picking up their pace as they
jog past the card table, avoiding me as if I were the lead locust in the
upcoming 14 year plague. With humor, sarcasm, even pleading, I call to them.
Most have innovative reasons why they don't want to enter the bookstore. "I
don't got time to read" is one of the more popular ones.
      To accommodate them, about 25,000 books have been condensed and placed
onto two-hour audio cassettes that allow almost- readers to shove a tape
into a car cassette and do autoaerobics in morning rush hour traffic. With
more than 90 million American adults functionally illiterate, the United
Nations rated the U.S.  as 49th of 158 nations. There may be no correlation
here, but the average time in front of a TV set is about seven hours a day;
the average time reading a book is about seven minutes.
      But people do wander into bookstores. Fixing my targets, I cheerfully
ask what kind of books they like, pitching my book fit their needs. Usually
they ask for directions to the cookbooks. In the Kitchen With Rosie, by
Oprah's chef, has sold almost six million copies. The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.
Cookbook, hyped by ads in all major newspapers and on the 10 million Forest
Gump videos, hit more than 700,000 in sales last year. Entertaining With
Regis & Kathie Lee, as syrupy as you'd expect, was also a big seller.  Even
Menus for Entertaining, by flighty Martha Stewart who once told America to
leave an inch of snow on the ground to beautify their estates, made it onto
best-sellers lists. And then came the Friends Cookbook. The recipe was
simple--take a writer, a chef, and assorted publicity pictures from a hit
TV show, stir them together, and produce a kliterary giant. Don't worry that
none of the recipes were created by any of the Friends cast or crew, or that
they even tried any of the recipes, either on the show or in their personal
lives. Just make sure that you can trap a readership into buying a book
based upon hype.
      Once, I tried to explain to a 30ish woman covered by peroxide and
makeup that my book of short columns was a humorous look at some serious
social issues, but she slapped me with reality--"Oh, no! I wouldn't be able
to sleep if I read your book. Those kind make me so upset."
      "Go ahead, try it!" I implored. "I've even read it twice myself." When
there was only a blank look, I sent her into the Romances. Romance readers,
led into illusory bedrooms by Danielle Steele and Janet Dailey, spend about
$1,200 a year on their bodice-ripper tales of poor writing told by women
with Anglicized bylines who can follow a lame plot formula and write
quickly--or, if you're Barbara Cartland, dictate three to four books at a
time to secretaries.
      Romance readers are often soap watchers. A book about what goes on
behind the scenes at TV's "General Hospital" made it to the racks in time
for a hefty Christmas sale. However, one of the most popular books the past
year was a diary by a soap character- -not the star who plays her, but the
character herself. Robin's Diary, more lurid and as superficially revealing
as anything on daytime TV, has easily outsold The Diary of Anne Frank.
      Also outselling Anne Frank's diary is The Sensuous Woman, by "J,"
which has seduced more than 10 million Americans since 1971, well ahead of
any book by a Nobel laureate. When William Faulkner won the Prize in 1948,
every one of his novels, none of which had sold more than 2,000 copies, was
out of print. Last year, Beavis and Butthead's Ensucklopedia sold more than
400,000 copies, more than books by Peter Benchley, E. L. Doctorow, Joseph
Heller, Jack Higgins, John Irving, James Michener, and Herman Wouk.
      Readers want to buy books from people they know, or think they know.
Books by Ellen DeGeneres, Paul Reiser, Tim Allen, and Dolly Parton have each
had sales of more than a million copies in the past two years. On a day when
I was selling a handful of books in Wilkes-Barre, cross-dressing shock jock
Howard Stern was two hours away in Philadelphia deluged by 15,000 sales of
Miss America, significantly ahead of Colin Powell who managed a one- day
sale of almost 3,500 copies, and Newt Gingrich whose best one-day sale was
1,800 copies, still about 50 times more than the average writer sells at a
bookstore stop.
      If it's a diet-and-exercise book by a TV or film star-- Suzanne
Somers, Jane Fonda, and even Angela Lansbury have told us how to look
wonderful--bring out the SuperCray megacomputers to figure the sales.
      Books by and about O.J. also hit best-sellers lists in 1995, making
millionaires of lawyers and hangers-on whose prose fit literature as badly
as undersized gloves.
      The books don't even have to be well-written. Robert James Waller's
The Bridges of Madison County, which could have used a covey of copyeditors,
sold more than six million hardcover copies and stayed on the Publishers
Weekly best-sellers list for 161 weeks. In fact, books don't even have to
be published. In 1992, random House paid movie actress Joan Collins $4
million to write two novels. The wunderkinds of literary promotion figured
her name and resultant publicity would easily justify their advance.
Unfortunately, someone in Editorial saw the manuscripts, thought they were
trash--a rare admission by anyone when dealing with celebrity authors--and
rejected the advance. Collins sued, claiming she fulfilled her contract by
submitting two completed manuscripts, and won $1.3 million.

      Fortunately, many best-sellers deserve their status. With a first
printing of 2.8 million hardcover copies, John Grisham's The Rainmaker set
an industry record. Not far behind was Michael Crichton's The Lost World.
However, the average first novel sells 2,000-4,000 copies, not enough for
either the author, who earns about 10 percent of the book price, or
publisher to make any money. The break-even point for most publishers is
5,000 copies.  With the Industry spending seven-figure royalty advances and
six- figure promotion budgets on just a few authors, most of the rest of us
don't even get a chance to see our books published, no matter how well
written and insightful. Those that are published are usually buried in a
promotion budget the size of a business executive's conscience. It's just
a matter of economics in an industry that has seen conglomerates cannibalize
each other, and just 10 publishers place 94 percent of the year's
best-sellers.  All that matters is the bottom line--"Can it sell?"
      From mall-sitting, I realized that the peroxided, made-up 30ish lady
was right. The public wants books about social issues about as much as the
elderly want the Contract With America. It's "How-to" books, cookbooks,
romances, self-help books, celebrity tell-alls, books about diets and
exercise, sex and intimacy that the people want. As soon as I finish this
column, I'll be starting my next book, a guaranteed best-seller, How to be
Your Own Best Friend While Sensually Baking Diet Pornographic Cookies with
Bob Dole.

      {Italic} Walt Brasch is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg
University. His latest book is "Enquiring Minds and Space Aliens," a
collection of many of his more popular columns that focus upon the mass
media. "Buy the book," he begs, "or else I'll sic my telemarketers on you."
{end italic}

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