Friday, February 24, 2012

Hitting the Lists

My first agent once remarked that a publisher couldn’t hype a book onto the best seller lists. At the time, I disagreed.
These thoughts bubbled to the surface again due to the recent Type M discussion on publishers missing the point. After being involved in this industry for a number of years, I’ve decided that Claire Smith was right. There is absolutely no way publishers can make the public buy or read a book. They try! Year after year. They buy all the right ads, invest in great publicity campaigns, tickle the right reviewers, but for some reason a book simply doesn’t catch on.

On the other hand, a publisher can ruin a book’s chances before it ever gets off the ground. There are a jillion ways to leave a great mystery collecting dust even before it’s remaindered. Nearly all of this derailment is beyond the author’s control.

Sometimes a book rises to the top despite questionable elements. In my opinion, there are some books that overcame liabilities.

Really bad titles are a nightmare. So are bad covers. It takes a great book to overcome both. To me, the classic in both of these categories was Tana French’s In The Woods. I hated both the cover and title, and put off reading it. When I did, I flipped. Tana really owes me a commission because I became one of her most enthusiastic advocates. She won an Edgar for Best First Mystery Novel.

Too long, overly detailed books with very little movement are totally off-putting—especially ones written by 90 year old women. Yet, when I finished Ladies of The Club, I sobbed and sobbed. A total melt-down. Even to me, it didn’t make sense. Didn’t know why. The book zoomed onto the best seller list.

One of the worst books I’ve ever read from a technical stand-point was Bridges of Madison County. Pathetic! Committed every sin known in creative writing. Yet again, it hit some mystifying emotional chord and blind-sided this woman with a long happy marriage.

I yelled at Mary Beth (youngest daughter) for telling me I would never guess the ending of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s As the Crow Flies. It’s really, really hard to fool me by now and especially after telling me I couldn’t guess. Her careless remark threw me into a hyper alert mode during all 900+ pages. Mary Beth was right. And the book not only was a captivating mystery, it was a stunning social novel about the 60s.

My latest best-seller pick was Defending Jacob.  ARCs were passed out at Bouchercon. I loved the book and thought it had all the right ingredients. I waited to see how many things the publisher could do wrong to keep the book from rising to the top. Instead, Delacorte did everything right, from putting real publicity muscle behind the publication to rounding up top writers for pithy blurbs. Not only did this book have a difficult narrative voice (unreliable first person) it moved. That can be a make or break element for today’s impatient reader.

Defending Jacob had that single quality that I believe is essential for hitting the lists. The common denominator in all the books I’ve mentioned.

It was unusual.


Frankie Y. Bailey said...

You've got me thinking about the books I've received over the years in conference bags and never got around to reading because the title and/or the cover was off-putting. Usually by the time I've learned that a bad title/bad cover book was really a terrific read, the moment has passed and the book has found space on my shelf. And I promise myself that one day I will go back and read it because I do already have it. . . but often I never get there. And, so, miss a treat.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Frankie, I nearly skipped Defending Jacob because so often the books in conference bags are a real disappointment. After a very short trial they go straight to our Friends of the Library sale. I promise you, with your background in criminal justice, you'll flip over this book.

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Aline Templeton said...

Great post, Charlotte

Charlotte Hinger said...

Aline, thank you. I often dither over dragging out all my personal tastes and opinions in this blog. It's the usual writer's double bind. We're simultaneously introverted and outspoken.

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