Supersellers

John Sutherland

London now has an autumn season when the big fiction blockbusters are delivered to a public with longer evenings for reading and Christmas money to spend. It may not be anywhere near as clearly marked off as it is in New York and the launching machinery still creaks a bit, but its component parts are familiar from the smoother-running American model. Some six months before publication, fabulous, record-breaking deals and tie-ins are released to the trade and furnish paragraphs for the gossip columns. Background stories, authors’ profiles and studio portraits are sown in the national and provincial press during the run-up to publication day. With luck, Robert Robinson or a lesser TV person will be recruited to do a celebratory book programme. In addition to the traditional newspaper, shop-window and point-of-sale displays there will also be extensive coverage on commercial radio. This year, ‘biggest-ever’ advertising budgets have been divulged for the season’s biggest titles: £50,000, for example, for Hutchinson’s The Devil’s Alternative, a sum which they claim will finance the ‘greatest ever campaign for a hardback novel’; Secker and Warburg, a smaller house, have allocated £15,000 for the promotion of The Four Hundred. Authors’ tours, interviews and signing sessions are laid on. ‘Distinctive symbols’ are devised and publicised to fix the books in the public mind.

Most people will by now know that this autumn the British blockbusters are Forsyth’s The Devil’s Alternative (its distinctive symbol is a neon-red star), Stephen Sheppard’s The Four Hundred (its distinctive symbol is a gold sovereign) and Harry Patterson’s To Catch a King (this title and its distinctive symbol are still to burst upon us from, once again, Hutchinson). The authors of these commercially outstanding novels have much in common professionally. All are British tax exiles. Forsyth lives in Southern Ireland; Sheppard in Spain; Patterson in Jersey. Expatriation is fitting since they are in the business of writing what Hutchinson’s publicity machine quite accurately calls ‘world best-sellers’. The Eagle has landed, Patterson’s best best-seller (which he wrote under the name of Jack Higgins), is estimated to have sold 18 million copies in 42 languages; Forsyth’s last novel, The Dogs of War, runs alongside with an estimated 20 million copies in 24 languages. These authors are the literary equivalent of the multinational company. Forsyth reports that 80 per cent of his income derives from other than British sources. And in keeping with its global market, the subject-matter of this new variety of world literature is carefully internationalised by its authors.

The narrative of The Devil’s Alternative shuttles between Washington, London, Moscow and Holland. Understandable indulgence is shown by these British authors to non-British readers. Forsyth, for example, will routinely insert parenthetic guide-book material for the ignorant, but commercially valued, foreigner: ‘At home on the outskirts of Sheffield, the great steel town of Yorkshire, Mr Norman Pickering kissed his wife and daughter farewell …’ Would Bennett have ventured that (for us) redundant information as to Sheffield’s location and industry? But Bennett, of course, was a best-seller of a previous era and 80 per cent of his income was earned in the home market.

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