Jennifer Byrne Presents
Jennifer Byrne Presents: Bestsellers & Blockbusters
First Aired: 11/05/10
Jennifer Byrne is joined by the heavy artillery of the publishing world to discuss what it takes to be a bestselling author. Jennifer is joined by the man behind the enigmatic Jack Reacher Lee Child, author of Ice Station and The Five Greatest Warriors Matthew Reilly, author of 17 bestselling novels including The Silent Country, Di Morrissey as well as Australia's biggest selling author Bryce Courtenay.
Di Morrissey, The Valley
Di Morrissey, Monsoon
Di Morrissey, The Silent Country
Lee Child, 61 Hours
Lee Child, The Killing
Matthew Reilly, Ice Station
Matthew Reilly, The Five Greatest Warriors
Bryce Courtenay, The Power Of One
Bryce Courtenay, Jessica
Bryce Courtenay, Christmas The Story of Danny Dunne
Stieg Larsson, Girl with The Dragon Tattoo
Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County
Ian McEwan, Solar
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Jennifer Byrne Presents Blockbusters And Bestsellers
JENNIFER BYRNE: Hello and welcome to this special on bestsellers and blockbusters. The heavy artillery of the publishing world, those books which always appear in the front of the shops which tend to bring on the sniff from the critics. I mean, when did you last read a kind review of Dan Brown? But which sell in their millions and bring huge pleasure to many readers.
Tonight we've called in four of the very biggest guns to explore both the art and the business of the bestseller, their own and others. The marketers might call them name brands. Their publishers, to adapt the old joke, would probably stick with sir, or in one case, madam.
So without any further ado, let's meet them. Di Morrissey, Madame Morrissey, is the author of 17 bestselling novels, including The Valley, Monsoon and most recently, The Silent Country. Lee Child is the man behind the enigmatic Jack Reacher. His wildly successful series of books which began with The Killing Floor is now up to number 14 with the recent release of 61 Hours. Matthew Reilly, well, action is his middle name. He set the pace with Ice Station and has been keeping readers on the edge of their seats ever since. His latest is The Five Greatest Warriors. While Bryce Courtenay is quite simply this country's biggest selling, best known author. From The Power Of One and Jessica to last Christmas The Story of Danny Dunne. Would you please welcome them all. Bestsellers.
Let's start with the one that shouldn't have been the bestseller, the one that came out of nowhere. Because we all think we know the ingredients, and people say there's a format, blah, blah, blah. Who saw the Millennium trilogy coming up? Stieg Larsson's book. Written by a non-English author, Swedish translation, author's dead, couldn't be sold, no-one had ever heard of them, swept the world. Who picked it? Who picked it?
LEE CHILD: I'll tell you who didn't, and that was his publisher. Because I well remember, I was at BEA, which was Book Expo America, two, three years ago? And the publisher of that book is a guy called Sonny Mehta. Very famous in the business. And he cornered me on the floor, and pressed a copy of that first proof into my hand and said "Please, please read this and give it some kind of comment. We can't do anything with it."
JENNIFER BYRNE: This is Girl With The Dragon Tattoo?
LEE CHILD: Yes, it was. So I did read it, and I have a blurb on it. But then what happened was that X factor, you said ingredients, and there's always one extra ingredient, and it was to do with him being dead, I think. It was a human-interest story.
JENNIFER BYRNE: There's a career aspiration.
LEE CHILD: Well, yeah, absolutely. And it's doing so well, I said to my own publicist in the States, I said "Please don't include being dead in your promotional requirements."
JENNIFER BYRNE: People do say it is the perfect author, a dead author.
BRYCE COURTENAY: I'm reminded of the fact that I was in New York and I was handed this manuscript in much the same way as Lee has just said, and said "What do you think?" And I read it, and I said, "Well, it's not a bad synopsis, it might make a good book." it was called The Bridges of Madison County." I think it sold 14 million or something.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Is that right? So even highly attuned bestseller brains, you can't always pick it?
DI MORRISSEY: That's the whole paradox. Because there is no formula. And I don't think any of us here write to a formula. And maybe that's disappointing for prospective authors. They think if they could just crack the code then they're away. And I think with Stieg Larsson, that yes, it touches on genres and yes, there's certain things in there. But because it doesn't have a formula and it is so unusual, and the way he did it and the subjects it touches on... Because it was originally called Men Who Hate Women, wasn't it? That can make it work. And I think the same thing applies to, like, movies. You think "I'm going to make a movie to crack the American market so we'll put in a big American star, do this, do that, and then it doesn't work. I really think you've got to come from inside, and then you, you know.
LEE CHILD: Definitely. It's got to come from the heart. The Stieg Larsson books are good, there's no question.
JENNIFER BYRNE: They are good, but they're complicated.
LEE CHILD: Yeah, they're good, complicated books, but then Scandinavian crime fiction usually is. But they're no better than previous Scandinavian crime fiction, I mean, I started reading that stuff in the '70s. There was a married couple, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, who in my opinion are the best. And really we haven't moved on from that. Henning Mankell was no better than that, Stieg Larsson is no better than that. But there's always an X factor behind a huge success, and it was that kind of human-interest story.
JENNIFER BYRNE: What, the author being dead?
LEE CHILD: The author, and the girlfriend not getting the money, and that whole thing. That just tips it over the edge and starts people talking about it.
BRYCE COURTENAY: But isn't that called storytelling?
LEE CHILD: Well, yeah, it is.
BRYCE COURTENAY: We're all nosy, we're all gossipy, we all want to hear the news and we all want to be told something we didn't know.
LEE CHILD: Exactly, and we depend on that one extra factor. It would have done fine, that book would have done very well, but the fact that it's done so well is because of that extra bit. And I suppose that's what a gigantic bestseller needs, is the extra bit.
JENNIFER BYRNE: The extra bit.
DI MORRISSEY: But is that about the author, like Bryce, you're saying we want to know that extra bit, but then that's kind of putting us in the firing line and not letting the work stand on its own, because as we all know, marketing is such a huge part of it. But is it necessary that people know stuff about us?
BRYCE COURTENAY: Yes, but it's helpful.
JENNIFER BYRNE: I mean, we all know that - personalities help sell books.
LEE CHILD: As all these guys will tell you, it is an endless treadmill, promotion.
JENNIFER BYRNE: And it does sell books, there's no doubt it sells books.
LEE CHILD: Well, what I found is that every single thing sells books. Everything you do sells books. The question is, is it economically effective? I mean, I once met a fan who had all the books, wanted all the books signed, and sometimes I ask them, do you remember why you picked up this book? And she said, "I saw you at a conference and you opened a door for somebody and I thought, what a polite gentleman. I'll try his book." Every single thing works.
MATTHEW REILLY: If I meet a first-time author, a newly published author, and they say "What is the one thing you can tell me?" I actually tell them two things. I say "Write what you are passionate about, the kind of book you yourself would like to read," and the other thing I say is, "Do every bit of publicity that you can. If you can get on television, fantastic. But if you get an interview with your local newspaper, do it." Because if you don't get on the radio, get into the local newspaper, then your book is on the shelf and it's at the mercy of browsers.
JENNIFER BYRNE: The mercy of browsers!
MATTHEW REILLY: You're at the mercy of browsers, and if you want to be at the mercy of browsers, you'll sell 15 copies. And if you get on the radio, and you say "I've written this new book, it's called Pink Flowers," people go to the bookstore and say, "I heard this young bloke on the radio, this book called flowers or Pink Something." And the bookseller goes, "Oh yeah, that's Matthew Reilly, Pink Flowers," that's my new title by the way.
LEE CHILD: And that's very exciting.
JENNIFER BYRNE: I mean, you actually give away books.
BRYCE COURTENAY: I agree with Matthew, you take every opportunity, you take every politeness that you can. Because you can be insulted, too. You've got to draw the line somewhere. This year I didn't. I became Bowral's Tulip Queen. Now, that's going too far. It really is going too far.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Are you joking?
BRYCE COURTENAY: No, no, not joking, I was the Tulip Queen for Bowral. And they said I was the best queen they'd had. But yes, I, for instance, get stopped quite a lot in supermarkets and inconvenient places so you always stop and you always have a chat and you're always polite. But I do something extra each time, and that is, I say to them "I'm glad you enjoyed the book, give me your name and address and I'll send you my latest signed. And so I probably give away 2,500 books a year. Now, I know a lot of people, a lot of authors simply can't afford to do that, they just can't afford to give them away.
DI MORRISSEY: That's their whole print run.
BRYCE COURTENAY: But when you think about it, and you may see it as a gesture of generosity, but on the other hand they're gonna tell 20 or 30 people.
JENNIFER BYRNE: That nice man who sent the book.
BRYCE COURTENAY: ..they got a signed book from you when they met you in the street.
LEE CHILD: That's what I mean about the extra thing.
BRYCE COURTENAY: You've extrapolated that.
LEE CHILD: Yeah. You know, not only is it a good book, but the reader likes you. And then they do talk about you. Instead of talking about you to ten of their friends they'll talk about you to 20 of their friends.
DI MORRISSEY: And word of mouth is THE most potent, don't you think?
BRYCE COURTENAY: Well, there's another thing too, it's a personal pronoun. He's my author, I like his books, they're my kind of books. That's the fix. And I don't think it's a secret, I think you work very hard to get there, I mean, extraordinarily hard.
JENNIFER BYRNE: I do want to ask though, is there much competition? I mean, if you are in the bestseller biz, how important is it to be number one?
DI MORRISSEY: You're number one.
LEE CHILD: I think it's pretty important.
DI MORRISSEY: It's kind of nice.
LEE CHILD: To be honest, it's forced on us because there are bestseller lists and they are ranked from one to ten. And you are put on it somewhere, and if it's going to be a list, then why not be number one?
JENNIFER BYRNE: I read somewhere that you had a nightmare that this book, which is at number three, had sunk to number 12.
LEE CHILD: Yeah, I mean it, and I'm not a competitive person and I do not believe that writing is a competitive sport, it's not the Olympic Games. But there is something about that list that is compulsive. And if I'm going to be on the list I want to be high on the list, and if I'm going to be high I want to be at the very top. Because why not?
BRYCE COURTENAY: It's human nature, I mean, if somebody comes up to you and says "You're a definite number two, mate," you think... I have something to say about, as Matthew says, it's about being close to your audience, there is a closer position in writing, to me anyway. And whether it's true for anybody else I don't know. And I call it the fourth protagonist. I didn't say this, I think Dostoyevsky did, certainly Isaac Bashevis Singer did. And that was that there are three major protagonists in any book. Two very important and one they play off. And no matter where you go, you can have 20 or 30 or 40, there'll be three major ones. I contend there are four, and the fourth is the reader. When the reader picks up Matthew Reilly's book, put it on camera, it's not a book yet. But the moment they start to read, it becomes a book. It's nothing before that, it's a pound and a half of paper.
JENNIFER BYRNE: This is an example, I think, of one of the fundamental differences, I would suggest to you, between literary and popular writers. You all believe, I understand, I mean, you're actually down on record as saying that a book only becomes a book when a reader is engaged. Can that be right?
LEE CHILD: Yeah, I totally agree with what Bryce says. First it's written, then it's read, then it exists. The reader is 50% of the deal. The reader creates the book just as much as the writer does. Otherwise it is, it's just some wood pulp. It's the reader that makes it into a book by consuming it. And we have to be very clear about that.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Do you agree?
MATTHEW REILLY: Absolutely.
BRYCE COURTENAY: How many times has a reader come up to you and said, "You know that incident where..." and they'll name your main character and say "where she did this and this and this? I thought that was fantastic." And you go "Huh?" I didn't write that, she wrote it.
LEE CHILD: Yeah, that happens all the time.
DI MORRISSEY: It's a 50-50 thing. I always imagine that there's just this bond. It goes from my hands into the hands of the reader, and there's this kind of invisible thread and that connection between you and me, and no-one else, and that's what's really special. Because when you meet people, they then feel that, you know, they've shared that experience.
JENNIFER BYRNE: But I want to pursue this idea of a book not existing. Because surely many, many literary novelists would say, "No, no, I want the reader to like it. But the book is the thing. I've made this book."
DI MORRISSEY: It's the effect of the emotion.
BRYCE COURTENAY: Yeah, but that's like masturbation. It's nice, but you know, come on.
LEE CHILD: It's that old Zen thing, if the tree falls in the forest or my version of it, if a man speaks in a forest and his wife is not there to hear him, is he still wrong? And it's the same thing with a book, if it's written but not read it doesn't exist. I really believe that.
JENNIFER BYRNE: That would be, wouldn't you agree, a fundamental difference between popular writers like yourselves and a literary writer who would say, even if no-one reads it...
BRYCE COURTENAY: But there's a pretext that I can't even grasp, I can't even actually get my head around the fact that I'm going to write something that is there to please me and has no consequence, and if somebody else picks it up, well, that's fine, and if I get the money I'll keep it. Look, this thing, this lovely book, has got 37 hours of average reading entertainment in it, 37 hours for, what, if you go to get a special on it, 28 bucks. Now that's going to two movies, you've got 37 hours of entertainment in this.
JENNIFER BYRNE: This is a salesman extraordinaire.
MATTHEW REILLY: And this book, which I constantly have fans come to signings and say they read the book in one sitting and they read it in a day or two days, it took me 13 months...
BRYCE COURTENAY: Yeah, of course.
MATTHEW REILLY: ..to refine and refine that book, to make it as fast as humanly possible for someone to read. And it's doing one more revision to make the book that little bit faster, that little bit faster, which is what makes this a 37-hour read. I don't like the literary-versus-popular debate, I think it was around before I was here and it'll be around long after, and it's an argument that can never be won. But what I do object to is somebody saying that the time I spend making this as fluid and fast and readable as possible, is some sort of inferior form of writing. And I don't think it is.
DI MORRISSEY: You churn them out, one reviewer or interviewer says to me, "Oh, she's churned out another one! Here she is again." It's just like I've sprayed it on the paper like hairspray. And they have no concept of the blood, sweat and tears and the refining and the redrafting, the late hours you do.
LEE CHILD: Yeah, Matthew's point is another difference between literary and what we do, which is that in popular fiction we do the work and the reader enjoys the ride.
MATTHEW REILLY: That's right.
LEE CHILD: And literary people seem to think the reader should do an awful lot of the work to try and puzzle it out and figure it out. And we don't believe that. And actually, in my books, every word is polished, the reader doesn't have to puzzle over it. The reader gets in the car, I'm driving the car. And the reader doesn't have to do the work.
MATTHEW REILLY: I agree completely.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Yeah, so that's a complete distinction, isn't it? So it's not your fault as a reader if you don't enjoy the book.
LEE CHILD: No, and I think that's something that we have to come out and say. You can't blame the reader if they're not enjoying the book. That's our fault. And maybe popular writers are the only ones that admit that.
JENNIFER BYRNE: How do you deal with literary snobbery?
DI MORRISSEY: Ignore it. I mean, the figures speak for themselves. Readers must like what I'm doing.
JENNIFER BYRNE: How often do your books get reviewed?
DI MORRISSEY: In the beginning, not often. Then there's sort of a middle space where I couldn't be ignored, and now they're sometimes reviewed and sometimes not, and I really don't worry. There's no proper criticism in this country, really.
MATTHEW REILLY: I've had reviewers who have enjoyed the books, I've had reviewers who've hated the books. I've had reviewers call me racist. I've had one book reviewer say that Scarecrow had less literary merit than a shopping docket.
BRYCE COURTENAY: Well, we've all had that.
MATTHEW REILLY: But part of the success as well is developing some emotional armour. You can't please everybody and you can't expect to please everybody. There was a fellow who wrote me an email and he said he'd like to see me lowered hands first into a woodchipping machine so I could never type my drivel again. He was a bit disturbed. Sometimes if you're going to have your name in large silver letters on the cover of a book, you're going to have to deal with that too.
LEE CHILD: Yeah, I get reviewed and I've gone through three phases. First of all ignored, second of all sniffed at, and I've been persistent about challenging them, they finally had to come out and admit, yeah, they're enjoying them and they're quite well written. Because I take the fight to them. Because mostly my reviews are in Britain. American reviews are very ghettoised, you know? They're in the thriller section, and they're perfectly fair because they're talking about what they're talking about. But the snobbish reviews are usually in Britain and I carry the fight to them.
DI MORRISSEY: How do you do that, Lee? What do you do, do you ring them up, write to them?
LEE CHILD: No, I mean, there's usually media coverage, journalists will come and last week I was in Britain and Ian McEwan's Solar came out the same day. So there was this kind of grudge match thing going on. 61 Hours by Lee Child versus Solar by Ian McEwan. You know, the good guy versus the bad guy. The smart guy versus the thug. And I was asked about it constantly in interviews, and I made the point, and I think this is a serious point, actually, that the rivalry does not come from us. Why would I care about Ian McEwan? The rivalry comes from them.
JENNIFER BYRNE: That was well said.
LEE CHILD: And it is not necessarily about the sales, it is not necessarily about the sales, it's about something else. It's about this. They know, in their heart, that we could write their books but they cannot write our books. That's what it's about.
JENNIFER BYRNE: And all nodding.
DI MORRISSEY: And they try.
LEE CHILD: And they have tried.
DI MORRISSEY: Under other names.
LEE CHILD: And they sometimes say "Oh well, I don't want to," and I say, "Well, why wouldn't you? You could set yourself up for life." You know, in the paper in Britain last week I deliberately said, I was trying to start a fight about it, I said "Oh, I could write a Martin Amis book. It would take me about three weeks, it would sell 3,000 copies like he sells." And only because I'm with the same publisher as Ian McEwan, so I didn't really want to pick on him particularly. That's what it is, they know they can't do what we do. And they are jealous of that skill.
JENNIFER BYRNE: But that absolutely assumes that they do want to do what you do.
LEE CHILD: Well, who wouldn't? I mean, come on. If you were a literary author starving in a garret and you had the choice to turn out a Bryce Courtenay and make yourself a multi-millionaire so your family was looked after forever, why wouldn't you do that? If you could do that. Of course you would.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Because I think some people feel so powerfully about their art that they wouldn't, but maybe I'm wrong.
LEE CHILD: I think you are wrong.
BRYCE COURTENAY: OK, you're 2% right.
MATTHEW REILLY: I was at a writers' festival once on a panel for thriller writers and there was a poet who'd written a thriller. And they asked him "Why did you write a thriller?" and he said, "Well, I saw these thriller writers were making money, so I thought I'd, you know, develop an international intrigue story, put some sex, put a car chase in it, have someone get killed." The book disappeared without a trace. And that goes all the way back to what we were talking about at the start.
BRYCE COURTENAY: It's harder than you think.
MATTHEW REILLY: He had no passion for it. Thriller readers spotted him as a fake in ten seconds. Just as poetry readers, if you saw the Matthew Reilly Book Of Poetry, poetry readers would spot me as a fake.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Was there one?
MATTHEW REILLY: No.
LEE CHILD: I loved that, that was very good.
MATTHEW REILLY: Actually, I'm waiting for Ian McEwan's next book, it's going to have a little quote on the bottom saying, "What do I care about Ian McEwan? Lee Child."
JENNIFER BYRNE: Let me ask you - marketing. Everyone talks about marketing. How important is it? And what does it mean for a bestseller? What do you have to do?
LEE CHILD: Well, marketing is different from promotion. Marketing is a technical thing about inserting your book into the physical outlets. It's about bidding to get your book front and centre in the store in the drugstore, in the supermarket, in the airport. It's a technical thing, and that is absolutely essential. Because at the end of the day, we talk about books, people love books, but the vast majority of the population is ignorant of books. They don't know a thing about it. They've vaguely heard of something and they immediately forget it, but if they're in the airport and they walk past that little rack of books and there's a title there that chimes in with their memory, then they go "Oh yeah," and they pick it up and they buy it. But if it's not in the airport rack or if it's not in the front of the bookstore, or if it's not in the supermarket, then they don't have that opportunity and it dies.
JENNIFER BYRNE: So it's presence. You've got to have presence in the racks, you've got to be up there.
LEE CHILD: Distribution, yeah. Penetration of the market. Distribution is, in my opinion, 99% of the game.
MATTHEW REILLY: I think in terms of marketing, all of our books that you have here on your table, we each have our name in the exact same text in each book. That is branding and that is marketing. And if you see a Bryce Courtenay book, in hardback, Bryce's name will always be written like that. My name will always be written like that, Lee's will always be in the capitals, Di's are the same. And that is when you go to a bookstore and you see the name Di Morrissey you say "This is going to give me a good story." And that's marketing.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Yeah. You said, Bryce, you don't even like gold embossing.
BRYCE COURTENAY: Well, I have to tell you, every time I shamefacedly say this, we take 20 covers and they're researched in discussion groups. And every time I say, "This time the first question is, can he get rid of that gold writing on the page?" And every single time the first answer is "Never get rid of the gold writing on the page." Because it's an identity and something people feel comfortable with. They feel "Ah, he's come up with a new book." Lee Child has, Matthew has, Di Morrissey's new book is out.
LEE CHILD: Matthew only gets silver, though.
BRYCE COURTENAY: He's going for gold.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Describe the classic Jack Reacher cover.
LEE CHILD: Well, this is the classic one. I mean, this is a style that we've evolved over the last several years.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Normally it has a moving vehicle, though.
LEE CHILD: Well, there is, there's a moving vehicle, there's a lone figure, the lone figure represents Jack Reacher, obviously, and even if you don't know the series, you look at this and the gold writing implies what they've just been saying, it implies a certain thing, the lone figure, OK, this is a story about a lone tough guy, self-reliant, he's gonna solve the problem. And then the rest of the picture is some kind of representation of the story, and this one is cold, it's set during a snowstorm and here's some kind of mysterious plane about to land and so some kind of private space is going to be invaded by an outside force. It has been worked on, it has been tested, it has been discussed endlessly, they spend an awful lot of time because this is it, this is a 9" X 6" advertisement for my brand, and this is all there is, effectively.
JENNIFER BYRNE: And covers are absolutely crucial.
LEE CHILD: Absolutely crucial.
BRYCE COURTENAY: Now Lee, if I said that in Australia I would get in the deepest kind of doo-doo.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Why is that?
BRYCE COURTENAY: Because I'm commercialising it again. There I am, ad man background, he can't write but boy, can he sell.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Mmm. And do you resent that?
BRYCE COURTENAY: Not anymore. I used to.
JENNIFER BYRNE: But you used to.
LEE CHILD: This should sum it up, actually. He can write AND he can sell. I mean, and that's what it's about. That's what it's about. These authors here, they can write and boy, can they sell.
DI MORRISSEY: Lee, can I ask you when you came up with the name Lee Child, did you plan that because it fits so well on the cover? See, Morrissey's such a long name. It's a real pain.
LEE CHILD: I'll tell you, seriously, absolutely. I chose Child because it is easy to hear, easy to say, it's also a word as well as a name, that produces normally warm connotations in people because people usually like children. And it begins with the letter C, which is early in the alphabet, which is excellent for browsing.
MATTHEW REILLY: You're at the mercy of browsers.
LEE CHILD: I started out writing in 1994, was when I first started the first book, and in the middle nineties 63% of bestsellers began with the letter C, like Mr Courtenay here. That was a provable statistic, because we browse from left to right, we get fatigued very early and by the time you're up to sort of F or G you're sort of bored with it. You've got to be there. It's true.
JENNIFER BYRNE: It's absolutely fascinating. We could talk all night. A huge thank you to Di Morrissey, to Lee Child, to Matthew Reilly and to Bryce Courtenay. And until we meet on the first Tuesday of next month, very happy reading from every level of the shelf. Goodnight to you.
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