Publishers Marketplace 'automat' section has a story lifted out of Newsweek mag about David Balducci. The guy has writted 16 best-sellers . . and get this. . . according to Newsweek, hardly any critic thinks Balducci's books are good.

So it occured to me--if you were a big publishing house, could you literately take a manuscript out of the slush pile (and assuming it had just average talent) groom and preen that script/writer into a mega hit?

Personally, I'm thinking of Clive Cussler. I read all of his novels, I'll admit it. And I walk away dissatisfied every time. All of his plots have vast potential. But his slam-bang style of writing is just so sterile. No color. No true sensations. Just wham-bang, and go to the next impossible feat.

But I wonder: did Cussler's Raise the Titanic hit the right editors's desk on the right day, at the right time, with the editor in the right mood? Did the book make the author? Or did the publisher make the author?

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Yeah, I'm going to have start over now, too.....

I'm still going to come back to my restaurant analogy - do you want to own a McDonalds franchise or do you want to be a chef? On rare occassions people can be both, but wow, those odds aren't good.
Two things, then, maybe: write your best possible book, and find an agent that's half pit-bull.
It seems to me the truly accurate route to a bestseller is the theme 'write to the lowest common denominator.' I.J.'s views seem right-on. Maybe that's why Clive Cussler is such a big time author.

Or to put it another way, the complex stories that have involved plots like Steve likes, cater only to a few--and a few is never going to build a best seller.

And although I agree with Neil concerning lots of promotional money flushed down the drain to promote a major writer who flopped---nevertheless if one counted his fingers and toes at looking at the big buck/success rates to big bucks/failure rates . . . I'd suspect the success (whether the writer has talent or not) exceeds the failure. Otherwise, why in hell would a publishing house continue doing such promotions?
I think you need to define, "talent." Even if you call it writing to the lowest common denominator, there's still a huge amount of competition - why Clive Cussler and not the hundreds of other fairly similar books?

I don't imagine a guy like Donald Barthelme is very suprised he never had a bestseller - but I also doubt that was his goal.
"Or to put it another way, the complex stories that have involved plots like Steve likes, cater only to a few--and a few is never going to build a best seller."

I suggest you read THE EIGHT, by Katherine Neville, and then see if you still think your statement holds.

To this idea of writing to the lowest common denominator equaling success - Lee Child has openly admitted that he writes his bestselling Jack Reacher novels to a 4th grade reading level. He's trying to reach the readers on the fringe, and says it pleases him when they write to him and say, "Great book! I finished it!"

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with Lee's making that choice. Deliberating keeping his writing spare and simple works very well for him.

Lee's publishing history is also pertinent to this discussion - after he lost his job, he gave himself one year to write a novel. That first novel was picked up by the first agent he queried, who sold it to the first publisher they submitted it to, and the novel (and all the others since) hit the major bestseller lists.

I think the reason Lee hit it out of the park his first time at bat is because he came to novel-writing from a strong background in television - in other words, he knew how to tell a good story.

Certainly there's a place for great literature in our society, but as the bestseller lists indicate, there's also a place for commercial fiction, and disparaging the quality of the writing of these books doesn't change the fact that they're a commercial success.
"I think the reason Lee hit it out of the park his first time at bat is because he came to novel-writing from a strong background in television"

If this is true, I despair for humanity. In fact, this may be one of the signs of the apocalypse.
Keep in mind, Jon, that as I write this I'm sitting at my desk writing a TV show ;)

Of course, not all TV is the same, either. A show like The Wire hired many novelists and some people feel is the best-written TV show ever. Still, it could never be called a "bestseller." If the CSI shows received as few viewers at The Wire, they'd be cancelled.

Some TV shows lately have been better than even some literary novels. Not most, some.

A lot of what passes for American literature these days has me despairing for literature. Too much of it is small and personal.

Sometimes I want to read a book that gets to the heart of the world I'm living in now - IJ may see that evil CEO as a cheap target, but only if handled poorly. Literature shouldn't shy away from anything.

You can probably tell I don't look to the bestseller lists for books to read very often.
Hey, would I turn down a TV-writing gig? No, I would not. But you come to it honorably, anyway, having honed your craft writing books. Doing it the other way around seems like some kind of sacrilege, almost.

I haven't seen The Wire (too cheap too pay for HBO), but I loved the Sopranos and Six Feet Under, and would probably like Deadwood a lot, too. Most of what I skip past on regular network TV looks like utter moronica, though--to the extent that you can judge a nation by its popular culture, we're pretty well screwed.

As for lit-fic--what's wrong with small and personal? If the characters are compelling and the story holds my interest, I don't need a lot of explosions or car chases--but naturally I can't speak for anyone else. I like Elmore Leonard, but I also like Chekhov and Proust--and I thought Under the Volcano was a real gripper. I guess what I'm saying is, which is more interesting: another male adolescent fantasy movie full of fistfights and bazookas, or watching a room-full of twelve-year-old girls mercilessly taunting one another into eating disorders?
"... to the extent that you can judge a nation by its popular culture, we're pretty well screwed."

I wonder how familiar you are with the popular culture of any other nation? I know Canada is preety much the United States' little brother, but our pop culture is no better. We see a lot of British pop culture here as well and it's no better. I grew up in Quebec where TV was full of French pop culture and it was no better.

As for literature, there's nothing wrong with small and personal, but it seems like literature has completely abandonded the big ideas to the genres. There are exceptions, of course, Michel Houllebeq wrote some terrific literary novels about sex tourism and cults and even human cloning, but for the most part it seems to me it's unlikely the current economic meltdown is going to produce The Grapes of Wrath or much literary insight into the world I'm living in.

I'm pretty familiar with Latin-American pop culture, and it's bad--but at least it has a kind of goofy jaunty-sexy aesthetic that I can get behind. Ours is so grindingly commercialized I can hardly watch it--everything's a product placement.

As for the "big issues" in lit: you haven't read "The Road," I take it. And maybe you're not a fan of George Saunders--but if you haven't rean him, he might be just your cuppa tea.
Cussler does not write books to the "lowest common denominator." Neither does Grisham or Dan Brown or any of the big commerical authors. They simply write books they like to write -- and millions of people enjoy them. You don't have to like this writer or that writer -- everybody has different tastes -- but, really, there's no point being snarky just because they're successful. This is the kind of thing I sometimes hear from the literary community toward the crime genre, but I didn't expect to find it here. And the statement that very few "good" books ever become bestsellers -- that is simply staggering.
I have no problem with success, but I am distressed, a bit, at the amount of utterly unmitigated crap the American public seems anxious to consume: I'd include anything by Dan Brown on that list. Lots of good books become bestsellers, but so do lots of terrible books, obviously. Was it Mencken who said "no one ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public?"

On edit: I have a question for Mr. Nyren regarding the current and future states of publishing, in his opinion--but maybe I should save it for another thread.


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