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Best-Sellers: Creation, Publication, Promotion [ADIBF 2010]

Over the next day and a half, while everyone watching basketball I’m going to repost a number of the things that I wrote for the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The ADIBF is the premiere professional fair for the Arab world, thanks in part to an arrangement with the Frankfurt Book Fair. Everyone involved with the ADIBF is amazing, and the events, opportunities, meetings, etc., are all really interesting. And being able to see Abu Dhabi and Dubai is fascinating in and of itself.

I was admittedly nervous about moderating a panel on best-sellers. Especially since the subtitle was “The Secrets Behind the Success.” In case you don’t know, my day job is running Open Letter, a nonprofit that’s part of the University of Rochester, definitely does not publish best-sellers. (How cool would it be for Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker to be on the NY Times list? I think this would be proof of parallel universes or something.) I don’t even read best-sellers. Not that I’m a total snob or anything—OK, yes, I am somewhat of a book snob, but whatever, there’s not time enough to read everything—but I haven’t read Twilight, Harry Potter, or a single Tom Clancy novel.

Thankfully, I ended up moderating a panel of three of the most interesting book people I’ve met in Abu Dhabi. Peter Smith aka James Barrington aka James Becker aka Max Adams is a best-selling author from the UK who writes both spy-thriller books (think 24, but British, and not taking place in a single day, and not on TV) and historical-religious conspiracy fiction (think Dan Brown). Haissam Fadel is the enthusiastic Sales and Marketing Manager of the Arab Cultural Center, and the only Arab publisher who saw the potential in publishing the Twilight series. Narain Jashanmal (who will be writing for my real blog, Three Percent, in the future) is the general manager of Jashanmal Bookstores, and has a lot of interesting future of publishing/future of reading ideas.

Unlike most of the other panels I’ve witnessed, we simply had a discussion. No real presentations, no formal statements, just a conversation among the four of us about books, about how to reach readers, about what helps make a book take off.

It’s not easy to craft a best-selling book—always a crapshoot for publishers and authors—but Peter Smith pointed out a few interesting things: that it’s important to choose a name near the beginning of the alphabet (“Barrington,” “Becker,” etc.) and that the cover be designed in such a way as to be appealing to grocery stores (which sell books by the ton) and to be clear to the intended audience. As he put it, his novel Overkill with a plane flying out of an explosion on the cover, screams “boy’s toys,” screams military spy-thriller.

He also pointed out that it’s important to pick a genre that’s well-defined. The first novel he ever wrote—which is, and will likely remain, unpublished—was a cross-bred sort of thing that was partially a thriller-chase deal, but featuring aliens. Not enough sci-fi for sci-fi, and not enough thriller to be a thriller. Total category fail.

Branding of a series and/or author is another huge step to best-sellerdom. That’s why James Barrington writes books starring one particular character, and James Becker another. It’s no surprise that you can build an audience around a popular character or set of characters, and this is why agents and publishers love series. The sales for any individual book can be pretty solid, but aggregated across the series, sales reach a new level. See Twilight and its follow-up volumes.

I met Haissam last year, before Twilight was released. At the time, he was actually a bit nervous. Harry Potter wasn’t as successful sales-wise in the Arab world as it was elsewhere. So four volumes of vampire love wasn’t as obvious a sales slam-dunk as it might initially seem. But there were things working for it: namely the no-sex, no-alcohol thing.

Thanks to the movies, the quality of the translation (the Arab Cultural Center actually set up a blog to get feedback from readers about the translation—this really helped generate buzz for the ensuing three books), the cover, and worldwide appeal, Twilight has been a major success in Arabic. It’s sold more than 8,000 copies, which might not seem like much in comparison to the millions (?) of copies sold in English, but in the Arab world, books rarely sell more than 2,000. So this is HUGE.

Narain took a slightly different approach to the best-seller subject. Jashanmal is the largest English-language bookstore chain in the UAE and a healthy proportion of their sales are of best-sellers. But each outlet carries more than these top 50 or top 100 books. So one of the big issues for Narain is figuring out which books are the “best-sellers of the long tail.” The titles that won’t sell in the quantity that Twilight does, but do have appeal, will sell with regularity, and will generate profit for the stores.

In many ways, Narain pointed to a larger issue—that of general readership. What will get people into stores? What will keep kids reading after the age of 12? What will help expand the general number of readers in the Arab world so that Twilight sells 12,000 copies in the first few months, or even 20,000? This is a huge question that’s plaguing the publishing industry in different ways in different parts of the world, but is at the crux of a number of different debates and trends, including discussions about e-books, graphic novels, online marketing, and teaching literature in schools. Because no matter how many tricks you might use, you’ll never have a best-seller without a healthy reading culture.

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