stories that sell - 10th April 2004
The Sydney Morning Herald)
English publisher Toby Mundy told an Australian audience
recently that most published books cluster around
either of two poles: "The original" and
"the proven". Mundy, a co-founder of Atlantic
Books who was visiting as part of an Australia Council
program, said that small independent houses like his
tend to gamble on originality, whereas big publishers
make their money from proven names or proven genres.
But, he went on, a publishers' dream scenario is when
they "go for the former and end up with the latter".
history, both recent and past, is peppered with original
ideas that have become, by virtue of success and imitation,
British publishing house Bloomsbury, for instance,
was a shoestring operation until 1997 when it published
J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book. Although fitting
into a "proven" genre, fantasy for young
readers, Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone
was written by new, unknown author doing something
original which eventually defined new generic territory
marked out by its many imitators.
Australia in the past year, a similar transformation
has occurred with a type of book that may be called
the "woman's escape". This embraces two
mirror-image subgenres: the woman escaping from a
desperate situation in a Third World country, and
the woman escaping from the strains of life in the
most influential Australian trendsetters are, respectively,
Forbidden Love by Norma Khouri and Almost French by
book is about the author's Muslim friend who was murdered
by her father in Jordan for falling in love with a
Christian. It has sold more than 160,000 copies in
Australia. In the latest bestselling non-fiction lists,
four other books have achieved success in Khouri's
wake: I, Safiya, by Nigerian Safiya Hussaini Tungar
Tudu; Slave, by Sudanese Mende Nazer; Mayada: Daughter
of Iraq, by Jean P. Sasson; and Reading Lolita in
Tehran, by Azar Nafisi.
book is itself an echo of a past trend, the escape-to-France
travelogue of the Peter Mayle A Year in Provence variety.
But Almost French, which has sold 180,000 copies in
Australia, ties in specifically to the theme of a
woman leaving her old life and starting anew.
prominent local books of this type include Holy Cow,
by Sarah MacDonald and Mary Moody's Au Revoir and
Last Tango in Toulouse. Beneath these top-sellers
lies a dense stratum of adventurous book-writing women.
House Australia's Fiona Henderson published Khouri,
Turnbull and MacDonald. When Khouri's manuscript came
to her 2 years ago, Henderson says she "could
never have predicted the reaction".
think, 'My God, what is the element in common with
books that do well?' But it is a crap shoot, as we
all know," Henderson says.
events came together to pitch books like Khouri's
into the spotlight, Henderson says.
September 11, the sales of Geraldine Brooks's Nine
Parts of Desire [a nonfiction book about women in
the Islamic world] skyrocketed. There was also the
television documentary [by British-Afghan journalist
Saira Shah] about women being executed under the Taliban;
that raised awareness. And there's an underlying fascination
with this strange other world ... these are stories
that portray incredible personal heartbreak, women
in peril under certain cultural constraints, and sometimes
it all comes together at the right time in a book."
book became an almost immediate bestseller in January
last year despite minimal initial publisher-driven
marketing or publicity. ("You can't beat word
of mouth," says Henderson. "You can do everything
you like to promote something, but it's word of mouth
that does it.") Likewise, when Turnbull first
came to Random House with her story about going to
France to live with a man, there was no inkling of
the huge hit to follow.
[Turnbull] first came to us years ago not knowing
if she had a story or not," Henderson recalls.
"Now, it's a little the opposite. After seeing
what she's done, a lot of people have no doubt at
all that they have a story to tell."
publishers are notorious for hopping aboard bandwagons,
none can predict the longevity or success of a trend.
MacDonald's book has sold around 75,000 copies in
Australia, but there is a large leap from these bestsellers
down to the four-figure sales of most books in a crowded
trends do prompt publishers to reconsider older manuscripts
that they might once have rejected. Or, says Henderson,
"an older book can become a new book again".
An example: Desert Flower, the autobiography of the
Somalian model Waris Dirie, which was in many ways
the trend's precursor, is back in this week's bestseller
charts. It was first published in 1998.
Sydney Morning Herald: Books