The stories that sell

The stories that sell - 10th April 2004
(Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

The 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".

Publishing history, both recent and past, is peppered with original ideas that have become, by virtue of success and imitation, proven quantities.

The 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.

In 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 developed world.

The most influential Australian trendsetters are, respectively, Forbidden Love by Norma Khouri and Almost French by Sarah Turnbull.

Khouri's 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.

Turnbull's 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.

Other 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.

Random 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".

"Publishers 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.

Certain events came together to pitch books like Khouri's into the spotlight, Henderson says.

"After 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."

Khouri's 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.

"Sarah [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."

While 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 market.

These 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.


The Sydney Morning Herald: Books