Sometimes I find it helpful to think of books in terms of boats – sailing boats, that is.
What makes a book successful? Why do some good books seem to sink or not get very far, while others that are awful appear to sail off into the sunset? Why is it that, despite all the intelligent people working in the book trade, no one has yet come up with a fail-proof formula for producing a best-seller. (Many people will tell you’ve they’ve got the secret, but they haven’t. It’s easy to say why a successful book has been successful after the event, but less so to explain why a similar book with the same traits hasn’t sold so well…) Why do commentators and critics hark on about ‘genre’ writing vs. non-genre writing, or high-brow vs. low-brow, when the true value of a book rarely has anything to do with these categorisations?
You can shed some light on these questions, I think, by thinking of books as boats.
First of all a book has to be water-tight. For a plot-driven book that’s fairly self-explanatory, but for others it simply means that the book has to work – it has to function as a book, whatever it may be: poetry, ‘non-fiction’, history, biography, etc. I.e. you have to be able to put the thing in the water without it immediately sinking to the deep. This is the main job agents and editors have. Thanks to their efforts, almost all published books are water-tight, to use this analogy, as they’ve stopped badly built ships from getting anywhere near the sea in the first place, and have patched up the ones about to be launched where there were any design faults. Whether they’ll actually sail anywhere, however, is another matter.
Now books, like boats, can come in many shapes and sizes. Some may be fast and flashy, others may be slow and solid, etc. Some may be grand warships, destroying their adversaries wherever they sail, others are more like cargo ships, carrying ideas and concepts as they travel. (Some of these can be over-laden, however, and end up sinking…). While others are racers – exciting and sleek, but with very little of interest on board. Most books are probably a mixture of elements from these different kinds.
Two factors, essentially, cause a boat to move: sea currents and tides; and the wind. In this analogy, tides can be predicted with relative accuracy, and can actually be seen. Winds, however, are unpredictable, and seemingly come out of nowhere.
Tides and sea currents are like the trends and fashions of a prevailing time and culture. “What’s in this year? Stories of Eskimo child abuse? Great, we’ve got a book that covers it.” And so off the book goes, floating over the water, apparently sailing. But unless the book has some true worth, what’s making it move is not anything ‘real’ – it’s not actually sailing anywhere: it’s simply floating where the tides are taking it, riding the waves.
Now this book may be very successful and make its author a lot of money, but again, if all it’s doing is moving along the tide, with no ‘wind in its sail’, the chances are it will be forgotten and lost in a few years time, and stuck in ‘the doldrums’. Celebrity autobiographies can often fall into this trap.
What a writer really hopes for, however, to make their book a success, to make the boat reach its destination, is ‘the wind’. The wind is what really moves boats.
An example of a book that blew in out of nowhere? The Harry Potter series. The first book had a print-run of 300. The last ones were probably selling more than 300 per second.
There was no tide or sea current to make that first Harry Potter work. As a book it was well-built, water-tight, and had plenty of cargo on board, but no one could see where eventually it would go.
Because while you can see tides, you can’t see the wind, and no one has any idea where it’s coming from or in which direction it’s going to blow next.
So why do some bad books do so well? Because they’re riding on tides, but no wind is pushing them; they may not even have sails.
Why do some goods books fail to get anywhere? Because even with a good breeze, if the currents or tides are against you you’ve got a problem on your hands.
Good books that do well have all these factors in their favour.
Real readers can tell the difference between a book that has the wind in its sails, and one that is simply riding on the tide of current fashion. The interesting thing is, I think, that no one could really say what ‘the wind’ represents in this metaphor. Perhaps we sense it in some way – a force that comes from some other realm or dimension, which can take us by surprise, which can bring about sudden change – cool breezes, stormy weather or warm sunny days.
It is the reason why, thank God, no one can accurately predict how well a book will do. And why some books can come out of nowhere and become sudden best-sellers.
It is something to do with the real worth of a book – that and some outside element pushing it along. It’s what makes categories such as ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ meaningless.
It’s unpredictable, powerful and hints at something beyond our ordinary ken.
And it’s what still places books at the cutting edge of our culture, despite the persistent rumours of their imminent demise.