I promised something on The Interpretation of Murder

Eoin Purcell

And here it is

I was trying to figure out how to make this discussion relevant, having already mentioned here that i would kick it off. The reason I felt I should touch on it was that way back in 2006 I had read this article in the Wall Street Journal. The bulk of the article highlights the practice of paying huge advance to debut authors. The case appearing to be that it’s a hiding to nothing:

The following week, the book dropped to No. 30 on the New York Times list. Any lingering hopes of achieving breakthrough sales were finished. Nielsen BookScan, which says it tracks about 70% of retail book sales, says “Murder” sold 12,400 copies in its first 19 days. Barnes & Noble alone sold nearly 15,000 copies of “The Thirteenth Tale” in only five days.

Holt invested $1.3 million in buying and marketing the book, a sum that doesn’t include the cost of manufacturing. It will need to sell at least 150,000 hardcover copies to recoup its investment. Barring an unforeseen spike, it will be lucky to get to half that. Next year, Holt hopes to benefit from paperback sales. And there’s always the chance a movie might get made.

Still, the book never caught fire and could leave Holt in the red. What happened? A timing issue, say several rival publishers. Holt may have erred in promoting its book so heavily six months prior to publication. Booksellers might have been talking about “Murder” during the summer, but they were recommending “The Thirteenth Tale” in early fall. Mr. Sterling disputes that, saying it was imperative to get the industry talking about the book early, given that it was a first-time effort.

Mr. Rubenfeld doesn’t think anything went wrong. His experience touring the country was better than he anticipated. He was surprised at the support he received from booksellers who he says dubbed the book a success. “It might have been a little unrealistic to imagine I could be No. 1 given the fact that there are so many big books this fall, but I remain hopeful.”

Of course with hindsight as it were we know that the book has done fairly exceptionally well over all:
– Right now (subject to rapid and unexpected change) its at 745 in book. Bound to deliver a few sales: Amazon.co.uk Sales Rank: 745 in Books.
– The UK edition has sold close to 1 million copies (Helped by a Richard & Judy pick)
– Headline have committed to Rubenfeld’s follow up.
– It’s in the top five in Ireland.

Which is why this Guardian column, decrying this Wall Street Journal article is so timely. From the WSJ piece:

The costly gamble on the untested Mr. Smith — he received a $1 million U.S. advance for “Child 44” and a second book, while movie director Ridley Scott bought the film rights for an undisclosed sum — says a lot about the state of the book industry. Like Hollywood, publishers have become addicted to blockbusters that can be turned into lucrative franchises. Grand Central sees in Mr. Smith the potential to be the next David Baldacci, James Patterson or Dan Brown.

Expensive first-time authors can work out. Many questioned the decision of publisher Little, Brown to pay $2.2 million for world rights to Elizabeth Kostova’s debut Dracula novel, “The Historian.” It turned out to be the beach read of 2005, and today there are almost 1.5 million hardcovers in print.

But not all such bets are as successful. HarperCollins paid $1 million for Vikram Chandra’s crime novel “Sacred Games,” which it published in January. The publisher estimates the hardcover sales at about 60,000 so far, which means it will need a strong paperback performance to earn back the advance.

And here is the riposte from Sarah Weinman in the Guardian:

And while the seven-figure publishing advance may be statistically rare, it is nevertheless far from unusual – or even new. One has to go back 30 years to find what seems to be the first instance of that eye-popping number: Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. Hindsight makes Ballantine’s advance look like less of a gamble, but in fact the novel had a tortured path to publication (Putnam rejected it for daring to feature a Russian protagonist and it took years for Smith to buy back the rights) and at the time the $1m advance was deemed impossibly risky. In the event, Gorky Park ended up the No 5 bestseller in 1981 and helped revitalise and reshape the crime fiction genre.

Which brings me back to short-term amnesia. Although Child 44 is set in Stalinist Russia in 1953 and revolves around an investigator struggling to find his morality – and a serial child killer – in the midst of state-sponsored oppression, the Journal fails to note the most obvious reason why the book’s buzz is so loud. I first heard about it when an agent and editor with no connection to the novel whatsoever discussed it on their Facebook pages: it’s Gorky Park for the 21st century, taking familiar thriller tropes and setting them against a larger backdrop fraught with greater meanings. Child 44 is ambitious and messy and shows its seams, but Smith’s storytelling risks, by and large, pay off.

All in all I think the moral is: don’t rush to judgement,
Eoin

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4 comments

  1. I believe that in The Times bestsellers of 2007, it came in 2nd or 3rd, after J.K. Rowling. So that really is pretty impressive. Also I read it and enjoyed it very much indeed!

  2. I recommend you all go and read the Sarah Weinman article, which looks like it’s just a planted advert for Child 44 – or rather the comments to it, which are very interesting. The Interpretation of Murder did well in the UK because it was pushed on the UK version of Oprah’s Book Club. Read the reviews of it on UK Amazon, it has got so many one-star reviews, most people think it’s trash. The problem with The Interpretation of Murder is that, despite the hype, it’s garbage. It’s been pushed on the public and sold in a way that makes it sound great, but when people waste their money on it and read it they quickly realize it’s actually trash.

  3. Dear RCW!

    A Richard and Judy pick sure has a mammoth effect on a book. What’s more, it can have that effect whether the book is good or bad.

    As to the value or worth of the book in question, I’ll have to say I don’t know. It’s in a pile waiting to be read (it’ll wait too) but I have chatted to enough people who did like it and who’s opinion I trust to think it must at least be alright!

    Though if you are right and so many people are disappointed, it won’t be the first or last time!

    Eoin

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