Big Money Branding

Just when I think I know a thing or two about the book business, I find out I really don’t know a lot about the book business.

Turns out thrillers’ are more than big sellers. They’re brands.

When James Patterson, author of the Alex Cross series, produces a new book, 1.25 million copies are routinely printed. After he was poached from Headline by Random House last year the victors crowed: “Signing James Patterson is like acquiring a one-man publishing industry.” His fortune was estimated by Forbes to be $28 million (£14 million) in 2005. Another big name, Robert Ludlum, has 210 million books in print, and every one of his titles has been on The New York Timesbestseller list. Clive Cussler has 70 million copies of his Dirk Pitt series in print, and Penguin UK sells 700,000 of his books every year. The books are fast-paced and addictive and readers cannot get enough of them. Including paperbacks, Cussler alone has five books out in the UK this year and each one is a guaranteed bestseller.

Small wonder, then, that the production of so many page-turners involves more than lone writers toiling in garrets. More and more, the people producing million-sellers are leaning on collaborative authors to do much of the writing.

The authors’ names still appear on the covers in 3in-high letters, but what we’re buying is the brand, not the writer. Robert Ludlum produces several books a year, every one a bestseller — and he died in 2001. More than a dozen books have been published with his name on the cover since, including the Covert-One series, none of which appeared during his lifetime. Readers aren’t worried, and continue to buy hundreds of thousands of the books.

Building book brands by sub-contracting. Brilliant.

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