Friday, August 6, 2010

The Big Nine

When I think of the number 9, the Beatles' White Album comes first to mind, and specifically side four, Revolution #9. "Number 9, number 9, number 9." If you're older, you may recall the strange notion that Paul had been killed which got circulated based on clues from these later Beatles albums. For example, at the end of Strawberry Fields Forever (Magical Mystery Tour) you can clearly hear the phrase, "I buried Paul" in that weird exit ditty that feels like a receding train.

The rumor was that by playing Revolution #9 backwards on a turntable you could hear another of the clues. This was back when stereo turntables could actually be rotated backwards. And when I did this, the repeated phrase "Number 9, number 9, number 9" transmogrified into "Turn me on dead man." Or at least that is what it sounded like to me. How did they do that?

When I think of the number nine I also think of golf. Are we planning to play the front nine or the back nine this weekend? I dunno. I'm not the biggest golf aficionado, but I do strive to get in two rounds a year, once with my brothers and once in the company's annual golf outing, which happens to be coming up next week... which means I'd better get a few practice swings in soon.

Today's Big Nine has nothing to do with the Beatles or with golf. Instead it refer to nine authors whose work has repeatedly reached the top slot on the #1 New York Times Bestseller List. Before I spill the beans, who would you say are the top nine best selling authors of our time?

This particular list only covers the first half century of #1 bestsellers, from 1942-1992. And, for the record, being a bestselling author should not be confused with being a "great" writer. At least that is what John Updike stated in one of his interviews a few years before he died. Updike felt that authors who consistently produce pop hits are good at what they do, but the great writers take risks, and pop writers aim for the vast middle. Or maybe the great writers touch themes which are too hot for the masses to immerse themselves in too deeply?

To be a bestselling author requires knowing how to write, but also involves being connected to a publishing house. This year one million books will be published, primarily due to electronic publishing and publish on demand technologies. My guess, though, is that the bestsellers will continue to be published by places like Random House and McGraw Hill whose deep pockets and established distribution systems put their books in high profile locations at the bricks and mortar establishments that remain the bread and butter of the industry. Sure, Kindles are selling like hotcakes, but there's still a lot of us who would rather curl up with a good book than with a gizmo.

So, the Big Nine... the nine authors with more weeks at #1 than another other writers of their time. These nine authors accounted for 73 #1 bestsellers, or 14% of all #1 bestsellers from '42 to '92.

Stephen King
James Michener
Danielle Steele
Robert Ludlum
John Le Carre
Sydney Sheldon
Bob Woodward
Daphne Du Maurier
Tom Clancy

I guess you can't argue with success.
For most of these writers it isn't "literary value" that built their following, but that they had each established themselves as a brand. Their works had brand identity, and it made them easy to market. Stephen King: horror/suspense. James Michener: deeply researched pop epic. No one is hoping for romance fiction when they reach for Tom Clancy.

Hot Tip: If you are an artist, or musician, or writer seeking pop acclaim (i.e. wealth and fame): identify and strengthen your brand, crank out a lot of product, and get connected.

It's all just trivia. Something to think about as you enter the weekend.... Hope yours is a good one.

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