132 – What makes a bestseller?

By Peter Fraenkel

I was, in those days, a scriptwriter in the BBC’s Central Talks and Features Department. Every few months our boss, Konrad, held a meeting to ask for suggestions for future programmes. I suggested “What makes a book a bestseller?” My idea was accepted and I made appointments to interview five or six of Britain’s leading publishers. Every one of them agreed to talk – such was the reputation of the BBC in those days. Our interviews turned out more surprising than I had anticipated. All pontificated learnedly on the qualities of bestsellers but as they sensed I was coming to the end my interview, they changed tack and started to tell me of misjudgements. Not their own misjudgements but those of their competitors!

That rival had turned down a manuscript that became the top seller of the decade, a second had similar tales, so had the third.

“So is it impossible to predict?” I asked.

“Not for a competent publisher.”

I was told about the British publisher who had, expensively, secured the rights to republish an American bestseller.  In England the book had flopped.

“How do you account for the difference in British and American tastes?”

“Difficult to explain. You have to have the right feel in your fingertips.” To me that did not seem an adequate explanation.

One publisher suggested it was easier to predict with books for children. Another denied this. “No, that’s even more complicated because books for kids are mostly bought for them by parents who think back to their own childhood.”

“Or grandparents?”

“They’re even worse at it. They harp back to an era before television.”

My sort-of- mentor Martin Esslin introduced me to the publisher George Weidenfeld and Weidenfeld published my first book – “Wayaleshi”.

Both Esslin and Weidenfeld came from Vienna and had German as their first language. Esslin suggested he might write a book about Berthold Brecht. Weidenfeld shook his head. “You and I love Brecht, but he’s totally unknown in the English-speaking world.”

Esslin was not convinced and got his manuscript published by another.   “Brechtian” became a household word in English and Esslin’s book became a bestseller.

A good thing I never tried to get into publishing!