Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Christmas Box

Every writer I know feels a certain bitter thrill when they hear of a story like this one. An unknown writer writes a beautiful story, which he self-publishes. He prints only a handful of copies, which he gives away to family and friends as Christmas gifts: word quickly spreads and he prints up another batch, and before you know it he’s sitting on a publishing sensation. He makes a deal with one of the biggest publishers in the world and goes on to make a fortune from the sale of this single short book.

Despite myself, I love stories like this. I resist the books concerned for as long as I can because I don’t like getting caught up in all the excitement, in case it clouds my judgement: and when reading a book which has already earned millions I find I’m constantly looking for that trick—the reason behind its amazing success. I do usually give in and read them once all the fuss has died down (I only read the Da Vinci Code once the DVD of the film was in the discount bins, not that it took very long to get there) and I can usually see something of merit in the big-fuss books which explains their huge success. A new twist to an old story, perhaps; or a writer who might not produce the loveliest prose there is but can nevertheless make the pages turn almost on their own. No matter how cynical I become, I’ve always managed to spot that important detail. Until now.

After years of hearing about Richard Paul Evans's book The Christmas Box I finally gave in and bought it despite the reverential sentimentailty which tinged many of the Amazon reviews. As I read the book I was amazed that it had done so well: the story is predictable, draw-droppingly sentimental, and pretty badly written too, full of oddly-formal dialogue and exposition. It took me less than an hour to read through to the end; it was simplistic, sentimental tosh. Despite the many shortcomings of the text it was a very pretty book, I thought, with its small size and gorgeous design: but making a best-seller has to involve more than binding a short story up into an odd-sized book, designing an elegant, uncluttered layout and printing it on heavy cream stock. Perhaps it was the delicious, jewel-like dust jacket heavily laced with gold which appealed to me: I'm a sucker for a pretty design. I just don't know why I reacted as I did. I will grudgingly admit that while I found The Christmas Box a ridiculously sentimental story, full of lacklustre writing and clumsy technique, there is something about it that I loved.

Now all I need is for someone to explain to me why I found this little book so very covetable, so that I can write my own international bestseller in just a few thousand words.


Unknown said...

Yes, have the same feelings as you have, but just keep working away until that big moment when I'm discovered..hugs..

DT said...

If you do figure out a workable formula, I'd like a piece of that action!

Anonymous said...

The author lives in my area, and I know something about him. He's been in the local news since he hit the big time. I can tell you one thing for sure--he is a big time promoter, a marketer and a go-getter. He could sell siding to Eskimos. He got the ball rolling, and kept pushing, pushing, pushing until it just kept going on its own. Also, the reading public likes sentimental tosh, especially if angels are involved.

Witness the success of The Shack, another self-pubbed book that has hit the bestseller lists. Anyone know the story behind that? How the author marketed? I know that he printed 10,000 copies and stored them in a rented unit. Then what? I'd love to know the rest of the story on that, too.

It takes more than good writing to get those kinds of sales when you're doing it yourself especially. It takes endless promotion. We could all learn something from these two guys.

emmadarwin said...

"It takes more than good writing to get those kinds of sales when you're doing it yourself especially. It takes endless promotion."

It also takes a lot of money, both in terms of printing those 10,000 copies and storing them, and in terms of the time you spend promoting it, when you might otherwise be earning a living.

catdownunder said...

Is there a winning formula? How many people bought the book because half a dozen members of his family set to and wrote nice reviews on Amazon? How many other books of dubious literary quality get rave reviews by relatives, friends or people with a vested interest or because they are now a 'name'? Has anyone set up a place where only first books get reviewed?

Fiona said...

I felt the same about Tuesdays with Morrie (or was it Thursdays).

Sentimental, predictable claptrap presented for those who like their religious morals saccharine, and definitely not a book to think too hard about or you could drive a bus through the holes in it.

There's a big market for what I think of as 'self-confirming religious books' that require no effort on the part of the reader and, at base, portray some squicky idea of 'wouldn't the world be nice if everyone was kind'.

Sort of like sending birthday cards with teddy bears. My response to getting one of those is 'Yes, but didn't you know I'm an adult?'

Victoria Strauss said...

Interesting interview with Richard Paul Evans about self-publishing and how he self-pubbed "The Christmas Box." He spent a lot of time and money--and he hired a publicist.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Victoria, that article was a very informative read.

Behind every self-publishing success is money, hard work and a well-thought-out strategy (as well as a book that people want to read, of course).

Ebony McKenna. said...

The reason this has made news is because it is such a very rare event. It's not just 'word of mouth' doing the work for the author - looks like the author has done plenty of promotion and walked the leather off his shoes.

Dan Holloway said...

Interesting - if I gave away copies of Songs to my family and friends they'd call me a cheapskate and bung it in the bin.

I must say, even the title, The Christmas Box, is enough to make me reach for the poteen to counter the sickly sweet treacly precious moment nauseous feeling.