Nick Robinson, Sales Director of Vintage Books had a tough act to follow for his recent Publishing Masterclass at Kingston University. Just an hour before, students had been entertained by Simon Winder and Zoe Corfield from Penguin, surely most publishing students’ dream organisation… But Nick rose to the challenge, sharing a sales’ view of the ‘facts’ of the publishing business today, backed up by numerous stats and graphs. The most effective of these were probably his Wordles of 2009 and 2010 bestselling authors: a very effective way to demonstrate Stephenie Meyer’s and Jamie Oliver’s respective dominance.
But how do authors get this big? Most fiction authors, says Robinson, take a number of books to become successful. He cites 7-8 books for Val McDermid to make it, and 12 books for Ian Rankin. And, in a world where people are daily questioning the value or purpose of publishers, perhaps this is one of their most important roles: to stick around, invest in and support talent, doing their upmost to help great authors reach the market they deserve. In Vintage’s case, Jo Nesbo is a case in point.
First published by Vintage in 2005, Nesbo’s (then Nesbø – the ø was later removed as it was considered to put some potential readers off) first books hardly made an impact on the market. Confident they had a great storyteller on their hands, though, Vintage got the Tesco Book Club and WHSmith Travel on board for the second book, and added a strapline and quote to the cover; sales increased, but still not to the level that would write the author’s name large on a Wordle. For the next book, in 2008, Vintage repackaged the entire back catalogue; sales rose again, but still not as much as Vintage felt the books deserved. So, in 2010, on the back of the success of a certain Stieg Larsson, the company put a cross-organisational taskforce on the project. Armed with a killer quote handily provided by the Independent (“The next Stieg Larsson”), and a familiar-looking ‘girl in peril’ cover image, as well as the backing of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Waterstone’s and Richard and Judy, Vintage’s efforts finally paid off: The Snowman paperback edition sold ten times as many copies as the 2005 Devil’s Star paperback in a quarter of the time.
Aside from taking the time, thought and money to develop Nesbo as a brand, Robinson attributes this success to having everyone at Vintage behind the project, whether in editorial, sales, marketing or finance. And although the patience and effort demonstrated here may seem extreme, given Robinson’s own estimation that any major trade publisher needs at least three books that sell over 100,000 copies in the run-up to Christmas, the effort seems worth it.