If you’re in the writing game you know: Writing Best-Sellers is Hard. Let’s use Dan Brown as a case study to understand how he wrote the right book at the right time to be supported by the right people and see what we can learn from his experience.
Let’s be clear – I hate Dan Brown books. The Da Vinci Code? Angels and Demons? It’s trash. Well-paced trash, but still … trash. The Kardashians of novels. I could spend five blog posts talking about how much they suck. Brown capitalized on the sweet demographic of ‘dumb people who want to think they’re smart’ in the early oughts. Brown books are thrillers with equal part of religious- and techno-babble and his readers lap them up.
So, this post isn’t for Brown readers. It’s for the people who say: ‘we dislike Dan Brown books but we like Dan Brown’s success.’ Is that you? Good, read on then because we have a lot of ground to cover.
To begin with, take this Redditor’s deep dive on the success of The Da Vinci Code which explains Dan Brown’s path to success. As you’ll note, success isn’t a linear path for Brown, but this information sets us up for Part II – what Dan Brown teaches you (and me) about being a successful author:
This sort of question can sometimes be near-impossible to answer; why did the infinite-loop video Badger Badger Badger (video here) go viral in 2003? People like animal videos? Yes, true, but why that animal video and not the infinite number of others? Why Dan Brown’s conspiracy novel and not the many others?
Here we have the useful circumstance (in a historian’s sense) of The Da Vinci Code not being Dan Brown’s first novel, or even the first novel featuring the character Robert Langdon. The first Langdon novel was Angels and Demons (2000) which didn’t sell very well at all, so comparison of the circumstances between the two launches is useful, and Brown himself is quite frank there was a difference in both the novelistic content and how the two books were marketed.
While Dan Brown (collaborating with his then-wife, Blythe Brown) technically started writing in the mid-90s, it was with Angels and Demons that he hit upon, as he put in his own words, “the idea of the thriller as academic lecture”.
I tried to write a book that I would love to read. The kind of books I enjoy are those in which you learn. My hope was that readers would be entertained and also learn enough to want to use the book as a point of departure for more reading.
But! … just a conspiracy hook wasn’t enough. Part of the blame was put on the publisher, Simon & Schuster, who originally promised a 60,000 copy print run with major advertising and a 12 city tour. However, the print run ended up being reduced to 12,000 and Dan and Blythe resorted to self-advertising:
Blythe and I were heartbroken as we had put so much work into this book. Once again, we took matters into our own hands, booking our own signings, booking our own radio shows, and selling books out of our car at local events.
Also, Angels and Demons perhaps was a little mild with its conspiracy leap: it went for the Illuminati, and a conspiracy involving stealing a canister of anti-matter from CERN. The Illuminati — if we’re looking at the book as a combination story / pseudo-history lecture — was not novel enough to get attention.
The duo found a new agent (Heidi Lange) who helped collaborate on subject matter for the next book. They quite intentionally went for, according to various biographical materials, something “controversial” and “shocking”, something that would relate to people’s everyday experience yet turn their idea of that experience on their head. That is, the Illuminati (not in most people’s daily headspace) would not shock, but a plot that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene had a child (that later became a lineage of kings) would. It wasn’t strictly novel (Dan Brown lists The History of the Knights Templars and The Goddess In the Gospels among other books) but importantly, it wasn’t well-known.
In the meantime, Jason Kaufman (who was Dan Brown’s editor and main booster at Simon & Schuster) changed jobs over to Doubleday, taking Brown with him. This was done with reticence (Brown’s prior novels, as already mentioned, were not hot sellers) but Stephen Rubin, the president of Doubleday, was impressed enough by the outline of The Da Vinci Code that he gave the deal the green light, and a contract that seemed a bit much for such a small-selling author: $400,000 for a two book contract.
The fact this was based on the outline and not the full book indicates that the publisher was well-aware of the potential impact of the subject matter.
The publisher also took the launch seriously, heavily pushing advance copies (printing 10,000, compare to the first printing of Angels and Demons!) and went for grassroots support as opposed to a physical marketing campaign. Despite large modern condemnation for Dan Brown’s prose, early reviews were favorable; from the New York Times:
The word for ”The Da Vinci Code” is a rare invertible palindrome. Rotated 180 degrees on a horizontal axis so that it is upside down, it denotes the maternal essence that is sometimes linked to the sport of soccer. Read right side up, it concisely conveys the kind of extreme enthusiasm with which this riddle-filled, code-breaking, exhilaratingly brainy thriller can be recommended.
That word is wow.
I wouldn’t say controversy caused the sales — the first printing of 230,000 sold out quite quickly, too quickly for various academics to level their disapproval — but it is true there became a cottage industry of “debunking The Da Vinci Code” which only served to help things along. (Unlike the 1971 movie version of The Exorcist, where the film studio claimed condemnation from the Catholic Church even though it didn’t have any in order to bump up ticket sales, with The Da Vinci Code, there was plenty of real condemnation that could be used to stoke up the hype.)
So, in comparison, the reason The Da Vinci Code did well and Angels & Demons did not is:
a.) Angels and Demons did not have a premise that would be considered shocking of one’s daily world-view; The Da Vinci Code was intentionally written so it would have one
b.) The publisher of Angels and Demons only used traditional marketing, was fairly lax about it besides, and did not have much faith in the product, cutting the initial production run
c.) The Da Vinci Code got a new publisher and agent which recognized they had something hot and resorted to a grassroots push of advance reading copies
You can read more of their analysis here and I encourage you to do so, if you’re curious about the game of ‘being a writer.’ The point of all this discussion goes back to what I said at the beginning: Writing best-sellers is hard. Like, real hard. One-in-a-million hard. Bad odds but like Han Solo is fond of saying:
If I can crack this ‘code,’ then I will have accomplished something few other people have done and that – I think – is a goal worth chasing. Let’s pick up the discussion in Part II – please join me there.