Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Sources of the Nile

Avram Davidson (1923-1993) was a well-known author of science fiction, fantasy and mystery. He published over 200 short stories and essays and 19 novels. His style was to look at things from left field and then present an original insight. For example, his story Or All the Sea with Oysters was about the life cycle of things like coat hangers and safety pins. Sounds boring? It won the Hugo (top science fiction award) for the best short story of 1958. In 1961 he won an Edgar for one of his mystery stories, so he’s definitely up our street, too. In the same year he published a short story in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction titled The Sources of the Nile.

I can only speculate what led to the story, but I imagine he looked at the explosion of fads and trends – changing rapidly and unpredictably – and perhaps he was wondering why his books received critical acclaim but seldom registered on the best seller scales. If one thinks about it, it's very hard to understand why some things take off and others – superficially better in every respect – vanish without trace. The premise of his story is that there is actually a person – one man – who starts the trends. He doesn’t know anything about what he does or how he does it. One day he just starts wearing cut-off jeans because he feels like it. Pretty soon every teenager is doing the same. The action is around Madison Avenue’s attempts to track him down for their own obvious advantage. The story has always stuck in my mind because the basic question is so fascinating. What are the sources of the Nile?

I’ve just finished reading the second Stieg Larson book. In retrospect I quite enjoyed it although there were a few points when I thought it would be what 4MAers call a DNF – Did Not Finish. Anyway, this blog isn’t about that. If you’d like to read an amusing tongue-in-cheek look at the issue from a mystery writer’s viewpoint, take a look at Kwei Quartey’s blog The Girl Who Kicked the Termite Hill.
I’m interested in what generates the phenomenal success that the books enjoy.  I’m not talking about plot, characters, writing.  That can make success.  I’m talking about the super-star one-in-a-million success that these books enjoy.
Certainly Stieg Larson himself is a very interesting and intriguing person. Smart, intelligent, a crusading writer. Apparently taking on right-wing organisations without fear, although cautious with his private life. Then he dramatically dies of a heart attack and, despite his concern about the potentially violent behaviour of some of the organisations he exposes, apparently leaves no will. With a bio like that, is it surprising that he has such a high profile? Well, yes. Because we wouldn’t know (or care) about all that if his books hadn’t been such a incredible success.

A few days ago I was chatting to a friend who doesn’t read mystery novels at all and I mentioned the Larson phenomenon. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Three of my friends have told me they’re absolutely brilliant!” Had the friends read the books and come to that conclusion for themselves, or had they heard it from three other friends in a sort of inverse pyramid scheme? One thing’s clear. If my friend is going on a long flight and decides to try a mystery book, I can tell you which one it’s going to be.

Well, what do the publishers themselves know? When I first met our Australian distributer, I naively asked if they had an idea in advance of how a book would sell Down Under. He looked at me as though I were mad, and just laughed. Our Italian and French publishers bought the rights to publish the Da Vinci Code. Neither expected it to do particularly well. The French thought 20 thousand copies; the Italians were about the last publisher in the country to be offered the book and picked it up cheaply. The case rests.

Marketing? Well, our experience is that marketing ramps up after the book becomes successful. So it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anyone seen any billboards along the lines of “Unknown author’s brilliant debut novel will thrill you. Rush to get your copy while they last”? I didn’t think so.

The only model I can come up with is that each book is like a tiny ice particle tossed out onto a snow slope. The particles catch a little snow. Almost all of them come to rest immediately and are ignored. A few hit just the right angle and start to grow as they roll down the slope. Some become large enough to attract attention and are given a bit of a shove as they pass. A few get really large. People start to point, talk about them. They grow faster. One gets big enough to start an avalanche.

Or maybe there really is a unique person out there somewhere who picks up the book, thinks it’s absolutely the best thing he’s ever read, and that’s it. Would I like to meet him!

Michael – Thursday.


  1. Great Analogy, very thoughtful.
    A great post that stirs the brain, and that is even before I have had all my coffee.

  2. Michael, I read the three Larsson books and I saw the two movies that have been released in the US and I have enjoyed all of them. I think I was one of the first people in my area to read TATTOO; I was the first to take it from my library. About a month later, the book was everywhere. If a person wanted to be cool they needed to be seen reading it.

    A few years ago, in order to be considered cool at work, it was necessary to watch enough of "The West Wing" to be able to talk about it the next day. (Jed Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, was the president all the liberals wanted). Today the role model is, apparently, a grammatically challenged pseudo-housewife from New Jersey. (New Jersey itself was very recently the punchline to cool jokes). Now to be cool it is necessary to watch reality shows that have nothing to do with reality,

    Regarding your analogy, snowflakes are uniquely beautiful. Snowballs and avalanches are created when the unique is sacrificed to the whole.

    Leighton explained the difficulty writers have getting support to publicize their books. My daughter got tired of hearing me talk about so she created the blog and told me to type instead of talk. Someone told me today they have purchased a couple of books based on the reviews so it has fulfilled its purpose twice.

    A CARRION DEATH was one of the first reviews I posted.


  3. Thanks everyone for the input!

    Hi Beth,
    I hadn't thought of that aspect of the analogy! It's a moot point whether a super-star book (in terms of sales) helps or hurts other authors in the genre. Certainly more people are interested in mystery fiction, but on the other hand they might have been buying other books...
    Thanks for your support. I hope you know how much we all appreciate your input!


  4. Than you, Michael. Murder Is Everywhere is the first thing I read each day. There is always something interesting and worth knowing.


  5. I love this post, Michael. And what a great idea for a story.

    Great piece in the New Yorker this week about a 14-year-old girl whose blog about fashion is read avidly by people like Karl Lagerfeld (who probably has it read to him by a trained peacock) and how she gets all this special treatment at haute couture shows. (What is a 14-year-old girl doing at a (an?) haute couture show in the first place?)

    If there IS a single person behind all this, it wouldn't surprise me at all if he/she turned out to be 14. It would actually explain quite a lot.