How to sell 330 million books–eight lessons from Jeffrey Archer

So you want to write a bestseller? Then learn from the master of the trade. In case you don’t know, Jeffrey Archer is a writer based in England who has written several novels, short stories, autobiographical books, plays, and screenplays. He is best known for his novel Kane and Abel which sold more than 34 million copies and is under its 94th reprint.

I’m his fan and when I came across the following interview, I found some good tips in it for writers which I’m sharing below. Although this interview is not entirely about writing–he is speaking about other things too like movies and cricket–I have extracted only those points which will help writers.

Also because he’s mainly a fiction author, he’s mainly talking about fiction writing. However I feel most of this advice will apply to all sorts of writers.

The complete interview ran to three videos. The first one is embedded below.

1) If your one book becomes a bestseller, others too will

After loosing all his investments in a Canadian company, he was left with a debt of £427,727 and was on the verge of bankruptcy.

So he sat down to write his first novel Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less but managed to sell only 3,000 copies. But he didn’t give up. He kept writing and his fourth novel, Kane and Abel became a huge success.

But here’s the deal.

After this success his first book too picked up on sales and sold 27 million copies!

Takeaway. There are very few writers who become bestsellers with their first book. An excellent way to sell your one book is to write another one. After you pass a threshold, after even if your one book becomes a bestseller, others too will see increase in sales.

When readers start to trust you that your reading won’t disappoint them, they will buy your other books too.

2) Keep exploring new people and places

Archer travels a lot. In fact he visits Italy twice a year just to see the paintings of that city. Though he said he goes there for paintings, I’m sure the experience he gains by traveling to a new place would help him in his writing.

And here’s what he does when he meets new people:

I’m always questioning anyone. I ask where that shirt has come from? I ask where that suit has come from? I ask where were you educated? I ask if you are going to stay in Bombay? I ask if you are a Bombay boy? I’m pulling stuff out of you all the time. …

I retain it all. I don’t know when it will come out in a book, but I can’t not be continually questioning, continually wanting to know, continually wondering. And then someone comes up with something and it’s sheer magic. You know that will get into a book. …

I never stop.

Takeaway. If you don’t want the characters you write to behave like plastic puppets, talk to and observe a lot of people.

Even if they don’t have a nice story to share, talking to them will certainly help you in understanding the human nature in a better way.

I used to be a bit shy and wasn’t comfortable with talking to strangers. But since I began to talk to them, I found most people are willing to talk to new people. Just know your limits, don’t ask personal questions.

Be jolly with them and you might be surprised how many new people you end up adding into your life.

3) Work hard

This may seem obvious but it’s interesting to see what Archer says about hard work.

Archer takes two years to produce a novel. One year for research and another one for writing.

And this is what his writing schedule looks like:

5:30 a.m. Rises

6 – 8 a.m. Writes

8 – 10 a.m. Breakfasts and reads the morning papers or follows cricket scores

10 – 12 a.m. Writes

12 – 2 p.m. Goes for a walk or for the gym. Has lunch

2 – 4 p.m. Writes

4 – 6 p.m. Watches TV

6 – 8 p.m. Writes

9:30 p.m. Hits bed

He follows the same schedule in the first year of working where he researches instead of writing in the two hour blocks.

He says when people come to him asking him how to be famous he tells them it’s hard work which they are not willing to do.

Even after writing so many books things haven’t become easier for him.

First draft [takes] probably forty to fifty days, probably four hundred hours. Then I will do fourteen drafts and a thousand hours before I hand the book in and it doesn’t get easier. …

Because the pressure is on.

Takeaway. Anybody who has achieved anything in life has done so through hard work. Writing is not an exception. In fact I sometimes feel writing is more difficult than many other professions because it is a lonely job. Everyday it’s just you and your keyboard.

If you are not willing to put in those lonely hours then writing is not for you.

4) Do this to weave a non-predictable plot

Archer is known for weaving a very complex, non-predictable plot. Although I guessed the ending in A Prisoner of Birth, the ups and downs throughout kept me intrigued.

A lady said to me, [about Best Kept Secret] “How do you get out of this problem?”

And I said, “I don’t know yet. But I’ve got another three months [to write the second part].” …

If you are a storyteller you mustn’t let the reader know where you’re going. And if you know where you’re going the clever reader will spot it. But if you don’t know where you’re going how can the reader possibly know?

I’ve never had a letter saying, “Ah well boring Jeffrey. I knew exactly how this book was going to end after page three.” If I don’t know, you can’t know.

Takeaway. If you are worried that your plot might be predictable for readers and there will be no surprises left, you may follow what Archer says above. When you sit down to write a novel you have to have an idea of what the first few chapters would be about (or else, what will you write?) but don’t plan any more than that. Let the story and the new ideas come in gradually and spontaneously.

To quote him again:

I usually know the first four or five chapters in detail, and the next ten in outline, which will take me to the middle of the book. Then it’s time to pray. As I write, I’m wondering what will happen on the next page.

My theory is: If I wonder what will happen on the next page, there’s a good chance you will wonder what’s going to happen on the next page, as well.

This also has the advantage of getting started and actually get a few chapters written.

However it’s not the same with short stories. When referring to short stories, he said:

With a short story, you have to know the end. It’s only 3-5,000 words, not much in between. You begin and you know what the last line is going to be.

So I think different people have different styles. See which suits you.

5) Learn from every experience

Archer was jailed for four years after being found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice and was initially sent to Belmarsh prison in London.

Interestingly while in prison he wrote three volumes of A Prison Diary a non-fiction work based on his experiences in jail. Also, after being released, he wrote A Prisoner of Birth setting a large part of the story in Belmarsh prison which returned him to the bestsellers’ list after a decade.

I think if you are lucky you will learn from every experience. …

I met a group of human beings [prisoners] whom I would not normally have met which adds to any stories. …

So yes you turn that into your advantage. You take advantage of your disadvantage and move on.

And I like to believe I do that and I like to believe a lot came out of it. I learnt a lot about myself. I was able to improve my writing because I had met such fascinating and interesting people.

I’m not 100% sure now that it was all a disadvantage.

Takeaway. Archer was incarcerated in a cell five paces by three for eighteen and a half hours per day under solitary confinement, paid £2.5 million to the Daily Star newspaper as compensation, and even contemplated suicide but still managed to write three books.

If a man put under so many constraints can write three books why can’t you write one?

Life goes on and so should you. Archer was advised:

Cry in the morning, but get on with it in the afternoon.

You can take advantage of even your hard times by putting down the lessons you learnt from them into your story.

The phrase “Write about what you know” is repeated over and again in the writing community for a reason. The more real experiences you will put into your novel the more believable your story will sound.

6) Marketing is important

Marketing is important but I’ll tell you two things.

One–if the book isn’t any good, people won’t buy it. I haven’t got 50 million fans out here [in India] because I’m good at marketing. They were buying Kane and Abel long before I ever arrived on the shores.

[Two] I met a member of parliament. I was coming out of the House of Lords and I met him coming out of way. We just stopped for a chat and he said to me, “Are you still writing Jeffrey?”

It makes you realize there are millions of people out there who have never heard of you, don’t know you have written a book, and you have to get to them.

Takeaway. As they say–book writing is an art, but publishing it is a business.

7) Don’t worry about piracy

Now this is something controversial and you are free to dispute with me in the comments below.

I feel piracy is not that bad after all as many people think it is. See what Archer says about it.

The fifty million who have read me [in India], about forty million haven’t paid.

My publisher says this is disgraceful; bookshops say this is disgraceful; I whisper to my wife it’s wonderful.

If you ask me I’d rather have ten million people who have read me in India or fifty million people who have read me in India?

Fifty million please.

Takeaway. Piracy is not the enemy of the artist. Obscurity is.

This is the reason why Leo Babuta has put all his work in the public domain.

This is why J. A. Konrath doesn’t care if his work is being downloaded from Pirate Bay.

Same reason why Seth Godin gives away his e-books for free claiming he “wants unlimited piracy.”

That’s why Danny Iny is giving away his book for free.

And this is the reason why I am giving away my book for free.

8) Hate failure

Archer hates failure. He wants to be the number one bestseller. In fact his top position is what keeps him going. He says as long as more and more of his books are selling, he will never consider retirement.

I hate failure. I hate the very concept of coming second place. I hate silver medals. I like first.

Takeaway. Of course the passion to see yourself on the top inculcates a lot of energy. But, I think this advice may discourage some as it’s very hard to reach the top. Only one person, by definition, becomes the number one bestselling author and many aspiring authors find the position too difficult to achieve. Intimidated, one may abandon writing altogether.

I feel even if you achieve an above average quality in your work you will still make decent money.

The desire to be number one is a big advantage but not a necessity.

(Image courtesy of Bjørn Erik Pedersen at Wikimedia)

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