How to Write a Best-seller

As the Hebrew Book Week opens tonight, Haaretz literary supplement editor tries to break the code of what makes a book a best seller.

With this year's Hebrew Book Week opening tonight, this column is enlisting in the cause of solving an age-old mystery - how to write a best-seller. Who does not want a book he has written to win wide distribution? If one is already exhausting oneself with writing, deriving both pleasure and pain from it, spending years in isolation working on it, then one should at least make sure that it is a marketing success. Maybe the poor author will also earn something on this festive occasion - he certainly deserves it.

And who does not want to make a profit? True, writers in the garret sometimes claim that they do not care - let people read it, let them not read it, let them buy it, let them not buy it - those writers will always continue with their labors even if there is no compensation in store, even if the manuscript began in the drawer of the heart and ends up in the drawer of a desk. Do not believe them. Even the most Spartan writer will prefer the presence of readers and their love; books, after all, are meant to be read, not shelved.

To this day, the secret of the best-seller has not been solved: Promising books have been disappointments, and unpromising books have won sudden fame. Therefore, more effort is required to examine the ingredients for the recipe: how to make the dish come out properly. Besides, cook books are in themselves a well-known recipe for success, as are guide books, and books on "repairing the soul" and "spiritualism of the Hindu-Tiberias school."

To put down roots in the best-seller list for many weeks, it is recommended that you write like Amos Oz or A.B. Yehoshua, Yoram Kaniuk or Meir Shalev or David Grossman. Every new book by one of them is snatched from the shelf like a hot roll. That is something that should be welcomed. It is only natural that the loyal reading public would wait impatiently for the next book by a good author. Even a bad book by a good author raises interest in its own way. There is only one problem here, and it is not at all simple: Who can write like them? Maybe only them.

Those who despair of joining the pride of literary lions have no choice but to cast their lot with advertising - in the press, but mainly on the radio. A serious blast of advertising, before the news and after, will do the job. Those lost in the woods, with so many titles that they cannot see the book, will put their hands on the broadcast title without thinking - though lately, some of the more megalomaniacal of the advertising campaigns have proven to be failures.

No less important is the connection with a distributor: A new book will find it difficult to climb to the top only through the neighborhood shop. Life and death is in the hands of Steimatzky and Tzomet Sfarim. A new book's life is short; it can be as short as a butterfly's. It no sooner lands on the shelf than it has already begun to die. Many thousands of titles, some 6,000 a year, are published here, and darkness falls quickly on all of them. If only the large chains were to agree to present the newborn in the front window, place it with caring hands on the main counters and let it breathe a few months, the little one might perhaps grow; preemies mostly suffer from breathing problems.

Might flattering reviews in the literary pages help? They certainly cannot hurt, but it is doubtful whether they have the power to lift a book out of the depths. A sweet review is not necessarily a rescue from bitter fate. Reviews can be positive but so pretentiously deadly in their terminology that a sublime boredom overcomes the book itself, putting it to sleep forever.

I once read an article by a scholarly American, Frank Luther Mott, who also tried to get to the bottom of the best-seller. His lengthy examination did not produce any findings more unequivocal than those in my brief clarification. He found that most of the books written in America about President Lincoln became best-sellers, as did most of the books written there about doctors and medicine and dogs and their owners. Which just goes to show, said the researcher, how much money would be made by someone who wrote the ultimate book about Lincoln's doctor's dog, which he reckoned was the winning formula.

And I think that there is nothing left to do but to find out, ahead of next year's Hebrew Book Week, who is the Israeli Lincoln, and who was his local doctor, and what was the name of his dog. On the basis of some successes in recent years, I recommend a thoroughbred of Afghan or Balkan (with a preference for Albanian) extraction, or a genuine Jerusalemite, but absolutely not a mixed Arab breed.