29 September 2006

Next Rowling Morphed into Next Dan Brown

Back in January 2005, Penguin UK issued a breathless press release about a new fantasy novel it had acquired, Endymion Spring. That release is preserved on Michael Thorn's blog for 21 Jan 2005:

For the past two years Matthew Skelton has been living out of a suitcase in a borrowed room, surviving on £12 a week whilst writing his debut novel, Endymion Spring. Just before Christmas 04 a furious bidding war began between five of the UK's leading children's publishers to acquire the rights to his debut novel which was plucked from the slush pile of an Oxford agent for its outstanding originality of style and content. Puffin's Fiction Publisher, Rebecca McNally, finally clinched the deal, offering Matthew Skelton a life-changing six-figure advance...
As you can see, Penguin's press release said nothing about the book's content, even while proclaiming that its "style and content" are what made it stand out. Instead, Penguin played up the author's life and the money it was paying.

But that was quite enough to catch attention. In February, Canada's National Post breathlessly echoed the press release in its own reporting. Skelton did, after all, grow up in Canada:
An impoverished Canadian academic who wrote a children's book while "living out of a suitcase" is set to become a literary sensation.

Matthew Skelton's book Endymion Spring has been bought by the world's most respected children's publisher for a huge sum, translated into 14 languages, and the film rights have been sold to Warner Brothers.
Ordinarily newspaper articles stick to facts rather than uncritically repeat such opinions as "world's most respected children's publisher" or "set to become a literary sensation." But Skelton's story was apparently too good to pass by.

And by "Skelton's story," I again mean his recent biography, not the novel he wrote. Like Penguin's press release, the newspaper had little to say about the unpublished book itself and its quality. The article was about how much money Skelton was going to make, and how that would change his life.

Reading further reveals, however, that "living out of a suitcase" meant having a doctorate in English literature from Oxford and working at various untenured, short-term teaching posts of the sort familiar to most English-lit doctors. (Skelton's previous publications include such work as "The Paratext of Everything: Constructing and Marketing H. G. Wells's The Outline of History.")

The blog for Canada's Quill & Quire magazine wisely noted the familiarity of the storyline that Penguin UK was really selling:
Call us cynics, but we can’t help but notice how certain parts of Skelton’s story – the enormous advance he received for a fantasy novel that’s just waiting to be YA’s next big thing and, more importantly, his underplayed middle-class background and overemphasized recent poverty – seem strangely reminiscent of the biography of a university-educated, former short-term welfare-mom cum multimillionaire named J.K. Rowling.
The fantasy being promoted here wasn't the universe of secrets and magical books inside Endymion Spring, but the fantasy of becoming an internationally famous multimillionaire for writing fairy stories. As much as the world is pleased with Harry Potter's rags-to-riches tale, more adults yearn for J. K. Rowling's success.

Then Random House bought the US rights to Endymion Spring, and added a new twist to its marketing. In the company's canned interview with Skelton, a publicist asks, "Some readers are calling ENDYMION SPRING 'The Da Vinci Code for kids.' Any thoughts?" Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code is, after all, a Random House book.

And sure enough, the US media rose to that bait, too. USA Today headlined its article on the author "Children's novel has an aura of 'Da Vinci Code'." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer used the same journalistic shortcut:
Some are calling "Endymion Spring" a "'Da Vinci Code' for kids," a term that seems to have supplanted "the next Harry Potter" as a catchphrase for promising children's fantasies.
There's only a touch of recognition that those still unidentified "Some" are repeating a marketing catchphrase. But with promotion like that, it's no surprise that Endymion Spring has become a bestseller in the US.

Now I should say I'm looking forward to reading Endymion Spring. I figure any big fan of Susan Cooper deserves a look, and no first-time author is responsible for how his publishers choose to sell his book. But if any fantasy author should be sensitized to the "Constructing and Marketing" of a high-profile book, it's Skelton.

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