Maestra: making a bestseller

Publishers are often exhorted to take a Hollywood approach to their lead titles: to use the marketing power of a film studio to create a hit regardless of the critical reception or reader interest. In short to bet the bank on one title, as opposed to spread-betting across the lot.

For Hollywood the approach works: most of the big films of 2015 are those with the biggest budgets ("Star Wars Ep. VII: The Force Awakens", "Jurassic World", "The Avengers: Age of Ultron"). Many blockbusters do well regardless of their reception simply because the budgets guarantee mass distribution across chain cinema groups. The number of screens a film opens on over its first weekend is crucial to its success - perhaps more important now than the reviews. Of those three biggest films of 2015, they all opened across more than 4,000 screens on their first weekends. It is rare, though not impossible, for a Hollywood blockbuster to tank: bad films tend to be buried well before they hit mass distribution.

Book publishing cannot compete with this. For starters, there were about 2,000 films released in 2015 in the US - but in reality only a small proportion of these earned any money (or were produced with that intention). That number 2,000 is roughly the same number of books the UK’s two biggest publishers would release in one year: in total in the UK close to 200,000 titles are made available to UK bookshops each year. Many of these won’t generate enough sales to get anywhere near The Bookseller’s weekly sales charts - but a lot do. Nielsen BookScan tracks 50,000 titles selling through more than 4,000 high street and online shops, and The Bookseller receives a weekly update of 5,000 titles. That is a lot of product. And I haven’t included the large volume of new titles from self-publishers, which would likely double these numbers.

But does that means the analogy with Hollywood is mistaken? I think we are about to find out.

On March 10th Bonnier Zaffre will release Maestra (left), described as “The Most Shocking Thriller You'll Read This Year”. The book is written by Oxford-educated historian Lisa Hilton (written as L S Hilton on the book’s jacket), and features femme fatale Judith Rashleigh, assistant at a London auction house by day, a hostess in one of the capital's unsavoury bars by night.

I first heard about Maestra when I had lunch with Bonnier Zaffre’s chief executive Mark Smith more than a year ago. There was not much detail to go on, but it is clearly the book Smith was most excited about from his debut list. And this is often how it works in publishing: the smart publishers seed in their lead titles early, a whisper here and a nudge there. I first learned about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in the same way - a brief conversation with Bloomsbury c.e.o. Nigel Newton at the London Book Fair.

One year on from that lunch with Smith, and I’d be surprised if anyone working in the business has not now heard of the book — it's been a water-cooler book in The Bookseller's office ever since the proofs arrived last year. It's a marmite book coated in ambition.

Maestra is not just the lead title for Bonnier Zaffre, it is the book that will define (at least for now) what kind of publisher it can be. At Quercus Smith grew the company incredibly quickly, part-fuelled by the lighter-fluid that was Stieg Larsson and his Millennium trilogy: but the business was always too vulnerable to market movements and the caprices of Amazon to sustain itself once Larsson fizzled out.

He wants to build Bonnier Zaffre quicker. In an interview last year, Smith told me in reality to sustain this kind of business rather than buying one big title with 40% of the firm’s cash, he would rather have bought 10 titles. That is ballsy, but at Bonnier Publishing UK (part of the much larger Bonnier media group) he can do this.

Of Maestra, Smith has said: “When I first read Maestra, I knew we had something extra special on our hands and that the author had created a lead character that readers around the world would fall in love with. Sometimes books are just really of their moment - capturing the mood, the anxieties and the issues that are troubling all of us at a certain point in time.” It is also a trilogy. Hollywood producer Amy Pascal optioned the title a year ago.

My guess is that the reason the author was advised to go with Bonnier Zaffre at a time when it had no track record in the market, was precisely because of the firm’s commitment to making the title into a blockbuster. At a bigger publisher Maestra may have got lost: at Bonnier Zaffre it is key. That might seem obvious, but actually all agents work on a grading system: one publisher told me last year that Bonnier Zaffre was buying everything that everyone else didn’t want. You can take that with a pinch of salt, but that view will change if it does the business with Maestra. Her agent Toby Mundy (who picked her up from Georgina Capel who had agented her history titles) told me, "They really have left no stone unturned, and what has been most Impressive is their collegiate approach, both internally and with the army of international publishers. Everyone who can contribute something has been able to do so."

I don’t know to what extent Bonnier Zaffre is converting its ambitions for Maestra into marketing budget, but I know its upfront spend will be among the biggest investments made by a trade publisher this quarter (although as we all know, that's not a particularly high bar). It hosted a pre-publication launch in the swanky surroundings of Sotheby’s in January, attended by diarists and national newspaper reviewers who drank fizz and scoffed canapés based on those served at a party in the book. Rumour has it Bonnier Zaffre was not allowed to hang a printout of Maestra’s cover next to Sotheby’s multi-million pound artworks.

Publicity, too, will play a key role. Back in June 2015 the Daily Mail’s Sebastian Shakespeare wrote about Hilton’s “secret work”, dubbing her “the new E L James”, and other nationals have followed up this weekend. Hilton featured in a major ‘exclusive’ splash in the Times on Saturday, including a front-cover pull-out, and inevitable Jan Moir riposte in the Daily Mail. A second interview ran in the Sunday Telegraph Review, and the author also appeared in the Sunday Times Style section.

Bonnier Zaffre won’t tell me what else they have lined up in terms of spend, though the picture above shows the advert they have displayed on book wholesaler Gardners’ truck. “We’ll talk about the campaign once we’ve made Maestra a bestseller,” was the response I got.

None of this guarantees that the book will be a bestseller, or that this semi-Hollywood treatment will work. Few debut books work from the get-go (The Girl on the Train is the obvious recent exception), but Bonnier Zaffre will be hoping that this early coverage, its marketing commitment, and the number of key retail slots it has secured, will give Maestra the kind of opening weekend Hollywood relies on. The rest will be down to the readers.

Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.