Jeffrey Archer | “I think people love a simple story. There’s no erotica, there’s no ghosts or gore and I think around the world the public just like a good story”

Jeffrey Archer | “I think people love a simple story. There’s no erotica, there’s no ghosts or gore and I think around the world the public just like a good story”

In a career spanning over 35 years, Jeffrey Archer has sold books worth over £250m worldwide.

Success came to him early in his career—his third book Kane and Able (1980) has sold over 33 million copies worldwide—and his three Prison Diaries, Hell/Purgatory/Heaven (2002/2003/2004), have brought in almost £2m in sales.

Since the publication of A Prisoner of Birth in 2008, every one of his hardback novels and short stories has gone straight to number one in the UK bestseller lists, and there is more good news on the horizon for the septuagenarian . . . Pan Macmillan has extended its deal for Archer’s Clifton Chronicles series to seven books.

Originally commissioned as a five-book series chronicling the lives of Harry Clifton and Emma Barrington, Archer will now write an additional two books, taking publication of the bestselling series into 2017. The third book in the series, Best Kept Secret, will be out in paperback in August and the fourth book, Be Careful What You Wish For, will be published in hardback in March next year.

Archer says: “I did very well in Book One, I got him to university and then the [First World] War breaks out. Book Two was the Second World War. I got him up to his 30s in Book Three and I’ve got him up to 44 in Book Four, but I clearly can’t kill him in Book Five because I’d have to cover 30 years and kill him. So it wasn’t a choice. I was happy to do five but it was forced on me that it has to be seven books—especially as his whole life is going to change in the next book.”

Archer is a disciplined author, with a writing schedule resembling a military regime; his first draft is done in 50 days and he will complete 14 drafts by the time the novel is handed in, rising to write in two-hour instalments at 5.30 a.m. each day. It is “very intense and very disciplined, but I couldn’t do it any other way. I’m not casual in that way.”

Millions of readers

For a writer who has published so many successful books and has written in several different forms—from adult fiction and his diaries to children’s fiction and short-story collections—Archer readily admits that he still feels both pressure and nerves. “The fourth book will be finished by August and then we go through the agonising stage of waiting to see what the public thinks. It is agonising. Every author goes through it—anyone who tells you differently is living in a dream world.

“Heaven knows what’s going to happen now that we have millions of readers waiting for the fourth book, which I’m naturally nervous about. There is the pressure of waiting to see what happens, but that’s fine, that’s part of the deal, I don’t complain about that. It’s better than the other way around: wouldn’t it be awful if sales for the second book had fallen?”

But of course he must be proud of his success? “Proud? Frightened about the next book, actually, always frightened about the next book. If you’ve had 16 number ones in a row, you wonder if the next one will be. We can all think of a lot of authors who have died overnight. You see such big names disappearing and you think, ‘that could be me’. There’s always pressure. You sit down each day and say, ‘this has to be better than anything I’ve done before’, because these are real readers and they are sitting there waiting for it. The day the bookshop opens there will be half a million people around the world in straight away, and if I haven’t delivered . . . well it is a horrific pressure.”

Star author

Archer has achieved mega stardom around the world, with his books performing extremely well globally—internationally, sales of his Best Kept Secret (in print and e-books) have increased 19% on The Sins of the Fathers. In Australia and New Zealand hardback sales were up 12%, and European hardback sales were up 22%. In India, where Archer is somewhat of a literary demi-god, the paperback was published at the same time as the hardback, and charted for 16 weeks.

As to the reason behind his bestseller status worldwide, Archer believes it to be “the storytelling. I think people love a simple story. There’s no erotica, there’s no ghosts or gore and I think around the world the public just like a good story.”

“The series is pretty autobiographical—Harry is a writer from the West Country, his brother in law is a Member of Parliament, and I have fun writing about things I really love and know about. But I am always nervous about where it is going to go, because it never goes where I want it to go.

“I don’t think a storyteller ever knows where he’s going or where it will end up. I know where Book Four will go, because I have written it, but the one after that I haven’t got a blimming clue. Because if I know, then you’ll know. If I don’t know, how can you possibly know? So I take the risk, and it is one hell of a risk, of never being more than three pages ahead. That’s the difference between a storyteller and a writer: a writer probably has it mapped out all the way through.”

Brand Archer

Archer’s success is undeniable, but does the snobbery of the British literary scene ever bother him? Does the differentiation between storyteller and writer ever grate?

“I’ve won two major prizes in France and I’ve won a major prize in the US, but I have never won anything in Britain. Are you asking: ‘because you’ve never won anything in Britain is that sad?’ Yes. I am touched that the Americans and the French acknowledge me as a writer, but the British have a tendency to put me in the category of storyteller and dismiss the fact that you might be a writer as well. That’s fine.

“If on the other hand you’re asking me, “would I rather have £250m sales or the Noble Prize in Literature?”, I’d rather have £250m sales. That doesn’t take too long to think about. Does the snobbery bother me? No, I couldn’t give a damn. I am read by some of the cleverest people in this country. It doesn’t worry me one little bit.”

Archer has a blog that reaches 2.5 million readers, but he admits that when it came to social media: “I had to have it explained to me, it wasn’t natural for me. But we’ve done two tweets today. We tweet all the time. Thinking of yourself as a brand is weird. But that’s part of the deal. Whatever age you are, you have to adapt. You’ve got to do Twitter and Facebook and if tomorrow you have to go and stand in Trafalgar Square and feed the pigeons to sell more books, you’ll see me there feeding the pigeons. I want to be read. I haven’t written them not to be read.”

For a man with such a tight schedule it would be easy to assume that Archer has no plans after the Clifton Chronicles climaxes in 2017, but he says he has “one very big idea, for one book. Which may be the last book I ever write; it is so big I’ll be frightened of doing another one.”

Book data

Publication date 29/08/13
Format PB
ISBN 9780330517942
Rights 21 territories
Editor Jeremy Trevathan, Pan Macmillan
Agent Jonathan Lloyd, Curtis Brown

Personal file

1940 Born in London
1969 Elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Louth, Lincolnshire
1976 Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less
1980 Kane and Abel
2000 Charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice; sentenced to four years’ imprisonment
2002 Prison Diaries 1:  Hell —Belmarsh

Jeffrey Archer's Top Three

Paths of Glory
Pan Macmillan, £7.99, 9780330511667
The story of George Mallory, a man who loved two women, one of whom went on to kill him

Books sold: 356,763 since 1998

False Impression
Pan Macmillan, £7.99, 9780330418829
An old aristocrat is murdered on the eve of 9/11; but how is her death connected to a priceless Van Gogh painting?

Books sold: 235,063 since 1998

Only Time Will Tell (Clifton Chronicles 1)
Pan Macmillan, £7.99, 9780330517980
Introducing Harry Clifton, whose life begins in 1919 in the back streets of Bristol.

Books sold: 226,107 since 1998



Photo credit: Broosk Saib