On The Gruffalo and deserved success

We in publishing are fond of discussing how book history could and should have gone differently. Why some publisher spent too much on book x; why book y should have sold more copies; it’s a mystery why book z sold as many copies as it did. And so on. We love a good moan about a bit of publishing injustice. Our success as publishers is contingent upon our ability to predict what will work and what will sell. Sometimes we get this wrong. But sometimes, the industry, and the reading public, gets it brilliantly, spectacularly right.

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The finest example of this justice at work in the publishing world is The Gruffalo. It is the best-selling picture book of my parenting years. It is also the best. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, it is not one of the best, or among the best, it is objectively, in all senses, the very very best. And I believe its exceptional quality has in every way been the reason for its success.

The Gruffalo walks a line that seriously few children’s books and films manage, in its genuine dual appeal to children and adults alike. The majority of its intended readership does not 100% ‘get it’. Right now, my 2-year-old thinks it’s just a book about a big scary monster and a load of animals larking about in a wood. Perhaps as he gets closer to 4 or 5 he will understand it a bit more. But even then, he won’t understand what adults understand, i.e. the reasons why reading The Gruffalo every night for years is so much more tolerable than doing the same with its many competitors. Its total perfection. Its words, illustrations, rhyming and cadence. The not one but two clever confidence tricks pulled off by the mouse – first on the hungry animals of the wood, and then the same trick reversed, and played back on the Gruffalo himself. The way in which the end so brilliantly echoes the beginning – from ‘a fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good’ to ‘the mouse found a nut and the nut was good’. In just a few pages, the mouse goes from being potential food himself, to enjoying a peaceful meal having vanquished all the other animals, as well as the fearsome Gruffalo. It is the ultimate story of success against the odds. The Gruffalo’s perfect name and his perfect appearance – theoretically scary whilst still being charming enough to appear on stages and at shopping centres throughout the land without terrifying the toddler population.

Why mention this now, given that I’ve been reading The Gruffalo and thinking all of these things about it pretty much non-stop for the last 7 years? Because, in the last few weeks, I’ve had a rare spell (mainly on the holiday from which I’ve just returned) of feeling a similar sense of publishing justice about my other most recent reads.

First: The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney and Silent Child by Sarah A. Denzil. The bestselling psychological thrillers of recent months in physical and digital respectively. Neither is anywhere near as close to perfection as The Gruffalo, and The Gruffalo has better twists than both (sorry J. P. Delaney and Sarah A. Denzil) but with each of these books, I finished them thinking ‘yes, I can absolutely see why that is such a massive bestseller, phew’. From the titles, to the pitches, to the page-turning unputdownability of the books themselves, reading them was reassuring as well as massively enjoyable.

Then I read My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella. I’ve written at more length about my love of Sophie Kinsella, and my thoughts on the belittling of her type of commercial women’s fiction here. So I won’t repeat myself, except to say that this latest is everything that all of her books are: witty, clever, and effortlessly of-the-moment. Brilliant for its piss-takes of the word ‘bespoke’ and of how city people behave in the countryside (that was me last week), as well as for its insights into the assumptions that working women make about one another.

And finally … on the topic of working women, I read City of Friends, my first ever (I know, I know) Joanna Trollope, and thought ‘oh good, everything everyone has been telling me about why I should read Joanna Trollope for the last 20 years turned out to be right’. In a world where people give you so much bad advice so often, this is pleasing, plus it takes care of my holiday reading potentially for the next 20 years. Am off to book a few more holidays in which to read her backlist now.

What I did in my holidays

Tomorrow ends my extended holiday, my hiatus between jobs at Arrow and Bookouture, and I’m very much looking forward to rejoining the working world, remembering how to publish books and use my oyster card, and eating lunch and dinner later than noon and 6pm.

In the interests of keeping my 2017 reading-record resolution, I thought I’d end my time off with a list of everything I read during it, so here it is:

1. Lots of Bookouture reading, too much to list here, and I’m trying my best to keep the blog extra-curricular. But if you’re in search of something good to pre-order on ebook for the next few months, you can’t go wrong with this, this or this. (And you surely can’t have failed to spot this – still riding high at number 1, where it’s been throughout most of the festive season.)

2. Miss Jane by Brad Watson. An utterly beautiful book, both inside and out.

3. The Breakdown by B. A. Paris, which I’ve written about at more length here.

4. The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knight. More here. And as well as reading the book, I spent much of my holiday not bothering to do a load of the things that the book had convinced me were a waste of my time.

4. Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx. I’m a longtime fan of Docx’s, and have been eagerly awaiting this one. It’s about three brothers who are taking their father to (possibly) end his life at Dignitas. It is funny and moving and sad about family relationships and life and death, but when I finished it, I tweeted this highlight about camping, which entirely chimes in with my own holiday world view:

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5. Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. More here.

6.  The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson. More here.

7. Some reading on digital publishing, and most recently The Everything Store by Brad Stone, about Jeff Bezos and Amazon. This is great story for all the reasons you already know, about the ways in which Bezos fulfilled his ambition for Amazon to be ‘the everything store’ and the perfect customer experience. But in addition to all of this, you get some fabulous stories of Bezos’ childhood which may help to reassure you about the oddities of your own children. Apparently when he was three he dismantled his cot with a screwdriver, because he wanted to sleep in a bed. So if your toddler does this, you no longer have to think ‘how extremely annoying’ but can instead think ‘excellent, perhaps this shows the dedication and drive that means s/he will grow up to be one of the world’s most successful business people. Hooray’.

I have also, with my 7-year-old, read parts of/watched parts of/ discussed at *great* length all things Harry Potter. I have never previously done the Harry Potter thing, magic and stuff being of zero interest to me personally. But despite my own muggleish reading tendencies, my exposure over the last few months has forced me to acknowledge what I already knew about J.K. Rowling from her adult books, i.e. that she is a fantastic storyteller. I may not know my wizards, but I do know my first chapters, and the one we have just read, The Riddle House from Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire is everything that a first chapter should be.

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2017 reading resolutions

I’ve seen a lot of people writing and heard a lot of people talking in the last few days about how they are not making any new year’s resolutions this year. Well, I am making loads, possibly more than any year in living memory. I was given a lovely engraved notebook at the end of last year:

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… and so have even gone to the effort of writing them all down in it, and they add up to an impressive nine. Ten would obviously be rounder, and I’ve tried hard to think of a realistic tenth one, but I can’t and I don’t want to overreach.

But now, time for some reading-specific ones. In the interests of this post not seeming too ‘me, me, me’, I’m also going to selflessly include some books that *you* should all read during 2017.

But first, the resolutions:

1. More non-work reading. This is every editor’s equivalent of ‘lose weight’ as resolutions go, i.e. we resolve to do it each year, and the whole enterprise has collapsed by halfway through January. Nonetheless, it’s an important goal. We all know how lucky we are to read for a living, but it’s hard (yet important) to read beyond the books we are publishing and considering for publication.

2. Keep a list of all the books I read this year. Those who know me will be astonished to know that I don’t already keep such a list, but I don’t, and it makes things tricky when people ask for recommendations (as they usually do around holidays and Christmas) and all you can think of are the books that you yourself have published. I used to keep a list as a youngster, complete with a 5-star rating system, and am planning to start again for the coming year.

3. Read more non-fiction. Fiction is what I love to read most, so with the limited time I have for extra-curricular reading, it’s what tends to get read. But whenever I do read some non-fiction I think: oh this is good, I should do it more often. The list of non-fiction I’ve read in the last few years is random and faintly ridiculous, tending to be made up of things I’m interested in (a bit of history and biography, a few books about if, how and when women can ‘have it all’, latterly some stuff about digital publishing) combined with ‘those non-fiction books that literally everyone has read’ – Being Mortal, Do No Harm and so on. So, if you have any surprising yet essential suggestions, do send them my way.

4. Bit more of a niche one, this: seek out more legal thrillers. A friend kindly sent me The Plea by Steve Cavanagh just before Christmas and told me I had to read him, so I shall. But beyond this, why aren’t there more legal thrillers being published and why aren’t more people talking about when and how they are going to make a serious comeback? I know of two excellent ones due for publication in 2018, but beyond this: I must hunt them down. Three of my favourites here, here, and of course here, for anyone else who may be looking.

5. Read The Goldfinch. Why haven’t I done this yet? I have no idea. I know I would love it, so think I have just been being contrary. Also it’s very long of course, which relates back to the point about non-work reading. It may have to be done in August or December, but it shall be done.

So there are my five, and five being a rounder number than nine, I will stop there and move on to what you should be reading in the early months of 2017:

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Little Deaths by Emma Flint. I have banged on about this relentlessly on twitter, so here is my final shout-out as it publishes next week. What everyone raving about it says is that it is ‘more than a thriller’, which is undoubtedly true, although at the same time vaguely insulting to books that are ‘just’ good thrillers. However, what everyone means is that it is simultaneously a mystery with a strong one-line pitch – you wake up one morning and your children are gone, and you are accused of their murder – and a brilliant literary novel about much more than just its mystery.

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The Breakdown by B. A. Paris. I have mentioned briefly already, but this is a must-read for everyone who loved her Behind Closed Doors last year. Someone on a blog somewhere said (sorry, blogger who I have forgotten – if you can identify yourself I will link to you!) that it reminded them of those old black and white ‘woman in peril’ Hollywood movies, which is exactly what I thought too, and it very specifically reminded me of Sorry, Wrong Number, one of my faves in that genre. It is gripping and great.

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Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner. Not out until June but my final read of 2016 was Missing, Presumed, which again, is ‘more than a thriller’ but also introduces DC Manon Bradshaw, possibly my favourite new fictional detective since I met Jackson Brodie. I thoroughly recommend the first to anyone who hasn’t yet read it, and Persons Unknown is thankfully going to be published in time for my summer holiday.