Prince Harry’s Anatomy And Other Notes On Bestselling Books
When my 21-year-old niece told me she couldn’t wait to write a book about her life, I marvelled at her bravery and enthusiasm. At more than twice her age and after roller-coasteering through life, equal parts loved and battered, I don’t have what it takes to do the same. Call it conceit or delusional thinking, but I’m of the view that labouring for months/years and then selling only a few thousand books is not worth the pain of my words being critiqued by people who may or may not even get what I’m trying to say.
Honestly, if a reader of this column tweets that my writing is boring, my recovery time is minimal. But tearing apart my life’s work? Shiver. I don’t think I could be resuscitated after a critic sharpened her blade on my magnum opus. Despite having interacted closely with authors, I have no idea how they survive such assaults. Sample this vitriolic ire from 2019: “The story is mostly a snooze: not so much The Silence of the Lambs as The Counting of the Sheep,” The Washington Post’s Ron Charles wrote about Thomas Harris’ Cari Mora, or “The Cockroach is so toothless and wan that it may drive his readers away in long apocalyptic caravans,” said The New York Times’ Dwight Garner on Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach.
I like to tell myself that, in addition to performance anxiety, I haven’t written a book because I’m still looking for the idea that will ensure my book sells at least one million copies. It’s an impossible ask in a country where even a bestselling book such as Sadhguru’s Karma: A Yogi’s Guide to Crafting Your Destiny sold 1,12,000 copies in 2021, less than half of Ikigai, a global bestseller which sold 2,28,000 copies in India during this period. Those who have similar delusions as myself may keep in mind that our fellow countrymen and women are apparently drawn to genres such as ‘self-improvement’, ‘popular psychology’ and ‘mind, body & spirit’. At the end of the day, we are all searching for the meaning of life.
Of course, it’s easier to sell a million copies if you have a celebrity penis like Prince Harry, and if you’re willing to spill the dirt about your royal family and revisit the day you wore a Nazi costume. I still find myself held back by the fact that my parents are my most loyal readers.
Apparently the 38-year-old royal references his ‘manhood’ more than 15 times in his memoir Spare (the title refers to the fact that his father King Charles III saw him as the ‘spare’ son), now the fastest-selling non-fiction book of all time, dethroning Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. Since he’s British, Harry doesn’t always use the word penis. Fox News helpfully calculated that the author used the anatomically correct word only eight times, while ‘todger’ appeared six times, and ‘c–k’, ‘bespoke c–k cushion’ and ‘down there’ once each. This book crossed my one million target on the day it hit bookstores.
But as popular as his memoir is, it is unlikely to make it to the pinnacle of the most-sold books list. With the exception of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the 100 million plus list is dominated by books written decades—and even centuries—ago.
Of the seven books that feature on a Wikipedia list of ‘individual’ bestsellers (it doesn’t count books such as The Bible and Quran), two were written during World War II (Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince) and one was published two years before the war began (JRR Tolkein’s Hobbit). Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, was written in the 18th century in Chinese and Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, the only book that has apparently sold 500 million plus copies, was written in the 15th century in Spanish. The last one is Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. Six of these seven books were written by men, all are fiction. Harry’s book too, is likely to sell more copies than his mother’s autobiography, also full of shockers, did.
For those of you who haven’t yet attached the word author to your name, I can offer a silver lining. The world is instantly more interested in what authors say and do and even writing the world’s most popular series of books is no guarantee that your readers won’t cancel you for using gendered language. JK Rowling’s response was to introduce a character in her latest novel, The Ink Black Heart, who faces an online backlash after her work is seen as racist, ableist, and transphobic. Who needs this kind of attention? Consider yourself lucky to be unknown and left alone.
As I was writing this column, a new book idea occurred to me. I asked a friend what they thought and the reply came back instantly: “Bestseller”. For more details, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until I write it.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.