Like many other bestsellers, Illusions
cannot attribute its success to just one factor. Richard Bach's persona and the fact that he had just written the extraordinarily successful Jonathan Livingston Seagull
both contributed highly to the book's popularity. The fact that it inspired readers and made them feel empowered was another reason for Illusions'
success. None of these categories was new for a bestseller, though. Illusions
teaches us that books often become bestsellers more for the author's name and life than for anything that is written in them. Illusions
belongs to the category of bestseller that sells because of the author's persona and previous success, while it is also an empowerment/inspirational bestseller and one that violates traditional fiction/non-fiction boundaries.
Richard Bach fits into a small but notable crowd of authors whose personas draw readers to them. Bach simultaneously makes readers feel that he understands them while also presenting the aura of someone who lives an extraordinary life. Something in Bach's manner makes readers feel that he understands them and wants to hear from them. Bach had to remove the e-mail box on his website (www.richardbach.com) because he was flooded by more mail than he could handle. Bach likes to personally respond to readers, and on his website he says that he could no longer keep up with the readers' responses and his own writing and flying. He consoles fans, though, by saying, "If you think you're alone, if you think you're the only one with the crazy thoughts and ideals and understandings about who we are and what the rules might be to enjoy living on this little planet...if you think you're alone, you're not!" (www.richardbach.com). This just enhances the idea that he understands his readers and cares deeply about them.
Bach's personal life is the sort of continuous adventure his readers fantasize about living. It is an endless quest for fulfillment and new experience, where stagnancy is the greatest enemy. Bach walked out on his first wife and their six children to pursue a different sort of existence. At one point he sold his car in order to keep his airplane. He promoted Illusions with a barnstorming tour (Washington Post, April 24, 1977). He believes in soulmates and in human flight. Readers are mesmerized by him, in awe of the way he thinks and lives.
Robert James Waller captures readers in much the same way. After the publication of Bridges of Madison County , readers wrote to tell him that the book had changed their life. Today, six years after the book's unprecedented success, readers are still reaching out to Waller. "Some people call me in tears," he says. They say, "You've given me hope" (Washington Post, Feb. 3, 1993). The readers' personal responses are a testament to the way they connect with Waller and feel that he wrote the book for them.
Both Bach and Waller speak of overcoming time and space, of living past confines. Both authors hold themselves in high regard, and base their protagonists on themselves (Richard in Illusions; Robert in Bridges ). Waller's sexually-charged, messiah-like male protagonist in Bridges is also named Robert. Both Roberts are photographers, both are tall and aged to the look of a silver-haired cowboy of eras gone past. The book's Robert immodestly tells Francesca, "I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea." Waller reminds women of their fantasies, and in doing so, they begin to see him as the ideal lover, as the flesh-and-blood form of Robert Kincaid.
Rebecca Wells, author of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a new example of this author who has an intense connection with readers. While Wells possesses a very different sort of allure and persona than Bach and Waller, fans still hold her in undeniable awe. Wells plays out the Southern belle life her characters live. On her website, there is an audio clip of her saying, "Much obliged" to her readers (www.ya-ya.com/welcome.htm). Her welcome letter begins, "Summer dahlins," and goes on to say, "I am a home-lovin' gal who WANTS TO BE HOME, LOVIN'!!!!!!!" (ibid). Readers have become so enchanted with the idea of Ya-Yas that Ya-Ya clubs have been started across the country, where women meet and celebrate Wells, womanhood, and friendship (www.ya-ya.com/groups.htm).
These authors carry so much passion and intensity into their work, and readers are entranced by that. Fans become captivated by Bach and Waller and Wells, and want to get as close to the authors as possible. This magnetism draws readers back to the authors' books, because readers want not just the story but the persona of the author.
Follower to Previous Bestseller
Illusions was released seven years after Bach's phenomenal bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull . During the time Jonathan was #1 on the bestseller list the book was reprinted twenty-seven times; by 1975 there were over nine million copies of it in print (Jennifer Sloggie's database entry for Jonathan Livingston Seagull ). Paramount made a movie of it and Neil Diamond recorded the soundtrack. After all this attention, it was inevitable that whatever Bach published next would be a success.
This type of second- book success has been seen often in the world of publishing. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was so popular that his subsequent book, Something Happened skyrocketed to the bestsellers list even as it received terrible reviews. One critic called it "a terrific letdown" (www.galenet.com). Another referred to it as, "a lump compared with Catch-22 (www.galenet.com) In spite of this, the public rushed out to buy the book because Heller wrote it.
Robert James Waller's Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend is another example of this type of success. The millions of readers who made Bridges the bestselling hardback of all time rushed to buy Slow Waltz ( The Washington Post February 9, 1993). In 1993, Bridges was #1 on the annual bestsellers' list and Slow Waltz was #3 (www.caderbooks.com/best70.htm).
Among the many other authors who experienced a similar success is Willa Cather. Though she had written several other books before Death Comes for the Archbishop , it was the success of that book that helped sell Shadows of the Rock . Death Comes for the Archbishop was released in 1927 and it met with such acclaim that advertisements for Shadows referred to her as the author of it, without mentioning any of her previous works (Jennifer Clem's database entry on Shadows of the Rock ).
A 1993 article in the Los Angeles Times tells of the "phenomenon" bestseller and describes several authors, including Bach, who have had success with subsequent books based on their single powerful title. S.J. Diamond, the author of the article, writes that "In a classic case, the book starts with a limited printing and less promotion and ?just takes off'?into worldwide sales in the millions. And the little-known author makes the tours, takes the money, and quickly tries to extend the ?phenomenon'" (Feb. 1, 1993 L.A. Times). As time wears on, these authors' subsequent works are forgotten and the writers are referred to as something like, "the guy who wrote the book about the seagull" (ibid).
Violation of Category
Illusions cannot be neatly classified as fiction or as non-fiction. Most bookstores place it in their "metaphysical" or "inspiration" section and avoiding having to categorize it further. Richard Bach himself is the main character in Illusions , and he tells the story as if it really happened to him. In all likelihood, a real-life messiah did not land next to Bach and teach him life-lessons, but Bach tells the story as if it was real, even if it was just real inside his mind. Illusions combines the ordinary (eating canned beans around a fire) with the extraordinary (the ability to walk through walls), and in doing so, creates something indescribable. Other of Bach's books do this even more. One chronicles his relationship with soulmate and ex-wife Leslie Parrish; The Bridge Across Forever explores their transcendent relationship as well.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil also blurs this line of categories. The book was originally released as a work of non-fiction, but has since been classified as fiction (John Unsworth, class lecture). There is a website (www.goodandevil.com) that offers virtual tours of the Savannah spots featured in the book, and Savannah residents have hurried to make a profit by publicizing the book's real-life tourist attractions.
Many of Pat Conroy's books also fit into this nebulous category. They are classified as fiction but are largely autobiographical (www.galenet.com). In his writing, he draws on the South Carolina he knows so well, and on the psychological illnesses that have haunted him throughout his life. He plays out his own difficult relationship with his parents through his troubled characters. Beach Music is dedicated to his brother who committed suicide; the book itself focuses on the protagonist's wife, who jumps to her death, and the characters around her who struggle with the loss.
This combination of real and unreal, of truth and fiction, pulls in both fiction and non-fiction readers. Illusion offers the escape of fiction and also the promise of inherent truth in the story. Bach himself writes, "If you will practice being fictional for a while, you will understand that fictional characters are sometimes more real than people with bodies and heartbeats" (http://alpha.nedernet.nl/~roudeegb/authors/rbach.htm).
The 1970s were a prime time for books that made people feel good. In the era of women's rights and the sexual revolution, people felt they had potential. The books they read served to reinforce that idea. I'm O.K., You're O.K. by Thomas Harris was a bestseller in 1971 (#4), 1972 (#2), and 1973 (#3). How to Be Your Own Best Friend by Mildred Newman, et al. was 1973's #1 bestseller (http://www.caderbooks.com/best70.html). Self-actualization and achieving potential were emphasized throughout this time. People wanted to know that they were capable of things that had never been done before. Bach furthered this belief with Illusions . In it he writes, "You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it come true."
Bach's book also fits into a category of inspiration. On a website dedicated to inspiration, Illusions is listed as the #3 most inspiring book of all time--behind the Bible and Conversations With God (www.bestinspiration.com). In Illusions , Shimoda is a messiah who comes to teach Richard and all of his readers how they too can become messiahs. During this same time in the mid-1970s, Billy Graham's Angels: God's Secret Agents was a bestseller.
Today, these same types of inspiration/empowerment books still attract millions of readers. Chicken Soup for the Soul has expanded and now includes volumes like A Fifth Serving of Chicken Soup and Chicken Soup for the Golf Lover's Soul .
Bach's Illusions is a bestseller that cannot be contained to just one category. It jetted up the bestsellers' list because of who Bach was and what readers expected of him. His writing answered a call from readers who wanted to believe in themselves and a greater future. They wanted to read about the extraordinary and be told they could achieve it. They wanted to hear a story with elements of truth in it, and believe it could happen to them. The things readers wanted and found in Richard Bach's Illusions are no different than things readers have sought for decades. Bach's success with Illusions puts him in the company of Robert James Waller and of Rebecca Wells, authors who combine their own persona with the books they write. It places him in the same category as Pat Conroy in the way he blends fiction and non-fiction. It makes readers feel empowered and inspired, like so many other bestsellers from the ?70s did. Illusions teaches us that author of the book matters as much as the book itself, and that the writing itself sometimes matters the least in selling books.
Useful Sources in this Assignment
7. Lexis Nexis?provided links to useful articles
8. S.J. Diamond "Sequel/'Phenomenon' Authors." Los Angeles Times . February 1, 1993.
9. The Washington Post . February 3, 1993.
12.Souder, William. "He Wrote the Book on Love." The Washington Post . February 9, 1993.
13.John Unsworth, class lecture. April, 2000.
14.Conroy, Pat. Beach Music 1995.
15.Bach, Richard. Illusions .
16. The Washington Post . April 24, 1977.