On November 12, 1984 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich publishing released Love and War. The second book in John Jakes' Civil War trilogy, Love and War continued chronicling the lives of two families, the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina, on opposing sides of the war. The Mains and the Hazards, were long time family friends who now find themselves on opposite sides of the war that divided a nation. As they each stood up for their respective beliefs, families became divided and friends often found themselves face to face on the battlefield. Despite minimal critical success, Love and War rocketed up the bestseller lists, landing at number two even before the date of its official release. The novel would go on to sell over 430,000 copies and be the number four best-selling non-fiction novel of 1984. What made this novel so successful? Love and War is a prime example of the fact that while there is no certain recipe for a bestseller, all bestsellers have a certain subset of ingredients, many of which have little to do with what lies between the covers, that combine to make it popular amongst readers.
One lesson taught to the reader by Love and War is that in many cases success perpetuates success and that the name and reliability of an author alone can sell books. This is very true with author John Jakes. Jakes' previous nine novels had all been bestsellers. His eight part Kent Family Chronicles were all paperback bestsellers and had sold in excess of forty million copies. Love and War's prequel, North and South sold well over 200,000 copies and reached number eight on the yearly bestseller list in 1982. Jakes had already developed a strong fan base. A fan based that appreciated the manner in which his epic historical fiction novels incorporated both historic detail and a classic good vs. evil plot.
Jakes stuck closely to this formula with Love and War. His attention to detail was perhaps the most lauded aspect of his book by many literary critics. One critic praised Jakes for, "skillfully skirting a major shortcoming of many historical novels, in which historical detail and fictional figures move on parallel tracks, with history serving as nothing more than a brightly painted backdrop." The critic, Rory Quirk, goes on to compliment the way in which Jakes meshed his fictional characters in factual events while still being able to recount the era.
Jakes also continued to make his stories battles of good against evil. In the case of Love and War, Jakes did not assign the role based on region, but he did clearly define characters from both the North and South as either heroes or villains. Almost all readers who had read North and South would probably have known before even starting the book that characters such as George hazard and Orry Main would act with impeccable valor and bravery throughout the novel. Likewise, readers could easily assume that villains such as the power crazy Elkaniah Bent and the scheming Ashton Main would be constantly trying to ruin the lives of the heroes. Jakes' incredibly evil villains were praised by one critic who characterized them as, "beyond loathsome," describing Ashton Main as, "a piranha in hoop skirts with the social conscience of J.R. Ewing."
It is this predictability that may be in part responsible for the success of Love and War. Readers most likely knew exactly what they would be getting from Jakes before they even read page one of the book. This use of formula and the practice of sticking with what works are not at all uncommon with bestsellers of the past two decades. Most readers know, without having to be told, that almost all John Grisham books will feature some underdog character, usually a lawyer, triumphing against a much larger force of evil. Similarly a reader knows almost instinctively that a Tom Clancy Novel will feature espionage, intrigue and a large repertoire of technological vocabulary. The same phenomena can be seen amongst countless other best selling authors across almost all genres. Jackie Collins, Steven King, Mary Higgins Clark, Robin Cook, and many others find their way on to best seller lists by using the same basic story lines and characters in almost all of their novels.
In the past two decades it does appear that the same authors are dominating the best seller lists. In 1984, the year Love and War was released, only three of the top fifteen bestsellers of the year were efforts from authors who had never before been best-sellers. This phenomenon has only increased over time. In the year 1999, a mere thirteen authors controlled over thirty-seven percent of the fiction best-seller list. The most plausible explanation for this is that book readers tend to buy books by authors they know. Perhaps it is because of the fact that Jakes' Love and War reached number two on the new York Times Best Seller list over a week before it was even officially released by Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich Publishing.
Of course it goes without saying that the responsibility of creating a best seller goes beyond just the author of the novel. In the case of Love and War, there was a great deal of effort put into the book's publisher Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich in order to assure that Love and War would be a success. Like Jakes himself, Harcourt Brace also attempted to trade upon the author's previous success. They did this in several ways. One was in the physical presentation of the novel itself. Jakes' name is perhaps the most prominent item on both the cover and the spine of the novel. While the books title, written in gold lettering, seems almost to blend into the red background of the dust jacket, the white lettering of Jakes' name practically jumps out at a potential book buyer. Also, Jakes' name is written in extremely large print and placed above the title of the novel on both spine and cover. If this is not enough, the cover of the novel also reads, "Author of North and South." This is again written in a very stark contrast to the red background and appears before even the title of the novel.
The physical presentation of the novel was not the only aspect of marketing that drew upon the name recognition of Jakes and his previous works. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich supported the release of the book with a major author tour and Jakes himself was featured in People magazine the week before the book's release. Finally many of the radio and print advertisements for Love and War attempted to draw attention to Jakes himself. One publisher's weekly advertisement began, "the author's sequel to the best selling North and South." Another Publisher's weekly ad began, "From the best selling author of North and South." This type of advertising combined with the fact Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich spent over 250,000 dollars for promotion to help ensure that any potential book buyer who was exposed to these ads would be able to make the connection between Love and War, John Jakes and North and South.
In addition to an aggressive ad campaign, Love and War also benefited from the creation of a twelve part miniseries based on its prequel, North and South. The miniseries itself was an event of epic proportion. According to the New York Times, the November 1985 miniseries surpassed all previous television productions with its thirty million-dollar budget. The miniseries, which included several major stars such as Patrick Swayze, James Read and David Carridine, landed in the top ten in the Nielson Ratings. What is perhaps most interesting is the time during which North and South was aired. The November 1985 coincided with the release of the paperback version of Love and War. The publicity of a major television miniseries undoubtedly had some role in catapulting Love and War to the number one spot on the paperback Best Sellers List. The strength of the miniseries is further illustrated by the fact that in the weeks following its airing North and South reached number five on the Paperback Best Seller List, this being over three years after its original release.
One has already seen how authors and publishers can actively seek to make a book into a bestseller. Almost all will agree, however, that without a receptive public even the best efforts will go un-rewarded. Love and War is a prime example of how the public tastes at any given time can either increase or decrease a book's sales. Just like many consider the nineties the decade of the legal thriller, a close examination will reveal that the eighties were indeed the decade of the historical fiction novel.
We already know about John Jakes who cracked the top fifteen in 1982, 1984 and 1987 with North and South, Love and War, and Heaven and Hell respectively, but their are a multitude of other authors who flourished writing historical fiction novels in the 80s. James Michener cracked the top fifteen in 1983, 1985 and 1987 with Poland, Texas, and Legacy. Louis Lamour experienced even greater success in the 80s. According to Bowker National his novels, Lonesome Gods, The walking Drum, Jubal Sackett, Last of the Breed and The Haunted Mesa were all in the top fifteen in yearly sales from 1983 to 1987. Add to this mix the success of authors such as Gore Vidale, Leon Uris and a host of others and it becomes even more apparent that historical fiction was an extremely popular genre in the 1980s. Conversely, one can look at the novels Jakes has written in the past decade and realize that perhaps this decade is not one for historical fiction. Sticking to his familiar theme Jakes wrote such books as Homeland in 1993 and American Dreams in 1998. Neither of these novels approached the level of success reached by The North and South trilogy. This can, in part, be attributed to a shift the tastes of book readers.
Love and War benefited though, from more than just the public's appetite for historical fiction in the 1980s. It also benefited from the popularity of what Sonia Karim referred to in her database entry on North and South as "Clanback Fiction." This genre depicts, "Large American families undergoing tough times, using each other as their support systems to strive." There are many possible explanations of why and how this type of book became popular. In a February 28, 1982 interview with the Washington Post, Jakes attributes the popularity of "Clanback fiction" to the disarray of the American family. Furthermore, many in the literary industry, such as publisher Lyle Engel, actually believe that Jakes himself was responsible for creating this genre himself. These points however are not as important as the fact that Jakes had the benefit of writing Love and War during the time period when this type of novel was extremely popular.
Additionally, the popularity of the "Clanback" genre is not only limited to novels. One need only look at television and movies to see that this theme was pervasive in all aspects of society. Television shows such as Dynasty, Falcon Crest and Dallas were immensely popular throughout the eighties, as were many daytime soaps. All of these shows depicted families struggling against themselves and the outside world, trying to stay together in much the same way as the Mains and the Hazards in Love and War. The same theme was evident on the big screen as well. Movies such as the Color Purple, Terms of Endearment and On Golden Pond received both critical and popular praise for their depiction of families' struggles throughout the years.
As we have seen, many factors must come into play in order to make a novel be a best seller. In the case of Love and War most of these contributing forces lay outside the covers of the book. In fact the critical reception of the novel itself seems to have the least to do with its major success. How does an author whose success according to one critic, "is enough to make every good writer in America turn over in his wastebasket," produce a novel that is the fourth best selling novel of 1984? What does this say about best sellers in general? The success of Love and War seems to make apparent a seemingly obvious distinction that often gets overlooked. In order to become a best seller one need only sell the most books. Jakes and Harcourt Brace were able to sell millions of copies of Love and War by tapping into the public preferences of the time, finding a formula for success and sticking to it. While the preferences and formulas themselves may change over time, the level of success that can be reached once these factors are identified remain constant.
"Best Seller List." New York Times 4 Nov. 1984: sec. 7, pg. 40.
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Moore, Julia, ed. Bowker Annual. New York and London: RR Bowker Company,
"Paperback Best Sellers." New York Times 24 Nov. 1985: Sec. 7, Pg. 42.
Quirk, Rory. "Uncivil War Fiction." The Washington Post 3 Nov.1984, Fin. Ed.