When Forever Amber was first released on October 16, 1944, it became an immediate bestseller, selling millions of copies as booksellers struggled to keep up with the staggering demand. Though it has since relapsed into relative obscurity (along with its author), Forever Amber was an extremely well known and frequently discussed book during the years in which it enjoyed popularity. In attempting to analyze its phenomenal success and understand what this book teaches us about bestsellers, this book is set apart from other bestsellers in that its popularity can be attributed to numerous factors. It is this unique combination of different ingredients that made Forever Amber such a powerful bestseller; each ingredient would probably not have been so effective without the presence of other factors. These factors fall into two larger classes. First, the story itself fits into many categories of established bestsellers, which would increase the likelihood of its success. As the story can be simultaneously labeled as a historical romance, the first bodice-ripper, as well as a novel with a morally questionable heroine, the book was already destined to be a bestseller. Second, there are considerable factors not related to the actual story that contributed to Forever Amber's success. Such factors included the scandal which the book created upon its publication, the time context surrounding its release, the role of the publisher, Macmillan Co. and the appeal of Kathleen Winsor herself. When taken apart and compared to other similar works, all of these factors combine to create a "recipe" of sort that is unique to this book and teaches us what types of books will succeed in the book-selling market.
One of the most interesting aspects of best-selling novels is that they all seem to conform to a few categories which have already proven to be able to sell well. Forever Amber is no exception to this rule as it fits into a few different categories. In one of its advertisements in Publisher's Weekly, Macmillan identified the novel as "a novel in the tradition of the greatest bestsellers" and labeled it "a love story of immense driving force and a magnificent, all-inclusive picture of an era." This book is first and foremost a romance novel. As numerous examples have shown, romance has always been a popular category for best-selling novels since books began to be published for entertainment and artistic purposes. Though the literary world may not always give the author much credit for being a creator of true art, the general public has always been willing to buy and enjoy romance novels. Forever Amber is also a historical romance as the story unfolds in the larger context of 17th century Restoration England. The same advertisement in Publisher's Weekly that was previously mentioned credits with Winsor with the ability to "transport the reader back into those boisterous, profane, brilliant, and terrible days? by the magic of her narrative power." Winsor narrates such true events as the Restoration of King Charles II, the great plague and the fire which swept London, destroying much of the city. Historical romance has generally been successful as a genre, with authors such as George Barr McCutcheon preceding Winsor. In looking into the work of someone like McCutcheon, his series on the fictional Balkan kingdom of Graustark followed a specific plot formula for each volume of the four-part series that gave the series selling power. In her entry on McCutcheon's Graustark, Melissa Brall writes that later critics of Graustark identified seven components which were present in all true "Graustarkian novels." Of these seven components, at least five of them are definitely present in Forever Amber. Though McCutcheon's work is just one point of comparison, it demonstrates that Forever Amber was following the already established tradition of successful historical romance bestsellers. Her rich depiction of Restoration culture combined with her complicated romance plot ensured that her debut novel would be a huge success and teaches us that such a combination can be a powerful indicator of a book's potential selling capacities.
Another way to categorize Winsor's novel centers around the characterization of the heroine of the novel, Amber St. Clare. Forever Amber was the first example of a bodice-ripper, a novel that prominently featured its heroine on the cover in a dress that was literally ripping her bodice open with a plot that often involved similar ripping of bodices. Interestingly, the heroine of this novel is not necessarily an admirable character in that her motives are generally self-centered and her means are far from being moral (in both the 17th century and 1940s sense of the term). The story is a sort of Horatio Alger paradigm with an immoral woman as its protagonist. Amber is an illegitimate orphan with aristocratic blood (though only the reader knows this) who learns to become a very successful whore in order to rise beyond her humble beginnings. Though Winsor never explicitly describes Amber's sexual activities, her sexuality is an essential part of both her character and the plot of the novel. Her character is not only immoral and self-absorbed but also immature and irrational, values that would not have been prized by the family-centered suburbia culture of 1940s America. Much of the criticism of the novel focused on the licentious aspects of her character as reviewers expressed such sentiments as "the book is incredibly vulgar" or described the book as "the stages of a prolonged sexual fantasy." Americans had yet to become accustomed to novels that centered around a woman's sexuality, and Winsor's novel was considered to be particularly scandalous. Despite such criticism, however, the fact that remains these types of novels sell. The sales figures of Forever Amber prove without a trace of doubt that sexuality did sell despite people's pretensions of being properly shocked by the sexual overtones of the novel.
The importance of Amber's sexuality brings to the forefront the non-textual issue of the scandal that ensued when Forever Amber was published in 1944. Winsor's novel was met with an instant uproar of shock and outrage at the book's blatantly sexual overtones. The book was immediately banned from Boston stores on the grounds of being too obscene to be sold to the public. Such scandal only served to garner more publicity for the novel, encouraging people to go out and purchase the book that everyone was talking about. Macmillan most likely reveled in the controversy as sales figures shot up and they tried to keep up with the incessant demand. In looking over the history of various 20th century bestsellers, it is clear that scandal always sells well. Books such as Phillip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1969) or Penelope Ashe's Naked Came the Stranger (1969) shocked the public with their frank descriptions of sex and their morally horrifying protagonists. Yet both of these books sold extremely well. Critics or moral public figures profess to be outraged by the content of scandalous, but the truth remains that people rush out to buy the books that are causing the headlines. American culture in the 1940s was fairly homogeneous in their emphasis on ideals such as family values and national pride; it was novels like Forever Amber that gave people the opportunity to participate in something scandalous that disrupted the boredom of their everyday lives. It reinforces the already proven formula that scandal will always sell well.
It is important to remember that the actual people who are actually buying (and sometimes reading) the books on bestseller lists play a significant role in determining which types of books will succeed. As previously mentioned, people generally like to read scandalous novels. The success of Forever Amber also reminds us that the potential of a novel is also often determined (at least partially) by the context in which it is published. When Forever Amber was published in October of 1944, America was heavily involved in the Second World War. People were beginning to tire of the war that was consuming every aspect of their daily lives without much prospect of any type of conclusion. Winsor's novel provided people with a chance to escape the harsh reality of everyday life and be swept away in a fantastically colorful world of the court life of 17th century Restoration England. In this sense, then, Forever Amber's success can be partially attributed to the fact that it was an escapist novel that whisked the reader away from the grim reality of living in the midst of a horrible war that was taking over the planet. In such contexts, escapist novels always seem to fare well as people have a need some sort of outlet. For example, Eleanor H. Porter's Pollyanna was published in 1913 and remained popular during 1914 on the eve of World War One. This heavily cheerful book makes no mention of the war that loomed on the horizon, choosing instead to talk about sunny little girls who play glad games to make everyone happy. It makes no direct mention of the impending war, but it does reflect the general sense of optimism that prevailed in pre-WWI American culture. Similarly, Forever Amber makes no mention of the atrocities of World War Two. However, one could deduce that people's willingness to buy and enjoy such a novel might reflect a general decrease in national morale because of the never-ending war; meeting such a character as Amber St. Clare could perhaps make people feel better about themselves and the mixed up world they were living in. In any case, the American public was happy to have the opportunity to displace themselves from the reality of a country at war into a land where a woman's beauty can determine her rise from nothingness to a concubine of the King himself.
Aside from the public desire to escape from the grim reality of wartime life, an analysis of the success of Forever Amber must include a recognition of the role of the publisher and their importance in shaping the book's advertising campaign. Winsor sent her manuscript to Macmillan Co., a publishing firm that was large, well-established and relatively stable. Macmillan had the foresight to realize that Winsor's novel would sell well and consequently invested a lot of money in promoting it. In an advertisement in Publisher's Weekly, they indicated their "$20,000 Initial Appropriation" and promised a "full-scale Macmillan campaign, national in scope, throughout the fall and into next year? there will be full pages in The New York Times and The Herald Tribune Book Sections; maximum space upon publication in the paper of major cities throughout the country, and dominant space in other key markets?" Macmillan remained true to its promises, running numerous advertisements in a variety of periodicals and ensuring that people would learn the name Kathleen Winsor. As a big firm, they also had the connections to land Winsor the position as keynote speaker at a National Book Fair on the exact date on which her book was released. Winsor appeared on various radio shows to speak about her new novel and went on a national book-signing tour. Such a vigorous advertising campaign would not have been possible with a firm that was smaller and less well known than Macmillan, which would translate into less publicity, less sales and less fortune for Forever Amber. It is not just the plot or the author's name that will sell books as the publisher can play a huge role in determining a novel's success.
A related topic in trying to learn from this book's success is Macmillan's choice to promote Winsor as a celebrity author. Most of the advertisements for Forever Amber included a fairly large picture of the attractive author and often bore her signature, despite the fact that this was Kathleen Winsor's first novel to ever be published and she was previously unheard of. Reviewers such as Paul Engle included comments in their criticisms such as "I trust it is not immodest of me to add that, after looking at the attractive picture of the author on the book jacket, my sentiment is not so much Forever Amber as it is Forever Kathleen Winsor!" (Engle 9). Rumors circulated that the beautiful Winsor herself might play Amber St. Clare in the upcoming film adaptation of her novel. Macmillan were thus forerunners in the now popular tradition of using the author's image as part of their book's promotion. Winsor's photo appears numerous times in various periodicals and is prominently displayed on the back cover of the first edition's dust jacket. Her name is also featured more elaborately than the title of her work on the book's front cover. In doing so, Winsor gained recognition as a celebrity figure instead of just a faceless author; periodicals were interested in more than just the novels she produced and wrote about things such as her fashion style or personal life. This tradition continues in today's book-selling trade as authors such as Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel have become familiar names to the American household because of the way in which their publishers promote their names. Macmillan showed remarkable foresight in seeing the potential allure of Winsor as a public icon and began the successful tradition of marketing authors as celebrity figures.
In thus analyzing the success of Kathleen Winsor's debut novel, it is clear that Forever Amber was able to pinpoint and take advantage of several factors which would guarantee its success in bookstores. It used a unique recipe and enjoyed phenomenal popularity by using ingredients such as identifying popular genres of plot, using its controversial subject matter to its own benefit, taking advantage of the cultural context into which it was published, and being lucky enough to have a strong publisher. This book teaches us that despite skepticism from literary critics, novels written by beautiful authors about scandalous topics that are published in disheartened societies by powerhouse publishing houses will definitely sell in amazing proportions. All of these factors are strong indicators of potential success, but the fact that Forever Amber combined all of them into one novel allowed it to enjoy the prominent position it held at the top of the bestseller list and allowed Winsor to catapult from oblivion into a widely recognized public icon.
1. Engle, Paul. "Ambitious Beauty was 'Forever Amber." Chicago Sunday Tribune (15 October 1944): 9.
2. Brall, Melissa. Entry on Graustark, Assignment #5.
3. Kehoe, Robert. Entry on Truxton King. Assignment #5.
4. Publisher's Weekly. V. 146, no. 11. 9 September 1944. pp. 873-875.
5. Cymes, Alina. Entry on Naked Came the Stranger. Assignment #5.
6. Cooke, Kate. Entry on Pollyanna. Assignment #5.