At first glance, it would seem that Mary Stewart is a characteristic genre writer and that This Rough Magic was simply another mystery-romance that sold just as well as many of her other novels. After investigating a little deeper, it becomes apparent that Stewart's story is not quite so simple. Currently in 2006, it seems there are a few expectations for most of the books on the bestselling lists. The website "Rave Reviews: an exhibition on American popular fiction" comments that, "A shift in the book industry in the 1960s paved the way for the "blockbuster" novel. Literary agents, representing authors, started negotiating with publishers for works that had yet to be written, paying writers large monetary advances for multi-book contracts. Over time, this practice has resulted in focusing attention on a small circle of authors whose popularity and sales can justify the investment. Today, publishers promote and market both the author and the story, often well before words have been finalized on the page." After taking this class and studying components of bestsellers, we also see that many bestsellers relate to current affairs and incorporate elements of current cultural trends that have captured American audiences.
After inspecting This Rough Magic for these qualities, I realized that this book is in fact more interesting than I at first thought. Though Mary Stewart seems to be a part of that small circle of authors, she and this novel do not follow these expectations even for the time in which it was written. Each of the aforementioned aspects of typical bestsellers will be explored in the following essay.
Stewart's books previous to This Rough Magic were successful enough to allow her to retire from teaching and to pursue writing. Yet, no matter how popular Stewart becomes at any point in her life and specifically during This Rough Magic's release, she sustains a commitment to keeping her life and persona private. When searching for biographical information that was more intimate than basic and usually public life events, it became increasingly difficult. Even in interviews with Stewart, she rarely made any comments beyond the scope of her works. Therefore, the publishers were never able to use any aspect of her personal life to sell her books, including This Rough Magic. There was however, the ability to promote the book through the author. In the ads for This Rough Magic it was common to see that the most prominent words were "Mary Stewart" with a reference to an earlier successful work, The Moon-Spinners [see supplementary materials]. This shows that the name Mary Stewart did have the capacity to sell, based on her pervious successful novels.
Another common piece of the bestseller's formula is marketing. However, This Rough Magic was not highly publicized or marketed. There were ads in the major newspapers at its release, but there was no build-up. There was no indication that Stewart was prepaid for this novel and no information was publicized, before it was officially released. As far as my research indicates, there was no way of knowing when or what the next Mary Stewart novel was going to be before the release date. And after its release, there were only the occasional ad for approximately six months and then it joined other bestsellers on the book club ads. The book seemed to sell itself without hype or excessive promotion.
In spite of the frugal marketing for This Rough Magic, there is an oddity in the marketing strategy that was not present for most of the bestsellers of the day. In fact, it is a strategy that was used often around the turn of the century, but had gradually declined. This Rough Magic was serialized in the Chicago Tribune. Many of Mary Stewart's other novels were as well, but not many other novelists had their works serialized by the 60's. In fact, it is one the last times an already published novel is serialized in a major newspaper. Whether or not that had a impact on sales is inconclusive, but it is a way to get a two to three page spread to advertise a new book.
Another way of marketing a novel that was not used by This Rough Magic was the use of other media. When a book that was written by a popular author and has the potential to be an entertaining film hits the bestseller list, it is fairly common for it to be made into a movie. This Rough Magic is a book with a lot of action, adventure, danger, and romance that is highly plot-driven. It is rather unusual that a novel such as this is not made into a film. Perhaps this was because, another bestselling novel of Stewart's, The Moon-Spinners, was made into a movie in 1964. However, since other movies were made from her books, it makes This Rough Magic a little different from the rest.
There were two momentous events that happened in the last century that people in America remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing. The first was when John F. Kennedy was shot in November of 1963 and when the first man landed on the moon in July of 1969. Relevant to the time period of This Rough Magic was the JFK assassination. It was what everyone in the U.S. was talking and thinking about. However, there was no mention of American politics whatsoever in This Rough Magic. Perhaps because Stewart is British or is unfamiliar with American events, she left out any mention of the tumult that this assassination caused.
One reason this is remarkable is that typically the fiction and non-fiction bestseller lists seem to relate to each other. The world of fiction mirrors and comments on the world of fact. However, on the non-fiction bestseller list, there were five books specifically about John F. Kennedy. In fact, the number one bestseller was the official government report on his assassination. Since This Rough Magic does not discuss American events at all, there is actually no relationship between this novel and the books that dominated the non-fiction list, making it highly unusual.
In the end, we do not learn much about bestsellers, except perhaps, that there is no good way to predict which books will be big. There is no formula or recipe that will spell success for a book, but a few ideas here and there. For some authors, having huge marketing budgets and advertising in even the most unlikely places will result in a bestseller (i.e. Tyndale and the Left Behind series) . Authors that have already achieved wide-scale popularity simply use their name to sell their books (i.e. Stephen King and really any of his books). And finally, there is always that bestselling author who looks around and has no idea how he or she got onto the list. In Mary Stewart and This Rough Magic's case, we find that it is not surprising that she is on the list, but it is, if only a little, surprising how she got there.
Rave Reviews: an exhibition on American Popular Fiction, co-curated by John's Unsworth