"The big news in the 1980s wasn't the books, it was the book business," quips Michael Korda, author of Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller (166). At first glance, much of Ken Follett's repeated success in making the list, including his success with The Pillars of the Earth, largely relates to his prowess in business and his savvy in cranking out bestsellers one after another. While the Follett name (he had already had bestsellers on the annual list in 1978, '79, '80, '82, '83, and '86) and a climate in which blockbuster bestsellers were the primary product of the publishing business were key factors in the selling success of The Pillars of the Earth, there is more to the story. Pillars was a departure for Follett and his publisher both in its substantial (973-page) length and in genre, and in many ways was a marketing risk. The risk paid off?the book sold well initially, but has also continued to sell steadily in subsequent years, gaining an almost cult-like following. In fact, Follett will release the sequel to Pillars in 2007, eighteen years after the original book was published. While The Pillars of the Earth is in some ways the prototypical 1980s bestseller, it is the unique attributes in its recipe for success that make it an interesting case to look at in the context of big-business publishing and bestsellers.
Ken Follett freely admits that he views himself as a craftsman rather than an artist (Hauptfuhrer 108). His goal since early in his career has been to make money, and he has been strategic in his ability to respond to market forces and produce hits (Turner 1; Ramet 5-6). Several events set the stage for Follett's decision to write and publish The Pillars of the Earth. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union, and from that point on the Cold War moved quickly to its end, leading to the toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and 1990 and the fall of Communism in Russia in 1991. In 1983, The Name of the Rose, a sprawling medieval mystery by Umberto Eco, made a splash with high sales and landed on the annual bestseller list, proving that novels about the Middle Ages could make big bucks. In 1986, twenty years after first sketching out the idea for Pillars, Ken Follett "again tackled on outline for the cathedral novel"; the book was released in 1989 and instantly became a bestseller (Steinberg 38). The time was right for Pillars in part because the spy thriller genre Follet had been known for was losing steam as Cold War relations between East and West warmed considerably in the late to mid 1980s. Follett may have sensed that the time was right to push his writing in a different direction, and he had been interested in and researching cathedrals since the mid-1970s. Though he didn't feel ready to write a cathedral novel at that time, Eco's novel proved that though past wisdom held "you can't sell novels about the Middle Ages. ?Along came The Name of the Rose, which toppled that theory on its ear," as Follett noted in a Publisher's Weekly interview in 1989 (Steinberg 38). Follett's astute timing with The Pillars of the Earth meant that his U.S. publisher, Morrow, was willing to take on such a risky departure from his normal fare. To ensure that Follett would retain his primary male audience while also gaining historical fiction readers (who tend to be largely female), Morrow hired the market research firm Dataplan to "help the book achieve its full potential" (Steinberg 38). The firm conducted focus-group interviews, mail interviews, and telephone surveys. The research resulted in changes in title (which had been pitched as Allegiance) and cover design, and the creation of "an elaborate press kit done in die-cut gold" (Steinberg 38). The plans worked, and Pillars became Follett's best seller, reaching number 1 on the bestseller list soon after its release, and ranking at number 8 on the annual list.
The Pillars of the Earth is nearly a thousand pages long, focuses on the building of a cathedral, and encompasses historical events such as the sinking of the White Ship (on which drowned the only legitimate heir of King Henry I of England), and the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet it managed to capture the interest and purchasing power of hundreds of thousands of Follett's spy thriller devotees and to recruit legions of new fans. That feat begs the question: How did Follett manage this accomplishment? While part of the book's success undeniably came from savvy marketing and careful timing, it seems reasonable to contend that elements of the book itself played a role in its accessibility and popularity among a wide audience. Patrick Reardon of the Chicago Tribune argues that in The Pillars of the Earth, Follett actually creates a new hybrid genre that hadn't previously been seen in this form: the historical thriller (7). Follett had been lauded in his past writing for "impeccable timing and dramatic momentum?.[and] his ability to tell a many-faceted story" (Steinberg 39). Other hallmarks of his spy thrillers have been "strong, believably drawn female characters; the blending-in of love story elements and a general optimism towards romance" and "[not being] ashamed to use all the traditional thriller devices of entertainment to serious ends?ideas about war, love, disappointment and hope" (qtd. in Ramet 3). Though these comments were written about his early spy thrillers, they apply equally to The Pillars of the Earth. Pillars offers as a backdrop mystery and intrigue in the Catholic church of twelfth-century England, but foregrounds the lives and fortunes of individuals: Prior Philip, a kind but ambitious monk who leads the building of the cathedral at Kingbridge; Aliena, a beautiful young gentry woman who refuses to marry a lord; Tom Builder, a stone mason who dreams of building a beautiful cathedral, and the haunting, golden-eyed Ellen who has been accused of being a witch. From the first line ("The small boys came early to the hanging"), it promises action and shock value (Follett 11). It also offers romance and plenty of sex, from the twisted sadist pleasure of Lord William, to the deep affection of Tom and Ellen who come together after the death of Tom's first wife, to tender young love between Aliena and Ellen's son, Jack. It also offers violence via action and adventure, and suspense in a mystery plot that winds its way through the book. It adds to these more typical Follett elements, "[a] thorough grasp of the period of the book's setting and myriad details?from fine points of masonry to broad architectural concepts" (Steinberg 39). Follett populates his novel with real historical figures, sets it in a based-on-real locale in England, and offers carefully researched description of time and place, with information about architecture (that seems technical, but is carefully explained) interwoven. While setting is carefully depicted, Follett retains 20th-century dialogue, as several reviewers lamented when the book came out, including Lee Lescaze of the Wall Street Journal, who says "Mr. Follett seems to have decided that 12th-century Englishmen favored 20th-century cliches (?mindless brute,' ?hot and bothered'), and, while their diction was simple to begin with, they nevertheless took terrible pains to make everything very clear, as though explaining themselves to children" (A14). Though it rankled reviewers, Follett's use of vernacular current to the 1980s may have made the novel more digestible for readers who were novices to the historical fiction genre or who might be daunted by more academic historical fiction or representations. While explanations geared toward children (in Lescaze's opinion) may not make great literature, they arguably do make The Pillars of the Earth a clear and highly accessible read for a wide readership of varying levels of education and literary background. While the setting is the 12th century, readers can feel comfortable in the language and idioms used, relatable characters, while they are simultaneously pulled in and carried along by the fast pace and suspense of the novel.
A well-known author and large marketing budget may have propelled Pillars' initial success, but only grassroots support and love for the book could have sustained its popularity through nearly two decades so far, and led it to be voted among the top 100 books chosen by British readers in the BBC's "The Big Read" in 2003, and the third-most popular book ever in Germany in 2004. One reader wrote on Ciao! (an Amazon.com like bookselling web site in the UK), "Why have I chosen to read this epic work of fiction more than once? The simplest answer is because ?Pillars' is a marvellous and memorable story that improves with the telling. Interwoven within the narrative detailing episodes in the lives of Royalty [sic], nobility, clergy and common folk is a true sense of history, the reader becomes deeply involved in the lives and events created by Follett" (www.ciao.co.uk). A reviewer on Amazon.com describes how The Pillars of the Earth won her over, "I've never been a fan of Follett, and picked this book up with some misgivings--anyone these days can try to do an ?historical' novel with some quick sex, some fake archaic new-speak, and a TV-movie-miniseries concept of history. While there are some minor flaws in this book, its sweep, characterization, tensions, and love of its subject are simply riveting. I could not put the darned thing down and have lost sleep for a week compulsively page-turning. Follett, unbelievably, seems to have made little splash with this book when it first came out--more shame to the critics who missed a ?Gone with the Wind' from a conventional thriller author." Another Amazon.com reviewer (writing from Argentina) says, "After sixty years of people asking me what my favorite book is, I finally know: Ken Follett's ?The Pillars of the Earth.' It can only be compared to Tolstoi's ?War & Peace' in scope, and in social and historical authenticity. However, it also sustains over nearly a thousand pages the most nerve-wracking suspense I've ever experienced in a novel or movie, and the characters live as no others that come to mind, including those in all the other great novels of literature."
These layman reviews point out that Follett's novel manages to do two things well simultaneously that might initially seem to be at odds with one another. Pillars is a novel on an epic scale that feels authentic, intellectual, and "smart" due to its connections to nonfiction history. However, it also manages to maintain a relatively easy reading level, and incorporate the most successful attributes of popular fiction, including romance and sex, action, a fast pace, snappy dialogue, edge-of-the-seat suspense, and memorable, appealing characters. Rather than feeling talked down to (as Lescaze asserts), readers feel included, as if Follett is letting them in on an epic story and raising their consciousness toward a formerly intimidating and erudite time and topic.
At first glance, The Pillars of the Earth appears to fit the mold of the typical 1980s bestseller: a big-name author, large marketing budget, national advertising campaign, and celebrity-type appearances leading to huge initial sales. However, the book is a departure from Follett's regular fare and is a whopping, 973-page cathedral story set in the Middle Ages?not the typical Follett bestseller, but a risk that somehow paid off. Rather than fading away after its hyped-up release, the book has proven its staying power, steadily gaining popularity among fans and new readers. This seems to be due to the book's accessible but historically grounded writing, a combination of a "smart" topic with an easily digestible form, and a relatability that means readers remember the book and its characters long after they have finished the last page. Follett's careful timing of the book's publication and his extensive research and passion for the subject may have also enhanced its appeal. While Ken Follett and The Pillars of the Earth will most likely be considered in academic circles (if considered at all) as an example of the late century blockbuster publishing era, it seems that the book that may continue to live on in a different way through fans who have embraced its epic scale and accessibility to all types of readers.
Follett, Ken. The Pillars of the Earth. New York: Signet, 1989.
Hauptfuhrer, Fred. "Out of the Pages." People Weekly. 25 September 1978, 108.
Korda, Michael. Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1990-1999. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2001.
Lescaze, Lee. "Hot and Bothered, Long Ago." Wall Street Journal. (29 Aug. 1989): A14.
Ramet, Carlos. Ken Follett: The Transformation of a Writer. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999.
Reardon, Patrick. "Follett's Thriller Skills Adapt Well to History." Chicago Tribune. (10 Sept. 1989): 7.
Steinberg, Sybil. "The ?Pillars' of a New Success from Ken Follett and Morrow." Publisher's Weekly. 21 July 1989, p. 38-39.
Turner, Richard C. Ken Follett: A Critical Companion. (Critical Companions to
Popular Contemporary Writers, Kathleen Gregory Klein, series ed.) Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.