Last night, 21 year old author of The Bone Season Samantha Shannon appeared on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson to promote the paperback edition of her debut novel, the first in a planned series of seven. As with her appearance on NBC’s Today, where her novel was featured as the show’s first book club selection, she was perfectly pleasant, although nothing especially dazzling. What struck me most about her appearance on the show was that it was actually happening. Why Shannon? Sure, her book was hugely hyped and comparisons were made to J.K. Rowling, yet hardback sales upon its debut were only in the low to mid five figures, according to Nielsen Bookscan, while e-book sales were bolstered by heavy discounting on Amazon. Even its time on the New York Times best-seller list was all too brief, dropping from the top 25 after less than a month. For a book that came with a 6 figure 3 book advance, a huge first printing and the kind of cross-media publicity campaign the majority of authors can only fantasise about, to receive the lukewarm reception and low sales that it did suggests something went wrong somewhere down the line.
Let’s take a look at this phenomenon.
When the deal was announced, much was made about Shannon’s age, her precociousness and her Oxford education. Indeed, it’s rare to see someone scaling such heights of success while barely out of their teens, and a similar tactic of promotion was used with Veronica Roth. Publishers and publicists need a narrative from the get-go. This is nothing new. Look at the Hollywood studio system from the 1930s and how the images of their stars were controlled at every step to send out the preferred narrative. Obviously, that kind of system doesn’t work these days and those in the public eye can wield more control over their own images through mediums like social media, but the necessity of a sellable storyline prevails.
How many times have you heard the story of a harried Mormon stay-at-home mother dreaming about a young couple in love and turning it into a teen phenomenon? Or the rags to riches fairy-tale of a poverty stricken single mother on benefits who saw an image of a boy on a train and created the most successful children’s series of our time? While the work of both Meyer and Rowling spoke for itself, having that story surrounding them did make an impact. With Shannon, there wasn’t much to craft. She’s a well brought up middle class young woman with an extremely privileged education (and parents with connections), and almost every article brought up the comparison to Rowling. That was unfair, and trying to craft an image by making comparisons where there really were none to make hurt more than it helped.
This wasn’t the only area of the publicity drive that failed to craft a coherent narrative. Promotion of the book itself was confusing and vague. The book claimed to be an adult read yet seemed to have more in common with YA. Much of the blog hype came from those who specialised in reviewing YA novels, yet it was primarily shelved away from there (although many reported seeing it shelved in both areas, which says a lot). What about the genre of the book? The JK Rowling comparisons suggest fantasy, and the story contained a mish-mash of everything, from clairvoyants to parallel dimensions to a complicated hierarchy that required several pages of definitions. Most reviewers had trouble summing up the story in a paragraph, let alone a couple of sentences.
Therein lies the inherent problem with The Bone Season: Nobody knew what it was! Trying to sell the book off the backs of better known names didn’t work partly because the comparisons were all wrong. The Bone Season wasn’t the only one that suffered from this problem: Red Rising was called the next Hunger Games (in space!) and dropped without a trace while Half Bad received all the hype and none of the profit. Readers aren’t hungering for imitations, and it’s become only clearer with time that Shannon’s publisher don’t know what to do with their product. The publicity was unfocused, the message vague, the book itself difficult to categorise and everything just ended up leaving readers confused.
Shannon’s next book in the series, The Mime Order, will be released this October, just over a year after her debut, and the cover proudly calls her a “bestselling author”. Andy Serkis, who offered a cover quote for the first novel, has optioned the rights to a film (now talk about confusing your message to readers – what does a guy who happened to be in a few fantasy films know about books? Who is that quote for?) Only time will tell if readers will finally flock to the series and bolster sales numbers enough to warrant a contract extension to the planned seven books or if Bloomsbury will jump ship. I wish Shannon the best and hope she can have the freedom to excel in her chosen career independent of unfair publisher expectations in the future. Just don’t expect to see the sequel on any more late night chat shows unless Bloomsbury’s willing to pay out more cash.