How do you top the “Bestselling Novel of All Time?”

by Michelle Gagnon

A few days ago, I saw this announcement on Shelf Awareness:dan brown

The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s long-anticipated follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, will be published September 15 by Knopf Doubleday. A first printing of five million copies is planned for the book. The New York Times noted that “fans and the publisher have been waiting a long time for Mr. Brown to finish the new book. It was originally scheduled for a 2005 delivery. The Lost Symbol will again feature Robert Langdon, the protagonist of The Da Vinci Code.”

At long last, a little more than six years after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, Brown is back. “Waiting a long time” is understating it a bit, don’t you think?

I remember first hearing about the next installment in the series shortly after DVC sales rocketed into the stratosphere. The story (last I heard) was to be set in Washington DC, involving the founding fathers and the Freemasons (can you just imagine the expression on Brown’s face when the film National Treasure came out?)

DVCAnd then the years passed…and as they did, to be honest, I started to feel for the guy.

Granted, he’s insanely wealthy and successful, one of those few among us who became a household name. He managed to write a thriller that captured the public imagination so completely, there are actually plaques mounted on famous Parisian landmarks rebutting some of the claims in the book (it’s fiction, people. Fiction). And sure, without ever penning another sentence he could still probably buy an island in Fiji every year without worrying about eating dog food in his dotage.

But just for a second, put all that aside. Imagine the pressure. Brown could not possibly have known how successful his book would become (sure, he probably hoped–let’s be honest, we all hope. In my dreams I’ve whiled away many an hour on Oprah’s couch). And when it became the bestselling novel of all time, spawning a torrent not just of similar thrillers but tie-in products and books, charter tours, specials on the History Channel, a film with a horribly miscast Tom Hanks wearing what appears to be an otter on his head…wow. Sure, he’s no longer under the same deadline pressure as the rest of us, his editor isn’t sending nasty emails asking where the draft is (although I’m guessing some fairly pleading/begging missives have passed between them). tom hands

But how do you follow up on that level of success? You know the critics are out there, sharpening their knives. The fans have huge expectations, and a significant number of them are bound to be disappointed. And with every passing year, those knives have just gotten sharper.

For the past few years I’ve envisioned Dan Brown holed up somewhere, naked and filthy à la Howard Hughes, pacing and muttering to himself while a laptop blinks relentlessly from a dark corner. Typing a chapter, erasing it the next day. Worrying over every plot twist, every word choice. After all, deep down nearly every writer is a bundle of insecurity; it’s impossible to have distance from your own work, and I’m guessing we’ve all had that, “this is the worst crap ever written” moment as we review our latest manuscript.

Would the stress be worth it?

Hell, yeah.

But come September 15th, I figure Brown will be sitting alone somewhere, drink in his hand, heart pounding, stomach churning, waiting for the verdict. And I’ll most likely be sitting somewhere else, responding to a chiding email about a missed deadline. And I’ll feel a little sorry for him. Then I’ll pick up a copy of The Lost Symbol, snort, and say, “Not nearly as good as his last book.”

On principle. You know.


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.


18 thoughts on “How do you top the “Bestselling Novel of All Time?”

  1. “…holed up somewhere, naked and filthy à la Howard Hughes, pacing and muttering to himself while a laptop blinks relentlessly…”

    Michelle, have you been spying on me? 🙂

    Actually, I’m looking forward to Mr. Brown’s next book and have already pre-ordered. But for the life of me, I have no idea why he wrote another book. It sure wasn’t for the money or the fame or the sales. Maybe it’s a simple answer; he’s a writer who must write.

  2. At first, I was kinda upset about the release date. All that time he spent writing a book and they release it just after mine. Then, I started feeling for him – because they will release it just after mine. LOL.

    I’m looking forward to Mr Brown’s next novel.


  3. I must be the only person on the planet who never read The Da Vinci Code. I heard so many bad things about it, (i.e. poorly written, etc.) that I couldn’t make myself read it. Maybe I should just so I don’t feel so left out…

  4. Joyce, don’t feel bad—I waited a year after TDC came out to read it. And I can attest to the fact that everything you heard about the book is true. Now, factor in that there are 81 million copies in print worldwide available in 44 languages. Add in another 20 million readers who borrowed the book or checked it out from the library, and I would wager that at least 100 million people read TDC—maybe more. What I think this proves is something we’ve discussed here many times. The story comes first. In the case of TDC, I believe that 100 million readers (me included) forgave Mr. Brown for what is an arguably less than stellar writing style and simply enjoyed a captivating and compelling story.

  5. Oooh, what if the five year thing was planned (“…I give you the greatest publishing conspiracy in the history of the world…”)?

    Ha. But, I mean, this is no small part of the buzz. What demand! He’s sort of like Kubrick after 2001: A Space Odyssey. Part of going to see a Kubrick film was the roughly five year lag time.

    I’m just glad all the electricity is about a book. Not Britney’s next tour or Brangelina’s next baby. A hardcover. Good for us.

  6. You know, I’m not an author, or an English Lit major, or even an editor for a publishing company. However, I felt that Dan Brown’s books are some of the best I have read, and I read way more than your average middle age American usually does. I am waiting on tenterhooks just to read this next book. Now, if you mean “well written” as in all the technical stuff, then I am definitely not the person to talk to. If you say “well written” and mean that the story catches your attention and won’t let you go until you finish it, then I would say whole-heartedly that Dan Brown does that very well. I pity him, because I agree with M. Gagnon that he has set the bar rather high for himself. However, I am still ready to read the new book. I probably won’t base my criticism/praise on his previous sucesses, but will base it instead on the book at hand. P.S. love the visual with the muttering,pacing, laptop blinking. I could see it.

  7. I’m with you, SSbratt- I really enjoyed DVC. I was on vacation in Costa Rica and a friend gave me a copy. It was soon after the release date (so soon I hadn’t actually heard of the book yet) so for me it had no hype to live up to. And I tore through it. Sure, Brown is no Tolstoy, but he never claimed to be, and he spins a hell of a yarn.

    In all seriousness, I’m looking forward to reading The Lost Symbol. Even if it doesn’t strike the same chord, I’m sure it will be a fun read.

    And Joe, just so you know, I have surveillance cameras mounted in your house. So for God’s sake put some clothes on.

  8. “But come September 15th, I figure Brown will be sitting alone somewhere, drink in his hand, heart pounding, stomach churning, waiting for the verdict.”

    Uh, you wish. Brown and Myer enjoy their money, enjoy entertaining people with their books and don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks, least of all other writers or critics.

    The follow up was to be about the Jewish religion – and it sounds like this book went exactly as planned.

    I’m afraid you reveal more about yourself with this post than you do about Dan Brown.

  9. How’s this for publishing industry business savvy:

    Dan Brown used to be published by Pocket Books before it became Atria, and at the time we shared the same editor. When the editor left to go to Doubleday, I was told that he wanted to take (at least) two authors with him: John Gilstrap and Dan Brown.

    Atria insisted on keeping me while they let Mr. Brown go.

    Just goes to prove that William Goldman was right: In this business, no one knows anything.

  10. Josephine, this is from the Wall Street Journal, January 2008:

    “Now that Harry Potter — the only bigger publishing phenomenon of the age — is retired, no book has been as eagerly awaited as Mr. Brown’s next novel, purported to be about freemasonry and the Founding Fathers. The problem is, it is still awaited…and awaited…and awaited.”

    Here’s the link:

    And John, it has to be flattering to know Atria wanted to keep you that badly…

  11. I see Josephine’s point. As a super multi-millionaire he no doubt could care less about whether the book does terribly well.

    Joyce, don’t feel lonely. I never read TDC either, and don’t plan to. In my humble opinion, anything written as poorly as the overwhelming majority say it is and becomes that popular probably has some sort of mind altering chemical laced throughout the pages. More troubling is fiction that the author openly states is fiction and yet so many seem to earnestly believe to be true.

    Quite troubling to my rational mind.

    Reminds me of an LSD trip back in the 80’s where the ceiling opened up and I went to space and aliens with puppy dog heads took the time to tell me the real truth about cheese and the moon.

    Uh…did I just say that? proven…Dan Brown could probably care less. He can afford all the moon cheese he wants no matter how well the book does.

  12. I think the interesting part is how quiet Dan Brown seems to have been in the intervening years. Since the explosion of TDC, I haven’t heard a thing from him. My guess is that when you experience a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon like that, you sit back, take stock, enjoy the fruits of your labor, and plan how you want the rest of your career and life to go. When you make $70 million in one year alone, you have that luxury.

    With that kind of income, there’s no doubt that he’s writing simply because he enjoys creating stories. If he aspired to become a billionaire, he would have been a hedge fund manager.

  13. Poor sod, indeed…I have to confess that I never finished DVC but that’s really only because in the 1980s I’d read Holy Blood Holy Grail (the authors of which actually sured DB) and so I knew the conspiracy theory – kind of killed the buzz for me. I do think though that he’s to be applauded for getting on and writing the next book, though I’m puzzled why it took so long. Perhaps he could sit back because of the money but I think Michelle you’re probably right – he must have a had a great deal of pressure so, who knows, he could have actually had writer’s block. That would explain his silence too if he just wanted the fame and fortune he’d be making his money off lectures and TV gigs not facing the dreaded blank page for five years.

  14. I actually doubt that there’s a writer alive who can claim they don’t give a whit what anyone thinks of their work. Even when I was a freelance journalist writing articles on subjects as stimulating as “The Best Smoothie Ever” (and the follow-up, “Why Smoothies Will Make you Fat,”), I cared.

    I was in a writing group with Khaled Hosseini when he was writing The Kite Runner, and got to watch that book experience a similar success story. And I know for a fact that despite the millions of dollars he raked in, Khaled was on tenterhooks when A Thousand Splendid Suns was about to be released.

    As Joe said, first and foremost, we’re all writers. We put our work out there, and although it would be nice to make millions off it, that’s not why the majority of us do it. We want people to enjoy what we’ve written–that’s why we try to get published. If we were just writing books for ourselves, they’d languish in boxes under our beds.

    Granted, I’ve never met Dan Brown. But I would be very surprised to hear that he could care less what fans, peers, and critics think of his next opus.

  15. You’re probably right Michelle.

    I am sure he will be concerned what folks have to say. It would suck to come out of relative obscurity into the blazing sun of fame, then shoot yourself in the foot with a massive failure while the whole world is watching.

    Perhaps that’s what took so long. Maybe he wanted to really make the work clean.

    Of course if it does fail, he can always join a tribe in Fiji and get face tatoos so no one would recognize him.

  16. “…a horribly miscast Tom Hanks wearing what appears to be an otter on his head…”

    Oy. Sniff. (wipes a tear from the corner of her eye) Thanks for the laugh.

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