On the Bookshelf ... ‘Inferno’ is a sure-fire hit

Julia Donaldson is concerned that children's lack of access to books will send literacy standards into decline
Julia Donaldson is concerned that children's lack of access to books will send literacy standards into decline

I and millions of other fans am looking forward to the publication next week of the long awaited Dan Brown blockbuster, ‘Inferno’.

It’s been kept under very tight wraps (so tight the Italian translator was kept in an underground bunker for two months while they worked), so we don’t know much about it.

What we do know is that it’s connected to the Italian medieval poet Dante’s masterpiece ‘The Divine Comedy’, in which the author journeys through the realms of the dead.

Given Brown’s huge talent at weaving intricate historical, supernatural conspiracy theories, this should be a cracker.

While it’s safe to say the new Dan Brown will probably be one of the biggest publishing hits of the year, bestsellers are never decided in advance – which got me thinking about publishing “phenomena”.

Over the years I’ve seen some huge publishing successes. The Harry Potter series became more and more of a bookselling event as each one was published – midnight shop openings, TV news coverage, you name it. Last year there was the ‘Fifty Shades’ rush, which saw literally millions of copies of erotica selling globally. It beat even Harry Potter by some measures.

There’s a significant difference between the two cases, though: the internet.

When the first Harry Potter was published in 1997, only 25 per cent of households owned a computer, and fewer had internet access. ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ originally had schools and libraries in mind, so only 200 copies were printed at first. The success and growth in sales was literally via word of mouth. Book collectors with their ears to the ground snapped up copies of the first print. Those copies are now worth around £25,000.

Fifteen years later, Fifty Shades sells so quickly that they can’t print them fast enough. This time, however, the book collectors miss out. There is no tiny first printing, because the publishers knew they were certain of a bestseller: they were created online by fans of ‘Twilight’, and proved hugely popular as ebooks.

So next week, as you’re buying your Dan Brown, ask us what obscure first novels we’ve been reading – might not earn you thousands, but you never know!