Here’s a secret that authors and publishers would give a lot to know: What makes a best-seller? Marketing campaigns? Social-media strategies? Media attention? Sales-pushing algorithms?
Redmond author Daniel James Brown has one answer, and it’s none of the above. Here’s the story of the success of one worthy book.
Brown is the author of the best-selling “The Boys in the Boat”(Penguin), the true saga of the University of Washington crew team, winners of an Olympic gold medal in 1936. This team of nine young athletes traveled to the Berlin Olympics, an event staged-managed by Hitler and the Nazis, and vanquished the Germans’ hand-picked crew. The book is in its fifth week as the No. 1 best-selling nonfiction paperback in the country, according to The New York Times. (It’s No. 5 on the best-seller list that covers all forms of nonfiction, both print and e-book.)
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Improbably, no Seattle-based author had recognized the potential in the story until Brown, a California transplant, technical writer and author of two nonfiction books, made a visit to the elderly father of a neighbor in Redmond about six years ago. The neighbor, Judy Willman, had been reading one of Brown’s previous books to her dying father, Joe Rantz, and told Brown that it would thrill Joe if he would spend time with her dad.
The two talked about the Great Depression. Then they moved on to Rantz’s experience rowing crew. Brown felt the jolt authors get when they know, in their bones, that they are onto a great story.
“I had that tingle the first day,” he remembers. “The big arc of the story — these rough-and-tumble kids rowing their boat against Hitler … as I dug into it, it got richer and richer.
“Though you never know. Sometimes the story sounds good, then it fizzles out. It wasn’t until six months or a year later that I started talking to the other families of the boys in the boat … I became more optimistic. They could have been jerks, but they turned out to have interesting back stories.” By then Joe Rantz had died, but Judy was eager to have her father’s story told.
There was a wealth of information to be sifted through — 75 years’ worth of documents, newspaper clips and mementos. Three of the nine crew members had kept diaries during the Olympics. And the time — the Great Depression, the run-up to World War II — enthralled Brown, who had to restrain himself from pitching a permanent camp in the UW’s Suzzallo Library. “I became obsessed with Joseph Goebbels,” Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Brown remembers wryly. Brown, a seasoned author, delivered his manuscript, but discipline had its limits — he and his editor cut 20,000 to 30,000 words out of it.
“The Boys in the Boat” was published in hardback in the spring of 2013. It immediately gained an audience of rowers. Then “the rowers started giving it to their moms and dads,” Brown said.
Then — oh, dear.
No review in The New York Times. No “Today Show” interview. No sale of an excerpt to a major publication. The East Coast media complex was displaying its predictable blindness to worthy literary talent in the rest of the country.
Still, readers kept telling other readers about their find. “It’s mostly a word-of-mouth book,” says Brown, publishing lingo for a book that becomes a best-seller through the reader grapevine. This spring it won the Indies Choice Award from the American Booksellers Association for the adult nonfiction book of the year, winning the most votes from independent booksellers nationwide.
Robert Sindelar, managing partner at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, says that “The Boys in the Boat” is the kind of book readers almost feel compelled to testify for.
On the store floor one day, one customer asked Sindelar, “Is this a good book?” Another customer, Sindelar recalls, turned around and said, “You don’t have to know anything about rowing. You don’t have to know anything about the UW, about sports or World War II. It’s just a great story.”
“It’s a book that people are passionate about sharing,” Sindelar says. “I have sold numerous copies where I’ll take the customer over and show them the book and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’ve already read it, I’m getting this for my dad or for my friend.’ ”
Brown has yet to receive his first royalty check, but he estimates that his book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It’s being translated in a dozen languages. The Weinstein Company (“The King’s Speech”) has bought the movie rights.
What is the secret of its success?
It’s about much more than rowing, says Brown. It’s about a generation of Americans who fought hard, endured much, survived and prevailed. “I make the case at the end of every book talk that these nine Americans, who climbed in the boat and learned to pull together, (are) almost the perfect metaphor for what that generation did,” Brown says. ”They endured the Depression and the war. Pull together, build great teams, get things done.”
Its appeal transcends that generation, and the next. Young rowers clutching their manhandled copies tell Brown the book is the closest thing they have ever read that captures the spirit of crew.
There’s a lot of gloom and doom in publishing, but a story like that of the “The Boys in the Boat” is what keeps writers going. Not just the story it tells, but the story of a good book that became a best-seller, one enthralled reader at a time.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.