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Has Dan Brown hastened the tipping-point?

21 September 2009

Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol has dominated the press headlines this week. The big numbers hog the airwaves, but there are plenty of other reasons why this story makes compelling reading.

The Lost Symbol had a worldwide first print run of 6.5 million copies. In the UK the one million didn't look like enough, and the book is already reprinting. The author's track record is truly astounding, with The Da Vinci Code having sold more than 81 million copies worldwide. Not only was it the UK's biggest-selling paperback novel of all time, but Brown's backlist titles dominated the top spots in the same list, with Angels and Demons 2nd, Deception Point 3rd and Digital Fortress 4th in line. The US publishers announced that the new book had broken one-day sales records, selling more than a million copies in the first day in the US, UK and Canada.

Bestselling children's author Philip Pulllman, who has sold 15 million of his own books, says that his rival author populates his books with 'completely flat and two-dimensional' characters. 'His basic ignorance about the way people behave is astonishing, talking in utterly implausible ways to one another', but Brown does know how to tell a story in a way that 'makes people want to keep turning pages'. This has to be the secret of his immense popularity

The Lost Symbol has also been very heavily discounted, so it seems like most big retailers are not making any money out of it. Amazon brought their price in the UK down from £18.99 to £4.99 to undercut the competition. In the US the company is selling at a massive 44% off the cover price.

Writing in the Independent, D J Taylor said: 'Hardly anyone in the British book trade, apart from Dan Brown, his agent and his publisher, will make any money out of The Lost Symbol. The big chains are using it as a loss-leader to coax in trade. Many independent booksellers will find themselves in the absurd position of buying their copies not from the wholesaler with whom they usually deal but the Asda down the road... At a rough calculation, several million pounds that could have been used to irrigate an industry struggling to emerge from recession is simply being thrown away in defiance of fiscal logic. Here, after all, is a product that hundreds and thousands of people want to buy. Why not make them pay a proper price for it?'

Agent Jonny Geller commented: 'If the most popular book on earth is a fiver, what does it tell the punter? Books are worthless. Retailers are just throwing away their industry.'

There's more bad news though. Pirated copies found their way onto the Internet within one day of the book being published, and could be found on The Pirate Bay and On these versions not even the author will make a penny.

Amazon has also announced that the Kindle e-book version has been outselling the hardback edition in the US. Commentators were not slow to seize on this, with one blogger writing: 'The electronic book age is really about to burst upon us.'

So, it this Malcolm Gladwell's 'tipping-point'? Well, it just might be.