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Partie II. Subversive or New Forms

John Grisham’s Megabestsellers

Christine Evain
p. 109-124


Avec un tirage de ses livres à 110 millions d’exemplaires, John Grisham est à la tête d’une élite de cinq auteurs de “megabestseller”. Courtisé par Hollywood (dix adaptations cinématographiques jusqu’à présent), propulsé par l’attirail promotionnel moderne des maisons d’édition américaines, ainsi que par les nouveaux circuits de distribution, Grisham est consacré numéro un mondial par son succès à “l’exportation”. Il met au point une recette: celle du “legal thriller” qui échappe à la typologie de Todorov mais qui reprend un certain nombre d’ingrédients du roman policier tel le “surhomme” d’Eco. L’éditeur s’empare de cette signature perfectionnée par Grisham en fonction de la demande du marché et “fabrique” un de ces “megabestsellers” sur lesquels repose aujourd’hui le fonctionnement commercial de l’industrie du livre.

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1One hundred and ten million copies of John Grisham’s books have been published so far, and Grisham is now at the head of the megabestselling author elite which also included Stephen King, Daniel Steele, Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy.

2How are we to explain this phenomenon which is unprecedented in world book history?

3Is it a question of context or content? Both is probably the most reasonable answer. The content of his books are articulated in a “Grisham-manner” which is probably easier to analyse than to reproduce (the recipe includes a “superman" stereotype and the genre is a mixture of thriller and professional handbooks that one could entitle something like “How to be an excellent lawyer”).

4The context of Grisham’s production is one of a book industry for which commercial success and profit-making are the two main objectives. Grisham’s success is a result of a perfect adequacy between demand and offer, and most efficient promotional means.

5Other causes of Grisham’s success are linked to his popularity with various distribution channels and with the film industry (ten Grisham movies so far) – not to mention his world-wide market value (his books are stranslated in eighteen languages).

6It will be our purpose to underline the equal importance of recipe and marketing to “produce” the megabestsellers of the decade.

Of Grisham, Montaigne and Megabestseller Status

7What do John Grisham and Montaigne have in common? Not much, one would say…

  • 1  He told readers that his book was “consubstantiel à son auteur. Qui touche l’un touche l’autre”.
  • 2  Publishers Weekly online: The Grisham Business, Jeff Zaleski, Jan 19, 1998.

8The sixteenth century french author mainly wrote one book (Les Essais), whereas Grisham produces one a year; Montaigne claimed that he and Les Essais were almost one and the same1. The closest Grisham ever gets to his books is by saying: “I could be in that scene, I could be in that room, as a hostage. I mean, they are a bunch of rich white guys2”.

9Montaigne’s pet subject is philosophy and death (“philosopher, c’est apprendre à mourir”), whereas Grisham’s thrillers are all about escaping death (defeating the “bad guys” and becoming rich in the process). Grisham “reads like a whirlwind” (as underlined on the back cover of The Firm), Montaigne is an acquired taste.

  • 3  As Montaigne says: “Je parle au papier comme je parle au premier que que je rencontre”. “Le parler (...)

10But there is one thing both authors do have in common, something quite fundamental which is linked to their vision of life and writing: they both like tranquility and simple language3.

11But in spite of this incredible common factor, their work could not differ more greatly, and that has a lot to do with market forces. There was no business behind Montaigne’s work whereas Grisham’s business now exceeds $1 billion. As Publishers Weekly claims:

  • 4  Publishers Weekly online: The Grisham Business, Jeff Zaleski, Jan 19, 1998.

The Grisham business is very big business, and The Street Lawyer, with its first printing of 2.8 million, will expand it further. Every year since 1991, when The Firm blitzed bookstores in late February, a new Grisham novel has swept upon the spring lists like a hurricane. To accommodate it, booksellers around the country clear miles of shelfspace; book and audio clubs quicken to fill orders; motion picture studios cajole and connive to get a first peek at galleys. It’s no exaggeration to say that thousands of media folk, from publishing and printing executives to bookstore owners, film producers, directors and actors and beyond, profit from, and to some extent depend upon, the annual Grisham blockbuster.4

12Our purpose will be to work out some of the ingredients for the Grisham recipe and to try to figure out how the Grisham Business came about.

13Obviously the phenomenon is linked to the man himself whose profile is slightly unusual. Grisham started off as a lawyer and might have enjoyed an excellent career as a lawyer but, like many aspiring Americans, he had what he says was a “hobby” – writing. Each morning in the mid-1980s, he woke early to work on A Time to Kill, which he completed in 1987. Publishers Weekly reports that:

  • 5 Ibid.

the day after he finished A Time to Kill he began The Firm. When film rights to that novel sold to Paramount for $600,000 and then book rights sold to Doubleday, Grisham quit law and the legislature and turned pro author. The Grisham business was born.5

14It is not difficult to believe that Grisham’s discipline and hard work capacity are not merely a myth.

  • 6  His wife is his principal advisor, but two publishing dynamos have helped shaped his career. The f (...)

15Today, the fruits of Grisham’s enterprise include ten novels, a scattering of screenplays and more than half a dozen film adaptations. Like any entrepreneur with a growing business, Grisham has sought expert advice over the years. His relationship with his publihers, agent and advisors6 is quite unique: he is a key player in the American book industry and that obviously translates into a position of power vis-à-vis his publisher. Grisham is aware of the impact of his success on the book industry, as he tells Publishers Weekly:

  • 7  Publishers Weekly online: The Grisham Business, Jeff Zaleski, Jan 19, 1998.

I’m aware of, first of all, how it affects my publisher. But you know, if I skipped a year or two, my publisher’s going to survive. I’ll tell you what I think about: When I’m in one of those real small bookstores, some of the stores I’ve gone to for years to sign books, going back to A Time toKill, I confess I’ve had the thought, “What if I skipped a year?” It would have a significant impact on the store.7

16That’s a heavy responsibility, but Grisham carries it easily. “I don’t really worry about the expectations,” he says.

  • 8  Ibid.

The only pressure I put on myself is to write the best book I can write. I guess one of these days I’m going to publish a book and it’s going to be a real dud that will sell half of what the last one sold. At that point, I’ll probably worry about sales.8

17Grisham is always focusing on his next novel, at his customary rate of one a year – but only, he insists, as long as he has viable stories. “I’m not just cranking these things out. It looks like it. But […] If I didn’t have a story, I wouldn’t write the book”. Although our purpose will be to analyse some of the ingredients in the “Grisham” recipe, it must be said that the recipe does not function without a story and Grisham does have a talent for coming up with new ideas that can be worked into the formula.

The Grisham Formula

18The starting point of the Grisham recipe has been analysed by Umberto Eco in his work on “popular novels”:

  • 9  Umberto Eco, De Superman au Surhomme, Grasset, Paris, 1993, p.14.

Prenez un personnage auquel le lecteur puisse s’identifier, faites-lui vivre des aventures qui l’amène à passer du bonheur au malheur ou vice versa, à travers maintes péripéties et reconnaissances. Tendez au maximum l’arc narratif afin que les lecteurs et spectateurs éprouvent pitié et terreurs à la foi. Quand la tension aura atteint son maximum, faites entrer en action un élément qui vienne démêler le nœud inextricable des faits et des passions en résultant. Que ce soit un prodige, une intervention divine, une révélation ou un châtiment inopiné, il faudra que cela donne lieu à une catharsis – dont on ne sait clairement si, chez Aristote, il s’agit d’une purification de l’auditoire, soulagé du poids que la série insoutenable des événements avaient imposé, ou d’une purification de l’histoire elle-même laquelle la trouve enfin solution acceptable.9

19The key words here are “tension” and “release”. One could argue that in most novels the tension doesn’t just build up, the hero works towards a solution and experiences an incaculable number of setbacks and difficulties along the way, adding to the reader’s delight in the adventure.To Eco’s recipe, Grisham throws in the “legal thriller” component, adds a bit of sex (not always), and makes sure men and women are equally competent and both qualify as extraordinary pople: if he chooses a male hero, he allows a female companion or friend to play a key role in the novel and vice versa.

  • 10  Sometimes Grisham will go as far as to explain why the hero is a good lawyer: “The most effective (...)
  • 11  Grisham, The Client, Arrow Books London,1993, p.106.

20The legal component is never too difficult for the reader to understand10. It’s about the same technical level as LA Law – a TV program that Grisham alludes to in The Client: ““Lemme guess,” McThune snarled. “You watch ‘LA Law,’ right?” / “Every week.” [answers Mark, a smart little boy who raises all the right questions]11”.

21Grisham chooses to give the superman/woman component a human touch. In The Client, for example, Reggie, the heroin is thus described:

  • 12  Ibid., p.119.

She was determined to prove to herself she could succeed as a lawyer. But she continued to battle depression. She struggled with booze and pills, and finally dropped out halfway through. Then she came back, clean and dry, and finished with a vengeance.12

22In The Firm, Mitch, the almost-perfect hero is weak enough to be unfaithful to his beautiful wife – but only once.

23Eco points out one other element which is interesting to analyse in Grisham’s novels and that is the hero’s commitment to a cause.

24Choosing a new “cause” (such as multinationals taking advantage of the poor: a big insurance company up against a poor family in The Rainmaker, powerful tobacco companies against the widow of a late smoker in The Runaway Jury…) is a way for Grisham to come up with new ideas and to follow Eco’s recommendation:

  • 13  Umberto Eco, De Superman au Surhomme, Grasset, Paris, 1993, p.64.

Pour concocter une oeuvre narrative de large consommation, capable de susciter l’intérêt des masses populaires et la curiosité des classes aisées: choisir une réalité quotidienne existante mais insuffisamment prise en considération, où l’on trouve des tensions irrésolues […]; poser un élément résolutoire, contrastant avec la réalité de départ, qui propose une solution immédiate consolant des contradictions initiales.13

25The hero’s commitment only enhances his superman-like qualities as a justiciary, reformer, benefactor. Grisham knows the reader loves to identify with such a hero and rewards him with scenes of triumph.

26Grisham has a particular gift for scenes where the hero triumphs in what I would call a “Grisham-manner”.

27This manner revolves around a five-step scene:

  1. the opponent of the hero is at work and is confident of winning.

  2. Short break (in the action line), while the opponent enjoys the idea of crushing the hero to bits.

  3. The hero plays a trump: the opponent is in a state of shock.

  4. The balance of power is reversed: the hero lays down the rules.

  5. The hero has one last stab at his opponent (to the reader’s greatest pleasure).

28Let us take an example from The Client in which the hero happens to be a heroine, Reggie. Reggie’s opponents are FBI agents. They attempt to interrogate Mark, an eleven-year-old crime witness, without his mother’s presence or consent – the reader knows this is a mistake because Mark’s lawyer, Reggie, has secretly equipped him with a tape recorder. (step 1):

  • 14  J. Grisham, The Client, Arrow Books London,1993 p.106.

They moved toward him in their rolling chairs. They slid their notepads on the table to within inches of him.
They were breathing on him, and Mark figured it was part of the game.14

  • 15 Ibid., p.107.

29After a while, Mark asks to leave the room. Meanwhile the FBI agents are confident that they will be succesful. (step 2): “For seven minutes, the agents made small talk and played with their pens. They weren’t worried. They were experienced agents with many tricks. They’d been here before. He would talk15”. Then Reggie walks in (step 3):

  • 16 Ibid., p.109.

Reggie slowly opened her briefcase and lifted out the black recorder and the micro-cassette tape. She sat them in front of her, and placed the briefcase on the floor. Special agents McThune and Trumann stared at the devices and seemed to shrink a bit in their seats.[…] She let them suffer for a moment. The room was silent.[Reggie lists out their mistakes] […] They sunk lower.16

  • 17 Ibid., p. 111.
  • 18 Ibid., p.111.

30Reggie is triumphant. She will be the one who decides to end the meeting (step 4) “She took her briefcase and placed the recorder in it. It was obvious this meeting was over17”. She has a ready answer to Trumann’s accusation “That’s blackmail!” (step 5): ““That’s exactly what it is. Indict me.” She stood and grabbed the doorknob. “See you boys at three”18”.

31Grisham delights in highlighting Reggie’s power over the FBI:

  • 19  J. Grisham, The Firm, Arrow Books London,1991, p.132.

She studied her legal pad. “Let’s meet again tomorrow,” she said. It was not a suggestion, but a directive.
“We’re really in a hurry, Reggie,” Foltrigg pleaded.
“Well I’m not. And I guess I’m calling the shots, aren’t I?”19

  • 20 Ibid., p.280.
  • 21 Ibidem, p.281

32In The Firm, Mitch is the one who is “calling the shots”. Tarrance, the FBI agent asks Mitch: “What do we want from you? Good question. First, you have to give up your career as a lawyer. You’ll have to […]” step 2 – broken down into two sequences: first, a deliberate silence: “Tarrance actually began reading the paperback, a Louis L’Amour20”. Then Tarrance presents Mitch with an alternative which is no better and in any case the FBI is the winning party: “You either take the money and run, or you play big-shot lawyer and bet that we never infiltrate21”. Mitch turns the tables on the FBI – his comment is full of scorn:

  • 22 Ibid., p.283.

If you knew so much, why haven’t you done something? Voyles said you boys have been watching and waiting for seven years. That’s real good, Tarrance. Do you always move so fast? […] Your offer is too low. You expect me to make a case that will hand you hundreds of indictments […] a case that could easily cost me my life. And you offer a pittance. Three million, at least.22

  • 23 Ibid., p.284.
  • 24 Ibid., p.284.

33Mitch’s advantage is confirmed by Tarrance’s offer: “What else do you want?23”, to which Mitch replies arrogantly: “I’ve got a few things in mind, but we won’t discuss them until the money gets right24”. The hero’s ability to negociate is also Grisham’s clever manner of misleading the reader who admires the hero and fails to notice what the hero is doing or saying amounts to delaying the revelation of important events, which is very clever in terms of narrative strategy. In the above example, Mitch will not discuss the deal “until the money gets right”, which means that the FBI will have to arrange an other meeting with Mitch. In the same way, Reggie, in The Client, avoids putting too much pressure on her eleven-year-old client to get information out of him; it is because of her considerate and reassuring manner in dealing with the child that Reggie refuses to get to the bottom of the story too quickly, and that also prevents the reader from finding out, about a vital piece of information about a murder and a hidden body:

  • 25 Ibid., p.96.

Let’s do this, Mark. Don’t tell me where the body is, okay? For now anyway. Maybe later, but not now. And let’s meet with the FBI and listen to them. You won’t have to say a word. I’ll do the talking, and we’ll both do the listening. And when it’s over, you and I will decide what to do next.25

34Although Grisham clearly follows a recipe, it’s difficult to fit him into Todorov’s classification. Todorov distingishes the “Golden Age” novel from the “roman noir”: the first is linked to retrospection (there has been a crime, the hero then tries to figure out what happened: the main story line is the one that led to the crime), the second is linked to prospection (the story of the investigation is more important than the initial crime which only serves as a pretext for the thrills of the investigation story). As Todorov points out, the reader has two different ways of reacting to these two types:

  • 26  T.Todorov, Poétique de la Prose, Typologie du roman policier, Seuil, 1971, p.14.

La première [forme d’intérêt du lecteur] peut être appelée la curiosité; sa marche va de l’effet vers la cause: à partir d’un certain résultat (un cadavre et quelques indices) il faut trouver la cause (le coupable et ce qui l’a poussé au crime). La deuxième est le suspense et on va ici de la cause à l’effet: on nous montre d’abord les données initiales (des gangsters qui préparent un mauvais coup) et notre intérêt est soutenu dans l’attente de ce qui va arriver, c’est-à-dire des effets (cadavres, crimes, bagarres).26

35Grisham’s novels are both a more complex and simple form of the roman noir. Its public appeal stems from the fact that they are easier to read; most descriptions are included merely for their intertainment value. Love scenes are shorter versions of romance novels and some of the professional details or dialogues are similar to role plays extracted from books in the line of “How to be a successful bussinessman/lawyer”, with quite a bit of theatricality thrown in.

36But there is one element in Grisham’s novel which is maybe more complex than in a roman noir and that is the Good or Evil dialectic. It is often not as straight forward as the Good versus Evil. A third party often steps in (the FBI takes on that role), which is neither completly “good” nor “bad”. The FBI is “good” because they are after the bad guys but in order to reach their goal they try to manipulate the hero – who never allows that to happen, obviously.

37The hero has to find a way of doing two things: defeat the bad guys and take the upper hand with the third party negotiator in order to stay alive. If he succeeds in his first goal and fails in the second, he becomes a sacrificial figure. Sacrificial figures are not too popular in popular literature: the public much prefers a hero whose story is also one of personal success. This triangular relationship – hero versus “bad guys”, versus the FBI (pictured as a neglectful investigation machine), offer up a whole range of action scene possibilities for Grisham to play with.

38Before we turn to the promotional aspects which account for Grisham’ success, let us summarize some of the Grisham recipe ingredients:

  • a smart, brillant hero, (Umberto Eco’s Superman)

  • who refuses to be manipulated

  • who finds himself up against the “bad guys”

  • who needs the help or protection of an ambiguous third party

  • who feels some sort of personal commitment to a cause

  • who has a close relationship with a member of the opposite sex

  • whose negotiation strategy serves the purpose of Grisham’s narrative strategy (postponements, delays etc…)

  • 27  R. Sawhill and C. Brown, Grisham’s Gospel, Newsweek, February 15, 1999, p.58

39Grisham’s comment on his success does credit to his modesty: “Hey, I’m a famous writer in a country where nobody reads. […] I don’t pretend it’s literature. It’s high-quality, professional entertainment27”.

40In order to create a megabestselling author phenomenon, the author’s skills as an entertainer need to be combined with the publishers’ marketing skills, and that is now the subject of my analysis.

The Marketing of Books and Consumer Behavior

  • 28  A. Greco, The Book Publishing Industry, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1997, p. 204- 205: “…90% perhaps (...)

41According to Albert Greco28 nearly 95% of the books published have a shelflife which is shorter than a year. But that does not apply to Grisham. It is true that each new Grisham novel is a replacement product for the previous one: it takes the previous novel’s place in the superstores’ windows and on the bestsellers lists. Publishers Weekly indicates that the title with the longest stay on Publishers Weekly’s Hard cover Fiction Bestseller list is always the novel published by Grisham that year:

Length of the longest stay: The Street Lawyer, 1998: 29 weeks; The Partner, 1997: 32 weeks; The Runaway Jury, 1996: 23 weeks; The Rainmaker, 1995: 23 weeks; The Chamber, 1994: 19 weeks; The Client 1993: 40 weeks; The Pelican Brief, 1992: 42 weeks; The Firm, 1991: 38 weeks.

42But unlike many bestsellers, Grisham’s novels are also “longsellers”, because Grisham’s publishers will not allow them to go out of print. Sometimes several titles appear on the bestsellers lists. This has almost become problematic at one point in time; Grisham’s agent, David Gernert was interviewed on the possible limits of growth for the Grisham business and claimed that although Grisham remained America’s favorite writer, his popularity may have leveled off a bit (albeit at an astonishingly high rate) around 1994, when The Chamber, which boasts the highest hardcover and audio in-print figures of any Grisham novel, was released.

43Could this be due to too much product in too brief a time? When asked this, Grisham replies:

Well, we’ve been worried about overexposure for a long time. There was a time about three or four years ago when The Chamber was number one in hardback and The Firm, The PelicanBrief and A Time to Kill, or something like that, were one, two and three in paper. And there was a movie out, I think it was The Client. That was about as crazy as everything could possibly get. We talked a lot about overexposure and worried a lot about it, and still do.

44Grisham denies, however, that the decision to withhold the sale of film rights on last year’s The Partner and now on The Street Lawyer stemmed from fear of audience overload. “It’s just taking a break from Hollywood,” he says. “The films add another layer of notoriety and stress and hassle that I don’t care to deal with”.

45Clearly, Grisham has achieved “Brandname” status, and has set editors dreaming in the publishing world:

  • 29  A. Greco, The Book Publishing Industry, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1997, p.116.

[acquiring editors] are expected to scout around and find new authors with potential (everyone is always looking for the ‘next’ John Grisham), and to convince established authors that they would be happier working with them at their house (while always maintaining some semblance of ethical propriety).29

46As Greco has demonstrated, most bestsellers are one-offs and their success is not a function of their intrinsic quality but depends mostly on impulse buying. The United States’ market potential was made clear enough by Tocqueville in 1835.

  • 30  A. Tocqueville (de), De la Démocratie en Amérique, tome 2, Paris,Garnier-Flammarion, 1981, p.51.

47According to him, the dimension of the American public was in direct inverse ratio to the quality of the books produced. Tocqueville thought that this would trend would become accentuated with time30:

Non seulement le nombre de ceux qui peuvent s’intéresser aux oeuvres de l’esprit sera plus grand, mais le goût des jouissances intellectuelles descendra, de proche en proche, jusqu’à ceux mêmes qui dans les sociétés aristocratiques, ne semblent pas avoir ni le temps ni la capacité de s’y livrer.

48This theory that the lowest common denominator molds popular culture is still discussed today.

49Consumer behavior is highly influenced by multimedia products and it is hardly surprising that “serious” authors are disappointed with the attitude of the public. Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, is trying to resist the pressure but regrettably admits:

  • 31  S. Hengen, Margaret Atwood’s Power, Second Story Press, 1993, p.75 (Hengen cite Atwood).

[O]n the whole, audiences prefer that art be not a mirror held up to life but a disneyland of the soul, containing Romanceland, Spyland, Pornoland, and all the other Escapelands which are so much more agreeable than the complex truth. …31

50For editors, it is not a matter of resisting or going along with a trend, they simply need to be more profit-minded. Wendy Wolf explains:

  • 32  W. M. Wolf, “Editing Nonfiction”, Editors on Editing, New York, Grove Press, 1993, p.235.

Books have also become an extension of the celebrity tee shirt-rock video-breakfast cereal- endorsment merchandise package. It’s innocuous when it’s merely football players and soap opera stars to whom this publishing prerogative is extended. Their books may not save western civilization or advance the cause of freedom, but they usually don’t harm anyone either, and can generate revenue that can be put to good use elsewhere.32

51Which really brings us back to Tocqueville’s statement:

  • 33  Ibid., p.77.

La démocratie ne fait pas seulement pénétrer le goût des lettres dans les classes industrielles, elle introduit l’esprit industriel au sein de la littérature. […]chez les nations démocratiques, un écrivain peut se flatter d’obtenir à bon marché une médiocre renommée et une grande fortune. Il n’est pas nécessaire pour cela qu’on l’admire, il suffit qu’on le goûte.33

  • 34  According to Tocqueville, American people were “book consumers” whereas the French aristocracy had (...)
  • 35 Ibid., p.47.
  • 36 Ibid., p.77.

52Is it because American people are more openly greedy than other nations? Does this have anything to do with the early phenomenon of democracy?34, It is a fact that Tocqueville underlined America’s longing for money: “En Amérique chacun trouve donc des facilités inconnues ailleurs pour faire sa fortune et pour la croître. La cupidité y est toujours en haleine35”. Authors and editors bank on “une foule toujours croissante de lecteurs [et] le besoin continuel qu’ils ont du nouveau” pour “assure[r] le débit d’un livre qu’ils n’estiment guère36”.

53Editors spend more time promoting books than copy editing. Greco’s compared analysis of the marketing of Grisham and Crichton reveals different strategies which resulted in megasales, in the1990s.

  • 37  This demand-led strategy is called a “pull strategy”.

54When Doubleday decided in 1993 to push the sales of Grisham’s novels, they decided to create a strong market demand for what was then an unknown author37. According to Greco,

  • 38  A. Greco, The Book Publishing Industry, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1997, p.196.

They utilized the “hand selling” technique in prominent bookstores.[…] “Hand selling"” does not work in chains and superstores. In those stores the vast majority of sales clerks are part-timers, most of whom are not readers and often lack any knowledge of what books can be found in what aisles.38

55Doubleday’s sales representatives managed to communicate their enthusiasm for Grisham’s work to independent bookstore sales personnel. The goal was to get the word out from the sales force to the bookstore clerks to potential buyers. This tactic worked and an amazing groundswell of positive word-of-mouth emerged. The chains and superstores soon realised that Grisham’s sales potential and they ordered copies massively and provided the book with “prominent positions” in their bookstores. Grisham became a “household name” and his book caught the attention of Hollywood producers. The Firm confirmed Grisham’s success. Greco points out:

This movie tie-in, with a new paperback book cover with Cruise on it (although Dell continued to issue the paperback with the original cover, a practice it followed with The Pelican Brief and The Client when these films were released), large posters in theater lobbies, and advertisements in newspapers and magazines helped to push book sales into the millions.

56From “Household name”, Grisham became a “brandname”. Crichton’s grand summer of 1993 was due to other media forces. His books were popular in the film industry. When Jurassic Park was released in June 1993, it was incredibly successful:

  • 39 Ibid., p.197.

Jurassic Park was a blockbuster film generating an overabundance of positive publicity (great reviews and word-of-mouth, billboards, tie-ins with McDonald’s, posters, toys, stuffed animals, video games, tee-shirts and other clothing, school lunchboxes, etc.) […] Ballantine did not sit by idly; they realized they were given the greatest (and free) media exposure in recent history, and they released every Crichton title in their collection, even the allegedly “inferior” Congo […]. All of the rampant film publicity sparked a feeding frenzy for Crichton’s books, propelling him onto the bestseller list.39

57Ballantine’s opportunism “made” Crichton: “They were in the right place at the right time, and they were able to take advantage of a golden opportunity”.

58“What was the impact of the Grisham-Crichton phenomenon?” is the question Greco asks. This outburst of booksales certainly brings in a lot of money to the book industry which is now very much dependent on megabestsellers. These megabestselling authors cerainly got America reading, as much as Oprah Winfrey – though it may be regrettable that so many “serious authors” are still not reaching the public they deserve. But it must be said that “B list authors” (just below the “superstar” category) are also rather unhappy about not being able to move onto the bestseller list. In addition, this situation creates some friction between some “B list authors” (who, in the past, would have had a chance of achieving “bestselling status”) and their publishers. They want to know what is being done to promote their books.

59It comes now as no surprise that the megabestsellers absorb all the attention. As Daisy Maryles puts it, in an interview conducted by Dick Donahue:

Most people would have happily bet their life savings on the fact that John Grisham’s The Street Lawyer would be the country’s #1 bestselling fiction title as soon as it hit the stores, but there would have been no naysayers. Indeed, with Doubleday’s laydown date of February 4 and a hefty first printing of 2.8 million, it’s no surprise that Grisham’s latest lands at the #1 spot in hardcover during its first week – and that the Dell Island edition of The Partner continues its hold on the top mass market spot for the fifth week in a row (its first printing was 3.8 million). To generate a buzz for The Street Lawyer , Doubleday ran ads in the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal featuring a partial first chapter and listing an email address.

  • 40  Grisham’s letter (below)can be found at this address: (...)
  • 41  Many authors have admitted to being worn out by these tours. Michael Dorris says she feels like: “ (...)
  • 42  Greco’s definition of “the author’s tour”: “An author’s tour is a tested way to generate a “buzz” (...)
  • 43  Editor Richard Marek underlines the importance of TV apperances: “Ironically, though, that most im (...)

60The microsite alluded to here was created specially for the launch of The Street Lawyer, and functions along side the “official” Grisham sites. Fans have access to the integrity of the first chapter, which is also obtainable via an on-line Bookstore such as Amazon, (all you need to do is leave your email address and specify your interest in Grisham). Grisham’s various web sites are often updated with various elements such as on-line interviews, letters40 and messages from the author); All promotional aspects are coordinated by the publisher, and some authors find it hard to put up with all the book signing sessions41. But Grisham can now afford to lay down the rules as far as author’s tour42, TV appearances43, book events, etc... are concerned.

61Nervertheless, Grisham is marketing-minded enough to comply with what it takes to be a megabestselling author and he knows how fragile his position is. “The bestselling author of the decade” is lucid enough to compare his career to an athlete’s arc. He knows that there is no such thing as an eternal superstar status:

You have some really good years where you’re on top, and then one day it’s over. I won’t always write a book a year. I won’t always write about lawyers. Once the legal thrillers run their course, I’d like to get back to telling stories about the South and Ford County [the fictional setting of A Time To Kill].

62Grisham, collector of Faulkner first editions, seems to be a little tired of his mediatic role and admits to having other ambitions: “I think that one day I’d like to become a Southern writer”. He does realise that being a “Southern writer” is a totally different ball game, but nevertheless, he dreams on: “Yeah, that’s my goal, to become a true Southern writer […]Who also sells a few copies. In my lifetime.” Who knows?… Maybe this is yet an other bet Grisham can win.

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ECO, U, De Superman au Surhomme, Paris, Grasset, 1993.

GRECO, A., The Book Publishing Industry, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1997.

GRISHAM, J., The Street Lawyer, London, Arrow Books, 1998.

---. The Partner, London, Arrow Books, 1997.

---.The Runaway Jury, London, Arrow Books, 1996.

---. The Rainmaker, London, Arrow Books, 1995.

---.The Chamber, London, Arrow Books, 1994.

---.The Client, London, Arrow Books, 1993.

---.The Pelican Brief, London, Arrow Books, 1992.

---.The Firm, London, Arrow Books, 1991.

---.A Time to Kill, London, Arrow Books, 1989.

GROSS, G., Editors on Editing, New York, Grove Press, 1993.

LESSING, D., Walking in the Shade, London, Flamingo, 1997.

MAREK, R., “How Books Are Chosen”, Editors on Editing, New York, Grove Press, 1993, p.87.

MOGEL, L. Making it in Book Publishing, New York, Macmillan, 1996.

SAWHILL, R. and Brown, C., “Grisham’s Gospel”, Newsweek, (February 15, 1999).

SCHUSTER, L., “An open letter to a Would-be Editor”, Editors on Editing, New York, Grove Press, 1993.

TOCQUEVILLE (de), A., De la Démocratie en Amérique, Tome 2, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1981.

WOLF, W., “Editing Nonfiction”, in Editors on Editing, New York, Grove Press, 1993.

ZALESKI, J., Publishers Weekly online: The Grisham Business, Jan 19, 1998.


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1  He told readers that his book was “consubstantiel à son auteur. Qui touche l’un touche l’autre”.

2  Publishers Weekly online: The Grisham Business, Jeff Zaleski, Jan 19, 1998.

3  As Montaigne says: “Je parle au papier comme je parle au premier que que je rencontre”. “Le parler que j’aime, c’est un parler simple et naïf, tel sur le papier qu’à la bouche, un parler succulent et nerveux, court et serré, non tant délicat et peigné comme véhément et brusque”. Jean D’Ormesson, Une autre Histoire de la Littérature Française, Nil Éditions, 1997, p.39,

4  Publishers Weekly online: The Grisham Business, Jeff Zaleski, Jan 19, 1998.

5 Ibid.

6  His wife is his principal advisor, but two publishing dynamos have helped shaped his career. The first was literary agent Jay Garon, who agreed to represent Grisham after reading his unsolicited submission of A Time to Kill in 1987. David Gernert replaced Garon after his death. He acts both as an edito and agent for Grisham.

7  Publishers Weekly online: The Grisham Business, Jeff Zaleski, Jan 19, 1998.

8  Ibid.

9  Umberto Eco, De Superman au Surhomme, Grasset, Paris, 1993, p.14.

10  Sometimes Grisham will go as far as to explain why the hero is a good lawyer: “The most effective defense lawyers are those who keep the fighting away from the issues. They bitch and throw rocks over the tiny subplots of a case and hope the prosecution and the jury are diverted away from the obvious guilt of their clients. If there’s something to hide, they scream at the other guy for violating technicalities. Right now they should be nailing down the facts of what, if anything, Clifford said to mark. It should be so simple. But now the kid had a lawyer [Reggie], and here they were trying to explain how they obtained certain crucial information” Grisham, The Client, Arrow Books London,1993, p.130. In this case, Reggie is a good lawyer because she knows how to use the techniques defense lawyers use to defend “bad guys”, but of course, she’s doing it for a “good” cause (the cause of an innocent child).

11  Grisham, The Client, Arrow Books London,1993, p.106.

12  Ibid., p.119.

13  Umberto Eco, De Superman au Surhomme, Grasset, Paris, 1993, p.64.

14  J. Grisham, The Client, Arrow Books London,1993 p.106.

15 Ibid., p.107.

16 Ibid., p.109.

17 Ibid., p. 111.

18 Ibid., p.111.

19  J. Grisham, The Firm, Arrow Books London,1991, p.132.

20 Ibid., p.280.

21 Ibidem, p.281

22 Ibid., p.283.

23 Ibid., p.284.

24 Ibid., p.284.

25 Ibid., p.96.

26  T.Todorov, Poétique de la Prose, Typologie du roman policier, Seuil, 1971, p.14.

27  R. Sawhill and C. Brown, Grisham’s Gospel, Newsweek, February 15, 1999, p.58

28  A. Greco, The Book Publishing Industry, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1997, p. 204- 205: “…90% perhaps as many as 95%, of the books published are stone cold dead by the end of their first year of life.”
In the 1980s, Leonard Shatzkin in his book entitled In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis, critizes the American book industry:
No other consumer industry produces 20,000 different, relatively low-priced products each year, each with its own personality, requiring individual recognition in the market.” p. 203.
(meanwhile 50 000 books are published on a yearly basis).

29  A. Greco, The Book Publishing Industry, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1997, p.116.

30  A. Tocqueville (de), De la Démocratie en Amérique, tome 2, Paris,Garnier-Flammarion, 1981, p.51.

31  S. Hengen, Margaret Atwood’s Power, Second Story Press, 1993, p.75 (Hengen cite Atwood).

32  W. M. Wolf, “Editing Nonfiction”, Editors on Editing, New York, Grove Press, 1993, p.235.

33  Ibid., p.77.

34  According to Tocqueville, American people were “book consumers” whereas the French aristocracy had a different attitude to books: “Dans les aristocraties, les lecteurs sont difficiles et peu nombreux; dans les démocraties, il est moins malaisé de leur plaire, et leur nombre est prodigieux. Il résulte de là que, chez les peuples aristocratiques, on ne doit espérer de réussir qu’avec d’immenses efforts, et que ces efforts, qui peuvent donner beaucoup de gloire, ne sauraient jamais procurer beaucoup d’argent”.

35 Ibid., p.47.

36 Ibid., p.77.

37  This demand-led strategy is called a “pull strategy”.

38  A. Greco, The Book Publishing Industry, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1997, p.196.

39 Ibid., p.197.

40  Grisham’s letter (below)can be found at this address:; “The Testament is my tenth novel. It’s been ten years since A Time to Kill was published, and eight years since The Firm became a bestseller. It’s been a heckuva ride, and I thank you, the readers, for making my success possible. I’m very fortunate to be able to spend half of each year writing the next book. The other half is spent coaching little league baseball and pursuing other interests. I’d like to welcome you to my web site, something I know very little about. But Stephen King has one, so I thought I’d better keep up with the competition. My publisher was kind enough to set this up, and now that I’ve played around with it a little I have to admit it’s a pretty amazing medium. I hope you find plenty here to keep you entertained and informed. Each of my ten novels is represented by its cover art, full descriptive copy, and an excerpt. There’s also a trivia quiz about my own books. I almost flunked it. Thanks again for reading the books, and for stopping by. Enjoy. John Grisham”.

41  Many authors have admitted to being worn out by these tours. Michael Dorris says she feels like: “... a badmington birdie batted back and forth across the skyline of Denver or Boston or Chicago. One stop you’re the jovial raconteur, an anecdote a minute; the next you’re Mr. or Ms. National public Radio, serious and literary. You’re self-deprecating in talking to a newspaper reporter, aggressive on a phoner (call-in show), defensive, trusting, joking, serious. You take on the mood of your interviewer, the colors of your context”. Leonard Mogel, Making it in Book Publishing, New York, Macmillan, 1996, p.88. Doris Lessing, in her memoirs (Walking in the Shade, London, Flamingo, 1997) explains how she writes out thousands of dedications: “For Marie, ou Bobbie, suivi de “Happy birthday” ou “Merry Christmas””. “The writer who has begun with a fierce concern for the honour of literature, and who might even once have refused insane messages, since she has never heard of Marie, Bobbie, and the rest, is broken down by the demand, will do anything to put an end to this miserable business.” (Ibid., p. 98). On the ridicule of dedications, Doris lessing says: “A couple of summers ago there was a joke going around the Oxford students: “I have the only unsigned copy of…” How can anyone possibly value these signatures?”(Ibid., p.99).

42  Greco’s definition of “the author’s tour”: “An author’s tour is a tested way to generate a “buzz” about a book. Sending an author out on the road to sign books and talk on radio and television shows is costly and time consuming, yet everyone in the industry recognizes the importance to undertake the endeavor. A promotion director will construct a highly structured tour to minimize problems and maximize the author’s exposure to the media. The goal is to generate intense media “buzz” for the author’s new book; it is not, clearly, a vacation for the author”. Albert Greco, The Book Publishing Industry, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1997, p.192.

43  Editor Richard Marek underlines the importance of TV apperances: “Ironically, though, that most immediate of all media, television, has a huge bearing on the decision of whether or not to buy a book. ‘ Is (s)he good on the tube?’is one of the questions most frequently asked about the author; it often seems that articulateness in person (to say nothing of good looks) is more important than articulateness in writing, and for good reasons. There is no question that a strong appearance on a talk show like Oprah or Donahue will influence sale far more than the writer’s skill in organizing his material or presenting a logically written case”. Richard Marek, “How Books Are Chosen”, Editors on Editing, New York, Grove Press, 1993, p.87.

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Christine Evain, « John Grisham’s Megabestsellers », Sillages critiques, 6 | 2004, 109-124.

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Christine Evain, « John Grisham’s Megabestsellers », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2009, consulté le 24 janvier 2020. URL :

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Christine Evain

Professeur agrégé, École centrale de Nantes

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