How to sell 80 million books

Start off with a paragraph like this:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

This is the opening of The Da Vinci Code. You may have heard of it. It’s sold more copies than Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which was released 105 years earlier and has been selling every year since. The Da Vinci Code is, in fact, the second best-selling book of English fiction ever. Why?

Is it because Dan Brown is a great writer? Is it his mastery of the simple sentence? Or is is it because he’s a Transformer of the literary world?

Does it bother me that some of the most popular things in entertainment are also some of the worst in terms of quality?

It does, actually, because it’s possible to entertain and be popular and not sacrifice your craft in the process. Die Hard is a smart, funny action movie. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is noisy, insultingly dumb, incoherent and borderline racist. And yet…$843 million grossed worldwide. The Da Vinci Code is the go-to book when one wants to point out the worst bestseller. But clearly writers like Brown and directors like Michael Bay have tapped into a formula that resonates with a lot of people, people who are unconcerned that what they are reading or viewing is the equivalent of junk food.

I’m not putting myself above the masses, either. I read Stephen King, I sat through Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I’m a fan of pop culture and fascinated by it at the same time. It just seems that we are in a downward spiral, where dumb just isn’t dumb enough anymore.

I expect the top-grossing movie in 2020 will be three hours of cars exploding. It will star Shia LaBeouf’s son. The bestselling book will be Dan Brown’s The Forgotten Clue, a collection of sentence fragments in pop-up format. The movie version, also starring Shia LaBeouf’s son, will gross $1.1 billion. Sure, ticket prices will be $50 each, but still.

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