Danielle Steel: Selling 800 million (mediocre) books

It was 1976 and Doubleday – one of the biggest book publishers – had just bought Dell publishing. Dell publishing was given a mandate and resources to grow more aggressively.

That’s when Bill Grose, one of Dell’s editors came up with an idea: lets copy the playbook of “Love Story.” Grose asked one of Doubleday’s existing writers to help him with the project. And that’s how Danielle Steel got her lucky break.

Danielle Steel’s lucky break: mimicking Love Story

Erich Segal, a professor at Yale, had taken a sabbatical and written a screenplay titled “Love Story” – a sappy romance between a rich boy and a poor girl. But when the screenplay didn’t sell, his agent recommended Segal to convert the screenplay into a book.

No one expected Segal’s book to sell well. The publisher published just 5000 copies of it. But one of the 5000 copies reached Barbara Walters – the famous TV host. She spoke about it on air and the book just took off. The screenplay was sold to Paramount Pictures as well – who made the movie. And “Love Story” ended up being the sixth highest grossing movie of all time!

The book helped the movie with its promotion and build a base of hardcore fans, and the movie helped the book sell a lot more copies!

Bill Grose decided to replicate this idea. He tied up with Universal Pictures who were making a romance movie of their own titled “The Promise.” And got Danielle Steel to convert the screenplay into a book.

And then Grose spent $300,000 on TV, radio, and newspaper ads. He spent a lot of money on display boards that book stores could use to prominently showcase the book. The result was a book that hit the bestsellers lists! And Danielle Steel became a very popular author.

The Promise wasn’t Danielle Steel’s first book. She had already published three books before – but none had sold as well. The Promise wasn’t even her original story. But she took the breaks that she got in life and built an empire on top of it.

Erich Segal vs Danielle Steel

Erich Segal made a lot of money because of the Love Story. But he said that the book ruined his life. Why? Because lowbrow romance books are universally panned by critics.

Questions were raised about Segal’s scholarship. Students stopped attending his classes because no one wanted to study classical literature from a professor who had written pulp romance. And finally, Yale denied his tenure!

Segal earned success and fame, but it came with critics and peers panning him. To try to prove that he was scholarly, he published a lot of deep works on Latin and Greek literature. But he remained unhappy for several years.

On the other hand, Danielle Steel faced the same criticism. She got a lot of flak. A lot of comments saying that the quality of her book didn’t merit the sales it received.

But Steel had the opposite reaction. She merely studied what worked and pressed ahead to replicate it. Rich protagonists face a crisis situation, but in the end, true love triumphs. She took that theme and turned it into a formula. And churned out book after book after book.

And every book received poor critical reviews. And every book sold a million copies.

She started writing 5-7 books a year! And is known to work 20 hour days, only sleeping for 4 hours. She became so prolific with her work that she won the record for the author who stayed on the New York Times Bestsellers list for the most number of weeks. Because as soon as one book title would start slipping, she would have a new book come out. 

Cliches work

Cliches are boring. Formulaic books don’t do anything to move the field of literature ahead. But cliches also help bring a sense of satisfaction. Because when everything goes exactly as you expect it to go, you find it pleasing. 

And Steel understood this. She didn’t write for people who wanted to be surprised. She wrote for people who wanted to escape the drama of their lives. And so, she gave them familiar stories with happy endings. Something that was a breeze to read through.

And it worked. Her books have sold over 800 million copies all over the world! And never won any type of critical award once!

Action Summary:

  • Learn to look at what is working, instead of what people are saying. Do more of what is working, disregarding the critics.
  • You don’t need the best product to do well. You just need to connect what you have with an existing human emotional need.