Sitting in a hotel room last fall on one of many book tours he undertook for his U.S. and U.K. publishers, bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith suffered a paralyzing panic attack. But ever the professional, and a courteous Scot, McCall Smith made the rest of his appearances without complaint and continued to submit the requisite 1,000 words a day for his serial novel, then running daily in the Edinburgh newspaper the Scotsman. Even though McCall Smith's publishers suggested that he take this as a sign and cut back, if anything he's chosen to up the ante by publishing a dozen originals and reprints this year.
As a writer who can produce 3,000 words in a sitting, he's not inclined to hold back on new books for his two very successful franchises: the six-volume No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and the Sunday Philosophy Club series, which debuted last fall. Neither is he putting the brakes on publishing the novel commissioned by the Scotsman, nor even on releasing a trio of previously self-published titles. That's in addition to consulting with directors Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack's Mirage Enterprises, which will soon begin shooting for a six-hour television series based on the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
Yet the real mystery here is not so much how he can keep up such a frenetic pace, but how many of his books the market can bear. Can McCall Smith—widely regarded as one of the most considerate and charming people in the business—defy the proverbial saying about nice guys finishing last? Or will even his most devoted fans find themselves sated long before they've devoured his six new adult titles, two children's books and four paperback reprints?
The Plot Thickens
Since August 2002, when Anchor Books began publishing his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the five Botswana-based mysteries have sold 3.5 million copies in paperback. Not bad, considering that the first three books in the series were launched with first printings well under 20,000 copies.
Though the 2004 sales of more than 500,000 trade paperbacks of the flagship title represents a decline of approximately 12% from 2003, when the book was a Today Show book club pick, Vintage/Anchor publisher Anne Messitte believes that the series has not peaked. She's gambling that a $6.99 mass market edition with an estimated printing of 500,000 copies will expand the readership considerably. (It will be the second title in Vintage's very selective new mass market program, which will launch in June with Bill Clinton's two-volume My Life.) Messitte also notes that the second and third paperbacks in the series sold as many copies last year as the year before. "We've seen that once somebody starts reading the series, they're hooked," she said.
The strategically priced $19.95 hardcover editions of the Botswana series, which were introduced with the fourth volume, have also shown substantial growth. According to Bookscan, there was a 25% sales increase between volumes 4 and 5. Pantheon will launch the hardcover of Vol. 6: In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, next month with 175,000 copies. Meanwhile, the house has netted more than 180,000 hardcover of The Sunday Philosophy Club, said Messitte.
Still, the proliferation of series and titles has become daunting. In addition to McCall Smith's two main series, Anchor is introducing several new paperback originals. The Professor Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainments are three collections of interlinked academic satires featuring rival German philologists. Originally self-published in Britain in 1996, they have each sold about 40,000 copies in the U.S. since January. In June, Anchor will also publish 44 Scotland Street, McCall Smith's serial novel from the Scotsman, with an anticipated first printing of 75,000.
To help booksellers and the media keep it all straight, the company sent out 3,000 posters, as a guide to what's coming out in 2005. Two tours for McCall Smith's spring and fall hardcovers will also keep the emphasis on his main series. The ongoing marketing push includes floor displays, a Web site (www.randomhouse.com/ features/mccallsmith) and reading group guides.
Vintage is also clearly downplaying some titles, such as McCall Smith's hardcover collection of African folk tales, TheGirl Who Married a Lion (Dec.), which has sold in the 12-15,000-copy range. And the house opted not to publish other available titles, such as McCall Smith's early self-published story collection, Heavenly Date, which Canongate has reissued in the U.K.
Reviewing the Evidence
Though some readers and booksellers are starting to complain about the uneven quality of the books in the Botswana series, McCall Smith's editor at Pantheon and Vintage/Anchor, Edward Kastenmeier, says he's not worried about people getting tired of it. "One thing that gives me a great deal of confidence is that I can say In the Company of Cheerful Ladies is probably my favorite book so far."
For now, buyers at the major chains and independents share Kastenmeier's optimism. "We're doing fantastic with all of McCall Smith's titles," said Dan Mayer, a buyer at Barnes & Noble Booksellers. "The true test came last fall with the release of The Sunday Philosophy Club. The customer response was as strong and virtually indistinguishable to that for his Botswana series. He has a unique and very comforting writing style. You can't help but feel a genuine warmth for the characters."
One of the few buyers to express the obvious concern about how to display the multitude of titles was Barry Rossnick at the nine-store Books, Inc., in the San Francisco Bay area. "It's a question in small stores, if you're going to devote a bookshelf to McCall Smith," he said. "His publishers need to be careful. But so far it's all selling."
At Borders Books and Music, which displays the two main series in the mystery section and the others in fiction, buyer Bill Adams sees each new book as bringing in new readers. At the seven-store Olsson's Books and Records in the Washington, D.C., area, The Sunday Philosophy Club is selling to confirmed McCall Smith fans, said general manager Virginia Powers. But she predicted that it will help him attract a different set of readers, because it is more satirical than the Botswana series.
Many booksellers believe that the author's personal touch is helping him make a lasting impression. On tour, McCall Smith has begun wearing a kilt to his signings, as a sign of respect for his readers. "I take the view that it's a courtesy to dress up," McCall Smith told PW. "People are taking a certain trouble to see you. It's reciprocal." That extra effort has made a difference for customers at Books, Inc. "People will come a long way to see him," head buyer Barry Rossnick said. "He's as warm as the books."
For his part, McCall Smith—currently on a three-year unpaid leave of absence from his day job as a professor of medical law at Edinburgh University—recognizes that there can be too much of a good thing. He has placed an eight-book cap on the Botswana series. As for the Sunday Philosophy Club, he has contracted for four books and has two books left to write in that series.
"It's good to have a notional idea of when to stop," said McCall Smith. Still, he added, "It may be that in the future I would add one or two. It would be churlish not to if there is enough demand."