This text was published in The Blue Notebook by Impact Press at The Centre for Fine Press Research, University of the West of England, Bristol, in October 2015.

How to write a worst-seller

It is clear what a best-seller is.

It is not so clear what a worst-seller is.

If we want to learn what a best-seller is it's enough to use any dictionary and soon we will know everything. But if we want to learn what a worst-seller is, it's absolutely not enough to use all dictionaries, because this word does not exist. At least officially.

It's interesting why the notion worst-seller is not clear, if the opposition best-worst seems so clear that needs no explanations.

It's also interesting why the notion best-seller refers to books – if someone says “oh, it was a real best-seller” we at once think about a book, not about a table or shoes or new revolutionary central heating system. We at once imagine a book sold in millions of copies, sold out edition and necessity to print a new one, and so on. Millions of copies sold mean also that millions of people have this book now and supposedly read it (it is necessary to emphasize that to possess a book does not mean to read it – however possessing a book is a good step towards reading it).

So, if someone says “oh, it was a real worst-seller” we at once should think about a book, not about an unwearable hat or a laptop too heavy to carry it. We at once should imagine a book sold in a few copies only, an edition stored somewhere, piles of copies a publisher doesn't know what to do with – maybe to recycle them? how? to recycle a paper or words? – and so on. A few sold copies mean also that only a few people read it (of course not necessarily – maybe they have bought a book because it looks nice on a shelf or wanted to give someone a really confusing gift).

It seems an edition is the essence of the problem. A number of copies. A percentage. One million copies sold seems very good result, provided that we have printed one million copies. But if we printed ten millions copies, then the result is not satisfying at all. One tenth of the whole edition – that's really bad. But not the worst. What would be the worst: five thousand? a few hundred? a dozen? none? From purely mathematical point of view none would be the worst result – but if you sell nothing at all, not even one copy, then you don't sell, then we can't speak and write about selling, because selling simply doesn't occur. Hence one copy sold would be the worst possible result of selling.


No, not really. Artist's books, book-objects, experimental books, fine-press books, liBerature... whatever we call them, whatever sort of unconventional books they are, have never been printed in millions of copies, though some of them could, why not? If we print a book in edition of one copy only and we sell it, then we sell the whole edition! Not bad. A best-seller, isn't it? If we print one hundred copies and sell eighty – also not bad. Almost a best-seller, too. But if we sell ten copies and give away seventy as gifts – then it's not good, then we may say: oh, probably we have written a best-giver.

Worth closer look is a so called open edition. It's a sort of print-on-demand. When a book is needed a copy of it is printed and sold or given. What does it mean? It means that a book (meaning a title) is permanently sold out yet also permanently available. A very interesting phenomenon, indeed. A worst-best-seller. Worst due to the number of copies – best due to the fact of being sold out... Well, now even the notion of best-seller seems now as clear as it was in the beginning.

Yes, we are getting lost in the labyrinth of numbers and logic, while we still don't know how to write a worst-seller. That's right, but first of all we must know what are we going to write, what this damn worst-seller is.

In case of a best-seller we do everything to sell as many copies as possible.

In case of a worst-seller we do (or should do) everything to sell as few copies as possible.

So, make an edition of more than one copy, sell only one copy, don't sell the rest of them. Hide them. Don't speak about them. No news. No information... Seems easy and simple. But is neither easy nor simple. This is a good way to produce a legend. And a legend is an enemy of a worst-seller. Rumours and gossips will start. Secret tales about a mysterious book sold only in one copy to nobody knows whom. And if the lucky buyer shows the book and says: look, it's nothing special, just a little bit crazy book, that's all... people won't believe and they will begin to ask questions: nothing special? then why only one copy has been sold? why other copies are not going to be sold? what a hell does all this mean? And so on.

Making a lazy and unattractive promotion campaign won't do, either. Any information (including no information, since no information is a piece of information, too) is dangerous, because an information likes to live its own life and we can control it only to some extent, in a limited way. What is being sold now awfully bad, can be sold very well decades later. What is now regarded as not worth even a glimpse of an eye, can be considered extremely valuable in the future, not necessarily the nearest. Manipulating the price is not good idea, either. Too low price makes people think your book is a rubbish, to high price may of course discourage buyers, but it may as well make some people think it is something very valuable, especially those who think that the price reflects the real value of a work...

But we have again fallen into the abyss of mathematical+economical=marketing speculations which is not the answer to our question.

Let's concentrate on writing, then. And let's answer another question, a very fundamental one: do we want people like to read our book, or do we want people not to like to read our book? If people like to read our book, it means also they would like to buy it (well, they may also copy it, or borrow), and if they start buying it, they could make it a best-seller, and this is what we'd like to avoid. So, we should make people not to like to read our book. Our book must threaten them, repel, push brutally away. It should have a sticker on the cover: BEWARE OF THE BOOK! Yes, absolutely. It must be as dangerous for readers as a trap is for mice, and a reader must be aware of it. But beware! Various perverts are among readers, and the more abominable and monstrous our book is the more satisfied they are. Each beast has its beauty, no doubt.

We can try to make it unreadable. The easiest way to do so is to write it in a language known to nobody, but it's not that easy to learn such a language, nor to create it (though a bit easier). And if we succeed, then as a result we will get a book which sooner or later will reach the status of a magic book, a secret, mysterious scripture, and people would like to decipher it suspecting it may contain the essence of wisdom or a recipe for happiness and wellness and richness and so on. And what a challenge for hungry intellects – like the Phaistos disc, or rongorongo tablets. Then even the worst fame of the condemn diabolic text will not stop people from buying it.

Writing it in a normal language but then selling in a country where people don't know it (or in the kingdom of the illiterate) will not work, either, for not surprisingly somebody speaking this language can be found and met even in the most distant corner of the world (if such corners do exist now).

So, we can try to write it in the most complex way. Tousled text, highly sophisticated vocabulary, plenty of newly created words, long winding sentences, phrases tied in knots, long and boring intellectual speculations as vast, burning, barren and dusty as Sahara, chaos of typefaces, jungle of lines, colours and sizes, unique construction of a book forcing readers to use all their skills to open it and turn a page, and causing deep frustration not knowing how to close it. All in all malaria for the mind, plague for the eyes, cholera for the soul.... But first of all: write what you want to write, write what should be written – don't write what they would like to read. Forget about readers, editors, publishers – no compromises, with anybody, even with machines... Do mountains think about those who climb them? No, definitely not.

Alas, do worry. All in vain. Although quite a lot of people like to torture their bodies climbing the Himalayas or trekking across Antarctica, there are some who do like to torture their intellects.

And if we try to write just a beautiful book? A book beautiful in its every aspect. Beautiful traditionally (if these two words are still understandable properly, if anybody has ever been able to understand what they mean). Hoping the old-schoolers are the extinct race... All in vain, too. Some of them survived hidden in their caves filled with books and they begin every new day having beauty for breakfast.

So what can we do?

What can I do? If I don't know how to write a best-seller (and will never learn it), if it is impossible to write a worst-seller, I can write only bad-sellers. And this is what I can do perfectly.