Transformed Into a Bestseller by the Man Booker Prize

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet
His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

It’s no shock that marketing and promotion is a major part of bookselling in the modern age; about 50,000 novels are published each year in the U.S. alone, and each of those books has to compete with a shrunken brick-and-mortar sales space and a digital marketplace dominated by a few companies. Getting the word out is often what makes or breaks a novel, especially one from a debut author or an author who simply hasn’t earned much market penetration with previous efforts.

Towards that end, prizes have become increasingly important to authors seeking to plump their books. Prizes often come with a financial consideration, which any struggling author will agree is compelling by itself, but they also come with a marketing component. Not only are a raft of articles (like this one!) written about the short lists and long lists of various prizes, but publishers can often be convinced to re-issue the book with one of those foil-stamped stars on it announcing the book’s nomination or win. Getting the publisher to untie the purse strings a tiny bit and push your novel might be the difference between selling enough copies to keep your career afloat or going back to the dreaded Day Job.

And sometimes that marketing effort can actually transform a book that was dead in the water into a bestseller. Case in Point: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, which was short-listed in 2016 for the Man Booker Prize.

Short List, Big Sales

His Bloody Project is a terrific book, Burnet’s second. Published by a small Scottish company, the novel tells the story, supposedly based on real-life documents and newspaper accounts, of the 1869 triple homicide that the 17-year-old Roderick Macrae committed—and freely admits to in the manuscript Burnet discovers.

That sort of twisty faux-historical hutzpah is in line with Burnet’s previous work. He’s a writer who takes the traditions of the crime thriller and combines them with dense historical research and a dash of metafiction to create something truly magical.

Still, his publisher, tiny imprint Saraband, couldn’t mount much of a marketing campaign and the novel languished in the way most small-press novels languish. Prior to being listed as a candidate for this year’s Man Booker Prize, His Bloody Project sold about 600 copies, a figure with which plenty of small-press authors will be familiar. In fact, the week before the announcement the novel sold precisely one copy. The week after being listed for the prize? 5,622 copies.

The Power of Crime

Part of the outsize effect the shortlisting has had on His Bloody Project is due to the fact that the book is pitched and written more like a crime thriller than a complex historical novel about a crime. Burnet has crafted a deeply imagined work that delves into an obscure and largely isolated culture in Scotland in the mid-19th century (the book comes with a glossary of terms for those not immersed in such things), but also offers a complex psychological portrait of the killer, a man who questions the social structure around him and becomes violently opposed to the unfairness he perceives.

In these complexities and subtleties, His Bloody Project is in the same general arena as previous Booker Prize winner The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which also cloaked a murder mystery under layers of delightful cultural and historical investigation and recreation.

Burnet’s novel is written in the style of a modern-day thriller, which adds an edge of contemporary excitement to the story that has no doubt assisted in its sales; even readers for whom the erudite literary affectations of a book like The Luminaries will find plenty of red meat in Burnet’s story, which combines the mesmerizing voice of the murderer as he recounts the reasons for the killings and a series of accounts about the subsequent investigation and trial that will grab hold of any fan of a good mystery thriller.

The Power of the Prize

Still, even without Burnet’s thriller stylings, the book would likely have seen a surge; the Man Booker Prize prides itself on driving sales of its listed and awarded books.

2014’s winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North has sold more than a million copies worldwide since its announcement, a number the Man Booker folks are proud to inform you is more than the combined sales of Flanagan previous works combined. And last year’s winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, sold more than 12,000 copies in the single week after it was announced, a number the Man Booker folks would like you to know was almost a 1000% increase over his previous week’s sales.

Of course, these literary prizes are meant to be prestigious and not mere marketing techniques, but in the modern day, they certainly conflate. It’s important to note that the Man Booker Prize also awards £50,000, which comes to about $61,000, and there are relatively few working novelists who wouldn’t be delighted to get that kind of payday no matter what the sales bump might be. The fact that the sales bump is significant is really just icing on the cake.

None of this should be taken to imply that Burnet’s success is all hype and prize announcements. His Bloody Project is an excellent, fascinating book—well-researched, crisply written, and expertly paced. It’s one of those books that feels like you’re reading a breezy crime novel when in fact you’re reading something much, much more.