Learn to write a bestseller in ten easy steps

Or buy a polite “doesn’t meet our needs at this time” for $50.

Marketing Magazine, May 6, 2002 

Ads in the back pages of magazines used to ask aspiring artists to draw a pirate or Tippy the Turtle in order that a Qualified Professional could determine whether they had Talent. It was a come-on for a correspondence course. “Of course you’re talented. For $49.95, we’ll teach you enough to make BIG MONEY in Commercial Illustration.” An idea that good doesn’t disappear. It gets digitized.

‍     We were watching A&E’s Law & Order reruns, playing that twist on Name That Tune where you try to name the crime, finger the perp and bark out the verdict or plot twist before the first commercial.

‍     That first commercial tweezed our interest. “I’ve always had a knack for writing, telling stories,” says a guy, who explains that he’s finally decided to start writing. But he’s not going to start punishing his keyboard with nothing more than a plot outline, some poetic descriptive ability and a finely tuned ear for dialogue. He’s using something called “Inside Sessions” and its top-notch faculty of experts — real capital-W writers — to secure his spot on the bestseller list. The commercial shows them in rapid succession; their only shared trait is their status as published authors: Amy Tan, Nora Roberts, Tom Clancy, Nick Hornby, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., A. Scott Berg, Ken Follett, Sue Grafton, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Just the people you’d want to teach you how to write a bestseller in 10 easy lessons — that’s all it takes, apparently (surprising more people don’t do it, if it’s that easy.)

‍     You can imagine what an eager student might make of their accumulated smarts: “I tried to use everything I learned using Inside Sessions, so I’ve written a sprawling, multi-generational story about three Chinese leprechaun sisters who have to leave an island off the coast of New England — where they’ve had trouble assimilating anyway — to stop Russian mobsters from detonating a dirty nuclear device they paid for by selling off their record collections after their girlfriends dumped them. They know they ought to grow up, but they fear that will mean losing their feckless adolescent insouciance. And their obsession with that prevents them from realizing they’re being ground into dead-eyed consumerist nubs whose lives are pale, mediated, mall-staggered facsimiles of the real thing. Did I mention one of the thugs is a deaf-mute idiot savant? He’s in love with one of the leprechauns, and they’re really brother and sister, fathered by a fugitive Nazi and a former equipment manager for the Boston Red Sox who’s a crooked but lovable Tammany fixer. But she has to choose between a hunky sheriff and an emotionally impacted fiction editor whose greatest achievement is being a forgotten midwife to deathless literature.”

‍     Something for everyone. It can’t miss.

‍     Inside Sessions is a joint effort of Vivendi-Universal and Penguin Putnam, two separate corporate empires. That’s surprising, since this seems like a perfect example of “synergy.” All five featured “faculty,” not surprisingly, are Penguin Putnam authors. Is their participation in Inside Sessions contractually mandated? Do they get paid extra? Or does this count as marketing, the same as their commitments to making in-store appearances, signing hundreds of books at a time and being asked the same five questions by every TV, radio, print and on-line interlocutor in addition to making nice with Oprah’s people?

‍     The Inside Sessions web site reveals the true nature of the enterprise. There are degrees of “inside.” Basic insider status costs $69.95. That gets you the CD-ROM as well as on-line access to the ten easy bestseller-writing lessons and a guarantee that a Penguin editor will read your writing. (Although how will you ever know for sure?) Option two, Fortified Further Insiderdom, costs $119.90. That buys you everything option one offers plus “Chance to get work published. Get WRITTEN FEEDBACK from top Penguin Putnam, Inc. editors.” “Chance to get published” is not a feature of the $69.95 package. Anybody willing to spend only $70 to learn how to write isn’t serious about creating literature.

‍     This is a breakthrough: a publishing house, bottom line squeezed by the accountants now calling the shots, has finally figured out how to make money off the slush pile and make talentless writers pay for professional discouragement. Universal offers exactly the same service for aspiring rock-and-roll stars. But there, $50 buys you a record-company weasel telling you your demo stinks, instead of an editorial assistant telling you your first five chapters do.

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