Over 40 years, Jeffrey Archer, 72, has sold around 270 million copies of his 31 books in 33 languages across 139 countries. He started and ended his political career in scandal twice, is a life peer of the Conservative Party in Britain, and has a fortune estimated at $150 million (Rs 815.1 crore). Archer was in India to launch the third of his five-book Clifton Chronicles series that spans the fortunes of two competing families from the 1920s to the present day. The first two books have sold collectively 500,000 copies in India. On average, Archer’s books sell around 300,000 copies in India every year. Although he says he finds all discussion of commerce and money “vulgar”, he agreed to answer questions from Fortune India on evaluating his life as one of the greatest marketers of modern times. Edited excerpts:
In your career, you must have faced these obstacles mentioned in Michael Porter’s 5 Forces Analysis: the threat of substitute products, the threat of new entrants, and rivalry within the industry. How did you counter them?
I have seen everything from John Grisham to Dan Brown, from boy wizards [Harry Potter] to erotica [50 Shades of Grey] and there has been competition from all sides. But early on, I decided that the way I did my work had to be creatively independent from the market. If I tried to respond to changing audience tastes, I would never be able to tell immortal stories. So my focus has been to tell stories that people identify with, things that happen around them, things that could happen to them, perhaps. You can say that I have stuck to my core competence. When you pick up a book written by me, you know what you will get. My buyers expect a particular product and they like that they always get what they want.
When did you realise that the Jeffrey Archer brand needed strategic thinking different from Jeffrey Archer the writer?
I have never tried to think of myself as a brand. But after Kane and Abel [which went into 92 reprints], I realised there was a huge demand for my work. To be honest, I could have retired after it and lived on an island for the rest of my life soaking up the sun. But I didn’t want people to stop reading me. If there is a brand, it is the stories that sustain it. I have never tried to differentiate my writing from me as a brand, as you call it, because the moment you try to do that, it defeats the purpose of engaging with an audience. The product is more important than the maker. Jane Austen lived a quiet life in a small village and wrote some of the bestselling books the world has ever known. That is real brand building.
What is the comparative advantage of the brand Jeffrey Archer and the goods and services it provides?
I think it is the fact that I tell stories that happen around people in their day-to-day lives. You can’t beat that advantage. I read the newspapers to get little nuggets of information and characters. That’s what keeps my books modern and fresh. I don’t create characters. I don’t need to. I have never imagined a character. Say, I look at a man [he points at Fortune India’s photo editor Bandeep Singh] and I think well, here is a character, a tall, large man, with a beard and glasses, who takes photographs. I don’t need to invent him. He is there. This is what I have always done. My characters all come from real life. That’s why they remain true and have a long shelf life.
Some people have suggested that great marketing is essentially great storytelling. Do you agree?
It is true that at the heart of everything that we do, there is storytelling. So, yes, the point is what kind of stories you are able to tell. Whether those stories resonate with other people. Every product must have a story. Without the story, there is no product.
Are fiction and marketing closer to each other than is usually apparent?
It is important to notice that not all stories or storytellers have the same power all the time. Frank Sinatra in his middle years played at gigs which had 117 people! And yet, in the later years, when he sang in London, the whole street was blocked by thousands of people. So at different times, in different places, audience reception might vary but if the story is strong, it will survive.
As the book business goes through a complete overhaul, how is author marketing changing? For instance, are you in India almost every year now because it is one of the biggest markets of the Archer universe?
I get an incredible reception each time I come to India and I treasure that. I don’t think a writer can really market oneself but what one does is keep up with the times. I check the rankings and sales of my books on Amazon every single day. I compare my sales with other comparable writers. I know, for instance, that in 2011, when the first book of the Clifton Chronicles released, 5% of its total sales were e-books. By the second book last year, it was 16%, and now with the third book it will be around 27%. By the time the fifth book is released, we expect that a full 50% of the sales will be in the form of e-books. You have to track it closely and then go back to writing the stories that you do.
Have you ever contemplated striking a direct deal with Amazon? Or do you believe in traditional publishing?
Well, it is not new to me. More than a decade ago, someone suggested that I publish my own books. I would make far more money that way. But I have had a relationship with bookstores and publishers for four decades. I still write with pen and paper and still sharpen pencils to correct proofs. It’s too late for me to change that. I don’t want to. I want to keep supporting publishers and bookshops. But if I was a 26-year-old author today, I would just skip the publishers and jump to the Internet and sell my own books. But I am 72; I love my old ways.