How to sell a book on the secrets of history? This comment tries to work out the basic principles. It was inspired by the 1982 book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” by Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh. The principles that made this book successful were used in many later works, often with good financial success. More about this book in a later chapter.
The first thing needed is a large target audience.
A serious archaeological book on, say, „The Hallstatt III C period settlements in the southwestern area of county X“ can reveal many unheard information and provide spectacular analysis but will hardly attract any readers. The topic simply does only appeal to a few experts, maybe 100 world wide, most of them living in or near county X. Since very few copies will be sold the price for each copy must be quite high so hardly any of these 100 people will actually buy it. A few libraries maybe.
To be financially successful the mass market must be addressed. The author needs a „selling claim“, something that arises interest, disbelief and curiosity in broad circles. Ideally, the entire book is written around this claim. Financially very successful in recent decades were titles suggesting religious sensations or scandals like „Was Jesus married?“. Such titles will attract much more people. Everyone knows Jesus but hardly anyone knows asserted biographical details. No wonder simply because no details are known. So an author who claims to know something will get attention. He will get sales if enough people take the book seriously enough to verify it which requires to buy it.
To achieve this the author has to a) make the book thick enough. Minimum 400 pages, 600 are better. b) to include some maps, drawings, photos, a large bibliography and many annotations. c), most important, to have a good cover and good cover and backcover texts. For the sale success these few formal factors are almost as important as the entire content of the book. Remember, when standing in the book shop the potential reader cannot check the book thoroughly before he buys. The three mentioned formal points are sufficient.
Now back to the content. Gossip sells. So much so good. But the question mark in „Was Jesus married?“ is not ideal. People will expect us to answer questions rather than asking them. If we do not know answers we must not admit that on the title. It is better to do it on page 237 („Though we cannot really prove our hypothesis...“) when the book is bought and royalties are ours. So the title „Jesus was married!“ is better. Even better are titles suggesting any sensational truth mighty organisations try to hide. This organisation could be the catholic church. Everyone beliefs it had some dark secrets. So our final title could be something like „The married Jesus – the secret file“.
At this point some financially successful authors throw honesty at least partly over board. Depending on the extent this can be when things get uninteresting or even nasty. Dan Brown („The Da Vinci Code“) and Baigent, Leigh, Lincoln („Holy Blood, Holy Grail“, „The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception“) are examples for at least historically uninteresting works. I am sure that often enough the author knows very well the facts that speak against his selling claim and does not believe that claim himself. He does not mention these contra facts in his work in order not to endanger the books success. In seldom cases this was even officially admitted. One of the authors of „Holy Blood, Holy Grail“ said in a tv interview decades after the first publishing of his work that while the selling claim was „in itself plausible“ the authors did not really believe their story.
That crosses a line. When a fact book is written (or a novel based very much on reality) the reader can expect to learn something. I do not mind if the author exaggerate a bit for dramatical effect which is ok and simply part of the trade. Some of these authors in fact provide good entertainment in my opinion. What I do not like at all are authors who probably know exactly that their claim or theory is hardly backed up by facts and write the book without true conviction just for commercial reasons and leave the reader without any relevant facts to the claimed theory. Knowledgeable readers might even feel betrayed.
Now back to our example title. How do the facts look like? Are there any indications that Jesus was married? And that this fact was covered up by the church? Frankly, no. Not at all. But if you ask that question you have not yet understood how historical bestsellers are written. Historical bestsellers are not or just hardly based on facts. The few known facts can be described in 10 pages and are not sensational at all. To create the hype that sells historical bestsellers must be based on some sensational claim which is called „theory“ or „hypothesis“ in the book to make it appear more credible. In fact, there are so few facts that often the term „nonsense“ is more appropriate. Besides the given Jesus example other „theories“ are as follows.
Planet earth was visited by extraterrestrials many thousands years ago who influenced early man
Mighty and secret organisations of the past. Because they are secret nobody knows about them. So we can tell all sorts of ferry tales without too many people noticing it. Too maintain the gossip aspect it is much better to use an organisation that actually existed but few facts are known about, like the knight templars.
Unsolved „codes“. I put this in quotation marks since real codes always have exactly one meaning. We, in contrast, need to stay in the realm of mysteries where nothing is known for sure so nobody can falsify any of our theories. As long as we do this we can find these „codes“ everywhere: In buildings, paintings, and in the telephone book of your city. Everywhere you can make observations and declare them as hints to dark secrets. Of course it is all coincidence but few people know enough about statistics to have a feeling where coincidence stops and hidden secrets start.
Will readers notice if the fact base of a book is very thin? Usually not. From my personal point of view this is the most interesting observation. Why not? Because the target audience is not knowledgeable concerning our „theory“ or related aspects. They know just enough to be curious to hear some gossip. Of course, for every field of knowledge there are experts out there who know much more than the bestseller authors. But these people are few and their voice is usually not heard very well. When they finally write a counter-book describing facts usually at least a year has elapsed since the hype book was published. The counter books will boost the sales again. It creates attention and that is what matters. If nothing else helps the author can always claim that „the establishment tries to hide to facts we revealed in our sensational work“. Something like this.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s near the settlement Qumran at the Dead Sea in Israel antique scrolls with Old Testament texts were found.
In 1991 the financially successful hype authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh published a book. The original English title was „The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception“. This English version sold in mediocre quantities. The title of the German version, translated into English, was „Top Secret case Jesus. The Truth on early Christianity.“ (Original German title: „Verschlusssache Jesus. Die Wahrheit über das frühe Christentum“) The German version sold in huge quantities which shows the importance of the title for the selling success.
The book claims the Vatican tries to suppress the publication of the Dead Sea scrolls from Qumran because they reveal information on Jesus not in accordance with the official Church positions. This is an extreme example for the small relevance of the fact accuracy on the selling success. The Dead Sea scrolls deal exclusively with the Old Testament. Not a single New Testament text was found there. Jesus was not even mentioned in any of them. (Actually, even in this book he is mentioned seldom in spite of the German title.) The oldest versions of all texts found there were written before Jesus were even born. Not even in this extreme case, when the inaccuracy of the book's fundamental claim can be found out rather easily, did it have negative effects on the sale success as the criteria given above were met by the authors.