The fourth book in Dan Brown’s staggeringly popular Robert Langdon thriller series, Inferno, was released yesterday—at long last. All told, Brown’s works have sold 200 million copies globally—and Inferno’s already hit bestseller on several lists, with pre-orders 24 percent higher than for his last mega-hit, 2009′s The Lost Symbol.
No one can be that successful without doing something right. We took a closer look at Brown’s life and writing career to find out if any business lessons could be gleaned from his rapidly growing literary empire.
1. To foster creativity, you must live in misery
For Brown, the suffering of creativity isn’t metaphorical. He calls an author’s life “awful” and a “brutal existence,” and when paralyzed by writer’s block, he puts on a pair of “gravity boots” attached to metal stirrups and hangs upside down, letting the blood rush to his head until he either gets an idea or passes out. “Hanging upside down seems to help me solve plot challenges by shifting my entire perspective,” he has said. He’s used the method writing several books—including The Da Vinci Code, which went on to sell 80 million copies. (Truthfully, though, it doesn’t make a lot of medical sense. Hanging upside down causes your brain capillaries to expand and leads to lightheadedness.)
2. Know your customers. Please your customers
Whether he’s writing about “the kaleidoscope of power” (The Da Vinci Code) or describing a character’s face as “a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes” (Deception Point), his writing is clunky. (The Telegraph has already assembled a collection of Inferno’s worst sentences.) Salman Rushdie dismissed The Da Vinci Code as “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.” More recently, the Washington Post called his novels “500-page Mad Libs; a reader doesn’t have to worry that it will be a fun ride, just that the adverbs and proper nouns will line up in a way that honors the art form.” And yet the louder the critics declare his mediocrity, the more books he sells.
3. Make yourself distant and conspicuously unavailable
Brown doesn’t promote his books. For Inferno, he’s making just one public appearance: 7:30 tonight at New York’s Lincoln Center. The roughly hour-long event will be streamed live to 140 universities, libraries, and bookstores across the U.S., where Brown will virtually charm thousands of book-buying customers. And then he’ll be gone. Does his elusiveness make him seem more desirable or even mythical? Could be. It worked for J.D. Salinger and the Great and Powerful Oz.
4. Stand by your facts—even if they’re wrong
Brown has said it takes up to two years to write a typical book because he does so much research. But according to Bart D. Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, all the history in The Da Vinci Code was “part of (Brown’s) fiction.” Eugenio Giani, the president of the Italian Dante Society, isn’t expecting accuracy from Inferno. “Dante experts have warned me to beware of Brown,” he told the Guardian, “but I am not afraid.” What matters most to him is that Brown’s readers with disposable income are inspired to visit Italy. “Tourism is down in Florence by 10 percent,” Giani says. “If this new book does well, we will get that 10 percent back.”
5. Tap into the innate appetite for mystery
Brown’s books allow his fans to solve puzzles and decode hidden symbols. Inferno may very well be his pièce de résistance when it comes to math homework. The title was revealed in January via an elaborate puzzle in which everybody with a Twitter or Facebook account could participate. All you had to do was post something on social media using the hashtag #DanBrownToday, and your profile image was added to a growing digital mosaic, which slowly revealed the new book’s title. It was like a flash mob, only a thousand times geekier. Even the publication date was a riddle waiting to be discovered: 5/14/13, when reversed, is 3.1415, or the first five digits of pi, the mathematical constant. Did you know that already? If you didn’t, you’re not alone.