Why The Da Vinci Code Almost Didn’t Make It Into Print

At the end of 2001, as Brown toiled away on his fourth novel, there was a chance that The Da Vinci Code might not ever see the light of day. The sales figures for Deception Point were downright abysmal. The only comfort he could take was that he wasn’t alone: The 2001 terrorist attacks and changes in the structure of book retailing had plunged the entire book publishing industry into a crippling economic depression—and this was especially true for thrillers.

The decreased sales generally, and Brown’s mediocre sales record for his three novels in particular, did not bode well for the novel he was currently pouring his soul—and days—into. Through most of the history of modern book publishing, editors and publishers understood it took time for readers to discover a book series that featured continuing protagonist. A reader would typically start by reading the most recently published book by an author, and if he liked it, in time he would work his way back and purchase all the earlier novels, sometimes making a publisher’s backlist—those titles published at least a year before—more profitable than the book that was most recently released.

At least that’s the way things used to work, in the days when most publishers were independently owned and could afford the luxury of allowing an unknown author to build a following over the course of five or more books. In some cases, this could take a decade or more. Beginning in the 1990s, international corporations saw money and prestige in book publishing companies—especially if they could tie them into other media outlets they owned to facilitate cross-promotion —and so they began snapping up privately owned publishers by the cartload.

And they needed to make a profit. While publishers of old were primarily interested in producing good literature, the first concern of the conglomerates was financial. Whether a successful book had a literary bent or was more commercial in flavor didn’t matter. Making a profit and pleasing the stockholders did. This meant if an author’s first couple of books didn’t immediately begin to draw an audience that would be hungry for more, there was no reason to offer another contract. In some cases, a publisher might even pay the balance of a multibook advance to an author but never actually publish the remaining books. For an author with a sales history similar to Dan Brown’s first three books, this would be the quickest way for a publisher to cut its losses.

“I’m glad I’m not beginning now,” said veteran author Dean Koontz, whose books now sell approximately seventeen million copies each year. “When I started out, you had years to find a voice. In the old days, bookstores bought on hope. Now, if a new writer has a book and it sells to a specific level, the second book is expected to show a significant increase. He might get a third chance, and then he becomes anathema. Publishers want hits fast and they want bigger successes. They aren’t as interested in building writers, and that’s the tragedy of publishing today. I know a lot of writers who needed a lot of books before they finally found their voice.”

There was more bad news. Brown’s editor at Simon & Schuster was actively job-hunting again. Although Jason Kaufman had become Brown’s editor by default, he had handled both Angels & Demons and Deception Point, and both author and editor had developed a comfortable working relationship. Kaufman decided that accepting his next editorial position would be contingent on whether he could bring Brown on board with him, a condition that is almost universally frowned upon in publishing, particularly when an author’s first three novels had sold so poorly.

Copyright © 2005 by Lisa Rogak