Sir Walter Scott wrote bad reviews to boost sales of his own novels
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Sir Walter Scott wrote bad reviews to boost sales of his own novels - by George Mair on April 4 2016, The Times
Sir Walter Scott was a marketing genius who anonymously rubbished his own novels 200 years ago to create a buzz and sell more copies, an expert claims.
The Scottish author wrote his 1816 collection Tales of my Landlord under the pseudonym Jedediah Cleishbotham. He then criticised the book in an anonymous review read by thousands of people, citing its “slovenly” construction and “uninteresting” hero.
David McClay, curator of the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland, said that the review was the most critical Scott ever received but it proved he was a “master of marketing”. By creating a mystique around his authorship, Scott not only generated thousands of sales for his fiction but also pioneered methods employed by authors such as JK Rowling today. “People get distracted by the fact that Scott was a hugely successful author,” said Mr McClay. “They put that down to the books just being very popular at that time, but of course he was managing the reputation of literature at the time. “He was managing his own reputation through these different cloaks of anonymity. It’s one of the keys to ¬understanding him and literature today but one which is often overlooked. “His anonymous review of Tales of My Landlord was the harshest he ever received. He said, ‘It’s not very original in its concoction, and lame and impotent in the conclusion’, which I think is quite a damning phrase. “At the dawn of the great age of novel writing, he knew even a harsh review was worthwhile as it would get people talking. This negative review had the benefit of helping him become the bestselling author of his age.”
Scott published his early 19th-century historical novels anonymously to protect his reputation as a serious poet. He wrote as “The Great Unknown” and after the huge success of his novel Waverley as “the author of Waverley”.
At the dawn of the great age of novel writing, he knew even a harsh review was worthwhile as it would get people talking
He was also an influential reviewer of other works, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jane Austen’s Emma. The anonymous reviews sold more than 10,000 copies each, ¬often far more than the books themselves, but Mr McClay said that Scott pulled off a masterstroke by criticising his own work. In his review, he even tells readers he has information that Jedediah Cleishbotham is none other than “the author of Waverley” himself. For a triple bluff, he suggests the mysterious writer could be Thomas Scott, his own brother, by then living in Canada.
Mr McClay said: “He was not just a good writer and reviewer but he understood the marketplace, publishers and how to create a reputation, even if he had to do it through complicated smoke and mirrors. There is no surprise he was the most popular author of his day and beyond his own lifetime.”
Scott’s marketing expertise is highlighted in a collaborative exhibition between the National Library of Scotland and Abbotsford, his historic ¬Borders home.
The exhibition at Abbotsford tells the story of Scott’s engagement and associations with some of the greatest names in literature, including Shelley, Austen and Lord Byron. It brings together important manuscripts and books for the first time, including his first edition Frankenstein. Mr McClay added: “He was the only person who positively reviewed Frankenstein at the time. Scott was swimming against the tide of public opinion when he said it was a piece of entertainment, and a work of genius — as was proven years afterwards when it was recognised as a classic.”