The name John Grisham means very big business for his publishers and for booksellers. As a European manager for one of the world’s largest US book suppliers, I saw at first hand the regular fanfares and excitement in the book trade each time a new Grisham novel hit the market. Over the last twenty years, Grisham has sold more than 250 million copies of his books – mainly legal thrillers – thrilling his publishers and countless booksellers as much as his readers.
At one London International Book Fair, the director of one large publishing house sighed as he looked at the latest bestseller chart and told me enviously: “There just isn’t anyone bigger than Grisham.”
And Grisham was indeed the world’s bestselling author – until Edinburgh writer JK Rowling came along.
Though Rowling’s fictional wizardry aimed at an entirely different audience from Grisham’s novels, she toppled the 55-year-old ex-lawyer from Mississippi from his bestselling author spot and he was not amused. Grisham is not only extremely businesslike about his writing but also very ambitious. He has long become accustomed to success. The Firm alone sold over 7 million copies and was made into a profitable film starring Tom Cruise. The Chamber, The Rainmaker, The Street Lawyer, The Testament, The Brethren, The Summons and The Broker were each the bestselling novels of their respective publication years. Ten of his books have been made into films or TV dramas. Grisham’s books have earned him worldwide fame and many millions of dollars.
It is not surprising then that the writer gave some thought to the challenge posed by JK Rowling and Harry Potter. A pragmatic man, Grisham took note that Rowling’s success was with a series of books for children, featuring a young male character. He duly set out to counter-challenge Rowling with a young male character of his own: 13-year-old wannabe-lawyer, Theodore Boone. Just as Rowling created a series of Harry Potter novels, Grisham promptly announced that Boone will feature in a series too. The differences are that Theodore Boone lives in the real world whereas Harry Potter lived in a magical one and that, unlike Harry, Theo will never grow older. Grisham plans to keep his hero’s age static. (He has spoken of the eternal quality Bart Simpson has as a result of not aging.)
Writing for the children’s fiction market when he was so firmly established in adult fiction was an ambitious move for Grisham but he is not an author prone to self-doubt.
Speaking to UK newspaper The Telegraph after the publication of Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer in 2010, the writer said:
“Theodore is really an effort to catch Harry Potter. Back in the 1990s I was routinely introduced as the bestselling author in the world. I tried to pretend like it was no big deal. Then along came Harry Potter and suddenly I was number two. I’ve got to tell you, I really miss being number one. I’m going to catch Harry one way or another.”
While Random House company Cornerstone publish Grisham’s adult fiction, Hodder & Stoughton have bought the UK and Commonwealth rights to the first two Theodore Boone titles. The second book in the series will be published in 2011. Harry Potter’s fictional rival is the 13-year-old son of two attorneys and plans to be a lawyer when he’s older. He knows a lot about the law and dishes out legal advice to his friends and their parents. He also knows who committed the recent murder in the small town where he lives. When Theo realises the killer is about to go free, he decides he must see justice done. Grisham fills the book with menace and suspense to keep young readers guessing and keep them turning the pages.
It will be fascinating to see if Theodore Boone, with his pet dog Judge, becomes as popular a fictional character as Harry Potter. Certainly Grisham himself will do all he can to market and sell the new series. He is on record as explaining that he bought 1000 copies of his first novel and sold them himself. It taught him, he says, that writing books is harder but selling them is harder! He has always helped his publisher with book sales by giving interviews and agreeing to book signings and other publicity events.
His energy seems to be limitless. In 2010, he told an interviewer:
“Twenty years on, the books are still fun to write and I’ve still got lots of stories I want to tell, mainly about social injustice and people chewed up by the system. Every morning I wake at 6am or 6.30am, champing at the bit.”
Which is good news for the publishers of his adult fiction and junior fiction – and good news for his many eager readers.
** The Theodore Boone website is at: www.theodoreboone.com **
** John Grisham’s website is at: http://www.jgrisham.com/ **