Dan Brown has a new book. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Inferno? If you have access to an Internet connection or have come in contact with other human beings, you’re likely aware that it’s available today. Inferno is the fourth book in Brown’s staggeringly popular Robert Langdon thriller series—his books have sold 200 million copies globally—and it’s already a bestseller on several lists, with pre-orders 24% higher than his last mega-hit, 2009’s The Lost Symbol.
Besides death and taxes, the other certainty in life is that Dan Brown will make a bajillion dollars from whatever he writes. You can’t be that successful (and rich) 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. If your customers like you, the critics can go #@&% themselves
Dan Brown isn’t a good writer. His sentences are clumsy and often read like something from a community college introduction to fiction class. 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), it sometimes seems like he’s begging for mockery. (The Telegraph has already assembled a hilarious collection of Inferno‘s worst sentences, which includes the gem “gentle eyes that radiated a thoughtful calm beneath his eyebrows.”) 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 laugh and declare his mediocrity, the more books he sells. Either readers don’t care about sloppy prose, or they just really, really hate snarky, smarty-pants critics.
2. To foster creativity, you must live in misery
We all know being creative is hard work, but Brown takes it a step further. For him, the suffering of creativity isn’t metaphorical; he literally suffers for his art. Brown, who calls an author’s life “awful” and a “brutal existence,” has a unique way to pass the time when he’s 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 once admitted. Although he’s used the method while writing several books—including The Da Vinci Code, which went on to sell 80 million copies—it doesn’t make a lot of medical sense. Hanging upside down causes your brain capillaries to expand and leads to light-headedness, which isn’t exactly the perfect mental state for clear thinking. But then again, it may explain some of Brown’s wacky prose.
3. Make yourself distant and conspicuously unavailable
Most authors, even very popular authors, are expected to do at least the bare minimum of promotion when a new book comes out. That could be anything from talk show appearances (The Daily Show hosts many authors) to book signings and/or readings. Dan Brown does none of that. To promote Inferno, he’s making just one public appearance, at New York’s Lincoln Center. The roughly hour-long event will be live streamed to 140 universities, libraries, and bookstores across the U.S., where Brown will charm virtually thousands of book-buying customers in one fell swoop. 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 his books because he does so much research. But based on the hit-or-miss results, most of that research was apparently done on Wikipedia. Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, claimed that all the alternative history in Da Vinci Code, from the Dead Sea Scrolls being Christian to Mary Magdalene’s alleged sexy times with Jesus, were all “part of (Brown’s) fiction.” (Brown disagreed but didn’t put up a fight, saying only “Let the biblical scholars and historians battle it out.”) Will Brown get as many of his facts wrong about Dante’s epic poem in Inferno? Possibly, but Brown is already coming out in the defensive. “Fact,” he writes in the preface. “All artwork, literature, science, and historical references in this novel are real.” Eugenio Giani, the president of the Italian Dante Society, isn’t expecting the best. “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%,” Giani says. “If this new book does well, we will get that 10% back.”
5. Embrace your inner nerd
Brown understands something fundamental about humanity. Somewhere deep inside everybody is a puzzle nerd just waiting to come out. Brown’s books allow his fans to solve puzzles and decode hidden symbols while pretending to read literature. 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, but 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, you tremendous nerd? That’s okay, you’re not alone. Dan Brown is a billionaire because his books are like the Bejeweled cellphone app, but in hardcover.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Bloomberg BusinessWeek.)