Desperation + Luck = Wild Success

Keep reading. Just wait for the boldfacing …

The Day of the Jackal – the hit we nearly missed

In 1969, a young British journalist returned to London after spending 18 months reporting on the Biafran war. His name was Frederick Forsyth. He was 31 years old and, by his own account, flat broke. Needing money quickly, he did what any self-respecting hack would have done: he wrote a thriller.

Initially entitled The Jackal, it told the story of an unnamed assassin hired to kill President de Gaulle. The novel took Forsyth just 35 days to write. He had no great literary aspirations and certainly no intention of revolutionising an entire genre. Forsyth’s heroes were John Buchan and Rider Haggard: he simply wanted to tell a riveting story.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the novel’s publication. It is no exaggeration to say The Day of the Jackal has influenced a generation of thriller writers, from Jack Higgins to Ken Follett, from Tom Clancy to Andy McNab. Before, thrillers were self-evidently works of the imagination. Forsyth changed all that; never before had a popular novelist created a world that seemed indistinguishable from real life.


The first four publishers Forsyth sent the manuscript turned it down. A thriller set in France with an unnamed anti-hero who fails in his mission? Forget it. Eventually, one man took a chance. Harold Harris, of Hutchinson, agreed to a modest initial print run of 8,000 copies. “It might just work,” he said. Well, it worked. The Day of the Jackal became a word-of-mouth sensation.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

Two things:

1) When something different comes along and rewrites what were thought of as “the rules,” it’s difficult to turn back the clock to what it was like before the sea change. The change is so overwhelming and seems so natural, everything before it becomes artificial by comparison.

2) A vital triplet: Word of mouth. If you have that, if your work is that good, you don’t need a smash hit opening day. You have something better: the long run. Forty years after publication, this book is still being mentioned. Will yours be?


The Jackal Turns 40


Filed under Writer, Writing

2 responses to “Desperation + Luck = Wild Success

  1. Hmm…. I will have to read this!

    Also, obviously it is agreed that word of mouth if better than a smash hit opener.

  2. There’s a big lesson in that, whatever your art.

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