How to Write a Bestseller

Gareth J. Medway
Magonia 81, May 2003

Critics of Erich von Daniken – who has recently been back in the news with another book and a forthcoming ancient astronaut theme park – have been undecided whether his thesis is to be deplored because it is wrong or because it is unoriginal. The idea that modern technology may have been known to the ancients is almost as old as the technology itself.

Joseph Ennemoser’s History of Magic which first appeared in 1844 (1) suggested that examples of magic such as levitating statues, given by ancient Greek and Roman writers, and usually considered to be fables, were in fact the application of electricity and magnetism. Myths, he considered, contained scientific secrets in allegorical form, for example the twins Castor and Pollux, who represented the north and south pole of magnets.

Frederick Soddy, in The Interpretation of Radium, third edition 1912, having explained how under certain circumstances one element can be transmuted into another, speculated that the writings of the alchemists were based on partial memories of the learnings of some ancient people:
” … such a race could transform a desert continent, thaw the frozen poles, and make the whole world one smiling Garden of Eden. Possibly they could explore the outer realms of space, emigrating to more favourable worlds as the superfluous today emigrate to more favourable continents. The legend of the Fall of Man, possibly, may be all that has survived of such a time before, for some unknown reason, the whole world was plunged back again under the undisputed sway of Nature, to begin once more its upward toilsome journey through the ages.” (2)
When Atlantis became popular in the late nineteenth century, it was naturally supposed that the Atlanteans had an advanced science (which was not, of course, stated in the original Greek writings about the lost continent). One popular exposition, A Dweller on Two Planets, by ‘Phylos the Thibetan’, which was written in the mid-1880s, based on the author’s recollections of his past lives, featured airships which could travel at the then incredible speed of 200 miles an hour. Scott Elliott’s The Story of Atlantis, 1896, contained passages like this:
“In the later days when war and strife had brought the Golden Age to an end, battle ships that could navigate the air had to a great extent replaced battle ships at sea – having naturally proved far more powerful engines of destruction” (3)
Elliott even went into some detail about their construction and propulsion mechanisms. His information, though he did not say so, came from clairvoyant investigations that had been carried out by Theosophical Society leaders Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater:
“Every scientific theory (if we are to believe the popular Catholic press) was anticipated by Roger Bacon and others in the thirteenth century. Some Hindu thinkers go even further and claim that not merely the scientific theories, but the products of applied science as well, aeroplanes, radio and the whole bag of tricks were known to the ancient Hindus who afterwards dropped them as being unworthy of their attention.” (4)
These Hindus, some of whose works are reproduced in David Hatcher Childress’s Vimana Aircraft of Ancient India and Atlantis (5) were influenced by cultural nationalism: in 1923, when T. K. Ellapa of Bangalore produced a set of diagrams explaining the workings of a Rukma Vimana, the country was militarily and technologically dominated by Britain, but they could take comfort in the thought that thousands of years earlier they had been the race with all the flying machines.

Exactly when extraterrestrials came into the debate is uncertain, but the idea was toyed with by Charles Fort in The Book of the Damned (1919). who spattered this collection of scientific anomalies with speculations such as: “I think we’re property. I should say we belong to something: That once upon a time, this earth was No-man’s Land, that other worlds explored and colonised here, and fought among themselves for possession, but that now it’s owned by something: That something owns this earth – all others warned off’. (6)

As John Keel remarks, such ideas “have long since been a staple storyline with science-fiction writers.” (7) Arthur C. Clarke’s Expedition to Earth (1953) contained two stories relating to aliens visiting earth in the past. In the same year Desmond Leslie pointed out, among other things, that according to a mediaeval Arab writer the builders of the Great Pyramid placed the stones on pieces of papyrus engraved with magical symbols, and thereby flew them from the quarry to the pyramid – obviously a misunderstanding of flying saucer technology. (8) The same, of course, could be said of the miracles of the Bible. This was the basic thesis of Morris K. Jessup, UFOs and the Bible (1956), Brinsley le Poer Trench’s The Sky People (1960) and Paul ‘Thomas’ Misraki, Les Extraterrestres (1962).

I should like to refer here to some works of which l have been unable to locate copies, but which I think are summarised adequately in secondary sources. Maurice Denis-Papin, in his Cours Elementaire d’Electricité Générale (1948), suggested that the Ark of the Covenant, being made of wood overlaid both inside and out with gold, would have acted as an electrical condenser. Now, the Bible relates that when the Ark was being transported by Nachon’s threshing floor, the oxen shook it and a man named Uzzah put out his hand to prevent it falling. “And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the Ark of God.” (2 Samuel 6:7). Denis-Papin interpreted this as his having been electrocuted. (9)

The ‘science can explain the Bible’ theme was also expounded by the Soviet professor Matest Agret in a series of articles in the Literatournaya Gazeta in 1959 and 1960. In one, 9 February 1960, he suggested that the fire from heaven that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrha was actually an atomic bomb dropped by extraterrestrials. (10) In America, Max H. Flindt privately published a pamphlet On Tiptoe Beyond Darwin (1962) suggesting that the human race appeared as a result of genetic manipulation by spacemen. (11)

There are several other works that could be mentioned, but the point is that Erinnerungen an die Zukunft (Memories of the Future), which is better known by its English title Chariots of the Gods? (1968) did not contain anything that had not been said before. Yet it was a phenomenal success: by 1980 Erich von Daniken’s books had actually sold 42 million copies. (12) A critique, Erinnerungen an die Wirkliehkeit (Memories of Actuality), by Gerhard Gadow is itself said to have sold 85,000 copies in a few months. (13)

Various reasons have been suggested for this popularity by the critics: that education is not working, that conventional religion is declining yet people still want the certainty it offers, and so on. The suggestion that a properly educated person would automatically reject the thesis of Chariots of the Gods? is questionable. The book contains numerous errors that have been pointed out by specialists, but one cannot expect the general reader, even a well-educated one, to have the necessary expertise in Mesopotamian history, Meso-American iconography, and so on, to spot his mistakes.
A parallel to this is the frequently observed fact that von Daniken had no qualifications. Yet the ancient astronaut hypothesis was also espoused by writers who were as qualified as anyone could be in such an interdisciplinary field. Morris K. Jessup was an astronomer who had also studied Mayan ruins for the Carnegie Institute, and Barry Downing, author of The Bible and Flying Saucers, had degrees in both physics and theology.

Without begrudging von Daniken his success, it is worth asking: why Chariots of the Gods? rather than another? The Morning of the Magicians, from which von Daniken had lifted some of his examples, sold over one million copies in a decade (14), but that was only a modest success (in comparative terms), and many of the other books on the same theme were destined for obscurity. Who, for instance, ever heard of Egerton Sykes’s The Extraterrestrials? (15)

Though to some extent these authors copied one from another, this is not simply a matter of repeated plagiarism. One the notions of extraterrestrial intelligence and space travel have become common, the possibility that aliens might have visited the earth in the past could have occurred to anyone. The archaeologist T. C. Lethbridge related how, when his wife had nearly finished typing the manuscript of his Legend of the Sons of God, “A friend, Group Captain Guy Knocker, sent me a copy of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods?. The two books were so similar in many ways that I felt tempted to destroy my version. However, I saw that there were points of difference and that this was an interesting example of the often observed phenomenon of a particular idea occurring to people in different parts of the world at the same time. (16)

Ronald Story points out that the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which appeared at about the same time as Chariots… contained similar ideas (partly based upon the aforementioned stories in Clarke’s Expedition to Earth), in particular the suggestion that the human race was the result of an extraterrestrial experiment to enhance the intelligence of apes. This, he suggested, helped prime people for a factual book on the theme. (17) But this is a chicken-and-egg matter; it could just as well be argued that von Daniken’s book helped promote the film.

Undoubtedly, though, the timing was opportune. The Apollo programme had recently created a general interest in space travel. The sixties were in any case a good time for new ideas: the book “seemed to strike a chord in a generation that had learned to question all forms of authority and accepted wisdom.” (18)

In particular people were challenging conventional religion. This had been going on for a long time. Winwood Reade’s Martyrdom of Man (1872), sold well for decades largely owing to its critical summary of the Bible, which dismissed miracles as a combination of imposture and romantic embellishment. More people had lost their faith by the 1960s, so there was – and still is – a good market for any new view of this subject. Von Daniken’s fourth chapter. ‘Was God an Astronaut’, was a deliberate challenge to the Church. Some of the earlier books, such as Flying Saucers Have Landed and The Morning of the Magicians, had avoided any such direct confrontation.

It must be borne in mind that the biggest
retailers of books are those in airports,
as people who do not otherwise read will buy
one to take on holiday

I think the most important factor was quite simply that von Daniken was a good writer in the sense that he wrote in an accessible, popular way. It must be borne in mind that the biggest retailers of books are those in airport lobbies, as people who do not otherwise read them will buy one to take on holiday. Perhaps the second largest market is of those who need something to occupy themselves with whilst commuting. Such purchasers want an easy read, not anything demanding. Many ancient astronaut writers, however, had a turgid, impenetrable style. So it is easy to see why Chariots of the Gods? should greatly outsell for instance W. Raymond Drake’s Gods or Spacemen (19), which was far better researched and rather less well written.

Finally, the book had sixteen pages of photographic plates, something most of its predecessors lacked. I don’t know how many people buy books just to look at the pictures, but the success of coffee-table books consisting of little else suggest that it is quite a high percentage. So if you want to pen a best-seller (and who doesn’t), the best formula is to pick a subject on which several works have already been essayed; which gives some new slant to Christian origins; and is written in a way that anyone can understand, with plenty of pretty illustrations.

Good luck!

Von Däniken, Addendum 2010.

The title Erinnerung an die Zukunft, ‘Memories of the Future’, seems to have been inspired by the first section of Pauwels and Bergier, Le Matin des Magiciens, ‘Le Futur Antérieur’ (though the English edition rendered this as ‘The Future Perfect’). The phrase that Von Däniken’s English translator, Michael Heron, substituted, ‘Chariots of the Gods’, had been coined by T. Lobsang Rampa, a Devonshire man who mysteriously metamorphosed into a Tibetan lama, in the tenth chapter of his first book, The Third Eye: “In Tibet I have seen records of strange craft in the skies. “The Chariots of the Gods” most people called them.” It proved popular enough for variants to be given to the English renderings of most of his subsequent books, Phänomene die die Welt erregen becoming Miracles of the Gods, and so on; Graham Hancock, with Fingerprints of the Gods, has also found it a profitable title to imitate.

The phrase ‘of the Gods’ proved a valuable asset for publishers: subsequent Von Däniken titles included Aussat und Kosmos, which Heron rendered as The Gold of the Gods, and Phänomena die die Welt erregen, which became Miracles of the Gods. In 1953 Henriette Mertz had written a book arguing that the Chinese discovered America before Columbus, which was published under the title Pale Ink; in 1972 it was reissued as Gods from the Far East. Tony Morrison’s study of the Nazca lines of Peru appeared in 1978 as Pathways to the Gods. And Graham Hancock has had a bestseller with Fingerprints of the Gods, which incidentally deals with much of the same material as Chariots.

  1. As Geschichte der Magie – an English translation appeared in 1854.
  2. Frederick Soddy, The Interpretation of Radium, third edition 1912, pp.251-252
  3. W. Scott Elliott, The Story of Atlantis 1896, p.52
  4. George Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 3, Penguin Books, 1970, p.121, from a column originally published in Tribune.
  5. Adventures Unlimited Press, Stelle, Illinois, 1991
  6. Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned, Abacus edition, 1973, p.173
  7. John Keel, The Cosmic Question (British edition of The Eighth Tower), Panther 1978, p.19
  8. Desmond A Leslie and George Adamski, Flying Saucers Have Landed, Werner Laurie, 1953, pp.156-157
  9. Cited in Robert Charroux, One Hundred Thousand Years of Man’s Unknown History, Sphere, 1981, p.73
  10. Cited by Paul Thomas, Flying Saucers Through the Ages, Sphere 1973, who says the article was widely discussed in the international press.
  11. Discussed in Max Flindt’s and Otto Binder, Mankind – Child of the Stars, Fawcett, 1974, an expanded version of the same thesis.
  12. Ronald Story, Guardians of the Universe?, New English Library, 1980, p.9
  13. Peter Krassa, Erich von Daniken: Disciple of the Gods? Star Books, 1978, p.68
  14. According to the cover of the Mayflower paperback edition, 1971
  15. Privately published, 1967
  16. T. C. Lethbridge.
  17. Story, Guardians of the Universe? pp.18-19. 
  18. Editorial, Fortean Times 169, April 2003
  19. 1964; reprinted as Messengers from the Stars, Sphere, 1977