Recipe for a Best Seller

Slow Death By Rubber Duck has one non-chemical ingredient that catapulted it to the top of the charts.

AS THE STORY GOES, the duo behind the Chicken Soup for the Soul empire couldn’t find a publisher when they assembled their first book. But despite Chicken Soup’s winning formula – 112 million books sold in 15 years – the world of book publishing continues to be an enigma.

AS THE STORY GOES, the duo behind the Chicken Soup for the Soul empire couldn’t find a publisher when they assembled their first book. But despite Chicken Soup’s winning formula – 112 million books sold in 15 years – the world of book publishing continues to be an enigma.

With the exception of anything written by Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling non-fiction books are hard to predict. So when Slow Death by Rubber Duck (2009), an environmental book that seemed to have little more than a catchy title, remained on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list for 14 weeks, a green flag went up.

What catapulted this environmental book into the big leagues when others such as Hot Air (2007) or How the Rich are Destroying the Earth (2008) failed to catch on? What does it share with the handful of top-selling environmental books, such as George Monbiot’s Heat (2006), Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress (2004), and Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999) by Jared Diamond? When my publisher spoke at the launch of my first book, he told the crowd that there was a time when he published only writers who had big families, since who else would buy the book. Well, I don’t know if Slow Death authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie have large families, but they are established members of Toronto’s environmental scene. Smith is the executive director of Environmental Defence and Lourie is the president of the Ivey Foundation. They reach deep into the who’s who of Canada’s green elite – Ontario’s Premier Dalton McGuinty, no less, spoke at their book launch. So Slow Death receives top marks for having an instant market.

In 2007, three books detailing the perils of climate change were hot commodities in bookstores across the country: Monbiot’s Heat, Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. In 2008, Canadians were turning to titles that directed them toward action – “how to” books replaced descriptions of catastrophe. Slow Death by Rubber Duck may be a catchy title, but its subtitle tells the tale: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. In this way, it appeals to both the doomsayers and the do-gooders.

As a magazine editor, I know how hard it is to get academics to shed their jargon and write in a popular style. Oftentimes, scientists – Smith holds a doctorate in biology – don’t bother with metaphors. They are more comfortable presenting the facts than telling a story. It’s noteworthy, then, that Heat author George Monbiot is a writer not a scientist; so is Ronald Wright, who authored the bestselling A Short History of Progress. Hervé Kempf is a journalist, and although his book How the Rich are Destroying the Earth didn’t make much of a wave in North America, it was a bestseller in his home country of France and has been widely translated.

It seems that good writing is important. And although Smith and Lourie are not known for their skills in this department, their book is well written. They managed to make words such as perfluorooctanoic acid, fluorotelomers and Methicillan-resistant Staphylococcus aureus not just comprehensible, but personal. Perhaps it’s their regular references to pop culture that helped readers find some connection to Tris (2,3-dibromopropyl phosphate), ethylene dibromide and the like. Every chapter mentions recognizable names ranging from The Globe and Mail’s Martin Mittelstaedt, to the TV-detective Monk to Mad Men and John Travolta. They quote song lyrics by Talking Heads and The Who. And to introduce their chapter on flame retardants – “the new PCBs” – Smith and Lourie include the line from David Bowie’s 1982 song “Cat People”: Well it’s been so long | And I’ve been putting out fire | with gasoline. …

In case you don’t know the book’s premise, Smith and Lourie set out to determine whether or not they could measurably increase the level of certain toxic chemicals in their bodies by using everyday household products or eating food that is served by many a well-intentioned mum. In what they describe as an “adult science-fair project,” they had blood and other tests performed pre- and post-exposure to seven chemicals: phthalates (artificial fragrances often labelled as “parfum”), perfluorochemicals (the non-stickers, including Teflon), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (flame retardants), mercury, triclosan (antibacterial), pesticides and bisphenol A. They had only one “ironclad” rule: their efforts had to mimic real life. They had to expose themselves to these toxins by doing run-of-the-mill things that people do every day.

The idea of these two grown men – both respected, business-suit-clad professionals who have a line to the premier – holed up in a condo, stuffing themselves with tuna casserole, primping with parfum-laden shampoos and getting high on carpet cleaner, made palatable otherwise outrageous accounts of corporate and government greed and deceit. The very personal, and sometimes humorous, descriptions of their time together gave the book a Reader’s Digest lightness. It was refreshing to read a scientist writing in the first person, relating real-life experiences, and using – heaven forbid – active rather than the passive verbs that give technical writing its yawn-inducing drone.

But ultimately, it’s not the writing that is key to this book’s success, or the personal following of its authors. It’s not the references to pop icons or even the in-depth research. My bookshelf overflows with volumes that share these traits, but unlike Slow Death, they never became Canadian bestsellers, were never sold in the US, Australia and New Zealand, and they certainly didn’t catch the attention of the venerable Wall Street Journal. Slow Death’s important ingredient is that it tells you what you can do to lessen the toxic load in your body. After reading the book, I’m certain that most readers considered tossing out their non-stick frying pans. Many more would have pulled deodorants, shampoos, creams and conditioners from their bathroom shelves and scanned the list of ingredients for “parfum” or “fragrance.” Many likely chucked their hand sanitizers.

When I got rid of my offending products, I felt a great sense of taking control of at least part of the toxic load that I live with. It felt wonderful. My blood thanked me. The pleasure easily trumped the joy I get from replacing incandescent light bulbs or hanging clothes to dry. For, as Smith and Lourie write in the book, “…our choices as consumers really do have a profound, and very rapid, effect on pollution levels in our bodies.”

Unfortunately, the authors’ other conclusion is more frustrating. They write, “… no matter how hard you try, no matter how obsessively you’re focused – even making the elimination of toxic chemicals from your body the single purpose of your day – you can’t succeed completely.”

Just about everything I read these days includes some variation on this theme: If we want to move toward a sustainable future, individuals can’t do it themselves. Nor can corporations. What we require is for our governments to step up to the plate. Smith and Lourie write, “[F]or a long-term fix, only improved government regulation…is the answer.”

This rallying call for government action might not result in Chicken Soup for the Soul-type sales, but it may help save a few lives.

Nicola Ross is the former Editor of Alternatives Journal, and is a member of the editorial board.