How Do Books Become Bestsellers? (Can Authors Increase Those Chances?)


As longtime readers know, writer Kristen Tsetsi is the host of a regular author Q&A at this site, 5 On, that asks 5 questions about writing and 5 questions about publishing. (You can browse them here.)

Recently, Kristen sent me questions related to book marketing that she wanted answered, but didn’t know the right person to ask. As I reviewed them, I decided that I myself might be the right person to address them.

Thus, in a strange turn of events, I am running an interview with myself at my own site. My thanks to Kristen for sparking what I think is an important—and I hope useful—discussion.

Kristen: Authors published by a Big Five publisher are often responsible for much of their own marketing and publicity, and chances are slim that their novel will be the one that takes off and veritably markets itself. What, then, is the benefit of publishing with a major house versus publishing with a small press with decent distribution channels? An author publishing with Random House might have a better reason to at least hope for a Today Show or NPR interview, sure, but obviously most Big Five authors aren’t interviewed on the Today Show or NPR.

Jane: Much depends on what we mean when we talk about a “small press with decent distribution channels.”

First, and most critical to understand, is that the playing field is more or less even when it comes to retail distribution, or what I might call “availability.” Any self-publishing author, and any small press, can make their books available to be ordered or purchased in the same retailers as a Big Five publisher if they’re willing to use print-on-demand technology. It’s not logistically complicated or expensive. That doesn’t mean the author’s or publisher’s books will sit on the shelf of most (or even a few) bricks-and-mortar bookstores in the country—just that the book can look and appear like any other when viewed in an industry database.

Where the playing field is not even is when we look at how print books get sold and purchased in advance of publication, then stocked on physical store shelves. That’s an investment and risk on the side of the publisher, since it requires doing a print run of books that may not sell as expected, plus all books are returnable by bookstores at any point for a full refund. Retailers such as Barnes & Noble commit to purchasing hundreds or thousands of copies of book, prior to knowing how successful it will be, and their commitment is based on how persuasive the publisher’s sales pitch is. When you’re playing that kind of game, the Big Five publishers have a huge advantage—their sales teams pitch books for placement at bookstore accounts, big-box stores, specialty retailers, and so on. It’s part of their job to get the biggest sales commitment possible in advance of publication.

When considering a small press, you should figure out how their books get sold into stores. Do they have their own sales team? Does a larger publisher sell their books for them to store accounts? Do they not even try—do they just make the book available for sale on Amazon or available through Ingram, and call it a day? That’s not a deal breaker (and the majority of all book sales are through Amazon any way!), but for authors who place a great deal of importance on seeing their book stocked in physical retail stores, then the bigger your publisher, the more muscle they probably have to get that nationwide store distribution, and possibly pay for displays or other merchandising during your book’s launch.

Next time you’re in a chain bookstore, study carefully the front-of-store tables and look at the publishers. Those publishers have paid for that placement. You won’t find many “small” presses. You’ll find that Big Five and mid-size houses or strong independent houses (such as Sourcebooks or Chronicle) dominate.

But here’s the other side of the argument: most Big Five publishers, after your book has been out three months, they’re done with you. You won’t hear back from the publicist or marketing team unless your book has gained traction and the publisher sees an opportunity to build further sales and attention. A smaller press may have more time and bandwidth to spend with you both prior to launch and after, in order to find the audience. The approach may be more thoughtful and customized. A Big Five publisher does not have time to take a customized approach to every title on its list; as you say, only a few get the attention they truly deserve, and it tends to be based on who received the highest advance, because that’s where the most risk resides. So a Big Five author is more likely to see a cookie-cutter approach to their book’s launch unless they’re an “A” title (one of the most important titles that season) or otherwise selected for special treatment.

So is it worth the trade-off? There’s not one answer to that question. Partly I think it depends on the author’s personality and how they’re best complemented by the publisher, and maybe even who their agent is. (An agent can play a role in getting marketing support from the publisher!) At some point, money usually speaks loudest, and authors go with the publisher that pays the highest advance, which then can help ensure sufficient attention. If your advance isn’t much of a risk (let’s say $20,000 or below), then you may be better off with a small press if they offer more personalized marketing attention or support, or better and more informed reach to your particular readership. (Here’s my post on evaluating small presses.)

People scoff at debut authors who want to negotiate with publishers over, for example, conditions related to film rights: “It’s your first novel. Don’t even worry about film rights and just be happy to have a publisher. Have three books and a following before you start thinking about film rights.” However, debut novels are optioned: Melanie Raab’s The Trap, Michael Hodges’s The Puller, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Because it could happen, then, however unlikely it may be, shouldn’t each contract be approached with that potential in mind?

My rule of thumb is always “Assume everything is negotiable.” However, in every industry, there are some things that basically are not negotiable, especially if you have little or no leverage over the publisher. The 25% ebook royalty rate is not negotiable, no matter who you are. Granting ebook rights along with print: it will be demanded. This is where having an agent is invaluable, because they know from experience where and when a publisher is willing to negotiate. They also know why things might not be negotiable. For example, the ebook royalty rate isn’t negotiable for now because every single author with a decent agent has a clause that says as soon as another author at the same house receives a higher rate, they’ll get the higher rate, too. To ameliorate that, an agent can say, “We know you’re not going to budge on the ebook royalty rate, but that means you need to do better on these other terms.”

It never hurts to ask for what you want, to ask “Can you do better?” and to get an explanation for why your requests aren’t reasonable or standard. But the truth is that unless you’re a highly desirable author, or unless you have an agent who is able to leverage their influence on your behalf, sometimes you have to accept terms that are less than satisfying.

Do authors have any more negotiating room these days simply because there are so many publishing options available? Do publishers (typically) fight for manuscripts these days if they’re not written by someone well-known, or could they take or leave most authors?

Little-known or early-career authors don’t have any more negotiating room than they did before. Authors with a track record—who represent reliable, ongoing income to the publisher—do have the ability to make demands or threaten to walk away, switch publishers, go to Amazon Publishing, self-publish, etc. But it’s interesting that we really haven’t seen that happen; most authors develop a close relationship with their editor, whom they’re loath to separate from. When high-earning authors do part ways with their publisher, it’s often because of editorial restructures that affect how their work is handled, marketed, or championed. So they jump to another house. (See Nora Roberts.) Furthermore, well-established authors always have an agent who is probably not enthusiastic about seeing their clients divest themselves of traditional publishing.

People who think traditional publishing will die underestimate how difficult it is for a successful author, who has built her career on that system, to go about the process in a different way, with a different team. It’s a different skill set that’s required and it’s a different kind of career. You can read John Scalzi on this to get a sense of what I mean.

Publishers do still fight over manuscripts from “hot” authors and you still see agents taking projects to auction, with advances being paid that may never earn out because of over-exuberance. If anything, it happens less than before, given ongoing consolidation and risk aversion among publishers. Also, publishers more actively go after deadbeat authors for advances when no manuscript is delivered. I’d say there’s more attention paid to making good business decisions. Imagine that!

One of the complaints I’ve heard and read about traditional publishers is that if they buy the book, sell it for a year, and determine it isn’t doing well, they’ll pull it from stores. But the rights won’t revert to the author, who might want to find his/her own way to make it available. Why does this happen—that is, how does it benefit the publishing company? And is there a way around it?

Because authors get so concerned about seeing their print book in stores—it’s the “dream” and offers validation of their status—they’re unfortunately blind to the truth of the industry: Physical bookstore sales aren’t where most trade books sell; they constitute maybe 30-40% of sales. The other 60-70% are happening through online retail—primarily Amazon, whether in print or ebook form. That’s why the rights aren’t reverting to the author.

But to talk about that bookstore space for a moment: a year of availability on a shelf is probably too generous! Maybe four to six months? If your book doesn’t establish itself as a decent seller in that timeframe, it will be marked, fairly or not, for return. But it’s not the publisher who pulls the book. It’s that the retailers return stock that doesn’t sell quickly enough or they stop ordering it. Stores can only stock so many books; the shelves continually have to be cleared, to make room for new titles or old titles that backlist well—there always has to be room for evergreen bestsellers such as What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

How does a publisher decide which books they’ll devote full marketing energy (assuming the author isn’t a known entity), and does their active promotion determine which book will become a title everyone has heard of? Or is it strictly a matter of good luck and word of mouth when a novel becomes the novel everyone is talking about, making the possibility of this happening the same for a Big Five author as it is for even a self-published author?

I’ve mentioned the role of the advance earlier—that’s a significant factor, but not the only factor. Your relationship with your editor, and how much of a champion that editor is for your book inside the publishing house, well, that can be just as huge. It’s up to the editor to relay their enthusiasm for your book to the sales and marketing team. They have to be continually drumming up support, or demanding attention. If you become someone your editor doesn’t like—if you become the “difficult” author—that may dampen their enthusiasm, and thus their motivation to talk you up to the rest of the company. More generally, whether it’s your editor relationship or no, publishers do more for authors they like. If you’re easy to work with, they’ll be more inclined to work with you.

Early on, authors need to figure out where they’re at in the publisher’s pecking order, preferably after signing the contract. You need to figure out if you’re an “A” title, “B” title, or something further down the ladder. And this is not to dispute the issue or throw a tantrum, but to be prepared and set your expectations accordingly. You have to take the role of proactive author especially when you’re not an A title, and let the publisher know what you’ll be doing to support your book, many months in advance of publication—before those sales calls happen. That way, when the publisher calls on the buyer at Barnes & Noble, they can say, “The author has this fabulous thing planned, and it’ll help sell books because…”

If you wait on your publisher to do stuff or tell you their plans, you may be waiting a very long time. If you present them with your plan—what you can accomplish on your own without their help—they will often look for ways to amplify what you are doing, and combine forces. If their response is tepid, this is not the time to strut, make demands, or pout and ask, “What have you done for me lately?” Publishers are more inclined to help authors who can first help themselves. Or, if your publisher is truly dropping the ball, and you need someone to hold their feet to the fire, talk to your agent—they should have a good idea of what can be reasonably asked for, and when, and how to make a request that maintains a good working relationship.

After the book’s launch, within that three-month window after release, if positive things happen, whether on purpose or by accident, the publisher will revisit the situation and decide if more investment would bring greater rewards. So it is possible for an author who is not initially “A” list material to quickly become the focus of the marketing department if they break out in some way.

About the last question: What inspired it was a conversation my husband and I had after I told him I had no idea what to do with what I’m writing once I’m finished. Try to get an agent? Query smaller (university) presses directly? Query Amazon’s traditional imprint? Self-publish?

While I had some success earlier on with marketing (podcasts, WNPR, local TV, newspapers), those features and/or interviews did nothing at all to sell the self-published book I was promoting at the time.

So, my husband asked, “How does a Jonathan Franzen book become a Jonathan Franzen book? [A title everyone knows about.] How did Eat, Pray, Love become a hit? What steps did publishers take to make that happen? Because whatever you were doing didn’t work. WHAT WORKS? When you find out, do that.”

I tried explaining the combination of commercial appeal, word of mouth, and luck, but I don’t think he believed me. But all of that did make me wonder about the overall effectiveness of any marketing. Is it the marketing that pushes a book into everyone’s hands, or is it really just that perfect, unpredictable, magical combination?

I also wondered whether an individual small press or self-published author, absent publishing house funding, could replicate what publishers do—contact these people, get this kind of interview, make a video, etc. Is there a formula? What is it that makes a hit of the book the publisher pays the huge advance on? Is it ads in the New York Times? Buying enough copies to call it a New York Times bestseller and doing TV commercials? Interviews on daytime talk shows? All things inaccessible to the tiny writer?

And how do publishers decide which books—excluding those by famous people, and specifically fiction (nonfiction seems like an easier sell)—will get the larger advances and the subsequent marketing push?

This feels like many questions, but I think the TL;DR version is probably, “Is a book’s success all luck, even if ‘luck’ includes hitting the right subject matter at the right time, or is it marketing—and can an indie author in any way compete with a publisher?”

I don’t want to make it sound like a crapshoot, but to some extent, yes, we’re talking about something that is unpredictable and perhaps magical. It has to be the right book at the right time with the right attention.

So far, I haven’t addressed the subjective issue of quality or how certain books excite people more than others. Agent Donald Maass, in his various fiction writing books, tries to discuss why some books capture people’s imaginations, and result in tremendous word of mouth (“You must read this book!”), while others—most others, in fact—receive a more tepid response. We tend to hear about and focus on the successes, but it’s important to understand that the New York Times bestselling novel by a relatively unknown author that suddenly everyone knows and talks about is pretty rare. I think the most recent one we’ve seen is Girl on the Train, and that was released over two years ago. I recently browsed the Publishers Marketplace deals database for major deals for debut authors ($500,000 advance and higher), and most of the books and authors I had never heard of.

When publishers invest a lot in a little-known author’s advance, it’s usually because they think they’ve got something amazing—it sets off their “quality” or “commercial appeal” radar. Editors and agents are exposed to thousands of projects every year, so they have a sense for when something special or different comes through. That said, editors and agents can also be out of touch with what pleases the average reader, and here 50 Shades of Grey is always trotted out as the stereotypical example. Unfortunately, the books that agents and editors fall in love with and champion—and that receive superlative marketing support—are about as likely to sink as those books that receive little support. But you don’t hear about the failures; everyone would prefer to forget them. I distinctly remember a couple years ago hearing about a debut novel by a high-profile editor who worked in New York publishing, and it received all this pre-publication attention and publicity, as you would expect. But it completely fizzled. That speaks volumes.

So, you need two things: a great book that inspires readers to evangelize for it and press it into the hands of friends and family, and some amount of marketing to help get the ball rolling. (As novelist and marketer MJ Rose often likes to say, no one buys a book they haven’t heard of.) When lightning strikes—as it did in the case of a self-published book such as The Martian—you can’t replicate that process, step by step, to create another success just like it.

We can take this partly as a comfort: writing and storytelling aren’t so formulaic and by-the-numbers that you can engineer a bestselling title. It sounds like your husband must be an engineer or a programmer, but we’re talking about something that’s distinctly unquantifiable. While there are books that have tried to break it all down into a formula—what are the universal qualities of a bestseller?—the results are disappointing.

One thing I’ve noticed about many breakout authors, though, is that we’re rarely seeing an overnight success. In most cases, that author has labored for years on projects that failed or were mediocre in their reception. But those failures were necessary to produce a work that would wildly succeed. It’s that old cliche: luck is what happens when preparedness meets opportunity.

The great marketing advantage (and curse) for today’s author is the incredible social graph and reading behavior available to them: that is, the online breadcrumb trail left by people as they buy books, review them, tag them, and talk about them with each other. That can help an author better understand where to find their readers and to be smarter about finding and targeting them, whether online or offline. (For people curious about this, I have a free 30-minute discussion that gets a little tech oriented.)

Brand-name writers with instant recognizability in the market should and will be marketed differently than the debut novelist who doesn’t have any name recognition with readers. The former is likely to have a more mass-market, advertising-driven approach; the latter should probably use more high-touch and targeted approaches (whether to independent booksellers, book clubs, librarians, specific blogs and online communities, etc). Favorable (lower) pricing and promotions also encourage people to take a chance on a new or unknown author. Positive reviews and media appearances help, too, but for someone who is an unknown in the market, it usually requires many instances of exposure—the old “seven impressions” rule—for someone to remember and then make a purchase. This is why word of mouth—the recommendation of someone you trust—is so often talked about. That’s usually more powerful than seeing an ad or reading a professional review.

Professional indie authors effectively compete with traditional authors, in every way, but they have a different approach, since they mainly reach their readers online, don’t devote much energy to the physical bookstore market, and mostly eschew mainstream media coverage and reviews. Readers are their focus and they know how to ensure their books rank well and are visible on Amazon. The ones who compete best are typically prolific and succeed financially by having a considerable amount of product on the market, usually one or more series. You’re not going find Jonathan Franzen–style indie authors out there, taking five or more years between books—not any making a living. You have to be in front of your audience pretty consistently as an indie author, with new stuff to offer, at least once a year if not several times per year. So indie authors compete in a different way, and their visibility is different, too. You can’t measure them by New York Times bestseller appearances, because that list is biased against lower priced ebooks that sell primarily on Amazon—but indie authors may end up earning far more money than a traditional author.

For authors who are worried about whether they’re doing enough to market (or if they’re doing the right things), it’s best to consider it a long game. You can’t do everything, but you can focus your energies on what’s sustainable over a long period of time and what helps nurture readers who will evangelize on your behalf. Rather than trying to cast the widest net possible, focus on those people who are loyal and devoted to your work and can help spread the word. Focus on building your immediate network; in-person local and regional touch points help lead to national opportunities over time. Word of mouth is more likely to be sparked through cultivated relationships, directly with readers, as well as with influencers, rather than through efforts that involve mass outreach or loose targeting, where you don’t have any idea of who you’re reaching or if they even care.

For more information on book marketing and publicity, check out these posts by Jane:

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