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What Authors Can Learn from the Bestseller Lists

18 September 2011

Veteran editor and publishing insider Alan Rinzler says the lessons may not be what you think they are:

What does it take for a book to become a bestseller?  Some of the answers are right there in the list. So let’s drill down and and see what can we uncover about writing, getting published and appealing to readers.

. . . .

1. The list is widely diverse

The New York Times now publishes 23 separate bestseller lists. The lists range from Combined Print & E-Book Fiction and Non-Fiction, to Hardcover, Advice, Political, Business,and Children’s books. They include everything from literary novels to thrillers, memoirs, romances, mysteries, sci-fi paranormal books, YA and middle-grade, self-help and how-to, religious, inspirational books, and many others.

The lesson:

Don’t worry about following any so-called trends. There’s tremendous variety and no dominant category of successful books. Put away the notion that if you’re story doesn’t have a vampire or get-rich quick scheme, it’s going to die on the vine. Trying to anticipate what category of book will be selling by the time your book is written or published is a waste of time.

. . . .

3. E-books are the future

Earlier this year, the New York Times began running four new bestseller lists that include e-book sales, and it’s about time. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the Book Industry Study Group of Bookstats show unit sales growth of e-books increased a whopping 1039.6% between 2008 and 2010, with 114 million units sold last year. This number only includes those reported by traditional publishers, not all e-books sold by self-publishing authors, so the actual numbers are even greater.

The lesson

The old days when hardcover was king are over. You can sell large quantities of your book in a virtual e-book format that’s either self-published or traditionally published. Authors can pick their own formats and channels.

4. Self-published books can compete

Here’s an astonishing fact: Three books on the top ten titles on the Combined Print and E-Book Fiction Best Seller List are self-published: #4 Blind Faith by CJ Lyons, #5 The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan, and #6 The Abbey by Chris Culver. Wow. The speed with which self-published books have risen in acceptance and success is something traditional publishers never anticipated.

The lower cost of e-books have made waiting for mass-market reprints of higher-priced hardcover or trade paperbacks increasingly obsolete. AAP and Book Study Group reports show that mass-market paperbacks are down 13.8% during same period.“The people who used to wait to buy the mass-market paperback because of the price aren’t going to wait anymore,” says Liate Stehlik, publisher of Morrow and Avon at HarperCollins.

. . . .

What’s the single most important thing a writer can do to make it to the list?

For an answer, we turn to Garth Stein, whose novel Racing in the Rain has been on the New York Time Trade Paperback Fiction list for 117 weeks, this week at #8.

“Well, not to sound simplistic or anything, but the single most important thing has to be having a good book, doesn’t it?  I mean, I’ve heard there are clever ways to spend a lot of money to get on the list, and once on the list, there’s a little bit of self-sustaining momentum.  But that doesn’t last unless it’s a good book and people want to read it and they buy extra copies for their friends and family and so forth.

I’m all about marketing and social networking and rah, rah, rah!  And it takes a lot of work from a lot of different people, like the publisher, sales force, booksellers, and the author to land on a (or “The”) list.

But if the emperor has no clothes, the readers will see it right away. So write a brilliant book first.”

Link to the rest at The Book Deal


5 Comments to “What Authors Can Learn from the Bestseller Lists”

  1. Great post.
    Garth Stein’s quote is so true. Love: “So write a brilliant book first.”

  2. What are your thoughts about publishing your ebook first and then coming out with the POD version at a later date? I suppose it creates the traditional book cycle in reverse?

    • My inclination is to publish ebook and POD versions simultaneously. I don’t want someone who doesn’t like ereaders becoming upset because a book is only available electronically.

      I do have to admit aggravation and the time lags for receiving and checking a proof copy of a POD book, however.

      • That makes sense. Thank you. The changes are happening so fast, I believe many new writers choose to publish electronically first, so to have something out there to begin marketing while they work on the POD version. This can also create a second launch opportunity. Though, I would assume once the process is down subsequent books would be published simultaneously.

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