Behind the Scam: What Does It Take to Be a ‘Best-Selling Author’? $3 and 5 Minutes.

5 February 2017

From Medium:

I would like to tell you about the biggest lie in book publishing. It appears in the biographies and social media profiles of almost every working “author” today. It’s the word “best seller.”

This isn’t about how The New York Times list is biased (though it is). This isn’t about how authors buy their way onto various national best-seller lists by buying their own books in bulk (though they do). No, this is about the far more insidious title of “Amazon Bestseller” — and how it’s complete and utter nonsense.

Here’s what happened in the book industry over the last few years: As Amazon has become the big dog in the book world, the “Amazon Bestseller” status has come to be synonymous with being an actual bestseller. This is not true, and I can prove it.

. . . .

 A while ago, I put up a fake book on Amazon. I took a photo of my foot, uploaded to Amazon, and in a matter of hours, had achieved “№1 Best Seller” status, complete with the orange banner and everything.

. . . .

How many copies did I need to sell to be able to call up my mother and celebrate my newfound authorial achievements? Three. Yes, a total of three copies to become a best-selling author. And I bought two of those copies myself!

The reason people aspire to call themselves “bestselling author” is because it dramatically increases your credibility and “personal brand.” It can establish you as a thought leader. You’re able to show that you not only wrote a book, but that the market has judged it to be better than other books out there. It’s a status symbol, one of that cashes in on the prestige of one of man’s oldest past-times. At last, I had acquired this coveted title for myself.

. . . .

 It used to be a real mark of distinction to hit the best-seller lists–because there were fewer lists and fewer authors (and before ebooks, pricing across books was pretty universal as well). The New York Times list has been the most prestigious, published in one form or another since 1931. By 1942, a national list made its debut, compiled according to “reports from leading booksellers in 22 cities.” By the mid-2000s, over 4,000 bookstores were polled each week to determine who deserved to be on the list. The Wall Street Journal list, which has been around since 2009, is based on Nielsen Bookscan and tends to focus on a smaller number of categories. The USA Today list is also a prestigious but more of a catch-all list.

Link to the rest at Medium and thanks to Joshua for the tip.

New York Times Cuts a Range of Bestseller Lists

27 January 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

The New York Times has eliminated a number of bestsellers lists, although the exact number could not be confirmed Thursday morning. Cutting the various lists is part of an overall plan by the paper to revamp its coverage of publishing.

A note sent on Wednesday to subscribers to the advance bestsellers lists said, “Beginning with the Advance BSL edition that will be delivered today for Feb. 5, 2017, there will be revisions to multiple categories in the publication. These changes will span weekly and monthly lists.”

. . . .

“Beginning February 5, the New York Times will eliminate a number of print but mostly online-only bestseller lists.

In recent years, we introduced a number of new lists as an experiment, many of which are being discontinued. We will continue to cover all of these genres of books in our news coverage (in print and online). The change allows us to devote more space and resources to our coverage beyond the bestseller lists.

Our major lists will remain, including: Top 15 Hardcover Fiction, Top 15 Hardcover Nonfiction, Top 15 Combined Print and E Fiction, Top 15 Combined Print and E Nonfiction, Top 10 Children’s Hardcover Picture Books, Top 10 Children’s Middle Grade Hardcover Chapter Books, Top 10 Children’s Young Adult Hardcover Chapter Books, and Top 10 Children’s Series. Several more including Paperback Trade Fiction, Paperback Nonfiction, Business, Sports, Science, and Advice Miscellaneous will remain online. Readers will be notified that individual lists will no longer be compiled and updated by the New York Times on the relevant article pages.”

Among the lists that appear to have disappeared are the graphic novel/manga and the mass market paperback lists as well as the middle grade e-book and young adult e-book lists.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly and thanks to Cassandra for the tip.

Looking Back at 2016: Important Publishing Developments Authors Should Know

3 January 2017

From Jane Friedman:

The market for adult fiction is primarily a digital one

It’s commonly said that in the United States, overall trade book sales are divided about 70-30 print-digital, and that ebook sales at traditional publishing houses are flat to declining. (You’ve probably heard the celebratory and misleading claims that “print is back!”)

But the latest analysis from Author Earnings shows that when you factor in “nontraditional” publishing sales, the digital share of overall US consumer book purchases changes significantly:

  • 45% of all books purchased in the US in 2016 were digital
  • In adult fiction, sales in the US are roughly 70% digital
  • 30% of all US adult fiction purchases are books by self-published authors

“Nontraditional” sales include self-published work, Amazon’s own imprints, and other sources outside of big trade publishing.

. . . .

Amazon’s market share is growing—across all formats

Industry consultants such as Mike Shatzkin observe that Amazon now has at least 50% of the overall book retail market across print and digital formats. When you study industry reports of print’s buoyancy, and look closely at where the sales are happening, it’s fairly clear that Amazon is stealing away print market share from bricks-and-mortar retailers like Barnes & Noble. And of course Amazon continues to dominate ebook retail, especially as Nook ebook sales continue their decline.

Furthermore, Amazon owns Audible/ACX—the No. 1 audiobook retailer in the US—and has been putting more investment behind the marketing of audiobooks and original audio programming. Over the last couple years, audiobooks have been the top growing format for trade publishers, with about 20-30% growth year on year. Amazon is primed to take advantage of this growth, whether the content comes from traditional publishers or self-publishers.

Finally, there’s Amazon Publishing. Amazon now has 13 active imprints and is the largest publisher of works in translation. In 2016 alone, it’s believed Amazon Publishing will release more than 2,000 titles. (Remember: This isn’t their self-publishing operation—it’s their traditional publishing operation.)

A data point that is unlikely to surprise anyone with knowledge of Amazon: eight of the top 20 Kindle sellers in 2016 were from Amazon’s own publishing imprints.

. . . .

There wasn’t a new blockbuster for publishing in 2016

If you look at the overall bestsellers from last year, many of them weren’t even published in 2016, such as The Girl on the Train. The dry spell was noticed as far back in July, by Publishers Weekly, who pointed out that no new novel had cracked the top twenty print bestsellers in the first half of 2016. Industry observers speculate that current events (the election cycle, terrorist attacks) may have squeezed out book coverage, but also that the division of sales between print and digital formats may be a factor.

But what about the new Harry Potter book, you might ask?

The release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child lifted sales for its US publisher, Scholastic, as expected. While the power of Potter is real enough and undeniably impressive, what makes this less than boffo news for publishing is that, as Michael Cader writes, “the Potter gain was more of a movement of inventory dollars from new adult books rather than any kind of overall boost to the trade.”

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman and thanks to Alexis for the tip.

In 2017, publishing really needs a blockbuster

30 December 2016

From The Los Angeles Times:

This year, publishing needs a hit.

Not that 2016 was bad; it was fine. Books sales basically held steady — down a little here, up some there — for the most recent period for which we have numbers, from January to July. Although the Assn. of American Publishers wants to crow about the fact that books for children and teens were up quite a bit, overall, trade books sales were down 0.4% in 2016 from the same period in 2015.

Which isn’t terrible. But it isn’t good, or at least, not good enough.

What publishing needs is one book, one big book, that comes out of nowhere and takes America by storm. You know what I mean: You hear people talking about it in line at the grocery store. Your grandmother asks if you’ve read it and the same day your college roommate does. It’s the book you see people reading on subways and on planes, that you hear about on the radio and on TV talk shows, that seems to be everywhere at once.

. . . .

In 2015, that book was “The Girl on the Train.” In 2012, it was “Gone Girl.” Before that came “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” (2008, 2009 and 2010, respectively).

Girls, girls, girls!

. . . .

The piling on once a book gets mega-successful may be dismaying from a creative standpoint, but from a business perspective it makes sense: The big hits are impossible to predict.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times

Amazon Mark-downs on NYT Bestsellers

26 December 2016

Amazon is marking down Kindle versions of a variety of New York Times Bestsellers and lots of other books as well. Supposedly, the sale ends today.

Here’s the link. You’ll see the Holiday Deals below the Shop by Category listings.

Stephen King on Childhood

13 December 2016

The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

13 October 2016

From The New Yorker:

In the late nineteen-thirties, in a tall house in Berkeley, California, a girl climbs out the attic window onto the roof in search of solitude. If she scrambles far enough up the redwood shingles, she can reach her own Mt. Olympus, the roof’s peak. From here, she can gaze out over the rough blue of the bay to the city of San Francisco, row upon row of white houses climbing the hills above the water. The city is strange to her—she rarely ventures so far from home—but the view is hers, and splendid. Beyond it she knows there are islands with a magical name: the Farallons. She imagines them as “the loneliest place, the farthest west you could go.”

Meanwhile, inside the house, the girl’s father is at work, thinking about myths, magic, songs, cultural patterns—the proper territory of a professor of anthropology. From him she will take a model for creative work in the midst of a rich family life, as well as the belief that the real room of one’s own is in the writer’s mind. Years later, she tells a friend that if she ended up writing about wizards “perhaps it’s because I grew up with one.”

Ursula Kroeber was born in Berkeley, in 1929, into a family busy with the reading, recording, telling, and inventing of stories. She grew up listening to her aunt Betsy’s memories of a pioneer childhood and to California Indian legends retold by her father. One legend of the Yurok people says that, far out in the Pacific Ocean but not farther than a canoe can paddle, the rim of the sky makes waves by beating on the surface of the water. On every twelfth upswing, the sky moves a little more slowly, so that a skilled navigator has enough time to slip beneath its rim, reach the outer ocean, and dance all night on the shore of another world.

Ursula absorbed these stories, together with the books she read: children’s classics, Norse myths, Irish folktales, the Iliad. In her father’s library, she discovered Romantic poetry and Eastern philosophy, especially the Tao Te Ching. She and her brother Karl supplemented these with science-fiction magazines. With Karl, the closest to her in age of her three brothers, she played King Arthur’s knights, in armor made of cardboard boxes. The two also made up tales of political intrigue and exploration set in a stuffed-toy world called the Animal Kingdom. This storytelling later gave her a feeling of kinship with the Brontës, whose Gondal and Angria, she says, were “the ‘genius version’ of what Karl and I did.”

Her father was Alfred L. Kroeber, one of the most influential cultural anthropologists of the past century. A New Yorker from a prosperous German immigrant family, he went west in 1900, when he was twenty-four, and did field work among the Indians of Northern California. Throughout his career, he learned about cultures that were rapidly being transformed or destroyed from men and women who were among the last survivors of their people. At a time when the dominant story of America was one of European conquest, Ursula was aware, through her father and his Indian friends who came to the house, that there were other stories to tell and other judgments that might be made.

Ursula’s mother was Theodora Kracaw Kroeber, born in Denver in 1897 and raised in the mining town of Telluride. A friend of Le Guin’s recalls seeing her, at the house in Berkeley, “coming down the long staircase, a majestic-looking woman with a long gown and a great big Indian silver and turquoise necklace. She was very stately.” Theodora took to writing in her late fifties, and produced “Ishi in Two Worlds,” a nonfiction account of the last survivor of the Yahi people. Le Guin loved her mother and admired her psychological gifts. But she says that their relationship also contained “something darker and stranger” that she has never quite understood. “We were very lucky, because we never had to act that out. But if I see daughters and mothers act it out toward each other it doesn’t shock me or surprise me. It’s there.”

. . . .

If it was difficult to be the youngest and most precocious of the Kroeber children, leaving the house to enter the world made Ursula feel like “an exile in a Siberia of adolescent social mores.” In the fall of 1944, at fourteen, small for her age, disguised in the sweater, skirt, and loafers of a “bobby-soxer” (a term that still makes her shudder), she began her first year at Berkeley High School, a huge, impersonal institution where popularity mattered more than learning, and fitting in was the ideal. When Le Guin speaks of her teen-age years, she speaks of loneliness, confusion, and the pain of being among people who have no use for one’s gifts. “You’re just dropped into this dreadful place, and there are no explanations why and no directions what to do.”

She found a refuge in the public library, reading Austen and the Brontës, Turgenev and Shelley. In fiction, she could satisfy her deep romantic streak: she fell in love with Prince Andrei in “War and Peace” and once, at thirteen, defaced a library book by cutting out a still of Laurence Olivier’s Mr. Darcy and taking it home to look at in private, guilty rapture. From Thomas Hardy she learned to handle strong feelings in fiction by pouring them into landscapes, letting the settings carry part of the emotional charge. “There’s a patronizing word for that: the ‘pathetic fallacy,’ ” she says. “It’s not a fallacy; it’s art.”

As a child, she was painfully shy, and she still alludes to anxieties that she keeps hidden from the world. I caught a glimpse of that when she asked me, cautiously, “Wouldn’t you say that anybody who thought as much about balance as I do in my work probably felt some threat to their balance?” After a long pause, she added, “Of course all adolescents are out of balance, and very aware of it. To become adult can certainly feel like walking a high wire, can’t it? If my foot slips, I’m gone. I’m dead.”

Equilibrium is a central metaphor in Le Guin’s great works about adolescence, the six-volume Earthsea series, which began in 1968 with “A Wizard of Earthsea.” That book follows Ged, a lonely teen-ager with a gift for magic, who at wizards’ school learns a painful lesson in achieving balance rather than forcing change. There’s little resemblance between the school on Roke Island, with its Taoist magic (a mage is taught to “do by not doing”), and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. There is some resemblance between Ged, the provincial boy with a chip on his shoulder, and Ursula Kroeber, the Californian in jeans arriving at Radcliffe College in 1947, all books and opinions, never before out of her home state, eager to prove herself as a poet. Her Radcliffe friend Jean Taylor Kroeber, who became her sister-in-law, recalls that, before she and Ursula bonded over Russian literature, jokes, and music, she found her “a little frightening. It’s not that she meant to be, but that’s the way it came across . . . that there was a good chance that she was ahead of you, in wherever the conversation was going. And one rather brief acute remark could set you back on your heels.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

How Bruce Springsteen Was The Boss of His Book

14 September 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

One of the biggest books of the year was written on spec.

Instead of signing a contract and getting an advance beforehand,Bruce Springsteen worked on the manuscript of his autobiography “Born to Run” for seven years—by himself—before it was shown to a publisher. The book, which has been held tightly under wraps, will debut in a coordinated, global release on Sept. 27. In all, it is set to be published in 22 countries.

. . . .

The project began when Mr. Springsteen penned a first-person account for his website describing his experience on stage at the 2009 Super Bowl. He wrote the piece in stream-of-consciousness style, sprinkled with all-caps. Mr. Springsteen, who is often described as a control freak, wrote that he’d been worried that he would feel “‘out’ of myself and not in the moment.”

. . . .

After posting his account, Mr. Springsteen quietly kept going. “I felt like I found a good voice to write in,” he recalled in a video released earlier this month by his publisher. “I said, maybe I’ll try to write a little more and see where it takes me.”

. . . .

In 2014, Simon & Schuster published Mr. Springsteen’s “Outlaw Pete,” an illustrated book for adults based on his song about a bank-robbing baby. The book sold modestly—about 12,000 print copies, according to Nielsen BookScan—but the experience was apparently positive for Mr. Springsteen; less than two years later, his legal representatives, Allen Grubman and Jonathan Ehrlich, brought the manuscript exclusively to Simon & Schuster publisher Jonathan Karp.

“This is the book we’ve been hoping for,” Mr. Karp said in a February news release announcing the book. Mr. Karp declined an interview request, as did Mr. Springsteen’s attorneys.

It’s rare for a celebrity to write an autobiography on spec, Simon & Schuster spokesman Cary Goldstein said: “I can’t think of anyone of Bruce’s stature who has done it this way.”

. . . .

While news of the book was still closely guarded, Marie Florio, the company’s director of subsidiary rights, began approaching pre-selected foreign publishers, rather than holding auctions. She invited each to make an offer. At least one European publisher made an offer on the book sight-unseen.

“In France, Bruce Springsteen is more than a music legend,” Anne Michel, foreign department director of the French publisher Éditions Albin Michel, said in a news release when the book was announced on Feb. 11. “He has become, over time, the incarnation of a certain idea of America.”

Publishers then commissioned quick-turn-around translations. Mr. Springsteen revised the manuscript between concerts on tour this summer, as translators across Europe worked simultaneously to update their versions with his latest changes.

“It was more or less a real-time operation,” saidEduard Richter, senior publisher at Spectrum in the Netherlands, who supervised the process there.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire) and thanks to Dave for the tip.


An Algorithm to Predict a Bestseller

12 September 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

A laboratory is a more compelling setting than a church. Life in the classroom trumps partying on campus and readers largely prefer novels with dogs in them, rather than cats.

These are just some of the patterns the authors of a new book, “The Bestseller Code,” out Sept. 20, have detected through an algorithm they designed to identify the DNA of bestselling novels. For the last five years, Matthew L. Jockers, associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Jodie Archer, a former acquisitions editor for Penguin UK, have been scanning texts and compiling data. They claim the algorithm can pick out a future New York Times-list best seller with 80% accuracy.

Using several computers they analyzed 5,000 novels, all published over the last 30 years. The selection comprised a mixture of 500 best sellers and 4,500 non-bestselling paperbacks, hardbacks and e-books. The algorithm focuses on 2,800 features including points of theme, style, vocabulary and punctuation. It is unaware of an author’s name and reputation and can just as confidently pick out the work of an unknown writer as a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling.

“The idea of studying contemporary literature was not on my radar until Jodie put it there,” says Mr. Jockers, who has written several books on computational text analysis and co-founded the Stanford Literary Lab, a research center that applies computational criticism to literature, with Franco Moretti. “Jodie basically said that she had a suspicion that she had detected a commonality in bestsellers just by reading a lot of them and that there was something going on that was independent of genre.”

The algorithm validated this hunch, revealing that subject, not genre, has a much greater impact on driving a best seller. Topics grounded in reality, like marriage, love and crime are far more interesting to most readers than fantasy worlds which play by their own rules. According to the authors, regular best-selling writers have a subject that is overwhelmingly important to their brand. The two authors identified by the algorithm as having “the best understanding of getting the right topics in the right order” over the last 30 years are John Grisham, whose top-ranking subject is the law, and Danielle Steel, whose top-ranker is family domestic life. Bestselling novels tend to have one or two topics which often feed off each other such as “children and guns” or “love and vampires” that together make up nearly a third of the novel whereas novels that fail to hit often try to cram too many topics in.

. . . .

The book has hit a nerve among some in the publishing industry. “I have had people express worry about their job security should computers take over their everyday duties of evaluating manuscripts,” says Daniela Rapp, a senior editor at St. Martin’s Press who acquired the manuscript. “Others simply reject the actual science behind the authors’ work as irrelevant to how publishing works, whereas others engage with the algorithm’s results and compare the results to their own reading experience.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

Here’s a link to the book.

Color PG skeptical.

Books about subjects “like marriage, love and crime are far more interesting to most readers than fantasy worlds which play by their own rules” would seem to imply that JK Rowling missed the really big market.

Is It Possible to Predict the Next New York Times Bestseller?

12 September 2016

From Digital Book World:

The upcoming book The Bestseller Code is getting a great deal of buzz, forcing many of us to ask the question, Can one genuinely predict what kind of book will become a New York Times bestseller (typically considered the most prestigious bestseller list)?

The promise of a formula for predicting a bestseller is getting many in the publishing industry and those who write about books excited, or at least curious. Several journalists contacted me for an opinion about the book because of my background in pub-tech and reader analytics. Thus, I became interested in reading it, and St. Martin’s Press was kind enough to provide me with an advance reader copy.

First of all, this is a delightful book to read. I would recommend it as both an entertaining and educational read for anybody interested in the business of books. This is not a magisterial work, like Merchants of Culture by John Thompson, but a book written for the mass market with plenty of anecdotes and examples that readers and authors can relate to.

The “code” is based on some of the latest advances in machine learning as applied to literature, but the authors attempt to simplify the computer science behind the book. There is no mention of “big data” or artificial intelligence—just plain and simple descriptions of what the “black box” does, with references for interested readers to find out more about its inner workings.

. . . .

If the algorithm is applied to 50 books that are genuinely bestsellers, then it will recognize that 40 of these (80 percent) are indeed bestsellers, but will classify incorrectly (“falsely”) that 10 of the books (20 percent) are not bestsellers (a “negative” result). Thus, the 10 titles that are missed are what statisticians call the “false negatives.”

The inverse is also true: if the algorithm is applied to 50 books that are known not to be bestsellers, then it will recognize that 40 of these (80 percent) are indeed not bestsellers, but will classify incorrectly (“falsely”) that 10 of the books (20 percent) are, in the opinion of the algorithm, in fact bestsellers (a “positive” result), when in fact they never were bestsellers. Thus, these 10 titles that are incorrectly predicted to be bestsellers are false positives.

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

But can an algorithm nurture?

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