I am always interested in why young people become writers

I am always interested in why young people become writers, and from talking with many I have concluded that most do not want to be writers working eight and ten hours a day and accomplishing little; they want to have been writers, garnering the rewards of having completed a best-seller. They aspire to the rewards of writing but not to the travail.

James A. Michener

The measure of a great writer

The measure of a great writer is not how many weeks his books spend on the best-seller lists, but how many years his books remain in print after his death.

Cal Thomas

8 Notable Attempts to Hack the New York Times Bestseller List

From The Literary Hub (2017):

The bestseller list is a surprisingly complicated creature. A good and thorough explanation is here, but basically, to get on any official list of bestsellers, you have to sell at least 5,000 books in a single week—which seems straightforward, except that it’s really hard to count books sold week-to-week, even harder to count books sold by non-traditional outlets, and also not everyone is looking at all the same numbers. Publisher’s Weekly uses BookScan, but BookScan doesn’t track everything. Other bestseller lists rely on reported data from bookstores (online and off), or a combination. The New York Times list is the most prestigious, of course, because it’s the New York Times, but also, at least in part, because it’s the most opaque. “The Times’s best-seller lists are based on a detailed analysis of book sales from a wide range of retailers who provide us with specific and confidential context of their sales each week,” a New York Times spokesperson told Vox. “These standards are applied consistently, across the board in order to provide Times readers our best assessment of what books are the most broadly popular at that time.” Which doesn’t tell us much, and the Times is notoriously hush-hush about which stores they track and how they interpret and arrange their data.

Despite all the confusion, it’s not super hard to buy 5,000 books in a single week—if you already have the money—which could send your book to the top of the charts, depending on the week in question. This isn’t illegal, but it is gaming the system, or even cheating, if you will, and the New York Times list will sometimes include a dagger next to books they suspect might owe their placement to “strategic bulk purchases.” Worse than that demure little dagger is the fact that you’ll likely be found out and raked over the coals, especially if you’re already a public figure. On the other hand, years after people have forgotten that you scammed your way onto the bestseller list, you’ll still be putting “bestselling author” in front of your name.

Not everyone will forget, though. Considering the recent spate of bestseller-list drama, here are eight notable instances of list-hacking in its various forms, from the very cynical to the very silly.

. . . .

In August, a book very few people had ever heard of shot to the top of the Young Adult Hardcover section of the New York Times bestseller list. The book, Handbook for Mortals, was published by GeekNation, a website launched in 2012, and if that sounds odd, it’s because Sarem’s book (and attendant movie franchise deal) was the geek culture site’s first foray into publishing. It all smells a little pre-packaged, honestly, and the fact that Sarem is JC Chasez’s cousin does not make it smell any fresher.

YA author Phil Stamper brought the oddity to the book world’s attention, tweeting, “I find it . . . strange that a mediocre website can decide it wants to be a publisher, and one month later hit #1 on the NYT Bestsellers list” and “A book that’s out of stock on Amazon and is not currently in any physical B&N in the tri-state area . . . A book that no one has heard of except for the two niche blogs that covered the [GeekNation] press release. Sells ~5,000 in the first week? Ok.” Soon, booksellers began writing to Stamper, reporting that they had been getting mysterious bulk orders of Handbook for Mortals—but only after the caller made sure that their sales were reported to the Times bestseller list. More evidence quickly began to stack up, and by the end of the day, the Times had changed the list. “After investigating the inconsistencies in the most recent reporting cycle, we decided that the sales for Handbook for Mortals did not meet our criteria for inclusion,” a Times spokesperson told NPR in a statement.

In an interview with HuffPost, Sarem said, “OK, I get it. I didn’t play by the normal YA rules. I didn’t […] send out galleys two years in advance, and I didn’t go talk to the people that thought I should come talk to them. I did it a different way. Do you only get to be successful in the YA world if you only do it the way that they think it’s supposed to be done?” Later, she complained, “People keep saying that they’re tired of hearing the same story over and over again. Well, start supporting new stories. Start supporting new artists.”

A couple of weeks later, she wrote an op-ed, also at HuffPost, in which she admitted to buying her own book in bulk to sell it at Comic Con events, but said this was “well within the rules” of the bestseller list. This isn’t really borne out by the evidence, though, which shows many orders and no stock to fill them with—that is, nonexistent books purchased by people who didn’t care if they ever received them.

Fun fact: Blues Traveler, whom Sarem used to manage, tweeted that they “fired her for these kinds of stunts. Her sense of denial is staggering.”

Donald Trump loves to brag about how he’s a great businessman, and how he’s a great bestselling writer, and how he’s a great bestselling writer of a great book about being a great businessman. The Art of the Deal is second only to the Bible, right? But recently in the New Republic, Alex Shephard reported that when it comes to the popularity of The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump may not be as great as all that. Shocker! Shephard reports that ex-Trump executive Jack O’Donnell’s 1991 tell-all Trumped! explains exactly how The Art of the Deal became such a big bestseller: the Trump organization bought “tens of thousands of copies on its own.” Shephard reports:

In his book, O’Donnell recounts buying 1,000 copies of The Art of the Deal to sell in the Plaza’s gift shop—only to be told by fellow executive Steve Hyde that it wasn’t nearly enough. “You’ve got to increase your order,” Hyde told him. “Donald will go nuts if you don’t order more books.” How many more? Four thousand copies, O’Donnell was told.

And it wasn’t just the Plaza Hotel that was buying the book in bulk. According to O’Donnell, Trump executives were instructed to buy thousands of copies for their properties. In typical Trump fashion, the boss pitted his top executives against each other: When Trump’s then-wife, Ivana, ordered 4,000 books for the Trump Castle Casino in Atlantic City, O’Donnell was warned that he needed to match her. “Hey, Jack,” a fellow executive cautioned him, “you better buy as many books as Ivana, or Donald will use it against you.”

To be fair, Shephard says, The Art of the Deal would have wound up a bestseller anyway. But only last year, Trump pulled the same thing with his book Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (which I have never heard of), buying $55,055 worth of copies at Barnes & Noble. Again, not illegal—unless he gets any royalties from the purchases. “It’s fine for a candidate’s book to be purchased by his committee, but it’s impermissible to receive royalties from the publisher,” a representative of nonpartisan nonprofit Campaign Legal Center told The Daily Beast. “That amounts to an illegal conversion of campaign funds to personal use. There’s a well established precedent from the FEC that funds from the campaign account can’t end up in your own pocket.” Of course, that probably didn’t stop him. It’s Donald Trump, after all.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub (2017)

The convoluted world of best-seller lists, explained

From Vox (2017):

Over the past few weeks, scandal has rocked the august institution of the New York Times best-seller list. And it’s happened not just once but twice.

On August 24, an unknown book by an unknown author from an unknown publisher rocketed its way to first place on the Times’s young adult hardcover best-seller list. But as a scrappy band of investigators who congregated in the YA Twitter community discovered, it wasn’t because a lot of people were reading the book. Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem bought its way onto the list, they concluded, with the publisher and author strategically ordering large numbers of the book from stores that report their sales to the New York Times. Shortly thereafter, the Times removed the book from its rankings.

And on September 4, Regnery Books — the conservative publishing imprint that publishes Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza, among others — denounced the New York Times best-seller list as biased against conservatives. Why, it demanded, was D’Souza’s new book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left ranked as seventh on the Times’s hardcover nonfiction list when Nielsen BookScan’s data, per Regnery’s interpretation, suggested it should be first? Regnery concluded that the New York Times was actively conspiring against conservative titles, and announced that it would sever all ties with the Times.

To understand how any of this could happen — how different lists can contain different titles, in a different order, how an unknown book could buy its way onto a best-seller list, how a best-seller list could have a political bias — and why any of these things matter, you need to understand how the different best-seller lists work, what makes the New York Times’s best-seller list unique, and the purpose best-seller lists serve within the world of book publishing.

Why is it such a big deal for a book to be named a best-seller?

There are multiple best-seller lists out there, and getting named to any of them is welcome for most authors, but the New York Times best-seller list is widely considered to be the most prestigious, and it’s certainly the most well-known.

Becoming a New York Times best-seller has a measurable effect on a book’s sales, especially for books by debut authors. According to a 2004 study by economics professor Alan Sorensen, appearing on the New York Times’s best-seller list increased debut authors’ sales by 57 percent. On average, it increased sales by 13 or 14 percent.

Besides the list’s effect on sales, it offers prestige. If your book appears on the New York Times list — even just for a week in the last slot of the Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous category — you get to call yourself a New York Times best-seller for the rest of your life. You can put that honor on the cover of all of your other books. If anyone ever insults you, you can say, “Well, have you written a New York Times best-seller?” (Strategy not recommended if the person who insulted you was Danielle Steel.)

And for the rare book that manages to establish enough of a presence on various best-seller lists, a self-sustaining momentum develops. Not everyone who bought a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey expected to like what they read, but Fifty Shades became such a ubiquitous cultural force that lots of people wanted to have an opinion on it anyway. That inspired them to buy it, and that meant the book stayed on the list.

. . . .

At the end of the day, best-seller lists work as shorthand for readers: “Lots of other people liked these books,” they say, “so odds are good that you will too!” 

What does it take to be named a best-seller?

The general consensus is that if you want to make your way onto a best-seller list, any best-seller list, you have to sell at least 5,000 books in a week, or maybe 10,000. Beyond that, things get complicated depending on which list you’re looking to end up on.

That’s because the different lists don’t all use the same data. No one has access to all of the sales made by every single book published in the US in a given week. It takes months for publishers to assemble that data; it’s impossible to get it all in time to publish a weekly best-seller list. “At the end of the day, the publishers will have a hundred percent understanding of what was sold,” says Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly, “but they won’t have it by the end of the week.”

So all of the different best-seller lists have established their own methodologies to gather sales data — and once they’ve got it, they break it down differently. They put the break between one week and another in different spots (ending on Sunday versus Saturday, for example); they use different categories to sort the lists; they weigh digital and print titles differently. Here’s a breakdown of how the five major lists — Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Indiebound, Amazon, and the New York Times — work.

Publishers Weekly, which Regnery has cited as the “benchmark” it will be following henceforward, pulls its data from the Nielsen service BookScan. BookScan is also the service that most publishers use to track their competitors’ sales, so it’s more or less the industry standard.

BookScan reports that it tracks 80 to 85 percent of the sales of printed books in the US, and although that claim has been contested, it certainly gets data from major sellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as a number of independent bookstores. (BookScan estimates that it collects data from approximately 16,000 outlets every week.)

Link to the rest at Vox (2017)

Amazon Best Sellers Rank Explained for Authors

From Tough Nickel:

As she looked at her book’s product page on Amazon, a new traditionally published author asked me what the Amazon Best Sellers Rank means. Did it tell her anything about how many sales were being made? Why are sales rankings always changing?

When it says “only 2 books left,” what does that mean? Though this author was traditionally published, many self-published authors struggle with figuring out what it all means, too.

So let me explain what all these confusing numbers and terms mean for authors.

Author Central

Whether you’re traditionally or self-published, you can claim your author profile on Amazon through Author Central. After your identity and claim to book titles are verified, you’ll be able to do the following:

  • Establish an author profile page on Amazon where you can post your bio, videos, and links to your blog or podcast RSS feed.
  • Access reports for Amazon Best Sellers Rank and NPD Bookscan rankings.
  • See the most recent customer reviews for your book without having to constantly visit your book product pages on Amazon.

Amazon Best Sellers Rank

The author who contacted me said she was checking “the numbers,” which I presumed was Amazon Best Sellers Rank, “a million times a day.” Dear authors, please don’t do this! Let me explain why.

For the Amazon Best Sellers Rank, sometimes referred to as “BSR,” the lower the BSR number, the higher you rank. Note that for your Kindle editions, your BSR shown on Author Central is for “Paid” books, meaning it doesn’t include Free Kindle Book Promotions. Also, note that this number tells you nothing about the number of books sold.

Your book’s BSR is a constantly moving target. The Amazon Customer Service documentation as of this post date had this to say about Best Sellers Rank:

The Amazon Best Sellers calculation is based on Amazon sales, and is updated hourly to reflect recent and historical sales of every item sold on Amazon. [Emphasis added for hourly.]

With hourly updates, your BSR could vary widely and wildly within the span of just one day. So unless you have the iron emotional stamina of a stock market day trader, basing the evaluation of your book’s success on Amazon’s BSR doesn’t help your physical and mental health.

Here’s something that freaks out authors. Your BSR can improve, sometimes dramatically, without you selling even one book. Or it can decline dramatically, even if you make sales, because there may be a flood of sales for other competing titles. This is because BSR is a calculation based on both recent and historical sales in comparison to other books, though KDP Support documentation says that recent activity is weighted more heavily.

I could not confirm on Amazon documentation if Kindle Unlimited KENP page reads impact BSR. What’s confusing is that KDP says sales ranking is based on “activity.” So are Kindle Unlimited reads considered “activity?” Logically, it seems like it might. But only Amazon knows.

In case you’re wondering, no, we don’t know the exact formula Amazon uses to calculate BSR. Like Google, they are not going to share that to prevent gaming of the system. Since BSR is a metric over which you have zero control, you should have zero worries over it.

. . . .

Different Format, Different Sales Rank

Something to also note is that your book title will have a separate BSR for Books, Kindle Store, and Audible, depending on which formats you’re offering. On the “Formats and editions” dropdown box next to your title on Author Central, you can choose which format’s BSR you’d like to view.

Sales rank can vary dramatically from edition to edition. Looking at mine for one particular day, I had a rank in the high 600K range for Kindle, 2.5 million for the paperback print edition, and in the 300K range for the audiobook.

Again, this tells you nothing valuable.

Historical Sales Rank

You can also click the “View historical Sales Rank” link for each of your titles on Author Central to see changes in your BSR over time for that title and each format. Let’s take a look at my first book, which I first published in 2011, then moved to KDP in 2014.

Looking at the graph of the BSR of the Kindle edition of my book, SWAG, for the period of 2014 to 2022, my highest BSR was in 2017 at 2,844. That’s pretty high! And that was three years after I published it on KDP. But it swings wildly from that high point, plummeting to rankings down in the millions.

Category Rankings

On your books’ listings on Author Central, you’ll see a link that says “See category rankings on Amazon.” This will send you to your book’s product page on Amazon. You’ll need to scroll down to Product Details to see your book’s ranking in topic categories and subcategories for each format.

This is where you’ll see how your book ranks in comparison to other books in your genre or topic. This is a more valuable ranking report than the placement in the overall BSR. Amazon shows where your book ranks highly within a few of the most popular categories.

Link to the rest at Tough Nickel

Why Frankenstein Still Sells 40,000 Copies a Year

From Jane Friedman:

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein remains an undisputed classic. It’s required reading in classrooms across the world, while artists, writers and filmmakers constantly reinterpret its man-makes-monster premise. The longer you look, in fact, the more extraordinary its success becomes.

First published in 1818, Frankenstein was released in a modest edition of just 500 copies. Some 200 years later, in 2021, a first edition sold at auction for $1.2 million, setting a new record for a book by a female author. Thomas Edison, Mel Brooks and Tim Burton all adapted Frankenstein for the screen, with the total number of film adaptations now well into triple digits. Fresh off the success of Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro began pre-production on his own adaptation in the 2010s—his dream project, he said—only to have it killed by the studio. A huge Frankenstein mask still hangs in the entrance to his L.A. home.

There are Frankenstein-inspired dolls for sale at Build-a-Bear. Frankenstein Legos. There’s even a breakfast cereal you can buy seasonally at Target—General Mills’ Frankenberry. Any 19th century novel inspiring this many interpretations is a wonder. But maybe most enviable are the book’s “backlist” sales. As the Guardian reports, Frankenstein still moves an eye-watering 40,000 copies a year, which means it outsells 99% of all “frontlist” (or newly released) titles.

Authors dream of such long-term success. But how to pull it off? Is Frankenstein a freak, or can it show us how to make art that lasts?

“Write a classic” isn’t a strategy, obviously. It’s a goal, plus a highly contingent outcome. No one could recreate the conditions that gave life to Frankenstein—its famous origin story is itself a series of unlikely contingencies. In 1815, Indonesia’s Mount Tambor volcano exploded in the largest, most powerful eruption ever recorded. With so much ash still in the atmosphere, the summer nights of 1816 were gloomier than anyone could remember. It became known as the “year without a summer.”

Mary Shelley, then 18 years old, happened to be staying in a Swiss villa with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, next door to the poet Lord Byron and other literary friends. To entertain themselves in the evenings, they told ghost stories, and in the grand tradition of writers everywhere, tried to outdo each other. Later, Mary Shelley would claim a certain monstrous face and form came to her in a waking dream. Two years and three drafts later, Frankenstein was published, though Shelley, fearing scandal, didn’t put her name on it. Instead, the book was published anonymously, which meant that—notwithstanding differences in copyright law then and now—its premise could essentially be pirated in stage plays and elsewhere without attribution.

The novel caught on quickly in part for such perverse reasons. To explain its staying power, however, we have to look further, seeing how Shelley’s novel demonstrates timeless truths about “perennial sellers,” to use Ryan Holiday’s phrase. As he argues in Perennial Seller, “the more important and perennial a problem” that a book concerns, the better the chances it will survive the test of time.

Frankenstein practically bum-rushes the criteria. Its characters’ problems are timeless. Victor Frankenstein, a starry-eyed scientist, is blinded by ambition, leading him to an act of creation he comes to bitterly regret. Meanwhile the monster, like all of us, finds himself here, alive and breathing, without ever having been consulted. Stranded and alone, he craves love. Denied it, he plots revenge. Shelley’s shifting POV, which veers from creator to so-called monster, poses daunting questions: Don’t we all deserve love? If bad treatment creates bad actors, what is our moral responsibility to every person and creature around us?

Helping to make these questions extra sticky is how readers of all ages may identify with an abandoned, rejected child. Impressions from our early childhood stay with us, consciously or unconsciously. Since our parents’ love is key to our survival, all of us know what it is to need it—and far too many know what it means to get something rather less than what they’d hoped. When stories touch us on such universal fears and on longings so fundamental they virtually define our species, then they can survive beyond their own epoch, fascinating no less than an Edison or del Toro.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

How Agatha Christie Knew So Much About Poison

From Time:

Acquaintances of Agatha Christie could be forgiven for hesitating when she offered them a cup of tea. Christie was notoriously good at dreaming up undetectable poisons, and prolific with their use—at least in fiction. Out of her 66 murder mysteries, poison was the cause of death for more than 30 characters.

Her familiarity with lethal substances was rooted in real-life experience. Christie, born in the seaside town of Torquay, England, on this day, Sept. 15, 125 years ago, volunteered as a nurse during World War I and was stationed in a hospital dispensary after passing an exam to qualify as an apothecary’s assistant. Prescriptions were prepared by hand in those days, so Christie became intimately familiar with the dosages of a variety of drugs — and their toxic effects, according to Kathryn Harkup, [who wrote] A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie.

. . . .

Christie had the literary luck of studying under a pharmacist who seemed to be plucked from the pages of a mystery novel himself. In her autobiography, she writes that he once showed her a lump of a plant extract called curare, which he kept in his pocket, and which killed by inducing paralysis and asphyxiation. He explained that he carried it because “it makes me feel powerful,” per Christie.

The pharmacist later appeared, in thinly fictionalized form, as a character in her 1961 novel The Pale Horse, per Harkup. In real life, however, Christie may have used her knowledge of toxic substances to prevent him from killing people, albeit inadvertently. Harkup relates that the pharmacist once unwittingly prepared a batch of suppositories with ten times more medication than they were meant to contain. Christie wasn’t in a position to correct his mistake; instead “she pretended to trip and sent the suppositories crashing to the floor, where she trod on them firmly. After she had apologised profusely and cleared up the mess, a fresh batch was made, but this time at the correct dilution,” Harkup writes.

Suppositories, of course, would have been an awkward choice for a murder weapon; Christie’s plots relied more heavily on substances that could be slipped into something a British murder victim might eat or drink. The author and pharmacology professor Michael Gerald catalogues Christie’s favorite poisons, and their most effective deployments, in his 1993 book The Poisonous Pen of Agatha ChristieFor example, arsenic trioxide is a good fit for teatime, since even 20 times the lethal dose can’t be tasted in a cup of tea. Taxine, on the other hand, is too bitter to go undetected in tea, but mixes well with marmalade.

Christie was, however, understandably aghast when a real-world killer made use of one of her fictional concoctions. In the early 1970s, a British factory worker named Graham Frederick Young killed two of his coworkers by dosing their coffee and tea with thallium, “a tasteless, soluble and highly toxic substance that had never before been used on humans as a poison in Britain,” according to TIME. It had, however, been the murder weapon in The Pale Horse.

Unlike Christie’s fictional villains, Young was easy enough to incriminate without the super-sleuthing skills of Poirot and Marple. When police searched his house, they found “enough thallium to keep a pharmacy in business for an entire month,” 

Link to the rest at Time

Bookstat: Ellis scales the chart at long last

From The Bookseller:

JR Ellis’ Murder at St Anne’s (Thomas & Mercer) has clocked in as the Bookstat e-book number one for the week ending 11th December, marking the author’s first number one in the chart.

. . . .

The e-book and print charts tend to divert more than ever at this time of year, with the print market so laser-focused on Christmas gifts and e-books still firmly in the self-gifting arena. The Bookstat chart saw a flurry of new entries, with Nicolas Sparks’ The Wish (Sphere), Robert Bryndza’s Darkness Falls (Sphere) and Emma Haughton’s The Dark (Hodder & Stoughton) debuting in the top five.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The Best Books of 2021: Mysteries

From The Wall Street Journal:

Our Mystery columnist selects the best new works of mystery, suspense and crime fiction for 2021.

The Dark Hours’ by Michael Connelly

Retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch, the hero of many a Michael Connelly procedural, shares billing on the dust jacket with Renée Ballard, a younger active-duty officer whose passion for justice matches his, but this is Ballard’s book, with Bosch giving moral and physical support. The novel’s title refers not only to the late-evening shift Renée works but also to the malaise fallen over L.A. in the wake of protests over police abuse, in the thick of the Covid pandemic. Ballard carries on regardless, pursuing a “tag team” of serial rapists even as she hustles to make the case against the New Year’s Eve killer of a Hollywood auto-repair shop owner. Sharp observations of characters, from victims to perpetrators, make this entry a standout.

Find You First’ by Linwood Barclay

Forty-two-year-old self-made multimillionaire Miles Cookson is enjoying life to the fullest until he learns it will end sooner than expected, due to a debilitating inherited disease. Officially childless, he nonetheless feels the prick of conscience: during his scuffling days, he donated sperm to a fertility clinic. Shouldn’t he contact any kids he may have sired, to warn them of their possible genetic ill fortune and provide for their medical care? Others in Cookson’s family and business are alarmed at how this may diminish their own eventual inheritances. Soon shady agents are shadowing Cookson and those offspring he locates; and Miles’s newfound children begin to vanish as if they’d never existed. Linwood Barclay can plot like Dickens and thrill like Hitchcock.

. . . .

‘The Turnout’ by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott’s first-rate thrillers take place in sealed-off environments, where characters’ passions and resentments simmer in dangerous ways. “The Turnout” is set in a young people’s dance school run by two orphaned sisters, Dara and Marie, and Dara’s husband, Charlie. The school’s course of study is focused on its annual production of “The Nutcracker,” with students (pushed forward by ambitious parents) competing all season for the prominent roles. Into this hothouse of jealousy slithers Derek, a manipulative contractor who talks the school’s owners into an expensive makeover that strains frayed nerves to the breaking point. Family secrets are revealed, malicious pranks draw blood, and terror erupts in a manner worthy of Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal, including links to the original reviews. (PG apologizes if you hit a paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

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