Friday, May 28, 2010

Kvetching About the Bestseller List

A Very Productive Hobby (That's Sarcasm BTW): Kvetching About the Bestseller List
By Alicia Rasley

"This is a bestseller? I write way better than this!"

You've probably thought that. You've probably said that, after you finished reading the latest not-so-great bestselling novel. And that can be an effective way to get motivated on your own writing and submitting. Let's take our inspiration wherever we get it, right?

But there is danger also in fulminating about bestsellers. I hear it all the time, from my writing friends and the commenters on my blog (and I've been known to say it myself):
• "Wait a minute. Everyone says not to start with backstory, but this book does, and it's a bestseller!"
• "This bestseller isn't fast-paced. I thought bestsellers were fast-paced!"
• "My book is written better than this bestseller."
• "I used to read this author all the time. But since he's become a bestseller, all his books are sort of formulaic."
• "It's not fair. How come he gets all the publicity and talk shows, when this book isn't as good as half the books that die on the shelves?"
• "This editor just rejected my much better book. It's not fair! I should be the bestseller, not (Insert Big Name Author)!"

Hey, it's natural to kvetch. We're writers. It's our job to observe and comment on life. But I'd like to point out some ways it's futile and some times counter-productive to spend much time worrying about the worth or lack thereof of bestselling novels. So here follows my Top Ten Reasons Not To Wonder Why This Book Won't Make You a Bestseller Like (Insert Big Name).

1. Bestsellers are bestSELLERS, not "bestbooks." That is, they don't purport to be the best books out there. They just purport to have sold a lot of copies. And quality (or your or my judgment of quality) is by no means the primary criterion for selling a lot of copies. The fact that this book over here is a bestseller and yours isn't is no commentary on your quality. So stop feeling insulted by someone else's success.

2. Publishing is not a zero-sum game. The Harry Potter series proves that (and many other important publishing points). Harry Potter brought new readers into the publishing marketplace, and once having discovered the unique pleasures of fiction, most of them kept reading. Those weaned on Harry a decade ago were very likely the buyers of the Phillip Pullman bestsellers five years ago, and they're now buying the Jonathan Safran book. (I'm telling you—if anyone could have saved this industry, her name is J.K. Rowling, and every novelist should send her flowers.) And I bet during this decade, they didn't just buy bestsellers. Reading is addictive, and she got 'em hooked.

3. Bestsellers might create "constant readers," but constant readers don't create bestsellers. Okay, if an author has over twenty years and twenty books gathered a couple hundred thousand faithful readers, she might need no more than those to achieve the lower rungs of the bestselling ladder. But to reach the highest reaches-- #1-10 on the NYTimes list, say—usually the book has to attract a whole lot of buyers who are buying books as gifts for others, a whole lot of travelers looking for a distraction in the airport, a whole lot of customers attracted by a flashy poster and an author appearance on the Today show. Bestsellers attract an additional readership (or buyership, anyway) which tends to be more affluent, less experienced in reading fiction, and especially, more male than the sorts of readers who buy three books a month and keep their library cards in weekly use. What does that mean? Well, I'm not saying sexism is an influence here, but you want a NYTimes bestseller first book first time? Don't use a female name, and don't aim for a primarily female readership. (Women will buy books by male-named authors with male protagonists, but the reverse is seldom true.) (Yes, there are bestsellers with women's names. But usually those authors have been publishing many years and released many books before getting there.) Hey, folks, I don't make the rules, or those Joanne Rowling books would be titled "Harriet Potter."

4. These days, bestsellers are usually 1) the latest book in a longstanding series by a long-published author, or 2) highly promoted by the publisher because the concept of the book happens to be "hot" at the moment. If your book is neither, it might be terrific, get well-published, get a good advance, garner terrific reviews and lot of fan mail, but it probably won't be a bestseller. Can you live with "just" great reviews, lots of fan mail, and a book you're really proud to claim? Yeah? Me too.

5. Envy is ugly. Turns you green.

6. Don't use bestsellers as the excuse for slacking off. Never learn negative lessons from other books, like "John Grisham gets away with XYZ, so I can too!" Your aim should never be "getting away with something". Read the bestseller to find out what it did right, not wrong. What did it do that captured the reader's attention? If there's a hot premise or high concept, how was it unveiled? How long are the scenes and chapters? How do the scenes end, and how does that keep the reader reading? You'll learn more about bestsellers by assuming they're doing something really right, than from scouting out what they're doing wrong.

7. Bestsellers are, to some extent, a genre of their own, with its own expectations and conventions and genre voice. So even if a bestseller is nominally in another genre, you don't learn much about how to write a bestseller from reading non-bestsellers in the genre. To learn more about how to create a romance bestseller, read Nora Roberts, not Anne McAllister. Both are very good, but only one of them is a bestseller.
Remember what I said about the unusual readership? If you're writing for a less-experienced reader, you might highlight rather than conceal clues, ramp up the emotion, overwrite rather than underwrite. There's nothing wrong with this—you should indeed consider your audience—but there's no shame in saying that this kind of writing isn't what you want to do. If you want to write subtle, underplayed novels for a sensitive, even jaded, veteran reader, don't expect the publisher to give you the sort of promotion that leads to a bestseller.

8. There are, actually, some bestsellers that are subtle, underplayed, and aimed at the experienced reader. They're what we call "surprise bestsellers," and if you want that surprise, study those—Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Frasier's Cold Mountain, the first Harry Potter. Notice that surprise bestsellers often come from much smaller publishers that decide that this is the book they're going to push this year. I wouldn't suggest kissing up to an editor, certainly not! But let me just say an aggressive agent and an editor senior enough to have a say in promotion will make a bigger difference in a smaller press. And they're more likely to make the push if you make known very early how willing you are to do publicity for the book.
You probably need a powerful agent who believes in you and the book—before you submit the book to publishers. The agent is the one who gets the publisher to make that big investment in you, so if you really want to be a bestseller, choose the agent wisely.

9. Bestselling novels don't necessarily make you rich. I know, good old JK is the richest woman in the world, but generally, your first bestselling novel can be traded for one late-model high-end Mercedes. The money and sales number differences between #20 and #4 on the NYT list can be extreme. Staying on the list for more than a week or two is where the money is. So if that's your aim, look at the top of the list, not the bottom. It's entirely possible to make more money with less stress in the midlist.

10. Bestsellerdom isn't as glamorous as you might wish. The expectations of the publisher increase a great deal when they've given you a big advance and promotion budget. You might have to attend many booksignings and library bookclubs, and be baffled at how you can make a bestseller by selling only two copies here, driving 100 miles, and selling four copies there. But the purpose is not selling so much as showing a willingness to promote and meet the people (booksellers and reviewers) who can start that all-important word-of-mouth promo going. No one thinks this is fun. A bestseller I know said that you shouldn't aim for bestsellerdom unless you're happy to get up at 3 am and drive to an interview with a Kokomo, Indiana, radio show, and it can't bother you that the interviewer hasn't read your book (except the sex scenes, which he reads aloud). Then again, her British publisher (don't you wish you could say that? "My British publisher.") put her up at the Ritz-London, so it's not all bad.

Don't just assume you want to be a bestseller and are a failure if you never make the Big List. There are other routes to big sales and big advances than quick bestsellerdom, and those might be more compatible with your career and life plans. Sit down and think through what your vision of success is, and what achieving that will really take, and whether that works with who you are and how you live. It comes down to this: Know yourself, and know your writing, and know what you really want.

Alicia Rasley has never made a bestseller list, but she has high hopes for The Richest Girls in Town, to be released by Bell Bridge Books, February 2011.
She has a bunch of typical writer jobs (high prestige, low pay), teaches at a community college and in an MFA program, and gives workshops online and throughout North America. Her writing articles are archived at The Writer's Corner, and she blogs about editing and writing at Edittorrent. Check out her writing books, The Power of Point of View, and The Story Within Plot Guide.

Roberta: thank you Alicia for all your words of wisdom! Questions? Comments? Alicia is happy to answer them...


  1. A very sane and useful perspective on this business. Thanks for sharing, Alicia.

  2. Hi, Alicia - heard you speak in Orlando at the CFRW meeting. Good post. I have those authors I consider "inspirational" -- I tell myself if THEY can get their books published, someday I'll move higher up the food chain with mine.

  3. Excellent post. I particularly liked "You'll learn more about bestsellers by assuming they're doing something really right, than from scouting out what they're doing wrong." I always tell people that a writer saying Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown is a bad writer is just plain stupid. You can give me every Iowa Writer's Workshop reason in the world why you think they are inadequate and it won't matter because it will still sound like sour grapes. There will always be someone more successful than you and always people you think are more successful than they should be. So what? Your job is to learn to become the best writer you can be. (And of course you know I mean the generalized "you" here, not you specifically, Alicia, since you already have exactly the right attitude.

  4. Well said (and love #5).

    But still... At a recent conference I heard a multi-listed writer describe her reaction to hearing about her first NYT ranking--she was thrilled. There's a mystique you can't quantify.

  5. Thanks for this list. I submitted it to StumbleUpon, so maybe it'll drop into someone's procrastination viewing when they need it mose.

  6. #3 is SO true. I've been trying to find an agent interested in my MG novel, EXCEPT many of them won't even look at the story unless you have a male protagonist.
    Very frustrating.

  7. Great post, Alicia. I've been fortunate to chat with a few bestselling authors and some near-bestselling authors. And it's easy to think they were simply anointed that way. But the truth is, when you really listen to their stories, you realize how much each one of them has EARNED that spot on the The List. I mean, Harlan Coben wrote six paperback original Myron Bolitars before his breakthrough. Lee Child and Michael Connelly also had six or seven under their belts before they made it. Or I think of Julia Spencer-Fleming, who still hasn't made the list -- after six great books -- but will hopefully make it with her seventh. Talk to her about what it's taken to even get close to the mountain top and you'll hear a lot of stories about driving to book clubs in the wilds of Maine or licking stamps on postcards being sent to librarians. It's made me realize that, yeah, SOME luck is involved. But it's mostly hard work, talent and perseverence -- just like everything else in this business.

  8. Hi Alicia!

    Great post! I too, liked the phrase you'll learn more about bestsellers by assuming they're doing something really right than scouting out what they're doing wrong

    That’s great advice for a writer - and strangely, just the opposite of what I believe about an individual. You know, how I usually say that a person can learn more about themselves by studying their weaknesses than their strengths - because they have their strengths nailed down? Hmm...interesting doing the opposite with a successful writer’s strengths in mind.

    Looking at this from a business perspective - I kind of think sometimes that it’s a crap shoot. I mean, I’m sure an editor/agent who truly believes in their writer and goes to bat for them - thinks their current project is going to be the next breakout novel or, surely, well received by Joe Public - otherwise why fight for it, right? And, I’d guess, out of one hundred percent of those times - less than ten percent actually pan out to be just that...heck, it’s probably closer to two percent. And, even then, as you point out, that writer might not be bestseller material.

    Lots to think about. Thanks!

    But, um, the radio show interview comment? Classic, btw! And intriguing. Because man, you have to know if it were me sitting there when the show host (who didn’t read my book) started to read aloud one of the sex scenes? I’d probably interrupt and redirect him to a raunchier one - and then I’d suggest he let me read it - you know, for clarity sake. And when I did? You can be sure I’d really get into the part and make him sweat. :D


  9. OH, what a perfect post! Thank you so much for the wise perspective.

    I go for the NYT bestseller lists first thing Sunday morning..and I sit at the kitchen table, saying, OH! I know her!How wonderful. And it's so amazing to see people who used to be just names on bookcovers, and who are now pals or acquaintances.

    But in my heart of hearts, I'm envisioning my name there.

    Sue Grafton talked about this at CrimeBake--and she said if you want to be on the best-seller list, you have to be willing to say so.

    SO: all together now:

    (Gosh, I think you probably also have to write a good and irresistible book...)

  10. Hank, you already write good and irrestible books!
    Great comments Alicia! And all so true.
    One conclusion I came to after busting a gut for several years trying to promote my books is "You are not going to make a bestseller list unless your publisher wants you to." It's all to do with book placement, co op money and simply getting the books into all the stores. There is no point in driving to do a brilliant radio show if nobody can find your books afterward. And it takes close to 20,000 copies to get on the list. If they don't print that many, you're doomed however much publicity you do.

    These days I'm soooo close to making the list. My books come out on the right day for reporting. I do the book tour (the car coming for me at 4 a.m., driving by 10 chain stores before an event and often another flight in the evening. It's not a luxury vacation, let me tell you that. So I'm hoping that the next one, with the added hook of the vampire castle, will be enough ot make the difference Keep your fingers crossed (and everyone buy the book please!)

  11. Thanks for the great post, Alicia. This is what aspiring authors, such as myself, need to hear on the road to publication. As we toil away to get a novel recognized by an agent and an editor, we cling to a dream of what we want to achieve with that first published novel. When I read the bestseller currently on my nightstand, all I saw was what the author "got away with". Then I realized it didn't matter what the author did wrong. If she's selling enough to make the bestseller list and stay there for a while, I need to read the book again and concentrate on what she's doing right.

  12. What a great post, Alicia!Lot's of food for thought. And what a great blog. This is my first time here but I'm thrilled to see Hank (fellow RWA Best First Book Nominee). I'll visit often and hope to see you all on the BSL someday soon!

  13. Rhys, yes, it's sort of amazing how many things have to fall into place to make a bestseller (or unmake one!). As you said, just the date of release makes a difference. Stephen King has an interesting discussion of this in his novel Bag of Bones, where he points out that publishers make sure the books they want to sell well, they make sure to release when a similar competitive book isn't coming out. Like King and Koontz don't come out in the same month.

    It does make me think that the first bestseller is the hardest one to achieve!


  14. Alicia, thank you for sharing tips about keeping our sanity in this business.

  15. A couple of years ago, my husband saw the title of a book I was reading and said, 'You've got to be kidding, it can't be any good. If she wrote that book and it was published you should be too.' The book was great I liked it. The second time I read it I learned what the author did right her characters were strong, her heroine funny and the hero to die for.

  16. Wonderful post. So glad I came over to read the blog. I especially liked this comment you made: "Your aim should never be "getting away with something". Read the bestseller to find out what it did right, not wrong."

    There have been times I have been editing for a client and they object to a suggestion to change something because they saw that same something in the latest published book they read. Groan!!!

  17. What Rhys said.

    I have been in the top ten on the NYT list, and I am well aware that I wouldn't be hitting those spots if my publisher wasn't solidly behind me with co-op money and big pushes from the marketing team.

    For the record, though, I don't do tours, I don't do radio shows, I don't do any in person promotion. I don't even visit local booksellers, and that I really should do. I'm a shy little hermit who would much rather stay at home and write, although I do maintain an active online presence.

    Release timing can have a huge impact on your list placement, as can pre-sales before the actual pub date. Since list placement is about velocity (how many books have been sold in a one-week period), pre-sales can hurt you if booksellers start selling books early, and those sales don't count as the first week's sales. On the flip side, if booksellers are doing that, it's usually because people are clamoring for your books.

    And as my editor reminds me whenever I'm sniffling over books hitting bookshelves early, the bottom line is total sales. Making the lists is wonderful for the ego, but it's overall sales that really matter to the publisher.

    Oh, yeah, and the "don't use a female name" thing? Add "don't write humor" to that list--I've found that humorous books have a much harder time hitting the top ranks of the lists than their less funny brothers and sisters.

  18. Hi Jamie! Wonderful to "see" you!

    AH, yes, distribution. That was one of the first words I heard when I was starting in this world. I'm battling "labels" too--in one major book chain ,my books-which are clearly mysteries--are shelved in romance. How many people just didn't ever find them?

    Katie--I'm fascinated by your methods. Did you ever do book tours--and then stop? Or you just never did them?

  19. Great suggestions! Thanks for sharing them, Alicia.

  20. Alicia: Smart, smart comments. I always tell newer authors to start by targeting heavy readers because, to your point, those who buy only one book a year will buy [fill in BESTSELLER here], not yours. We do need "constant readers" to have a career. (Delighted to hear your book is coming soon!)

  21. *waving to the Jungle Red gang and wishing you all a great weekend!*

    What a fabulous post, Alicia. Thank you for saying so well what so many of us need to remember about this industry. I recently read Twilight, after years of hearing negative things about it from other writers, but I found it to be fascinating and a great example of a story that compellingly taps into reader fantasies. It's easy for people to complain about what's wrong with someone else's novel, but I do think it takes more skill to identify what's right about it.

  22. Great post. I'm pretty jaded about "bestsellers" because I know how few copies you have to sell in a week to get onto the lower rungs of the various lists (and when the book drops off after a week, obviously even those relatively small sales have slowed). The only ones that impress me are the top 10 books that stay in the top 10 week after week, month after month. Those books have something special going for them beyond energetic promotion.

    I love it when a wonderful book like THE HELP or WOLF HALL hits the top 10 and stays there. But I don't dismiss the Patterson, Roberts, Grisham, etc., novels. Those books also have something special, and reading them with a willingness to discover what that something is will reward any writer.

    What annoys me is that too many "bestselling" writers feel they've been somehow annointed and that the mere fact of selling well *does* mean their books are of superior quality. (Some apparently think they're so good they don't need editing, and their books get worse and worse.) I'm glad you pointed out that this isn't necessarily true; sales and quality often have no connection.

  23. Wonderful post, Alicia. Thank you! I interview a lot of writers and one of the things about marketing that surprised me was that some books never make it out of the warehouse to the bookstores. So, some writers visit the warehouses with pizza and other goodies for the warehouse workers to ensure delivery of their books. Sad, but true.

  24. Fascinating post. I read somewhere that most bestsellers are written at a third grade level, i.e. short, declarative sentences and the like. To appeal to those "less sophisticated readers," no doubt.

    Along comes a novel like "The Help" and confounds all the rules.

  25. I enjoyed reading Alicia's post very much. She certainly has her finger on the pulse of the industry.

    Writers are an amazingly supportive community but there's also a dark side, which can indeed turn you green.

  26. Well, those "Grade-level" assessments are sort of interesting. I ran one on my own writing, and I got "third grade" for fiction, and "12th grade" for non-fiction, and I was sort of surprised. (I don't think of my fiction prose as simple!) But I think you're right that simple declarative sentences get flagged as "low-grade," when they're often the most common and effective sentences, especially if you're writing in deep POV/character voice, which is usually more conversational.

    Hi, Katie! What we all want to know is... does the publisher send flowers when you make the list?


  27. Alicia , great post. Thanks for blunt perspective!
    ~ Avery Aames

  28. What a great, insightful post, Alicia. I'm glad I came over to read it. Thanks.

  29. I think bestsellers often explore something that the target audience almost universally desires or wonders. That's why all those adult reviews of Twilight seemed so off the point-- ask a 15-year-old girl why she loved it. It's got something to do with the desire for fated love, for a boy who isn't silly (like most 15 year olds) or patronizing (like most older men), for a soulmate. Maybe we don't retain that desire forever, but thank God that teenagers feel that way. :)

    Adult bestsellers often have to do with secrets-- secret worlds, secret conspiracies, and I'm not sure what that is, except we want to believe, I think, there's more rationality and organization in the universe than there might actually be.

    Children's bestsellers (Harry Potter, Percy) are often about outsiders who find that they're special, and boy, is that desire universal!

    So I think it probably does help to tap in to some deep universal desire or need (or fear-- see Stephen King). What do you all think? So often the bestsellers just resonate with power and meaning that I think might come from the internal theme. And I think all of us can learn from that!

  30. Since I'm hitting the bestseller lists with every book now, I don't get flowers from my publisher (I think I did the first couple of times I made nice showings). Usually my editor calls or e-mails on NYT day, though. :)

    Now my concern is not so much with how high can I make the lists, but staying power. My May book stayed on the printed NYT list for three weeks, which was a Big Deal for me. Three weeks isn't squat to the big names on the lists, but to folks like me, it's a big career point.

    Someone asked if I ever toured...I hit some local bookstores (within an hour's drive) for about two months when my first book came out. That's it.

    I figure that just as everyone writes differently, so everyone copes with promotion differently. I'm just one of the folks who values her peace of mind more than the need to woo booksellers in person. :)

  31. Point #3 - there goes all hope. Mine is a book for women by a woman. (Maybe I'll be the exception that proves the rule.)

    Thanks for the down-to-earth practical advice/attitude.