Tuesday, June 20, 2006

To Be a NYT Bestseller

The bestseller lists aren't easy to break into. But there is a method, sort of, provided your publisher is on your side, you're in the right place at the right time, and you're primed and ready to take your career to the next level.

Or not. New York Times Bestsellardom can happen without any effort on your part. Conversely, every effort on your part may not lead to bestsellerdom.

Let's start with what I know:

There are a limited number of NYT reporting stores. Some are bookstores. Some are chains like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Sam's Club. To debut on the list, you have to have a certain "magic" number of preorders, but not always.

This magic number changes, depending on the competition. You can theoretically get on the list by only selling a few thousand books your first week, provided no one is selling better than that.

The NYT collects data from reporting stores by using a survey. The survey lists the top predictions of the NYT, based on orders and units shipped, and the employee at the store writes in how many they sold next to the pre-printed title. If a title is selling well, but isn't pre-printed on the survey, it can be written in.

Since non-traditional outlets (supermarkets, convenience stores) actually sell more books than bookstores, having your book available through the major chains is essential to make the list. If Wal-Mart commits to buying 80,000 copies your your hardcover, chances are good you'll be pre-printed on the survey, which guarantees a spot on the list.

There is a self-fulfilling prophecy in effect. Rather than demand driving quantity, quantity (with marketing, promotion, and advertising behind it) can indeed drive demand. In short, books shipped indeed become books sold, even without customer pre-orders. The NYT assumes this, so a book can debut on the list even though a single copy hasn't been officially sold, and authors can know where their book will debut on the list weeks before it hits the stores.

Then, once a book is on the bestseller list, it will sell better because it was on the bestseller list, which can leader to a higher spot on the list next week as more people become aware of the book.

It's a flawed system that doesn't rely on actual copies sold, but I've noticed that NYT bestsellers all appear to have some commonalities.

  1. There are a lot of copies in print. For fiction, my sources have told me that a minimum first hardcover printing of 80k, and a minimum paperback printing of 250k, are the starting points. There's a lot of leeway, but these are solid numbers, that if spread out through the reporting stores (including non-traditional outlets) will give you a shot at the list.
  2. The titles are high profile. This means publisher coop is in play, and the books are prominently displayed in the store. Up front, near the register, in the window, in an individual dump box or cardboard cameo, on end caps. Books that face out sell better. Books that are displayed in quantity sell better still.
  3. A backlist exists. While debuting on the NYT list with a first books is possible, in most cases the list is dominated by people who have been on it before. These authors were grown, over a period of books and years, until their audience was large enough to justify the large print runs necessary to get on the list. An in-print backlist is essential to growing an author for two reasons. First, because the more books that are available, the likelier the author is to be discovered and read. ARCS, libraries, remainders, and used book sales are essential to this. Second, because a strong backlist is like found money for a publisher. They've already had the first printing, and have spent the marketing dollars. If a book goes into multiple printings, it shows the publisher the book has an audience, and is continuing to make money. This money can then be used for:
  4. A big advertising, marketing, and publicity campaign. While I contend that real estate (prominent coop placement) and number of copies in print are the most important precursors to bestsellerdom, an expensive marketing campaign, backed by a publicity tour, says to bookstores and supermarkets: the publisher is spending big money, the author is or will be famous, and there will be a demand for this book so we better order a lot of them. Then the self-fulfilling prophecy begins. There have been cases where a huge advance and ad campaign, with lots of author appearances on TV and radio, was enough to generate a bestseller. There have also been cases where this backfired, and everyone lost a lot of money.
  5. Word of mouth. This is still key. All the ads in the world won't help a book that people don't talk about or don't like. Recommendations still sell books. And once a reader becomes brand loyal, they usually are for life. Often, the word of mouth can begin within the publishing house itself, with employees getting excited about a new book. In house enthusiasm leads to a bigger push by the sales reps, a higher print run, and more promo dollars to back up that printing. A large foreign sale (or a large book club sale, as Tess Gerritsen points out in her latest blog) frees up some advertising dollars, because now there is less risk because money has already been earned on the book.

So can bestsellers be created? There are, all the time. But it's a lot like betting on horses. The ones who win are the ones who usually keeping winning, and longshots rarely come in. It's tough to get a publisher to bet on a longshot. They've all gotten burned before, and are wary of it happening again. So they play it safe, until the moment seems right.

Along with the self-fulfilling prophecy of "the more books that are printed, the more that will sell" there's also a catch 22 of "your publisher only prints as many as the last one sold."

Bookstores look at numbers. If a title sold poorly, the next title from that author won't have as many orders, dooming it to sell even less. You want your numbers to go up, but if your publisher prints a gazillion copies, hoping to make the NYT list, and the books doesn't sell, you're career is pretty much over.

That's why you've gotta work your butt off self-promoting.

Your efforts won't get you on the NYT list (unless you're a celebrity.) But they will help your sell-through, help you keep your backlist in print, help you build a brand and name-recognition, help you develop a fanbase, and most of all, make your publisher money. The more money they make, the more they realize the money they could make if you're a bestseller.

To recap, the essential elements of bestsellerdom are:

  • A large print run, so you're pre-printed on the NYT survey
  • Getting into non-traditional outlets like Wal-Mart
  • Coop placement for displays

Almost as essential are:

  • An in-print backlist and track record
  • Advertising, marketing, and publicity
  • Word of mouth

Of course, these aren't the only factors. A movie release could catapult a book onto the list. So could current events, or the stars aligning. No one truly knows. Of the current top 15 fiction bestsellers, 14 of them have been bestsellers previously, and the 15th, Sara Gruen, has had much critical acclaim for her earlier work, and her latest is a powerhouse. There are no newbies on the list.

And you'll notice Patricia Cornwell on the list again. If you check the Amazon reviews for her latest, At Risk, you'll witness a skewering akin to a public execution. Readers do not like her new book. But it's selling like crazy. I haven't read it, so I can't comment, but it does beg the question, "How important is quality?" and the even bigger question, "How important is negative word of mouth?" The answer, for both, seems to be "Not very." It hasn't hurt Cornwell's career in the least.

So what can you, the author, do to get on the list? The same things you've been doing all along. Write the best book you can, then promote it to the best of your ability, and hope for lightening to strike.

I'm fond of saying that getting lucky is hard work. I stand by this. The more you do, the greater your chance of success.

But if I'm not a bestseller by my tenth book, I'm shooting myself in the head.