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.


s.w. vaughn said...

Ah, Joe! There's always something to shoot yourself in the head over. First it's getting published, then it's getting in bookstores, then getting a second printing, then being on the NYT list, then receiving an Edgar, then having a major motion picture made from your novel, then becoming God or JK Rowling...

Shoot yourself if you must, but use rubber bullets (they only sting a little) so you can see your name on the list when you make it there. :-)

Richard Cooper said...

You're almost there, Joe! Fascinating post today.

jill terry said...

You never cease to amaze me with your plethora of knowledge of the lit biz. Thanks once again for sharing!


Anonymous said...

A good post, Joe, but let me correct a few things.

Books shipped do not necessarily become books sold. It just may mean more copies that find their way hurtling back to the warehouse loading dock. Overshipping is one of the worst things we can do for an author. And it isn't necessary. You don't need 80K to be a NYT bestseller. I've had books on that list with fewer than 50K in print, and books that never made it with 200K in print.

And it's not essential to be in the Big Box stores -- Costco, Sam's, Wal-Mart, etc. Many books get on the list without them, and you very much don't want to be in those stores if you're not ready for them. They're interested in moving large quantities. If they think their customers will buy a particular book, they'll order it, but they're very selective about what they bring in, and we won't force books on them. Because if they order 20,000 copies and only sell 3,000, they'll pull those books out of the stores so fast your head will swim, and 17,000 copies will come flooding back to us, which is a disaster in many ways for the author.

Finally, can a book debut on the NYT list even though a single copy hasn't been officially sold? No, it can't. Can authors know where their book will debut weeks before it hits the stores? No, again. Trust me -- I'd know. The list is based on what is outselling everything else that particular week. Mind you, the Times has a particular formula for weighing all the information it gets reported from the chains, independents, price clubs, etc., and that's as much a mystery to us as it is to everybody else. But it's definitely based on actual books sold.

Thanks, Joe! Just wanted to make sure everybody knew all that -- keep up the good work!

JA Konrath said...

Thanks for the comments, Neil. They are truly appreciated, and I'm grateful you chimed in. But your comments do seem to contradict several things that I've seen and researched.

For example:

I have a friend who knew he'd debut on the NYT list, and at what number, two weeks prior to it happening. He might have been bullshitting me, but the book did appear at the number he'd been told. This also occurred with another friend. How could this happen? (BTW, both friends told me to be hush-hush about revealing this.)

The NYT surveys sent to the reporting stores already list their predictions, with spaces next to these titles for the bookseller to fill in how many copies were sold. Booksellers often estimate, or count how many they think will sell, or even count how many are in the store. (again, I've confirmed this with several sources.)

These NYT surveys, given to the reporting stores, are almost like leading a witness in a court of law. They are informing the booksellers in advance of what they believe will sell, and are asking them to simply confirm this. I've spoken to about a dozen reporting store owners/managers. They generally concur that write-ins aren't given proper consideration, and have lamented that books regularly appear on the NYT list even though they themselves haven't sold many (or any) copies.

The NYT doesn't know how many copies any particular store actually ordered, let only actually sold. They only know what is reported.

As far as I know, only Neislen Bookscan can accurately tell how many books were actually sold (some publishers don't even know for sure) and Neilsen still doesn't represent every place books are sold, so their numbers aren't 100% accurate.

While books can make the NYT list without appearing in big box stores, the current top 15 all do appear in these stores. I don't follow the NYT list regularly, but I've heard that the majority of books sold in the US aren't through bookstores--they're through supermarkets, convenience stores, warehouse stores, drug stores, etc. If this is the case, then it stands to reason that making the NYT list without sales from these stores will be very hard indeed.

I've seen the numbers from a few bestsellers, and Wal-Mart alone can sell more copies than all the chain bookstores combined.

If I recall, authors have sued the NYT for not appearing on the list, even though their numbers should (supposedly) have warranted it. This belies a ranking system that isn't totally based on actual sales.

Also, numbers are relative. What might have been a bestseller three months ago may not be a bestseller this week because the competition is too tough.

As for overshipping, it's certainly a double-edged sword.

I had dinner with a bookseller yesterday, and he was candid about multiple copies. If he receives a lot, he puts them on the sales floor, anticipating the demand.

More copies on the floor subconsciously tells buyers that this is a big book. Also, the more real esate a book or author occupies, the likelier they are to be picked up and looked at, increasing sales opportunities.

Obviously, shipping 100 books and selling 6 would be awful. But from what I've seen, shipping 20 and selling 12 is better than shipping 5 and selling 4.

Also, a publisher is likelier to spring for coop placement if a bookstore orders multiple copies, and a bookstore will order more copies if coop is paid for.

The New Arrivals table, the endcaps, the register space, and the dump boxes have a greater potential for sales than three copies with only their spines showing on the bottom shelf of the Mystery section.

More shipped does indeed mean more sold. But it's a fine line to walk.

I've also heard (but not actually confirmed) that publishers artificially inflate the numbers of books in print. An ARC may boast of a 50k first printing, but it may indeed be closer to 20k. Is this true?

JA Konrath said...

Thanks Tess (and Neil) for clearing that up for me. I always wondered how the heck my friends knew beforehand...

JA Konrath said...

Thanks agin, Tess.

And for the uninitiated, Neil Nyren is a big time editor who has worked with many bestselling authors, and I'm thrilled he took the time to post on my humble blog.

Tess Gerritsen, of course, is what you see when you look up "Publishing Goddess" in the dictionary.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Interesting to see how Catch-22 this thing is - you've got to be big to be big. Ha. I love it.

PJ Parrish said...

Well, I wish I knew why but...

We got on the extended NYT list with our third book "Paint It Black." Our print run was modest, FAR under the 250,000 you cite for PBO. Our coop support was merely adequate. We had no big backlist (it was only our third book). We had no reviews or advertising and no presence in any of the big box stores like Costco. We were coming off an Edgar nom for our previous book but I am convinced that isn't enough to make a difference in mass market sales.

So why did it happen?

Beats the hell out of me. It was a goodlooking cover. It was about a serial killer and the backcopy was good. It was post-911 when everything was screwed up. Maybe we just caught lightning in a bottle.

There is no formula. If there were, we'd do it again, which we haven't. We've come close and have been on the USAToday list several times since, but still haven't made it back to the coveted Times. Despite more coop, despite higher press runs, despite now being in Costco and Walmart -- and despite what I would like to think are better books.

Bestsellerdom is...a mystery.

p.s. I am NOT complaining here, folks. I am just mystified!

JA Konrath said...

Hi Devon--

Thanks for your comments.

I've bet on a few longshots myself. Hell, I'm a longshot. Almost 500 losses before a single win.

I have no idea what would happen re: Wal-Mart.

A publisher wouldn't want to risk makign their buyer angry, because more and more books are being sold there.

On the other hand, if an author becomes large enough, they can have a say so on who sells their product. Alanis Morrisette did this, releasing her last album exclusively through Starbucks.

She pissed off A LOT of people. But it didn't hurt her, or her sales, in the long run.

"Business" and "ethics" aren't two words usually used in conjunction. Sales seem to be more important than values, in many cases.

I wouldn't worry about this until you come to it. You could always make a compromise, such as allowing Wal-Mart to sell your books, then taking that earned money and using it to fight the policies Wal-Mart uses that you are against. Or giving it to charity.

Personally, I think the best revenge is living well.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Okay, now I'm nervous.

Jude Hardin said...

Good for you, devon. The only truly charitable donation is an anonymous one, IMO.

The BS list: You don't have to be a master of eloquent prose. Many of the regulars are living proof of this (not you, Tess. I think yours is first-rate all the way). But, you DO have to write stories that resonate with a large part of the population. It's the same with hit songs, movies, TV shows etc. If you can tap into emotions on a large scale, then you're on your way. It's all about writing the right story at the right time, along with the elements from Joe's blog post and the insightful comments here.

Allison Brennan said...

So much of hitting lists is a mystery. I didn't expect to hit with my first book (neither did my editor) so that was a very pleasant surprise. I think PJ's right--cover, cover copy, getting out at the right time--all those things plus Tess's fairy dust. Bookscan doesn't track Walmart sales, among others, and can be anywhere from 30-50% of an author's total sales. I know my bookscan numbers and my actual sales numbers and they're nowhere close.

I have a good friend who was on USAT for the first time (and stayed on for several weeks) with a book that had a lower print run (high five digits) than her previous book, which didn't hit USAT.

Word of mouth is still, IMO, the single best thing that can happen to an author after getting the publishing deal in the first place. It starts in-house, but that really is just the start. It needs to happen among readers. And when it happens, that's when authors will start hitting lists.

BTW Joe, I gave my mom your latest and am awaiting her review . . . she devours crime fiction. If she likes it, she'll buy your backlist. Oh, and speaking of quality . . . my mom loves Sue Grafton. She didn't like her last book, but that's not going to stop her from buying T. Why? Because more often than not, Grafton delivers a good book. One dud isn't going to destroy her career.

Anonymous said...

Another great one for my files, Joe. And lots of good stuff from Neil, Tess, PJ, Allison and the gang. I've got a whole file on my computer dedicated to JA Konrath advice, because so much of it is solid.

And it does come down to writing the best book you can, and promoting the hell out of it. At least that's two things you can do. It doesn't guarantee anything. There's still the fairy dust factor Tess talks about.

We just have to get on this bucking bronco and ride it for all it's worth.

Maria said...

Like to add my thanks to Joe and all participants for dicussing this subject and helping enlighten us.

ayumi said...

thanks for sharing the highlights. it's being explained properly.


Daal said...

wondering what's changed in 2024...