Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Secret Formula of Bestsellers

Another day another newspaper article that slyly (or not so slyly) questions the sanity of the publishing industry. Today's entrant into this very crowded pantheon: the New York Times Business Section, who published a Sunday article (now the most e-mailed article on the NY Times website) about how the publishing industry sometimes has surprise successes and sometimes whiffs on big bets. (Just like, you know, ALL BUSINESSES.)

Among the many salvos is this one, that the publishing industry does not pay enough attention to reader input. The NY Times writes:

The answer is that no one really knows. “It’s an accidental profession, most of the time,” said William Strachan, editor in chief at Carroll & Graf Publishers. “If you had the key, you’d be very wealthy. Nobody has the key.”

The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.
A part of me wants to agree with the underlying argument. We should know our readers, it would be wonderful to inject as much science as possible into the art of selling books, and there have been wonderful advances in market research. As anyone who has watched the Apprentice knows, if you are going to try and sell some Domino's pizzas on the street you had better interview people about what toppings they like.

But then, I tried thinking about what this would entail. This isn't the movie industry, with a couple of hundred movies produced every year, nor is it even cable TV, which has a couple of hundred choices. I mean, on any given weekend a bunch of extremely smart people are estimating the grosses at the box office of a handful of movies, and they are fairly regularly caught off guard by the occasional sleeper like 300. Meanwhile, there are thousands upon thousands of books published every year, not to mention all of the books currently in print, not to mention all of the books that fill used bookstores and bookshelves. There are millions and millions of books out there. How could you begin to predict what kind of success a book will have in such a vast sea of choices?

So sure, some more market research would probably be nice -- information is always good. Publishers might be able to respond more quickly to trends, and readers might have their tastes more accurately responded to. They might be able to more effectively focus marketing campaigns and take some of the guesswork out of which books get a big push.

But let's not forget this is art we're talking about. It's subjective. An industry that markets a subjective product is always going to be based on hunches and guesses. Market research could tell you that people want a dog memoir, but it's not going to give you MARLEY AND ME. It could tell you that people like fantasy, but it's not going to give you HARRY POTTER. At the end of the day, science might make publishers more efficient, but the formula that makes a book a bestseller will always be a mystery.


Katie said...

I thought the use of "Marley and Me" as an example (in the article) was kind of odd. With that kind of advance, you're not looking at a little book that slipped in under the radar.

Chumplet said...

The whole thing reminds me of the old days when horseracing handicappers observed the horses during workouts, then determined how much weight they'd carry on race day.

The goal was to make every horse cross the finish line at the same time. Of course, all the other variables can't be controlled, so it's a crapshoot anyway.

Arjay said...

Your examples of Marley and Me as a dog memoir and Harry Potter as fantasy demonstrates you do not know marketing and correct segmenting. Leave it to the pros.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Ooo, harsh, arjay. Sorry to sound so motherly, but if my kids said something like that I'd make them apologize. 10 minutes in your room, buster.

I worry about too much marketing going into publishing. We'll end up with 200 boring books a year which are as watered down as most movies and television. (It already often hurts to see the window at Borders.)

I disagree mildly with books being "art." That title "Art" indicates a preciousness, which has no place in a serious writer's life.

Publishing does operate at the whim of subjective tastes, but mostly it suffers from customers who would rather watch bad tv than read at night.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm more than happy to leave "segmenting" to the pros, it sounds horrid. Of course, someone's going to decide if it's "good" and "marketable" or not, and I hope it's not the type of person who parses market segments and debates the applicability of genre labels.

Heidi the Hick said...

I would really like to think that I'm creating ART when I'm hunched over this computer clicking keys.

I'd love to believe that my ART will be worthy of being published and read and yes, even hated.

What I never want is for my (precious) ART to be considered acceptable for money making reasons, by a table full of people who are employed to make money making decisions based on nothing but making money.

...oh yeah, and one more thing. I reeeeaaally want to make a living writing books. I don't want to be a starving artist. I never want a cashier job ever again. Like it's art and everything but...

Christopher M. Park said...

Well put. I saw this article earlier today, and was glad to see your defiant response to it. I would also add that the average cost of putting a new product to market is vastly lower in this industry than in other industries, which makes first novels a lot less of a gamble than the article was making out.

I mean, in the software industry it's considered pretty small time to spend a few million dollars on getting a very small company going. By the time the company I work for started making a real depth of sales, 2.4 million had already been spent. Heck, even small companies in my area often spend as much on just a month's office rent ($7K-$10K) as some publishers do first authors' advances. Presumably once an author is published and therefore more of a known entity, that takes a bit of the guesswork out of it.

I think that publishers do market research as much as any other business--there are so many books of all sorts out there, and everyone is always watching for trends. It's not like television companies ask people what they think they'd like to watch two years from now--they look to see what people are watching now, and any surveys that they do are based on what people liked about the shows they have already seen. And frankly, given the state of modern television programming and how much a lot of people gripe about it, I’m not so impressed with their survey techniques.

One can’t exactly poll people outside of bookstores, anyway--they won’t have read anything that they bought yet, and that seems kind of important if you want to predict what they’ll buy in the future. It’s just a different market in general; I’m a Business Admin major myself, and I can’t see anything that I really fault in this industry from a business point of view. As much as some businesspeople would like all industries to be concrete and homogenous for the sake of simplicity, some just aren’t. This is one of them.


Liz said...

By some stroke of fortune my family has not only been a Nielson family during sweeps week(twice), but we just finished being an Arbitron family.

I just don't see how the publishing industry can even attempt to mimic the marketing data the TV and Radio industries can access via their weekly tracking diaries.

I'm sure our quirky viewing and listening habits are washed away by a tide of folks who watch ANTM:) or listen to talk radio.
Just kidding!

What are publishers to do? Stake out bookstores,libraries and schools to see what people are reading and poll them on what they want more or less of??

I just don't think you can use the same yardstick to measure these very different industries.


Want to sell/market a book? 3 words: OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB. I write because I like to and also because I am a greedy sonofabitch who wants to make alot of $$$. I am sick of authors getting no recognition while dumb celebrities ham it up. I'm gonna be the 2pac of the literary world. Give me mines! OPRAH here I come!

Dave Wilmot said...

I read the NYT's article with great interest. To me the consolidated publishing industry is faced with trying to turn an art into a science. The barriers to writing a novel are not the same as making a movie, composing a symphony or painting a master piece. So you have this flood of content that is initially screened by a query letter that may or may not capture the merits of the ~100,000 words that go into the story. How can it be anything else but a crapshoot?

sex scenes at starbucks said...

The barriers to writing a novel are not the same as making a movie, composing a symphony or painting a master piece.

I've never painted a masterpiece but I've made a great deal of art and sold it--some on commission. To me, writing takes very much the same approach. It's art during the process, but as soon as you offer it at market, it's a product.

It's my belief that books compete with movies on airplanes, video games, surfing the internet, television, going to bars--virtually every other kind of entertainment available. At the end of the day, unfortunately or not, I believe a book is just that: entertainment.

I've heard the entertainment business is very fickle.

Adrienne said...

Very well put, young Nathan.

The whole marketing thing is always fun to debate, but in the long run does anyone want to really write their books to a market researched standard? Okay I bet some people will answer yes to this question, and fair enough really, rather savvy I suppose.

But hasn't art always been about defying what people think they want? How can anything new come out of delivering just what people ask for? I mean, it isn't that people don't like new things, just sometimes they don't know what it is they are missing. And as such, how can they ask for something they don't know exists?

CMonster said...

Print media really shouldn't be throwing stones at the only incarnation of their business that isn't being swallowed by the internet.

Jealous much?

MelodyO said...

Hi, Nathan. You rejected my query this week, so I'm not too scared to comment here anymore. Hee. ::waves::

As far as I can see, public input doesn't work very well when it comes to art. Have you seen what's playing at the local GinormoPlex this week? That's what you get when you rely on focus groups.

The great thing is that no matter how much they try to formulate the book industry, there's always going to be some smarty pants who writes the next book that sets the industry on its ear. It was ever thus.

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