Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, January 2, 2009

Holiday Cheer: The Secret Formula of Bestsellers

I am currently on blog holiday, and am re-posting some refreshing concoctions from Christmases past.

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.


Kristan said...

Um, so I was hoping for an actual formula... :P

Steve Fuller said...

The question for me is always this: Are you desperate to get published or are you desperate to write from a place of deep passion. Any good writer could write a cute story about a dog. People would love it. You would make millions. But I don't know many writers in this for the money/fame/prestige.

We are in it for the women.

Adaora A. said...

Have you finished the HP series yet Nathan? Whenever it's brought up, I can't help but ask.

Seriously though, I do believe that people should just continue to write what they like, and what they believe in. What will be will be.

Crimogenic said...

Yup, I agree. You have to write what you like, maybe it's marketable maybe it's not. You have to enjoy writing first. That being said I want to get my novels published just as much as the next writer.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, Steve, I don't think I agree with this:

"...Any good writer could write a cute story about a dog. People would love it. You would make millions..."

No, you can't really. That very same book could've sold with a different house, a different editor, a different agent, or in a different month of the year and it wouldn't have been the huge bestseller it is. That's the whole point of post (I thought, anyway) was that you never know what will hit big.

Everyone should write the best book they can, of course. But I read a lot, and honestly, most of the time there is very little difference between the quality of lead titles that get pushed in the marketplace and midlist books that come out in paperback w/o fanfare.

Some of "sales" really are luck, and then word of mouth carries it and it becomes a peer-pressure sort of thing in the way that "Eat, Pray, Love" did. People that had no interest in a memoir felt they had to read it because everyone else was. While hundreds of books similar to that (and written as well or better) received no attention, got no sales.

Scott said...

Interesting entry. I think looking for a formula is part of the problem: for me, it's about living in the now.

Great rock bands stay relevant because they're out there, they know what people are feeling, and they can reflect that character in their music.

I'm not sure it's as much about genre and plot as it is about how characters relate to each other and what their goals are. Relating to your audience means doing the "work" of being one of them.

I really can't talk too loudly, as I'm nobody in this industry. But when I try on an idea, I get a sense of what characters seem to have something to say to who we are now, and it's part of the reason I get excited about bringing them to life.

poccu: n. 1. a single thorn of a pine cone. pl. pocci

Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl! said...

a good story with gripping characters that REALLY gets you, could either be a great success or a failure.

Nobody can predict what books will make it big. Taste and moods are subjective.

Although I really think that the publishing world needs to stop annoying trends. After Harry Potter mania, they think kids want more books about wizards.

Now it's all about vampires (thank you, Stephanie Meyers).

how annoying...


Dorinda Ohnstad said...

The publishing industry is a unique business, but a business never-the-less. As a business it seeks to make a reasonable profit. In fact, the Board of Directors of each publishing house has a legal obligation to its shareholders to act in their best interest by doing all they can to make a reasonable return on the company’s investments. That means that the focus of the industry is not on the best interests of writers, but the best interests of shareholders. That doesn’t mean that writers aren’t critical to the industry’s success, because clearly they are. There exists a tenuous symbiotic relationship between the two. However, we can’t overlook the fact that profits are the ultimate motivating factor of the publishing industry (as they must be), even if that is not the key motivation of most writers. As writers we shouldn’t begrudge that fact.

Publishing houses are well aware that reader preference is the driving force behind sales. However, as Nathan points out, identifying what readers want is very different (as well as very difficult) as compared to other industries. In that respect, publishing is more akin to the art world. You can ask art collectors what they’re interested in purchasing, but it would provide little assistance to the industry. One floral picture is not the same as the other, so knowing that collectors want florals isn’t enough. In addition, even if one could define exactly what type of floral painting was desired that would still be insufficient. How would an art dealer get someone to paint that picture? As artists we can only create what we are inspired or driven to create. Our work is our own.

While the publishing industry will never be able to “design” their products to meet market needs, it will continue do its best to predict what readers will buy. However, the industry’s choices are limited to what is offered to them by writers. Each submission will be viewed through the marketability lens, but every investment will still be a calculated gamble. This makes publishing a difficult industry to be successful in, but at the same time it also makes it an exciting one. A Twilight or a Harry Potter is always lurking around the corner.

As readers I think that most of us relish the unpredictability of the publishing industry. We relish finding that new voice, the new series, new book, new author that captivates us. It’s almost euphoric. I wonder what it would be like if that weren’t the case. What if the industry could be predictable and formulaic? I don’t think I would like it; nor do I think that readers would benefit. I don’t think writers would benefit either. If writing could be reduced to a formula then new voices would be unnecessary—too risky an investment. The publishing industry would continue to work with the same proven commodities. Not good for the rest of us wanting our chance to be published.

So where does that leave us? I believe that as writers we continue to write what we’re driven to write and we write it to the best of our abilities. The publishing industry should continue to do its best to make good investments. And for those writers desiring to be published, we move forward knowing that anything is possible. Just ask Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling. It’s a new year with new opportunities. Perhaps your turn will be next. I know that I’m hoping that 2009 will be my year.

Tom Burchfield said...

And while we're on the new topics of new voices, we should say farewell to a great old voice, Donald Westlake, who passed away on New Year's Eve . . . a hero to many, especially me.

R. Daley said...

It's a tough call, for sure. At any given time, any of the following could happen to propel a book to the top of the bestseller list:

- a book resonates well with mainstream trends

- a book completely bucks all mainstream trends and creates a stir

- a book has unparalleled cross-over appeal (like Harry Potter appealing to readers of all ages)

I just write from my heart and head, crafting stories that entertain and intrigue me, and I hope my muse also appeals to many others.

Nancy D'Inzillo said...

I think Dorinda and Anonymous made some excellent points, but I find myself a bit on the fence on the issue of whether or not the publishing industry should focus more on what the audience wants. I work for a publishing company as well as being a freelance editor, so I have certain vested interests in the idea that certain books sell better than others. The publishing industry is a business, as Dorinda so eloquently outlined. From that end of things, I think it would be useful for publishers to have a better grasp on what books are appealing to readers.
On the other hand, I've been known to write at times myself, and the idea of writing for the market (as would be the danger if publishers did come up with a formula of "books that sell") scares the crap out of me. There are many worthwhile books—classics even—that did not make it big initially, but are nonetheless valuable contributions to the literary canon. I was just reading an old copy of Fahrenheit 451 in which Ray Bradbury admitted the book didn't originally sell all that well and that it took sometime for it to gain its feet. Can you imagine a world in which publishers might have turned down Fahrenheit 451 because it didn't fit the bestseller formula? It makes me shudder to think!
That said, I think the sort of market research that could benefit both the publishing industry and authors is some serious study into how to create word of mouth. We all know it exists; online forums like Facebook and Myspace have ever greater importance placed on them as launch bases for author personas; and things like the book club were always marked to be tapped by the publishing houses that could manage it. But there are so many potential social networks. I think the truly helpful research for publishers to do would be to stop trying to sell to everyone and really get to know the audiences they're selling to so they can get books into the hands of those readers. While this happens to a certain extent, publishers often use the hit and miss method. If someone knows where to find such research, please let me know!

Lisa Dez said...

So, it’s just a matter of spotting the trend and then, as if by magic, the book will appear? As long as print remains the primary vehicle of literature the industry would have to do more than spot trends, they’d have to predict them. Even if a publisher could instantaneously spot a trend, they couldn’t instantaneously meet it. Everyone knows it takes more than a blink and a heartbeat to get a book on the shelves.

Dorinda Ohnstad said...

Nancy makes an excellent point. Marketing is probably more of an issue than marketability. This is supported by the fact that word-of-mouth, versus industry marketing efforts, tends to be the major catalyst for launching new voices. Today's age of social networking opportunities has definitely provided both writers and publishing houses with new venues to promote new books.

I agree that the publishing industry should become more savvy in this regard. However, I think that as writers this is an area that we can be more successful than the publishing industry. As writers we have a lot more time (and frankly more incentive) to dedicate to promotion than publishing industry publicists have. (Though I'm not letting them completely off the hook here.) I believe that writers than can show agents and publishers that they have the savvy to capitalize on social marketing to engage in successful self-promotion will increase their odds of being represented, published, and read.

AR said...

Yes, and God bless it, I say!

Sarah Jensen said...

I would have to agree with the fact that most writers write because they love it. I too hope to find an agent and be published, but I'm not going to stop writing because that hasn't happened yet.
My husband didn't at first understand why I'd start another novel when I hadn't "sold" the first. I write because I have characters in my head that want their story told. :) And I write because I love it. Getting published will simply be the icing on the cake.

Anonymous said...

I'll tell you something that doesn't help produce good books is treating the people who create books like crap.

When there were REAL editors, when the focus was on support and encouragement of talented writers and artists not many in publishing were getting filthy rich and the book people who ran things understood this.

There are so many 'mid-list" authors who have been treated so badly with publishers so concerned about short term profits and nothing else.

The baby continues to be thrown out with the bath water and the golden goose killed off because the most recent egg wasn't golden, or golden enough.

Celebrities reign and everything is expected to come up Harry Potter.

Its not rocket science. When the people who run the Publishing business only care about meeting impossible quotas art dies. No air and water.

Cate said...

Well, TV hasn't been getting it right since the advent of Tivo/DVR.
And many, many movies are adapted from books. (and most blockbusters) So it's not like that industry is so magically intuitive that they can just pluck gold from the sky. They are mining the same vein as the publishing companies.

Luc2 said...

Yes, writing is art, and I like the unpredictability it brings with it. But at the same time it is a business too, and the publishing world doesn't impress many with it's business savvy or profitability. As the article points out, many in the industry are liberal arts grads, for better and for worse.

I am not sure how much marketing research will really help. But I never understood the high advances some people get after only one good book.

Why pay 8 million in advance, when there's a perfect way for coupling the author's remuneration to the success of his/her book? Some people have only one great book in them...

If the industry would limit the advances and increase royalties, everyone would benefit, I'd think.

BarbS. said...

Once upon a time, art lovers said they liked paintings of women in plumed hats. Gainsborough painted Lady Georgiana Cavendish. Picasso painted Woman in a Plumed Hat, Seated. A similar subject (a woman wearing a plumed hat) but, oh, such different styles!

rightonmom said...

All highly interesting and engaging comments. I'm reading Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" right now and if what he's saying is applicable to writing/publishing industry, I'd say it's a mixture of timing, patience, and ultimately doing what you love and getting good at it. You really should read the book to get the full gist. The industry could try to figure out some sort of markers but in the end, like someone mentioned, what wll be will be. Just sayin.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Hi rightonmom,

I went to look at your profile - you list Mrs. Dalloway as one of your favorite books - mine too! I was just thinking the other day how I preferred Mrs. Dalloway to To The Lighthouse (those 2 to's in a row make me shudder), and maybe I should go back and read Mrs. Dalloway again.

But, I recently ordered Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow and Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, besides reading Suite Francaise (GREAT book) and more War and Peace AND Anna Akhmatova, so I think I'm "booked up" at the moment.

More info than was probably needed -

Wanda B.

Deborah said...

At the root, I think readers want it all. We want the book that makes us laugh, think, cry, turn the page, and sometimes, even make us angry. We want a story that shifts our perceived realities and prompt conversations. We especially want to discover something new, even in a genre we think we have no interest in, but the story is so incredible we can't help but become enthralled. However, there is no formula on what it is that does any of these things for the individual reader.

Harry Potter, a book geared toward children, injected new life into reading and got all types of people to pick up the book. This story did incredible things for the industry. It got more children into reading, more writers stepped outside of the “type” of story they thought they could/should write and found success as children’s or YA writers. Heck, it even dragged reluctant readers to the bookstores and increased sales and interest in the entire process.

What bugs me most about the industry as Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Girl! says is the trends the publishing industry jumps on. This forces writers, published and non-published, to try to shove themselves into a genre they should not attempt to write. The end result is that it either slows down or discontinues a genre people love to shift attention to what is hot at the moment. For serious readers and dedicated writers this is not only annoying, but disheartening.

Professor Tarr said...

I always believe that a writer writes for two people - him/herself and a special muse of some sort. You know, like some reader (imagined or real) who will appreciate the work in its context. If anybody else appreciates the work, that is just gravy on the cake, or frosting on the potato - or something.

When I published my first book, I had a heck of a time getting even local stores to stock it, or local media to review it. It was very frustrating in a way. Nobody I knew had actually bothered to read it aside from my muse and me.

However, Disney flew me out to a convention at Disneyland, put me in a parade, and scheduled a booksigning for my co-author and myself. When we walked over to the venue, we were amazed that there was a line winding down the street and around the corner to the bookstore. Literally hundreds of people.

We laughed and wondered aloud if Annette, or Leonard Maltin, or Julie Andrews of some other Mouse dignitary was signing before us. It was a full slate of activities, so it was probable. But when we got to the front, we discovered they were waiting for us! It was insane.

Many of them had already read the book and some had questions here and there that indicated the level of passion they had for the subject. It was amazing. It made it all really special. But had not that niche audience been available to us in that unique way, we never would've known that the book appealed in that way.

The book itself did not sell well, but that event was worth it. Am I happy with the book? Yah! But I am happy because of the PROCESS of writing it, not because of the reception - and selling a million copies would not have enhanced that process any more.

My new novel is the best thing I have ever done. The process of writing it was the best ever and I could not be more proud of the work. But it may not ever catch the ear of an agent appropriately to garner a full reading. And if published, it may not find an audience.

And that in a way is okay. If I can do the appropriate professional things to make the queries work, it will work. And if I can't, then it will still be a great work in my mind. Even as it sits in its little jump-drive in my drawer. I am relentlessly energetic at promoting my work after the fact, but it is my respect for the work that drives that.

I suppose I could go back in and rewrite the whole thing to be a teen vampire thing to ride that wave... and maybe toss in a dead dog at the end to marley it... but I would not enjoy that at all.

There are two phases for me - one is writing what moves me. The second is professionally and appropriately marketing that. I have started my next novel already and am enjoying that immensely. No vampires, no wizards, no dogs.

Just an old dude traveling the countryside with a young runaway housewife and an overriding obsession that hay bales are at war with cows. Now if a trend for cow-hay wars pops up - I'm right there, brother!

Either way, it's like that Publisher's Clearinghouse thing - I may have already won!

Anonymous said...

The problem with being more "focused on what the audience wants" is that it's hard to evaluate a specific novel.

Television shows and movies, for example, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars putting their material through focus groups and tinkering before they're release. Novels don't generate enough income to allow that.

Sure, many writers give their books to a few readers, or workshop them, but that's hardly an accurate cross section.

And so the industry works on a "hunch." And beyond that, even if a book works, the problem remains of breaking through the clutter to tell readers about it.

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