Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Randomness of Bestsellers

In the ocean there's a real phenomenon called "rogue waves." They typically occur far out at sea, and they are, as the name implies, random occurrences. Suddenly a wave can appear out of nowhere, growing to spectacular height. They're impossible to predict, happen somewhat randomly, and are extremely powerful.

This is about as good of a metaphor for bestsellers as I can think of.

It's very very tempting to look back on bestsellers as preordained phenomenons, but I really don't believe that's the case. There are some books, like Harry Potter, that pull off the Beatles feat of being both extremely good and extremely popular, but for the most part when we point to whatever it is that made something more popular than all the rest, we're just wearing our hindsight glasses.

When you look at megabestsellers... let's face it, a lot of them are headscratchers. There are books that undeniably tap into something compelling, but the more books you read, big and small, the more difficult it is to pinpoint why the big ones become big and some small ones stay small.

There are more sophisticated and more accessible and more edgy and more simultaneously sophisticated/accessible/edgy books than Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Why was that the one to take off?

There were a whole lot of dog memoirs before Marley and Me. Why that one?

Even the paths don't match up. There's a spectrum, from "A lot of people saw it coming and the publisher paid accordingly" books like Twilight, to "Where did that come from?" books like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Why do some books seem to ride a golden path and some clobber their way to the top?

How do these things happen? How do some books achieve a wave of momentum all the way through to megabestsellerdom?

Ask the waves.

Art: The Ninth Wave - Ivan Aivazovsky


Jory said...

Nathan, I always love your metaphors. and I love the "hindsight glasses," because it's so true. Sometimes I wish we could predict the waves, but then I guess that would take some of the fun out of taking risks (and it might cause some people to give up before they've begun).

Matthew MacNish said...

Well we certainly can't ask you, because you don't have any answers to this one. :)

KarolynSherwood said...

And therein lies the quest!

Charlie Rice said...

Yes, the Harry Potter series are well written, but from what I understand, all the agents passed on the first book. I guess it wasn't what they were looking for.

The music business is just as baffling.

Stephanie [Luxe Boulevard] said...

I ask this so many times. Sometimes, as an amateur, I pick up a book and wonder how someone even published it to begin with, much less how it go to the top. Other times I pick up a bestseller and see that it is a good book, just not my forte.

Stacy Stutz said...

Two words... Herd Mentality. Pander to the herd's desires and you up your chances for greater success. From what I've been told, the Shade's series is soft porn - that's always a winner with the herd.

Torre – Fearful Adventurer said...

If bestsellers are rogue waves then Stephen King must have his own wave machine.

Lynne said...

Love the rogue wave analogy. I'd say the 50 Shades trilogy was a full-on sneaker set. :D

Rick Daley said...

This is a great metaphor. A while back I wrote a post on my blog about reading the waves.

My post was a metaphor for reading, but at the same time it was just about having fun at the beach.

Even though rogue waves happen out at sea, your image of one giant wave coming at the readers is very complementary to the waves I wrote about.

And since we're on the subject of waves, here's one for the record books (literally):

Cynthia Washburn said...

There seems to be a certain tipping point where people who would not have bought the book on the first go round now feel they are left out of the loop if they don't. It only seems possible that there can be on of these rogue waves at a time.

I was just discussing this topic in relation to these best selling books that are made into movies, particularly the trilogies. I wonder if the second Dragon Tattoo movie will do well or the last Twilight movie?

Cynthia Washburn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jacqueline Howett said...


Sounds like the lottery! said...

I'd say it's rogue waves, and also a good dose of being in the right place at the right time (i.e. LUCK). Look at the 50 Shades phenomenon. (Yeah, I got suckered in too.) Sometimes I'll read something from the "best sellers" list and walk away thinking..."HUH?" but really the cauldron has to have all of the above before you drop a book in and have it successful.

Jenny Maloney said...

I just finished reading a really interesting book called Hit Lit by James Hall. He puts on his hindsight glasses and does a pretty good examination of twelve super-mega American bestsellers.

One of the observations he makes is the difference in types of bestsellers. The super mega-bestsellers he believes are a good indicator of public opinion and passion - the stuff that touches us NOW. Very hard to gauge.

There are others, which I think Fifty Shades of Grey falls into - the 'off shoot' bestsellers, as it were, since it's Twilight fan fiction, that fall into a category of bestseller that Hall says reflects the public's spending habits...and are therefore a little more predictable. Books by the bestselling authors fall into this category too. King and Patterson had super mega-bestsellers, but nowadays the public is buying their books for their name = habit = predictable.

Bryan Russell said...

And for anyone who actually wants to read a great book on rogue waves (which was also a bestseller):

reprehn said...

Although I read a ton (mostly YA), I've read very few of those books which actually hit bestseller-dom, HP being the major exception. And yes, it's certainly interesting to look at the trends, though many of the books don't seem to follow any obvious trends (ie, the trends come after the bestseller, no?). I'd say anything dealing with the arts has this kind of randomness to it, which is part of their appeal.

Heidi said...

Funny, I was up late writing about 50 Shades of Grey. I think with that one the answer is easy: sex. It's a chance for people to get out of their boring lives, be titillated by something completely outside their realm, and escape.
But as a writer it is rather disappointing that that's all it takes.
We work so hard at creating beautiful imagery, plot lines, worry constantly about our precious characters, and then you read EL James and think, "oh, so all I had to do is copy a few scenes from Pretty Woman and add kinky sex?"
Seriously, though, I think most of us are just jealous that we didn't think of it first. And I'm not knocking Ms. James - I mean at least she finished it, published it, and got it out there - which is half the battle.
It wouldn't really work for my MG fantasy adventure novel anyway. :)

Mr. D said...

It's all subjective. How many times have we heard that before? More than I can count.

Anonymous said...

Luck in some cases.

And being promoted by someone like Oprah in other cases...helping to creat the buzz. There are no accidents in this case.

And then there were people like Jacqueline Susann. In her case she was a master at self-promotion. Jackie Collins was the same way.

Sex helps sell books, too. I know we frown a lot about it on publishing blogs, but people want to read about sex...especially now with e-readers because it's so discreet.

Cute also works. The more heartwarming and endearing and mushy a book is the more readers want it.

Laura Pauling said...

If we knew the answer to this question then we'd all be best sellers! :)

Lisa Shafer said...

As a junior high school teacher, I am a veteran in watching popularity trends in everything. I have found that if something isn't truly good, it can still become incredibly popular if the right people support it and everyone else wants to be like those "right people." The key, of course, is trying to figure out both the identities of those "right people" at just the right time and also figuring out their current whims.
Mostly, it ends up being like riding a Tilt-a-Whirl, where just the right weight at just the right time in just the right direction will give you one heck of a spin. And it's mostly a lot of luck.

Anonymous said...

I guess that's the point; just like rouge waves, there is a lot more than one factor going into the popularity of a book. The only two an author can truly control from beginning to end is quality and enthusiasm. The more you read, the better you write, the more you love writing, the better your writing becomes. At the end of the day, Dickens and Austen and C.S. Lewis and Suess weren't fly-by-night Chances; they all had one thing in commong: They wrote great.

Andrew Leon said...

Well, as with the waves, none of it as actually random. It just looks that way. There are many natural forces that combine together to create such waves, things we can't see. Water temperature. Wind speed and temperature. Whether a particular whale farted in the right place that morning. Whatever. The things that lead to the wave are there. And that's the way best sellers are, too. It does look random, but there are reasons. Unfortunately, they aren't always good reasons.

abc said...

I've been wondering about the Fifty Shades thing. I assume there are loads of just such books available--erotic, s&m, etc. Why these? I know at some point these books (Twilight, Fifty Shades, Dragon Tattoo) become part of the zeitgeist and there's that point where one feels like they should read them to be in the loop, but I wonder what gets them to that point. I can't believe it is random. There has to be something within the stories that appeals to us. I think I can explain it with most of the above mentioned books, but then I'd have to write an essay and I left that behind with grad school

Steven J. Wangsness said...

In an odd way, it makes me happy that it's so random. From my perspective as a writer, not so much -- I rack my brains just trying to get the great public to even take a look at my novel. But as a human, it's nice to know that there's one area that so far the masters of merchandising have not yet completely figured out -- one way in which we are not yet completely manipulated. That's not so bad.

Irene Preston said...

So many conflicting emotions!

I read so many great books that never come close to making the lists. Why? And so many wall-bangers that *everyone* is reading. Why?

Despite the temptation, I try no to slam the authors I don't think should be at the top. Art is subjective. No matter what, they worked hard to produce that book. Maybe the next wave will carry a book I love to the top and I can rejoice with it.

Thanks Nathan!

Anonymous said...

I think what Harry Potter and Twilight in particular have going for them is they appeal across generations.

I was drawn to these books not because of ads or their covers or even reviews but because someone I cared about was reading them.

When kids and parents and even grandparents are all reading the same books, it gives them something to talk about, something to argue about, and ultimately a new way to bond with each other.

If you look at these books' success from a writing perspective it can be a bit mystifying but when you consider the way in which certain books bring people together (if only to argue about its merits), then I think such success is a little more understandable.

Celyn.A said...

Some books, and Harry Potter would be a good example, seem to come from nowhere, spreading through word of mouth. However, others benefit from a big marketing push.

It would be fascinating to see some statistics on how closely marketing spend correlates with sales and/or profitability - obviously there will be a link, but how strong? Unfortunately I suspect publishing houses keep this stuff very close to their chests, so we'll probably never know...

neal said...

I like what Andrew Leon said. Rogue waves SEEM mysterious, but they don't actually happen randomly...they just happen beyond our ability to predict them, so far. But steps ARE being made to be able to predict and protect against Rogue Waves, and I imagine that the analogy could still extend to book publishing, in that sense.

I know I'd like to better protect myself against best-sellers.

But really, this is the same business that stock traders are involved with; it's about making educated guesses with some allowance for risk. You'll never get everything right, but some people get a lot MORE right than the rest of the Joes.

maureen said...

Celyn.A makes a good point...word of mouth. These books that capture the imagination and are talked about...I watched this with HP. I was on an international children's writers list email discussion group in the 90's a couple of the british writers were talking about the first book and how good it was and they couldn't wait for the second book to come out. I went to my local children's bookstore and got the last copy they had of the six they had ordered. I read it in a night. Then introduced it to my class. Within a week...i had parents coming to me where can I buy that were talking about it in the playground...other teachers were lining up to borrow the book...the booksellers ordered heaps more as kids told their friends at other schools...then the second book came out and the chat about the books tripled...amazing!
I know that publishers try to get ARC's into the hands of teachers or influencers early on to spread word of mouth excitement before the book comes out. I read I am Number four as an ARC six months before release...and that was from an influencer bookseller lending it to me...If it is a great story and captures the imagination...word of mouth will work.

christina baglivi tinglof said...

Amen. I find that explanation very comforting.

Sylvia said...

Hmph. I've been wondering the same. Love your writing style, btw! I'd love to know the secret to this. But then, I'd also love to have a crystal ball and know the meaning of life...

Shannon Donnelly said...

They actually do know the cause of random waves (also called rogue waves or monster waves - However, it's a complex set of conditions. I'm sure the same applies to bestsellers -- there's a complex equation that includes the writing, the subject matter, the author's luck in getting the right publishing house, the publisher's marketing push (and just how strong that is), and then cultural conditions (as in the right book at the right time).

Would Harry Potter have it if it had come after Twilight? Maybe--if it had solid marketing. Or would Twilight have made it's current status if it had come out ten years ago--or come out from a publisher that did not put some marketing behind it? Probably not.

The complexity of the equation is beyond any author to handle--even self-published hits are out of the control of the author.

So all you can do is write the best book you can at that time--then go on and write the next book.

James said...

I do agree there is a lot of randomness. But I also know there is a lot of behind the scenes construction at work, as well, in determining the next "big thing."

In the most simplistic of terms, it often comes down to the taste of people with money (or access to money).

Here are the very first words, in the first line of EL James' bio -- "E L James is a TV executive..."

Right off the bat, she has a potential access to a larger audience and a larger pool of money. She also developed her own following and fanbase. She has yet to achieve Harry Potter status, but seems like she could be on her way.

I like that you brought up EL James because her work is in a place prior to "hindsight glasses."

Here's a prediction -- Her books will not be able to be translated into huge mainstream successful movie franchises. The content is simply too taboo for most mainstream American audiences. However, it's perfect for ebooks, reading on tablets, because you can do it anywhere and discreetly at that.

The question is -- how random is that? To what extent do randomness and construction converge?

When you look at certain authors, Stephen King for example, there's very little doubt in my mind that they would have been successful, regardless of what they chose to write.

As artists (in any field), you make your own waves.

Anonymous said...

My two cents: In regards to the'Fifty Shades of Grey' hoopla, I think in that case it comes down to two things.

But first, I need to inject that when I first heard about this series I rolled my eyes and thought just a bunch of horny women wanting to read this from word of mouth. The bdsm did not appeal to me. Then the amount of time the books stayed on the best seller lists and after the movie deal with the unprecented control the author got, it grabbed my attention enough to finally start reading them.

I started reading, rolling my eyes at the bad writing and how amateurish the writing actually is. But I was intrigued enough to stick with it and read all three.
I basically see why the books appeal as they do. It's basically the formula, the ultimate cocktail for a woman: You have a very formidable, powerful, alpha male, gorgeous (of course), being brought to his knees by a woman, a man that was basically untouchable before and her love will bring the tortured soul through his darkness and be whole again. Then you throw in: he's an absolute "sexpert" and he's seductive and sexy as hell and then you have a created a fictional character that women will be talking about with each other.

Actually the series can be inspriring to a lot of writers, in that you don't have to be a good writer to be a bestsellering author. That in the end it's really about the story.

Also. add in the media saying the books have helped a lot of couples sex lives and there you have it, free media attention and it continues to grow and grow and grow..

Anonymous said...

"hindsight glasses" :)

Rogue waves/perfect storms/bestselling novels: I always think of them as a confluence of events. Earthquake/movement + winds + magnetic field + a whale with really bad gas...who knows? But it can be made. It's a kind of magic, you can feel, eh? Electricity. Oh, to write an entire novel in that "place"...

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Rogue waves don't just occur. They have help. There's something under the water causing the wave to swell, or something on the surface, or a weird confluence of the tide going out or coming in at the same time.

So, too, do bestsellers.

Oprah's influence on mega book sales should never be discounted, at least when she had her show and when she recommended books.

If I could get 10 well-known reviewers to READ my self-published novels, and RECOMMEND them to readers, I guarantee I'd have a movie contract on both and be a household name within...a week.

History is always a great teacher. We know The Great Gatsby did not do that well when it first came out. Yet, F. Scott Fitzgerald was FAMOUS for "This Side of Paradise" and tons of short stories before it did. Gatsby is considered, arguably, his greatest work.

In 1923, Robert McAlmon, a friend and fellow ex-patriate, published a journalist named Ernest Hemingway's first-ever fiction collection. It was called "three stories and ten poems." McAlmon then published in a small run for friends Hemingway's "in our time." "in our time" was handed, DELIBERATELY, to friends and journalists who would bring it to the U.S. from Paris and talk it up among publishers. Boni & Liveright, which published Sherwood Anderson's works, loved it. They contracted with Hemingway to republish it in the U.S., as In Our Time. A collection of short stories--not a novel.

In 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald (a big name in literary circles of the time) praises Hemingway to his editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins. Perkins gets a copy of "In Our Time." Hemingway is hard at work on a novel--a full novel, not a collection of short stories, but in the style of "in our time." But he knows Fitzgerald's pal Max will back it and publicize it better with Scribner's, a big house, than Boni & Liveright ever could.

What to do? They've got right of first refusal on his next work, according to the contract for "In Our Time."

Enter "The Torrents of Spring," arguably Ernest Hemingway's absolute WORST piece of ultimately near magical realism parody satire poor fiction bad dream.

Everyone knew "The Sun Also Rises" was something that could be big. It was written by an ex-pat World War I veteran about other ex-pat World War I veterans, people who'd thought their lives had or would end in the 20s only to discover themselves still alive, and without much left to believe in to guide them to the future, any future. I'm sure Perkins got some looks at it before agreeing to publish both "Torrents" and "The Sun," which was THE deal.

If not for Fitzgerald, would we know the name Hemingway?

All rogues can use a little help now and then to become or make big waves.

vinnie said...

We all wish we knew, especially the independents who struggle to get the word out!

wendy said...

The thing I've found with books I love - and the best-sellers I've read - is that they're compelling. You don't want to put them down or the story to end. You miss the characters at the finish. The world of the story is somewhere I'd like to live in. From that pov, then, they are kind of predictable. The only thing that would turn me off a popular book is if it had a gross element/s, but I can't remember one that did have....although I haven't read a fiction title for a long time, must admit. HAving said all that, I'm going to completely contradict myself by saying I loved The Exorcist, although at the time of reading I was terrified by it, and it had plenty of gross elements, but the horror and power of the story held me fascinated. The gross elements weren't gratituitous, though. They occured naturally in the course of the extreme events taking place. But the techniques of the writer never once got in the way of the story. Some writers get carried away with descriptions and wordage, etc, but everything in this story simply served the story and added power to the dilemma the characters were in.

joanne eddy said...

I have joked sometimes that if getting published is like getting hit by lightening or winning the lottery, having a best seller is like having either of those things happen twice...and having your novel become a movie would be the equivalent getting hit by lightening three times while holding three winning tickets in your hand!....or to pick up on your wave analogy perhaps holding the tickets and while surfboarding on a tsunami. Kidding aside I am about to send out my first queries and I have no idea if I can hit a wave or not...sure hope so.

Mac McEntire said...

This discussion puts things in perspective a little, doesn't it? I remember reading/hearing somewhere that it's not about reaching the mass audience, but about reaching YOUR audience.

Connecting with the ones passionate about your writing is the real reward, no matter how great or small a group they might be, correct?

Anonymous said...

Bestsellers tend to be accessible to a larger audience.

Also, think about some of the TV shows that we remember growing up such as the A-Team. While the story and plots left much to be desired, the characters were super interesting with quotable characters. And that's the second thing that helps with bestsellers--interesting characters.

Of course, we can't forget about sex appeal.

Finally, author reputation helps a lot too. Author's develop a following and that helps with sales too.

And if you take all of the above and wrap it up into a package, what do you get? Batman and Catwoman in a movie:)

Anonymous said...

I like the analogy. Hi Nathan! This is my first time subscribing/reading/responding to your blog. I like your writing voice.

RE the HP phenomenon, I was at a talk given by the head sharang of Bloomsbury Press. Of course everyone had questions about the success of the HP books. This lady told us that initially there weren't interested in the first book. It had done the rounds of the editors a number of times. She confessed that they weren't impressed. But 'there was this one woman' who simply wouldn't let it go. They made final decisions at a round table. This woman (who was the only person still holding on to the first HP book) insisted that they take one more meeting at the round table. So they did. They each took a turn reading a page, going round the table,eventually conceding it was a fun read. So in essence, it was purely because of this one woman who had gotten the bit between her teeth about HP, that they finally decided to give it a chance. Voila the first book was born!!

For myself, I was visiting with a fairly eccentric couple I know who live way out in the countryside. Liz teaches oil painting. She and her husband Dave were raving to the group of art students gathered there about this book they'd read called Harry Potter.... I'm sure we all left that day and began our search for our own copies. Yep, it was an amazing rollercoaster of word-of-mouth!
And yet...I have been in many a gathering of so-called literary types, where JK Rowling and authors like Stephanie Meyer have been slated for their poor writing styles. Seems to me that the rules don't really matter when a star is born, right?! :-)

Yvette Carol

Mira said...

I like the picture, pretty. :)

Also, love your "rogue wave" analogy.

So, I agree with others here that it's probably not random, we just don't have a large enough viewpoint to see how things collide and result in a "wave".

On a side note, I know that we can all dream of having a bestseller, but I think it's a two-edged sword. Sure, the money, influence and validation would be extremely nice, but the pressure and the negativity would really suck.

So, I think it's a mixed bag.

Like most things in life! :)

Robena Grant said...

Love your analogy. I do believe the randomness of bestsellers goes back to word of mouth. And with social media, word of mouth is spread faster than the blink of an eye, negative or positive.

Mirka Breen said...

I don’t have mainstream taste, so I would not venture to guess or pretend I can tell. Hindsight…Oh, that 20/20 thing. I would not have guesses at the HP success, and *no one* could have predicted the magnitude of that phenomenon.
But is it random? Really inni-mini-myni-mo random? Well above my pay-grade. Embrace the mystery, unless you are being paid to predict.

CJ Black said...

I've been trying to figure this one out for years. Although there really is no solid answer, I found, "I have no idea" is not good enough for some. I recall being grilled for a good twenty minutes on the subject of why a certain author was making millions and I wasn't.

Anonymous said...

Audience, audience, audience is what it's all about. Fifty Shades grabbed Twilight fans, Harry Potter grabbed wizard fans. If you can pull a reader in, no matter how good or bad the writing, your going to have an audience…who will recommend you on! Entertaining readers is where it's at, no matter how deep or fluffy your work is. I believe everything happens the way it's supposed to. I wrote a book only a hundred people have bought, yet it's been past around to over four hundred. It wasn't my time with that one, obviously, but I'll move on and keep trying, because nothing will my drain my passion for what I love doing... ;)

Anonymous said...

Great points to raise and I enjoyed reading the variety of comments and ideas expressed here.

For what it's worth, I feel that best sellers must appeal to basic human desires and needs, and perhaps tap into some kind of acknowledged or waiting to be recognised mass and overlooked need, well written or otherwise. I thought the Da Vinci code was the biggest lump of tripe I'd ever read when it hit the lists and I followed the crowd by buying it. Years later when I picked it up again, and being much more interested in analysing fiction, I could see why it had mass appeal. Religion and intrigue, for starters, even if fictional. It hooked me, (in spite of) the writing style. How and why they break out, as opposed to others, is the interesting question.

Regarding HP (and following the argument of good timing and luck), I think the 4th book was published in the UK the year before the first Lord of the Rings films (2001), which is also the first year of the first HP film. No argument that HP was already massively popular by 2000, but the films spun the series into the stratosphere and I think it helped that a massively popular fantasy series was also releasing excellent and similarly themed films at the same time as the later HP books. Many friends said HP was like LOTR for kids. It got a boost I think. However, HP did stand on its own before the films and I think that it was simply WOM. That's how I got it. As did family and friends. When something resonates, people talk. Figuring out what resonates is the key.

Tracy said...

I think certain “rogue waves” have a tendency to turn into whirlpools” that anchor a genre and start sucking in readers and attention, as other related or similar work gets pulled into its vortex along with it.

To answer the question, there are two different ways that mega-hits happen. The most obvious is a marketing push by a company looking to expand market share with a new genre or series. The companies will comb through their available manuscripts and find what they think will resonate for a given demographic and run with it. The second “wave generator” is the grass-roots tsunami of a small release book. Something makes a big rumble with a few people, who share that with a few others. Once you get enough synergy going, it radiates out to the masses.

Understanding that small-budget self publishers are most successful with the tsunami method and big six publishers have the market push down cold is a big advantage for a writer.

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