Sunday, November 13, 2005

How to Make a Best-seller

People frequently ask me what “makes” a best-seller and my response, universally, is that if I knew that, I’d have only best-sellers. No one knows what it takes to make a best-seller. I noticed that Derailed is coming out as a movie, and clearly there are high hopes about this. I remember that Warner published an excerpt in Publishers Weekly before the book came out. Such excerpts do not come cheap. I don’t recall that it was a huge best-seller in the way that The Da Vinci Code is, but the reviews were phenomenal. Go read them at Amazon.com. Will the movie be huge? Not sure. The ad campaign is certainly big in New York, but I can’t speak for the rest of the country. Will people flock to see it? Again, who knows?

But this is what I do know about “making” best-sellers:

  1. Get as many people in-house to read it and hope they love it. If they do, your odds improve immensely. If you are an author, you might go so far as to ask your editor who else in-house has read the book, what the reaction has been, and what else can be done to build buzz inside the publishing house.

  2. Get as many booksellers as possible to read it in galley or ARC form. If they love it, your odds are outstanding that it will sell. If you succeed here, you almost don’t need #1.

  3. Positive reviews don’t sell books, but negative reviews can kill it. The old adage, When in doubt, don’t, applies. If readers are looking for a book—in particular online—and the reviews aren’t great, they’ll look for another book. For Pete’s sake, get early copies to a few friends and ask them to post reviews on Amazon and bn.com as soon as they can.

  4. Advertising books doesn’t particularly work, unless such advertisements are so great that they completely permeate the public consciousness. How many times have you seen an ad for a book and then gone and purchased it? I see ads for books on the subway, but forget them as soon as I get off the train. I see them before the movie, but forget them during the previews. Unless the ads are literally everywhere you turn, they will never be effective. And very, very few books get that kind of ad campaign. As an author, don’t try and negotiate for advertising. Try and get a commitment to do Advanced Reader’s Copies in the thousands. The Da Vinci Code had, I was told, at least 50,000 ARCs in print. That was more books in print than any prior edition of the author’s, I was told. You’re chances of hitting this number? Pretty much nil, but do what you can.

  5. Advanced quotes do help, provided the author giving the quote isn’t a “house” author. If I’m a bookseller and I get an ARC with great blurbs or quotes—“The best book I ever read!” says Clive Cussler—that’s going to be of interest to me, unless the book is coming from Clive Cussler’s publisher, in which case I discount it as a favor Mr. Cussler did his editor. But you need those quotes early. If you, as the author, deliver the book late, you are creating problems with the schedule (a fact many, many authors don’t seem to understand!). If your editor then sits on it even longer, those problems get compounded. Every delay by you or your editor makes it less likely your book will be a success. In an ideal world, you would deliver on time and your editor would read the manuscript quickly. He would then line-edit it, send it back to you for review, and ask that you incorporate those changes into your manuscript, so that you deliver a clean version. This clean version could then be either (a) photocopied and sent out for quotes or (b) turned into a bound manuscript (including reformatting the pages and type to make it look like an ARC) and sent out for quotes.
An editor then has to be aggressive about getting those quotes. Follow-ups need to be sent, particularly to the best-selling authors who are likely getting a number of requests for quotes. The goal is to get those quotes in time to put them on the actual Advanced Reader’s Copy that go out to booksellers. That helps ensure the booksellers will read it, hopefully order the final book in greater quantities, and then hand-sell it to their customers. Granted, in this day of the big chain store, that’s less important that it once was (when was the last time someone in a chain store hand-sold you a book?), but there are still enough independents around to matter.

Beyond this, what can you do? Well, email is a powerful tool. In a recent article for The Writer magazine, I said you need to start building a giant email list a year in advance of publication. Set yourself up as an Amazon or bn.com affiliate, the put a link in every email you send out from the day your book is listed, so that readers can click and buy. Beg your friends to email their friends. Beg everyone to buy a copy quickly, because the pace of sales is as important as the number of sales. Ask your friends to blog about the book and give them the link to buy it. If your friends travel on public transportation, ask them to read your book while riding the subway, plane, train or bus (and for Pete’s sake, if you commute, carry your own book proudly in public). Give a copy to the president of your company. People may come into his office and see what he’s reading, and be inspired to buy a copy. Heck, mail a copy to the President of the United States. One photo of him reading your book might be worth a thousand sales!

You can put your book cover on a t-shirt for very little money. On coffee cups for even less. Have you ever seen someone not take a free coffee cup? You could go around with a bound copy of your manuscript and a free coffee cup and see local bookstore managers. Even if the cup just sits on a counter somewhere, it’s advertising your book. And every time you or someone else wears that t-shirt, they are promoting your book. And how often do you see books on a t-shirt? It’s a conversation piece. I think people will remember it more than, say, a newspaper ad.

What makes a best-seller? A lot of people deciding your book is one they want to read. Figure out how to make that happen...and please let me know.

Z

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