TAKING A CLOSER LOOK AT BESTSELLERS
No matter if it's a writer putting his thoughts down on paper for the first time or a seasoned pro or publisher putting out their 3,000th book, there has been and probably will forever be an emphasis put upon bestsellers. The writer looks to make one, the publisher wishes to have a great crop of them, and every other media company looks to scoop them up and have them for their own perceived gain. There's even people who will tell you how to make your work a best seller (for a price)–everyone looking to get something from the ever mysterious and seemingly preeminently coveted bestseller. But just want is a bestseller? And how much of an amazing thing is it when someone attains that distinction?
The more I learn about the business of getting to that lofty peak the more I see just how funny and how much of a game this all is. It is with this insight that I thought I'd have something to put down for another essay. Now, there are some basic things you need to do in order to get things rolling if you're seeking out bestsellerdom, as with any business venture one undertakes, (and don't forget publishing is a business) but there are just so many funny things I've been discovering of late that it amazes me at how publishers can get away with all the time. And one of those interesting aspects of the game of publishing is the creation of a bestselling book.
Now, as with all essays I've done, I'll let you know up front that these are just my thoughts and experiences so far. And, at the time of this essay being written I have yet to have a bestselling book. While this might limit me in some fronts from bringing up this topic I believe I've learned and heard enough things over the years–even seen some things first hand–to share something of worth for this essay. As with all things I post here, however, take this with a grain of salt and understand you're free to disagree–though I think you'll find common agreement on most things I'll share.
Like many first time authors I used to think about how wonderful it would be to take hold of my new title that had risen in the ranks to the #1 slot of the New York Times Bestseller list, admiring the shiny sheen of the angelic light falling upon the cover. Somehow making it to that list would mean so much: I'd get instant recognition for my work, the quality of the title wouldn't be in question in anyone's mind, I'd get movie deals and all sorts of licensing rights coming my way (can anyone say t-shirts and action figures?), and, of course, I'd be raking in the dollars from the massive sales that would continue to ensue.
Sounds good, right? What self-respecting first time author wouldn't want to get their hands into that sort of action after toiling away so long in obscurity? But let's take a step or two back from this massive ego inflator to set your feet a bit more firmly on the solid ground of reality. There is a lot more hype and myth in many folks eyes when it comes to seeing the matter clearly and we need to get a little distance to better put some things in perspective.
Let's start taking those steps by debunking some of those ideas many writers (myself included at one time) tote around their heads upon reaching publication. First off most bestseller lists are a tabulated from a collection of books purchased by a selection of stores for a given time period. This does not take into effect returns (and yes even bestsellers have returns) only how many were ordered by said stores and continue to be ordered by said stores throughout the life of the book. This is why you'll see many books even before they are released debut on the bestseller lists at a certain rank before they are even able to be purchased by the public. How can this be when no books have yet been sold, you ask? Most bestseller lists go off of what was sold to the stores they track, not so much what will be sold to the folks who might pick up a copy later when it actually is on the shelf for purchase. So, if you have a good PR machine and sales force working for you, just about any book can get onto a bestseller list at least for a week or two.
This isn't to say the quality of your book isn't part of the mix to get to the list only that you need a strong sales force and PR team (not to mention a large print run) to bring it to the attention of such a list. I'm sure many will agree that many books in the past that were lackluster at best have been on various bestseller lists, garnering the full benefits the lists allowed because they had a great PR and marketing team getting the buyers to at least pick up a large enough order of copies to originally qualify.
Do you remember when I mentioned returns earlier? Some might not know this or care to acknowledge it but a book is still a book whether it's from a small press or a large house–labeled a bestseller or not–and if it doesn't sell at a certain rate then off the shelf it goes. This may seem odd to some folks thinking but just because a paper (or website or magazine) puts you on a list identifying you as "bestselling author" doesn't mean your work is immune from getting returned and pulped. It, like so much of our media's fate, is in the hands of the consumer.
When I worked as a book rep for a leading discount chain it was at the height of one of probably the largest "bestselling" series around: Harry Potter. This was when it was really starting to get into a high point, the first movie was coming out and the books were just getting all sorts of notice, but I still was sending back boxes of copies that were sent to my accounts because the titles were just not moving as quickly as the buyers thought they should. They sold some here and there but it wasn't like I'd go and then come back the next time I was there and the whole area would be empty. It was more like a handful here and there–sometimes a little more–but never the crazy numbers that the amount of new copies I constantly got sent to me would justify having on hand. And when you added in all these extra copies with the other books I had to maintain there was just not that much room to store everything. The stores also wanted to keep things leaner (in opposition to the corporate buyer's seeming preference for being stuffed to the gills)–which is often a point of contention between the various "sides of the fence" as it where when it comes to the world of retail–but that is another issue for another day. I share this because it's a real life example of how even if something has been named a "bestseller" it doesn't mean it will be the best in sales all over. And that's the unspoken little part of the game of bestsellers: how many copies are returned.
I got a glimpse of this back when my first publisher let me know just how unhappy he was with the recent news of Bill Clinton getting so much money for his advance for his book (which was also named a bestseller) when it didn't even sell half his million or so copy print run. That's right, they ending up returning, turning into bargain books, or pulping close to, if not a little over, half the print run of this "bestselling book". I didn't get the news on the paperback sales but from what I've learned in the book publishing business I'd say it's safe to assume it had a similar fate as the hardcover. Until he had shared his dislike of the news I had never even thought about, let alone knew, that such a large quantity of returns was possible. I thought that once something was a bestseller it must always sell books. I mean, that was why it was a bestseller, right? People were just picking them off the shelves like mad, right?
Ever wonder why some titles could be on the bestseller list one week and then next week be gone for the public mindset entirely? In many causes actual sales caught up to hype and when those massive orders on the shelf didn't move, another book on the list rose above it or the former book was pulled for the shelves to make room for a betterselling title. Again, this is all just part of the game of publishing. Some may not like it but it's part of the package of the modern day model, which isn't looking to be going away any time soon. While this, I'm sure, has put some people's feet on a bit more solid ground let's take a few more steps back and look at just how comical this whole best selling process can be on terms of what it really means.
I brought this next point out when speaking to a person at a recent book signing. We got on the topic of bestsellers and he asked if I wanted my titles to be bestsellers. I informed him that I did but I said in the same breath just how comical the whole thing was to begin with. Naturally, he was a bit curious by my comment and so I began to elaborate as to just how small of a puddle in you have to make ripples in order to make a bestseller list. Books share some similar things with other forms of media, namely when it comes to awards, accolades, and the like. And in such cases it doesn't take a lot to make the grade of certain benchmarks that are suppose to garner a great deal of notice and then ensuing cash flow.
Let's take for example the incredible (and fake) new book by best selling author Elmo Manly. His book, Black Ooze, tells the exciting saga of President Harrison who, instead of dying from pneumonia as everyone thought, was really transformed into a vampire who later became the leader of a group of zombie ninjas (don't ask) who look to fight off an invasion of werewolves cyborgs with a strange attraction to leather and whips (again, don't ask) from taking over the country.
The hype has been huge, I mean huge, for this book and everyone is thinking it's going to be the next big thing. The publisher looks to get a print run of one million copies and the sales force, hoping to get a big commission, presses buyers to get as many copies as they can. It works. The stores get huge back stock piles going and the book makes it to number one on all the charts. Now, even if Mr. Manly's book sells all of the print run (and that would be very impressive in itself) he still hasn't made much of a dent in the over all population.
What do I mean?
Take a step back with me, away from the one million "rabid fans" and you can see that this nation has at least 310,000,000 people in it, more by the day and depending on how you count (and who). Now my calculator doesn't go that far but just 10% of that population would be 31,000,000 and we're talking only one million books here for Mr. Manly. That's below one percent. So you can reach less than one percent of the population and be considered a best seller. Granted, that it still a sizable portion of people, but if you add into effect how they are spread out over the nation and its territories you could begin to see how more often were talking clusters now of a thousand here and a couple thousand there. In other words, the saturation of the national demographic is far from total.
Now here was where it got fun in talking with the gentleman at the book signing. I informed him that this means, even if you are generous and fluff up the numbers of people who might have read the book through libraries and second hand/used book stores, you have 307,000,000+ folks who have never and probably won't read the book–ever. I added that "there are more folks who haven't read Harry Potter than have." He gave me an odd look for a moment as if he thought he hadn't heard me correctly. So I asked him: "Have you read Harry Potter?" "No," he said. "Me either," I replied. And I know and meet others who haven't either. And that's the same for other books, movies, and the like. Just because it has reached a certain "level" doesn't mean its penetrated too deep into the larger group as a whole. People may certainly have heard of it, but knowing about something and having read it are two completely different matters. And that's the weird world of entertainment and publishing in general. You can be known for something generically but no one really know you or your work when it comes to specifics.
This really isn't that different when it comes to e-books and the like. The same principle applies. Unless you have a book that gets into the hundreds of millions for readership your demographic reach (as far as national population goes) will be far for all inclusive. If you add in the fact that e-books often are purchased on a global market and the numbers tend to stay the same you can see the figure get lower for national reach as folks in other areas help to dilute the figures.
Now don't get me wrong, selling thousands of copies of my books would be heartily welcomed, just as selling a million or more would be. What I've getting at with this essay is how much awe and wonder we as authors and then the general public affix to such lists, welding all sorts of miracles to them as I alluded to at the beginning of this essay. The reality is you're having an impact by making the list, but not always as large as you might think. In fact, there are many authors who can use the "New York Times Bestseller" moniker on their covers but don't have movie deals, don't have any extra special favor, and aren't really known outside their genre field or even fan base.
So just becoming a best seller isn't going to suddenly make you some ultra book celeb. You do, however, get to use the title for life. It's sort of like once you've been a senator or president or congressman; you get to keep the title once you leave office. No matter what you produce following that list making title you can always add: "Bestselling Author" on the front of all your work going forward. This will help you in getting some doors open with buyers and others even if the title that got the distinction was on the list for only one week. This is to say nothing of the quality of said work the bestseller stamp benefits...but that's another topic for another day.
So there you have it, some simple thoughts on perhaps taking another look at bestsellers and the oddity that is both getting into the ranks and just how much it really matters and means in a larger sense of the world around us. As writers we tend to get pretty close to things we're working on and keep to our own private world. In light of such a mindset things can look one way but if we just take a step back to get a better view we can often see a greater truth that can help us put things into a better perspective.
Read a related Wall Street Journal article about this topic.
Read a related LA Times article about this topic.