The New York Times had an article on Sunday titled "The Greatest Mystery: Making a Best Seller."
Any writer reading it is likely to shake his/her head in frustration because the bottom line of the story can be summed up in two quotes:
From William Strachan, editor in chief at Carroll & Graf Publishers: "It's an accidental profession, most of the time . . . Nobody has the key."
From an anonymous editor: "People think publishing is a business, but it's a casino."
Well, that's encouraging.
There were some interesting observations, comparing publishing to other industries, which use consumer feedback and the latest technology to understand their customers. The article's author, Shira Boss, claims that information mostly flows one way--from publishers to readers via announcements of forthcoming releases. Rarely does feedback go from the reader to the publisher.
There have been a couple of exceptions to this one-way information flow: Amazon.com's initiative to allow readers to comment on books they've read was a novelty for the industry.
The other exception the article mentions is the research collected by the Romance Writers of America (RWA) that is regularly reported in a market study of the romance readership.
The article explains that the advance payment to the author is often "an estimate of the first year's royalties, usually ten percent to fifteen percent of expected sales." The advance does not have to be repaid by the author if the expected sales don't materialize.
The story was filled with anecdotes of overestimated royalties (the author of Cold Mountain was paid more than eight million dollars for his second novel, which probably has earned less than one million dollars to date).
On the other hand, the author of Prep was paid a mere $40,000 advance, and Random House ran only 13,000 copies of the novel in its initial print run. The hardcover sold more than 133,000 copies while the paperback has sold 329,000 copies to date. The author was then paid a hefty advance for her second book, which hasn't done nearly as well as Prep did.
The Times claims there are "two ways for a book to become a best seller. One is to make it on to a best-seller list by selling many copies in a week. Other books sell steadily over months and years, eventually outselling many official best sellers."
In the case of the first method, the publisher helped Prep by giving it "a catchy title and book cover and creative marketing and publicity. A team of four publicists made belts that matched the cover for giveaways, and sent splashy gift bags (holding pink and green flip-flops, the belt, notebooks, lip gloss) with the galleys to magazines. The pitch letter included photocopies of the publicists' own high school yearbook photos."
That second method is, of course, reminiscent of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail. If you've forgotten it, go back and read my three-part series for the middle of July, 2006. I'll link you to Part II here.
Until a better method is developed, publishers will continue to use the tried-and-true one: "In estimating value, editors rely heavily on an author's previous sales or on sales of similar titles. Based on those figures and some analysis--about the popularity of the genre, the likely audience, the possible newsworthiness of the topic . . .--they work up profit and loss projections."
Or, as a professor at Fordham University says, "It's the way this business has run since 1640 . . . ever since then, it has been a crap shoot."