Monday, May 14, 2007

The Business of Best Sellers

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:'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."


Stephen Parrish said...

The more authors expect or demand in advance, the more publishers will treat debut authors as an unwarranted risk.

I don't buy the argument that a large advance is necessary to ensure the publisher's commitment to publicity. Imagine how much (more) publicity Random House could have spent on THIRTEEN MOONS if it hadn't shelled out eight million for the privilege of publishing it.

Having said all that, I still want an obscene advance. Let everyone else moderate their expectations. For the good of the industry.

Laura Vivanco said...

Rarely does feedback go from the reader to the publisher.

Harlequin Mills & Boon have groups of readers to whom they send out forms so that the readers can give feedback on the books they've read.

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: I almost mentioned the Harlequin survey. However, I thought the questions in the survey I'd seen were "slanted" toward sensational answers; it wasn't a true survey in the way I think of such things.

How was the HM&B survey?

Maya Reynolds said...

Stephen: I know what you mean {grin}.

Of course, once you have an obscene advance and don't earn it out, the odds of another publisher taking a gamble on you dramatically shrink. I've heard of writers who were forced to take a pseudonym on a second book because their sell-through was so poor.

Laura Vivanco said...

I wasn't meaning the survey, though I have seen it if you mean the one about trends concerning what's romantic. I blogged about it in February.

I was talking about a questionnaire they send out every month to regular readers who've volunteered to give feedback on the novels they've read. Readers are asked to rate the books and there's also some space for both specific comments about each book and any general comments. I'm not sure how many lines they do this for, but they certainly do it for the M&B historicals in the UK.

Maya Reynolds said...

Yes, that survey is the one I thought you were talkinga about.

I didn't realize they sent a questionnaire to regular readers. That's very interesting. Is it only to those readers who belong to their bookclubs, or is it to others as well?

Thanks for the info.

Laura Vivanco said...

I'm not a member of a bookclub, I just saw an application form at the back of one of the books. I've not seen those forms very often, so I'm not sure how often they need to recruit new readers, but that's how I ended up on their mailing list.

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: Interesting. I'll have to check the backs of American books to see if they do the same thing here.

Many much thanks for the info.