Pub Rants

What Makes A New York Times Bestseller?

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STATUS: Buried in contracts—round three in the negotiation process for all but one on my desk.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ROCK THIS TOWN by Stray Cats

Folks, if we had the answer to this, we’d rule the world. And every book a publisher (and the author) wanted to be a bestseller, would be one. As you know, the world doesn’t work that way.

There have been case studies of books that publishers threw a lot of money behind (and their whole weight) and the book was dead in the water.

Then you have stories like WATER FOR ELEPHANTS that was an indie bookseller chug-a-thon and the word of mouth was so great even before the book hit shelves that when it was finally available, it was “sleeper” hit.

So why did I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU hit the NYT list two years after its debut?

I have no idea. Now I do have some theories. I can tell you what little I know (as it’s certainly not a trade secret). Not to mention, Ally was inspired by my post to offer her reasons on why as well so you might want to check out her blog too.

Here’s what I know:

1. LYKY (shorthand for that very long title) sold very well right out of the gate but never hit a list. In fact, we had sales numbers so good, some titles that were on the NYT list would have been envious.

2. LYKY was firmly supported by the Publisher—Hyperion Books for Children. They made this their lead title and did a lot to get the word out initially. Ads, author lunches with key book buyers, white box mailings, the works. There was a solid initial first print run but nothing crazy. (Sorry, can’t share that as the info is client confidential.)

3. Hyperion was aggressive on its reprints so LYKY continued to sell well and build steadily for 2 years (a success we really owe to B&N—which got strongly behind the book from day one as did some great Indies stores).

4. This title started landing on State reading lists (we love Librarians!) and won several awards—thus continuing the notice build.

5. CROSS MY HEART AND HOPE TO SPY, the second book in the series, had a really rockin’ initial print run and in Ally’s case, it was this title (lovingly referred to as CMH) that landed on the NYT hardcover list first (because of all the awareness-building LYKY had done, sales in the initial weeks after release were out the roof. And to land on the NYT list, a book needs a set number of sales within a short period of time to land. Actually that is just conjecture as the NYT does not share their criteria for the how and why of books hitting the NYT list.)

6. Just weeks after CMH hit, LYKY landed on the NYT trade paperback list and stayed there for 16 weeks.

7. Now we have notice and momentum building on each other. Readers excited about the release of CMH were talking to other readers and telling them to buy LYKY first. Not to mention, the trade pb price is always more appealing so sales took off in that format. There’s an uptick in hardcover sales as well but not like there was for trade pb edition.

8. Borders finally gets on board with a big buy-in for book 2. Because all this notice is happening, Costco, Best Buy, Walmart, etc. all buy-in for both titles as well. Now sales are really picking up.

I can’t tell you where they are right now (client confidential) but let’s just say the weekly sales are eye-popping.

Here’s what else I know:

1. There were few to almost no reviews for LYKY (or CMH for that matter)–although Publishers Weekly did feature the cover for LYKY in the front pages of their issue and they did review the title. It wasn’t a starred review though. So the success was not review-driven.

2. Librarians. Need I say more? They were a force behind talking to students about what great books these were. They ordered many copies for their school libraries to keep up with demand.

3. The biggest component to what makes a book a NYT bestseller? Word-of-mouth. Avid fans. We owe a lot to the readers who absolutely loved the book and told 20 of their closest friends to read it too.

Unfortunately, no one fully understands how w-o-m works. Why some titles make it onto everyone’s lips and others don’t—despite whatever money, marketing, or promotion is given to a book.

This can’t be “created.” It just is.


12 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    Honestly, I think the very adorable cover art contributed to the sales. This book “looks” good on the shelves. I don’t think anyone can look past what some good cover art and product placement can do for attracting buyers.

    I bought “Chasing Harry Winston” because I thought it had the most adorable cover I’d ever seen although I haven’t been able to get past the first couple of pages.

  2. Kimber An said:

    Well, I can tell you how Word Of Mouth works. I’ve moderated Enduring Romance long enough now to have developed an opinion.

    First of all, readers know what they like and what other readers like. Second, the publishing industry, as far as I know, bases what it publishes on the sale of New books. This means they’re only getting a fraction of an idea of what all readers want, because disenchanted readers go to the library or used bookstores. ***Their opinions are not reflected in the sale of New books.*** However, their friends know. Third, when one of the readers finds a book they love amongst the Endless Parade of Sameness, they’re overjoyed and are compelled to share that joy with the readers they know of who are searching for that kind of book.

    Moral of the Story: Take a few minutes away from reading the Bottom Line and start listening in or reading conversations between readers on-line or in Real Life.

    Tor recently put up an interactive blog for readers and, I believe, other publishers have as well. This is brilliant! All Tor must do is peek in on readers right there on their very own blog to learn what they really want.

  3. Elise said:

    Having a great title and a great first few pages seals the deal for a lot of young readers. Also the topic of Spies has been hot for awhile. Cammie was a girl every girl could relate to,yet didn’t come across contrived. My Mom’s a YA/Children’s librarian and when I saw this initially on your blog I asked to buy it for her collection. I’d say your blog is a great source for Word-of-mouth as well 🙂

  4. brimfire said:

    Can I add to your list having Ally’s agent blog about the book and its release? That’s why I picked it up. Your blog is also how I ‘discovered’ Linnea Sinclair who is my current Favorite Author.

    I know normal, everyday readers don’t read agent blogs, but us writerly folk do and we talk to normal people, friends, other writers, etc. I guess it comes down to that word-of-mouth thing you mentioned.

  5. Anonymous said:

    I know that Kristin doesn’t answer comments, so maybe some of the rest of the readers can answer me?

    Does anyone else think the key issue here is that Hyperion made it a “lead title?”

    Lead titles are not born, they are made. If Hyperion had not made it a lead title to begin wouldn’t the chances of the rest happening (with the intensity it did) been GREATLY reduced? NOT because it wasn’t a good book, but because there are TONS of books that are equally as good. If Jennifer Lynn Barnes cheerleading books had been plucked up and made a lead title, instead of coming out in massmarket paperback, couldn’t she and Ally have easily switched places?

    I’m not saying this is either right or wrong. I’ve read books that were lead titles — and thought the writing was truly lackluster and plain. I’ve read books released by the same publisher (and in the same month) that had no publicity at all to speak of, that blew me away with their intriguing plots and strong writing.

    But it seems that it’s great for books that are lead titles, not so much sometimes for the books that aren’t. For instance, some of Kristin’s other clients (who write similar-toned books to Ally’s) didn’t get hardback covers and didn’t get any sort of promotion (certainly not “lead” title promotion) though the writing, hook, and exectuion of their books were on par with Ally’s.

    Sad that all books can’t be lead titles, because I truly think in the pub business people think the “cream rises to the top,” when in reality, the cream rises to the top only when it’s being promoted with “lead title” status.

    (none of this is to say that Ally doesn’t deserve to be a best-selling author — of course she does — the books are fun and airy and she seems to be incredibly hardworking.)

    Please tell me your own view, but doesn’t LUCK play a bigger role than anything else, in a book becoming a lead title? *

    *(for a book that is worthy of being published to begin with — I’m not talking about books that don’t stand a chance at all.)

  6. Dave F. said:

    Malcolm Gladwell describes how WOM and fads work in his non-fiction “The Tipping Point.” It’s the best description of that phenomena I’ve found. IT also tells the reader how to try to create a tipping point.

  7. Jeannie Ruesch said:

    That word-of-mouth thing is powerful indeed. Like another poster, I first discovered LYKY from this blog and your posts about it. So I went looking for it, read it, loved it and passed the word along to more writers and readers. When something is that good, the word of mouth can move pretty quickly, IMO.

    It also should be said, the book appeals to those outside of the “target” market. I’m an adult, I love them. So it captures a larger portion of the audience.

  8. Deirdre Mundy said:

    I also think the cover art was a BIG plus. I picked it up out of our Library’s new YA section because the title, cover, and plot summary sounded fun.

    Then I turned around and recommended it to all my 20 and 30 something friends as a fun afternoon read.

    I think one thing that made Ally Carter take off is her style– it’s light and fun and reminds me of a Hepburn/Tracey screwball romantic comedy. So her books don’t just appeal to YAs… they also appeal to adults looking for a light read….

    (heck, my first thought when I finsihed LYKY was ‘Man. I wish *I* could write like that.’ And then she kept it up for a SECOND BOOK. Sometimes, people become best-sellers because they’re just that good!)

  9. Charmalot said:

    I was going to mention “The Tipping Point” as well – good point… I hate to think there’s a science to luck, but obviously in Ally’s case there were unique and advantageous forces at work, as anon astutely mentioned.

    Random, but this post reminded me of the ‘overnight success’ that Kristin discussed earlier. Just shows how a good thing takes years in the making.

  10. Anonymous said:

    Well, I guess when you quantify what is successful, then I assume you are talking about sales. I think the books that become best sellers are those that are entertaining. Fans become attach to the characters whom they really love. Really great characters become living people. They become a part of our lives, so naturally people gossip and the word gets spread around about so-and-so in the story. People are social creatures so it’s only natural that information is going to spread. Certainly, if you have an entertaining novel, then it’s only a matter of time before everyone knows about it. Just ask Harry, the boy with the funny glasses.

    Love the blog Krisin.