Pub Rants

Category: client books

When aspiring authors dream big about career success, landing a Good Morning America (GMA) or Today Show Book Club pick is probably a nice part of that dream. Daydreaming about what snazzy outfit to wear for the TV appearance can take aspiring writers to a happy place. (Nods to Shelby’s gorgeous blue dress and Jamie’s fab deep purple suit.) Just how did these authors land the coveted book-club pick?

In short, I actually don’t know. This kind of high-profile visibility is rare in the book world. Like the insider mechanics of how a title lands on the New York Times bestseller list, the truth of how a novel is picked for a major book club is only known by the parties who do the choosing. 

But here is what I do know as the agent of several titles that have been chosen in the last two years (The Downstairs Girl for Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club, Remarkably Bright Creatures and The Many Daughters of Afong Moy for the #ReadwithJenna Today Show Book Club for May and August, respectively):

  • If a title is chosen before it is released, the publisher was instrumental in putting the book on the book club’s radar. After all, book clubs need advanced reading copies (ARCs) so they can read and consider a book prior to its publication. 

As you can imagine, a publisher can’t spotlight every title coming out on a fall or spring release list. That would overwhelm those doing book-club considerations. Publishers will choose from a list created in-house that might include lead titles, sales-rep favorites, and/or special choices from previously published house authors.

However, once a publisher sends an ARC, they don’t have any further influence on the decision. That is solely the province of the book club itself. I have no insight into GMA, but I do know Reese and Jenna personally read the books chosen—which is fun and awesome. 

  • Book clubs often choose titles organically. The initial readers might see a sale announcement and request an ARC. The readers might have a friend or relative who recommended the title (old-fashioned book discovery!), which might move it up the consideration chain. A title that simply has momentum via word-of-mouth or social media attention might catch a book club’s eye. Or the book club might be tracking certain authors, and the upcoming new release is a good fit. 

When this happens, it’s just magic for the author, the publisher, and of course, the agent. 

In the case of Shelby and Jamie, a visit to Studio 1A was part of the dream coming true (although I personally would find a TV appearance a bit nerve-racking). Studio 1A looks glam on camera, but the green room isn’t green and feels kind of like a teacher’s lounge (and it’s about as sexy). Celebrity guests get the private green room (which I caught a peek of). TV does a great job of creating illusion, but it’s an illusion that’s fun to see in person.

What I can definitively say is this: Being a book-club pick moves the needle on sales. In a big way. 

So worth the daydream. 

This will probably be the shortest article ever because, in short, if it were possible to sit down and write a bestselling novel, wouldn’t every author do just that? According to Google, a writer simply needs to (1) have a big idea (simple—they grow on trees), (2) write with an audience in mind (always handy), (3) package the book to sell (definitely helps), and, my favorite, (4) use a female lead character, as there is a higher number of bestselling titles with female leads (okey-dokey). Interesting, Google. So can a writer set out to write a bestselling novel? That’s probably the wrong question. Here’s a better one. 

Since I’ve represented (at this point) 53 New York Times bestselling novels, you’d think I’d know a thing or two about them. But honestly, it’s a wonderful surprise every time a client of mine hits the NYT list. (The latest was Shelby Van Pelt’s debut Remarkably Bright Creatures in May.) When talking bestsellers, James Patterson is probably the best person to interview. He has cracked the code for sure, given the number of works he has on the NYT list at any given time. But my answer to this question is no, a writer can’t really set out to write a bestselling novel. Over the years, I have observed a few things about bestsellers.

Observation 1: None of my clients set out to write one. They all began with a story that felt personal to them and that they were passionate about writing. My NYT-bestselling clients also said they started with the voice of the story. It was unique, clear, and, once found, natural to write. 

Observation 2: Not unlike what Google helpfully suggested, all NYT titles start with an original concept, so although there are no new stories under the sun, these works felt fresh and original to the readers who discovered the novels and then raved about them to other readers. Some examples: 

  • A 50-year old man searches for the woman he loved during WWII before his love was sent away to an internment camp. (Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet)
  • A giant Pacific octopus helps unlock the mystery of what happened to the aquarium cleaning lady’s son thirty years ago. (Remarkably Bright Creatures)
  • A teen who attends a school for spies funnels her skills into spying on her first crush while also navigating the world of espionage. (I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You)
  • A soulless woman nullifies the power of supernaturals such as vampires and werewolves with her touch and has to uncover why supernaturals are disappearing. (Soulless)
  • A Chinese American teen secretly living below a newspaper company moonlights as the anonymous but wildly popular society columnist Dear Miss Sweetie, whose articles shake up the town. (The Downstairs Girl)

Observation 3: Although publishers try to create bestsellers, for a debut novel to hit the list, there is an intersection of what readers are wanting to read and market timing. Plenty of titles can have the right ingredients, full in-house support, and marketing dollars, yet they still won’t land on the list. In the end, the reading public decides (as well as the algorithm used by the New York Times, but that is a whole other article).

For me, a better and more interesting question is this: What would a bestselling story look like for you personally as a writer? Where is your intersection of concept, passion, voice, and unique characters? Is it possible to analyze bestsellers to see what makes them tick? Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers do just that in The Bestseller Code. As reviewers point out, this book won’t teach you how to write a bestseller, but it will reveal some interesting stats concerning bestsellers and what they all seem to have in common. Would that info give you a fresh perspective on your own story or take you one step closer to writing a bestseller? 

Only you the writer hold the answer to that question. 

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Interview with Shelby Van Pelt

This month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Shelby Van Pelt, author of the debut novel Remarkably Bright Creatures.

In your new novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures (Ecco, May 3), an unlikely narrator—an octopus—steals readers’ hearts. While his wit and charm appeal to readers, Marcellus doesn’t talk. How did you decide the limits of his voice?

Figuring that out was one of the most challenging things about writing this book! At various times while drafting, I played around with allowing him to write (could an octopus hold a pen?) or perhaps chat with the other sea life at the aquarium. But, eventually, I realized I needed his communications to flow one way to reflect his loneliness.

There’s also the matter of where readers would draw the line. An octopus narrator is already weird, at least in a book that’s otherwise realistic. I knew I was not writing a fantasy novel and didn’t have much latitude with world-building; rather than creating a world where octopuses can communicate, I needed to create a communicating octopus that felt at home in the real world.

In your recent LitHub article, “Lessons Learned from a Year Listening to the Fictional Octopus in My Head,” you remind us that “you write…therefore, you’re a writer.” Why is this mantra so important when writing your debut novel?

For anyone who produces any sort of creative work, writing or otherwise, I think there’s this leap when you go from having it be a private hobby to sharing it with others. To selling it, even. To me, at the time, it all just felt so presumptuous. Maybe I even felt a little like Marcellus with his journal entries, firing off words into some sort of void, not sure anyone would ever receive them.

Remarkably Bright Creatures is already making waves since its release earlier this month. What advice would you give to authors hoping for the same result?

Well, I do realize how incredibly lucky I’ve been! But I can’t tell you how many times I really doubted even querying because my book didn’t seem to fit neatly in a marketable category. Finding comps was challenging. It’s an odd book!

So, I guess my advice is: write the odd thing. Or rather, write the you thing, whatever that happens to be. And plan to invest time in your query letter! I spent more hours writing (and rewriting, over and over) my query letter than I did drafting the last several chapters of the book. Capturing the essence of your story in a couple of paragraphs is a huge challenge, and it can take a lot of work to get it just right.

Do you critique or beta read for other writers? What is the value in that?

Absolutely! I would never have finished this book without my critique partners.

There’s this image of a novelist as a solitary creature, sitting in a cabin with a beautiful view, pounding out pages. They’ll emerge at some point with a finished draft, ready to serve up to beta readers. And honestly…that sounds amazing! But as someone with two young kids, that’s not going to be my reality anytime soon. And I’m not sure it would suit me, honestly. I tend to do a lot of critique in real time with my beta partners, exchanging a couple of chapters a week, discussing, then taking time to pause and course-correct as needed. If I did a whole draft without feedback along the way, that thing would be a mess.

I also really enjoy beta reading shorter pieces for other folks in my writing communities. Learning to give and receive feedback is so important, and it’s a skill I try to practice as often as I can.

Finally, what tools in the literary space/community have been the most helpful in your writing process?

I’ll put my plug for writing contests here! Sometimes, a frenzied weekend with a bizarre set of prompts is just what I need to shake off a writing slump. Many competitions also offer formal feedback and/or have a space, like a Facebook group or forum, where you can swap critiques with other participants. It can be a good way to find a writing community.

Classes are also great. I’m a big fan of continuing-education courses, library writing groups, and the like. I’ve participated in several of those over the years. I’m a deadline-driven person, so having regular pressure to prepare material gives me a needed nudge. As a bonus, they’re often reasonably priced, and since anyone can join, there’s usually a nice variety of folks from differing backgrounds and stages of their writing journey.

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt was released May 3, 2022. Order your copy today!

This month, NLA interviewed Kristin Nelson’s client Luke Smitherd, author of the recently released novel The Stone Giant.

Your latest novel, The Stone Giant, is book three of your Stone Man series. How do you get readers caught up on what happened in books one and two? How do you gauge when to introduce new antagonists and when to return to past ones?

I wanted the fates of the surviving characters from The Stone Man to form part of the mystery of The Empty Men for the reader…but I also knew I wanted to bring the survivors back for The Stone Giant once the new stakes were well established and answers were required (that, and I’m a sucker for a team-up). The backstory, or in this case the five-year gap between books one and two, is a huge part of the plot of The Stone Giant, and I had a lot of fun dropping the various reveals into the story. Books two through four were heavily plotted out before work was started, and keeping the past-and-present continuity tight over the three or four years I was working on these books isn’t something I particularly ever want to do again! 

Which of your characters have you had the hardest time leaving behind once the novel was complete? Which character was the easiest to pick back up?

Maria was probably the hardest to pick up again by far, because the events of The Empty Men change her so much; likewise with many of the other protagonists. They’re very different people now. (But Brigadier Straub was easy as pie.)

How do you get to know your characters?

I get to know my characters—as cliché as it many sounds—as I go on. Then on the second draft I lean into the elements that have come out organically through the first draft.

Describe a scene from one of your novels that was particularly difficult to write. Why was writing it so difficult?

The scenes that are difficult for me to write are always logistical issues, especially with sci-fi. I know what I want to happen, and the effect required, but how do I describe something magical or otherworldly in a grounded way? I’m a real stickler for detail in that regard so it has to be right.

When editing, what aspects of critique do you apply to your novel? What aspects do you feel require the context of the whole manuscript? 

As you can probably tell by this interview, I talk too much. Editing is all about trimming for me. After that it’s all about checking that the characters appear on the page the way they do in my head, and—to answer the context element of the question—that the way they change (or don’t) through the text is consistent with the (usually awful) events and/or crazy things they’ve encountered.

The Stone Giant by Luke Smitherd was released March 29, 2022. Order your copy today!

For twenty years, I’ve worked with extremely talented writer clients. Having done so, I’ve learned that talent and mastery of craft cannot fix a story if it’s not the right story the writer should be telling. Here’s why. 

All writers need to learn this one simple lesson: Give yourself permission to “fail.” In doing so, you might actually discover the story you should be writing. Here are two real-world examples of the power of letting go. 

Scenario 1: When Marie Lu first conceptualized and wrote the opening chapters of The Young Elites, the story concept just wasn’t coming together. After the two of us had multiple brainstorm sessions and Marie tackled several revisions, she finally realized that the story was being told from the wrong POV. The minute she figured out that it was Adelina Amouteru’s story (who was only a minor side character in the initial concept), everything clicked into place. The rest is history for this New York Times bestselling book, the first in a very successful trilogy. 

Takeaway for aspiring writers: Marie is incredibly talented, but numerous attempts at revision were not going to fix the fact that she initially had the wrong POV character. All her writing mastery wasn’t going to transform those opening chapters into the right story. If a project isn’t coming together, try a radical shift in POV, first person to third, change up the narrative timeframe. Established authors do this all the time. If the right story emerges, you’ll know by how readers respond to it. But also know that the magic doesn’t happen every time, which leads me to the second scenario. 

Scenario 2: My wonderfully talented author Rhiannon Thomas (A Wicked Thing, Long May She Reign) had a fantastic concept for a young adult fantasy. She wrote a brilliant first 75 pages, but from there, she simply could not wrangle the story into shape despite a number of attempts. Subsequent chapters didn’t showcase her writing talent. After multiple revisions, she bravely set this story aside to tackle something new. Her current work-in-progress makes it is absolutely clear this is the story she is meant to write—her voice shines on every page. 

Takeaway for aspiring writers: It’s okay to “fail” because in doing so, the real story you are meant to write might emerge. If you’re in the query trenches and not getting requests for full manuscripts, or if the requests are coming in but are then followed by passes, be brave. Set it aside and write something new. Too often I see queries in my inbox from writers who have revised a manuscript I declined to read years ago. What if they’re spending year after year working on revising a story that isn’t allowing their writing talent to shine? That means the right story might never get written. For me, that is the real tragedy.

I remind aspiring writers that, for many of the clients I represent, I rejected the first work they sent to me. It wasn’t the right story. They didn’t give up. They “failed” and then found the story that actually needed to be written. Then a career was born. 

You have the power to let go and do the same. 

Photo by Pixabay

Interview with Stacy Stokes

This month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Stacy Stokes, author of the recently released novel Remember Me Gone

What challenges did you face writing about memory and memory loss?

I love keeping secrets from readers, so I had a lot of fun sprinkling breadcrumbs throughout the story for the reader and [the protagonist] Lucy to discover together. The novel is told in first-person present, which allows the reader to experience things with Lucy as they happen. But it also presented a unique challenge—there are moments in the book when the reader knows more than Lucy. Finding the balance between Lucy’s discovery and the reader’s knowledge was tricky at times, but also fun to navigate. 

What inspired the family business featured in the novel?

The inspiration for Remember Me Gone and The Memory House came from an episode of True Blood, the HBO series based on The Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. In the episode, someone hires a vampire to erase her husband’s memories in the hopes of curing his PTSD. I started wondering what it might be like to run a memory-taking business, and, boom! The idea was born. Sans vampires.

The first line of your novel, “People come from everywhere to forget,” is so great! What advice would you give authors on nailing their first line?

A good first line should not only suck readers in but convey something unique about the story that sets the stage for what’s to come. Think about the key elements that make your story special and try to work at least one of them into the opening line. For Remember Me Gone, I wanted to introduce the concept of memory-taking while also working in the remoteness of [the town of] Tumble Tree.

A good way to find inspiration is to look at the opening lines of your favorite books. My all-time favorite opening line is from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scopio Races: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” She manages to tell the reader so much about the story to come in just a few words—it gives me chills every time I read it.

Did you write this story in a linear fashion or skip around as Lucy uncovers answers?

I tend to write linearly, but I always have a few scenes in my head that I’m writing towards, kind of like an invisible road map. It’s also a good motivator for me—there’s a sense of accomplishment when I finally make it to one of the scenes. Without giving away any spoilers, there were three scenes I knew I was building towards—the scene with Lucy’s father at the end of chapter six, the scene with the Oklahoma woman in chapter thirty, and the scene with the mirror in chapter thirty-three. I also had a fairly clear sense of how I wanted the story to end. The rest of the process was connecting those dots.

Finally, has being a novelist changed the way you read novels?

Absolutely! For starters, I have immense respect for anyone who completes a novel. Now that I’ve been through the process, I know how hard they’ve worked to not only get their words on a page, but to get them published and out in the world. 

I also often use the books I read as textbooks to make me a better writer. When a story is working well, I can’t help but ask myself why the plot and narrative are so compelling. What is the writer doing well that I can learn from? The same holds true if I’m reading something that isn’t working—thinking about why helps me improve my own craft.

Remember Me Gone by Stacy Stokes releases March 22, 2022. Preorder now!

Getting multiple agent offers is like getting asked by several potential dates to go to the publishing prom. It might be helpful to remember this: Make sure you are dancing with the right partner once you’re there. Here are five things to consider when your invitation to prom comes.

It amazes me that I’ve been agenting for twenty years. I can still remember my first year, when I might get 100 queries in an entire week. Back then, queries were snail mailed. And we had rotary phones and a typewriter. (Yeah, I’m kidding.) Still, snail mail feels ridiculously quaint. I remember the thrill of seeing Nelson Literary’s first entry appear in Jeff Herman’s big hefty phone-book-like Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents. I also remember thinking that was a huge agent section. If he were to publish that phone book today, I think the literary agent section would be double in size. There has been a big expansion in the last two decades. 

And with that expansion comes an interesting observation: We are in the age of the agent beauty contest. This means that “hot” projects often receive multiple agent offers. This is good news for writers, who often feel they don’t have the balance of power tipped in their favor in this industry. They should enjoy being courted by multiple agents and being able to carefully consider and choose representation. Some writers only get one ask (and hey, it only takes one to get the publishing career rolling). I’ve also noticed another, odd trend. Writers who are getting multiple invitations to the publisher prom are simply after as many invitations as possible, as if the high number is some sort of trophy. To quote Bobby Brown, it’s your prerogative. 

This goal, however, comes with an unforeseen cost. Here are five things writers might want to consider:

  1. Getting multiple asks sounds exciting, but if you’ve talked with an author who has done it, it’s incredibly stressful. And exhausting. By the time you hit your fifth call or video chat, they all run together. Even with notes, it’s hard to keep all those conversations straight. (By the way, it’s the same when an author is on submission or when the manuscript is going to a multiple-editor auction.)
  2. Agents can tell when you are “just not in to us.” You might not think it’s showing, but if you are doing meets just to do them, it’s often conveyed in the body language and vocal tone. Joanna and I have both done meets and have known at the end of the call that the author never intended to sign with us. It’s still the author’s prerogative, but it’s also a waste of our time and the author’s.
  3. Curate your agent list before you submit. In your heart, if you know a particular agency is not a top choice for you, it’s okay. You don’t need to submit to that agency. We don’t hold it against writers. As mentioned above, lots of agent fishies in the publishing sea.
  4. If multiple asks to the publishing prom happen, take your time. Allow all agents who have your material a chance to read it. After all, you must have been interested in that agent/agency if you submitted there. Two weeks is a norm, but if that feels too long for you, one week is perfectly respectable—though the less time you give, expect more agents to bow out of the running. If multiple offers happen, you are not obligated to consider or have conversations with all the interested agents. Maybe curate to your top three to five and go from there, but be sure to communicate that decision to any agent who has your submission.
  5. Last but not least, if your dream agent asks and you just want to say yes, go for it. In that case, just alert all other agents that your project is being withdrawn. I’m incredibly grateful every day that Shelby Van Pelt (Remarkably Bright Creatures) chose me and decided to forego a possible agent beauty contest. She had a small submit list. I also did not exert pressure and allowed her to choose her own timeline for a decision. But man, my outburst of joy when she said yes…her ears are still ringing. 

In the end, you want to go to the publishing prom with the right agent because they will not only be your matchmaker for the right editor/publisher, but they’ll also be be your partner for future dances. Or books. Be sure when the music begins, you’re both starting out on the right foot!

Photo by Anna Pou from Pexels

“For My Daughter on a Bad Day” by Kate Baer

Life will rough you up. Throw you to the

shore like a wave crashing– sand in your

hair, blood in your teeth. When grief sits

with you, hand dipped with rage, let it

linger. Hold its pulse in your hands. There

is no remedy for a bad haircut or ruined

love like time. Even when death is coming,

even when the filth rises in the back of

your throat–

this is not the worst of it. And if it is?

Listen for the catbird calling. No matter

the wreckage, they still sing for you.

“For My Daughter on a Bad Day” is part of Baer’s New York Times bestselling debut poetry collection What Kind of Woman. Her new collection, I Hope This Finds You Well, instantly hit the New York Times bestseller list.

This Month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Josh Malerman, author of recently released novel Pearl and New York Times bestselling novel Bird Box.

In your new novel, PEARL (Del Rey, October 12), an unusual suspect—a pig—might just be responsible for the grisly havoc on Walter Kopple’s farm. How do you give a voice to non-human characters? How do you keep the voice consistent?

I’m interested in what I’ve come to think of as the space “between intelligences”, the idea that we are no smarter than animals and animals are no smarter than us, that our minds work in different ways and so therefore there’s a canyon (or a distance anyway) between how we process, how we exist. Now, that space between those intelligences… that’s fun. Not the differences so much as the irreconcilable differences. So, Pearl, to me, is a living creature that finds himself capable of traversing that space, of experiencing both states of mind. His entire life he’s been “elevated,” but today, the day of the book, is when he finally glimpses the full potential of his mind. To me, because it’s day one of discovery, there must be a sludginess to how he’s handling it, even to how he’s evolving. And it’s in there, in that sludge, that I found his voice. It’s atonal. It’s half-right. It’s brilliant. It’s simple. And as he grows? As the day grows long? He can (and must) change, too. Because that’s what today is for Pearl: the day he rises above.

Besides an “un-put-down-able thriller,” Kirkus calls PEARL “part twisted fairy tale, part animal rights protest, part PTSD drama, and part Triumph the Insult Dog.” I love that! What’s your response to that endorsement? Is there anything you’d add?

Well, I’m glad they liked it. That’s for sure. And I like all that. But I definitely see Pearl as more akin to Joe Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie, in which the little boy Anthony has God-like powers and lures people into his mental web. Pearl to me is more Carrie than Charlotte’s Web, more slasher, too, than fable. As goes the animal rights part of things: I’m a vegetarian and I was more than happy to see Pearl gain power by the minute, especially over those who dismissed him as product. In some ways, I really relate to Pearl. Insomuch as he’s ambitious: he had a glimpse of what he is capable of and I’m not sure anything can stop him from reaching that mountaintop. At the same time? I wouldn’t want to drive too close to Kopple’s Farm. I’m the exact kind of persuadable person who would be sucked right up into that telekinetic web without knowing I was.

With PEARL, you took a wild and maybe tough-to-take-seriously premise and succeeded in making it an acclaimed work of slasher horror that’s twisty, dark, and truly chilling. That’s not easy! Was that a challenge you set out for yourself with this project? Or is this a story that took on a life of its own as you wrote it?

Let me tell you! While working on the books, any time I was talking to friends and they’d ask what I was up to, it was nearly impossible to explain this story. The second I started to do it, I’d feel like, “WHAT am I talking about?” But Pearl is one of those books where the actual book itself is better than the “pitch” and I think we’d all rather write books like that in the end. But from my angle, it wasn’t a difficult book to write because, like the river in Bird Box or the Trail in Unbury Carol, Pearl’s evolution is something of a straight line, right? A clean path upward and outward, his “web” stretching out and out to all the locals in town until almost everybody is stuck in his design. In other words: it grew, on itself, and it wasn’t hard to “top” the scene before it with each day’s writing because Pearl got more powerful as the book grew, too. Then again, all the books take on a life of their own, in a way, especially when you don’t outline. And I almost never do! 

It feels like horror is really opening up right now and making space for storytellers to explore new concepts and themes in unique ways. What story-development advice do you have for writers who might be working on finding their niche in this expanding horror space?

Well, trends scare me. They always feel like moving targets. At the same time, I’d already written some 14 books by the time my first came out and so now I’ve got a back log of twenty-four books or so and sometimes it’s tempting to choose one of them to come out next if the horror-verse seems to be leaning its way. I guess my advice would be this: you think you have “your” voice and there are voices you believe are more elastic, more far-out, than your own. You can equate this to music. And a young musician might think, could never be as expansive as David Bowie, as St. Vincent, so I’m not going to try. But the thing is, you’re not David Bowie (and thank God for that! David Bowie is David Bowie, you are you), so if you try to stretch like he did, you’re going to end up with a different result, but you will still have stretched. Am I making sense here? What I mean to say is: go for the idea that feels a little outside your idea of yourself, and once you do it? Then that book is now part of your style, your voice, yourself. And if you do this enough times, you’ll end up closer to the artist you want to be than if you never make a move to stretch at all.

Finally, because inquiring minds always want to know, tell us about your writing habit. Any charms or talismans hanging around your writing space? Any rituals you do to get you into the creative headspace? Or can you just sit down anywhere, anytime, and write?

It used to be I wrote novels in a bus, in a van, touring America. I wrote in bars, restaurants, people’s homes that were housing us. Dad’s basement and all-night coffee shops. Everywhere. These days I’m mostly in my office, with a horror movie soundtrack playing on the record player. But I’m still game for doing it anywhere, and maybe I should. Maybe your question will prompt me to write another one freehand. I love doing it that way. One thing I’ve noticed is this: while there isn’t an overall routine to how I write books, a routine does exist for each book in and of itself. Bird Box was written from around 8AM to 11:30AM every day, about 4,300 words a day. Ghoul n’ the Cape was usually in the afternoon, 1000 words a day. So those experiences were totally different, but consistent in and of themselves. And there is one weird thing I do (that I can’t believe I’m telling you): I wink at the page or the screen when I think I nailed a scary scene. Yep. I actually wink at the book like, “Yeah, we did it. We did it.”

On August 25, 2021, Richard Chizmar’s debut novel Chasing the Boogeyman hit the New York Times Bestseller list at #10. It was a huge milestone in my agenting career, an achievement I never imagined when I opened NLA in August 2002. It was my 50th New York Times bestselling client title. Amazing indeed, but self-congratulating isn’t much of an article. A good article is divulging just how a book might hit the NYT bestseller List. And sharing now what I wish baby Agent Kristin had known then. 

First, a caveat. Talking about the NYT list is kind of like talking about unicorn sightings. The real science behind why a title hits the list is not transparent to publishers, agents, or authors. The NYT algorithm and tracking methods are proprietary information, so to be clear, I actually don’t know why or how any given title lands on the bestseller list. This article is simply a compilation of my observations after having 50 client titles hit that list. 

Velocity, Volume, Interval

If memory serves, my very first title to hit the NYT bestseller list was Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You in 2006—just four years after I opened the agency. For baby Agent Kristin, that NYT appearance was a complete surprise. I had no clue it was even a possibility, which just makes me laugh at my own naiveté. As an agent now, I have a very good sense of whether or not a title has the potential to hit the list. Certain factors have to be in play for even the possibility of a hit, and it all relies on velocity, volume, and the interval. 

In other words, in order for a book to hit the NYT list, that title needs to quickly sell (velocity) a high number of copies (volume) during a one-week time span (interval). If a book does those three things, it has a very good chance of hitting the list. 

The Indicators

As an agent, what gives me an inkling that one of my client titles may be positioned to make an appearance on the list? Four factors:

  • Print run. A title needs a high number of physical copies going out into the world so that physical sales can happen. And yes, I know folks reading this article would love exact numbers (just how big does the print run need to be?), but honestly, this varies a lot. I’ve seen titles hit with a 100,000 print run (the bigger the number, the better), but I’ve also seen titles hit with only a 30,000 print run. There is no magic number here as other factors come into play.
  • Reprint before publication. If a publisher has to reprint a title before it’s even published in order to fill early demand, this indicates that excitement and interest for a title is building.
  • Pre-orders. The higher the number of pre-orders a title has, the better the chance. The pre-order number varies greatly depending on whether a title is set up to the hit the adult-hardcover list, the adult-paperback list, or the children’s list. With King, Patterson, Moriarty, Childs, and Steele all taking up regular space on the adult NYT list, and with those authors’ titles selling 20,000+ copies a week (according to Bookscan), you can start to get a sense of just how many copies of a book need to move in the first week to land on that adult-hardcover list.
  • Marketing spend. Awareness of a title has to happen for momentum. In publishing, marketing is where the publisher spends money to create awareness for a book. Publicity is exposure that is free. The bigger the marketing budget is for a book out of the gate, the better the chance. However, this isn’t always true…

The Surprises

Publishing is full of wild-card moments. That’s what makes this industry so much fun, impossible to predict, and full of joyful surprises. One of my bestselling YA titles of my career is Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry. This title had a modest beginning with a small print run and a minimal marketing budget. But that original cover and fan love propelled this series to selling over a million copies. I also think a lot of fans think Perfect Chemistry is a New York Times bestselling title, but the reality is that it was book two, Rules of Attraction, that hit the NYT list for the first time in 2010. When Chain Reaction released a year later, that put the trilogy on the series NYT bestseller list. Technically, the first book never actually hit the list. 

Twenty-six editors turned down Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. That book went on to spend 130 consecutive weeks on the NYT bestseller list. That’s 2.5 solid years on the list. I still can’t wrap my head around that. 

The Naiveté 

When I was a baby agent just starting out in the biz, I thought a New York Times bestseller meant the title was selling King, Winfrey, or Rowling levels. I also assumed that hitting the list would ensure riches for both author and agent. 

Wow, was I clueless. An NYT hit is fabulous, and often it does mean that the client will earn out the initial advance. It is not, however, a guarantee that earn-out will happen. And although for some clients hitting the list has led to financial stability in writing as a career, it does not automatically equal life-changing riches.

The Movie Effect

With the “New York Times Bestseller” moniker, instead of happening at once, sometimes it happens at last. Bird Box by Josh Malerman is that one client title that I felt in my bones should have hit the list out of the gate in 2014. I was just flat out wrong. It would take four years, Netflix, and Sandra Bullock to make that title into the NYT bestseller that I always knew it to be. 

Publishing. A giant mystery. Thank you for letting me celebrate 50 with you. I have a sneaking suspicion that number 51 might be just around the corner.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Carol VanHook