Monday, October 22, 2007

How to Create a Bestseller in Ten Easy Steps

I've been fascinated by marketing and advertising techniques as long as I can remember, and when I can combine my passion for books with my interest in marketing it's a match made in heaven. That's why this lesson in book marketing from the BBC folks caught my eye. In connection with the all the talk about the Booker Prize last week, BBC News offered 10 ways to create a bestseller.

1. Word of Mouth - Who do we really trust? When the chips are down, it's the opinions of our friends and family and colleagues that matter in all things.

But that's not to say that word of mouth is an entirely natural, organic process. Publishers would sell their grandmothers for ways to manipulate it. From viral marketing to social networking, they'll try many avenues of multimedia attack to get the books into the hands of the literary pioneers in any group of friends.

(I think that what we do as book bloggers fits into this category, still thought to be the single most important thing necessary to create a successful book. Publishers have come to understand that the chatter on book blogs can help sell books for them and their working relationship with book blogs continues to evolve in a positive way.)
2. The Book Group - A big part of the word of mouth network are the little reading groups of friends that have sprung up around the country in the past decade. Over cheese and nibbles the fates of novels are decided. Most people are not in a book group but many people know someone who is in one. Book groups are the crucible.

(Maybe it's just me, but I don't belong to any book clubs and I don't personally know anyone who does. I do know that my local library has three active book clubs but their choices have never appealed to me enough for me to join them. But the BBC ranks being picked up as the darling of book groups as the second best thing that can happen to a new book.
3. Richard and Judy - Book groups have to get their ideas from somewhere and many implant themselves into the minds of the members via the Richard and Judy Book Club. Modeled on the fearsomely influential Oprah's Book Club, it has backed many of the titles that have come to be book group classics.

(I know that more than a few of us ridicule the likes of Oprah and Richard and Judy when it comes to their "book clubs" but what we can't argue with is the impact that they have on book sales. I can't help but feeling embarrassed to be seen with a book that has one of those cheesy Oprah stickers on its cover, but plenty of others look only for that sticker before heading to the cash register with the rest of the sheep already in line.)
4. Author - It's almost too obvious to state, but the easiest people to market to are the people waiting for the next installment.

(The very names of a few authors have become brand names. That is not always an indicator that the reader is going to get his money's worth, of course, but in the world of book bestsellers it does tend to keep the sheep heading for the cash register. What I find particularly obscene is when writers like James Patterson and Tom Clancy sublease their names to other writers who churn the books out for them. About all Clancy and Patterson have to do with some of their books appears to be their names written in bright colors and large letters on the covers. Disgusting.)
5. Art of Covers- There has always been great cover art on novels in British mass publishing, particularly on Penguins, but the production quality has now rocketed. "Penguin blazed a trail but everyone else has caught up. The cover can make or break a book. The book as 'object' is ever more important."

(There's no doubt about this one. With the huge number of books being published each week, covers have become the way for books to distinguish themselves from the pack. There is only so much time for a person to browse the shelves of a books store and when unusual and especially attractive covers grab the eye, the hand follows.)
6. In-store Marketing - With the end of agreements that controlled the price of books the key battlegrounds are the supermarket and the chain bookstore. And in these chains if you're not on those pyramids of books in the front of the ground floor of the store, you're dead. Does anybody find themselves flicking through a new novel where one copy has been placed in the far corner of the fourth floor?

(Bookstore placement is critical to successful sales. No doubt about it. But I still can't help but be irked about the large payments that publishers are making in order to buy those front tables and huge displays in the major chains. I don't see how small publishers have much of a chance of producing a bestseller since they don't have the budgets required to get it done.)
7. Rise of Prizes - There is nothing as priceless as free publicity and this is what the literary prizes offer in spades. The trinity in the UK of the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize (for female authors) and the Costa Book Awards (formerly the Whitbread) can get the ball-rolling for a monster-selling book.

(Is there any doubt as to why the number of prizes awarded seems to increase on an almost yearly basis? It's also the reason that so many avid readers have become so skeptical of the whole prize concept.)
8. Unusual Titles - Who isn't tempted to at least pick and have a flick through a Salmon Fishing in the Yemen or A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian?

(No doubt about it. Heck, it's fun to carry around some of those unusual titles just to see if anyone notices them. Two people approached me in two different coffee shops to ask about Reading Lolita in Tehran when they spotted it on my table. They couldn't help but notice that title above the heads of two young Muslim women who were so immersed in the same book that one was holding.)
9. Praise For - Once upon a time in the monomedia world, the reviewer was king. Powerful newspaper literary critics bestrode the world of publishing like colossi. Now not so much.

As Mr Rickett notes: "People themselves are the reviewers now on Amazon and on all kinds of sharing websites. Reader response has almost supplanted the top-down role of the critic."

(Much to the chagrin of professional book reviewers everywhere, this does seem to be more and more the case. I know that I'm much more likely to choose my next book based on what I read in the book blogging community than on what I read in the New York Times book section.)
10. Newspaper Serialisation - One for the non-fiction work predominantly, serialisation delivers a risk-free prospect for the author at least. If the attention brings sales then great. If it persuades people they've had enough then the writer has still got a whacking fee from the newspaper.

(This, I think, is much less common in the U.S. than it is in Britain and I don't think it has much impact here at all.
So there you have to create a bestseller in ten not-so-easy steps. All it takes is money, influence and a lot of luck, so what's the problem?

What does seem to be missing from the list is author book tours. I've read that those are generally losing propositions for the publisher since they oftenfind it difficult to sell enough books to cover the tour expenses. Book tours probably work well for big name authors and not much for the lesser known ones. That probably translates into overkill for well known authors and futility for the little guys.


  1. Then there's the Hollywood movie deal which can give a book a huge second wind. And for non-fiction there is nothing like scandal for generating sales. Question the conventional wisdom and you're all set!

  2. Speaking of marketing... your intro reminded me of a book I just read during the readathon this weekend, Light of India. It was all about Indian matchbox art---very unusual and nifty topic.

    As for book tours, I like the new trend in "blog tours." It's a nifty take on the idea that fits into today's world quite well, I think, and is much cheaper than an actual book tour! A good, friendly author who's willing to chat with people in the comments section after doing their post or interview can really get enthusiasm going.

  3. Great post! As for author tours, most bookstores will tell you an unknown novelist (which is about 85% of the novelists out there) will sell 2-3 copies of her/his novel during a 3 hour book signing. The author makes anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50 in royalties from each book sale. Do the math, and you can see there are much more profitable ways to sell books than book signings and author tours.

    I think the internet is the best thing going these days for selling books. Works really well for me. :)

  4. Good ones, too, Sylvia. Both are guaranteed to add thousands of sales to the totals...but I sure hate those movie tie-in book covers. :-)

  5. I haven't tried one of those "blog tour" things, Heather, although I've had a couple of offers. I was afraid that a non-response would embarrass the author and I've been reluctant to participate. Have you hosted one on your own blog?

  6. The internet has certainly revolutionized marketing of just about every product, Laura. It's good to see that writers have figured out, at least a bit, how to make it work for them, too.

  7. Marketing Ploy #11: Go public with the "revelation" that one of your characters was secretly gay.

    Oy. Has the woman no shame? I'm glad I never read any of her books.

  8. Apparently very little, Sylvia. I guess she's desperate to have new material as she tours the world...still waiting, myself, to find out if she's more than a one trick pony.