Saturday, May 19, 2007

What Makes a Book Successful

In the New York Sun, David Blum writes in "How Not to Write a Bestseller" about how the highly praised novel Then We Came to an End by Joshua Ferris was not a success because it never appeared on the NY Times bestseller list. The hardcover book, though, is already on its fourth printing. That sounds like success to me. Bestseller status isn't required for a mid-list book to be successful and profitable. But expecting it, a book by a first-time author, to sell like James Patterson is idiotic.

The fact is that there are difference audiences for books. Smart audiences don't drive the bestseller lists. They don't. The majority of books bought and sold are very predictable and tested books. James Patterson does not require a good review in the NYTBR to sell a lot of books. People who read Patterson or David Baldacci (numbers 1 and 2 on the NY Times Bestseller Hardcover Fiction list as I write this) are not turning to the NYTBR to read about new books. The reviews that praised Ferris's book certainly garnered it more sales than it would have seen otherwise, but a review also let's people know something about the books (besides the subjective thumbs-up or thumbs-down) that helps them decide whether they might be interested in reading it. Ferris's book is written in that annoying "Rose for Emily" collective perspective. My guess is that this turned some readers off and, I'll admit, has made me a little reluctant to read it.

Blum's article goes on to make some great points about bookselling that I absolutely agree with:

What if bookstores created sections devoted to that week's best-reviewed books? Or posted positive reviews alongside the books themselves? That way, book reviews (even those that appeared only online) would be easily accessible to those most likely to buy books — people already browsing in the bookstore. Right now, bookstores place all their marketing muscle behind bestseller lists, meaning that prize positions get awarded to those who've already won the horse race. Even movie theaters operate according to more democratic principles than that. Shouldn't good bookstore placement go to good books? Just a thought.

But that would require that bookstores care more about selling interesting books more than they care about selling what they know will sell. They don't. Yes, this idea would likely sell more mid-list books, and more books I'm interested in, but they might sell less books overall.

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