Sunday, May 13, 2007

Luck Be A Lady

There's an article in the Times today called "The Greatest Mystery: Making a Best Seller." If you're in publishing, it will tell you what you already know -- that is, nobody knows anything -- but if you're not in publishing, it's a concise little introduction to the gamble.

Saying "Nobody knows anything" is disingenuous, though; or at least, it should be more specific: "Nobody knows anything about what makes a bestseller." (This article is in the Business section, not the Arts.) Editors know what makes a good book, or we hope we do; like all readers, we get that tingle up our spine, that feeling of falling in love, that urge to tell everyone about this wonderful new experience -- compounded, in our case, by the desire to help the book be even better. But a book's quality is no guarantee of its sales, and conversely, things of what I would judge questionable quality sometimes sell very, very well. And of course, standards of quality vary hugely . . . from grown-ups to children, editor to editor, reader to reader.

I've always thought we don't need more market research, we just need better ways to connect readers to books that already exist: You love Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane; you're in the mood for an intelligent literary mystery with wit and romance; you input all this into a computer, and beep-boop-beep-beep-bop-boo, you're told to read Laurie King's Holmes-Russell books. Something like that. And, of course, we need to expand the market, to figure out some way to show all those people staring into space on the subway or watching infomercials for vegetable choppers at 2 a.m. that hey, you could be reading something that would interest and engage and surprise you instead, and wouldn't that be more exciting? (And then connect those people with the right books, of course.) (Though that might require market research, to reach them.)

So maybe a better way to say it is "Everybody knows what they feel, and loves a good book, however they define it." But after that: "Nobody knows anything."


  1. Funny, Miss Snark just wrote a post about a Web site that kinda sorta does what you're proposing ... where you put in the name of an author you like and it generates the names of other authors you might enjoy. I think it's similar to Amazon's "People who bought this book also liked these books" feature.

    You can check it out at

    (Miss Snark said snarky things about the site, BTW, but when I typed in one of my favorite authors, it did generate the names of others I like to read.)

  2. The ingredients that make up a bestseller can’t be a total crapshoot. Sure, there’s often a fair amount of luck and mojo, but it seems that a really engaging book is mostly be due to a healthy team of people all doing their jobs very well, like a great orchestra all playing together.

    And yes, getting people to stop and listen to that orchestra is a different story.

    I find at least in my son's school that he has to dodge having his love of reading snatched away from him by having to read books he doesn't like. Action and interesting characters = cool. Lots of talking and sad things happening = yawn. Bonus points if things get blown up.

    As for the subway, it would be interesting to see if you could get a viral thing going by leaving a box of books on the train every day.

    And if Laurie King books amuse lovers of Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Harriet Vane then I'm off to Borders.


  3. Better database software to match buyers with books would be a useful piece of a marketing plan, but it is only one piece. The techniques described in the NYT are not new. Heck, even if Scholastic sent a few marketing folks out to the school book fairs to observe parents in a state of torpid confusion trying to find appropriate yet challenging, entertaining yet educational, books for their children, it would have to be beneficial.

    It is puzzling why a company produces a product (such as a book by an unknown author) then casts it into the marketplace with only a hope that it will be discovered. Ads are apparently only run if the book wins a major-major award. Unless the author is known, a minimum of money is spent on promotion. It seems rather like trying to fulfill an ambition to be an actress by sitting at a soda fountain in Hollywood and hoping that Steven Spielberg walks through the door.

    There are numerous aspects of marketing in the publishing world that make me go, wha...?, but since this is the blog of the guardian of Harry's lair, I only want to know, why does Scholastic drop coin on Potter, when it has the symbiotic luxury of bookstores crawling all over themselves to sell it, not to mention mentions in The Devil Wears Prada, SNL, etc.? Why not spend the Potter marketing budget on your hidden gems?

  4. I read this with great interest! Are children's books as unsuccessful as the adult ones mentioned( 70% in the red)? What percentage would you estimate for the big houses for children's books ( picture and novels) that do not sell out?

  5. There is one documented case of a blogging editor being fired for what was said on his blog -- in relation to his company and numbers -- and I am not willing to go there. (This was an adult editor, not anyone I knew or at Scholastic, but still.) Sorry!