The mystery of writing bestsellers

Stumbled upon this excellent NYTimes article about major book publishers and their poor abilities to predict bestsellers. It’s refreshing how honest these editors are about the limits of their predictive powers. Much like the history of tech innovations discussed in The myths of Innovation, there are too many factors for anyone to claim high rates of success.

It’s guesswork says Bill Thomas, editor in chief of Doubleday Broadway. The whole thing is educated guesswork, but guesswork nonetheless. You just try to make sure your upside mistakes make up for your downside mistakes.

Hmmm. Is he calling an unexpected bestseller an upside mistake? It’s also interesting to hear them mention slow bestsellers, books that don’t have great sales on any one year, but over several years outsell other noted bestsellers:

There are two ways for a book to become a best seller. One is to make it on to a best-seller list by selling many copies in a week. Other books sell steadily over months and years, eventually outselling many official best sellers. Unanswered Cries, a true-crime book by Tom French, was acquired in 1989 by St. Martin’s for $30,000. It now has 400,000 copies in print in paperback and sold at least 31,000 copies last year alone.

Also notable is the acknowledgment that book publishers are in the dark ages when it comes to understanding readers.

The Newspaper Association of America has a staggering amount of data on people who read newspapers. The book business has, basically, nothing, said Professor Greco. They’re not going into the marketplace and doing mall intercepts and asking people, as they leave the bookstore, What did you buy? Did you find what you’re looking for? What motivated you to choose that book?

Read the whole thing here –
The Greatest Mystery: Making a Best Seller.

2 Responses to “The mystery of writing bestsellers”

  1. Roy Jacobsen

    At this point, if publishers don’t know anything about their readers, it’s because they haven’t tried. And that is pathetic.

  2. Jessica

    What I think is really pathetic is publishers publishing books that have no ending or writers even bothering to write them. I have read a few lately that have been, predictable, boring, and with no ending. I love to read and write, but I find myself not finding much variety or content in the things that I prefer to read. They continue to publish the same old books rewritten by another author. None of it is original, and original books are not published because they have nothing to go by it being great. If they wanted to know what people like all the need to do is go onto a fanfiction website or under literature to see what people are reading and writing. It would give them a perfect Idea of what people like. But as it is said by the above commenter, ‘They haven’t tried and that is pathetic’.
    :( Unfortunately, I’d have to agree.


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