An Eternal Question

It’s a question bantered about constantly in publishing circles—and often with different answers.

What variables make a book sell into the hands of readers?

I don’t pretend to have the answer for you in this entry about the writing life but it’s something that I continue to learn about and investigate. I’ve mentioned and recommended reading Making the List by Simon and Schuster Editor-in-Chief Michael Korda. It’s not your typical how-to-write book and one that can be acquired quite inexpensively through’s used books.  I found the book fascinating reading because it analyzes all of the bestseller lists from the last century. While getting on the bestseller list isn’t always the best indicator of sales, typically bestseller books have sold in a particular volume.

While Korda’s book is a great educational experience, you witness in black and white the lack of rhyme or reason for certain books and why they catch the public’s attention and imagination to make the list. The prediction part of the process is almost impossible and something editors talk about among each other (and writers would love to listen because they want to sell their book proposals to these editors). Editors and publishing executives make their best and most educated “guess” at what will sell to readers, then work hard at the marketing aspects and stand back to see what will happen. Those results are often surprising—to everyone in the process.

This week, Editor-in-Chief of Publisher’s Weekly, Sara Nelson, has a clever article on the topic called “Read My Tattoo.” She tackles this topic and tells about a serious fiction book with some different marketing efforts. (I’ve not read this book.) She writes about the difficulty to market these “serious fiction books” saying, “Just don’t tell it to Riverhead editor Sean MacDonald, who has just released The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, a 130-page $13 paperback novel on a 1984-ish theme from George Saunders, author of the well respected but heretofore not blockbusterish Pastoralia. In most other hands, this oddball offering would languish in all the usual ways; but MacDonald—whose title, tellingly, is both senior editor and online creative director—has embarked on a grass-roots, anti-hype hype campaign geared at the 20- and 30-something audience he knows well: smart, hip, Internet-savvy readers suspicious of any marketing campaign that seems too slick. His promotions include hand-screened (by him and his art director) T-shirts designed by cultish graphic and fashion designers, temporary tattoos, a Web site, blog outreach and a very, very unusual letter from the author to booksellers. Whether Phil will become a bestseller remains to be seen, but potential readers’ consciousnesses have definitely been raised—at a recent Saunders reading at a New York B&N, over 200 people showed up. If only such creative thinking would wake up the sluggish and entrenched among us, many of whom still believe that it’s somehow uncool to admit that books, like any, forgive the expression, consumer product, need to be marketed.”

Ok, do I have any answers for you to the eternal question? No, but I will admit to continually learning more and trying new ways to reach different audiences.  Each of us are looking for the Tipping Point when the book will capture the greatest possible audience.

2 Responses to “An Eternal Question”

  1. Macromoments Says:

    Terry, I’m currently reading a book with a unique marketing approach, as well: Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. Its website describes an ingenious plan to hide books in major cities–sort of a treasure-hunt approach. Readers are loving it, and it’s really moving books.

  2. Gina Holmes Says:

    A treasure hunt…clever. That gets the creative marketing juices flowing. Now, if only I had something to market. 🙂 Thanks Terry and Bonnie.

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