Hi Writers,
Anyone who’s trying to sell a book or planning to do so in the near future needs to read this feature from The New York Times Sunday business section “The Greatest Mystery: Making a Best Seller.” It’s a wonderful analysis on the state of the industry.

The question at hand: What makes a book a best seller? The answer: No one seems to know. Publishing is apparently the only multi-billion dollar industry for which market research is non-existent. That being the case, agents and editors have little more than their love for a book to push it through their marketing departments, which have final say on whether or not a book ultimately gets published.

Consider these two bestsellers: Curtis Sittenfeld author of Prep and Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain. Both had surprise, runaway hits with their first novels and both were offered generous advances for their second novels, which fizzled. The hard, cold truth: most books never make their publishers money. Publishers rely on profits from their few bestselling titles to shore up the majority of the books (estimated here at 70 percent) that come out in the red.  

The analogy of gambling is used throughout this piece:

Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling. Publishing employees tend to be liberal arts graduates who enter the field with a starting salary around $30,000. Compensation is not tied to sales performance. “The people who go into it don’t do it for the money, which might explain why it’s such a bad business,” Mr. Strachan said.

And Sittenfeld remarks: “People think publishing is a business, but it’s a casino.”  

If publishing is nothing more than an educated crapshoot built on gut instincts, is this good for writers? Or would we benefit from more solid market research on what consumers want to read?

What do you think: Keep the mystery—or not?

Until next time…

Keep Writing,

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2 thoughts on “PLAYING THE ODDS

  1. Nikki

    So people don’t go into publishing for the money, eh? Well, apparently neither to writers, so welcome to the club. I like the fact that editors are, well, readers. That they are looking for something that grasbs their attention as a reader. The whole marketing department aspect is a bit of a wall for a writer that may not fit the status quo. However what a person enjoys to read is very subjective and also you must factor in culteral changes and generation gaps. There can be no formula to predict whether a novel can be a best seller, unless you can somehow quantify the sociological and psychological elements that make people enjoy some novels over others. Sometimes I think marketing a particular book has more to factor in, as it makes people want to read a book they have heard about. And when it comes to that, it may sell a lot and still be crap. ‘The Da Vinci Code’ was garbage, despite the hype…. Foucault’s Pendulum was a master piece based on a similar theme. And when it comes down to it, we certainly don’t want them to find a formula for best sellers. As a reader, this would be annoying. As a writer, very fustrating.

  2. Marilyn Haight

    Sadly, the opinions of readers do not matter. A crapshoot based on the guesses of editors, who have a good handle on what a good read is, would be better than the current system. Editors no longer decide what gets published—their marketing department decides based on what they think the few major book sellers will buy from them—that’s who they see as their customer—not the reader.

    The publishing industry is interested in quick profit-making strategies. Studies cost money and time they’re not willing to invest. Marketing departments don’t want to spend money on marketing, so they publish authors who already have buyers standing in line begging for their books—names bookstore buyers recognize. Publishers euphemistically refer to this as a writer’s "platform." Sometimes publishers even write their own version of a book proposed by a new author, whose name bookstore buyers would not recognize, so they can sell it to the major bookstores and then keep the royalties for themselves—this is probably the only long-term thinking that goes into their decisions.

    Publishing is not only a poorly managed industry, it’s also a corrupt industry—that’s the only mystery in all of this, and the mystery persist until major publishers start losing money to independent authors.