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…