Monday, January 31, 2005

What Makes A Bestseller?

The question is worth asking but there are few answers. What elements have to come together to for a book to suddenly skyrocket to the top of the bestseller charts?  In my last post, I talked about the importance of story—for nonfiction and fiction.  Each of us need to learn how to write meaningful stories. The writing will always have to shine for it to get the buzz and attention going.  Yet some wonderfully written books don’t get to the bestseller list.

Several years ago, I was interviewing Jerry B. Jenkins for a story related to one of the Left Behind books. Jerry realizes the unusual way his series of books has caught public attention—with over 60 million copies in print and a huge appetite for the next book the series. Jerry recommended that I read a book from Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown Company, 2000). 

A tipping point according to Gladwell is that magical moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire. What causes it?  The Law of the Few is one of the critical elements where three groups intersect and come together. These three factors are: connectors, mavens, and salesmen. A connector is someone who knows lots of people and Gladwell gives a simple test. He takes about 250 surnames from the Manhattan phone book. You are to scan the names and see if you know someone with that last name. As he says on page 41, “All told, I have given the test to about 400 people. Of those, there were two dozen or so scores under 20, eight over 90, and four more over 100…Sprinkled among every walk of life, in other words, are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances. They are Connectors.”

A Maven is one who accumulates knowledge. “A Maven is a person who has information on lots of different products or prices or places. This person likes to initiate discussions with consumers and respond to requests.” (p. 62) So you see two of the elements—mavens and connectors.

“In a social epidemic, Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue: they spread it. But there is also a select group of people—Salesmen—with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups.” (p. 70).

Do I have it figured out? Not at all. I believe Gladwell is on to something significant for these factors to come together to tip the balance and make a book move from one level to the bestseller category. I hope it provides you with a bit of my insight. I still have a great deal to learn about this particular question.

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