Story, The Illusive Key to A Bestseller
During the past few days, I’ve been thinking again about what makes a bestseller book and how to acquire one. The Book Standard had a terrific article on this topic with some current numbers called “Top 200 Sellers Equal 10.8% of ‘04 Market.” Ed Christman wrote, “The top 200 bestselling books of 2004 moved a combined 73.5 million copies, or 10.8% of the total 677.9 million units sold, during the year, as measured by Nielsen BookScan. Among those 200 titles were 10 that exceeded a million copies each, 22 that moved between a million and 500,000 units and 101 that sold between half a million and 200,000 copies. The remaining 67 titles sold between 200,000 and 155,000 copies. Put another way—books that sold fewer than 155,000 copies made up 89% of the total sales tracked by BookScan.”
One of the best books that I’ve read about bestsellers is a little off the beaten track but well worth locating called Making the List, A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900–1999 by Michael Korda (Barnes and Nobles Books, 2001). If you don’t know the background, Korda is the long-time Editor-in-Chief at Simon & Schuster. With a little commentary, the book examines the details of the bestseller list from the last century. Here’s one of the nuggets of truth Korda unearths from his research, “The lesson is, yes, there are rules, but they don’t apply to writers of real talent, and they’re not absolute for anybody. The only thing you can say for sure is that, yes, the ability to tell a story matters a lot, in fiction and in nonfiction, and having something new and interesting to say about familiar subjects is maybe at the heart of it all.” (page xxvi introduction).
Storytelling is a key factor to make a bestseller. In many aspects of this business, I believe many elements agree that you can have the greatest marketing campaign and sales force—but if the storytelling and the words on the page don’t create a buzz of excitement, then little will usually happen. (Notice I didn’t say always because there are exceptions to almost every “rule” within publishing. Also notice the complete lack of certainty or predictability in this process.
For more than twenty years, I’ve personally known Jerry B. Jenkins, the writer of the bestselling Left Behind series which has sold over 60 million copies. Because of his amazing success with this series, few people recall that Jerry wrote almost 100 books (many of them nonfiction) before the first Left Behind book.
I’ve been in the publication board meetings where various publishing executives make a decision to publish a particular book. Then I’ve been in the marketing and sales meetings where they discuss different books and how to get them the best exposure in the marketplace. I can tell you that with the experience and available time, each person within the publishing house does their part to make a book into a bestseller. It’s just not that possible to predict these books.
Tomorrow, I’m going continue this discussion. I plan to write about what I learned from a bestselling author regarding these factors for a bestseller. Hurry back for that one.
I love being in the hands of a skilled storyteller. Just last week I reserved from the library one of my favoritely told stories - to reread, for the third time. Do you know 'Rebecca' by Daphne Du Maurier? It's old - 1938, I think. But the story is brilliantly told, in my opinion.
Do you think storytelling skills can be developed, or is one born with those instincts?
Your blog has become a dailymust-read for me. Thank you for taking the time to share your valuable insights!
I've primarily wanted to be a fiction writer, but so far only my nonfiction has sold. Although frustrating, what I realized through this is that I am a storyteller and that's what makes my nonfiction compelling (I hope). As a newspaper columnist, I told stories--mine, my children, other poor folks who happened to intersect my life and become column-fodder.
So, I've made a bit of peace with the NF/F debate in my own heart. As long as I can tell stories, I'll be happy--no matter what the playing field.
You're reinforcing something that I've come to believe--story is why people read fiction. (And non-fiction told as story can be compelling).
But haven't we all read books that have a great plot but don't really show all that well, or don't develop the characters so that the reader loves them? I mean, isn't it the whole package that sets books apart and moves them into the best-seller arena?
Terry, I just caught up on reading your blogs this month. All were very informative. Deval's book, Publicize Your Book, is great. The marketing ideas in it are great for any business, and are similar to what we already do in our business. I would have never thought about applying those principles to the publishing industry had I not read her book. Deval's book is very insightful into the publishing industry, and I recommend it highly. Keep up the good work!! You have a gift of communicating effectively. I can't wait for the next blog.
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