The Business Rusch: Bestselling Writers (Changing Times Part Eight)

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The Business Rusch: Bestselling Writers

(Changing Times Part Eight)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Every single writer I’ve ever met wants to become a bestseller.  Writers want their work read by everyone from their teachers to the grade-school bully to some person in a small unsung island in the Pacific.

The problem is that vision of a bestseller is incorrect.  There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all bestseller.  Case in point? The Harry Potter series, which sold at the official last count, more than 400 million copies worldwide , does not have universal readership.  There are readers—I’m sure you know several of them—who’ve never read a Potter book cover to cover.  I’m married to one of them.  The series simply does not interest him.

Writers dream of having a bestseller.  Editors dream of editing bestsellers.  Publishers dream of publishing nothing but bestsellers.

Yet ask us all to define what a bestseller is, and you’ll get stuck in a morass of contract terms, sales figures, velocity, and longevity.  Earlier tonight, I got so twisted in definitions and numbers that I called in my husband, writer Dean Wesley Smith, to help me clarify my own thinking, and we nearly came to verbal blows before I figured out how to approach this section of the publishing series.

And yes, within the writer subsection of the publishing series, the bestseller section will probably go into extra innings as well.

Bestsellers in commercial fiction have a variety of meanings, but bestselling writer has one meaning:  A bestselling writer is someone who has had a bestseller.  What that bestseller is, however, is different according to a variety of measurements.

Let me indulge in some shorthand first, for those of you not steeped in the arcane intricacies of the publishing industry.  Bestsellers have a wide range.  Every year, the industry trade journal Publisher’s Weekly publishes what it calls its “Facts and Figures” list.  It cites the sales figures, as reported by the publishers themselves, for a variety of books in four categories:  Hardcover Fiction, Hardcover Non-Fiction, Mass Market, and Trade.  In the mass market and trade categories, fiction mixes in with nonfiction (I have no idea why).

Several years ago, PW called this their “Winners and Losers” list, and would publish the expected sales next to the “actual” sales.  Not once, in all of my years reading PW have they called this a “bestseller” list.  Because here’s the truth about bestsellers:

There is no one number of sales above which a book is considered a bestseller.  Got that?  In many other industries, there is an actual number— one million units, for example—above which the widget becomes a bestselling widget.  But in publishing, a million-copy widget might never be a bestseller, while a widget that sells 250,000 copies is.

Bestsellers in books are determined by the weekly list.  You see this in Hollywood news every week, because movies work in similar ways.  The top five movies get ranked every Sunday night by weekend box office sales.  A movie becomes #1 if it sells a lot of tickets on its first (or second weekend).  But The Little Movie That Could—the one that everyone hears about word of mouth—might remain #3 for 10 weeks, while ten different #1s come and go. But The Little Movie That Could will never be a #1 hit.

In publishing, that’s called velocity.  How many books sell in the first week of publication?  The more the merrier.  A book that sells 150,000 copies its first week, only to have the sales drop to 50,000 copies the second week, and 25,000 copies the third, might be a bestseller even if it never sells another copy.  In the meantime, The Little Book That Could (inspiration for the movie of a similar name) sold 10,000 copies per week for 52 weeks, and never once got considered a bestseller.  Over the space of a year, The Little Book That Could sold 520,000 copies.  The first book sold only 225,000 copies.  Yet the first book is considered, in publishing terms, a bestseller, while The Little Book That Could doesn’t get any label at all.

This problem gets compounded by the season in which the book is published.  Commercial publishing (in general) divides itself into three seasons: Fall, Spring, and Summer.  Woe to you if you’re a new writer who is published in the Fall season with hopes of becoming a bestseller.  Because you’ll be competing against all the Big Names.  Publishing saves its biggest guns for Fall—the holiday season when the most books are purchased.

In the Fall Season, the bestseller lists are almost impossible for any non-brand-name writer to hit.  (I’ll get to brand names in a bit, but I think you know what I mean by that.)  In November and early December in particular, it might take ten to 100 times more copies per week for a book to hit a bestseller list than it does in any other season.  Publishers try to spread their publication dates away from other companies’ brand names for just that reason.  No one wants a Stephen King book to go head to head with a James Patterson book and a Nora Roberts book in the first week of publication (for all three books).  Only one of them would be able to hit number one on the list which would mean someone would lose the ability to crow about how many consecutive #1 New York Times bestsellers they have had.

(The New York Times, by the way, is still the gold standard bestseller list, no matter how much publishing tries to change that.  It is a brand name in and of itself. That’s why you see bestselling writer all the time, but you see New York Times bestselling writer less often, and Number One New York Times bestselling writer even less than that.)

Books released in the Summer Season—particularly May and June—have the next highest sales rates among bestsellers.  In other words, the early part of the summer season is competitive, just  not as competitive as the pre-Christmas fall season.

And books released in the Spring Season have the fewest sales, comparatively speaking, to reach the bestseller list.

In fact, if you want your highly praised, much loved author to finally hit The New York Times bestseller list with her next book, publish it in January with a lot of publicity.  Depending on the competition, that book can hit all of the bestseller lists with as few as 50,000 copies sold in one week, where in November, that book might have to sell 250,000 copies in its first week to even kiss the list.

See why Publishers Weekly calls the statistics they publish the “Facts and Figures” list?  I have the list for 2009 sitting next to me as I type this.  It does not note which books made what bestseller list.  It just gives the sales figures for the year as reported by the publisher.  (That means no one has actually audited those figures; it’s all on the honor system.)

Publishers Weekly deemed one-hundred-and-forty-one hardcover fiction books worth mentioning on this list.   The sales figures on those books run from Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol which sold 5,543,643 copies in 2009 to Newt Gingrich & William R. Forstchen’s To Try Men’s Souls which sold 100,099 copies.  The mass market list uses much higher numbers on the low end.  Publishers Weekly doesn’t report any sales of less than 500,000 copies.  Although the high end—John Grisham’s The Associate—sold only 2,150,227 copies, less than half of Dan Brown’s sales in hardcover.

Without actually comparing the list of book titles to the bestseller lists for 2009—which I am not going to do—I cannot tell you which of these books are considered bestsellers and which are not.

Because there are two additional complicating factors:  There are a lot of bestseller lists—and many of them count more than the top ten sellers per week.  Both Publishers Weekly and The New York Times publicly rank books to the top 15.  USA Today ranks the top 150 sellers per week and doesn’t separate out hardcover, mass market, trade or young adult or children’s or all the other ways to tweak the bestseller list.

In the course of my twenty years of publishing fiction, it has become easier to kiss the bestseller list than every before, by hitting an extended list or by making a somewhat obscure list. This is getting even easier with the advent of e-publishing and the continual “bestseller” lists that online retailers generate.  (For example, my novel Hitler’s Angel hit #1 on the biographical fiction list for Amazon in the United Kingdom last summer, making Hitler’s Angel a number one bestseller according to one [somewhat tiny] list.)

For the sake of this long series—how the changes in publishing will impact writers—I need to define bestsellers into subcategories because, as I mentioned last week, the changes in publishing will have a different impact on each type of writer.  (If you haven’t read last week’s post, please do so now.   In fact, if you feel the urge to comment on all of this, please read the previous posts in this series as well [or at least scan them].)

I’m going to divide bestsellers into six categories.  There are many subcategories underneath each category and, confusingly, writers sometimes move between categories.  I’m going to pretend, for the sake of this series however, that the categories are absolute.

The major category of bestsellers are:

1. The One-Hit Wonder. This term comes from the music industry, and we’re all familiar with it. The group that has a single or an album that does well, and then the group vanishes.  This happens in fiction writing as well, usually with someone’s first novel.  The book hits several bestseller lists, and often hits big. The book might become famous in its own right.  The writer does not repeat the success, usually because the writer doesn’t try.

Why doesn’t the writer try? In some cases, the writer has another profession and wrote the book part-time.  In other cases, the writer achieved his goal—he wanted to become a bestseller; he did; he doesn’t have to do this any more.  (It’s checked off his bucket list.)  The writer gets co-opted by Hollywood (or gaming or comics) and now writes screenplays instead.  The writer has made his fortune, and would rather manage his money.

Or the big one: the writer is afraid he can’t repeat the success, so he never finishes another book.

One-hit wonders really might not be one-hit wonders.  Harper Lee had a ten-year long writing career, with articles and short stories, before she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird.  But she hasn’t published much since, and now says she will not.  J.D. Salinger published well known and highly praised short stories before publishing Catcher in the Rye.  He continued writing publicly for awhile thereafter.  Rumor has it he continued to write until his death, but those items may never see print.  That depends on his actual (not rumored) instructions to his estate, and whether or not his executors follow his wishes.

Not every one-hit wonder writes a classic, of course.  Many one-hit wonders are no longer in print.  But these writers will always be with us.  They’re just not long-term professionals.

2. The Advertising Bestseller.  These are writers who have been on bestseller lists but not with any regularity.  Or they’ve been on genre bestseller lists, like the one I mentioned above for Hitler’s Angel.  It’s legitimate for these writers to claim bestseller status, but they’re really not bestsellers as I’m defining it for the article here.

Also in this category are people like me who have hit the major bestseller lists several times, but not with any reliability. When I publish a book under any of my many pen names, that book is not guaranteed to have sales figures that will give it a chance at a list.  I’ve hit the lists with my own books (particularly overseas.  In France, my Kris Nelscott name is a regular bestseller) but have not ever hit the top ten of the important lists here in the United States.  And the difference between hitting The New York Times extended list (which I have done several times) and hitting the top ten in the New York Times list is often a factor of 100.

So when you see posts like Lynn Viehl’s “The Reality of a Times Bestseller,” realize that she hit the top twenty in the New York Times bestseller list.  She did not make the top ten, nor did she make Publishers Weekly’s Facts and Figures list.  Yet she can legitimately call herself a bestseller and if her publisher is smart, they’ll call her a New York Times bestseller.  But her “reality” doesn’t take into account velocity, timing, competition, or the position of the other books on the list.  Nor do her low (by publishing standards) sales figures reflect anything more than what was going on with the list during the time period in which she hit it.

At the moment, she is a public example of an advertising bestseller.  There are a lot of us—and not one of us is falsely advertising the way our books have sold. We are bestsellers.  Our books have hit bestseller lists.  We use that fact to attract readers.  But we are not guaranteed bestsellers.

The Guaranteed Bestsellers

3. The Occasional Bestseller.  In my first attempt at this post, I used this term to define people like me who occasionally hit a bestseller list.  But I am going to use it for a different type of writer, a writer whose books will hit the bestseller list when the writer deigns to publish a book.

There are a lot of writers who publish a book once every few years.  They range from my friend, George R.R. Martin, to Scott Turow to Pat Conroy.  I’m sure you readers can think of some of your favorites as well.  These are people whom you are willing to wait for, whose books you buy with enthusiasm when a book appears. But there’s no guarantee that you’ll see a book from them this year or next year or even the year after.

They are occasional bestsellers because they finish books slowly.  So their publishers can’t rely on them to hit an annual date.  It’s an event when these writers finish a book, and publishing that book becomes an event as well.

This is why, for example, Pat Conroy’s last book appeared in hardcover in the summer of 2009.  The fall of 2009 had become crowded with Turow’s Innocent as well as the usual fall suspects (King, Grisham).  Conroy’s publisher looked at Conroy’s sales figures in comparison to King, Grisham, and Turow and decided that Conroy could not compete in that high stakes environment. So Conroy—who does not write beach reading—got pushed back to the Summer Season just so that his publisher could make certain he hung onto his bestseller status.

Mark my words here: These writers are professional writers who repeatedly write books good enough to hit in the top ten (if not the top) of the major bestseller lists.  They’re not fast writers or they chose not to be, when it comes to their novels.  (George Martin, for example, has written quickly—he wrote screenplays for television shows, a high-pressure environment that requires writers to work fast. He does not write his Game of Thrones series quickly.)

4. The Career Bestseller.  You can set your publishing clock by these people.   Their publishers actually reserve them a publishing time every year.  These writers hit their deadlines and turn in a quality book, one that their readers will enjoy if not love.  More often than not, these writers will gain readers with each book.

Generally, the career bestseller writes the same type of book year in and year out.  They write mystery novels or thrillers or contemporary romance or urban fantasy.  Their content is as consistent as their pace.

The nice thing about the career bestseller is that once they’ve hit a major list, their previous work will sell better and might hit the bestseller lists as well.  Because these writers do not surprise their readers with a different genre or an unhappy ending.  Writers who do that and fit into this category usually write under more than one name, like Barbara Michaels (serious gothics) and Elizabeth Peters (light-hearted mysteries) both pen names for Barbara Mertz.

Readers often buy these writers because they’re the best at their genre.  Laurell K. Hamilton practically invented the dark sexy urban fantasy novel.  Steve Berry writes more consistently in the international art thriller genre than its recent pioneer Dan Brown.  (Berry’s novel per year filled the gap left by Brown’s silence between The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol.)

Sometimes these writers do as many as two books per year—Jeffrey Deaver (mystery/thriller) has moved to two books per year, as has Michael Connelly (mystery/legal thriller).  Readers go along with that because we like to read our favorites as often as our favorites grace us with something to read.

5. The Brand Names.  These are the writers everyone has heard of, although they may not have read them.  Stephen King, Dean Koontz, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer—these writers (at the moment) can sell at astounding numbers pretty much anything that they write.  King and Koontz have been in this category for thirty years.  Whether Rowling and Meyer remain in it is up to them.  They might move to one-hit wonder—with their series—if they don’t follow up with other types of books.  But those books will continuously remain in print, particularly the Potter books, which I believe have the chance to become classics read a hundred years from now.

6. The Workhorses.  In the past decade, partly because of that distribution collapse I mentioned in previous posts, publishers have finally allowed brand name writers to publish more than one book per year.  Some writers have hit their natural pace and publish four to ten books per year.  Nora Roberts publishes at least four every year between her J.D. Robb pen name and her Nora Roberts contemporary romance name. Some years, she publishes as many as eight.

Patterson writes his own books and collaborates with other writers.  I haven’t checked this year, but it’s my sense that he’s published a book per month in 2010, and that has only increased his sales.  (Publishers used to think publishing more than one bestseller per year would hurt sales.  King railed against that a lot in the first 20 years of his career.)

So these are the various types of bestsellers.  To understand where a writer is coming from on the changes in publishing, you need to understand where the writer fits—even if that writer is a bestseller.

In next week’s post, I’ll be dealing with the changes in publishing as they impact Guaranteed Bestsellers—and I will break it down by category.  I will discuss Turow’s perspective (that e-publishing, particularly royalty rates and piracy, will hurt writers) as well as the other possible impact increased availability and lower prices might help or hurt bestselling writers.

As you can tell, on the subject of writers, I’m just getting warmed up.

I’m one of those writers who likes to write what I feel like writing.  And even though I’m best known as a fiction writer, I’ve been enjoying these nonfiction blog posts every week.  I rely on my readers to pay the nonfiction bills directly, since I’m not marketing these works (this and the Freelancer’s Survival Guide) to New York publishers.  So if you feel so inclined, please click the donate button.  And as always, forward or share with folks you think might be interested.


“The Business Rusch: Bestselling Writers” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

12 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Bestselling Writers (Changing Times Part Eight)

  1. I love this article so much! Thank you for shedding some light on the whole bestseller issue, and for helping me to clarify my own sales goals. I have a three-book deal for romantic comedies with Sourcebooks, and the first hits shelves in August 2011. Realistically, I know the odds are very slim I’ll hit the NYT list with any of these first books. I’m not holding my breath anyway, but what I AM hoping for is some of that “little book that could” mojo that comes from strong word-of-mouth.

    Thanks so much for the great info!


    1. Thanks, Tawna. Glad to help. And congrats on the sales to Sourcebooks! They do more promotion than most houses, so your chance of word-of-mouth sales is much better than average.

    1. Honestly, Jim, I’m not sure. I don’t follow my own numbers. I do know that awareness of my name jumped among people who weren’t reading at the center of the sf field. I also know that my readership has grown in the intervening years since then. My novels have been very hard to find until Pyr did Diving into the Wreck, so I’m not sure if people who wanted to buy more books by me could find them. Also, my book was released in November. I have the honor of the only Star Wars novel not to hit the top ten on the Times list, even though I had higher sales than many of the other Star Wars writers. So I can’t put NYT bestseller on any of my books. (I suppose I could if I wanted to–the book hit #11. But back then (14 years ago!) no one counted the Times extended as being part of the Times list.)

  2. I knew someone who sat with a group of other editors and set out to “discover” what made a bestseller. She said they went through hundreds looking at theme, setting, characters, etc. The only thing they found that was relatively consistent was the number of chapters. The majority of the bestsellers they studied had an even number of chapters, well past statistical randomness. Of course, she did this in the 80s… who knows now. LOL!

    1. Even if she actually found something that’s true for bestsellers in the 80s, it’s not true for bestsellers now. That’s the cool thing and the frustrating thing about this profession–it’s really hard to pin down.

  3. Lol, Kris. Sorry if that’s a sore spot. That’s pretty much what I figured, but I wanted some clarification after your post. I appreciate it. I’m gonna go back to the trenches now and keep churning out words.

    1. Oh, Amanda, I didn’t mean to make it sound like a sore spot, although I suspect “dreaded question” did that. It’s just not possible to answer it in any satisfactory way. And, imho, anyone who says they know that secret really doesn’t. Those book doctors, agents, those folks who give you formulas don’t have the secret any more than anyone else does. Bestsellers usually say they don’t know. So my advice: write what you love and hope a goodly number of people love it too. 🙂

  4. I’m sure you’ll get into this later, but what do you think makes a bestseller? I know it needs to be a story that people want to read, but do you think any part of it has to do with the publisher? How much they market, when they release your book, and so on? From everything I’ve read between you and Dean says that the best a writer can do is keep in the trenches, put out as many books as possible and just see what happens.

    1. Oh, Amanda. The dreaded question. If anyone knew what made a bestseller, then all books would be bestsellers. Here’s what they tend to have: appeal to a wide variety of readers. Good stories. Good characters. An interesting setting. Something we haven’t seen before (for a first-time bestseller), something familiar but very good (for an established bestseller). But it does change year by year, decade by decade. In the 1980s, the sexy vampire novel would not be on the bestseller list. But it might have (if anyone thought of it) in the 1970s. Times change, and what people want to read changes. So really, honestly, the answer is…who knows?

      As for whether or not it has to do with the publisher, no. If a publisher could manufacture a bestseller, he would. The best he could do is time it so that the book hits the list at the most opportune moment. (Or has a chance to hit the list)

  5. Two thoughts here. One, isn’t there a sort of person whose work occasionally hits top 10s, really high levels, but then sometimes does not? Not an ‘advertising bestseller’, but someone who gets a breakout big novel mid-career, then a few other good but not top sellers, then another breakout top hit? Seems to me like there *should* be, but I can’t name any offhand.

    Also, there’s a new category of the ‘advertising bestseller’. With Amazon breaking ebook sales out from print book sales of a title, it’s possible to claim a bestseller status with much, MUCH lower sales than a year or two ago. Technically, you’re a genre ‘bestseller’ if your ebook hits the top 100 or so for your genre there… And the sales level to achieve that is sometimes thousands, not tens of thousands, of copies over the period of weeks. Sometimes less. Of course, as ebook market share grows, that will become less important, and NYT plans to launch an ebook bestseller list early in 2011 that will be…interesting…to watch as well. But for now, it’s pertinent in that ‘advertising bestseller’ sense.

    1. Good point, Kevin. As I said, there are a lot of subcategories and it differs for different writers. Your example of someone who occasionally hits in the top ten is still a guaranteed bestseller, because they will hit in the top twenty if they miss the top ten. And if they miss, say, in 2008, then in 2009, their publisher will reposition them (like they did with Conroy at the upper levels) to put them back in the top ten. The sales figures in these instances stay the same or grow but the lists are dynamic and represent how quickly the book sells and who else is releasing books that week, so no position on that list is guaranteed.

      As for the Amazon top 100s, you can hit the 90-100 level in some genres with as few as 200-500 books sold per week. That will change, I think, as more and more people get e-readers. But right now, it’s quite possible to hit that and B&N with very low numbers (by major publishing standards). But those people have hit a list, and in some instances, it’s an important list, particularly if the writer is self published. (And now I get ahead of myself. )

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