Friday, September 27, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 9 of 13)

For numbers 7 and 8, I list simplicity and emotion-packed. Most people won't read deep, complicated books. They want material that's easy to understand and digest.

I'm not a fan of Danielle Steel, but she understands that her fans want simple, straightforward stories. Some have called her novels simplistic—and they probably are—but she tells a good story.

The other is emotion-packed. They're the stories that make readers feel they are actors in the book. When a writer figures out how to how tap into the emotions, readers buy the book.

In April 2013, first-time novelist M. L. Stedman released a book called Light Between Oceans. A book about a lighthouse in Australia in the 1920s doesn't have much to commend it; however, the reviews have been amazingly good.

Several writers have recommended it because of the emotion. One friend, Gail Smith, told me she cried a lot near the end. Last week I read the book. Guess what? Tears filled my eyes. Stedman did it right and tapped into the feeling level of readers.

And because Stedman touches the feeling level of readers, they respond by buying her book.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 8 of 13)

Some best sellers fit into more than one category. More than two decades ago Steven Covey's book, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, spoke to needs in the business world. Even more significant, many buyers considered it a book about values and relationships. Until then, most books were the how-to-make-a-sale type.

Previously I've mentioned 90 Minutes in Heaven, and I believe it expresses a need, and it also spawned dozens of me-too books. People wanted (some would say needed) to know what happens when they die. The various heaven-oriented books provide solace for troubled hearts.

And yet, Don Piper and I have heard from countless readers who resonated with the material about chronic pain. Again, that's what some called a perceived need.

Friday, September 20, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 7 of 13)

Timing is the fifth significant factor in making big sales. Every once in a while a book comes out at exactly the right period and starts a trend.

The first time I was aware of this was when someone gave me a copy of the 1986 book Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, published by the Hazelden Foundation. The subtitle was How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. Within months, the book had sold eight million copies internationally.

Not only did codependent become a significant word in English jargon, but dozens of other writers, such as John Bradshaw, followed the trend she set.

Just before the turn of this century, the Left Behind series hit the best-seller lists. The end of the millennium aroused fears and anxieties. The fictional look at the book of Revelation in the Bible spoke to that need.

90 Minutes in Heaven wasn't the first book to come out about dying, going to heaven, and returning, but that one started the trend that has yet to see an end. Because of that trend, a publisher asked Twila Belk and me to write a book called I Believe in Heaven, which has recently been released. We shared at least 100 personal experience stories, surveyed the Bible, history, and mentioned many of the current books on the topic.

The publisher came to me because they felt people needed a book to pull together the dozens of others on the topic of death and heaven. In the months ahead, we'll see if that was good timing.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 6 of 13)

Good reviews is my fourth reason. If Publishers Weekly and a dozen other magazines and ezines give your book a big thumbs up, you may be moving toward best-sellerdom.

This includes reviews on Amazon.com, the Barnes and Noble site—any place where people review or critique books. One example was David Wroblewski's debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which Amazon.com championed. The 566-page literary novel came out in 2008 and within a week after publication, it had gone into its seventh printing—a reported total of 90,000 copies.

That's not the only time Amazon.com has "made" a best seller. They listed Wrobleswki's book as their favorite for the month. Their other favorites aren't always that successful.

My all-time amazing example is Tom Clancy. In 1984, the Naval Institute Press published his novel, The Hunt for Red October. It's what I call a techno-thriller and reviewers praised it. The good reviews propelled it forward and it stayed on the New York Times' list for 25 weeks. Ever since, Clancy has been a brand.

Friday, September 13, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 5 of 13)

Reason number 3 for best sellers—and most people would say this is number 1—is what we call word-of-mouth advertising. The Road Less Traveled came out in the mid-1980s and stayed on the New York Times' best-seller lists for 12 years.

Some readers liked the book and told others who bought it. They liked it and passed on the word. The Shack is another word-of-mouth phenomenon, and that one started as a self-published book.

Many people would put Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media sites here as one form of word-of-mouth advertising. To my knowledge, there's no strong evidence to support sales based on posting to 7,000 friends that you read and liked a book.

I buy most of my books from the recommendations of friends whose tastes are somewhat like mine—that's the idea behind word of mouth. If someone whose tastes I respect raves about a book, I check it out. Many times I buy it immediately; other times I read the reviews before deciding.

Jonah Berger's Contagious: Why Things Catch On stresses word of mouth and calls it "the primary factor behind 20 percent to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions."[1] He goes on to say that "A five-star review on Amazon.com leads to approximately twenty more books sold than a one-star review."[2]

I quote Berger because he can back up his data and he makes a significant statement about word of mouth: ". . . is naturally directed toward an interested audience.”[3]

[1] Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger (Simon & Schuster, 2013), p 7. 
[2] Ibid. 
[3] Ibid., 9.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 4 of 13)

Here's a second and obvious reason why some books are best sellers: The author has a recognized name. That's another way to say the person has become a brand. Think of people like John Grisham, Danielle Steel. Dean Koontz, or J. K. Rowling. In the previous blog post, I mentioned Debbie Macomber. It's easy to categorize her as a writer of "sweet romances" (as contrasted with sexually explicit ones).

After those writers hit the top of the best-seller lists a few times, they became brands. Whoever heard of John Grisham until after he wrote The Firm and it was made into a top-grossing film with Tom Cruise?

After that, Grisham books became automatic best sellers and the same is true with the others I've mentioned.

One editor told me bluntly that brand names sell books. "It's not easy to launch a book by a new author. People are comfortable with certain writers—and some of them are very bad writers—but readers like their stories."

Friday, September 6, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 3 of 13)

No one knows the answer. It's unexplainable and often happens against the odds. The Shack or the erotic-romance series, 50 Shades of Grey, are two books that defied the odds.

Or think about dyslexic Debbie Macomber, a woman with no college education. She wrote a romance that was publicly critiqued by an editor from Harlequin at a romance writers conference. The editor trashed the novel and told her to throw it away.

Instead, Macomber sent her novel to a rival romance publisher. They bought it, and it was the first romance novel that Publishers Weekly reviewed. Her books now sell in the millions.

Why Debbie Macomber? It's unexplainable—it happens often enough to keep giving writers hope and encouragement.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How Do They Compile Best-seller Lists? (Part 2 of 13)

I can't give an easy answer to the question of compiling best-seller lists. Traditionally, people mean the New York Times' (NYT) list, but there are many of them, such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Costco that have their own list of best sellers.

Differences exist between the lists. The NYT sets up books by category (hardcover, soft cover, fiction, nonfiction). They now mix digital books into those categories. Their purpose is to compare books within their own genre. By contrast, USA Today (USA) lists books by total sales and ignores categories. (I'm more impressed by being on their weekly top 50 list.)

Another factor is that the NYT counts sales in national and independent bookstores that specialize in selling books. They don't include sales at Walmart, Krogers, or Target.

No list maker tracks every book sold in the country. Even the national lists rely on a sample of sales data from specifically selected booksellers.

Here's something else to consider: A book could have steady sales for years, but not appear on any list because week-by-week sales remain relatively low, even though steady.

For example, my book for Dr. Ben Carson, Gifted Hands, has never appeared on any of the national lists, but the total sales in 23 years are somewhere in excess of four million copies. It's what we call evergreen—the sales may not be high at any one point—but the book has been selling faithfully.

Think of the best-seller lists as short-term tools
 to show which books are currently popular.