Remember the manager of the playhouse in Shakespeare in Love who, whenever confronted with questions about the theater business, would respond, "It's a mystery!"
There was an article in the New York Times Business section last Sunday that made the same claim about book publishing and the creation of a bestseller -- nobody knows exactly how it's done and if they did, they'd be millionaires. As always with such articles, a couple of things leapt out at me.
It's not that publishing is a risky business. I know that.
It's not that nobody can really predict a bestseller. I know that, too.
One is the advances the authors mentioned got. For first books. $40,000 for one, $25,000 for another -- and especially the implication that these are LOW or "modest". Sweet fancy Moses! When I first sold to Harlequin, my advance was a whooping $5,000. I've heard of other category writers getting less.
Another is the efforts made by the publishers to promote the books -- sending out hundreds of galleys, along with things like, in the case of one book mentioned, giftbags containing flip-flops, belts, notebooks and lip gloss.
If I want anything like that, specific to me and my books? I'm on my own.
The article also talked about the fact that most publishers don't seem to want reader feedback, or do much reader research. I'm pretty sure Harlequin does. For instance, they have questionnaires in their books, or at least they used to.
Why wouldn't publishers welcome reader feedback?
Here's my theory, taken from my own experience with letters/emails/Amazon reviews: the only people who take time to comment are those who either LOVED your book or HATED your book. If you want to have a bestseller, though, you want to get the people in the middle, the people who like your work, but aren't going to take the time to contact the publisher. They read it, they liked it, they'll probably buy another of your books -- but that's the sum total of the time they're willing to spend talking or thinking about their book purchases.
And then, toward the end, came something that both surprised and pleased me -- a mention of Romance Writers of America. To quote:
"An exception is the consumer research gathered by the Romance Writers of America, a writers' association that publishes a regular market study of romance readers. It reports survey information on, for example, demographics, what respondents are reading, where they are getting the books and how often, and what kind of covers attract them. Romance authors and publicists use the information to create promotional campaigns."
First, I had no idea I was supposed to be using that info for PR purposes. Duh. I always thought one of the purpose of those surveys (and quite frankly, the main one) was to show that our readers came from a broad spectrum of society (so take that, all those who have a very prejudiced view of the intelligence/socio-economic status of the average romance reader). I also thought the info about covers was to give us proof that our readers really don't want the so-called "nursing mother clinch covers," where the heroine's breasts are all but spilling from her bodice, or other sorts of covers that make our readers embarrassed to pick up a romance, or be seen reading one on the subway.
What made me happy to see this part of the article wasn't the sudden realization that I had information to use for PR. It was the thought that this is precisely the sort of mention of RWA and those in the romance publishing industry that will lead to increased respect for the genre.
What do I think makes a bestseller? A really good book at the right time, from a publisher who's willing to spend a whack of money promoting it.
At least that's the recipe for what I'd call an "instant" bestseller -- the first book by an author that lands on the NYTimes or USA Today list. And isn't that what every author wants?
Well, sure, I'd be thrilled -- but there is a downside, something that this article also talked about. When a publisher takes a big gamble, they obviously expect/want/hope to win big. And if they don't? Well, that's not a good thing for the author, because they've lost their publisher a lot of money -- although they can call themselves a NYTimes Bestselling Author for the rest of their lives. If the publisher has given the author a huge advance for their next book and it tanks? That's not so good for the author, either.
So what's better for an author? The big gamble/instant bestseller, or the slow climb to the NYTimes list? I don't know, because I haven't been on it yet (hope springs eternal).
I can only agree that if anybody knew for sure how to gauge the mood of the reading public for a year or so after a book is offered to publishers, if they knew exactly how and where to market that book, if they could get the readers to talk about it to their friends, relatives and strangers on the street, that person would indeed be worth millions. Because, at least for now, it's a mystery.