Okay, it’s high time – more than high time for a post explaining that “Bestseller” in this field doesn’t always mean you sold well, nor that you had a quality product, nor that in fact your book contained any words. (I’ve never heard of a bestseller without words, but that’s only because no publisher has thought of imitating the two minutes and however many seconds of silence CD.)
There is a reason for this because twice in the last week we’ve had someone pop up – one more persistently unable to grasp that he didn’t have the full picture than the other – and assume that “bestseller” was a raw measure of popularity and – as such – of quality in the field.
I’ve actually covered this territory before, and so has Dave, and so has Kate (I think) and yes, all of us have reason to know what is going on in the field, as all of us have been watching it for a long time.
To begin with “Bestseller” as in official, with the seal of approval is largely obtained through laydown. Laydown is the number of books shipped to bookstores on the first day it is for sale. No SALES need to occur for this. I know any number of “Bestsellers” who hit it only once and only for a week, i.e. the first week it’s for sale. That’s a laydown bestseller.
But, you say, if the bookstores order that many, even if it’s just laydown, surely people want it. Um… no. Actually since the nineties (not so absolute now, because most stores order at least some Amazon well-selling books, in an effort to save themselves from doom) when the chain bookstores dominated the market, the laydown became a matter of “publisher confidence.”
What is publisher confidence? If you look up book reviews of the nineties you’ll often find the last line “And the publisher ordered a print run of 100k copies, so they have high confidence in this book.”
Let me go about it another way: in the mists of time there were surprise bestsellers. I.e. sometimes a publisher barely liked a book, but bought it because he thought maybe people would like it, and then he threw it out there. Then bookstore owners, particularly specialty (sf/f/mystery) bookstore owners would read it and start handselling it to their readers. Next thing you knew, boom, mega bestseller.
By the nineties this was impossible. Most managers of the chain bookstores that had eaten the indies were not readers. They were MBAs who “knew how to sell” and didn’t care what they sold. BUT the few remaining ones that read? Didn’t matter. Stocking orders came from up top – usually the tri-state area. (And how anyone could think lumping three states as a book selling unit made any sense is beyond me. Denver and Colorado Springs are like night and day for population preferences, let alone Kansas, which is also lumped in with CO.) Even the independent bookstores were being treated to a version of this.
I once had the dubious privilege of watching a book rep give a spiel to the manager of an indie bookstore I was browsing. This was mid nineties and he had a binder with covers in plastic. It was like this “We’re printing a hundred thousand of this book. You’ll want at least a hundred. We’ll send you the special display. And this is our number two for this month. You’ll want twenty five or so. Oh, and then there’s this” – flipping through twenty pages, with the manager barely managing to order two of this or that if cover was striking.
Keep in mind that neither of these men read any of those books. (No, not even the pushed one. I once attended a trade show and found that they didn’t read any of them. They got a business meeting and had talking points handed down and a “minimum order’ suggested.)
BUT on the basis of the “push” by the publisher, it was almost impossible for that 100k copy book not to outsell the “also ran” books.
In fact it was impossible. One of the bestsellers in the field once told me a story in which her book sold out in two weeks and instead of being re-printed was taken out of print because the publisher was sure there must be something wrong. After all they hadn’t slated that book for “push” and in fact, if it had sold it might upset the editor’s job review.
You see, when a book was sold it was taken to meeting and the editor guesstimated how many copies it would sell. “Doing well” was not selling a lot more than they thought – it was guessing right.
Take my first book – please – print run of 8k and first time author in hardcover. It should have had some push and some was planned, but then a bestseller bumped me off the second slot on that list (she delivered late) and I got stuck in “also ran.” To make things crazier, the company had paid for end cap display (yes those are bought.) What did this mean? Well, most bookstores had one or two copies at most. You don’t endcap display that. So, time after time, when I came in to do drive by signing, I found that the people had got confused and put the book in the closet (literally.) Our local Borders never unpacked it. So it “sold poorly” – which meant basically nothing as most people never saw it. (I’m not going to say it’s one of the most commercial works around. It’s not. But it couldn’t have sold more, if it had been frickin’ Twilight, okay? No one knew it existed. My best friends looking for it couldn’t find it.)
Or take my musketeer series – yes, mistakes were made, mostly the publisher’s, though my third book needed heavy editing before I re-released it (written during the year I was homeschooling, had pneumonia twice and (for the win) had a splinter that infected in my hand so I couldn’t type and had to write it long hand on yellow pads in my near-illegible handwriting, then type in after hand healed.) – one year three books were released. I couldn’t find a copy on shelves the length and breadth of Colorado…. Or other states I visited that year. I found one copy on one shelf in Arizona and it was like “yay.”
How could those books have sold if no one found them?
(I had people find the second, after the first one had been out of circulation and think it was the first – the second was taken out of print before the second came out, four months later. This despite a raving review by Steve Forbes himself AND being an alternate selection form the mystery book club. I still got fan mail on these books, all out of print two years ago before I started re-releasing.) Again, are they bestseller bait? PROBABLY not only because historical mysteries sell less than others right now. BUT given how many women have a musketeer thing? Might have been. Only couldn’t be because there was no push and they never got on shelves.
Oh, and btw, when you had a meeting on your book you guessed how much it would sell, and it went out of print the moment it earned out. So my Shakespeare book was considered a failure, even though it sold exactly what they’d predicted it would sell before they gave me an advance. A failure for me, not for them.
If this is making your head hurt, it made my head hurt too. As Dave Freer has pointed out, this kind of shell game with authors and book buyers was only possible because publishing was both an oligopsony and a monopoly. Writers had nowhere else to sell their work, and readers had nowhere else to buy.
Even then, we know that what was selected by a small minority in NYC with tastes formed in the “best colleges” was failing to be “good” in the sense of selling well. Why? Because print runs went from newby-print-run of 70k in the seventies to 3k now. Oh, tons of excuses for why “people don’t read.” But the percentage of people who read for fun in a population has remained the same since Shakespeare’s time and I can tell you, being friends with people who read, that what really happened is we moved from genre to genre, as NYC forgot it was supposed to be pushing story and started pushing political correctness. I fled SF for mystery, then mystery for popular history and then – at bay – tried Romance. Romance, being considered fluffy was the last overtaken and not fully overtaken before indie hit.
I was upset about this entire system as a reader long before I wrote in some genres – like mystery.
I don’t have time to explain ordering to the net, which also ensured no surprise bestsellers, but you can look it up. It went something like, if you had two books in a store (which even if on the shelf are hard to find) and you sold one (and the other one might have been shoplifted. It didn’t show in the computer as “sold”) the next time they only ordered one, and the time after that none.
Now, this is all changed. Because books can break through on Amazon and the remaining chain is scared, you find Amazon bestsellers on shelves in your local store – sometimes.
BUT push still has power. And before I go into that, I want to say I once told Toni Weisskopf of Baen “I guess that I should be grateful Baen doesn’t follow that model, since Darkship Thieves sold way more than you expected. I guess it’s a good thing Baen is too small to buy big layouts and therefore has to make do with REAL bestsellers” Her answer was “No, we have enough money. But why cut yourself off from market signals?” — and there you have it.
They don’t follow the model and Baen bestsellers are real.
BUT bestseller isn’t a measure of total sales. It’s a measure of sales AND velocity. If Darkship Thieves had sold have what it did, but sold it all in one week, I’d have been a very comfortable bestseller. Instead, it’s a “slow, steady seller” which means it will never appear on lists. (So when I beg you to buy the week of release, there’s a reason. Unfortunately some writers have the “slow steady” pattern, and I appear to be one of them. Things keep selling, but too slowly to register on lists.)
BUT in this day when indie bookstores are making a come back, when Amazon smashes the lists, is it still possible to “manufacture” a bestseller?
Oh, sure. It’s hit or miss. Or more so than it used to be. But you know something is slated to be a bestseller when before release, rumor is everywhere that zomg it’s awesome. And there are ads bought in times square. The last time I saw this done was with Night Circus. (They’ve done it since, I’m sure, I just haven’t paid attention.)
Then you have the “unread” bestseller. A recent study estimated seventy percent of books bought are never read. People buy them to be “in” and “buy the book everyone is talking about.”
Harry Potter certainly benefited from this. Another thing is benefited from was the fact it first came out in England, at just the right time for hype to cross the Atlantic (early internet) ahead of selling here. If it had sold here first, the publishers — male main character? Boarding school? – would have printed 5 k copies, thin distribution and it would have hit the wall by book three. Now, Harry Potter is actually a very good (though not stunningly original, but YA has no business being. Their audience renews) series. BUT if it had got the 5k book treatment, quality would have gone for nothing. And btw, there’s no guarantee anyone but the copyeditor reads the whole book. EVER. Most books are bought on proposal and that’s what the laydown is decided on.
And before you say these are sour grapes, you should know that Terry Pratchett was selling about what I was 4 to 5k copies of each book until he changed editor and agent. Then suddenly he started selling 100k. Same author. Same style. Yeah.
So, when you equate commercial success with “good writing” you need to figure out what you’re talking about.
If it’s a “bought laydown bestseller” you are out of your mind. If it’s a bestseller pushed out of everyone’s ears – like Night Circus – it MIGHT be good writing, but the sales figures don’t “prove” it. If it’s something like Larry Correia, from a house that doesn’t do that type of ubiquitous push, then yeah, it’s predicated on decent writing.
However, to just say “It sold well, it’s good writing” presumes you know what books got push and why. And that you can with razor-like ability tell how it would have sold if it had been dumped, two copies per store on a chain store with no push.
The one thing I can tell you is that if you find a book that was even moderately pushed and hit the bestseller list for a week then rolled off and never hit again, and the writer never hit again, it’s probably not the “good writing” that got it there.
The other thing I can tell you is that some spectacular books never became best sellers, and I’d like you to give a chance to them. Say, Barry Hughart’s Master Li series. Or Dave Freer’s Dog and Dragon.
Other than that, if you choose based on the bestseller lists, you are simply being spun and buying into hype and promo, not book or quality.
Is there some good writing among bestellers? I’m partial to Correia myself. But ninety percent of bestsellers leave me cold. As do ninety percent of other writers.
Your mileage may vary.