That’s been a question that’s hung over aspiring and established writers ever since a magazine called The Bookman began running what’s considered the first bestseller list in 1895, according to Michael Korda’s book, Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999.
Since that first list, and most famously with the New York Times list, which kicked off in 1942, bestseller lists have appeared in many papers, including The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, magazines such as Publishers Weekly, and even retail sites like Amazon.com. Bestseller lists are both signs of achievement for writers and marketing tools for authors and publishers.
Some classic novels were never bestsellers, of course â€“ great literary achievements like Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby found their audiences long after their publication â€“ and most bestselling books eventually fall into obscurity.
Yet the bestseller list is a potent attraction for today’s authors, who count on the “legitimacy” of the bestseller label to help cement their status as marketable, bankable, influential writers.
So, again: how do you write a bestseller?
Well, you might think it’s simply that you write a good book. But as anyone knows who’s scanned bestseller lists and read some of the books on them, quality isn’t necessary to sales.
Still, try to write the best book you can. Quality does count for something.
Then, once you’ve written your book (or if you’ve got a good book outline), you will want to find a publisher. Even in this age of self-publishing, working with a publisher is a good thing for writers, because you will have the might of that publisher to help get your books onto bookshelves (even if more and more retail bookshelves are digital). And, although more and more publishers trust their authors to do a lot of the heavy lifting in promotional work, publishers do help authors with marketing efforts too.
But an author will want to find other ways to reach potential buyers. That’s where a platform comes in â€“ a platform is an online perch from which an author talks to and engages with and builds an audience, through blogging, posting on other sites and even offering samples of the work-in-progress.
The platform-building stage for an author can take as much as year or more, so that you build your audience bit by bit, and when you’re ready to publish your book, the audience is ready to snap it up.
Publication efforts often combine the author’s own platform with outside public-relations to create sell-through in order to keep the book on people’s minds. There are also many ways to link to your book through online outlets, using search terms, linking and other tools.
The matrices that a media outlet uses are different for determining a bestseller. Some rely on in-store surveys, others on electronic data from sales to compile their bestseller lists. No list is perfect or complete; not every store or outlet can be counted, and every bestseller list is an approximation of what’s selling well.
But since hundreds of thousands of books are published each year, and only a very, very small percentage of them become bestsellers, the bestseller list remains a significant signpost for success.
Working with a knowledgeable book marketer is key. You want to find someone who will work with you to help you refine and broaden your message and who will craft a public-relations and marketing campaign that will guarantee your book is a serious and legitimate contender for bestseller lists (that is, with real sales, not relying on warehoused books or bulk sales, or anything that can manipulate a list). The marketing of a book is quite important to build awareness and create a demand so that potential readers pre-order the book or rush to bookstores on its publication.
The public relations, publicity and marketing campaigns should be strategic to drive sales in the first couple of weeks after publication. This ensures that perhaps 10,000 or so copies or more will sell in the first or second week, enough to be considered for a list.
Not every author will write a 50 Shades of Grey that jumps out of the box and becomes a phenomenon. Most writers need the help of seasoned marketers. It starts with the book, and then it continues with the campaign so that your work ends up in the hands of hungry readers.
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