The Anatomy of a Bestseller
Most bestselling books aren't a surprise to the companies that publish them. What factors go into getting a book on a bestseller list?
Today’s newsletter is a deep dive into what goes into making a book a bestseller. But first, subscription housekeeping. Remember, I am running a special on paid subscriptions until 11/29!
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I. There are rarely surprises on bestseller lists.
Throughout my 30-year career in book publishing, I’ve done marketing and publicity for over 50 New York Times bestsellers. While I’d love to tell you the majority of them were surprise hits, that’s simply untrue. Publishers either acquire books knowing they’ll become bestsellers or know which authors on their list they want to break out with the goal of their books becoming bestsellers. For example, acquiring bestselling fiction authors looking for a fresh start with a new publisher ensures their book will hit the NYT list. It also costs publishers a lot of money—up to seven figures for an author advance plus a substantial marketing budget.
The best way for me to explain the anatomy is to create a fictional title and take you through the process. For this exercise, the book’s title is I’m the Problem (a shoutout to Ms. Taylor Swift).
II. The Acquisition.
Remember, we are discussing a bestseller, so how it is acquired differs from the average book. The agent representing I’m The Problem has scheduled meetings and phone calls between the author and publishers. The agent will attend these, too. I lovingly refer to this as the dog and pony show: publishers put on quite a performance for authors they want. If it is an in-person meeting, the people attending are senior level, including the publisher, editor/editorial director, and publicity director. The marketing director and sales executives might also participate. Everyone is enthusiastic and selling the agent and author on the AMAZING things the publisher can do that NO ONE ELSE (everyone else) can do. Sometimes, there is even a PowerPoint!
What happens next comes down to money. A publisher could attempt to preempt the book by offering an obscene amount of money for the agent to pull it from submission and go with said publisher. This is where things get