Tuesday, February 25, 2020

How Hard Is It To Become A Best-Seller?

Image result for images of a bestseller

Many authors crave attention. They want to be famous and seen on TV or reviewed by the New York Times. They want to be splashed across social media. They want to hit a best-seller list.  So what are the chances of hitting any of these marks?

There are only so many pages devoted to book reviews by the NYT. This is unscientific, but it appears that fewer than 4,000 books get reviewed annually by the paper of record. That is out of some 375,000 new titles from traditional publishers. There’s another million that are self-published that the NYT officially excludes from consideration. Do the math. Maybe 1 in 100 traditionally published books gets reviewed and only something like 1 in 350 of all books published in a year.

TV?  There are only so many national TV shows out there, each with a certain number of time slots to feature an author. Some of the shows end up covering the same authors. You’ll see the same big-name author on Colbert, then the Today Show, and then CNN.  Thousands of authors get interviewed by national TV each year – but there are millions of authors out there.

Social media?  Some authors are skilled at getting FB likes, retweets, and lots of shared views on You Tube. In theory, this is a wild-card area. Whereas the NYT has finite space -- as do TV shows – there’s no limit to how many tweets, FB posts, or You Tube videos one can post. I suppose this is the biggest potential for growth, but the odds are still very low that an author cracks big numbers or becomes an influencer.  And who has the time or inclination to spend hours daily clicking and engaging the world of free content and trolls?

The best-seller list is more achievable today than ever before.  But that also dilutes its impact, to a degree. Let me explain.

First, there are many bestseller lists. Behold:

New York Times
USA Today
Wall Street Journal
Publishers Weekly
Library Journal

And, many more individual stores, local newspapers, or groups may have a bestseller list. There’s no legal definition of “best-seller” so people use it liberally.

Let’s look at these best-seller lists more closely. There are different formats one can be a best-seller in -- audiobook, ebook, fiction cloth, nonfiction cloth, trade paper, mass market, etc. Further, these lists don’t just reflect a top five or ten but they could be reflective of top 20 or more books per format.

Then there are lists on BN.com and Amazon that have more categories and subcategories.  You can hit a business book best-seller list, a heath one, a thriller one, etc. Then you can narrow it to a list for business-career books or travel-Europe, or health-diet books.  These lists can change hourly, not just daily, weekly, or monthly.

See a pattern? You can hit multiple lists, multiple times. In any case, you can proudly say you are a best-selling author, but as consumers wisen up, they will ask: Which list? Get ready to explain that you were an Amazon best-seller in their fiction – romance – LGTBQ – London category for one hour on February 13. It still counts, though.

A study of Publishers Weekly bestsellers for 2019 shows the following:

345 different hardcover non-fiction books hit the list – way up from 275 the year before. There was also a 10% increase in the number of trade paperbacks hitting the list from a year ago.

Does this mean:

·         Books lack staying power because of quality or marketing?
·         More good books are being released and thus crowd each other out?
·         There’s something faulty in the way these lists are tabulated?
·         All – or none of the above?
·         Other?

The truth is the world of books is choking with competition and authors who market aggressively.

The overwhelming majority of best-sellers listed on PW’s lists are put out by just five companies – Penguin Random, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Macmillan. They account for at least 85-90% of those that hit a list. After the Big 5, only three publishers in America had five or more best-sellers with the highest being 10 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hay House and Regnery were the others. Think about that. Quality brand publishers like Workman, McGraw-Hill, Rosetta, and Norton each had only one book hit the best-seller list.

Some people will look to manipulate the best-seller lists. They hire someone to get them on a list, using a scheme that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars via advertising, book buy backs by the author and free gifts used as bait to buy a book. The reading public just doesn’t know how a book becomes a best-seller or if that best-selling book is even any good.

Okay, so with all that said, nothing’s impossible here, but a lot is improbable or very expensive to achieve. The key to promoting a book is to do so in a way that legitimately tells as many potential targeted readers that your book exists and explains its worthiness in a matter of seconds. Reviews, TV, social media, and best-seller lists can be part of the equation but plenty of books sell well, impact readers, and brand authors without ever being reviewed in the NYT or hitting a best-seller list or trending on Twitter.

So don’t worry about your odds of success.  They are low.  That’s a given. But instead, zero in on what you are capable of doing and push hard to get your voice heard in a noisy sea. Ride the tide.


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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2020. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by WinningWriters.com as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America.

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