Can A Bestseller Be Engineered?

By John Gilstrap

In 1997, a literary author named Bradford Morrow made big headlines in the book industry when he allegedly told a reporter from New York Magazine that his publisher, Viking, was trying to engineer a bestselling thriller out of his next novel Giovanni’s Gift. To support the book, and to give it a leg up on sales, the publisher spent a lot of dough promoting it. That’s a good thing, right?

Well, not necessarily. When the New York Magazine story was published, New York Times Book Review writer Walter Kirn tore apart not only the book, but also the author and publisher. Here’s a link to a piece that Salon did on the brouhaha:

While some reviews leave room for interpretation, I think intelligent minds can agree that this is gratuitously awful: “an unintentionally campy blend of artistic ambition and commercial cynicism … a case study in the novel as gilded kitsch — a book that proposes to elevate its readers even as it takes calculated aim at their presumed stupidity … a thin romantic melodrama insulated in operatic twaddle.”

Morrow’s offense, such as it was(n’t) was his decision to share with the world his desire for commercial success. (In future interviews, he maintained that he never writes for money.)

How the world has changed, huh? In a mere fourteen years, we have come to a place in history where it’s okay for an author to publicly state his desire for commercial success. (I’ve long believed that even literary writers secretly want to make money off what they write.)

Carrying on with this week’s theme of finding the right strings to pull to engineer a bestseller, I continue to question whether any individual writer can do anything to significantly influence sales. Sure, there are outliers and exceptions (paging Joe Konrath), but in Joe’s case you have to give credit to the power of being first.

Yesterday ended a 10-day run for my book At All Costs on the Kindle Top 100. (As I write this, it sits at #105, having gotten as low as the 20s.) This is great news for a book that was written in the same year when Giovanni’s Gift was released. Could it possibly be that my fan base has finally reached that self-sustaining critical mass?

Maybe. I hope so. But I have serious doubts about that. If that were the case, my Nook sales rank would be substantially lower than 10,223, which is where it sits as I write this. So, what’s going on?

The answer in two words: Paid Promotion.

My publisher is spending real coin at Amazon on my behalf for banner ads and email blasts that alert anyone who has ever bought my work or the work of anyone who writes similar thrillers that there’s a new Gilstrap eBook out there at the readily affordable price of $1.99 (down from the original $4.50-ish). I assure you that it’s no coincidence that everyone who buys the At All Costs eBook will get to read the first chapter of Threat Warning, the front list book coming out on June 28 as an eBook and July 1 as a pBook.

Words cannot express how grateful I am to Kensington for getting behind me and my work this way. It’s all part of a strategy that was engineered and is continually tweaked by several departments of professionals who promote books for a living. If they’re doing this for li’l ole me, can you imagine the horsepower that’s behind the likes of Baldacci, Coben and Deaver? Sure, at the end of the day, the quality of the work is paramount—an author has to entertain his audience—but a lot of the frenzy that surrounds the release of a book is bought and paid for, including much of the stuff that seems spontaneous.

I have no idea what the price tag of all of this is, but I’m going to guess that it’s significant enough to be out of range for most people I know. It’s not just the absolute value of the time and the cash that’s involved; it’s the risk factor, too. There’s no guarantee that they’ll ever see a return on their investment.

My writing career is eight books deep now—eight books published, anyway. I’ve hired two independent publicists in that time, I’ve arranged book tours, I’ve typed my fingers bloody on blog tours, yet I can tell you without hesitation that nothing I’ve done in self-promotion comes close to providing the results of what Kensington is doing for me. And it’s not just the money; it’s the know-how.

I’m the first to say that I’m perhaps overly blessed at the moment, but some really dark times preceded the last couple of years. This is a tough, tough, business, and with few exceptions the road to success—whatever that means to whoever it means it to—is paved with divots and bloodstains.

Jeffery Deaver and I used to meet for drinks and dinner every Thursday evening for five or six years, and during the darkest of the dark times he endured my pity party for a while. Then, when I asked him what he’s doing right that I’m doing wrong, he put it in perfect perspective for me: “I’m twenty books ahead of you,” he said.

And there it is: the secret to publishing success. And after the twentieth book comes the twenty-first. I’ve come a long way since that chat with Jeff, but I have a long way to go.

Finally, at long last, I’m part of a team that supports me; but part of the reason they support me is because they feel I’ve earned it, a book at a time and a fan at a time.

Can you engineer a bestseller? I believe it’s done all the time. But key elements of the blue print include an established, enthusiastic fan base, and a proven ability to turn out good work.

Can a first time author engineer a bestseller on his own? The occasional exception notwithstanding, I believe the answer is no.

12 thoughts on “Can A Bestseller Be Engineered?

  1. “… a thin romantic melodrama insulated in operatic twaddle.” Now I know what’s missing in my writing: twaddle. Going to get some now.

    John, it’s great to see your publisher get behind you and be able to see results. Congrats!

  2. The e-world is changing all this. We all know that Amanda Hocking and John Locke have “engineered” mega blockbuster careers on their own, and while they have exceptional numbers, there is an ever increasing rank of self-published authors making significant bank without any promotional money.

    Having a publisher behind you for print releases is, of course, great. But where are these print books going to be stocked? Who is going to buy them, when they can get e-books on their e-readers for $2.99, instead of a paper version for $7.99?

  3. It’s good to hear that things are going well. A nice change of pace from most blog posts in the publishing industry, which are usually full of self-generating anxiety on a myriad of topics.

    All roads lead back to the basics for me: shut up and write. 😎

    BK Jackson

  4. That is interesting that your publisher focused on Amazon. It is always good to know what the “experienced” people do.
    Thanks for sharing
    …and Congratulations!
    I’m pre-ordered and excited to read Threat Warning.

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  5. Joe, Twaddle is just a fun word to say.

    Anon 8:29, I don’t disagree that the number of self-pubbed authors is skyrocketing. Therein lies my reasoning that as the digital marketplace grows at a geometric rate, the role of publishers will evolve accordingly. Ready accessibility does not equal market share, and market share is the variable that makes bestsellers live up to the label.

    As the publishing haystack fills with needles, it will take the kind of marketing savvy and paid promotion that are well beyond my ken to help readers find a PARTICULAR needle among the rest.

    Anon 9:11 (aka BK Jackson), Thanks, and I agree.

    Victoria, Biggest thanks of all: You ordered a book!

  6. Congrats. It seems to be working for you. It doesn’t always, as I’m sure you know, but sometimes everything comes together and does what it’s supposed to do – good book, publisher push, good distribution, great cover, author personality, author promotion.

    I sometimes think each one is a wave and if they all come at the same angle at the same time, etc., they become a big wave. If they don’t, if they’re out of sync, sometimes you get a mess.

  7. Don’t think you don’t have anything to do with it. When an author shows that he’s willing to work hard to create publicity on his own, his publisher is far more willing to spend the money for publicity. It’s a two-way street. I’ve seen publishers add to their budget based solely on what they’ve seen the author capable of doing.

    Also, by writing eight books, you’ve also shown yourself to be reliable and bankable. You have the snowball effect going for you now.

  8. I don’t mind the idea that I may have to write 20 books before I hit the big time, as long as I understand that that’s what it’ll take. Lord knows there’s enough stories running around in my coconut to do it. Sure would be nice to be one of the lucky ones, but then again as my culinary experiences have taught me, the best bbq requires a lot of practice, and a slow process to get it right.

    It pays to be in for the long haul.

    And now I return to my lunch of yesterday’s incredibly succulent, slow smoked grilled beef ribs with sweet bbq sauce dripping from the juicy, so tender you can chew it with your tongue, meat.

  9. John, if you drift over to the Kindle Boards’ Writers Cafe and browse the threads long enough, you’ll find a rather sizable group of self-published authors whose first books sold pretty well, and continue to sell in the 1000s/month. Most of these sales are ebooks, but nevertheless, I see the same story played out over and over again on that site.

    I’m not sure what would constitute a “bestseller” in the e-world, but some of these first-timers are sure moving a ton of books.

  10. Pre-ordered “Threat Warning” over a month ago. I stumbled on it accidentally in Amazon. Since “someone” didn’t send out a newsletter, I had no idea it was so close to release. Can’t wait. I do most of my reading on my Kindle these days and I’m ready for a thriller.

    For self-pubs, another factor is being part of a social network and pricing, pricing, pricing. For the friends in my social networks, I’ll give their book a try, sight unseen, genre unseen, if it’s priced on the low end. I want to support my friends and sometimes they surprise me with something really good.

    Cynical, but a mathematical exercise. For a self-pub, do you want 5000 to see it at $1 each or 500 to see it at $10 each. Since there is no physical labor in printing/packing/shipping ebooks, the answer is the first case, overwhelmingly.



  11. I think there is a tipping point and it’s different for different authors and publishers. It might take 10 books or it might be No. 1 or 2, but there is a mysterious point where someone or a group of people at a publishers decide “this is it, we’re going all out on this one”.
    I think it’s more likely to be No. 10 because by then you’ve proven you have a readership, and you’ve also proven (more importantly) that you can write the next one and build on the success, not fall into a big black hole.

Comments are closed.