What Makes a Bestseller?

Posted on May 14, 2007

The New York Times ponders the book publishing business and why it's so difficult to predict which books will be bestsellers. The lengthy article examines the issue from all sides, but eventually concludes that the industry is run the same way it was in the 17th century, without any of the detailed market research that is routinely done in other industries.

Eric Simonoff, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, said that whenever he discusses the book industry with people in other industries, "they're stunned because it's so unpredictable, because the profit margins are so small, the cycles are so incredibly long, and because of the almost total lack of market research."

Publishers do engage in limited numbers crunching. In estimating value, editors rely heavily on an author's previous sales or on sales of similar titles. Based on those figures and some analysis - about the popularity of the genre, the likely audience, the possible newsworthiness of the topic of the economy - they work up profit and loss projections.

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"It's the way this business has run since 1640," he says. That is when 1,700 copies of the Bay Psalm Book were published in the colonies. "It was a gamble, and they guessed right because it sold out of the print run. And ever since then, it has been a crap shoot," Professor Greco said. There is a "business model" that supports this risk-taking. As Mr. Strachan puts it, "Lightning does strike."

And so it must. To make money, the industry depends on perennial sellers and on best sellers. It's not so much the almost sure-fire best sellers by the well-known authors, because those cost so much to acquire and market, but the surprise best sellers. Those include books like Prep, The Nanny Diaries (bought for $25,000, it sold more than four million copies), Marley and Me (bought for $200,000, sold 2.5 million copies) and The Secret (bought for less than $250,000, sold 5.25 million copies in less than six months).

The article goes on and on about how antiquated the book business is, but it seems to be missing a major point. The book business is a lot like the movie and TV business in that it relies on what consumers would like to see or read to be entertained. In other words, it is relying on the changing taste of an ever-changing population. It's not like the electronics business, which has user focus groups and detailed demographic studies. It's fairly easy to find out what kind of new appliance women would like to see to make their lives easier, and what characteristics that appliance should have.

But greenlighting a movie or approving an advance for an unknown author will can't be done by anyone but a nowledgeable person who is making her best guess about what will sell. It is art, and by its very nature is subjective. And that is why it's so hard to quantify. Not that some more market research wouldn't help, of course. It's just that ultimately, knowing what will amuse or entertain millions of people will never be an exact science.