The Bard Press Essays
Week 1 – Feb 3, 2021
I have been wondering for years what is different about bestselling books. There are so many factors that affect the overall success of a book. Many of those factors we can’t control, but there might be just as many factors that we decide upon early when developing a book or factors we can heavily influence over the book’s lifetime. I think authors and publishers have more levers to pull than they realize.
At Bard, we work with one new author each year. We only publish one or two new books a year. Some years we don’t publish any new titles. Our hypothesis is that more time and effort spent on a smaller number of titles yields significantly higher sales on each title. That hypothesis probably sounds obvious and true at first glance. The important part of that sentence is “significantly.” Bard Press’ ability to operate as a press, even a small one, requires better than typical results. We need ways to stack the deck in our favor.
This is the first essay in a series I plan to write about bestselling books. This piece lays the groundwork for future discussions about how authors and publishers might all stack the deck in our favor.
What’s a Bestseller?
In book publishing, we celebrate when a new release makes a bestseller list in media outlets like New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or USA Today. Each list reports a ranking of the highest selling books sold from the prior week. Other trade lists like Publishers Weekly or Porchlight Books’ list operate in similar ways. The rankings vary by the source of their sales data, the length of time represented, and sometimes, by the use of algorithms to weight factors.
The idea of being a bestselling book has expanded in recent years. Amazon created the Sales Rank for books sold on their site. The ranked number is displayed on every product page and updates multiple times each day. This simple addition puts every book on a bestseller list. And thousands of categories and their nested subcategories creates hundreds of thousands of lists where any book can be a bestseller.
It gets hard to know exactly what a bestseller is.
I have always wondered why book publishing as an industry hasn’t taken a longer view. The New York Times will report the number of weeks a book has appeared on their list. After a strong run on the list, publishers often send authors a shadow box with a reprint of the list as it appears in the paper edition. That recognition provides some sense of a book’s sales, but it is still largely opaque.
Consider other media industries. The music industry issues gold, platinum and diamond records for albums that surpass 500,000 copies, one million copies, and ten million copies, respectively. The motion picture industry reports box office sales every Monday but they also track top grossing movies of all time. There is a celebration of total cumulative sales in other industries that seems to be missed in the world of book publishing.
For this research and these essays, I am going to focus on the lifetime sales of a book. Sales in a smaller time frame can be important and we’ll return back to that in future essays, but books with a long shelf life (all puns intended) are the goal of every publisher and worthy of study.
In the world of business and personal development, 100,000 copies is a good threshold for success. First, no one would dispute success with that many copies sold. Except for the biggest of books, royalty advances have earned out and everyone is making money. There is no question the book has found an audience by that point and will continue to sell.
Reaching the 100,000 copy threshold is also rare. If you look at the sales of books between 2010 and 2019, there were only 200 titles that reached six figure sales out of tens of thousands of books published. With a cohort of that size, there is a good mix of titles to allow deeper analysis around what makes these books different.
With the term “bestseller” lacking any standard definition around timeframe or overall success, I feel like we need a new term.
We could use some abbreviation-symbol-thing like 100K+. It’s awkward.
I thought about referring to them as kaiju books—publishing monsters that tower over and battle in the media landscape. That felt too cute and too menacing at the same time.
You probably thought, “Just call them Black Swans, Todd,” and it’s a good label for the success part, but it falls down a little on a critical quality—I don’t think that these books are complete surprises. I know that sounds crazy, but there are some leading indicators for successful books. I am not trying to promise or guarantee the success of your next book, but there are specific strategies and tactics that can put you in a better position.
The purpose of these essays is to share some of those unexpected things that I have learned that might lead all of you to greater success as authors and publishers.
P.S. As for the “bestseller” substitute, let’s see if we can figure it as we go…