Readers First

Greg Mistler's well travelled copy of Gates of Fire

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Here’s something I think is true.

It’s a riff on my 10,000-reader rule, which I think is the magic number of readers per title a publisher must reach before she can be satisfied that she’d done all that she could.  After exposing 10,000 interested people to a book, she’ll either concede defeat (for whatever reason the book just didn’t generate enough word of mouth to survive) or she’ll start reaping revenue from the title year after year.

What’s important isn’t selling 10,000.  What’s important is having 10,000 people read the book!

That’s the riff? The only way a book can succeed commercially is if people actually read it?

I know that sounds obvious and so simple it’s not worthy of commentary, but it’s the single biggest thing that keeps great books from becoming perennial backlist bestsellers.

Not enough people actually read the book.

The book may have sold a healthy number in its first year, but it wasn’t read enough.  It sat on nightstands or on coffee tables and the spine was never sufficiently cracked.

Let’s take a step back:

Remember the difference between frontlist and backlist titles to a publisher?

Frontlist titles are the thing that the Big Five spend 99.9% of their efforts on.  These are the splashy novels or big celebrity tell-alls or narrative nonfictions or big idea books that get million dollar advances and coveted PSFR (Publisher to Sales Force to Retailer) marketing programs from the start.

A PSFR Publisher to Sales Force to Retailer publication works like this:

  • An editor and his publisher go ga-ga for a proposal or novel on submission.
  • Competitor editors and publishers also go ga-ga for the same proposal or novel on submission.
  • Agent for said proposal or novel pits one editor/publisher against the others in order to get the biggest guaranteed advance for the project.
  • The acquiring editor/publisher are initially excited to “win” the project, but then realize that they now have to actually “sell” the project to their sales force, which in turn has to sell the book “in” to the retailers.
  • Because book publishing is so small an industry, though, everyone in the business knows about the “hot” books coming up.  So the push to the sales force and retailers isn’t all that difficult beyond the publisher publicly announcing what she wants the big titles of that season to be.
  • And then with finely tuned rhetoric and co-op commitments, [Co-op is money the publisher pays retailers to put their books front of store], the publisher pushes the book to the sales force, which does what’s necessary to get retailers to take as many initial copies of the book into stores as possible. [Retailers can always return the ones that don’t sell for a full credit so it’s not a crazy difficult sell].
  • To reiterate, the publisher pays enough money to get a saturated distribution into the marketplace and then prays that the message somehow gets to consumers to buy the book based upon the books placement in stores and “Big Media” reviews and attention.  Don’t forget that consumers don’t follow New York book publishing.  So what’s “hot” in New York means absolutely nothing to readers.
  • The only effort to reach the consumer is through the publicity department (reviews and off the book page profiles), and perhaps some targeted advertising from marketing.
  • The only message to the consumer is BUY IT! BUY IT! BUY IT! NOW! NOW! NOW!

That’s really all there is to it.

In every publishing season, there is about 3-5 of these “Big” books for every publisher (9 to 15 per year per publisher, about 100 total across the big publishing industry) that get the majority of attention.  These are the frontlist darlings and the ones the publisher thinks will become immediate bestsellers.

These are the titles that are reviewed in The New York Times Book Review and whatever else is left of dedicated book reviewing in other newspapers across the country. Or on Goodreads etc.

And a few of them do “break out.”  They do become bestsellers and some of those even make a healthy profit, allowing the editor/publisher to breath a sigh of relief.  Chances are though that the editor and publisher are on to the next push for the next “Big” book by the time the last “Big” book actually publishes.

That’s called “feeding the monster.”  I know.  I used to do it.

But then something interesting often happens. More often than not.

Once the book falls off the frontlist bestseller lists, it sinks like a stone.  It perhaps sells 50,000 copies in its first three months of on sale and then it fizzles completely.

Very few of the darlings actually move from frontlist to backlist bestsellerdom.

Why is that?

I think it’s because very few of those 50,000 copies sold in the first three months were actually read.  Seriously.  I think people bought them meaning to read them, but either dipped in and didn’t get hooked or just never got around to it.  And after the book sat untouched, it fell to the bottom of the pile…never to be heard or seen of again. Until the Church bazaar book donation drive where it sits forlorn on basement card tables amongst other bygone year bestsellers.

Remember though that backlist bestsellers are the To Kill a Mockingbird, How to Win Friends and Influence People and The War of Art kind of titles.  They sell strongly year after year after year…

How does a book become a backlist bestseller?

Here’s what I think…

They become bestsellers because people read them.  More than once. These books connect with people and they become, if not members of the family, go-to sources of inspiration and comfort.

And when we get inspired or comforted by something, we let our friends know about it.  Can’t help it.  It’s rough out there and when we find solace, we tell our compadres.

Here’s the thing about a publishing philosophy that embraces the 10,000 Reader Rule, though:  It ain’t sexy.  It ain’t gonna get your picture on the cover of The Styles Section of The New York Times.

A backlist/steady Eddie kind of publishing company is unheralded.  It’s the equivalent of a reliable plumbing or electrician’s business.  The work is solid and hard and modest, invisibly indispensable. It’s eminently rewarding but expect no third party validation for doing it.  If you do it well, few will have ever heard of your company. And as odd as it sounds, if you get calls from The New York Times to profile you…run for the hills!

Big Publishers want sales.  As many as possible.  As soon as possible.  I get it.  That’s good for today’s balance sheet.  And every once and a while, one of the “Big” books crosses over and becomes gigantic frontlist and backlist.  Nothing wrong with that and there is absolutely something wonderful about a book becoming as known and exciting as a big sports event or movie or song.  I’m all for that.

But it’s vitally important to remember that there is no way any book will live year in and year out unless it is read.

So for all of you writers out there, concentrate on the people you think would embrace your work.  Write for them, to them.  So that when your book makes it into their world, they’ll be intrigued.  That intrigue will lead to giving your story a chance.  And if your story delivers something true to them, they’ll keep it close and share it with others.

The trick isn’t to get people to buy your book.  It’s compelling them to actually read it.

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  1. Mary Doyle on April 17, 2015 at 6:22 am

    Thanks for the frontlist/backlist education – I never thought about a book’s success in terms of focusing on finding readers as opposed to buyers, but it makes total sense. I know I’m guilty of buying books that I either don’t get around to reading, or I don’t finish because they didn’t hold my interest. On the other hand I tell everyone I know when I read a fabulous book. Thanks for the lesson Shawn!

  2. Lynne Favreau on April 17, 2015 at 6:40 am

    Yes! It is one of the reasons I find the focus on selling .99c ebooks so backwards and unproductive. There may be a quick rise in sales, but not readership. Of course someone will ask how one converts buyers to readers, the answer: write a good book readers want to share.

  3. Dora Sislian Themelis on April 17, 2015 at 7:01 am

    Yes, the church book “bazaar” is bizarre. I know because I run one every spring.

  4. Alex Cespedes on April 17, 2015 at 7:47 am

    The simplest messages are the best. What’s good, lasts. What’s merely flashy, fizzles.

    Thank you for the inside knowledge of “the biz.” The info is perfect for this tribe, I think we’d all decide to be backlist authors if a choice had to be made.

  5. Paul C on April 17, 2015 at 7:56 am

    John Williams’ novel “Stoner” was published fifty years ago and sold only 2,000 copies. I never heard of him or his novels until a few months ago. Fifty years later, “Stoner” has found new life. It’s a remarkable novel and a good candidate for future books to get the “storygrid” treatment.

  6. Lea Page on April 17, 2015 at 8:39 am

    The small press that just released my book yesterday (Parenting in the Here and Now) operates on the premise of slow but steady readership. We can’t all be Harper Lee or Steve Pressman, but we can still tell a good story that resonates and leaves readers with satisfying questions. At least that is what I am hoping I have done, as I send out agent query letters for my second book, a memoir.

  7. Rebecca on April 17, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    Every couple of years I buy ten or so copies of The War of Art to give to friends. They often tell me later that they’ve bought a copy for a friend of theirs … or then given away their copy, and bought it for themselves because they don’t want to be without it. Few books will resonate this deeply with this many, but you can’t beat evangelical readers.

  8. Adam Thomas on April 21, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    Getting read is the only path to immortality.

    Would you rather have 10,000 sales or 1,000 true fans :-).

  9. granny on December 6, 2019 at 4:06 am

    What’s important isn’t selling 10,000. What’s important is having 10,000 people read the book!

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