How bestsellers are made

January 5, 2009
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Ever wonder how and why some books seem to come out of nowhere to become bestsellers?

There's an interesting story you might have missed in Saturday's "Wall Street Journal." Find it here.

In it, reporter Anita Elberse discusses the increased emphasis on "hit-focused marketing"--basically, throwing marketing money behind books that the publishers have invested highly in.

She says: "Media companies' hit-focused marketing did not emerge in a vacuum. It reflects how consumers make choices. The truth is that consumers prefer blockbusters. Because they are inherently social, people find value in reading the same books and watching the same movies that others do. This is true even in today's markets where, thanks to the Internet, buyers have easy access to millions and millions of titles. Compounding this tendency is the fact that media products are what economists call "experience goods": that is, shoppers have trouble evaluating them before having consumed or experienced them. Unable to judge a book by its cover, readers look for cues as to its suitability for them, and find it very useful to hear that "Dewey" is "a 'Marley & Me' for cat lovers." In much the same way that potential publishers do, readers value resemblances to past favorites."

So are you still judging a book by its cover? Or are you judging it by what others (including marketers) have compared it to?

Your thoughts?
  • I mainly choose what I buy and read by recommendations from friends or when choosing a new book altogether Ill see if it has taglines from good reviewers. If it has one or two taglines and it's from some no-name newspaper or magazine, I may put it down. I'll usually read the first page or so in the store to see if it grabs me or not. Most times I buy book used anyway. I'm more likely to buy it if it's a prizewinner than a bestseller. I find that what most of the public is reading does not appeal to me. Such as Marley & Me, that People you meet in Heaven book, or any John Grisham type novel. No offence to anyone who likes those, it's just not my personal taste. Marketing efforts may make me aware of a book but it won't make me buy it.
  • Marketing will never be the gage of quality literature, but it sure influences a lot of decisions about what people read. At the same time I don't believe that thinking people fall into the chasm of determining what they like based on the economics of the market. Let's hope not. I can think of numerous important writings that would never have seen the light of day under today's market driven industry. A best seller may not be a best read! The article in the Wall Street Journal was very interesting. Thanks for sharing this.
  • Lou, your post today makes me think of readers' advisory librarianship.

    A good reader's advisory librarian always reads with read-alikes in mind. She (or he) doesn't care about selling a particular book the way a publisher does, but rather about helping her patrons find the books that are right for them. As she's reading THE LIGHTNING THIEF, by Rick Riordan, for example, she might think, Ah-HAH! I bet HARRY POTTER fans would enjoy this.

    Even so, suggesting read-alikes is a tricky matter. Reading is a very personal thing, and people like or dislike the same books for different reasons.

    Just last night, for example, I overheard a librarian at my local public library talking with a teen who was looking for something good to read. She had just finished the book, MARLEY AND ME, thought it was better than the movie, and wanted something else like it.

    The librarian told her what she had read in Lou Harry's blog: I've heard that if you like MARLEY AND ME you might also like the one about cats. It's called...

    DEWEY, the teen finished the librarian's sentence. Yes, I've heard about that book, but I just don't think that would interest me. I don't really care that it's about animals. What I liked about MARLEY AND ME was the stuff about the family. Do you know who wrote THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER?

    Yes, the librarian answered. Sarah Dessen.

    Do you think I would like her other books?

    Well, most people who like one Sarah Dessen book do like them all because even though they're all about different topics, they are also all about family relationships and friendships.

    The teen left with an armful of Sarah Dessen books and the assurance from the librarian that if you don't like those, come back and we'll look for something else.

    (Truly effective readers' advisory librarianship also involves building relationships with readers, helping them feel they can come back and say, No, I didn't like this, but can you suggest something else? without hurting the librarian's feelings or offending her.)

    So...whenever a good reader's advisory librarian reads a book review (or a whole book, but no librarian has enough time to read as many books as she would like), she looks for clues that will help her match book to reader.

    But also, when someone asks her for a good book, she never just names a book, because good means different things to different people.

    Instead, she always asks some questions, such as Can you tell me the name of a good book you just finished? or Can you tell me some authors that you like? or Are you looking for a good book to read for school, or a good book to read on vacation, or a good book to read while you're in the hospital or...?

    She may also ask things like What kind of book are you in the mood for? or Do you usually like books that move quickly, with lots of action, or books that unfold at a more leisurely, though-provoking pace?

    She also listens carefully to the patron's answers. She offers suggestions, and listens carefully to the patron's comments about them. A patron might say, I don't want any death or curse words or I don't want any explicit sex or I'm in the mood for a steamy (sexy) romance or I tried that author before The librarian adjusts and offers further suggestions.

    If the patron really can't express what he means by a good book, the librarian might ask, What's your favorite TV show? or What kind of music do you like to listen to? and try to offer suggestions of books that have a similar feel.

    The librarian tries to be as non-judgmental as she can about what the patron is looking for. She is NOT in literary critic mode. Nor is she in retail marketer mode. Again, her goal is to help the reader find satisfying reads.

    So...while I agree that people should resist being manipulated by big-budget marketing, I believe there is no shame in asking the readers' advisory librarian at your local public library for suggestions.

    Hope Baugh

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