Welcome to the first post in an occasional series for writers!
After I got my PhD, I went to work at a bookstore. This was partly because my brain was fried and I wanted to relax with the pretty books. It was also because, as I writer, I wanted to understand how the retail end of the book business actually functioned – and how real humans behave when choosing new books. It was revelatory – and now I share those revelations with you.
Five Ways a Book Becomes a Bestseller
Every writer needs a day job. Supportive spouses, after all, can only take you so far. After it became clear my back up plan (PhD/research scientist) was killing my creativity, there was only one choice left – what better place for a writer to work than a bookstore? There were flexible hours, which freed up time for writing. There was on the scene, up to the minute market research. And let’s not forget the staff discount. I really miss the staff discount.
One of the biggest advantages, however, was the insight into how bookstores* actually function, and how customers actually choose their next great read**. Here’s what I’ve learned about what can make a book, including yours, jump off the shelves.
Things Which You, The Author, Have Little Or No Control Over
1) COVER ART. It’s a sad fact that the very people who tell you not to judge a book by its cover are secretly doing just that. My specialty was the kid’s/teen department, and the younger the reader, the truer it is. I can’t tell you how many times I started to recommend a book, only to have a child glance at the cover and say “no” before I could even describe the story. A book’s cover is like a blind date’s handshake – if it’s limp and moist (ie, bland, boring, overly familiar), it inspires no confidence. If it’s joint-crushing (ie, garish, vaguely offensive, or just plain ugly), it’s not taken seriously. On the other hand, if it’s firm and decisive (ie, well-designed, beautiful, intriguing), a reader will give serious thought to bringing it home.
2) JACKET COPY. Have you ever been intrigued by a book’s cover, picked it up, flipped it over, and found nothing but blurbs, or worse, a single-paragraph excerpt from the book? What if the only information inside a hardcover’s dust jacket was the author’s bio? Assuming you didn’t already have good reason to trust the author, how likely would you be to actually buy the book? To give you an extreme example. In our teen section, we had a paperback edition of Francesca Block’s Weetzie Bat. It’s an Indigo Recommends title, meaning it’s stocked in large quantities, faced, and has a star sticker to draw attention. The cover, however, contains not a single word: no synopsis, no blurbs, no extract, nothing but rather unremarkable art. This book did not sell, because customers didn’t have the faintest idea what it’s about. Likewise, we didn’t hand sell it, because none of us had read it, because we didn’t have the faintest idea what it’s about. But, you might argue, can’t booksellers get more info about the book online, at the author’s website or library catalogue? Absolutely, but we don’t. And neither do customers.
3) TITLE. Give us funny, give us clever, give us mysterious. Give us something that catches our attention and makes us want to know more about your masterpiece. Above all, give us something that accurately represents the book. Play fair with your readers, and be kind to booksellers. Booksellers read books at home, on vacation, and on their lunch breaks. Some also follow industry publications and blogs in an effort to keep up. Despite their best efforts, there’s no possible way booksellers could be familiar with every book in the store. Which means they’re often giving customers advice based on familiarity with genre conventions for titles and cover designs. Help the bookseller be right.
4) BLURBS. Blurbs are a double-edged sword. If they’re compelling and offered by a writer (usually) or newspaper (sometimes) the reader trusts, they will sell your book. On the other hand… I bought the first book in a new fantasy series the other day. I read halfway through and gave up because, after 200 pages, I was bored to tears. This book was enthusiastically blurbed by two other fantasy authors. Not only will I never buy another book by this author, I’ll never buy a book by the authors of the blurbs, because clearly our definitions of “good” don’t jibe. The same, by the way, goes for movie deals. News of a movie deal can be all the impetus a customer (especially a child) needs to take a chance on a book. That being said, I had to stop telling people that Disney had bought Aprilynne Pike’s Wings for Miley Cyrus, because 50% would buy it instantly and the other 50% put it back even faster.
5) PLACEMENT. With a few exceptions, display space in chain bookstores is a function of co-ops. Meaning publishers pay to have their books appear on tables, end caps, wheelies, in piles at the cash register…. In other words, unless your publisher has the a) money b) clout c) faith in your book as a front list title, it will probably not be featured any place but the genre’s section. Likewise, if your publisher can’t convince the store’s book buyers to purchase enough copies for a facing, your book will be spined, meaning your lovely cover will not be visible to casual browsers. Do not despair. There are ways around this. Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I reveal the ways in which you, as the author, can help rock your own sales.
* I worked at Chapters, which is part of the Indigo Books and Music group, Canada’s chain bookseller. But please, can we skip the diatribe about the evils of chains? I can’t speak for American chains, or even other branches of Indigo, but my location was staffed with folks that were passionate about books and truly dedicated to customer service. Including, ahem, PhDs willing to work for less than $10 an hour, just for the joy of being around books. Besides, our local independent ordered copies of the UK edition of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest from a British bookseller and resold them in North America. This may not actually be illegal, but it’s just a tad unethical. And while we’re on the subject, if you really want to point fingers, I think we can all agree to aim them towards places like Costco and Wal Mart.
** I’m referring here primarily to fiction and kid lit, as purchased by bookstore browsers. Nonfiction shoppers are a different species entirely, and more often than not already know exactly what title they’re looking for when they walk in the door.