success. Many of the books on these lists have some weaknesses, but they’re all there because readers wish to devour them: that’s why they are worth studying. A Stanford Business School survey finds little additional benefit for authors who have slots on the list. But for the first-time bestseller, sales increase by 57 percent.
Aiming high to get on the list could have a huge impact on your career. Staying there pleases your agent and editor, but it’s really the first appearance that does the job for your sales.
If you (or your editor) has any influence over the timing of your book release, avoid June and July for paperback releases because you’ll be competing with the "beach reads." For hardcovers, avoid late fall, which forces you to compete with Christmas gift book sales. Some of the name authors have very specific release dates (like Mother’s Day for Mary Higgins Clark and Father’s Day for Tom Clancy), so it’s probably best to avoid those dates if you’re in a similar genre. I’d like to compile a calendar of these dates to see what it reveals, but that’s a big project for another time.
So how to shoot for your spot on the list?
New authors get there in a couple of ways. For the period of 2003 to 2010, first novels occupied 8 to 14 percent of slots on the Publishers Weekly list. If you’re reading this article, you’re already beyond that stage (though it may tempt you to try a pseudonym). In fact, most authors don’t hit the lists until they have several titles already out, then they achieve a breakout book, as Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, and Dan Brown did.
Still, as you’ve noticed, it’s harder and harder to get a publisher to stick with you through those first few moderately successful titles until you reach the big time.
Can you manipulate your way onto the list? It’s possible. The most infamous story occurred in 1995 when the authors of a nonfiction book called The Discipline of Market Leaders purchased more than 10,000 copies of their own book at bookstores that reported sales to Bookscan. The authors considered buying their own work an investment that would pay for itself, not because of the sales directly, but because of additional benefits like speaking engagements and consulting gigs. The book reached number eight on the list— where it sat for 15 weeks.
However, writing the kind of book likely to hit the list is a more comfortable and less expensive option for those who feel they can harness the muse. When Nicholas Sparks decided he wanted to write a book, he analyzed sales over a period of time to determine that each sub-genre appearing had about three big-name writers—but that “love stories” (his terminology) had only one, so he decided to write in that genre, angling to become a major voice in that narrow field. If you pick up the books analyzing the bestseller lists, you will find that there are a few major themes or areas that crop up again and again, and combinations of those themes are more likely to hit big. Think religion, historical settings (especially Civil War), a secret revealed.
Obviously, not all authors who try to write a book to specifications like this will succeed—you need to have sufficient writing chops to carry off the work—but Sparks is not the only author to have done so. YA and sexy vampires are hot? Enter Stephanie Meyer, who had the assistance of former film industry analyst and current best-selling author David Farland to develop her concept. Farland offers a workshop and e-book entitled The Million-Dollar Outline geared toward this approach. I'll let you know how it works out for me. Michael Maxen’s March 1, 1998 article for the New York Times Magazine details the process of the two authors who wrote The Eleventh Plague, a work deliberately crafted for bestsellerdom that earned its authors $3 million in advances and film options. Their second book seems to have bombed, however. Still, I think $3 mil is nice compensation for the lack of career longevity.
Does this mean we have entered the arena of the dreaded “formula fiction” so many of us are accused of writing? Yes and no. Most fiction, when analyzed, reveals certain structures and tropes—these are things that readers respond to over and over. If you want your reader to enjoy your book, you would do well to be aware of them and to violate them only when completely necessary. Most of us could probably come up with a list for our own genres. In his article, Michael Maxen quotes the following list for the thriller genre: