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How Does A Book Become A Bestseller? Readers’ Mailbag April 21, 2017

In this week’s Mailbag I deal with a question about how a book written for a popular audience becomes a bestseller, specifically with regard to Misquoting Jesus, my book that has sold the best of all by far.

 

QUESTION:

In your previous answer to me you indicated that what makes a bestseller, in the end of the day, is massive media attention.  My question now is what sparks this attention. In other words, why, out of all your books, did Misquoting Jesus receive a great attention from the media?

 

RESPONSE:

Ha!  It’s a great question.  I’ll start by saying that if there were a sure-fire formula for how to get media attention, every author in the planet would do it and we would *all* be on the NY Times Bestseller list!  But the reality is that there are hundreds of books sold every day in English (I was told some years ago that it’s about 600 per day,  but I have no way of knowing if that is right or not; maybe someone else on the blog knows).  Every one of those authors wants to be on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and on TV talk shows giving interviews.  But well, do the numbers.  It almost never happens, since most of the big radio and TV venues happen just four or five times a week.

It happened with me on Misquoting Jesus, and as it turns out, it was almost purely a fluke, an accident of scheduling.

For those of you who are interview-radio aficionados, I don’t need to tell you that two of the biggest national venues are Fresh Air and The Diane Rehm Show.  These two seem to compete with one another – one normally playing during the day (Diane Rehm) and the other (at least everywhere I’ve ever listened) in the late afternoon/early evening.   I have been told that because they are in competition they mutually refuse to interview the same person for the same publication.   But I ended up being interviewed for both, within ten days of each other.  One of the schedulers simply made a mistake and didn’t realize I was on the other show.  That made a huge difference to my life.

My book Misquoting Jesus came out in the fall of 2005.  As you probably have noticed, publishers tend to publish their important books on religion either in the fall leading up to Christmas or in the spring leading up to Easter.  They judge that those are the most auspicious time for such books.  The media attention, if it is going to happen, almost always happens right away.

I was interviewed by Diane Rehm for an hour in her Washington Studio in early December, and taped another hour-long interview with Terry Gross long-distance at about the same time (I’ve been on Fresh Air six times and have never met her face-to-face; she does all of her interviews with the interviewee being in a different radio station in a different city, hooked up via cable).  The two interviews aired within ten days of each other.  That almost never happens, and as I said, it was a fluke.

Someone at the Washington Post saw that this had happened and took an immediate interest in the book.  It’s a good thing they did.  It ended up making my career.   Misquoting Jesus, after those two interviews and a bunch of appearances on other much smaller radio venues, was on the NY Times Bestseller list, but only at #16.   The deal is that there are, every week, 25 books on “the list.”  But only the top 15 get printed in the Sunday edition of the NY Times.  What every author desperately wants is to be on the printed list, not the extended list.  They want to see their name in the Sunday paper!  And for weeks I was just barely missing it.  Erg.

The Post decided that the topic of the book was interesting enough that they wanted to do a feature article on me.  I got a call from one of their reporters, Neely Tucker, asking if he could come to Chapel Hill to meet with me.  I was reluctant at first – it sounded like a bit of an imposition on my hard-to-schedule time.  But I ended up agreeing, and oh boy am I glad I did.

Neely came and shadowed me for a couple of days.  We met in my office, he came to one of my lectures, he came to my home to look at my home study where I research and write and to talk to Sarah a bit, we had a few nice meals together.  He was a nice and very interesting fellow, and I had a good time.  But I wasn’t really prepared for what came of it.  What came of it was a longish article, in the Washington Post, on March 5, 2006, called “The Book of Bart.”  You can read it online.  It was very positive.

And it brought more attention to the book.   In a very big way.  The producers of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart saw it.  They called my publisher.  They wanted me to do the Daily Show.  Ai yai yai.  This was getting serious.

My publisher immediately arranged for me to get media coaching for the interview with an expert in such things in D.C.  I’ll talk about that in a later post (pretty funny story).  I went on the Daily Show.   Met Jon Stewart ahead of time in the Green Room.  We had a really nice chat.  And then live in front of an audience for the interview.  You can see that too on line.  I thought it went really well.  Jon Stewart *loved* the book and was unusually enthusiastic about it.

And that made all the difference.  For the next four days, the book shot up to be the #1 bestselling book on Amazon.com.   That is, it was the bestselling book in the world for four days.   It also shot up the NY Times Bestseller list, ending up, finally, at #5.  Stayed on the list for months.   And really launched my career as a trade-book author.  The rest, as they say, is history.  And in one sense it was all because of a scheduling fluke.  Go figure.   It’s all about the media attention.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 21, 2017

    Bart, please consider as a mailbag topic. I’ve finally read geneticist Dean Hamer’s 2004 book “The God Gene.” Most interesting was the idea that the apostle Paul (among others) may have suffered from “temporal lobe epilepsy, a (common) neurological disease that causes abnormal electrical firing in the limbic system.” It appears to me a key founder of Christianity may have suffered a dreamy, spiritual, hallucinatory seizure (that included voices) on the road to Damascus — and the rest was history so to speak. Have you ever opined on this controversial theory of what Paul specifically suffered among his afflictions? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2017

      No I haven’t. My view is that we don’t have enough historical information to make an analysis. I think the accounts of his conversion in Acts are legendary, so they don’t help with a medical diagnosis.

      • Avatar
        Kirktrumb59  May 23, 2017

        Agree re: Acts. But much of the TLE hypothesizing derives from his apparent hypergraphia, his obvious hyper-religiosity (apparently pre- as well as post-conversion), clear “cosmic” concern, no (at least documented) sense of humor, his personal aversion to sex (at least as documented) his referral to his “affliction.” For references, for those of you bothering to read this tardy response, see a few of my previous comments on this blog, quite the while ago. The connection of limbic epilepsy with religion in general, as well as with the output, e.g., of van Gogh, Flaubert, Dostoevsky is old news. Did St. Paul really have epilepsy, much less the interictal syndrome of limbic epilepsy? Maybe. Unprovable.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 21, 2017

    That “Misquoting Jesus” has been your best selling book does not surprise me at all. It is a terrific book which introduced us lay readers, in a way that we could understand it, to the idea that there are thousands of ancient New Testament texts which are all different. That for me was the death blow to Biblical literalism because it meant that there was no “the” Bible so one cannot interpret it literally even if one wants to do so. There is just no “the” Bible to interpret literally. The church that I was attending at the time was arguing about whether women can preach sermons, say a pubic prayer, take up the collection, be an elder or a deacon, and so on and so forth and both sides were busy quoting scripture to make their arguments. “Misquoting Jesus” for me meant that people need to study what they are quoting and why they are quoting it before they start quoting scripture in arguments. I left this church soon after reading “Misquoting Jesus.” Thanks so much for writing it and I still rate it as your best book besides “Jesus, Interrupted.”. What is your next bestselling book or books?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2017

      I think the order is Misquoting Jesus, Jesus Interrupted, and God’s Problem.

  3. Avatar
    James Chalmers  May 21, 2017

    It seems to be over 800 a day.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  May 21, 2017

    “Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.” — a popular expression misattributed to Seneca

  5. Avatar
    Pegill7  May 21, 2017

    Bart,

    How refreshing that one would attribute his phenomenal success in part to a “scheduling fluke.” Based on my familiarity with many of your writing, I believe you are sincere, and that this is not just a modest disclaimer such as many others are wont to make. Serendipity is indeed responsible for many “blessings which we receive.

  6. Avatar
    Jayredinger  May 22, 2017

    Hello Bart,
    I know this is off topic, but have you expounded on the number of the beast in Revelation. What is the original number 616 or 666. I watched a video clip and it implied that the author of Revelation might have been referring to Gaius Caesar as the beast and the number would then have to be 616

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2017

      Yes, I dealt with the issue directly about a year and a half ago, here: https://ehrmanblog.org/666-the-number-of-the-beast/

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 22, 2017

        The “number of the beast” reminds me of a fun experience my family had. Way back in the late 1940s or early 1950s, we got our first telephone. My older sister – then a young adult – worked for the phone company, and she was very proud of the number she’d gotten for us: AS(27)4-6666. Easy to remember! Then friends began telling us she’d gotten it so easily because few people would accept a number in which three sixes came together. No one in my family knew what they were talking about!

        By the way, here’s how phone numbers were made up in those days: The first two numbers corresponded to the first two letters of the name of some locally important historical person or place. Where I lived, “Ashley” was the name of the long-ago builder of a *ferry* around which the city had grown up.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 23, 2017

          Yes, my students sometimes thing that it’s a appropriate that the phone number for my Department of Religious Studies is 962-5666.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 22, 2017

        P.S. to previous: Come to think of it, one doesn’t “build” an actual ferry, one “operates” it! But since it was a business, I assume there was also some sort of “building,” even if it was little more than a shack.

      • Avatar
        Boltonian  May 22, 2017

        Robert Graves, in the ‘White Goddess,’ also identifies ‘The Beast’ with Nero. He too uses numerology but the name he comes up with is ‘Domitius’, which was Nero’s real name.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  May 26, 2017

          I read somewhere that if you spell Nero’s official name Neron Caesar it comes out 666 and if you spell it Nero Caesar, it comes out 616. So the scribes were doing the math, I suppose?

  7. Avatar
    Jason  May 22, 2017

    I find it interesting that you needed media coaching. I would have thought that your experience as a classroom presenter, “Great Courses” contributor and worship leader would have made you a natural for public media-was that not the case?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 23, 2017

      Yeah, that’s what I thought. Until I got media coaching, and realized how much there was to know. I may post on that.

  8. Avatar
    Jayredinger  May 22, 2017

    Thanks for the link. Interesting. In the video clip I watched, It mentioned that the author was more than likely referring to Gaius Caesar, because, if written in Greek, the numbers then add up to 616

  9. Avatar
    Jayredinger  May 22, 2017

    If you want to check it out, this is where I found it.
    The video was on Mark Goodacre’s NT blog about revelation.
    The clip was from a BBC series, Bible Mysteries (2003), which has never been commercially released.
    As well as Prof. Ian Boxall (now of Catholic University of America), we see Prof. David Parker, OBE, of the University of Birmingham.

  10. Avatar
    HawksJ  May 22, 2017

    It’s obvious in that Jon Stewart segment that you hadn’t made ‘it’ yet. At that time, you still felt compelled to wear a tie!

  11. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  May 23, 2017

    I’d like to know more about your media coaching. I watched a couple of interviews for E. L. James. She seemed very uncomfortable with the success of her books and the interview process as a whole. From what I understand, her books were popular before media coverage began. It started out as fan fiction, then she self-published. It became popular through word of mouth. After that, a publisher picked it up. That’s probably not the norm.

  12. Avatar
    Eric  May 23, 2017

    But I knew you BEFORE you were famous! (Teaching Company)

  13. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 25, 2017

    I looked up “The Book of Bart” and there’s a really strange image http://media3.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/photo/2006/03/04/PH2006030401370.jpg at the top of the page. Is that you behind the bible? What is that, that looks like red duct tape over your mouth?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      No it’s not me. I think it was meant to be humorous: people gagged who see the truth about the Bible.

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