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.
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?
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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