Almost everyone has the wrong idea about how a book becomes a bestseller. In the crowd I run around with, the term “bestseller” tends to have a technical meaning: a book on the New York Times Bestseller List. Every week the NY Times receives data from all the major book-selling outlets – from Amazon to Indies – and crunches the numbers for their various lists (Fiction Hardbacks, Non-Fiction Hardbacks, paperback fiction, etc.). There are 25 books in each category that make the list, but they *print* only the top 15.
To put that list in a bit of perspective, there are about 700 – 800 new books published in the U.S. every day (not counting self-published books). To make the top 25 in a given week is … well, not easy.
As many of you know, a non-fiction “trade book” is one written for a broad, general audience rather than for scholars in a field of study (an “academic” book or a “monograph”) or for classroom use for students (a textbook). Normally, the point of writing a trade book is to get a lot of people to read it since, after all, it’s written for a wide audience. So how do books get widely read?
I wrote my first trade book in 1998 (uh, 25 years ago) (ouch), and it was published then in 1999: Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. (I meant the title to be clever: we were moving into a new millennium and Jesus was a millenary prophet predicting the end of the current age.) At the time I had basically no clue how trade books would sell well.
My assumption was simply that if a book was a good book, it would sell and the best ones would become best sellers. Yeah, that’s simply wrong. You will almost certainly have noticed that some of the best books you’ve ever read are ones that your family and friends have never even heard of; or you may well have had the experience of reading a runaway best seller that you thought was schlock compared with another book that was never mentioned by anyone. Books that are widely read, of course, are attractive to large numbers of people, and the bestsellers are attractive to the largest numbers. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best books.
What most authors think – at least the many dozens I’ve talked with – is that a book “does well” when