Monday, May 14, 2007

Is there a formula for a best-seller?

How does a publisher know that the manuscript he is looking at is a potential bestseller? The answer is he doesn't. He only has a hunch and he bets on its basis. Most often he loses.

That is what makes the business of publishing novels (for the publishers) "the greatest mystery". And no one has the "key" to make it big in the publishing business. In an article that looks at this phenomenon, Shira Boss of NYT writes:

The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.

Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.

... Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling.

This is an interesting story, and the news peg is Curtis Sittenfeld’s (picture above, courtesy NYT) first novel, “Cipher,” that was let go by nearly two dozen high-ranking editors at major publishers, only to be picked up by Random House, who made an offer, giving Ms. Sittenfeld a $40,000 advance.

Random House published “Cipher” in January 2005, renaming it “Prep” and backing it with a clever marketing and publicity campaign. The novel has confounded all expectations by making the New York Times best-seller list a month after publication. The hardcover, with a cover price of $21.95, eventually sold more than 133,000 copies. The paperback also became a best seller, selling 329,000 copies to date. Foreign rights have been sold for publication in 25 languages, and Paramount has optioned the movie rights.

Puzzled? Do you also think that publishing isn't a business, it’s a casino? Read on...


Obiter Dictum said...

Might they be just as inexplicable as the movies. What you think of as uter trash makes a whole lotta money and what you consider a must see fails.

Everything has become a matter of marketing these day, no?

Zafar Anjum said...

Yeah, unfortunately, everything has become so marketing-driven, even publishing. But I hope good writers will keep on surprising us. I personally don't care about the best-selling list, but a publisher would. That's the sad reality, and they are the people who decide which books get to lick the ink. I remember the publisher in Mohsin Hamid's A Reluctant Fundamentalist. He did want to let go of his press but he had to, as he had no choice due to business issues. Thanks for dropping by mate!