Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Bestseller Code

Building on my previous post about a fellow author's frustration with promotion, maybe now is a good time to consider what other elements make for a strong-selling book. Naturally, a well-written and polished manuscript is the prime ingredient, but when it comes to selling it you may need to do more than set it up for sale and hope the crowds coming calling.

As a publisher I have witnessed different results with different releases and continue to digest what I have learned. We have published incredible works that bowed to "meh" sales. Of course, I personally think everything with a Phaze logo is wonderful in its own way, yet when I release certain books image certain results (based on what I know of our readership, the author, and the sales period), and some books I think will do modestly exceed those expectations. I try to find a definite answer for the success, however, and find it a challenge to pin it down. So, it must be a number of things that contribute to the whole.

It's the Cover! Once at a Phaze signing I mentioned how one book of ours was doing particularly well, and that I was amazed by the sales. "It's the cover," asserted my art director, who had designed it. She had a point. An attractive cover can fortell of an engaging read, and I have talked to many a reader who claim that covers have prompted them to buy books in the past. Covers have also made for massive megabytes of blog fodder in the "cover snark" category, where everybody gets a turn playing Tom Servo and Crow as the show scrolls the worst in Poser art and used-to-death stock photography. If you've followed Phaze from the beginning, you'll know we didn't start out with photographed artwork. Our main cover artist at the time was skilled in graphic programs and turned out some very nice work, winning an ARIANA in the process. And, there were a few head-scratchers, too, like this one:

The artist agonized over this one. I had the concept in mind, and she tried the couple in various positions before settling on this one. The book's release was in limbo because of the cover, and when it was finished I was surprised when it came out. Muse remains one of my favorite stories, but sadly it's one of my least performing titles. I don't know if the cover played a role in that, or because it wasn't a Dareville story. The contract for Muse expires soon, and I'm thinking about what to do with it. More on that later.

Back to topic: catch the eye with a great cover, that's one number in the combination. Your genre should show on the cover. Interracials should have interracial couples, M/M should have two men, etc. The original cover for The Healing did not have two men, as that was Venus Press' policy. Not a very good one, I must say. I'll also note that the story has done better at Phaze than it did at Venus Press, and I promoted it more through Venus Press! The Phaze cover has two men, so readers have an idea what to expect.

It's the Title! Back in Athens, GA I used to work in the sub-basement of a library, receiving various annuals and subscriptions. The only radio station I could pick up was AM conservative talk radio, so I passed the hours listening to Rush Limbaugh (ech), Dr. Laura (meh), and G. Gordon Liddy. I preferred Liddy, at least he gave a dynamic performance day after day. Anyway, once a caller asked him how he came to title his memoir, Will. Liddy revealed that the publisher came up with the title, because the book was due in a time when books with super short titles were big. Jaws was a prime example. Well, it must have worked, because I understand Will became a bestseller, too.

Titles can be tricky when marketing romance. I think I've seen every combination of Passion, Desire, Pleasure, Seduction, and Sin out there. I have to be careful, too, going over our catalog so I don't inadvertently contract a book with a title that's been used by us - I have had to encourage authors to make changes to avoid confusion.

Me, I prefer shorter titles to sentence-long structures. For one, a shorter title is easier to fit on a cover, and if you are using small graphics on a website you want to be sure the title can be seen. Also, I believe shorter titles are easier to remember than longer ones. Take Barbara Walters' new book. Audition. It's to the point, indicative of the book's material, and you'll remember it long after seeing Barbara talk about it on Larry King. You'll go into your favorite bookstore and ask for a copy of Audition, and you'll get it.

I can relate to this somewhat. Years ago I worked in a bookstore, and at that time a very popular biography of Elizabeth Taylor was out. It was simply called Liz. Not a problem to find when people asked for it. Then we'd have customers who would call to inquire if we had that book about Lindbergh, or was it coconuts, and they heard the title on the radio but caught only two words: And and The. We'd discover the book was called The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Made a Pretty Good Movie But Nobody Saw It Because It Played Against Titanic. While the title is fairly descriptive, it's also as long as the actual book. In short, keep it short, and memorable.

It's a Series! James W. Hall is a best-selling author of crime novels set in South Florida. Similar to Carl Hiaasen's style, but not so much wackiness. He is also a graduate from the college I attended, and we have an English professor in common. While listening to him read at a Jacksonville Beach bookstore many years ago, he shared his experiences in the publishing biz. He had written one book which his agent sold, then was advised to write a sequel because the publisher stood to offer more money if they knew the book was part of a series. I can't recall if Hall did that, but he's done well regardless.

When Dare Me was released it had a respectable first month of sales. Phaze took a while in the beginning to generate buzz, and as we weren't releasing titles on a weekly basis like we are now, it took some work to attract readers. One thing I did notice when I got my first statement was that sales of the first Dareville book, Truth or Dare, improved. Nearly four years after that first book's publication, I can still see how having a series helps my sales. Each subsequent Dareville release stimulates interest in the backlist. People might argue that familiarity breeds contempt - it may be true for books, because even I get burned off of favorite mystery series - but I try to keep Dareville fresh by introducing new characters. Old friends return to visit, but they do not dominate. Dareville is a small town, but there are plenty of stories to tell.

Can you franchise that seemingly standalone book? Give it a try, you may be surprised.

It's the Publisher! Only in genre fiction I think, can authors benefit from a readership following for the publisher. I see it strongest in romance - when I was thirteen, my cousins would trade off grocery bags full of Harlequin and Silhouette novels to read. They liked romance, and they knew these publishers had it. Even now, readers flock to where the action is. I wonder how many buy each week's releases solely because each title has that familar ankh or lizard logo on it. If it's a lot, good for them.

It also puzzles me at times, too, to hear that some readers won't patronize a certain publisher based on an experience with one book. When you consider the diversity of authors, editors, artists, and proofers contained within a publisher, why would one bad apple put off you the entire tree? Now, if the publisher were actively screwing people out of royalties or engaging in dubious practices, I can see that. But why neglect the larger pool of talent based on one experience? I have been disappointed by books - small and large - but I don't see that as a basis for boycotting the people who put it out for sale.

Off track again. You might find in your research of publishers that a few sell exceptionally well. You may study online surveys of book sales among debut authors and backlisters and make decisions from there. Fine and good, it helps to be prepared. However, just because one author is selling well at Great Press doesn't mean you will. Just because an author is not selling well at Small Potato Press doesn't mean you won't. If you want to sell books, one of the best things you can do is not worry about how other authors are selling and concentrate on you. Now, you might read this and think, "Oh, she's just saying this to explain away bad sales." I'm not. Phaze has authors who do very well and authors who could do better. We aren't tooling to booksignings in BMWs just yet, but the year's not over.

It's the Genre! Remember a few years back when it seemed all the big books had Diaries in the title? Nanny Diaries, Princess Diaries, Bridget Jones, yada. A sub-sub-genre was born and soon I was getting submissions written in diary form. Then there was Harry Potter and the Legion of Imitators. Then there was the Something Something Social Dirty Girls Stockbroker's Club fad. Tomorrow, who knows? Sometimes it's hard to keep up with the genres, but knowing what's hot in yours can be helpful in your sales.

Who Knows What it Is? Honestly, who does? I can give you a ton of theories, and they all can be discarded with one upstart bestseller featuring a paper bag for a cover and no title. I'll let you know when I've finished writing it.

No comments: