Friday, May 21, 2010

What Makes a Bestseller?

For the past, oh, six months or so, I've been curious as to what makes  certain books bestsellers. I know it's not any one single element, but rather a variety of factors: publisher's interest, commercial viability, story idea, marketing, author blurbs, early buzz. Bestselling books aren't always the most well-written ones (no one would call James Patterson or Dan Brown "literary treasures": their books are the most recyclable ones on the market). Sometimes they don't even send good messages. Early buzz can only get you so far, as we have to be realistic and remember that the majority of the audience that publishers are aiming for with their products isn't book bloggers or fellow authors. We are, in the end, only a sliver of book buyers out there. And even book bloggers can only sway the book-buying market so much. Some of my favorite books aren't bestsellers, even though I wish they would be, and think that they are better than 90% of what's on the NYT bestselling list or whatnot.

So what makes the average book buyer, one who does not spend hours a week on blogs, who doesn't subscribe to Publishers Weekly or Shelf Awareness and follow the book publishing world, pick up a particular book over another at the bookstore?

That got me to thinking about the times in the past when I walked into a bookstore "blind"--with no knowledge of what was out there on the market. This is pretty much impossible for me to do anymore. Nowadays, I walk into my local Borders, head to the YA shelves, and find myself saying, "Yep, read that one.... have that one on my TBR shelf... have that one for review... read that ARC (but the finished copy is so pretty!)... heard of that one... never heard of that one (but it's old, that's why)." I watch the other shoppers around me peruse the shelves, observe which books they stopped on, which ones they end up grabbing. I bet 99% of them aren't book bloggers or in any way involved with the book publishing industry except as consumers... and yet they nearly always picked up the books that are or would become bestsellers. (For example, Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall gets good arm-cradle time.)


When I think about what I will call my "blind" book-buying experiences, two really good ones come to mind. The first occurred in spring 2005, when I was a high school sophomore. The second I think must have been spring 2007, my high school senior spring, because I had a car then. Both times I carefully browsed the YA shelves to buy with what little money I had books that I was fairly certain I'd enjoy. The first time, I bought three paperbacks; the second, I bought one hardcover.

Want to know which books I bought?

In spring 2005, I bought A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Tithe by Holly Black, and Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. In spring 2007, I bought City of Bones by Cassandra Clare.


At the time, I was, of course, unaware that these were or would be all NYT bestsellers (or close enough). I don't remember if they had the coveted and rare "The New York Times Bestseller" tagline on their front covers. So what made me pick these, of all the hundreds of books in the store, up and buy them? What is it about certain books that can make even a "blind" book-buyer subconsciously gravitate to them?

Placement, of course, helps. I used to go to the Barnes & Noble near my house, and they have this small table where they display recent paperbacks. I think they were also turned cover out on the shelves. I know I had to have been influenced at least partially by the covers--the greatest marketing tool. I remember being really enthralled by the covers of A Great and Terrible Beauty, Tithe, and City of Bones. And, of course, there are also the synopses and the lists of awards the book has won on the back (I think that helped a lot: I was a big fan of the YALSA Best Books for Young Adults list). Holly Black's author blurb on the cover of City of Bones definitely contributed to me picking that one up (but it was also a REALLY good blurb, and I haven't seen many equally as captivating since), but author blurbs didn't sway me on the first three. Quantity, I think, also has something to do with it: people are more likely to pay attention if there is a large number of the same books in one place.

So without even knowing it, I had done exactly what the publishers wanted me to do, and picked up the bestselling books, the ones that are still around to this day, still some of the best and most groundbreaking YA lit out there.

That can't have been mere coincidence, can it?

I'd love to hear from you about your own "blind" book-buying experiences and/or theories as to why certain books become bestsellers over others. Has this ever happened to you? Makes you pick up certain books over others at the bookstore?


  1. I think the author's name is important. Often when browsing, I would cast my gaze over the shelves and only truly focus on certain sections. I always paid closer attention around my favorite authors. Since I liked Julian F. Thompson, I found Rob Thomas.

    But they YALSA BBYA list definitely affected me.

  2. I used to walk into bookstores "blind" too, but then again, I used to hate books. Then last year I started finding out about all these amazing new books that were coming out and I started browsing Amazon all the time and I started a booklist. It's now 12 pages long, and whenever I go into a bookstore or order things online, I look for the ones on my list, and I remember them because I've read through my list so many times.
    Usually, I just pick from that. But I know that there are a lot of books that aren't on my list that I might like, but honestly what influences me the most is probably the cover. I, and most of the people I can think of, are ten times more likely to pick up a book with a compelling cover than we are to pick one with a cover we don't like.

  3. I love watching other people browse the YA section. When they look at some of my favorite books I sen them silent "Buy it!" thoughts in my head. When they head near books I did not enjoy I try to mental push them towards the great books.

  4. I agree with you completely. I've heard that in general the not so great products are advertised more, than the really good ones. I guess this applies to books, as well.

  5. I agree with you. I remember I was drawn to certain covers when I was younger, that and the blurb on the back of the book made a big difference as well.

  6. Before I started looking online for recommendations, I used to buy blind often. If the book wasn't recommended personally, reviewed well in a publication, or by an author that I had previously enjoyed, I would simply determine based on the synopsis. Sometimes I still do that but, mostly, I somewhat know what I'm shopping for before I enter a bookstore. I have been paying more attention to books that have won or been nominated for awards lately, however, I don't depend on them much.

  7. Ah, I can hardly remember going into a bookstore blind anymore. I had a lot of 'blind' borrowing, though. A few years ago a blatantly picked up the Uglies series from a teacher's bookshelf. Oh! I read The Lightening Thief WAY before the series started getting the hype - that was a big 'blind' buy for me. City of Bones was one of my library's 'blind' borrows as well. What always got me was the cover and the premise. Back then I was always looking for a new Harry Potter in popularity and would shoot for series reads more. My most recent one was Hush,Hush. A few months before I started searching book info on the net, I saw it in Sam's Club. The cover blew me away, it sounded like a killer love story...and it was at special pricing in hardback. I really never care too much about blurbs/awards, just because a lot of books get those anymore in some way.

  8. Great post! I always love to read other's opinions on what makes a YA bestseller!

  9. If publishers had any idea what factors would definitely create a bestseller, writers would be screwed and publishers would be freakin' rich.

    As for blind shopping, I just picked up what grabbed me cover-wise and then sucked me in with the blurb. Placement is key. I'm more apt to notice a forward-facing book or one on a table versus one stuck in the stacks. But I usually scan those titles anyway.

  10. I think its really hard to go into a bookstore blind, especially since i'm visiting blogs every day, reading peoples reviews and checking out their shelves on goodreads. But I suppose the market is totally different here in the UK, because a lot of the books in my YA section don't get any coverage on blogs, and the majority of the US imports we get are one's that I may never have heard of. Before I started blogging, I was a regular visitor to my local Waterstones and the books I picked up was the same as you, City of Bones and Uglies, and Twilight. So yeah, I did the same, i picked up the bestsellers without even realising.

  11. Great post Steph. I've stopped buying blind now. I rely on you (I just read and loved Gone based on your recommendation) and I've tracked down most of YALSA's Teens' Top Ten list.

    However, if I ever buy a book blind, I have to say that what gets me most is a combination of covers and blurbs. Next, I'm influenced by the feel of the book - paper quality, size of book, font and size of print, as well as quality of the binding.

    I'm amazed that so many books have no blurb on them at all. I've really had to push the girls at my school to read Beautiful Creatures because it doesn't have a blurb. What were the publishers thinking?

    I run a reading room at a girls' school and I'd say the cover is so important when it comes to getting their attention. I'll make sure that great books have covers facing out and are placed at eye level on the shelf and they are picked up within the hour!

  12. When I am browsing a bookstore, I look at covers and the backs..if they don'thaveablurb ontheback i am not going to buy it.. if the cover is ugly? no way..if it has the wierd texture?nope.

  13. A great title can be enticing. Covers are incredibly important, too.

  14. Oh, wow ... It's been awhile since I walked into a bookstore completely blind. The only one I can remember was Ellen Hopkins' Crank. And then I went back and bought every single other book Barnes and Noble had out of hers.


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