Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Book Sales

What Makes A Bestselling Novel?
When was the last time a new author caught your attention? What made you wheel around in the book store or on-line, glancing through this new treasure and fork over hard-earned money?

I’m talking about novels that escaped attention until that moment you walked into the book store. Something so compelling you just had to reach for your wallet and pay the price of admission to enter into the author’s fictional world.

And what about those so-called overnight successes. Those debuting authors that seem to hit the New York Times bestseller list with their first novel. You know those ones—busting all sales records, getting translated into more languages than Rosetta Stone teaches. What did these new authors do differently that the rest of us writers failed to grasp?

These thoughts crossed my mind last week when I came across two such successes—John Verdon’s launch of Think Of  A Number and  Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s translated novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (His remaining Trilogy sequels, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest are now available). I am probably one of the few writers around who never heard of either of these two guys until I walked into the bookstore last week. So give me black marks on my report card for not knowing who’s who in the publishing zoo.

I wound up buying both novels.

I bought Verdon’s book after walking through a Barnes&Noble Store just to see what was there. First mistake for a book addict. A couple days later, I bought Larsson’s first novel via my Nook e-Book reader. At this point in time, I have not read more than a chapter from each novel.

So what made me dole out my money to read these novels.

Verdon’s book sat front and center as I entered the book store. Snazzy cover and great location. Customers practically had to walk around this book to enter. A bright red band hugged each expensive copy of Verdon’s book with these words: “If you love Baldacci, Gerritsen, Kellerman, Demille, and Lescroart, you’ll love Verdon.”

If shoes can make tread marks, I left a ski mark the length of Manhattan. Come on—Baldacci, Gerritsen, Lescroart. I love these writers. So who is this Verdon guy, I asked myself. Then I glance  at the bottom of these fabulous authors as read this line: “Debut Thriller At A Great Price.”

Debut Thriller?

Give me a break—hardcover copies, author endorsements to die for, and a publishing house right up there in the clouds. I picked up the novel, wondering how this young whippersnapper catapulted into stardom over night. I glanced inside and saw Verdon’s photo—he's been around for a few years. For some reason, this made me feel better about the whole thing. The book cover simply says the author “has held several executive positions with Manhattan advertising firms.” Immediately, I think: A James Patterson protégé from New York’s advertising industry. This guy knows how to put words together.

I searched the Internet and found dozens of interviews with this author, including one from Reuters Life that points out Verdon’s novel has been translated into 19 languages with $1 million of advance sales before its release this month.

Before the novel is released?

Now, I know I’ve been a little secluded trying to put words together for another novel and writing these blog articles about writers, readers and cops. But where did this guy come from?

Later in the article, I find that Verdon never lined up a publisher or agent up until he completed Think Of A Number. After finishing, he sent a one-page letter to a number of literary agents. One agent called back and wanted to see manuscript. Two days later, she call to tell him she loved the novel—although she has not finished reading it— and urged him not to show it to anyone else. A couple weeks later, Random House buys Verdon’s novel. In fact, the publisher likes it so much Verdon won a three book contract.

That’s what I call an overnight success.

I glanced inside Verdon's novel, read a few paragraphs, eyed what other authors had to write about the novel, then doled out my admission to the party.

The second novelist, Steig Larsson, came to my attention while I still in the same Barnes&Noble. I took out my Nook—using the store's online service—and thumbed to see what bestselling mystery e-Books popped up on the screen. Steig Larsson's novel topped the list. I see his novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was first published in 2005 and still topping the lists. I glanced across the store and see another of Larsson's books blocking another isle.

So who is this Stieg Larsson. Another overnight success? (Further evidence of my self-imposed cultural ostracism seeping through).

I learned this author died five years ago without every realizing his success. He’d become a publishing sensation in Scandinavia, selling millions of books  before his Millennium trilogy took off for the stars in 2005. His novels have been selling fast and furious ever since. I learned that Larssonn was the editor of a Swedish journal, he was co-editor of several science fiction fanzines because of his interest in that genre, and he became involved in a lot writing and political pursuits over his career.

Another writer who knew how to put words together.

Sales of novels by Verdon and Larssonn are spiraling upward as of this writing. How did this happen? Can one duplicate these publishing home runs?

Aspiring novelists—yes, I am in that category—can learn many things from those published authors who’ve crossed over that publishing threshold and made it into publishing heaven. Marketing strategies, social networking, writer’s conferences, great query letters, and even better book proposals are all part of what we're told makes for a successful writing strategy. But there is one key element that must come before anything else.

Great writing.

Writers are in a business, the business of writing. Now, don't go all literary on me. Face it. Writers need to sell if they intend to make a living at writing. And, like any other business, writers need a good product. Better yet, we need an excellent product.

What do we sell?

Words and sentences created into stories people want to read. Fiction writers create a new world for readers to enter, a world filled with characters, places, feelings, and, above all, great stories. I suspect Verdon and Larssonn—first and foremost—learned to write. And they, like all excellent authors, learned to write extremely well. They learned to write with passion.

Literary agent Donald Maass, concludes his book on writing, The Fire In Fiction, with this:

"Having something to say, or something you wish us to experience, is what gives your novel its power. Identify it. Make it loud. Do not be afraid of what’s burning in your heart. When it comes through on the page, you will be a true storyteller."

My author friend, James Scott Bell, in his latest book on writing, The Art of War For Writers, writes this about writers:

"Respect the craft of writing. Be in awe when you sit down at the keyboard or with a pen. Write hard, write with passion, because that is what you do. Don’t waste any time dissing other writers or whining about how tough things are."

So, to John Verdon and Seig Larsson—I say, “My hat is off to you.”

And I say to the rest of us looking to publish—get back to writing.

Authors: I hope to see your novel on the shelf one day. Write well.

Q: How do you pick out new novels to read?

1 comment:

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