Trash Titles?

As interesting as patterns across bestselling novels over time may be, looking only at successful books tells us nothing about whether a book’s title is instrumental in helping it sell – first, perhaps, to an editor, and later, to readers. The trends observed in my previous post could simply be trends in book titles in general, as opposed to patterns that set apart bestsellers from the pack. To really understand what (if anything) defines a bestselling title, we need to look at books which most definitively are not bestsellers, too.

To this end, I surveyed 35 books from Amazon’s contemporary fiction category, looking for titles which were yet to attract a single review, and the 35 least-downloaded fiction books on Smashwords, and then analysed their titles according to the same measures in my previous post: length, most common words, first words, and first letters of the titles.

Despite the question posed in the title of this post, the vast majority of these books are not trash. On the contrary, the majority of the 70 books surveyed appear to be well-presented, presumably well-written books. So why aren’t they bestsellers? Is it because of their titles? Let’s take a look…

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It Started Here…

Colleen Hoover is a name almost synonymous with It Ends With Us. But that book’s meteoric success is not the only remarkable thing about Hoover’s writing career. What makes Hoover a standout among the bestselling authors I surveyed is the fact that she managed to hit the New York Times Bestseller List with her debut novel. And it was independently published. In fact, Hoover was the first indie author to do so.

I was so inspired by Hoover’s writing career, that I decided to delve a little deeper – out of absolute respect for the commitment she has shown to writing. Here’s what I found – and what other indie authors can learn from Hoover’s success.

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The ‘Instant’ Bestseller

In my previous post, we looked at the length of the “average” chapter. But what about the “average” book?

If you’re a first-time novelist hoping to submit to a big publisher, you may be advised to cut your book to 70-80,000 words. Why, when the average bestseller is close to twice as long?

Because the longer your book is, the more expensive it is to produce, and publishers want to minimise how much risk they take with debut authors. Similarly, a reader may not be willing to commit to a great big doorstop of a book from an unknown author. (Consider how thick the later books in the Harry Potter series were compared to the first).

If you’re an indie novelist who is going to publish your work solely electronically, you may not need to worry about length constraints. However, if you’re interested in offering a print edition, beware: the extra costs involved in printing a lengthy novel can make print publication both unaffordable for readers and unprofitable for writers.

Keeping these points in mind, we might hope to find some debut bestselling novelists to model our own debut or indie works after. But such books are few and far between.

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The “Average” Chapter

A few years ago, when I first seriously turned my attention to writing, I was enthralled by a project carried out by Christine Frazier called The Better Novel Project. Christine took a research-based approach to all sorts of novel-related questions, including the question “how long should each chapter be?”

I always wished someone would make the same sort of calculation with books written for adults (Christine’s project focused on YA novels). Sadly, The Better Novel Project is no longer online, and The Bestseller Code, which does look at bestselling books for adults, doesn’t tackle such basic problems.

So I realised I would have to take matters into my own hands.

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Blocking Books

Geoblocking has many uses – or abuses. The most common is associated with licensing. Many early Netflix subscribers in Australia, for example, were dismayed to find that, although paying similar prices to their US counterparts, they had access to just a fraction of the shows and movies North American subscribers could view, because the streaming service did not have the licenses to stream those media in Australia.

To me, such examples demonstrate how outdated our worldwide licensing system is. If I buy a DVD box set or a video game overseas, I can bring it home and play it (at least, these days I can, after the Australian government outlawed region-locking on locally sold devices such as DVD players).

But technically, I shouldn’t. A video game purchased in Japan, for example, is likely to have ‘FOR SALE AND USE ONLY IN JAPAN’ printed on the box.

Books have always been different. A book sold in Japan or the USA or wherever remains mine to read wherever I see fit.

Can you imagine if that were not the case? Gone would be the airport bookstore! Would Penguin publishers – famously founded when Sir Allen Lane was disappointed in the reading materials available at a train station – even exist? Or would special book incinerators be wheeled up the aisle as soon as your train crossed the border – or your plane flew into international airspace, or your boat reached international waters?

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How to become a seriously bestselling author

There is a dynamic list on Wikipedia of the best-selling fiction authors of all time. At present, 99 authors are listed, all with sales of 100 million+ copies of their books.

Of those 99 authors, just over two-thirds wrote in English. Since readers have different expectations of translated fiction (and not all of those bestselling authors’ works have been translated into English) I decided to focus on the 67 authors writing in English.

So, what does it take to be a seriously bestselling author?

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eBooks were one of the first true revolutions in the publishing industry. For the first time in literally centuries, we no longer have to mash up plants, print something on them, and distribute via boat or foot or truck or whatever, to a brick-and-mortar store.

Think of the reduction in production costs! Transportation costs! Commercial overheads!

Imagine the lowered costs for consumers and the environment! The higher profits for authors!

And imagine the newfound freedoms!

For decades, authors who wanted to write epic sagas had been reeled in by publishers with an eye on the bottom line.

Novelists in genres that trend towards longer stories, like fantasy, found it tough to find someone to take a risk on them.

Publishers, so the conventional wisdom went, only had an appetite for books of around 70,000~100,000 words, even though the reading public has long demonstrated an appetite for much longer works.

Now, that might sound like a lot of words. But the first book in the Harry Potter series – the one I rejected for being too short, even as a child? – that slim volume was close to 77,000 words.

The typical length of a scifi/fantasy novel is often given as 110,000 words+.

And it’s not just genre fiction. Literary novelists whose work was deemed too “niche” to sell enough copies to recoup production costs, even if they stuck to the “ideal” word limit, have also struggled.

So imagine all of the new and diverse authors publishers might take a risk on with the cost-per-page effectively removed!

Oh happy days!

Except… None of those things happened.

At least not across the board, and certainly not on a permanent basis.

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