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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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eBookonomics

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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What is going on with book prices?!

The last part of the book production process – at least for me – is deciding on cost.

Sure, for many in the publishing industry, this might be the first consideration. But as an indie author who is primarily in it for the love of writing and my audience, not to make a living – and as a small publisher who can’t afford to negotiate bulk discounts – I want price to be the last thing on my mind when making decisions along the way.

As a reader, I want price to be the last thing on any author’s mind when deciding how long or short their novel should be. In an ideal world, it is the story that would determine the length of a book, not a publisher’s spreadsheet.

Yet, as I recently discovered, there seems to be very little correlation between book length and price.

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More Lessons from the Biggest Movies

In my previous post, we looked at the lessons writers can learn from successful movie loglines, to help us plan (and pitch) our own work. But if the whole point of a logline is to convince a funder to cough up the cash, a better measure of the logline itself (as opposed to the film as a whole) might be to examine those loglines which were successful in attracting major funding.

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Logline Lessons from the Movies

In The Novel Project, Graeme Simsion, who started out writing screenplays, recommends authors look to the movies for inspiration in summarizing their books.

While a tagline is a sort of punchline or pithy statement which can be used at the end of an advertisement, like on the back of a book or in a Smashwords or Amazon description, loglines are defined as “a very short summary of a script or screenplay”, and were originally designed more for busy Hollywood executives a writer might be pitching to than the final audience.

With the advent of streaming services and increased use of platforms like IMDB and JustWatch, however, one-line summaries which encapsulate a story’s central conflict, summarizing the plot and providing an emotional “hook” are becoming more visible to movie lovers.

So, why would an indie author want a logline?

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Taglines

A strong tagline was the one thing all of the New York Times bestsellers examined in my analysis of bestselling book descriptions had in common. Taglines were also the feature shared by the majority of the bestselling satirical novels I examined. And yet, just one third of the less successful novels in the same category included a tagline in their descriptions.

Of all of the ingredients of a book description, the tagline has to be one of the most accessible. Your book doesn’t need to have won a major prize or sold a million copies or had a celebrity endorsement or a write-up in a well-respected journal to have a snazzy tagline. So it’s worth spending a few minutes learning how to craft a tagline that will set your book apart from the less successful books in your genre – and may even catapult it into more exclusive company.

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The Secret Recipe of Bestselling Book Descriptions

Years ago, I loved eating at a restaurant called Secret Recipe, famous for its home-style food from a variety of locations across the globe. When work and financial constraints meant I couldn’t travel, Secret Recipe was a way to experience a little exotic flavour in my day-to-day life.

The variety of dishes was certainly one of its best features, as far as I was concerned. You could eat at Secret Recipe with almost anyone, and they’d be able to find something on the menu to suit their tastes. Yet, in spite of the variety, each dish was of consistent quality.

Bestsellers are a little like that. Each book has its own distinct flavour, but the professionalism with which it is presented, and the quality of its ingredients – cover, spine, blurb, formatting – do not differ wildly from book to book.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that, in my analysis of the blurbs of bestsellers, I uncovered something akin to a ‘secret recipe’ which all of the NYT bestsellers had in common, and which was largely replicated across the satire bestsellers I analysed.

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